Second Encounter

Chris Van Deelen

Second Encounter

Sandtown, Baltimore, Maryland. Saturday, May 27th, 2006

“God dammit kid, quit running!” Joe Ledger cried. It was a hot, muggy late summer evening in Baltimore and Joe had a particularly long, tiresome and exceedingly annoying day. All he wanted to do right now as go back to the station, change, and head home. If he was lucky he might be able to catch the last half of the ball-game.

It still pissed him off. He finally managed to wrangle the time off and had even found excellent seats for tonight’s Orioles versus the Yankee’s game. As fate was apt to, she and her sisters rained on his parade. Four of his fellow officers came down with, of all things, food poisoning!

He shook his head as his legs and arms worked in perfect synchronization, pushing his body at top speed as he chased after the young man. He felt his anger mounting with each passing step, fueled by the lack of a cold beer in his hand and a hard seat beneath his rear. “Kid, I swear if you don’t stop running I’ll put a bullet through your leg!” Of course he would never do that… well, unless the kid was dumb enough to draw on him.

The sad fact was, too many kids from this neighborhood were prone to such idiotic actions. It came with the territory, and Sandtown was one of those places.

Through the streets they ran, the kid somehow just barely managing to keep about ten yards ahead of Joe at all times. People backed off, jumped out of the way, and cursed rather colorfully at the pursued and the pursuer.

At this point, Joe was really considering pulling his Glock and firing. That was the warrior speaking, the side of him who craved violence, who reveled in it. Joe growled at the warrior, but he only smirked. Right now, Joe wished he had never seen the deal go down. He should not have been on the streets, but that was not in the cards, not this night.

The young hoodlum looked back over his shoulder, his brown eyes wide with fright at the shouted threat of violence. He was maybe in his mid-teens, around fifteen or so. His hoodie bounced up and down on his back as he pushed his body to the limits. He carried a backpack in one hand and a brown bag in the other. Ahead of him a couple of men were carrying a couch in from a moving van. The young hoodlum knew he would lose precious ground if he tried to go around the unexpected obstacle.

He did what any enterprising young man would do. He increased his pace and jumped, bounding off the seat and then the back of the couch with the grace of a young buck.

“Son of a…” Joe cursed as he reached the couch. By now the men had dropped it on the ground and were yelling and cursing at the young man. Joe took the obstacle with two steps and continued on his merry way.  God he wanted that beer!

Down the street a police cruiser suddenly appeared. It peeled rubber on the hot asphalt, sirens blazing. Joe realized in an instant it was pure coincidence, that there was no way the cruiser would have had even the slightest clue what was going down. To top it off, Joe was in his causal clothes, what he typically wore as a detective.

That did not matter in the slightest to the young man. He let out a yelp of fear, liberally mingled with dismay, at the sight.  Only a few dozen yards ahead was the mouth to an alley and as the cruiser raced by, siren’s drowning out all other sound, the young man ducked into the alley.

“Oh for the love of…” Joe half moaned. The cruiser passed him a second later, neither occupant even glancing in his direction. He felt like calling in for backup, something by rights he should have done.

Oops.

Unlike the street, the alley was completely deserted. The noisome odor emanating from the trash laying in bags and scattered about was nauseating. Several feral cats hissed and yowled as the young man passed. One was sitting on the edge of a metal trash can and had been in the middle of trying to fish something out. His panting and heavy pounding of feet on the dirt-encrusted concrete scared the animal. As he turned to check where he was going, the cat leapt from the garbage can, tipping it over.  

The metal can bounded and sang with a nearly ear-shattering cacophony of metal on concrete. The can spewed garbage - a few soiled diapers, and half-eaten and now thoroughly rotted chicken carcass and much more. As the can hit the bottom step before landing on the sidewalk, it tossed out another unexpected gift. 

One very confused and scared looking rat.

The furry, long tailed rodent flew out from the mouth of the can, just as the young man’s legs hit it.

Joe winced as the kid he had been chasing went down in a tangle of legs, hoodie and arms. The backpack and the baggie went flying from his hands to land on the ground a few feet from him. Joe silently thanked the god above he would not have to chase the kid any further.  Although he was in excellent shape, the several blocks long foot-chase in the heat was taking its toll. He held his Glock 22 at his side, the barrel of the .40 caliber weapon pointed near, but not directly at the kid. “Damn kid, you can run, you into track?”

