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PATIENT Z



Becky Black



Patient Z


Copyright © July 2013 by Becky Black


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Blurb


Two years ago the zombie apocalypse wiped out the world police officer Mitch Kennedy had a role in. But he’s found a way to continue doing his duty, serving as guardian of a small community of survivors, living in the safest place they can find. When the group takes in Cal Richardson, Mitch can’t help but be attracted to the first available—and incidentally, gorgeous—man to cross his path in months.


Mitch and Cal can’t resist each other physically, but each man tries to hold back his emotions. Though he’s strong on the outside, Mitch is too badly hurt inside to risk more pain. Cal’s very sure he won’t stay for long. He’s been a drifter all his life and it came naturally to him to survive alone after civilization fell. He’s sure this is a temporary stopover for him. He has no intention of becoming emotionally involved with a cop who is certain to despise Cal when he learns the truth about him.


The longer Cal stays the stronger his urge to run grows, but the harder it becomes to give up the safety of the community and his new friends. The harder it becomes to give up Mitch.



Table of Contents


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

About the author

Acknowledgment

With thanks to Kay Berrisford and Star Ostgard.

Chapter One

Dizzy and sick and hurting everywhere, Cal struggled toward the light. If he made it to the light, he wouldn’t be pulled back into a body that had become an abomination. People claimed the zombies didn’t have anything of the living person they’d once been left in them anymore, but how could they know for sure? Cal feared being trapped inside his body, his mind driven by the compulsions of the parasites, but intact. Mourning his body as it decayed with him still inside it, like wearing clothes as they rotted off his frame.

The light grew brighter, glaring enough to make him lift his arm to shield his eyes. The metallic clank this produced and the weight of the manacle on his wrist brought him awake fast, and he sat up, gasping. The room spun around him. Manacles on both his wrists, and fetters on his ankles. Shit. This sure as hell was not heaven.

“Don’t move around too fast. You’re…weak.”

A man’s voice, with plenty of authority in it, except for the hesitation on the last word. Cal squinted, eyes still unfocused, adapting to the light. A dark shape resolved itself into a man. A big guy—big shoulders and broad chest. He had a strong, square-jawed face. Not a man to be messed with. A woman, barely more than a girl, stood beside him.

“Bring the doctor, please,” the man said to the girl. “Tell her the patient is awake.”

“Patient?” Cal stood and raised his manacled hands as the girl hurried away. “You meant another word there, right? Also starting with P.” The chains were bolted to the wall, and he could move no more than a couple of yards from the cot he’d woken up on. Mr. Square Jaw was standing beyond reach.

“I’m sorry,” the man said. “We can’t take a chance.”

“On what?”

“How did you get the bite on your leg?”

Shit. Cal glanced down at his leg, clad in gray sweatpants that weren’t his—he’d never have owned anything so ugly. He knew what they assumed, this guy and his little girlfriend and doctor, and whoever else was here.

“A dog. Pack of feral bastards came at me.”

“A dog.”

“Border collie was the one that got me. Before I got him.” He reached unconsciously toward the belt holster that wasn’t there. “Where are my weapons?”

“When were you bitten?”

“Depends how long I’ve been here. And speaking of here, want to tell me where the hell I am?” He looked around at the metal walls. The room had no windows. The low ceiling and dim lighting made it depressingly gloomy. Not very warm either—especially as his captors hadn’t given him a shirt to go with his ugly pants. If there’d been movement, he’d have thought he was on a ship, but the place was as steady as dry land, now that his head wasn’t spinning so much. “And while you’re at it, who you are?” he added. Whoever he was, he was a good-looking guy. Nice blue eyes. Dark blond hair trimmed short and neat.

“My name is Mitch Kennedy. You’re on a decommissioned oil rig six miles off the coast of California. What’s your name?”

“Calvin Richardson. Call me Cal.”

“Okay, Cal. We found you unconscious on a boat and brought you aboard.”

Yeah, the boat. That had been a mistake. Should have checked it actually had fuel. And a life raft and emergency supplies and flares and all that shit. Someone had clearly stripped the damn thing before Cal ever found it, but he hadn’t realized this until too late. Until he was drifting helplessly out into the Pacific, doomed to be smashed into rocks eventually. Not that he’d be alive by then.

“We found—” The entrance of two other people interrupted Mitch. Leading the way was a tall woman in her late twenties, wearing cargo pants and a long-sleeved khaki shirt, her hair cut nearly as short as Mitch’s. She carried an assault rifle. Cal looked at Mitch and realized he had a pistol in his hand, held down by his side.

Chains, manacles, fetters, and guns. Cal started to go right off his rescuers.

An elderly black woman followed the butch-looking woman, back bent with age, limping and walking with a cane. She had to be pushing eighty, but she fixed bright and intelligent eyes on him.

“Stay back from him, Doctor,” Mitch said.

“It’s a little difficult to examine him from ten feet away. And I’d like to get another blood sample.”

Another? When had they got the first one? And what had they found in it?

“Is there much point in another one?” Butch Chick asked. “You already said you didn’t find any parasites in the first one.” She gave Cal a dark look, as if this only made her more suspicious of him.

“And if they already moved to his brain, they wouldn’t show up,” Mitch said.

God, they definitely thought he was infected. That was why they had guns. If he did anything to let them think he was about to attack, they’d shoot him instantly.

“You know, polite people don’t talk about people as if they aren’t there,” Cal said. “And they introduce themselves. I’m Cal.”

“This is Bren and Doctor Burnett,” Mitch said. “Cal here says he was bitten by a dog.” Just the way he said it made clear he didn’t believe it.

“I was bitten by a dog.”

“Cal,” the doctor said, bringing his attention to her. “I have to tell you that we’ve given you a vaccine.”

“What…for rabies?”

“No. Though if you were bitten by a dog, I should give you rabies shots too. We’ve given you a vaccine against the zombie parasites.”

Cal’s heart pounded wildly, and he moved at them fast, until the chains stopped him. And the guns pointing at him stopped him.

“I am not a fucking zombie!”

