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The best person to fight the monsters is someone who's been one.When a violent mob invades cop Alex MacCallum's part of town, it's just a typical night for him and the others living there. They expect to be feared and despised - they're survivors of the virus that turns its victims into mindless flesh-eaters.But the next day, when a new strain of the virus begins turning the population into eaters faster than ever before, Alex has to join forces with Micah, the leader of the mob, just to stay alive.Can the two enemies survive the hordes of eaters, as well as each other, long enough to find a way to stop this new outbreak?Mutation is the first book in a fast-moving, action-filled series that turns the zombie apocalypse on its head. If you like thrilling, original sci-fi, you'll love the Blood Survivors series.
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BLOOD SURVIVORS BOOK 1: MUTATION
Copyright: Nerys WheatleyPublished: 2015
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in retrieval systems, copied in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise transmitted, without written permission from the author. You must not circulate this book in any format.
Cover by Deranged Doctor Design
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The scream jarred Alex awake.
He swiped his dark hair from his eyes and stared up at the swirling artex pattern on the ceiling of his gloomy bedroom, uncertain if he’d dreamed the blood curdling shriek. The second scream convinced him he hadn’t.
A glance at the glowing figures on the clock next to his bed prompted a grimace.
Reluctantly pushing back his warm duvet, he climbed out of bed, grimacing again as his bare feet touched the cold vinyl floor tiles. He grabbed the pair of jeans hanging over the back of the wooden chair by the window, pulling them on over his boxers as he peered between the edges of the curtains.
The road outside was pitch dark in the moonless night, as usual. Streetlights were never switched on in East Town, even though the residents paid their taxes the same as everyone else. It was fine for most of the people who lived there, but for normal people the darkness could be a problem. Not for Alex though. He could see every detail of the street two floors below.
Lines of cars edged the wide street. Every fifty feet or so a majestic plane tree reached for the sky from within its raised concrete plinth. The pavements were devoid of movement. In his half asleep state, Alex began to wonder if he could have imagined the screams.
Along the street a figure rounded the corner and sprinted in his direction. He or she was fast, dodging obstacles that normal eyes wouldn’t have seen in the thick darkness. After passing beneath Alex’s window without slowing, they finally disappeared into a building further down the road.
Ten seconds later, the runner was followed into the street by the leading edge of the mob.
The people in the crowd weren’t moving fast, but they didn’t have to. There were enough of them to look threatening, whatever they were doing. What they were doing was carrying flaming torches. Alex half expected to see a few pitchforks as well.
He judged there must have been more than a hundred people in the rowdy horde, mostly male from what he could see. The double glazing of the window wasn’t enough to block out the sounds of chants, raucous laughter and shouted insults. He heard “white-eye” more than once. One man broke away from the pack and threw his torch into the canopy of one of the trees at the side of the street. It immediately caught fire, lighting up the surrounding squat blocks of flats. Alex frowned and puffed out a breath, squinting as his eyes adjusted.
No doubt the people in the mob thought this would be fun.
They thought there were enough of them.
They thought they were invincible.
They always did.
“Damn it,” he said again, louder this time. All he wanted to do was sleep.
He pulled on the black t-shirt he’d left keeping his jeans company, pushed his bare feet into his trainers and jogged into the living room. Grabbing a battered aluminium baseball bat from where it was leaning against the wall next to the TV, he opened the front door and ran out into the hallway.
In his haste, he almost collided with the six foot four black man exiting the door next to his.
“Sorry, man,” Leon said, pulling the door to his flat shut and hefting a cricket bat over his shoulder. “I’m like the walking dead here.”
Alex heard bolts being thrown on the other side. “Tell me about it.”
“Second time this month,” Leon said as they made their way to the stairs. “You’d think it would be getting better, not worse.”
“Yeah, and why does it always have to be in the middle of the night?” Alex replied. “Why can’t they come at a more civilised hour? I have work in the morning.”
Leon’s booming laugh echoed up and down the stairwell. “A violent mob without manners, who would’ve thunk?”
More of their neighbours joined them, both men and women, as they walked out onto the street. Others filtered from the doors of nearby buildings. All of them had some sort of blunt weapon. No-one had knives. Of course, a big stick could just as easily be fatal with enough force behind it, but they would be careful. The death of a normal in the East Town area of Sarcester, how the campaigners would love that.
Alex looked around him as the defenders spread out across the road to face the oncoming rabble. There were maybe thirty of his friends and neighbours. He shook his head in disgust. He knew there were several times as many people living around them who could swell their numbers, but who chose to stay where they were in safety and let the same few fight for them every time. It made him angry. He knew they were scared, but so was he and every other person out here. The people who lived in East Town had precious little as it was and they needed to fight to keep it, and to protect themselves from those who wanted to drive them out.
Maybe he should try to galvanise the residents. He wondered if a neighbourhood watch might work, or if he’d be laughed off the street.
The mob came to a halt thirty feet away. The smoky scent of the torches combined with the smell of burning foliage pricked at Alex’s over sensitive nose and he fought the urge to cough. He also detected the faint unpleasant aroma of body odour.
They could at least have showered first.
Alex scanned the crowd, trying to get a feel for the individuals within it; who would run at the first sign of violence, who would stay and fight, who were the leaders. He guessed most of them had never been this far into East Town before, and certainly not in these circumstances. After trying it once, most people didn’t want to repeat the experience. But there were a few too stupid and brutal and vindictive to give up, who would come over and over. Those were the ones Alex was looking for. They were the dangerous ones.
Despite their bravado, most of the men facing them now looked on edge, ranging from nervous to downright terrified, glancing around them as if they expected a wave of ravenous monsters to flood from the surrounding buildings at any second. It was one thing to shout and goad an empty street, but quite another to come face to face with their nightmares.
Alex glanced at the people standing around him. The light from the flames danced on their faces and reflected in their almost colourless eyes, the black dots of their pupils virtually the only feature breaking up the whites of their eyeballs. It was kind of disconcerting, if you weren’t used to seeing it. It was the only time he was ever grateful for the disfigurement.