The young man rolled over onto his back and looked at the palms of his hands. He had landed hard on them after dropping what he had been carrying. His palms were now scraped raw and bleeding, with bits of dirt still sticking in the flesh. He turned his eyes from the damaged hands and looked up to the towering figure standing over him. “I surrender?” He blurted.

Joe had to bite back a laugh, despite feel anger comingled with annoyance. He was irritated at the kid for making him run in this weather, and was even more annoyed the staff of Jimmy’s famous Seafood for having purchased a bad batch of fish. If it was not for the bad timing, he would be home, not pulling a shift for fellow officers. Although he did feel a little bad, since they were either puking up or shitting out their guts, sometimes both at once. “Stand up, nice and slow, and keep your hands where I can see them,” he ordered.

Wincing in pain, the kid climbed to his feet. One knee of his old jeans was torn out, must have been from where he had fallen. Blood flowed freely from the torn flesh and from the way the young man moved, it had to hurt.

“Why did you run?” Joe demanded. He still had his handgun at the ready, but he was not pointing it at the kid.

The youngster looked ashamed. “Think about it man, you’re a cop.”

“Don’t be a smartass kid. You were in the middle of a deal. I saw the goods exchanging hands. What did you buy?”

“Nothin’,” the young man answered. He looked at the ground, refusing to meet Joe’s steel-hardened gaze.

Sighing, Joe stepped around the spilled garbage towards the discarded backpack and bag. Something in the way the youngster held himself triggered Joe’s instincts. The young man was not a threat. Even the warrior could see that. The warrior, always on the peripheral of Joe’s conscious mind, stalked back into the tall grass to wait for more worthy prey.  He made an effort of holstering the handgun.

The young man’s eyes followed his every move, never leaving him for a second, although he showed profound relief when the Glock disappeared from sight. “I didn’t do nothin’ wrong, man.” He half-whined. “I was just talkin’ to some friends.”

“Really?” Joe asked with a slight frown, as he reached down and picked up the backpack. “Then sticking around would have proved your innocence. Instead,” he opened the top of the pack so he could get a better look at the contents. “You run and make me chase your sorry ass across half of Sandtown.”

“It wouldn’t matter,” the young man said, finally looking Joe in the eyes. “We’re all guilty in the view of you cops, no matter what we are doing or sayin’.”

Joe took careful note of the small bottles and boxes inside the bag and he felt his heart begin to sink. Metformin, Actoplus, Glyburide… all medications used in the treatment of type two diabetes. “Who are these for?”

“Me,” the kid answered.

Joe looked closer at the young man. He was in pretty good shape, albeit a little on the thin side. He did not have the typical look of someone suffering from type two diabetes. Then again, plenty of people who had the disorder took good care of their bodies by eating right and exercising. He also noticed the bag contained several comic books, a few paperback novels, and a sketch pad. There was a box of pencils, as well as markers and colored pencils.

“Can I have my bag back?” The kid asked. No, half demanded.

“Maybe,” Joe replied and he knelt to pick up the other bag. This was a lot smaller and he could already detect the familiar odor of low-grade Marijuana. “And I’m guessing this is for your diabetes too?”

The young man’s shoulders slumped in despair. “No,” he admitted quietly.

There was something strange about the whole situation. Something niggled at the back of Joe’s mind. The cop was in full control, pushing aside the civilized man. Like the warrior, he was not needed at this juncture.

The kid was of no threat to him. “Let’s see some identification,” he asked, transferring the bag of drugs to his other hand.

Sullenly, the young man carefully reached towards his back pocket, keeping his other hand held out in front and just above him. Clearly the youngster had been in this situation before and was now familiar with the routine. “I’m pulling out my wallet,” he said in a calm voice.

Joe considered drawing his Glock, but refrained. It went against protocol but he decided to trust his instinct. Instead he gently placed the backpack on the ground and allowed his hand to rest near the butt of the weapon.

Using his thumb and index finger, the young man slowly brought his arm around and showed he was carrying a ratty and torn wallet. “I’m going to open my wallet and pull out my school ID now.”

“Go ahead, but don’t try to get cute,” Joe warned, although he felt it was unnecessary.

Moving at near glacial speed, the young man opened his wallet and pulled out a laminated card. He held it up so Joe could see the picture. It had the name of the school, his name, age, and home address. The image was over six months old, but it was still recognizable as the young man standing before him.

