rocket exploded and they turned and moved toward the light and noise en masse, giving him a few seconds of space to fight his way through to the gate, metal cutters held ready. With the dead already turning back and beginning to grab at him, he struggled to get through. The padlock clasp was too thick and too strong, but he managed to cut through a link in the chain it secured. Knowing that the firework had burned out and he had again become the sole focus of attention, he wrapped one end of the chain around his hand several times, then began swinging it around wildly like a whip. Its effects were remarkable, slicing through rotting flesh whenever it made contact. With the arc of the chain providing him with an unexpectedly large bubble of empty space, Jackson threw the gate open and disappeared down into the tunnel. The dead followed, but they were no match for his speed. He started back to shut the gate, but there were already too many of them pouring through after him.

The pitch-black and close confines of the damp tunnel walls combined to make him feel uncomfortably claustrophobic, but he had no option other than to keep moving. He ran with arms outstretched, climbing upward and bracing himself, knowing that at any second he might reach a dead end. Christ, he realized, far too late to be able to do anything about it, this bloody tunnel might not even go anywhere. The passage was several hundred years old at least—it could have collapsed, been shut for safety reasons, been rerouted back outside to the bottom of the hill … And all the time he could hear the dead behind him, chasing him down with an almost arrogant lack of speed and absolutely no fear whatsoever.

The lighter. He dug his hand into his pocket and felt for the reassuring metal outline of his lighter. He was running low on fluid, but what the hell. He flicked it on and the unsteady yellow light illuminated the rough carved sides of the passageway immediately around him. Moving with increased speed now that he could see something, he burst into a large, low-ceilinged chamber with various displays mounted on the uneven walls. Something about smugglers, gruesome pictures of starving prisoners … it looked like this had been some kind of dungeon. That’d be about right, he thought as the lighter began to burn his fingers. He swapped hands—not that that made much difference—and desperately searched for another way out. Another short sloping passageway now, leading away at about ten o’clock from where he’d entered the dungeon, then another large open space beyond. He let the flame go out again, conserving lighter fluid as he ran across the width of this second space. He slowed down to walking pace again and felt for the wall with outstretched hands, increasingly aware of the sounds of the clumsy dead following close behind, their shuffling, scrambling noises amplified by their confines. His fingertips made contact with cold stone and he worked his way around to the left until he reached another doorway cut into the rock. He carried on along yet another tunnel, feeling his way forward with his left hand, trying to flick the lighter into life again with the right, the dead sounding closer than ever now. The lighter flame caught, and Jackson saw there was a wooden door directly ahead. It looked relatively modern, and reassuringly solid, and yet he felt the hairs on the back of his neck begin to prick up and stand on end. If I can’t get through, he realized, the sounds of the dead continuing to increase in volume, then I’m fucked.

He hit the door at speed, slamming his hand down on the latch, and it opened immediately. He fell into another space as it swung shut behind him. Up ahead was a body hanging from the wall, its arms shackled, and he screamed out in fright before realizing it was a plastic dummy, dressed in rags and strung up for effect. He stumbled back with surprise and tripped over his own feet, hitting the deck hard and dropping his lighter, which he heard skittle across the floor. The sudden pitch black was suffocating, all consuming. He crawled slowly forward, running his hands along the ground from side to side, desperate to feel the warm metal of the lighter. He found boxes and packaging and what felt like the plastic feet of another executed dummy, but no lighter. He kept crawling until his head hit wall. He yelped with pain and rocked back. In the distance he thought he could hear the dead advancing with renewed speed now, almost as if they were feeding off his pain.

Head throbbing, Jackson felt along the wall until he found the edge of a door. Was it the same one he’d come through or a different one? Had he somehow turned a full circle in the darkness, and if he went through this door, would he be running headfirst toward the dead? He stood up and tried the handle but it wouldn’t open. He shook it, pulled at it, then shoulder-charged it. It gave way and he flew through, landing on his hands and knees in the middle of a small shop. There were shutters down over most of the windows, but he could see enough. Exit through the gift shop, he thought as he picked himself up, then shut the door and blocked it. He jogged down to the other end of the cluttered room, weaving around displays of key rings, mugs, stuffed toys and other equally useless things, then shoved another door open and burst out into daylight.

