Barely Alive – Book 1 – Chapters 1 – 3

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Barely Alive

In a desperate attempt to belong, Paul joins a cult whose main goal is to destroy everything they can get their hands on.

The virus the group is exposed to turns them into the apocalypse and they set out to eat everyone in their path.

Paul has one chance to escape. He’s taking the only girl who might be immune with him.

If Paul can’t get away, the rest of Las Vegas could implode on itself. Will he be able to find the cure? Or is he destined to terrorize the world?

Take a chance on this horrific journey with a teenage boy who has sex and hunger ruling his every decision.

Chapter 1

Dying sucks.

But knowing you’re dying is a freaking mind trip and I hated it.

My gray-tinted fingers shook. Putting down the empty milk container took all my will power and I honestly have no idea how I did it. Who was I kidding?

“Paul. I need you to grab the new recruits and join us off Flamingo tonight at eleven. Don’t feed them. I want them raring to go.” Dominic’s smile had lost its charm. He’d stopped beguiling me once the virus had taken hold. He knew I couldn’t go home. I’d never return to my family when I could harm them so easily. Plus, they were human – the enemies – self-righteous, capitalists without any real idea of need or purpose.

One thing Dominic had taught me was I could still care, even while I hated. He was my first two-sided coin.

I nodded. What else could I do? He was my master now. My general. And I would do what I was told or he’d lock me in with the dissenters and refuse me my final release. I would do anything for the answer.

I shut the fridge and grabbed a cookie from the counter of the cafeteria kitchen. My previous three-thousand calorie diet didn’t cut it anymore. Downing nine to eleven-thousand calories a day barely staved off the hunger sting unless it was meat. Raw meat. But cows were hard to come by in the Nevada desert and I wasn’t desperate enough to eat the feral cats. Those things were scrawny and all hair. I still had enough control I didn’t jump anything that moved.

Like people. Oh, man. And people smelled the best, too.

Flamingo. Hell, what did Dominic think we were going to win down there, casino jackpots? I licked the crumbs from my fingers, no longer amazed I barely tasted the crap I ate. Everything tasted like dust – unless it was meat. The sweet coppery taste of blood. Ah.

In the back room set up like a large bunkhouse, fourteen guys waited.

The first few weeks at the compound were always sun-filled with Dominic’s promises of gold, powers, and strength. Immortality. Overcoming the evils of the nation – of all the nations – became the fodder that fueled us. We’d rule America.

But once he infected you… me. I became a tool. I lost my “shiny, new toy” appeal to Dominic. He no longer catered to me or the other guys in my group. No more pictures of women, no more games or toys, no more anything… except food. That’s the one thing I couldn’t complain about. A twenty-four-hour buffet filled with treats and food I used to crave, but surprisingly sparse in the one thing I wanted. What all the guys wanted. But we didn’t have the balls to complain to him.

“Paul. Hey, when do we get to eat? I’m starving.” Steve, a red-headed sixteen year old, approached me. He was an inch or two shorter than me, but stocky and twitchy. I hated twitchy, reminded me of my brother. Who, while I hated for being human, I hated worse for being lost to me.

“Yeah, about that. Dominic said we can’t eat until after our mission this evening up on Flamingo.” I held up my hands but eyed the group as three of them stood, fingers balled at their sides. “I know you’re hungry. I do. But hang in there. We can eat tonight. I’m hungry too. I don’t get to eat until you do, okay?”

“Maybe we don’t need to wait for Dominic.” The newest member, John, spat our leader’s name. “He can’t stop us from leaving. We’re stronger than he is. He’s human.”

I contained my groan – no need to start doing that until my faculties had begun deteriorating. I still had ten weeks before my body failed me. Dominic had eyes and ears everywhere. He had an omnipresence achieved with technology his money purchased, but I still hadn’t figured out how.

John and Steve stepped toward the doors followed by the three murmuring amongst themselves.

From the opposite end of the large room, Dominic pushed through double doors. “Going somewhere, boys?” He crooked his finger at us. “I have something to show you.”

I cringed from the bite in his words. I’d been on the tour. But because I was there – with them – I’d have to go again.

John squared his shoulders, assured of his superiority over Dominic who was only human after all. We’d all been fed the same information on the inferior aspects of being human. Hell, it was why we’d left that way of life behind. John lifted his still-peach colored chin. He’d been injected no more than two days ago. Rookie.

“Yeah. We’re leaving. This is a bunch of crap. We’re hungry but we can’t eat until we do what you say? Who the hell are you? You’re just a human.” John glanced at the four boys who’d been prepared to leave with him. “You want us to go steal stuff, give it to you, and then what? Wait? For you to decide on what to do next? That’s a waste of my power and I’m not waiting.”

The others nodded slowly, doubt pinching their brows together.

Dominic’s dark, slicked back curls grazed the white collar of his button up dress shirt, shining in the sunlight as he crossed under the windows. Mid-day didn’t irritate us anymore than midnight did. We didn’t sleep but dang, the hunger. His green eyes had narrowed.

