Red Night: An Exclusive Preview

 

Alexander’s first novel, a post-apocalyptic thriller, is live on the Amazon Marketplace! Enjoy the first chapter of Red Night below:

Chapter 1: The Bar 

         Day gives way to night as the final rays of light fade behind the horizon. A man sprints through the darkness. Pale, sweating, terrified, each step brings him nearer to death from exhaustion. But he can’t slow down—he won’t. He needs to find safety. He needs to let them know what they’ve done. Everything depends on it…

        The man’s heart jumps with the closest thing to elation he’s known in months. He reaches the outskirts of the town he knows so well. Not much farther. Keep breathing. His destination is in reach now. Maybe he really has a chance. Just a couple more blocks. The only sound in the small suburban neighborhood is the deep breathing of the man now racing through it. He turns the corner and tears up the driveway of a respectable three-bedroom house. He veers in front of the small garage, hurdles a flowerbed, and bursts through the front door.

         He collapses just inside the threshold, waking the aging couple upstairs…

Aidan Michaels woke with a start. In a cold sweat, he sat up in bed and rubbed his head. An ambulance siren blared through the city, but what had woken him was something different. It was a dream, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember many details. It had something to do with a man running. Every second, the details got hazier.

         No matter. It’s nothing. Dreams always are.

“Morning, beautiful,” Michaels said to the lump in the corner of his bed. Though it was the middle of the day, this was Michaels’s normal waking time; he worked the night shift at a local bar. A big earth-colored creature raised his ears. “How many times do I have to tell you to stay off the damn bed?”

The dog rolled onto his back.

“Hopeless,” Michaels said. He rubbed the beast’s belly. “Just friggin’ hopeless.”

Michaels rose from the converted futon that made up his bed and groaned. The apartment was just an open room with a kitchen area and a small bathroom. The furnishings consisted of nothing but a television, the futon, and a heavy punching bag hanging in the corner.

He ambled over to the meager kitchen, stretching as he walked to work out his usual morning stiffness. The “kitchen” was complete with a sink, microwave, a few cupboards, and a stove that Michaels was not quite sure worked. He reached into a tiny cupboard and pulled out a bag of powdered protein. He poured a scoop into a dirty glass, walked over to the sink, and filled it with tap water. He guzzled it down.

“Ahhh,” Michaels groaned. “Breakfast of champions.” He looked over to the big dog and flashed him a smirk. Rio raised an ear in response. Michaels grabbed the remote off his bed and flipped on the news.

“The mysterious virus that put thousands of infected people into hospitals across the county has taken a turn for the worse—well over a hundred souls have passed due to fever-like symptoms…”

He went back to the futon and pulled a pair of dirty spandex shorts from underneath, dropped his boxers, and threw them on. He looked around for a second.

“Now where did I put those…ahh, there they are.” He pulled two long pieces of cloth from atop the closet door, then slowly and deliberately wrapped them around his right hand. He repeated the process with his left, then pulled a pair of boxing gloves down and put one on each hand. He did a couple more quick stretches and then went to work.

Michaels stood at arm’s length from the heavy bag and warmed up with sharp straights and jabs. He threw in a double-jab-cross combination and a jab-double-cross-jab. He mixed in some hooks. The combinations grew in intensity and power as Michaels warmed up.

“The virus is said to produce an intense fever resulting in loss of cognitive function. Patients have died within hours of arriving at the hospital, giving little hope to the families of patients still awaiting treatment. It’s not yet known how one can contract the virus, but if anyone you know has even the slightest flu-like symptoms, you should take him or her to the nearest hospital immediately…”

Michaels went back to work. Whack. Whack-whack. Thump. Thump-smack-thump. As much as Michaels stayed at arm’s distance in his first go-round, he was in on the core of the bag on this one, bobbing and weaving, dodging in and out of the swinging thing as if it were a real opponent. He took another break and sipped on more of his protein concoction.

“We have just received word now that an evacuation has been advised. For more on the situation, here is General Victor Drakul, stationed at the local army base.”

“It is with great regret that I must announce a citywide evacuation is in order, effective immediately. We do not know much about this pandemic. We don’t know where it came from. We don’t know how to stop it. We don’t have a cure, and we don’t know its long-term effects.

“What we do know is this: for some poor souls, it has already proven to be fatal. This city is the epicenter of the outbreak. It is spreading quickly, and if you do not leave the area immediately, you or your loved ones could be the next victims.

