It was Valentine’s Day, and Yuri was returning the engagement ring he’d given his girlfriend three months ago. In a show of discontent with his late nights away from home, she’d stopped wearing it. He’d thought she’d been impulsive, but almost a month removed from her having taken off the ring, she still hadn’t softened. If money didn’t matter, he would’ve held onto it, waited for his girlfriend to relent, but he had Mayor Hernandez coming aboard the Blue Line, and cash mattered.
“Talk to me, Benny,” he said. He was at the jeweler’s office on the third floor of the rundown May Company building in downtown Los Angeles. He’d known Benny the Jeweler for years, before the uprising. “What can you give me for the engagement ring?”
“I’ll give you what you paid for it,” Benny said. “You don’t lose anything.”
“The ring is worth a lot more now than three months ago, Benny. You know that. Platinum is scarce these days.”
“Post it on Craigslist, Yuri. Sell it yourself. Have a zombie come to your house to check it out and eat your brains.”
“Selling jewelry isn’t my competency, Benny. That’s why I’m talking to you.”
“I haven’t been invited onto your train.”
“I didn’t know that was your style.”
“My wife is all dressed up on Valentine’s with nowhere to go in this goddamned zombie town. Get me on the train, Yuri.”
“Space is limited,” Yuri said, and as if to prove a point, his cell vibrated with a text from the City Controller, one of the train regulars, asking for a table. “I have to keep it open for the bigwigs. We’re only making two runs tonight. It’s a tough ask, Benny.”
“Come on, Yuri,” Benny said, knocking his gold ring on the counter. “I outfit half of the politicians in this city. Get me on the train.”
Ten minutes later, Yuri left Benny’s office, patting the $24,000 in cash he had in his front pocket. He eyed Pershing Square across the street. The small park had a stop for the Metro Red Line, Los Angeles’ subway that extended from downtown Los Angeles to Hollywood. At the start of the zombocalypse, the undead had congregated on the steps outside the station entrance like lost souls looking for directions, but since the S.W.A.T. surge several weeks ago, Pershing Square had emptied out. If his plans went smoothly, though, it wouldn’t be barren for long. He ran the Blue Line from downtown Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles, but he had his eyes on bigger business, his own gig away from the Partners. He wanted the Red Line. He wanted Hollywood. He checked the street for zombies, got into his Rover parked in the loading zone, and went home.
Yuri made sure that the staff put the Mayor at a table in Car Three, set back from the other cars for privacy. The Mayor had brought his mistress with him, a reporter from the paper who commented on the happenings at City Hall. Alcohol was in limited supply these days, particularly top shelf, and Yuri was going to make sure that the Mayor would receive a constant supply of premium booze. Benny and his wife hadn’t arrived at the Pico station in downtown Los Angeles yet, but Yuri couldn’t wait for them. He would get them on the second trek. Yuri radioed the conductor to start the train and security to assume their positions.
As the train rolled southward through Los Angeles, Yuri made his usual rounds, working his way backwards via the overhead platform on top of the train. When he arrived at Car Three, he checked in on the Mayor. The Mayor gave him the same broad, orchestrated smile that’d been plastered across television and newspapers for his two terms. Despite the city’s deepening economic problems and loss of half of his constituency due to the undead, the Mayor had managed to maintain a favorable approval rating. He was photogenic, and his veneers had kept him in office.
“I heard you’re looking to snare the Red Line, Yuri,” the Mayor said. “You’re looking to do your own thing. Get away from the Partners.”
“You heard right, Mr. Mayor,” Yuri said, pouring the Mayor three fingers of single malt. He reached into his inside jacket pocket, removed the envelope with the $24,000 in it, and slid it across the table. “I run this train, and I think you’ll agree, Mr. Mayor, that I run it well.”
“That you do, my friend.”
“Do I have your support, Mr. Mayor?”
The Mayor took the envelope off the table and opened the flap. He thumbed through it. “This is a good start, Yuri,” he said. “You have my support.”
The Mayor was about to lift his glass in a toast but the window behind him shattered. Air rushed in and two zombies tried to push their ways into the car. The Mayor and his mistress leapt back from their seats.
