Burn The Dead: Quarantine: Book One - Steven Jenkins - darmowy ebook
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It's a dirty job - but someone's got to do it.Robert Stephenson burns zombies for a living.It's a profession that pays the bills and plays tricks on the mind. Still, his life is routine until his four-year-old son becomes stranded in a quarantined zone, teeming with rotters.Does Rob have what it takes to fight the undead and put his broken family back together?Or will he also end up in the incinerator - burning with the rest of the dead?"If you're looking for a fast-paced zombie read, I highly recommend Burn The Dead by Steven Jenkins. (5-STARS)"K.C. FINN - Readers' Favorite

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Burn The Dead: Quarantine

BookOne

Steven Jenkins

Contents

Free Books

I. Fingers To The Bone

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

II. Sleep Like The Dead

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

III. Crandale

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

IV. Living With The Dead

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Epilogue

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“For Vicky.”

Part I

Fingers To TheBone

1

Another day. Another dollar.

However fulfilling a job might be, nothing feels quite like finishing after a twelve-hourday.

I punch the six-digit code into the panel, and the steel door closes behind me, letting out a shrill, squeaking noise as it locks into place.

The late shifts are a killer—especially in the winter. There’s something very depressing and just plain wrong about starting and finishing work in complete darkness. Still, the extra cash is a plus. Money’s tight all ‘round. Vegas is just three short weeks away, and I still haven’t saved a thing. Not a single penny. And worse still, Tommy is on my back to settle up the flight costs.

Good luck with that Tommy-boy!

At the staff car park, I feel the cold air on my cheeks as I pull out my keys from my jacket pocket, buried deep among the loose change, petrol receipts, and expired lottery tickets. I climb into the car and check my phone; still no signal. Shaking my head in annoyance, I pull away, flashing my ID badge to Smithy at the gates, and then I’moff.

About a quarter of a mile from Romkirk, I hear my phone make a beeping sound in my pocket. Finally, a signal. I mean really, how can there still be places where you can’t get phone reception? For God’s sake, they can speak to a man on the bloody moon—surely Bristol shouldn’t be a problem. I contemplate reading the text, but know who it is: it’s Anna, wondering where the hell I am. Don't want to waste any more time pulling over to read it. I just want to gethome.

Tobed.

I manage to make the thirty-five-mile drive to Crandale in less than fifty minutes, thanks to it being so late—but mainly thanks to breaking the speed limit for ninety percent of the journey. Lucky for me, I know exactly where all the cameras are—hidden ornot.

Pulling up outside my house, I notice the blinds are closed in Sammy’s bedroom. Missed another bedtime. This’ll be the third this week, not counting the other six from last week. I sigh loudly as I climb out of the car and walk up to the house. I see Edith May from next door again, staring out of her living-room window. I give her my usual wave, and she returns the gesture. Nosy old cow. I bet she’s judging me, all these late finishes. I bet she thinks I’m a terrible father.

Is she right?

“You’re home late, Rob,” Anna points out as I enter the kitchen. “How waswork?”

I fling my jacket over the back of the dining chair, and then walk up to her. “It was fine. Usual stuff. Just a bit tired.”

I wrap my arms around Anna’s thin waist and pull her close to kiss her. She then pulls away, making a face. “I think you need a shower, Hun,” she tells me. “You stink.”

I lift an arm up over my head and sniff my armpit. She’s right. Twelve hours stuck in that tiny little room with no air-conditioning will do that to you. “Yeah I know. Long day. You’d stinktoo.”

“Yeah, yeah, weknow.”

“Did you find the bloody dogyet?”

Anna shakes her head. “No. I’ve looked everywhere. Me and Sammy walked the whole of Crandale. Can’t find her anywhere.”

“Shit. That bloody dog. I knew it was a mistake getting one for him. I knew it. What did I say from day one?” I run my fingers through my short brown hair and groan. Stupid dog. “How’s Sammy takingit?”

“How’d ya think? He’s devastated. I had to lie to him. I said she’s just playing hide and seek. I told him that she’ll get bored soon and comehome.”