I bit the inside of my cheek. Holy crap. I didn’t want to go on the tour, hear the lecture and the only two options I had. Not again.

“I understand what you’re saying. But, before you go, boys, let’s go downstairs. I’d like to show you what you have to look forward to.” His gaze found mine and I swallowed, my tongue like sandpaper. He didn’t need any more of my pride. He’d taken everything else.

Each of the other guys followed Dominic through a different set of doors to the stairs. I trailed behind. My stomach hurt, from more than hunger. Staying busy had staved off the reality of the situation, but trips downstairs or reminders from Dominic cut into my hyper-sensitized skin like small paper cuts on fingertips.

Thick, windowless walls framed the stairs. The façade of upkeep ended at the bottom. Cement flooring and steel doors lined the hallway. Thick brick work supported the doorways and made up the rooms we’d be peeking into.

Queuing up at a doorway twenty feet from the bottom of the stairs, the boys waited for the great reveal. A new door, one I hadn’t yet seen inside. Each one was different, held a different monster.

“Paul, get the door.” Dominic’s icy voice washed over me.

Claustrophobia would follow the reveal, and some of the newbies would try to escape the truth. I shut the door and the automatic lock clicked into place. I had to adjust my footing. Some of them would come at me in desperation and who knew if they had more strength than me.

Dominic tucked his hands behind his back and pushed his chest out. The fresh scent of his flesh filled the small space. Sweat broke out on my skin. I hadn’t eaten meat in a few days.

“So you want to leave, huh? Think you can take my gift and just run away? That doesn’t sound very grateful, boys. Sounds to me like you need an attitude adjustment.” His smile had chilled vastly from the warm, inviting grin he’d welcomed us with.

The distinct edge of the group’s confusion coated their jerky movements and shifting feet.

“You don’t have all the answers still, gentlemen. Would you like to see what will happen, if you up and leave?” Dominic arched his brow in challenge.

John stepped forward, his bravado courageous considering he had no idea what waited for him behind the steel door. “Sure. It can’t be that bad.”

And with that statement, I did groan. Idiot. Nothing – I repeat – nothing is worse than what Dominic had locked behind that door. Nothing. It didn’t matter what stage of deterioration the poor animal was in, the horror was unfathomable.

Dominic’s smile regained a dose of his humor. “It’s not that bad for me. Not at all.” He swung the door open, releasing an odor reminiscent of a dead skunk rolled in sour milk and tossed with rotten eggs.

I opened my mouth the smallest amount to breathe through. But the odor changed to taste and the sudden wish for dust-flavored cookies coursed over me.

John looked through the opening, curiosity pushing his shoulders forward. But he looked for a moment and then recoiled from the hole, stumbling backwards into his friends. Horror opened his mouth.

Dominic pulled each man to the doorway and made them look their fill. He motioned me forward, I was the last. And I nodded. Of course I’d look in, too. I was his current leader. It was my job to set an example. But I knew what to expect, so I prepared myself against falling backwards or gasping or any of the other surprised reactions of the others.

Two steps, one. The smell strengthened as I got closer.

Inside, Tom, my mentor, huddled against the wall, his labored breath groaning from inside his chest. He coughed and, seeing me, stumbled to his feet. Arms outstretched, he stepped forward, yanked back at the last second by a clinking chain manacled around his bare and bleeding ankle.

Rotting skin fell off in different sized patches, some as large as a playing card and some smaller than a quarter. Milky coverings created partial cataracts over his eyes. One ear had been torn off and chunks of hair stuck to his fingers. Dark, raw bite marks covered his arms, but from the angle on his greenish skin, they had to be self-inflicted.

I froze. I’d liked him. So much. He’d been honest and felt bad for us. He’d snuck my group raw chicken when we’d first been changed. He’d done more, but how could he have been caught? Everything else had been done away from the compound. It didn’t matter. Whatever slight he’d been caught in had been enough to damn him.

“This will be you, if you don’t do exactly what I say.” Dominic spoke slow, letting the reality sink in. He narrated with the skill of a story teller. “Your body will die around you and your mind will keep living. I’m the only one who knows how to release you from this. I created it and I can end it. But that’s only if you do what I want. Exactly what I want.”

Wincing, I turned from Tom. I couldn’t save him. I couldn’t even throw him a chicken. He’d rot in that room, fully conscious for as long as Dominic wanted him to be. Nothing I did would help him. But my efforts could make things worse – or the same – for me depending on how you looked at it. Ignoring the plea in Tom’s gaping mouth and shaded eyes was the only way to ensure I didn’t end up like him. And the rest.

Dominic sized us up, meeting each of our gazes… one at a time. I couldn’t hold my eyes steady and looked away too soon. Something in our faces must have told him he hadn’t convinced some of us because he turned to another door.

No. Oh, crap. The same door I’d seen when I first arrived.