“What the hell is going on?” the Mayor said.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Mayor,” Yuri said. He glanced at Janssen, the ex-cop who was heading his security team, and waved him over. “The undead on this route can get rambunctious, especially around Florence.”
“Aren’t you going to do something?”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Mayor.”
Janssen arrived at Yuri’s side, motioning with his off hand for the traingoers to clear out. He leveled his Carbon-15 at the busted glass. He fired two shots into the head of the first zombie and another two into the head of the second. The bodies fell backwards onto the tracks. A severed, singed head landed at the Mayor’s feet as traingoers clapped.
“Again, Mr. Mayor, I’m sorry about the interruption,” Yuri said, although he wasn’t. The allure of the train was its controlled interactions with the undead. The conductor had to be adept at running through zombie-infested areas leisurely enough such that traingoers could see the zombies through the windows and hear them pounding against the glass but also with enough momentum to waylay the obstinate who insisted on inhabiting the tracks. There was no party greater than a party that could possibly be a person’s last. “I wish I could guarantee that it won’t happen again, but I can’t. We’re pushing through a rough area on this train. But security can handle any momentary disturbance.”
“Good times, my friend,” the Mayor said, laughing. “I think I’ll take this head as a souvenir. Pack it up for me, will you, Yuri?”
“Of course, Mr. Mayor.”
Janssen returned with a roll of GlassPatch. He cut off a section with his boot knife, and applied it over the busted window. Air stopped rushing in. He slipped on a pair of latex gloves, wrapped the still smoking zombie head in GlassPatch as well, and handed it to Yuri, who laid it on the Mayor’s table, along with another bottle of Scotch.
Although not a regular stop, Yuri had the conductor pit at the Firestone station so that the City Controller could board. He was a career politician, a portly, balding man who was not entirely charismatic. He’d reached his political ceiling years ago.
Yuri offered to squeeze him into a table near the Mayor on Three, but the Controller declined, requesting privacy instead. Yuri put him in Two. When settled, Yuri waived over the waitress, who brought a bottle of Oban and two glasses. He’d hosted the Controller on the train before, but it was obvious that the Controller wanted to go beyond pleasantries tonight. He let the Controller pour them three fingers.
“You want the Red Line, Yuri? Have your eyes set on expansion?”
“It’s a good opportunity, Mr. Controller. It’s a proven concept.”
“It’s a political minefield. The Red Line goes through prime real estate. Downtown. Hollywood.”
“I have the City’s backing.”
“No, you don’t. The Partners already talked to me about the Red Line. They’re going after it without you.”
“Who told you that?”
“They told me that. They know you’re trying to screw them.”
“I know how to run this kind of business. They don’t. They’re newspaper guys, for God’s sake.”
“They’re smart. They saw that fish wrap would come back. They see that the social scene is going to come back too. They have the money to run this kind of business.”
“I originated this business. The party train. They’re not going to get the Red Line.”
“Yeah, they are. The Mayor has already committed to them. He likes having the papers on his side. Don’t tell me you couldn’t foresee this, Yuri.”
“I just gave the Mayor $24,000.”
“The Mayor isn’t the kind of man to ever turn down money or a pretty lady. The Partners have more of both than you.”
“Why are you telling me this, Mr. Controller?”
“I want to be mayor, Yuri. We just need the Mayor to go away.”
“Kill the Mayor.”
“Zombie attack the Mayor. Tonight. It’ll be accidental. Just another random zombie attack on the zombie party train. I heard there’s already been a breach in the Mayor’s car. I’m sure there can be another.”
“What did the Mayor do to rub you wrong?”
“The Mayor is a Cheshire Cat.” The Controller reached into the inside pocket of his sport coat, pulled out two sheathes of papers, and laid them on the table. “Here are the Memorandums of Understanding. The first one was drawn up for the Partners. The Mayor has already signed it. It’s awaiting my signature and that of the Council President to become official. The second one is for you, though. I’ve already signed it. And so has the Council President. She’s backing me on this. Your Memorandum just needs the Mayor’s signature. I can be that mayor, Yuri.”
Yuri reached for the Memorandum. It was twenty-some pages. Sure enough, it was signed by the Controller and Council President. This is what he wanted–ownership and operational control away from the Partners. Sure, the means were different than what he’d envisioned, but the results were the same. People died every day from zombie attacks.
