Going about it differently this time, got the cover pulled together before the story. Ladies and germs: Danielle Kennedy, one-legged Marine and Iron Chef, going to guns on the stenches. Still slated for an August release, though. :)
The third entry into The Last Town serial is now available. In this episode, the town begins to enact Barry Corbett’s plans to turn Single Tree into a desert stronghold, while to the west, Detective III Reese works with the worn-down LAPD to try and maintain some semblance of order as Los Angeles unravels. This one clocks in at 71 pages by my count, though Amazon apparently counts pages differently than I do.
Episode 4 is forecast to be available in August.
Just a quick note to let you fine folks know that The Last Town #3: Waiting for the Dead is available for pre-order on Amazon at the following link. I wanted to give the pre-order functionality a trail run, and this seemed like a safe product to do it with. The serial addition should be automagically available on June 15, 2015.
One of the best books I think I’ve ever written is called White Tiger, a sexy thriller about revenge, international intrigue, and good, old-fashioned martial arts action with gunplay thrown in for good measure. I co-authored this piece with the redoubtable Derek Patterson, and our approach was pretty simple: I wrote about Manning, and Derek wrote about SFPD Inspector Hal Ryker. About 70% of the way through, Derek had to drop off, so I picked up the rest–sad, since there’s no telling what magic Derek could have brought to the finale. It took a long time to pull this one off, due to the copious research that was required, even though I was very careful to pick locations I know personally (San Francisco, Japan, and China), but the end product is worth it. All for nothing, though–White Tiger barely sells more than Family Ties, which if I sell one copy every two months is almost cause for celebration.
Just the same, I consider White Tiger an overlooked jewel in the firmament of my literary endeavor, so I thought I’d give it some face time. So meet the story’s main protagonist, Jerome Manning, fixer extraordinaire:
The Fujianese weren’t that hard to detect, even for a supposedly hapless gaijin like Jerome Manning. They sat in their parked car across from the Mansions at Azabu Towers, an extended-stay facility in Tokyo’s Minato-ku ward less than a mile from the crowning indelicacy that was Tokyo Tower. Despite having risen from the ashes of World War II under American stewardship, the Japanese loved all things European; Tokyo Tower was nothing more than a copy of Paris’s Eiffel Tower, although substantially less romantic. Manning had long grown used to the ugly up thrust—after all, his own home in Japan was just another half mile past the tower. Manning wished he was there now, kicking back on the couch and watching some inane Japanese TV show. Regrettably, work prevented that.
The men in the Toyota sedan sat and smoked, unaware of Manning’s covert surveillance even though he was only twenty feet away. One of them, sitting in the passenger seat, spoke into a cell phone endlessly. Manning made him as the team leader, and took several pictures of him with his smartphone. The Chinese did not notice this.
Time for some close-ups, Manning thought to himself as he approached the car from the rear. He put the phone to his ear and pretended to be in the middle of a difficult conversation, speaking a spattering of Serbo-Croatian curses he had learned some years ago. He paused next to the vehicle and took three quick photos while still holding the phone to his ear, pretending to listen carefully to the nonexistent conversation. He then slid the phone inside his jacket pocket, his fictional conversation over. The men in the car looked at him. Not in suspicion; it was just something to do while waiting.
Guess they don’t recognize me …
Manning took a gamble and approached the car as if noticing it for the first time. The passenger window was open, and the man with the cell phone looked at him as he strolled up to the vehicle.
“Roshia Taishikan wa doko ni aruka gozonji desuka?” he asked in less-than-perfect Japanese. Excuse me—where is the Russian embassy?
The man barked back something in a language that was neither Japanese nor English, or even Mandarin, yet Manning deciphered it as a Chinese provincial dialect. Fujianese, he was certain. Manning stared back, perplexed for a moment, then the man motioned him away from the car. Manning bowed slightly, and resumed his walk up the street. He crossed it and walked to the slab-like Azabu Towers main building. He pushed through the glass doors. There were several people milling about in the lobby—some were definitely Chinese, but their presence didn’t necessarily implicate them as associates of the Fujianese thugs outside. While waiting for the elevator, Manning kept his eyes on the marbled lobby, hands clasped behind his back. No one seemed unduly interested in him.
One man, sitting in an overstuffed lounge chair with a copy of the Daily Yomiuri on his lap, was chatting into a cell phone. While he wasn’t apparently interested in the tall foreigner in the elevator bay, he was in a perfect position for reconnaissance. Manning watched him from the corner of his eye. Was the man Chinese? He couldn’t tell, though he had an eye for such things; then again, Asians mistook each other all the time. Koreans would approach a Chinese thinking he was a fellow Korean; Japanese might be approached by a Taiwanese. Manning frowned. It could have been entirely coincidental, and how often did one see an Asian man using a cell phone? Asians lived or died by the gadgets.
The man disconnected and placed the phone on his lap. He picked up the Japanese-language newspaper and thumbed through the pages. He wasn’t reading it, just gazing at the pictures.
The elevator arrived and Manning stepped inside. Chinese.
He rode alone in the elevator to the ninth floor. The hallway was deserted; it was early afternoon, and most of the guests and residents were out. Manning walked to his suite, rapped on the door once, and dipped his keycard into the lock. He opened the door slowly.
“Ke jian bao Bái Hu,” he announced as he stepped through. It is the White Tiger.
Chen Gui, his current charge, stood in the short hallway inside. He was a short, cherubic Shanghainese with a potbelly who enjoyed wrapping himself in extravagance like a fine coat. He also held a Taurus .380 pistol with both hands. The barrel wavered back and forth. Chen Gui was trembling.
Manning closed the door behind him. “Put that down,” he said evenly.
Chen Gui let out his breath in a rush and nodded. He lowered the pistol and pulled a kerchief from his jacket pocket. He used it to dab at the sweat that beaded on his shaven head.
“Where’s your nephew?” Manning asked. He remained standing by the door.
“Chen Song!” Chen Gui barked. “Guo lai!”
From the small hallway leading to one of the bedrooms, a tall Chinese man stepped into the clear. He wore all black and gray, and his long hair was tied back in a ponytail. Raffishly handsome, he looked at Manning with a smirk as he slid his Beretta 92 pistol into a shoulder holster.
Manning didn’t bother to smirk back, just pushed past the two men and walked into the living room. The drapes had been closed; Manning opened them slightly.
“Don’t do that!” Chen Gui shouted in English. “They can see us in here!”
Manning looked back at him. “This is the only room with closed drapes,” he said. “That’d be a pretty big clue right there, don’t you think?”
Chen Gui wiped his face with his kerchief. “You saw them?”
“Four on the street. One downstairs in the lobby.” Manning pulled his phone and showed the pictures to Chen Gui. “Recognize them?”
Chen Gui scrolled through the photos, looking at them carefully. “Yes, all of them. All Fujianese.” Manning reclaimed his phone as Chen Gui stalked to the cream-colored sofa and threw himself onto it.
“Damned Fujianese! We Shanghainese are too charitable—I should have had them killed years ago!” he said, holding his face in his hands.
Manning checked his watch. Chen Gui looked up at him from the couch as Chen Song slipped into the matching love seat. His movements were as sinuous as a cat’s.
“How did they find us?” Chen Gui asked.
Manning pointed at Chen Gui. “Wearing a flame red suit probably wasn’t such a good idea,” he said. And it was true; Chen Gui, lover of all things ostentatious, was indeed wearing a red suit. It looked ridiculous, especially to a Westerner like Manning. But to a Chinese, red was the most auspicious of colors, the color of good fortune.
Chen Gui looked down at his suit, and his face hardened. “How dare you make fun of me at a time like this!”
Manning waved for him to be silent. “Keep your voice down.”
Chen Song looked up at the taller American with hard eyes. “Watch how you address my uncle,” he said.
Manning looked directly at him. “I don’t work for you, dipshit.”
Chen Song got to his feet, facing Manning. His eyes flashed with anger; Manning did nothing more than cross his arms.
