“It took us way longer to get to the street than I thought,” Jasper said, “So we’ll have to go faster, but that doesn’t mean we move dangerously. Keep both eyes open, alert. If we see a zombie, we’ll need to try to avoid it. I don’t know if we’re in a state to fight like this.” Donovan looked down at Cynthia, then at Marion. He wasn’t convinced they could fight either.
They walked silently for a while, wriggling through a maze of tightly packed bumpers and Donovan’s thoughts turned to Jasper--he seemed so calm and in control. While that was certainly the man’s style, Donovan wondered why his partner seemed so at ease under the outlandish circumstances. A nagging thought pulled at the back of his mind telling him that Jasper had even more secrets than he let on.
The sun was setting as they came closer to the beckoning tower, throwing dangerous shadows into the streets and harbouring a fast approaching darkness that would certainly doom them if they were caught in the open. Lost in contemplation, Donovan was suddenly returned to reality by the sound of Cynthia screaming. The girl suddenly fell to the ground and Donovan turned to see what had happened. He noticed that she had tripped over a zombie with a bullet hole blown through its skull.
“Who do you think did this?” Donovan asked, helping Cynthia up and trying to sooth her sobs.
“Look,” Jasper said, drawing their attention to the ground all around them. It was littered with dead zombies--some of them missing limbs, some with exposed organs and all of them with gunshot wounds in their heads.
“Ugh--” Marion put her hand to her nose. “Can we keep going?”
Donovan agreed with a nod and they continued towards the tower. Bodies carpeted the approach but Donovan tried not to think about it. With the arm he wasn’t using to support Marion he held Cynthia close to his side. Despite an unsettling sense of impending doom in the pit of his stomach, he pushed forward.
The apartment building thrust itself unceremoniously into the skyline from a lack lustre strip mall containing a hardware store, a small grocery store, a liquor store, a drug store and some suspect fast food joints.
“If there are people here, they definitely chose a pretty well-equipped home for the apocalypse,” Donovan said, making a mental note to grab what they could before they moved on from this place and out of the city. Most of the windows on the first floor of the tower were smashed, but someone was clearly trying to board them up with scrap pieces of wood. So far, only half of the gaping window frames were actually covered and the four survivors easily climbed through one of the windows into the lobby.
The floors and walls were made of finely polished stone that would have been gleaming had the fluorescent overhead lights been working. Green plastic plants provided some decoration, along with heartless prints of paintings Donovan had never seen before. The elevator on the far wall beckoned them and they moved toward it. Jasper pressed the up button with the barrel of his gun but nothing happened.
“The power’s out, dummy,” Marion said, rolling her eyes.
Jasper approached the door to the stairs and yanked it open but the stairwell had been filled with hundreds of metal shopping carts. They shifted and Jasper jumped out of the way as some broke free through the opened door. Cynthia squealed at the thundering roar of falling metal things and latched on to the back of Donovan’s legs so hard he nearly fell over.
“Well,” Donovan said, slightly at a loss, “what now?”
Jasper sighed, clearly frustrated. “I guess we can camp out here for the night, in the lobby. I’ll head over to the drug store to see what I can find to take care of Marion’s leg.”
Donovan wasn’t listening to Jasper anymore though. He was staring up at the wall above the elevator. The floor indicator light had turned on. Bright red numbers like those on an alarm clock counted down the floors.
Twelve, eleven, ten...
“Um...Jasper?” Donovan said, clearly nervous. “What if Marion is right? What if the people here don’t want to help us? What if they’re on their way down to steal our stuff, or worse, kill us?”
Seven, six, five...
“Just get behind me.” Jasper said, aiming his rifle directly at the elevator doors.
Three, two, one...
The elevator dinged to announce its arrival and the doors shuddered their way open. Two hulking men formed a wall across the elevator entrance with clear plastic shields normally reserved for police mob control. Behind them stood a tall woman dressed in some sort of dark military uniform or police riot gear. Before the doors had finished opening, she pointed an assault rifle over the shoulders of her companions, aiming at the friends as they huddle behind Jasper--who was suddenly not quite as much cover as Donovan would have liked.
“PUT DOWN YOUR WEAPONS!” she yelled in a commanding voice.
Jasper held his gun steady as he examined the woman.
“NOW!” she said, angry and impatient. Jasper turned to look back at Donovan and the others. Cynthia cried silently into Donovan’s knees while Marion--her face pale with blood loss--was clearly transfixed by the gun pointed in their direction.
“We need medical attention for our friend,” Jasper said as he lowered his rifle a few degrees.
“Was she bitten?” the woman asked.
Jasper shook his head. “No. It was just an accident.” He cocked his head toward Marion’s leg to indicate the piece of wood that still protruded from her wound, packed tight with makeshift bandages.
The woman glanced towards Marion’s leg. Then she took in Donovan and the little girl who cowered behind him. Her face was like stone, emotionless and impossible to read. “What about the rest of you?” she asked, her voice a little lower now. “Any bites?”
“No,” Jasper lied and Donovan fought the urge to look afraid.
The woman appraised his facial expression. There was a long silence during which Donovan could feel electricity in the air.
“Well? Can we come up?” he asked. “Can you help her?”
The woman lowered her weapon and the men in front of her pulled aside their shields. It was all such a fluid movement it looked as though it had been beautifully choreographed.
“Get in,” she said and ushered the four of them into the elevator. The ride to the top was long and silent. Jasper stood protectively between his friends and the strangers the whole time.
“My name is Jasper,” he said to the woman and she ignored him. Her posture was perfect and she stared at the closed doors while they ascended. “This is Donovan, Marion and Cynthia.” Still, there was no response from the woman or her two burly companions.
