“We’re sorry, all circuits are busy right now. Please try your call again later; this is a recording.” The automated message devolved into the short staccato tones of a busy signal, and it took every ounce of my self-control not to hurl the phone at the floor. The worst I could do was thumb the end call button angrily and toss it up on the dash, even the violent but satisfactory snap of a flip phone was denied to me.
My misgivings earlier in the day had turned out to be accurate: traffic snarls in the morning gave way to road rage by the afternoon; lines outside of grocery stores, gun stores and camping stores had degenerated from orderly queues into brawls by the time the sun hit its peek. It was as if fear had become a contagion, and wherever it spread the symptom of violence followed.
Streets I had traveled for years were no longer safe to be on…especially with what looked like a truck full of money. The radio had managed to spew out a nonstop stream of everything but facts between our stops, but even the rumors were enough to frighten me. They said that people had attacked other people; some with guns, knives, or bats like regular assailants; but the vast majority with fists, feet and even teeth like savage animals.
As if the threat of widespread attack wasn’t enough, the radio personalities kept fanning the flames with speculation of why this was happening: the attackers were infected with some form of rabies, were mentally unstable, were terrorists. Some of the more reputable stations such as NPR pointed to the American contingent in the UN emergency assistance mission in South Africa returning (and the corresponding waves of violence radiating from their return destinations), while other less reputable sites put forth wild conjecture that the assailants were already dead…able to ignore grievous injuries that would maim or kill a human being.
Terry ordered the station turned after that last theory, calling them a ‘bunch of X-Files bullshitters!’ Despite all the crap on the radio there was one point they all shared in common…America was about to go into a very bad place; worse than Katrina, worse than Sandy, worse than 2008. We’d pulled into the parking lot of our second-to-last stop shortly after, a grocery store.
As large as some of the smaller strip malls we pulled from earlier in the day, the grocery store swarmed with people. A panicked, packed mass of humanity, I knew that one was going to be a clusterfuck. After pointing out that I had done all the other pickups with Terry so far, and that I really wanted to contact my sister and see if she was all right, Mitch relented with a grumble and jumped out of the driver’s seat. As the two of them walked towards the grocery store, empty sacks in hand, I pulled out my cell and dialed in Steph’s number.
All circuits busy message. Tried again; all circuits busy message, again. I was just about to smash my finger down on her number for a third time when I noticed another name just above hers…the only other name in my contacts with Collins at the end of it, my brother Phillip. Phillip (never Phil unless I really wanted a beating) had been a bastard of an older brother: beating, blaming and snubbing that all older brothers did with none of the fraternal protection. After fifteen years of dealing with his shit I woke up to a house without him, he’d enlisted in the military and never looked back…never even showed up to mom’s funeral.
My thumb hovered over the number for minutes, torn between disdain and hope. Eventually hope won out and I tapped the number, if Phillip had any pull in the military then maybe he could help Steph and I out. Besides, he was still family…whatever the fuck that meant to him.
His phone never even rang, just went straight to voicemail. I cut his gravelly message instructions short as I tapped the end call button; my explosive sigh of frustration filled the rig’s cab. After a moment to calm my frayed nerves, I typed out a text message asking Steph if she was ok and for her to call me the instant she got it. The first shot rang out as I pressed send; a sharp, muffled crack that sent my hand to my sidearm.
The shot was joined by a second and a third, all of them from inside the supermarket. The screams came immediately after the shots, loud enough that I could hear them through the walls of the store and the truck.
“Terry; Mitch; respond! What the hell’s going on in there?” While my left hand gripped the butt of my pistol, my right clenched the receiver fastened to my shoulder. My gut turned into a ball of ice as I realized that others in the parking lot had heard the shots, others who had exercised their second amendment rights.
“Terry; Mitch,” I barked into the radio a second time. “You’ve got armed people outside and the shots spooked them!”
“Acknowledged,” Terry’s terse reply crackled over the speaker…it sounded like he was in the middle of a concert with all the screaming. “Stand by and sit tight, we’re coming out now!”
No sooner had Terry spoken than the double doors burst open; he and Mitch staggered out with guns drawn. I cranked the key as soon as I saw them, I had a feeling they were going to need a fast pickup. The rig’s engine roared to life and I shoved the shifter into drive.
Already on edge from the day’s events, the armed folk outside took quite poorly to two gun-toting men bursting through the doors. Mitch threw himself behind a parked car to the left while Terry hit the ground, two rifle rounds and a shotgun slug hissed over their heads.
Terry’s pistol cracked and one of the riflemen ducked back behind his vehicle, the bullet ricocheting off the metal in a flurry of sparks. I sent the truck into a shuddering halt smack between both groups before it could get any worse and popped the passenger door.
