So in the midst of all this zombie mayhem I’ve created, I’ve been slowly nudging City of the Damned into print. As I started the process, I decided that I wanted to restore a good chunk of material that I’d tossed out when I was shopping the book around the traditional publishing industry. Back then, conventional wisdom was that a book should be no more than 80,000 words long; the original cut of CotD was 121,000. Way too big, and I was getting a lot of bounces due to the book’s length.
All right, enough publishing talk! Another preview of the upcoming The Rising Horde, of which draft #1 is complete and will be heading out for reader reviews after I do some body-and-fender work…
In this slice, the dead make it to Padre Island, down in Texas. Usual disclaimers apply, this is first-draft stuff, and no promises it will remain in the final version.
With the entire Padre Island National Seashore ordered closed to the public, the few park rangers on post had the rather dubious duty of driving down the park’s 119 mile length to shoo away the campers which either hadn’t heard the broadcasts or had elected to ignore them. There were only three rangers on duty, so that meant someone had to stay behind and turn away any people who might be tempted to take a walk along the shore. The rangers drew straws for it, and Bill Harrington, a silver-haired sixty-year-old with watery eyes shielded behind wire-rimmed glasses had been the lucky winner. Harrington would stay behind and keep an eye out on the park’s entrance, while Harlie Yates and Jessica Shaver took the F-150 SuperCrew down the beach. Harrington felt guilty about pulling the winning straw, and he’d tried to trade with one of the women, but they had declined. Fair was fair, and the truth was, they didn’t really want to deal with any clueless members of the public anyway. If they were dumb enough to come to the park after it was officially closed, then they’d probably try and bull their way inside by throwing around whatever weight they might have, and who wanted to deal with that?
Not that the campers are going to be any easier to handle, Harlie thought to herself as she followed the broad-bottomed Jessica Shaver to the pickup. Jessica fairly waddled when she walked, and that was on the asphalt; on the white, sandy beaches of Padre Island, she could barely do even that. Where Harlie was on the short and slender side, Jessica was the epitome of tall and fat; at almost six feet tall and probably close to 230 pounds, Harlie wondered how far she was from that fatal stroke or coronary, and when it struck, would a beef brisket sandwich be found clutched in one hand?
Try to be a little more charitable, Harlie, she chided herself. Just a little more, if you can stand it.
The two women climbed into the truck, Jessica behind the wheel, Harlie riding shotgun figuratively as well as literally. While the rangers were not usually armed while out in public—it was very rare for them to carry firearms in view—these were unusual times, and the fall of Laredo had been all across the news. Offshore, the Coast Guard and Navy were patrolling, their ships in sight of the two rangers as they headed south down the island, the F-150 rolling across the powdery sand. There was talk of National Guard or regular Army soldiers augmenting the rangers, but so far that hadn’t materialized. Until that happened, the rangers were to keep close to their vehicles and keep their firearms on their persons at all times. The word had already gone out that the zeds could only be taken down by a direct shot to the head, something that Hollywood made look easy but in real life was pretty darned difficult under most conditions. It was for that reason that Jessica drove; Harlie was a much better shot, and even though both women had marksman badges, Harlie was dozen times more proficient with the M16.
“I’ll do the drivin’ and you do the shootin’,” Jessica told Harlie.
“No problem,” Harlie said. She had the M16 slung over her shoulder and a .40 caliber Glock 23 on her belt. Jessica wore her own pistol as well. They left the shotgun with Harrington since he would be solo until their supervisor arrived, and he was driving down from Austin, where he’d been visiting family. At least with the shotgun, Harrington had a chance of being able to deal with whatever might pop up—even if it was a zombie trying to break into the ranger station at the park entrance to eat him.
The rangers passed several vehicles on their way out of the park. No one flagged down the marked pickup truck, so it seemed these folks were in a righteous hurry to get the heck out of Dodge and back to wherever it was they came from. Jessica reported the traffic back to Harrington over the radio and drove on, dropping the truck into four-wheel drive when the sand became a little looser and deeper. In the pickup’s bed, several planks rattled about. If the truck managed to get stuck, they would use the planks to free it.
It was a mostly lovely day on the island. The breeze was a constant refresher rolling in off the green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and there wasn’t much seaweed despoiling the white, sandy beaches. Nor was there much oil either, which was always a welcome circumstance, though Harlie figured the oil was preferable to the occasional swarms of Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish that oftentimes washed ashore. While she’d never been stung by one, she had seen the effects of those who had stepped on their tentacles with bare feet. The result of several hundred poisonous triggers injecting their payloads into human flesh was never a good thing.
After twenty or so miles into the four-wheel drive portion of the beach (only the first eight or so miles of beach were specifically tended to so passenger cars could get in and out), they came upon their first campers. They were packing it, but moving at a snail’s pace. When Jessica braked to a halt beside their red shell tent and two ATVs, the deeply tanned young man and woman looked at them with desultory eyes. A pair of boogie boards were already strapped to each ATV.
“I know what you’re gonna say,” said the man as soon as Harlie rolled down the window. “We’re already getting ready to move out.” He wore red board shorts and no shirt
“We’re sorry about this,” Harlie said, “but it’s for your own good. There really isn’t much protection if those things make it up here.”
“Well, it’s not like they can swim or anything,” the man groused. His long red hair flew around his face in the stiff offshore breeze.
“We don’t know about that,” Jessica told him. “You do yourselves a favor and maybe move a little bit faster, all right? The park’s been closed for hours.”
“We only heard about it from some other campers who were leaving,” the girl said. She wore cut-offs and a halter top that did little to conceal anything that lay inside. A red bandana was tied around her head, keeping her raven hair mostly in place. With the bandana and deep tan, she looked like an Indian squaw from a cheap 1970s television movie.
