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    WARNING: Stories on this site may contain mature language and situations, and may be inappropriate for readers under the age of 18.

    HUNGER IN THE DEEP DARK WOODS: THE CONCLUSION By Mike Buckendorf
    September 25, 2012  Longer stories   Tags: ,   

    Chapters 6 & 7 in the “Hunger” Series

    Chapter 8

    “Well, I think the whole situation is verruckt, fucking crazy.”  Horst crossed his arms and sulked in the back of the American deuce-and-a-half truck as it bounced along the road back towards Ornel.

    Burkhardt rolled his eyes.  “Of course you do.  You’ve always been a complainer.  Do you know that?”

    “Jah,” Rudi nodded impatiently.  “You’ve never been satisfied with anything the entire time I’ve know you, Horst.  What is the problem anyway?  I thought the whole idea was to surrender to the Amis or the Tommies and sit out the last few weeks of the war.  Well, we have and we’re still alive.  Mission accomplished!”

    Horst snorted derisively. “Idioten, both of you.  I’ll tell you what the problem is.  Sure, we’ve successfully surrendered, but considering the direction we’re going in, I’d almost have to face the Feldjaeger instead.  You might at least be able to bribe one of them if he isn’t a total bastard.  These things?  It doesn’t look as if you can reason with them all too well.  I think going back into Ornel is a complete mistake.  If the Ami’s want to go check it out, then fine.  But why drag us along?  Their Oberst said it himself.  The war is now over for us, so why are we being brought along on this fools errand?  You’d think they’d send one truck at least back to their camp with us while the others drove on in to reconnoiter Ornel.”

    Burkhardt chuckled.  “You’d complain if you were hanged with a new rope.  Do you know that?’

    “Fuck you, Franz.  I’d complain if I was hanged regardless.  If our own Fepo’s had picked us up instead of these soft-hearted Americans, that’s exactly what they’d be doing too.”  He glared at his companion, expecting, and even hoping for a return insult.  Burkhardt just grinned at him and took a long drag on an American cigarette.

    “Wait…where did you get that?  You’ve been holding out, you bastard! We smoked all the ones we got from that mis-drop this morning! And where’s your feldmutze?”

    Burkhardt blew smoke rings nonchalantly.  “I got the cigarettes from an American MP.  He traded an entire carton for my feldmutze.  Can you believe it? A whole carton! He said he hadn’t gotten any German souvenirs yet and he wanted a cap to send back to his little brother.  Besides, I think it still had lice in it from Belgium.  If he wants it, he can have it.  You see, you always look as if the glass is half-empty, Horst.  For me, the war is over and I couldn’t be happier.  I will gladly hand over whatever useless shit I’ve got on me for a bar of chocolate, a pack of smokes, whatever the hell they want.  You on the other hand, will continue to bitch and moan as if you were some old maid for the rest of your life, regardless of the luxuries that land in your lap.  I hope they put us in separate camps.”

     

    Reuter couldn’t help but laugh a little at their banter.  Still, Horst did have a point.  He didn’t have any good feelings about going back into Ornel either, or even its outskirts.  In fact, the farther he could get away from whatever remained of that doomed little village, the better he felt.  He looked over at the woman who sat across from him in the back of the American truck and the somber reality of their situation reinforced itself.  She clutched the young boy leaning against her fiercely.  Obviously, they were the only family either one of them had at this point.

    “You know, in all this confusion I’ve yet to learn your name, fraulein.”

    She looked up wearily.  Reuter noticed that though her face was a little on the plain side, gaunt even through the rationing of wartime, her dark hair was a lustrous black.  It was very striking.  “Marlene Peiper.  My nephew is named Gunter.”

    Reuter nodded.  “I am sorry for your losses today.  Hans is my brother.  Our mother still lives outside Dusseldorf, but most of our family, our father and uncle died on the Ostfront.”

    She shrugged.  “Then we are in similar company.  I had a husband for a very brief while.  He never came back from Stalingrad, which happened to a lot of young wives around here. That was nearly three years ago.  I don’t want to talk about death anymore.  I think we’ve all seen enough of it today to last awhile, don’t you think?

    “Jah.  I think you’re right.  Tell me, do you have some place you can go to now?  I don’t think there will be much of Ornel left to go back to.”

    “Nein.  I haven’t given it much thought.  I wouldn’t stay here after today anyway.  I never believed a land could be cursed before, but…”

    “Jah, aber naturlich.  I don’t blame you.  I loved living in Dusseldorf as a boy.  It was a beautiful city, not as big as Munich of course.  But it was a pleasant place to live.  You might consider it as a place.”

    Marlene laughed humorlessly.  “I suppose you’d be there too, eh?”

    Reuter shrugged, blushing a little.  “I…um, hadn’t thought about it much.  I guess so.  Home is home, nicht wahr?”

    She turned away from him, though not before casting a sideways glance directly into his eyes.  What it meant, he’d hardly be able to comment on just yet, though it certainly piqued his interests.  “I’ll keep it under advisement.  I’m going to sleep now.  Don’t disturb me unless more of those damn things show up again, or until we arrive at the Ami’s camp.  Whichever comes first.”

    “You don’t want to see Ornel when we arrive?”

    She shrugged.  “What is there to see?  Rubble?  Fire?  Bodies?  I’ve been to the big city, Reuter.  I’ve seen all that already.”

     

    In the jeep in front of the truck holding the German prisoners, Martin Knight and Joe Kirk drove on.  Both kept silent for the most part.  Kirk had problems enough just wrapping his head around the concepts he’d seen today, let alone discussing them.  If anything, he wanted nothing more than to be back in Devonshire at his local pub, playing darts and downing pints till he was so piss drunk he couldn’t remember he’d ever been in a war.  He wanted the oblivion of intoxication that made him forget about everything, if even for just a little while. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be today.  “What’s on yer mind, mate?”

    Knight grimaced angrily.  “This was supposed to be a simple reconnaissance, right?  We weren’t supposed to do anything more than scout out the fookin’ road ahead of the column.  I’ve lost two men today, Joe.  Clive was a poncy bastard sure enough, but you didn’t see him die.  No man should have to die like that.  I can’t get it out of me head.  And Allen either.  He was a little wanker, had no business being where he was.  Christ, a kid like that should be back at home, poppin’ his spots in the mirror and chasing girls in skirts.”

    Kirk sighed.  “Aye.  You’ll not get an argument from me, Martin.  It’s a damn right shame that two old fooks like us who’ve been through the damn thing since it started are still around and young lads like them get killed.  It’s been a crazy war, eh?”

    Knight’s scowl intensified.  “Not like today, it hasn’t.  Never thought I’d see the day I’d stand side by side with the Jerries, let alone doin’ it fighting some shamblin’ fookin’ nightmares intent on eatin’ us.  What in God’s name has this all been about?”

    Kirk dropped his hand to his friend’s shoulder.  “Dinnae be losin’ it on me, mate.  Ye’re of tougher stuff than that.  What I cannae understand is this Yank Colonel.  He’s a daft one, waiting over twenty years for somethin’ like this to rear its ugly head again.”

    Martin Knight nodded slowly.  “Aye.  And that’s part of what’s botherin’ me still.  Typical Yank attitude, eh?  They stroll in with all the guns and equipment ye could ever envision, all the men, all the bloody toys and act as if they know the whole damn show inside and out.  What’s worse is that he’s completely right.  I’m not bein’ ungrateful to the man, mind ye.  He’s already saved our arses once today an’ I’m damn thankful at least somebody had a plan up their sleeve for dealin’ with’ this.  I’m just tired of the bloody Yanks havin’ to come bail us out yet again.  It’s getting’ to be an embarrassment.”

    Kirk shrugged.  “That may be, but I’d much rather Colonel Kaplan cover for us with our brass than deal with them ourselves.  That alone buys the man as many pints as he wants as far as I’m concerned.”

    “Aye,” Martin agreed as he gripped the steering wheel harder.  “Though after today, I’ll probably drink the man under the table and still not get this shite out of me mind.”

