Charlie grabbed the deck of cards he had laying on the table, shuffling it a few times. The days were gone where he could sit in front of a computer screen and gamble online. He made a career out of playing poker on the internet. Now, trapped here in this city with the dead at the walls wanting to break in, Charlie made due with what he could find. Peter Ross held plenty of illicit activities down in his section of town, the Red District. The King did not have any love for the activities that took place there, but all men need a place to release some tension, so Ross’s trade was tolerated to an extent.
The King, just thinking the word left a bad taste in Charlie’s mouth. Sure, John Hughes had created this paradise, a place relatively untouched by the zombies that had torn the rest of the world to bits and pieces, but maybe he had gone crazy in the process. He had the small, energetic preacher always at his side, it was that man who had started all this King talk. Franklin Bretz brainwashed quite a large percentage of the masses into buying that God had anointed John the leader of the new world. “What a crock of shit,” Charlie picked the glass up to take another sip, his tongue thirsting for some more bitter orange liquid.
A voice came over the radio, a worried one. “New Rochester this is Alcheim speaking. We’ve got a problem, anyone there?” Charlie recognized the voice as Stanley Dubrecht, the leader of a small outpost a few hundred miles North up the coast. He sat the glass back down on the coaster and picked up the radio mic. “This is Charlie, what’s up Stan?” Stan’s usual steady, calm voice was hurried and wavered in pitch as he responded.
“They came from the sea!“ There was a loud explosion in the background and Charlie could hear people screaming. He tried to get all the information he could out of Stan. A ship approached the coast from the North and Stan said it started firing on them. A damn warship was sailing down the coast. The last thing Stan got out was that it looked like a Russian warship before another explosion sounded.
“Stan? Stan, you there? New Rochester to Alcheim?!” His calls were met with silence. Charlie slammed the rest of the glass down his throat and grabbed his jacket from a hook on the wall. It was the graveyard shift so he was the only one left in the building. He put the jacket on, leaving the neck up to stop the chill night air from getting to him, and left the communications building. Before civilization ended, it had been a small studio for a fledgling radio station. Bram, the on duty guard, had fallen into a light slumber on his chair outside the door, rifle leaning against the building. Charlie poked him in the shoulder hard to wake him.
Bram sprung out of his seat, ready to draw his sidearm at a moments notice, relaxing when he saw it was Charlie. “Hey, I’m taking my lunch break man.”
“You get a lunch break?” Bram snickered at him, then waved him on. King Hughes always wanted someone on the radio, he placed great importance on keeping in touch with the outside world. Bram was one of his troops and followed where the man led, but he wanted sleep too.
Charlie usually spent all night in the radio room before he went home. Home being a building he shared with half a dozen other people. When he got tired of having to share the space with the different personalities, he would sleep in the radio station. Or he would go to the Red District, which is where his feet were taking him at this very moment. He passed through what they called the business district, where the radio station was located. It was where most of the guns, food, and tools were rationed out and shared. The town existed on a barter system and a work-for-privilege system. People were assigned duties, and if completed, they earned their rations for a period of time. A few late night lurkers were still out in the streets. Charlie had to sidestep a couple of drunk raiders that were brawling outside the Stormdancer, an old Irish pub. He picked his pace up, he did not want any of Hughes late night patrols spotting him.
He reached the Red District by the time his body adjusted to the cold night. While most parts of the city left the power off unless necessary, here is where excess was the name of the game. Peter Ross’s casino was still up and running this late into the night, bright neon lettering outside blazing green in the dusk. A pretty young blonde was propositioning a couple of young males right outside the door. Charlie thought about going inside for a few quick hands of poker, mingle with the Red crowd a bit, but thought better of it. He had to be back at the radio soon. Charlie avoided the casino entrance, swinging to the back of the building and hammering away at the thick metal door.
A strip of metal at eye level on the door was unlatched from within, a large black man peered at him from inside. “Who’s there?”
“Come on Mac, its Charlie. Open the fucking door I’ve got something for Peter.” Mac usually did his job with a casual indifference, but when he heard Charlie the eyes seemed to sharpen a bit. The latch went back into place and multiple locks were slid open from the inside, then the door opened and Charlie moved inside. The room was well heated and smelled of sweet incense. It always reminded Charlie of the first time he entered a brothel. Mac shut the door behind him and motioned for Charlie to put his hands on the wall. After a quick pat down, Mac resumed his guard duties and Charlie walked to the next room where Peter Ross had his office.
The door was open and wet, slurping noises came from within. There was no telling what he was walking into. Charlie knew that Peter would love to hear what had just come across on the radio so he did not bother knocking. Peter was sitting behind his desk in an expensive leather chair, with his shirt unbuttoned and open, revealing a lean torso with scarce body hair. He couldn't tell whether Peter's eyes had been closed with the sunglasses he always wore, but the man's face had been caught in a moment of ecstasy. Peter asked the person below the desk to stop, then brought his hands up from under his desk.
“Charlie, what can I do for you?” A shit eating grin was plastered on his face. Peter loved having people under his thumb. Charlie had placed some bets he couldn’t back up and borrowed against the house, he was indebted to Peter until further notice.
“I can’t be here long and don’t play that shit with me, you know why I’m here. This might not be something you want overheard.” Peter sighed and pulled a young girl out from under his desk, completely naked except the tassels hanging from her nipples. It was hard to place her age, she could have been early twenties, but just as easily she could have been 16. There was no telling with Peter, Charlie wouldn’t have been surprised if a boy had popped out from under the desk. The girl scampered out of the room and shut the door behind her.