“We want you out, white-eyes,” a man standing front and centre in the mob shouted. No-one answered the challenge.
Alex focused on him. Blond, around six feet, maybe mid-twenties, looked like he worked out. He held a two foot long steel rod in his right hand. Alex thought he recognised him, but he wasn’t sure. Unlike most of the others, not a trace of fear marred his face. Probably the leader, or at least one of them. He was the one Alex would go after. Bring him down and the others would scatter. Whoever was left after the fighting began.
“What, no answer?” the man shouted again. “I thought you white-eyes were meant to be tough.”
“Tougher than you, dick,” a woman’s derision laced voice shouted back. “You don’t see us hiding amongst a load of pathetic men about to piss their pants.”
Alex smiled at the sound of Janie’s voice. He knew she’d be there. She seemed to enjoy these things, relishing the excuse to beat a few normals. Deep down, he had to admit he knew how she felt.
The blond man looked like he was about to spontaneously combust. “Look, bitch...”
Alex sighed. “Can we just get this over with?” he shouted. “Some of us don’t have daddy’s money buying us hookers and mummy wiping our arses and bringing us breakfast in bed. We have to work for a living.”
It was intended to provoke a reaction and bring his target to him. Alex wasn’t prepared for how well it would work.
The blond man launched himself at Alex so fast he was momentarily caught off guard, barely managing to dodge the steel rod aimed at his head. He scuttled backwards out of reach and faced the man, rocking forward onto the balls of his feet and raising his baseball bat.
A flurry of clashes erupted around them. Following blondie’s lead, the rest of the mob had rushed forward, meeting the defenders head on. Despite being outnumbered four to one, Alex’s neighbours were fighting them back. Many of the mob were already running in the opposite direction. Tuning out the sound of Janie’s shrieks and Leon’s roars, Alex kept his focus on the man in front of him.
He easily dodged a couple of feints, but wasn’t so good when the real blow came, connecting with his right thigh. He ignored the pain and swung at his opponent’s mid-section. Blondie was too fast, though, and the bat barely touched him as he spun away.
From the corner of his eye Alex saw movement. Just in time, he ducked under a swipe from a wooden pole. Alex aimed a rapid back kick at the gut of his new attacker, then spun round with a hook to the side of his head, imbuing it with more power than he would have had four years previously, but less than he could have mustered. He didn’t want to kill him, just put him out of action. The man dropped to lie still on the road.
Blondie took advantage of the distraction and lunged, swinging his rod at Alex’s shoulder. Alex blocked it with the bat, hissing in pain when the hit jarred his arm. The man was stronger than he looked. A barrage of blows, kicks and blocks followed. As Alex received more hits than he gave, he came to realise he might have underestimated his opponent. Blondie obviously had training. He was faster than Alex.
It was intensely annoying.
Around a quarter of the mob had run when the fighting began and more made a quick exit when they realised that, with an advantage of only four to one, they didn’t have nearly enough people on their side. After less than ten minutes, the battle began to die down around them, most of the attackers either having run or limped away. Alex, however, was still struggling to overcome the man in front of him. It was embarrassing. Leon would never let him live it down if he didn’t finish it soon.
Faking a jab that had blondie ducking to his left, Alex grabbed his right arm and twisted hard. Blondie cried out in pain and dropped the steel rod. Continuing his forward momentum, Alex twisted the arm around to his opponent’s back, using one leg to sweep his feet from under him and sending him onto his knees. He dropped beside him and pushed him down onto his face on the tarmac.
“Get off me, white-eye,” the man said, spitting out the derogatory term and struggling against him.
“Watch your language,” Alex snapped, “and if you don’t stop struggling, I’ll put this bat across your head so hard your arse will be seeing stars.”
“Need any help?”
Alex looked up to see Leon towering over him. “No thanks, I’ve got it.”
“Because it looked like you were having a bit of trouble...”
“Because, while I was putting down, let’s see,” Leon gazed into space and counted on his fingers, “one, two, three... I’m pretty sure it was seven big dudes, you were over here fighting one skinny-arsed white guy.”
“Hey!” Blondie said, pushing up against Alex. He yelped as Alex smacked the back of his head.
“I did him too.” Alex pointed at the man he’d knocked out, and immediately wished he hadn’t. The kid didn’t even look old enough to legally drink. He was groaning as he came to.
Leon studied him with exaggerated interest then turned back to Alex. “My mistake. I didn’t realise you were dealing with the stunt cast for the next Hulk film.”
Alex looked down to hide his smile.
Other residents of East Town were wandering towards them, checking the normals still lying on the ground, while those remaining ex-members of the mob still mobile were hobbling away, throwing wary glances back at the men and women who had thoroughly overpowered them. Someone had fetched a fire extinguisher and was dousing the flaming tree. A few of Alex’s neighbours had cuts and bruises, but he couldn’t see anything serious. Not many normal people appreciated how much it took to bring a Survivor down. Apart from the man pinned to the ground beneath him. He had known, and been thoroughly prepared.
The kid Alex had knocked unconscious was sitting up and looking around him, wide-eyed with terror, his gaze darting from person to person as they surrounded him.
“A-are you g-going to eat m-me?”
Alex stifled a smile.
“Well, I don’t know,” Leon said, looking at his friends and neighbours, “what do you think? Anyone peckish?”
There were some snickers around him.
“Nah,” Jerry, a portly man in his fifties still wearing his pyjamas who lived in a block a street away, said, “he looks too gristly for me. I like my meals with more meat on ‘em.”
“We don’t eat people, kid,” Alex said. “Just go home. On second thoughts, go to the hospital and get yourself checked out first.” He really hoped he hadn’t given the teenager a concussion.
A path opened as some of those around them moved aside. The boy watched them closely as if he was expecting it to be a trick. When no-one made any attempt to take a bite out of him, he scrambled to his feet and launched himself between them, running off into the night.
Jerry watched the young man go, his face sad as he shook his head. “Is that really what they think, that we eat people?”
