Authors: Michelle Bryan
"Sorry to call you all back on active duty, but we have an issue. As some of you may or may not know, Lois and Roy received a distress call earlier today from St. Joseph's."
Murmuring interrupts Cooper as some of us express our concern. Distress calls—never a good sign of anything. Cooper holds up his hands to silence us. He waits until the ruckus stops.
"Lois, can you tell us all what you heard?"
The pale woman stands up and her eyes dart nervously about the room. He hands flutter fretfully, like she's not sure what to do with them. She finally pushes them into the pockets of her denims and hunches her shoulders, before speaking.
"Yes, well like Cooper said, earlier this morning we received a call from someone claiming to be from the St. Joseph's group. He was...well he wasn't making much sense. He was screaming for help. Screaming that they were being attacked. I asked who he was. I've never spoken to him before. I mean I always deal with Karen or Dwayne..." She trails off and Cooper encourages her on with a wave of his hand. She takes a deep breath. "He was in shock I think...maybe...just yelling for help over and over. Then I heard some sort of crash and then screaming, and..." She trails off again and closes her eyes, like she was still hearing it in her head. Giving her head a little shake, she continues, "After the screaming stopped there was nothing. Just silence. I haven't been able to raise anyone since. No response from St. Joseph's at all."
Cooper nods at her and she sits back down, the relief evident on her face. She was starting to look a little green around the gills.
"Are you positive the call was from St. Joseph's?" Cookie's clipped accent fills the room. "It is not the first time they have tried to trick us, no?"
Typical Cookie and her 'trust no one' attitude.
"We’re positive this is no trick," Cooper responds. "But to be on the safe side, we asked Kelly's group to go check it out. They were only a couple of hours away from St. Joseph's. We relayed to them our need to know what's happened. We asked them to investigate if the call was legit and to find out if St. Joseph’s was compromised in any way. And if they did find a threat would it affect the Grand at all. That message was sent out over six hours ago. Other than our initial response from them confirming the order, we haven’t heard back from Kelly or anyone else since."
Cooper stops talking and stares at us all as the words sink in. Radio silence. A big no-no for hunters. Our very survival depends on our radios at times. We're always supposed to be in contact with home base. No radio contact for over six hours-something is definitely wrong. That's why we’re here.
"When do we leave?" I ask, as Cooper struggles to his feet, leaning heavily on the silver tipped cane he kept by his side at all times now. It still hurts a little to see the strong, healthy man I once knew now reduced to hobbling his way around on a cane. But at least he’s still alive.
The injury had come from a run in with a leech three years ago on a hunting trip. He’d left camp for a brief minute, to take a leak of all damn things. In the dark and only half awake, the leech had taken him by surprise. He’d heard it lunge at him and swerved at the last minute before the leech could rip out his throat. Off balance though, he had fallen and the creature had attacked. Cooper had tried to roll out of the way but the things teeth had gotten a huge chunk of his calf. Seriously injured, he’d managed to hold off the snapping razors with his bare hands and call out for help. Sam had been the one to take out the leech. A blade straight through the heart.
That seemed to be the only thing that killed the bastards’ quick enough. Experimenting on cadavers had shown us that the alien parasite had two main arteries or growths, attaching to the host body's heart and brain. Shooting the host elsewhere, even cutting the throat, the creature still managed to live for a time after, even if its host died. But trauma to the heart always killed it immediately. We aren't sure why, since no one at the Grand is an expert in alien physiology, but it appeared that whatever life force these aliens possessed, it seemed to be centralized in the host heart. So we no longer wasted time elsewhere. We learned quickly, in any fight, go for the heart.
Though Sam had saved Cooper from becoming fodder, the injury had almost done him in. Infection had set in almost immediately, and the closest we had to a doctor at the Grand was a pediatric nurse. She was determined to save him. It had been touch and go with Cooper for days, but the one thing in his favor; he was a stubborn bastard. He hadn't given up. He pulled through, though he would never walk without the cane again, thanks to the leech. The thing had taken Cooper out of the field, but it hadn't taken him, and I was extremely grateful for that.
He limps around to the front of the desk and sits heavily on it, crossing his hands over the top of the cane.
"You will be leaving right away. You six will lead Kingsley and his men to St. Joseph's. No one knows the city like you hunters. Your job, to get them there quickly and in one piece. Once there, they will assess the situation and eliminate whatever threat you may find. Whatever it is, we
have it make its way back to the Grand, understood."
A chorus of "Yes Sir!" accompanies his words.
"Report back immediately. Whatever happened at St. Joseph's this morning ...well, we need to know where we stand." He sighs and tugs at the little chin beard that’s turned from brown to gray over the years since I've known him. "No radio contact with Kelly has me worried. It doesn't look good folks. Though I pray to God I'm wrong about the whole situation, and that the worst this means is a couple of busted radios."