     

    Col. Kaplan stood up in the lead jeep, field glasses fixed to his eyes as he scanned the road ahead of him.  So far there had been nothing to see.  It wouldn’t be that easy though and he knew it.  The bombardment had concluded over forty-five minutes ago and the town of Ornel was still ablaze.  Whatever zombies were still up and walking would have begun to shamble off from the flames at this point, so running into a contingent was inevitable.

    He listened intently to the radio in his jeep as he scanned through his binoculars.  He had both the observation plane and the D-64 in the air already above the village, though neither one had anything to report as yet.  Neither Captain Ballard or Sergeant Kramden could see anything through that smoke and flame.  Still, he refused to take chances with this.  He’d use every resource open to him.

    This was all down to him now, which made him feel very weary indeed.  Many of his contacts from the Great War, those with whom he’d made this solemn and frightening pact were either dead or otherwise occupied.  Only one of his British friends was still active, serving with RAF Command back in London.  His friends in the French military were long gone. He hadn’t heard from any of them since France fell to the Germans back in the spring of ’40.  And Sergeant Mitchell was now a Major, with his own command over in the Pacific.  He’d have to get word to him about this once it was all over with.  He’d definitely want to know.  He also wondered if Mitchell had encountered anything like this fighting the Japs.  God knows something horrific like this would be very much welcome in the Emperor’s dwindling offensive resources. But no, Mitchell would have immediately sent him word if he’d had.

     

    A figure taking shape up the road, awkwardly walking out of the smoke and haze coming out of the direction of Ornel shook him from his reverie.  “I’ll be goddamned.  Here we go.”  He signaled his driver to stop and the lanky Colonel hopped out of his jeep as the convoy ground to a halt.  He gestured to the two soldiers who’d accompanied him in the D-64 when he first met up with Martin and Reuter’s ragtag entourage.  With practiced ease, the two men hooked up the flame-thrower and trod off after him.

    “Sergeant Brewer, assemble the men.  They need to see this.  But don’t be stupid about it.  Leave guards on the Germans and establish sentries on either side of the convoy and in the rear.  Shoot anything that approaches.  And goddammit, I mean anything.  You tell them that.  And aim for the head.”

    The Sergeant driving Kaplan’s jeep cocked an eyebrow in skeptical surprise, but nodded with a precisely executed “Yes Sir!” and leapt out of the jeep to carry it out.  It didn’t matter if they thought he was a crack-headed old man at this point, Kaplan thought.  Let them think whatever the hell they want, as long as they carry out the orders.  They’ll believe soon enough.

     

    Within a minute, fifteen MP’s stood gathered around Colonel Kaplan.  Four more stood on either side of their five-vehicle convoy with two more at the rear of it.  Martin scanned the woods and tossed a look in Kirk’s direction. “Joe, best ye devote your attention to those MP’s guarding the rear and East side of the convoy. I’ll stick with the West.  There’s no sense in the two of us sticking around for Kaplan’s lesson on dealing with these undead tossers.  We’ve already graduated, eh?”

    Kirk nodded.  “Aye.  I think the Colonel agrees with us.  He’s already caught me eye and indicated as much.”

    Martin sighed.  The bloody Yank was right again.  “Aye.  Let’s get to it.”

     

    As Martin and Kirk took up their positions near the American MP’s on the perimeter, Colonel Kaplan waited till the approaching zombie got within fifty yards of the men.  So far, no others had been spotted.  This was a good one to demonstrate with.  Half its face was missing and one arm dangled from a thin thread of sinew and muscle tissue.  Most of those injuries had been inflicted during the bombardment, though an obvious gash and bite marks adorned his throat. Half of his feldgrau tunic was burned and charred away, barely rendering the SS runes on his collar tabs legible. The Medic in their detachment was already aching to rush out there and treat the poor sonofabitch, but Kaplan forbade it.  “Goddammit, you maintain you position.  You’ll know why in a second,” he told the young man sternly.

    “Now pay attention!  What you are seeing here is not a man anymore.  I have seen this, when I was as young as most of you.  I know from experience.  This thing you see coming towards us is not a human being.  It is deader than a goddamned doornail, but its still on its feet.  I know how impossible this sounds, but I will prove to you beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s true.”

    With that, Kaplan turned on his heel and approached the monster.  He slid his Colt 1911 from its holster and planted a .45 caliber slug directly in the approaching horror’s kneecap.  It toppled like a house of cards, but didn’t even register the wound through any expression or cry of pain.  It dragged itself forward, mewling with longing.

    Kaplan walked up to the creature and shot it in the other knee.  With both legs now immobile, he planted his boot firmly to the thing’s back and ordered two MP’s forward.  “Fix your bayonets and pin this bastard to the ground.  I want that remaining arm totally planted.”  With a look of disgust, the two soldiers did as ordered and the rotting figure was soon pinned to the ground as if it were a butterfly in an insect collection.

    Kaplan knelt down on the creature’s back.  “Now observe.  Look at this body.  The trauma alone from his arm getting severed would have caused him to bleed out long ago.  Look at his face.  Same thing here too.  He is dead, kaput, blown away.  Get that through your heads and keep it there.”  He watched the expressions on their faces.  Fear and revulsion crawled across them, but denial remained chief.  They wouldn’t, couldn’t believe it.  Well, he’d have to show them some more.

    “Alright.  I didn’t want to have to take it this far, but here goes.”  Colonel Kaplan reached around to his pistol belt and took his hatchet from its pouch.  With two deft strokes he decapitated the creature.  As he chopped, he heard three of the MP’s throw up loudly.  He grimaced.  He would’ve preferred bringing combat troops up here to deal with this, but this contingent of Military Police were all he had available at such short notice.  This lot was used to writing tickets, picking up local frauleins and gathering up as much loot as they could carry.  Military cops were like that in the last war too, but hell, they had to lose that cherry sometime.

    The body went immediately slack, though no blood jetted out from the stump of the neck that remained.  The Colonel then followed up by grasping the head by the hair and holding it up before his troops as if he were Perseus holding the severed head of Medusa.  The eyes continued to move and the jaw worked reflexively, attempting to bite everything in front of it.  “Do you get it now? Now come up and take a close look if you have to, but for God sake don’t let it bite you.  Do not let that thing bite you under any circumstances or you’ll get infected and end up just like him.”

    Some of the men turned away in disgust, clearly convinced but not eager to examine it any closer.  Others approached, curiosity mixed with revulsion.

    “Jesus Christ, Colonel!  How in the hell do you kill one of these things?  If they’re already dead, how do you drop ‘em for good?”

    “Glad you asked, son.”  Kaplan shooed the men aside and then dropped the head to the ground.  He fired another round directly into it.  The eyes closed and the jaw went slack, indicating that the reeking abomination was down for the count.  “That’s how.  Now all of you memorize that.  You are the clean-up crew for this mess.  Our British friend, Sergeant Martin and that contingent of Germans under your guard now fought like hell to keep this contained before I called in those bombers.  The source of the infestation is the village we’re about to enter.  Your assignment is to kill any and all stragglers that the bombs didn’t wipe out.  It ain’t about making money on the black market anymore, gentlemen.”  He noted the fleeting guilty looks that swept over the faces of some of the men.  Yeah, he knew what they were all about.  You didn’t stay in the Army your entire adult life and not figure out a few things.  “It’s time to grow up, time to act like soldiers and shoulder this responsibility.  It is imperative that none of these things get past us.  Now in all likelihood, there are only a few left.  But be aware, be vigilant and above all, do not get bitten.  Trust me on this, you will turn into one of these things if you are.”

    One of the men raised his hand.  “Colonel, what do we do if one of the guys does get bitten?”

    “Make him as comfortable as possible, let him make peace with his maker.  Then shoot him in the head.  I am not joking about this and I will not hesitate to shoot any one of you or myself for that matter.”

     

    “Colonel, heads up.  We’ve got another bogey coming around the bend. You want I should zippo this one?  Hell, he’s just about done cooking anyway.” The Sergeant holding the flamethrower gestured up the road.  Shambling awkwardly towards them was another zombie, this one too in the charred and bloody remnants of a German uniform with Schutzstaffel insignia.  This one was burned almost beyond recognition. His uniform was still smoldering as he walked towards them.

