Jailbreak by Harry Shannon and Steven W. Booth
June 10, 2011 Fiction
”Jailbreak,” co-written by veteran writer Harry Shannon and newcomer Steven W. Booth, is actually the first chapter of a new briskly paced weird-western-zombie-apocalypse novel. This 5,000 word section has already appeared in “Best New Zombie Tales,” the charity anthology “Dead Set,” and is in also Harry Shannon’s Stoker-nominated collection “A Host of Shadows” from Dark Regions Press.
The new novel, also starring Sheriff Penny Miller, is tentatively entitled “The Hungry.” It will be released as an ebook and trade paperback late summer, 2011.
Read “Jailbreak” below, or visit the Amazon product page to add it to your Kindle.
“Say again?” Sheriff Miller slid worn boots from the edge of the desk, slammed them down on the messy floor. The antique office and jail were in the middle of yet another round of remodeling. Paint cloth whispered. Dust rose, spread and slowly settled. The old style radio crackled with static. Outside, night was spreading like a dark blanket over the little town that crouched further down the road.
“I said, he killed Miss Barbara by the library, Sheriff,” Deputy Bob Wells said. He spoke rapidly, baritone voice thick with panic. “He killed her with his bare hands, so I shot him.”
“Slow down. Shot who, damn it?”
A long pause. More static. “It was old man Grabowski, Sheriff. Sure as shit.”
“Lazlo Grabowski is dead, Bob.”
Sheriff Penny Miller blinked and straightened her long legs. She leaned forward over the desk, stomach tingling. “You okay, Bob? You been drinking?”
“I ain’t had a drop, Sheriff, I swear. It was the strangest damned thing I ever saw. Old Grabowski came out of the bushes while I was talking to Miss Barbara. Looked like shit, some sort of zombie. He tackled her and started…biting. I tried to pull him off her, but his arm came right out of his shoulder. Jesus, blood come out of her quick as a double-dicked bull pissing on a flat rock. Miss Barbara was screaming. He wouldn’t stop, so I shot him. He kept on biting anyway. I shot him again, in the head this time, and then he quit.”
“And Miss Barbara?”
“Bled out like a pig. Then I saw some more of ’em coming and I ran.”
“Some more of what?”
“Of them,” he repeated, as if that explained everything.
I’ve got a lunatic in uniform out on the township streets with a loaded gun. Great. “Deputy Wells, where the hell are you?”
“I’m in the car, on the way back. Sheriff, this gets worse. All kinds of people are out on the street tonight, kind of stumbling around all drunk looking. They look likeâ¦ well, zombies. And, yeah, I do know how this sounds. I wouldn’t believe it either if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”
“Zombies?” Sheriff Miller said. She sighed into the radio. “Come on, Wells, what’s really going on?” She stretched the microphone cord, went around her desk, stepped over some lumber to get her gun belt. Fastened it on as she spoke.
“I’m serious as liver cancer, Sheriff,” came the static-clouded voice through the speakers. “Dozens, maybe a hundred of them. A handful attacked Mrs. McCormick’s store, clawing and chawing. They flat out ate her alive. I shot two or three with the Remington, but they just kept coming, so I had to light out for base.”
He sounds panicked as hell, so whatever this is, he thinks it’s real enough. “What’s your position?”
“Like I said, in the cruiser. I’ll be back at the station in two minutes tops. Leave the prisoners locked up. We got to get out of there. Shit!” The radio popped. Wells stopped transmitting.
Miller wasn’t sure she bought the story. Maybe it was a prank, but that wasn’t like Wells at all. Big old serious redneck sonofabitch, not prone to joking around. So something was going on out there, but freaking zombies? Whatever it was, Miller knew she had only a few minutes to prepare. She was the Sheriff, and had her duty. She rounded the desk and grabbed her broad-brimmed hat off the rack. Jogged out of her office, past the construction mess and into the small, old-fashioned western jail. The big key turned smoothly in the brand new lock, the barred door swung open with a creak. The two prisoners looked up as she approached the cells.
