Monday, January 13, 2020

Preview of My New Young Adult Post-Apocalypse Novel Shattered World

Within the next month I'll be releasing my young adult post-apocalypse novel Shattered World. It'll be the first of five books in the series, with the sequels being released every four to six weeks after. [NOTE: For those who used to follow my young adult persona Josh Matthews, this is the Hell Gate saga published under my real name.] The final touches are being made to the manuscript and cover, but in the meantime I wanted to entice you with the first chapter.

 
      The stillness belied the danger that lurked in the shadows of every alley and doorway of St. Mere Eglise. Jason McCreary found it unsettling. Most of the towns along the Normandy coast had been abandoned long ago. Animals now flourished amongst the desolation, with livestock and wildlife replacing humans. That wasn’t the case today. Even the birds had fled, plunging the town into an eerie silence that forewarned of an approaching evil.
       Experience had taught Jason that when the animals fled it was to escape from Demon Spawn. He made his way along the center of Rue Eisenhower, clutching his crossbow, ready to shoot if necessary. Despite walking lightly, his footsteps echoed through town, sounding like a dinner bell for the dead. His eyes scanned the buildings. Nothing moved except overgrown grass and weeds that swayed in the wind. The same wind tousled several blond strands across his face. Jason used his free hand to push them back behind his ears.
       Jason took a deep breath to calm his nerves, holding it for several seconds before exhaling. It did little good. His heart still raced and his hands trembled, knowing that at any moment something demonic could lunge out of the shadows at him. He glanced down to the werehounds that stayed close by his side. Lilith brought up Jason’s right flank. She looked like a large wolf with shiny black fur. Her head darted from side to side, seeking out anything that could be a threat. Occasionally, she glanced behind them to make certain nothing approached from their rear. Lucifer walked along on his left. He resembled a Boxer. His ears stood straight up, listening for any noise that signified danger. When Lucifer saw his master staring at him, his stubby tail wagged. After the brief display of affection, he went back to prowling for Demon Spawn.
       Jason sniffed the air to see if he could smell the demons. A tickle formed in the back of his throat, causing him to hack against the rear of his hand. Ever since the opening of the interdimensional portals, the air had taken on an unpleasant odor. Father Chirac referred to it as the brimstone stench of Hell. Jason had no idea what the priest meant. To him, the air smelled like the living room of his old house after his mother would build a fire in the fireplace, only mixed with the stench of rot and shit.
       As he glanced from building to building, Jason chastised himself. He didn’t like being separated from the group, yet he only had himself to blame for being the point man into a potential battle royale. Yesterday, a scouting party on horseback had reported Demon Spawn moving across the countryside toward St. Mere Eglise; they had been unable to conduct a proper reconnaissance because of the approaching dusk. A search and destroy team had been sent out that morning to assess the threat and deal with it. Jason was part of that team. A mile outside of town, the team had dismounted and left their horses with a rear-guard unit so they could proceed on foot. Andre had ordered Jason to go ahead and scout the area. When Sasha had protested sending him in alone, Jason had interrupted and said he wanted to take point. He didn’t know if he had been trying to impress Andre or had been embarrassed by having Sasha fight his battles for him, not that it mattered. His stupid sixteen-year-old vanity had gotten the better of him. Now he was heading into a town probably overrun by Demon Spawn.
       “And I wonder why they keep calling me Bait.”
       Lucifer looked up with his soulful brown eyes and whined, sensing his discomfort. “I’m fine, boy. I need a bit more common sense than pride.” He reached down and scratched Lucifer behind the ears. His stubby tail wagged.
       Jason closed his eyes and concentrated. He could sense the others following half a mile to the rear. Most of the team registered as one signature, giving off an aura of concern over not knowing what to expect. Three auras stood out. Andre and Slava, both of whom who were excited about the possibility of combat, and Sasha who was afraid. Not for herself, though. She feared for Jason’s safety. He grinned at the distant display of affection.
At the corner, the street opened. To the right sat a parking lot empty except for a few dust-covered vehicles. In the far corner of the lot sat St. Mere Eglise church, the one made famous when an American paratrooper got stuck on the belfry during the D-Day landings. He remembered seeing that in an old black-and-white war movie he watched with his dad. Red Skelton, or Buttons, or someone with a weird name like that had played the paratrooper. To the left was the Airborne Museum that commemorated the Normandy invasion. Jason veered off the street and into the outer edge of the parking lot. The werehounds stayed close.
       He had approached to within twenty feet of the intersection of Rue Eisenhower and Rue de Gaulle when a single figure shambled out into the middle of the street. A flesh eater that fed off humans. These demons were slow and uncoordinated, so dealing with one or two was easy. However, a horde of flesh eaters could strip a man to the bones in minutes. Jason had seen hundreds like it during the past few months. Naked, emaciated, and with grey leathery skin dried out from the fires of the other dimension. It stumbled along, its gaze fixed on the road. The demon hadn’t noticed him yet. Jason raised the crossbow and aimed at the skull above the right ear. Lucifer growled. The noise caught the flesh eater’s attention. Its head shot up and its lifeless, cloudy eyes fixed on Jason. When its mouth dropped open, a mournful wail emanated from cracked, desiccated lips. Jason readjusted his aim and pulled the trigger. The arrow sliced through its left eye. It dropped to the ground, a final moan escaping from its lungs as its lifeforce drained from its body, creating a small eddy of blue light that twisted in the air for a moment before dissipating.