“Stop!” Chen Gui hollered in Chinese. “No fighting now!”
Chen Song looked from Manning to his uncle and back again. After a moment of internal debate, he slowly settled back into the love seat’s embrace, but his thin smirk said it all: This is not yet over.
Manning remained unperturbed. He knew it would infuriate Chen Song more than anything else; like his uncle, he was a vain man, but his vanity centered on his masculinity. Not being taken seriously would bug him. Manning liked that.
“How will we get out of here?” Chen Gui asked.
“The first thing you need to do is change out of that damned suit. You too, Chen Song—both of you have to dress more, ah, casually.”
“I have other clothes with me,” Chen Gui said crossly. “What about the men in the street? And the one in the lobby?”
“There’s only one way out of here, and that’s down the driveway. We could make a break for it and try to get to one of the Azabu Juban stations, but frankly, I’d rather not be tied to public transportation.”
“Agreed. You have a car?”
“Good.” Chen Gui seemed placated for a moment, then suddenly remembered his original questions. “But the men—”
“The men on the street are less important to me than the one in the lobby. He’s the trip wire. The elevators come out right in front of him, and there’s no way for him to miss you.”
“So what to do about him? Can’t you just kill them? Isn’t that what we pay you for?” Chen Gui was becoming agitated again.
Manning looked at the smaller man. His face was still composed into a placid mask, but there was steel in his voice when he spoke.
“I kill when I have no other options,” he said. “And the reason I picked this place as a safe house is because they can’t move on us. The Russian embassy is right up the street, and so is a police station. There are cameras everywhere, and people of all races mix here. But the things that make this place reasonably safe also prevent me from doing what you ask. Understand?”
Chen Gui fell back against the sofa and seemed to deflate. “So what do you want to do? Just wait?”
“I have a plan. We’ll wait for about an hour or so, then we’ll make our move. In the meantime, let’s get you something to wear that’s a little less … loud.”
The hour passed with lethargy. Chen Gui groused about the outfit Manning insisted upon—a pair of khaki slacks and a dark polo shirt, over which he would wear Chen Song’s jacket. Chen Song had no issue changing into a similar outfit. Then Manning took their bags—they had one suitcase each, as he had told them—down to the lobby. The Fujianese man was still there, thumbing through a magazine, his cell phone in his lap. He did not look up as Manning toted the bags past him and to the bellhop, where he arranged for a Japan Airlines pickup. The bags, at the very least, would be ready for the 7:05 p.m. flight to Shanghai.
Manning then returned to the room and briefed the two Chinese on his plan. They listened attentively and quietly, and if they disagreed with the plan, they kept it to themselves. They had very little choice in the matter. All because they had crossed the rival Fujianese gang by undercutting the prices of illegally-transported merchandise, which in turn was sold on the market by their yakuza partners. Japan was still in the grips of a decade-long recession, and with quality consumer goods available at a markedly reduced price, the Japanese crime bosses enjoyed a wonderful revenue stream. But Chen Gui’s connections were better than his Fujianese counterpart’s, and he had been able to import more goods at lower prices. Logically, the competition had been enraged at being shut out, and the resulting three-day killing spree had gutted Chen Gui’s operation. Thirty-seven Chinese had been quietly murdered, and the Japanese police were just beginning to discover the bodies.
Chen Gui and his nephew had waited too long to return to China, and the noose had almost closed around them. And that was where Manning had come in, catching a flight from San Francisco to Tokyo two days ago.
He hoped he would be able to make it back alive.
“Any questions?” Manning asked after he was finished.
“Let’s get this over with,” Chen Gui said moodily. “I want to get out of this place.”
Chen Gui did as instructed. He walked out in plain view of the Fujianese in the lobby and strolled directly to the lobby restroom. The Fujianese paused only to make a quick telephone call, then followed the portly Shanghainese with quick, sure-footed steps. His face was a blank mask as he concentrated on nothing more than the next few minutes that lay ahead of him.
He did not notice the tall Westerner standing in the elevator bay fiddling with his phone, nor did he notice Manning enter the restroom behind him.
Chen Gui was standing before a urinal. The Fujianese walked into the restroom and reached inside his jacket, his pace quickening as he closed in on the Shanghainese crime boss. Chen Gui did not turn to look behind him, merely faced the wall.
The Fujianese pulled his weapon—a suppressed Ruger .22 pistol—from its holster.
He never made it. Manning was upon him in an instant, as fast and powerful as a hurricane. He slammed the Fujianese into the next urinal and expertly punched him in the side of the neck, delivering a brachial stun strike. The Fujianese gasped raggedly; his pistol fell to the floor, clattering on the tile. Manning lashed out with both hands and caught the smaller man beneath his armpits, then threw him into one of the toilet stalls. He closed the stall door behind him, then tossed the man’s gun into the wastebasket.
“Let’s go, Chen Gui.”
“Is it over?”
“Yes, let’s go now.”
“A moment,” Chen Gui said.
“What the hell for?”
“Ni yan xia le! Mei kanjian wo zai fangbian ma?” Chen Gui fairly shouted. Your eyes are blind! Can’t you see I’m pissing?
Chen Song met them in the lobby as he had been instructed. Manning mostly ignored him as he scanned the lobby for any more Fujianese he might have missed. He did take note that Chen Song’s haughty expression had fled in favor of a more suppressed appearance that fit the situation. After all, it took a strong man to maintain arrogance when he was only a few steps away from being dead.
They were apparently unobserved by anyone more malicious than the staff, which politely bowed to Manning and his charges as they headed for the door. Manning spared them only a curt nod—bad manners in Japan, but he had no time to waste. His car, a very sedate three-year-old Honda Legend, was in the nearby parking garage. Manning rushed the two Shanghainese into the vehicle, and within seconds, they were off.
“Going smooth,” Chen Gui commented, sitting in the left front passenger seat. “You can drive on the left side of the road?”
“If I can’t, we won’t be exactly inconspicuous. I want both of you to get down. Now.”
“Get down?” Chen Song echoed from the back seat.
Both men did as he instructed immediately. As they pulled past the hotel, Manning saw the group of Fujianese jogging toward the entrance. One of them glanced at his car as he drove past with more interest than he would have liked. A glance in the rearview mirror explained it; the man had seen Chen Song peeking above the doorsill.
“Smooth move, Ex-Lax,” Manning said sourly. “He just made us!”
“Ex-Lax?” asked Chen Gui.
“Never mind.” Manning gunned the Honda’s six-cylinder engine, abandoning all hope of making a clean getaway as he wrenched the car into a sharp left-hand turn down Azabudai. He checked his rearview mirror again, and caught a quick glimpse of the Fujianese running to their car. They ran right through the hotel’s well-maintained garden, trampling all matter of flora. Clearly, subtlety was not one of their hallmarks.
Fight’s on, he thought.
“We’re going to hit the highway,” he told his passengers. “Hopefully these guys will be too cheap to want to follow us through the tolls.”
“If only they were Shanghainese!” Chen Gui wailed. “Fujianese spend money like madmen!”
“I’ll remember that,” Manning responded dryly as the car accelerated past the Tokyo American Club. He took his first available right, then his first left, then left again, proceeding on for three blocks before turning left once more against a traffic signal. Horns blared and hazard lights flashed; Manning ignored the commotion. Within moments, he was guiding the car onto the Shuto Expressway. He checked his rearview mirror for the Fujianese; he remembered their car to be an older silver Toyota Grand Saloon. The problem was, the car was fairly ubiquitous in Japan, like its brother the Camry was in the US. It was a rental agency favorite, and it was relatively affordable, so he was nonplussed to see there were at least three silver Grand Saloons in the lanes behind him.
“Where are we going?” Chen Gui finally asked.
“You killed that man back there. In the hotel. Why?”
