Excerpt: Zombies in the East End

Billie stood in the shadows and scanned the room for trouble. It was the end of the evening. Most of the customers had already staggered home, or were too drunk on Shandy Gaff or Blue Ruin to take offense and start a fight.

“The Wolf and the Hare” attracted a rough crowd on a Saturday night. Billie was the bouncer. If a customer pulled a knife, she took it from him and roughly tossed him out. When one of the girls upstairs screamed because a client got too rough, Billie taught the customer a lesson he wouldn’t forget for going too far. Oliver paid her well to keep his place free of violence. Nobody wanted to be rounded up by the Bobbies and put in jail, or see their favorite pub shut down.

Men seldom crossed Billie. Her black pants, plain, black shirt and boots identified her as a masher, a woman who wore men’s clothes. She needed the freedom of movement in her job, but the truth was she’d refused to wear a dress since she was ten.

The customers claimed Billie had devil’s eyes that changed color with her mood. When she was upset and turned them on you, you better run. She stood six feet, with a deceptively lanky build that hid rock-hard muscles. Her breasts were small. She had brown hair cut to just behind her ears, thick brows, a generous mouth too full to be popular, and a metal hand she received when she was sixteen and stole from Jackson Smyth, boss of the notorious Bluegate Fields.

“I got to have respect,” Jackson told her harshly. “If I let it go, it won’t be long before somebody else steals from me.”

“Are you going to kill me?” Billie asked boldly, shaking inside.

“Not this time.” He dragged her by the scruff of her neck out back. In front of his entire gang and half the neighborhood, cut off her left hand at the wrist. He did it fast. While she was still in shock, he soldered the wound to stop the bleeding. She fainted dead away.

Jackson might have killed her, but he had a soft spot for Billie’s mother, Gwen, who died the year before from consumption and bitter memories. Before she passed away, she made him swear to look out for her daughter.

“No hard feelings,” Jackson told her at the time. She didn’t harbor any. She was a fool for thinking she could put one over on him.

The incident taught her two valuable lessons. Don’t be cocky and never trust others won’t betray you. Lila, her partner in crime, panicked when questioned and ratted her out. Billie was lucky. Jackson slashed Lila’s throat and left her to rot in a puddle of stinking sewer water.

Billie recovered and Jackson paid for a movable, robotic replacement.

Robots and robotic limbs could be purchased at street fairs and from respectable dealers. New inventions were the norm. Airships, submersibles, and steam-powered carriages were commonplace. Pirate’s guns, double-barreled pistols, and rifles with saws attached or guns that sprayed deadly gas could be purchased on the black market.

In addition to the short sword worn under her coat in a hand-painted scabbard, Billie wore a leather wrist guard filled with bolts of explosives on her good wrist. When you lived in the East End and worked nights, it paid to be well-armed.

The front door swung open. It was nearly closing time. A man barged in. He was a little over five-feet-six. His shirt was ripped, his pants torn, and he wore no shoes. Billie frowned. He was too far away to see clearly, but he raised the hackles on the back of her neck.

Sal, one of the working girls, sauntered over to him. She leaned in and spoke a few words. The man grabbed her and clamped teeth down on her jugular. She screeched, clawing at him.

“Get him off!”

Billie rushed over.

“Billie,” Oliver shouted, tossing her a club.

The beast was tearing Sal apart with his teeth. The blood pumped out of her neck like a geyser and pooled under her. Sal stopped moving. Brendon, one of the regulars, a big Irishman who worked on the docks, got there before Billie. He slipped on the blood, falling on his back.

The stranger dropped Sal and leapt on top of Brendan, grunting, biting off chunks of flesh. Brendon cursed and delivered savage punches, but his attacker, though slight, was unbelievably strong. Snatching Brendon’s knife, the stranger dug it into his head in the fanatical manner of a miner searching for gold. He scooped the grey brain matter into his mouth faster than an addict coming off the juice.

Up close, the man’s eyes were bright, golden yellow, and he stunk like he hadn’t bathed in weeks. Billie bashed him over the head with the bat three times. He went down and was still. When she tried to haul his remains out, his eyes opened and he moved. Raising a broken arm, he grabbed her right wrist and bit down. Since it was metal, it left only a dent. She struck him again and again, until he was nothing more than a bunch of crushed bones. The few customers who remained cringed as honest-to-God maggots crawled out of the corpse. There was no blood. Not a drop. Nauseated, Billie felt like throwing up as she hauled him out back.

“Christ, it’s a demon,” Ed Perkins, one of the regulars muttered, crossing himself. He backed toward the door. Other customers joined him.

“It’s all over, folks. Drinks on the house,” Oliver shouted as his brother Gus and two customers dragged Sal and Brendon’s dead bodies into a back room. As usual, free liquor cured the patrons of their fears, at least for now.

Billie dumped what was left of the stranger out back in a garbage can and slammed the lid shut. Goosebumps crawled up the back of her neck as she heard a scraping sound against the sides of the barrel. She’d left her short sword in her coat on a peg in the back. If she had the blade, she would have cut off the thing’s head. Removing the lid, she looked in. One bloodshot, crushed eye stared back at her. Blind panic made her jump back. Tossing some old newspapers in, she set fire to it and watched it burn. A high-pitched squeal made her squirm, but it only lasted a couple of seconds. When it was over, she shuddered and went back inside.

Oliver poured her a whiskey. She downed it in one gulp. Her hands shook.

“So what the hell was that?” Oliver asked in a low voice.

Billie shrugged. “An escapee from Bedlam.”

Oliver poured her another. “Is he dead?”

“Yeah, but it took some doing.”

“Sal and Brendon are dead too.”

“What are you going to tell the rozers?”

“Gus will get rid of the trash. I’ll say you drove the madman off.”

“Thanks. I’m going to hook it, if that’s okay with you?”

“Go ahead. I’m closing in five minutes.”

Billie nodded and stepped outside.

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