    “No.  Not yet, Sergeant Walowski.” Kaplan replied.  “Let’s reel this one in too and do the demonstration again.  I want those MP’s on perimeter brought in so we’re all on the same page here.  Brewer, you’re on it.”

    “Yes Sir.  You three, come with me.” Sergeant Brewer turned and trotted off back towards the trucks with the three MPs in tow behind him.  Within moments the MPs on perimeter gathered at the head of the column, and Colonel Kaplan began continuing their education.  Periodically a gunshot would reverberate, punctuating a new place in the lesson.

     

    “Jesus Christ, this is sickening!  And you guys actually fought a whole town of those things?  How?  There’s only seven of you!”  Brewer had been a cop back in Baltimore before he got drafted, not a particularly good one, but not the worst example either.  He walked a beat, wrote tickets, stopped the local kids from throwing rocks at windows, even occasionally hauled in a drunk or two.  Through five years on the force, he’d only been in three fights and seen one dead body.  He’d never been on the take, and he’d been proud of that fact.  But he’d also never been promoted either.  Five years in and he was still pounding a beat in a relatively quiet neighborhood.  Along came the war and he figured he’d just go on being a cop.  And much to his chagrin, he found out it was pretty much the same.  That all changed when they got to Europe.  He’d found out that bribery and a little honest graft actually did get you ahead.  A little bit of hustling, a little kickback here and there had netted him some Sergeant stripes and a cushy position in the rear with the gear.

    It was only through the crap fortunes of war that his military police contingent wound up attached to the 104th in a relative forward position as part of that push into Wessel.  One minute he’d been directing traffic, the next he and two squads of men were suddenly up here in the middle of nowhere, getting ready to fight some nasty pieces of work straight out of an RKO radio picture.  It wasn’t fair.  He had two crates of rare wine and a case of silk stockings ready to sell on the black market, plus a very willing Belgium blonde waiting for him back to the west.  This wasn’t fair at all.  Anger and disappointment mixed with fear and revulsion.  He felt his stomach doing somersaults.

    Martin took a shot from his flask of brandy and handed it to Kirk.  “Aye, well there were nine of us at one point.”

    Brewer nodded.  “Even so, a whole town?  I’m…I think I’m going to be sick.”

     

    Voices speaking in German soon started up in conversation from the truck they stood beside.  Martin first heard the woman speaking, then Hans, Reuter’s brother.  Dietel poked his head out of the truck and Martin handed the flask to him.  “Ach, danke. Marlene got woken up by all the talking.  Hans was bringing her up to speed.  She says it wasn’t the whole town.  There had been at least 170 people living in or immediately around the village.  We killed about sixty or so, correct?  Your Colonel is probably right that the bombardment took out most of those that remained though.”

     

    “God, I hope so,” Brewer replied.  He could seriously have used a drag on that flask at this point.  Unfortunately, the limey wasn’t sharing with him.  “Those two SS guys we found coming out of the fire were all messed up.  I really don’t want to run into any more like that.”

    Hans translated the frightened MP’s statement to the others, which promptly elicited a strident response from Marlene.  Reuter held up her hands to quiet her and turned back towards Martin, Kirk and Brewer.

    “We should talk to Colonel Kaplan about this development.  Marlene says there were no SS troops in Ornel.  She says there weren’t any military personnel in the village at all before poor Leutnant Johannes stumbled in there this morning and started all this.”

     

    “Oh, shite.  Yeah, we’d better.  Reuter, you and Hans better come along and we’ll relay this to him.”  As the Dietel brothers hopped down from the bed of the truck, Brewer spoke up loudly, his hand reflexively going toward the .45 on his hip.  “Hey!  Those Krauts aren’t allowed out of there!  Get back in the truck!”  He stopped when he felt Kirk’s hand fall over his own, blocking him from grabbing his sidearm.  The Brit already had his webley out and ready, far quicker than the MP could have.

    “Mind yerself, mate.  Those two know a whole helluva lot more about the situation that you do.  I think it best your Colonel talk to these lads.”  Some of these yank MPs were a little on the skittish side, this one definitely anyway.  That could be a problem.

    Brewer relaxed after a moment.  “Fine, fine.  But they’re still prisoners and they’re still under my watch.  Wherever they go, I’m going.  And don’t grab my arm again, got it?”

    Kirk nodded.  “Fair enough.  Don’t play the arse and I won’t.”

    As the Dietel brothers, Brewer, and the two Brits strode off towards the head of the column, Martin couldn’t help snickering at his friend.  “Ye might have set back Anglo-American relation a bit there, mate.”

    Kirk shrugged indifferently.  “Nah, these rear echelon types are all a bit soft is all.  They just need to be slapped around a bit every now and then.  He lives through today?  He’ll be tougher for it.”

    “Aye, but that’s the problem, ennit?”

     

    Kaplan was not initially pleased when he saw two of the Germans walking up towards him with Brewer and the two British soldiers in tow.  At least they were under guard.  He categorically did not want those Krauts out in sight of the men anymore than was necessary.  The soldiers under his command had been conditioned to thoroughly hate and shoot at anything wearing a German uniform.  The Military Police were a little different in that they handled prisoners all the time, but still he didn’t want to take any chances.  It didn’t matter that this lot were no longer fighting.  An itchy trigger could waste all of them if he didn’t keep them contained and for the most part out of sight.  And though he wouldn’t admit it, he actually had a pretty fair amount of respect for this group, enemy or no.  They’d fought a helluva fight and he wanted them to receive the reward of surviving the day as a result. But when they began speaking he completely understood the necessity.  This changed a lot of things, made the whole equation a lot more dangerous.

    “You know what this means, don’t you?  If there were troops in Ornel prior to the bombing, but after you fled it, then they had to have encountered these things.”

    “Jah, that’s true, herr Oberst.  But the two you’ve destroyed had already been turned.  Is it possible that any SS that came into the village were overwhelmed and devoured?”

    “Well, that’s a possibility,” Martin chimed in.  “But we can’t bank on that.  If any did survive, then we’ll not only have to deal with mopping up zombies, but armed Jerries too.  That ups the ante a bit ‘cause we’ll have two sets of adversaries, one of whom can actually fire back at us.”

    Hans raised a hand tentatively.  “Herr Oberst, may I look at one of the SS bodies?”

    Kaplan nodded.  “Knock yourself out, kid.  But why?”

    Hans knelt next to the decapitated corpse and rolled the partially burned body over.  There, hanging from a metal chain around its neck was a triangular metal gorget with twin SS runes on either end, and the wordfeldjaeger emblazoned across it.

    Reuter spat on the ground.  “Fepos.  These fellows were our own military police.  They’d no doubt come into Ornel looking for deserters and stragglers.  More to the point, they were looking for us, no doubt.  If they ran into those things, I hope they tore the rest of them limb from limb.”

     

    Kaplan grimaced in thought.  “I agree with the sentiment, Sergeant.  But there’s another matter to consider.  If they had trucks, they might have foreseen another possibility.”

    Reuter and Hans looked at each other uncomprehendingly.  So did Martin and Kirk.  “We’re not following you, Colonel.  What would that have to do with anything?”

    Kaplan waved them away.  “Never mind.  Just a theory at this point, Sergeant Knight.  It might be nothing. I pray that it’s nothing.”

     

    Before they could further press the line of questioning, a volley of gunshots erupted to their left.  Coming out of the woods adjacent to the blazing village, stumbled two more bloody and burnt corpses.  One of them was an elderly man, the other a woman, both civilians.  The MPs proved to be quicker studies than Martin wanted to give them credit for.  One went down immediately with an expertly placed shot to the head from an M-1 carbine.  The other suffered three shots to the neck and upper torso before the sergeant wielding the flamethrower stepped up and turned her into a flailing torch, which slowly ceased its movements after a few seconds and fell finally to the ground.