“I don’t know why you’d care, but I didn’t kill him,” Manning responded evenly. “On the other hand, I don’t get paid if you die.” He kept his eyes on the road, checking both the rearview mirror and side view mirrors regularly. He kept the speed up over one hundred kilometers an hour, which was only slightly faster than the rest of the Tokyo traffic. Finally, he found a large gravel truck he could use as cover. He switched lanes quickly and sidled up on the other side of the truck.
Chen Gui seemed shocked by the revelation. “Why didn’t you kill him?”
“I charge extra for killing.”
“Two more questions,” Chen Gui said after a time.
“Can we get up now, and what is ‘Ex-Lax’?”
The trip to Narita International Airport was quiet. Chen Gui was content to stare out the windshield, gazing at the passing scenery as Manning switched off the Shuto and onto Route 1. They hurtled past Tokyo’s fabled shopping mecca, Ginza, and past Chiba. In the distance, the Saitama River could be seen, lazily flowing into Tokyo Harbor, miles to the south.
For his part, Manning drove at a fast clip, keeping a sharp eye out for his would-be pursuers. He instructed Chen Song to keep watch out the rear window; he’d seen the car too, so he might yet prove useful.
“Aren’t you driving a little fast?” Chen Gui said at last. “The Japanese highway police are very vigilant, after all!”
“I’d rather take my chances with the police than with our Fujianese pals,” Manning replied smoothly as he switched lanes. He tucked his car in on the far side of an ambling tanker truck and reduced his speed.
“So why are you slowing, then?” Chen Gui asked.
“Just putting some bait in the trap,” Manning said. “If they’re after us, they’ll be rolling up pretty quickly. Chen Song! See anything?”
“No,” Chen Song said.
“Don’t just look behind us. Look around. Look under the tanker’s trailer. You see anyone pacing us from the other side?”
Chen Song was silent for a moment, and Manning could see him craning his neck, looking this way and that.
“Nothing,” he said after a time.
“So we lost them.” Chen Gui sighed in relief.
“Looks like,” Manning said. “Chen Song, keep your eyes sharp.” With that, he accelerated away from the truck.
The Higashi Kanto Expressway eventually led them to the Shin Kuko Expressway, and then Narita International itself. Manning merged onto the Shin Kuko Expressway interchange. Traffic was thick at the tollgate; Manning weaved his way in and out of the flow, almost brushing against a filled airport limousine bus in the process. He aimed the Legend’s grille in the general direction of the Terminal 2 car park, the only multistory parking facility at Narita.
“Even in traffic, you drive like mad!” Chen Gui groused. “You make my driver in China look like a considerate man!”
“Time’s a little short, I’m afraid,” Manning replied. “And the quicker we get out of here, the better.” The fact of the matter was that the slow traffic made Manning feel extremely vulnerable. The Fujianese had guns, items that were quite difficult to obtain in Japan. That they had evidently been willing to shoot Chen Gui in the hotel restroom meant that their grudge against him was something they weren’t about to give up easily, and that also meant Manning himself would be a primary target. In many ways, being a gaijin was a benefit in Japan, but being able to remain inconspicuous was not one of them. The quickest way for the Fujianese to get a tally on Chen Gui would be to sight Manning himself, and if he was caught in slow-moving traffic, there was no easy way to defend himself … or his charge.
In the back seat, Chen Song suddenly stirred.
“I see them!” he announced.
“Aiyah—!” Chen Gui began.
“Bie shuo le!” Manning snapped—Be quiet! He looked in the rearview mirror, but a commuter van had just merged in behind them. “Chen Song, where are they?”
“Two cars behind us,” Chen Song replied, a little breathlessly. “They definitely saw us—both men in the front of the car locked eyes with me!”
“What will we do?” Chen Gui fairly shrieked. “You can’t let them catch up to us!”
“I’m not about to. Please relax.” Manning checked the rearview mirror again, but saw nothing other than the commuter van still tailing his car. He thought he glimpsed a silver-colored car through the left side view mirror, but couldn’t be sure.
“Chen Song, is the car silver?” he asked.
“Yes, yes, the same as before!” Chen Song snapped. Manning heard the unmistakable sound of metal sliding across leather. A glance in the rearview mirror confirmed that Chen Song had drawn his Beretta from its holster and was gripping it in his right hand.
“Ba ni de qiang fàng hui qu!” Manning shouted, making both Chen Song and Chen Gui jump. Put your gun back! was the closest Manning could come to saying Put your fucking gun away! in Mandarin, and cursed the common trait shared by both Mandarin and Japanese: neither language was direct enough to suit an American.
The situation apparently wasn’t desperate enough for Chen Song to feel any particular urgency.
“I don’t take orders from a hired man!” he snarled.
“Do as he says!” Chen Gui said, turning his head this way and that nervously. “We don’t have time to argue, and I don’t want to wind up in a Japanese jail! Keep an eye on the Fujianese, you fool!”
“But what if they pull up next to us?” Chen Song asked reasonably.
“We bail out of the car,” Manning replied. “It’s that simple. Then we get lost in the confusion.”
“And if we get separated?” Chen Gui wanted to know.
“Get on the rail system. Anywhere out of Narita, then phone me when you can. I’ll come and collect you as soon as I’m able. Hao ma?”
Chen Gui merely sighed and tried to lean back in his seat and collect himself. He had started to sweat profusely.
Slowly, inexorably, the car drew nearer to the Terminal 2 parking garage. Manning jockeyed his car in and out of lanes, trying to give the following Fujianese the impression that he was headed for the departure level. Horns blared, and some drivers even shouted epithets. The noise volume grew when the following Fujianese emulated Manning, though far less artfully. Manning caught glimpses of the silver Camry in his car’s mirrors; the Fujianese were causing quite a stir, and Manning hoped that the airport police would take notice.
At last, they approached the car park ramp. Manning timed it just right, scooting past an airport shuttle bus and charging for one of the entry lanes. It would buy them a few moments, unless the Fujianese had an accident trying to follow. Manning pulled up to the gate and took a ticket; the gate lifted, and he accelerated into the parking garage, much to the consternation of the parking attendants. One of them waved Manning up to the second floor, which was his intention anyway.
“Chen Song, keep an eye out for our friends,” he ordered, accelerating up the ramp. “They’re not going to have much of a choice but to follow us.”
On the second level, more parking attendants waved Manning toward the third level. Manning ignored them and charged into the parking area, even though multilingual signs proclaimed it to be full. The parking attendants shouted and one of them trotted after Manning’s Legend for a few moments before deciding it wasn’t worth it.
“Where are we going?” Chen Gui shouted. “There’s no room here!”
“Keep calm,” Manning insisted.
Chen Gui elected to do otherwise. “There, stop there!” he shouted, pointing at the elevators that would invariably lead to the departure area. They were clearly visible, painted in whites and blues, with a mural of a cartoon seal cavorting on the doors. Manning jerked the steering wheel to the left, tires screeching as he pulled the Legend down the lane. Each space was filled.
“Where are you going?” Chen Gui screamed.
“Do as my uncle says, you fool!” Chen Song added angrily. “Are you an incompetent?”
Manning jammed on the brakes, and the tires squealed again as the Legend came to an abrupt halt. He reached into his jacket pocket and removed a key ring. He held it over his shoulder to Chen Song.
“Make yourself useful and get to that black Friendee.” Manning pointed to the late-model Mazda van, one of Japan’s more ubiquitous transports, the equivalent of a soccer mom ride in the United States. “Back it out so I can park this car in that space. Be quick about it.”
When Chen Song hesitated, Manning turned and threw the keys at him. “Hurry! Kuài dian, you idiot!”
Chen Song swallowed loudly and took the keys. “But I can’t drive,” he said finally, an admission that cost him much face, given the circumstances.
Manning didn’t know whether he should slap the younger man or just shoot him and his uncle and get out of the entire situation.
“It’s an automatic,” he told Chen Song. “Just start it, put your foot on the brake, slide the shifter in the center to reverse, and back out. That’s all you have to do.”
Chen Song grunted and threw open the door. He ran to the black, square-shaped Friendee and tried to open the driver’s door. He dropped the car keys while fumbling with the lock, then finally opened the driver’s door. Manning put the Legend in reverse and backed up quickly, giving Chen Song a little extra room. He watched as Chen Song groped about the cabin awkwardly, then finally got the Mazda started. Seconds rolled by.
This kid’s slower than a fucking glacier in February.
“Shall I get out?” Chen Gui asked nervously. His hand was already on the door handle.
“Sit tight.” Manning ran a hand through his dark brown hair. His scalp was moist with sweat and the muscles in his shoulders and back were tense.
The Friendee’s reverse lights flicked on, and the van suddenly lurched out of the space, its front tires chirping as they spun momentarily on the concrete. The Friendee pulled out and crossed the entire lane, tapping the rear bumper of another Mazda, setting off its car alarm. The horn blared and lights flashed. Chen Song looked almost panic stricken, but he had enough presence of mind to put the Friendee in DRIVE and lurch into a right-hand turn, giving Manning enough room to park the Legend. Manning gunned the engine and did just that.
“Let’s go!” he said to Chen Gui as he threw open the driver’s door. Chen Gui needed no additional hastening, though he did find it difficult to exit the Honda while still wearing his seatbelt. With a whispered curse, his pudgy fingers fumbled with the release. The belt snapped free and retracted into its recess.
Manning ran for the Friendee and threw open the driver’s door, then yanked open the van’s sliding door, shoving Chen Gui into the passenger compartment. He then tugged Chen Song out of the driver’s seat with perhaps more force than was necessary; Chen Song fell to his knees. The Friendee lurched forward. Chen Song had left it in gear.
“For the love of God!” Manning jumped in and stomped his foot on the brake. The Friendee lurched to a halt.
“Get down on the floor, where you can’t be seen! Chen Song, get in and close the door, damn it!”
Chen Song struggled to his feet and leapt into the Friendee, driving his uncle to the floor.
“Aiyah! Get off of me, you oaf!” Chen Gui screamed in Chinese.
“Sorry, Uncle!” Chen Song apologized, groping for the door. He found the handle, and yanked on it with all his strength. The door slid forward and slammed closed.
Tires squealed as the silver Camry crested the entry ramp. The Fujianese were driving a little too fast; the car rubbed paint against a cement support pillar.
“Stay down!” Manning ordered, dropping the Friendee into gear. Hanging from the mirror was a blue New York Yankees baseball cap; he slapped it on his head, then donned his sunglasses. He braced the Friendee’s steering wheel with one thigh and shrugged out of his jacket. It was the closest he could come to a disguise.
The car full of Fujianese slowed after brushing the pillar, and it now ambled down the parking aisle as the car’s occupants looked for Manning’s Legend. Manning accelerated toward the exit ramp slightly; the car alarm was still wailing, and it wouldn’t take long for it to attract the gang’s collective attention. Manning hoped they would find his car and spend a few moments milling about it before trying to actively reacquire their quarry.
By that time, Manning intended to be far away.
“I don’t understand, where are we going?” Chen Gui asked hotly. He was still lying on the floor before the second row of seats, right behind Manning. “Aren’t we getting on a plane?”
“Not from Narita,” Manning answered. He maneuvered the Bongo Friendee back onto the Shin Kuko Expressway, heading back in the general direction of Tokyo. He kept his speed centered around eighty kilometers per hour. Not terribly fast, but not terribly slow, either. He figured if the Fujianese were still on them, he’d find out soon enough.
“Then where are we going?” Chen Gui demanded.
“Haneda. And from there, you’ll go to Kansai, then onward to Dalian.”
“Dalian?” Chen Gui cried. “Why Dalian and not Shanghai? I hate Dalian!”
“Shanghai’s just a little hot right now, Chen Gui. You’d be better going into Dalian, and then lying low for a few days. I’ll arrange for transportation on the other side. I trust that Lin Feng is still the appropriate contact?”
“Yes, yes, Lin Feng is still—wait, you’re not coming with us, Bái Hu?”
Manning shook his head and checked the mirrors. “I’m afraid not. I don’t have a visa.”
“Wah! Poor planning on your part—what am I paying you for?” Chen Gui wailed.
“There’s no way the Fujianese can get to you in Dalian, so long as you’re still in good with Boss Tao,” Manning said. He checked his watch. He preferred to stay in the slow lane—that made for leaving only one side of the van open to a strafing run from a passing car, if it came to that. But the flight he had booked for his two charges would depart Haneda within a few hours, and it would take a good seventy-five minutes to get there. He had to burn up some time.
“Of course I’m still in good with Tao! That toad owes me more than I should have ever allowed him!” Chen Gui said.
“Then tonight you’ll collect on some of that,” Manning told the Shanghainese gangster. “Boss Tao won’t be able to say no, and in two days you’ll be back in Shanghai. The Fujianese might be able to tag you at the airport, but that’s the only chance they’ll get, and you won’t be there, anyway.”
“I see.” Chen Gui was silent for a long moment. When he finally spoke, there was a more respectful tone in his voice. “Bái Hu, your mind works in ways I can’t fathom. I’ve always acknowledged your professionalism, but now I must say I find it … respectable.”
Most Americans would have accepted the praise with pride; Manning knew enough about Chinese ways to be more mindful of how he responded.
“Thank you for your words,” he said in Mandarin, “but perhaps you should save them for after you get to Shanghai, yes?”
“My words are nothing, Bái Hu. I know what it is you value, and you’ll have it. As I said before, we Shanghainese are a generous people. You’ll see.”
“Can we get up now?” Chen Song asked from the very back.
“The Bái Hu will tell us when it’s safe to get up, Chen Song!” Chen Gui roared. “Now be quiet! I need to think of some things.”
For a moment, silence reigned. Then Chen Song let out a heavy sigh.
“But I have to piss,” he said, almost whining. “My kidneys are floating!”
Manning grinned. Japan had some very fine roads, but he was determined to hit every bump he could find on the way to Haneda Airport.
A little over an hour later, the black Bongo Friendee pulled into a parking space at Haneda Airport, just outside of Tokyo. It had been Japan’s primary international gateway, until the busier Narita International opened up some seventy kilometers to the northeast. However, Haneda still offered limited international traffic, though it was designated as the primary domestic hub serving the greater Tokyo area.
As they left the Friendee, Manning collected Chen Gui and Chen Song’s weapons. They most certainly couldn’t make it through the security checkpoints while carrying them, and they were no longer of any use. It was unlikely the Fujianese could catch them, since they still believed the two Shanghainese were in the Narita area. And even if they did have lookouts at Haneda, they would be covering the international terminal, not the domestic. The Fujianese couldn’t be everywhere, and it was doubtful the Japanese yakuza would wish to get involved in something as bloody as what lay ahead.
Chen Song demurred when it came to handing over his Beretta. He looked at Manning’s open hand as if it were a snake, his handsome face set in hard lines.
“Give him the gun, Nephew,” Chen Gui said tiredly.
“I’d rather throw it in the trash can,” Chen Song spat, “than give it to this yinwĕi wàiguórén!”
The insult was more than Manning was prepared to take. Before Chen Song could do more than summon a nasty look, Manning clipped him in the right arm, knocking his hand away from his holstered Beretta. He then grabbed Chen Song’s wrist and yanked him forward; off-balance, Chen Song could do nothing more effective than stammer a quick curse before Manning snatched him up in morote-jimē, a three-point judo chokehold. Even Chen Gui had just started to inhale to speak by the time Manning had flung Chen Song onto his back and shoved his head into the triangle formed by his left arm. Chen Song struggled at first, but Manning merely increased the pressure; he anticipated Chen Song’s strike at his eyes, fingers curled into claws. Manning blocked the move with his right fist, rapping his knuckles into Chen Song’s wrist. After that, it was over—Chen Song began to choke out, losing consciousness. To his credit, he did so without sound, but Manning’s senses were finely attuned and he could sense the microscopic muscle relaxations cascading through Chen Song’s body as his awareness ebbed.
