Chapter Ten

Shortly before noon the unexpected roar of an engine ripped through the silence. Clare and Jack jumped out of their seats and ran over to the huge display windows at the front of the department store which looked out over the city's main shopping street. They watched as a single car forced its way down the middle of the crowded road, ploughing into random staggering bodies and smashing them to the side or simply crushing them beneath its wheels. 'Let's get our stuff together,' Jack whispered in a surprisingly calm, collected and matter of fact voice before turning and sprinting frantically across the room, desperate to get out of the building before the car disappeared.

Inside the car Bernard Heath and Nathan Holmes looked anxiously from side to side, trying desperately to see something through the rotting crowds which converged on them from all directions. From their low vantage point there seemed to be no end to the hundreds of bodies around them. 'Where the fucking hell are we going?' Holmes, a stocky security guard, cursed from behind the steering wheel. 'I don't know,' the educated and comparatively well-spoken Heath replied. Until the world had been turned on its head last week he had been a university lecturer. More than twenty years spent in the company of students and other academics had left him dangerously under-prepared for the sudden physical danger and conflict he now found himself facing. 'There are a couple of restaurants just up here,' Holmes said breathlessly. 'They'll have food.' Heath didn't respond. He was transfixed by the absolute horror he was witnessing all around the car.

On every side there was nothing but relentless blood, death and disease. Spending the last few days sitting in the relative safety of the university accommodation block with the rest of the survivors hadn't prepared him for any of this. He knew that he had to keep calm and not let his concentration wander or lose his nerve. All they had to do was fill the back of the car with food and whatever other useful supplies they could find and get back to the others. And even if these countless creatures looked abhorrent and grotesque, he had to remember that individually they were weak and could easily be brushed aside. But there were thousands upon thousands of them, and more seemed to be arriving with each passing second. 'How the hell did this happen?' Holmes mumbled to himself as he struggled to keep the car moving forward through the apparently endless devastation. Heath lifted himself up in his seat to try and see over the heads of the mass of bodies and look further into the distance.

'This isn't going to work,' he muttered. 'It was a mistake coming out here. What the hell were we thinking of? Christ, there are so many of them we won't be able to get out of the bloody car.' Holmes didn't answer. Instead, as they approached the useless traffic lights at what had once been one of the busiest junctions in the city, he wrenched the steering wheel to the left and turned the car. He pushed his foot down hard on the accelerator and winced in disgust as they collided with body after rotting body, smashing them beyond recognition. They were weak and they were beginning to decay and it took little effort to destroy them. The constant thud, thud, thud of diseased flesh against metal was sickening.

'Where are we going now?' Heath asked anxiously. 'I thought you said we were heading for a restaurant?' 'I've had a better idea,' Holmes grunted as he forced the car up the steep ramp entrance to a multi-storey car park built over a shopping mall. 'I used to come here a lot,' he said as he steered around the tight climbing curve of the entrance road, 'we'll get what we need here.' Heath relaxed back in his seat momentarily. Now that they had left the main road the number of bodies had reduced dramatically. Still numerous on the lower levels of the car park they passed through, by the time they had reached the top only one or two figures remained to be seen. The sudden relief the university lecturer felt was immense. Holmes stopped the car directly in front of the door which opened onto the staircase leading down to the mall. Climbing out into the open Heath allowed himself to briefly look down over the side of the car park into the chaos in the streets below.

A large mass of dark, shadowy figures had slowly begun to climb the steep access road after the car. Although he had spent long hours looking at the remains of the world through the windows of the university, seeing how the city had been inexplicably raped and destroyed from a different perspective shocked Heath. It seemed that nothing and nowhere had escaped the destruction. He turned back to face the car and saw that a handful of bodies had emerged from the shadows and were lumbering awkwardly towards them. As soon as the engine of the car was switched off and silence returned, however, they began to drift away again. 'Come on,' Holmes snapped. He was already on his way down to the shopping area. Heath followed close behind. 'We should try and get food first,' the older man gasped breathlessly as he ran down a dark and dank staircase, trying not to lose sight of his younger and fitter colleague. 'We'll take as much as we can carry. We can come back down for more if it's safe.'

