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.
Wow, this is great–some folks must’ve speed-read this thing!
It’s always gratifying to see comments like this. Have to give some props to my co-author, Scott Wolf. While I know the Army’s aviation branch very well, he certainly brought a lot more to the table with his real-world experience as a Green Beret and, prior to that, his time as an infantryman with the 82nd. It really made a lot of difference, and my hat’s off to him.
Moving on with The Last Town #3, and hope to have it out soon! Thanks for all your support, folks.
And it’s official…650 pages of zombie goodness awaits! (Print to follow.)
From the upcoming release of The Last Town #3: Waiting for the Dead (until I come up with a better title): I feel badly for Jock Sinclair. Totally.
As always, this is first draft stuff, unedited, no guarantee that what you read here will make it to the final version. Though frankly, I think this one’s a keeper.
SINGLE TREE, CALIFORNIA
The Maserati’s check engine light had been on for almost an hour as Jock Sinclair nursed the vehicle through the night, trapped in thick traffic that seemed present everywhere he turned. Meredith sat in the seat beside him, as silent as a statue. Sinclair had no idea if she was still pissed with him after their argument hours earlier—to be truthful, he couldn’t give a damn, the only difference between her and the rest of the cunts he’d used was that she was an heiress to a fortune that he fully intended to benefit from. He’d smooth it out with her later. He always did. Despite her education and earlier accomplishments in the modeling world, Meredith was one of those women who needed a strong man to give her a direction in life. Even when he managed to piss her off, he was always able to bring her back to his side. Sinclair allowed himself the opportunity to smile smugly at his reflection in the rear view mirror. Women like Meredith were like sheep before a wolf, and Sinclair had always been able to smell them out.
But now, the Ghibli’s check engine light was on, and it wouldn’t go out. And truth be told, the engine was starting to become sluggish, laggardly. The Italian sports sedan was having trouble accelerating, even in traffic that moved no more than twenty-five miles per hour up Route 395. Ridgecrest was three hours behind them, and that was where they’d picked up a lot of the traffic, and Sinclair had been chafing ever since rolling past the blue collar desert town. The Maserati had been surrounded by pickup trucks, big rigs, minivans, and the usual assortment of vehicles normally favored by the lower middle class, and most of those red-necked bozos couldn’t drive to save their lives. Sinclair weaved in and out of traffic where he could, but it was rare for him to get past a top speed of thirty-five miles per hour.
And then, the Ghibli’s check engine light came on.
Italian piece of shit, Sinclair raged impotently. If only we had an Aston! Or even a Range Rover!
Ahead, a town loomed, emerging from the scrub and desert that surrounded the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Sinclair glanced at a road sign as soon as it came in view.
SINGLE TREE SAYS HOWDY!
“Oh, dear God,” he said aloud. “Howdy? Surely California is more civilized than that, or have we somehow crossed into Neanderthal Texas?”
Meredith made a satisfied hmph noise in the back of her throat, but offered nothing more.
A glance at the GPS showed that, indeed, the town of Single Tree, California lay ahead somewhere in the darkness. All Sinclair saw out the windows at the moment was a trailer park. People sat on the side of the road in lawn chairs, watching the traffic snake past. He clucked his tongue. Such plebeian activity, as if the fools had never seen traffic before. He noticed several people held signs. Water, $1.00. Tamales $2.50. Fresh fruit, vegetables. He also saw several motorists had pulled out of the line of traffic to take advantage of these offerings, and Sinclair clucked his tongue again and shook his head. Idiots, buying someone’s rusty tap water for a dollar.
The Ghibli continued to lag its way northward. Sinclair thought he could hear something under the hood now, like a cylinder misfiring. He clenched his teeth and fidgeted slightly in the seat. He glanced over at Meredith, and in the light of the GPS display, he thought he could see her smiling wanly. Enjoying his discomfort, perhaps.
Stupid tart, Sinclair fumed to himself.
At last, the town of Single Tree appeared. The lights were still on, so that was something. And curiously, Sinclair thought he saw construction equipment out in the desert. Floodlights illuminated a large swath of the barren region as several back hoes went at it, attacking the desert floor with a vengeance. It was an odd time to be doing such work, seeing as it was almost three o’clock in the morning.
Probably those God-awful frackers, Sinclair thought. Truly, greed knows no limit.
