printed copy

Mutated

Joe McKinney

ISBN 9780786029297
Publish Date 9/4/2012
Format Paperback
Categories Thriller/Suspense, Pinnacle, Fantasy, Horror

They Outnumber The Living…

25 to 1. Those are the odds of being struck down—and resurrected—by the savage plague that’s sweeping the country, forcing survivors to band together against the dead.

They’re Growing Stronger…

Even among the living, there is dissention. A new leader known as the Red Man has risen up and taken charge—and he’s nearly as dangerous as the hungry dead. Some, like Bob Richardson and his friends, strike out on their own. Because if the men with guns don’t get them, the zombies will.

They’re Getting Smarter…

Fleeing the cities, Richardson and his crew find sanctuary in an abandoned farm. But their stronghold may not be strong enough. Something strange and terrifying is happening to the undead. They’re banding together. Working as a group. Hungering for a common goal: human flesh. And lots of it.

Praise for Joe McKinney and His Novels

“A merciless, fast-paced and genuinely scary read that will leave you absolutely breathless.” —Bram Stoker Award-winning author Brian Keene on Dead City

“A fantastic tale of survival horror that starts with a bang and never lets up.” —Zombiehub.com

“A rising star on the horror scene.”—Fearnet.com

Chapter One

Ben Richardson jammed himself all the way to the back of the oven and watched the zombies staggering around in the rubble that had once been the lobby of a Pizza Hut. He wanted to kick himself for being so careless. His head had been elsewhere, and they’d caught him completely off guard. If he hadn’t turned around when he did and spied them through the busted-out windows at the front of the restaurant, they’d have made a meal of him. But chain restaurants like this usually had canned food in their prep areas, and the promise of something other than pork and beans had been too much to resist. Stupid, he told himself, risking his life for a gallon of tomato puree.

But he made the mistake and now he had to own it. All that was left was to wait. Be quiet, and wait. He silently let out a breath and relaxed his muscles, trying to get comfortable. No telling how long this would take.

There were three of them out there, two older men and a young girl who looked like she might have been about fourteen. It was hard to tell for sure, though. The disease and the malnutrition disfigured them so, and, truth be told, he wasn’t such a good judge of how old children were anymore. He saw so few of them these days.

The zombies bumped into overturned tables and stopped as though confused when faced with padded booths and the overturned skeleton of the salad bar. The only sound came from the glass and fallen ceiling tiles crunching beneath their feet. But that could change at any minute. Richardson knew that from long experience. They always hunted in silence until they flushed something from the debris. Here, in the ruins of downtown St. Louis, that something would probably be a rat or, if they were lucky, a dog or a cat. Once they cornered it, the moaning would start. It would begin as a soft groaning sigh, but that would quickly swell to the breathy, almost desperate sobbing sound that Richardson had come to think of as their feeding call. It would carry for blocks, attracting more of their kind. Within moments the infected would swarm the streets.

Richardson had seen it happen too many times before.

And so he waited with a revolver in his left hand and a machete in his right, hoping these three would pass him by. Zombies were the ultimate opportunists, always on the lookout for an easy meal. But they lacked any sort of higher consciousness, and they certainly couldn’t anticipate their prey’s movements. As long as he stayed quiet, and stayed in the dark, he’d be okay.

You’re a roving camera, he told himself. Just watch. Soak it all up.

One of the zombies stepped in front of the oven, stopped, and slowly swiveled its head in Richardson’s direction. For a moment, the zombie was framed by a faint golden nimbus of morning light. But then Richardson’s eyes adjusted to the glare and he saw the zombie clearly. The man had obviously fed recently. His shoulder-length hair was matted with deep arterial blood that had partially dried and looked like tar. Flies swarmed about his mouth and eyes, resting on his shaggy beard and on the soiled clothes that hung like strips of rags from his body. The smell of rotten meat brought bile to Richardson’s throat.

He studied the man’s eyes. They were a milky white and threaded with cloudy pink lines. The eyes told him everything he needed to know. This was a Stage I zombie, probably only infected within the last eight months or so with the necrosis filovirus, which caused the disease that had turned him into a zombie. He was slow and stupid, his brain charred to cinders by fever and his body crippled by malnutrition. If he survived long enough for the disease to enter its second stage—and that was highly unlikely from all that Richardson had seen—he would evolve into something far more dangerous, faster, even capable of rudimentary teamwork with other zombies. But for now, the man posed little threat.

As long as Richardson stayed quiet.

Just wait it out, he thought. Be a roving camera. He’ll go away.

A sudden noise out in the street caught Richardson’s attention. The sound of somebody running, breathing hard. A woman’s voice, the words indistinct.

Slowly, the zombie turned toward the noise. The other two did the same. A moment later the moaning started. A chill crawled across Richardson’s skin. Even after all these years and all the time he spent telling himself he was just an observer here, none of this affected him, the feeding call still made his bowels clench in fear.

