by Jennifer K. Oliver
The wolves are out in their death car again, a sleek, slow curb crawl, prowling cracked pavements for signs of life, for meaty flesh to make meaty breath, and they’re hungry.
But this doesn’t mean diddly-squat these days, because everyone’s so damn hungry.
Even the food.
Evan’s still digesting the curry he never would’ve had if he hadn’t tagged along with his workmates (he doesn’t do spicy), all in the name of not-quite-friends (yet). The trouble with being single again is you have to forge and rebuild on a weakened substructure, which is easier said than done when everyone around you is hunched and closed up tighter than a coffin. Single again, you realize there’s hardly anyone left, and pretty much all your old friends are dead or reanimated, or vanished into the crumbling foundations like terrified woodlice.
There wasn’t enough room in the taxi after the meal but Evan’s trying to stay positive, clinging to the fact that there was a meal at all. Maybe a brisk walk’ll be good for his system, ease up his pinching post-Tikka Masala beltline. There, totally positive.
A belch gurgles up from the depths and he lets it out as quietly as possible, but metaphorically, Evan’s still a reasonably hungry guy. Hungry for respect, hungry for money — maybe not as much as some, but a smidgen more than others — hungry for security, stability, recognition.
Trouble is, in this city, you haven’t a hope in hell of getting enough of the first, the second is easy as long as you don’t submerge in the mind-altering substances the government dispenses like sweets, and you usually get the wrong kind of the last.
Like now. Evan stops dead as the shiny black Shogun 4×4 creeps around the corner up ahead like some giant prehistoric insect, liquid-metal smooth shell glistening. Street light rebounds off the roof, dirty gold spilling down the bonnet. Headlights are two glaring predator eyes, picking Evan out of the rubble of broken-down skyscrapers and frozen shores of litter.
Evan squints. For two heartbeats, he stands still, hoping it won’t see him if he doesn’t move. But the engine purrs low, and even though the death car maintains a steady course down the deserted street, it’s like the damn thing sniffs him through its grille.
Too late, Evan-lad, they’ve seen you. Probably smelled you from five streets over.
The death car boys lick their hungry chops and shiver in anticipatory glee. They’re not really boys, though — more men who refuse to get jobs. But that’s not saying much, since there aren’t a lot of folk who’ll hire werewolves even if they did want to work. Which they don’t.
Blacked-out windows roll down with a faint electrical rreee. Nostrils flare, sucking all those sweet, rotten city smells down throats already contracting at the promise of a fresh kill, a live meal.
“Here, kitty-kitty,” sings Rodge, his gelled brown spikes quivering in the sultry breeze as he shoves his head out the window like a puppy on its first car ride. He catches scents on his tongue and his body shakes like a junkie’s, pupils dilated black moons. His full name’s Rodger but he dropped the ‘r’ that first transformation, feeling it too nerdy, plus he likes how the new handle rhymes with ‘Dodge’.
Evan should be dodging about now, only, his feet are cemented to the street. Urban natives might say too much chewing gum and not enough road maintenance, and they’d be right. Nobody will do the job any more, not on these streets.
But that’s not why Evan can’t move. Everybody knows a death car when they see one, since all monsters and ghastlies have wheels these days. Evan remembers a time when vampires flapped, and werewolves loped, and zombies shuffled, and ghouls — well, nobody’s clear on what ghouls do, or what the point of them is — but nowadays…
Nowadays they just can’t be arsed. The undead and reanimated, the possessed and feral and inexplicably inhabited Can. Not. Be. Buggered. So they drive or hitch.
Or, in zombies’ cases, get run over by vampires and werewolves a lot. Evan heard a rumor at work that there’s a society now — The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Zombies Through Motorized Terrorism, or, in its abbreviated form, RSPCZTMT, although frankly it’s easier just saying the whole thing. Cost the city a lot clearing up all those twitching, dismembered limbs, plus the incinerator expenses.
Yeah, what’s the world coming to?
