Max and Stewart walked down a wide exhibit corridor towards the front of the building. “How many Max?” asked Stewart checking the loads on her pistol and the shotgun she was carrying yet again.
“I can see two who are really powerful. A half dozen more of the smart ones. Shoot anything that comes towards us. I know I will.”
“You can't tell what they look like or anything can you?”
“No. Well, you know how Red looked in the field?”
“Not really, it was dark.”
“He looked alive. These guys, look stronger than him by a long shot, so shoot at the ones you think are alive first.”
They rounded a bend and could see the main gallery and entrance to the Art Institute far ahead. Between them and the front doors the floor gleamed as if it were freshly cleaned, there were a couple things out of place, someone had thrown some rags on the floor near the far end, the rag piles stood out and pulled Max's vision towards them. His brain screamed 'gun!' as the first shots rang out. Stewart was thrown backwards by a fusillade of bullets and Max felt a sharp sting on his upper arm as he spun wildly and backpedaled for the corner they had just rounded.
Max reached the corner and ran right into a woman dragging Ruben and Kirk by one arm each. Quick as lightning she let go of both men and clapped Max on both sides of the head. He reeled in pain and dropped his gun. Max almost stepped back into the hall to get away from the woman, but she saved him from being shot by grabbing him by the front of his shirt and pulling him towards her. Max made a feeble attempt to punch her in the stomach, which she blocked easily, pulling her arm back she punched him one, two, three times in the face.
“We done yet?” the woman asked.
Max gurgled and looked behind her at the men on the floor. Ruben was staring at him and shook his head 'no' slightly, an indication that Max took to mean that he should not fight anymore. Sagging in the woman's grasp, he said, “Done.”
“Good. Some of them like their meat tender, but I find all this punching makes my hands hurt.” Calling around the corner the woman yelled, “Harry? It's me! Ella! I am coming out, I got these guys, three of them, plus the one you shot. Send some help down here to carry them along would you?”
“You got it,” a masculine voice called back, “You only left three of them alive?”
“So far, there are a few stragglers outside, but the gang will bring them in.” Turning back to Max, Ella said, “Move.” while gesturing for him to go around the corner. She bent to grab Ruben and Kirk's arms, but Ruben shook her off and lifted himself to his feet.
“I can walk myself. Let me get him.” Ruben said while pulling Kirk upright and putting the man's arm around his shoulder.
“That leaves me on body duty. No, fuck that. You!” she pointed at Max, “Grab her and lets....are you bleeding?” she said, breaking off suddenly and looking at his arm, she reached towards it tentatively and Max pulled away. “You are! That is just...lovely...”
Ruben and Max stared at her as she gazed at the blood dripping from Max's sleeve.
Max looked down at Stewart, then at his shotgun which lay between him and her, he stepped around the corner bent down, then felt a body next to his, looking up he saw Ella standing over him, “I wasn't born last night, buddy.” One of her feet was on the barrel of Max's gun. He sighed and grabbed Stewart by the arms and pulled her up. She was heavy, her rifle clattered off of her body to the floor as Max tossed her over his shoulder and stood up.
Grunting Max moved in front of Ella, along with the other two men. Ella reached down and grabbed both of the guns from the floor, where a few drops of blood marred the surface. Why this gave her pause, she couldn't say. Instead she shrugged and herded the men towards the front of the building.
Stewart's hand kept bumping into Max and he was very aware of her pistol digging into his shoulder, Ella hadn't said anything about it when he pulled her up, she had been too focused on the guns laying on the floor. The troop of them slowly moved towards the main hall and the two intelligent zombies who had been waiting in ambush for them. Max tried to keep up with his surroundings, he was thinking furiously, trying to find a way out of the mess they were in. The side passages looked promising, but he wasn't going to outdistance Ella with Stewart on his back. Her hand bumped into him again and seemed to claw at his pants. Finally, it hit him, she was alive. He hadn't seen any blood from her wounds and she, unlike him, had been wearing a bullet proof vest. The vest was on under her military clothing. Max had taken a helmet from the soldiers, but it was now sitting around the corner behind him, a lost artifact from Ella's punching.