I froze. The creature in there had been further along in the process than Tom. By at least three months. The bricks and doors were sound proof. We couldn’t hear the noises of agony from inside. Tom wasn’t even completely dead yet. We had to see one that was dead.

Air rushed in and out of my mouth, drying my tongue and throat.

With a flourish, Dominic opened the door, releasing the shrieks.

I shuddered, a sob locked in my tight chest. The other boys had crept around me, trapped by the possibility that Dominic was letting them back upstairs, away from the nightmare. The sounds brought them to a halt. The shortest one, possibly the youngest at about fourteen or fifteen, crushed into my side and a small whimper escaped him.

No way in hell was I going closer. I could see more than enough. The single foot in view had rotted down to bone and sinew. The lower leg and ankle were just in sight. The calf attached to the Achilles’ looked to have been gnawed off and chunks trailed the floor beside the foot.

A scream filled with insanity riddled the hallway, echoing from the small room.

The foot moved.  

The boy next to me turned his head and dry heaved. Nothing was harder to throw up than dust.

 

Chapter 2

The lights of the city rose before us. Bright oranges, yellows, greens, blues, reds, and whites beckoned us to the casinos, stores, hotels, and restaurants. Oh, the restaurants. But all their meat was cooked. Damn it.

My cravings were more controlled than the other boys. I’d had a stronger sense of self-preservation since I’d left home. Eating people didn’t seem the way to get anywhere – fast.

John sat beside me in the front seat of the van. I flicked on my turn signal and rounded onto Flamingo. We’d been told to wait in the parking lot behind the university. The cell phone in my pocket would ring when Dominic was ready to give us further instructions.

I parked the large Econoline van in a spot furthest from the light. The boys sat in silence behind me. All fifteen of us had piled in, too afraid to argue with what we knew we would have to do. Hell, after the show we’d been given earlier, I don’t know that many of us were still consumed by hunger. Not enough to smother our fear, step out of line, and get caught. Hell, we’d kill people before we’d get caught. Okay, I wouldn’t go that far, but I’d be tempted.

“So, what are we then?” John whispered beside me. Not to me necessarily but more a thought he had to vocalize to something in the universe.

That’s the question, right? We were stronger, faster, and smarter than the humans. We didn’t need to sleep. And yet, we couldn’t get enough food. And for twelve weeks, all our power was harnessed. We were invincible insomuch as we ate and had somewhere to focus our energies.

Hopefully, I wasn’t wrapping up my fate by repeating what Tom had told me, but I said it anyway. It’d helped keep the insanity at bay for me, maybe it could help John. “We’re soldiers.”

He glanced over his shoulder and back to me.

I didn’t want to be heard either. The conversations behind us had grown in volume. I wasn’t afraid of being eavesdropped on. The majority of the boys dropped words like hamburger, steak, shrimp, and prime rib. A few of them read out loud to the rest what the billboards on the street said.

With a shrug, I lowered my voice to a murmur. “Look, we signed up for this. We were the idiots who didn’t ask for more details. We wanted to rid the world of capitalism, authority, and corruption. He gave us that injection and we’d never asked to read the fine print.” I tapped the steering wheel. “He gave us more details today. Do what we’re told and we won’t be chained up.”

“Can we make him tell us?” John raised his eyes to mine, desperation shining in spots on his pupils.

Oh, another great question. I’d thought it, of course, many times, and it lingered in the back of my mind like a constant mirage, always there, but never fully realized. I offered a half-frown. “Seriously? If you got him to tell you, what then? I know the answer doesn’t involve us leaving alive, because then the authorities would be there for sure. Don’t you think?”

John gasped. “But I’m too young to die!”

I closed my eyes. “I’m too young to die, too. But look at the alternative. We can’t go back to what we were and we don’t want to continue on in the basement, you know?” I looked at my folded fingers on the bottom curve of the wheel. “I don’t want to go in that basement, John.”

I hated stating the obvious. He just nodded. That’s it. And for some reason that pissed me off more than if he’d argued. He had to be older than me by months if not a year, and I was the one talking sense into him. The whole situation reeked of injustice. And yet, my rational side smacked me on the head. I had chosen this. No one made me. Accepting the consequences of my actions was a hard lesson to swallow, especially with the impossible hand I’d been dealt.

The phone rang, a tinny sound garbled by the weight of my butt smashing it into the seat. For a second I pretended Dominic’s face was the phone and I let it smother for just one more second. John widened his eyes. If I didn’t answer, he’d rip my body apart to get to it.

Tugging it from my pants, I flipped the small piece open, still unused to the grace in my movements. I’d always been physical, but my condition seemed to enhance my abilities. I bet I could throw one helluva football pass.

I ignored the memories of my lost senior year and focused on the job at hand. “Yes, sir.” I snapped my finger over my shoulder for quiet. The boys behind me fell silent.

“Paul, you’re going to bring me back some girls. I want teenagers, but nothing younger than twelve. They had better not be bitten. I’ll be very disappointed, if they are. Grab about five this time around.” Dominic clicked off.