“That’s all right, just so long as you’re going to head out. Really, it’s for your own good. And don’t stop anywhere on the island—keep on going until you get to Corpus,” Jessica said. Corpus Christi was the nearest city, and it was already under a growing guard. The local police had all been called to duty, and the Navy and Army had contributed personnel to assist them with securing the city. That was one good thing about being a military town, Harlie thought. There was always some muscle to be had from the government when things began to get a little wobbly.
“Yeah well, we have to stop at the main lot to get my truck and load up the ATVs onto the trailer,” the red-haired man said. His sour expression didn’t change a bit, and he favored the two rangers with a frosty glower.
“That’s fine,” Harlie said before Jessica could give him what-for over his pissy attitude. “You can get your truck. But keep going until you’re across the bridge and in Corpus. It’s not safe anywhere on Padre, and there’s a mandatory evacuation for both north and south Padre anyway. Stop if you need gas or something, but otherwise, keep moving. And you might want to put some elbow grease into it, this is the real deal. Pack up and leave, folks.”
The man sneered at her, but his companion put a hand on his shoulder. She nodded to the rangers and favored them with a thin smile. “We will,” she promised. “Let’s get the tent packed up, Roddie.”
“Thanks, and have a good day,” Harlie said. “Sorry about all this, but there’s not much we can do.”
The man grunted and turned away from the truck, shuffling toward the tent. The girl waved and went to join him. Jessica took her foot off the brake and slowly accelerated away.
“Well, wasn’t he just a breath of fresh air,” she complained.
“Their vacation’s ruined,” Harlie said. “They don’t look like they’re from around here, so it’s probably not like they have lots of opportunities to enjoy camping on the beach.”
Jessica harrumphed again and drove on. They passed more vehicles heading north, and while some folks waved—“They must be locals,” Jessica said—most simply stared back at the rangers as they passed by. They encountered some more tardy campers, including one family which hadn’t heard anything about the park being closed…but had wondered about the sudden migration from the south that had kicked up. They’d spent most of the time fishing in the surf, and just watched the collection of four-wheel drive vehicles drive past their 1980s-vintage Chevy Suburban. The rangers urged them to leave as soon as they possibly could, and the family agreed. As they pulled away, Harlie saw the campers set off to work and begin to break down their two tents and pack up their belongings. Unlike the younger couple several miles back, they moved with alacrity.
The F-150 rolled further down the beach, its tires spinning every now and then whenever it hit a patch of unusually soft sand. But the hardy vehicle soldiered on and essentially plowed through whatever the beach had. Harrington reported in twice, confirming that beach combers and campers were in fact fleeing the park. He asked how things were going for them, and Harlie told him everything so far had been a cakewalk.
“Hey, did a guy with long red hair and a girl come by on two ATVs?” she asked him.
“Roger, they came through about five minutes ago. As a matter of fact, they just got their truck trailer loaded up with their ATVs, over.”
“Great, just checking on them. Over.”
Fifty-four miles down the beach, they came across an old International Harvester Scout II sitting on the beach. The passenger door was open, and the vehicle’s tail gate was up; as the F-150 drew near, Harlie leaned forward in her seat and looked at the battered four-wheel drive utility vehicle. It had Texas plates, and it had a Padre sticker on it; whoever drove the vehicle was a local. It looked as if the campsite around the vehicle was in the process of being broken down. But there was no one in sight.
“Well, ain’t this a little odd,” Jessica said. She continued driving toward the solitary vehicle but took her foot off the accelerator. The F-150 slowed quickly in the sand. Harlie pulled the M16 toward her and put on her wide-brim hat when the truck finally drifted to a halt about forty feet from the Scout.
“I don’t see anybody around,” she said. “Let me get out and check around. Stay here. If you see anything fishy, lean on the horn.”
“Uh, hold on now,” Jessica said. “I’m technically the senior ranger here—”
Harlie laughed and flicked a strand of straw-blonde hair from her eyes. “But if something goes down, which one of us can run back to the truck faster?”
“Good point,” Jessica said. “So I’ll just sit here in the truck and keep a watch on things.”
“Cool.” Harlie unfastened her seat belt and threw open the F-150’s passenger door. The wind was constant, moving across the beach at around eight knots or so—a relatively stiff breeze, and it carried with it spray and salt from the surf which she tasted immediately. Harlie closed the door behind her and turned a full 360 degrees, the M16 in her hands. She walked around the idling truck, looking toward the surf, then back at the dunes that faced the Gulf. There was no sign of life beyond a gaggle of seagulls floating overhead as they hovered in the breeze. Harlie ignored them. She slung the rifle over her shoulder and walked toward the Scout. The vehicle had a sizeable lift kit installed on it, and large, knobbed tires. It was painted black over primer, and the chrome work fairly gleamed in the sunlight; apparently the vehicle’s owner was restoring it. Since she was something of a truck girl herself, Harlie allowed herself a moment to examine the Scout with a critical eye. Through the open passenger door, she saw the interior of the vehicle was still ratty and unrefined, with torn seating surfaces that exposed yellow-orange foam. Continuing to move around the vehicle, she came to the open tailgate. A tent had been hastily shoved inside, and it hadn’t been properly collapsed; one long swatch of weatherproofed fabric streamed out of the Scout and whipped and snapped in the wind. A plastic bottle of juice lay in the sand, and half its contents had spilled from its open mouth. The fluid spill was still vaguely damp. Two polyester and canvas camping chairs sat nearby. One of them had been folded neatly, but the other one lay on its side. The heel of a pink flip-flop peered out from beneath the fallen chair.
Harlie felt something tickle the back of her neck, and she did another 360 degree turn. It was during this that she saw the vague, almost indistinct footprints in the sand. Several of them, emerging from the waterline and advancing toward the camp. She turned toward the dunes, and saw two sets of tracks heading off into them. Looking down, Harlie saw the prints from the water were all around the Scout. And then they also continued on into the dunes in erratic, unusual tacks.