“Not yet,” the woman called Bren said. “Stand down, pal. Do it.”

Reluctantly, but fearing they’d at least wing him if he didn’t obey, Cal backed away. Mitch lowered his handgun, though Bren kept her rifle aimed.

“There is no vaccine,” Cal said. “Before everything went dark, they said the CDC hadn’t even come close to creating a vaccine.”

“I know,” the doctor said. “I used to work at the CDC before I retired. Some friends there sent me the research before they were overrun. I’ve been continuing it.” She sighed. “And I’m sorry, Cal. We had no choice. You’re the first guinea pig.”

Bullshit. This was a trick. There was no vaccine. But he’d go along with their game.

“Well, much appreciated, Doc, even if I don’t need it. I’m sure it won’t kill me or anything.” He saw a flash of guilt on the doctor’s face, but that could have been faked. “Believe me, if I feel the urge to start biting anyone…” He looked at Mitch. “You’ll be the first to know.” He’d quite like to bite that one. Make him squirm a bit. He smiled, but Mitch scowled back.

“I’m sure you’re well aware the urge to bite only occurs after revival,” Mitch said.

“Only too well fucking aware, yeah.” After two years out there in the zombie-infested wasteland America had become, Cal knew plenty about the natural history of the species Homo sapiens zombie. More than these people sitting pretty on their oil rig. Smart plan, though, oil rig. Zombies couldn’t swim. Even if a zombie drifted here on a boat or walked here on the seabed, it couldn’t climb up a ladder to the rig. The creatures couldn’t climb anything more than stairs—and not even steep stairs at that. Mitch and his people were safe here. But they were still wary. They were not giving Cal the benefit of the doubt.

“Mitch, I have to get close if I’m going to examine him,” the doctor said.

“Okay, Mr. Richardson,” Mitch said. “I’m asking for your cooperation.”

Damn. Cal knew exactly who talked like that. And what they did to you if you didn’t cooperate. Cop.

“I want you to back up to the wall, just there. You see it?” Cal saw it. Restraints welded right to the wall, shoulder height and ankle height.

“You want to fasten me to the wall? And then you’re going to throw knives at me? Saw that act in Vegas once.” Mitch slipped something else from his pocket. A stun gun. Oh, lovely. “Okay, keep your pants on. I’ll do it.” He didn’t have much choice. He still felt pretty tired and sick, and he didn’t think he could take Bren in a fight, let alone Mitch, and certainly not both of them. So he backed up and fastened three of the restraints himself. He’d been in restraints before, usually in a more intimate setting than this. To be honest, it wasn’t really his thing, but sometimes you had to be accommodating. Mitch approached cautiously when Cal had only his left hand free. He’d holstered his pistol but still held the stun gun.

Cal’s breathing sped up as Mitch stepped right in front of him. He could feel the heat radiating from the guy. He could smell soap and sweat. His body responded to the nearness of the man, and he flushed and hoped like hell he wouldn’t get a hard-on. Not until they were alone, maybe. God, it had been too long. Mitch closed the manacle around Cal’s left hand. It was all Cal could do not to arch his body toward Mitch. Now. Touch me now. Kiss me.

“I’m going to gag you.”

Cal snapped out of his little fantasy and stared.

“You are not!” Mitch took a leather gag from his pocket. “For fuck’s sake, you said yourself; the urge to bite comes after revival.”

“I’ve seen people bite before that.”

So had Cal. Ones who’d been bitten and knew they were dead meat in five to seven days. Some people killed themselves when they were bitten. Others, in bitter despair, tried to take as many other people with them as they could. Even before revival, their bite could carry the infection.

“I am not infected, and I’m not going to bite anyone.”

“I’m sorry.”

Cal strained against the wall, trying to fight, but he had no chance as Mitch fastened the gag around his face. His protests were abruptly muffled. He yelled into the soft cotton lining on the inside of the gag.

“Okay, Doctor,” Mitch said, but she was already at his side, scowling at Mitch.

“That really isn’t needed, you know. And it means I have to hurry.” She shook her head, looking disgusted. Cal was still straining against his bonds, and he bashed his head back into the wall a couple of times. He hated this; he fucking hated it. But he calmed as his common sense told him the sooner he let the doctor do her exam, the sooner they’d let him out of the hated gag.

So he relaxed, leaning against the metal wall. It was cold against his bare back. He pretty much ignored the doctor as she went about her business, pressing a stethoscope to his chest. Instead, he gave Mitch the full power of his glare. And it was a hell of a glare. People had told him that before. It was the eyebrows. As thick and black as his hair, they didn’t meet in the middle, but they came close when he scowled. Mitch stared impassively back. The stun gun no longer rested loosely at this side, but was raised and ready for action. A couple of yards away Bren had her rifle pointing at Cal’s head. He held very still.

They were damn serious about protecting the doctor. A doctor was a rare treasure in this world. This gnarled and bent old woman was worth a hundred times as much to these people as Cal. They’d kill him without hesitation if he made the smallest threat to her. That was the world they lived in now, where all lives were not equally valuable. Those with rare and special and essential skills were the elite to protect at all costs. And women… He glanced at Bren. Women of childbearing age were a commodity. But Bren there sure didn’t look like anyone’s commodity. He had to get the hell out of this dank little hole and see what the setup was around here.

“Cal, I’m going to take a blood sample now,” the doctor said. She had to stand on a box, Mitch steadying her with one hand, his stun gun still ready in the other. The doctor swabbed the inside of Cal’s elbow and stuck him with the needle. Cal’s eyes remained locked on Mitch’s. Mitch’s attention didn’t stray once toward the arm and the needle. Focused or squeamish? Seemed ridiculous to imagine a man could continue to be squeamish in this world.

The needle didn’t hurt much, and Cal kept his wince under control. He could be macho too, like the cop. He felt embarrassed suddenly about his tantrum over the gag. His anger wouldn’t help him here. It had sometimes, when it had kept him going despite exhaustion and fear. But here he needed to stay cool, see what he could learn, what he could gain from his time here.