He was wrong about the age. The kid was sixteen, nearly seventeen. His name was Thomas Bell. He almost burst out laughing; the poor kid must have gone through hell with a name like that. Nodding, he nodded to the identification. “You can put it away.”

He replaced the wallet with as much care as he had removed it from his pocket. Joe could have sworn time was starting to flow in reverse the kid move so slowly. On a hunch, he reached down and picked up the backpack and opened the top again. He stuffed the bag of low-grade weed into his pants pocket and pulled out the comics. It looked like Thomas was about to protest but he held his tongue and watched.

“Star Wars, The Amazing Spider man, The Uncanny X-men,” Joe read aloud as he thumbed through the colorful books. “The Walking Dead, Batman, Superman…” He nodded in what could only be approval. “Interesting taste you have in reading material,” he commented. He carefully placed the comics back in the bag and then grabbed the sketchpad and the paperback books.

“Hey, put that down,” Thomas said, heat filling his voice and he reached out to grab the sketchpad.

Joe easily sidestepped the grasping hands and glowered at him. “Easy kid, back away, right now.”

Glowering and looking as if he wanted to argue, Thomas did as Joe demanded.

Satisfied, Joe nodded and then flipped the sketchpad open to a random page. The image that greeted him nearly took his breath away. It was a simple drawing, a horse standing in a pasture, looking over its shoulder at something unseen. The image had been crafted in pencil and there was no doubt in his mind Thomas was exceptionally talented. Joe continued to thumb through the book, taking in each amazing image. Some were like the horse; others were of super-heroes or zombies. Some were of the same girl, a pretty young woman of clearly mixed heritage.

“Come on officer; just give it back, please?” Thomas pleaded.

If there was one aspect of his life he never, ever ignored, it was his instinct. Sure, it had gotten him in trouble more than a few times over the years, but it had also saved his life. As a Ranger, he had come to rely on his instinct, or his gut feeling as much as his fellow Rangers. He was still on this side of the living as a result.

Right now, his gut was telling him that Thomas was in fact a good kid. Looking at him, he knew his gut was not pulling his leg. Sympathy at the young man’s plight and the fact he obviously came from a low income family were leading him down the wrong path.

“Thomas, how do you pay for the medication?”

He looked away, his eyes finding the ground at his feet incredibly fascinating. “Odd jobs,” he muttered.

“Uh huh…” Joe deadpanned. “Like selling drugs for some of the gang’s – that type of odd job?”

Thomas did not answer.

Joe sighed. Sometimes he hated his job, other times he knew he could make a difference, change a life. This was one of those times. He took one glance at the paperbacks, noting one was a science fiction novel by Jack Campbell, and the other from David Weber, and another one, Dan Shambles by Kevin J. Anderson. He placed all the items back in the bag and then thrust it towards Thomas.

The young man looked surprised and hesitated before he finally took the bag. He cradled it to his chest like it was a treasure valued beyond life itself.

In some ways Joe realized, that was exactly the case. “I’m going to let you go,” he said, and this time did laugh aloud as the young man’s jaw dropped in shock. He pulled out a card and handed it to Thomas.  “Here is the name of a friend of mine. His name is Terry Alderson. He knows people and can help you out. That artwork is some of the best I’ve ever seen and with the right connections…” he paused and let it sink in. “You won’t have to sell drugs to pay for your medication.”

Thomas Bell’s eyes shone with unshed tears. His knees were actually shaking he was so grateful. “Thank you, officer…” He stared at Joe, realizing he didn’t know his name.

“Joe Ledger. Tell Terry that I sent you. He’ll know what to do.”

Joe nodded. “Go home kid. Call that number. If I ever see you with those gang-bangers again, I will haul your sorry ass off to jail. Is that clear?”

“Yes sir!” Thomas said. He turned and began to walk away, heading towards the  mouth of the alleyway.

Joe watched as he disappeared around the bend and was lost from sight. The feral cats were finally starting to come out of hiding and were glowering at him. They did not appreciate his intrusion into their territory. They sensed the predator hidden beneath the cop and the civilized man, and recognized that predator as one of their own.

One to be feared and respected.

He glanced at his watch and sighed with something akin to contentment. He still had enough time to make it back to the station and end his shift.

He could almost taste the beer.

