Greetings. Lately, weâ€™ve been hearing a lot about the effects of climate change. There is some good news, though. The Xerces Society announced that 247,237 monarch butterflies were spotted across 283 overwintering sites. Thatâ€™s a 125-fold increase over last year.
To put that in perspective, the western butterfly population was estimated to be in the low millions forty years ago. Still, this is good news. You can find the story here.
Last time, I mentioned that Iâ€™m juggling several projects. One of them is an update of my zombie trilogy. The tenth anniversary of Book 1, Tell Me When Iâ€™m Dead, is coming up in July 2023. That might seem pretty far out, but Iâ€™ve got a lot to do. After revising all three books, I need to hire an editor and commission new book covers. Also, I plan to create hardcover editions.
Hereâ€™s a rewritten chapter from Book 1. With any luck, the writing is punchier. Let me know what you think.
BETTER WAIT OUTSIDE
Whatâ€™s worse than draggers and the trail of death they leave behind? The answerâ€”the low state the nailheads had gotten to as the outbreak wore on. I used to think there were good people and bad people. But what this shitshow taught me was the eternal truth of good people going bad.
Not that Ormand Ferry was ever good. He was one of those types who pretended to be your friend while screwing your wife. Over the years, heâ€™d built up a loyal following of the disillusioned, the disenfranchised, and the just plain stupid. People like Steve Pinkerton. He fed them, comforted them, and gave them guns. Then, after warming their bellies with hot soup, he preached to them. And boy, were they ready to listen.
In the world according to Ormand, the â€œafflictionâ€ had been sent down from on high. God was using His winnowing fork to separate the chaff from the wheat. The strong and the pure would surviveâ€”no one else. And he, Ormand Ferry, was the anointed one leading the chosen to safety. Harsh words from a certified nutcase whoâ€™d dropped out of college to sell timeshares to old people who couldnâ€™t afford them. But I digress.
We traveled at night, counting on the darkness to keep us safe. As we neared our destination, we ditched the Humvee and hiked in. I took in the details of our surroundings and listened to every faraway sound. The night and its secrets weighed on us, stifling our spirits. Taking our weapons and ammo, we headed out. After only a few blocks, I was drenched in sweat from the humid late-summer air. Even at night, it was sweltering.
As we pressed on, we encountered draggers in various states of decomposition. The fresher onesâ€”if a dead, stinking body could ever be freshâ€”traveled in packs. The older ones, those near total collapse, wandered alone, no longer able to hunt.
Eventually, these pathetic wraiths lay by the side of the road, looking at the moon with unseeing eyes. Waiting for what? Death? I didnâ€™t know how these things died without the benefit of a bullet to the brainpan. They seemed to exist in an eternal twilight of existential longing.
â€œI think itâ€™s this way,â€ I said.
We entered a familiar alley and found Benâ€™s motor home. My heart sank. Someone had set fire to it. The vehicle sat there black and burned out from the inside, a rotting hulk that offered no hope of escape. Beyond the wreck stood the side entrance Holly and Griffin had used to escape.
I recalled that day. Seemed like a million years ago. I prayed weâ€™d find them alive. Why hadnâ€™t I insisted on bringing more men? It was stupid to think the three of us could keep ourselves safe, never mind Holly and Griffin, if they were sick or injured.
The security guards mounted flashlights on the rails of their AR-15s. Springer pushed the door open and poked his weapon through. Then, he gave us the signal and slipped inside, with Popp and me close behind.
It was inky black as they played their flashlight beams from one side of the trash-filled room to the other. I listened for any kind of movement. Who knew what was lurkingâ€”we had to be ready. The place looked empty. As we advanced, a hungry dragger glared at us with filmy eyes. A partially eaten hand hung from its mouth.
Springer didnâ€™t fire his weapon. The sound would attract others. Instead, he drew his knife and ran the blade through the draggerâ€™s head before it could strike. The creature fell with a groan, then ceased to move.
We found the emergency stairs and began our ascent. I wasnâ€™t sure how I ended up in front. Right away, I noticed the peeling metal railing, which was wet and sticky. I signaled to Popp, who shone his flashlight on my hands. They were stained with blood.
Farther up, I heard movement. Popp directed his beam upstairs. Nothing but shadows. On the second floor, I heard a shuffling noise, followed by soft mewling. Something scratched at the door. An injured animal? Immediately, I thought of Greta.
Turning towards the guards, I grabbed the door handle. Springer shook his head and pointed at Popp, who took the lead. Taking a breath, he flung the door open. Nothing but an empty floor with offices and a reception area. We decided to investigate.
As we turned the corner, Springer found light switches. When he flicked them on, we knew we werenâ€™t alone. Weâ€™d walked into a slavering dragger pack. The creature closest to me hissed. Surprised, I fell backwards into the guards. Regaining their footing, they shot the hostiles in front through the head. Others came at us, forcing us to retreat.
I took a position next to the wall and began firing at the pack. Creatures continued to push towards me, ignoring the bullets that riddled their torsos. An intense volley took them down, one after the next. The noise was deafening.