His time that might be very short indeed.

The doctor stepped back, capping the needle. Bren backed up too, but Mitch came close again and, to Cal’s intense relief, took off the gag, loosened one of the restraints, and backed away. Cal got himself out of the other restraints and treated Mitch to the full force of his glare again. He didn’t say anything. Nothing he could say was suitable for the ears of an elderly lady.

“He’s getting stronger,” the doctor said. “Recovering from the dehydration and exposure. His heart and lungs sound good. Even if he was bitten only a day before he arrived here, his lungs would be filling with fluid by now. That’s the normal progression of the disease.”

Mitch nodded. “Thank you, Doctor. Please let me know as soon as you’ve analyzed the blood sample.”

“Right. Meanwhile, he should rest and drink plenty of fluids.”

She left, and Cal turned from watching her go. “She said it. I don’t have the disease. You can let me out of these chains. And if you try to gag me again, I swear I will kick your fucking ass.”

Bren chuckled. “He’s fierce, isn’t he? If looks could kill, we’d be in trouble. You know, if we didn’t have the guns.”

Cal treated her to the glare too, but she only looked amused. Not gloating, not enjoying the position of power or anything. Just rather amused at his pointless raging, like an adult indulging a child. It calmed him down a bit, making him feel ridiculous.

“So what now?” he asked.

“You’ll stay here in quarantine for the next five days,” Mitch said.

“I was on that boat at least three days,” Cal said. “You know damn well that if I had the disease, I’d be showing symptoms by now, like the doc said.”

“Sorry,” Mitch said. “We can’t take the chance.”

Cal gave up. Too tired to argue. He flopped on the cot, grabbed a plastic bottle of water that stood beside it, and downed most of it. Doctor’s orders, rest and fluids. He could pretend he only had the flu. Dream of his mom bringing him ginger ale and crackers. Not that she ever had, but he’d read that was what happened in normal families. He looked at Mitch and Bren still watching him like they were at the zoo.

“Who do I have to blow to get something to eat around here?”

Chapter Two

Mitch returned from the mess with a tray of food. Cal had lain down on his cot, ignoring Bren as she kept guard over him.

“Go get dinner,” Mitch told her, setting his tray on a table. “I’ll take the watch tonight.” Cal leaned up on his elbows, looking speculative. Mitch ignored him.

“Okay,” Bren said. She handed the rifle to Mitch. “Any trouble…”

“I know. Pull the alarm.”

“I was going to say shoot him in the head, but the alarm is good too. See you in the morning.”

She took her leave. Mitch took sandwiches and a coffee mug for himself off the tray, then put it on the floor and pushed it close enough for Cal to reach.

“Am I supposed to eat it off the floor like a dog?” Cal asked.

“Just pick it up.” Mitch couldn’t be bothered with the sulking. “If you don’t want it, I’ll take it away again.” Cal shrugged and collected the tray, placed it on the cot, and started eating a sandwich from a paper plate.

“There’s soup in that tub,” Mitch said, nodding at a takeout-style carton. Actually, no takeout-style about it. It was from a takeout, an abandoned deli they’d raided ashore. Cal checked the tub and sipped the soup. “Homemade,” Mitch said and wondered why. He wasn’t here to sell their catering services to Cal.

They ate in silence, with occasional glances at each other. Mitch felt guilty every time he looked at Cal. It felt like peeping on a guy in his bedroom, since Cal couldn’t leave and escape his gaze. They had at least erected a half-height screen in front of the chemical toilet in the corner of the room so he could get some privacy there. Mitch had another source of guilt, though, aside from the intrusion on Cal’s privacy.

“I’m sorry about the gag.”

Cal looked up from sipping on his paper cup of coffee. He didn’t look overly impressed with the brew. It was impossible to find any coffee that wasn’t stale anymore.

“Yeah, you fucking should be,” he said. “Enjoy that kind of thing, do you? Make you feel like a man in front of the women?”

“No!” Mitch snapped. “I had no choice. Doctor Burnett is the only doctor we have, and I can’t do anything to risk her life.”

“You’d have shot me dead if I’d made any kind of move against her, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”

“I get it.” Cal shrugged and lounged on the cot, the chains clanking as he moved. “She outranks me.” Cal finished his coffee, tossed the paper cup on the tray, and put the tray on the floor. He shoved it toward Mitch with his foot, sending the things on it scattering across the deck. Was that provocation or a test? Did he want to see if Mitch would clear up after him? Mitch stayed in his chair.

“Can I get you a book or anything?” Mitch asked.

“Got a big library here, have you?”

“Not bad.” They brought books back with them every time they went ashore, raiding abandoned libraries and bookstores. Books that taught them everything they needed for survival. Books for the children, liberated from schools. Lots of fiction—almost the only entertainment they had around here, barring board games and a couple of guitars. “I can have someone bring some down for you. What do you like?”

“Maybe later.” Cal lay down, an arm across his eyes. Mitch watched him, wondering if he was going to sleep. That was a symptom, wasn’t it? By day four or five, an infected person started sleeping almost continually, as if they were already dead. Except you could wake them. Wake them and beg them to stay with you. Beg them not to be dying. Beg them…

He quickly turned aside from the morbid thoughts. Cal didn’t look ill. Not day-four ill anyway. The doctor had said he was recovering, getting stronger. Maybe he really had been bitten by a dog. And if he had, if in a few days they were letting him out of those chains, a fit, healthy, and damn fine-looking man? What then?

No sense in thinking about it until it happened. No sense thinking about the possibilities if Cal stayed. Mitch’s gaze roamed over the lean, toned torso and well-defined arms. But he chided himself for it. What made him think Cal even swung his way? Dex always used to say Mitch had the gaydar of an especially dense rock.

Cal wasn’t sleeping. He sighed heavily and let the arm that had been covering his eyes flop onto the cot. He looked at Mitch again. The guy sure had a direct stare. When he frowned at you, you knew you’d been frowned at. When he’d been giving Mitch a good scowl while they’d had him gagged, Mitch had had to fight a strong urge to back away. He wasn’t frowning now, but it was a hard stare, and it made Mitch uncomfortable. It made the silence oppressive. When it was clear Cal wasn’t going to break that silence himself, Mitch spoke.