Run, Evan-lad, run! The only memories Evan has left of his father are of him bellowing embarrassing encouragements at school sports tournaments. Even now, that booming memory-voice bears enough weight to wrench Evan’s feet from the ground and give him that spring he needs.
The sprint lasts all of ten seconds before it slows to a desperate hop-skip-jump of indigestion (the curry sits pretty). Life’s tough on the streets, especially after a three-course meal preceded by poppadoms.
Evan wonders if the reflective tick marks emblazoned across the backs of his running shoes will flash like beacons to his whereabouts. They’re vintage. Tonight’s the first time he’s taken them out of the box, although he’s not feeling so stylish any more.
André grins wolfishly and grips the steering wheel, fingernails denting long, thin quarter moons in the leather. The kill’s nearing the end of the street, but they can still see the logos on the backs of his shoes kicking up and down and catching the headlights. He tugs his eyes off supper just long enough to stab the stereo playback button. André’s of the ilk that believes life needs a soundtrack, which is why the CD changer — located beneath his seat, now whirring faintly as it shifts the disc into place — is always stocked with the latest sounds from the underground.
Rodge leans halfway out the passenger window and laps at the city air. The kill’s scent trails in wafts, a sweet panic-and-sweat combo that builds with the rumble of the Shogun. Casey snakes an arm between the front seats and, silently serious, gives Rodge’s butt a vicious tweak. Rodge’s yelp, half-bark and half-giggle, dies behind them as the kill disappears down a side street and André steps on the accelerator.
Drums hammer, drowning out the engine noise; a crash of cymbals, the banshee shriek of an abused fretboard. Distorted keyboards groan out atmospherics, electronic wails and screams. André licks his lips, the bass vibrating the car like a galloping heartbeat.
I’m Going To Rip Off Your Head and Shit Down Your Neck’s lead singer spits down the microphone, his screech transforming into a reverberating explosion of sound through the sub woofers in the back. André lives for the music because it’s relevant to him. It’s like he doesn’t even have to say anything, just play the latest nu-hip-thrash track, and if people still don’t get where he’s coming from, it’s no big. He simply eats them instead.
As André swerves around an open manhole, through which a yellow tentacle is protruding and waving around for something to grope, Rodge is nearly propelled out the window.
“Hey!” Rodge kicks his feet inside the car.
Laughter scrambles up André’s throat, and soon his voice mixes with the nu-metal, making wolf-metal, and as the car jerks and revs on the road, he and Casey grab Rodge’s flailing legs.
The werewolves are closing the gap, hot on Evan’s Air Walk Classics™.
Many and varied final scenarios dart through his head, popping up with each thud of his feet like pages in a flip book. Death by claw, death by fang, death by lash and rend. With any luck, the indigestion will kill him first.
But Evan’s rarely that lucky.
The soles of his running shoes stick to the grimy concrete, a rhythmic rip-rip-rip like sticky tape pulled off paper or skin torn off bones. There’s something about the buildings as he weaves down a sullen grey alley, a weak spark of familiarity Evan can’t place but has a feeling he will soon.
The engine purr sounds farther away now and Evan knows the wolves are dawdling to wear him down, but he keeps moving, and the alley begins to fold its shadowed cloak tighter around him. He passes a gated doorway, a boarded up air vent, but it’s the graffiti scrawled across the wall in fading neon pink loops that clicks his memory:
VAMPIRES SUCK, UNLIKE MY GIRLFRIEND!
The words were a point of amusement last year when Evan first saw them, back when the warehouses were converted into apartments. He re-reads the graffiti, heaves oxygen into his lungs before they collapse, and ruminates on how freakishly fast time flies.
Wood squeaks just behind him to the right and he spins round.
“Evan? Oh my God, Evan, is that you?” A disembodied head appears through the wall. Evan didn’t notice the window at first, but he can see where a grey curtain has been drawn back.
“Susannah,” he pants, blinking hot sweat out of his eyes. “Hey, Susie.”