Holmes wasn't listening. He crashed through a pair of heavy swinging doors at the bottom of the stairs and ran the length of a short, marble-floored corridor towards the shops. He paused at a second set of doors to let Heath catch up before pushing them open and stepping through. The mall was silent. In the near distance he could see a few shuffling bodies, but other than that there was nothing - no movement, no sound. It was surprisingly dark. Being in the centre of a once busy and vibrant city, prior to the disaster the mall had been brightly illuminated at all times. This was the first time that either man had set foot in such a place without being surrounded by crowds of shoppers and without the benefit of artificial light and air conditioning.

It felt cold and unnatural. It was alien and unnerving. 'There's a supermarket over in the far corner,' Heath gasped, still fighting to catch his breath through a combination of fear and sudden physical exertion. From the shadows of an open-fronted jewellers shop behind them a body lurched towards him and knocked him off balance. He yelped with surprise and disgust and struggled to push the obnoxious figure away. Without speaking Holmes pulled it away from him and threw it down to the ground. He kicked its head and then stamped on its face. He felt a certain degree of baseless vindication and satisfaction when it lay bloodied and battered at his feet. The men ran towards the supermarket. The body dragged itself up off the ground and followed.

'They've got to be in there,' Jack whispered as he crept along the front of the high street shops with Clare at his side. From their department store lookout they had quickly lost sight of the car. Fortunately the trail of devastation and the huge mass of desperate bodies following in the vehicle's wake revealed the route it had taken. Even from a few hundred meters back along the road they could see that a vast collection of ragged figures had stumbled along the street and gathered close to the entrance to the multi-storey car park.

'They've got to have gone into the shopping centre,' Clare said quietly. 'They must have.' In silence the two survivors continued to cautiously make their way towards the immense crowd of bodies. The events of the morning had allowed them to quickly deduce that it was primarily sound that the creatures were reacting to. Having braced themselves for some kind of bloody struggle once they were back out on the street, they discovered that as long as they were silent and moved at a painfully slow pace which matched that of the dead, they didn't seem to arouse any unwanted attention.

Moving slowly between the rotting corpses and stepping through a sea of decaying human remains took more self control and determination than either Jack or Clare had imagined. The tortuous pace left them feeling exposed and vulnerable. A journey which should have taken thirty seconds took more than fifteen minutes. Still silent, and daring to communicate only with subtle nods of the head and momentary facial expressions, the two survivors stayed close together. With almost unbearable disgust and trepidation they worked their way through the bulk of the emaciated crowd and began to climb the entrance road which led to the car park. 'What colour was it?' Jack asked, allowing himself to speak with a little more volume now that they were away from the majority of the bodies. 'What?' 'The car? What colour was the car?' 'Dark red I think,' Clare replied quietly.

They had only managed to see the vehicle for a few seconds, and they had only really seen its roof at that. It had been surrounded by a constant shroud of bodies, making it almost impossible to see anything clearly. They didn't know what size, shape, make, model or style it was. There were hundreds of cars in the car park, all abandoned when their owners had perished. 'This is pointless,' Clare whined. 'They're probably long gone by now.' Jack shook his head. 'No, we would have heard them.' 'I don't like being out here. What if those things on the street start to...' 'Shh...' Jack interrupted, turning round and lifting a finger to his lips.

'They'll be here somewhere, they have to be. I haven't seen any other crowds like the one downstairs, have you?' He didn't wait for her answer and instead kept moving forward. The same logic that had guided Jack to the top floor of the department store last night was now making him gravitate towards the top storey of the car park. It seemed sensible to presume that a survivor would have gone up as far as they could, knowing that the lethargic bodies below would struggle to follow. 'That's it,' he said suddenly as they rounded a corner and reached the top level of the car park. 'How do you know?' asked Clare. He walked towards a single car parked next to the staircase. 'Three reasons,' he explained quietly. 'First, you wouldn't normally park here, would you? Second,' he paused to lean down and touch the bonnet, 'the engine's still warm.' 'And...?' 'And look...' He pointed at the number plate and radiator grille. The front of the car was dripping with blood and gore. 'So what do we do?' 'We wait for them to come back.' The two survivors crouched down in the shadows to the side of a large van.

'That's enough,' Heath protested. 'Come on, Nathan, we're never going to get all that up those stairs, are we?' Holmes wasn't listening. He was busy loading more food and drink into boxes and bags which he then stacked into shopping trollies. Shaking his head with despair Heath continued emptying a shelf of dehydrated snack meals into a cardboard box. He carried the load over to Holmes and then stopped to complain again when he realised that the other man had filled most of his boxes with cans of beer. 'Now come on,' he protested, 'we're here to collect food. We can take some drink back with us if we've got enough room but...' Holmes leant forward until he was only inches from the lecturer's face, immediately intimidating and silencing him. 'Shut up,' he hissed. 'Look, I'm the one who's put their neck on the line to come out here and get this stuff. If I want beer, I'll take beer.