    Kaplan nodded with satisfaction.  They were proving to be quick studies. “Nice shooting, boys.  Alright! Listen up!  There is the possibility that there is a small contingent of Kraut MPs in the village’s ruins as well as these monstrosities.  It’s doubtful they stuck around once the bombardment started, but be on the lookout.  Deploy into two squads and form a skirmish line, maintaining a distance of no more than five yards apart.  Always keep the man next to you in your line of sight.  Even if you don’t initially see them, if these things see you, they will start moaning, so follow that sound and you’ll find your target.  Let’s move with a purpose, people!”

    As the men rushed to get into position, Kaplan turned back towards the Brits and Germans.  “Brewer, you stay here and maintain the guard on the convoy and prisoners.  Keep the four other men on perimeter in their positions.  You two,” he indicated by pointing at Hans and Reuter. “Normally it would be back to the truck for you, but if we do find survivors, I’ll need translators, so hop aboard.  Sergeant Knight, I want you with me too.  I’d like it if your man Kirk stayed behind with Brewer and kept watch on things here.  I want at least one man who knows what the hell he’s doing in position with the vehicles.”

     

    With that, the allied troops began to slowly surge forward towards the black, boiling smoke of the sundered village of Ornel.  As they walked, a moan went up before them, followed by a rifle shot.  Then another.  And another after that.  Kaplan and Martin Knight remained just immediately behind them in Kaplan’s jeep, eyes peeled ahead of them, ears attuned to the radio should the two observation planes overhead spot anything.

     

    Remaining behind with the convoy, Kirk and Brewer stood watching them.  “Shit, I’m glad I’m not going in there.”

    Kirk glanced at him, half with derision, half with pity.  “Y’know what?  I’m glad ye’re not either. Ye’d be a liability.”  He didn’t care if he sounded harsh.  Kirk turned away, bummed a cigarette from Burkhardt and took up position in the back of his own jeep, checking over the fifty cal by habit.  He knew the weapon was ready.  He just hoped he wouldn’t have to use it again today.  Ahead of them, the planes buzzed above the smoke like moths to a flame.

     
    Chapter Nine.

    March 22, 2007.

     

    “Well, what happened next, grossevater?”  The teenaged boy stared up at the old man with eyes that seemed as wide as the full moon itself.  The old man grinned, his teeth surprisingly white and intact, though his lips and face remained lined with wrinkles like ancient, dried parchment.  The two sat in a dingy apartment within a retirement center outside Dusseldorf.   The events in the village of Ornel were more than a lifetime ago to the old man at this point.  He knew he shouldn’t tell such stories to his great grandson.  They were horrible tales from a horrible time.  But he, like many in his generation, at least those who lived in the west, had been indoctrinated after the war to take responsibility for their actions, to acknowledge the atrocities.  He knew in his heart that he hadn’t been personally responsible, that he himself hadn’t pulled any triggers against civilians, hadn’t operated any gas chambers.  But that collective guilt remained, even over half a century later.  This tale was a little different.  He’d told his great grandson many tales from the war, all of which he’d long since grown bored with.  Finally, he’d confessed his own frustration at not being able to make an impact on the boy and brought this one final tale out of the dim recesses of his memory.  This one was sure to curl his hair, what the old cinemas used to call a ‘white knuckler.’  And it had worked apparently.  The boy sat before him, rapt with attention from the first part of the retelling to this, its conclusion.

    He wondered sometimes if every conquered land felt like this at one point or another. Germany, again at least in the west felt like that for a time.  He remembered Nuremberg and de-Nazification all too well.  He remembered ruins, deprivation, long lines for even the most basic of necessities.  He also remembered that things were far worse in the East, the sectors controlled by the Russians, what eventually became East Germany.  And he remembered a cultural rebirth, a renewed economy, a renewed pride. And none of it had anything to do with a swastika and incoherent ramblings of madmen.   This new generation though…he shook his head, frightened at the notion of these young people who shrugged at the sins of their grandfathers, or God forbid, actually admired that crazy little corporal.  There was hope for his great grandson.  If only he could scare the shit out of him and make him realize that nothing was more important than retaining your humanity. It could all be taken away so easily.  There was a responsibility, a recognition of obligation that needed to be passed on.  The boy was old enough now to know these things.

    “Be patient, Jeroen.  Hand me another cup of tea and I will go on.  And don’t let your mother know I’m telling you these stories.  She already thinks I’m senile.”

    His great grandson smirked as he handed the old man the cup.  “Mother has no imagination.  Even if you tell made-up stories about monsters, I like to hear them.”

    The old man stiffened.  “You think this is a fantasy?  You think that I am the doddering old fool my granddaughter thinks I am?  Look on the maps, sonny.  You tell me if you can find any village named Ornel, at least one still populated.  It’s like that village in France, Ourador.  It is a ghost town, an empty shell, a monument to the dead.  And I was there.  I saw it.”

    The boy frowned.  “I did look it up.  And it was nothing like Ourador-sur-Glane.  That town had been liquidated by the Einsatzgruppen.  Ornel was destroyed by American bombers that accidentally hit the wrong target.  There’s no mention of some outbreak of…rabies and crazy people eating each other.”

    “Of course there’s not!”  The old man’s voice rose, gradually becoming irritated with the young man.  “Do you think that word of what happened there was going to leak out?  Dumpfkoff!  Have you not been listening to a word I’ve said?  But nein…I have to finish the story for you to understand it all.  Even then, I don’t know if you will.  The old man sighed, drank a sip from his cup and sat back into his chair, pausing as he gathered his thoughts.  “We had followed the Ami Oberst as his men gradually encircled the village…”

    1945.  The village of Ornel.

     

    “What’s the count so far?”  Col. Kaplan held the handie talkie to his ear and listened intently as the Sergeant on the other side of their perimeter reported in.

    “Not very high, sir.  We’ve seen a lot of bodies, most of them burnt and blown apart beyond recognition.  The bombers did a helluva job here.  We’ve made light contact, maybe dispatched six or seven of these things.”

    “Good work,” Kaplan intoned solemnly.  “Keep your eyes peeled and don’t let the men slack up at all.  I don’t want a single damn one of those things getting out, understand?”

    “Yessir.  We’re on our toes.”

    “Make sure it stays that way.”  Kaplan signed off and turned back towards Sergeant Knight and the Dietel brothers.  “It looks like we’ve contained them.  Whatever the bombers didn’t destroy, our mop-up sweep seems to have gotten.  I’m not ready to write this area off as secure yet, but I’m not disappointed.”

    Reuter waited as his brother Hans translated.  He nodded in agreement.  The Ami fepos were doing a better job of sealing the village off and killing the creatures than he expected they would.  Still, he was worried.  If Marlene was correct and there had been no military presence in the village prior to Leutnant Johannes wandering into the square with all the victims he’d infected along the way, then where in the hell had those SS bastards come from?

    No sooner had the thought popped into his head than the radioman sitting in the jeep beside Kaplan looked up. “Colonel?  Sergeant Pekar is reporting in again from the other side of the village, sir.  They’ve completed encircling the town and they’ve come across something.”

    Kaplan picked up the handie talkie.  “Go ahead, Sergeant.” Over the crackle of static, Kaplan could hear the pop of small arms fire, five, six shots rang out before he could discern Pekar’s voice.

    “Sir, we just found a Kraut truck on the other side of the village.  It had crashed into a tree and the back end of it had about a half-dozen bodies hanging out the back, looked like they were handcuffed with their mouths gagged, all looked like they’d been taken out with headshots.  There were a couple of dead SS laying around the truck and a couple of those things were feeding on them.  We’d just got done popping them all in the head when we came across a live one. And I do mean a live one, sir.  Its one of the Krauts, not a civilian either.  He had climbed up into a tree and the monsters couldn’t get to him.  Sir, he’s been bitten.  I thought you’d want to interrogate him before he…well, turns.”

    Kaplan looked at Knight and the Dietel’s, frowning.  “You thought right.  Maintain your sweep.  Post a couple of men at the truck to guard the prisoner and we’ll be at your position in a moment.”