       Jason reached around to pull another arrow from its quiver when the stench of decayed flesh filtered into his nose, a smell so overpowering his stomach heaved. As he swallowed back his vomit, a chorus of wails shattered the calm. A swarm of flesh eaters flowed out of Rue de Gaulle and filled the square. A fat female noticed Jason and screeched. The others turned and, spotting food, shambled towards him. At least a hundred flesh eaters emerged from the side street, all of them bearing down on Jason. Even worse, he saw four dark grey shapes darting amongst the horde. Though he couldn’t get a good view because of the other demons, he recognized the bat-like bodies and bulbous, eyeless heads with gaping mouths.
       Shit! Soul vampires!
       “Come on, guys!” Jason said to Lilith and Lucifer. He ran for the church. Lilith stayed close to protect her master. Lucifer defiantly barked at the approaching horde before spinning around and sprinting away.
       Reaching the door to St. Mere Eglise church, Jason tried the knob. It was locked. He rammed his shoulder against the door several times. It wouldn’t budge. Placing his back against the wall, Jason scanned the area and weighed his options. Flesh eaters stretched out across the parking lot. They were still over fifty feet away and he could easily outrun them. Three of the soul vampires spread out behind the first line of flesh eaters, preparing to attack, and they would cut him down if he moved out in the open. If he stayed with his back against the church so he couldn’t be surrounded, he might have a chance. With luck, the rest of the team would reach him before the flesh eaters did.
       One of the soul vampires broke through the horde in front of Jason and charged. The other two emerged thirty feet to either side. Lucifer growled at the one approaching from the left. Facing the demon, he began his metamorphosis. The fur on his back and legs receded, allowing the skin to harden into scales. Three-inch spikes tore through the muscles around his shoulders, and horns extended from behind his ears, giving his head the appearance of a bull. Lucifer’s paws lengthened several inches and his nails became talons. To Jason’s right, Lilith howled as she morphed into her demonic form. The shiny black fur stiffened like the spikes of a porcupine. The tail elongated into a five-foot appendage with a stinger on the end, much like a scorpion.
       Jason heard the snapping of bone as her jaw distended and her fangs lengthened. She crouched, ready to attack.
       Lucifer pounced on the soul vampire moving in on the left flank, lowering his head and ramming the demon in its abdomen. His horns tore through its leathery skin and gouged open its stomach. It screamed and fell to the ground, its skeleton-thin hands clasping the wound to hold its intestines in place. Scrambling to its feet, the soul vampire tried to get away, moving slowly because of its wound. Lucifer jumped onto its back, pinning it to the ground with his hind legs. The werehound’s front paws slashed away at its neck and head, tearing away chunks of skin and fracturing the skull. The soul vampire howled and flailed its arm to drive away the werehound, yet Lucifer kept up the assault. With one final blow, his paw crushed the skull. A pathetic mewl escaped the demon’s lips as its body went limp.
       Lilith timed her attack precisely before lunging. She landed on the soul vampire’s chest and toppled it over backwards. As the two hit the ground, her jaws locked around its neck, biting through skin and muscle. The soul vampire attempted to cry out, emitting a pitiful groan through its crushed larynx. It clawed at Lilith, shredding its hands on the porcupine-like spikes. Lilith’s tail wrapped around her back and shoulder, and she plunged the stinger into the demon’s forehead, injecting it with paralyzing venom. Within seconds, every muscle in its body went numb. With a violent twist of her jaws, Lilith severed the soul vampire’s head and flung it aside. The head skipped across the parking lot.
       Jason focused on the danger charging straight toward him. He aimed the crossbow at the center of its bulbous forehead and fired. Without eyes, the soul vampire’s auditory senses were highly attuned. Hearing the projectile sailing through the air, it shifted to the right. The arrow missed and landed amongst the approaching flesh eater. Jason removed another from his quiver and reloaded. The soul vampire was ten feet away. Jason didn’t have time to line up his shot. He raised the crossbow and quick fired. The arrow entered the demon’s throat and punched its way out the back of its neck, lodging in its windpipe. It stopped and gasped for air. It reached up and tried to pull out the bolt; however, the protruding tip lodged it in place. Jason loaded another arrow into the crossbow and fired point blank. The arrow sliced into the center of its eyeless skull, scrambling its brain. The soul vampire collapsed to the ground.
       Jason realized how precarious his position had become. The horde of flesh eaters was closing in, with the nearest one only twenty feet away. Lucifer and Lilith fell back so as not to be eaten, the latter whining to her master to warn him about their impending doom. And where the hell is the last soul—
Jason sensed its presence closing in on his right along the front of the church. It must have circled around the parking lot while the other three distracted him. He ducked as the soul vampire lunged. It missed him. However, its hand clawed across Jason’s shoulder, causing him to drop the crossbow. The soul vampire landed five feet from Jason and spun around, reacquiring its target. Jason had only a moment to react. Reaching down, he removed the machete from the sheath strapped to his leg. The movement caught the soul vampire’s attention and it leapt. Jason rushed forward and plunged the machete into the demon’s shoulder, pushing with all his might and impaling it on the church door. He pushed the weapon deeper, lodging the blade in the wood. The soul vampire’s mouth opened, and Jason got a whiff of the acid vomit rising in its throat. He ducked a moment before it spewed the corrosive liquid. The bile splattered across the church steps, sizzling against the stone.