And if I've forgotten anything that anyone else wants, well they can just get in the car and come and get it for themselves, can't they?' He turned his back on Heath and began pushing the first of the trolleys out of the supermarket and back towards the stairs. The older man watched for a good twenty seconds before realising that he was alone. Suddenly anxious and uncomfortable he quickly made his move, pushing one trolley ahead of him and dragging another one close behind. Holmes slammed into the first set of double doors which opened out into the short corridor between the mall and the car park stairs. He pushed his trollies in and shoved them towards the far end of the corridor, groaning with effort as he struggled with the cumbersome load. 'I'm going back for more,' Holmes said. 'I'll be a couple of minutes.' He was gone before he'd given Heath chance to answer. Tired and struggling, Heath moved his two trollies towards the car park staircase.

He stood and stared at the huge pile of supplies they had gathered. Breathless, he tried to work out how much they would actually manage to get into the car and how they were going to get any of it upstairs. Holmes was back. The sound of him crashing through the doors again startled Heath. 'Come on,' he hissed as he pushed two more trollies towards him. 'Start getting stuff up to the car.' Picking up several badly packed carrier bags and a heavy cardboard box, Heath began to climb the steep grey stairs back to the top level of the car park. Becoming increasingly annoyed by the older man's lack of speed and fitness, Holmes followed close behind. 'Get a bloody move on, will you?' he shouted. With his legs and arms heavy with effort, Heath pushed his way back out into the car park and dropped his bags and boxes on the ground. Holmes unlocked the car and they began to cram their supplies into the boot. Hiding behind the van, Clare started to get up. 'Wait,' Jack mouthed. He turned back and watched as the two men disappeared back down the stairs. 'Let them load up the car first.' A couple of minutes later and Holmes returned. He threw more goods into the boot of the blood-splattered car and then turned and ran back down again. Another couple of minutes and Heath emerged from the shadows again, closely followed by Holmes making his third trip. Jack couldn't wait any longer. 'Hey,' he said, standing up and stepping out into the light. 'Are you...?' Holmes reacted instantly to the presence of an unexpected body. The fact that this body was communicating with him didn't register.

He turned to face Jack and, giving him as little regard as he would any one of the thousands of corpses dragging themselves along the streets, he dropped his shoulder and charged into him, sending him flying across the car park. 'You stupid bloody idiot!' Clare screamed, jumping up and pushing Holmes back against the car. 'What the hell did you do that for?' Realisation dawned. Holmes stood and stared at Jack as he rolled around on the cold ground, doubled up with pain. Heath pushed past him and helped Jack to his feet. 'Get in the car,' he shouted to Clare. Stunned and in considerable pain but nevertheless relieved, Jack slowly made his way over to the car and opened the back door and collapsed onto the seat. Clare sat down next to him. 'You okay?' she whispered. 'I'm all right,' he replied, still clutching his chest and with his face screwed up in agony.

His breathing was heavy. Heath paced up and down anxiously in front of the car. Holmes had disappeared again. Moments later and he re-emerged from the staircase, carrying yet more provisions including, Heath noticed, his precious beer. They loaded the boot until it was filled to capacity. Holmes casually threw the remaining carrier bags of food at Clare who grabbed hold of them as he slammed the door shut. Heath introduced himself as he sat down in front of them. 'I'm Bernard Heath,' he said as Holmes started the engine and turned the car in a quick, tight arc. He drove at speed back towards the entrance to the car park as the sweat-soaked and overweight university lecturer next to him struggled to turn round and face Jack and Clare. 'I'm Jack Baxter,' he replied, still wheezing, 'this is Clare. Thanks for...'

'You with anyone else or are there just two of you?' Holmes interrupted. 'Just the two of us. What about you?' 'There are about forty of us,' Heath answered. 'Does anyone know what's happened?' Jack asked hopefully. Heath shook his head. 'Haven't got a clue,' he replied and, with that, the brief conversation abruptly ended. Holmes drove back down the entrance ramp and deep into the crowds of bodies, destroying any of them unfortunate enough to stumble into his path.

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