     

    As the two jeeps proceeded forward, Martin Knight listened thoughtfully to the radio as the observation planes overhead relayed positions of wandering zombies to the contingent of MP’s on the ground.  It was coordinated and effective, and thankfully only sporadic.  So far, the sweep had encountered perhaps a dozen charred and bloody figures stumbling out of the burning ruins of the village.  Most of them were missing limbs and barely ambulatory, already falling apart.  They offered very little threat of attack.  The bombers had been very effective in their destruction.  If anything, this was overkill for much of the surrounding countryside was now burning and demolished as well.  The site where their other jeep had been overwhelmed and Clive had been killed was unrecognizable.

    Colonel Kaplan nodded with cautious satisfaction with each report, with every rifle retort.  But his caution was well warranted.  If even one of these monstrosities escaped their cordon, all the effectiveness in the world could become undone.  They had to take a circuitous route, one that skirted the conflagration that had once been a town, driving directly through fields and orchards, avoiding where they could the grass fires spiking up from flaming debris.  At last, the two jeeps came back to the road leading out of Ornel. There, they found a German truck, its front end wrapped around a large oak.  Knight and Reuter automatically scanned the surrounding area, noting that the American MP’s had already dispersed back into a defensive perimeter, continuing their sweep of the fields.  Two Americans remained at the wrecked truck.  Around them lay several bodies, some with ghastly wounds.  One dead German lay sprawled alongside the passenger door of the truck, his entrails spilled out across the road.  Around him lay two dispatched zombies, their heads blown open by 30.06 rounds.  Another lay half-in, half-out of the back of the truck.  There was little left to even recognize him as having once been a human being aside from the coal-scuttle helmet still strapped atop his head, the shreds of fabric from his uniform and a pair of hobnail boots.  Almost every strip of flesh had been torn from his skeletal frame.  His, like all the corpses surrounding the truck bore bullet holes in their skulls.  Better safe than sorry.

    Next to the right front tire under the watchful eye of one of the American MP’s, his hand wrapped up in a bandage sat a young Deutsche soldaten.  Reuter and Hans exchanged glances at recognizing the metal gorget around his throat identifying him as part of a feldjaeger detachment.  Martin Knight sighed at the looks of him.  He was young, probably no older than seventeen.

    Colonel Kaplan pointed at Hans. “You’re the one who speaks English well. Talk to him and be quick about it.  We don’t know how much time he’s got left.  I need to know what they were doing with those zombies in the back of their truck, why they were evacuating them from the village, and if there was another truck with them that got away.”

    “Jahwol, herr Oberst,” Hans automatically responded.  He leaned forward to the stricken soldier.  “Wer bist du, jugend?”

    He spat at him.  “I don’t speak to traitors and deserters. Go back to being a whore to the Amis, coward.”

    “You know you don’t have long.  You’ve been bitten, jah?  You know what will happen to you.  I need to know what you were doing in Ornel.  Why were you loading up those crazy people in this truck?”

    The young man hesitated for a moment.  His eyes darted back and forth for some avenue of escape, but it didn’t take him long to figure out that there was none.  “Fine.  I have nothing to lose now by talking to you.  My name is Ernst Kleiner, Feldjaeger detachment to the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend.  We were in this area looking for scum like you, cowardly dogs who would let these mongrels walk into the Fatherland.  At least, at first we were. Obersturmfuhrer Eckers was in charge.  He’d been on the radio a lot with the rear area command the last few days, receiving all sorts of orders to divert from our assignment and stay in the area near Ornel.  We were to find some old castle and check in with some high cadre SS operative who was on assignment there, investigating an artifact or some such that we were to utilize as a weapon against the Amis and the British.  We stopped at Ornel to get a guide to the castle when these things showed up and started attacking everything in sight.  Obersturmfuhrer Eckers got on the radio and our Oberst got very excited, like he knew about them already.  He told the Obersturmfuhrer to gather some of them, to bring them back with us.”  He stopped for a moment, flexing his injured hand.  The skin around it was already turning gray.

    Hans looked back to the end of the truck and the cluster of bound bodies spilling from it.  “And you gathered those we saw in the back of the truck, nicht wahr?  But it all went wrong, apparently.”

    Kleiner grimaced.  “Aber naturlich, it all turned to shit!  We lost over half our squad to those things!  Every time they killed someone, that person got back up and killed somebody else!  And the verdammt villagers all started panicking, rushing over to us looking for help.  They were just getting in the way, hindering us from our task.  The Obersturmfuhrer ordered us to fire into the crowd, disperse them and get them out of our way.  That worked for a bit.  Every villager that went down provided a feast for the creatures.  They were easier to approach then.  But they didn’t like having their meals interrupted.  It took at least three of us to restrain even one of them and not get bitten!  We managed to tie up and gag six of them before their numbers grew too great and they started coming after us again.”

    “And then you fled the village?”

    “We had no reason to stay!  We’d loaded up the specimens Command wanted and it would have been suicide for the rest of us to remain.  Shit, there were only six of us left by that point anyway.  You’re damned right we got out!  But as you can see, it didn’t make a hell of a lot of difference.  They piled up on the truck as we tried driving out.  One of them got up on the runners and reached through the driver’s window.  It bit Heinz in the throat and he crashed the truck into that tree.  Before we could even try to flee on foot, the American bombers showed up and blew the whole place to hell.  We were still hunkered down taking shelter from the bombardment when more of them fell upon us.  The Obersturmfuhrer…well, that’s what’s left of him lying in the back of the truck.  Johann is lying over there.  I managed to climb up into the tree…” he raised his hand.  “But as you can see, I wasn’t quite fast enough.  There…there isn’t any hope after you’ve been bit, jah?  Is that true?”

    Hans looked away, his voice quivering in sympathy even for this goose-stepping little shit fanatic.  “Jah.  I’m afraid not.  I’m sorry.  We’ll try to make you comfortable before the end comes.  Cigaretten?”

    The boy nodded stoically.  “Jah.  Danke.  But this changes nothing, you know.  You are still an arse-licking traitor to Germany and given the chance, I’d still see you hang for it.”

    Reuter knelt beside his brother, withdrawing a cigarette from his breast pocket.  He lit it up in front of the young feldjaeger.  “You are too kind, Hans.  Don’t give this good little fepo shit anything.  He deserves whatever happens to him.  You said there were six of you left when you tried to leave the village.  I only see three bodies.  Was there another truck with you?”

    Kleiner smiled weakly, but with a hint of venom still in his ashen voice.  “That’s for me to know and you to cower in your boots over.  Heil Hitler!”  He tried raising his wounded arm in the national socialist salute, but it trembled violently as if with a palsy and he couldn’t complete it.  He fell back against the truck’s wheel, his breathing becoming more laborious.

    Hans quickly relayed the information to Colonel Kaplan and Sergeant Knight. Kaplan spat and cursed upon hearing it.  “Goddammit! Sounds like I’ve got an opposite number in the German ranks after all.  We’ve got to send one of the planes up the road and see if they can spot a second truck driving away from here.  Driver! Get on the horn with Sergeant Kramden’s plane immediately!”

    As Kaplan turned away and rushed over to his jeep to issue Kramden his orders, Kleiner began to shudder.  One of the MP’s shouldered his carbine and leaned down next to him.  “Christ, this kid is in bad shape.  Look at all the color draining out of his face!  Just fucking look at it!”

    Abruptly, the shuddering suddenly ceased altogether.  Kleiner took a final wracked breath and collapsed, his eyes still wide open.  The MP waved his hand back and forth in front of his glazed eyes and whistled.  “That was the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.  Well, one of ’em anyway after today,” he chuckled.

    Kleiner’s eyes blinked.  Without any warning he sat up and reached for the MP’s arm like a dog lunging for a chew toy, drool leaking around the sides of his snarling mouth.  “Jesus Christ!  Get him offa me!”  The two tumbled onto the ground, Kleiner’s mouth snapping open and shut as he tried tearing through the fabric of the MP’s field jacket.