Alex shrugged. “I can’t even keep up with all the myths going around about us. There seems to be a new one every week. Do you know, I actually heard that some people think we buy urine from normals so we can drink it?”
“Well that’s gross,” Janie said.
Alex felt the man he was holding down shaking. Making sure no weapons were within grabbing distance, he grasped the back of his collar and pulled him to a seated position. Blondie was laughing. Up close, when he wasn’t distracted by the man trying to do him serious damage, Alex was surprised to see there was still no hint of fear on the man’s face. Incapacitated and surrounded by Survivors and he wasn’t afraid. It was an unusual reaction in a normal.
“Oh, you think that’s funny?” Janie said, glaring at him.
“Kind of, yeah.”
She switched her attention to Alex, running one hand through her short, bleach blonde hair. “Please could I rough him up? Just this once? It would be therapeutic. He reminds me of my ex.”
Alex wasn’t sure she was joking about roughing him up. “Your ex looked like him?”
“No. My ex was a braindead arsehole.”
“Sorry, Janie,” Alex said, “I’d love to let you. I’d even join in. But the paperwork would be a nightmare.”
She let out an exaggerated sigh and leaned down towards the man. “Come back when he’s not around and I’ll happily wipe that smile off your face, dick.”
Blondie’s derisive smile grew. “Anytime, bitch.”
Turning on her heel, Janie walked away towards her home in a building on the other side of the street from Alex’s. She raised her hand in a wave without looking back.
“See you later, white-eyes.”
Alex smiled. From a normal, it was an abusive, contemptuous insult. From Janie, it was a term of endearment. At least, he assumed it was. He liked Janine Bailey. He wasn’t sure of her exact age, but he knew it was somewhere around fifty. Alex didn’t know much about her past, but he knew she’d lived, she was tough and she had an ex-husband who’d left her when she was infected nine years previously, taking their fourteen year old son with him. And she hated normals. Loathed them and didn’t try to hide it. He understood how she felt, even shared her attitude to some extent, but working around normals, he had learned to suppress his feelings. Most of the time.
The single blare of a siren drew everyone’s attention and he turned to see a police car slowly approach. It came to a stop ten feet away.
“Finally,” Blondie muttered. “Hey,” he called to the police officer getting out of the car, “I want these people arrested for assault.” He stood up and walked over to him. “They attacked, without provocation, all of us law-abiding humans and they should be locked up...”
The officer listened, expressionless, as blondie went on at some length about how he’d been wronged, then looked at Alex who had walked up behind him.
“Who is this idiot, MacCallum?”
Alex grinned. “He led the mob who just attacked us. We took care of the others, but this one is different. He came prepared. I have a hunch Parker might want him questioned about the string of Survivor attacks downtown.”
Blondie was looking from the officer to Alex and back again. “What the...?”
“Okay, I’ll take him in.” The police officer spun the stunned man around and slapped cuffs on him before he had a chance to react. “You are under arrest for...” he glanced at Alex, his eyebrows raised.
Alex gave it some thought. “Um, disturbing the peace, inciting a riot, assault with a deadly weapon, assaulting a police officer, anything else you can think of. Thanks, Jones.”
“Wait, wait, wait. I never assaulted a police officer.” Blondie glared at Officer Jones who raised his eyebrows and nodded his head towards Alex. The blond man looked back at him.
“Detective Constable Alexander MacCallum,” Alex said, by way of introduction. “Have a nice night in jail. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He was incredulous. “They’re letting white-eyes into the police force now?”
Jones shook his head, rolled his eyes at Alex and pulled open the back door of his cruiser. “Watch your head,” he said, placing his hand on the top of blondie’s head and shoving him into the back seat with slightly more force than was necessary.
Those still on the street watched the police car pull away. A couple of ambulances passed it on their way in. The paramedics who got out greeted the residents who hadn’t yet gone back to bed by name. They were used to being called to East Town in the middle of the night.
Alex and Leon left them to the task of mopping up the normals who were no longer mobile.
“‘Your arse will be seeing stars’?” Leon said, as they walked.
“My witty banter is not at its finest at three in the morning.”
They wandered back towards their building and Alex looked up at his neighbour’s window to see Leon’s wife and two young daughters, who were all normal, staring down at them. He smiled and waved. The oldest girl, eight year old Emma, smiled and waved back. He babysat for them occasionally. She was a cute kid and intelligent for her age. She’d taught him how to play chess and he suspected she was probably still better than him. Under normal circumstances, she would have had a bright future ahead of her. But being the child of a Survivor carried a stigma she may never be able to shake.
“How’s it going for Em at school?” Alex said.
Leon sighed. “The teachers are trying to help, but the kids are cruel. She has a couple of friends, but the others...” He shook his head as they walked into the lobby. “They learn it from their parents. My girls shouldn’t have to suffer because of me.”
“None of us should have to suffer,” Alex replied, “just because of idiots like blondie out there...”
“Blondie?” Leon smirked as they reached their floor and stepped through the fire door.
“It works for me. I hope Parker lets me in when he questions him tomorrow. There’s something that really bothered me about him.”
“You mean apart from him being able to kick your...”
“He was fast,” Alex said, feeling defensive. “And he had that steel rod. I took him down.”
“Yes, you did. Eventually.”
“How about we declare this topic of conversation closed?”
“Alright, but I reserve the right to reopen it as required.”
As they reached Leon’s door, it opened and Emma bounded out past her mother.
“Nice moves, Dad,” she said, grinning. “You too, Alex.” She held out her small fist. Alex smiled and bumped it with his own.
“You two okay?” Patrice asked, studying her husband for wounds.
“Hunky dory, Pat,” Leon said, leaning down to kiss her cheek. “I’m hunky, he’s dory.”
“You wouldn’t think that would still be funny after the hundredth time,” Alex said. “And I’m fine, Patrice, thanks for asking.”
He dropped down onto one knee and smiled at four year old Katie who was standing behind her mother’s legs. He made a face and she laughed, running into the hallway and throwing her short arms around his neck. He scooped her up and stood.