“Oh well, he’s only four. I’m sure he’ll forget. If not, we’ll have to buy him a new one. Preferably one without any legs.” I raise my arms up, yawning loudly. “I’ll help you look for her tomorrow. Not tonight though. I’m so tired my eyes are burning.”

“Yeah, that’s fine. I’m sure she’ll turn up somewhere. Have you eatenyet?

I let out a fake chuckle. “What do youthink?”

“So that’s a no then I takeit?”

“Yep. Well, unless you count the bar of chocolate I had at four-thirty.”

Anna shakes her head. “That’s not right. You should complain to your supervisor. They should hire someone to cover you. Or at least some admin staff. Take some of the paperwork off your shoulders. Doesn’t the law say that employers have to give you a break every four hours or something?”

“Probably. But you know what that place is like. Everything’s got to be done yesterday. And as for speaking to my boss, I’ve already tried. We all have. It’s just in one ear, and out the other with him. There’s nothing much I can do at the moment. I’ve just got to suck it up. But the worst thing about it is not taking Sammy to bed. Again. I mean, I can handle missing the odd meal and writing up endless reports. And I can even handle having a shitty boss. But not spending time with Sammy—it bloody kills me. It reallydoes.”

“Yeah, I know. Must be horrible. Well, maybe you need to find another job then. Something with more sociable hours. Like a postman.”

I let out a small laugh and then shake my head. “No, it’s fine. I’m sure I’ll survive. It won’t be like this forever. And it is a great job. It’s just hard sometimes. Like mostjobs.”

“Well, it’s not right.” Anna opens the fridge and pulls out a large container, and then places it on the kitchen worktop. “Still got some pasta left over. But I wouldn’t have this if I wereyou.”

“Why?” I ask, peering down at the chicken, pasta and pesto. “Looks good. What’s wrong withit?”

“Well, I had some earlier and now my stomach doesn’t feel right. I think I may have undercooked the chicken. Better not risk it. I’ll make you something else. Maybe a jacket potato.”

“Did Sammy haveany?”

“No, luckily. I made him a cheese omelette.”

I smile and then shake my head playfully. “What’s the point of watching all those bloody cooking shows if you can’t even cook a chicken?”

“Very funny,” she sarcastically replies. “Just get yourself a shower and scrub that stink off you. Otherwise, there’ll definitely be no action for youtonight.”

I smile. “Action. Well maybe I don’t want sex, anyway.”

“Yeah, right,” Anna says under her breath.

But oddly enough, and probably for the first time in years, I don’t care either way. I feel completely shattered—from my throbbing head, down to my blistered feet. But I’m not exactly going to turn downsex.

Seize every opportunity. That’s what Granddad used tosay.

I’m lying in bed, texting Wayne about the transport arrangements for the airport. I was put in charge of the minibus. Me. Of all people. The same person who forgot to book the honeymoon suite for my own wedding. The guy who didn’t fill up the tank to drive his wife to hospital to give birth.

More foolthem.

Anna is still in the bathroom—vomiting loudly. And she has been for at least twenty minutes. I try to block out the horrid retching noises by turning the TV up ever so slightly. Loud enough to block out the splashing sound of chunks hitting the bowl, but quiet enough not to wake up Sammy.

After a few minutes, I hear the noise of rushing water as Anna flushes the toilet. She then returns to the bedroom.

She looks terrible. Reddened eyes; sweat dripping down her forehead; her long brown hair stuck to the sides of her face; skin like The Incredible Hulk. She’s most certainly seen better days—which is a slight relief seeing as sex is now completely off the table.

“Bloody chicken,” she says, as she crawls into bed, sinking deep into the mattress and groaning. “Do you think you should sleep in the spare room tonight? Just in case? Don’t fancy spewing on you in my sleep.”

I shake my head. “Don't be silly. I’ll be fine.” I kiss the top of her head. “Just don't breathe on me when we’re having sex tonight.”

