PREQUEL TO GRUBBY ANGELS
Father Ronan McGuiness woke up with a snort. His bleary red eyes opened for a second then quickly closed again as pain shot through his skull.
The pounding in his head seemed to match the relentless pounding he could hear on the massive church doors.
He opened his eyes again, this time a little more cautiously and tried to lift his head. It seemed to be too heavy to lift until he realised his face was stuck to the desk with a combination of dried whiskey and drool. With an effort he pulled his head clear and was rewarded with more pain and nausea.
“Feck.” He said with feeling and leaned back in the battered old leather chair and fumbled in the pockets of his faded cassock for a cigarette. There was one left in the packet.
The banging on the church door did nothing to improve his hangover or his notoriously bad temper.
“Will you FECK off!” He yelled at the door and immediately regretted it as the pounding on the both door and in his head redoubled. The smell of decay and a city burning seeped in under the huge doors.
It had been months since the dead had begun to walk and the old priest’s faith had been tested beyond breaking point. Not that he had much to begin with he thought bitterly. He’d been passionate and outspoken as a young priest and his reward had been a transfer to one of the worst parishes in the city.
He remembered the Bishop, with his manicured nails and soft hands telling him he’d been chosen by God to save the sinners in the godforsaken slum that was to become his new home.
“Aye … and shut me the feck up,” he muttered as he optimistically upended the empty bottle over his glass.
Now he’d seen his small congregation, those few who actually turned up to hear his sermons, devoured or turned into one of the abominations that now walked the streets of his parish.
He hurled the empty bottle at the door, the crash and sound of broken glass sent the infected outside into a frenzy of moaning. He wasn’t worried that they might break through, the huge iron bound door would hold. At least longer than his sanity, he thought.
He got unsteadily to his feet and headed to the small bathroom at the back of the church, brushing cigarette ash off the front his creased and stained clothing.
The old priest looked into the chipped and flyspecked mirror with ill-disguised contempt. Forty years of cheap whiskey, cigarettes and dealing with the dregs of humanity had taken their toll.
His unruly white hair and straggly beard surrounded a ruddy, care worn face making him look much older than he was, but many years of teaching boxing at the local youth club had left his body hard and lean and given him a right hook that even some of the local gang members had come to respect.
His reflection stared back at him, accusing his lack of faith.
He turned the tap and a few drops of rusty water dribbled out. The water was off. It wasn’t surprising; the power had been off for some time now.
Wearily, he returned to the main church and climbed into the pulpit and looked out over the empty pews. The church could hold over four hundred and fifty worshippers. The most he’d ever seen had been little more than a dozen or so, most of those he suspected had just been sheltering from the cold.
Now even they had gone. He rested his forehead on the bible. “Why has thou forsaken me Lord?” he muttered. As the pounding on the door became even louder, the priest lifted his head, opened the ancient bible and read a passage at random.
Through bleary eyes he saw it was Deuteronomy 32:35, he rubbed them to clear his vision.
‘To Me belongeth vengeance and recompense; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity and reckoning is at hand, and I shall come upon them and destroy them.’
For a long time he stared at the passage. Then abruptly looked up. “Aye Lord, with the dead walking, ‘tis a reckoning to be sure.”
Fired with a grim resolution he walked over to a red box that hung on the wall next to the fire extinguisher, smashing the glass with his elbow and taking out a heavy fire axe.
“Aye, this’ll do nicely … this should send some of those feckers back to hell where they belong.”
Father McGuinness crossed himself, opened the door and strode out to avenge his flock.
Jolene smelt it before she saw it, the foul odour drifting up the street, that and the distinctive sound of shuffling feet, one foot being dragged behind the other. Dodging back into a doorway she held her breath as it paused less than twenty feet from where she was hiding.
The milky white eyes, set deep in the grey rotting flesh of its face, scanned the street looking for its next meal. The ragged remains of what had once been an expensive looking suit hung off its frame and the almost skeletal left hand was still clasped around the handle of a smart leather briefcase.
It looked as if it were trying to decide what to do. That was the problem with these brain-dead corpses she thought bitterly, it could wander in any direction, including towards where she was hiding.
