“Don’t let them bite you! If they bite you, I’m done for!”

By the time Sam Morgan and Henri Appleby arrived at the hospital, the local police had cordoned off the building and secured the exits. The building and car park were lit up with floodlights that turned night to day. The heat from the lights made it feel like a balmy summer evening.

They had a few short words with Chief Ames before being escorted to the emergency department doors, where Officer Pederson was waiting.

“What you two planning to do in there?” Len asked as he handed them all-area security passes.

Henri held up a shopping bag.

“Bag of magic tricks,” Morgan explained.

“Well I hope that includes a magic pop gun and magic hand grenades.”

Morgan patted the assault rifle that was slung over his shoulder.

“We don’t need weapons,” Henri returned, “or even to get close; just within earshot so the infected hear the spell.”

“A spell?” Len looked dubious. “Like a Samantha Stevens, wiggle-the-nose kinda spell?”

“More like a bad-ass Endora spell,” Morgan said, recalling his conversation with Grieves.

“Not that kind of spell at all,” lectured Henri, who was clearly taking this more seriously than the two men.

“Well, um, good luck,” said Len, unlocking the door. “I hope there’s no more big buggers like Hugo Petrusch in there. I’d venture it takes more than a spell to stop one of those monsters. More like a bazooka. Remember, he ran halfway down the road after taking a bullet in the face.”

“Thanks for the pep talk, Len,” said Morgan.

“Don’t mention it. Part of the service.”

“Will you be here to let us out if anything goes wrong?” Henri asked him.

Len looked to Morgan.

“Come on, Henri,” he replied. “Nothing will go wrong,” and he turned and led Henri through the hospital doors.

The doors closed quietly behind them. Inside the waiting room were three rows of blue chairs in the centre of the room and lime green chairs around the perimeter. There was no one there. After checking out the reception and triage station, they crossed to the doors to the emergency room and peered through the narrow windows. There didn’t seem to be anyone there either, but the emergency room opened into other rooms and corridors, which meant it presented a greater threat than the waiting room.

Swiping his card, Morgan leaned his body against the right-hand door, poked his head inside and peered around.

“Can’t see anything from here,” he whispered to Henri.

Pulling the rifle off his shoulder, he entered the room. Henri followed close behind.

One by one, they looked in the cubicles. Nothing. Next, they went down each corridor and checked out the treatment rooms. Morgan had been briefed that this side of the hospital had been quarantined and evacuated before the epidemic spread, but after Henri’s warning about the repercussions of a single scratch from a dead person, he wasn’t taking any chances. Despite the assurances provided by Ames, every time he pulled back a curtain, he worried a freak would come bursting out and sink its teeth in him.

Once the emergency department was secured, they stopped at the door to the wards to go one last time over their plan. Morgan was confident he had the reflexes and firepower to put down any physical threat, but Henri was a weak spot, an ageing librarian whose only merit was her ability to cast a spell.

“We find a room within earshot of those things, barricade ourselves in and cast the spell,” he said. “Got it?”

“Got it.”

“What are you going to do?”

“What do you mean?”

“Repeat the plan.”

She smiled. “Do you think it’s that complex a plan? It seems quite straightforward to me.”

“Repeat the plan.”

Her smile grew wider. “Is that really how it’s done in your world? Fascinating.”

“Repeat the damn plan.”

She pulled a face. “We find a room; you barricade; I get started on the spell.”

Without another word, he unlocked and opened the door to the wards.

Entering the corridor, they approached a T-junction. To the left, a few doors down, was a small band of blood-spattered zombies huddled over something red and white on the floor.

Morgan held Henri back with one arm. He pointed to the right, towards a nurses’ station, the door of which was open, and nodded a question. She nodded back and they started towards it.

Before they got there, one of the zombies raised its head, saw them and started scrambling on all fours towards them. Its pursuit was noticed by the others, and one by one they jumped up and took off after them. Running and slipping and crawling, they came barrelling down the corridor.

Morgan pushed Henri into the nurses’ station and slammed the door shut. As the first zombie arrived, he upended a bookcase, pushed it against the door, then dragged a table in front of that.

“Where did they all come from?” he asked Henri, as more zombies descended on the nurses’ station.

“It’s the magic,” she said, eyes agog as they banged on the glass with their hands and heads and shoulders. “It spreads every time a person is bitten. It should have diluted itself out, but it seems to keep on going and going.”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“They must have amped up the power in the spell. What in heaven’s name could they be after?”