“Very funny,” Anna groggily replies; too drained even to smile. “At least I haven’t got work tomorrow. And if I’m still rough maybe your mother can watch Sammy for a few hours.”

“Yeah. Just give her a ring. I’m not working ‘til one anyway.” I turn to face the other way to go to sleep. “Good night, babe. Just give me a shout if you need anything.”

“Okay, Hun. Loveyou.”

“Love you, too.”

As I lie there, too exhausted even to sleep, all I can think about, all that races through my overworked mind is: Please don't be pregnant. Please don't be pregnant. Please don’t be pregnant…

2

The toast pops just as another text comes through. This is now the seventh I’ve received in less than ten minutes. And all from the same impatient idiot: Stuart Rees. Myboss.

I mean what’s the rush? The delivery isn’t exactly going anywhere.

“Hi, Hun,” I say, as Anna enters the kitchen, holding Sammy in her arms. She sits him down in his chair, stroking his arm as she walksaway.

“Hi, handsome,” I tell Sammy, kissing the top of his velvet forehead. “Did you sleep all right?”

“Yes, Daddy,” he replies, his voice chirpy despite it being so early.

“Did Mammy read you a nice story last night?”

Sammy just nods, beaming.

“Which one wasit?”

“Nelson the TeddyBear.”

“Oh, really? That’s my favourite one. Maybe I can read you one tonight. And when I get back from work we’ll have another look for Susie. I’m sure she’s just found a really good hiding place and she’s just waiting for us to findher.”

“Okay, Daddy.”

I kiss him again and then ruffle his blondhair.

“How are you feeling this morning?” I ask Anna. “Still feelsick?

Anna walks over to Sammy and places down a small bowl of cornflakes on the table. “Yeah. And drained.”

“I’m not surprised. Are you gonna be okay looking after Sammy this morning?”

“Yeah, of course,” she replies, yawning loudly. “But I thought you were off ‘tilone?”

I pull out the two slices of toast and start to butter them. “Had a text this morning to come in early. There’s been another problem in Swindon.”

“Another? Jesus. Isn’t that like the third this year? I thought they’d sortedit.”

I shrug. “Obviously not. And now I’ve got to go in because Rich is still off with stress. I mean seriously. Stress. Everyone’s off with stress these days. It’s like the new get-out-of-jail-free-card. When my dad worked down the mine, they’d have laughed right in your face if someone were off because of stress. Absolutely pathetic.”

“Well, that’s what you get for working in a place like Romkirk.”

“Yeah, well, if we all stopped work because of a little stress, the country would come to a standstill. It’s not fair to everyoneelse.”

I take a big bite of toast, leave the other one on the worktop, and grab my jacket from the back of the chair. “Right, I better get going. You take it easy today. Nothing strenuousnow.”

“Yes, yes,” Anna replies, as she pours herself a coffee. “And make sure you get something to eat today. Put your foot down. Otherwise there’ll be nothing left of you tolove.”

“All right,” I reply, grinning tightly. “I promise. I’ll get a sandwich from the vending machine.”

“Make sure you do. Can’t have you looking too slim for Vegas. Not with all those loose women on the prowl.”

I kiss her on the lips, and then playfully squeeze her ass. “You know you’re the only loose woman for me. Plus, you still owe me S. E. X.”

She smiles. “Don't worry, I haven’t forgotten. Now get going or you’ll hit traffic.”

I walk over to Sammy, slipping my jacket on at the same time. “I’ll be home later to read you a story. All right, handsome?”

“Okay, Daddy. See you later.”

“Love you both,” I say as I leave the house.

Outside, the sun is beaming but there’s still a chill in the air. I shelter my eyes with my hand as I reach the car. Winter. Typical. The one day when it’s not raining, and I have towork.

I climb into my car and drive off down the street, eyes scanning for the bloodydog.

Stupid mutt. I don't even like them. I never have. But no, he wanted a dog. Not a budgie, or a fish; not even a bloody hamster. No, it had to be a great big Alsatian.

A pug would have been something.