“How do you propose I make this happen?”
“I can’t do all the thinking, Yuri. You have to earn your keep too.”
“Pour me another two fingers, Mr. Controller, and I’ll think about it.”
“My man,” the Controller said, and poured him three.
After the train’s scheduled stop at the Imperial/Wilmington platform, Yuri dropped in on Car One to see the conductor. He carried a bottle of Green Label with him. Despite being on the job for almost six months now, Pauly hadn’t acquired the taste for whisky, and so there was no need for Yuri to waste single malt on him. Pauly drank to drink.
“We’re celebrating tonight, Pauly,” he said, handing the conductor a double on ice.
“Are you sure, boss?” Pauly said. “After that last mishap I had, you said I couldn’t drink anymore on the job.”
“I said that we’re celebrating, Pauly. Drink up.”
Pauly took the glass. “What are we celebrating, boss?” Three zombies were in front of them on the tracks and Pauly sped up to waylay them. Their bodies thudded against the front of the train.
“We’re going to get the Red Line.”
“The Mayor’s on board? With the plan, I mean? Not the train. I know he’s on the train.”
“The entire City is on board, Pauly.”
“What are you going to do with the Blue Line, boss?”
“The Partners can worry about the Blue Line, Pauly. Goodbye, Long Beach. I’m taking you with me to the Red. Welcome to Hollywood, friend. Welcome to the underground.”
Yuri resumed his rounds, overseeing the bartenders and staff and shaking the hands of bigwigs who’d come aboard, but he kept checking in on Pauly. He poured Pauly more blended as the train passed Wardlow, and then again as the train made its final southbound stop at the Transit Mall in downtown Long Beach, and yet again as the train began its return trip to Los Angeles. By the time the train arrived back into the Pico station, Pauly was one drink away from being wasted. If the train wasn’t running on tracks, he would’ve crashed the Blue Line already.
Things were going as Yuri planned.
Yuri used the scheduled fifteen minute stop at Pico to track down Benny the Jeweler, who’d texted him twice that he’d arrived. As he walked the platform, he stuck his head inside Three, and sure enough, the Mayor had chosen to remain inside rather than filter out into the chilly night with the other traingoers. The Mayor didn’t want to be recognized tonight, not while he had the reporter on his arm. Even these days, Angelenos didn’t take well to philandering elected officials.
Yuri found Benny at the platform bar. He was having a mixed drink, hardly difficult to get during the zombocalypse and hardly conducive to a good time. Yuri waved over the bartender and had him open a bottle of Jura. Benny put his hand on the waist of his wife and introduced her.
“Thank you for the night out,” Benny’s wife said. “I heard it’s a packed train. Rumor has it that even the Mayor is on board tonight.”
“He’s a friend of the train,” Yuri said.
“He’s a friend of the store too,” Benny said. “He keeps his ladies outfitted in the best bling. He’s one of my best customers.”
“How long have the two of you been married?”
“Over twenty years,” Benny’s wife said. “Benny tells me that you’re engaged as well, Yuri. Congratulations.”
“I’m not anymore. I had to return the engagement ring to your husband today.”
“Why is that?”
“She stopped wearing it.”
“I’m sure she’ll come around. When it’s time for you to get another ring, my husband is going to give it to you at cost. No markup. Couples need to stick together during the zombocalypse.”
Yuri looked at Benny, thinking that he would see disapproval or irritation in his face and body language, but saw neither. Benny held his wife’s hand, and nodded. The tough talking, ball-breaking, blinged-out jeweler he’d known for years had disappeared, and his wife’s husband had taken his place.
Yuri thanked Benny’s wife and led them to Two. He set them up with a table not too far from the Controller’s, leaving the bottle of single malt Jura with them. He told the waitress to keep the Scotch coming, and tracked down Pauly, who was leaning against the platform bar, smoking cigarettes.
“You’re drunk,” Yuri said.
“Maybe,” Pauly said.
“I’m keeping you at the platform.”
“I’m sorry, boss. I shouldn’t have drunk so much.”
“It’s my fault, Pauly. Have a beer and sober up.”
