FLU

Read an extract from Wayne Simmons' novel

There seemed to be more of the dead around than normal. He didn’t know why, though. In fact, Norman couldn’t see any kind of pattern to their behaviour. Sometimes they were lethargic; at other times they were aggressive. Sometimes large in number, at other times wandering around in ones and twos, as if lost. In a way, Norman thought, they weren’t a hell of a lot different from what they were before. They were still fat, thin, old and young. Only, now they were dead and fat, thin, old and young. Of course, for Norman, there was no need to study them or understand them. He saw no need for touchy-feely bullshit when dealing with them. You just needed to be ready for them and then kill them. He had no problem with that. When it came down to it, in order to survive he had no problem doing just about anything.

Their street rolled down a hill, just like many streets off the Lisburn Road. Tall, angular houses faced their row of two-up-two-downs, shielding them from the sun. The off-licence across the road stood on a corner, forming a crossroads. It seemed out of place, to Norman, like a priest at a brothel. Shifty looking. Embarrassed. Dark, grated windows frowning in the shadows, as if hiding some shameful secret.

He watched Lark bolt across the road, towards the off-licence. The boy could sprint, Norman had to give him that. Of course, God knows what he was wired up on. Speed? Ecstasy? Coke? There had to be something flowing through his veins. Norman hadn’t scored a hit in days, and he was feeling all the worse for it. His bones felt tired, lethargic. He was weary and feeling every second of his age. He made a mental note to go through the house, when he got back, and find a little of whatever Tattoo was no doubt hiding.

The first threat was taken out by a shot from above. Literally. Norman watched the corpse fall before he even got near it. The damn thing looked confused, disappointed even, as its neck split in two, pieces of cartilage spreading across the road in a bloody mess. Norman looked behind him, up at the window, catching a glimpse of George. He raised his thumb in thanks.

He worried for George, of course. Since he’d joined the force, some years back, Norman had always been his partner. And, to be honest, he hadn’t liked George at first. He wasn’t like Norman. George had been career-driven from the very start. Keen to get ahead, score some stripes. A big fan of paperwork (his own and Norman’s) and ‘touchy-feely’ policing. He went far because of it, of course. And he was a good Sergeant, Norman thought to himself. Knew when to turn a blind eye – even when he didn’t agree with what was going on. He was bloody soft, though. Needed looking out for. Especially in this new world. Especially since...

Another attacker, this one an old lady, reached for him. He could tell her age by the night dress and wrinkled skin. She had caught him off guard, grabbing the padded arm of his jacket and busily trying to sink her teeth through. Norman laughed. She must have been the hungriest bitch out there. She had no teeth, only gums writhing, trying to find a grip. Hair sprouted from her head like sun-stroked grass, yellow and parched. Her misty eyes showed little expression, hanging in her head, motionless, as if she were blind. It was a pathetic display. Norman kicked her away with his steel-toecap, raising his rifle and pumping two rounds through her frail old head. It split apart like a rotten tomato, flesh, hair and gum slapping against tarmac like projectile vomit.

Norman looked over at Lark. The silly bastard was still outside the door to the offies, struggling with the lock. One of the dead challenged him briefly, but the tattooed man dealt with it quickly and efficiently, raising his Glock 17 to blow a clean hole through its head, dropping it to the ground like a heavy bag of shopping. It didn’t seem to bother him, either, and Norman immediately felt himself respecting the man a little bit. A lot more than his cowardly mate, that was for sure.

Before long, Norman was by Lark’s side, flanking around the man as he worked the lock, picking off the most dangerous of their attackers with further flashes from the muzzle of his own HK33. They fell immediately, the closeness of range only making their wounds all the more fatal. A couple more shots from the first floor bedroom put paid to another few, thinning their numbers even further.

'Hurry up!' shouted Norman, impatiently.

'It’s fucking locked from the inside!' Lark said, somewhat irritated.

'Well, just blow it open, then!' Norman said, demonstrating just how by blasting the cheekbone of a young dead girl in front of him. She crumbled to the ground, reaching for her missing face as if angry or shocked, Norman pumping another round into her for good measure.

The big cop heard Lark firing once, twice, before kicking the door through. Both men quickly moved inside, before shutting the door then searching, desperately, for a suitable barricade, finally working together to push a large display of Alco-pop against the entrance. It would hold the crazies back for a short while.
Once the door was secure, Norman turned around to properly survey the shop. The windows were partially blackened out, meaning visibility was poor inside. Norman pulled a torch from his pocket, switching it on to shed light on the situation. It was an old-school off-licence. Minimum decor, no frills. Defiantly untidy. In fact, the place was a fucking mess. Smashed glass littered the floor, the reek of alcohol heavy in the air. A single body lay across the counter, its head having exploded, messily, over the back wall. Several spent rounds of ammunition mixed in with the glass on the floor. Another body could be seen sprawled across a stack of six-packs. It, too, was without a head.

'I guess someone got here before us...' Norman said.

'No shit, Sherlock...' Lark muttered under his breath.

