Thursday, October 31, 2013: West Point, NY, USA

“Trick or treat, Vargas! Time to move!”

Damon shifted under his green flannel bedsheet, slightly damp from a night of fitful sleep, as he teetered on the edge of consciousness, desperately trying to ignore the insistent knocking at his door. Pulling the lumpy pillow over his head in a vain attempt to drown out Captain James T. Merck’s gravelly voice, he wished for another hour of sleep –

“Come on, Vargas! Open it up!”

– but his wish wasn’t granted.

“Alright, alright! Chill! I’m up! Hold on a minute.”

Damon rubbed the last crumbs of sleep from the corners of his eyes as he sat up in his bed and glared at the fireproof door that separated him from the rest of the east wing of the McCain Building, a two-story barracks near the center of what the general public knew as the former site of West Point, the storied United States Military Academy. After the end of the Civil War, in a land grab that rivaled the pioneer days of the old west, it had been sold off to a private investment corporation known only as RevCorp, and shrouded in secrecy ever since.

Rumors included everything from genetic engineering to alien autopsies, many of which often contained at least some small nugget of truth.

Damon took in his room quickly, assuring himself everything was as he’d left it, as he tried to remember where he’d discarded his clothes the night before. Drab concrete walls, one of which was covered by a mural he’d painted himself depicting his favorite superhero, Batman, grim-faced and perched high atop a silhouetted Gotham City, the bat signal piercing the night sky; minimalist furniture, all black and gunmetal gray, standard RevCorp issue; the matching armoire, doors opened, black uniforms spilling out onto the hardwood floor; a small desk with a laptop, an antique banker’s lamp, an analog clock and an empty fifth of Grey Goose vodka.

No drinking glass was visible and Damon instinctively rubbed his temples at the thought, but the dull ache in his head wasn’t from a hangover. That was courtesy of the recurring dream he’d had again that night that had him tossing and turning before finally waking in a cold sweat two hours before Merck came knocking.

The dream was of Diane and Liberty, running through the woods, chasing someone. Or something. It was never really clear which, and it was the third time he’d had the dream in the past week. Each time it had lasted longer and longer, with the latest finally revealing who, or what, they’d been chasing. Whatever it was had already faded in his mind, though, and he poked at it, searching for a hint, but to no avail.

He stood and stretched his wiry five foot nine frame, groaning from the effort, then slipped into a pair of thick black sweatpants that were lying crumpled at the foot of his bed and a gray t-shirt with the word KILLER stenciled across the back in black letters. He walked over to the mirror that hung from the back of his door and shook his head at the sleep-deprived, prematurely graying wreck staring back at him.

He unlocked and opened the door just as Captain Merck’s fist was readying for another round of obnoxious pounding.

“What the hell, Merck? It’s five in the morning!”

“Happy Halloween, Vargas. Get dressed. It’s zombie time!”

On the surface, RevCorp was a legitimate U.S. corporation that bought and sold undervalued companies, ideally for a profit. Two behind the scenes members of the activist group, MoveOn, had founded it in 2005 after that organization’s failed attempt at swaying the Presidential elections in 2004. The combination of an aggressive mergers & acquisitions program and the negative reaction of the financial markets to the upheaval caused by the Civil War enabled RevCorp to quickly develop an impressive portfolio of mid-range, seemingly unrelated properties. They had their hands in everything from print and broadcast media, to pharmaceuticals, to the New York Mets baseball team, one of the last teams representing the “blue states of Gomorrah” in professional sports.

Behind the legitimate businesses, though, lie clandestine networks of extra-governmental agencies dedicated to breaking the right’s hegemonic rule and the ultimate reunification of the United States of America. Effectively, it acted as a shadow Department of Homeland Security whose sole mission was to undermine both governments and destroy the status quo.

Damon had been tapped for his writing skills and extreme sensibilities, ostensibly recruited to work at TruMedia, RevCorp’s advertising agency specializing in non-profit organizations, which he turned down twice. Captain James T. Merck had finally coordinated Damon’s “disappearance” in Van Cortlandt Park in 2010, gambling on the revelation of RevCorp’s real mission being the difference maker and their exhaustive research being correct.

In both cases, it was exactly that.

“Something’s changed,” explained a bespectacled Arnold Watkins, RevCorp’s resident zombie expert and lead analyst on Project Degenerate. He didn’t wear glasses, as nothing as thick as the lenses sitting in the chunky black frames resting on his beakish nose could be referred to as glasses. He was, to put it kindly, bespectacled.