“I’m going to have to commandeer this child for hugging purposes,” he said. “Official police business.” He kissed her forehead and she giggled.
“Yeah, you won’t be so keen when she wakes you up in three hours,” Patrice said, holding out her arms.
Alex handed Katie over and waved to her. She waved back.
“See you tomorrow,” Leon said.
“Bye, Alex,” Emma said, following her father inside.
Alex wandered back into his own empty flat, locked the door, and headed into the kitchen for a snack.
It began thirteen years ago.
A new contagion, named after Julien Meir, the doctor who first identified it.
No-one knew where Meir’s Disease came from. The theory was an old virus got smart, found a new way of transmission, a more effective way to infect new victims. It wasn’t the first use of mind control amongst infectious organisms, there were certain fungi that could bend insects and other creatures to their will in order to spread their spores. But a virus controlling humans? Nothing remotely like it had ever happened before. It took the medical world by surprise.
Symptoms began to manifest four to five days after initial infection. Core temperature increased to 105°F within a few hours. The virus released a previously unknown toxin that affected the brain and turned the irises almost white. Night vision sharpened, as did sense of smell. Strength increased to between two and three times that of the average human male, in both sexes, a combination of the adrenal gland going into overdrive and a rapid wave of breakdown and rebuilding of the muscle tissue. Metabolism increased. Brain function diminished steadily to a complete loss of personality and intelligence.
One single drive remained - hunger. But those afflicted with the disease would eat only one thing.
Without it, the infected would die of starvation within a month. With it, as far as anyone knew, they could go on indefinitely.
Those who had been infected and turned became known as “eaters”.
The first cases caused havoc, before the authorities rapidly introduced strict measures to control the infected. If the gestation period had been shorter, there was a very good chance that the human race would have been lost.
Transferred through body fluids, including bite, the infection rate was one hundred percent. The death toll was high at first, but it was quickly brought under control, in the more industrialised nations. The disease, however, spread across the globe, with a few remote islands the only places to escape the pandemic. The method of control of the infected varied across the world depending on the prevailing regard for human life in any given nation, ranging from hospitalisation and humane dispatch, to roaming gangs of military, police or vigilantes putting a bullet in the head of anyone even suspected of being infected.
Anything that would kill an uninfected human would kill someone with Meir’s, but a penetrating wound to the head was the quickest solution. The infected, once they had turned to flesh eating monsters, were strong and tough and either didn’t feel pain or didn’t notice it. Very little other than death would stop them.
For four years infection meant certain death.
Until a cure was developed.
For it to work, treatment had to begin as soon after infection as possible. Once an infected person began to display symptoms, it was too late. Injections of a cocktail of antivirals and virucides were given every few hours continuously throughout the treatment period. The infected person would still become symptomatic, lose their ability to think, become a ravenous, flesh eating, super-strong nightmare from a horror story. But the treatment gave the body a chance. The human immune system could fight back. And for the lucky ones, a month after infection, recovery would begin. Higher brain function would return, they would become the person they were before once again, with some physical changes. The irises remained off-white, strength levels stayed high and rate of metabolism was slightly elevated. They also had good night vision and a sense of smell that, while not exactly like that of a bloodhound, was several times better than that of any normal person. And Meir’s Survivors could not be re-infected.
Unfortunately, the treatment didn’t work for the majority of those infected. Why some recovered and some didn’t remained a mystery, although the current theory was some kind of genetic peculiarity in the Survivors. Whatever it was, the majority didn’t have it. The survival rate was low; just twenty-five percent of those treated recovered.
But recovering from the virus marked the beginning of a new life of hardship for the Survivors. A new term entered the English language, ‘white-eye’, an offensive, malicious term for Survivors. They were mistrusted and feared. Many people believed they still carried the urge to feed on their fellow humans. Some believed they were no longer even human. All kinds of lies and myths sprang up about them.
It wasn’t helped by the specifics of the treatment being publicised. During the period of the illness when the infected were turned, the only way to keep them alive and healthy enough to fight the virus was to feed them human flesh. Even though they did not eat live victims and everything they consumed came from those who had donated their bodies after death to be used to help those suffering from Meir’s, it still carried a huge stigma. They had eaten the flesh of other human beings, however unknowingly, and that made them monsters in the eyes of many.
Survivors lost homes, jobs, friends, even partners and children. Discrimination, although illegal, was common. There was widespread persecution, verbal abuse, and sometimes even physical attacks. Survivors banded together for protection for themselves and their families.
For many, becoming one of the twenty-five percent, one of the Survivors, was just the beginning of the struggle.
Alex was eager to interrogate the blond man from the night before when he reached work the next morning.
It had been on his mind from the moment he woke up. There was something off about the man, the way he behaved, his complete lack of fear, his fighting skills. If he was unafraid of the Meir’s survivors, why was he leading a hundred riled up men into the middle of East Town to try to get them out?
His detective’s instincts were buzzing.
The first stop when he got into the Porter Street police station was the armoury, where he collected his Glock 17 semi-automatic pistol from his locker and grabbed a nineteen round magazine. Next, he headed for the squad room and his tiny, cluttered desk.
“Don’t get comfortable, Alex, I need you and Rodney to take care of a grab.”
His jacket halfway off one arm, Alex paused to look over his shoulder at Police Inspector Nathaniel Parker.
“Now, sir?” He hadn’t yet reached the third, and arguably most important, step of his usual morning routine - coffee.
Sighing internally, he pulled the jacket back on. “Where?”
“On St. Michael’s Street, east of the roundabout.”
“What’s the building number?” Alex opened his desk drawer and reached in for his holster.
“It’s not in a building, it’s on the street.”
Alex stopped. “On the street? Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” Parker said with a smile. “Try not to make too much of a mess.”
. . .
Eaters roaming the streets were so rare Alex couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard of it happening.