I lowered the phone. What the hell? There were no girls allowed at the warehouse. Dominic had declared it a hard and fast rule. The porn had to be enough, he’d said. But then even that had stopped when we’d been injected. For the recruits, you got everything. Once you were in, well, you worked. I’d heard rumors of course that Dominic would deliver up a handful of girls for a group based on how well they performed in recruiting. I’d never seen it.

“Listen up.” They leaned forward as if one entity. I turned to face them, hiding my uncertainty behind my leadership role – which I didn’t want. “Dominic wants five girls. You can’t harm them. Don’t eat them.” A few of the guys rolled their eyes while another gagged. I nodded my head. “Yes, don’t eat them. You’re going to want to. Especially if they’re dressed for the heat. But don’t. Dominic said he’d be very disappointed if they were harmed.” I didn’t need to remind them of the consequences of his displeasure. The images and smells hadn’t been far from anyone’s mind all day.

Killing the van shut down the heater, too. I opened the door, and goose bumps formed from the cooler desert air. I’d had the temperature up extremely high in the van, higher than the ninety-two degrees of the Las Vegas night. The rasp of a zipper called out in the darkness. Some of the guys had opted to wear jackets instead of sweatshirts. We got cold so easy, especially if we hadn’t eaten.

A loud whisper turned into a shout from the other side of the van. “I said give it to me.”

Rounding the bend, I stopped mid stride. They fought over a street rat – a rodent – sick.

And yet, part of me wanted to jump in and take the rat for myself and another part worried about noise. I licked my dry lips at the dark red blood speckling the winner’s face. I pointed his way. “He won it. Now shut up.” The loser growled but lowered his eyes. I was the leader and pissing me off meant pissing off Dominic. Not that I would tell.

Gathered into a group, we huddled together, our shoulders touching. I was the oldest in terms of being changed the longest. Everyone else had joined within the last week. The group I’d joined with hadn’t survived long. They’d given in to the hunger and eaten each other while I’d been out back collecting wood for the stove. I’d returned and they’d all been moaning – ripped out throats or not. Dominic had stormed through the door, clapping. He’d congratulated me for surviving and ordered me to shovel the still moving bodies and fragments out to the incinerator. Oh, the smell of burning flesh and the sounds of shrieking bodies. Nightmare worthy.

So these men were mine. I led them. But to steal girls? The mission seemed inconsistent with the heroic perception I’d been given to believe. Yet the disillusionment shouldn’t have surprised me. Everything I learned about Dominic only added to my regrets. Better I should just duck my head and get through my service. The sooner the better, right?

“Five girls. That’s it. That’s all we need. Older than twelve, but I’m guessing not over twenty. Bring them my way to okay them before adding them to the van, okay?” Serious nods met my gaze. They’d do it. Hunger wasn’t more important than what they’d seen.

Yet.

We shifted to face out from the group. Our senses were on hyper-drive, both from our conditions and the overwhelming hunger eating at us.

As close as we were to the university, we should only have to wait for unsuspecting females to walk by. According to the cell phone’s display, it was a Friday night. Some kind of party or dance or sporting activity should end soon. We just needed to wait.

Low mumbling from the back of the circle grabbed my attention. I tilted my head to hear better.

“I don’t care what he says. How would he know if we ate something? No one even cares in this part of town. Let’s get him the girls he wants then eat something. There has to be something around.”

Freaking idiots. Yeah, they’d eat something and then we’d get tossed in the damn basement. Over my shoulder, I growled, “If any of you step out of line, we all get locked up. Do you understand? Not one, not two, but all of us. Keep that in mind.”

The idiot’s voice was cut off by someone else’s snarl. If he couldn’t keep himself in line, the others would do it for him.

I closed my eyes against the darkness. Not much could be seen anyway in the shadows.

I inhaled. And choked on the most delicious scent I’d ever smelled.

“Do you smell that?” Someone behind me whispered with excitement.

“What is that?” Another.

“Holy crap.” John closed his eyes beside me and inhaled as if to make sure he hadn’t imagined it.

Oh, man. I wasn’t the only one drooling over the smell. A giggling symphony reached my ears. I opened my eyes and whispered, “Hold on, guys. We don’t know how many there are. If there are too many, we’ll grab the stragglers.” Women always traveled in packs with an innate knowledge that safety was in numbers.

Dominic was an idiot. Pure and simple. Sending out starving zombie-like teenage boys after human, delectable girls wasn’t the smartest command. He’d be lucky to get an untouched arm, neck, or leg. Oh, legs. My favorite.

The men pushed on my back and outstretched arms as the girls traipsed down the road, close but still an easy twenty yards away. Our path riddled with empty cars and vacant spots wouldn’t slow us a bit.

One by one the girls came into view, twelve total. Long legs… I licked my lips… bared by short shorts. Mid-riff tops – some with sleeves and some without. Most of them had long hair brushing past their shoulders.

