The sting of loss had left none of us untouched and the mallet of guilt continued to hammer down without mercy.
I had smashed my infected wife'’s head in with my foot. We had watched Jim shoot Mason to stop him being taken over by the infection, Dodge was dead, killed by a stray bullet. We turned ourselves into mass murderers by proxy just by locking a door, and a doctor had chosen suicide as a better option than being in our company.
Nobody in our group was innocent. The high cost of survival had been paid in full, plus interest.
We travelled as far as we could in the minibus, which wasn'’t very far at all. The further we got to the outskirts of London, the more blocked the roads were. Vehicles of all shapes and size were abandoned. Most of the doors that had been left wide open creaked against the breeze that slithered through the streets, carrying with it the putrid stench of decay and ruination.
With no real chance of driving anywhere, we started to walk. Dexy carried the body of his dead brother and while I wished that I could say something to ease his pain, I knew that saying anything at all would only antagonise him.
After a lot of walking and no talking, we searched a few houses in a well-to-do area before finally coming across a huge housethe mansion. It had a long driveway and its beautiful (and expensively) landscaped gardens were surrounded by a solid wall of conifer bushes that rose well above eight feet. It looked like the perfect hiding place, somewhere to lick our wounds and regroup.
We stood at the oversized wrought iron double gates looking like characters from a Charles Dickens novel waiting for the lord of the manor to come and give us some crumbs from his table. Jim pushed one of the gates and it swung inwards.
“Looks promising,” Kate said.
“Now that’s a fucking house,” Jim said before whistling his appreciation.
There was a bolt on the inside of the gates which I slid into place once we were all inside the grounds. The gravel driveway popped and crunched underfoot like breakfast cereal as we slowly made our way to the housevel driveway crunched under each footfall, each crunch made me glance around nervously, half expecting a pack of infected to come racing at us.
My stomach did back flips as we got closer to the door and I kept imagining a horde of monsters inside, getting ready to pounce as soon as we stepped inside. Jim stopped just short of the door and turned to face us.
“Right then, first thing we need to do is check every room,” he said. “Kate and William, you two check upstairs. Me and Gemma are ground floor.”
Dexy laid his dead brother down on the ground and sat beside him. Barney sniffed Dodge’s face, looked up at Dexy and then ran across to stand behind Gemma.
“We’ll wait here,” Dexy placed his hand on Dodge’s chest.
Jim nodded his head and then turned the door-knob. The door was unlocked and opened quietly. I don’t know why, but I always expect big doors like that to creak and groan their way open, as though all big houses live in old black and white ghost movies and creaking doors come as standard with optional shadowy figure in an upstairs window. Thankfully, this was just a house.
The large entrance hall had a well-polished hardwood floor and white walls. A wide staircase curved its way up the left side and on the right side were two doors with another door at the end of the hall. I spotted a light switch set into the wall and instinctively clicked it.
“Nothing,” I said with more than a hint of disappointment.
“Guess we’ll be sneaking around in the dark, then,” Kate tapped me on the elbow and smiled.
“I’m worried about him,” Jim placed the bag on the floor and shot a glance at the front door.
“He’ll be okay,” Gemma said. “I’ll talk with him; see if there’s anything I can do to help.”
Just like her Mother, always willing to help.
“Good. I don’t want to sleep with one eye open wondering if he’s going to murder those two in their sleep.” He pointed at Kate and myself.
Kate ignored him and headed up the stairs. “Are you ready?” She asked, looking back at me.
“Yes,” I touched Gemma on the shoulder. “Be careful,” I whispered before following Kate upstairs.
“Try not to shoot if you can help it,” Jim said. “We don’t know how many are in the area.”
“Try not to be a dick if you can help it,” Kate said. “Hard as that might be.”
“What was that?”
“I said ‘okay,’ Jim.”
When we reached the top of the stairs I heard Jim grumble something about women and then walk down the hall with Gemma.
“He’s not so bad,” I just managed to avoid wandering straight into a tall table with a huge pottery vase full of dead flowers sitting on top.
“Careful,” Kate walked past me and opened the first of two doors on the left. On the right side were a further three doors, all of them were closed. At the end of the wide upstairs hall was a window so big that it had its own doors, which doubled as blinds when closed.
“So you’re trying to say there’s a soft caramel centre hidden inside Jim’s granite shell?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say caramel,” I craned my neck around to see over Kate’s shoulder as she poked around the door. “More of a sour gummy centre.”
Kate giggled and closed the door. “This one’s clear.”
We walked to the other side of the hall, our footfalls muffled by the long, plush rug that covered the hardwood floor. Kate pointed at a dark stain that smeared across the white, six panelled door.
“Blood?” My breath was swept away by the sudden fear that something was about to jump on us and my voice trembled like a cats whiskers.
“Deep breaths, William,” Kate wrapped her fingers around the brass door knob. I took her advice and filled my lungs, exhaling slowly. It helped.