If someone was infected and, illegally, didn’t go to the hospital, they always hid out in their houses or flats or bedsits trying to ignore the inevitable. Hoping that they alone, in the whole thirteen year history of Meir’s Disease, would be the ones who wouldn’t turn, who would recover by themselves using high strength vitamin C tablets and the half a bottle of penicillin they found in the back of the medicine cabinet. They hid and turned and were trapped as mindless, ravenous monsters, until either some unfortunate soul discovered them or they starved to death and someone noticed the smell.
They holed up where they felt safe. They didn’t go for a stroll.
“You ever heard of an eater outside?” Alex said, glancing at Rodney Cutter in the driver’s seat beside him.
“Learn to drive, moron!” his partner yelled at a car that had pulled out in front of them.
The siren blared as he hit the button for the blue flashing lights retro-fitted behind the grille of his Porsche and he glared out the window at the driver as the car pulled over in front of them. He left the siren on and cars scattered out of the way ahead of them.
“Not since the first ones when nobody knew what it was,” he said.
“Don’t you think it’s weird?”
Cutter shrugged. “Yeah, but what about a flesh eating crazy person isn’t weird?”
Alex smiled. “You know what I mean.”
“Let’s just get in, take the thing down and get back to the station,” he said. “We can work out the whys and wherefores later, when there’s coffee.”
They didn’t have to search for the eater when they reached St. Michael’s Street.
Alex shook his head. “What are these idiots doing?” he said as they pulled up behind the crowd. “Don’t they realise how dangerous it is?”
Two police cruisers were already on the scene, parked at right angles to each other to form one half of a square of vehicles. The two cars completing the box were a taxi and someone’s silver Qashqai. Within the makeshift corral an eater, a middle-aged man wearing brown trousers and a checked shirt, lurched around the small area, single-mindedly trying to reach the people around it, but unable to summon enough brain power to escape its metal prison.
Alex and Cutter pushed their way through the shoving, gawking crowd of people stupid enough to try to get a closer look.
The four police officers on the scene, three men and a woman, were doing their best to get the people eager to see the unexpected sight to move back, but they were largely being ignored. Eaters were no longer a common sight. Some of the younger people in the crowd may never have seen one in the flesh. Everyone wanted a get a photo or video. One teenager who’d managed to get right up to where two of the vehicles met turned around for a selfie and had the unique experience of being photobombed by the eater as it made a grab for him. Its grasping hands closed onto thin air as Alex grasped the kid’s collar and jerked him away at the last second.
The lucky escapee’s eyes widened as he looked up at Alex. “Hey, you’re...”
“The person who just saved your stupid behind from being eaten,” Alex said. “I hope that photo was worth it.”
The teenager glanced at his phone then held it up for Alex to see, a huge grin on his face. “Hell, yes.”
Alex knew the shot of the boy’s inane smile with the eater looming over his shoulder would be viral before lunchtime.
“Hey, could I get a shot of you...”
The boy was cut off as Cutter shoved him out of the way. “So how do you want to handle this?” he said to Alex. “If we shoot it here and the thing’s blood gets on someone, you just know we’ll get the blame instead of all these bloody idiots.”
Alex glanced around. Some of those closest to them backed away at the sight of his almost colourless eyes. People’s stupidity astounded him at times. They were feet away from a thing that wanted nothing more than to rip its teeth into their throats and yet he was the one they were afraid of.
He grinned. “I’ve got it.”
He vaulted up onto the bonnet of one of the police cars and jumped onto the roof. Raising his gun, he fired a single shot into the air, the sound echoing from the surrounding high-rises. The crowd quietened, staring up at him in shocked silence. The eater immediately stumbled towards him, reaching its grasping hands toward his ankles then stopping abruptly. It sniffed the air and then backed away, returning to the task of walking into the cars hemming it in.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Alex shouted, “my name is DC MacCallum and I am about to attempt to restrain this highly dangerous eater. In the event that I get into trouble, DS Cutter here,” he waved a hand in Cutter’s direction, “will have to shoot it. If that happens, anyone too close will be in serious danger of infection. So if you don’t want to end up like that,” he pointed at the eater, which helpfully moaned on cue, “or like me, please move back from the vehicles. Thank you, your co-operation is appreciated.”
He waited for his warning to sink in. Some people moved back, including the four police officers. Most didn’t.
Alex looked down at Cutter and shrugged. “No-one can say we didn’t warn them.”
Slipping off his brown leather jacket, he placed it beside him on the roof of the car, secured his gun into the holster at his waist, checked the reinforced eater cuffs attached to his belt, and jumped to the ground. He landed inside the car enclosure and dropped into a crouch, absorbing the force of the impact through his muscles.
There was an audible gasp from the surrounding crowd. Dozens of smartphones were thrust into the air, striving for a good angle.
I’m going to be an online star, Alex thought. Lucky me.
The eater turned in his direction and lumbered over as he straightened. As much as something with no conscious thought could be, it seemed confused. Alex smelled different, not what it wanted. He knew this because he could smell the difference too. Sense of smell was heightened in the infected and stayed that way for Survivors, a fact Alex often regretted when dealing with the sometimes unwashed public. Normals and Survivors smelled different. But they were surrounded by uninfected people and their scent was overwhelming for the eater, driving it wild. It couldn’t get to them, but it could get to Alex. The smell and sound of its only desire overrode its usual apathy towards Survivors.
It lunged at Alex with a groan.
A couple of rapid sidesteps and the eater missed, colliding with the car behind him. The general lack of coordination and speed typical of eaters wasn’t much of an advantage for Alex in the small space. He threw a glance at Cutter as he moved to the opposite side of the tiny area within the cars. His partner’s pistol was in his hand, ready. Alex knew he would shoot if he got into any real trouble, but with the action increasing in front of them, the people were crowding even closer. He needed to take the thing down without bullets.
The eater shuffled its feet around to face him. It no longer cared that he couldn’t be infected, it just wanted to feed on something, and he was the only thing within reach.
