Death Patrol, by R.C. Capasso
Joshua Blunt had trained for years to become a skilled investigator, and he never admitted to anyone how proud he was of his badge. But then, almost overnight, his job had become pointless. How could a homicide detective function when every dead body was immediately destroyed? No autopsies, no chance to gather evidence. The last time he’d seen someone prosecuted for murder, the crime had been committed in broad daylight, in front of fourteen witnesses and two surveillance cameras. Even then, it had been hard to capture anyone’s attention. Murder just didn’t matter when death was so pervasive and, frankly, so theatrical. Did crime count when zombies were everywhere? Josh pondered this grimly as he slid behind the steering wheel and started out on his assignment.
There had been a case where the body came into the morgue with a hatchet in the skull. The wife claimed she’d thought her husband, fumbling into a dark kitchen in the middle of the night, had been turned into a Z. The DA had wanted to give her a medal. The facts that the man had only been stumbling because he was drunk, that she had been with him in the bar up till ten minutes before he left at closing, encouraging him to drink – these were reported to Josh but never pursued.
Still, he shouldn’t complain about disruptions to his life after the horror of the past year. It was impressive that so much of near-normalcy still existed. The advance planning had been key. Of course, all well-structured governments had had zombie attack plans on file, though there were variations in their approaches. Those committed to civil rights had wavered for a bit, but not particularly long, and when they did respond, being well organized and bureaucratic, their response was quick and merciless. In the US, it all came down to resources. The army wasn’t relying on sharpshooters or risky individual combat aimed at decapitation; they attacked with flame throwers and specially adapted incendiary trucks.. Whole neighborhoods combusted. Collateral damage had been enormous, but the outbreaks had been contained pretty effectively after some harrowing, unexpected events.
Ironically, prisons, with their isolation and potential for lock-down, had been among the safest places to be. There had been just one hideous sequence in a corrections facility, when the guards had assumed that the first attack was just a yard fight they chose not to interrupt. They were finally strolling over to intervene, when the man on the ground got back up. As the saying goes, chaos ensued.
The most vulnerable places had been college campuses, transport hubs and, of course, malls. With their fluidity of movement patterns, large concentrations of people, and ease of repeated, casual, unregulated physical contact, these popular places had been a control nightmare.
Now, in “peace time”, or the post-Z era, the focus had finally settled down to preventing any singular outbreaks. From flaming warfare in the streets they had moved to a state of vigilant surveillance, reliant on people power rather than incendiaries. Surveillance and regulations were everywhere, impersonal and irrevocable.
The recent war impacted every aspect of life. Civilians were intent on passing inspection from authorities or any other citizen whose finger itched to press the trigger of his private flame thrower or rifle. Vigilance encouraged vigilantes, it seemed. Obvious signs of health had become crucial to survival. Everybody wanted to look bright-eyed, rested, alert, and coordinated. Classes in dance and tai chi sprang up everywhere, and people would walk along the street snappily, smiling and talking loudly and coherently, advertising their “still-human” status. Even the homeless made efforts to wear bright, well-mended clothing, and their advocates offered lessons on how to keep their hands and faces clear, their bodies and breath odor-free, so no one could make a fatal mistake. Everyone had a de facto DNR; no one was resuscitated, since no one knew what happened in those first mysterious moments after death. Interest in ghosts or where the spirit went faded in favor of speculation about what the body did.
And death, even a death occurring legitimately under medical attention, resulted in immediate cremation to kill the virus, if that’s what it was. Funeral parlors had, of course, gone out of business, unless they could be fitted with crematoriums. In any case, their services to the bereaved had shifted entirely from “preparation” and onsite services to memorial websites and blogs. Nobody ever gathered immediately after a death anymore; the memories of those horrible “uprisings” kept everyone superstitiously isolated, till the cremation certificate had been filed and announced publicly.
Josh, after his years of training to be a police officer and then a detective, was neither a criminologist nor an eradicator of the infected. He had been reduced to oversight of corpse disposal. Traveling a wide circuit, he ensured that all cremations were processed immediately. The toughest part was the rural areas, which did not all have crematoriums. Transporting the remains was always a grim affair then; the body had to be dismembered at once, the head, torso and each limb secured in a separate box, then loaded onto an armored truck, as if he was delivering the contents of Fort Knox instead of a deceased. He had to ride shotgun to the nearest facility, then handle all the paperwork. His former colleagues amusingly called his job the “Death Patrol.” No need for his analytical skills, his gut, his dogged pursuit of injustice. He just had to be sure that dead bodies were disposed of.
