By Mark Morris
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This is the next installment in the Zombie Apocalypse! series.
CAT HARRIS WAS thinking about bridesmaids’ dresses when the woman ran out in front of her car.
More specifically, she was wondering whether the dresses should have bows or not and, if so, what size those bows should be. She didn’t want the girls to look cutesy, but neither did she want them to look too plain. She was already wondering whether she’d made a mistake in choosing the peach over the maroon, but the girls themselves – especially little Emily – had favoured the lighter colour, as had Cat’s mother, who’d declared with horror that the maroon made the girls “look like blood clots”.
Cat still wasn’t sure, though. She’d thought the maroon dramatic, whereas wasn’t the peach a bit wishy-washy, not to mention predictable? She didn’t want to look back on her wedding photos in years to come, only to regretfully conclude that she and her friends had resembled giant meringues.
Six weeks on Saturday. She couldn’t believe that the wedding was so close. After months of planning, it suddenly seemed to have rushed up on her. The framework was in place, of course, but her head was buzzing with the decisions that still had to be made. In the next few days she would be finalizing details with the caterers, the DJ, the photographer, the car hire firm and the hotel in Venice where she and Ed were spending their honeymoon.
It didn’t help that the economy was so uncertain, the country riven by strikes and cutbacks. There were times when Cat felt it would be a miracle if everything went according to plan. She kept expecting to be told that one of the companies supplying some vital component of her celebrations had gone bust, or that the hotel where the reception was due to be held had been forced, like many others, to close down.
It was bad enough at work. NHS funding had always been tight, but this current government didn’t even pretend to give a shit about the health of the nation. There was no denying that the country was going to the dogs; her Dad had said it was becoming a “totalitarian regime”, like Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia. And despite the suppression of media coverage, everyone knew what was really going on. You couldn’t hide something like the Trafalgar Square massacre, no matter how many people said they couldn’t believe such a thing could happen in dear old Blighty.
In the present climate Cat was nervous about working nights, but she knew that everyone had to take their turn, plus she needed the money. And in some ways the night shifts were easier, because the curfew meant that the roads were quieter, less congested. Not that she considered that much of a bonus. Maybe she was being silly, but she found the silent streets eerie, as if the country had a kind of “calm-before-the-storm” atmosphere about it. It was like that weird stillness you get before the thunder rumbles and the rains batter down.
Cat wished that everything could just get back to normal, to how it used to be. But she couldn’t imagine how it ever would.
At least she didn’t live far from work. Ten minutes’ drive at the most. And it was an easy route. From Greenwich it was pretty much straight down Lewisham Road, which then became Lewisham High Street. The only dodgy bit was the area near that church, All Hallows, which was due to be pulled down to make way for one of those Festival of Britain sites. There’d been quite a few protests around there lately, some of which had turned violent. Twice this week Cat had been stopped on her way to work by armed police – that SO22 mob – asking for ID. They’d been civil enough, especially when they found out she was a nurse at the hospital, but she still found their presence intimidating.
She wasn’t sure what she thought about this New Festival of Britain thing. She’d been so preoccupied with her wedding plans that she hadn’t given it much thought. She felt it was a shame that the Olympics had been cancelled – especially for all those poor athletes who’d been training so hard – and she supposed, with the country the way it was, the Festival, which had been brought in to replace it, was nothing but a poor substitute, not to mention a waste of money that could have been diverted more effectively elsewhere – like to the National Health Service, for example.
Ed and her Dad were angrier about it than she was, though. Ed called it a national disgrace and said it was like trying to disguise the stench of a cesspit with a quick blast of air freshener. Most of the people who Cat had spoken to thought pretty much the same thing. She certainly hadn’t met many that were in favour of it, which is probably why it wasn’t surprising that most of the posters she saw advertising the Festival had been defaced. On the one she passed on her way to work, the words had been amended to NEW FUCK-UP OF BRITAIN.
She was at the junction at the bottom of Greenwich South Street, about to cross over to Lewisham Road, when the woman appeared, lurching out from the direction of Blackheath Hill. She seemed to come from nowhere, a dark shape, a sudden flash of movement.
Cat’s heart leaped and her body went rigid, her hands tightening on the steering wheel. Her foot stamped instinctively on the brake pedal and the car stalled, jerking her forward in her seat, her seatbelt locking across her chest. For a moment her mind spun as she tried to orient herself. Then she looked up.
