First impressions meant a lot to Quint Zachary, he had relied heavily on them as a cop and perhaps to a greater extent now as a survivor. That his first impression of the man opposite him was that he was a snake made him uneasy.
The man had the usual look of a person who had walked through hell. Eyes wide, constantly alert, weather beaten skin and a helter-skelter diet. There was nothing strange about that, in fact had those signs been missing Quint would have been even more suspicious of him. But there was something.
They sat across from each other with a modest table between them. It was a simple piece of furniture that Quint had found in a store during a foraging mission. The store had been difficult to gain access to as it had been heavily fortified, so much so that Quint had thought it might still be occupied but he had been wrong on this, it was empty of anyone alive, but once inside it was obvious that many groups had used the place for temporary refuge at least.
The table had caught his attention when he saw that names had been carved into it, many alongside dates and here and there messages had been written with a marker pen. One in particular had caught his eye, ‘Even at the end there is hope, for an end signifies a new beginning,’ and it was then he knew that he had to bring the table into what at the time was known as ‘the camp.’ Now it was Fort Hope.
As the man, who said his name was Preston, sipped at the tall glass of water which had been provided for him Quint slowly ran his finger through a capital letter R that had been deeply cut into the surface of his table directly in front of where he rested his hands. He didn’t take his eyes off his guest.
‘Thank you,’ Preston said as he finished the last of the water. ‘I needed that, it’s been a while since I could risk drinking a whole glass.’
‘No problem,’ Quint replied.
All guests were offered water. It was a courtesy that had grown into something of the tradition over the last eight years. Anyone who came to the door of his community and offered no violence at being refused entry would receive a meal if supplies allowed and a glass of water to help them on their way. They were after all never short of water.
‘Baxter said you wanted to speak to me. Said you had something that I would be interested in, seemed excited too. You must have a hell of a pitch mister because talking your way past Baxter is something of an art form.’
Preston smiled good naturedly. ‘Well sir, it’s not every day that you will hear a story like mine.’
‘Ohh, I don’t know. I’ve heard a lot of stories.’
‘Like I said, not like mine,’ Preston said confidently.
Preston was clean shaven which Quint found at odds with how a man should look these days. A man shouldn’t have time to shave regularly. He trimmed his beard every week, there was no need to abandon all outward signs of civility, he wasn’t a savage, but as almost all of the trappings of a 21st century lifestyle had fallen by the wayside he could see no reason to sharpen a blade only to bare his cheeks.
But it told him things at least. It told him that Preston was a man who wanted to make an impression, and that he must have a blade of some kind that he kept razor sharp. This was fine. No harm in looking good when trying to gain the good favour of a camp or enclave, and knives were practically mandatory. Even little Jessica, Doc Bray’s daughter, twelve years old, had a knife.
‘All right, but first I need to ask you a few things, get to know a little about you. You good with that?
‘Of course.’ Preston replied easily. He spoke and he sat like a man who hadn’t a care in the world, another thing that made Quint’s shoulders bunch. ‘Talking to this man is like having ants crawling over me,’ he thought.
‘Fire away,’ Preston said and placed his hands palm down on the table.
‘Ok. Where you from, originally?’
‘Florida. Tallahassee,’ Preston replied.
‘Florida? I won’t say that we haven’t had people from further afield but that’s still a long way to travel and reach us.’
‘Yes sir,’ Preston nodded in agreement, ‘you see, when it happened the first thing I did was head west. I’d hoped it would be clear, y’know, that it would be different.’
‘Yeah, I get ya.’ Quint said.
Doc Bray, father of the camp’s youngest resident and wielder of knives had done the exact same thing, but from Canada. North, South, East, every direction was better than where you were right then, people usually just went with their gut.
‘I travelled to a few of the cities on the way but it soon became apparent that they were all no go areas, I mean, they were infested man, so after that I stuck to back roads, towns, y’know, where there would be fewer people.’