“Get in!” I screamed over the thud thud thud of bullets as they slammed into the truck’s armored side. I jumped as one well aimed shot put an impact crater the size of a silver dollar into the driver’s window not a foot from my head; one of the riflemen had definitely just tried to kill me.
Terry and Mitch scrambled into the truck, and I jammed the gas pedal to the floor as soon as the door shut. The truck lurched out of the parking lot with a shudder and the squeal of tires.
“So you’re telling me that because a couple of soccer moms and geriatrics got uppity with you, you decided to turn it into the O.K. corral?” Terry’s face darkened at my tone and Mitch’s eyes widened in surprise; it was only after a breath that I realized that as the most junior guy on truck I’d just called out the two guys above me.
“There were over fifty goddamn people in there Collins,” Terry snarled with an anger I’d never seen in him before, an anger that could only come from the adrenaline high of combat. “I had to act before one of them made a push for the fucking bag and the rest of them beat us to death!”
“I’m sorry Terry, I – “
“Just drive the fucking truck Collins,” Terry leaned back in his seat and scrubbed his face with his hands. “Still got one last stop to make.”
“No fucking way!”
“You can’t be serious!” Our blurted objections filled the cab at the same moment, neither Mitch nor I seeing any point to continuing the job when our lives were at stake.
“I haven’t missed a pickup in twelve years,” the finality in Terry’s tone silenced us both. “And I’m not about to start now.”
That settled it; we were going to The Mall.
If it wasn’t the biggest mall in the state then it was damn close; it’s massive edifice loomed over us as I pulled the truck into a stop just outside the front doors. The Mall was always a favorite stop for us, especially if we were early; we’d even grab some food and just walk around for a bit after we secured the money in the truck…a nice change from sitting all day.
Dozens of stores, three stories and a retractable skylight that could turn the entire building into an open air mall if the weather was right. The weather was about the only thing right that day; the parking lot was a mass of panicked humanity and I seriously doubted The Mall’s interior was any better, the lines of people that streamed out pretty much confirmed my suspicions.
A knock at the driver’s window startled me back to the present; Mitch exuded an air of impatience with his hands on his hips. “Hit the road Jack,” his muffled voice called as he jerked his thumb towards the entrance. “Sooner you do this, the sooner we can pack it up and go home!”
“Shit,” I muttered as I popped the door and jumped down from the cab. “Sorry about that man.”
“Forget about it,” Mitch’s tone was light as he climbed into the cab. “Hey and Jack, stay safe…no telling what kind of crazies might be in there.”
“You too buddy,” I threw him a half salute as I rounded the truck.
“You two do realize that we don’t get paid to talk, right?” Terry waited with bags in hand.
“Save it Collins,” Terry threw one of the sacks at my chest. “Let’s just get in and get out…I got a bad feeling on this one.”
As we approached the entrance, one of the white shirted mall security guards detached herself from a crowd of people.
“Where do you think you two are going?”
“We’re from Talon sweetheart,” Terry tapped the eagle patch on his shirt for emphasis. “Here to see if anyone needs a money pickup.”
“I don’t think anyone needs their damn money picked up anymore,” her tone grew acidic. “Doesn’t matter anyway; the mall’s locked down, no one in or out.”
“Listen honey,” Terry squared off against her and rested his hand on the butt of his pistol. “Nobody’s gonna stop me from goin’ in there and doin’ what I get paid to do. Once that’s done, ain’t no one gonna stop me from walkin’ out those doors again…clear?”
“So why exactly is it so dangerous in there anyway ma’am?” I stepped in between them; I wanted to defuse the situation before it got any worse.
She shot Terry a withering glare before she moved her gaze towards me. “Earlier in the day we had an incident, a homeless individual had made it into the mall and was attacking other customers. It wasn’t just an ordinary assault though…the man was impossible to subdue; it took three guys to hold him down long enough to zip cuff him, and that was after two cans of pepper spray and way too many blows to the head!”
“What about the victims,” I pressed, suspicion built in my gut like a ball of ice. “What happened to them?”
“Between the customers he attacked and the injuries our own guys sustained, there were anywhere from eight to ten injuries.” Her voice was husky as she pressed on; the day’s events had clearly taken their toll. “Our calls were going nowhere and the roads were gridlocked with traffic, so Milton and most of the guys volunteered to take the injured to the small aid post we have. They told me and two others to clear the mall and then to keep everyone out…that was the last time I heard from them.”
“When was that?” Even Terry had set aside his hostility in favor of answers.
“A-Almost five hours ago now.”
“All the more reason for us to go in there,” I did my best to sound nonchalant. “Find out what’s happened.”