“Son of a —” I turned and grabbed the neck of a newer member, dislodging his teeth from my shoulder as I moved. Asshole had bit me to get to the girls. Unfortunately, moving out of the way of the other guys released the dam and they took off in a stumbling sprint across the dirt lot. Pushing and growling, the mass of boys drew immediate attention from the girls. I hadn’t had time to teach them to be sneaky like Tom had taught me.

At first the females froze, watching the rumbling spectacle move toward them. But as the realization dawned they were the targets, the girls’ faces changed from smiles to gaping mouths and wide eyes. If I had to choose between an eternity of rotting in a basement and these girls coming with me, I’d choose the girls. They may be human, but crap, they were delicious – I mean, gorgeous looking.

Four girls bolted which ensnared the attention of my crew. We had the strength and mentality of predators and we loved the idea of a chase. Six guys followed. I shook my head. The girls didn’t stand a chance.

Screams filled the air. I hopped in the van. Turning the engine over, I glanced out the window.

John jogged up, one body slung over his shoulder, the pert backside poking into the air. At the passenger’s side, he popped the door open and dropped the body on the front seat. Panting, he looked past me, worry tightening the skin around his mouth. “I think they might have hurt a couple. I’ll go back to check but I’m worried. The screams stopped when I grabbed this one. Two went into an alley and Steven followed them. He still hasn’t come out.” John met my narrowed gaze. He slapped a hand on the arm rest of the door. “What do you want me to do? I brought you one.” He pointed at the unconscious girl.

“She better be alive. I need four more, untouched. Get them. And make sure you don’t bring any that are hurt, okay? Remind the guys why we’re here and let’s go.” I sighed. Seriously, what a bunch of nimrods. He closed the door and I breathed in.

The smell of the girl sitting next to me saturated my nose and tongue. She smelled of honey, butter, and a dash of coconut.

I leaned over her petite body which I’d somehow arranged face down on my lap. I just wanted a closer sniff. Up close, her skin had a silky texture and the soft skin between her shoulder blades was exposed where her tank top had slid down. Damn it, just one taste. Oh, hell. And I hadn’t tasted anything sweet – or any flavor – in days.

I bit, fast and oh. She tasted like – I moaned and licked my lips. “Honey.” The sound of my voice jolted me back to reality.

Dragging a sleeve across my mouth to remove the drool, I looked out the window to see if I’d been spotted. The guys gathered up their finds. I hoped they couldn’t see me in the dark cab.

The girl hadn’t whimpered. Maybe she was dead. I pressed my fingers to the warm spot where I’d had my lips and hot blood pulsed from the wound I’d given her. Nope, still alive. I wiped the blood from her back.

And so help me, I couldn’t stop myself. I licked every particle from my hand. I even wiped again to gather more – as much as I could. I leaned down to see if I could lick more from her back – and, let’s be honest, maybe even nibble at more of her skin – but the sliding door opened.

I dumped her back on the front seat, this time face up and had only a second to register the small features surrounded by a mass of dark brown curls.

“We got seven. Do you think Dominic will care if we went over?” John’s pointy teeth worked on his bottom lip. A few of the guys wiped at dark specks on their arms and faces.

I lowered my shoulders and smacked the steering wheel. Between my slip up and the guys’, we were going to be in chains before the next morning. “How many are unharmed, guys?”

“All seven. The other five… well, they… won’t be joining us.” Steven adjusted his pants while another guy giggled and wiped at his mouth.

Sometimes I wondered if we really were superior or if that was another one of Dominic’s lies. “Are they dead? That’s unnecessary attention and Dominic won’t like it.” I frowned, but shifted the van into reverse. I wasn’t as worried about the possible deaths, more what Dominic would do if we pissed him off. And I’d dropped our untouched number to six, but hell if I’d tell them that.

Steven smacked the butt of the girl he’d tossed onto another guy’s lap. She didn’t make a sound. Steven laughed and climbed in. “No. We roughed them up, had a little fun. Don’t worry about it.”

I rolled my eyes and waited for the door to slide shut. “Get their phones and shove them in the bag.” The girl next to me didn’t stir. I glanced at her legs. Why couldn’t I have bitten one of her supple thighs instead? My one chance at a solid taste and I wasted it on her back. Not that it was a waste, but – I licked my lips. Better change that mindset.

Raping and pillaging. Not my idea of superior in the least. Lord of the Flies epidemic. Little bastards.

Chapter 3

Dominic paced behind the desk in his office, his features ruddy and sweaty with anger. He splayed his fingers in the air. “I said five, Paul. Five. Did you guys forget how to count?”

Straight posture and looking forward, I shook my head. “No, sir.” The tone of his voice suggested it didn’t matter what I said or did, he was hell bent on finding fault with my actions. I was doomed to fail. He always won.

He slapped the back of his chair, the pop in the room loud against the cement walls. His office was feet from Tom’s cell. I didn’t know how Dominic could stay down there – a human with zombies everywhere – locked up or otherwise.