The woman was drunk. That was Cat’s first thought. She had stumbled into the road, directly in front of the car, with no thought for her own safety. She was well dressed, trim and looked to be somewhere in her thirties, but there was clearly something wrong with her. Her smart jacket and suit were dirty and dishevelled, her auburn hair was matted with what looked like dust or cobwebs, and somewhere along the way she had lost a shoe and was now tottering lopsidedly on one heel.
Despite the screeching sound that the tyres had made, the woman seemed oblivious to Cat’s presence. She was half-turned away from the car, her movements uncoordinated. Cat began to wonder whether she wasn’t drunk, after all, but had, in fact, been attacked. It was hard to tell under the streetlights, but was it possible that the dark stains on the collar and sleeve of the woman’s jacket was not dirt but blood?
She wound down the window and stuck her head out. “Excuse me, are you okay?”
The woman froze, hunching up her shoulders. Cat wondered whether she had startled her by shouting out, though oddly the woman’s stance reminded her of a big cat tensing its muscles in readiness to leap upon its prey.
“Sorry,” Cat said. “I didn’t mean to—”
And then the words dried in her throat as, with a guttural snarl, the woman spun around.
She wasn’t just drunk, and she hadn’t just been attacked; there was something seriously wrong with her. She looked bestial – her lips curled back over teeth that were caked with blood and what appeared, grotesquely, to be fur. There was more blood on her chin, mixing with the drool that spilled from her bottom lip. When she raised her hands, Cat saw that they were red and wet, and that her well-manicured fingernails were clogged with what looked like meat.
With a sound somewhere between a howl and a roar the woman leaped at the car. Her hands slammed on the bonnet, and for a moment she was crouched there on all fours, her skirt riding up over her thighs, her face glaring in at Cat through the windscreen.
Cat was chilled to see that there was no humanity in that face. It wore an expression of utter rage, and yet the pale eyes were strangely dead, the pupils contracted to pin pricks, so that it looked almost as though a pale, grey, cataract-like film had formed across them. Cat and the woman were eye to eye for no more than three seconds, but it was long enough for Cat to understand that the woman meant her nothing but harm.
Then, unable to maintain her grip on the smooth metal, the woman began to slide backwards. She crumpled to the ground in front of the car like a slow-motion hit-and-run victim.
Before she could recover, Cat rammed the car into reverse and stamped on the accelerator. The engine screamed and the car shot backwards, slewing into a half-curve as she wrenched on the wheel. The woman was on her knees in the middle of the road, but as Cat tugged at the gear stick again she saw that she was already scrambling to her feet.
Putting the car into first, Cat veered around the woman, who made a reckless lunge as the car accelerated past her. Shaking with fear, Cat sped away, glancing into her rear-view mirror, as if afraid the woman would come bounding after her.
Trying to concentrate on the road ahead, she saw only the woman’s smeary red handprints on her car bonnet. She was still shaking when she arrived at work.
IF HE HADN’T been distracted by the approaching sirens, it might never have happened. Carlton wasn’t even supposed to be on the streets; he was seventeen, and so subject to curfew. But there was no way he was gonna stay home and let the Deptford Road Crew take over Greenwich. Those fuckers had been bold lately, scrawling their tags all over the ’hood, muscling in on the payroll, intimidating the growers and the suppliers. They’d even torched Elijah’s A3, which was unforgivable. They had it coming big time.
Elijah had called Carlton that afternoon. “It’s happenin’ tonight,” he had said. “I’m bringin’ all my soljas in. Every last one of those motherfuckers gonna get merked.”
The party in Catherine Street was supposed to be secret, but one of the dealers had let slip to Fitch’s sister that that was where the Deptford crew were gonna be. Word was that all three wanted guys would even be there, which was fucking disrespectful. The three top boys of any crew should never be together at the same time. The fact that they were gonna be meant they thought they were untouchable, and that was the biggest insult of all.
Elijah’s soljas converged on the house like shadows, trailing darkness as they came. They wore black hoodies, black jeans, black boots, black scarves around their faces. The only parts of them that caught the light were their eyes and the glint of bottles protruding from pockets and clutched in hands. The five-oh was out on the street in force tonight, as they were every night, but the boys evaded them easily, slipping between the strands of their web like invisible flies.