So now he pulled into one of these distant country disposal centers, checked in at the appropriate office, counted and signed off on the packages, then watched as they were put into a specially designed tanker truck. Nodding to the man behind the wheel, he started up his car and followed the truck the 48 miles to the nearest crematorium, watching the vehicle for any erratic moves that might mean a deceased limb had somehow gotten free and gone for the driver. It was physically impossible for that to happen; but rules were rules.
By the time the job was done, it was too late to drive home, and they had reserved a motel room for him. He hated motels. It was not because of the war; any motels still in business had bricked up their windows and replaced wooden doors with steel. Architecture had been revolutionized by the Z period, of course; all current construction, private or public, was built like a bunker, with no windows and entry strictly regulated by touch pads that registered body heat. He just disliked motels with ugly furniture.
He decided to drive a bit; he wouldn’t be able to sleep till late, anyhow. He headed out of town in the opposite direction from where he’d come, just to see something different. Within minutes the land was rolling, mainly farmland. It really didn’t take long to be in the middle of nowhere. He liked this sense of openness and the feeling that maybe, for a while, you could imagine a time when everything hadn’t been about death.
The sun was starting down the sky, and, on impulse, he pulled over on the crest of a small hill and got out of the car to watch the sky aflame. In town he rarely ever saw the sun rise or set; the colors recalled the bad old days, when the horizon literally was crackling. But here, with the air cool and fresh, with no smell of ash or human flesh, he could almost remember enjoying the sight that, if you read old books, was supposedly romantic.
He couldn’t see the romance, but then there was no lover in his life. Relationships were so uneasy now. Still, he was enjoying this pause from his usual life, this time to be alone, with no one mocking his work or edging away from him in distaste. He was just starting to fantasize about what it would be like if he could go back to his real job, to the good old days of crime and detection, when he thought he sensed something. Immediately he straightened and did a slow, tense scan. It had sounded like the quiet impact of metal on metal. Checking that his gun and knife were still in place, he began to move cautiously forward.
Up over the crest of the hill, already in deep shadow from the declining sun, a van was parked in a field of ragged weeds. A woman bent over a figure in a wheelchair that was lowering mechanically from the side of the van. Josh dropped down to the crest of the hill to watch from cover as the chair reached the ground and the woman came round to push it off its ramp and onto the dirt. The woman looked around; he could tell from her movements and the bend of her back that she was elderly. It was also quite clear that she feared observation.
As he watched, she took the chair to a relatively flat spot in the field, then left it and, walking laboriously back to the van, opened its rear door, disappeared from his sight for an instant, and emerged slowly, carrying a shovel with both hands. He had a sick feeling, but he was an officer of the law. Moving even more slowly than she, he stood up and began the descent of the hill. There was no question that he could out run her. And anyone can outrun a zombie.
She had struggled to get the first shovel-full out of the ground, pulling up a tiny clump of dirt webbed together with dense weeds. He could hear her breathe before she even perceived him. But when she did, her guilt was instant and obvious. She took a step back, dropped the shovel, then moved toward the figure in the wheel chair.
“Ma’am,” Josh said. “What are you doing?”
She raised her head to look at him straight on. Her eyes, watery and rimmed with red, were the biggest thing in her face.
“He’s fine,” she said. “He’s not infected.”
Josh looked at the man. Half of the face was scarred, but he could tell the scarring was not recent. What remained clear in his face seemed younger than the woman, though the eyes and half of the mouth were deeply wrinkled. The hair was only partly gray. One arm, covered with cloth, appeared to have been amputated; the other ended with a hand sheathed in a thin glove. Both legs looked deteriorated.
“How did he die?” Josh asked.
“His heart just failed.”
Josh stepped forward warily and touched the man’s face. The woman looked at him as if he were a saint or something, touching a leper. The body was still warm.
“When?” he asked.
“Just a while ago,” she said. “We knew it was coming. But he hasn’t been exposed.”
“You know that you can’t bury him. The law –”
“We know the law,” she said. “But he can’t be cremated. He made me promise.”