Harlie adjusted her sunglasses and looked back at the F-150. Jessica watched her from behind the wheel, her eyes unreadable behind her own sunglasses. Turning back to the rise of dunes before her, Harlie contemplated what she would do next. Something had obviously happened here, but exactly what it was, she wasn’t sure.
Overhead, the gulls continued to hover and squawk. Harlie looked up at them aimlessly for a moment, and noticed they were slowly sliding into position over the dunes…and examined whatever lay beyond them with great curiosity. Harlie considered this for a long moment, then pulled the M16 off her shoulder and flipped off the safety. Glancing back at the F-150, she pointed toward the dunes, then marched toward them. She heard the F-150 trundle forward, and a glance over her shoulder confirmed it stopped just short of the abandoned Scout. Jessica looked through the windshield at her, watching as Harlie slowly climbed up the dune.
The gulls were excited now, honking back and forth to each other as they bobbed up and down in the breeze. Firming her grip on the M16’s pistol grip, she powered herself up the face of the dune and slowly, very slowly, crested it. Without realizing it, she had brought the M16 to her shoulder. The gulls cried overhead as Harlie stepped across the dune’s soft summit and peered into the trough on the other side.
A half dozen shapes moved there, gray shapes dotted here and there with splashes of dark red. More red was spattered across the back of the dune, and as she watched, Harlie saw what looked to be a dismembered, disemboweled corpse at the bottom of the trough. It had been an older man, and the corpse’s eyes stared up at her without seeing. And then, the eyes moved, and the head tilted to one side; its dead gaze suddenly locked with hers, and it opened its mouth to moan. But with no diaphragm, it couldn’t take any air into its lungs, so it just opened and closed its mouth. Even then, it took Harlie several seconds to process exactly what it was she was seeing. The rest of the figures surrounding the first corpse were hunched over its remains, and that of a second corpse—this one had been a fleshy woman who laid face-down in the sand. Her buttocks and thighs were almost completely gone, and the sand beneath her was stained the color of rust from her bleeding out. But still, the corpse twitched and shuddered suddenly, as if someone had just flipped a switch and turned it on.
One of the figures crouched over the remains of the man looked up then. When its flat, lifeless, opaque eyes met hers, Harlie suddenly figured everything out.
Oh my God, they’re zombies—!
Before the zombie released its first moan, the F-150’s horn blared, long and loud. The rest of the zombies slowly took notice, rising off their haunches and turning to look up at Harlie. Harlie shot one through the head, then another, and another. Behind her, the F-150’s horn was blaring in stark, strident tones. As the zombies below her moaned and reached for her, she turned and ran back toward the beach.
Where dozens of zombies were emerging from the Gulf, their pale gray, bloodless bodies glistening grotesquely in the bright sunlight. Even though the water was only up to their knees, they stumbled about in the vigorous surf, and several of them went down, victims of the undertow. It was a horrifying sight, and it elicited in Harlie a deep-seated terror she’d never known was possible. But even though they were in shallow water, they were still well over a hundred feet out—the shelf of the Gulf of Mexico extended outward for a thousand feet at a very minor angle before suddenly deepening, one reason the undertow was so strong along Padre Island. Farther out, she saw heads breaking through the water’s surface as more of the dead moved to the shore. Hundreds of heads, bobbing up and down in the surf.
Oh dear sweet Jesus—
Jessica kept leaning on the horn, and behind her, Harlie heard a body fall to the sand. She didn’t look back, she just sprinted for the F-150 as Jessica goosed the accelerator and brought it closer to her, its tires spinning for a moment, sending up a rooster tail of sand before they found enough purchase. Harlie reached for the door handle as Jessica screamed at her from inside the cab; she saw a spray of spittle fly from the heavier woman’s mouth.
Harlie ducked to her left, and a bloodied zombie slammed into the side of the pickup with a grunt. Its head rebounded off the passenger door window, and it stumbled backward as it reached out with its left hand for her. Its fingertips grazed the sleeve of Harlie’s uniform blouse, leaving a small trail of sand-crusted blood on the fabric. Harlie backpedaled and raised the rifle as the ghoul steadied itself and came at her again. Its lips and chin were smeared with a heavy slick of dark blood, and when it opened its mouth, she glimpsed shreds of meat clinging to its teeth—human flesh, from one of the campers. Over the zombie’s shoulders, the rest of the corpses tumbled and staggered down the dune, moaning above the constant rumble of the wind and surf. Harlie fired one round directly into the zombie’s face, driving it back. When it didn’t go down, she fired again, and this time the bullet slammed directly into its forehead. It collapsed to the beach instantly, a thick ribbon of black-gray ichor funneling from its ravaged skull. Harlie pulled open the door and leaped into the F-150’s passenger seat.
“Drive!” she shouted to Jessica as she slammed the door closed. The F-150’s engine revved and its tires spun as it accelerated forward, weaving slightly in the sand. Most of the zombies moved very slowly, barely shambling forward at a fast walk, but a few of them were fast. One of them jumped into the pickup’s bed as the truck sped away, leaving the others behind.
“One a those things is in the bed of the truck!” Jessica said. Harlie turned and tried to get the M16 oriented on the figure that hauled itself into a sitting position just on the other side of the F-150’s rear window. The ghoul showed no fear of the weapon; it lurched forward and slammed its face right against the tempered glass as it released a long, quivering moan. It slammed its fists into the glass with all its strength, ignoring the fact that it was splitting open the skin across its knuckles.
“Hold on!” Jessica said, and she violently cranked the steering wheel from left to right. The pickup careened from side to side across the beach, and the zombie flew into the sides of the bed with great force. After a few evolutions, it was unceremoniously ejected from the vehicle, and it tumbled across the beach in an explosion of sand.