Now names are firmly established, Evan hobbles to the open window, during which time he remembers Susannah is an ex, which means no matter how hard they try not to, they’ll inevitably revert to ex-speak where everything is “Great!” and “Good, yeah!” because nobody, no matter how long separated, wants to admit the grass isn’t greener on the other side — that it is, in fact, crusty brown.
“Wow, it’s so great to –” she says, and shakes her head. Her long blonde hair is damp and Evan’s brain supplies images of her grinning at him through shower steam. “I mean, wow!”
“Yeah, totally,” he says too loud.
“Amazing, really! How are you?”
“Great!” he yells. “Good, yeah!”
“Oh, Evan. It’s really been too long. We ought to — you know. Some time. We really should.”
“That,” Evan says, nodding, “sounds great.”
She smiles, and the place in Evan’s chest that he’s been carefully mending for the last year fractures again. Susannah tips her head to one side, substituting a frown for that amazing sunbeam smile.
“What on earth are you doing out this late by yourself?”
“Meal with the guys from work,” he says. “Followed by a slight taxi malfunction.”
“Oh dear, not another breakdown?”
“More me not fitting in it.”
“Ah,” she says, looking down at the peeling sill. She’s sharp; she knows he was just a spare wheel, invited by his co-workers to share the cost of the table. It’s the first time today Evan’s been able to admit it, too, and his gut clenches as the truth of it twists inside him worse than the indigestion.
Susannah diplomatically picks at a splinter. Evan grinds his teeth, wishing his life wasn’t so obvious.
“Yeah, I thought I’d jog off the food,” he adds, awkwardly feigning nonchalance. “Best to keep fit these days.” In the distance, twin lights open in the dimness like a hunter’s eyes across a prairie. Evan shifts his weight from one leg to the other.
“But Evan, you know this alley is a dead end, right? You can’t get home this way.”
“I, uh,” Evan brushes his fingers through a damp fringe of black hair. “No, I didn’t know that.”
Susannah leans a little farther out the window, showing him the tantalising vee of her cleavage. Evan unhelpfully remembers what it was like to squash his face into that cleavage. “Do you want to swing around the front for a cuppa? I’m out of coffee cake, but I still make a mean pot of tea.”
He wants to say yes — oh, how he wants to say yes — but once a wolf has your scent it doesn’t stop until it’s had the rest of you, and Evan doesn’t want to put Susie in danger. They might’ve split up but it’s still Susie, the woman he fell in love with the night she decked a zombie using only the four inch stiletto heel of her favourite shoes. Susannah’s still a glimmering slice of the past before the rise of the army of darkness, and Evan wants to keep it that way.
“Thanks. Really. But I’d better get on. You know, it’s late and all.”
“Oh. Okay.” She smiles again and Evan wants to kick himself. “Well, take care. The streets are so dangerous nowadays.” Susannah pulls her head back inside and Evan bids an aching farewell to her hair and mouth and cleavage. “We definitely have to. Some time.”
“We definitely will,” Evan says, even though he’s in no position to go making promises. “Night, Susie.”
“Bye, Evan.” The window clicks and, after a moment’s pause, the curtain swishes shut.
Evan looks up to find the gold headlights staring him down, and chooses not to die in front of Susannah’s window in case she hears the commotion and looks out, or worse — decides to come out.
That minute’s rest is a blessing, and he finds there’s still juice in his legs, just enough to reach the end of the alley where he’ll face the pack.
Casey wolf-whistles out the window, his face tipped up to the strip of navy clouds between the high-rise buildings. There’s not enough room to swing a cat, and the Shogun sends out a comet trail of blue-white sparks behind them as it scrapes the walls with a metallic squeal.
“Nowhere left to run, little kitty,” Casey whispers, softly banging his head to the distorted drone of the music. “Except into us.”
The alley releases the death car, space widening as the warehouse apartments give way to abandoned, skeletal factories. Dark windows gape like hungry mouths, broken panes the jagged teeth. This couldn’t be sweeter, Casey thinks, as André brings the car to a stop.
The kill quivers in the twin beams, a rabbit on a night road.
“Go get him, Case,” Rodge says, “and bring him back here.”
Casey frowns. “I got the last one.”