“How many others are here? Have you been here this whole time? Since the attack began?” Jasper asked as he watched the numbers above the door rise. “Where did you come from?”
Finally they reached the twelfth floor and the woman exited as the door opened. The men with shields quickly turned around to trap the others in the elevator.
“Hey!” Jasper called out as the woman made her way down a long hall lined with doors. Some of them were opened slightly and Donovan could see people staring at them through the cracks.
Jasper suddenly turned and hugged Donovan, kissing him on the forehead. They stared into each other’s eyes and Jasper said, “What ever happens, I’m sorry.”
A moment or two later the woman came back down the hall and the two men instantly stepped aside.
“Charles will see you now,” she said in a flat tone. “Your weapons, please.”
The two guards relieved them of the rifle and crowbar. Donovan was surprised to see that Jasper didn’t protest. In fact he looked as if all his natural confidence had been stripped from him, like he had become a deflated version of himself.
The woman led them down the hallway with the two big men following closely behind.
“Who’s Charles?” Donovan asked but received no response. He could see Jasper’s expression twisting with nerves as the name bounced around, even Marion seemed to grow more tense at the sound of it. They made their way to the last door on the left and the woman pushed it open, leading them into a large penthouse which was dimly lit by candles.
“Wait here.” She said as she disappeared into the apartment.
Donovan, Jasper, Marion and Cynthia stood silently for a moment at the front door before the woman reappeared, this time following closely behind an older, white-haired gentleman, his face cracked with time.
“Ah, so these are our guests,” he said, smiling like the apocalypse was some distant memory. He motioned for them to come into his home and take a seat before heading to the kitchen. Although they entered, nobody sat.
“Can I get any of you a drink?” he asked. “Though I must warn you--I’m afraid I’ve only got scotch.”
“No, thank you,” Jasper said but their host came back into the room with a tray of four empty glasses and a bottle of golden liquid.
“Nonsense.” He placed the tray on a side table. Donovan felt suffocated with Charles and the huge men on one side and the gun toting woman on the other. “In troubled times like these I’d say we all deserve a good glass of scotch!” Charles said as he poured a small amount into the bottom of each glass. He handed the first to Marion.
“You must be Marion,” he said, nodding his head and smiling at her. “I’ve sent for the doctor and he should be here soon.”
She looked into the glass, a wary expression on her face. Glancing at Jasper, Donovan could tell he was just as wary.
“And Jasper. I take it you’re the leader of this group?” Charles spent an inordinate amount of time staring at him with a grin so large his eyes nearly closed over.
Jasper gulped and shook his head. “I’m no leader.”
“And yet you do all of the talking,” Charles grinned. “And of course, you must be Donovan.” The old man lingered in front of Donovan as he put the third glass in his hand, brushing their fingers together. “It’s so very nice to meet you.” His tone softened and his smile seemed less forced as he stared into Donovan’s eyes. Donovan felt the heat of the man’s fingers against his own. There was a shock like electricity and Donovan felt an emotional wall go up around him. He did not trust this man.
“And Cynthia!” Charles finally spoke again, squatting in front of the girl. “It’s nice to meet you too. I’m afraid I can’t offer you scotch, but perhaps a nice glass of water? Or some food? You look quite hungry.”
As they spoke of food, Donovan suddenly felt his own stomach demand sustenance, unaware that adrenaline alone had been keeping him upright and functional.
“Shy, are we?” Charles asked with his fake grin. “Ah well, perhaps soon enough you’ll trust me, eh?” He laughed, poking Cynthia’s nose with a wizened old finger.
“Listen, we don’t need your drinks, okay?” Jasper set his glass down on the coffee table as he turned on Charles. “But if you could just give us a place to sleep for the night, we’ll be out of your hair tomorrow morning.”
“But Marion will need more time than that to recover,” Charles said as there was a knock at his door. “Ah. That must be Dr. Kent now. Come in!” He called to the person at the door.
A frazzled man with unkempt, gray hair entered the apartment. “Hello, Charles, hello,” he said. “And where is the patient?” His speech was soft and quick as his eyes darted across the newcomers.
“Our dear friend Marion here,” Charles said as he moved to Marion’s side, “has unfortunately got a nasty looking splinter in her leg.”
“Splinter?” Marion said. “It’s a damn tree!”
“Yes, yes, very good,” Dr. Kent looked at Marion’s leg and nodded. “This shouldn’t take long. Simple extraction, some stitches. We’ll be done before dinner.”
“Brian and Joshua,” Charles said to the two men holding the plastic shields, “could you escort this young woman to the tenth floor? It seems like the doctor is eager to begin his work.”
The guards took hold of Marion and led her out the door with the frazzled doctor following close behind.
“Where are they taking her?” Donovan asked, wary of separation.
“Oh, just to the makeshift infirmary we’ve set up on the tenth floor,” Charles said. “It’ll probably take a few days for your friend to be fit enough to travel. I suggest you get comfortable as you won’t be going far.” Charles threw back a shot of scotch and poured himself another. “Lila will take you to your rooms and I’ll send an escort when it’s time for dinner.”
The woman with the assault rifle moved from her position behind Charles and opened the door to the hallway. “Follow me,” she said.
The old man’s eyes remained fixed on Donovan as he followed the group out the door.
“This is it,” Lila said after leading them down the hall, back towards the elevators. “We’re currently hard up for rooms on this floor but Charles insisted you stay close by.” She opened a door labeled 1203 and ushered them inside. “We got some folks in this unit already, so hopefully you’ll get along.”
As Donovan entered the apartment he heard a familiar giggle. He turned to see a tall, thin black man wrapping his arms around the waist of a shorter dark haired woman.
“Noah?” he said, blinking. “Vicky?”