Seven years later, Marriott Marquis Hotel, Atlanta Georgia, Sunday September 1st, 2013

Thomas Bell sat in his booth, staring out at the mass of humanity. It was his second day attending Dragoncon and he could still hardly believe he was sitting here. This was a dream come true. Already he had taken dozens of photos with con attendees, signed hundreds of prints and issues of the comic’s he had worked on, and sold nearly twenty commissions.

And to top it off, he sold over three grand in reprints and various pieces of artwork. There was even one young woman, maybe a year or two younger than he, who had come up to meet him. She was dressed in the same costume one of his more popular heroines wore in his latest independent comic. He could not believe what was happening, it was like a dream, one in which he never wanted to awaken.

Where she had wanted him to autograph still left him blushing brightly. When he was finished, she took a selfie of them together and then slipped him a piece of paper with her number on it.

The highs of the experience were more intoxicating than anything he had ever enjoyed previously. All around him people milled about, talked to one another, and paused to take photos. There were even punks dressed up like the minions of the media sensation, Mother Night, making their rounds. And to think people were already cosplaying as the woman, even though her video had only hit the net the night before.

“Hey, Toby, mind if I take a break?” He asked, speaking to the man who was sharing the booth with him. Toby was a fellow artist, who often did alternate covers for some of Thomas’s comics. He was a big, affable young man with a perpetual grin and a three day growth of beard.

“Sure thing, and hey, do me a favor and pick up a couple of bottles of coke, would ya? I’ve run dry!” He held up an empty can and shook it, proving its lack of sugary content.

Thomas grinned. Sure thing, I’ll be gone for about an hour or so, is that cool?”

The grin on Toby’s face faded and he looked serious. He reached up and scratched at the stubble under his chin. “In that case, it’ll cost ya, bring me a six-pack.”

“Seriously? At the prices this place is charging?” He laughed as he shook his head. “A six pack it is then.”

He pushed out of the small booth as his friend and fellow artist took over his seat. It felt like he was swimming upstream against a powerful rip-tide there were so many people. He pushed and jostled his way through the throng of humanity, stopping occasionally to take a quick picture of a particularly well-crafted costume or to have his own picture taken with some of the more attractive young ladies.

If there was one thing he wanted, it was to get a shot of the atrium floor from high above. To see the mass of humanity in all its chaotic glory would make a perfect mural – or at the very least, a great wallpaper for his computer.

His steady pace through the crowd was growing slower and slower with each passing step he took. Somewhere ahead of him quite a number of people were gathered around a young woman wearing a very sexy costume of Mother Night. He was only able to catch snippets of her face here and there, but the resemblance to the anarchist was uncanny. He had to admit he was impressed!

“Oh, what the hell, you only live once,” he said aloud and began to make his way through the gathered throng of humanity. It took him several minutes, but finally he was standing next to her, smiling hugely as one of her minions took a photo. 

“Thanks!”

She grinned and winked. “Stick around; I have a treat for you!”

Curiosity got the better of him, so he stood aside as another admirer asked for a photo. He watched, drinking in the energy and excitement of the event as finally she turned to one of the teenagers in the hoodies. “You, minion, come here… mother wants you.”

The young man obeyed as if he was in fact, one of her minions. Thomas laughed at the antics, watching in delight as the man knelt and held the backpack she handed to him. The next thing he knew, she was throwing fistfuls of colorfully wrapped candy to the crowd.

Some of the treats flew his way, but he let others grab and reach for the offerings. Although his diabetes was under control, he still had to watch what he ate. At least he no longer had to take the medication. It was tempting to break his strict diet this one time, but he refrained.

As he made his way away from the young woman dressed as Mother Night, even over the near-roar of the crowd, he could hear her call out. “Okay monkeys, who wants to help me free my slaves?”

The further he got away from the epicenter of the commotion, the easier it became to move. There still had to be thousands of people in the atrium, but at last he felt as if he could breathe. It was daunting, but he found he loved every second of it.

Finally he managed to enter one of the elevators just as something began to happen back where he had left the cosplayer. He held the door open for one man dressed in the trappings of a Colonial Marine. The guy smiled and nodded, and just as the doors closed behind him, Thomas saw what looked like a fight breaking out.

“Idiots,” he commented, shaking his head and pushed the button for the seventh floor.

The man dressed like the marine turned and looked out the glass wall of the elevator. “Shit, they’re really going all out, look at that!”