“That did it,” Harlie said. “It’s gone!”
Jessica was breathing heavily, and her face was flushed. She spoke between gasps. “We gotta go back,” she said. “We gotta go back through those things to get back to Bill!”
“It’s all right,” Harlie said. “Most of them are dead slow. We can get past them, and if any of them get in our way and we can’t avoid them, run them over!”
“More of ‘em comin’ out of the Gulf,” Jessica reported. The fear she felt was making her south Texas accent even heavier than usual. “Jesus! Lookit ‘em all!”
Harlie saw. Dozens of zombies waded to the shore, trailing thick ribbons of seaweed as they stepped from the foaming surf. She couldn’t believe what see saw; she’d grown up a Corpus Christi girl, the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico had never been something she’d been afraid of, even when the jellyfish were thick and the hammerhead sharks schooled right offshore. But now, the entire Gulf was like a doorway to Hell, transporting flesh-eating fiends to the bright, sandy beaches of Padre Island.
“Turn around, Jessie. We have to get back,” she said. “We can’t keep going in this direction.” As she spoke, she saw a cluster of zombies a quarter of a mile down the beach swarming around another campsite. The park rangers were too far away to make out exactly what was happening, but Harlie knew. The ghouls were feeding.
Without saying anything, Jessica slowed the F-150 and brought it into a quick turn. Several zombies tried to catch it, but they were too far away; even the fastest ones couldn’t cover the distance between them and the truck as it accelerated away.
“You good to drive?” Harlie asked. Jessica was sweating, and there was wide-eyed panic in her eyes. Not that Harlie thought she looked any better. She slipped on her seat belt and secured the M16; she didn’t have to worry about the doors, they had locked automatically once the truck accelerated past 10 miles per hour. Just the same, she hit the lock button anyway.
“I’m good,” Jessica said. “Call Bill. Tell him what’s happenin’. These things might be headin’ for him right now.”
Harlie picked up the radio microphone and got in touch with Harrington as Jessica weaved the pickup around the groups of zombies. The vehicle bounced once as one of the ghouls went down right in front of it, and Jessica couldn’t avoid it. She swore as the truck fishtailed in the sand despite the four-wheel drive being engaged.
“Are you girls joking?” Harrington asked over the radio when Harlie managed to report what was going on.
“It’s no joke, Bill—you’d better get ready to go. Call the police, and keep that shotgun with you. We’re on our way out, but maybe you shouldn’t wait for us. Over.”
“Ah, I think we’re all—holy shit!” Harrington’s voice cut off abruptly, and Harlie exchanged a nervous look with Jessica.
“Call nine one one, Harlie,” Jessica said. She slalomed the F-150 through another gaggle of wet, shambling dead and then accelerated forward. The beach ahead was clear…for the moment.
“But what about Bill?” she asked, stupidly.
“Sounds like he’s got problems of his own.” Now that they were clear of the zombies, Jessica sounded more in control, and she was breathing more normally. “Make the call, Harlie.”
Harlie dropped the microphone and pulled out her cell phone. There was some signal even this far out on the island, and she dialed 911. She got through to a harried-sounding operator, and she reported what had just happened. She added that there might be a problem at the park entrance, and briefly retold the truncated discussion she’d had with Harrington. The operator didn’t ask many questions, and told Harlie that police support would be at the park entrance as soon as possible.
“How long will it take?” Harlie asked.
“I don’t know, ma’am,” was the answer.
Harlie hung up, and just as she did, the radio crackled back to life.
“Sorry guys, had a bit of a problem here,” Harrington said.
Harlie snatched up the microphone. “Bill! What happened? Over.”
“Somebody came by who was bit,” Harrington replied. “And then he died. And then he got up, but he was still dead. I had to put him down. I’m taking a handie-talkie with me and leaving the shack—there are still people coming out, but I’m going to go for my car, over.”
“Good idea,” Jessica said.
“Bill, roger that you’re leaving the shack. Be careful, and if something goes down, just leave right away. We already called the police, over.”
“Roger, Harlie. I’m going off the air now. I’ll contact you when I’m in my car, over and out.”
Jessica continued driving down the beach at a good clip but not so fast that they were in danger of destroying the truck if they hit a soft spot in the sand. Harlie scanned the shoreline for any sign of more zombies making landfall, but all she saw was water. Harrington reported in over the radio that he had made it to his car and was safe and sound after moving it to the middle of the parking lot.
“Keep your eyes open, Bill,” Harlie said.
“Oh, you can count on that,” Harrington replied. There was a quaking quality to his voice that Harlie found to be unnerving.
Funny how hearing that old Bill’s scared is more frightening me more than what we just went through.
“We’re going to be okay,” Jessica said, as the truck hurtled down the beach. Her voice was low and soft, and Harlie realized she was talking more to herself.
Not far from the turn off to the access road, and with Bob Hall Pier in sight, there was more activity ahead. A group of figures meandered up the beach, heading toward the vacant pier. As the pickup zoomed past, Harlie saw they were all zombies, at least six of them.
“They’ve made it down this far already,” she said.
“No kidding,” Harlie said, totally deadpan. She looked in the side view mirror and watched as the zombies slowly reacted to the Ford’s passage. It was almost comical; they reached for the truck like it was candy even though it was too far away to touch. “What do we do once we hook up with Bill? Wait for the cops, or…?”
“Sweetie, I’m not waiting for anything.”
Jessica turned the truck onto the access road that led out of the park. The parking lot was almost empty except for a very few vehicles, one of them being Bill Harrington’s and a single white Tahoe from the South Padre Island PD that had just rolled up. Jessica stopped the F-150 on the other side of Harrington’s car, and Harlie climbed out as the police officer in the Tahoe dismounted as well.