Like Carlton, many of the crew was defying the curfew, risking arrest and worse. Latest word was that the five-oh were capping tinies just for eyeballing them after lights out. Carlton didn’t know anyone it had happened to personally, but Fitch swore that his cousin’s top boy in Wandsworth had been merked just for leaving the flat to get bread for his Mum after dark. Black van came and took the body away, he told Carlton, and nothing more was said about it.
Carlton moved through the crowd on the pavement, nodding and bumping fists. There must have been thirty soljas here tonight, but no one was saying anything. There was no joking, no chatter. The houses either side were sealed up tight, no one wanting to get involved. But all it took was one anonymous phone call to the five-oh from a shook neighbour and this place would be swarming in minutes.
Even if you didn’t know the address, the party house would not have been hard to find. It was like the Deptford crew wanted a battle, like they were inviting it. The place was pumping like a heart, lights and music throbbing from the windows. Time was, the yard and street in front of the house would have been overflowing with bodies, but the curfew meant that these days, if everyone stayed inside, then the five-oh left them alone.
Following up complaints from killjoys was something the police never bothered with no more. It was such small fry compared to the real shit that was going down that it no longer even registered as an offence – not since the five-oh stopped caring about “community relations” anyhow. For them, everyone was now just a problem that had to be contained.
If you stayed where you was supposed to be and kept your opinions to yourself, then chances were you’d be okay. But if you stepped out of line and made a fuss, you’d be gone like Fitch’s cousin’s boy, taken away in a black van never to be seen again, nothing left behind but a smear on the pavement.
Carlton spotted his best boy Fitch hanging with Jermaine. Jermaine was cool, a nineteen-year-old Tonk, hubz to Fitch’s older sister, Letitia. Jermaine nodded at him, his eyes so hooded he looked on the verge of falling asleep. Carlton nodded back, then turned to Fitch. Though he could only see Fitch’s eyes, the younger boy looked shook.
“You tooled?” Carlton whispered.
Fitch jerked his right elbow, the hand forming a bulge in his hoodie pocket. “I got a rock.”
Carlton was incredulous. “A rock?”
“I couldn’t get nothin’ else,” Fitch muttered defensively. “What about you?”
“Shank,” said Carlton.
“Jermaine’s carryin’ a nine,” Fitch whispered.
“Safe,” said Carlton respectfully.
There was a low whistle and the boys clammed up, moved into position. Those with bottles slipped through to the front, lining up along the wall, facing the house. Lighters were produced, and next moment a series of tulip flames danced in the night. The bottles in the boys’ other hands were full of petrol, fuses made of rags trailing out of the necks. The rags were lit, arms drawn back. Next moment a dozen flaming glass projectiles were arcing towards the house.
A few hit the wall of the house itself, smashing against the brick, erupting in a spatter of flame, which quickly went out. Most, though, found their target, smashing in through the big front window in a din of shattering glass, hot white comets drooling liquid fire.
The closed curtains on the other side of the glass (not even metal shutters, thought Carlton. Fucking amateurs) went up in a sheet. Instantly there were screams and angry shouts from inside the house, the thump of running feet, clatters and bangs as furniture and maybe even people were knocked aside. The Greenwich crew was already diving for cover as the front door opened. Then the gunfire started.
It came from both sides, cracks and pops and bangs depending on the calibre and efficiency of the weapons. The first motherfucker out the door, who was wearing a white vest like he was asking to be merked, fell back, though Carlton didn’t know whether that was coz he got shot, coz he threw himself backwards or coz he was dragged back inside. The door was slammed shut and the gunfire continued, back and forth, everyone hiding behind walls, bullets hitting brick and concrete, wood and metal.
Carlton lay on his belly on the pavement while the bullets whizzed above him, his ears singing with the din, wondering how long it would be before the five-oh showed with their AK-47s or whatever and joined in.
Fitch was there too, still clutching his rock, his eyes so wide that Carlton thought they might fall out of his head and splat right there on the pavement. Jermaine was slumped against the wall, poking his gun up every now and again, and pulling the trigger without even looking where he was firing.
Carlton didn’t know whether the house was still burning, whether people were still screaming inside; his whole world at that moment consisted of the ringing in his ears and the cold pavement against which he was pressing his body. Then someone shouted something and, although Carlton couldn’t make out the words, he knew that the shout was some kind of warning.