“Not by yourselves you're not,” her composure had returned in an instant. “They’re my people and besides, I know that mall inside out, I can lead you exactly where you need to go.”
“All right then,” Terry rumbled from behind me. “Let’s go.”
I was surprised at his response until I saw the look on his face…the look that told me we were going to need all the help we could get.
The rubber soles of my work boots boomed against the linoleum floor of the mall as I ran, the terror grasped my chest like an iron vise. A door in front of me burst open, and two people staggered out from it, their lips pealed back in vicious snarls to reveal gore-drenched teeth.
The soles squealed as I stumbled to a halt; the growls and screams behind me grew louder and closer. My head whipped from side to side in a desperate search for safety, a narrow hallway to the left looked clear.
What the fuck is going on here?! My mind raced as I ran…it had been so fast; Terry had heard a noise and then they were on him, people but not people. They looked normal, but their teeth tore into him with a rabid intensity. Terry’s screams had faded into horrific gurgles, and the wet pop of gristle was something that would haunt my dreams.
I rounded the corner with those things hot on my heels and pushed myself even harder, my breath wheezed through my lips and my lungs burned. At the end of the hallway was a dead end; the only way out was the closed doors of an elevator. I managed to put some distance between us, and almost slammed into the button for the elevator.
Motors whirred as the elevator began its descent, but I could already tell it was too late. My Glock cleared the nylon of it’s holster and I brought it into a practiced shooter’s position as I turned to face the horde. Those horrible not-humans surged down the hall after me, their pus-colored eyes in the dim hallway made me shudder in revulsion.
The Glock bucked in my grip, and the first round slammed into the wall in a puff of plaster. A second blast: this bullet buried itself in the front one’s chest and sent it to the floor where it slid to a bloody halt; the third shot took a well dressed business man in the shoulder and spun him like a top; a lucky fourth shot nailed a woman in the head, a jogger if her tights and tank top were anything to go by.
A ding behind me indicated that my elevator had arrived; I raced back towards the doors, my shots coming as fast as I could squeeze the trigger. The doors eased shut as one of the horde raced towards them; a loud bang told me that they hadn’t stopped fast enough. I mashed the third floor button and then sagged back against the elevator, my breath came like the pant of a dog.
“Mitch, come in!” I tried my radio as the elevator trundled upwards but there was nothing, not even static. The smashed ruin on my hip explained why, I must have caught it on something as I ran. “Goddammit!”
The light for floor two lit up above me, and I dropped the magazine from my pistol into my hand. Two brass casings glinted up at me in the elevator’s harsh light; that meant I had three bullets left, including the one in the chamber.
As I slapped the magazine back home, I realized that the security guard was probably dead. After she’d gotten us to our pickup store, she’d gone off to the aid post on her own…shortly after those things had shown up.
Why the fuck did we even come in here? I despaired. There was no fucking point!
“C’mon Collins, you’ve got this!” I psyched myself up as the elevator passed two. With three bullets, no radio and all my backup dead or missing it seemed bleak, but I knew I’d be dead if I gave in.
The elevator hit three with a soft ding and the elevator doors groaned open. I had only taken a few steps onto the third floor concourse when an inhuman screech came from beside me, the thud of footsteps once again right in my ear.
I stumbled back and the thing went full tilt into the railing, before it could react I stepped in and with a roar of rage shoved it over the lip…it screeched until it hit the bottom with a messy sounding splat.
Two more were coming at me from the other side of the concourse and I raised the Glock: bang, my bullet hit the bottom corner of the first one’s neck; bang, my second bullet took the other right in the sternum. I could hear the screams from below as my shots attracted the horde’s attention, the pound of feet on stairs told me they had figured out another way to the upper level…to me.
“Shit, shit, shit!” I muttered, as I looked around, desperate for a store with a security gate. Finally I spotted an electronics shop, the cowling of a shutter peeked out from its ceiling. The screeches were earsplitting in their proximity and I raced into the shop, my heart pounded like a jackhammer.
The shutter came down with the tortured squeal of metal on metal; its latch engaged with a satisfying clack. A tortured face slammed into the gate inches from my own, its snapping teeth sent me crashing backwards onto my ass. I didn’t even both to stand up, just slid until my back slammed into a display cabinet at the other end of the store.
The gate groaned at the weight of the horde, a horrifying bass to their own screeches and screams. Tears stung my eyes as the gibbering horde of ex-humans pushed at the gate, they’d bust through it soon and then they’d eat me alive. I cried; great ugly sobs that only served to further spur the frenzy of the things outside the gate.
I couldn’t even fight them; I only had one bullet left. One bullet I thought as I glanced at the Glock, a grim realization came to mind.
I only had one bullet left…but one bullet was enough.