“They took out a couple of families on the beach,” Harlie reported.
“Who took out what?” the cop asked. He was a young guy with a deep tan and a thick mustache. His hair was full of gel and formed into a dewlap at the front. His eyes were hidden behind his dark sunglasses, and Harlie felt the weight of his gaze fall on her first, then move to the M16 she carried in one hand.
“The zombies,” Harlie said.
“Really.” The cop didn’t sound convinced, and he pushed his sunglasses up on his nose. He turned toward the beach entrance and stood up a big straighter when he saw the corpse of the zombie Harrington had shot lying on the asphalt near the ranger shack.
“I shot that one,” Harrington said as he rolled down the window of his idling Chevy Malibu.
“Why did you shoot that guy?” the cop asked.
“Because he was a fucking zombie,” the older park ranger said, indignant.
“Man, I think you’re going to need to get out of the car,” the cop said. He reached for the microphone clipped to his shoulder and called for additional units to join him at the park entrance. He also reported a shooting. When he finished, he looked down at Harrington and waved him out.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“I don’t think so,” Harrington said. He pointed toward the beach entrance. The cop turned, and Harlie did as well. A lone figure shambled toward them, stumbling past the ranger shack. Shirtless, its gray-white skin gleamed dully in the sun, marred here and there by abrasions and lacerations that oozed a gray-black ichor. When it saw the group standing around the vehicles, it picked up the pace, heading right for them. Its eyes, visible even at this distance, were a clouded white in color.
And behind the zombie, more of them came. They turned up the access road from the beach, and the wind carried their moans across the parking lot.
“Huh,” was all the young cop had to say.
“Harlie? What are you and Jessica going to do?” Harrington asked.
“I think we’re going to get out of here, Bill.”
“Great idea,” Harrington said, and he put his car in gear.
“Hey! Stay right where you are!” the cop said, grabbing onto the Malibu’s door handle. Harrington had the door locked of course, so the cop grabbed the older man’s shoulder instead. “Put in park! Right now!”
“Officer, are you an idiot?” Harlie asked. “Do you not see what’s headed our way?”
“This guy shot someone…I don’t care if he’s a ranger or not, it looks to me like he murdered someone—”
“You can’t murder those things, boy,” Harrington said. “Have you not been paying attention to the news? To the fact there’s a state of emergency all throughout Texas? The entire country?”
“You can’t just go around shooting people,” the cop insisted.
Harlie raised her M16 and fired three shots at the zombie that approached them. All three rounds hit it in the chest, but the zombie didn’t even stumble as the .223 caliber bullets smashed through it. The cop yelped and pulled his sidearm, and pointed it at Harlie.
“Put the gun down!” he shouted.
“Look at the zombie,” Harlie said. “I hit it in the chest three times, and it’s still coming!”
The cop glanced toward the approaching zombie. The bullet holes stood out on its pale chest as if they’d been drawn there with a Magic Marker. They did not bleed, and the corpse seemed no worse for wear. It continued to advance, moaning now, its open maw a black, featureless hole in its face.
“Huh,” the cop said again. “Yeah…you did hit him, didn’t cha?” He sounded more than a little bit confused.
“Harlie,” Jessica said, her voice very soft, “get back in the truck, now. We’ll come back for your Jeep later.”
Before Harlie could comply, another police SUV appeared. It speed toward them, its lights flashing, and braked to a quick halt next to the young policeman’s vehicle. An older policeman practically leaped out of his vehicle, holding his own M16. He glared across the hood at the younger cop, who still kept his pistol trained on Harlie in a two-handed grip.
“Sanchez? What the fuck are you doing pointing your weapon at that ranger when the fucking zombies are walking up on you?”
“One of these rangers killed someone!”
The older cop sighed, shouldered his rifle, and drilled a single round through the lead zombie. It collapsed to the parking lot immediately. The senior policeman then fired off eight more shots, dropping six zombies. Harlie gauged that one of his shots had missed entirely, and the second had struck a ghoul too low to kill it, so it needed another round.
“Sanchez, have you not been listening to the radio?” the older cop said. “I know you’ve only been on the force for three weeks, but these things are appearing all along the coastline. They’re real, and we have to take care of them! Now get your rifle and start shooting, boy!”
“But…but what if they’re people?” the younger cop asked, even as he ducked back inside his Tahoe for his rifle.
“Dude, take a look at them. Do they look like people?”
More dead appeared, this time stumbling over the tops of the dunes, kicking up sand. Several got tangled up in the vines and weeds, and they fell face-first. They tumbled down the soft slopes to the firmer ground at the base of the dunes, got to their feet, and continued forward. Harlie shouldered her rifle and started firing at them. If they made it to the parking lot, they’d be more mobile, more likely to close the gap between them. She didn’t want that to happen.
“Harlie, get in the truck,” Jessica said again.
The older cop yelled into his radio, advising his department of what was going on as the younger officer reluctantly brought his AR-15 to his shoulder and opened up. He fired as he had been trained, and hit the oncoming zombies in the center of their mass; his shots proved to be ineffective, whereas Harlie was able to drop five deadheads in rapid succession.
“Hit them in the head, guy,” she shouted. And then her M16 went dry, and she reached for the fanny pack she wore. She had another four magazines jammed inside it, along with two for her sidearm. As she reloaded, her fingers moving with precision from all the training she’d undergone, she kept her eyes on the approaching zombies. She tried to count them, but stopped after getting to fifteen. She knew if she waited, more would come, drawn to the area by the gunfire, and she didn’t have ammunition to make a protracted stand. She inserted another magazine into the M16 and cycled it, loading a round into the breech. She lifted the rifle to her shoulder and resumed firing, taking her time, focusing her efforts on the zombies coming over the dunes. From the corner of her eye, she saw Harrington climb out of his car, his shotgun ready.