“Unfortunately, with the nature of the virus, we can’t take any chances on the sick making it out with the uninfected. A series of checkpoints have been established at each and every exit of the city. There, every man, woman, and child will be inspected before exiting the established perimeter. Those found to be suffering the effects of this illness will remain with our staff, where they will be held in the medical ward until a cure can be found. That is all.”

Reporters peppered the general with questions: “How long do the infected have before it becomes fatal?” “How long do you expect the evacuation process to last?” “Is there any truth behind the rumors of these so-called rising dead?”

“I’m sorry I cannot fill you in with more information at this time.” The general scurried out of the pressroom.

Michaels fixed his sight on the television for a moment, then turned his back in disgust and resumed his workout.

         Thump. Whack-whack-thump!

Michaels beat his imaginary foe with more authority than before. He rattled the bag to its core, unloading combination after combination, grunting after decisive hits.

He continued his workout until he dripped with sweat. The bag swung back and forth, powered by its own momentum. Michaels walked over to the shower, turned it on, dropped his shorts, and got in. He rinsed the sweat off and grabbed his towel. He gave it a sniff. Still damp. He turned his nose up at the smell but used it just the same.

He collected clothes from around the floor of the studio apartment and dressed in his normal work attire: jeans, boots, a t-shirt and a big gray jacket that at one time had been black. Or dark blue. Michaels could no longer remember. He instinctively reached for his cell phone, but he let it lie on the counter. He hadn’t paid his bill in months.

Michaels traipsed through the hallway and down the stairs to open the door to the fading light outside. The streets were packed with cars. True, it was rush hour, but Michaels had a feeling this had something to do with the news broadcast—there was a general feeling of panic in the air.

“Idiots,” Michaels muttered. He put his head down, hands in his pockets, and continued toward the bar to start his shift, still unable to shake the dream he couldn’t quite seem to remember. He made it only a couple hundred yards before the blast of a car horn brought him back to reality. He leapt out of the way of a rogue SUV. The driver had decided to navigate the sidewalks instead of waiting for the gridlock to open up. It was only a matter of seconds before a dozen or so other cars followed the SUV’s lead.

“Are you kidding me?” Michaels yelled. He dipped into an alleyway, cursing out the cars behind him. “One bogus news report and this entire city loses its freaking mind,” Michaels mumbled. He kept his head down and absent-mindedly navigated the darkening alleys. He brushed past a homeless man leaning against a building wall. The bum jerked awake. After a couple seconds, Michaels heard shuffling steps behind him.

“Sorry, buddy. If I had any cash I…well, I still wouldn’t give it you,” Michaels said. He took a few more steps, but the guy was following, panting and staggering. “Didn’t you hear me, weirdo?” He finally turned around. “I said buzz o—”

The man took a wild swing at him. It was only now that Michaels realized there was something seriously wrong with this guy. His eyes were bloodshot, he was drooling haphazardly, and he stumbled like a drunk. Michaels took a step back and put his hands up.

“Listen, buddy. I don’t know what kind of shit you’re tripping on, but I don’t want any trouble from you. And I know you don’t want any trouble from—”

The man took two more swings at him. This time, Michaels retaliated, laying a sharp right cross on the man’s exposed jaw, knocking him to the ground.

“I told you I didn’t want any trouble,” Michaels said. He left the man in the alley behind him and turned the corner to the bar.

“Jesus,” he said as he opened the door, ready to relay his tale to his coworkers. He was cut off by Scottie Houlihan, owner and manager of McGrath’s Pub.

“He doesn’t work here,” Houlihan snapped. “But you do. And you’re late. Again.”

“Doesn’t look like I missed much,” Michaels said. He looked around the bar, seeing only the two bartenders, Steven and Katie. Steven, Michaels had a love-hate relationship with. Though they often got along, Steven acted as though he were some misunderstood genius stuck working behind a bar. In his mind, Michaels played the role of some meathead bouncer. Katie, Michaels was often indifferent toward, though they had had their flings. Truthfully, on any given night you might think the four of them were the best of friends—or that they each wanted to leave the others bruised and bloodied in the alleyway behind the bar.

All present knew why Michaels was still employed at McGrath’s, no matter how many times he was late or absent. A couple of years ago, when he was still fairly new to the job, Michaels saved Houlihan from a vicious beating. Some drunks were convinced he’d shortchanged them and were waiting outside for him to close up shop and go home. Michaels, who was going the opposite way to his apartment, heard the commotion and doubled back. He beat the thugs off Houlihan and sent them on their way, taking a knife to the gut for his efforts. In exchange, he gained a just-above-minimum-wage job for longer than he could have ever dreamed.