The first gas station they came upon was full of cars and trucks, and traffic was backed up to the town limits. Sinclair pulled around most of it, stomping on the accelerator, trying to coax the overprice piece of luxury Italian shit into something resembling forty miles per hour. The Ghibli began to shudder as its engine knocked. The car chugged past a Comfort Inn hotel, its parking lot full, then ambled its way past a lumber store—its parking lot was full as well, albeit with hulking trucks that bore all manner of construction equipment. Further up was a small airport, its entrance gate closed and apparently locked. On the other side of the street—now called South Main Street, he saw—there was a Chevron gas station, also clogged with vehicles. Sinclair considered trying to make his way into the parking lot anyway, but there was no chance of him being able to turn against the oncoming traffic. Also, he didn’t want to stop, for fear the Ghibli wouldn’t start moving again.
The car meandered past two more full hotels, several ramshackle homes, and what appeared to be a large parking lot full of more construction equipment. A Carl’s Jr. hamburger restaurant, currently closed. A Subway sandwich shop, also closed. A used car dealership, the sight of which got Sinclair’s hopes up, until he saw several hopped-up pickup trucks and lowriders out front. As much as he was growing to despise the Maserati, he knew nothing would come from allowing a gang of backcountry monkeys to poke and prod at it. The car shook and shuddered a bit more, actually starting to drop in and out of gear.
“What in the hell is wrong with this car?” Sinclair muttered.
“Just stop, Jock,” Meredith said wearily as the lights of the center of town came into view.
“Where, Meredith? Where would you like me to stop?” Sinclair almost shouted.
Meredith pointed out the windshield. “Right there. That looks as good a place as any.”
Sinclair looked in the direction she indicated. A long, low-slung, vaguely horseshoe shaped building the color of burnt orange sat in the darkness. The sign proclaimed it was the Trail’s End Motel, and in smaller text, Sinclair was informed that every room had HBO, a bath tub, and an ironing board.
What’s more, a smaller sign glowed in the darkness like a happy afterthought: VACANCY.
“You want to stay in a roach motel?” Sinclair was aghast at the prospect. “Meredith, darling, when was the last time anything less than a twelve-hundred thread count set of sheets came into contact with your sacrosanct skin?” he asked, even though he was more worried about his own skin coming into contact with anything with a thread count south of five hundred and ten.
The Ghibli bucked again, almost throwing Sinclair against his seat belt. He cursed. Meredith sighed.
“We don’t have much of a choice, Jock,” she said, the perfect picture of reason. “I really don’t think we’re going much farther.”
“Damn this!” Sinclair shouted. He wrenched the wheel to the right, and the Maserati labored to get into the parking lot. He barely made it to the curb before the expensive car stalled with a lingering rattle. Try as he may, Sinclair couldn’t get the vehicle to restart. Frustrated, he collapsed back into the driver’s seat and regarded the sign towering over him.
“Every room has an ironing board,” he said, bitterly.
“You’d better hurry,” Meredith said. “With our luck, there’s probably only one room left.”
Sinclair looked up as a two-door Jeep pulled into the parking lot. He threw open the door and lunged to get out, but the seat belt held him fast. He unlocked it with a curse and pulled himself out of the Ghibli’s opulent interior. His lower back was stiff and painful, despite the driver’s seat premium padded bolster. Growling in pain, he broke into a jog, heading for the motel office.
“Damn this!” he said again. “Free HBO and ironing boards—damn this!”
Gunning for May on this one, folks.
A new one that’s making it’s way through the pipeline: Dead in the City of Angels, by yours truly and Jarret Liotta. I expect this one will also make its debut in May to give folks something else to tide them over after These Dead Lands: Immolation. Here’s the lead-in:
Robert “Orion” Wallace would never get used to the sound a thirty-three inch Louisville slugger made when it cracked open a skull.
Schmunch! His swing caught the zombie right above its left eyelid, and its jaw dropped open with the impact. Its right eye—the one that didn’t pop right out of its head and literally skip by across the side of Orion’s right cheek—instead shot open wide in what seemed to be a look of surprise.
Orion had that infinitesimal moment of disturbance that came with killing a zombie. For that one, ever-so-brief moment, it had a human quality. For one uncomfortable instant, it didn’t seem like a walking dead creature, but a living person …
Then it was over.