It came at him again and he threw all his strength into a hook to the side of its face, whipping its head around and sending it staggering to its right. Alex had hoped it would be enough to drop it, but the tiny space meant it just hit another car, staying on its feet. He followed up with a swift kick to its knee, always a good place to attack to bring anything down, but he misjudged and the car got in the way again as the eater’s leg slammed back against it. The eater made a grab for him while he was still on one foot and caught the edge of his shirt, pushing him off balance.
He fell backwards, pulling the eater, still clinging on, down on top of him.
The asphalt knocked the breath from him as he landed hard on his back, the weight of the eater on his chest almost smothering him. Teeth snapped in his face. Alex vaguely heard Cutter shouting.
The eater’s breath blasted into his face and he flinched, expecting the rancid smell of teeth that hadn’t been brushed in some time. He was surprised when all he smelled was a vague minty freshness, but before he could think about it, its head lunged down at his face. He jerked his head to one side and its face smacked into the tarmac next to his ear. Alex heard bone crunch.
When the eater lifted its head again, its face was covered in its own blood, nose twisted and teeth broken. The wound didn’t even slow it down. A twinge of fear prodded him. He couldn’t be re-infected, but he could be hurt and he could be killed.
As the eater took aim for his face again, he managed to get his hands beneath its shoulders. With what he afterwards hoped was a manly roar and not a strained grunt, he pushed as hard as he could. Thankfully, the eater was not a big man and it almost flew off him, landing on its back a couple of feet away.
He sat up and batted its grasping hands aside, rolling it onto its chest before it could rise and planting a knee into its back. It moaned and struggled, trying to rise. Alex pulled the cuffs from his belt, grabbed its hands and secured them behind it.
A smattering of applause broke out from those members of the crowd not holding phones. Alex turned and sat on the eater’s back for a few seconds, gasping in a few deep breaths.
“Damn it, MacCallum, what the hell are you playing at?”
Alex looked up to see Cutter glaring at him. He grinned. “Worried about me?”
“Only that you’ll leave me writing the report out on my own. What was that falling over crap? I thought you were supposed to have good reflexes.”
Alex’s reflexes weren’t any better than anyone else’s, but he wasn’t going to say so. He stood and dusted himself off. “I got the job done, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, and nearly got yourself killed in the process. I couldn’t even get a clear shot with it on top of you.”
“Why Rodney, I didn’t know you cared.” Alex winked, knowing it would irritate the seasoned detective, and grabbed his jacket from the roof of the cruiser where he’d left it.
Cutter shook his head in disgust and stalked away through the crowd. Alex smiled, pulled his jacket on and set about loading the eater into one of the police cars.
Rodney Cutter was an acquired taste and on the surface of it they were a terrible match. At forty-eight, he was sixteen years older than Alex, with greying dark hair, two ex-wives and a personality that could only be described as abrasive. After Alex recovered from being bitten in the line of duty, Cutter had been the most vociferous of all his colleagues in his objections to Alex being allowed to keep his job in the police.
When Parker had partnered them up for eater grabs, Alex thought it was some kind of sick joke. Cutter hated him and was constantly rubbing Alex up the wrong way. For two years he was driven crazy by Cutter’s rude remarks and barely veiled contempt. That was until Alex intentionally put himself in harm’s way to save Cutter’s life two years before, suffering a nasty injury in the process.
It had proved a turning point, not only in the way Cutter treated him, but with the rest of his fellow police as well. Suspicion and mistrust slowly turned to acceptance and admiration. He was still kept on desk duty for anything other than eater grabs and cases involving other Survivors, the general public attitude toward Survivors ranging from wariness, through fear, to outright hatred. But at least the men and women he worked with were more approving of him now and, while not exactly best buddies, he and Cutter had a good working relationship. They even exchanged Christmas cards.
“You’re all set,” Alex said to the officer hovering nearby as he slammed the police car door shut in the face of the eater. It jammed what was left of its bloody nose against the window and tried to eat him through the glass. “Tell the guys at disposal to email the paperwork to me at the Porter Street station. DC MacCallum.”
“Will do,” the man replied. “Nice grab, by the way. I’ve never seen one out on the street before. To be honest, we were getting a bit worried we’d have to shoot it.”
“Any idea where it came from?”
“Not a clue. When we got here it still seemed disoriented. I think it was recently turned. It only started to get really interested in the crowd after we’d got it trapped. We’ve questioned some of the people, but no-one knew anything.”
Alex looked down at the eater, which was smearing blood all over the window as it tried to get to him. It occurred to him how bad the situation could have been. If it had been farther along, if the responding officers hadn’t been able to contain it, the crowd, which was now slowly beginning to drift away, would have been first hand witnesses to how dangerous even just one eater was. Dozens could have been bitten. They would have been in the middle of a full blown outbreak. The developed world hadn’t seen one of those for over five years.
Something about the whole situation didn’t feel right.
“Not that I’m complaining,” Cutter said as they drove back to the station, “but you’re quieter than usual.”
Alex didn’t move his eyes from the view out the window next to him as Cutter guided his Porsche through the city streets. “I have a niggle.”
Cutter snorted. “A what?”
“Something’s niggling at me. That eater was newly turned, like in the last hour or so. Before I turned, I was running a temperature of a hundred and five and I’d felt like crap for hours. There’s no way I could have been walking around the centre of town. Also, its breath was minty, like it had recently brushed its teeth. It just feels like something’s not right.”
“Well, maybe when disposal get DNA and fingerprints we can get an ID and that will tell us where it came from where did you learn to drive? The dodgems?!”
Cutter gave a one fingered salute to the stunned motorist who had cut him off. The man glared and began to roll his window down. Cutter took his gun from its holster and casually held it flat against the glass next to him. The man rapidly rolled his window back up and sped off.
“Yeah, maybe.” Alex sighed, unable to shake the feeling that something was off. “I suppose I’ll feel better when I’ve had my coffee.”
“You haven’t had coffee yet? I’d had two cups before I got in. No wonder you have a niggle. You need some caffeine.” Cutter grinned and flipped the switches for the lights and siren.