Max shrugged his shoulder twice and squeezed Stewart's leg where he was carrying her. She responded by tensing the muscles in her leg.
“You okay Ruben?” Max asked, immediately followed by “Yes?” as Stewart squeezed the muscles of her leg again.
“Fine as a Turkey the weekend before Thanksgiving Max. You?”
“Well, my face feels..hell Ruben I don't know how to describe it. I think my cheek is broken. I have all my teeth though.”
“Then you're doing better than me,” the man replied.
“Can you can walk okay?” Stewart tensed her leg once.
“Sure, I was just a little beat down is all, she got to me first outside. I wore her down for you. After Kirk wore her down for me.”
This prompted a laugh from Ella behind them.
“Geez, if that was her wore down I don't think I'd want to see her at a hundred percent. Can you fight again?” Stewart tensed her calf once.
“Maybe in a couple of weeks, this little bronco wore me out Max.” Ruben answered, then asked, “How is your arm?”
“Feels fine. I think they just winged me.” Max said nodding to one of the smart zombies on the floor as they passed. “I think it was lefty there,” he said, turning slightly to look back down the hall. The zombie on the floor smiled up at him as if to say, 'nothing personal.'
Looking back at Ella, Max asked, “How'd you get in behind us so fast?”
“Does it matter? Less talky-talky, more walky-walky.” She made a pushing motion with her hands, as if shooing them forward. Both guns were slung over her shoulder by their straps.
“Are we that easy to take down that you don't even keep a gun on us?”
The woman smiled, “I didn't need one the first time and won't need one when I smack you so hard you fly into next Tuesday. Stop stalling and walk.”
Max turned back and stepped into the grand hall, “You are fast, I'll give you that.” Then a thought struck him and he looked back at the woman. He stopped dead in his tracks and said, “You are alive!”
“But you...you're so fast! And you're on their side!” Max said shouting.
“So?” she asked again. Ella stepped around Max and made her way to a large chair that was set up on one side of the room. A middle-aged zombie was sitting there, Max could tell he was a super even without using his special sight, the other woman to one side of him was younger, perhaps thirty when she died, she was slim and beautiful, with brown hair that verged on red and dark eyes. Both of these undead had sun-browned skin and wore business attire, her in a conservative skirt with a white blouse and matching jacket, he in a tight-fitting black suit.
“Harry, I brought you the prisoners as you told me to.”
“Only three alive, plus one-half dead,” the woman sneered from one side. “We told you to bring them all back, I hope you had the rest of them turned at the very least.”
Ella gave the woman a dismissive glance and said, “You know the zombies don't like following my orders precisely, there were more causalities than expected.”
“How many did we lose?” Harry asked. He seemed distracted to Max, as if his focus wasn't here or that he didn't really care what the answer to his question was.
Shrugging Ella said, “I don't know, they came in through the park, the runners on the street broke too soon and we lost a bunch out there. No cover, I told them to wait.”
From the hall that Ella had taken them down the two zombies on the floor started firing their rifles at an unseen foe. After a moment, a line of bullets riddled the floor of the hallway, stitching across one of the zombie's head and neck, but only hitting the other one in the shoulder. The damage to the second one was enough to make it impossible for him to fire his rifle back. Bullets flew down the corridor in such profusion that the single prone zombie was obscured by the dust raised from the rounds chipping holes in the floor.
Stewart regained her feet and pulled out her pistol before Max even realized she was moving, turning she started firing from the hip at Harry and continued to walk her gun up towards his head as she went. Only Harry wasn't there, he started moving as soon as Stewart and had ducked behind Ella. A fast zombie jumped towards Stewart, attempting to hit her blind side, but she spun and shot his teeth though the back of his head. Max finally felt in control of himself, he ducked sideways into another smart zombie, catching it by surprise as it rushed Stewart. They both fell backward and Max had just enough time to see Ruben and Kirk separate and crouch down. Kirk leaned towards the zombie Stewart had killed and wrested an ancient revolver from its belt as the next wave of minions approached. Stewart turned to get a bead on Harry only to have her hand knocked brutally down by Ella's fist.
