Chapter 16 – Serendipitous Meetup
“Can we get to a pub?” the question came out of the blue.
The look on Amelie’s face was one of desperation. The gruesome loss of her husband and the destruction of her life together were having a terrible effect on her. At first, sitting in the back of Claire’s car, Amelie had seemed to be in control and clear-headed, but as the reality of the situation sank in she became weepy and physically slumped into the little car’s back seat. Crying was obviously contagious because Claire was showing symptoms of going in the same direction, which of course was impacting James who wiped his eyes unobtrusively, not wanting to be part of the pity party. At least this contagion wasn’t lethal.
After a little while Amelie went silent and sat there rocking backwards and forwards, all the while clasping her daughter’s hands tightly. Now she wanted to go to the pub. The real problem was that although James never turned down that suggestion - not to his memory, he was uncertain how good an idea that was right now; none of them knew just how widespread this thing was, or if they could realistically evade it; on top of that the seemingly telepathic aspect had him worried. Having quickly processed all this as well as all the alternatives he could think of, which was none, he resigned himself to the pub with the single thought, ‘bollocks to common sense’. And why not; going to his prospective in-laws certainly hadn’t worked out as hoped - and planned, the only high point being that Claire was with her mum – no-one was ready yet to speak of her father. His hands were still shaking with the adrenaline rush, hence why he gripped the steering wheel as if it was trying to get away.
“Which pub?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Amelie responded gruffly. “Um, The Heifer, no, the Rose and Crown. Damn it, I don’t know, you choose.”
James knew The Heifer well; good food, some great beers. He’d seen the Rose and Crown but it was more of a pub; The Heifer, on the other hand, was an hotel so might just be reasonably stocked to fend off the immediate vagaries and paucities of an apocalypse. It was his choice of the moment. He put the car into gear and drove off.
Making their way up Bull Lane in Wrotham, James slowed down and turned into the alley that ran down the side of old white-painted pub and parked up out the back. Looking around for lurking non-human entities, or NHEs as he’d begun thinking of them as, he saw that the carpark was singularly empty of life. His stomach loosed squadrons of fear butterflies. He’d never seen this carpark empty, never ever; this particular pub didn’t have to wait for the weekend to come alive, even during the week the pub had a constantly vibrant air about it. The carpark was usually full of guests’ cars, especially in the early evening.
Getting out of the little Fiat, he helped his mother-in-law out and led her inside; she looked like she’d aged fifty years during the journey. Claire followed immediately behind.
Once indoors, James looked around nervously and noticed there was almost no-one around, compounding his initial fears brought on by the empty carpark. Apart from the porter James knew as Billy, the only other person he could see was the owner, Shirley Federman. She was propped behind the bar, nursing a glass of what looked like Scotch in her left hand, with the bottle, mostly empty, grasped in her right. She looked as if she’d been supporting the counter for quite some time, judging from appearances. Her eyes were red-rimmed and haunted - presumably, like the rest of the living, she’d seen something she didn’t like.
Noticing their entrance and recognising Amelie as a friendly regular, Billy came over and whispered conspiratorially, his Polish accent stronger than usual, attesting to his stress levels being high. His English was usually very good, better than most locals, hence why he injected colloquial words every so often, to play to their needs. As far as James was aware, the man, easily in his forties, had lived in England forever.
“She’s been like this for most of the afternoon,” Billy said, his voice filled with concern for his boss.
“Why is there no-one here? Stupid question,” James admonished himself. “How long has the pub been empty?"
Billy shrugged his shoulders.
“Pretty much all day. It’s been weird.” Billy shrugged again. “Anyway, I’m about to go off duty so it’ll just be Mrs Federman.”
“You can’t just leave,” Claire interrupted.
“Oh, I can,” Billy countered, bridling at the commanding tone Claire had used - she wasn’t his boss. “It’s the end of my shift and I’m cream crackered.”
“It’s not that,” Claire argued. “There are things out there. You’ll be in danger.”
Billy looked at her as if she’d been doing the same thing as his boss. His face was immediately set to disapproving mode as soon as he noticed the belly bump.
“Have you seen nothing at all today?” James asked, incredulous that someone might still not know there was a problem at the end of the World. He changed tack. “What’s wrong with Shirley?”
“I don’t know, I was just sorting out some of the rooms - weddings can be pretty extreme, you know, and when I came back down she was like this. I haven’t been able to get a word out of her since then.”
“And you didn’t think there was a problem?” Claire admonished sarcastically. Ouch, James, thought, the poor bugger didn’t deserve that. He assumed that was a hormonal outburst and/or stress-related - after all, she had just seen her dad do some strange, unnatural things.
Billy glared at her.
“Duh, of course I did,” he responded before taking a deep breath and changing his tone, returning to professional mode. “I mean, yes, but she hasn’t said a word since then. I’ve not been outside all day.”
Amelie walked over to Shirley and placed a hand on hers. Shirley’s eyes cleared; it was almost like watching fog lift.
“I know what you’ve seen,” she said quietly. “Bev?”
Shirley nodded but said nothing.
Claire’s heart skipped a beat as she saw her mother reach out to a non-responsive person, her fearful assumptions natural. She reached over to stop her but then realised that she was wrong. Shirley put down the glass and looked at Claire.
“It’s okay, dearie,” she said. “I’m alright. I had a shock a little while ago. I’m working hard to forget it.”
Downing the best part of a bottle would do that, James thought, licking his lips. He loved single malts but didn’t have the money for more than the occasional sip.
Shirley caught his look.
“Have a glass, help yourself. Why not, there’s nothing more to live for.” Shirley was at the maudlin stage of drunk.
James smiled and thanked her, helping himself while pouring extra glasses enough for the others, including Billy, who he was going to encourage to stay.
“What happened?” Amelie urged her friend. Shirley put her glass down and began her tale.
“We’d had a big wedding reception last night; all the rooms were taken by the family of the bride. They were the worst of snobs, and I can tell you I was bloody grateful when the last of the little bastards had left. I really felt sorry for the groom on this occasion, he seemed so nice, I can’t imagine he knew just what he’d let himself in for. Families, eh?” She paused and took a large gulp of her whisky before continuing. “This morning I went to check on the mess they made - these types always do, mostly they’re just pigs and have none of the class their money lets them think they have. Anyway, as expected the parent’s room was disgusting. For some reason the sheets were all slimy; that’s not what you normally find. I also found about a dozen slugs under the bedclothes, you know, garden slugs. Weird right? When I saw all that I rushed out to the carpark to confront them, dirty fuckers. I really wanted to know what the hell they’d been doing, some sort of prank I imagine. Anyway, when I got to the carpark…”
Her voice trailed off as her anger subsided immediately to be replaced by an immense sadness. Her face went pale and she drooped. From her reaction James reckoned he knew exactly what she’d seen.
“You don’t have to go through it again,” he offered. “We all know what’s going on,” he corrected himself. “Well, at least we’ve all seen the weirdness. I don’t think a single one of us has a fucking clue as to what’s going on.”
“We have to make this building secure,” Claire interrupted, urgency and fear in her voice.
“You’re right, we do,” she agreed, but for different reasons. “We won’t be opening tonight.”
Turning to Billy she gave him instructions to lock all the downstairs doors and windows. He must have been a very faithful employee because, although it seemed he was the only one who hadn’t witnessed the weirdness, he said nothing but went about doing as he’d been instructed.
A few moments later he came back, trailed by a young woman.
“All locked up and secure,” Billy announced. “Found this lady sitting in a car out back, thought it best if she came in.”
Shirley looked up.
“Yes, of course, thank you Billy,” Shirley agreed approvingly. “We cannot leave her out there.”
She turned to the woman and studied her for a moment; the youngish woman was rather dishevelled but seemed to have a sense of purpose about her, a bit buttoned down but not really frightened.
“Hello, I’m Shirley and I own all this,” she announced, smiling expansively and waving her hands around, sarcasm dripping from every letter of every word she spoke. It may have been the alcohol, stress at losing her partner, or more likely both.
“Boss, if I’m staying beyond my shift, is there any chance you could tell me what’s going on?” Billy asked, sounding a little exasperated. “I get it that we have no guests and the phone hasn’t rung all afternoon, but…” He performed his signature shoulder shrug.
“Of course,” Shirley agreed. Looking around at the confused and tired people around her she had an idea. “Let’s all sit more comfortably, shall we? I’ll supply the booze.”
The lady of the establishment made her unsteady way over to a large, round oak table by one of the front windows. Sitting down she looked outside a little nervously before re-focusing on her drink, noticing it was empty once more. She opened a new bottle and refilled everyone’s glasses, including filling a fresh one for the new stranger. Everyone began talking excitedly over each other, the stranger merely sitting patiently in silence, watching this small gathering with interest.
“Wait, guys,” James said, raising his voice over the others to get their attention. “This won’t work. We need to speak one at a time if we’re to get any sort of understanding of what’s going on and what the hell we should do moving forward. How about we start with the newcomer.”
James turned to the woman and asked her name.
“My name is Doctor Andrea McLean. I work for the NHS, or perhaps more accurately as of today, worked for them. I’m not sure how to say this without sounding all secret squirrel, but before I tell you my story, I’d really like to hear from each of you as to what you’ve seen today. I really need to work out why you aren’t infected, after all, you’ve all had an encounter with this.”
“Do you know what’s happened?” Claire asked. “Can you tell us?”
“Wait, let’s follow her suggestion, dear. She’s piqued my interest,” Shirley admonished, pouring herself another healthy slug. “I’ll start.”
Shirley regaled the group once more with tales of her obnoxious guests, and again fell silent towards the end of her tale, her face taking on an immense sadness.
“And?” James asked, wanting to hear the end of the story. Shirley gave him a less than friendly look. After an uncomfortable moment she continued.
“My wife went off in the last guest car. Only,” she paused a moment. “I don’t really think it was her. She kissed me before going. It was weird because she kissed with her eyes open - she never does that, and it tingled. I got the feeling something was there, in her mouth, it tickled my lips before going back inside. It frightened me.”
“It wasn’t your wife,” Andrea interrupted, trying to save the woman from reliving the moment - again. Andrea’s mind was whirring, this time with positive thoughts but said nothing.
The others recounted their stories, all the while Billy’s jaw dropping more and more, his head shaking a little in disbelief.
“Bet you wish you didn’t know now, eh, Billy,” James asked, noticing the poor man’s shocked face.
“I don’t see how any of this is possible,” he muttered.
“Nor do the rest of us,” Claire agreed.
“Not quite true,” Andrea piped up. They all turned to look at the newest guest.
Andrea explained her role in the NHS, and the fact that this was a deliberate act on the part of a lunatic with a ridiculous agenda.
“Problem with lunatics,” she explained. “Is that while they are completely barking, they are often more intelligent than the average Joe. It’s not uncommon for the line between lunacy and brilliance to become significantly blurred. You know the old expression, ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’. Well, Doctor Peter Ericson, the world’s latest mass killer is one of the smartest people I have ever come across. I’ve never met him, thankfully, but I’ve seen the police interview tapes and have been working on what he has done all around the world. He’s one sick son of a bitch, I can tell you. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending upon how you look at it, it seems his is also our last mass killer. For a very long time, if ever, there won’t be enough humans for any one of them to claim that particular accolade again.”
There was silence at the table as the collection of alcohol-addled brains tried to digest what they had just been told. Even sober Claire struggled with what she had just been told, it was just too big.
“The infected, I call them cuckoos,” Andrea said, breaking the silence. “And while they may look like us they aren’t us, they are something else. Cuckoos pretend to be one thing while being another. Sadly, while I know the science in detail and believe I know how we can prevent infection, there will be no species-saving road trip to Washington.”
“What?” Amelie asked.
“Oh, nothing. Just thinking about something that once seemed impossible.”
Andrea looked at Shirley for a long moment. Was the alcohol thing really possible, she wondered? It seems to have saved her own life back at the labs and Shirley’s story also suggested it may be true but she need more information.
“Did your wife drink?”
“Hmm?” Shirley started, clearly her thoughts were elsewhere. “Um, no. She was allergic to alcohol. Why?”
“One more question, please. When did you start drinking today?”
“As long as you don’t hold it against me, I’ll tell you.”
Andrea smiled. This was one strong woman, unless it was the liquid fortification.
“I usually have a snifter in the morning,” Shirley confessed. “Mostly it helps me get past the crap my guests frequently deliver the night before. This morning was a little different. I’d argued with Bev, sorry, she’s my truly better half, about something one of the drunk, knob-end customers had said in the wee small hours about, well, you can guess. This was while we were trying to get them settled for the night, what was left of it. As a result I’d had a few sneaky refills before the last of the customers had left this morning. That usually makes Bev more annoyed at me, of course, non-drinkers are often like that. She smelled it and the rest is history,” she added holding an almost empty bottle up.
Andrea thrilled at what she had just been told. It seemed that as long as these cuckoos didn’t get violent, then as long as there was alcohol in the bloodstream, the uninfected couldn’t become the infected.