He sensed movement and looked up, saw members of his crew looking beyond where he was lying, some of them starting to run for the cover of walls and parked cars, doubled over to make themselves smaller targets, raising their gats.
A small chunk of pavement next to Carlton’s face exploded, showering him with shards of stone. For a second he thought something was going to burst from under the ground, then he realized the damage had been caused by a bullet. He’d been six inches away from getting his face blown off.
He scrambled to his feet, suddenly aware of how big a target his back was, of how easily a bullet would rip through his flesh, shatter his bones. He turned, his feet clumsy, his hand scrabbling for the knife in his pocket, to see a skinny kid, no more than a tinie, pointing a gat at his head.
The kid, and others with him, must have come out of the back of the house and round the side, hoping to spring an ambush. But now they’d been spotted, so it was open fucking warfare, with Carlton and Fitch caught in the middle.
Carlton knew there was nothing he could do, nothing he could say. The kid was little but he was all rage, teeth clenched, eyes on another planet. In a second he would pull the trigger and Carlton would be dead. He didn’t have time to prepare for that, or even to be scared. All he could do was stare at the kid and wait for it to happen.
But then the kid’s shoulder turned to meat and his arm flew back like it was nothing but a long sock full of sand. The kid’s face went blank with shock and he dropped like a dead weight, the gun spilling from his hand. Carlton half-turned to see that Jermaine, face wild, was no longer pressed against the wall of the house, but had moved across to take shelter behind a Renault spanged with bullet holes. He had capped the kid and now he was firing at others who were coming up the street behind him.
Carlton had no time to thank him. Looking round he spotted Fitch, still cowering on the pavement, too scared to move. Bending low, Carlton ran over, grabbed the back of Fitch’s hoodie and yanked him upright, half-strangling him. Fitch gave a yelp and swung his left arm in a half-hearted attempt to fight back.
“Chill,” Carlton yelled in his ear. “It’s me, blud. You need to be up and wettin’. Mashmen comin’. You get merked if you stay. You good?”
Fitch nodded, and this time when Carlton dragged him to his feet he didn’t resist. Crouching low, sticking to the shadows, the boys ran towards the car sheltering Jermaine and dived behind it.
It was chaos on the street now, everyone spread all over. Looking round, it was hard to tell which of the shapes were bodies and which were trees or bushes or clumps of darkness. There was no discipline, no strategy, and despite the amount of shooting, no casualties that Carlton could see, apart from the tinie that Jermaine had shot, who was now writhing on the ground, feet pedalling, making breathless little screaming noises.
The shooting was still going on, but it was intermittent, more hopeful than full of any real intent. It didn’t help that thick, black smoke from the house was now drifting across the road, making it even harder to see.
There were a few more shots, then things went quiet. For a while the three of them sat tight, waiting for someone to make a move. Though the fire seemed to be out, the smoke was getting thicker, swirling around them. It stung their eyes and throats, and soon all three boys were trying to stifle coughs, fearful of giving their position away. Jermaine shook his head.
“This is crump, man. We should fucking bail. The five-oh be all over this in a minute.”
“Where should we go?” Fitch asked nervously.
Jermaine nodded towards the wounded tinie, who was now barely visible through the smoke. He was still pedalling his legs as if he wanted to detach himself from his pain, walk away from it. The Deptford crew who had been coming up behind him was nowhere to be seen. If they were still around they were taking refuge in the smoke and darkness, sitting it out like Carlton, Fitch and Jermaine.
“Not that way,” he said and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “So let’s go this.”
Peeling away from the car the boys began to slip along the pavement, heads darting back and forth as they tried to scope every direction at once. It was eerie how quiet the street had suddenly become. It was as if everyone had melted away, as if they were the only ones left.
The boys froze, their heads snapping up as they heard a siren in the distance, faint but getting closer. Jermaine stepped forward and dropped his gun over a low garden wall, concealing it in the narrow gap between the wall and a wheelie bin. Carlton pulled his knife from his pocket and did the same.
“Where now?” Fitch said, panic creeping into his voice.
“Chill,” said Jermaine. “We fine. The five-oh see us, we just out strollin’. Ain’t no law ’gainst that.”
“I’m sixteen,” said Fitch.
“And I’m seventeen,” said Carlton. “We curfew bait, man.”