“Bái Hu!” Chen Gui finally gasped. “People will notice!” He cast a worried look at the parking attendants, standing in the next aisle.
Ever the practical man, Manning mused. Only Chen Gui would be more worried about attracting attention than the fact a white barbarian is choking the life out of his nephew.
Manning released Chen Song before he lost consciousness completely. He came to his senses a few moments later as oxygen returned to his brain. Chen Song’s brow clouded with anger, and as he rolled to his feet, he reached for his holstered Beretta, eyes on Manning. It was no longer strapped to his side.
Manning lifted his right hand and showed Chen Song the weapon, still in its holster.
Chen Song’s lips compressed into a thin, hard line. Even though the Beretta was mere feet from him, it might as well have been a million miles away. He could no more take it from Manning than he could jump to the moon.
“Never call me a filthy foreigner again,” Manning said. “You owe me far too much for that.”
“So you think,” Chen Song hissed.
“Enough of this fighting! We need to leave here, now!” Chen Gui snapped. “Chen Song, wipe off your pants—there’s dust all over them! You look like a street beggar!”
Chen Song looked down and slapped at the filth on his dark trousers angrily. He avoided looking at Manning as the taller man tossed the Beretta to the Friendee’s rear floorboard.
“Bái Hu, how much time?” Chen Gui asked. He checked his watch nervously.
“Not much. We need to hurry. I’ve paid for the tickets, but we still need to get them.”
“Let’s go,” Chen Gui said, and he began striding toward the elevators. They were painted with yellow flowers. Chen Song shuffled after him, casting a baleful glance at Manning. Manning kept his expression blank.
Next time you won’t be so lucky, sonny-boy.
Manning handed the E-tickets to Chen Gui and pointed out the gate information to him. Chen Gui nodded and handed Chen Song his ticket, which he accepted sullenly.
“You should go now,” Manning said. “You’ll need to hurry—your flight’s boarding in less than fifteen minutes, and you still need to get through security.”
“Chen Song, go ahead. I’ll meet you at the gate,” Chen Gui said.
Chen Song looked surprised. “Uncle?”
“Do as I say! No discussion!” Chen Gui snapped.
Chen Song hesitated for a moment, then made a hissing noise through his teeth and spun on his heel. He marched toward the security checkpoint.
Chen Gui turned to Manning. His eyes, while mindful of the environment and virtually every passerby, were no longer full of panic and fear. The old Chen Gui, Shanghai crime lord, had returned.
“Bái Hu, I’ll transfer your fee into your account by tomorrow morning. But I would like to know if you might be interested in another task while I’m in transit.”
“What would that be?”
“I need you to take care of my problems here in Japan. I need that done very, very quickly. Can this be done in less than twelve hours for … say, one hundred thousand dollars?”
Manning cocked a brow. One hundred thousand dollars was twice his usual “assistance” fee, which Chen Gui was obliged to pay in addition to his annual retainer.
“That could compromise my ability to assist you further here in Japan,” Manning answered. “As you know, whites stand out here quite a bit.”
“Yes, silly of me to be so miserly at a time like this—my ancestors would be most displeased. One hundred seventy-five thousand, then. And another twenty-five thousand if it’s done before midnight.”
Manning took a deep breath. “Two hundred thousand dollars? But Chen Gui—you can pay your own people pennies to do this, in comparison.”
“I have no one left in Japan, and the quicker this gets done, the quicker I can make my reappearance. The Yakuza are timid, but they will fall in with the first gangster who resumes the flow of goods. You know the Taiwanese are angling for the territory, and once they know I’ve left, they’ll move in immediately … once the Fujianese snake’s head is dead. Dŏngdé ma?”
“Shi. But I’ve had no contact with the Fujianese—I wouldn’t know where to find them, much less their leader.”
Chen Gui reached into one of his pockets and pulled out a card. He pressed it into Manning’s hand.
“I have a special relationship with a young girl,” Chen Gui said. “She’s very young, very lovely, but plays both sides of the fence. She’s Japanese, but she runs with the Fujianese. She is also enamored of me, because, as I’ve told you, we Shanghainese are quite generous. Do you know what I mean?”
“You have an enjo kōsai partner,” Manning replied, using the Japanese term which loosely described “assisted dating” between a young, school-aged girl and a middle-aged man. Despite the fact that it was a distasteful practice—it was practically underage prostitution, after all—Manning was nevertheless impressed that Chen Gui had managed to navigate such culturally tricky waters; most foreigners lacked the required finesse to successfully negotiate a compensated dating package with a Japanese schoolgirl.
“Yes. She is quite sweet, but requires much attention.”
“Then I can understand why you would be in a hurry to return to Tokyo. Enjo kōsai is one of the more valued and least understood relationships between a man and a young woman. I’m impressed that you successfully completed the arrangements.”
Chen Gui smiled tightly and clasped his hands behind his back, pleased with himself and pleased that Manning understood the skill that had been required in closing such a deal. Manning allowed the plump man his moment to gloat while he scanned the card. While it was written in hiragana, he could make it out. The telephone number was certainly understandable.
“Noguchi Chisako?” he confirmed with Chen Gui.
“And you say she knows where the Fujianese are? And that she would give me the information? May I ask how this might be expected to work out?”
“As I said, Bái Hu, she requires much attention, and the Fujianese snake head is far less indulgent of her tastes than I am. And she was the one who warned me to leave Tokyo immediately, as she learned of the Fujianese gang’s movement against my nephew and myself. So you see, she is truly awaiting my return.”
“I see.” It was an odd arrangement, for sure. Manning didn’t like the smell of it, but …
“You’ll do as I ask, Bái Hu?”
Manning thought about it. He looked at the card again, lips pursed.
“Once I know you’re out of Japan, I’ll make the arrangements,” Manning agreed, finally. “It will happen before midnight.”
“And now, for something completely different,” as they used to say on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. No zombies, but lots of submarines, and the author is question is none other than Craig DiLouie!
Charlie Harrison was going to war.
He walked onto the busy New Farm Wharf, sea bag over his shoulder and a spring in his step. He fidgeted, six feet of coiled energy. Then he shook it off, determined to appear cool in case anybody was watching.
He’d worked hard to get here. Naval Academy, class of ’39. He’d served as a lieutenant, junior-grade on a destroyer, steaming up and down the Atlantic for nearly three years. After the Japanese surprise attack against Pearl electrified America, he’d gotten caught up in the war fever and put in for a transfer. He didn’t want to spend the war playing cat and mouse with German U-boats. He didn’t want to play defense; he wanted to take the fight to the enemy. The Navy approved his transfer, and he attended the Submarine School in New London, Connecticut.
Now he stood on the eastern coast of Australia, ready to report to his new command.
He found the S-55 and another submarine, the S-37, tied to a tender—a big repair and support ship. Men labored among an assortment of hoses, welding lines and other gear to ready the submarines for sea. Sparks sprayed from the welding.
God, but she was ugly. Nothing like the USS Kennedy, his old destroyer with her clean lines, smokestacks, and guns. The S-55 was just a long black cylinder with a short conning tower jutting over her and a single four-inch gun on her deck. Built by the Electric Boat Company in 1922, she was one of the last boats of the Great War era.
He’d hoped for love at first sight, but she inspired neither affection nor admiration.
Two hundred twenty feet long and twenty feet wide at the beam. A complement of a dozen torpedoes, which she launched from four tubes in the bow. Forty officers and crew.
She’d seen some heavy fighting. The conning tower wore a patchwork of welded gray plates—scars of some past action.
In that submarine, he’d live ass to elbow in a cramped, dingy, smelly metal machine under the water for weeks at a time. Cramped, hot, and smelly, the S-class submarines were called “pigboats” by the sailors who fought in them. Charlie had trained on an even-older R-class submarine in New London and had gotten a taste of it.