       Jason’s crossbow sat on the ground out of reach, with the closest flesh eater ten feet beyond it. He had to take the chance. He shoved the machete into the soul vampire’s shoulder until it wouldn’t go any farther, then rushed out into the parking lot. Snatching up the crossbow, he spun around and reached for an arrow. Shit, the quiver was empty. Several arrows lay scattered around his feet. He bent over to pick one up, stood, and reloaded.
       A soul curdling cry sent a chill down Jason’s spine. With an incredible effort, the soul vampire yanked itself off the door. The machete remained imbedded in the wood, carving out chunks of flesh and muscle as the demon pulled itself along the blade. Once free from the weapon, it acquired Jason’s presence and snarled. Jason fired. The arrow struck the soul vampire in its open mouth, propelling it backward until the arrowhead lodged in the door. With a final spasm, the soul vampire died, its carcass hanging limply off the bolt.
       A pair of dead hands grabbed Jason from behind. Before he could react, a flesh eater bit into his shoulder. He felt its teeth grind against the bone. Jason dropped the crossbow and grabbed its head with his right hand, holding it in place to prevent the flesh eater from tearing off a piece of his shoulder.
       Another pair of hands grabbed Jason. He curled his left hand into a fist and started to take a swing, pausing when he stared into Andre’s face. The Russian moved up behind them and pushed them away from the horde. When they reached the wall of the church, Andre removed a Glock 23 from his holster, placed the barrel against the flesh eater’s temple, and fired. The demon’s skull exploded. Jason felt the death grip on his shoulder loosen, and a second later the flesh eater dropped to the pavement, its lifeforce swirling into the air.
       Andre shoved the teenager to the ground as gunfire erupted around him. Jason glanced up to see Gun Team 2 at the corner of the church firing their automatic weapons into the horde.
       Sasha stood in front, her red hair blowing across her face. She aimed her hand-held six-barreled GAU-17A minigun at the horde of flesh eaters and squeezed the trigger. A momentary whir cut through the moaning, followed a second later by the roar of the weapon as it engaged. Sasha swept the barrel back and forth. Fifty rounds a second tore into the front line of flesh eaters, ripping them apart. Her team advanced, stepping over body parts as they waded into the swarm.
       More gunfire erupted to Jason’s right. At the other corner of the church, Gun Team 3 fired into the horde, supporting Haneef as he used his own GAU-17A to decimate the flesh eater ranks. The two teams moved with precision, picking off the flanks and herding the remainder into a smaller grouping that could not withstand the massed firepower. It took only a minute for them to eliminate the horde, leaving shattered corpses and a mesmerizing blue eddy of lifeforces that shimmied over the parking lot. Silence descended across the area. Haneef stepped away from the carnage. Facing Mecca, he fell to his knees and bowed his forehead against the ground, repeating the prayer several times.
       Andre grabbed Jason by the collar and yanked the teenager onto his feet. “Smart move, Bait. You put all of us in danger.”
       “I had no choice,” Jason protested as he shrugged off Andre’s grip. “You couldn’t outrun them?”
Jason pointed to the carcass impaled to the church door. “There were four soul vampires amongst the flesh eaters. I wouldn’t have made it far if I had tried to run.”
       Andre studied the soul vampire hanging from the arrow and moved away without responding. “Okay, people. Stay alert in case there are any more of these things in the area.”
       Everyone followed the order. Andre noticed Haneef praying. “Haneef, what the hell are you doing?”
       “Thanking Allah for our victory.” Haneef lifted himself off the pavement and brushed the dirt from his knees.
       Andre shook his head in disgust. “We move out in three minutes.”
       Sasha came over to Jason. “Don’t listen to him,” she whispered. “You did great.”
       His heart skipped a beat. He wanted to say something cool, something that would impress her. He could only come up with, “Thanks.”
       Lucifer and Lilith plodded up to Jason. Both animals had changed back into their animal forms. Jason crouched down to pet them. Lucifer licked his face, happy that his master was safe. Lilith sniffed Jason’s wound and whimpered.
       Sasha noticed the blood on Jason’s shoulder. “Oh my God! You’re hurt!”
       Jason twisted his head and saw the bite for the first time. The teeth marks were deep, and he could see bone through the gash. Thankfully, it was a clean wound, and the bleeding had slowed. Now he noticed the pain.
       “It’s not that bad,” he lied. “I’ll have Doc fix me up when we get back.” Sasha spun around toward Andre. “Did you know Jason was hurt?” “Yeah. So?”
       “We need to get him medical care.”
       “He’ll be fine. Maybe next time the idiot will be more careful.”
       Sasha started to respond. Jason placed a hand on her arm and stopped her. “It’s okay. I’ll be all right.”
       “Well, you won’t be if you keep letting Andre push you around.” Sasha stormed off. For a moment, the blow to Jason’s pride hurt worse than the pain in his shoulder.
