Back outside, the streets were just beginning to show signs of life as the refugees crept from their nighttime shelters to forage for the meager scraps that could still be found. Dave didn’t think it was likely that these folks were in danger of starving anytime soon; it was more likely that they were operating in self-preservation mode, hoarding what they could for when there was nothing left to be found. Now wasn’t the time to worry about them, though; he had to find that little girl. Well, technically he didn’t have to, but the cop in him wouldn’t give him any rest if he didn’t put his best foot forward in trying to find her. He took a moment to survey the street.
Across the way was a fabric store, its window spider webbed with cracks that had somebody had attempted to cover over with duct tape. To the left of the fabric store, a pair of corrugated steel doors, both in the down position, loading docks for the store and whatever businesses occupied the upper floors of the building. To the right was a discount media store, the kind that sold pirated videos and DVDs and stripped down electronics at “bargain” prices. By some miracle, the plate glass windows were still intact. The door, however, was another story. Pieces of the thick glass littered the sidewalk, sparkling in the sun like discarded diamonds. Of the hooker there was no sign, but she wasn’t too far off. A steady, rhythmic slapping sound echoed in the concrete corridor as she tried to break into one of the other store fronts on this side of the street.
Drawing his service revolver, Dave considered the video store. It was an enticing lure for a child, but his gut instinct told him she wasn’t in there. It wouldn’t hurt to check out the place, but he knew it would be a waste of time. During his years on the force, he had come to rely heavily on what he jokingly called his “Spidey Sense”; it had never failed him, and he wasn’t about to start second guessing himself now. Dismissing it, Dave moved into the middle of the street, looking back the way they had come, his gaze shifting from one side of the street to the other, lingering briefly on each store front and doorway before moving on. He started forward, weaving his way slowly through the obstacle course of abandoned cars, torn open garbage bags, and vandalized refuse from some of the stores. That rhythmic slapping grew louder the further he got from the Old Navy, and as he passed by a smoke shop, he caught sight of the prostitute in the recessed doorway of the store front. Keeping one eye on her, he continued moving toward the end of the street, one destination in mind.
He had covered half the distance when he heard footsteps behind him, a heavy slapping of sneakered feet against the grey slate of the sidewalk. Even before he turned around, he knew what he was going to see and he cursed under his breath.
With one hand pressed to her stomach, the woman from Old Navy hurried towards him. There was a wild, desperate look in her eyes as she headed his way, unaware of the danger that lurked within the shadows, waiting to ambush her as she passed. There was a chance she could get by the thing in the doorway, provided she didn’t. . .
“Goddammit,” Dave muttered, moving to intercept the woman before she became zombie chow. He tried to wave her away from the building and into the street, but she was blinded by fear for her daughter and she continued to stumble toward him.
There was movement in the doorway, and Dave knew he wasn’t going to make it in time. He didn’t slow his pace as he raced towards the woman, but he had only managed a dozen steps before the hooker shambled out of the doorway. The woman collided with the zombie, letting loose with a startled scream. The thing staggered backward on impact, seemed to hesitate a moment before starting forward again, arms reaching and teeth snapping. Terror had paralyzed the woman, who stood there, both arms wrapped protectively over her swollen belly, staring death in the face. The only chance he had was to shoot the walking corpse in the back the head; there was no doubt he would hit his target from this distance, but there was a chance that the bullet would pass through the thing’s head and hit the woman in front of it. He veered to his right, hoping to get a better angle from which to shoot.
The woman had a deer in the headlights look to her, eyes wide and glassy, lips quivering, unable to speak as the zombie reached for her. The corpse was within striking distance, it’s thin, bony fingers on one hand brushing the woman’s shoulder, the other raking across her arms, still held protectively over her stomach. Red welts rose in the wake of the thing’s filthy, infected fingernails, followed by blood welling up.
“My baby,” the woman whimpered.
The thing’s talon-like fingers snagged the woman’s t-shirt and blood blossomed against the white material as it pulled her closer. The woman grimaced in pain, her face a wrinkled mask of fear, fury, and disgust. Whether it was the smell of rot threatening to smother her, the pain as the thing’s nails dug into her flesh, or fear for her unborn child, the woman brought up her hands and tried to push the prostitute away. A primal scream ripped from her throat as her hands came in contact with the decomposing corpse; desperate to get the zombie away from her, she gave the hooker a hard shove. The flesh above the thing’s left breast tore. “Oh God,” she cried out, repulsed by the sight of the exposed muscle and bone, but the woman, seeing the damage, wasn’t about to quit. She shoved again, using both hands, which landed squarely on both of the hooker’s breasts. Skin split as if it was nothing more than tissue paper, and the mounds of flesh imploded. Blackened blood as thick and dark as molasses and yellowed tissue that looked like puss oozed through her fingers like a rancid cottage cheese sundae. Another cry of disgust issued from the woman, but nothing deterred the zombie from trying to sate its eternal hunger. Its teeth snapped continuously, its head lunging forward in what seemed slow motion.
The woman was suddenly aware of Dave’s presence as he slid over the hood of a car, and she turned her head in his direction. “Help me. Please.”
Dave slipped from the car’s hood and planted his feet firmly on the ground, bringing his .45 up in a two-handed grip. Taking aim, he pulled the trigger. The hooker’s head exploded, splattering the pregnant woman in a rain of gore, brain, and bone shrapnel. As life drained from the corpse for a second, final time, the body collapsed, its fingernails shredded the fabric of the woman’s shirt, leaving in their wake a trail of red welts. The woman followed the zombie to the ground, legs too weak to support her after her near-death experience. She covered her face with her hands and started to sob, the search for her daughter all but forgotten for the moment as she tried to come to terms with her own mortality. Dave knew all too well what she was going through at that moment, having experienced it himself a several weeks back, when all this shit was first hitting the fan. But whatever sympathy he held for the woman in that instant, and any relief he may have felt that she was safe quickly gave way to anger over her stupidity as he stalked toward her.
Wiping the tears from her face and smearing it with blood in the process, she looked up at the figure looming over her. She had wanted to say “Thank you”, but the words died on her lips when she saw the barely suppressed rage he knew was reflected in his eyes.
“I told you to stay inside.”
She wanted to say something in her own defense, but he reached down and hauled her to her feet, jostling her into silence.
“Go back inside.”
Still shaken by her encounter, she managed to show her defiance by squaring her shoulders and meeting his gaze. He had to give her some credit; she didn’t flinch. “No,” she told him, and he could hear the quaver in that one spoken word. Just one word, as if she didn’t trust herself to speak more for fear of giving away how rattled she really was.
Dave took a deep breath to calm himself. It would be pointless to argue with the woman. She wasn’t thinking clearly. That much was evident by her refusal to obey orders. He had no choice but to let her tag along, but he was going to lay down a few rules. Not that he thought it would do any good. She thought she knew what was best for her and her daughter, so she was going to do whatever the hell she pleased regardless of what he told her.
“Fine.” He let out the breath he’d been holding. “But you stay close and you keep your mouth shut. You do what I say and you don’t ask any questions. Is that understood?”
When she didn’t answer right away, he was tempted to leave her to fend for herself. Things might get a little hairy, and he didn’t need her jeopardizing his safety with her stubbornness. He knew, though, that if he went back without give the search his all, he’d never be able to face Mark. That man lived for kids; thus the reason he had dedicated his life to teaching. He could envision the disappointment on his lover’s face when he told him he didn’t even bother, not with this woman risking everything, and lying wasn’t even an option. But he needed to do something with the one in front of him to guarantee her compliance.
“Is. That. Understood.”
Again, she didn’t answer.
“Fine.” He turned away from her, prepared to head back to Old Navy.
He did a slow about face, but didn’t make a move toward her. He fixed her with a stare, waiting.
Initially she met his stare, and it became a competition of wills. Finally, she dropped her gaze first, then her head. Twisting her hands nervously in front of her, she nodded.
Now that they seemed to have an understanding—not that he thought it would mean anything if they found her daughter—he started forward, brushing past her without saying a word. His gaze danced from one side of the street to the other, pausing briefly on each store front barely long enough to register what kind of store it was before moving on to the next. There was nothing that would be of interest to a little girl, and he was beginning to wonder if maybe she hadn’t strayed from the street and onto the avenue. There was a Toys R Us nearby, and with the streets virtually free of traffic, the path would be relatively clear to what a child would consider paradise. The thought sent a nervous twinge through his gut; just because the dead went into hiding, that didn’t mean there weren’t other threats posed to a child wandering the streets alone. There were other animals out there, predatory creatures that walked on two legs who would think nothing of taking advantage of the downfall of civilization to satiate their baser desires.
He pushed the thought from his head, needing to focus on the current situation. Making their way up the street, weaving through the abandoned vehicles, sounds from the hive became more apparent. They sounded agitated. Normally when they went to ground, they were like statues, standing completely still, staring through dead eyes at a rapidly dying world. Something had them stirred up, and Dave was beginning to get an uneasy feeling in his gut.
Veering to the right, Dave made for the sidewalk, trusting the woman would follow behind him. He didn’t think to look behind him to make certain until he was curbside, when he spotted the coffee shop, the door an empty chrome frame, the glass from which littered the sidewalk. He turned to tell her he wanted to check the place out; for a child it was the perfect lure, full of the promise of an assortment of treats that could be consumed away from the watchful eye of her mother. Never mind the fact that anything that might have been left behind by the looters had long since spoiled. That was something that would not have even entered a child’s mind. But when he turned, he found the woman was not behind him. He scanned the immediate area and let out a groan when he spotted her on the other side of the street. She was crouched down by an abandoned minivan and reaching underneath for something. What it was he couldn’t see, but he had a sinking feeling it was something connected to her little girl.
When she stood up and turned to face him, he saw what it was and he was seized with a chill that went bone deep. She held in her hand a sneaker, and even from where he stood he could see it was streaked with blood.