“So, how did you end up on the boat?”

“You really want to know, or you just making conversation?”

“Fine.” Mitch sat back in his chair, cradling the rifle in his arms. Just one sign, just one… Cal would thank him for it—from heaven, at least. Better to be finished off quickly than become one of those things.

“Okay, fine,” Cal said. “I stole the boat, obviously.” He sat up on the edge of the cot and gave Mitch an assessing look, as if waiting for a reaction. Mitch didn’t react. You couldn’t call it stealing or looting anymore. The world lay out there rotting away. You had to take things while they were still usable.

“Couple of weeks ago I ran into a group,” Cal said. “Mostly men, couple of women, and I traveled with them for a while.”

“Safety in numbers.”

“Maybe,” Cal said. “We came to a fork in the road, you might say. I wanted to go one way, to Santa Monica. They were heading to LA.”

“Why Santa Monica?”

“The bars and the beaches, of course.” Cal smirked.

“Is that where you’re from?” Mitch asked.

“No, I’m from New York. But I left a long time ago. Long before all this. Anyway, I wanted to go to Santa Monica because I’ve been there before. Had a good idea of places I could get myself some winter supplies. But my new friends decided I was coming with them whether I wanted to or not.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they thought I looked tasty.”

“Tasty?” Mitch’s mind rebelled at the first interpretation of the word. He couldn’t mean it literally. There was livestock wandering around the landscape just waiting to be shot and stores piled high with canned and dried food that might take the remaining humans fifty years to eat. It was hard to tell, because they couldn’t get news from most of the rest of the country, never mind the rest of the world, but Mitch thought only 5 percent of the population remained uninfected. Resources were not a problem. Getting to them was.

“There’s some very strange shit happening out there,” Cal said. “Don’t suppose you see it, safe on your oil rig.”

“We aren’t self-sufficient here, you know. We go ashore every few weeks for supplies.”

“Right.” Cal went quiet for a moment and then picked up the story. “I got away from them, but they came after me. My car ran out of gas, and I got away into the brush on foot, but they were still coming.”

“That when you were bitten?”

Cal opened his mouth and then stopped and frowned at him. “Trying to trip me up, officer?”

Mitch controlled his reaction to that. Had Bren told him while Mitch was off getting them dinner? Or was he guessing? Mitch neither confirmed nor denied the…accusation.

“Yeah, that’s when the dog got me,” Cal went on. Emphasis on the dog. “I found a marina. Most of the boats were already gone, but that one was there. Where is it, by the way?”

“Why?”

“Well, it’s my boat now.”

“Possession is nine-tenths of the law, eh?” Mitch said.

“Certainly is in salvage at sea.”

It would be a shame if he left and took his boat with him. The large cabin cruiser would make a nice addition to their small flotilla of boats. But would he leave without it? Because even if he wasn’t infected, he was not staying.

“So I took it out to sea,” Cal said. “But I had kind of overlooked one thing.”

“What?”

“That I know shit about boats.”

Mitch chuckled when Cal grinned. Yeah, he could laugh at it now. Now that he wasn’t dead. There were times Mitch and his people had sailed back from missions ashore to a chorus of giggling about fighting off zombies and feral dogs.

“I went up the coast a bit,” Cal went on. “But then I ran outta gas about a mile from shore.”

“A mile? Surely a fit man like you could swim a mile?”

“Well, yeah,” Cal said. “A fit man like me who happens to be able to swim probably could.”

“You can’t swim?”

“I always preferred to play with the pool boy.”

Mitch didn’t need gaydar to interpret that remark. Cal’s smirk told him all he needed to know. He kept his face absolutely still, not rising to the provocation. God, he hoped not rising. Because the second Cal said that, the second he indicated he played for the right team, Mitch’s body flushed with heat again. Get in there, boy! it demanded. Mitch ignored it. Ignored the urge to have Cal right there and then.

It had just been so long…

He pulled himself together. Cal went on with his story.

“When I searched the boat, I realized it had been stripped. No life raft. No food. No fresh water. Nothing. Not even a life jacket. I guess I could have found something that floats and kicked ashore, but…there are sharks, right? In these waters, I mean.”

“Yes, there are. You could have made a raft using a hatch cover or something.”

“I guess. But I was getting so hungry and thirsty, I couldn’t think straight anymore. And I don’t think I’d have had the strength to paddle back to shore, not against the current and the tide.” His voice dropped quieter. “I guess I just got too weak, and I…I remember stumbling on the steps and falling and nothing else. How did you guys find me?”

“The boat drifted close to the rig, and we went to check it out. We thought it might have slipped its moorings. We thought we might as well have it. Then we found you aboard.”

“There goes your salvage claim,” Cal said.

“Quite.”

“So the boat’s okay, though? I mean, not damaged or anything?”

“No,” Mitch said. “It’s fine. Why?”

Cal shrugged. “Just thinking about when you let me leave.”

“You’re pretty sure we’ll let you leave.”

“You will. When I turn out to be just fine, which I am. And if you don’t…” He smiled. “I’ll still leave anyway.”

“You’re a cocky one, all right.”

“Yeah.” The smile turned into a grin, and he rested a hand on his abs, straying close to the waistband of his pants. Mitch watched the hand, entranced. Was he going to slide it into the pants? Touch himself? God, the picture of it in Mitch’s mind almost overwhelmed reality. Cal did no such thing, but Mitch could still see it, plain as day.

Mitch stood abruptly, and Cal’s eyes widened, but Mitch only strode across to turn off the light, leaving the room dark but for a lamp on the table. Cal became a dark figure in the deep shadows of the far end of the room. Did Mitch hear a whisper, Cal calling his name softly? Cal saying, Come here.

If he did, he ignored it. If Cal was flirting with him, it would be entirely for purposes of escaping from the chains they had to keep him in the next few days. Mitch had to remember that. Had to remember the group he was responsible for. They were his priority—not his libido.