Yuri waved over the bartender, and told her to bring a light beer over for Pauly and a bottle of Maccallan for himself. When he had Pauly hunkered down, he collected his seven man security team for a meeting at the edge of the platform. Including Yuri’s concealed .457, there was enough firepower on hand to violate a dozen California penal codes.
“Pauly had one too many,” Yuri said. “He’s going to sober up here.”
“Who’s going to drive?” Janssen said.
“You are, Janssen,” Yuri said. “Can you handle it?”
Janssen shrugged. “Sure, boss.”
“I’ll relieve you if it gets rowdy in the cars.”
“These guys can handle the slack.”
“Let’s have a toast to another strong night aboard the Blue Line.”
Yuri handed the Maccallan to Janssen. Janssen undid the wrapper, and pulled the cork. He brought the bottle to his nose, sniffed, and took a swig. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand, and passed the bottle to the next guy. The bottle made the rounds, and came to Yuri. Scotch wasn’t a swigging beverage, but the security team was putting away gulps, and so he did the same. He passed the bottle back to Janssen.
“Be safe, everyone,” Yuri said. “Protect our own. We’re going to move on to bigger things. We’re going to snare the Red Line.”
“To the Red Line,” Janssen said. He held the bottle in the air, and took another swig, this one bigger than the first. They finished the 750 milliliter bottle faster than any single malt should ever be consumed.
With Janssen set to conduct, Yuri had managed to clear Car Three of armed security. However, he still had to stop the train and let the undead filter in. As Janssen got the train rolling back down to Long Beach, Yuri worked his way backwards from Car One to Three. The Mayor was focused on the reporter, his hand on the inside of her thigh. The sight of the Mayor in his state of oily ease irked Yuri, especially as he thought about the $24,000 he’d taken under false pretense. But Yuri swallowed his anger and grabbed two bottles of Oban.
“Mr. Mayor,” Yuri said, setting the Oban on the Mayor’s table, “when should I come by City Hall to chat about the Red Line?”
“Give me a couple of weeks.”
“Is there any other interest in the Red Line?”
“There’s always interest in everything in this city, Yuri. Even during these times, people want a piece of the city. There can only be one Los Angeles.”
“Are there any other bids I have to worry about, Mr. Mayor?”
“It’s yours, Yuri. Now open that Scotch and give me some alone time. The reporter and I have City Hall business to catch up on.”
He told the Mayor to let him know if he needed anything else tonight. He climbed up the ladder to the overhead to get fresh air and focus his mind. At Firestone, the train was going to need to slow down to maximize electrical transfer, and at Imperial/Wilmington the train was going to have to stop completely as the train engineer adjusted the transformers for the sections of tracks outside of Los Angeles. The fifteen minute maintenance stop doubled as a cigarette break for the traingoers. The Mayor had already proven that he wasn’t a smoker, but he sure as hell was going to get smoked.
When the train stopped at Wilmington/Imperial, traingoers emptied outdoors to smoke or take in the night air. Security assumed their positions on the platform and behind the train, firing into the dark recesses of the neighborhood with regularity to keep the steady stream of undead at bay. Thus far, tonight was just another day at the office.
As Yuri walked towards the stairs leading down to the street, he saw Benny and his wife on the platform, glasses of Scotch in hand. They were smiling and talking, his free hand resting on her hip. He could picture them twenty years before, assuming the same position, having a different conversation but with the same relaxed tone. They’d survived the worse that Los Angeles had thrown at them. Yuri wondered if he and his girlfriend could reconcile and experience the comfort that Benny and his wife conveyed. If there was a silver lining to the zombocalypse, it was that couples like Benny and his wife had persevered and gotten stronger.
At the bottom of the platform, he walked along the edge of the train, making sure to stay close to the cars to avoid the bullets being scattered by security at the stray zombies. When he arrived at One, he climbed inside, looked around to confirm that he was alone in the conductor’s booth, and put the train into emergency mode, shutting off all but essential power. The overhead lights in the train flickered, and shut off. The air conditioning died, and the music from the DJ trailed off. He manually shut off the ATC system next, knowing that the train wouldn’t run without the automatic train control on alert.
Yuri left the same way he came, and found Janssen on the platform. Janssen and the bouncers were already getting people back into the train for the last leg of the final southbound run of the night to downtown Long Beach. Yuri relieved him of his duties so that he could assume position as conductor.