Despite not wanting to get drawn into the spectacle, he could not help it.  A few idiots with too much alcohol in their veins and too few brain cells decided it would be fun to fight. “Damn, it looks like real blood, doesn’t it?”

More of the guests inside the elevator turned to watch. One woman gasped and put a hand over her mouth. Thomas caught the gesture and he stared at her.

Feeling his intense gaze, she looked at him with horror in her eyes. “I just saw one of the big guys, dressed like a minion, bite another man’s throat!”

Thomas had a very hard time believing or accepting that. Instead of arguing with the woman, he followed her gaze until it came to rest upon the scene receding below. “Holy shit!” He breathed, a sudden wave of fear gripping his heart with icy fingers. The more he watched, the worse the scene became. More and more people joined the fracas and it was like watching a scene from Dawn of the Dead remake. People were fighting, clawing, and biting.

And the blood.

There was so much blood. It was coating the floor and many of the combatants. Several of those who appeared to have been horribly wounded were suddenly getting back up. They were moving at first as if they were in a daze, confused and unsure of what was happening. Thomas assumed they were in shock, but once they spotted a viable target, they leapt like a predatory cat spying a kill.

The elevator stopped at every floor. More and more people crowded into the conveyance until it could not hold another soul. They were talking and many had their phones out, calling 911 or taking pictures of the chaos below.

Finally the elevator stopped on the fifth floor. In a daze, his mind not comprehending what was happening; Thomas stepped out and leaned over the railing to continue to watch the melee.

The screams of the wounded mingled with growls and snarls from the attackers. The mob was a scene right out of hell, and there was so much blood. Blood coated everyone, it made the floors treacherous and many people fell. Those unlucky enough to suffer such a fate were set upon by the zombies.

Zombies.

He did not want to use the word, but it was clear that was what he was seeing. Stuff of nightmare, apocalyptic in its very existence. How was it possible, sure, there were tons of movies and all manner of books and comics, but real Zombies?

Whatever it was, the chaos and horror was spreading through the hotel like wildfire. Already the infected, zombies, walkers, living dead, Zeds, Zacks, whatever you wanted to call them were hitting the second and third floor. At this rate, the creatures would hit the seventh floor in a matter of minutes, maybe less.

People were screaming and pushing to get away. They fought through the macabre dance down on the main floor; he could see men, women and children racing for any exit. “Shit, shit, shit, shit!” He cursed vehemently. Why the hell did he have to come up here? Then he gave his head a shake. If he had remained on the floor, he would be in the middle of the conflict. “Oh shit,” he cursed again, his voice low and full of pain. “Toby…”

From his vantage he could see almost the entire floor, but so much was happening, it was impossible to see his booth, let alone his friend. Then he heard a sound which was like music to his ears. Having grown up in Sandtown, he was no stranger to the sound of gunfire.

And that was exactly what his nearly-overwhelmed ears picked up, singled out from all the other horrible notes reaching him. Someone was firing. No, he corrected a second later, lots of someone’s, and there was the sound of automatic fire.

Then a group of heavily armed men and women burst through the front door. The panic and attacks had spread further and were now only two floors below him. He could see people rushing around and was nearly knocked off the ledge by a panicked man in a Santa Clause costume.

The men and women came into the melee, firing their weapons almost indiscriminately. Thomas realized with a start they were not just killing anyone who got in their way. No, they were letting people rush past. They were picking their targets, anyone who obviously had been turned. The bodies began to hit the floor. The infected were dropping and not getting back up. Still, the undead were now outnumbering the living.

He was about to turn and run, to try and find someplace to either hold up in, or maybe a way out, when he spotted a familiar figure. It was the man, the detective, who had given him a second chance all those years ago. The man who was directly responsible for him being in this place, a dream. Sadly that dream has turned into a nightmare.

Joe Ledger.

There was a scream almost next to him and when he turned, he saw an obscenely fat man in a skimpy Sailor Moon costume lunging for a woman in a classic Star Trek Yeoman’s outfit. The fat man had blood dripping from his mouth and chin, and it coated the front of his costume. Bits and pieces of what could have only been flesh were stuck to the fabric, and squished between his fingers. Growling with an insatiable hunger, he reached out.

She screamed again.