“Go to sleep,” Mitch said. “The doctor will check on you again in the morning.”

“Great, more needles.”

“I said go to sleep.”

Mitch sat at the table again and positioned the lamp so it pointed across the room to let him see Cal well enough to…to shoot him. The weight of the rifle in his arms reminded him of exactly why he was watching over Cal. Because someone had to be ready to kill him if he showed symptoms. As soon as that happened, Mitch would do it. It was mercy. For Cal and for himself. Because if he waited too long, he was only condemning Cal to a lingering death and then revival as a monster.

Mitch couldn’t watch that happen to anyone. Not again.

Chapter Three

“Breakfast, pretty boy.”

Cal woke up, blinking, as Bren moved away from him. He leaned over the cot to see a tray beside the bed.

“Morning to you too,” he said. He used the bathroom, then sat on the cot with his breakfast tray. Not bad—several strips of bacon and a mountain of scrambled eggs. Four slices of toast and a mug of the stale coffee to top it off.

“Where’s Mitch?” he asked.

“Gone to bed,” she said. “Doc will be down soon to check you out.”

Cal pictured Mitch sleeping, all the tension he twanged with gone. A big guy like him would weigh the mattress down and make his bed partner naturally roll toward him. Did Mitch have a regular bed partner? After all this time surviving alone Cal sometimes missed sharing a bed. He’d deliberately chosen to only trust himself, not others. But at times he regretted the choice.

“So,” he said casually. “Mitch. Kind of tightly wound, huh?”

“Say a bad word about that man, and your next words will be saying good-bye to your balls.”

Ouch. And interesting. “Sorry, no offense implied. I just mean he’s pretty tense.”

“He’s a man with a lot of responsibility. And he doesn’t need anyone making his burden heavier.” She was scowling fiercely, and he decided to change the subject.

“I never did get to hear the result of the blood test,” he said.

“The doctor didn’t find anything.”

“So I’m not infected.”

Bren snorted. “Doesn’t mean anything. The parasites could have moved to your brain and not shown in your blood.”

“There won’t be any parasites. It was a damn dog.”

“We’ll be sure in a couple of days.”

Great, a couple more days in this metal box, with either Mitch the tight-ass or the overly loyal Bren, relieved only by some prodding by the doctor.

“And then if you think I’m infected, you shoot me, right?” Cal asked.

“Isn’t that what you would want?” She stood and moved a little closer, but not crossing the line to within reach of him. “It’s what I would want if I got bit.”

“I…wouldn’t want to give up so quickly. And if I had… I mean if I was bitten by a zombie and I’d just shot myself or jumped off my boat to drown, I’d never have got a chance at your doc’s vaccine, would I?” The vaccine was bullshit, of course. A trick. There was no vaccine. One retired old doc, stuck on an oil rig, had developed a vaccine—which the CDC and every university and research lab in the world had failed to do? What a crock of shit.

“You’ll be telling me next,” Bren said, “that after you got bit you had a premonition you were going to find the one place that could help you.”

That was another trick. It made the assumption he was lying.

“It never crossed my mind, since it was just a dog bite. I was more worried about rabies.”

“Oh, of course. A dog bite.”

He could have snapped back with Oh, of course, a vaccine that nobody else ever heard of. Sure, I’ll believe that. But he kept it to himself and finished his breakfast.

A couple of women brought a big bowl of hot water and bathing stuff after breakfast so Cal could clean up. They wouldn’t let him have a razor. Luckily designer stubble looked good on him. Doctor Burnett showed up not long after that. She frowned at the sight of Cal, who was sitting with his back to the wall on the cot and a blanket wrapped around him.

“You haven’t given him any more clothes yet?” she asked.

“Tricky for him to put anything on while he’s chained up,” Bren said.

“I’m not exactly happy about that either.”

“Me neither!” Cal agreed. His wrists and ankles were starting to chafe, even though the manacles and fetters had been carefully lined with soft material.

“Sorry, Doc,” Bren said. “You know the rules.”

“I know.” The doctor sighed. “I know. Okay, Cal, may I examine you now?”

“I’ll get some help down here,” Bren said.

“No need,” Cal said. There was no point in resisting. He stood, throwing off the blanket, and went to the wall restraints without a protest. He didn’t like it much when Bren brought over the gag. But he’d only get hurt fighting. Or killed. And he wasn’t getting out of here dead.

* * * *

Mitch hated sleeping in the day. He couldn’t sleep in the day, basically. There was always some racket going on. He might be lucky enough to be the only person on the rig with his own room, but even with the door closed, he heard clangs and bangs and voices echoing around the metal-lined halls and rooms.

After a day of fitful sleep, he looked at his gaunter-than-usual face in the mirror, thinking he’d scare the kids if he didn’t smarten up, and tried to put out of his mind the dreams that had kept him restless all night. Dreams about Cal. Dreams of running fingers and lips over the taut flesh, while Cal was chained up and entirely at his command. Mitch had never been into bondage, but the sight of Cal in those restraints had its appeal.

He started shaving, skin softened from his shower. Tried to dismiss the images from his mind. Cal would probably be good. A man that good-looking would never have wanted for partners, so he would have a lot of experience.

Nonsense, he told himself. He knew nothing about Cal’s life. What if Cal was from some tiny-ass end-of-the-world place nobody ever heard of? The kind of place where the gays got out or got dead? Well, then he’d have got out, logic argued. His accent did support his claim to be from New York, but he could have meant the state, not the city. He might have only gone to the city later. Aside from ’Frisco and Los Angeles, that was the place guys like them went. He’d considered it himself when he left his own get-out-or-get-dead town, before choosing San Francisco. He didn’t much like the snow.

His body responded to the images in his mind. Afterimages of his dreams. But he ignored the urge to reach into his shorts and touch himself. No time. He had work to do. Had to go relieve Bren and see what the doctor’s latest tests showed.