“Fuck!” Stewart yelled while punching the woman in the face. Ella's head rocked back and blood flew in a spray behind her, she continued to fall back in a roll and ended up spinning sideways in a crouch facing Stewart. Aubrey and Harry had stopped and were just watching. Ruben was in the best position to see all of the fighting, he noted Bill's arrival with some of the boys, he saw Max wrestling feebly with the smart zombie at the foot of Harry's chair and he saw Kirk take the first of three shots at Harry from his crouched position by the corpse nearby. The first shot rang out and a picture behind the zombie sprung a hole in it shot number two hit Aubrey in the chest and splattered the wall behind her with gore. Then Kirk fell sideways, shot by one of the gun-toting zombies headed their way. Even on the floor Kirk was a soldier to the end, he lined up one last shot and winged Harry in the right leg. The zombie hardly flinched and another burst of gunfire stilled Kirk forever.
Ruben raised his hands to shoulder height and two of the zombie aimed guns at him, though the old man thought they were going to shoot him, they held back. Harry picked Aubrey up off of the floor and leaned close to whisper something in her ear. The woman's eyes met those of Ruben for a moment, then she finished getting up and turned to watch the fight between the two women. From her crouched position, Ella launched herself at Stewart, who ducked sideways just as fast and landed another short blow to the other woman's ear as she went by. Ella screamed and lashed out with a kick sideways, Stewart took the blow on her thigh and had to backpedal to avoid falling down. This gave Ella her chance and she ran towards Stewart with both of her arms held wide. Stewart again side-stepped and chopped her hand into Ella's elbow while trapping the woman's hand with her other arm, there was a sharp crack and Ella screamed in pain as her arm was broken.
Pulling the woman by her broken arm Stewart stomped down hard on Ella's foot, which caused the woman to scream again. Ella had one free hand and swung it around and connected soundly with the back of Stewart's head, causing the police officer to lose her grip on the broken arm. Pulling away, Ella cradled her arm for a second, then pulled it straight out while releasing another cry of agony. Stewart was dazed and stumbled into Ruben, who caught her and turned her around to face the other woman. The two gun-toting zombies watching Ruben glanced at Harry, who shook his head slightly, indicating he didn't want them to interfere. Seeing this Ruben said “Go get her!” and pushed Stewart back towards Ella.
Bill got to the corner leading into the main gallery of the Art Institute first and immediately pulled back when gunfire peppered the area.. Crouching down he risked a peek and saw a half dozen zombies with various guns and rifles looking towards his position. One of the fast zombies came running around the corner firing two pistols, his charge was brought up short by Javier and Bart. Chen was back at the last corner they had passed, watching the hall behind them to ensure no one followed them.
“Grenade?” asked Javier, after a moment of waiting in vain for the other zombies to charge blindly around the corner at them.
Bill shook his head, “No, Ruben is up there. Max and Stewart too. It looks like they got Kirk.”
“Four guys watching the hallway, a couple watching Ruben, one wrestling with Max, Stewart is fighting some woman and there are a couple others standing against the wall just watching everything.” Bill said, running the images through his mind quickly.
“What do we do Sarg? We can't just sit here. They will bring more up behind us.”
Bill thought for a moment, then nodded. “Gimme a grenade. You take one too and follow my lead.”
Max could not get the goddamned zombie off of him. In high school and even in college he had wrestled for the schools he attended. He was never a top performer, but he liked the attitude and the way he could eat pretty much anything during training and not gain weight so he had kept it up until he got married. While he was not a champion by any means, he knew how to wrestle, something his opponent did not know. The problem was his opponent was very strong and didn't react to pain the way a living person would. The normal holds of any given match were fairly easy to apply, but the zombie was just using brute strength to break free from them. Then it hit him, he was fighting by the rules, the rules of a game that no longer had any meaning in his current context. I need to let go of the reins on this one. Wrestling, like chess, involved planning ahead to win the match. If your opponent was new to the sport the easiest wins were achieved with the most basic of moves, however, much like a game of chess, seasoned veterans developed counter moves.
Stewart was seeing double, shaking her head wasn't helping. The two Ella's in front of her were only swinging one arm, but which one was the real one? A blow landed on her cheek and she tasted blood in her mouth, then she took a hit to the stomach that one didn't hurt as much, her vest absorbed most of the blow. She used the opportunity to punch Ella in the throat, her followup blow missed the 'other Ella', but the shot to the neck seemed to give the woman pause. Both fighters stepped back, Stewart blinked her eyes and tried to get the Ella's to merge. For her part Ella was only interested in landing a killing blow, her arm was causing her tremendous pain, it felt like there were a thousand worms burrowing through her muscles and bones. Experimentally she flexed her fingers on that hand, they moved! Bending her arm slightly only led to pain, however when she did so something seemed to twitch in her elbow and it didn't hurt as bad as it had a moment ago. Smiling she looked on as Stewart continued shaking her head.
“What's the matter bitch? Having vision problems? Just wait until I rip out your eyes!”
“Talk, talk, talk. Why is it all the goddamned zombies just want to talk?” Stewart replied, still she made no move forward, she was waiting, thinking of her Aikido lessons and preparing herself.
“You want action? I don't think you really do? You're stalling.” Ella said, which, truth be told, so was she.
Stewart made a sudden step forward, causing Ella to move sideways, which caused Stewart to bark out a short laugh, “Made you flinch.”
Ella heard Aubrey laugh as well, which sent her into a rage, focusing she ran forward to Stewart and at the last second twitched herself sideways. Ella knew the other woman had some training and she was hoping to thwart any moves Stewart had planned. Her plan worked, Stewart had reached out to pull Ella sideways, but the last instant move had put the woman in the wrong place, the two crashed together and bounced apart. Ella had managed to catch onto Stewart's military shirt and ripped the sturdy fabric apart as they separated, revealing the bullet proof vest the officer was wearing.
“Hah! Bitch! I knew you couldn't have taken a punch from me and still stand.”
Stewart sighed and just gestured 'Come on' with her hands, her vision had cleared and once again there was just one Ella standing in front of her. Her opponent jumped forward and then ducked down low, sliding under Stewart. For a split second, Stewart thought about jumping onto her, but then decided against it, she was not an expert at holds or wrestling and had done well enough using kicks and punches so far. She tried to spring away, but Ella's hand reached out and caught her above the right ankle, the other women twisted and squeezed, putting all her effort into it, but Stewart had momentum on her side and broke away to roll and regain her feet. Ella was up again like lightening and pounced on the now limping Stewart, who barely pivoted in time to take the punch on her vest instead of her hip. The blow lifted her from her feet and sunk her into Harry's chair, kicking upwards she nailed Ella in the crotch with her military boot. Ella stumbled and caught herself on one arm of the chair, putting her and Stewart's heads close together.
Stewart looked at her and whispered, “You know they will kill you. They are not helping you. Come with us.”
This shocked Ella more than anything, she felt a bubble of laughter well up inside of her and she said, “You? You? Where were you when I needed help? Where were any of you? I was left here! They saved me! They took care of me, gave me power!” Ella started punching Stewart in the chair, hitting the woman in the face and occasionally landing a blow on her arms or legs, but avoiding the vest covered area entirely.
