The old man cranes as far back as his stiff neck will allow to watch the V of geese fly north, honking all the way to the horizon. There are only a fews days a year like this, perfect for the hunt. Enough wind to bring the scent, not so much to cover the groans. It dipped below freezing last night, yet warmed up sufficiently to get the prey moving again.
He turns his attention back to the dog. No commands are needed as the man slowly walks into the forrest’s verge, the dog moving back and forth a little ways ahead. Deeper into the woods, the dog picks up a scent and stops. The prey comes stumbling out of the shadows, letting loose a throaty moan. Again, no commands as the dog leads the quarry obliquely across his line of sight. The old man raises his rifle and takes aim. Exhales. Slowly squeezes the trigger. A rose blooms square in the forehead. It’s a kill.
Only then does he allow himself to appreciate her long, blonde hair and blue eyes.
The building doesn’t have a sign, not like the old days when marketing was king. It’s a sturdy cube, probably a Mexican restaurant before the war since it looks vaguely like the Alamo.
The old man guides his truck to its usual spot in a gale of dust. The dog follows him inside.
“Got a fresh one this mornin’, Sheriff.” He signals the bartender.
“Crap!” Burns himself with spilt coffee. “I didn’t hear the alarm go out. Who do we have mobilized?”
“No one, it’s not an outbreak. Hey, Dan, what’s the special today?”
“Gotta make do with what we have, Bill. Baked some nice crusty bread to go with it, though.” He pulls two drafts, the first one in a bowl for the dog.
The lawman bangs his fist on the bar. “OK, time out, Colonel, I think a possible outbreak is far more important than your damned supper, sir.”
“Sorry, yes, I found her out at the end of Willis Ford Road. Scoured the woods, we found nothing.” In an aside, “Get me a bowl with lots of bread.” Louder, “I think it was just a case of bad luck. Look, I got her picture.”
“It, goddammit, Bill. Don’t humanize the thing, it’s hard enough putting them down without--” he glances at the phone, “Oh, fuck me, that’s Deena, LuAnn’s kid.” With head in hands, “I hate this job. She filed a missing persons report last night. I told her the girl probably ran off with her boyfriend.”
“Sheriff, I can have my wife break the news to LuAnn, they’re cousins.”
“No, no,” he sighs, “Thanks, Dan. I appreciate it, We’ll take care of it. Need to figure out how the kid got infected. Colonel, tell me you didn't burn the body.”
“Nope, I alerted the ME to send some boys out to retrieve her. ” The old man's thirst is great tonight, he quickly signals for a refill. "Myra said she'd give me a call once she's had a look."
Dan slides the steaming bowl, "If it's not an outbreak, how in the hell did the girl get infected?"
"Good question," the old man says through a mouthful of bread. "Perhaps she was hunting blackberries and stumbled on a twitcher."
"I thought you said there's nothing out there," the Sheriff clearly irked.
Bill puts his spoon down, "Listen, I said I didn't find anything. That doesn't mean there ain't something 10 years old out there, unable to move, just a pair of jaws in a bramble somewhere, waiting to snare passing flesh."
His phone vibrates across the bar, rattling his fork. "Yes? OK, I'll be there. Give me about 15 minutes." He shovels 3 quick spoonfuls into his mouth. "The zed's on the slab, ready for an examination. Care to come with me?"
The Sheriff mulls for a second, "This is still an Undead Control case, right?"
"Unless the ME brings something to light, it is."
"Well, I'd like to help, but I better talk to LuAnn first." The lawman returns to his coffee.
"Sure thing," he leaves some bills on the bar and turns to head out.
“You coming back tonight? We’re going to tap our first batch of bourbon.”
“Count me in,” said the old man.
The woman is dressed as if for a trip to the moon. You can't be too safe.
The old man sports only a face mask and that just to mask the stench. He doesn't get too close, though.
"Well, she's definitely a zombie."
He recrosses his arms and arches an eyebrow.
"I know, I didn't need to tell you that. Look here, though, this is where the infection started." The doctor lifts up the right shoulder to show the back of the upper arm. "Chewed right down to the bone."