“Okay, sorry,” I felt humiliated. Kate had seen right through me, she knew how scared I was. I could imagine her thinking what a liability I was, totally useless in this fucked up situation that demanded quick thinking, major risk taking and fighting skill, all of the things that I was terrible at. After everything I had been through, I should have been able to deal with a dark hallway and a bloodstained door.
“Don’t apologise,” she placed her free hand on my shoulder and leaned in until her face was next to my ear. “I’m scared too,” her warm breath cascaded across my neck, harvesting the betrayal of gooseflesh and a shiver down my spine in its wake. Kate then pulled away from me and slowly pushed the door open.
It didn’t creak.
After checking behind the door, she stepped inside the room and I followed, staying close to her. My eyes had finally become accustomed to the gloom and I could see relatively well. Discarded clothes and books were scattered across the bedroom floor and the bed was in a state of disarray.
“Looks like someone left in a hurry,” Kate noted.
“I think it’s just a teenager’s room,” it looked no different to Gemma’s room at home.
“Or it’s just a teenagers room,” Kate agreed with a smile. “Monster free.”
I scratched the thick stubble on my chin, I needed to shave. Holly hated beards.
“Monster free,” I agreed.
“Do you like music?” Kate was already back in the hall before I could answer.
“Music?” I rushed out and followed her to the next room along. “Why?”
“Because I want to have a normal conversation,” the darkness masked whether she was just looking at me or glaring. “We used to be normal people with normal problems, right? We talked about the weather, how shitty the traffic was and what we had for dinner, but now it’s all death and escape plans and what might be around the next corner. Aren’t you sick of that?”
I was. “Yes.”
“So let’s be normal for a few minutes,” she said. “It might help.”
It had to be worth a try. “Okay,
“Thank-you. Music, then,” she said, imitating the motion of playing drums with her hands. “You know, dance, rock, pop. What do… did you listen to?”
“Oh all kinds of stuff, I have an eclectic taste.”
“Oh,” Kate repeated the action of the previous room, push the door open, check behind it and then step inside. “You’re one of those.”
“One of what?” The room was much neater than the last. So neat that it didn’t look like anyone ever used it.
“Can’t make your mind up so you give it a fancy word,” she sat down on the perfectly made bed. “I like dance music. Techno, hardcore, anything with a fast beat makes me feel good.”
“I don’t really listen to that stuff. It just sounds like noise to me.”
“That’s what all the old men say. I bet you’re agnostic as well, aren’t you?” She said with a wicked grin. “You neither believe nor disbelieve,” she added in a mocking tone.
“So what if I am?” I asked. “I like to keep my options open.”
“I knew it,” she cried out, clapping her hands together and laughing.
A soft thud came from the next room, like the sound of a snooker ball being dropped onto the green baize. Kate looked at me through wide eyes and jumped up from the bed.
“That came from there, right?” She pointed in the direction of the noise. “Looks like we used up our rations of normal.”
I nodded and bit my lower lip. Kate exited the room with long strides and headed back down the hall, away from the noise.
“Kate?” I whispered, worried that she might have decided that enough was enough and she was done with us. I poked my head through the doorway and saw her walking back holding the tall table that the vase of dead flowers had been sitting on.
“No gunshots,” she barged her way past me and put the table on its side. “So let’s improvise,” she smashed her foot down onto the table, the wood cracked and splintered easily, although I wasn’t sure that the noise was such a good idea.
Another dull thunk sounded off against the wall. Whatever waited in there for us was getting agitated. Kate reached down and pulled the table legs loose, they were about the length of a walking stick with a nice, solid thickness and a finely carved ball on the end that had acted as feet. She kept one for herself and handed one to me. The weight felt good in my hands when I gave the leg an uppercut swing into the darkness.
We moved to the next door, the last one on that side of the hallway and stood side by side.
“You open the door and I’ll go in first,” she whispered. “I’ll go left and then you follow me in, staying right.”
“Okay,” my throat was so dry that I could barely choke the word out.
“Don’t let me down, William.”
I put my hand around the door knob while Kate held up her hand and used her fingers to silently count to three.
I took a deep breath.
I turned the door knob as far as it would go.
I pushed the door so hard that it slammed against the wall, causing us both to jump.
Kate ran in with the table leg raised high above her head, ready to smash it into the head of any infected that she found in there.
“Oh no,” she dropped the table leg to her side and then let it rattle and clunk onto the floor. “God, no.”
I went in and tried to blink the darkness from my eyes, “what?” I looked around and tried to make sense of what I saw.
I recoiled at the stench inside the room; it was like steak left to fester in the back of the fridge for two weeks longer than its sell-by-date. The white curtains were open but the moon sat behind thick clouds and so afforded no extra illumination.