The dreams meant nothing, he insisted to himself as he finished shaving, brushed his teeth, then dressed. Cal was undeniably good-looking, so naturally Mitch was attracted to him. He was a handsome warm body—a damn good body—and that was all. It would be stupid to get too invested in thinking he had to have him.

If Cal was infected, they’d have to put him out of his misery before he turned. He thought “we,” not “I.” He had to think “we,” fearing what he might be forced to do. But if Cal wasn’t infected, there was no way he was staying. Not after the way things had worked out in the past.

He got to the mess early for dinner and sat at a table with Ella and Dolores, a couple of members of the council.

“Good evening, ladies,” he said.

“Mitch,” Dolores said. “You look done in, dear.”

He smiled at her politely, not trusting for a second that she was concerned for his health or considered him dear to her. He’d overheard the word “fag” from the old bat more than once. Voices traveled around corners and through air vents in this place.

“How’s our guest?” Ella asked.

“Fine so far,” Mitch said. “I mean he was when I left this morning. Unless any of you have heard any different.” A fear struck him suddenly that he’d go to the brig and find Cal dead. That Bren would have been forced to kill him during the day and hadn’t woken Mitch to tell him.

No. She’d tell him. Hell, she wouldn’t do it without calling him down there. Unless it was a sudden emergency. Besides, surely if the kids thumping up and down the corridors could wake Mitch, then a shot definitely would. He fought to regain control.

“You okay, Mitch?” Ella asked. Her concern was more sincere than Dolores’s, and he gave her a more genuine smile.

“Fine.”

“We’re going to have a council meeting,” Dolores said. “Tomorrow afternoon, to consider what to do about Mr. Richardson.”

“If we need to,” Ella said. “If he’s infected, he might be dead by then.” Mitch forced himself not to shudder. “If he’s not, then he’ll have to leave.” She’d been a lawyer back in the old days. A prosecutor. Like Mitch, she knew the worst of men. She was no keener to bring that here again than Mitch was.

“That’s what the council will discuss,” Dolores insisted. “If we offer him the chance to stay.”

“You should see the doctor and get your memory checked out,” Ella said. “Perhaps you need a reminder or two. Ethan. Peter. Tony.”

“I never believed what Marcia accused Tony of. It was her word against his.”

“It always is,” Ella said. “And her word is always the truth.”

Mitch had heard this same argument a good fifty times. He finished off his dinner quickly. “Okay, I’ll see you for the meeting tomorrow, then.”

“If we still need one,” Ella said darkly. The woman was positively morbid. More cynical than Mitch on his worst days. He bused his dishes to the wash counter. Inez was manning it today, and he placed them on the counter rather than handing the tray to her. As much as she seemed to trust him now, the poor kid still flinched if he thrust a hand toward her without warning.

“I’m going to relieve Bren from watching over the prisoner,” he said, voice pitched softer than usual. “So she will be up for dinner in a moment.” Her rare smile was a reward in itself. He wondered if she’d been the one taking meals down to Bren and Cal today, because she sure hated to be parted from Bren for long.

“Thank you,” she said and took away his plates to wash. Mitch left behind the argument about the council meeting and headed for the brig. Ella was right. If Cal was still here tomorrow night, if Cal wasn’t dying, then he was not staying.

He found the brig quiet. Bren was sitting straight in her chair, rifle in her arms. Cal was lying on his stomach on the cot, chin down on his crossed arms, reading a book.

“Bren?” Mitch said as he walked in. She said she’d learned in the army to sleep with her eyes open and still look alert. But that wasn’t the case this time, as she looked at him entirely awake and smiled.

“Wondered when you were going to get your ass out of bed. I’m starving.”

“Me too,” Cal said.

“Anything to report?” Mitch asked as she handed him the rifle.

“Doc checked him over again. He’s fully recovered from the dehydration and exposure. He’s getting stronger.” They exchanged a significant glance. The infected did not recover. Dex hadn’t. “She’s taken another blood sample to check.”

“I’ve barely got any blood left,” Cal said, following it up with a dramatic sigh.

“And he’s certainly getting cheekier,” Bren added. “Okay, I’m going to go get dinner. I’ll have them send a tray down for him.”

“Have them send two,” Cal called as she left.

“Hungry?” Mitch asked.

“Making up for those days on the boat with nothing but a few power bars and packets of jerky.”

He looked good. Color back in his cheeks. The ashen tinge gone from his skin. No dark circles under his eyes. And he was hungry. The infected stopped eating and drinking by day four at the latest.

He’s not infected. There will be a council meeting. And then…

Mitch knew what to do if Cal was infected. But he wasn’t so sure what to do if he wasn’t.

* * * *

The next evening, the mess hall, cleared up from dinner, held the council and several observers, who couldn’t vote but could raise concerns. Bren was the last to arrive, coming in yawning and rubbing a hand across her eyes. Ignoring any disapproving frowns, she slipped into the chair beside Mitch’s. Inez was sitting in the chair behind the one saved for Bren, and Bren twisted around to give her a smile before turning back to the group.

“Who’s watching him?” Mitch asked quietly. He’d have to wait until this was over to take the night shift watching over Cal, and he was impatient to get down there.

“Blanca and Kristy.”

Mitch nodded. Both useful girls with their weapons. Neither would hesitate…

“Can we come to order now that all the council is here?” Kathy, one of the teachers and chair of the council, tapped a gavel they’d brought from ashore. Obviously human civilization would grind to a halt without a gavel. “I’m calling this extraordinary meeting of the council to discuss the situation of the man Calvin Richardson. Alicia to take the minutes.”

Bren caught Mitch’s gaze and rolled her eyes. He didn’t do the same, but he bet she could see the same exasperation in his face. It was good they had a council. They had to have something, but some people seemed to rather revel in the process.

“First on the agenda,” Kathy said. “Phyllis to give a report on his health. Doctor, you have the floor.”

Phyllis cleared her throat and raised her tired and cracked voice as best she could. “When I first examined Mr. Richardson, I found him to be suffering from dehydration and exposure, consistent with having been adrift in the boat for several days with no food and water. I discovered a bite on his leg and administered my prototype vaccine to him.”