"So it was a twitcher."
"Yes. The DNA in the virus shows first generation. She got bit by an old one. Also, the nature of the wound indicates she was unconscious."
The door bangs open, announcing the Sheriff's entry.
"Nice shiner," jabs the old man.
"LuAnn was understandably unhappy."
The doctor looking up from her work, "Sheriff, not a good idea to be in here with an open wound."
"I'll just stay over here. What did I miss."
"Not much beyond the obvious, I was just about to point out that this may be a case for you." Both men edge closer.
"As I was saying, bruising around her neck is consistent with strangulation. There's still some residual heat in her core. I'd guess time of infection was within 24 hours and reanimation within 6."
"Never heard of a twitcher grabbing with its hands."
"Well no, but another human, eh?" The Doctor lifts up the other arm to show additional bruising. "These are classic marks of an abuse victim. What do you know about this girl, Sheriff?"
"Only what LuAnn told me. She was none too happy with the boyfriend and quite frustrated that Deana couldn't see through him."
"So is that a positive ID?"
"Yes, I showed LuAnn the picture Bill took of her. Well, a part of it. This is definitely Deena Lynne Martin."
The old man leans in, "So, doc, how do you see this playing out?"
"Well, this is just speculation until I can analyze additional material, but it appears she lost consciousness due to strangling and was thought to be dead. A vehicle would have been needed to cart her body out to those woods. It was pure dumb luck that she was dumped near a twitcher. It's also clear that she had been killed, she would not have animated." The doctor begins to clean up.
"I'd say we better find that boyfriend of hers, Sheriff."
"We? You still in this even though it's back in my jurisdiction?"
"I want to see this finished, that's all." The old man grabs his hat. "So where can we find him?"
"He's vacated his place, packed up and gone according to the landlord. I'm guessing he's heading west, to get lost in the mountains. I put the word out. We should hear something soon." The law man nods towards the doctor. "Thanks, Myra."
"No problem, just let me know if you find a crime scene."
The patrol car growls to a stop next to the faded yellow arches, across the street from the motel. He watches as the well used pick-up truck pulls into a spot outside the front desk, as if to check in.
The old man is inside for just a minute or two. He tips his hat as he comes back out: Yup, the boyfriend is here. The Sheriff checks his piece one more time, then holsters it as he gets out.
He looks both ways before crossing, old habits die hard, and trots over. The old man has his eyes closed, breathing slowly and deeply. He's been through this before, knows the routine and sticks with it.
As the Sheriff raises his hand to knock on the door, a six inch hole explodes out of its center, throwing him back several feet. And another one takes out the door knob, sending the old man scrambling to get away.
The sound of another round being shucked slips out of the room. The old man goes to a knee and readies. What remains of the door flies open and then disintegrates. The shotgun's barrel leading the man taking his last steps.
The old man let the sip of the bourbon linger on his tongue. He stares at the glass, nods, then puts it back on the table.
"I didn't want it to end this way," says the old man, exhaling.
"What? That I survived?" The Sheriff winces as he signals the bartender for two more fingers.
"Of course not. I've resigned myself to being stuck with you for quite some time to come. I'd rather that the boy didn't have to die."
"You had no choice, besides, this is the best possible outcome," responds the sheriff.
"How can you say that? There's so few of us left that the loss of even a lowlife like him cannot be a good thing." The old man takes another sip and savors it for a while.
"I doubt the boy would have been thinking the same thing had he been able to get a bead on you."
The bourbon slides smoothly down his throat, tracing lines as it warms everything it touches. "I don't doubt that at all." The old man digs into the bowl of peanuts. "What in the hell were you thinking, just walking up to the door like that. Don't you remember anything from your academy days?"
"You do realize I wasn't a cop Before."
"Fair enough. I wasn't in the military Before, either."
The silence stretches, but comfortably so, "Good thing that vest of yours didn't have an expiration date."
"Funny thing is, it did, about a year back."
"That is funny." The old man leans forward. "Well, here's to Deena, rest in peace."
The glasses clink.