“Bar’s dead,” Michaels continued.

“Well, yeah,” Houlihan replied. “It’s the end of the world. Didn’t you see the news?”

“You shouldn’t joke about that,” Katie said. “You never know about these things.”

“Seriously?” Michaels snorted. “You telling me you believe this shit?” He walked behind the bar and poured himself a drink. Conversation had never been the strong point of their relationship.

“Well, you never know.” She shot him a dirty look.

“Puh-lease,” Houlihan responded. “Bird flu. Swine flu. Mad cow. C’mon, how many of these things do we have to go through before people realize it’s just a bunch of crap? A dozen people get sick, some poor kid dies, and boom. It’s an ‘epidemic,’” he said, making air quotes with his fingers.

“No.” Katie shook her head. “This feels different. They said on the news people are dying left and right in the hospital—that they don’t know how to stop it.”

“It’s probably some conspiracy,” Steven said.

         “Here we go,” Michaels mumbled.

“You know? To get people to buy some new wonder drug at the pharmacy. Big government’s always in bed with the pharmaceuticals.” Steven went on. Michaels rolled his eyes and poured himself another drink.

“Well, one thing’s for sure,” Houlihan said. “Whatever the hell this is, it’s costing me money. Saturday freaking night and not a soul in here. There’s your conspiracy, Steven. Government’s getting together to put all the crusty old Irishmen out of business.”

“That’s because everyone’s getting out of town before they get sick,” Katie continued, in spite of Houlihan’s rant. “Like we should be doing.”

“Hey!” Michaels said abruptly, eager to change the subject. “I forgot to tell you—would you believe some homeless guy tried to take me out on my way here?”

“What?” Houlihan asked. Michaels was a big enough guy that it would normally take a pretty good reason for someone to attack him. “What did you do to him? Kick his dog?”

“No. I mean, I told him to buzz off but nothing out of the norm. He had these red eyes and was swaying back and forth. And then he just came at me. I don’t know what he was on. Those bath salt things, maybe. It was really strange. I mean for no reason at all, he just completely…raged.”

“See!” Katie started again. “It was them, I’m telling you. That’s what the TV said they’d do!”

“Oh, come off it!” Houlihan fired back.

For the next several hours they talked about illnesses and conspiracy theories, which grew wilder with each passing drink added to their infinitely growing tabs. Houlihan always threatened to take it out of their paychecks one day, but for all his bluster his employees knew he would never follow through.

“OK, enough is enough,” Houlihan said. He rubbed his forehead. “I can’t sit here and pay you deadbeats to drink my liquor all night. I’m closing up early, now beat it.” He walked to the front door. He locked the bolt. As he turned around several fists banged on the door.

“Really?” Houlihan rolled his eyes.

“Want me to tell them to buzz off?” Michaels asked as he put an arm through his jacket sleeve.

“No, I got it. Why should I let you have all the fun?” Houlihan smirked back at him. He turned and opened the door. “We’re closed early tonight, so f—aaaaaarghhh!”

Before he could finish, a man grabbed him. With a crazed look, he sank his teeth into the bar owner’s throat.

“Holy shit!” Michaels grabbed the bat Houlihan stored beneath the bar. The assailant had the same deranged look as the homeless man Michaels encountered in the alleyway. The stink he smelled on the old man was stronger now, and he realized it wasn’t just of someone who’d skipped a few showers. It smells like death. And those eyes: they aren’t just blood shot; they’re empty.

He leapt across the bar and knocked the crazed man off, but the damage was done: Houlihan was bleeding out right in front of him. More of them poured into the bar. Some went for Michaels, which he held at bay with vicious swings. Others rushed by him and went straight for the bar. Katie screamed at the site of them.

They crawled across the bar and reached for her. Steven slugged one across the face, then broke a beer bottle and shoved the shards straight into his heart. He smashed the first one’s head repeatedly into the bar top as the third struggled to climb across the counter. While Steven was distracted finishing off the second assailant, the first one rose again, unimpeded by the broken glass sticking through his chest. He went back for Steven.

His attacker grabbed him by the shoulder, turned him around, and jammed its thumbs into his eyes. Steven yelled and staggered in pain but was unable to get out of the thing’s grip. It pulled him close and bit a chunk out of the side of his neck. The third one made its way across the bar with no one left to slow its attack. Unable to escape, Katie collapsed in the midst of the assault, her screams quickly silenced.