She gripped the crowbar tightly and checked the clip in her pistol. She’d taken it from her pimp after bashing his brains out with a shovel. She smiled at the memory; she would have probably done it even if he hadn’t become infected.
Before the infection had wiped out most of humanity, she’d worked this street, not in combat boots like now, but in stilettos and an impossibly short skirt.
It stood swaying gently for a few heartbeats longer, before suddenly lurching off down the street again. She let out a sign of relief before climbing carefully in through the broken glass of the shop front.
The dust on the floor seemed undisturbed, but she stood silently for a minute listening for any sound from inside the darkened store. Gripping the crowbar tightly in both hands she took a step forward, freezing at the sound of broken glass under her boot. After a few seconds she relaxed slightly, if there were any of the infected inside, they would have heard the noise and come to investigate.
Finding the crowbar had been a godsend; ammunition was hard to come by and it let her kill most zeds quickly and above all, quietly. It also acted a universal master key for any door or cupboard she needed to open. The store looked like it had already been looted, but it seemed whoever had done it had been in a bit of a hurry.
Getting down on her hands and knees she checked under the shelves. A gleam caught her eye and she smiled to herself as she pulled out a couple of cans of beans and one of spam, quickly stuffing the cans into some old socks she carried to muffle any noise, then putting them in her bag.
Dusting herself off, Jolene stood and moved cautiously to the back of the store, it was quite dark but she could make out a door marked ‘Manager’. Alert for danger, she turned the door handle and slowly pushed the door open, wincing as it let out a loud creak from its rusty hinges.
She peeked around the doorjamb and almost cried out in shock. The manager was still sitting at his desk, a gun in his hand. They stared at each other for a second before she leant back against the wall, puffing out her cheeks as she exhaled with relief and gave a soft chuckle.
“Jesus, you scared the shit out of me,” she said to the man slumped in the chair. He gazed back at her through empty eye sockets.
Walking around the desk she saw that most of the back of his head was gone, the pistol that he’d used to end his life was still clutched in his dry, desiccated hand.
“Dammit, let go” she muttered as she prised the gun loose. It was a .38 revolver and only one of the six rounds had been fired. She rummaged in the desk drawers and came up with half a box of ammo for the pistol, a couple of chocolate bars and an almost full bottle of whiskey.
“Why thank you …” she paused and peered at the name tag on the corpses shirt, “… Keith. A sweet tooth and a closet alcoholic, I like that in a man.” Jolene smiled happily to herself as she stuffed them into her bag, the whiskey would be especially appreciated.
As she prepared to leave a low moan came from out in the main shop and she froze, her eyes wide with fear. The telltale sound of one of the infected shuffling though the debris on the floor told her it was heading toward the office.
She looked around frantically, there was no other way out, she was trapped and it would be at the door any moment now. She thought about the pistol for a second and dismissed it; the sound of the shot would be like ringing the dinner bell if there were other infected nearby.
Moving as quietly as she could she raced across the room and crammed herself into the corner next to the door, crowbar held high in both hands.
Less than a second later it appeared in the doorway and paused as if puzzled by the empty room. At this range the stench was overpowering and she bit her lower lip to prevent herself from gagging or crying out in fear. It took a single lurching step into the room and gave another low moan. ‘Almost’, she thought to herself, ‘… c’mon, just a little further you bastard’.
Suddenly it turned as if to leave and for a heartbeat they looked directly into each other’s eyes. With a gasp she brought the crowbar down hard, crushing it’s skull. It dropped to its knees; a sharp hiss coming from its ruined mouth before toppling over backwards, almost pulling the crowbar from her grip. Jolene levered it free and quickly stepped over the body, taking care not to tread in the rapidly expanding pool of black gore.
Her heart pounding, Jolene listened intently for a full five minutes before giving a sob of relief and turning her attention back to the corpse at her feet. Controlling her revulsion she went through its pockets and found a penknife, a lighter that still worked and, joy of joys, a packet of cigarettes that wasn’t too badly crushed.