“I’ll take care of the ones that get too close!” he shouted to Harlie and the cops. “You guys with the rifles, take ‘em out while they’re still at a distance!”
“No shit,” said the older cop. His weapon ran dry, and he ducked back inside his Tahoe for another magazine.
The first runner appeared then, cresting a dune farther down. Harlie dropped another of the slower-moving zombies, then turned and fired at the runner from over the bed of the pickup. She missed with her first shot—she’d gotten used to plinking away at the slow-movers, and the fast one was a harder target. She fired again, but the round only grazed the top of the zombie’s head, and by then it had made it to the parking lot. It sprinted toward the idling F-150, only fifty feet away, snarling, its cold dead eyes fixated on Harlie. Jessica moved in the driver’s seat, and she lowered the window and fired at the approaching zombie with her pistol. She wasted four shots, none of which hit the target. Harlie steadied herself and fired again, and the zombie fell sprawling to the parking lot, its skull ravaged by the M16’s bullet.
Sirens wailed in the distance, growing louder and louder above the gunfire. The bodies were starting to pile up; the younger cop had finally gotten his game on, and he was hitting the approaching zombies right in their heads. The older cop was still firing efficiently, scoring a hit almost every time. And then, as two motorcycle cops rode up, the last of the zombies fell to the pavement. Harlie did a quick count. They had killed twenty-nine of the walking dead.
“Okay, what are we going to do now?” Harrington asked. He looked at the cops, who looked back at him.
“Hey man, it’s your park,” the older cop said.
“Four of us, four of you…I think we need some more guns,” Harrington said. He looked over the roof of his car at Harlie. “Fantastic shooting, young miss!”
“Thanks,” Harlie said.
“Harlie!” Jessica shouted. “Get in the truck—now! More of ‘em!”
Harlie turned and looked. At the far end of the parking lot, more zombies massed, at least thirty of them, with more coming over the dunes. A moan from the beach entrance caught her attention, and she saw even more of the shambling dead moving up the access road. Several runners bolted toward them, their feet slapping the concrete, their jaws spread wide. The cops opened fire on them, dropping them, but one got so close that Harrington finally opened up with the shotgun. He killed it when it was only twenty feet from the old cop’s Tahoe.
“Guys!” Harlie opened up on the group advancing from the south. There were runners in that mix too, and she concentrated on them, the M16 kicking lightly against her shoulder as she squeezed off shot after shot. They fell to the pavement with almost uncanny regularity…but each body hit the parking lot closer than the last one.
“We gotta get out of here!” Jessica said, screaming from the F-150’s driver seat.
“Damn right, we can’t hold ‘em back with what we got!” the older cop said. “Let’s get out of here, we’ll regroup at the Sonic down the road! Let’s go!”
Harlie shot two more zombies, then finally threw herself into the F-150. Jessica wasted no time, and the truck’s tires screeched as she stomped on the accelerator, heading for the park exit.
So many of them, Harlie thought, turning in the seat to look out the truck’s rear window. The zombies kept coming, over the dunes, up the access road. So many of them, and so damn quick…like a swarm of bees.
I know, I know, I’m back again with another post castigating Penguin’s Book Country for ripping a page from the Publish America playbook to fleece writers–again. But this is such an important first response to the changes in the publishing industry that it deserves more dwell time.
Firstly though, please check out an article which appeared on PaidContent, where the dissection of the scam begins in earnest.
Then, take a breath and prepare to chuckle mightly at Penguin’s official response, on the following page.
This is getting a lot of play in the blogosphere, and for good reason: this is a mainstream publisher basically admitting up front that they’re going to take the money of inexperienced, ignorant writers and run with it. Not that the writers themselves are blameless; Dean Wesley Smith has been lashing out at them as well for continuing to be, well, stupid.
What’s most insidious about this entire episode is that Penguin was, until last week anyway, regarded as a very prominent and prestigious publisher. They’ve essentially vaporized that reputation in one fell swoop, and are likely wondering why they’re floating in the water amidst a spreading pool of blood…and what’s with all the circling sharks all of a sudden?
Y’see, some writers really aren’t as dumb as a pile of bricks, and what Penguin has done is to essentially shit the bed during a game of Fart Football and call to switch sides. And they expect all the writers out there to do just that.
It’s things like this which make the self-publish movement even stronger. In short, this was a very, very bad idea, and the Penguin Group is going to continually take shots to the snot locker every time they release another pandering press release where they attempt to shine up this turd and sell it to the more knowledgeable public.
About the only thing that could make this worse is if a major literary agency–like Trident Media Group–suddenly came out and said their epublishing endeavor is better than Penguin’s. Yeah, that’s the ticket…you really want a literary agency to compete directly with a major publisher, especially when that agency still submits work to the publisher in question. Great jumpin’ Jesus, how did this stuff get so nutty?
The answer is pretty simple: blame Amazon.
Amazon broke the sacred rice bowl into about a zillion fragments when they started giving authors a much better cut on their product than the traditional publishers could. No, change that–than traditional publishers would. Instead of forcing writers to sign draconian contracts that are essentially full of non-compete clauses and restrict the transfer of rights for virtually any reason (remember, these are the rights that the writer is supposed to be able to control, as the creator of the material), the traditional publishers could have licked a finger, held it into the wind, and figured out which way it was blowing. They could have elected to play the game a little more fairly.
Instead, they elected to try and butt-rape writers once again. The only good thing that’s coming out of this is that there are a lot of smart, savvy folks out there now who can call them on it. I’m not as eloquent and gentile as most of my peers, so I’ll do the same thing, only my way:
Penguin? You’re a bunch of numbnuts, and I hope you go broke.
(And by the way, the zombies took out Fort Campbell.)