This was animated dead flesh that had found Orion’s nest over that garage in Redondo Beach. He had to tell himself this each time he swung his bat to crush the skull of a zombie. It was a walking, moving, entirely dead monster. It should have been nothing more than a moldering corpse, being rendered into nothingness by an army of insects and hungry bacteria, but instead, here it was.
He’d heard it enter. He was quickly coming to know the difference between the sounds of the legion of beady-eyed rats and rabid raccoons that scuttled through the rubble that was once Los Angeles, from the shuffling of the walking undead.
The City of Angels had become the city of the undead. Zombies. They were a merciless, grotesque plague of vermin. They were everywhere. They were a living disease bent on the destruction, mutilation, and ingestion of the living. They were an awful enemy borne out of a nightmare.
Orion hadn’t camped there long. You couldn’t stay anywhere long before the ever-voracious, ever-foraging legion of carnivorous corpses worked its way around to your location. They had the advantage. They were always hungry. They were always awake. They were always motivated.
Orion knew the house he’d found was somewhere off Torrance Boulevard, but he hadn’t noticed a street sign. Something about the little street—the range of white-washed bungalows, the tranquil palms—gave it a welcoming feeling of safety, and he was drawn to this particular residence.
He’d needed safety after that mob had pursued him along Route 1. Up until that point he’d never seen so many.
Miles. Have to find Miles.
But he also needed food, and some time to rest. He had lost his Dodge Ram hours ago, not really very far from his home. He’d plowed right through a group of the dead, and in the process, had destroyed the truck’s radiator. Left with nothing other than the boots on his feet and the Springfield pistol in the holster on his belt, he’d barely had time to abandon the truck a few blocks away from his house when its big V8 engine finally wheezed its last, right in sight of a dead horde. They’d pursued him through the neighborhood, street after street, until he had finally managed to shake them. It was mid-afternoon when he’d come out of that grocery store, just across the road into Redondo Beach from Palos Verdes. The sun was high and clear.
Up until that moment he’d stupidly thought daylight was a safe time. He had seen one or two zombies out in the day on his journey from the cliffs, but they hadn’t seen him. At that time Orion figured it was a nighttime phenomenon, like in the movies.
Reality was different.
Orion had become almost carefree—standing outside that grocery store along Route 1, letting that southern California sun bake his exhausted face. He took a deep breath and looked west, where he could see glimpses of the blue Pacific Ocean sparkling through, in between the buildings.
For just that one moment he lost himself …
But something moved in the shadows across the street to startle him. His arms tightened around the big cardboard box half full of groceries he’d managed to scavenge from the store’s already looted interior.
The sun sparkling on the water clouded his eyes. He squinted.
Yes, something was moving. Despite his training and experience, fear froze him in place as if his feet had taken root. In his last life he had been a working stuntman in the movies. He’d jumped out of helicopters, attacked enemy tanks, crashed cars, and run through flaming buildings. But that was the movies, and even though he’d taken life-threatening risks to earn a pretty good living, somehow the fact that he’d always done it by choice made it feel less scary. This was real.
Orion took a step back on heavy legs, and then another, looking left. He knew which direction he was heading, but he couldn’t be sure what the safest way of getting there was.
The first zombie materialized out of the shadows across the street—what was once a tall, thin man clothed in tattered beach wear, a ragged T-shirt and ripped board shorts. It staggered forward without delay. It wore only one flip-flop, the other having been lost somewhere over the zombie’s never-ending hunt for food.
Orion forgot he was even holding the box of groceries when he shot his hand to the gun at his hip. The box dropped. Bottles smashed and cans scattered with a ghostly clatter that chased away the silence of the deserted street. He slapped at his hip until he caught grip on the semi-automatic pistol—a full-size Springfield Armory XDM Bitone .45 caliber weapon. He drew the weapon and aimed it with both hands at the shambling monstrosity. His hands shook, and he forced himself to calm down.
The din of the last crashing can settled, but there was still something else—a softer, sickly sound to his right.
Not twenty yards away another figure emerged from the next store. Its face was horrendous—a vivid, stark picture of horror—vivid green, with a mess of flesh and—maggots, writhing, slithering maggots where the nose used to be.
“Jesus,” he said automatically.
It staggered closer and Orion heard the wheezing, whistling sound it made—a fluttering gasp from its emaciated nose, a grotesque exhalation that burbled forth beneath the writhing clump of maggots that pumped out with each step.