He saw a flash of movement off to his left. The zombies were already moving to the exit, going after whatever it was, and so Richardson inched forward to the edge of the oven and craned his head as much as he dared around the corner.

The restaurant windows had been busted out long ago, so that only shards of glass and dangling lengths of weather stripping hung in the frames. Through the window Richardson had a view of the street outside, weeds growing up through the cracks, and beyond that, the ruins of North St. Louis. He wasn’t exactly sure of the name of the street and he supposed it didn’t matter. All the streets of the world seemed to look the same now anyway: thick with wrecked cars and blown trash, bleak canyons between buildings that had long since been reduced to windowless hulks, their insides gutted by scavengers and rotting from the weather.

The zombies that had been inside the restaurant with him were moving off to his left, threading their way through a maze of cannibalized cars. Richardson could see a few more zombies emerging from an alley on the far side of the street.

“Hey, over here!”

It was a woman’s voice, coming from his side of the street.

The three zombies stopped and slowly swiveled around to face the restaurant.

“Oh, no,” Richardson muttered. What are you doing you crazy fool?

“Hey!” the woman yelled again.

He inched back into the oven. You’re a roving camera, he told himself. Don’t get involved. Choose the smart option, the one that lets you live.

But it had been days since he’d seen another person.

And it got lonely out here in the wastelands. God-awful lonely.

Well aware he was acting foolishly, he decided to chance it.

He poured himself out of the oven and, keeping low, moved to his backpack resting against the wall by the building’s side door. Richardson kept binoculars in there, but he didn’t need them. The woman had stopped where he could see her easily enough. She was about his age, late forties, early fifties maybe, slender, with frizzy gray hair pulled back in a loose ponytail that bounced between her shoulder blades like a tumbleweed on the wind. She carried a hunting rifle with a shoulder sling that she waved over her head like she was trying to flag the zombies down.

Richardson was stunned. I know her. Christ, where do I know her from? He studied her profile, leafing back through the Rolodex in his head, trying to place her face. Where had he seen her before? Montana, maybe? There had been several thousand people living in a commune there, years ago. Unbidden, thoughts of the two happy years he spent there rose up in his memory. Those two years, when Ed Moore and the others who had escaped Jasper Sewell’s Grasslands cult were still alive, had been a sort of lull in the apocalypse. Ed had done everything right, and people had flocked from all over to enjoy the protection he offered. Straining his memory, Richardson went through the names of all the people he had known there in Montana, but he couldn’t place the woman.

But he did know her. He was positive of that.

The zombies were getting closer to her now. Their feeding call was louder. Their sobbing had become urgent. The lead zombie raised his arms, his fingers clutching at the air, his addled brain unable to accurately perceive the distance to his intended prey.

Then the woman put the gun down on the hood of a wrecked pickup, pulled a wooden baseball bat from a holster she carried on her shoulder, and charged the zombie.

“What the hell...?” Richardson said.

The woman sidestepped the zombie, ducked underneath its clutching hands, spun around, and came up behind the man. Then she dropped him with a practiced swing to the back of the head, grunting loudly as the bat cracked the man’s skull. She put the other two zombies down with the same precise movements, and Richardson figured she had to have done that move before. It was too quick, too precise, too practiced.

Now she was looking around.

Richardson scanned the parts of the street he could see too. Don’t get involved, he pleaded with himself. Stay out of sight. Be the roving camera that sees all but doesn’t get involved.

But for once his curiosity overruled his common sense. This was crazy. What was she looking for? He couldn’t figure it out. Richardson kept expecting her to run for it. She wasn’t carrying any sort of gear except the bat and the rifle; and her clothes, though dirty, were in good repair. That meant she had to come from one of the compounds somewhere around here. There were five or six he had heard of. But she was definitely not a roadie, like him. She had friends somewhere close by, and maybe even transportation. A bicycle, probably.

The sounds of moaning in the near distance shifted his attention back to the other side of the street. It was just as he had feared. The frenzied feeding calls of the first three zombies had attracted more of their kind.

He reached into his backpack and quickly extracted his binoculars.

Scanning the rubble, he counted at least eighteen zombies, but it was hard to be sure through the morning haze and the dust clouds rising off the vacant lots.

Roving camera, he thought. Time to get the hell out of here.

He returned the binoculars to his backpack and zipped it up. He was sliding the straps over his shoulders when the woman let out an ear-piercing whistle.

“What?” Richardson blurted out, startled. “No.”

About Joe McKinney:

Joe McKinney is the author of the novels Dead City and Quarantined, and more than thirty short stories and novellas. He has a master's degree in English Literature from the University of Texas at San Antonio, and has worked as a homicide detective and as a disaster mitigation specialist for the San Antonio Police Department. He currently lives in the Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio with his wife and two children.

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