A lone dragger moved in on Springer. I didnâ€™t fire my handgun for fear of hitting the guard.
â€œPush him away,â€ I said.
As Springer shoved him back, I fired at the creatureâ€™s head. Nothingâ€”I was out of ammo. A burst of bullets went through its ear, and it went down. When I turned to see, Popp was lowering his weapon. I gave him a thumbs-up and popped in another mag.
Two more draggers appeared. As I raised my gun to fire, a decaying hand grabbed me. I let myself go limp. In the weak light, I saw the bewildered dragger coming for me again. I shot it through the mouth. The bullet shredded its slithering tongue into black confetti.
In a few minutes, weâ€™d finished them all off. Exhausted, we sat on the floor in a circle and looked at one another.
â€œWhole damn buildingâ€™s infested,â€ Springer said.
I got to my feet. â€œI have to find Holly and Griffin.â€
Popp looked at his friend and stood. â€œBreakâ€™s over.â€
â€œThanks, guys,â€ I said.
Using the emergency stairs, we checked the other floors. No more draggers. It took us over an hour to clear the building. Eventually, we arrived at the top floor. Halfway up the stairs, we found the body that the disembodied hand belonged toâ€”a guard around the same age as Springer and Popp. Heâ€™d been shot through the head.
Springer opened the stairwell door and peered into the hallway. As Popp and I entered, the drone of a single voice drifted towards us. Thinking it might be Holly or Griffin, I moved towards the sound. Springer grabbed my arm and signaled for me to get behind Popp and him.
We entered the office suite through walnut doors. Inside, we found rows of fabric-covered cubicles on either side of us. And towards the windows, a conference room. The door was closed.
I expected a dragger to leap out at us, but the cubes were empty. Each was filled with personal itemsâ€”family photos, stuffed animals, and childrenâ€™s drawings taped to small whiteboards.
The strangerâ€™s voice grew louder as we approached the conference room. My guts twisted up as I imagined finding Holly and Griffin hurt and dying. Springer grabbed the door handle, side-eyed Popp and me, and flung the door open.
Inside, a lone security guard lay in a corner by the windows, muttering and rocking. At first, he didnâ€™t see us. When Springer shone his flashlight on him, the guard slowly pointed his handgun at us. He was weak and could barely keep it steady.
â€œEasy,â€ Springer said as Popp and I closed the curtains and turned on the lights.
The guard was young. He was alone and scared. I guessed the body we found in the stairwell was a buddy of his.
â€œIâ€™m Springer. Whatâ€™s your name?â€
The guard tried speaking, but he was delirious. Nothing but moaning came out. His speech sounded suspiciousâ€”like he might be turning. I chalked it up to fear.
â€œItâ€™s okay,â€ I said. â€œWeâ€™re here to help.â€
Popp moved in slowly. â€œPut down the weapon, son.â€
Confused, the guard turned to us and lowered the handgun. As we moved closer, I was revolted by what I saw. His right leg looked like it had been chewed off up to the knee. Someone had made the kid a tourniquet from the AR-15 strap. A trail of blood led from the door to where he lay.
Popp pointed his weapon, but I grabbed his hand to stop him. Crouching down close to the guard, I looked him in the eyes. He was fading fast, and I had to hurry. The name on his uniform read _Barnes_.
â€œBarnes, listen to me,â€ I said. â€œThere were two women in here earlier. One of them is a teenage girl. They had a dog.â€
He stared at me, uncomprehending, yet mesmerized by the sound of my voice. I side-eyed Springer and Popp. They were getting impatient.
â€œDid you see them?â€ The kid shook his head. â€œAre you positive?â€
â€œRan away. Wh-When the draggers came.â€
â€œWhere? Where did they go?â€
â€œC-covered them as best we could,â€ he said. â€œToo many. They get away?â€
He was near death now. It wouldnâ€™t be long before he turned. Somehow, I felt for this kid. Who even knew where he was from, whether his family was alive? I wanted to help him, but it was no use. He was handed a death sentence the second those creatures bit him.
I looked at Springer, filled with sadness at not finding Holly and Griffin. And also for what I knew was about to happen to this guard.
â€œBetter wait outside,â€ Springer said.
Books to Enjoy
Hereâ€™s a crime thriller about a dead former captain, a cop who refuses to deal with her past, and a gruesome murder. Check out Bloody Death by Audrey Walker.
Do you like psychological thrillers with lots of family secrets? Grab Shades of Truth by Lisa Alfano.
If youâ€™re a Netflix subscriber and enjoy the just plain weird, check out â€˜Archive 81.â€™ Itâ€™s a story about some dangerous occult shenanigans at a creepy hotel.
Logline. An archivist takes a job restoring damaged videotapes and gets pulled into the vortex of a mystery involving the missing director and a demonic cult.
Okay, thatâ€™s a wrap. See you next month when I travel to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and get run over by a floatâ€”ouch. Peace and love.