Dominic moved toward me, got in my face. What if her blood was on my breath? I breathed through my nose and flinched at his scent. Even though he was meat, the smell had an oily tinge compared to the honey-coconut of the girl’s. He’d lost all appeal.

“Pick out the five prettiest and then give the other two to the boys or to Tom. I don’t care.” Dominic stood abruptly and waved his hand toward the door. “Go. I want them ready within the hour. Get that done and you can eat the steak I ordered – if the guys left you any.” Which meant I wouldn’t get anything. Damn.

But the girls? The five prettiest… crap. The rest to Tom? What the hell was Tom supposed to do with them? If not Tom, then the other guys? Hell, no, they’d had their fun in town, but I didn’t say anything. If he found out we were leaving trails, we’d all end up like Tom. Hm. Maybe he’d heard about the mishaps the groups under Tom had gotten into and that was why Tom had ended up in eternal damnation.

Dominic paced around his desk and sat down. A pile of boxes labeled with Travis Duncan, Ph.D., M.D. in permanent marker leaned against the corner of the room. Dominic had a game show face with slicked curls off his forehead and square jaw. Something wasn’t right with the shape of his eyes, like he’d had work done to lift his lids.

He typed into his small laptop and waved his fingers at me. “Go away.”

What did I care? Two less humans to cause trouble. He didn’t care. I wouldn’t care.

I left the office. Closing the door, I turned down the hall. I had to pass the cell doors to get to the stairs. I held my breath and sprinted as fast as I could. The smells were contained, but I couldn’t be certain scents didn’t linger in the hall from before.

I’d locked the girls in a closet off the cafeteria-style kitchen both for their protection and to keep them from escaping. Screams penetrated the door in short spurts. I sighed. They’d be moving and wriggling and there’d be fresh flesh all over the place. They weren’t unconscious and I had to handle them… famished.

Great.

I shoved a jelly-filled donut into my mouth to hold off the cravings. Memories of what donuts tasted like taunted me. Stupid dust-tasting food. Angry, I unlocked the door and swung it open.

My appearance didn’t calm their panic, in fact, it increased and three of the girls covered their mouths and released screams that clotted my marrow with their sheer force.

Now, I know I’m a good looking guy. In high school, before I’d left for spring break, I’d been asked by seven girls and two guys to prom. Football and I got along great, basketball and track for the other seasons kept me in shape, and I had to field ten to fifteen calls from chicks a night. My thick brown hair hadn’t started to thin with the virus yet. My muscles were still intact and hadn’t begun atrophying, and according to the mirror this morning, my brown eyes were still coffee brown with new yellow rings from the virus which, if I do say so myself was not a bad addition. It looked cool.

The gray skin was just on the edges. I was too new for it to affect my limbs, face, or core. The capillaries of my fingertips and toes still functioned but how well, I didn’t know. The lack of oxygen reaching the nerve tissues enhanced their capabilities. I could distinguish between dust and dirt with one minor swipe of my finger.

“Stop screaming. I’m not going to hurt you.” What the heck was the problem? I reached up and wiped at my mouth, a bad habit I wished my mom could hound me about again. Bright red jelly smeared across the back of my hand. Ah. I probably looked like a monster who’d just devoured a whole girl. Well, as pretty as they were, I wasn’t into them that way. Okay, yes I was, but I’d rather eat them instead of have sex with them. I was that hungry. After I’d eaten would be a different story.

The one with honey for blood sat in the back. She watched me from under thick brown bangs with blue eyes I couldn’t compare to any others I’d seen before. Her smooth features and fearless mouth intrigued me. Humans were weak… wasn’t I one once? She should be freaking out like the other six crybabies.

But she watched me, and it unnerved me more than the screaming, the possibilities of what I had to do with the extra two, and what would happen with the five. Like she knew what I was and she didn’t care. But that wasn’t possible, because what I was hadn’t been discovered yet by scientists – just the research assistant Dominic had been before he’d started his gang.

I had to focus and staring into her eyes wasn’t helping me do my job. Eying each girl, I took in their scanty clothing, long smooth limbs smudged with sweat, dirt, and dust, a few with blood, and their faces streaked with tears.

“Let’s get into the showers. I need to be able to tell what you chicks look like and I can’t if you’re covered in grime.” I stepped back and motioned them to walk past me. “If you try to run, I’ll let you go and you can deal with the boys who grabbed you, or you can do what I say and we’ll see how far I can get you.”

The brunette, the only one in the group of fake blondes and redheads, stood, striking a figure that I ground my teeth at. Slim but rounded at the hips and butt and, of course, the chest, she looked to be made of athletic womanhood.

Something my dad had once told me about steak sprang to mind, “The range animals are good ‘cause they get their exercise and have more muscle.” Her bare thighs tightened with each step toward me and I couldn’t help but wonder what type of marbling women had.

She stared me down. What the hell? She had some nerve meeting my gaze. Didn’t she recognize superiority when she saw it? But a part of me had started wondering if Dominic was right. If we were superior, why hadn’t he injected the virus into himself?