       Andre shook his head, a sour expression on his face. “Let’s move out, people. I want to be well clear of this area before nightfall.”

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to all my family, friends, and fans. I would not be where I am today as a writer without all of you. Thank you.

As always, my gift to you today is a festive apocalypse. Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Deck the Malls With Bowels of Holly


Deck the Malls with Bowels of Holly

By Scott M. Baker


            No one expected to see Santa Claus leaning against the mall’s dumpster, puffing on a cheap cigar he held in one hand while taking a swig of whiskey from a 200 ml bottle of Jack Daniels clutched in the other. A bleached-blonde soccer mom decked out in a fur-trimmed leather jacket drove past in her Mercedes SUV, covering her daughter’s eyes so the little girl could not see while flashing him a look that was equal parts haughtiness and disillusionment. Jack placed the cigar between his teeth and used his free hand to tip his Santa’s hat to her. The soccer mom crinkled her face in disgust and sped away.
            Jack placed the Santa hat back on his head and removed the cigar from between his teeth, but not before taking a deep puff. He blew the smoke in the direction the soccer mom had driven off. To Hell with her. Jack had met a lot of people like that in his life, the pampered elite who were arrogant and judgmental. To them, hardship was when the local wine shop ran out of brie. Let them live his life, and then we’d see how well they made out.
            Four years ago he never would have guessed his life would have turned out like this. As a major in the Special Forces, he was a few years shy of putting in his twenty and cashing in on an early retirement when an IED outside of Baghdad went off next to his Humvee, shattering his right leg. A year of therapy left him with a limp and an addiction to pain meds, both of which earned him a discharge from the Army. He broke his addiction to the pills by climbing into a whiskey bottle, and spent the better part of the next two years bouncing in and out of rehab until he finally got his life into some semblance of order. By then, his resume and reputation left much to be desired. He was forced to take any odd job he could get, which was how he wound up as the mall Santa. At least he made enough to pay the rent on his run-down studio apartment, even if it meant he had to take a few shots of whiskey every now and then to dull the pain in his leg from having whiny little brats sit on and kick it all day.
            Jack took another swig of whiskey before replacing the cap and sliding the bottle into the fur-trimmed pocket of his Santa suit. He shifted the padding in his pants and jacket, grateful that he needed padding. It would have sucked if the mall hired him merely because he filled the suit. He might have a little more around the waist than he wanted, but other than that he was in good physical shape.
The door to the employee entrance opened. Jack grabbed his cigar and prepared to toss it into the dumpster, afraid it might be Bert, the megalomaniacal security guard who ran his mall like a third-rate dictatorship. Thankfully, his friend Sammy stepped out. Sammy worked at the Christmas Village ushering kids to and from Santa. He had a way with kids. They related to him, mostly because Sammy was a midget. A little person, Jack corrected himself. Too bad mall management wasn’t as sensitive. The Ice Princess dressed Sammy in an elf costume and paraded him around the display like he was one of the decorations. Though Sammy never admitted it, he was humiliated by the treatment, and probably would have quit if he could have found work elsewhere.
            Sammy pointed to Jack’s cigar. “Those’ll stunt your growth.”
            “How many did you smoke as a kid?”
            “Ha ha,” Sammy replied good-naturedly. “I’m surprised you haven’t taken over for Jimmy Fallon yet.”
            Sammy leaned against the dumpster, yanked off his elf cap, and wiped his palm across his forehead. It glistened with sweat.
            “Are you okay?” asked Jack.
            “I’m running a fever and feel like crap. I think I got an infection from one of the reindeer.”
            “When?”
            “Earlier this morning. The big one with the antlers is a mean bastard. It bit me and the other reindeer in the pen.” To emphasize his point, Sammy shoved up his sleeve and pulled aside a large white bandage stained with blood. Underneath sat a nasty-looking bite that cut deep into the skin. Yellow pus oozed from around the edges. Bluish-black skin surrounded the wound, which gave off the sickeningly-sweet odor of rot.
            “That looks serious. You need to get to the emergency room.”
            “Not until after my shift.” Sammy replaced the bandage and pulled down his sleeve. “If I leave now, the Ice Princess will can my ass for sure.”
            Jack wanted to argue, but he knew Sammy was right. The Ice Princess, their less-than-affectionate nickname for Holly Landers, the mall manager, showed nothing but contempt for those under her, Sammy in particular. If he left early to go to the hospital, she probably would use it as an excuse to fire him.
            “There’s only a few hours left to the shift. Try to stick it out. But if you get worse, you got to promise me you’ll take off early and head to the hospital.”
            “If I get any worse you’ll be picking me up off the floor.”
            “Where did they get vicious reindeer?”
            Sammy leaned against the dumpster for support. “I overheard the Ice Princess telling Bert she got a good deal on them from a farm up state. I know now why she got them so cheap.”
            The back door opened again. This time Meghan appeared. She was the Christmas Village photographer, a young woman in her mid-twenties with shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair. Jack could not help but notice how sexy she looked in her green mini-skirt elf costume and red nylons. She refused to wear the pointy shoes with bells on the toes and opted instead for black heels, which the Ice Princess accepted once she discovered that the slightly-fetish look brought more fathers to Christmas Village and, by consequence, more money.