Alex smiled. “You know how Parker hates it when we use the sirens for personal stuff.”
“What are you talking about? This is a bona fide emergency!”
Alex laughed as Cutter stepped on the accelerator.
“Where is everyone?”
Alex looked around as he and Cutter passed the almost empty squad room. In fact, the whole building seemed emptier than usual.
“Is there a briefing we should be at?”
They passed the briefing room. It was empty.
Cutter was silent, but he was frowning as they entered the break room. The sight of the coffee machine pushed Alex’s concerns to the back of his mind as his inner caffeine addict sat up and wagged its tail.
“Alex, you want in on questioning your guy from last night?”
He turned to see Inspector Parker at the door, a tablet in his hand. Alex glanced back at the coffee machine. “Now, sir?”
“I can do it alone, if you’re busy.”
“No, no, I can come.” He followed Parker into the corridor, casting a final look of longing at the hot brown liquid in the coffee machine jug. “Where has everyone gone?” he asked as they headed for the interrogation rooms.
“Same as you. We had calls come in about three more eaters loose when you were gone.”
“Yeah. It is weird. Ben and Olivia say they’ve had a few in their areas too.”
Ben and Olivia. Nathaniel Parker was a relaxed first name type person. To Alex they were Inspector Carter and Chief Inspector Landry.
“So everyone’s out on the grabs?”
“As they’re out in public, I sent everyone we could spare. The quicker and cleaner the grabs, the better.” He opened the door to interrogation room two and Alex followed him in, his niggle returning with a vengeance.
The blond man from the night before sat at a functional Formica and metal table, his wrists handcuffed to a steel loop on the top. He looked, if it was possible, even more annoyed than the last time Alex had seen him, on the road outside his home around seven hours before.
He tensed visibly when he saw Alex. “You have got to be kidding me,” he muttered.
Parker pulled out a chair opposite him and sat, placing the tablet he’d brought in with him on the table and working on it. Alex remained standing, arms folded, one shoulder leaning against the regulation beige wall by the door.
“I wish to submit a formal complaint about...”
Alex’s nemesis stopped as Parker raised a hand, not looking up from the screen in front of him. The blond man pursed his lips in annoyance.
“Alright,” Parker said after a few more seconds. He sat back in his chair and looked at the man for the first time. “Your name is Micah Clarke, is that correct?”
The man narrowed his eyes. “Yes.”
“And you live at 58, Oxford Heights, Queen Street?”
“Yes.” He barely opened his mouth, his teeth grinding together.
“And your date of birth is...”
“Look, you know who I am,” he burst out angrily. “You don’t have to hear it again.”
Alex stifled a smile. People often mistook Parker’s easygoing personality as an indication he wasn’t very bright. They couldn’t be more wrong. He was legendary for being able to tell a suspect’s weaknesses and so get under their skin in interrogations. Apparently, Micah Clarke’s weakness was impatience. And he had a temper.
The inspector went back to studying his tablet. After another few minutes of silence, Alex thought Clarke was ready to explode. The prisoner fidgeted, pursed his lips, rubbed his hand across his stubbled chin, huffed, sighed loudly and drummed his fingers on the table. Parker maintained the pretence of ignoring him through it all.
Alex remained leaning against the wall, watching. Occasionally, Clarke would look at him briefly, his eyes filled with animosity.
“Does he have to be here?”
Parker looked up at Clarke’s question. He glanced at Alex. “Yes, he does. Do you have a problem with that?”
“Of course I have a problem with it.”
“And why is that?”
“Why?” He looked as if he’d been asked why he had a problem with herpes. “He’s a freak, an aberration, a disgusting, dangerous, cannibalistic monster. He’s a white-eye. Why wouldn’t I have a problem with him?”
Alex didn’t even flinch. He’d been called worse.
“I take it you don’t much like Meir’s disease Survivors?” Parker was studying his tablet again, feigning disinterest in the conversation.
Clarke sat back. “You could say that.”
“Is that why you were leading a violent mob through East Town last night?”
“I was leading a peaceful demonstration...”
“At two thirty in the morning?”
He shrugged. “It was the only time all of us concerned citizens were free.”
“And what about the attacks on Survivors over the past week?”
Clarke frowned at the sudden change in subject. “What?”
Parker looked up at him. “What do you know about the attacks?”
“I don’t know anything.”
“Really?” Parker raised his eyebrows. “I’d have thought that you, with your obvious dislike for Survivors, would have at least have heard about them.”
“Well, obviously I’ve heard about...”
“So you know who is carrying the attacks out? Are you involved?”
“What... no! No. Am I being charged with that?”
“No, Mr Clarke, but if you can help us with our inquiries, it might help you with the charges that are being brought against you.” Parker fixed him with a stare.
Clarke stared back, but said nothing.
A knock broke the minor standoff. Alex opened the door. Officer Georgina Jensen was outside.
“Sir?” she said.
Parker stood and walked to the door.
“We’re getting more calls about eaters on the streets,” she said quietly. “A lot more.”
Parker nodded. “I’ll be right there.” He turned back to the prisoner. “We’ll carry on this conversation later, Mr Clarke.”
“Wait, I want my phone call.”
“You’ll get it,” Parker said, following Alex from the room. At the last moment,e he turned back. “And one more thing, Mr Clarke. Detective MacCallum is a decorated, respected, invaluable member of my police force and if I ever hear you speaking like that about him again, I will lock you up overnight with the next militant Survivor who comes through this station and the next morning, if there’s anything of you left, I will personally scrape it off the floor and dump it in the nearest rubbish bin. Am I clear?”
Clarke stared at him in silence. Alex wasn’t sure if he thought Parker was serious. He himselfwasn’t sure that he wasn’t.
“Take him back to the cells, John,” he said to the officer outside the door.
“He knows something,” Alex said as they walked away.
“Yeah. We’ll question him again when we’ve cleared up the eater problem and he’s stewed for a bit longer in his cell.”