Just a few metres before Rose Avenue, I see one of my neighbours, the soaring six-foot-three Janet Webber, standing on the pavement, getting ready to cross the road. Every time I clap eyes on the woman, I feel inadequate about my meagre five-foot-nine stature. Wouldn’t fancy being married to that one. Way too tall. And at least forty-five. She seems to be in a trance, wearing just a white dressing-gown and blue slippers. Lazy cow. How hard is it to throw on a pair of jeans and a jacket?

For Christ’s sake. What’s the world comingto?

Maybe she’s seen thedog.

All of a sudden she starts to cross right in front ofme.

I slam on the brakes, missing her by mere inches.

“Shit!” I shout in fright. The noise of tyres scraping against the tar snaps her out of her daze. She holds a trembling hand over her chest as she stares at me through the windscreen.

I push the button on the door to open the window. “You all right, Janet?” I ask her. “You nearly got yourself killed.”

She doesn’t answer.

“You all right, Janet?” I ask again. “Do you need somehelp?”

She then gives a smile and says, “I’m fine thanks, Rob. Just half asleep. I’ll be all right.” She gives a quick wave and continues crossing the road to her house.

Frowning in confusion, I return a wave and then close the window.

“Weird woman,” I say under my breath as I driveoff.

Whole street’s full of ‘em.

3

The smell coming from the room is enough to make anyone puke up their breakfast. But me, I’m used to it. It’s almost like becoming accustomed to the smell of your own baby’s nappies.

It’s amazing what humans will adaptto.

Slipping the apron over my head, I catch a glimpse of Stuart through the metal-gridded window. I put on my elbow-high gloves and watch as he enters the room—that smug look on his face; those eyes too close together, almost becoming one like a Cyclops, and those short, stumpy legs and bald head. Classic Napoleon Complex. He’s followed closely behind by two rather chunky-looking deliverymen.

“Just push them next to the wall,” Stuart says, a tone of arrogance in his voice. “And be careful.”

“Yeah, we know what we’re doing, mate,” one of the deliverymen replies. “We’ve been at this for twelve years.”

Ignoring his comment, Stuart scribbles something down on his clipboard. “There’s another sixteen outside, Robert,” he tells me, not even looking in my direction. “Shouldn’t take you too long. And make sure you sign off all the IL3 Forms. We can’t have any mistakes with the inspection coming up. For both our sakes.”

Forcing a polite smile, I take the clipboard from him and glance at the inventory. “Any details, Stu? I mean, any idea how this happened? Again?”

“Sorry, Robert, you know I know as much as you do. We get the call, and then we deal with it.” He makes his way towards the exit. “Ignorance is bliss, Robert. I’ll see you later. Be careful now. We don’t want another incident like last week. Can’t have everyone taking time off for stress.” He’s a dick, but I can’t argue withthat.

And then he’sgone.

I see the two deliverymen roll their eyes at him as they wheel in the next stretcher.

No ‘thanks’ again for coming in early. Typical. I don't know why I bother. Why can’t I be like the rest of the country and make up some excuse involving my baby? Why don't I go to the bloody doctor and complain about ‘stress’ like everyoneelse?

Because you’re a grafter, that’s why. You're better than that. Better than those lazy bastards.

I spend the next twenty-five minutes helping the men offload the remaining stretchers from the truck.

Seventeen. Not toobad.

The truck noisily starts up and then pulls off towards the gates.

Returning to the room, I lock the door behind me. I approach the first stretcher, and the yellow tarpaulin bag that’s strapped firmly to the top. I grab a pair of safety-goggles from the shelf and slip them over my eyes, then cover my mouth and nose with a plastic mask. I carefully unzip the bag a few inches down to see its contents.

It’s another child.

My stomach turns as I pull the zip down a little further to confirm.

It is. The third this month. A girl. No more than seven years old. Easily.

Any death is sad—no matter what age. But children? Never children. Children should be out riding their bikes, or playing on their computers, or whatever the hell kids do these days. Not crammed in a bodybag!

It’s not right.