Michaels finished off his assailants and managed to shut and lock the front door. He ran across the room and hurdled the bar in a single leap. But he was too late to save Katie and Steven—the amount of gore and blood covering the floor certainly showed that. He quickly finished off their attackers before walking away from the mess and sitting down.

Michaels breathed deeply. “OK.” He lifted his head from his hands. “OK, OK, OK. Shit. What the—” He cut himself off, trying to make sense of what he had just witnessed. A gang had attacked them for no reason. His coworkers were dead. And he was alone.

A floorboard squeaked behind him. Not alone after all.

“Whoa!” Michaels yelled, jumping out of his seat—Houlihan staggered toward him, arms outstretched—Michaels swung the bat again, connecting with the side of Houlihan’s head. “Shit-shit-shit!” he roared with every swing, putting Houlihan down for good. He rushed behind the bar to check on the bodies of Katie and Steven. Right on cue, their corpses began to move as well. He put them down before they could get back up.

“OK,” he said again, trying to regain his composure. “OK, OK. Gotta get out of here.” Michaels walked to the back door. He kept the chain across the lock and opened it just enough to get a glance at who or what might be waiting for him outside. It looked as safe as it was bound to get, so he closed the door and undid the chain. With one hand gripping the bat, he opened the door cautiously with his free hand. He swung the door open wide and stepped back, two hands on the bat, ready for whatever might be on the other side. Nothing. All that waited for him was darkness. He remained frozen for a moment so his eyes could adjust to the gloom of the alley.

Michaels walked quickly and purposefully through the night. He didn’t scare easily. But he couldn’t help but feel that someone was watching him every step of the way. He made it around the corner of his apartment building without incident, but now there was no avoiding the main road. His entrance was right off it. He slowly made his way from the alleys. As he did, he could hear the destruction more clearly.

The gridlock he’d left behind a few hours earlier had turned to a state of pure chaos. The cars that hadn’t made it out were either abandoned or full of gore. The streets were now littered with these drooling, staggering people. They seemed distracted, Michaels thought, and the more he stood there, the more likely he was to be seen. He decided to go for it, slipping quickly and quietly between cars. He didn’t make it far before he was seen by a handful of the infected. They gave chase as he took off for the front door. He fumbled with his keys, his attackers getting closer with every passing heartbeat. He turned the lock, stepped in, and slammed the door on the infected. They crashed and banged against it. He raced up the stairs two at a time before he reached his apartment. He slammed and locked the door behind him and sat down on the edge of his bed. He buried his head in his hands, struggling to think logically about a completely illogical situation. Rio placed his big head in his lap.

 

A sharp rap on the door startled Michaels from the myriad thoughts buzzing through his head. He walked cautiously over to the door, bat raised and ready for action. He ripped open the door.

“Oh, sorry, Stacy, Mo.” Michaels put the bat down and greeted his upstairs neighbors. “I thought you guys would have gotten the hell out of here by now.”

“How? Walk?” Mo asked. He took in the blood on Michaels’s clothes and his uncharacteristically pale complexion. “What the hell happened to you?”

“You’ve seen the news?” Michaels asked.

“Yeah,” Stacy answered slowly.

“Well, I’ve been living it.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mo asked.

“It means it’s real. Everything they said. It’s real. It might even be worse.”

“Get out of here,” Mo said. He tried to muster a laugh. Even when he was in shape, Mo had a solid fifty pounds of sheer mass on Michaels. Though the burly man rarely had anything to fear, there was definitely concern in his voice. He looked over to his wife. Petite with strawberry-blond hair, Michaels could never help but think how well Mo had done for himself.

“No. Seriously,” Michaels answered. “Look at me. You think I did this to myself?” He relayed his encounter at the bar back to his friends. Though it hurt to think about, he told them in gory detail about the deaths of his three coworkers. How they got back up, gaping holes in their throats be damned.

“I don’t know, man, that sounds crazy. Like it’s out of a damn zombie movie or something.”

“You think I don’t know that? You think I don’t wish I was crazy, that this was all in my head? But I saw it.”

“Today, on the news,” Stacy chimed in. “They said there were rumors of people being pronounced dead. And then they get up, but not really them. Like they’re enraged or something. They just want to attack anything they see.”

“Shit,” Mo said softly. “What the hell are we going to do?”

“Well, we can’t just march out there with everyone. I’ve seen it. That’s suicide,” Michaels explained.

“How the hell are we supposed to get out of here with literally everyone else in town trying to get out at the same spots, at the same time?”