“Get up,” Miller said.
“Time for my strip search, darlin’?” The closest prisoner swung his feet off the edge of his cot. Bowen was busily tattooed; a large biker with long, stringy hair, a scraggly beard and a darkened bandage on his head. He hefted his sweaty bulk off the cot and approached the steel bars. “I’m sure I’ve got something in here you’d like,” he said. He leered and began to paw at his crotch.
“Shut up.” Miller produced a pair of handcuffs. “That little thing wouldn’t scare a gnat into buying a diaphragm. Now get over here and put your hands through the slot.” She indicated the large rectangular hole in the barred door. “Move it. We got us somewhere to go.”
“Where?” The second prisoner, Stillman. Tall, wiry, a foul smelling man with a tattooed head and surprisingly delicate hands. He approached the door of his cell. If it weren’t for his weirdly tatted head, Stillman could have passed for an accountant, rather than a Hell’s Angel. How he wound up in a motorcycle gang, Miller didn’t care to know.
“Sheriff, where we going?” he asked again.
Miller paused. She hadn’t yet considered that part of it. “We’re moving you to another facility,” she said. The lie didn’t come easy. She usually preferred to play it straight, even with the cons. “Come on, I don’t have all day.”
Bowen smelled trouble. “What’s the rush?”
Before the Sheriff could answer, Wells burst through the door. “They’re fucking everywhere, Sheriff!” The former high school athlete was out of breath, uniform dark with sweat, clearly sorry he had let his gut get the better of him. “I saw more coming out of the woods as I was pulling up. We ain’t got much time.”
“Who’s coming, a lynch mob? Are they coming for me?” demanded Stillman. He gripped the bars of the cell door, a sudden nervous tick making his face twitch. Sheriff Miller could smell the guilty sweat from two yards off. Stillman was accused of drugging and sodomizing a minor. His wide eyes gave him away.
“Never mind. Put your hands through the slot,” Miller commanded again. She was surprised by the strength in her voice. She didn’t feel very strong. Zombies? The hell?
“What’s going on, Sheriff?” Bowen spoke calmly. He stepped away from the door and crossed his arms. Stillman stepped back, a reluctant imitation of his leader. “We ain’t going nowhere ‘less you tell us the truth.”
Wells huffed with frustrated and fear. “Sheriff, leave them. They’ll be safe in there.”
She stared at him.
“Probably,” he shrugged.
“I’m not leaving my prisoners,” Miller said bluntly. “We have our duty.”
“We don’t have time for this.” Wells turned his attention to the big motorcyclist and drew his club. “Okay, do what the Sheriff says, asshole, or I’ll come in there and crack your skull again. Then the zombies won’t have a problem getting at your shit-for-brains.”
“Zombies?” Bowen released a sharp laugh. “Oh, bullshit! What’s really going on? Some family members coming for my friend here?”
In his cell, Stillman wilted.
“What is going on,” Sheriff Miller said, “is that we need to get you two to safety. We don’t have time for any macho posturing. Now, present your hands.”
“Holy bat shit, Scratch.” Stillman, peering out his small, high cell window. “You really got to check this out.”
Wells and Miller exchanged glances. “Get the shotguns ready,” she barked. Wells ran for the gun cabinet.
Meanwhile, Bowen stood on his own cot and looked through the barred window. “Whoa, what the fuck is that?”
“I told you,” said Wells, from across the room. He was loading two shotguns as fast as possible. “Zombies.”
“Damn.” Bowen hopped down from his cot immediately. He slid his hands through the slot. “Move,” he ordered Stillman. “We gotta go.” Miller snapped the cuffs around each of their wrists. She opened the cell doors, ushering the two prisoners out. As they headed down the hallway, Wells jabbed Bowen with his stick. Bowen stumbled a bit.
“Watch it, dickhead, or I’ll turn around and break you in two,” snapped Bowen.