For those of you interested in publishing your work, Penguin has ever so helpfully started a scam operation to assist you in transferring your wealth to them. To wit, courtesy of Passive Guy:
In a sign that major book publishers are now recognizing the potential of the digital self-publishing industry, Penguin Group (USA) on Wednesday is launching a service to help writers publish their own books.
For a fee of between $99 and $549, plus a cut of any sales revenue, Penguin’s subsidiary Book Country will offer an array of tools—ranging from professional e-book conversion to a cover creator—to help a writer make their work available through digital book outlets and print-on-demand services.
The self-publishing venture could help Penguin discover new writers while creating an additional revenue stream.
You can do all of this for yourself, for a hell of a lot less than $549. Save your money; this “additional revenue stream” is nothing more than a mainstream publishing house trying very hard to liberate cash from the ignorant.
Adding salt to the wound, Konrath opens fire on this with his fiery bon mot entitled Book Country Fail.
And please excuse the late-day edit to add David Gaughran’s even more pointed rejoinder: Penguin Launches Rip-Off Publishing “Service” Targeting Inexperienced Writers. One might think that with so much on the line, given the emergence of the self-publishing dynamo, that traditional publishers might try to save themselves in a more writer-friendly way…but no, first step: start scalping everyone in sight.
Fight the power!
As sales tumble from their previous stratospheric heights, I try to keep Fred Anderson’s words of wisdom close at hand:
“Quit yer bitchin’.”
Here are the results for October, from Kindle. How’s everyone else doin’? Personally, I’m looking forward to a rousing Christmas season. If not, then I’m looking forward to spending some quality time with my pals Johnny Walker, Yukon Jack, and some Mexican guy named Cuervo.
When it comes to publishing these days, there are really two viable alternatives: going the traditional route, and the self-published route. (I will ignore vanity publishing, because that means the author has to pony up a lot of bucks up front.)
A lot has been written across the wild, wild internet about which road is better. You’ll find two types of authors behind these missives: the diehard traditionalists who still believe in gatekeepers, agents, and the old editor/publisher/author relationships, and the self-published adherents who maintain the DIY approach is the only way to free a writer from the rather arbitrary shackles imposed on the industry by the big publishing houses. Both camps make excellent points in their favor, and from time to time, even regard each other with something approaching respect.
Or at least diminished hostility.
But for me, it was an easy choice to make. I’d been plugging away for years at the traditional route, obtaining an agent here, another there, writing, rewriting, rejigging stories that I’d thought were locked and loaded to suit the seemingly arbitrary tastes of an individual who could “sell” me. But after some years where the only noticeable change in my circumstances were that I now have the fingers of Arnold Schwarzenegger from all the typing workouts, a creeping sense of dissatisfaction set in. Was this how it would always be? Would I always be reaching for the brass ring, only to have it dangle just outside of my reach?
We’ve all been there before. On the job, it’s always the sycophantic numbnuts who gets the promotion, gets the raise, gets the glory–even if you’re the one who’s done all the work. We’ve all pined for the one gorgeous gal (or guy, depending on your circumstances) only to see that person ride off into the sunset with someone else. Life is not a level playing field, and it never will be. It’s up to us as individuals to break out of the rather desultory mold circumstance often bequeathes us, and that comes with its own set of stressors–will I fail? Will I somehow ruin everything? What if I’m not good enough? What if I’m not smart enough? What if, what if, what if?
I’d had my fill of that for years. Even the most confident person can suffer from debilitating rounds of self-doubt, especially if we depend on others to provide our validation. And when those folks–let’s call them “gatekeepers”, for want of a better word–are automatically preconditioned to say no, then self-doubt could eventually morph into suicidal tendencies. Or make you give up, which is pretty much the same thing.
I was in a high orbit around the whole publishing thing, getting nothing done despite working on it almost ceaselessly. I’d gone the distance, traveled the road I was told would be my best shot to score a publishing deal. I have drawers full of rejections, covering everything from novels, short stories, movie scripts, comic scripts, even two non-fiction books. I went through those rejections over the weekend, and found that I’d started in 1981! That’s thirty years without any tangible success. Thirty years. Holy fuck! I used to view these rejections as something like badges of accomplishment, kind of like a series of Army commendation medals or something, only without the specific meaning. As I went through them, I was struck by the general lack of information each rejection carried. Not for us, but good luck. This was a great read, but it doesn’t fit what we’re looking for at this time. I reviewed your manuscript [insert title here] very carefully, and have decided not to pursue it at this time. Best of luck.
Best of luck? I would have preferred Go fuck yourself. At least it’s not hard to divine the true meaning behind a response like that. (I tossed those rejection slips on Sunday.)
Through the forums at Absolute Write, I found a link to Dean Wesley Smith’s blog discussing self-publishing. I followed it and spent days at the site, reading his ruminations on agents, publishers, the change landscape the writer was confronted with. His postings led me to visit his wife’s blog as well, where her message was even more pointed: Never trust agents. They hold your money, and many of them embezzle. From there, I went to Konrath’s blog, and while Joe takes a lot of shit for his straight talk, he posts his actual numbers. Once I saw the serious bank he was laying claim to, the refrigerator door to my mind popped open and the light came on. I didn’t need the agents, the editors, the publishers, the marketing folks I’d been told were absolutely, positively instrumental in my finding success.
I could so it all myself, and what I couldn’t do on my own? I could hire any number of professionals to help me on the way, for a flat fee, without them owning part of my product for the rest of my life.
Damn. (Now I finally understand the lamentation I was born too soon in its fullest.)