Thomas acted without thought. One of the changes he had made after meeting with the man Joe Ledger had sent him to see was he began to train martial arts. He found the exercise helped clear his mind, and considering the neighborhood he called home, Kung Fu was a great skill to know.

The probing fingers were trying to latch onto the woman’s tunic, but he could not get a grip. The lumbering, towering mass of flab took a step forward and the woman screamed again. Thomas lashed out with his right leg, hitting the monstrous zombie’s left knee on the side. He hit with so much force that despite the layers of fat and underlying muscle, it snapped sideways. The obese eating machine dropped in an instant, and as he fell forward, he managed to grab hold of the plunging neckline of the uniform.

She screamed and pushed away, just as the cheap fabric tore, leaving her wearing nothing more than white, lacy panties. At any other time, Thomas would probably have gawked. He was a young, virile man after all. This was not any other time. It was literally life or death.

Mr. Big, as he decided to dub the fat zombie, lifted the tunic and sniffed at it, the way a dog might sniff at a piece of meat before eating it. Ignoring his destroyed knee, he placed it in his mouth and began to chew.

“Oh for the love of…” Thomas groaned and realized he was passing up a perfect opportunity. He kicked out with a powerful round-house, and caught the zombie on the side of the head, in the temple to be precise. Even with plain old runners, the hit would have hurt. He was not wearing ordinary runners. He was wearing steel-toed and shanked runners. They were not quite as comfortable, but he would take them over nearly any other weapon any day.  The kick hit with such ferocious force it collapsed the thin bone of the zombie’s skull and drove the shards into its brain.

With the fabric of the tunic still in the zombie’s mouth, it pitched forward onto its face, dead.

The woman, probably around his age, stared at him in shock. Tears ran down her cheeks as she gaped at the dead zombie. She opened her mouth to speak when he spotted more of the undead creatures rushing from both directions.

His mind replayed the scene and he inspected each frame, looking for something – anything he could use. There were doors all along the corridor, and a few were within easy reach. Without thinking, he grabbed the nearly naked Star Trek fan and raced towards the first. It was locked. “God dammit!” He cried and pounded on the door. The woman clung to him like a cheap suit, her whole body quaking in stark, naked terror.

It was strangely appropriate considering her current condition.

Thomas was about to try another door when the sound of battle intensified – if that was even possible. He had taken two steps towards the next door in line when it opened. A hand reached out and grabbed him by the collar and pulled. He and the trekkie girl were yanked into the room. Without even looking, he turned and slammed the door shut. His hands were a blur of motion as he did the latch.

Finally he turned around and saw he was inside a room filled with a couple of dozen frightened men and women. Several of the inhabitants were openly crying, the rest were in a state of shock.

He saw the person who had grabbed him. It was a man who was currently a second tier character in one of the few shows he watched. For an absurd second, the nearly asked him if he could get a picture. “Thanks,” he said instead.

The man nodded and motioned at the door. “We need to block it.”

Together, he and several other men pushed the chest of drawers over and placed it snugly against the door. Without hesitating, he nodded and then began to climb onto the piece of furniture. “I’ll keep watch.”

To his absolute shock, Mother Night passed right by the door, surrounded by her minions and a multitude of the walking dead.  The battle just outside the door was raging in full intensity. Several times something smashed into the door, sending rivulets of dust from the doorjamb. It even cracked right down the center, but it held.

As he watched, more and more of the undead monstrosities fell before the relentless hail of lead, fired into the creatures. Just when he thought it was over, Joe Ledger appeared and was standing only a few yards from Mother Night.

As the fighting continued around them both, he could see they were talking. It was surreal, seeing the man who had changed his life, decked out in military garb. He was covered in sweat, blood, gore and dirt. His hair was ruffled and he looked hurt. More than that, he looked more pissed off than any man should have the right to look.

They spoke and at one point they even smiled. Then Joe went off on her, pointing at something unseen shooting words at her as if they were bullets. From the look on her face, and the fact her big eyes were brimming with tears, Thomas knew whatever Joe said was hurting her.

Thomas jumped and yelped as Joe Ledger lifted his handgun and shot Mother Night twice in the chest, right in the heart. The woman was knocked backwards by transfer of kinetic energy. She fell over the railing and plunged to the floor, five stories before. He would swear until his dying breath she was smiling as she disappeared over the edge.

Even through the tumult of the fight raging outside the door, he could hear Joe Ledger scream. 