Wells raised his stick, ready to strike. The convict glared back like a pit bull.
“Wells!” The deputy turned to see Miller with genuine rage in her eyes. “They are our prisoners. Knock it off.”
Wells opened the door to the parking lot, and stopped short. The last sunlight was fading out, a yellow ball dipping down into a huge pond of black ink.
“My God,” Wells gasped.
Miller swallowed. “We ain’t gonna make it to the cars.”
Bowen and Stillman stepped forward to look. It was a living nightmare. The things were everywhere, covering the black top around the isolated sheriff’s station. Feet shuffling, throats moaning. Features were distorted, clothing ripped. They could have been anybody. Townspeople, tourists passing through, distant relatives. Tattered clothing, gaping wounds and blood splatters. Dozens of zombies with missing limbs staggered forward in broken formation. The moaning sound floated on a low breeze that carried the stench of rotting meat. The three men stared. Miller looked down at her hands. They were not trembling. Her mind plotted strategy. She looked up again. The closest zombies were perhaps twenty yards away.
Wells leveled the shotgun at a man in a dark suit. He fired, the noise making Stillman jump. The zombie fell heavily to the ground. “Now, watch this,” said Wells. “It ain’t dead for real, not yet.”
Bowen snorted. “Hell he ain’t.”
After a moment, the creature picked itself up and began lumbering toward the station, dark intestines sliding from its gut.
“See what I mean, Sheriff?” Deputy Wells said, terror in his eyes. “I do believe we are in some pretty deep shit.”
“All right!” snapped Sheriff Miller. “Everyone back inside. Lock the door, Wells. I think we’re staying put.”
They locked up. She turned the lights on outside, gave them better vision. Peering out through the window, Miller didn’t like what she saw. The army of creatures approached from all sides, relentlessly, groaning with a terrible hunger. Miller rallied her deputy. They fired through windows and doors as best they could. Soon, Miller wished she had put in earplugs when she’d had the chance. The steady gunfire hurt like hell.
“Aim for the head,” called Bowen. “It’s the only thing that works.”
“I am aiming for their head, smartass,” shouted Wells.
They fired and fired. Meanwhile, Stillman sat handcuffed to a chair at Wells’s desk in the lobby, the receiver stuck between his ear and his shoulder. He dialed furiously. Prisoner Bowen stood cuffed a few feet away. He’d gone back into his cell for security. Bowen was visibly shaking. His eyes were wide and white.
“They’re getting closer,” Wells hollered. “This keeps up, these motherfuckers might be yanking our zippers down pretty soon.” The bodies of several of the seemingly endless stream of undead were piled in a rough semicircle around his position at the barred back window. Wells paused for a moment to reload.
“Shit fire!” Bowen jumped back as a rotting, three-fingered hand appeared at the barred window, grasping at his head. “Holy damned Jesus Christ on a jet ski!” He stumbled backward off his cot, tripped on the toilet and banged his already bandaged head on the cinderblock walls of the small cell. “Ow!”
“Shut up,” said Miller. She peered though the smoke in Bowen’s general direction. “Bob, how are you holding up?”
Wells fired the shotgun again. Steel balls ripped the head off another zombie. A wide cloud of blood, brains and skull resulted. The zombie, a little girl in a puffy white dress, went over backwards, tumbling over other bodies. A moment later, an old man began clambering over the rapidly growing wall of undead. They kept coming. The flood lights threw long shadows past them, like long black ribbons running off into the desert.
“Not good, Sheriff.” Wells looked over his shoulder at Miller, then down at the growing pile of empty ammo boxes and shell casings. “Running low, here. Fact, I’m down to about three boxes of ammo, and there are more coming. Maybe we been et by a bitch wolf and shat over a thousand foot cliff.”
Miller began to worry, something she hadn’t done in a long time. She was doing only slightly better on ammo, but just because they had stocked more 30.06 than shotgun shells last month. Miller sighted another zombie, a decaying Mrs. McCormick, and fired. The right eye imploded, a reddish-grey cloud blooming at the back of its head. The woman fell forward, only to be replaced by another female limping behind her. Miller called to Stillman. “Any luck with the phones?”