Norman let it pass, simply pressing the torch across his lips to silence the other man. He had heard something. No, maybe it was something he felt, more then heard. Something beyond sound, yet intense enough to feel like sound. This was another sense. A sense of danger, honed by years of policing.
He moved slowly through the shop, taking care not to stand on the glass. Everything was stained. Tarnished, unusable. He wouldn’t put his lips to any of the bottles or cans left on the aisles. It was as if some huge dying monster had ripped the roof off and puked its bloody guts up all over the place. Norman had only seen this kind of mess once, before, when he’d been first on the scene of a brutal bomb blast.

Bombs were vicious things, of course. Unapologetically messy.

Halfway across the spacious shop floor, Norman looked back to find Lark closely following him. He pointed to the storeroom door, further through an archway towards the back of the room. If they were going to find anything usable, it would be in there. Of course, Norman was convinced that there was something else in there, also...

Both men approached the storeroom from different sides, covering each other as if on automatic pilot. They seemed to have put their differences aside, suddenly. Forced to work together in order to stay alive together. Team bonding with guns. Norman reached the store first, slinging his rifle around his shoulder and choosing his Glock, instead, to investigate. He didn’t want to create a bigger mess than he had to. The place looked fucked up enough already.

Lark was beside him, looking over and reaching for the handle of the door. He seemed to be waiting for Norman’s signal.

Norman nodded, raising the torch’s light towards the door.

Lark pulled the door wide open, and Norman stepped into the room, weapon drawn with one hand, torch spilling light from the other. Inside, several of the dead turned to stare back at him, almost as if they felt intruded upon. Their empty eyes reflected the unforgiving light, cold and devoid of any feeling or emotion. A swarm of flies circled the room, excited and overstimulated. On the floor was the body of what seemed to be a soldier, given the rifle and backpack nearby. Several of the dead crowded around him, on their knees, each dipping their hands and mouths into the middle of the man’s open stomach as if bobbing for apples. A long string of bloody sausages, spread out along the ground, Norman realising that they were, in fact, the poor bastard’s intestines.

'Fuck me,' he heard Lark say, before gagging.

The dead didn’t even hold his gaze, seeming immune and ambivalent to the torchlight. They greedily turned back to their meal like starving dogs. Norman watched them eat, for a while, unable to take his eyes off the scene, as if it were a car crash. Their faces were strained and feral looking, focused solely on the task of devouring the camouflage-clad body on the floor. One of the dead wore similar clothing, as if he, too, had once been a soldier. Norman noticed his arm was missing, the ragged remains of his sleeve hanging from his torso, as if ashamed.

For Norman, the scene had added poignancy. His brother had been a soldier for years. He had been just like Norman, even looked like him. Their mother had often referred to them as ‘two peas in a pod.’ They were both messers in school. His brother was the more sensitive one, though. Too big for his own skin. Constantly aware of himself. He left school as soon as he could. Joined the Army, because it seemed like the only job that would have him. He had been recently drafted to Afghanistan, and Norman suddenly wondered if he was, ironically, safer there than he would be here.

Norman raised his handgun and fired repeatedly until every head in the room was bloody pulp, flesh splashing violently around the walls like a bomb at an abattoir. There was no protest from any of them, each body falling limply to the floor, some jittering quietly as if slightly annoyed at having their meal disturbed. Within seconds, the job was done; Norman waited until every body fell completely silent . He went to leave but was halted by another sound from the cursed room. Norman stopped, turning slowly towards the noise. In the midst of the bloody chaos, he could see a small shape, scuttling along the back wall. He strained his eyes, shining the torchlight again, able to make out the body of a little girl. She was naked, blood coating her smooth, pale skin like red paint. She was licking it from her fingers, as if it were strawberry sauce, staring up at him as if she’d been caught stealing. Her innocence seemed, somehow, preserved. Even after her life, and everything that made her alive, had left her, there was still that one quality, that one dynamic at play. Innocence. She looked at Norman as if trying to melt his heart, trying to make him less cross with her for the naughty things she had done. She scuttled away from the torch beam, as if playfully. As if it were some kind of game. Norman could almost have sworn he could make out a smile on her face.

He fired two shots through her skull, her little head exploding more dramatically than the others, as if more delicate. Once done, Norman stood at the doorway, handgun still smoking in his hand. His head hung low. He dimmed the torch quietly, reverently. His mind travelled back to the tower block at Finaghy. To flat 23. To the little girl, probably scuttling around there, every bit as (un)dead as all the other quarantined. He wished he hadn’t done that. Of all the many questionable things he had done in life, that quarantine, that visit to the tower block, was what Norman Coulter regretted the most.

He stepped out of the storeroom quickly, turning to look at the other man who was still bent double, retching. The smell in the shop was almost unbearable. Rancid flesh, pickled by spilt alcohol. And now the fresh puke of his fellow survivor. He could almost taste the virus in his mouth. Everything here was contaminated.

“Let’s just get out of here,” Norman said, pulling the other man’s arm as he made for the door.

FLU and Drop Dead Gorgeous by Wayne Simmons can be purchased at the CultureNorthernIreland Amazon store.