Quint continued to offer light nods of agreement. He hadn’t travelled as far, but the basic scenario was the same. He had seen Chicago burning to the ground and he had experienced horrors in Detroit that he hoped to God he would never live through again.
‘What did you do? I mean before.’
‘I was a chemist,’ Preston said plainly.
Quint raised his eyebrows, he hated to show his hand this early but a chemist was of great interest to him.
‘You don’t say?’ he said, and stopped rubbing his finger into the tables chiselled gouges.
‘Yes sir, you have to understand that in professional terms I was still only a journeyman. I was twenty-six when it all went down and had only just finished university.’
Quint gave himself a mental pat on the back for having gauged the man’s age to the very year, if what he was saying was truthful, and at the moment he had no reason to think he wasn’t then he was thirty-four years old.
‘I had just started work at a pharmacy, in a junior capacity of course, then… well, my career prospects changed as I’m sure you can imagine.’
Quint could imagine. What a year that had been. He had been liaising with the D.E.A as senior detective, he was probably two or three months away from a promotion and had already begun looking for a new apartment.
It had all gone south for him during a raid on a meth lab which his team had managed to pinpoint. Flanked by D.E.A agents and wearing enough body armour to give Robocop a run for his money they had stormed the derelict meat-processing plant only to find everyone dead. From the looks of it one of the Einsteins in the gang had got his ingredients wrong and gassed the place. Bodies lay about the room and although there was an extractor fan, still running, it was clear even to Quint that it wouldn’t have been powerful enough to pull out a sudden cloud of toxic vapour. It had been amateur hour in there. No gas masks, no safety gloves. How these guys had progressed past cutting rat poison into heroin was beyond him. Still they were the coroner’s problem now.
While the D.E.A agents secured the scene he and his partner Russo strolled outside to consider what to do with the free time they would have in the afternoon thanks to the ineptitude of their suspects. That was when the screams had begun.
‘But you know the basics? You could operate in a pharmacy?’ Quint said, his interest in Preston had taken a leap from wary to verging on excited.
Basics? Well…yes of course, I mean I may have sold myself a little short there sir…’
‘It’s Quint, Quint Zachary, but I do appreciate the sentiment.’
Preston smiled and allowed a little relief to show on his face.
‘Well, ah, Quint. While I stated that I was a journeyman I was of course already a fully qualified chemist, my training was to be how to implement my skills in a practical manner. In this instance in an actual pharmacy.’
‘Well I’ll tell you Preston this community has a fine practitioner in Doctor Bray, and we have a bunch of nurses who have seen to it that we haven’t lost a soul to anything other than natural causes in two years,’ Quint leaned back into his chair a little.
‘But I’ll be straight up with you son, we could use a chemist. We have good relations with a number of other communities and our bargaining power with them would be increased considerably if we could offer medicines to them.’
‘And that sir…’ Preston raised a finger, then added ‘I’m sorry, Quint, that is why I have come to you and this community with an even greater gift.’
Quint blinked and sobered a little. He was always on the lookout for people who could further the community, people with skills, artisans, craftsman, scientists and especially those who worked in the field of medicine. The whole point of these face to face meetings was to discover if any of the countless survivors who came knocking on their door had anything about he could use. It was infrequent that this was the case.
It was as though the only people who were smart or charmed enough to survive were salesmen or data analysts or marketing executives. A sanitation operative would be more useful to Fort Hope than any of those guys, but every now and then a carpenter or a plumber or a mechanic would appear.
Yet even these were not guaranteed a home and a place in Fort Hope. This was where his own skill set came in. He could spot an alcoholic, a junkie and a racist with just a polite conversation. While their talents might be useful, and he would hire them under supervision, they could not be offered a home.
He had been close to not liking Preston. He had no reason, the man didn’t strike him as a drunk or any kind of user but his gut instinct had said ‘No’ and it usually served him well.
‘He’s a chemist!’
Quint’s reasoning bore down on his vague emotional rejection and highlighted what a person with his talents could do to further push their world closer to what had once been normality.