He was standing on the farthest edge of a large courtyard inside the castle walls, looking down the business end of a rifle barrel.

“Nice fireworks,” the man aiming at him said. “Now who the fuck are you?”

“I’m Alan Jackson,” he answered, breathless, “and I’ve had a hell of a day. Mind if I come in?”


The castle’s walls were virtually impenetrable, and its proud, elevated position at the top of the natural rise was ideal. The dead were unable to get anywhere close, save for an unsteady stream—a bizarre slow-motion parade—which dragged themselves tirelessly along the road from the car park, up to the bridge and the impassable wooden gate where they formed an unmoving clot of increasingly decayed flesh. The inconvenience of having a few hundred of them nearby like this was nothing compared to the constant nightmare of thousands which Jackson had become used to.

Inside, the once-magnificent ancient fortress was far less impressive. The outer wall and the gatehouse were the oldest parts of the site still standing. Some inner walls had been reduced to little more than crumbled piles of stone, battle-worn and weather-beaten into submission over the centuries. Along the full length of the eastern side of the outer wall, several hundred years newer but in no better state, were the remains of a series of inner buildings. What had once been stables, a bakery, a great hall, living quarters and various other rooms were now all open, roofless spaces alike. Some had been repurposed by the most recent owners of the estate; a few areas either strengthened or replaced completely with out-of-character prefabrications to make a series of interconnecting rooms: an L-shaped display area and museum with a small onsite classroom in one corner, a cafe with a small but reasonably well-equipped kitchen leading off it, and at the end stood the gift shop through which Jackson had made his dramatic, unannounced entrance.

Jackson spent a lot of time up on the roof of the gatehouse tower, looking out over the battlements like a medieval lord of the manor. He felt as if he was under siege. The dead continued to amass all around them, waiting on the horizon like a germ-choked army of old, poised to charge. Except he knew they couldn’t. For now.

Kieran Cope, the man who’d shoved a rifle in Jackson’s face when he’d first arrived, became his man-at-arms. Kieran was tall and slim, and his manner of dress was very different to Jackson’s. Rather than the practical, hardwearing clothing which Jackson almost always wore, Kieran favored jeans, T-shirts, hoodies and jackets. He’d been here since the beginning, and had so far been spared the rigors Jackson had endured out in the field. Kieran looked less like one of the few remaining survivors of a global apocalypse, and more like a student who’d just wandered in from a night at the pub.

Jackson’s arrival had revitalized the flagging fortunes of the handful of people who’d already made Cheetham Castle their home. Apart from Kieran there were two others, though there had originally been three. Before the apocalypse, Melanie Hopper had juggled three jobs—one cleaning, the other two in local bars, mostly undeclared and paid in cash to keep her below the benefits threshold so she didn’t lose her council flat but could still go out drinking most nights. She’d been vacuuming in the museum when everyone else had died, and had barely noticed anything until half an hour after the event when she switched off her music, took out her headphones, and found Shirley Brinksford sitting in the middle of the courtyard, sobbing.

Shirley, by contrast, had been a reluctant sightseer. She had just pulled up in the car park with her unbearably dull husband Raymond for another excruciating day touring local relics. She’d been looking for a way out of the relationship for a while, but not like this. Dropping dead at the wheel and driving the car into a ditch had been the most exciting thing Raymond had done in almost thirty years of marriage.

No one spoke much about Jerry—originally the fourth person at the castle. Stricken with some kind of god- awful muscle-wasting disease, Jerry had been spotted trundling along the road outside the castle very early on, steering his electric wheelchair with his right hand, which proved to be just about the only part of his body he still had any control over. No one dared say as much to any of the others, but they all wished they’d never found Jerry, because it had been abundantly clear that there was nothing they could do for him. He needed round-the-clock help,

Вы читаете Aftermath
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату