The New Normal

Part 4 of Event Zero.

You can check out part 1, part 2, and part 3 before this if you like.

Yuri Hrab sighed as he parked the sedan between a rusted Nissan pickup with the flatbed torn off and a neon-blue Humvee with little gold daggers hanging from the mirror.

It’s going to be one of those days.

The row-houses that weren’t boarded up or burnt out looked like they wanted to be left alone. The concrete stairs were chipped from neglect and bullets. Bars covered windows on each floor. Doors were made of metal.

Hrab checked the address again on his glasses.

Four young men were sitting on the stoop. Their pants were baggy enough to conceal shotguns if they wanted to stick them in there. There was a near empty 40 ounce bottle of beer on the lower step. The smell of marijuana from the previous night still clung to their jackets. It was 9:00 am.

He adjusted his glasses on his nose, the surreptitious motion activated a basic thermal imaging system and general health scan. It wasn’t a 100% solution, especially in the daylight, but it gave a high confidence result. He finished adjusting and turned the scan off. To outsiders it would have looked like the reflection from the sun.

“Gentlemen, good morning.”

The presumptive leader of the group puffed up and offered a “What the fuck do you want?” that was weekend by the previous night’s efforts at having a good time.

 

“Is this the residence of Albert Alonzo?”

Another of the youths replied, “What are you, sort of lawyer, dressed up like that? Some sort of undertaker?”

Hrab put a foot on the lowest step and leaned over to bring himself to their level. His jacket hung open. “I’m a federal agent, yes. Is Mr. Alonzo here?”

“Daaaamn!” the first one said, “you use that thing in Afghanistan or something? Take out a tank with that!”

“Oh this?” Hrab shrugged a little to reveal more of the weapon strapped to the side of his chest. “This is ‘Kiki.’ And no, it’s not for tanks.”

“Well shit…” the man leaned back, and the hilt of a pistol peeked out from just above his belt line. “You must be some sort of fast-draw wild west motherfucker to be comin’ in here with that thing.”

Hrab raised his hands. “Oh no, I don’t like shooting things with this. It’s a custom .50 caliber revolver, and it’s a pain in the ass to load. If I have to shoot someone, it’s with the gun on my ankle.” Hrab wondered if the group was still drugged out enough to actually shoot a federal agent.

“You think you can step to me and not get shot?”

Yes, apparently so. “Look, I’m going to show you my credentials, okay? I’m not going to shoot anyone.”

The second speaker said, “A badge ain’t gonna help you now, son…”

Hrab slowly reached into the pocket in his jacket and pulled out a folding badge. He opened it and showed the young men. “Special Agent Yuri Hrab, ERC.”

The four men were off the stoop and out in the street before Hrab could put his badge back. They all headed different directions. It was as if a magnet was dropped into a pile of iron filings, and the bits were scattered away instantly. Wasn’t the first time. “Thanks for your help, gentlemen…”

He took a look at his badge. The department of creepy fascist iconography did a bang-up job. The presidential eagle with an eye of the pyramid instead of a shield on its chest, and holding on to arrows and caduceuses had the intimidation factor of Anton LeVey with general’s stars.

Those three letters, “ERC” were a cross to a vampire for anyone who had heard them. And by now, everyone knew the Event Research Committee as well as they knew the FBI.

Hrab sighed and walked up to the door. The bell was broken and hanging loose by a wire, so he knocked. “Mr. Alonzo? It’s Agent Hrab. We spoke on the phone.”

There was a rustling and banging inside the house, followed by the sounds of multiple locks being unlatched. It opened to reveal a man in a stained white tank-top and boxers. “Yeah, you’re the guy I talked to. Come in.”

The place smelled of Marlboros and Mary Jane. There was a greasy, yet mercifully empty pizza box on the coffee table that had been there for days. “You want anything? Beer?”

“No thank you, Mr. Alonzo. Can you please give me the details and I’ll be out of your hair in a jiffy.”

“Yeah, sure.” Mr. Alonzo walked over to a door. It had a chair propped up under the doorknob. “This is the basement. I heard ‘em down there. When I told the cops they though it was a crank-head who got in a broken basement window and was just sleeping it off. They were making all sorts of excuses not to come out here, but I know better. That ain’t no tweaker. That’s why I called the number on the TV.”

“Uh huh. Mind if I look around before we take a look at the basement?” Experience told Hrab drugs, schizophrenia, and paranoia were the three most common causes of calls to the public ERC hot-line.

“Yeah sure.”

Mr. Alonzo didn’t seem pleased but he acquiesced to the Hrab’s authority quickly. That was a sign Alonzo was really scared. Drug induced paranoia? Hrab quickly scanned the man. 80% clean rating. Not comforting, but on the low end of acceptable. Low health ratings were generally due to bad living, and Mr. Alonzo certainly qualified.