A few minutes later, Janssen hit him up on the two-way.
“There’s something wrong with the train, boss,” Janssen said.
“The damn thing won’t come out of emergency mode.”
“Get the engineer. He’ll be done switching the electricity by now.”
“What about the traingoers, boss?”
“We’ll let people stay on the platform until the engineer gets the train running. People won’t notice a little delay if we keep the booze flowing.”
A few minutes later, Janssen radioed Yuri to tell him that the ATC system wasn’t functioning and that the engineer was resetting the system computers to get it up and running. The process could take up to thirty minutes.
“Come back to the platform, Janssen. Keep the zombies out of here. You’re going to have your hands full.”
For the first ten minutes, the platform was business as usual. Alcohol flowed, and Janssen and his team shot at zombies. And since no more than the usual three or four traingoers were lost to the undead, revelers didn’t register the delay. But zombies began to overwhelm Janssen and his security team. Janssen was an excellent marksman but even he and his men couldn’t keep the congregating masses of undead at bay indefinitely. Casualties swelled from four to eight and then twelve and eighteen. Some of the more sober traingoers began to notice the attacks, and fled the platform to the infested neighborhoods of Willowbrook, but most were too drunk to stop partying.
Yuri watched the scene from on top of One. The engineer was working below him.
“I’m reaching saturation point, boss,” Janssen said over the radio. “You’re going to have to get this train moving or lose half the people here.”
“Engineering tells me we’re close. Ten minutes more. Concentrate the security on the platform. Pull the guards from Three.”
“If I pull my fellows from Three, we’re going to lose Car Three.”
“I’m going to clear the people out of there. I’ll move them to Two. We’ll let the zombies waste their time getting into Three. That’ll buy us enough time to get the train rolling.”
“Are you sure you’re okay with losing Car Three, boss?”
“Money is my worry, Janssen. Your worry is security. Is the Mayor still in Car Three?”
Janssen spoke into the radio twice to the team. “Yeah, he is,” Janssen said. “He and the newspaper chick.”
“Pretty much everyone else is on the platform.”
“I’ll take the Mayor to Two. Where are you going to be?”
“Manning the steps. Keeping these things off the front of the platform.”
Yuri pocketed the radio, and climbed back down to the platform. The front of the train was beginning to get overrun as well. They needed the tracks clear. He withdrew his .457 from the belted holster on his side, and fired four shots beyond the front of the train, hitting two zombies that were trudging along the southbound tracks. He kept his gun at the ready and forced his way through the traingoers on the platform to the back of the train. Even without stopping to shake hands, it took him a several minutes to navigate the crowd.
He paused outside of Car Two and glanced inside. The Controller gave him a nod. Yuri took a deep breath, and nodded back. There was no going back now.
Yuri was confused by what he saw. When he’d reached Three, he’d found the doors closed, the guard gone, and zombies already busting through the rearward windows. The Mayor was firing at the zombies with his handgun to little avail–they kept coming. All of that, he expected. But he hadn’t expected to see Benny the Jeweler and his wife huddled into the corner behind the Mayor and reporter. Benny and his wife weren’t supposed to be there.
Yuri wasn’t sure what to do. He wanted the Red Line but now more than ever wasn’t sure if he was going about securing it the right way–shady dealings of the undead uprising or not. He’d known Benny for a while but it wasn’t his relationship with Benny that was making him balk. It was Benny’s relationship with his wife that gave him pause. Despite the incessant problems of the undead uprising–all of the deaths, destruction, and mayhem–Benny and his wife had seemed happy.
He radioed the team. First static and then gunshots and finally Janssen’s voice came back over the radio. Janssen said that he would get there as quickly as he could, but Yuri knew that ‘quickly’ could take several minutes. He was going to have to rescue Benny and his wife on his own.
He checked his ammunition and reloaded the .457. He had three magazines left, which meant that he had twenty-one shots. It wasn’t nearly enough for a prolonged standoff but it would have to suffice. He walked to the edge of the platform and jumped down. Without the guard at the rear of the train, zombies were crawling beneath it. He shot at the zombies in front of him, clearing the back of the train and emptying a magazine in the process. He climbed aboard Three through the broken back window.