Orion clicked off the safety, lined up the sights, and fired. The head exploded with the enormous Bam! Pieces of flesh, like dead fish, splashed in all directions. For a second it looked like it hadn’t stopped, but after taking another shaking step, the zombie fell forward and collapsed like a pile of clothes.
Orion’s heart lifted, but not too high, for an instant later three … no, four … seven, eight …
Like an anthill that had just received a sudden kick, a horde poured out of the stores on either side of the street. Shambling and tottering on dead limbs that felt no sensation, dozens of hungry ghouls emerged into the bright Southern California sunshine. As if of one mind, the grotesqueries turned rotting, lifeless faces toward Orion. A legion from Hell, all committed to only one cause—devouring the living.
In short, that meant Orion.
Orion looked back to see the first zombie across Route 1 was now joined by well over a dozen others emerging from their hiding places, invigorated at the prospect of a fresh meal. They were coming toward him from all directions now, shuffling forward, mouths open.
It’s like they were setting a trap, Orion thought distantly. Like they were waiting for me …
Which one was closest? He took careful aim at what seemed to be a particularly fast-moving creature—a young girl in the last life—and fired. The bullet splashed off the side of her jaw and ear. The impact jerked her head back, but it slowed her advance for only a moment.
The obvious route for Orion to take quickly became clear, for they were coming from almost all sides now.
He turned to get back into the store, but instead slipped right on one of the fallen cans. As his foot bolted out from beneath him, Orion lost his hold on the .45 despite the rugged stippling on its grip. He watched as it sailed into the air above him as if in some slow motion action shot. At the height of its ascent, it slowed and seemed to hang in midair for a moment, the sunlight gleaming as it struck the weapon’s two-tone finish. Then the pistol fell back to the ground and skipped away in front of him, tumbling and turning. At the same moment, Orion’s chin hit the sidewalk, and he too skidded across the pavement, as if he was using the sidewalk as some sort of bizarre razor. And while it was doubtless successful in removing a few whiskers, a nice chunk of skin also went with them. Orion cried out as his teeth snapped together. Stunned, he lay stretched out on the sidewalk, aware of nothing more than his misery and the fact that he was bleeding all over the concrete.
Out of the horrible silence, sounds of shuffling and gurgling gasps and feint moans grew behind him. Fear threatened to paralyze him, but the will to survive took hold—cutting through the shock of his fall. Like an invisible hand, it grasped him by the seat of his pants and seemed to hoist him right up onto his feet.
In a flash he was off and running. He scooped up his pistol without pause and drove himself back into the dark store.
He got ten feet inside before he stopped and returned to lock the door before retreating further into the dark convenience store’s interior. Inside, everything seemed to be covered beneath a heavy veil of shadow. Orion waited for a few moments as his eyes adjusted to the gloom.
A sense of triumph lifted his heart as watched the zombies assemble in ever-greater numbers at the big plate-glass window and glass door, like a sale was about to start for living flesh.
Moments later the echoing pounding of arthritic fists on the fragile glass brought fear back to Orion. The bright day shining across Route 1 was now eclipsed by a mass of writhing bodies that pressed against the windows and door. With urgent thrusts and whacks, the zombie horde fought for entry, shaking the glass and sending hollow shocks of fear right through to Orion’s feet. His confidence in his shelter was quickly evaporating. Only tempered glass and some metal framework stood between him and the horde. Eventually, the storefront would give.
Orion stumbled back, fingering his gun, stupidly searching left and right for some other weapon to help his cause. The vivid racket of the creatures shook his nerves—detestable cries and shuddering smacks.
Then, like a colossal yawn, one of the great picture windows heaved in and shattered in a symphonic climax. Once-fresh air that was now tainted foul by the gruesome stench of dead bodies breezed into the room. Orion felt a sudden bolt of nausea rip through him, though whether it was from the stink of the dead or driven by the fear that filled his chest, he didn’t know.
He raced back to where logic told him the rear exit would be as the mob swelled into the small space. Dead ghouls pushed through the jagged opening with no thought for their physical safety. Broken glass stripped lengths of rotting flesh off legs and hands as the single-minded scags pushed through the window frame and staggered inside, casting about for their quarry.
Orion reached a narrow hall and, through the dark, managed to spot the back door. It was locked and he fumbled to open the bolt as a second explosion of glass echoed through the store. He cursed his shaking hands as his fingers fiddled ineffectually with the lock’s cold knob. The moaning cries and serpentine gasps of the cold horde came closer. The smell seemed right upon him.