I find myself hoping the same, but the knot in my belly says otherwise. Besides, God’s been pretty amiss with answering prayers lately.
"Get what you need, meet back here in twenty. Cookie already has your packs prepared. You move out soon as everyone is ready."
"No disrespect, Sir, but don't you think it would be a better idea to wait until morning?" This from Kingsley, and I can see some of my crew roll their eyes in disgust. Guards.
"We know this city like the back of our hand, Kingsley. Traveling at night gives us better cover from the ravagers, not to mention the fact that leeches seem to move slower at night. Sometimes a slower moving leech is the difference between life and death out there." I try not to make it sound condescending but I don't think I succeed. I can tell by the way Kingsley's eyes move over me in anger, but Cooper thankfully backs me up.
"Bixby is right. Plus, we don’t have a moment to lose on this...so move, all of you! Time is of the essence."
No one else questions the man as he stands once more, leaning on the cane. I wait until the others leave the room, ignoring Luke's questioning look at my dallying and Dom's usual sneer as he passes by. I even ignore Cookie's 'you are so in trouble' glare. Shit! Did she find out about the MRE packs I’d given to the kids? No time to worry about that now. I need to talk to Cooper alone.
He sighs heavily as he finally looks over at me.
"Did you just not hear me, Bix? Why are you still standing here," he says as soon as the door closes on the last back. I dive straight into what’s bothering me.
"Why are you sending the guards along on this gig? We can move much quicker without dragging those area newbs along, you know that."
"I do know that. I also know that Kingsley's men are the best sharp shooters we have, and Kingsley himself has a unique set of skills needed for this job. This will be no ordinary hunting mission. It may be a search and destroy. Hunters alone cannot handle that. So suck up any issues you have with the Guards. You're gonna have to learn to play along with the boys for the next few days."
"S&D's are our specialty. Come on, Coop, we don't need those guys along. We can do this on our own."
"For Christ's sake, Bixby, can you ever
question an order?" He glares down his nose at me and I'm shocked to see a spark of fear in his eyes. At first I think he's going to say more, but then shutters drop down over the spark and he becomes "Captain" John Cooper again. "We don't have time to lose. Kingsley will fill you in more on the way. Now move out. That's an order."
I do as he says, but not without reservation. Just as I'm about to open the door, he calls to me softly. "Bixby?" I look back over my shoulder. "Stay safe, kid."
The fear is back in his eyes and it ties my stomach in knots. Anything that can scare John Cooper is truly something to be afraid of. Even more than Cookie.
night's blanket of blackness is broken only in spots by the moons feeble attempt to fight its way through the thick cloud cover. Not a good night to be on the road. I know I told Kingsley that hunters prefer to travel at night but moonlight is still our most valuable asset. Although we move quickly in shadow, no moonlight at all makes it that much harder to see the things lying in wait for us. And there are always plenty of those.
St. Joseph's is located on the other side of the city, a good two days walk. One and a half if we really push it-no rest periods. Though I knew Luke would never let us do that. He believes no sleep makes us sloppy. So over the years we had set up safe zones, hidden all over the deserted city. One of those is our destination at the moment. A halfway point of where we need to be.
We move stealthily in the dark, in and out of shadows like we’re part of the night. The six of us can probably do this with our eyes shut, but we slow it down some for Kingsley and his men. I try not to hold a grudge against their lagging behind. Just because this is our playing field, doesn't mean they should be as sure footed. I shouldn't blame them. They’re no hunters, but they protect the Grand and its occupants every day from invasion. They do their part, so I try to keep my patience.
We would be a hell of a lot quicker if driving was an option any more, but it’s not. The invasion had occurred during rush hour traffic. The mist had rapidly obscured the city, bringing to a standstill the already congested streets. People had unwittingly stumbled from their vehicles, curious as to the glittering clouds. Those who hadn't been infected right away had soon become the prey. Bodies had littered the streets, jugulars torn out and bloating in the summer heat. The stench had been overwhelming, the smell of death rampant in the air for at least two months or more. Like any dead thing though, the bodies had eventually decomposed or been eaten away by scavengers. The occasional dried out skeleton littering the streets the only evidence they had even existed. That and their piles of rusting metal.
We tried at one point to clear the streets to make it easier to transport our supplies back to the Grand, but it had been a futile effort.
Cleared streets simply scream cargo route to those waiting to ambush us, and the thrumming engine of a moving vehicle brings the leeches in droves. Which would be okay if we could move at a decent speed. But having to crawl our way through the streets, the fucking leeches move faster than we do. So we walk.
It’s a bit of an asset, really. Cutting through abandoned apartment buildings and shopping malls sometimes cut blocks off of our travels. And you never know when you might find a surprise nugget hidden in some undiscovered cache.