Several bullets smashed through the wall to the left of where he was kneeling and watching. Thomas had barely any time to register the danger when someone inside the room began to scream. It turned into a hideous, gurgling cry, as if someone was trying to scream under water.

Naturally he turned to see one of the people who were inside the room had turned. The man, a plain looking gentleman in his mid-forties, had his teeth buried up to the gums in the neck of another attendee.

The people around went insane with fright. Fights broke out as they tried to get away from the scene, several even pushed towards the door. Hands reached out and grabbed Thomas and he was yanked off the chest of drawers and thrown to the floor. Cursing a blue-streak, he fought with the panicked mob and struggled to get to his feet. During the ensuing melee, Thomas was kicked, punched, and even had someone whip a full can of soda at his head.

Somehow in the struggle, he was being pushed towards the zombie and his victim! Fear bubbled up from deep inside his gut and it threatened to freeze him in his tracks. He had enough training to know doing such would most likely cost him his life.

Behind him, there was a terrible rumbling crash. It sounded as if half the ceiling had collapsed into the room. He was about to look when the zombie, sensing his presence, looked up from the body of the man. His face, neck and upper chest were coated in blood so dark it was nearly black. Chunks of flesh hung from his mouth as he chewed.

The zombie growled, actually growled at him, as if it was a dog and he was intruding in on its meal.

Thomas had never felt fear so acutely as he did at that very moment. In many people it was the fight or flight instinct. Some people acted like animals, freezing in place, hoping beyond hope that the lack of movement would save them.

Outside, it sounded as if the fighting had intensified. The roar of gunshots, the screams and curses reached such a crescendo, Thomas swore he could feel his ear-drums beginning to tear apart. He realized it sounded like it was right inside the room.

The biggest problem facing him was the zombie. It was now on all fours, crouched and ready to pounce. Thomas whipped his head about from side to side, looking for anything he could possibly use as a weapon. In the street, he would have stood at a neutral position and held his hands either down at his waist or up and out. In this situation, that would not help.

The zombie coiled his legs under his body and was just about to leap into action when Thomas spotted salvation leaning against the wall, only a few feet from him. Someone had purchased a display sword, a massive, two handed monster. He doubted the weapon had any edge to it, but he had been training long enough in the use of swords for demonstration purposes. It would have to do.

As the undead monster roared and leapt, he snatched up the sword and swung it with all his might. The flat of the blade caught the zombie on the side of the head and threw off its attack. Despite his best effort, the zombie crashed into him and sent him sprawling back several yards. He landed flat on his back, the air exploding from his lungs in a painful gust.

Seeing his prey’s predicament, the zombie did not do anything so dramatic or crass as rearing back to scream its triumph at the sky. Such an act only occurred in novels, comics, video games or movies. No, this zombie raced towards him, sprinting across the short distance.

Thomas did the only thing he could think to. He lifted one leg and as the zombie hit, he used the creature’s momentum and launched it screaming, arms flailing, over and past him.

It had two effects. First, it saved his life and gave him the time to scramble to his feet. As he stood, he hefted the decorative sword and spun to face the creature. The second, far less desirable effect is the zombie landed on three people who were still trying to escape the room.

One of them happened to be the nearly naked trekkie girl.

“Oh for the love of…” he spat and charged.

All four, including the undead monster, appeared dazed by the impact. The zombie was the first to recover and he saw the smooth ankle of the trekkie girl only a few inches from his jaws.

“Fuck you!” Thomas screamed and drove the edge of the sword down. The blade smashed through the cheek of the zombie and continued down until it pierced through the skull. When it hit the floor beneath, the blade snapped in two. The unexpected destruction of the weapon staggered Thomas, but it had the desired effect.

The zombie was dead, and the three people were up and able to move.

Thomas suddenly realized the door, as well as part of the wall surrounding the door, was gone. Just gone. As if someone had ripped it away. Even stranger was the chest of drawers they had placed to block the door was missing. He could see several figures fighting, including Joe Ledger. Somehow the fracas caught Joe Ledger’s attention. He was standing in the hole where the door had once been, the Glock in his hand, tracking as if on auto-pilot. Thomas’s eyes went wide with recognition and terror as the barrel of the weapon travelled over his face. Time slowed to a crawl. Over the distance separating him from the man who had changed his life, he could see the finger tighten on the trigger.