He’d heard a depth charge attack was like being in an earthquake—a quake that could break the hull and send the boat straight to the bottom.
It was a hell of a way to fight a war. The S-55, his new home, could end up being his coffin. Living in a submarine took a special kind of man. Those who didn’t cut it were put ashore and left there. He wondered if he was as able as he was willing. If he had the right stuff.
Looking at his new home, his romantic ideas about taking the fight to the enemy became real. For the first time, he wondered if he’d made a mistake.
Too late to back out now. He steeled himself to report to the deck watch, who stood on the gangway with a .45 on his hip. Then an apparition in oilskins, gas mask, and thick rubber gloves emerged from the conning tower and descended to the deck. Carrying a metal tank and coiled Flit gun, he stomped down the gangway onto the pier.
He spotted Charlie and lowered his gas mask, revealing the grinning face of a man about his own age. He said, “You wouldn’t believe it.”
“How many cockroaches I just put out of my misery. We’re talking millions.”
“Did you get Hitler?”
The sailor laughed. “No such luck, brother. You our new junior officer?”
“That’s right.” Charlie looked up at the scarred conning tower. “When’s she going back out on patrol?”
“When she’s ready, I suppose. This geriatric tub needs a lot of love.”
“I’d like you to take me to see the captain then, if you’re able.”
The man grinned again. “I’ll be happy to do that. You got a name, sailor?”
“Lieutenant, j-g Charles Harrison.”
“Welcome to the 55, Charlie. I’m Lieutenant Russell Grady, but you can call me Rusty.”
Charlie started at that. Rusty was his senior. Charlie should have saluted. Instead, he’d ordered the man to take him to the captain.
Rusty held out his hand. Charlie shook it, grateful for the warm welcome.
He hadn’t expected to see an officer doing an enlisted man’s duties. It was his first lesson in submarines. Everybody, officers and crew alike, did their share of the dirty work. On the S-55, as the saying went, they were all in the same boat.
Charlie realized that, despite all of his schooling, he still had a lot to learn. He also thought, if even half of the crew was like Rusty, he’d feel right at home on the old S-55.
Available now on Amazon, so if you want to get your World War 2 sub action jones on, you know where to go!
For those of you who might be interested in a more offbeat tale of survival in the zombie apocalypse, devoid of military machinations and feats of derring-do by those in Army Combat Uniforms, I present Dead In The City of Angels. The product description is as follows:
Professional Hollywood stuntman Robert “Orion” Wallace is overtaken by a devastating sickness that leaves him bedridden for days. When he finally recovers, he finds that Los Angeles has been overrun by the zombie hordes, his wife is dead, and his son is missing, lost somewhere in the city. Orion’s skills as a stuntman–and his trusty Springfield .45 and 33-inch bat–come into play as he embarks on an offbeat search for his boy across the crumbling, tottering ruins of the City of Angels.
Price is at $2.99. Click on the link below to check it out!
Coming over the next couple of days is Dead in the City of Angels, a more off-beat zombie adventure set in Los Angeles. This is more of a survival tale as opposed to the high-octane military adventures I’m known for, and in this instance, I’ve partnered with Jarret Liotta to introduce a different spin on things. The story deals with a Hollywood stuntman, Robert “Orion” Wallace, coming out of a long illness to discover that Hell-A has been overrun by zombies. The city has been mostly evacuated, his wife is dead, and his son is missing. Orion sets off into the zombie apocalypse armed with a baseball bat, a Springfield XDM .45 (bi-tone, of course), and a taciturn attitude to find his boy, Miles. (Liotta provided the bat, I provided the pistol.)
The book is around 60,000 words/250 pages long, and will be priced initially at $2.99.
Here’s another excerpt, along with the cover art. Here, Orion is traveling through Los Angeles with a woman he’s partnered up with named Samantha. Regrettably for Orion, Sam has little in the way of survival skills:
They journeyed back out into the quiet streets. The sun was very hot and, as so often is the case in LA, clouds were completely absent from the sky. They trudged along in silence, each contemplating the bleak future, the dismal present, and the uncomfortable load they were being forced to bear.
It wasn’t the one they had targeted, but they found a Ford dealership before they reached the other. The walk had been much farther and more exhausting than Orion had imagined it would be, so he was grateful to find the dealership when they did.
“I’ve never stolen a car before,” Samantha said, “so you’ll have to show me how to do it.”
Orion rolled his eyes. “It’s a dealership, Samantha. They have these things called ‘keys’ on the premises.”
“Listen, I’m sorry for what’s happened to you, but do you have to be such a raging asshole?” Samantha snapped.
Orion snorted. “Do you have to be a functional idiot?” he shot back. “Use your head. If I could hot-wire a car, we’ve walked past hundreds of candidates, right?”
Samantha glowered at him but said nothing.
As they approached the dealership, Orion pointed at a tall, black pickup truck sitting out on the lot. It was loaded with aftermarket accessories, like a four-inch lift kit, huge off-road tires, and a thick, flat bumper that housed a winch and a sturdy, powder-coated combination push bar and brush guard.
That’s the ticket.
The building was locked, so Orion hurled a brick through a door around back. The shattering of the glass sounded as loud as thunder, and he jumped back as shards exploded inward, skating across the dealership’s tiled floor.
“Christ!” Samantha said, shielding her face.
“Sorry, I’m an amateur when it comes to breaking and entering. Keep watch out here while I check this place out.”
Samantha looked stricken. “What, you want me to stay out here?”
“Only for a couple of seconds. Follow me in and stay by the door. Watch the glass.”
Orion grabbed his rifle and switched off the safety. He pushed in through the mostly empty door frame, taking care to avoid cutting himself on any of the shards that remained behind. Glass crunched under his feet, and he was thankful for the thick soles on his boots. He took a moment to sweep some of the glass away with his foot, as Samantha wore only thin running shoes. He pointed to the cleared area, indicating she should stand there. She did as he instructed and turned to face the parking lot with wide eyes. She held her rifle in both hands.
Inside, the air was still and smelled of new rubber tires and dangling air fresheners. Orion moved through the dealership quickly but quietly, rifle shouldered. While he wasn’t a trained shooter, he’d certainly played a few over his career as a stuntman, and had even taken advanced firearms and tactics classes in Nevada in order to prepare for some shoots. He had eaten that up, and the training still remained with him.
Never thought I’d get a chance to use it at the end of the world, he thought idly.
In one darkened office marked GENERAL MANAGER, he found a wall-mounted lockbox. It was, of course, locked. Orion swore under his breath and made his way to the service bay, where he found a crowbar. He checked in with Samantha as she stood by the door, now half-hiding behind a tall potted plant.
“Everything cool?” he asked.
“For now,” she said nervously. “Please hurry.”
Orion returned to the office and attacked the lockbox with the crowbar. It took several minutes, and it wasn’t a quiet, stealthy operation. By the time the box’s door popped open, he had nearly ripped it from the wall. Inside, dozens of key fobs and key rings hung in neat rows. Orion felt like he’d just won the lottery.
He had to go through the tags on each fob in an attempt to match up the keys with the truck outside. That took five minutes, and by the time he found it, he had two dozen key sets lying on the desk behind him.
2016 FORD F-350 SUPER DUTY
SRW TUXEDO BLACK AFTRMKT LIFT/WINCH…………………………$68,670
Damn, Ford sure is proud of its trucks!
“Orion!” Samantha’s voice sounded strangled, like someone who wanted very badly to shout but couldn’t. “Orion!”
Orion bolted from the office holding the truck’s key fob in his left hand and the pistol grip of his rifle in his right. Keeping low, he scurried through the dealership, weaving around a pristine Mustang GT and a Taurus SHO. He picked his way across the field of shattered glass and found Samantha cowering behind the plant, her rifle only haphazardly pointed at the broken door.
“Something’s outside,” she gasped.