Abreast of me – oh, man, breast – I tried not to blink or let my eyes stray downward to the tanned skin peaking from the fitted V-neck tank top she wore. Hell, I was dying. I wasn’t dead. Uh, I lost my train of thought. I was really hungry.

She stopped in front of me and spoke with words coated in her scent. “If you didn’t want us dirty, you shouldn’t have taken us. She looked over her shoulder and motioned the other girls to their feet. “Come on. We can’t fight from the floor.” Yanking her head in my direction, she spoke calmly but with heat. “He’s just one. I think we can take him.”

Huh? Take me? She couldn’t be serious. I was so strong I scared myself. And I was hungry. They had no idea what I was capable of. I laughed.

The wench shoved me.

I stumbled back into the counter, taking a sharp edge in my spine.

She grabbed a knife from the sink inches behind her. Arms in the air in an MMA fighting stance, she calmly spoke to the girls over her shoulder, eyes steady on me. “Get to the door. I’ll lock him in the closet. We can get out of here.”

The other six moved with the speed of cold motor oil.

I held my grin and watched. At least I was entertained. Legs paraded past. One girl leaned toward my wannabe captor and whispered, “Thanks, Heather.”

Heather, hm? She didn’t look like a Heather with her tan skin and dark hair. I would have pegged her with a more exotic name like Roxanne. Maybe I’d call her Roxi while she still lived. Not out loud of course – she wanted to do damage with that knife, her eagerness to cut me evident in the movement of the blade. She held it like she knew what she was doing. Even through my annoyance, I was impressed and didn’t want to let on how dull the knife was. Like a spoon.

I righted myself and crossed my arms. The other girls waited by the door, glowing against the dark backdrop of the night. If they went any further over the threshold, they’d trip the motion sensors and flood the yard with light.

Heather followed my gaze to the girls and looked back at me. She jerked her arm toward me as if she wanted me to move back. Her lip curled up. Even angry she had the appeal of honeysuckle to a hummingbird. A graying, dying hummingbird.

My eyebrow quirked. I couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across my face. Chica had spunk. I didn’t want her to go to Dominic or Tom and I certainly didn’t want to give her to the other guys. Assholes didn’t need any more fun for the night.

She dropped her arms a few inches and pulled her head back. Her jaw set. “Are you laughing at me?”

I smothered the humor she’d sensed. Uh, I could lie, but why lie to someone who didn’t have a lot of options. Hands out, I shrugged, turning on the charm when I really wanted to backhand her, take her down a peg. “What do you want me to say? You’re cute.”

Ooh, that pissed her off. She stepped toward me, holding her arms away from her body, giving me my in.

I stepped forward and grabbed her wrists. She was strong, especially for a small thing, but I was stronger and she knew it. Inhaling her scent, I murmured low, looking down on her head as she stared at my chest. “Let go and I’ll make sure you’re not handed over to the gang of men out there.” Pity filled me. “Trust me, you don’t want that.”

She raised her eyes to mine. A suspicious moisture added shine in the kitchen fluorescence. “Can you promise that for all of us?”

For all of them? She was worried about the other six and not just herself. I hadn’t seen that kind of selflessness in humans… in a while. More when I had lived as one before, after my parents’ divorce or in dealings with my brother. In my new world it was do or get done.

But I couldn’t lie to her, especially now with her integrity dressing her in appealing fashion. “No. I can’t.”

She lowered her eyes, but released the knife. The clattering as it landed on the floor set off muted shrieks from the group by the door. “Then I don’t want special treatment either.”

Under different circumstances, my jaw might have dropped. But I was above that. She’d already surprised the hell out of me and I refused to let it happen again.

I missed the feel of her silky skin in my hands – combine that with her scent, taste – nope, I hadn’t forgotten – and her spunk and I’d never touched another creature like her. “Okay. I can give you that.” But she’d gotten under my skin. Crap. I’d try to watch out for her as long as I could.

She yanked her hands from mine and joined the group but hung at the edge of the cluster, head down.

“Let’s try this again. Yes, there are more of you than me, but there are more of us out there.” I nodded my head toward the yard. The boys shuffled around, itching for something they couldn’t scratch with any of the food in the buffet. They’d brushed against satisfying their cravings with the bodies they’d left in the alley, but a taste-tease didn’t do more than a lap dance would do for a celibate. A truck hadn’t delivered meat. One more promise Dominic failed to deliver on.

They were hungry and the only fresh meat stood just inside the door, silhouetted in the light. The girls didn’t realize what kind of a spot they were in. Fourteen young men with immediate needs waited for them outside while another waited for them inside. Both groups wanted to devour them, but only one would make certain they made it to the next step.

I pointed to the locker-style bathroom door just off the kitchen. “Come on, ladies. Let’s get this going.”

The desperation for escape overcame a blonde on the external edge of the huddle. I heard more than saw her footsteps racing from the doorway. Pat, pat, pat, pat.

The motion lights popped on.