    “Mein Gott!  Nein!”  Hans dashed forward and grabbed hold of Kleiner’s neck, trying to force his head away from biting the American.  The body was strong and single-minded, utterly focused on feeding.  In reality despite his good intentions, Hans simply provided a closer and more easily accessible target.  Kleiner’s attention quickly shifted focus towards the younger Dietel brother’s hand and he bit down hard on it.  Hans’ index and middle fingers were suddenly gone, blood fountaining out of them as he screamed and jumped back.  The dead fepo sat back, suddenly fixated on wolfing down his new prize.  Jabbering incoherently, the MP backpedaled out of the way furiously, clambering at the dirt like some panicked crab.

    “Hans!  Dammit!  Nein!”  Reuter screamed at the top of his lungs, horrified.  Like his brother, he too dashed forward.  On the side of the truck sat an axe, held in place by its metal carrying brackets.  Before any of the others could draw their weapons and react, Reuter hurled himself at the axe and snatched it out of its housing.  With a snarl of his own, drawn from rage and grief, he raised it above his head and brought it down with a bone-jarring impact.

     

    Chapter Ten.

    March, 2007.

    “Mein Gott, grossevater…What happened next?”  The old man held up the stump of his forearm and waved it around with a mock show of irritation.  “What do you think happened, dumpfkoff?”

    “Wait, you are telling me, Uncle Reuter chopped off your hand?”

    Hans smiled at his grandson with a mild dose of condescension.  “Well, it beat the alternative of letting me get infected and turning into one of those things, jah?”

    Jeroen nodded.  “Jah…  But…you’ve never told anyone in the family before how you lost your hand.  We all knew it had happened in the war, but this…you expect me to believe that THIS happened?”

    “Why do you find it so hard to believe?  Do they teach you nothing in school?  Do you mean to tell me that you know nothing of tales like this?”

    Jeroen looked away.  “Jah…jah, of course I have.  But…”

    Hans sighed.  “But you’ve never heard of tales like this in Germany, nor anywhere in Europe, at least in modern years?”

    He nodded.  “Precisely.  Never over here.  That’s why I find it hard to believe.”

    Hans shook his head in disappointment.  “There is a reason for that.  Herr Oberst Kaplan was very effective at his job, very good at suppressing the story, destroying the evidence.  And none of us were any the willing to tell the story ourselves.”

    “But why?”

    “Why do you think?  Germany was on the verge of collapse.  A story spreading like that, of the dead rising up and attacking the living would have only caused more panic, more chaos.  We, most Deutschlanders wanted it over with at that point, and with the Amerikaners and the British taking mile after mile in the West, often unopposed, we had at least a chance of keeping some of the fatherland intact.  On the Ostfront?  Bah…a totally different story.  I doubt it could have been more chaotic.  The walking dead probably wouldn’t have even been noticed, merely ground under the Ivan’s treads like so much wheat.  But there, in Ornel, herr Oberst Kaplan had halted them, had stopped them in their shambling tracks.  We never wanted to speak of it aloud again.”

    Jeroen nodded at the old man’s vehement delivery.  Despite the age of his grandfather, he didn’t doubt his convictions one bit.  “Alright, I see your point.  But what of the other truck the escaped Ornel?”

    The old man shook his head.  “We never saw it.  It’s possible that fepo had been taunting us, trying to frighten us before he went.  The observation plane herr Oberst dispatched along the roads never saw a truck, only crippled panzers and columns of walking soldiers and horse-drawn carts the farther east he flew, along with miles of caravans of refugees.  And all of it seemed orderly, no attacks or rioting at all.”

    “Then the SS fepo was lying?” Jeroen inquired skeptically.

    Hans shrugged. “We could only assume so at the time.  Kaplan remained on high alert for several days after that, hovering around the radio like a father outside a delivery room.  He sent out endless patrols, searched every nearby village.  Nothing ever turned up.  After about a week, he began to relax a bit. But by then of course, we’d been shipped off to a POW camp and I only learned all that later.”

    “To America?”

    “Oh jah.  I went to a hospital first, naturlich.  But then I eventually joined Reuter, Rudi, Horst and Burkhardt at a prisoner of war camp in Oklahoma, where we stayed till March of 1946.  Life was good there actually.  We had more privileges as prisoners than most of the Amerikaners living outside the wire.  They had rationing during the war, we had our own canteen and brewed our own beer.  Even dour old Horst began to loosen up a bit if you can believe that.  The only problems were those idioten who had been captured early in the war, still so intent on our eventual victory.  Even after the end, they refused to believe for a time that the Reich had fallen.  I’m told they used to be quite dangerous, but by the time we arrived, they were largely ignored, loud and pompous fools.  The Amis let us patrol our own grounds with baseball bats at night.  The Nazi ranks within the camp eventually shut up when that happened.”

    Jeroen sipped on his tea.  “Jah, grossevater.  I know all those stories from school and movies.  But what I want to know is what happened after Ornel.  How did you find out what went on after you’d been shipped to the POW camp?”

    “Ah,” the old man smiled wistfully. “That is an interesting question.  When we were finally repatriated to Germany a year later, we found our country in shambles.  The rebuilding would take years, and we were resigned to this task.  The Allies were still in the midst of de-nazification and the trials at Nuremberg.  The verdammt Ivans had gobbled up all of Germany to the East, and we had no intention of going there, even if it was home to some of us.  We were honestly at a loss as to what to do.  Reuter had Marlene, of course.  We stayed with her for a time when we came back.  Burkhardt had stayed in America, had become a citizen.  We didn’t blame him.  He fell in love with the land and had been made welcome in a small farming community outside Camp Gruber where we’d been furloughed from the camp to work the crops.  But the rest of us, Reuter, Horst, Rudi and I longed for home.  And home of course, was a disaster.”

    The old man shrugged in his chair at recalling those years.  After fighting walking corpses, the travails of re-building Germany after the war were really quite tame.  “But we persevered as best we could.  And truthfully, we deserved it, after all.  No one had asked us to start the war, as Reuter was often fond of saying.  By the winter of 1946, we’d mostly gone our separate ways.  Rudi had gone back to school to study medicine.  He became a very successful doctor by the 1950’s.  Horst…well, he was always very terse, unfriendly.  He dropped out of sight after an encounter with the law, only to show up at our door one morning in early 1947 in the company of none other than Sergeant Knight and his friend Joe Kirk.”

     

    Jeroen’s eyes brightened, caught up in the story.  “The Englanders?  I wondered if you’d mention what happened to them.”

    Hans chuckled at his grandson’s interest.  It was a pleasant turn from remembering those immediate post-war years.  “They weren’t the only ones we met again, but that came a bit later.  Knight and Kirk had remained in the military at the behest of Col. Kaplan and his constituents within the British Army.  They were now involved, you see in containing the very threat Col. Kaplan had been so vigilant about.  And of course, by now the whole world had heard the stories coming out of Japan and what the Americans faced when they invaded.”

    The boy nodded.  “Jah, the ‘Blighted Cherry Blossom’ some have called it.  I’ve seen the documentary footage.”

    “So you know,” the old man replied.  “Of course, at the time of our fight at Ornel,  none of us, save perhaps herr Oberst Kaplan suspected that something like a plague of the undead might erupt elsewhere.  He had made it his mission to contain such things, to be watchful of them.  And once the American military as a whole became involved, his expertise was recognized.  He rose through the ranks and became a General within two short years.  And along with his rise, he never forgot those who had helped him.”

    “So he recruited Knight and Kirk?”

    “Obviously, jah.  And they weren’t the only ones.  As the Bundesrepublic was being organized, Deutschlanders who had been cleared of any Nazi affiliation were often sought out for renewed service to the Fatherland.  Kaplan remembered us…and an offer was made.”

    “I don’t understand, grossevater.  You were a civil engineer after the war.  The whole family knows that.  You’d wanted to go to medical school, but…” he waved distractedly at his grandfather’s stump.

    The old man snorted.  “Jah…nobody had ever heard of a one-handed doctor. No kidding, you young oaf.   Meine bruder, your Uncle Reuter was adamant that I return to school, to complete the education that the war had halted.  Obviously, medical school would have been a difficult choice given my impediments, but there were other options.  I chose to become an engineer, but there was little way we could afford it.  Reuter taking up Kaplan’s offer to become a soldier once again, more to the point, a specialist of sorts…would only be considered if I was granted the opportunity to go back to university.  So he said yes.  And I went back to school.”