So what does this new-found freedom mean for the hopeful writer? Well, it certainly means publication is more accessible. At the same time, it means we all have to bring our A Game–the only person responsible for your success is yourself, and that means a lot of work. It means you have to develop a hardset discipline and maintain a steady, substantial pace. It means you have to be tough on yourself–hell, you have to be merciless. Because if you aren’t, your stuff won’t sell, you’ll wind up with a flotilla of one and two star reviews, and your bank account will be a cold, drafty place. And the odds of runaway success are still quite long. I’ve been pretty free about posting my numbers, and while folks tell me I’m incredibly successful given that I’ve only been at it for nine months of so, I remain dissatisfied. I can do better. And I will.
I know lots of would-be writers who still scoff at the self-publishing paradigm. “It’s too hard,” they say. “All the self-published stuff sucks.” “If you have to self-publish, there’s a reason for that.”
To the first: Yes, it’s tough. Yes, you have to give up some things so you can get your shot at glory. You can’t sit in front of the TV watching House Hunters International and The Walking Dead all night long. You can’t run out for a night of drunken debauchery with the boys. You can’t play with your pet rock collection. You have to give up a lot on the front end for a chance at things playing out really well on the back end. Just like life as usual. No surprises there.
To the second, about self-pubbed works sucking balls: A lot of it does, and that’s undeniable. But that doesn’t mean your work has to suck balls. If it does, you’re not working hard enough. You’re not serious about it. You’re what I call a Hobby Writer, which means you don’t have a clue, and if you’re my age, you likely never will. To reiterate, a lot of self-pub projects are absolutely horrible. Yours doesn’t have to be, and if you’re smart and actually finish what you write, have it read by trusted, objective sources, and then pay to have it edited by a professional, you’re well on your way to avoiding the SuckFest 2011/2012 tour. And then after you’ve gotten this far, you need to go the entire distance and get a worthwhile cover figured out, create and vet a compelling product description, and make the work as accessible as you can. That means Amazon, B&N, and yes, Smashwords. The process for submitting works to Smashwords is a pain in the ass, but Smashwords is becoming a very powerful product aggregator. I don’t want to run out and buy a Macintosh just so I can post to iTunes; it’s much more efficient to figure out how to get a product submitted through Smashwords and let them do the rest of the heavy lifting on my behalf.
And for there being a reason one absolutely has to self-publish: In the old days–and I’m harkening back to those halcyon days of, oh, 2008–self-pub meant going to a vanity press and paying bloodsuckers who were not (surprise!) agents to present your work to the public. Oftentimes–hell, I don’t know of any other way it happened–these con artists fleeced the writer for cash every step of the way. The product was almost always miserable, the costs were through the roof, and there was just no satisfaction to be had–not to mention sales. Associating with a vanity press was about as helpful to a writing career as a fashion model receiving a shotgun blast to the face. Yeah, there’s a minute chance things could go well, but your chances of drawing the winning PowerBall ticket are substantially higher. And given the odds, probably a smarter investment.
Flash forward to 4Q 2011.
There are people out there who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year publishing their own work. And there are people out there making millions of dollars publishing their own work, too. And they get to keep upwards of 70% of the profits. No publishers taking out their costs for phantom expenses, no meaningful number of returns, no remainders, no agency in the middle who may or may not be taking your money and buying gold-plated windlasses for 55+-foot yachts. Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, iTunes, Kobo, etc. are not publishers, they’re distributors. They take a percentage of every sale, and the rest is yours to do with what you will. You spend $500-$1,200 on production costs, and after that, the rest of the process only makes money. You might not hit one out of the park your first time at bat, but this is a forever war, you just need to keep putting product out there, as often as you can, as professional as you can. I never read anything by Bob Mayer or Joe Konrath when they were in print with any of the big houses; didn’t even know they existed. Both guys make over half a million a year now. Never read a word written by Blake Crouch before 2011, and now I’ve read pretty much all of his stuff. These guys would be lucky to make $20,000-$50,000 a year in 2008. In 2011? Not singing the praises of the publishing industry, you can bet.
So for me, the career path is clear. I’m a DIY kind of guy anyway, so it wasn’t as horrible a transition as I’d feared. I made mistakes generated from inexperience, not laziness, but it is shaping up and I’m now up to speed on the process. I don’t wear a scarlet letter, people don’t deride me in public, and little kids don’t run up and boot me in the balls on Lower Manhattan’s Maiden Lane because I self-published. I’ve made four times the usual advance I could have expected in nine months, and God willing, I’ll keep pulling in the dough as time marches on. And I’ve developed a keen form of self-governance that ensures I meet my targets and keeps the career marching forward.
Never had any of this in the past while assaulting the gatekeepers. I never had the opportunities I have now. And I’m capitalizing on these opportunities as quickly as possible. Wherever they pop up, I’m on-station in plus or minus thirty seconds, ready to rumble. It’s no longer a lottery game.
It’s a profession.
I have to confess, I’m not really plugged into Reddit at all, but I came across this gem of a thread:
My, my, my this one has people either dancing or moaning in the aisles. People such as yours truly cuts the rug, whereas those who are mired in the old traditional write-agent-publisher mindset are off to one side muttering tut-tut. I don’t know who this writer is, and I don’t even know for a fact he/she is telling the truth, but my gut read is that the kimono has been thrown open on this one. Check it out and decide for yourselves.
Ah, The Rising Horde…I’m at a tipping point. While McDaniels, Gartrell, and a bunch of Rangers, SEALs, Special Forces, and even Air Force guys backed up by an armored cav regiment secure SPARTA, I have the dead moving on the last holdout in Southeast Asia, that lovely gem of the orient called Singapore. I haven’t decided if the Lion City is going down for the count, or if they’ll be able to hold off the legions of the dead coming over from Malaysia. What do you guys think? Let the city-state take a powder, or have mercy on all the sarong party girls?
Here’s what the Singapore Armed Forces have at their disposal to ward off the stenches: the SAR-21.