Meghan greeted them with a smile warm enough to melt snow. “I hate to bother you, but Miss Landers is hanging around the village asking where you guys are.”
            “What a….” Jack checked himself, not wanting to swear around Meghan.
            “Don’t worry. I told her you just gone on break. She’ll never be the wiser.”
            “Thanks. We’ll be there in a minute.”
            Meghan flashed Jack a flirtatious grin and headed back inside. He watched her behind as it jiggled beneath the elf skirt, wishing he was twenty years younger. Jack tapped his half-smoked cigar against the dumpster several time to make sure all the loose ash fell off, and then slid it into a carrying case he kept in his pants pocket.
He turned to Sammy. “Ready?”
Sammy pushed himself off the dumpster and staggered to the door. “I feel like I’m gonna puke.”
“If you do, just tell the kids it’s eggnog.”
            As the two approached Christmas Village, Jack admired the work that had gone into organizing the display. The village filled the first floor atrium across from the main entrance, nestled up against the glass-enclosed elevators that led to the second-level food court. His throne, an old preacher’s chair, sat atop a raised platform covered with fake snow. To the left stood a fifteen-foot live Christmas tree strung with colored lights and decorated with large red and green glass ornaments. To the right, a propane tank fed the flames behind faux logs in a fireplace. Curved metal poles painted to look like candy canes and linked together by a garland-wrapped chain prevented the kids from getting too close to the fireplace. Directly opposite the platform on the other side of the atrium sat a plastic igloo and half a dozen animatronic penguins, which had nothing to do with Christmas but did cash in on everyone’s love of penguins. To the right of the village, a maze of velvet ropes herded nearly twenty kids and their parents who patiently waited for Santa. Off to the left stood the pen holding the five reindeer, a twenty-foot square area closed off by a heavy log fence. The buck with the large antlers stood near the front of the pen, swaying unsteadily. Behind it, four does walked around lethargically. Jack knew nothing about animals, but even he could tell they were not feeling good.
            What upset him more than the condition of the reindeer was the presence of the Ice Princess. She stood with Meghan by the camera, arms tightly folded across her chest, her frosty glare fixed on the two men. Dressed in a dark pants suit and sporting a short, professional hair style, she might have been passably attractive if her face wasn’t frozen in a perpetual frown. As Jack and Sammy approached, she stepped over to confront them.
            “Where were you two?” she huffed through the clenched teeth of her forced smile.
            “Taking our break.” Jack tried to sound as disarming as possible.
            “You’re entitled to fifteen minutes. You were gone for nearly twenty.” The Ice Princess leaned forward and sniffed. She grimaced. “What’s that smell?”
            “Cigar smoke.”
            “That suit’s coming out of your paycheck if we can’t get the stink out of it.”
            “Yes, ma’am.”
            At that moment, Bert pulled up on his Segway. He skidded to a halt by the group, the sudden stop causing the beer belly that strained against his uniform shirt to jiggle like a bowl full of Jell-O. “You wanted to see me, Holly?”
            “That’s Miss Landers, to you.”
            “Sorry, ma’am.”
            “I don’t want to give the parents any reason to file a lawsuit against the mall, so guard those unruly beasts and make sure they don’t bite anyone.”
            Bert grinned, revealing a mouth full of yellow teeth. “I assume you mean the reindeer, and not Santa and his elf.”
            “Ha. Ha.” This time, Sammy did not sound amused. “Did your mother tell you that joke was funny?”
            The smile drained from Bert’s face. “Blow me, Munchkin.”
            “That’s what I said to your mother last night.”
            “Enough,” the Ice Princess hissed through clenched teeth. “Just get back to work. All of you.”
            Bert sneered at Sammy before whipping his Segway around and driving over to stand guard by the reindeer pen. Jack and Sammy headed for the platform. They were greeted by a round of cheers and applause by their young fans. Jack bellowed a hearty “Ho, ho, ho” and waved. A minute later, seated in his chair, Sammy ushered over to him a six-year-old with auburn locks who beamed as she approached.
            The next fifteen minutes passed without incident. The Ice Princess hung around, keeping a watchful and distrustful eye on Jack and Sammy when not telling Meghan how to take photos. Bert circled back and forth in front of the reindeer pen as if guarding a federal penitentiary. Jack had finished talking to a boy who requested the latest edition of Grand Theft Auto and Sammy was ushering him away all Hell broke loose.
            The buck let out an anguished mewl and toppled over, its head twisted on the floor at an obscene angle, black fluid leaking from its mouth. The does backed away, moving to the corner to get as far away as possible. Bert jumped off his Segway and raced over to the gate, unlatched it, and entered the pen. He knelt down beside the carcass and placed a hand against its neck.
            Sensing a growing uneasiness among the children and parents still waiting in line, Jack tried to take control and calm everyone down. He stood up, held his belly, and forced a hearty laugh.
            “Ho, ho, ho. Nothing to worry about, kids. My reindeer is tired after pulling my sleigh. He’s just taking a nap.”
            “Nope,” Bert blurted out loud enough for everyone to hear. “It’s dead.”
            Parents gasped and children cried. One little girl looked up at her mother, her lips quivering as she asked if Rudolph would be okay.