I should be exhausted and dragging my feet, but the spring in my step is unmistakable. Even though I’ve been awake for almost eighteen hours now and I knew it would be at least another ten before we stop, I don't feel the least bit tired. Being out in the field always does that to me. I feel invigorated. Renewed. Like this is the only time I truly feel alive. Living on the edge appeals to me. Some understand where I'm coming from-most don't. They can't understand why I enjoy being out here so much. And I really can't give them an answer. They chalk it up to craziness. I hear the whispers, people questioning my mental stability behind my back. It doesn't bother me; I question it all the time. Maybe I
crazy. But I believe to survive in this fucking world now you have to be at least a little crazy. Hell, a whole lot crazy helps you cope even better. I look over at Gordon, and he grins at me, giving me thumbs up. He’s enjoying this as much as me. I take comfort in the fact that the kid’s probably just as crazy as I am.
A slight thump and shuffle from the alley up ahead catches our attention. I bring up sharply as Luke raises a hand in the air. My heartbeat quickens as my eyes, accustomed to the dark now, search for the source of the noise. In normal times a thump in the night could be accounted to a stray dog or a raccoon foraging for its nightly meal...but these aren't normal times. The majority of animals that inhabit this city now are of the two legged variety.
Luke motions us back and we blend silently into the shadows of the building cornering the alley. If it is leeches, they'll stumble out eventually once they get a whiff of us. If it’s something else, then we'll have to be more careful. Noises from an alley that we have no choice but to go through, screams nothing but trouble.
Dropping my backpack into the building's shadow, I pull my Bowie knives. They feel comforting in my hands, like old friends. I hold the left one blade up, but the right knife I twirl easily with a practiced flick of the wrist so it's facing blade down. Whether it is crazies or leeches, I have a system for dealing efficiently with both. The knives are my weapon of choice. With their 12-inch broad blades and the clip point at the top, they offer me perfect control for thrusting attacks. A quiet and lethal weapon.
The boys prefer their guns. Ironically enough, in a world where food and medical supplies are running frighteningly short there are plenty of guns to be found. Luke's preference is his .44 AutoMag. He tries all the time to talk me into carrying one, but guns and I just don’t get along. Every time I hold one, my father’s mutilated head is all I can see and I can't shoot it. Talk about fucked up.
My keen ears pick up the stealthy movements coming from the alley and my body tingles in anticipation. There’s gonna be a fight! I smile into the darkness, flexing my fingers rhythmically on the titanium handles as I crouch into my attack position. Luke holds up three fingers to Kingsley, motioning with them to the hulking remains of a sideways transit bus in the overgrown street, partially blocking the alley. Kingsley gets the message. He and his guys sprint around the back of the bus so they can come out behind of whatever is about to emerge.
We don't have long to wait. The shuffling picks up and wet gurgling 'uck' sounds float through the air. Leeches all right. I never could figure out what that sound was. I'm not sure if it’s their form of communication or just the sound of the leech tearing from its host's throat. Whatever it is, it's a wet, thick sound and makes me want to gag every time I hear it.
Before the invasion, I had been a huge zombie fan. I couldn't get enough of those stupid undead movies, and comic books and shit. I lived and breathed it. Leeches kind of remind me of those zombies I used to adore. Torn flesh with strips of face meat hanging off. Exposed bone and teeth around the mouth from giving birth to the leech. No rotting or decomposing bodies since technically the hosts were still very much alive; just torn and irrevocably damaged flesh. Clothing hanging in tattered shreds, whether it had been the finest of silk or pauper’s cloth.
But that's where the similarities end. Whereas in the movies the zombies move with all the speed of a sloth, these leeches are fast. Very fucking fast. As soon as they get a scent they morph into Kentucky Derby race horses, and if you’re not prepared- then you’re fodder. Plain and simple. We think nighttime slows them down some. However, the horde emerging from the alley right at this exact moment doesn't appear to have gotten the memo. They have our scent all right, and they’re advancing like sailors on a whorehouse. I can hear Cal's softly muttered "Damn," from behind, and I can't help but throw over my shoulder, "Okay newb-let’s see you earn that nickname of Lucky."
There's no time for much else. The smell hits us then, and I can hear Cal gagging. Just because they aren't rotting corpses doesn't mean they don't stink to high heaven. The combined odors of old blood and decaying meat, unwashed bodies and excrement, hits us like a wall and I can feel my own stomach rolling violently. Thankfully my adrenaline overcomes the urge to puke.
"Come on, mothafucka’s!" I hear Dom scream as I rush by him, and the shot he fires whizzes by my ear with a high-pitched whine. I duck instinctively.
Stupid sonofabitch. He nearly blew my head off.