“There’s a ring, but no one picks up. I’ve tried every number in your book, and a few of my own. I get a machine or one of those God-damned automatic messages every time.” He slammed his fist on the dusty drop cloth. Dust rose from Wells’s desk. “Whole world must be screwed up. Bet those Goddamned A-rab terrorists done this.”
“Man, we’re running out of time,” said Bowen. He paced to and from in his cell, fondling the bandage on his head.
“If you have any brilliant ideas,” Miller said cooly, targeting the next zombie, “now’s the time to share.”
“Sure I got one. Let me and Stillman loose, and give us a couple of them scatter guns.”
“Not a fucking chance!” Wells, reloading again, turned his weapon on Bowen. “We ain’t letting you anywhere near those weapons.”
“Bob,” said Miller quietly, without looking up, “cover your position and shut up.”
“You ain’t seriously thinking of arming this piece of shit, are you, Penny?”
Miller looked, turned her Remington rifle on him and screamed, “Duck!”
Wells dropped to the floor, scattering red plastic shells. Miller fired at the huge zombie, a tourist in Bermuda shorts, hitting it in the fat belly. The thing didn’t even notice it got shot. It reached down to Wells and grabbed him by the shoulder. Wells brought the muzzle of his pump-action shotgun under the zombie’s chin and fired. The BOOM was deafening. The zombie’s head exploded, and the escaping shot shattered the window above. Glass fragments, splinters and vaporized brains showered down on Wells. On the edge of sanity, he giggled. His broad-rimmed hat protected his face from the fallout, but his uniform was red and soaking wet. Wells pushed the zombie out of the window, out of sight.
Stillman suddenly shifted. “Behind you, Sheriff!”
In one smooth movement, Miller drew her pistol and stuck it in the mouth of a child zombie coming in through the window. She winced but pulled the trigger, and the dead boyâone she didn’t know, thankfullyâslid below the windowsill with a hole in his brainstem.
Wells resumed his first position, firing madly to keep up with the ground he had lost.
“There are still more coming,” said Bowen, peering out his little cell window. His voice was high and tight with panic.
“We aren’t going to make it, are we?” Stillman looked ready to piss in his pants. A crashing sound erupted from Sheriff Miller’s office area. “What the fuck was that?”
Miller didn’t know if she should keep firing through the window or shift to deal with the new threat. Torn, the Sheriff tried to keep her eye on the window and her office simultaneously. “Fuck a duck!” she mumbled under her breath.
Suddenly the door to Miller’s office burst open. A zombie in full football gear emerged through the door, cleats clacking on the tile. The foul smell of decomposition flooded the room. Wells swung around and blasted at it, but only took off one shoulder pad. The shot came close enough to Stillman to cause him jump. He was still handcuffed to the chair, and went over backwards. The zombie wore the number 12 and looked like a quarterback. It turned to Stillman. It was just shy of two yards away, and moved closer. It fell on Stillman, and bit off large chunks of the small man’s face. Stillman shrieked like a girl. Blood spouted, pooled around him.
Miller struggled to get a clean shot. Before she could fire, Wells made his own decision. He shot the quarterback, exploding his helmet and shearing off the top of the boy’s head. Sadly, half of Stillman’s vanished as well.
Stillman lay still, mouth gaping wide. Blood pooled red around him.
“Needles!” Bowen stood at the cell door, gripping the bars. “Wells, you miserable fuck. You killed him.”
Wells shrugged. “Sucker was toast anyway.”
Another zombie in a filthy business suit emerged from the office. Miller fired, hitting the thing in the right arm to no effect. She shot it through the face and it dropped like something made of sticks and rags.
“Fall back!” Miller grabbed a box of ammo as she retreated. Wells scooped up two boxes of shells and followed the sheriff.