Pat, pat, pat.

A growl.

She screamed. A thud.

The other girls screamed, but covered their mouths, eyes wide, unable to turn away. The screaming continued mixed with smacking noises and growls. More snarls joined in.

I closed my eyes. Damn it. When I opened them the girls had moved into the room, close enough to brush arms against my shirt sleeve. Heather reached out and pulled the door shut, keeping her gaze from the now-silent scene feet from the opening.

A moment for them to collect themselves would hurt more than one would think. Giving prey time to consider their options was never a smart move.

I ushered them into the bathroom, herding them from behind. We had to pass through the showers to get to the front changing area packed with lockers and benches. Another door waited, leading to the yard out front. I locked the one to the kitchen behind me. I didn’t want to watch two exits when I had to watch six girls desperate for their lives.

“You’re going to drop your clothes and toss them over here. I’ll dispose of them. You’ll each get two towels – one for your hair and one for your bodies. After you’re clean and dry, new outfits can be found in the closet here.” I opened the walk-in closet door and flipped on the light. The amount of clothing was unreal. This was my first time seeing girls at the compound. I only knew where the items were because my curiosity seemed to increase with my metabolism. When I’d found the clothing on one search, I’d been confused, but had moved on.

Half-walls separated the benches over tile flooring from the shower area.

I leaned on the wall closest to the door and waited. Yep, I’d been reduced to voyeurism. On human girls. That I couldn’t and really didn’t want to eat. But what I wanted and my body craved were two different things. Good for them I had more control than the idiots we’d left outside.

Dominic would be pissed. Or he wouldn’t. I still had to offer up one more like that. But he liked privacy and the kill happening outside the walls of the warehouse would irritate him more than the actual death or how it happened. He had a “Big-Brother-is-spying-on-me” complex.

“Can you look somewhere else?” Heather hadn’t been put far enough in her place. She’d moved between me and the group, blocking them with her body.

I didn’t care about seeing them, anyway. On the flip side, I’d love to see what was under her clothing, see if she looked as good as she tasted. “I can watch you, if you’d like. Or did you have a different suggestion?”

She crossed her arms, serious annoyance in her set lips. “There’s a TV. Turn that on.”

Ooh, she had energy. I gave her the benefit of the moment and turned from the group to the TV propped in the corner of the room above the door. The remote hid in the junction between the half wall and the main wall.

Twenty-four hour news would be the only thing on that late in the night. Boring. I needed my focus free for my job anyway.

A pallid-faced man, bags heavy under his eyes, stared balefully at the camera. His mouth moved as if independent of his head. A second later the sound followed and matched his lips.

A pair of shorts fell beside me. Naked girls feet from me. Holy crap.

Saliva filled my mouth. Dominic couldn’t have thought anything through, sending me in with the girls without feeding me. The news. Focus on the news.

“The mob-like gang has increased their hits in the last few weeks. More victims fill the hospitals each night. Some do not make it out alive after being bitten and mauled so ferociously.” He had my attention. Bitten? More and more victims. I hadn’t been out on a hunt in a couple days, but they had more every night?

“Tonight five girls were attacked north of the university. Seven are still unaccounted for. None of them have regained consciousness yet, but their injuries are related to sexual assault and cannibalism. The police have set to rest rumors about a rabid animal loose in the city by replacing it with the report that the teeth marks in the girls’ bodies are definitely human.

“In Henderson, an hour following the attacks by UNLV, a group of men leaving a church social were attacked and left for dead. Two survived and are recovering in the Sienna Hospital. Most attacks happen at night. The authorities are requesting that everyone stay inside after the sun goes down.”

The camera zoomed in. “In other news, the list of missing people is rising in the Las Vegas area…”

I tuned out. Of course the number was rising, idiot. But the boys and I hadn’t been in Henderson. We got the girls and came straight back to the warehouse.

A shirt hit my arm.

I glanced toward the girls. Heather’s back was to me. The dark red crescent I’d left on her back stark in the pale skin. A distinct tan line showed the lines of her swimsuit and the tops she wore. I tried, I really did, but I couldn’t help my gaze from straying to her rear.

Son of a —

She turned and bit out. “Find what you’re looking for?”

I snapped my eyes up above her head. But I saw her chest in silhouette. Yikes. She didn’t even look embarrassed. Although with a body shaped like hers, she had no reason to be.

Too much ran through my mind. The overload on my senses acted like dynamite. I felt like I was going to explode.

I needed to tell Dominic about the news report. He never watched anything besides conspiracy theories and political debates, so the chance he’d heard the information was slim.

My only escape was out through the yard. “I’m going to lock the door to protect you from the men outside.” I forced my voice to carry over the water spraying in the cavernous room, but avoided looking at any of them. “I’ll knock three times when I come back. Let me in.” Outside the door, I let the coolness of the predawn sweep over me – if ninety degrees could be considered cool.

Heather’s curves were going to haunt me for quite a while.

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Author: Chelsea Paulson

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