    Jeroen looked away, astonished.  “I overheard Mother and Grandmother talking one night. Grandmother seemed nervous when mama broached the question of where our money came from.  She’d always assumed that, considering how poor the family had been after the war, you and Reuter had gotten involved in some sort of dirty business, and that’s how the money came in.”

    Hans cackled lightly.  “And she was right.  It had been a very dirty business indeed.  And one day, perhaps I’ll tell you some of those stories.  Reuter and Horst were reinstated in the army, with high ranks of course, and acted under NATO auspices for the next several years, assigned to a top secret task force headed by General Kaplan.    Reuter ordered me to stay away, and I tried my best to do so.  I was never as strong as him, always protected.  I would only hear stories when he came home for visits.”

    The boy looked at him, puzzled and still not quite believing.  “But where did they go?  Did they fight other outbreaks, conceal them and cover it all up?”

    The old man nodded and turned away from him.  “Jah.  That they did, for several years.  Containing Japan was one thing.  Eradicating the hordes within their mainland took the Amerikaners a great deal of time, but their blockade was largely successful.  That’s all in the history books, nicht wahr?”

    Jeroen confirmed it.  “Jah.  If you can call what happened to Japan containment.”

    The old man waved his comments away.  “Don’t cloud the issue with revisionist nonsense.  I don’t blame the Amerikaners for what they did there to halt the plague.  Germany would have done the same, probably a lot worse if we hadn’t wasted all our resources following the mad little corporal’s disastrous path…” he felt his ire begin to rise at thinking of Hitler’s legacy, then thought better of it.  Going off on a tirade would only distract him from the real story.

    “The point was, people of experience like meine bruder, like Horst, Knight and Kirk, along with others that had served under Kaplan were sometimes necessary.  As good as the Amerikaners’ blockade was, some of the undead would occasionally slip through and wander ashore onto beaches and attack some poor bastard.  Minor outbreaks could and did occur here and there.  Reuter, Knight and the others…well, they cleaned up the mess.  They knew how to nip the problem in the bud, without bombing the entire place back to the stone age and irradiating everything in sight with atomic bombs.  It was…efficient.”

    “How long did this go on?”

    The old man shrugged.  “Ten years that I know of.  Marlene finally left Reuter.  That’s why neither you, nor your mother or any of my other children ever heard of her.  She’d had enough of the dying and the fighting.  I didn’t blame her, and don’t ask me what became of her, because I don’t know.  She simply left, angrily at that.”

    “But what happened to Uncle Reuter and the others?”

     

    Hans sighed.  “They disappeared in early 1958.  Kaplan retired not long after that.  He was getting old, getting passed by as younger, more energetic officers took up the reins.  He…I suppose he must have felt a little guilty.  None of our families, those of them that had families ever really had monetary problems once they’d been recruited.  Kaplan made sure everyone had been taken care of.  He was a good man.”

    Jeroen disturbed his grandfather’s suddenly silent reverie.  “Jah, I’m sure he was.  But what happened to the others?  You’re simply saying they disappeared?  How?”

    The old man glared at him, the anger and frustration deeply evident in his eyes, even after all these decades.  “I don’t know!  Kaplan never knew either!  They were in Southeast Asia, was used to be French Indo-China.  They went in on a mission, some joint venture with the Viet Minh into the jungles, which was astonishing that they would ever work with Reds…and they never came out.  None of them were ever heard from again.”

    “Was there an outbreak of the undead?  I’ve never heard of one there…at least not prior to the American’s war in the 60’s.”

    “That was the whole point of their missions, boy.  You wouldn’t have heard of them.  They were all kept quiet, swept under the rug.  It’s just…none of them were getting any younger.  They were all slowing down.  They’d had no business being out there in the world still, fighting, killing those wretched things like they were still young men.  Something like that was inevitable.  I never blamed Kaplan…not really.  But I was still angry about it for years.  I couldn’t speak of it.”

    “So why tell me now?”

    “Why do you think, verruckt idioten?  I’m old…I’ll be dying soon.  I know these things.  Someone needed to be told.  And you…you’re the only grandson I’ve got whose worth two shits.  If I could trust anyone with this tale…well, it had to be you.”

     

    Jeroen sat quietly, holding onto his grandfather’s hand as he placed it on his shoulders.  It had been a clearly disturbing tale, one that he wasn’t quite sure he believed.  His grandfather had been committed once or twice during his life after the war, all long before he’d been born of course, but still, family talked.  He knew the stories of Grandpa Hans’ mental issues.   None of these concerns did he mention over the next hour as the two of them talked.  And when he finally left, his grandfather seemed almost serene, as if some burden had finally been lifted from his soul.

    Whether Hans was a delusional old man or not was hardly an issue, Jeroen thought.  There were certain incontrovertible facts to his story that were common knowledge.  When the Americans dropped their atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and had heard no word of capitulation from the Japanese Empire, they went ahead with Operation Olympic, the invasion of the home islands.  Aerial reconnaissance prior to the landing of ground troops revealed rioting and bloodbaths in the streets of every Japanese city, what appeared to be a civil war.  And amidst this fighting, that fierce and fatalistic Japanese resistance still appeared to hold fast.  Where there was no rioting, concentrated efforts designed to repel the invading Allies still appeared to be ongoing.  It was puzzling to the Americans, who upon landing at Kyushu discovered not only stiff resistance from what remained of the Japanese military, but starving and pathetic civilian forces armed with bamboo spears.  And right behind them, an ever-growing horde of the hungry dead who did not discriminate.  As a result of this astonishing revelation, the Second World War in the Pacific didn’t end until 1947.

    As Grandfather Hans had said, the American’s blockade of the Japanese home islands was a thorough one.  Even the Ivans contributed to blockading the territories to the north, but part of that was a blatant act of land-grabbing on the part of Stalin.  The concentration of American, British and Australian forces eventually subdued Japan and wiped out the undead.  But it took them a year and a half to do it, and at the end of it all, the Japanese race was all but extinct.  The islands remain largely uninhabitable to this day, still highly radioactive in some areas.

    Jeroen knew all of this, everyone did.  But to think that a force of soldiers had existed, with family members involved at that, a secret force designed to quell outbreaks quietly and swiftly before they became common knowledge?  That one was a little hard to swallow.

    And so it was, that by late June of 2007, Jeroen Dietel Katzen found himself in the western German countryside, not tremendously far from the town of Wessel.  He visited local villages, talked to the farmers and shop owners who lived in the area.  They were by and large very helpful in telling him where the old village of Ornel once stood.  One middle-aged local historian even drove him out to the ruins of the town and showed him where that tragic Allied bombing mishap had occurred.  It was indeed a sobering site, one that made him nearly tear up as he walked the weed-choked grid that had once been streets and touched the few standing stone walls that remained.  But even this was not enough for him.  Another piece needed to be uncovered.

    The castle had proven a little more tricky.  Several castles, particularly those along the Rhineland valleys were spectacularly restored and renovated for the tourist trade.  One that had already been a ruin, abandoned for centuries, then subject to a subsequent bombing was a lot harder to find.  Its destruction had been fairly extensive apparently.  No attempts at re-building the castle had ever been attempted, and aside from one or two academic scholars, few even knew of its existence.

    As the summer began to draw to a close, Jeroen finally found the ruins.  Extrapolating the castle’s position from old maps and local folklore had proven to be a very time-consuming enterprise, but his perseverance paid off.  Only a few walls remained standing, and these were completely subsumed by forest growth.  Finding the chamber that Leutnant Johannes and the others had bivouacked in back in 1945 would be difficult, particularly without a point of reference to begin looking.  Determining the bend in the river where it was most likely that Grandpa Hans and Uncle Reuter had come ashore at in their long ago stolen boat, Jeroen estimated the distance from the shore to the castle and walked it.  Sure enough, there were two walls still standing, liberally overgrown with tall trees and piles of moss-covered rubble.