“Yeah,” says Rodge with a shrug. “But I don’t feel like doing it tonight.”
“Enough,” André grumbles. “We all go.”
They stare at him.
“When was the last time you bastards set foot outside this car?” André shoves his door open and slides out. Rodge tosses Casey a hitched eyebrow over the back of the seat as they follow.
The kill watches them through squinted eyelids, his hands fumbling about him for something to grab. This whole thing’s gone on way too long, in Casey’s opinion, and now he just wants to eat.
“Dré?” he breathes, stalking toward the kill.
“Let’s chow down!” André’s command is a barely coherent growl, but even if they hadn’t understood the words, Casey and Rodge would still catch the meaning; “kill” and “eat” share one sound in wolf.
Rodge’s snarl becomes a moan as his nose bone snaps, gunshot-loud in the still. André tears at his jacket, head thrown back, neck bulging, mouth open to allow room for his fangs to bleed down.
Casey feels the first bite of pain in his lower back, a jolt contorting his spine, his skin stretching to accommodate the change. It hurts, every damn time it hurts like a bitch, but Casey revels in the pain, because like Pavlov’s dogs and their bells, the pain always precedes the meal.
Wind whistles through a chain-link fence at Evan’s back. If not for the razor wire wrapped around the top, he could probably climb it.
But really, what difference would it make? There’d only be another night, another meal, another too-small taxi. More wolves, or maybe he’d score some vamps.
Mouldy boxes and waste bins litter the alley, discarded, charred remnants from the factories, surrounding Evan in dirty drifts. An ammonia smell rises up his nose, zinging; he wets his mouth and tastes it on his lips, but he doesn’t cringe — it’s vague, like an out-of-body experience. Detached. Evan brushes his fingers over rough surfaces hidden in the shadows, searching for something sharp.
The trio of wolves wail in disharmony, their bodies folding down like robots in a cartoon Evan remembers as a kid, before the world changed and TVs stopped broadcasting anything but ads and the news. There are no friendly big rigs or Chevy Camaros, though, just blazing yellow eyes and so much coarse fur sprouting through ripped seams. The wolves’ nostrils flare. Rumbles reverberate on slick walls. Evan feels the seismic vibration of their growls through the ground.
“I don’t suppose you’d consider –” he begins, and the biggest wolf snaps its jaws. The other two snuffle-snort like they’re laughing and, for a second, a burst of irritation chases off the terror and surrealism. Evan grapples blindly, comes up with a box. The label reads LITHIUM-ION LAPTOP BATTERIES, and there’s a big red X warning that these materials should not be punctured or exposed to excessive heat. They’ve got to be years old, from a time when people communicated via computers and you could send emails about life, love, and terrible movies, before emails became messengers of death, doom, and evil overlords. Before there was no connection at all.
One of the wolves stalks forward, huffing breaths, hackles raised and arched nails clicking on the concrete. Muscles ripple beneath fur, and black lips peel back to display teeth so long and white and sharp they’re like tusks.
Evan shuts his eyes, swings his body to and fro to gather momentum, and then lets fly the box.
“I’m not a spare bloody wheel!” Oh yeah, that helps a little. For a moment.
The damp, ancient cardboard disintegrates in the air, raining brown paper flecks. With it spills a bunch of thin black oblongs, which start exploding the nanosecond they come into contact with the claws of the wolves that try to bat them away.
One wolf leaps six feet in the air, catching a couple of batteries in the chest. When it lands, its fur is speckled with bright orange stars that aren’t stars at all, but tiny fires. The fires twinkle and catch on the coarse fur, which erupts like thousands of ignited fuses. The wolf’s eyes bulge and it hops side to side, crashing into one of the other wolves which has, up until this point, been watching with dumb surprise. The second wolf yelps and hops backward, crashing into the third, which crashes into the death car’s bonnet.
Evan sees the three hulking grey bodies engage in a weird jitterbug, and soon all are alight, fur puffing wispy grey tendrils up into the darkness. The smell reminds Evan of the time his sister left her hot curlers in too long, and he’s sure that any other day it would be funny. He hopes he gets the chance to tell Susannah.