“Ma’am,” Josh began sadly. “There are no exceptions – ”
“He was in a car accident five years ago. He was paralyzed and trapped in the car while it burned. They rescued him, but – he wished they hadn’t. The pain…” She stopped, then took another breath. “He was terrified of fire. It was his last nightmare, that he’d be cremated. Trapped in another metal box and burned.”
Josh looked over the man’s face. A pyrophobe. He’d heard about them; there weren’t many of them, but they must have been in their own special kind hell, back in the day of the shuffling bonfires.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “But the law doesn’t allow any exceptions.”
“I’m his mother,” she replied. “Have you ever watched your child live in fear?”
He did not answer. The night was growing around them, quiet and cool. Out in the middle of nowhere, with a woman inspired by something other than fear, he stood and thought.
“If we are caught,” he said, “it means prison.”
She looked at him almost like his own mother might have looked. “You don’t have to help,” she said.
He gave her one glance and reached for the shovel. “Do you have a blanket or cloth?”
She went to the van and pulled out a blanket, then a tarp. Nodding, he directed her to lay the blanket on the ground. Carefully, he slid his arms under the body and lifted it up. She covered her mouth with her hands and stepped back, watching as he wrapped the body tightly, swaddling it like a child, then covering the face before repeating the process with the tarp and laying it softly on the ground.
“Stay here,” he ordered, unnecessarily. Striding back up the hill to his car, he opened the trunk and pulled out his field kit (accelerant, various ignition devices, and his own flame-proof suit.) The suit he held out to the old woman, but she waved it away, shaking her head. Shrugging, he dropped it on the ground near him. It was too warm to wear during the dig; it was just a precaution.
“If he moves, you run and don’t look back,” he told her. She nodded, still wordless.
He had never dug a grave before, and it took a long time. He had to make it deep enough that no animal or person would find it.
“We can’t mark the grave, you know,” he said.
He knew she did; beneath all that intensity of love, her brain was clear. She knew what they were doing. Maybe that’s why he felt so strongly that he had to help her. Or maybe he just felt nostalgic for a time of normalcy. Nostalgia – yes, that was why he was abetting in an illegal burial.
When the grave was deep enough, he heaved himself out and stepped over to the wrapped body. He looked at her for a moment. “Do you want to say anything?”
She raised damp eyes to him and shook her head. “We said everything,” she replied.
He nodded, and reached down to pick up the body. This was new for him, in either of his lives. At a crime scene, the ME’s techs took care of the bodies. Now, on Death Patrol, they came for him ready-boxed. He felt like someone in an old painting, taking Jesus down from the cross. But it wasn’t really so noble, when it came to the actual lugging of the flesh. Even this man, thin from years in a chair, was awkward. Josh laid him on the edge of the grave, then dropped into it and, pulling at the covers, rolled the body back into his arms and lowered it into the earth. He stepped over it gingerly, bending from its feet to arrange the swaddled bundle as straight and dignified as possible.
He scrambled back out of the hole, and looked at the woman. This would be the hard part.
“I have to cover him,” he said. “You might want to go into the van.”
She looked into the grave and bent to pick up a finger-full of dirt. For a moment, it looked as if she was going to drop it onto the body, then she broke into a sob, let the dirt fall back into its pile, and hurried blindly to her vehicle.
It seemed to take forever to cover the body, and then he had to try to mask the site with rocks and dried leaves. The sun was rising before he was done, and when he went to the van, the woman was dozing. She looked older than when they’d first met. He tapped lightly on the glass, and she roused at once. She rolled down the window.
“It’s done,” he said quietly.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
He hesitated. “It’s better you don’t know, ma’am. And I don’t want to know your name, either.”
She nodded. “I wish we could all be human again,” she said quietly.
“Someday, ma’am,” he promised and waited as she started the car and drove slowly down the road, alone.
R.C. Capasso loves classic horror (The Turn of the Screw, Maupassant’s Le Horla, The Haunting of Hill House) and believes in many unseen things. So far, despite visits to promising sites, no first-hand encounters, unless you count the times a cat stares fixedly into a corner for no apparent reason. But there is always hope. R. C. enjoys writing any kind of fiction or nonfiction; current works in progress include ghost stories and other speculative fiction.
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Tags: horror, R.C. Capasso, relationships, zombies