Until the day he left this world to begin a journey into the great unknown, Thomas would swear he could see the bullet burst from the barrel of the Glock. He wondered if he would feel any pain.

Then time caught up and Thomas realized the bullet was not meant for him. He looked over his shoulder and saw the man the zombie had bitten had just struggled to his feet. A small, black hole appeared in the newly risen zombie’s forehead. Like a marionette with the strings cut, he collapsed.

He immediately turned back to look at Joe. Their eyes met and in that briefest of moments, recognition passed between the two of them. “Thanks, Mr. Ledger,” he called out. He then felt his heart turn to ice. Nearly a dozen of the creatures were charging. The few remaining people in the room screamed. He was not ashamed to admit he was one of them. The nearly naked trekkie and the other two scrambled on all fours, over the corpse of the two zombies. Their intent was obvious – to escape.

There was no where they could escape to.

Joe fired and fired, each shot drilling a hole through the skulls of the newly risen undead. They dropped, creating a sort of barricade between him and the others. Outside the fighting was still in full throes, living and the dead succumbing to eternal death. It did not matter how many Joe dispatched, more appeared to take their places.

Thomas was still holding the broken two-handed sword and without any thought to what he was doing, he stood next to Joe Ledger. The big, blond man looked like he was about to say something, but then his Glock ran dry. “Switch clips,” Thomas yelled. “I’ll take care of this.”

“Hold on,” Joe began, already ejecting the spent magazine and slapping home a fresh one.

He did not get to finish. Using the still jagged end of the broken sword, Thomas roared at the closest of the undead, a plain looking woman with mousy hair and an unflattering top and skirt. There was a huge bite mark on her arm, showing how she had succumbed to the virus. She bared her teeth at him and lunged. Thomas brought his hands back, holding the sword to the side, and shoved it forward. The jagged metal tore through her face, killing her as it severed the brainstem. He shot out with his right foot in a snap-kick and used the momentum of the strike to help him pull his weapon from her skull.

Joe dropped two undead even as another creature came to take the place of the now dead mousy woman. Thomas slashed out with the ragged end of the sword and caught a third under the chin. The blade caught on the vertebrae in the man’s neck and as it stumbled back, he lost hold of the weapon.

“Stand back,” Joe ordered. He continued to fire, each shot a head shot, taking down one of the creatures. “Top, Bunny, this is Cowboy, on me!” He called out. The zombie Thomas had tried to take out was ignoring the blade stuck in its throat. Its intention fully on the man standing in front of it.

Joe shot him just as a wave of automatic fire ripped into the remaining undead, causing them to dance a macabre jig as whole chunks of their bodies were blown off. It did not take long before the rounds reached the brain, killing the undead permanently. He changed magazines again and stepped over the corpses, going back to the hall.

“Hey, Joe!” Thomas yelled to be heard over the screams and weapons discharging.

He glanced back for a second, slightly confused and annoyed all at once. “What?”

“That’s twice you’ve saved my life, thanks!”

The glimmer of recognition in Joe’s eyes grew. “Right, I remember you now,” He turned and fired several more times, moving further out into the corridor. “You’re welcome.” And then he was gone.

Thomas stood there for several seconds, trying to catch his breath. He was feeling more exhausted than he could ever remember. Then again near constant adrenaline and pure terror would do that. With each passing minute, the sounds of battle retreated. He could tell the good guys were winning the fight against the undead, taking back the hotel and preventing the infection from spreading.

At last he turned and looked at the three survivors, all of whom were huddled on the floor, as far away from the action as they could. Thomas grabbed a blanket from the bed, which somehow managed to avoid getting hit with blood. He took a step to the nearly naked trekkie girl and handed it to her.

She stared at the offered blanket, her eyes empty. When he shook it, she seemed to snap out of it and grabbed it. Standing, she covered her nudity. “Thanks,” she said weakly.

Thomas grinned, despite everything that had occurred in the past half hour; he found the ability to smile. “You’re welcome. I’m Thomas,” he offered.

“Stephanie,” she said in a daze.

That was about as far as they got.  It took a while, but the battle finally ended. Men and women in combat gear and biohazard suits came in next, checking each survivor over for signs of bite or infection.

Their ordeal had really just begun, but in the long run, they were alive.  Twice now Thomas Bell had encountered Joe Ledger, and twice the man had saved his life. He would be forever grateful.

END