As a punching bag Stewart thought, I am doing okay. The blows were falling like rain, and they hurt. She swept her arm over her face, aware that somehow Ella was using her broken arm again. If she can heal, so can I! I just need a little time to recover. She reached out and grabbed Ella's shirt and pulled the woman down to her legs, pushing her head down between her knees Stewart caught a glimpse of Max with his arm around a zombie's throat, his other hand was twisting the thing's head sideways, oh so slowly.
Ella didn't go down that easy, her arm was working again and Stewart's move had caught her off guard, but she was not hurt. She grabbed the legs of the chair and pushed up with her legs, the chair lifted and flipped over, dumping Stewart to the ground. Raising the heavy piece of furniture over her head Ella brought it down on top of the woman on the floor. The chair shattered leaving a club like leg in Ella's good hand, Stewart, meanwhile was moving feebly on the cool tiles of the Art Institute. Risking a glance over at Harry, she was pleased to see Aubrey frowning, but Harry ever so gently nodded his head and Ella smile as she moved forward and hit Stewart in the head. Blood splattered onto the floor and Ella raised the chair leg to her mouth to savor the blood of her enemy. To Ella, nothing tasted as sweet as this.
Max screamed as he watched Ella club Stewart in the head, this seemed to give him the extra energy he needed to finished twisting the zombie's neck in his arms, the crack as it gave sounded like a gunshot, pushing his way to his feet he started towards Ella as she finished licking the blood off the end of the club. Ruben stepped forward in front of Max, “I can take her, you see to the cop.”
Max looked at the old man in disbelief. “What?”
“I got her.”
“Old man you don't know what you are talking about. I won't even waste time with you. I could bend you like a pretzel or rip your head off with my bare hands.” said Ella tossing the chair leg away from here. Her eyes followed the bloody end until it struck the wall and rebounded to spin lazily, the blood calling to her, she almost started towards the club, then remembered the woman was right behind her, waiting to be devoured, she half turned, when Ruben spoke again.
“No Max, I got this one, trust me.” Max looked into the old man's eyes seeing him wink, he continued in a whisper, “Just get your lady friend out of here.”
Ella looked back to Ruben, then to Harry, who glanced surreptitiously at Aubrey, who shrugged her shoulders and said, “Fuck it. What could they tell us anyway, kill them all Ella for all I care.”
This gave Ella pause, who was giving the orders here? Behind her the blood continued to pour out of the head of the police woman, she could hear the heart beat, each pump caused the stain on the floor to grow a little larger.
“You ain't afraid of an old fart like me are ya?” asked Ruben, “I got grandchildren older than you.”
“You're dead old man, you just don't know it yet.”
Ruben stepped sideways away from Max, locking Ella's eyes with his own, “We'll see.“ he put his hand on the combat knife at his belt, Max thought he saw it tremble a little. “Go Max!”
Max went, skirting Ella he rushed to Stewart's side to see if she were still alive, not even considering looking at her with his special vision.
“You think a knife is going to help you?” taunted Ella.
“I think so, yeah.”
“Go ahead, get your knife out.” 'This old fool was slower than even the other guy was, at least the police woman was a challenge,' Ella thought, 'Gramps will be dead in seconds.'
“Well, since you've said so, I think I will.” Ruben pulled the knife out and pointed it at Ella, who laughed at the way it was shaking in his hands.
“You're trembling old man, be careful not to drop it.”
'Always do the unexpected.' Ruben thought, 'she doesn't even see this coming.' Glancing at the two zombies that had stayed out of the fighting so far, 'Something tells me they might.'
Ruben stepped closer to Ella, who did not back away, but sneered at him, “Now what? You stab me?”
“Not yet,” said Ruben, taking the blade of his knife in his left hand and holding the handle out to the woman.
“You're giving the knife to me? What the fuck are you playing at?”
“If you have the knife I win.”
“The fuck you say,” said Ella ripping the knife out of Ruben's hand.
'Ice' thought Ruben, 'it's like someone put something cold on my hand, really freezing.' His blood started flowing out of his cut hand to splatter on the floor. 'I hope this works.'