I walk up to the control panel, turn the dial to green, and then flip the main switch. There’s a loud rumble as the furnace ignites. Instantly, I can feel the heat radiate from the sides of its heavy door. The noise circulates the room causing the metal stretches to roll and rattle into each other.

Time to get towork.

Before I wheel the body over to the furnace, I stop to take another look. One last look before someone’s child is reduced to nothing more than cinders. I can’t help but think of Sammy back at home. I try not to. God knows I try. But how could I not think of him? I’m a dad. That’s what dads do: we worry. That’s what we’re best at. It’s not providing for them; it’s not even protecting them—it’s worrying about them every second of every bloodyday.

And that’s just sad. It reallyis.

Opening the furnace door, a gust of eyebrow-singeing heat hits me in the face. Despite the goggles, I close my eyes and wipe the beads of sweat from my forehead. I pull out the steel platform from inside, unclip the two straps that hold the body bag in place, and then roll her onto it. When I slide the platform back in, it feels light. Too light. I slam the door shut and lock it. Shoving away any lasting attachment to the nameless child, I press the large red button, and the furnace comes alive with fire, burning the body bag and its contents in a matter of seconds.

One down. Sixteen togo.

The next body bag seems a lot more filled-out, which gives me a quiet relief. I unzip the bag and see the face of a middle-aged man, with blond, slightly receding hair. I’m not supposed to open the bags. It’s not my job to know—or care for that matter. But something in me always tells me to. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps it’s out of respect. Or maybe just honest-to-God nosiness. Regardless, I have to look. Anna thinks I’m mad. She says that my job would be a lot easier if I just treated the inventory like inventory—and not human beings.

Maybe she’s right. She usuallyis.

I stare at the man’s pale complexion, his red, swollen eyelids, and wonder what he did for a living—when he was…living. Was he a doctor? No, he doesn’t seem the type; his bright yellow shirt is too loud and way too scruffy. Maybe a vet? Possibly. Or perhaps he was just a bum like the other twenty percent of the country.

Suddenly his eyes springopen.

I flinch. And then swiftly zip up thebag.

I wheel the stretcher over to the furnace, ignoring the muffled cries through the thick plastic. The intense heat hits me again as I open the door. I slide his body inside and lock it. Pushing the large red button once again, I hear the muffled cries become a crackling sound as the body bag ignites.

Two down. Fifteen togo.

I see that the next bag has started moving already. I pause for a moment and contemplate skipping the face-check.

But I can’t resist.

Unzipping the bag, I see the face of another man, this time he’s a lot older, maybe sixty, and he’s completely bald. His grey, deadened eyes are wide open, and I can hear faint growls behind the leather muzzle wrapped around his mouth and chin, buckled tightly around this head and neck. I wonder what he’s thinking. If at all he does think. I’m sure he does. If that’s a positive thing, the jury’s still out, but either way, after all these years I still think of them as people. Or something similar anyway. But they’re Necs. Well, that’s what we call them. They’re not classed as human anymore, so I suppose we have to call them something. Can’t exactly call them just The Dead. That would only confuse them with the actual Dead. And we definitely couldn’t refer to them as bloody zombies. Not only is that extremely insensitive—particularly to the families who might have lost someone to the disease—but how utterly ridiculous it would sound if a newsreader had to say the word zombie live on TV. Not a bloody chance. And Necro-Morbus Sufferer is quite a mouthful to say. So calling them Necs is probably the safest option. Easier on the tongue. And there’s no cure, no vaccine. They’ve come close though, managed to put together an antiviral shot to take after infection. But that only works a fraction of the time—and that’s if you catch it early. But I suppose it’s better than nothing. The government even tried to issue homes with an emergency shot, but there were just too many paranoid people, injecting themselves after any sickness: flu, food poisoning, chickenpox—even after a night on the bloody booze. It just got too expensive, so they scrapped it after about a year. Now you have to get one at the hospital.