Miller dashed into the old cinderblock jailhouse, motioned Wells in and closed the door after him. She turned the key in the lock, and stepped back from the barred door. “At least that will keep them out for a while.”
“A while?” Bowen’s voice cracked. “That’s your master plan?”
Miller turned to confront Bowen, but she was cut off by a blast from Wells’s shotgun. The new zombie went down, but several of the shot ricocheted off the iron bars, some fragments narrowly missing Miller’s head.
“Knock that shit off,” Miller said. “They can’t get in here. And, yes, that’s my plan. Find a way to stay alive.”
“How are we supposed to get out?” whined Bowen. He seemed afraid, alone in his own little cell.
“Why don’t you shut the fuck up and let the lady think?” Wells raised his shotgun to his hip, aimed at Bowen.
Miller put her hand on the warm barrel. She shoved it down. Hard. “Bob, we’ve got enough to worry about as it is. Besides, he’s my responsibility.”
“Give me two reasons not to blow his ass to hamburger,” snapped Wells, jerking the weapon out of her grasp.
Miller ignored Wells’s insubordination. A gore-splattered housewife was reaching through the jailhouse door. The moaning of the creatures outside the jailhouse door was constant and piteous, impossibly loud. Wells drew his sidearm and shot one, two, three. They fell, piling in front of the barred door. The others tugged them aside and struggled to get in. The entrance was blocked for the time being. Those outside began to eat at the ones in the way. The beasts turned upon one another, biting and clawing.
She stood between Wells and the temporarily blocked door. “Listen up. We’re in deep shit. The rest of the guns and nearly all of the ammo is out there with them,” she said. “We have no food in hereâit’s all in the galley. No one knows we’re here. That means we’re on our own. If we’re going to get through this, I can’t have you two at each other’s throats. We need to work together.”
Miller stepped up to the cell door where Bowen waited. She hesitated, reading his eyes, then unlocked the door.
“Wait!” Deputy Wells put his hand on Miller’s. He had a look of real terror on his face. “You ain’t actually gonna trust that scum sucking bastard, are you?”
“I don’t see we have any choice,” she replied. She turned the key in the lock, swung the door open. It squealed. “Come on out.”
Bowen stepped forward, bloody from the cut on his head. He smiled for the first time. Seeing that grin, Wells brought his shotgun up to his shoulder, aiming at Bowen’s head. Bowen stopped short, and looked at the sheriff.
“Bob,” she said quietly, “until this shit storm is all over, he’s with us. Got it?”
Wells glared at Miller. He could see that she meant it. He lowered the shotgun.
“Scratch,” she said, using the prisoner’s gang name. “Don’t make me regret this.” Miller unbuckled her gun belt, and handed it over to Bowen. Disgusted, Wells turned away and spat on the floor.
“Thank you, Sheriff. That’s mighty decent of you.” Bowen buckled the belt around his hips, like an old-style gunslinger. He quietly drew the handgun. Expertly, Bowen pulled the slide halfway back to make certain it was loaded. In one smooth movement, he raised the pistol. Fired. Wells’s face collapsed into itself. His thick neck gushed. The lifeless body dropped heavily to the floor.
Instantly, Miller and Bowen both raised their weapons. Aimed at each other. Mexican standoff. The mob of creatures outside kept trying to push and shove their way into the jail.
“Drop it,” said Miller from the other end of her rifle. She was stunned to see her hands were still not trembling. They stared at one another in silence. On the floor, what was left of Wells farted noisily.
“Sorry, Sheriff,” said Bowen. He grinned. “That prick has been looking for a way to get shot since he cracked my skull. I was just, you know, helping out.”
“You’re still my prisoner, Scratch. Put down your weapon!”
“What, so you can lock me in that cell again to get eaten alive by them things?” He gestured toward the door behind her. “You saw that that son of a bitch did to Needles a minute ago. He flat out had that coming. Like you said, we got to work together. Now come on, they’ll be on us again soon enough.”