Orion put the key fob in his left pocket and shouldered his rifle, keeping to a semi-crouch. Through the many large floor-to-ceiling windows the scene appeared quiet. The couple studied the picture while each held their breath. Sun glistened off the many windshields of the fleet of cars parked outside in the lot. It was hard to see if there was anything out there at all, for the glimmers made the illusion of movement.
They were both looking at a zombie for a long moment before either realized it was right there. For some reason it stood waiting, just on the other side of a nearby car, staring inside. Yet it made no movement.
“Oh shit! There it is!” Sam whispered.
“Sshh! I see it,” Orion hissed. “Don’t move … I don’t know what— It’s not moving … That’s …”
“Let’s get out of here,” Samantha said, and her voice was barely a whimper.
“No, no. It doesn’t see us … I don’t think.”
“Well, why wait for it?” Samantha tugged Orion’s sleeve. “Come on.”
“All right, all right … Keep calm. The truck we need is right at the front of the lot.”
As he spoke, another creature appeared. It walked up behind the first zombie and came to a halt a short distance behind it.
“Aw, hell.” Orion felt sweat break out across his forehead.
Another followed right behind that one.
“Orion, we’ve got to get out of here.” Samantha was edging into full-on panic mode. From the corner of his eye, Orion could see her trying to raise her rifle and sight on the zombies while simultaneously being afraid to move. The end result was she just wound up jerking the rifle barrel up and down a little bit.
“We will,” Orion said. “Just keep your shit together, Sam.”
He watched as the zombies continued to gather outside. It seemed they were almost assembling in the area, but they did not advance upon the dealership. The gathering reminded Orion of birds settling on the same fence.
Samantha seemed to reach the same conclusion, though it did little to comfort her. “What are they doing?”
Orion shook his head. “Maybe they don’t know we’re here, but maybe they …” He didn’t know how to conclude his thought.
“Well, look. Let’s just get in a car or a truck or a boat and get the hell out of here.”
“Right. You ready to move?”
Samantha looked over at him, a surprised expression on her face. “Wait, do you have a plan?”
“Yeah. Shoot the fuckers in the face before they mass and roll up on us.” Orion looked at her rifle. “Might want to switch off the safety, like I showed you. And put the scope on your target … like I showed you.”
“Do you have a fucking plan?” she snapped.
“Yeah. We’ll shoot as many as we can, then run for the truck. I have the keys. Pretty simple, right?”
“Now would be a great time, don’t you think?”
Samantha made a frustrated noise in her throat and raised her rifle to her shoulder. She waited, then glanced over at Orion.
“Well what? Shoot one!”
Samantha turned back and sighted on a zombie. Nothing happened.
“The trigger—it won’t move!”
“Switch off the safety, Samantha,” Orion said, clearly at wit’s end. “Pay attention, and remember what I told you!”
Because if you don’t, I’m cutting you loose, he said to himself as he raised his rifle and sighted on a target of his own. He heard a muted metal click as Samantha set her rifle to FIRE.
“Ready,” she said.
“Then shoot!” Orion hissed.
Samantha fired and yelped at the loud cracking noise. A cartridge flew out of the weapon’s ejection port, bounced off the wall, and rebounded off her head. Her bullet hit one of the zombies, but too low—it tore through its cheek, blasting out fragments of teeth and jawbone as it went. The zombie jerked, but didn’t fall.
“Hit it again!” Orion shouted, dropping one of the zombies himself. “And by the way, your rifle works.”
As Samantha took another shot that hit the zombie right in the nose—it went down—Orion straightened up and fired three rounds in quick succession. Two zombies went down, another floundered from a graze across its skull but recovered and shambled forward. Samantha kept firing from behind the plant, the concussions of the reports causing leaves to explode out in the parking lot. Another zombie danced slightly as the bullets ripped through its chest and shoulders.
“Head shots! Head shots!” Orion screamed.
“Well, it’s not going to get any easier, because now we gotta boogie!” Orion lowered his rifle for a moment and pulled out the key fob. He pressed down the remote start button on it, and a moment later, he heard the throaty cackle of a diesel engine springing to life.
“Follow me!” he yelled as he stepped through the windowless door frame they had entered through. “And try real hard not to shoot me in the back!”
“Oh, go fuck yourself!” Samantha shouted.
“Yeah, you might get your wish,” Orion said as he straightened and drilled out four rounds, taking down another two zombies as they picked their way around a row of cars. Beyond them, though, he saw at least three dozen more approaching. They stepped out of doorways and climbed out of buildings. One pushed itself right through a high window. It crashed to the sidewalk below in a shower of thick glass. Orion caught a glimpse of it thrashing about, still moving, still trying to hunt.
“Wait for me!” Samantha called, pushing her way past the plant she’d been using for concealment.
Orion gunned down another ghoul at a range of ten feet. “Better idea: you move your ass!”
Samantha came out firing. She missed more than she hit, and she didn’t down a single zombie. She did shoot up a lot of cars, and even sent one round ricocheting off the parking lot, where it narrowly missed Orion’s feet.
Orion sprinted halfway to the truck, then stopped to clean up some zombies. He shot them over the tops of cars as Samantha caught up. He swung around and oriented on the idling F-350. It was clear.
“Get in the truck!” he shouted to Samantha. “I’ll hold them back!”
Samantha needed no further prompting. She slipped past Orion as he continued dropping zombies, but the closer they got, the harder it was. There were too many. And while most of them moved slowly, some were coordinated enough to get some speed up. Twice, he was almost taken down by ghouls who got close enough to grab him. He killed one, and leaped away from the other, which fell flat on its face. That was fortuitous, for a virtual stampede of zombies tripped over their fallen brother, collapsing into a pile at Orion’s feet.
“Orion!” Samantha was at the passenger door of the truck. She stood on the broad chrome running board that ran the length of the cab and yanked on the hulking F-350’s door handle.
“It’s locked!” she shrieked.
Well, fuck me! Orion sprinted for the truck, body-checking a thin, emaciated-looking zombie that lurched into his path, arms and jaws spread wide. Orion didn’t even slow down and slammed into it with such force that he sent the corpse bouncing between two cars as it fell to the ground. As he ran, he let his rifle dangle by its strap as he reached back into his pocket for the key fob. He pressed the unlock button manically, again and again and again. Sam kept tugging on the passenger door, and when it suddenly popped open, she fell right off the truck’s running board. She shouted when her bottom hit the hard concrete of the dealership lot.
“Get up!” Orion had to skid to a halt and seize his rifle again so he could gun down two zombies that immediately shambled toward Samantha. She yelped as the bullets crossed over her and ripped through the grotesqueries, returning them to death’s everlasting embrace. Without wasting a moment, she gathered her feet under her and practically launched herself into the tall truck. Orion juked back to the driver’s side as she yanked her door closed. He fired three rounds into another zombie as it reached for him, but the shots weren’t aimed. They passed harmlessly through its chest, but one round must have impacted its sternum, for it was driven back long enough for him to slip past it. He reached for the Super Duty’s driver door, yanked it open, and hauled himself inside.
But not before a child zombie wearing ripped Spider-Man pajamas grabbed onto his foot. It sank its teeth into the padded collar of his work boot and began shaking its head back and forth, like a great white shark knifing away a huge chunk of blubber from a floating whale carcass. Orion kicked at it, trying to dislodge the ghoul. The zombie’s teeth tore away from his boot, but it held onto his ankle with one stubborn, clawed hand. Orion tried to turn the rifle on it, but the truck’s steering wheel was in the way. Likewise, lying mostly on his right side, his pistol was trapped beneath his body.
“They’re coming!” Samantha screamed. “They’re coming!”
Zombies swelled outside the truck, reaching for it, moaning over the idling diesel engine. Orion felt a bolt of sheer terror rocket through his body. They were within seconds of descending upon him, where he knew they would tear him from the cab and rip him to pieces.