I still wonder what’s behind the lifeless eyes. I can’t help it. I know it would make my job a hell of a lot easier if I didn’t. But that’s just me: I’m an optimist. I always have been. Even when the first outbreak happened in Swansea, I believed that these people could somehow be cured; that they were still human underneath all the decay and God-awful stench of rotting flesh.

But they’re dead. I know that now. It’s taken me a while, but Ido.

And the dead must be burnt.

It’s a dirty job. But someone’s got to doit.

I reach the twelfth body and look at the time on the wall clock. 2:44 p.m. Not bad. With a bit of luck, I’ll be home in time for dinner. And I’m starving to death. No lunch break again. Typical. It would be nice if once—just once—Stuart would cover me for even ten lousy minutes, just long enough for a quick bite. But no. He’s tucked away in his nice cosy office, far from the trenches, sipping his herbal tea with a dash of cinnamon.

What a dickhead!

This next body bag is definitely not one to open. I’ve made that mistake on more than one occasion, and it’s not something I plan doing any time soon. It’s what we like to call: Moving Meat. The body bag is filled with several small bags, each one with a variety of severed limbs, everything from dismembered arms and legs to heads and torsos. Very disturbing—even for a job like this. But it’s not the sight of such horrors that’s so nauseating…it’s the wriggling. I mean, Jesus, these things are hard to kill—not even a pickaxe to the head can bring one of these bastards down. It’ll probably slow them down, but that’s about it. If they can’t be sedated with a tranquiliser to the head, then they’re cut up into pieces and shipped. And that’s the point where you have to disassociate them from human beings. You have to—otherwise you’re bound to loseit.

The next body is a woman, mid-twenties, slim. Completely naked. Was she asleep when she was bitten or was she, in fact, a stripper, in the middle of giving some lucky guy a lap dance? I mean, she’s got the body for it—or had the body for it. And if you look past the muzzle, grey eyes, and bloody gouge on her shoulder, she’s not that bad to lookat.

Guilt washes over me as I spend a little too long gaping at her slender body. She stares back at me, with eyes that no longer blink. I know she’s dead and it’s wrong, but I am human after all. I mean, can doctors really switch off their basic urges when they have to examine a beautiful, naked woman? I’m not so sure. And this one seems a lot livelier than the others—which makes her seem all the more alive. I check the buckle on the muzzle; it’s secure. Thank God. As I reach to zip the bag back up, I hear a snap. Suddenly I feel a cold hand grab my wrist firmly. Trying not to panic, I carefully begin to pry her grip from my wrist, one finger at a time. Then another hand reaches for me. I leap back in fright, inadvertently pulling the naked woman half-out of the body bag. She is slumped out the side of the stretcher, the straps barely holding her. I manage to break free from her grasp, but now she’s trying to wriggle out of the bag. I race to the furnace, open the door, and then bolt back to the woman who is now almost off the stretcher completely. Swiftly unclipping the straps, I run to the back of the stretcher and push it towards the furnace. The blistering heat is sucking out the air in the room as I ram the stretcher into the open door. The force throws half the woman into the fire. I grab the other half and launch it in. Slamming the door shut, I hear the beating of fists on the furnace walls. I push the large red button and the beautiful woman is nomore.

What a waste!

I walk over to the stool and sit, exhausted and shakenup.

Stupid! What’s wrong with you? You could have been bitten.

Time for a coffee, I think.

4

As I finish up the last remaining bodies, I daydream about Vegas. The lights, the booze—that’s about it really. It’s a stag weekend, after all. Can’t see me and the guys visiting the Grand Canyon or sitting through a Celine Dion concert. No bloody chance. There’ll be no time. Maybe next year, if I take Anna there. I can totally see her dragging me to some shit show, or on a sight-seeing trip. All the boring stuff. Although, I’m not really much of a gambler myself. Never have been. More of a watcher. Gambling’s a little too stressful for me. Oh, I’ll probably have a flutter, just to say I have, but other than that I’d rather hold on to my cash—not that I have much of that thesedays.