The door still didn’t open.
The dead shuffled closer, their irregular footfalls echoing in the enclosed hallway.
“What the hell is this!” Orion shouted at the door in a mixture of frustration and fear. “Open the fuck up!”
Something was holding it closed. Orion looked up and down, and in the darkness, he saw a large bar hanging in brackets across the door. He pushed his pistol back into the holster on his belt, then grabbed the bar and lifted it out of its mounts. He yanked on the door knob and the metal fire door popped open. Bright sunlight slashed at his eyes, and Orion squinted against it, still holding the bar in one hand.
The sharp stench of a decaying corpse hit him just as a zombie’s icy hands grabbed for his throat. Orion turned and let loose with the bar, slamming it across the zombie’s head, driving it back into the arms of the corpses behind. The hall was full of ghouls, and they shoved the first zombie aside, trampling it as the horde surged toward him. Without pause, Orion choked up on the bar like it was a heavy baseball bat and let loose with a gigantic power swing at the head of another zombie. His braining bat bar connected just right, for he literally chopped into the corpse’s skull with the violent precision of an ax, neatly shearing off the top of the zombie’s head. The zombie staggered back as if in dumbfounded awe. Generous globs of black ichor oozed down over the left side of its frozen face as the corpse dropped to the ground, tripping up the zombie right behind it. The rest of the horde continued surging forward, and there was a comical moment to it—all those hungry zombies, collapsing like a line of dominoes as they stumbled over each other. It was almost funny to see, Orion thought, if only they weren’t trying to eat him.
Orion didn’t wait to see how the comedy continued to unfold. Instead, he turned and sprinted out into the long alley behind the store that paralleled Route 1. He ran north, in and out of splashes of sunshine and pools of shade created by the tops of stores and structures off his left shoulder. He ran without thinking, for there was nothing to think about other than his continued survival. Behind him was a tainted mob of murderous predators. Ahead could only be something better.
Maybe three or four blocks later, Orion he was ecstatic to see a man walking down the alley toward him. For an instant, he had a vision he was observing some sane, safe vestige of the world he once knew.
But it wasn’t a man, just a grotesque parody—holding aloft in the recognizable strides of the human form, but not capable of a man’s reasoning, or a man’s sense of compassion. It was just another zombie.
Orion slowed his pace, then realized there was no point. Instead he ran full-on right toward it.
“Fuck you, asshole!” he barked as he drew close.
The zombie took the insult in stride as it stepped into his path, fingers held out before it like gnarled claws, its dry mouth opening up like some dark maw. But Orion just juked left and pivoted right past him. The zombie made a predictable turn, spinning itself around with characteristic clumsiness. Orion stopped a few feet past it, pausing to catch his breath. The zombie turned and reached for him with a dry, rattling hiss. Orion clutched the bar with a new passion, stepped right up, and swung out wildly at the creature’s head.
At the same time, the zombie stumbled. Orion watched with no little surprise as the zombie’s head ducked right under the bar’s speeding arc. Orion flew right off his feet from the momentum of the swing, lost his footing, and fell forward like a drunken man.
What the hell is this? he screamed at himself. I can’t even hit a slow-motion zombie?
Before he even knew what had happened, the thing was upon him.
He felt the dry, frozen touch of its hands—terrifically strong, cold hands that grabbed and gripped at his arm and shoulder. It tried to pin him down, like a wrestler, using its considerable weight to press him to the alley floor. Up close its bone-chilling sound—a demonic purr—whistled near Orion’s ear. The feral stink of the creature was superseded by the vile smell of its breath up close. Something wet dripped on Orion’s neck as he twisted spastically to get out from under the weight. He flailed his arms, one of which was weighted by the iron bar he stubbornly clutched onto.
With precision calm the creature lowered smoothly toward his neck, ready to take a bite.
Miles, a small voice whispered inside him. You have to find Miles.
A sudden burst of survival instinct coursed through him. Orion twisted and squirmed beneath the ghoul with sudden strength. He wriggled right out from under the bastard and in the same motion struck out with his free hand, grabbing the corpse’s clammy neck. He pushed out at it and wrenched it away from him, sending it toppling to the floor as its fingers tore free from his shirt.
It came at him again, somehow knowing its weight was the best means to pin him down. Orion scuttled away on all fours on the ground, gaining a few feet of necessary space. He ripped his pistol from its holster and fired point blank through the center of the zombie’s forehead.