Inside, the Mayor was no longer firing shots. He seemed to have run out of ammunition. He was swinging at zombies with the pistol instead. Benny had stopped fiddling with the door and had wrapped his arms around his wife. He was shielding her with his back, hugging her protectively and turning her away from the approaching zombies. Already, though, the zombies were descending upon Benny and his wife, and Yuri knew they weren’t going to survive. He also knew that he was down to fewer than fourteen bullets and he should save his ammunition for his own egress. But he couldn’t bear to have Benny and his wife ripped apart. He fired a round of seven at the zombies, not caring anymore if he hit Benny and his wife because death from a bullet would be better than the torture of dismemberment. He loaded another seven-round magazine and emptied his final clip. The last zombies surrounding Benny and his wife fell away but Benny and his wife did too. Yuri had been right–they hadn’t made it.
Janssen and another of the guards arrived. Janssen climbed inside the train car and the other guard maintained position outside. The zombies that had overwhelmed Benny and his wife had shifted their focus to the reporter and Mayor. Janssen fired shots with his Carbon-15, picking off the zombies nearest them, but the Mayor and reporter remained entangled in an undead mess. The zombies leapt at the reporter, pulling her to the ground. The Mayor stepped away from her but still her blood splattered him across the face. Janssen held his fire–shooting now would lay waste not only to the zombies but the Mayor as well. The reporter reached out to the Mayor but he could do nothing but toss the empty gun at her.
“What should I do, boss? If I shoot, I’m going to hit the Mayor.”
“Hold fire. Let nature take its course.”
The Mayor stumbled backwards, knocking over the table and flooding the floor with single malt. The smell of charred wood mixed with the stench of rotted flesh. The zombies reached down and ripped him across the arm. The Mayor yelled and reached out to no one in particular. The zombies tore at his cheeks and then began to fight with each other for them. The winning zombie bit into the Mayor’s face, pulling chunks of skin and fat away from the bone.
Finally, the Mayor’s grin was gone.
The engineer got the train running and Janssen and his team shut down Three to traingoers for the rest of the night. The Blue Line finished its route to Long Beach and began its trek back to Los Angeles.
Two detectives from LAPD were waiting for them at Pico. The male detective detained the traingoers on the platform and the female detective took statements. As far as Yuri could tell, she received nothing useful beyond the usual zombie attack narratives–zombies showed up, zombies attacked, zombies suck. Yuri watched to see if the detectives would talk to the Controller but the Controller stayed away from them. When the detectives opened up the exits, the Controller came over to Yuri and told him to come to the office during the week to discuss the Red Line. The Controller slipped off with the rest of the traingoers.
It was after 4 a.m. Yuri pulled up a crate and sat on it near the edge of the platform. He watched Janssen dismiss the security team. Janssen pulled up his own crate and sat with Yuri. They both looked out at the high-rises in the distance. Yuri had a single remaining bottle of single malt left over from the train. He fiddled with it.
“Was tonight good or bad for the Red Line, boss?” Janssen said.
Yuri shrugged. “It was good. The Controller is going to be mayor next.”
“The Red Line will be good for you, boss.”
“I’m thinking of leaving the promotion business, Janssen.”
“When’d you decide that, boss?”
“I could understand that, boss. It’s a tough life out here.”
“Why are you out here, Janssen? Night after night?”
“This is how I support my family.”
“Go home to them. It’s been a long night.”
Janssen stood. Yuri watched him as he crossed the platform. When Janssen was gone, Yuri opened the bottle of single malt he’d been holding. Instead of drinking it, he reached over the side of the track, and poured it out for Benny the Jeweler. He watched the amber color drain. When the bottle was empty, he placed it on the platform, the label facing the tracks, and left. He walked to his Rover, texting his girlfriend along the way, telling her that he was on his way home for good.
Xavier Braze is the undead incarnation of Hassan Riaz. Hassan Riaz lived in Los Angeles before succumbing to the plague, where he was a physician, financier, and writer. His work had appeared in Slice Magazine, Paragraph Line, and Retort Magazine, among several others. Xavier Braze is a Tales of the Zombie Wars survivor. His prior Zombie War tales can be found here and here. You can find Xavier Braze at xavierbraze.com while Hassan Riaz survives at hassaninla.com.