I slide the seventeenth body into the furnace and push the large red button. A sense of satisfaction washes over me as the blaze inside obliterates the oldman.

Done. Simple.

The life of a Burner.

I push the empty stretchers against each other neatly, and begin to remove my apron. Just as I’m about to hang it up on the wall-hook, I hear the bleeping sound of the code being entered outside. The door opens and in walks Stuart again. “We’ve got another four for you, Robert,” he tells me. He’s wearing his coat and holding a briefcase, clearly about to leave for the day. All right forsome.

“Justfour?”

“Yes. It shouldn’t take too long—even for you. Just think yourself lucky you’re not stuck in a stuffy office all day. I know where I’dratherbe.”

“You should try it some time, Stuart,” I say through gritted teeth. “You might find it harder than you think.”

“No, it’s all right, Robert, I’ll leave it to the Burners. Someone’s got to hold the fort back there. Romkirk won’t run itself.” He throws me one of his smug grins. “Well, I’m leaving for the day now, so you’re on your own. Call head office if there are any major problems, and don’t forget to finish your paperwork.”

“No worries, Stuart,” I reply, forcing an obedient smile as I watch him leave.

Good riddance, asshole.

Sighing, I look at the time: 4:17 p.m. There goes another early finish.

I can dream, can’tI?

When the four stretchers are safely inside, I lock the door. Slipping my apron back over my head, I think of Vegas again, and start to count the days in my head. I can almost taste the first beer in the hotel lobby. Somehow it tastes better than any other I’ve had. I notice that the first body bag is large. I feel relieved as I unzip it. It’s a woman, no older than twenty-five, and she’s chubby. Probably bullied in school. Battled with various quick-fix diets for most of her short life. Had a string of failed relationships. Classic fatty. She stares deep into my eyes. Her eyes seemsad.

I zip up the bag and burn her in the furnace.

The second body bag is small—not child-small though. This one seems another lively one. I contemplate avoiding the face-check but can’t resist, ignoring my earlier near-miss. I slowly unzip the bag, and then stop to make sure that there’s a muzzle strapped on. There is. Thank God. I continue to pull the zip down to chest height.

It’s another woman.

My heart almost stops as I stumble backwards.

Notyou.

Please God, not you, Anna.

Choking on my own breath, I creep forward. Please let it be a mistake. I pull down my mask and throw off the safety-goggles.

It’s not a mistake.

Anna snarls behind the muzzle someone has strapped over her mouth.

I pull the zip down almost all theway.

She squirms and twists, trying to break free from the plastic cable-ties fastened to her limbs.

I can barely stand. My knees almost buckle, but I grab hold of the stretcher. I think of Sammy and wonder where he is—if he’s also in one of these body bags. A frantic burst of energy hits me and I rush over to the other two. I pull the zip down on the first: it’s another woman, mid-forties. Jesus Christ, it’s the woman who lives across from our house. Susan Price. I feel sick. My heart is pounding hard against my chest. I’m sweating profusely. I unzip the last bag. Please, God don’t let it be him. I begyou.

It’s a man, early-fifties.

I thank God for that at least.

Let him be safe. Please.

Anna is now writhing so much that her stretcher has begun to move away from the wall. As I walk over to her, I think of her vomiting last night. How could I have been so stupid—so blind? I should have taken her to the hospital. They could have given her a shot. There might still have been time to save her. Was I too tired to think straight? Was I too preoccupied with a stupid Vegas trip? Jesus Christ. What about Sammy?

I can’t seem to focus anymore. I think I’m gonna pass out. To see her like this is too much. I contemplate zipping her body bag back up. Out of sight, out ofmind.

But how could I? I love her. So much. More than anything in the world. And she gave me Sammy: the single greatest achievement of mylife.

I lurch over to the stool and sit. My stomach is in knots as I listen to her cries of pain and anger. I can’t look anymore. It hurts too much to see her like that; a shadow of her beautiful self—her tender, placidself.

It’s not you, Anna. It can’tbe.

It’s someoneelse.

Please let it be someoneelse.

Anyone butyou…