“Simple,” Michaels responded. “We don’t. Not yet, anyway. I mean, we have to be smart about it. We can’t just go rushing out there like the rest of those idiots. Stick to alleys and back roads. They aren’t bad. Not yet anyway. These things seem attracted to the masses. But as they polish off the main streets, I have a feeling they’re going to get curious and start moving about. After we wait out the initial rush, the sooner we move, the better. But the first thing we need to do is gather supplies.”

“Supplies. Here? What the hell kind of survival gear do you have?” Mo gave his deep rumbling chuckle as he opened up the fridge. In it there were three beers, a pack of American cheese, a jar of peanut butter, and a half-eaten can of beans.

“Here, Stacy, take this,” Michaels said. He gave her the bat. She took it, looking unsure of herself.

“Are you sure?” she asked. “What about you?”

“I’ll be fine,” Michaels answered. He rummaged around the little apartment and looked under the bed. From under it he pulled out a flashlight and a hammer.

That’s your weapon of choice?” Mo asked.

“You know me. I always preferred to get my hands dirty.” Michaels gave him a mischievous smile. “And I’ve got this.” He walked over to the kitchen and pulled out his big bag of protein. “If shit really hits the fan, and we are starving, we can mix this with water to keep us going for a while,” he explained. “Besides, this is our most valuable asset.” He rubbed Rio’s jowls.

“What, another mouth to feed?”

“No, hater,” Michaels retorted. “If we are starving, are you going to catch our food?”

“I’m not eating a damn thing that touches that fleabag’s mouth.”

Rio raised both ears and cocked his head inquisitively. Mo couldn’t help but smile but did his best to hide it from Michaels.

“Well, don’t sit there and make jokes. You all live here, too. What you got?” Michaels asked the couple.

Stacy and Mo were Michaels’s only neighbors. The two-apartment complex was above a tiny clothing store on the first floor. Mo and Stacy had the bigger of the two apartments, on the third floor, and Michaels had the studio on top of the shop. Their landlord didn’t bother them much; he just did his business downstairs. For Mo, Stacy, and Michaels, as long as their rent was in on time, there weren’t any problems.

They walked up to the third-floor apartment. Structurally, it was nearly identical to Michaels’s, just a little bigger and with an actual bedroom and living room. Other than those crude similarities, the two apartments could not look more different. While Michaels’s little studio would be described by most as a dump, this one was quite quaint. Well-furnished and organized to make the most of the space, the place had a definite feminine touch. As Stacy and Michaels rummaged through the apartment, Mo disappeared to the bedroom and emerged with a sword.

“Mine’s bigger.” Mo smirked, glancing at Michaels’s hammer.

“Damn. I knew you liked kung fu movies. But that thing’s ridiculous. Where the hell did you get it?” Michaels asked.

“Pawn shop. I traded those cuff links Stacy’s mother got me—”

“You did what?” Stacy emerged from the kitchen with a scowl, arms full with a couple of boxes of granola bars, some crackers, a loaf of bread, and a box of cereal.

“Stace—babe—I mean, c’mon!” Mo stammered.

“C’mon what? My mom probably paid good money for those!”

“Bet your ass she did, if he got a damn sword for them,” Michaels added.

“You’re not helping.” Mo glared at him, then turned back to Stacy. “Where was I ever going to wear them? For Taco Tuesdays at the Hut?”

“That’s not the point. She got those for you as a gift!” Stacy said.

“Well, where would we be if he hadn’t?” Michaels interrupted. “I mean, apocalypse. No sword. Sounds like he was just thinking ahead, Stace.”

“Maurice Christopher. You are lucky it’s the end of the world.” She glared at him, but her anger seemed to be dying down already. Present circumstances certainly had something to do with that.

Maurice,” Michaels whispered with a sneer as Stacy turned her back.

Aidan,” Mo shot right back.

Michaels’s ears turned red, and he quickly changed the subject. “Well, we’ll need more supplies than this. Every minute we stay here is a minute wasted. Let’s hit it.”

“Hit what, exactly?” Stacy asked.

“Your genius of a husband has just given me an idea. Let’s head to the pawnshop. You never know what you can find there. Besides, I’m sure Old Man Rivers would love to see me.”

Mo chuckled, and with that, the three of them, Rio hot on their heels, clambered down the stairs into the town they had once known so well. Given the day’s events, they may as well have been walking into it for the first time.

 

Aspiring Athlete. Professional Nerd.