“Is it a zombie bite?” Ella asked.

“He insists it was a dog. The bite's a few days old and between tissue damage and swelling, I can't be sure if it was or not.” Phyllis shook her head. “But so far there’s no sign of the zombie infection. I’ve taken daily blood samples, and none of them show evidence of the parasites.”

“And he has no other symptoms?” Dolores asked.

“Nothing. Even if he’d been bitten right before we found him, he would be showing symptoms by now. Nobody has been known to go this long without displaying symptoms.”

“So he’s uninfected.” Dolores leaned forward, eyes bright and interested, looking quite delighted. Mitch wondered if he would drop the fag bomb on her tonight or later. Later. Anyway, it wasn’t his business to out Cal. That was Cal's choice.

“I can’t say yes, one hundred percent,” Phyllis said, hedging, as doctors were wont to do. “But I’m ninety percent sure.”

“Was it your vaccine?” That came from Naomi, calling from the edge of the room. Naomi wasn’t on the council, but she’d only missed a place by a couple of votes. It still smarted.

Kathy banged her gavel. “The chair does not recognize questions from outside the council at this time.” Naomi snorted and leaned back in her seat. Ella raised a hand and got a nod from Kathy.

“So was it the vaccine?” she asked. Naomi smirked.

“I can’t say,” Phyllis said. “He might never have been infected in the first place. Maybe it really was a dog bite.”

“I’m sure it must have been,” Dolores said. “If he’s sticking to this story after all this time.”

Yeah, because people never stick to the insistence they are innocent, even after thirty years in jail.

“The issue of whether or not he’s lying isn’t relevant,” Bren said, as usual cutting through the bull. “What’s relevant is what happens if he’s not infected.”

“Which brings us to the next item on the agenda,” Kathy said. “The motion by Dolores that if Mr. Richardson is uninfected, we should offer him the chance to stay here on a trial basis. Ella will be opposing the motion. Dolores, you have the floor.”

She stood, taking off the reading glasses she wore on a chain. Dolores liked men, Mitch had figured out quickly. Not in the sense he thought she wanted to jump Cal—she was at least twenty years older than him. But she was one of those women who preferred men to other women and viewed said men as rather boisterous pets, their sins and crimes considered easily forgiven peccadilloes and the fault of the victim. She was the nightmare jury member for the prosecutor in a rape trial, and the dream of the defense counsel.

He shook himself from the thoughts and listened to her talking about how the group needed men, that it needed a mix. That men were needed to take on jobs unsuitable for women. He thought Bren might explode at that one, so he trod on her foot and gave her a quelling look.

Dolores finished her argument, to a ripple of applause from her supporters among the observers. Ella got her turn, and the difference was instantly apparent. She treated the council like a jury. But they didn’t like it much. Her argument was good, but the council withdrew from the way she put it across. Mitch guessed they felt they were being manipulated. He felt that way himself, though he’d seen lawyers at work so often by now he had more resistance than most people. He felt that way even though he agreed with her. They couldn’t let Cal stay. It would lead to the kind of trouble it always had, and that was, in its own way, worse than zombies. Zombies were easy. You killed them. Men were harder to deal with.

The fact he wanted Cal was irrelevant. Maybe before Cal left they might help each other out a little. Give each other some relief. It would only be a physical thing, a release for both of them. But then Cal had to go. Mitch shifted in his seat and tried to concentrate on the meeting.

Ella finished and sat back down. Kathy looked around. “Does anyone wish to add anything?”

Phyllis raised her hand. “Yes. As much as I agree with a lot of what Ella said, the fact is, I gave him the vaccine, and I would like the chance to follow up on what happens to him. It could be essential to my research.”

“Damn,” Bren muttered. Mitch gave her a glance, but she didn’t meet his eyes, just looked thoughtful.

“Anyone else?” Kathy asked. “Mitch, Bren, you’ve both spent time with him. Do you have any specific objection to his staying, if he chooses to?”

Did they? Bren shook her head. “No. Aside from when he first woke up and found himself chained up, which probably scared him a bit, he’s been cooperative and hasn’t been violent to anybody.”

“Mitch? Do you agree?”

He had to, didn’t he? She was right. Cal had calmed down after his initial shock. But so what? None of the men who’d been a problem in the past had started out as obviously violent.

“I agree that he’s been cooperative.”

“There’s one other thing,” Bren said. “I’d really like to keep that boat we found him on. But since he arrived on it, that kind of makes it his, and he’d leave in it, unless we can persuade him to swap it for one of the smaller ones. Of course we can just keep it without his permission, but—”

“That would make us pirates,” Ella said.

“Exactly.” Bren gave Mitch a rather guilty look. He knew she was going to vote for Cal to stay. He couldn’t believe it.

“If nobody has anything else to add, let’s take a vote,” Kathy said. “Would anyone prefer a secret ballot, or is a show of hands okay?”

Hands it was. They took the No votes first. Mitch and Ella raised their hands quickly, followed a second later by Alicia. She was the youngest member of the council, but one of the teachers, someone with a wide reach among the women with children. How many children had she seen come into school with bruises on them in the old days?

The Yes votes next. Dolores’s hand went up promptly, followed more slowly by Bren and Phyllis. Neither looked especially happy to be supporting Dolores, but both had their own agenda.

Three for Cal staying, three against.

“Then it appears the chair breaks the deadlock,” Kathy said. She paused for a moment. A held breath. “I vote yes.”

Murmurs rippled around. Mitch sat back in his chair, arms crossed, realizing Ella was mirroring the exact same movement. Well, shit. Kathy banged the gavel to silence the mutters.

“Quiet, please! The motion is carried, four votes to three. When and if the doctor passes Mr. Richardson as fit and uninfected, he will be offered the chance to stay here on a trial basis to last no longer than three months. Any other business?”

“Where’s he going to sleep?” Naomi called. She was the group’s quartermaster, making sure everyone had suitable places to lay their heads—not easy in a group like this, with such a range of ages and a mix of childless women and mothers. “I can’t put him up with the girls, and I don’t have any spare rooms.”