He hits the leech barreling our way straight in the heart—a perfect shot. It falls at my feet but another runs him over in a frenzy to get at me. In one swift motion my left knife swoops upwards, sinking into the torn flesh of the creatures chin. It impales the snapping worm almost down to the hilt, preventing it from moving at my throat. Without losing stride my right hand arcs down, driving that blade straight into the heart of the creature. The leech wiggles for a bit in distress before realizing its blood flow has diminished. It dies quickly. I yank my knives out, oblivious to the cacophony of shouts and shots, intent only on my next target.
The next to fall at my hands is a young blonde girl. Probably no older than me. I can't help but feel that familiar stab of guilt as I pierce her through the heart. The same thought enters my head like always. These things had been human once. Are they still human? They aren't undead or mutated creatures, they’re simply taken over by a vile parasite. Is the human still inside, trapped in a nightmarish world? Since they can't very well talk, I guess we’ll never know. It does nothing to ease my guilt.
I swerve at movement in my peripheral and instinctively raise my arm in defense. The sharp blades of the leeches yawning mouth clamps down on the metal form fitting arm guards I always wear in the field. The attack causes me to stumble back, and I trip over the blonde chick I’d just taken out. The damn creature is still attached to my arm though, and I pull it with me as I go down.
"Get off me, you fucker!" I scream as it falls on top of me. Pulling the knife up quickly between us, I let gravity take over as the knife pierces its chest, and I hope to God it hits the heart. The thing squirms on top of me, and the smell of it this close makes me puke some in my mouth. The leech’s grip on my arm relaxes as I watch the human face above me go slack. Its life force drains away. A mixture of black blood and bile, I'm not quite sure what, drips through the festering open wound that was once the dead things cheek and plops dangerously close to my mouth.
"Ugh," I yell in disgust as I pull a knee up between us and push the thing off of me with the bottom of my boot, dislodging my knife. Rolling from underneath it, I bounce back instantly to my feet. No time for my disgust right now. A wasted second can be the difference between life and death.
"Bix?" Luke cries out, and I answer back with, “Behind you!"
For such a big man, he dives effortlessly away from the two creatures about to have him as a Scooby snack. Both leech heads swivel in unison, following his descent. Before they can make a move on him though, shots from behind take them both down. Kingsley doesn't wait for any accolades. He and his men disappear into the alley, and I hear more shots as they find the latecomers to the party.
I spin around quickly, blades ready for their next target, but nothing else seems to be standing other than us. Lowering my knives, I let my shoulders relax and even out my breathing. My eyes automatically search for Luke, checking if he’s okay. He leaps nimbly to his feet, sending a quick nod at my unspoken question. Mollified, I search for the rest of my crew. Badger and Cal are busy retrieving our backpacks from where we’d dropped them, but Gordon is running my way and grinning like an idiot. His classic double take when he sees me, hits me right in the funny bone.
"Err, you’ve got a little something gross on your face there, Bix." He points weakly at his own cheek.
I laugh and wipe absentmindedly at my face with my sleeve.
"How many did you take down?" I question, knowing full well that’s the cause of his excitement.
"Six," he answers cockily, looking down at the ground. "And you had what? Three? Really, Bix? That's pitiful."
Cal and Badger join us. The new guy looks slightly shell-shocked and I kind of feel sorry for him. Besides his training, this is probably his first real encounter with a horde. Not something he will easily forget.
"You did good," I say, as I slap him on the shoulder and relieve him of my pack. My next comment is aimed at Gordon.
"You too, kid. But the night’s only young, so don't be cocky. Come on, let’s catch up with Kingsley. Can't let him have all the fun now, can we?"
Cal appears a little taken aback at our nonchalant attitude, but I don’t take offense. He’ll come to the realization soon enough. If you think about it too much, it’ll eat you alive. That’s if
don’t eat you first. So you don’t think about it- you just do it. We leave him staring after us, mouth agape as my fellow ginger and I hurry off, giggling like two giddy school girls.
If I had any reservations left about Kingsley and his men joining us in the field, they're now laid to rest. We find them casually sitting on a crumbled stone wall, looking like they’ve nothing better to do than smoke Jonesy's crap ass cigs. Eight or more leech carcasses are piled up in the street.
"About time you showed up," Kingsley says, flicking the lit ember away and jumping down off the wall.
"Well, don't look like you needed our help," Luke drawls slowly as we look over the carnage.
"No, didn't need your help, but do need your opinion on something. Take a look at those leeches ...what do you see?"
The moon has finally won its battle with the clouds. After walking in darkness all night, this glow is almost as bright as early morning.
"I see a bunch of dead fucks, is what I see," Dom says in his best bored voice and I turn on him with an irritated glare. He’d best not think I've forgotten his almost shooting me back there.