The explosion cracked an echo off the adjacent building. The dead-on shot shattered the creature’s skull to the four winds with a repulsive spray of rotten flesh and sputum. Orion felt a fine mist touch his face. Eyes closed, he spit out with disgust and fear, rubbing his arm frantically over his eyes and face. He struggled back to his feet, allowing the bar to slip from his grasp. It clattered to the alleyway like a castoff chime.
Orion looked back as the monster collapsed in a heap with the greater part of its head completely missing. Fragments of bone, hair, and pulped brain tissue littered the alley behind it, carried away by the solid, 230-grain .45 caliber round as it ripped through the zombie’s skull.
Kick ass! he thought, fondly fingering the side of his gun as if it was a long-lost love, recently rediscovered. That was absolutely kick ass!
But he didn’t waste time there. He bent and fetched the iron bar. Before he even started moving again, another creature was climbing over a low wall down the alley some fifty yards behind him, ready to pursue.
Calm in the success of his escape, Orion put down the bar and relaxed his attention into taking careful aim at the shambler. At forty yards … then thirty … he readied the pistol with both hands, adopting a perfect shooting stance.
And then, another zombie followed the first over the same wall. It was followed by another. And then another.
Orion considered his situation. Alive with new vigilance, he looked in every direction, grabbed the bar and—as the closest zombie came within ten yards of touching him—beat his feet out of there. He hustled north, putting some distance between him and the small pack of creatures. Their ranks had swelled to perhaps a dozen before he was even a hundred yards away.
He ran and ran until they were out of his sight.
He ran more.
He finally turned right and ran inland, looking for streets and alleys that might offer a safer, more secluded escape.
It was so terribly quiet. Even the breeze was dead. The sun splashed silence with its heat and fire, baking the day and making the air thick and hard to breathe. Only his frantic footfalls seemed to register.
Orion eventually slowed his pace, but still jogged along like a marathon runner, hoisting the spear along with him like a primitive tribesman jogging through the undergrowth of an Amazon forest.
The sun slowly shifted toward the afternoon, but Orion kept moving.
At one point he heard some kind of disturbance. It was a stark contrast to the pervasive silence that filled the afternoon.
It came from down an alley he was about to cross. He paused, catching some movement out of the corner of his eye. He moved carefully around the wire fence at the corner that abutted a short garage structure. He crouched carefully behind a clump of blossoming shrubs and peered through the growth down the alley. His right hand never left the thick grip of his pistol.
About fifty yards away, three zombies were clustered around a small, dark mass on the ground. With busy enthusiasm they grabbed and poked at it. Then one fell up and away from the group, thrusting some kind of flapping slab of red and white meat into its mouth. With that it became clear to Orion they were feasting.
Orion measured the quality of their slobbering grunts, and came to realize they were actually groaning in satisfaction. From a distance they could have been a natural pack of jackals gorging themselves over a kill on the savannah. But as he watched and listened, he was suddenly sickened to hear a different sound—a whimpering human voice, soft and helpless, pleading weakly.
“Nooo …. Oooh ….Nooo …”
Orion saw her now—a mangled specimen of humanity, squirming and struggling on the ground as the brainless trio tore into her living body. She was literally getting ripped to shreds, for he saw one creature suddenly yank her forearm clear from the body and hoist it momentarily in the air before chomping down on it with demented glee.
The woman’s cry was so weak in response, it was barely audible. Orion struggled to still the fear that coursed through his arms and down his back, where it made his legs so weak they suddenly shook.
It’s too late, he thought. It’s too late!
One of the zombies snorted as it wolfed down a great chunk of flesh. The shivering, mechanical movements of the woman petered out, ending with a jerk of her remaining arm and a butterfly-like flutter of her fingers.
The zombies kept feeding—a grotesque gorging at the trough of humanity.
Now that These Dead Lands: Immolation is in the can and going through final proof–all 600+ pages of it–I thought I’d reach a little bit deeper into the story and show you one of the best ways to take out the dead. Ladies and Gentlemen, children of all ages, I introduce…the excavator mulcher.