            “No, no, no.” Jack waved his hands dismissively. “He’s just joking. My reindeer is resting, that’s all.”
            “He’s right,” said the young mother to the little girl who had asked if Rudolph would be okay. She pointed to the pen. “See. The reindeer’s moving.”
            Jack turned to look. Sure enough, the buck’s legs spasmed, lightly at first, then more forcefully. It flopped around for a second before struggling to its feet, eventually standing upright on wobbly legs. Bert moved away a few feet to give it room to maneuver, backing up against the pen.
            The Ice Princess stepped up to the outer side of the pen. “You idiot. I thought you said that thing was dead.”
            “It was. It didn’t have a pulse and was cold to the tou—“
            The buck spun its head toward Bert, attracted by the sound of his voice. The once dark brown eyes were now light gray and lifeless. It bared its teeth, snarled, and lunged. Before Bert could react, the buck latched its mouth over his face and bit deep, stopping only when its teeth ground into his skull. It tugged at the flesh. Blood spurted from around the reindeer’s teeth and poured from its mouth. Bert howled, as much in terror as in pain, most of his cries muffled down the reindeer’s throat.
            Some of the parents already had scooped up their children and were dashing for the safety of the mall entrance. Most stood motionless from shock, too transfixed by the sight to move. Jack had no idea what was going on, although he knew enough to realize they all were in danger.
            “Sammy!” he yelled. “Get these people out of here!”
            “S-ure th-thing.” Sammy turned to the crowd gathered behind him in the rope maze and shuffled toward them. He took two steps, wobbled, and fell forward. His face made a horrible crack as it hit the floor.
            Before Jack could react, the sound of more bodies dropping to the floor caught his attention. He turned to the pen as the four does, all of which had been bitten by the buck, collapsed one at a time.
            Meghan took control of the situation, racing up to the maze full of parents and children. She clapped her hands in the air to get their attention.
            “You have to get out of here now. Please move in an orderly manner toward—“
            No one waited for Meghan to finish. Shock gave way to universal panic as everyone rushed for the exit at the same time. Children were knocked down. Parents tripped over the velvet ropes, collapsing the maze, which caused even more people to get entangled. Meghan tried to maintain order, but no one would listen.
            Jack ripped off his beard and Santa’s cap, and began stripping out of his padded jacket. Shit, he thought to himself. This can’t get much worse.
            He had no idea how wrong he was.
            The Ice Princess leaned over the pen and pulled the can of pepper spray from Bert’s belt just as the buck yanked its head back. Bert’s skin slid off his skull like a mask. He fell to the ground and placed his hands over his face, whimpering into the palms. Blood gushed between his fingers. As Bert rolled around in agony, the buck chewed the skin and swallowed. Bits of flesh and gore dangled from its jaw.
            “Don’t screw with me and my mall, fleabag.” Leaning over the pen, the Ice Princess raised the can of pepper spray and squirted a stream directly into the buck’s face. It mewled in pain and thrashed around, shaking its head wildly to get rid of the liquid. When it finally stopped, the buck fixed its gaze on the Ice Princess and sneered.
            “Oh, shit!” She took a step backward as the buck lunged, slamming into the pen. The top log flew off, hitting her in the chest with a loud crack and knocking her backwards. She cried out. Putting pressure on her broken ribs, she struggled to get to her feet, wincing in agony with every move. The buck used its front hoofs to knock down the last remaining logs, clearing a path for it to escape.
            “Holly, look out!” screamed Jack. Before he could react, a moaning to his left caught his attention. He looked to the base of the platform as Sammy got to his feet, looking dazed and disoriented.
            “How ya doing, buddy?”
            Sammy spun around to face Jack, focusing on him with dead gray eyes. He raced up the steps of the platform, snarling, his tiny arms reaching out for his meal. Jack waited until Sammy got to within a few feet before kicking out with his right leg, catching the zombie elf in the chest. Bolts of pain shot up his leg, the damaged nerves from his war wound protesting the action. The force of the blow sent Sammy reeling off the platform. He slammed into the floor and slid for several feet, coming to a rest only when he crashed into the overturned rope maze.
            Jack looked around for a weapon, but Christmas Village was not what one would consider an armed compound. He finally spotted something he could use. Rushing over to the fireplace, Jack disconnected the chain from one of the metal poles painted like a candy cane and tried to pull it out of the platform. The pole moved only an inch or two. Jack twisted it to loosen the mounting, pausing when he heard snarling again. Sammy staggered back to his feet and raced across the atrium toward him. Jack yanked hard on the pole. It gave a little. He yanked again, this time with all his strength, and the pole broke free. Jack stepped aside and held the candy cane like a baseball bat.
            When Sammy came within range, Jack swung the candy cane. It connected with the side of Sammy’s head with a loud crack. His friend spun around and tumbled back down the stairs, rolling head over heels twice before flopping to the ground. The body barely slid to a stop before Sammy started to get back up.
Shit, thought Jack, this was going to tougher than I thought. Shifting the candy cane in his hands, he brandished it by his side as if it were a rifle with a bayonet. Sammy already was half way up the stairs and gaining speed. Jack pulled his arms back.
            “Sorry, Sammy.”