Miller applied a small amount of pressure to the trigger. The Remington seemed to vibrate. She was about to fire when she saw a hulking creature appear behind Bowen. Miller rapidly shifted her aim and shot the tall, thin zombie just before it bit down on Bowen’s neck. It flew backwards.
Bowen’s gun discharged. His shot was a half second behind her own. Miller found herself spinning, with pain in her left shoulder that bordered on unbearable. She went down hard, hit the tiles. Her small body slid through slimy gore and entrails. She ended up several feet away, face down. She passed out.
Miller woke up to a buzzing sound. Her right eye wouldn’t open, it was crusted shut and covered with blood. Her left shoulder hurt like blazes. Someone was talking to her, but she couldn’t understandâthe shooting had damaged her ears. She could feel pressure on her shoulder. She looked up to see Bowen kneeling over her.
“You awake, Sheriff?” she heard Bowen saying from a distance. “You’re one tough bitch, I’ll tell you that.”
“What happened,” she managed. Her voice sounded far away.
“We made it,” he announced. “I shored up the hole in the wall with some of the lumber, pumped a few rounds into some of those miserable fucks, and then they just kinda went away. Thought you died a couple of times, but sure as shit, you made it.”
He finished tying the bandage around her arm, stood, and picked up a shotgun.
“Now here’s the way this is going to work. I’m gonna get you outside, into your truck, and put the keys in your hand. Then I’m gonna hop on my ride and get the ever-lovin’ fuck out of here. After that, you’re on your own. Deal?”
“You killed Wells,” she protested, without much conviction.
“Come on, Sheriff. Let’s let bygones be bygones. He had it coming, and you know it. Besides, what are you gonna do, arrest me?” He held the shotgun casually, and smiled.
“I saved your life.”
“Yes you did, much obliged. So now I’m gonna save yours, and we’ll be even.” He hefted her off the floor. “God, you are a sight, Sheriff. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you was one of them zombies.” Bowen slung a shotgun over his shoulder, carried her past the decomposing bodies. It was early morning outside. They went out the back door.
The dead lay everywhere. Wells had a hell of an aim, that was sure, because hardly one had his head anymore. The stench was unbearable, but Miller was too weak to vomit. The first hint of the sun peaked out over pines to the east, bringing a bone-chilling wind. She felt cold, colder than she’d ever been before. It was the loss of blood, she knew it, but she couldn’t do much of anything. Miller shivered.
Bowen opened the door to her cruiser, a worn brown-and-white Ford Blazer, and shoved Miller inside. He got her feet and hands situated on the pedals and wheel, took the keys from her gun belt. He inserted them into the ignition, started it up.
“There, I done what I promised. Good luck, and thanks for saving my ass.”
“Scratch,” she began, “I could die without your help.”
“Oh, quit bitchin’, Sheriff.”
He closed the door with a slam, strolled over to his impounded Harley. Her ears were still ringing. She watched Bowen through the windshield as he stepped on the starter, saw him gun the engine and shake a bit when it roared into life. And then a hulking zombie came out of nowhere. It jumped up behind Bowen, kind of like it was going for a joy ride, then chomped down on his neck. Bowen’s eyes popped open, all funny and wide. Blood sprayed his face. The motorcycle went over sideways, taking Bowen and the huge zombie with it. His boots kicked. The motor kept roaring. She couldn’t hear if he screamed.
Moments later the zombie reappeared. It looked up at her, Bowen’s blood dripping from yellow, broken teeth. It rose up, lumbered towards her. Miller had a moment of clarity. Her adrenaline kicked in. She let her hand fall on the gearshift, slammed it into drive. The Blazer surged forward. The zombie didn’t flinch. It went down and thump thump she drove clean over it.
Swerving like a drunk teen on prom night, she made her way roughly out onto the open highway. Sheriff Miller didn’t know what she would find out there in what was left of the world, but she knew that she had a job to do.
And no fucking zombies were gonna stand in her way.