When Guerra parked the Humvee near the intersection of Fisher Avenue and Quartermaster Road, Hastings got out and surveyed the area. The engineers had lined up shipping containers across Fisher Avenue, extending into the tree line while leveraging the creek there as a natural barrier. The engineers had also strung up triple-strand barbed wire and tanglefoot wire along the likely avenues of approach. It wasn’t perfect but it did serve to channelize the reekers. It was also effective, as there were already a few zombies hung up in the wire. The men manning the checkpoint atop one of the containers were picking off reekers, one by one. A makeshift ladder system had been welded onto the container to make getting up there easy.
Hastings scaled the ladder. Ballantine and Guerra soon joined him on top of the container. Several sandbag fighting positions had already been made, and more were still being constructed. Just on the other side of the container, a lowboy trailer was parked lengthwise along the wall, extending across the road. On the trailer was a yellow and black CAT excavator mulcher, a big machine that rolled on tracks like a tank. A soldier sat in its cab. The mulcher and the trailer were surrounded by a wide ring of gore and dismembered body parts. The road was covered in black viscera. A group of reekers was standing a few dozen meters away in the parking lot of Moose’s LZ Bar and Grill, a wood and stone building that advertised burgers, wings, and beer on a sign decorated with pictures of Black Hawk helicopters. Hastings wondered if the establishment’s owners had ever thought of catering to zombies.
“So what is it that you want us to see so badly?” Hastings asked Guerra.
Guerra called out to one of the soldiers on the checkpoint, “Hey, have him start it up and see if he can bring over the ones in the parking lot. I want the captain to see it in action.”
The soldier waved at Guerra and got on his radio. The CAT excavator started with a diesel rumble that immediately got the attention of the reekers. The driver gunned the engine, and a black smoke puffed out of the exhaust pipe. That got the reekers moving. Like cows, the dozen ghouls moved in a herd toward the excavator.
As the group closed in, the driver turned on the mulcher attachment at the end of the arm. It spun, howling like a jet engine, and the driver raised the device over the roadway. That was like a dinner bell to the reekers, and they stumbled toward the trailer, their moans lost in the din coming from the excavator.
When the first reeker got within reach, the driver lowered the arm. The mulcher landed right on top of the reeker’s head, and the ghoul’s head simply disappeared. As the arm continued its descent, the zombie’s body vanished inch by inch until the device was nearly on the ground. Plumes of gore and tattered flesh were thrown out to the sides.
The operator raised the arm again, moved it to the left of the remaining reekers, then lowered it to about four feet above the ground. He then leisurely swung the device into the group of zombies. The reekers disappeared from about chest level up as the mulcher arced across their bodies. The operator swung the arm in the opposite direction, catching the remaining reekers in the same manner. In less than ten seconds, the entire group of carnivorous corpses was wiped out, reduced to nothing more than a reddish gruel-like paste that the mulcher had blown across the pavement.
As the operator powered down the mulcher and killed the vehicle’s engine, Guerra turned to Hastings and Ballantine with a shit-eating grin. “See? I told you, Ballantine. You had to see it to believe it. Is that fucking great, or what?”
Ballantine nodded. “Holy shit! You weren’t kidding. What the fuck is that thing?”
“Local guy tells me they use it to clear trees and trim branches close to power lines.”
“Trim? You call that a trim? Who in the fuck made that thing?”
“No idea,” Guerra said, still smiling like a kid in a candy store. “But if I ever meet him, all his drinks are on me.”
Like Ballantine, Hastings was floored. “Guerra, how many of these did you bring back from that sawmill?”
“They brought six here, but there’s two more left at the shit-water plant for use as security when off-loading the train. We figured the train’s going to make so much noise that it’ll attract large groups of reekers. The other five have been set up at other checkpoints like this one. Last time I spoke to the S3, he told me business has been good since, and that means a lot less shooting and a lot more dead reekers.” Guerra motioned toward the soldiers around them. “The guys manning the checkpoints are glad to have these things. They sure do the trick, huh?”
“Out-fucking-standing,” Ballantine said. “I still can’t believe what we just saw.”
Hastings clapped Guerra on the shoulder. “Good work, Guerra. This will definitely help with base defense.” He checked his watch. “Ballantine, let’s get back. We still have a mission to plan.”
These Dead Lands: Immolation should be out around May 1, 2015.
Final cover version, finally. A tip of the derby to Marc Lee, Singaporean artist extraordinaire who’s got to be blur like sotong at this point. (That’s Singlish, for those who might be curious.)
Text is still being worked up between Wolf and myself, but it’s pretty much ready to roll into final edit/proof/format and then release. Maybe next week?