            As his friend closed to within a few feet, Jack thrust his arms forward, aiming the end of the candy cane right at Sammy’s forehead. The metal end easily punched its way through the skull, scrambling his brain. Sammy twitched on the end of the candy cane for several seconds before going limp. His lids closed over the lifeless eyes. His snarling features softened, finally at peace.
            A female scream echoed throughout the atrium. Jack spun around, afraid the cry came from Meghan. Thankfully, he saw her standing at the far end of the village by the penguin display, ushering the last of the terrified parents toward the mall entrance.
            The scream had come from the Ice Princess. After being knocked down by the buck, she had gotten to her feet. The buck charged, bowing its head and plunging its antlers into her abdomen. It repeatedly twisted its head from side to side, goring the Ice Princess with all the dexterity of someone using a chain saw on a piñata. She pounded futilely on its head and antlers until her screams became a gurgle. With a strained cough, she spat blood from her mouth and her body went limp. The buck flipped its head, throwing aside the disemboweled mall manager and leaving a five-foot length of intestine and a ruptured stomach dangling off its antlers. Holly’s body hit the floor with a sickening squish. The buck stepped over to her, put its head inside the gouged-out cavity, and started to feed.
            Only then did Jack notice that the four does also had risen and were exiting the pen looking for food. The clamor of panicking mall patrons bunched up near the entrance caught their attention. As one, the four reindeer moved off in that direction.
            What could have been a slaughter was averted when Meghan spotted the does heading for the entrance. She grabbed one of the animatronic penguins and flung it at the first reindeer, clipping it on the side of the head. It distracted them, but now their attention was focused on her. The four does attacked. Meghan ran for the penguin display, dove to the ground, and scampered on hands and knees into the igloo just as the does reached her. The creatures kicked and head butted the igloo, their snarls drowned out only by Meghan’s cries for help. Being made of thick plastic, the igloo afforded some protection, but for a minute at best. Already chunks of plastic were being torn off by the onslaught.
            Jack quickly assessed the situation. He stood exposed here on top of the platform, but as of yet none of the reindeer had noticed him. That was his sole advantage. There was no way he could take on all five of them with a metal candy cane. And he couldn’t waste time trying to find another weapon because Meghan would be zombie reindeer chow long before he got back. So he could either fight a futile, hopeless battle or….
            What was he thinking? There was no “or”. He couldn’t leave Meghan and the remaining mall patrons to be devoured by these Christmas nightmares. Running was not an option.
            Jack had only one chance, as ridiculously slim as it seemed. Running over to the fireplace, he placed the candy cane on the ground and removed the rear panel to the fireplace, exposing the propane tank. The meter indicated it was more than half full. He wished it could have been more, but this would have to do. He closed the valve on the propane tank, disconnected it, and placed it at his feet. Reaching into his pants pocket, he rummaged around until he found his cigar case, pulled it out, withdrew the cigar, and placed it between his lips.
            “Hey, walking wall mounts.”
            Five sets of dead eyes turned toward Jack on top of the platform. Jack lit a match and placed it against the tip of the cigar, puffing until the end glowed red. He flicked out the match and tossed it aside.
            “It’s time to play some reindeer games.”
            The five zombie reindeer let out a collective howl and charged, covering several feet in a matter of seconds. Shit, Jack thought. Fast zombies suck. Grabbing the propane tank and the candy cane, he jumped off the rear of the platform and raced for the bank of glass-enclosed elevators. Behind him, he heard the creatures crashing their way up the front slope of the platform. As he circled around to the elevators and slammed his finger against the UP button, he prayed that at least one of the cars was on the first floor. Thankfully, the doors on the far left slid open.
            The buck topped the platform first and slid down the back slope. Jack ducked into the elevator, dropping everything onto the floor and turning to the control panel. He pressed one thumb each against the second floor and CLOSE buttons, jabbing repeatedly. Nothing happened. As Jack watched, the buck reached the floor and looked around, finally spying him. It snarled and rushed toward him, with the does close on his hooves. Just then the doors began their interminably slow slide shut. Jack didn’t know if he would make it. He shoved his thumbs even harder against the buttons and braced himself to be mauled. Thankfully, the doors closed enough that the buck’s antlers slammed against the outside surface, preventing it from getting its head inside. It spat at Jack, filling the interior with the stench of death. The car jerked and traveled up to the second floor.
            When the elevator came to a stop, Jack waited until the doors opened before pulling out the EMERGENCY STOP button. Working quickly, he used the end of the candy cane to knock aside the access panel in the elevator’s roof, pushing it aside to clear the opening. He then placed the propane tank in the raer corner of the car and turned the valve to the ON position. Gas hissed into the interior. Stepping to the control panel, Jack pushed in the EMERGENCY STOP button, pressed the button for the first floor, and stepped out. A few seconds later, the doors slid shut and the elevator began its descent. As it did, he wedged the end of the candy cane between the joints of the doors and pried them apart enough for him to reach in with his hands and open them all the way. He leaned out to watch as the elevator stopped on the first floor and listened as the doors slid open. It sounded like a stampede when the five zombie reindeer rushed inside, thrashing around as they searched for their prey. The buck glanced up, catching sight of Jack in the open doorway above. It growled and raised itself on its hind legs as if wanting to climb out and get Jack.