Orion kicked at the kid zombie one more time, then pulled his legs inside the truck’s cab. The pint-sized corpse held on, snarling like some sort of rabid animal. Orion snarled back as he slammed the door closed on its wrist. He could feel the zombie’s cold, dead fingers flexing around his ankle, still trying to pull itself toward him despite the fact that the heavy door separated it from its prey.
The zombies hit the truck like a fetid tide, slamming it with their fists.
“Go! Go!” Samantha screamed.
Orion knew he had to insert the key in order to put the pickup in gear. He fumbled with it, trying to slide the key inside the ignition lock on the steering column. The cab was filled with the moans of the dead and the terrified shrieks of Samantha. Orion realized he was screaming as well.
Finally, he got the key in the ignition, turned it, slammed his right foot on the brake and dropped the big rig into drive. He then punched the accelerator, mowing down five zombies that had gathered at the truck’s grille. Their fingernails left scratches in the pearlescent paint as they went under, and the big Ford bounced up and down as it powered right over them. Despite everything, Orion was impressed. The truck was not only big and well protected, it was one powerful piece of machinery.
Gee, I kind of don’t miss my Dodge so much anymore.
He fought with the wheel momentarily as the rear wheels spun out and the truck fishtailed across the street, its big bed swinging back and forth and taking out even more zombies. One ghoul grabbed onto the big side-view mirror and held on for a moment before Orion cranked the wheel to the right and sent it flying across the sidewalk on the other side of the street, where it bounced off the thick metal base of a streetlight.
“Ain’t but one way out, babe,” Orion muttered, thinking of a favorite Allman Brothers’ song. Then he started laughing, as he remembered the next line. “And Lord, I just can’t go out the door!”
More zombies filled the street, a virtual chorus line from a nightmare—things that were once haggard old women and grisly men, tall business suits and teenage goths, and even some child-size creatures that scurried around the legs of the bigger monsters.
“Hold on!” he said more to himself than Samantha, plunging the truck right into the heart of the massing dead. In a second, zombies were splashing over them like the scrub brushes of an indoor car wash. Several flew right over the brush bars and onto the hood, while others were smacked and thrown off to the sides in both directions by the heavy bumper. The new tires of the truck jerked and bumped over any number of bodies and random limbs as they made their way down the street. Orion cranked the wheel left and right, trying to spare the front end of the vehicle from as much punishment as he could. Even though it was well fortified by the aftermarket push bars, he didn’t want the radiator to be damaged—he’d been there before. It was a hot day and he very much felt the diesel-guzzling, fire-breathing engine under the Ford’s broad hood needed a lot of cooling. And then there were other vehicles in the street, those that had been abandoned or had been involved in traffic accidents. It was a nightmarish obstacle course from hell, and the truck’s cab was filled with the sounds of multiple impacts, snarling moans, and Samantha’s never-ending screams of terror. Not to mention Orion’s own.
Ahead, he saw a clearing in the street—they were approaching the end of the mob. Orion stomped down on the accelerator and the truck leaped forward, the bellow of its huge diesel engine sounding almost like a lion’s roar. More necrotic bodies spun away from the rig’s reinforced front end, tumbling across the street and plowing into abandoned vehicles or other zombies. The big Ford left a wake of spasming corpses behind it, corpses that still tried to pursue the truck despite broken bones and perforated body cavities.
As they cleared the mob, five or six of the creatures still clung to the truck in various places—two on the brush bars at the front of the vehicle, others with greedy arms clutching over the side of the open bed.
“They’re holding onto the truck!” Samantha squealed.
“You might want to shut up and put on your seat belt,” Orion told her as he took his foot off the accelerator and let the truck slow down. Keeping his right hand on the wheel, he reached back with his left, grabbed his own seat belt, and pulled it across his body. Samantha did as he told her and Orion heard her belt click into place.
“Brace yourself and hold on!” he shouted. Samantha pushed herself back into the padded leather seat without a word. Orion glanced over at her, then slammed on the brakes. The big truck’s anti-lock brake system thrummed like a quartet of snare drums as it shuddered to a sudden halt, its big, knobby tires dragging along the pavement in fits and starts.
The stop threw the two zombies off the truck’s grille, along with a couple in the back. Orion goosed the accelerator and drove right over the corpses flopping around on the street in front. He grimaced a bit when he heard the sounds of skulls and bones being crushed under the heavy tires, like plastic bottles being stomped and popped. There was some frantic scrabbling against the truck’s underside as the big rig rolled over the bodies without even slowing down.
Orion sped on, heading north on Sepulveda, while Sam took a moment for an inventory of what was happening behind them.
“That was fantastic! You must have—shit! They’re still on us. Orion, there’s two … no, I think there’s three hanging on. On the back! They’re still on the back!”
Orion checked the mirrors. Sure enough, there were zombies still clinging to the truck. He swerved the pickup left and right in an attempt to shake them off, but they clung fast. Ahead, he saw another abandoned car. He sliced the truck toward it, bringing the truck’s right fender within six inches of the car’s bumper. The zombie hanging on that side of the truck bed slammed into the car with a sickening crunch and cartwheeled through the air. It had been torn in half. The impact jerked the truck sideways and Orion lost control for a second, fighting to get it back under his command as it swerved around on the road. He glanced in the rearview mirror and saw the legs and lower torso of the zombie flop to the ground at the roadside. A pile of ravaged meat.
“Got him!” Samantha called out. “You—”
She screamed. The upper half of the mutilated zombie had tumbled into the bed of the truck. It raised itself over the lip of the spray-lined bed and started slapping one hand against the tempered glass at the rear of the cab. In the rearview mirror Orion saw it was staring at Samantha with flat, lifeless eyes. It didn’t even seem to be pissed off that it had been torn in half.
“My God! It’s still alive! It’s still moving!” Samantha cried. The zombie’s ravaged abdomen left a painting of crap-colored goo all across the black plastic bed liner as it moved.
Meanwhile the two other creatures continued holding on at the other side, struggling to hoist themselves up and over into the back.
“Hold on,” Orion warned. He hit the brakes as hard as he could, jerking the half-severed creep straight up flat against the window, where it crashed and fell back, leaving a disturbing splash of bile and goo. Orion slammed the truck into park, unsnapped his seat belt, and threw open the door. The juvenile zombie was still there, clinging to the running board. It was severely scraped up, but still moving. Orion planted his boot right on its head, crushing its skull with two powerful stomps. At long last, the hand clutching his ankle went slack and fell away.
“Jesus, where the hell are you going?” Samantha shouted.
“Just taking out the garbage,” Orion said. “Sit tight.”
He slammed the door closed and stepped toward the rear of the truck. The two ghouls that had been clutching to the side of the truck fell to the street on unsteady legs, their eyes on him, wide and unblinking. The zombie in the bed hissed as it slithered toward him, trailing a streamer of ochre-colored intestines. Orion appraised the situation for a moment, then reached into the bed, grabbed one of the mangled half-monster’s wrists with both hands, and hurled it right at the two remaining zombies. The impact knocked one of them on its ass, but the other slumped against the truck’s dented fender and slid toward him, reaching for him with gray hands.
Orion pulled his pistol and shot it right in the face at less than three feet. The effect was dramatic—the back of the corpse’s head exploded outward, pelting the other zombie with gore as it tossed aside its severed compatriot and slogged its way back to its feet. It ignored the bloody gruel that clung to it. Orion shot it right in the mouth and it fell to the street as if poleaxed. That left the half-zombie, which was already crawling toward him as fast as its dead arms could move it. Orion looked down at it.
Save the ammo for the real threats.
He looked around and saw more zombies were stepping out of doorways and crossing the sidewalks to get at him. He pulled open the driver’s door and slipped behind the wheel.
“You all right?” Samantha asked.
“Never better,” Orion said as he threw the truck in gear. “At least not this week.”
He stomped on the accelerator and the big Ford surged down the street.
Next up, and I’m talking maybe two or three weeks: The Last Town #3.