Excerpt Patient Z

Chapter 1

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 few 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. “Calm 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?”

Want to read more? Find buy links on the Patient Z book page.

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