    He set up his camp and began to unpack his equipment.  Over the next few days, and with no small amount of effort, he cleared away much of the tree growth in this one area.  The fallen rubble was another matter, but he had gotten lucky.  He discovered steps, weathered stone steps that led downward, the passage itself long covered by earth disrupted by the bombing.  Still, not all the passage seemed inaccessible.  After digging for an hour, he came across a cross-beam of stone which had covered the passageway, leaving the lower access to the subterranean chamber open.  It enabled him to crawl down several feet and, his pulse racing with excitement and a large degree of apprehension, he dropped down into the chamber and resumed walking down the dusty steps till he again reached level ground.  His flashlight illuminated the darkness, the air in front of him thick with dancing dust orbs as he scanned the chamber.  Much of it had collapsed in the bombing, that much was obvious.  But what was still there was an amazing example of medieval architecture.  He felt a certain pride soar at his diligence in uncovering this find, but this was tempered with a tickling at the back of his neck, his hairs standing up at the thought of Grandpa Hans’ story.  At his feet lay shattered crates, definitely old, definitely rotted, but of a much newer vintage than anything the Normans or Teutons might have built.  The nails sticking out of one end were the clincher.  Turning one over, his eyes widened a little at seeing the painted swastika emblazoned on its side.

    Grunting, he kicked it aside.  So there had been Nazis in these ruins at one point.  That proved nothing.  This was Germany, after all.  Remnants of the Hitler era were constantly being found all over the countryside in out of the way places.  He laughed to himself.  Maybe this was one of those secret caches of art or gold that Himmler or Goring had sequestered?  He turned and shined his light along the wall in front of him.  To the right he found an archway, which seemed to incline farther downward into an even deeper chamber.  Around it, several stones lay scattered about, as if long ago excavated from the archway.  This brought him up short, for this seemed too specific to Hans’ story.  But even this he could rationalize.  The stones could have been dislodged by the bombing too.  But as he took a step forward, he felt something crunch beneath his feet.  Looking down, he saw human bone.  And beyond it, the remnants of rusted armor.  Lying scattered around these remains were the tips of medieval crossbow bolts.  He suddenly felt very cold and very vulnerable.  He raised his flashlight into the entrance to the archway and watched his light diffuse into the vast chasm of darkness before him, bleak, impenetrable.  Taking a deep breath, he stepped into it to find whatever, if anything still waited in its depths.

     

     

    16 Comments

    1. Unbelievable ending to a spectacular series. Had me sitting on the edge of my chair the whole time. You have a wonderful talent for this kind of writing.
      Hope you start another series that is just as captivating.

      Comment by Terry on September 25, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

    2. Awesome ending! Good Camp Gruber props, too.

      Comment by JamesAbel on September 25, 2012 @ 6:42 pm

    3. F’n well done – a great twist and perhaps a lead in to the Tales of Jereon – it looks like he’s embarked on his own chapter of the tale….

      Comment by JohnT on September 25, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

    4. Love it!

      Comment by Gunldesnapper on September 26, 2012 @ 7:08 am

    5. Thanks, guys. I really appreciate it. Sorry about the chapter confusion at the beginning, don’t know why I didn’t catch that when I sent it off. Its not Chapters 6 and 7, but 8,9 and 10. D’oh! I do have some other stories in mind, particularly the American invasion of the Japanese home islands mentioned in the last chapter. I’m currently working on a murder mystery set in WWII, plus revising some of my Sci-Fi/comic work. I’m also gathering interviews with local WWII veterans, compiling a memoir of their wartime exploits. I’m very glad you enjoyed this story. Thank you for reading it.

      Comment by Retrobuck on September 26, 2012 @ 8:56 pm

    6. Oh, crap! My mistake….I just realized the ‘Chapter 6 & 7’ tag was a link to the previous chapters….I am such a dork.

      Comment by Retrobuck on September 26, 2012 @ 9:01 pm

    7. You made me panic then Mike lol.

      Its a great an unexpected ending to the story.

      Comment by Pete Bevan on September 27, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

    8. Awesome story, great setting. Found myself on the edge of my chair. Very well written.

      Comment by hijinxjeep on September 27, 2012 @ 11:25 pm

    9. I truely enjoyed this series! I have a question though, if the kid was aware of zombies and that they had to be contained then why was he so skeptical of Hans? It would be a small thing for hans to say that there were zombies there. I don’t know, the story itself is strong but there’s some inconsistancies with the boy/great-grandfather.

      Also forgive me if i’m mistaken but isn’t the great grandson only a teenager? Wouldn’t it be unlikely that he’d devote all this time and money to visit an obsucre place by himself. Simply changing him to being in his 20’s would rectify it IMO.

      Thanks for reading this! Was a great story and avidly await the release of your next work.

      Love,
      Natasha S.

      Comment by NatashaS on October 2, 2012 @ 5:05 am

    10. Thank, Natasha. Having to deal with teenage attitudes on a daily basis as a classroom teacher made me more inclined to have Jeroen be more skeptical of Hans’ recollections simply because I’m constantly being barraged with the whole “I know everything there is to know already in the world and you don’t have anything you can teach me” arrogance that comes with youth. If HE had never heard of any zombie outbreak back in the war, it clearly couldn’t have happened. Grandpa is just senile and I’m humoring him… And for anybody fitting in that age criteria here, I’m not talking about you. You read, for Godsake, you enjoy the written word. Most of my high school students do not. Jeroen’s not a bad kid, just a little full of himself as most teenagers have a tendency to be, and casually dismisses what their elders have to say out of hand until they are convinced otherwise. Of course, that’s the perspective of a jaded American, the kids in Germany today might be a helluva lot more respectful of the aged. And on the other hand of your observations, some of my college kids, who are all in the 18-19 category, I could certainly see some of them embarking on an exploration of this nature. They’re an adventurous lot, and I think I projected a little of their zeal into his character.

      Comment by Retrobuck on October 2, 2012 @ 8:21 pm

    11. Hmm, i see what you mean by that. That out of the way is there any plans to continue the story? I know it says conclusion but that doesn’t mean the story needs to be over. XD

      I’d really like to see how this teenager would react to a “zombie” because as you have said teenagers tend to be a little bull headed until faced with something so staggeringly shocking to them that it smacks some sense into them.

      Also do you plan on expanding upon Reuter’s storyline? I’m invested in this storyline and it kills me when plotlines aren’t tied up >_<

      "Use your imagination" is not a valid answer as so many people like to say, authors usually have an idea for what they mean when they leave a plot open.

      Here's hoping to many more great stories/books/novels/stuff from you! You're a strong eloquent writer in a sub genre where there really isn't enough.

      Comment by NatashaS on October 5, 2012 @ 6:00 am

    12. Actually, next on the agenda is to chronicle this alternate version of Operation Olympic, the invasion of mainland japan. It will directly tie in to this series, and after that I’d like to revisit Reuter and company’s adventures in the post-war era. Han’s great-grandson will show up in flash-forwards periodically as we approach the present era in the narrative.

      Comment by Retrobuck on October 8, 2012 @ 10:55 am

    13. Sounds great! I eagerly await your next stories. I also wanted to thank you for responding in an actual manner rather then just a generic cursory response. It’s a nice change from mainstream popular authors that don’t respond or if they do it’s an answer so generic that it could be applied to any question ranging from insane to the mundane, in short it’s refreshing.

      Comment by NatashaS on October 8, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

    14. Fantastic finish to the series! I actually split up the reading of it over multiple days, so as to savor the story and build up anticipation. Looking forward to reading more of your work. Kudos once again.

      Comment by David on October 9, 2012 @ 9:31 am

    15. I think that if people are going to be kind and gracious enough to read your work, the least you can do is engage in some discourse with them on the subject. To do otherwise is just downright rude. But then, I work in the public sector, and in a Title 1 school at that, so I see rude and unacceptable day in and day out….I’m kinda thinking a zombpocalypse might thin that herd out a little bit….

      Comment by Retrobuck on October 11, 2012 @ 8:04 am

    16. Retrobuck is quite obviously a pompous twat. This was a great read, very well done, I really enjoyed the read.

      Comment by Adam on June 5, 2013 @ 10:32 am

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