As they watched, more blood-soaked bodies appeared from the wards, attracted by the commotion.

“Remember the plan?”

“Oh!” piped Henri. “Yes.” Crouching, she upended the shopping bag on the floor. “I’m not sure how long this thing takes.”

“How long does it usually take?”

She shrugged.

The gesture worried him. His people never shrugged. “How many times have you done this?”

“About a dozen.” She lined up a notebook, four small paper bags, three black candles, a mirror, a bunch of chicken feet wrapped with twine and a dead jackrabbit on the floor. “At our annual retreat. Last year and the year before that.”

“With live zombies?”

“In … role play games.”

“Role play? Like Dungeons and Dragons?”

“No. Not like Dungeons and Dragons. Like an ancient order practising its rituals.”

“But not practising them on live zombies?”

She looked at him, said, “How easy do you think it is to find live zombies?” then went back to her spell-making. “Do you remember the plan?”

“I thought you were a world expert in the supernatural?”

“I work in a library. With books and the internet. This kind of thing doesn’t tend to happen in libraries.”

“It doesn’t tend to happen in hospitals either, but here we are: stuck in a fishbowl with the living dead about to eat our brains for supper. Sheesh, we should’ve paid more and gone for an expert.”

Henri’s back straightened. “How rude! Do you talk to all your underlings like this? I’ll have you know, there hasn’t been a zombie outbreak in living memory. I’m as much an expert as you’ll find.”

“So tell me, Ms Expert, what happens if they get in here before your damn spell works?”

“They won’t, because that’s your part of the plan.”

“You didn’t say there would be this many.”

“What difference does that make? I told you what to do. You have to shoot them. In the head. Surely you brought more than twenty-five bullets?”

“Okay, okay.” Despite himself, Morgan was impressed by her bravado. It wasn’t often people spoke back to him and she was pretty good at it. “Let’s get on with it.” He checked out the paraphernalia on the floor. “What happens with all that?”

“First I light the candles.” She lit the first one.

“Then?”

She glanced up in annoyance. “Then I stuff the rabbit.”

“Don’t tell me: then it goes in the oven for forty-five minutes?” He watched her light the second candle, then looked up at the window. It was cracked in several places. Though he guessed the glass was bullet-proof, he knew it wouldn’t stand up to much more of a beating from the horde of dead things that were hellbound on getting in. “Can’t you cast another spell … a faster one to, like, make them disappear?”

“You sound like Officer Pederson. I’m not a witch.”

“How about something to incapacitate them? – slow them down. A slumber spell.”

She glanced up at the window and her face froze – not with fear; it was more like an intense fascination. “Not that I know of. Let me check.” She took out her phone.

“Is that what we’re paying you for? To Google the answer?”

“It’s what librarians do. We can’t be expected to know everything off the top of our heads.”

Shaking his head, Morgan took out his own phone. He rang Chief Ames.

“Anything happening out there?”

Ames reported everything was quiet. The cordon remained intact and nothing had tried to escape the hospital – yet. “But some kind of SWAT team just arrived. I’m about to go and see what they got planned.”

“That’s great. Look: there’s dozens of those deadheads in here. We haven’t managed to start the spell yet, so for the time being the only way to stop them is to shoot them in the brain … No, it’s irreversible according to Ms Einstein here. Shot in the head … Right. I gotta go. Let me know when you find out who those guys are. Mine won’t have made it yet. They’re en route; ETA” – he glanced at his watch – “ten minutes. And look, Chief, whatever you do, don’t let a single one of those things escape or bite anyone or this town is doomed!”

He hung up and watched as a dead biker with an orange beard and multicoloured tattoos on his neck lifted his bowling-ball-sized head and rammed it against the window. This time the glass fractured and bent inwards. The others around him seemed to understand this was their opportunity, and they began grabbing feverishly at the glass, poking their fingers into the cracks and tearing it away. Blood poured from their hands and rolled down the window in streamlets.

“Get under the desk!” yelled Morgan.

He picked up a chair and used it to push the zombies back from the hole in the window.

“Don’t let them bite you!” cried Henri as she opened one of the paper bags. She poured the dirt into a cavity in the dead rabbit’s chest. “If they bite you, I’m done for!”

Morgan’s phone vibrated in his pocket. “Henri, can you get that? I can’t reach it.”

“I’ve got to finish the spell.”

“It might be important.”

“If it’s important they’ll leave a message. I need to finish the spell.”