‘A greater gift?’ Quint echoed.
‘Far greater,’ Preston’s whole demeanour changed. His shoulders straightened and he clasped his hands together on the table. ‘Let me ask you something, if you don’t mind Quint?’
‘Fire away,’ Quint replied mimicking Preston, but careful not to appear mocking.
‘What is the biggest threat we face other than those things out there?’
Quint thought for a moment. ‘Disease I guess, I mean starvation should things go bad, but it all comes down to that same thing in the end.’
‘Really? You think that?’ Preston said quizzically.
‘Yeah, I think so,’ Quint replied.
‘I don’t. I think that the biggest, most active threat we have is ourselves, other people.’
Quint was interested in this. It was something that he had discussed many times with Baxter.
‘Go on,’ he said.
‘You must be wondering why I’ve been travelling across the land, why I haven’t found some camp or group to take me in, I mean with what I can offer right?’
‘It had crossed my mind,’ Quint said, although oddly, it hadn’t.
‘Because of trust Quint. Because I’ve seen how other places are run, some are nothing more than despotisms, others chaotic free for all’s. I’ve seen whites only, blacks only, Hispanic only settlements,’ Preston raised his hands as if in surrender, ‘Did you know there’s a Scientologist town just fifty miles from here?’
‘Uh huh. I know about that camp, folks around here called it Space Mountain. Got overrun last I heard.’
‘Oh yeah?’ Preston said and made no attempt to disguise his lack of care about that, ‘The thing is Quint I heard about this place, about your town, about FORT HOPE.’
He lay his hands back down onto the table. ‘And I knew that this is where it would start.’
‘Where what would start?’
‘The rebuilding of civilisation,’ Preston said.
Quint smiled and uttered an apologetic, ‘heh.’
‘Son I… Preston, we can use your talent, believe me we really can, and I’m sure you know that, but… what I have in mind is something a little more modest. Better meds for our people, supplies that we can trade with Camp Hooley in the northeast and Rivertown in the south. I’m afraid the rebuilding of civilisation is going to have to wait a while.’
Preston said nothing but looked at Quint with searching eyes.
‘I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.’ Quint said.
Preston shuffled his chair a little closer to the table and leaned in as though he had a secret to share.
‘Quint are you a man of your word?’
Surprised at this Quint thought for a moment before giving his answer. He was not above lying, in the right circumstances, and if he thought it was for the right reasons, but it wasn’t something he took lightly. He could be hard, ruthless even, he would admit to that, but it was something he had learned to be for the sake of the community. For all that though, despite the occasional lie and a pragmatic approach to his new existence he believed he was a good man.
‘I believe I am. I think that a man who can’t hold true to his own word isn’t really man at all. He’s just vapours that drift with whatever breeze blows against him.’
Preston nodded, ‘Good, that’s what I had heard, and so with that in mind I want you to give me your word that you will remain calm and open minded about what I am about to tell you.’
Quint narrowed his eyes and again the feeling that there was something not quite right about Preston stole over him. He came over as normal enough, if a little confident, he didn’t have a beard to disguise his expression and all he had seen was… just another survivor. Naturally he was unarmed too. Baxter would have stripped him of weapons, besides which he was carrying his pistol and had a Bowie knife in his boot. Couple this with the fact that he was almost half the man’s width again with muscle and maintained a vigorous martial training program, being attacked was the least of his worries.
‘Are you going to give me reason to get mad at you Preston?’ Quint asked carefully.
‘Not mad no, but you may get excited,’ Preston replied.
Quint hated people playing with words and he felt that this was what Preston was doing.
‘All right,’ Quint said.
‘I have your word?’
‘You have my word. What have you got to say?’
Preston took a breath and rolled up the sleeve of his jacket. ‘You ever have anyone survive a bite?’ he asked as he pushed the sleeve past his elbow.
‘No,’ Quint said plainly.
‘What’s the longest you’ve ever seen anyone last that’s been bitten.’
Quint looked to the side as he thought about it and then turned back to Preston.
‘Depends. On the severity I suppose. I saw a guy get bit on the ear one time, didn’t even take it off, just cut it a little. We thought he had gotten lucky, but he was dead within eight hours. Turned about an hour later.’
‘Eight hours,’ Preston repeated.
‘Give or take fifteen minutes,’ Quint said. ‘Of course if they die from a more severe wound that’s a different matter it can be minutes at best.’
Preston nodded again. Then lay his bare arm down onto the table so that Quint could see it clearly.
‘I got bit,’ Preston said.
The marks were plain to see. A ring of crooked indentations that had scarred the flesh. There were a couple of places that were paler than others, where small chunks of skin had come away.
Quint’s reaction was instinctive. As soon as he realised what had been said and what he was looking at he pushed himself away from the table, almost falling over the chair as it crashed behind him.
‘Jesus Christ!’ he shouted and whipped his pistol out from its holster levelling it directly at Preston’s face.
Preston remained sat, his arm still lying upon the table.
‘You gave me your word Quint,’ he said with a hint of annoyance.
‘What the hell do you think you are doing coming in here bit?’ Quint shouted.
‘Six weeks ago,’ Preston said.
‘I was bitten six weeks ago,’ Preston said.
‘Impossible.’ Quint closed on Preston a little, moving around the fallen chair. He kept his pistol squarely on its target.
‘Look at the wound Quint, its healed or at least healing. Damn thing caught me out as I was looking through a department store.’
Quint looked a little more carefully. There were no actual cuts and almost no redness. Any other bite he had seen rapidly became a mess of raw, angry tissue.
‘Six weeks?’ he asked again.
‘That’s not all,’ Preston said, ‘any chance you could put that thing down, to your side at least?’
Quint hesitated but then lowered the pistol. He considered calling for others, this room, the interview room was part of three other connected offices. He used it to keep visitors separate from the main section of the Fort, until he was happy that they should enter. The other offices had people in them who could come if he called. They might even come anyway, if they heard him shout.
‘Right, now listen I’m going to remove my jacket and then take off my T-shirt, OK?’ Preston said, careful not to move his hands or shoulders.
Quint remained still for a moment. Then nodded.
Slowly Preston pushed his chair back from the table and rose to standing. With exquisite calm he pulled his arms out of his jacket and then placed it onto the table. This done he turned his back to Quint.
‘I’m going to take off my T-shirt. Don’t you fire that thing at me, you gave me your word.’
He couldn’t see Quint nod but began to lift his t-shirt off.
Quint immediately saw the ring of tooth marks around his right shoulder. These must have been deeper, a more savage bite, but they too were old, very old, as the skin had completely scarred now.
‘You see it?’ Preston asked.
Quint offered Preston another unseen nod and then said ‘Yes,’ in a quiet voice.
Preston turned and began to put the t-shirt back on.
‘I got bit eight years ago, I guess I was one of the first. I was rushed to hospital, it was one of my colleagues who attacked me and he was shot by the cops. Apparently I died on the way to the hospital but the paramedics jump-started me back to life, and I mean to real life. I was in there overnight but was discharged the next day, of course come that evening all hell had broken loose. It got bad fast in Florida.’
‘Are you sure the guy was…’
‘He was as dead as Dillinger Quint, he was covered head to foot in blood and someone had stuck a scalpel in his eye. It was still in there when they shot him apparently.’
‘I don’t know,’ Preston shrugged into his jacket. ‘There are a lot of variables, I’ve gone over them in my mind time and time again but without some serious research I can’t say for sure.’
‘You lived though,’ Quint said, almost as though he were far away in his thoughts.
‘I lived. And that’s not all.’
Quint shook his head as though he had not heard correctly.
‘That’s not all?’
‘They don’t see me,’ Preston said.
‘Don’t… how do you mean.’
‘They either don’t see me or don’t care that I’m around because they don’t attack me.’