But soon follows the rancid stench of burning skin and Evan winces, tries to hold his breath.
The wolves writhe and yowl and twist, burning as nicely as a Guy Fawkes effigy in November, and the more they roll in the grime on the ground the harder their fur fires burn. One leaps, skidding over the car, and the second convulses, bushy tail whipping. It drags itself up the bonnet by its claws, destroying the paintwork before it vanishes over the side.
The third, biggest and angriest-looking wolf pauses only a moment, then winds back on its flaming haunches.
Evan cries out as the monstrous shape takes flight, a juggernaut of fang and fire. He makes a mad dash out of the way and sprawls to the side, the wolf sailing over him, flailing into the litter, burning bright. Then the screams start, and the smell kicks in for real.
Evan crawls away to throw up.
“Christ!” he coughs. “Oh God!” he hacks. It’s bad enough when he only half swats a fly and has to listen to it do the Break Dance of Death on his windowsill. This is a zillion times worse, and no matter how hard Evan holds his hands over his head he can still hear it. The wolf tears at its face as Evan pulls himself over the Shogun and topples to the ground on the other side.
Shoving at the bumper, he launches himself up and stumbles back the way he came, side-stepping clumps of burnt fur and wondering what on earth just happened — something people find themselves wondering a lot these days.
Susannah’s window is dark, the curtain undisturbed. Good. She’s been surviving here long enough to know not to open windows when there are howls outside. There’s a good reason she’s still alive and still looking incredible.
Evan limps to the sill and stares up at the blank porthole, for the moment unconcerned that he’s still out at night, that he’s alone, and that he really needs a piss.
By rights he should head home to his empty shoebox of a flat, open a beer, take a bath, maybe take a bath in a tubful of beer. But he doesn’t move. Can’t. The adrenaline flow ebbs, leaving him trembling, aching to see her, to touch her and assure himself he truly survived, she’s really real and not a spectre his brain made up to deal with imminent death.
The curtain twitches; Evan just makes out the faint, curvy silhouette of a person. A second later, the curtain lifts and the window squeaks again.
“Evan, are you all right? I heard a commotion. Are you hurt? Was it gargoyles? There’ve been a lot of gargoyles lately.”
It’s dark, but Evan tries smoothing back his hair. A pinch of bloody fur comes away in his fingers and he winces, flicking it aside. “Um, fine, I think. Not gargoyles, no. Werewolves. Look, Susie, I’m sorry to bother you. I’m a bit of a mess here. It’s probably best if I –”
“Do stop, Evan, and come around the front,” Susie says. “I’ll buzz you in.” The window closes before Evan can explain that he wouldn’t want to get blood and grime all over her sofa, even though he’s secretly relieved.
Dazed, with puke on his knees and sweat hot on his face, Evan heads out of the alley, thinking about how making new friendships in this city is a drag. But since the dead are bent on resurrection, it seems only fair that old relationships are given the same chance, and for the first time in his memory he’s not left with the same sense of inevitability he often feels after a near-miss with creatures of the night.
He checks the street for signs of smoking fur, then makes his way to the front of Susie’s building where he jabs her doorbell and spends a frantic eight seconds trying to straighten his shirt, wipe his face with his cuff, check whether his breath still stinks of curry.
A drain cover rattles behind him, but it’s not fear that makes his fingers shake, his stomach twist this time. The click of fortified locks finally comes, and Evan pushes through the door thinking about Susie and what the night may yet hold, not about how he narrowly escapes the rabid-looking tentacle that makes a grab for him through the drain.
JENNIFER K. OLIVER is a British writer and freelance web designer who requires regular doses of speculative fiction to function properly. She has also been known as a belly dancer and kick-boxer, and once died in an extremely low budget zombie movie. She blogs at her Livejournal about writing, publishing, movies, music and other sundry topics. A bibliography is available at her website, www.jenniferkoliver.com. She can also be found on Twitter @jenniferkoliver.