            “Ho. Ho. Ho.”
            On the last “Ho,” Jack puffed on the cigar and then flicked it down the shaft. It arched through the air like a tiny comet before disappearing through the access hatch.
            A moment later, a fireball mushroomed through the hatch as the propane ignited, incinerating the zombie reindeer. Jack dropped to the ground and covered his head as the tank erupted. The floor beneath him shook. The explosion took the path of least resistance, shattering the glass walls into a million shards and venting a fireball out across Christmas Village, ripping Santa’s chair into kindling and blasting apart the giant Christmas tree.
            Jack got to his feet and stepped over to the railing, surveying the carnage. All that remained of the platform was the metal struts of its base. The rest lay scattered across the area, pieces of wood and particle board mixed in with charred chunks of zombie reindeer. Pine needles, pieces of wrapping paper, and shattered fragments of ornaments rained down. Except for the settling debris and the crackling of a few scattered fires, everything was pleasantly quiet. Not a creature was stirring, he thought.
            Jack suddenly remembered that Meghan was still down there. Running to the stairs opposite the elevators, he rushed down them two at a time, careful not to slip on the holiday flotsam. Below him was the igloo, shredded from the blast and partially melted. There was no way she could have survived that. Even so, he rushed over to the penguin display and dropped to his knees.
            “God, Meghan. I’m so sorry.”
            Jack flipped over the igloo, surprised to find nothing underneath it.
            “Sorry about what?” The sexy voice came from behind him.
            Jack looked over his shoulder. Meghan stood three feet behind him.
            “Aren’t you dead?” he asked.
            Meghan placed both hands on her hips and rested all her weight on her right leg, striking a pose that looked all the more erotic in her short elf skirt. “Normally this would sound like a stupid question, but do I look dead?”
            “No.” Jack stood up and took Meghan in his arms, hugging her tightly against him, or at least as tightly as the padded pants would allow. “How’d you survive the blast?”
            “When I saw you leading those things away with the propane tank, I knew nothing good could come of it, so I headed for better cover.”
            “Thank God you did.” Jack broke the hug, but kept one arm wrapped around Meghan’s waist. He was happy to see that she didn’t protest. The couple headed for the mall entrance.
            “You know,” she said. “Since you saved my life, you get to buy me dinner.”
            “It’s a date. What would you like?”
            “I could go for a nice steak.”
            “Great. I know a place that serves venison.”
            Meghan wrapped her arm around Jack’s. “Maybe we should go for pizza instead.”
           

Clint stopped the ambulance a few yards from mall’s main entrance, fighting back a sense of uncertainty about what they would find. The initial dispatch had been unusually vague, saying something about reindeer beating people at a Christmas display, although Kevin swore the dispatcher had said “eating.” Not that neither one made any sense. In any case, it sounded more like a situation for animal control rather than EMTs, and Clint had said as much, only to be ordered to get to the mall pronto. Of course, arriving in time to see swarms of terrified shoppers shoving their way through the exit and scattering across the parking lot did not help assuage his uneasiness. Panicked crowds were never a good sign.
Jumping out of the ambulance and grabbing their gear, Clint and Kevin rushed into the mall. They had to push their way past a couple strolling out arm-in-arm, the man wearing padded Santa pants and the young strawberry blonde dressed in very risqué elf costume. Clint thought it unusual that, amidst the frenzied exodus, these two seemed not to be concerned.
Kevin, on the other hand, noticed the blonde. “Hey, did you see the ass on that one that just walked by?”
            “No.” Clint pointed toward the atrium where the charred wreckage of the Christmas Village lay scattered around. “I’m more interested in that.”
            “Holy….” Kevin let his words trail off. He broke into a jog, rushing to the scene in case someone was still alive.
Clint followed, though judging by the extent of the destruction, he doubted if anyone could have survived. He stopped by what looked like a pile of dead penguins and scanned the atrium, shaking his head.
“Man, nothing could have survived this.”
“Someone did,” responded Kevin. “Over there.”
Across the atrium, near the remains of what once was a pen or something, a single figure stumbled through the debris, his hands stretched out in front of him, fumbling as if he was blind. His back was to them, so Clint could not tell how badly hurt he was. Given the fact that the man wore a light blue shirt with the tattered remains of a patch on his sleeve and a utility belt that hung at an awkward angle from his hips with half the contents missing, Clint figured he must be mall security.
“Poor guy,” said Kevin. “Probably stayed behind to help get everyone out, and then got caught up in all of this.”
“You check out the rest of the mall. I’ll tend to him.”
Clint crossed over to the security guard. The guard’s hands fell onto the handlebars of a Segway and clutched it tightly. He attempted to climb on, but could not get his feet up high enough. Probably shock. When Clint got to within a few feet of the guard, he called out to him.
“Hang on, buddy. I’m a paramedic. I’m here to he…. Holy shit!”
When the guard turned around at the sound of the voice, Clint saw that his face had been ripped off. He stared into a skull covered in gore and blood. Strands of severed nerve endings dangled out of the sockets. The thing couldn’t see Clint, but it heard him. When Clint squeaked a muffled cry of revulsion, it dove at him, its exposed teeth ripping into the paramedic’s throat.