The house creaked in the wind, a tree tapped a metronome against the rotting clapboards.
“Burn it down.”
“You heard me, burn it to the ground.”
The boss stared at the building for a few seconds, then shook his head. “And waste what could be reclaimed? Why would I want to do that?”
The old man pointed, “Z for Zed. That’s how we marked infected houses back when we thought the outbreak could be contained.”
“That was nearly a decade ago. Even if something’s still there, it’s got to be so desiccated that it’s immobile. The copper alone is worth the risk.”
The old man flicked his toothpick at the house as he turned to walk away, “I won’t allow it, not worth the risk.”
“Wait a minute here! This is not a military operation and, anyways, Colonel, last time I checked, you’re retired. Your presence here is purely consultative.”
He took a step back as the old man advanced on him, ready to cut loose. “What the f…,” the Colonel stopped, reconsidered, looking at the house again. “I guess it doesn’t matter what I say, you’d come back tonight on your own even if I could terminate the project.”
“Well…,” he took off his cap and looked down at the brim. “It would make my life easier if you signed off on this.”
“John, you’re mother would kill me if anything happened to you. I’ll sign off, but only if we do this by the book.”
The kid put his hat back on, resuming his role as boss, “Fine by me.”
Clearing a house of the undead is like a slow motion SWAT operation. Zed behaves predictably, so it’s best to take your time. One man kicked the door down while another set the clacker, then they retreated.
“If they’re ambulatory, this shouldn’t take long. I imagine they’re hungry. We’ll give it five minutes.” The old man’s eyes never left the doorway. The dust cloud that seemed to be all that was left of the front door billowed out onto the porch, dissipating in the breeze.
“OK, you know the drill. Let’s do it!”
Four men ambled up the steps, one kneeling to turn off the clacker. Two broke left while the other pair kept watch just inside the door, eyeing the stairs. The shouts of “Clear!” following the pair around the ground floor. A shot rang out, quickly followed by the all clear.
The old man and the boss entered the house. “Was that a live one?”
“No, just wanted to make sure.”
“Cool. Let’s get the basement. John, you stay here, make sure nothing comes down those stairs. The crew can wait outside, off the porch.”
The team was already at work by the time the old man made it to the kitchen. More dust and a jawbone lying on the floor. A skeletal arm, its hand grasping a coffee mug, was still on the table. The urge for some caffeine suddenly strong.
The all clear sounded from below and a rattle/bang from the cellar door out back.
John was halfway up the stairs by then, taking careful steps, his semi-automatic at the ready.
He could could see her from the top of the staircase, through the open doorway. She lay on the bed in what must have been her finest dress. She didn’t move.
He stepped into the room, checking the four corners as the Colonel taught him. Stillness, nothing moved but the motes floating through the window pane divided beams of light.
The floor creaked as he moved. She had to have known, if she was still animated. The pendent on her necklace rested on the leather taut across her chest. Coated in dust, it didn’t sparkle, but it still caught his practiced eye. He stepped towards her.
Who are you? What happened? You had time to prepare, there’s no sign of a rush. Was it poison? He reached for the necklace.
“You either hate me or you’re a dumb piece of shit.”
The boy recoiled, letting out a shout. “What the fuck? It ain’t moving without a good dose of WD-40. Don’t go scaring me like that, you crazy mother fucker.”
“You think?” The old man tapped the head with the barrel of his rifle. The eyes shot open, jaw snapping. His shot exploded in the room, shaking dust loose from everywhere. The top half of the skull gone.
He turned and walked out. “I want half of what you get for that necklace.”
Here’s another Col. Drinkmore short story: Who Is He?