“Sir, disposal has put out an alert that they’re shutting down. They can’t take any more eaters. There are too many coming in. The holding pens are overflowing.”
It was almost midday and Alex and Cutter had just returned from taking three more eaters to disposal. They were reporting in before heading to the armoury for ammunition when they heard Belinda.
Parker looked round at the dispatcher from where he was standing in the briefing room, studying a map of the city that had been Blu-tacked to the whiteboard. Belinda looked frazzled, her blonde hair escaping from her usually scrupulously neat ponytail.
“What about the flash rooms?” Parker said.
“They say they’ve been running the flash rooms for over an hour at full capacity, but they can’t load and unload quick enough.” She ran a hand over her hair. “They sounded scared.”
Parker looked down. “We’re all scared,” he muttered, although only Alex was close enough to hear him. He drew in a deep breath. “Okay, tell everyone to bring the eaters here. We’ll put them into the cells until disposal opens again.”
“Yes, sir. And sir?”
“I can’t reach Officers Jackson and Penny.”
Parker’s gaze flickered to the floor momentarily, before returning to her face. “Find out who’s nearest their last known location and send them.”
Alex watched Belinda hurry away. The news that the Meir’s Control and Allocation Centre, colloquially known as disposal, had been running the flash rooms sent chills down his spine, even though both he and Cutter suspected they must have been. They’d seen firsthand when they were there the volume of eaters being brought in, not just by the police, but by the fire and ambulance services too.
The flash rooms were built at the very beginning of the Meir’s Disease outbreak, incorporated into the newly constructed disposal centres, when more people were being infected and turning. The ten foot square metal rooms were for large scale dispatch of eaters. They could be loaded into the rooms en masse and massive currents of electricity were sent flooding through the space, instantly stopping the hearts of anything inside. But they hadn’t been used for over eleven years, not since the chaotic first year of the outbreak. At a push, more than fifty eaters could fit in at once.
How many were out there?
“Thanks,” Parker said, marking the locations of the latest eaters Alex and Cutter had taken in on the map. “I’m sorry you’ve been going non-stop all day, but we’re barely keeping up here.”
“I know, sir,” Alex said. “We’re fine.”
Parker nodded and turned back to his map. Alex knew he’d been trying to work out a pattern to the outbreak, to trace it back to its origin.
“Have you found out where this started?” Alex said, walking up next to him.
“The nearest I can tell, somewhere here.” He pointed at an area called Reaper’s Farm to the north west of the city, an affluent neighbourhood. “Apart from a few outliers, the infection seems to be spreading from there, although I can’t work out why. The eaters on the streets now would have been infected days ago, so even if they had all been infected in the same place, logically there shouldn’t be a pattern at all. But there is.”
Alex looked at the dots on the map, each one marking where an eater had been picked up. They did indeed seem to be spreading outwards. He couldn’t think of any explanation either.
“If we see anything that might explain it, I’ll call it straight in,” he said. He spotted Cutter on his way back from the toilets. “We have to get back out there, sir.”
“Be careful, Alex. It’s getting worse.”
“Aren’t I always?”
“Do you really want me to answer that?”
Alex grinned and jogged out to join Cutter on his way to the armoury. He threw a longing glance at the coffee machine as they walked by the break room. He wasn’t sure he’d gone this long without caffeine during waking hours since he was seventeen.
“We could stop for a few minutes,” Cutter said, seeing his look.
Alex shook his head. Twice today they’d only just got to someone in time. A few minutes could mean a death on his conscience.
“I’m fine.” He stretched his arms energetically into the air. “Detoxing. It’s good for me.”
Cutter snorted. “Well, you look like crap, but if you say so.”
. . .
Cutter jammed his foot on the brake, bringing the Porsche to a screeching halt. “What?!” He whipped his head around, searching for the cause of Alex’s sudden outburst.
Alex pointed through the passenger side window. About fifty yards away, across a small grassed area between buildings, a man was lying on the ground. Three eaters were on their knees beside him, faces covered with blood, their teeth tearing at the flesh of his arm, shoulder and leg.
“No,” Cutter said, his voice shaking.
Alex opened his door and climbed out, pulling his pistol from the holster at his waist and starting towards the nightmarish sight. It was then that the man’s arm raised, clawing at the air. Alex heard a ragged, pain filled groan.
He’s still alive, he thought, his gut twisting in horror.
“Get off him,” Cutter growled beside him.
The eaters stopped chewing and looked up. Seeing new prey, they lurched to their feet. Cutter took aim and fired, putting bullets into the heads of two of them as they staggered with surprising speed towards them. His third shot missed. Alex didn’t.
When they approached the man lying in the grass, Alex was relieved to see that he had passed out. Blood seeped from his wounds, fat and bone showing through the mauled flesh, chunks of muscle scattered over the grass.
Cutter leaned over, planted his hands on his knees and vomited. Alex swallowed and fought to keep down what little he’d eaten during the hectic day. The smell of urine and blood was almost overwhelming. He tried in vain to find some fresh air to breathe.
“What the hell is going on?” Cutter said, straightening and wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “This is... what the hell is going on?”
Alex shook his head. He couldn’t tear his eyes from the grisly sight in front of them. “I don’t know,” he whispered.
It was somewhere around four in the afternoon. The situation on the streets was becoming chaotic. Shops and businesses were closing, people were panicking, trying to get home. They and every other cop and emergency services worker had been picking up eaters non-stop since the morning, but they couldn’t keep up as more and more appeared. But this was the first time they’d seen any of them feeding.
For the first time, Alex considered the frightening possibility that this wasn’t going to end.
Somewhere nearby, someone screamed. They both looked in that direction, but there was nothing to see.
Alex looked at Cutter and saw his strained expression.
“I... my girls...”
“Go,” Alex said. “I’ll deal with this and get back to the station.”
“I wouldn’t even think of leaving my duty, but...” He looked at the man on the ground, wounds bleeding, flesh torn. “If anything happened to them...”
“I understand,” Alex said. “Do what you have to do.”
“You won’t have a car...”
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