Propping herself on the desk she lit one and exhaled luxuriously. A nametag on her victim’s shirt showed that before he became one of the infected, his name was ‘Andrew Powell’ and that he was employee of the month with two stars.
“Well Andy,” she said wiping the crowbar on the manager’s sleeve “Your customer service sucks, so no stars for you this month, what do you think of that?”
She jumped in fright as gas build-up from internal decomposition abruptly vented itself and the corpse let out a long, loud fart. Jolene laughed for the first time in months.
“My thoughts exactly, pal,” she said throwing down the cigarette butt and picking her bag.
Exiting the store she headed for the place she now called home. It had been a pretty successful loot run; at least they wouldn’t be too hungry tonight, which was about as good as it got these days.
Looking around the desolate street she caught a reflection of herself in the dirty, broken glass of a shop window. She saw she looked skinny now, rather than slim, but her face was still quite pretty, in a world-weary sort of way, but then it had looked like that before the world had gone to hell.
A few blocks later, Jolene came to a rusty sheet of metal leaning against a wall and carefully scanned the street before ducking behind it and into a hole in the wall. She had to be careful, the living where often more dangerous than the walking dead.
Grabbing the rope ladder hanging down in the garbage chute, she climbed up and into a ruined apartment, pulling the ladder up after her.
“So, ye’re back are ye ya painted jezebel”
She sighed and looked around at the old priest. “Yes Father, is she any better?” she asked sitting down gently next to her daughter who was sleeping on a couch.
“Mmmm, Daddy Ronan?” The little girl muttered, half asleep.
“It’s me sweetheart.” She said softly brushing some damp hair from the young girl’s forehead. “She seems a little better.”
“Aye, I think the fever has broken, she’ll be fine, God willing.”
“I don’t think God has much to do with it these days Father.”
The priest whirled around. “That is blasphemy,” he thundered, jabbing a forefinger at her. “In times like these a harlot like yerself should be looking to the Lord now and begging forgiveness for all ye wicked ways.”
Jolene paused from unpacking the meager supplies and turned to face the angry priest. “Please Father, can we not argue again about who I am and what I am… I did what I had to do to survive and provide for my daughter.”
The old priest glowered at her.
“Anyway, if you hadn’t found those antibiotics, I don’t know if Rachel would have survived. So thank you, I really appreciate it.”
She risked a smile.
“I didn’t do it for you, I did it for the wee lass.” He slumped into an old chair. “It’s nay her fault her mothers a whore,” he muttered.
The woman sighed, “I’ll fix us some food and then I’ll take a look at that wound, we don’t want it to get infected.”
The priest glanced at the dirty bandage on his arm where had cut himself while breaking into a pharmacy. “You’ll keep yer hands to yerself woman.” he snapped.
“OK, OK” she said holding up her hands in surrender “… any way I found this for you,” and pulled the bottle of whiskey from her bag.
The old priests eyes lit up “Saints be praised” he said grabbing the bottle and taking a long swig. He let out a long satisfied sigh and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Aye, tis’ truly the water of life.”
As they ate in silence she wondered again how she had ever gotten hooked up with this cantankerous old priest. Still, he was a blessing in disguise. She had someone to look after her daughter when she went out looking for supplies and he’d saved her from those raiders, coming out of nowhere and wading into them with a fire axe roaring like the wrath of God.
She cleared away the dishes and then yawned and stretched “I’m going to get some sleep Father.”
The priest looked at her darkly, before pouring another shot of whiskey into an old cracked mug.
“Maybe I’ll be able to do better tomorrow. ‘Nite Father.” She lay down next to her daughter and was soon fast asleep.
As soon as she was asleep, the scowl on the old priests face softened. He stood up and placed his faded black jacket gently over the sleeping pair.
Then in a barely audible voice he murmured “Aye, I know ye will ye poor wee fallen angel … I know you’ve always tried to do yer best, God bless yer fer that.”
He smiled and thought again of how this fallen woman and her daughter had restored his faith and given him purpose. The Lord did indeed move in mysterious ways.
Picking up a battered old shotgun, Father Ronan McGuinness placed it on his lap and watched over them through the long night until dawn. Outside the infected howled in the darkness.