“Perhaps he can share with Mitch?” Dolores suggested.

Mitch looked up, startled. He’d been busy fuming and deciding exactly what he’d say to Bren when he got her alone. But this shock statement broke him out of that. Cal? Share with him? God, no, that was the worst possible idea. It wasn’t like he could chain Cal to the wall. Maybe he’d have to chain himself.

“After all, you’ve got that big room all to yourself, Mitch,” Dolores went on.

And now he’d look like a selfish idiot if he refused. Did Dolores have a gloating look? Maybe she thought he’d be driven mad by having a gorgeous man sharing his room. Maybe he would be.

“Yes,” Bren said, standing up, putting a hand on Mitch’s shoulder but looking at Dolores with an evil smirk. “I’m sure they’ll get along just fine. They have so much in common.” Bren knew about what he and Cal had in common? Who knew what they’d talked about while he slept? But he had to admit the look of sudden dismay on Dolores’s face brightened what had just become a very black mood.

Kathy banged her gavel one last time. “Meeting adjourned.”

Chapter Four

By the fifth day it had become a routine, but this had to be the last day. Bren came in, smiling in an almost friendly way at him, but Mitch was still frowning. He’d been tense the last couple of nights, barely talking, however much Cal tried to engage him.

“The doc’s on her way,” Bren said, handing out mugs of coffee. “I didn’t bring breakfast. I think Cal’s gonna join us in the mess hall this morning.”

“That’s for the doctor to decide,” Mitch said. Ever the optimist. That guy’s glass was never half-full. Cal sipped his coffee and waited tensely. He was okay. God knew how, but he was. But the doctor, nice old girl that she was, would come in here and determine his fate any second. It was enough to give a man the heebie-jeebies. He wanted out of these chains, but not so Mitch and Bren could take him out and shoot him.

Mitch and Bren talked quietly, Cal tuning them out. Would they shoot him here in this room? Or take him up on the deck of the rig? They had kids here, he’d learned from talking to Mitch and Bren. Surely they wouldn’t want to scare the kids. Maybe they’d take him off on a boat and do him away from the rig?

God, such morbid thoughts. What made him think they’d do any of that?

The doctor came in, leaning heavily on her cane. Mitch at once helped her to a chair. She didn’t have her bag with her, Cal noticed at once. So no needle for a blood sample. No stethoscope. He tried to decide if that was good or bad.

“Interesting finding in Cal’s latest blood sample,” she said. “In the last two, in fact. I just had to wait for the second one to be sure.”

Cal stared, and he saw Mitch’s face go pale. His gaze locked on Cal’s.

“Antibodies,” the doctor went on. “Antibodies to the zombie disease.”

“He’s…he’s got it?” Mitch asked. His hand rested on his sidearm. Cal took a step back.

“Of course he hasn’t,” the doctor said impatiently. “We can all see that. No patient has gone this long after infection without displaying any symptoms. He doesn’t have it.”

Cal sighed as Mitch’s hand moved away from his gun. His legs wobbled suddenly as the tension of the last few days left him. The fear he’d kept bottled up. He staggered back and leaned on the wall.

“You might as well set him loose,” the doctor said. “I want him down in the infirmary for a full exam.”

Bren approached Cal, Mitch at her shoulder. She produced a key. “Hold still, handsome.” A moment later the manacles and fetters clattered to the floor, leaving him free. His wrists and ankles ached, the skin chafed and raw, but he barely noticed. He’d just dropped a huge burden. Time to drop another.

“Doc,” he said, looking past Mitch and Bren to her. He didn’t owe those two the truth, but the doctor needed to know. “The bite. It wasn’t a dog. It was a zombie.”

Both Mitch and Bren stepped away with small intakes of breath, hands hovering around their guns. But neither drew them. Why would they? He wasn’t a zombie; that was clear. He’d gotten bit, and he wasn’t a fucking zombie. A hysterical laugh bubbled up out of him.

“Then I’m even more interested in getting a full exam,” Phyllis said. “And a lot of follow-up. This is—”

“Why did you lie?” Mitch demanded. “Why lie when we clearly weren’t going to kill you summarily? When we told you we gave you the vaccine?”

“Because I didn’t believe you about the vaccine,” Cal said. “I thought you were playing some head game to get me to confess, so you could kill me without feeling bad about it.”

“Does this mean the vaccine works?” Bren asked. “He was bit, he got the vaccine, and he’s not sick. That means it works, right?”

“Maybe,” Phyllis said. She stood and came closer to Cal, eyeing him in that frank, professional way, like he was an interesting specimen. “But we can’t be certain. Maybe it was the vaccine, or maybe he has a natural resistance, immunity even.”

“I never heard of anyone being immune,” Mitch said.

“There are always immune individuals,” Phyllis said. “Those with just the right genetic mutations. It might be a tiny number of people, but there are always some. The human race wouldn’t even have made it out of Africa without that being true. Or possibly the bite didn’t transmit the virus at all. Cal, tell me about your zombie.”

His zombie? Creepy thought. “It was a kid. A boy. I mean, had been.” He didn’t want to think about it, that figure literally crawling out of tall grass and grabbing his ankle. The flesh of its legs was shredded off from being dragged, stumps of bones sticking out.

“How old did it look?” she asked.

“Nine or ten, I guess.”

“No, I mean, as a zombie. Did it look fresh, or was it more rotted?”

“No, definitely not fresh.” Cal had to suppress a shudder. “It was almost at the falling-apart stage.”

Phyllis looked thoughtful. “Yes, yes. As I expected.”

“She’s got a theory,” Bren said. “That the fresh ones are more dangerous. The older, more rotten ones aren’t as infectious or as interested in biting.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed that,” Cal said, nodding. He’d seen zombies bumbling aimlessly around, bits dropping off them, and only reacting halfheartedly to a human in the vicinity.

“So a child zombie, badly decomposed, with a shallow, perhaps rather unenthusiastic bite,” Phyllis said. “Did you clean the wound thoroughly, Cal? Right away?”


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