The three men were standing over a backlit glass table in Watkins’ control room, a transparent map of pre-Civil War New York’s Westchester County laid out across it with a pattern of green, yellow and red dots emanating from a town called Hawthorne, now on the northern edge of New York City. After five years of intense research, Watkins had theorized that Hawthorne, specifically its Cemetery of the Gate of Heaven, was ground zero for the outbreak of zombies that had first been noted back in 2005 by the Department of Homeland Security.

The green and yellow dots were far greater in number and spread out logically over a 200-mile radius from the Cemetery. The red dots seemed more random, in tighter groupings but with no readily discernable pattern.

“The green dots,” Watkins explained, “are confirmed reports of zombie sightings around the region. The yellow dots are ‘incidents,’ places where confirmed reports of zombie attacks have taken place. Typically wild animals, pets and the occasional homeless. The red dots are what we call ‘incidents of specific interest,’ places where zombie attacks on humans have occurred.”

“Humans?” Damon asked. “As opposed to the homeless, you mean?”

“What’s the pattern?” asked Merck, pointing a stern finger in Damon’s direction.

“Well, that’s the interesting thing,” Watkins continued, ignoring Damon’s remark. “At first, we couldn’t find any. We ran several different algorithms, extrapolated the data, even created a couple of predictive models and tried working backwards, but nothing came to light.”

“Other than the fact that you don’t consider the homeless humans?” Damon asked, deadpan.

“Vargas!” Merck snapped.

Damon stepped away from the glowing map table over to the coffee pot sitting on a counter at the other end of the room, steam wafting towards the high ceiling, the smell of freshly ground beans still hanging in the air. He poured himself a cup, stirring in a teaspoon of brown sugar, and blew on it as he turned back to Watkins and Merck.

“Well, we started looking at the places themselves, analyzing demographics and such and last week we hit on something.”

Watkins uncapped an orange highlighter and began circling clusters of red dots, five in all.

“Peekskill, Ossining, Sherman Park, Elmsford and Mt. Vernon. Eighty percent of our confirmed reports of zombie attacks took place in those five areas.”

“Okay,” said Merck.

“Know what they have in common?”

“Besides the zombies, you mean?” Damon asked.

“All five have a higher than average percentage of African Americans as residents, compared to the rest of the region. Sherman Park is the lowest of them, at only about twelve, thirteen percent, but it’s where nearly half of the initial sightings and attacks were reported during the first two years. It’s also only about two miles from Hawthorne, spitting distance from the Cemetery of the Gate of Heaven.”

“Ground zero,” smiled Merck.


“So, you’re saying the zombies are a black thing?” asked Damon, a bit more seriously this time.

“I’m not sure I understand how you mean that, or if you’re even serious, but yes, there definitely seems to be some kind of a connection there. Another equally interesting item we came across is the missing persons cases in these areas. Compared to the statistics for the region, each of these towns has an unusually high spike in missing persons being reported, again starting with Sherman Park in 2006, then spreading out from there to Elmsford’s spike in 2007, Ossining from 2008-2009, and Mt. Vernon and Peekskill over the next three years. In each case, the percentage of African American men and Caucasian women are skewed when compared to the region’s norms.”

“What does all of this mean, Watkins?” Merck asked impatiently. A man of action, he despised talking numbers and babysitting number crunchers, especially when they weren’t giving him clear and simple answers.

“Well,” Watkins sighed, “we’re still not sure yet, to be honest. It’s the closest thing to a pattern we’ve ever found, though.”

“Then why the 5am briefing? And the great coffee, by the way.”

“Like I said, something’s changed. Within the pattern, there’s an apparent aberration.”

He pulled out a blue highlighter this time, and began circling a handful of single red dots, all within a 10-mile radius of Hawthorne.

“These five incidents were all particularly brutal attacks on humans, all but one under twenty years old. Last night was the fifth such attack, this time in Mt. Pleasant, here,” he circled an area that, among other things, included the Cemetery of the Gate of Heaven, the Kensico Dam and Sherman Park.

“Sixteen year old male, one Anthony DiBlanco. Local detective responded to the boy’s reporting a zombie sighting in his backyard, says they were eating his dog. Detective gets there to find a couple of broken windows and a door, and fresh Anthony stew on the kitchen floor.”

“DiBlanco? That name rings a bell,” Damon said.

“It should,” Merck said. “Wasn’t that the name of the kid that reported the first credible sighting back in 2006? Claimed it was Babe Ruth eating his dog or something?”

“One and the same,” Watkins said. “Weekly World News paid his parents $500 for the story and it wasn’t considered credible until three years later, after we had started our work here.”

“Odd coincidence?” Damon asked.

“Who knows.”

“What kind of dog?” Damon asked. “This time, I mean.”

“Ah! There’s the change. The DiBlancos owned a rottweiler.”

“Oh, fuck!”

“Not my choice of words but I think it works as well as any in this case.”

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