Jermaine narrowed his eyes, and Carlton wondered whether he was about to bail on them. Then he said, “The five-oh comin’ from High Road, so we cut across the park. Easy. You babies be tucked up in bed by midnight.”
Carlton and Fitch scowled at him, but this was no time for banter. Scurrying across the road, Carlton felt like a fox, moving silently through the cracks and crevices of the city.
The opposite pavement was lined with cars, the gleam of their bodywork under the streetlights dulled by smoke. The sirens were getting closer. Jermaine reached the pavement first, followed by Fitch, with Carlton bringing up the rear. Carlton was so distracted by the approaching sirens that he didn’t see the kid until it was too late.
The kid stepped out of the shadows and the smoke behind him and punched him in the hip. It didn’t hurt at first, and so Carlton had no idea he’d been shanked until he turned to see the kid running away, disappearing into the darkness.
He was about to yell out, maybe give chase, when his hip, where the kid had punched him, started to go hot and cold, and then to really hurt. He looked down and saw the hole in his jacket and the blood pouring out of it, black under the bleached-out glare of the streetlights.
Then his head started to spin and the world greyed out and suddenly his legs seemed to disappear. Next thing Carlton knew he was on the ground and he couldn’t move and the sirens were almost upon him. They were screeching at him, right in his ear, like a pack of wild animals moving in for the kill.
“I’VE GOT THIS strange bulge in my trousers, nurse. Fancy taking me round the back for a thorough examination?”
Lisa rolled her eyes. She was starting to regret suggesting this whole “sexy nurse” theme for Chris’ hen night. It had been a laugh at first but, after hearing the same predictable chat-up lines over and over again, it was now starting to wear a bit thin. If it wasn’t a variation on what the testosterone-fuelled knob-head with the alcohol-pink eyes had just said to her, it was: “I’m getting a bit hot, nurse, I think you need to loosen my clothing”, or: “Why don’t you take me home and show me your bedside manner?” or: “Want to come back to mine for a game of doctors and nurses?” One guy earlier in the evening had said, “I think I’ve got a temperature, nurse. Where do you want to stick your thermometer?”
Lisa had sighed and muttered, “Through your eye and into your brain would be a good start.”
Maybe, on reflection, the four of them should have come as nuns – “Got any dirty habits?”; “I’ve always fancied p-p-picking up a Penguin”; “Are you a Catholic or a prostitute?” – but then again, maybe not.
What about top hat and tails then? Or boiler suits? No doubt the former would have led to comments about ringmasters and whips, and the latter to jokes about lesbians and how to “cure” them.
It wasn’t that Lisa was averse to a bit of flattery and attention, it was just that she wished what had passed for it this evening hadn’t been so depressingly predictable. Maybe she was getting uptight in her old age. Maybe, since turning twenty-five, marrying Robbie and giving birth to Jake, she didn’t have it in her to have fun any more.
But no, she couldn’t believe that. She wouldn’t believe that. Before meeting Robbie she’d always been the wild one, the adventurous one, the life and soul. And she’d organized tonight’s little shindig, hadn’t she? And it wasn’t as if (despite the endless comments) they weren’t having a good time.
Okay, so Elevation wasn’t exactly the most salubrious club in south London (it wasn’t even the most salubrious club in Catford), but it was cheap and cheerful, and most importantly it was open. So many clubs weren’t these days. They’d closed down partly because people didn’t have the money to socialize any more, and partly because a lot of former pubbers and clubbers didn’t like being out on the streets after dark.
Maybe that’s why the clientele in Elevation seemed a bit more . . . well, full on than the kind of mid-week crowds that Lisa had been used to in her young, free and single days. Maybe the hardcore element that did still venture out were just that little bit more determined to throw caution to the wind, more intent on forgetting about the drudgery of life in the recession-hit slagheap that was modern Britain and simply enjoying themselves.
The boys who’d been chatting them up tonight – all hard pecs and hard drinking and streaky blonde highlights in forty-quid haircuts – had certainly been wanting to enjoy themselves a bit more than the girls were prepared to let them. They’d been like flies around sugar, mesmerized by the girls’ little white nurses’ caps and white micro-dresses which failed to hide the stocking tops of their white fishnets.
- On Sale
- Jul 8, 2014
- Page Count
- 512 pages
- Running Press