The phone fell silent. Morgan leaned all his weight on the chair as the weight of the zombies started pushing him back. They were making a weird moaning noise, more like machines than former humans.

His phone buzzed again. The next moment, he was surprised by the sight of five armed officers in helmets and dark blue uniforms bursting into the corridor. The leader aimed his assault rifle straight at the biker zombie and shot it in the side of the head. The others fanned out and went after the others.

Henri was under the reception desk, holding a pen in her fist like it was an attack knife. With her left hand, she was emptying a reddish herb from the paper bag into the rabbit’s chest. Most of it was going on the floor. “Is that the cavalry, Sam? Are we saved?”

Above Henri, Morgan was using his body weight to push the chair against a middle-aged zombie in a brown suit, whose head and torso were inside the nurses’ station, his pot belly jammed in the hole the others had torn in the glass.

Morgan leaned down and watched Henri unwrap the twine from the chicken feet and use it to wrap them around the rabbit.

“Okay, we slowed ‘em down for you. Now how’s that spell coming?”

Minutes later, Morgan was standing in a lake of blood surveying a pile of dead zombies. “Round up every last person in this hospital,” he told the commanding officer, “and get them to the second floor. Shoot anyone who tries to leave. That’s an order.” He went back to Henri. “Put those things in the bag and we’ll do the spell upstairs, when everyone’s in the same room. I’m not taking any chances with this. No one’s leaving here without hearing the spell. And no one’s going without a full body check and a pulse.”

He glanced around. “Has anyone seen Grieves?”

“Who’s Grieves?” asked the commanding officer.

“Cleo Grieves. My senior investigator. She was first on scene.”

“Don’t know her, sorry mate.”

Morgan pulled out his phone and dialled her number. She didn’t pick up, but he heard a phone ringing down the corridor to his right. Phone to his ear, he began walking towards it.

The ring was coming from the very last room. Pushing open the door, he entered and found Grieves with her back to him, standing next to a bed. The man on the bed was dead, the skin torn away from his face, a dark cave where his eyes and nose used to be. A pool of blood, mixed with grey matter, had collected on the floor on and around Grieves’ shoes.

“Cleo, there you are. Why didn’t you answer?” He glanced again at the dead man. “Who’s that? Oh no, don’t tell me it’s someone you know?”

At the sound of his voice, Grieves turned her head. She growled from the back of her throat. She was holding onto something pinkish-grey and red, and as Morgan watched, she pressed it against her mouth and chewed noisily. He could see now that the front of her suit was soaked with blood.

“Cleo … Oh no … Oh, Jesus Christ, no.”

As tears filled his eyes, a wild thought entered his mind. He could save her. A doctor – a witch doctor maybe – could find a cure, and she’d be alright. He couldn’t see any injuries. Cleo was extremely resourceful; what if she only suffered an incidental bite? She could be saved. Maybe even by Henri’s rabbit-and-chicken-feet spell.

But Henri’s words rang in his ears: a bite was fatal; the magic took over; there was no coming back from it.

Meanwhile, Grieves was happily eating the brains. She didn’t appear to feel threatened by him. Turning away, she dipped her fingers into the dead man’s skull and brought them to her mouth.

Morgan stepped closer. He lifted his gun, put the barrel close to the back of her head, steeled himself to do what needed to be done.

“Don’t you worry, Cleo. Your hips are not fat.”

His finger tightened on the trigger. He held it there. Pressed some more. Stood with arm trembling. Felt like he was about to throw up. Moved the gun closer.

Grieves kept chewing.

He lowered the gun.

“Damn you, Henri,” he said under his breath. “Damn you to hell.”

He raised the gun again, but by this time he knew he wasn’t going to shoot. He’d let hope squeeze through a crack in his common sense, and if he went ahead now – if he did the unspeakable and shot his best friend – he would forever feel like a murderer.

Putting the gun away, he took out his handcuffs and fixed one end to a rail on the bed. Then, in a single motion, he pulled down Cleo’s wrist and snapped on the other. The brains slipped through her fingers and fell with a plop to the bloody floor, and she turned on him in a rage, snapping and snarling and pulling savagely at the cuffs.

Morgan jumped out of reach. As voices sounded behind him, voices that might as well have been speaking in a foreign language, he stood watching her, watching the alien thing that resembled his friend, waiting for his reason to return and tell him what the hell to do next.

Read Chapter 47: Homecoming

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