“Go. And I must say Charlie, when you start interrupting my personal time, I might have to add on to your debt.” That smile of his was more irritating by the day.
“Fuck you.” Peter stared at him for a few seconds like a shark circling its prey in the ocean. He had not bothered to pull his pants up or button his shirt. He motioned with his hand for Charlie to get on with it. “I was just sitting at the radio, you know, doing my job. I haven’t forgotten what I owe, and you told me first dibs on intel might get me out of debt. Stanley from the Alcheim base up the coast called in minutes ago, a Goddamned warship started firing cannons at them. No one is answering now. From the sound of it, the ship is coming down the coast our way.”
“Now Charlie, I don’t think our King would like you using the Lord’s name in vain.” Peter chuckled. “But that is some very good information, I suppose you better go make a formal report of it, no?” Charlie left in a hurry, worried he had been out for too long. Mac let him out the door and he started walking off into the night. After a block or two, he could have sworn he heard footsteps behind him. He turned around and looked, catching the figure of a man just as it ducked behind a dumpster. Someone was following him.
He took off running through an alley, afraid that Peter had decided it was time to collect. Charlie heard the footsteps behind him catching up, then he broke out of the alleyway and someone grabbed him by the jacket, slamming him up against the wall. It was one of Hughes’s men, Furtado was his name. The soldier smiled when he recognized who he held.
“Shit Windows, you need to watch yourself running around like that. I almost shot your ass.” The soldier looked down and saw the dark stain forming on Charles pants.
“Someone was following me man.”
“Really? Stay here.” Furtado did a sweep of the alley and came back. “If they were, they gave up when you ran into me. It is a good thing I ran into you though, I need some backup.”
“Yeah. I’m on town sweep duty with Morgan. You know, checking the homes to see if anyone has passed away and risen, all for the safety of the town. Morgan couldn’t make the shift tonight with me because he’s sick and Kovacs lazy ass wouldn’t get out of bed. I’ve got this house over here that isn’t answering, I need a back before I kick the door in.” Furtado offered Charles the pistol from his hip, handle first.
“I don’t know Furtado, I’m just a radio guy.” The last thing Charlie wanted was to confront any of the undead. He was within the walls of New Rochester for a reason. The Last Kingdom, some called it. Sweep duty was the riskiest job within the walls. The dead didn’t start rising as part of any plague or infection, it just happened. Then when more people died, as long as their brain was still intact, they rose after death. The time of rising varied, but sure as shit everyone who died rose. That was why King Hughes had squads patrolling all day, checking in on businesses and dwellings, doing a safety check. If dead bodies or zombies were found, a bullet or blade went through their skull and they were thrown into a pile and burned.
“Look, I know you can shoot a gun, I showed you how. I just need a back. It could just be that no one is home, but if something did go down, I need someone at my side. Just make sure you don’t shoot me and you’ll do a fine job.” Furtado ignored the growing piss stain on Charlie’s pants and clapped him on the shoulder. He led Charlie over to one of the homes a few blocks away. As many homes had done, the windows were boarded up just in case the dead ever were in the streets, windows didn’t withstand a barrage of undead blows too well. They climbed the front steps onto the porch and Furtado slammed his fist on the front door.
“Last chance to open up guys or I’m huffing, I’m puffing, and I’m blowing your damn house down!” A neighbor from across the street came out onto their porch, sitting on a porch swing to watch Furtado. The damn sweeps were the closest thing to watching cops these days. Furtado backed away from the door then lunged forward with one boot in the air. The boot met the wooden door, tearing it from its hinges, and it flew back into the house, clattering to the ground. It was pitch black inside.
Furtado flipped the flashlight extension of his MP5 on and aimed it into the doorway. “Oh shit!” Three bodies lurched quickly out of the doorway as Furtado tumbled to the side, coming back up to his feet on the far side of the porch. Charlie stood there, frozen in fear as the three things surrounded him, and started tearing at him with their fingers. One of them bit deep into his throat and he screamed in agony as it rent flesh from him. A few bursts of gunfire sounded in the night as Furtado put two of the zombies down with his MP5. Charlie brought the pistol up, point blank against the zombie that was still gnawing at his neck, and pulled the trigger. His ears popped from how close the gun had been to his own ear as the zombie fell to the ground. Now that the three bodies weren’t trying to eat him, he did not see them as ghouls. They just looked like a mother, a father, and a teenage son who had been murdered by gunfire. When they had no time to rot, seeing the undead like this was strange. The father’s mouth was still wet with Charlie’s blood.
He should have never left the damn radio room, and he never should have borrowed against the house. He started emptying the clip into the father until Furtado tore the pistol away from him. “Damnit Furtado I told you I didn’t want to help.” He held his hand up against his neck to stem the blood loss, but it did nothing, he was growing lightheaded.
“I’m sorry man . . . I.”
“Tell Kovacs he can go fuck himself.” Charlie leaned against the home and slid to a sitting position on the porch. Minutes later his hand dropped from his neck as he lost consciousness. The pistol fired again in the night and Furtado pulled out his portable radio. “This is Furtado. I need maintenance here.” Furtado sat on the stairs in front of the home and waited until the maintenance team arrived, piling the four bodies into a wheel barrel. Furtado escorted them to the center of New Rochester where the town pyre was located, helping to dump the bodies into it and setting them ablaze. Afterward he walked across half the town to Franklin Bretz’s church, climbing to the bell tower. He pulled the bell four times to signal the night’s loss so far.