Quint paused, ‘Your arm?’
‘That was a frenzy. Like I said, I was caught in a department store, only the thing is I wasn’t alone. Some group was in there too, just nomads I think. Anyway those bastards came streaming in after these guys and it just went crazy, they frenzied…you’ve seen that before right?
Quint nodded, he had seen it. Sometimes they went utterly ballistic, as though the blood fuelled some sort of rage inside them, rather than just attacking to eat they would rip and tear at anything they could, even each other.
‘One of them just clamped down on me as I was trying to get through the mayhem. Fortunately, I had my knife ready and I was able to finish it. Hurt like the Christ though.’
‘You just walked away?’
‘Yup,’ Preston said. ‘Truth? I spent five years just like everyone else, running, hiding, terrified. Only in the last couple of years did I realise that the only thing I had to worry about was other people.’
Quint caught a laugh in his mouth. The absurdity of it.
‘They can’t see you.’
Now Quint laughed. He holstered his pistol, ‘I’ll be damned.’
Preston smiled. ‘It’s something. It sure is.’
‘Son…’ Quint shook his head, ‘Son if what you are saying is true, and I pray to whatever Gods there are out there watching all of this that it is, then we can… we can move on. We can build a city, not just a town, we can get whatever we need. My God if we can figure out what makes you tick!’
‘That’s why I’m here Quint,’ Preston said.
Quint lifted the fallen chair from the floor and pushed it under the table.
‘We need to… I need to see this. You understand that right?’ Quint said, serious now but unable to hide the excitement in his voice.
‘I understand completely and I’m ready to prove whatever you need to satisfy you. I’ll dance a jig in the middle of a graveyard if that’s what it takes.’
‘My God,’ Quint said, shaking his head and flexing his hands.
‘Listen, could I get another drink of water because believe it or not you are quite a scary guy even without a gun in your hand,’ Preston said, but smiled as he did so.
‘What… oh sure, look I’m sorry but I gotta…’
‘Hey, no of course, this is serious and I knew that it was going to freak you out. Trust me I didn’t know what the hell was going on when I realised myself. Look, get two glasses man, let’s… let’s drink to this. I mean, I hope that this will be something, y’know?’
‘Yeah of course. Listen. Do you drink for real? Because I have a bottle of Bourbon in my office and I sure could do with a shot.’
‘I think it would be rude to refuse,’ Preston said cheerfully.
‘I’ll be right back,’ Quint turned and left the room.
Preston heard him walk quickly to one of the other offices. He sat back into his chair and reached down, sliding out a section of the heel of his shoe. It was a simple deception, merely a tray of sorts cut into the thick rubber and easily disguised by the mud and dust that covered them. From it he took a small bag and a slip of paper.
Quickly but carefully he allowed a small amount of powder to spill from the bag and on the square of paper. After returning the bag to its tiny drawer with a practiced hand he folded the paper over the powder and clipped it between his fingers. A small amount of the dust escaped but Preston was happy that there was sufficient for the task at hand.
He stood as Quint returned carrying two shot glasses in one hand and a bottle in the other. He placed the glasses down and raised the bottle so that Preston could see the label.
‘E.H Taylor,’ Quint said with a smile, ‘I’ve been saving this for a special occasion and I hope I’m right in believing that this is it.’
Preston picked up the glasses. ‘Will you do the honors Mr Zachary?’
‘I surely will,’ Quint replied, and poured an equal measure into both.
He placed the bottle down onto the table and held his glass towards Preston.
‘To hope and the future,’ Quint said.
‘I’ll drink to that,’ Preston replied and knocked back the bourbon in time with Quint.
‘Sit, please,’ Preston said, ‘I’ll tell you what I think we can do now.’
Quint dragged out the chair and sat. His head was reeling with thoughts. The first thing was of course to make sure that Preston wasn’t just some whack job. He believed him, he believed his story about the bites about being invisible to them, the man had spoken clearly and with conviction, his eyes had not wandered as they would if he was making up some romance.