Dark blood spatters covered the walls, forming warped patterns of crazy against the light décor. On the floor by the foot of the double bed was the body of a man, his trousers and boxers were down around his ankles and his head had been hacked almost clean off, held on by defiant strands of nerve and muscle tissue. I bent down to snatch the meat cleaver that lay beside the partially severed head and noticed that he had a pair of panties clutched tightly in his hand. His other arm had been chopped off from just above the elbow but the separated appendage was nowhere to be seen. In the corner behind the dead body was a tall, wooden crib that had been covered over with a thick blanket that reminded me of how my grandparents covered their budgerigar cage at night.
On the bed there was a young girl who looked to be around Gemma’s age, maybe a little younger, it was difficult to tell in the dark. She was laying face down in a thick pool of blood and shreds of a dress had been scattered around her naked body. Her legs were spread wide and dangled awkwardly over the foot of the bed, ankle-socked feet touching the floor with tippy-toes.
Clouds shifted in the sky and moonlight filtered into the room. An electrical cord had been tied to the window handle and hung taut between the bed and window. I rested my table leg against the wall and instinctively tightened my grip around the meat cleaver handle.
As I moved closer to the bed, I saw a woman.
Her head and body slumped forward, long dark hair covered her features and the other end of the electrical cable was looped tight around her neck, the attached plug dangled across her chest.
“Is she…” I asked, knowing the answer before it came.
Kate nodded. “Dead. They’re all dead.”
“Did he…?” I used the meat cleaver to point at the dead man.
“Get what he deserved?” Kate said quietly. “Looks like it.”
The most probable scenario of what had happened in that room flickered through my mind and an overwhelming nausea engulfed me. My stomach tightened, my throat constricted and my whole body shuddered as I doubled over, gagging and retching. My body was aching to throw up, but my stomach was empty and only managed to fill my mouth with the acrid taste of rising bile while I dry heaved.
“Sorry,” I wiped my mouth and stood upright. “You must be used to seeing things like this.” I assumed that all Police officers had seen rape and murder scenes so often that they became just another part of the job, no big deal.
“I could never get used to this, William,” she told me, strands of moonlight glancing across the tears in her eyes.
I had assumed wrong.
The dead girl was still staring at me.
“I’ll cover her up,” I shoved the meat cleaver into Kate’s hand and moved forward to hoist the dead girl fully onto the bed, pulling the soft cotton-covered duvet over her bruised body. I wasn’t sure if I had done that for her, or for myself.
“So what made the noise?” Kate whispered. The ant colony went wild at the question, burrowing and scurrying in my mind. I had found the scene so distressing that I’d forgotten we were investigating a noise. “It wasn’t one of these three, so what was it?”
A slurping noise followed by a tiny growl came from the crib. I closed my eyes tight and sighed, whatever was in that crib, I didn’t want to see it.
“Take the blanket off,” Kate stepped over the dead man and readied the meat cleaver.
“I don’t want to,” I shook my head and kept my eyes closed.
“We have to,” she told me.
I knew that she was right. The house would never be safe if we ignored whatever was lurking under that blanket. “Just give me a minute.”
“This house is amazing; they have a bar with single fucking malt, twenty-five years old!” Jim’s voice and footsteps boomed down the hall. “Everything okay up here?”
A more excited, growling gurgle came from the crib.
“Dad?” I turned at the sound of Gemma’s voice.
“Wait there,” I wanted to protect her from having to see what Kate and I were looking at.
“What’s going on?” Jim’s massive form filled the doorway. Gemma stood behind him, using her mobile phone to light their way. They both stepped into the room and Gemma shone the light from her phone onto the half naked dead man, then the girl I had wrapped in a duvet before finally settling it onto the blanketed crib.
“What’s in there?” She asked, unperturbed by the dead bodies. Had she hardened to death so quickly that the sight of it didn’t affect her anymore?
I looked at the duvet and felt strangely thankful.
At least she won’t see what happened to you.
“We’re just about to find out,” Kate still had the meat cleaver ready to strike at whatever we were about to uncover.
I reached out and clenched the blanket in my fist. More slurps and smacks came from within. “On three?”
“Just take it the fuck off,” Jim said.
I pulled the blanket back and dropped it down onto the dead man. Kate brought the meat cleaver down but stopped when the blade was just inches away from the head of the infected baby inside the crib.
The baby was sitting upright, white infected eyes staring at me. I stepped back and almost stumbled on the dead body at my feet. The baby wore a panda bear onesie with the hood up, cute ears and fluffy material belying the tiny monster within. The sheets and baby were splattered with dark, congealed blood. It held its arms above its head, as if requesting to be comforted. Laying next to the baby was the missing half of the dead man’s arm.
“Fucking hell,” the infected baby turned towards Jim’s voice and hissed. It then picked up the half-arm and hugged it before gums gnawed and lips smacked on the bloodied end.
“I can’t do it,” Kate moved towards the door.
“Just leave it here,” Gemma voice cracked as she spoke. “It’s only a baby.”
At least she hasn’t hardened beyond humanity.
Jim reached out and took the meat cleaver from Kate. “Everybody out.”
Nobody argued. Gemma and Kate stood with me in the hallway for what felt like three eternities and a day before the wet slice and dying gurgle filtered through the closed door.