“Now I have the...” Ella began, then looked at the blood pouring from Ruben's hand, “...and you...” She was infatuated with the bleeding, every precious drop raining down in front of her, she stood still a moment, the knife forgotten. 'This was what he meant, he thought I would be infatuated with the bleeding and not be able to act. He was wrong.' Ella tilted her head up and started to laugh.
Ruben, seeing his opportunity thrust his bleeding hand over her mouth. In the flash of a second everything changed, Ella's laughter was cut off and her mouth sucked greedily at Ruben's hand. She tried to stop herself, tried to pull back, but she wanted it. She felt the old man beside her, but her focus had narrowed down to feeding. Ruben's good arm took the knife gently from Ella's unresisting fingers.
A series of shots rang out as the zombies watching the hallway fired at Bill, one bullet hit his Kevlar helmet and pushed him back around the corner, where he grinned sheepishly at Javier. Bart, crouched down by one side of the hallway, took a shot as one of the zombies moved over slightly to try and get a clear line of sight on the men.
“I'm okay, the zombies are where they were before, just toss it a little to the left, I will put mine on the two smart ones by front doors. Ready?” Bill asked.
Bart nodded and Javier said, “Let's do it.” while hefting his grenade.
Letting loose a burst of automatic fire to cover them, Bart stepped forward first, he had been hoping his lower position would give him the cover he needed, but that was a false hope as all three of the zombies shot him. He died giving Bill and Javier a chance to toss in two hand grenades, one landed spot on coming to rest near the foot of the trio of zombies just out of sight from the hallway. Bill's grenade was flung farther, but took a bad bounce and landed to the right of his intended target, coming to rest between Max and Harry, who was just starting forward to help Ella.
When he saw the grenade, Harry let out a yell and jumped backwards grabbing Aubrey and knocking them both to the ground in front of the plate glass window near the front of the building. The trio of zombies firing at Bart also scattered, jumping every which way, trying to get away from the explosive. Javier and Bill put their rifles up to their shoulders and took careful aim at the fleeing figures. Javier had agreed to shoot for the leftmost zombie, if they reacted as Bill hoped they would, Bill had a bead on the one on the right. Both of those zombies were taken out of action with controlled bursts of gunfire. The middle zombie was too busy fleeing to notice his companions being destroyed, but luck was with him and neither Bill nor Javier's followup shots hit him in the head.
Ruben saw the grenades land on the floor, but was not distracted from what he was doing, despite the urge to throw himself down. Ella followed his bleeding hand as he lowered it, soon enough she was on her knees in front of him. Her eyes had turned back in her head until only the white pupils were showing and she sucked the blood from his hand. Raising the knife he stabbed it straight through the top of her skull. The blade sank in up to the hilt and he could not pull it free as Ella fell sideways.
“Goddamn it. Now I got no weapons.” Ruben said, looking around. He spotted the grenade still on the floor three steps away from him. It hadn't gone off. The pin was still in it. Grinning he moved forward and scooped it up, then immediately fell prone as the lone zombie with a gun fired towards him.
Max had made it to Stewart and was trying to stem the flow of blood from her head when the grenades came flying into the room. At first he didn't realize what that small black object sitting six feet away between him and Harry was. His brain prompted his sluggish body to move and he dropped himself between Stewart and the grenade, trying to shield her body from the blast. Gunfire went off creating a deafening roar in the room that seemed to echo endlessly from the tile and marble finish. It took Max a moment to realize the grenade hadn't gone off. By the time he looked up he saw Ruben ducking down to avoid being shot by the only zombie with a gun left in the room. Glancing over he saw Bill and Javier taking cover behind the bodies laying on the floor, their opponent had better cover behind the heavy desk at the entrance. Harry and Aubrey were just getting to their feet when Max saw Ruben slide the hand grenade across the smooth floor towards them. The old fool grinned at Max, displaying a slender piece of metal wire in his hand. Max realized it was the pin from the grenade half a moment before the explosion tore through the building.