Still, he had to be sure. He and Baxter would take Preston out with them and see if what he claimed was a fact.
‘But God, if it’s true…’
Quint’s thoughts froze at the same time as his fingers.
He felt as though he had been pushed in the back, and then his muscles locked. He tried to move his jaw but couldn’t and his tongue felt like a thick, moist sock in his mouth.
‘You OK Quint? You’ve gone a little red,’ Preston said, dropping his head a little so that he could look into Quint’s eyes.
Quint couldn’t reply, he couldn’t move at all. His fingers still gripped the small empty glass.
‘It’s all right,’ Preston said calmly, ‘you’ve been drugged. It’s good for about ten minutes, maybe a little less for a fellow your size. After the muscle seizure wears off you would usually just feel a little sore, but that won’t be an issue today.’
Preston stood, and moved to the door. He looked out and could neither see nor hear anyone. Satisfied that no one was going to come running he returned to Quint and stood at his side. He reached to Quint’s holster and took his pistol, then knelt to get at the Bowie knife.
‘Nice. You keep this sharp,’ he said as he admired the blade. ‘Now, I’m going to fill you in on all the bits that I missed out during our little interview. I’m going to do this Quint because I want you to understand just how pointless all of this has been,’ Preston waved the blade of the Bowie knife around to indicate the camp.
‘You see, unlike you I like all this. I’ve liked it since pretty much day one. Not when I thought I was going to be eaten alive of course, but y’know, once I figured out that I was… special.’
He stood and moved around the table slowly. Quint couldn’t move his eyes to follow. Instead they remained fixed on the table and began to water, as he also couldn’t blink.
‘I can have, and do, anything I like. The only danger to me is people like you. People who want to make me fix what they see as their broken world. It’s pretty much the same everywhere I’ve been. There’s some guy, it’s always some guy, who thinks I’m going to make him the King of America or something, but then he drops his guard and I make him my bitch.’
He stopped and turned to Quint.
‘You’re my bitch today Mr Zachary,’
Preston could see that drool was pouring from Quint’s mouth, he had fallen forward a little due to the weight of his upper body.
‘Today you and I are going to go through this place like the proverbial plague. You see, you are now patient zero, and from you I’ll create my own little army made entirely of your own people. I’ll take what and who I like, and then I’ll move on, as I’ve done many times before. I’ll prevent people like you from bringing back the civilisation that has tried to stop me existing Quint. The bottom line to all this is that you have to understand, and accept, that this is a world for monsters now.’
Preston moved behind Quint and reached under his chin with the Bowie knife.
‘I’m very pleased that you had this, but then, everyone carries a knife these days don’t they?’
With a slow but strong action Preston pulled the blade of the knife around Quint’s throat. A gout of thick, dark blood immediately began to pump out of the wound.
Quint couldn’t see the cut, and the blade was so sharp he could barely feel his skin paring open, there was a slight pressure as Preston cut through his windpipe. He could see his blood as it was splashing onto the table in front him, filling the chiselled words and names.
Preston was talking but he couldn’t hear what he was saying, there was a loud rushing sensation in his ears. His body began to spasm as his system reacted to being choked and drained at the same time. He could see where he had carved his own name. Just underneath the message of hope that had inspired him to bring together the people of this community.
Preston held him by the hair to keep him steady as he died. It didn’t take long and when it was done he returned to his chair and waited for Quint to turn.
Eddie wrote his first horror story at age thirteen for his mock O Level in English. He scored an ‘A’ but also had to see the Headmaster due to its dark tone. After thirty-five years had passed and with a couple of degrees under his belt he decided to try his hand at a Masters in Creative Writing at Keele University. He has since written a Novel, Winter Falls, a four-part series based on the fictional exploits of occultist Aleister Crowley, and a collection of short stories, all with a horror or supernatural theme. He is currently working on a sci-fi series and a new novel, a World War Two thriller set in Berlin. His work has won praise for its pace, dialogue and humour.