Hrab peeked into the other rooms, mostly to give more of an excuse to Alonzo to talk. “So when did this start?”

“Two days now. At night I hear the noises. Something at the window, then quiet. About an hour later, the window again, then…” Alonzo looked nauseated. “It’s all tearing like clothes ripping and slimy sounds.”

“Slimy sounds.” Hrab repeated. His feigned smile dropped a little. “Why didn’t you leave if it was so scary?”

“It’s my goddamn house.”

“Of course, of course.” Hrab sighed. “Well, let’s check out the basement.” He took a case out of his pocket and pulled out a pair of safety glasses that fit over his own. A plastic sheet rolled up and down over his head, trapping it in plastic. Black filter-circles hung near his mouth. He pulled a piece of tape from the bottom and wound it around his neck until the bag was sealed off. Plastic gloves followed.

Mr. Alonzo stared in nervous agitation. “What are you doing?”

“Standard procedure. Nothing to worry about.” Hrab unstrapped his hand-cannon and flicked the safety. A LED flashlight and a laser sight shone from attachments along the barrel.

“Jesus! What is that?”

“Just a revolver.” Hrab’s voice was muted by the plastic. “Open the door, if you would, please.”

Mr. Alonzo swallowed and moved the chair. He pulled a deadbolt aside. “Here ya go.” He stepped away, the door still closed.

The door opened inward. The blocking chair would have fallen down onto the stairs if the door had been opened from the other side.

Hrab rolled his eyes and flicked a switch on the wall.

The light failed to come on. “Typical.” He pointed his pistol down the stairs into the dark. “It’s not as though,” he muttered, “you could go into a basement that was lit. Oh no, it’s gotta be dark.”

He started down the creaky and ill repaired stairs. “Hello?” He aimed his light as best he could around in the darkness, but visibility was limited, and he couldn’t see past boards and shelves to his left. He would have to enter the basement proper to get a good look.

The smell must have been choking to be able to penetrate his hood. Something was dead down here.

He turned the corner and pointed the beams across the concrete room. The light followed a trail of black blood to a small drain, clogged with matted hair and snips of meat.

Hrab lifted the light up and shone it up against the far wall.

The dismembered remains of a least two people were piled up in a corner. Some of the flesh was fresh enough to be dripping.

There was a door to a laundry room. It was open. The trail continued in there.

There were no flies.

Hrab backed up fast, and scrambled up to the top of the stairs. Without removing his head-bag, he pulled out his phone with his free hand and spoke into it. “Hrab, calling in an Omicron. Repeat, plan Omicron.”

A voice came back over the phone. “Roger that, Omicron engaged. Time to target, 5 minutes.”

Mr. Alonzo almost startled Hrab back down the stairs. “What is it? Did you see something?”

Hrab put his phone back in his jacket. “I need you to sit on the couch and wait. I’m going back down there.”

“Oh shit, what is it? It’s an event, isn’t it? Oh shit, I’m infected. I’m an infect. Oh shit. Oh shit.”

“No, Mr. Alonzo, I don’t know what this is, but you would be quite dead if you already if there was an incident. Now I need you to sit and wait. I’ll be back in less than, say, 5 minutes.”

Hrab took a deep enough breath in the plastic bag to pull the filters close to his lips. “Here we go.” He started down the steps once more.

This time he relied only on his footing, taking a chance on his balance instead of grasping the handrail. Both hands were on the hilt of his pistol.

There was a sound. Hrab pulled back the hammer. He rounded the corner.

There were no body parts. There was a trail from the pile around the corner into the laundry room.

He called out, “This is Special Agent Hrab, ERC.” At this point, he was sure he wasn’t going to be understood. It was the noise. He just had to see it, make it come around the corner. He kicked a pile of rusted pipes and license plates on the floor. “Hey! Over here!” The laser site pointed through the flashlight beam, a little red dot on the door jam. “Come out!”

Fingers reached out slowly, curling around the rotting door frame. They held there, waiting for some signal, some impetus to move more.

Hrab took a second deep breath. He didn’t need a scan from his glasses. He felt the tension relax in his shoulders and the weight in his legs settle into the ground, ready to brace against the recoil.

The head came around the corner and looked at him. The eyes reflected red in the light. Hair fell off gray skin like a poisoned chemotherapy patient. The nose was gone, and much of the left cheek rotted away. The lower jaw was cracked through the skin and muscle to the bone. It let out a hiss, most of the air puffed through the hole in the jaw with a smattering of green-black spittle.

Hrab trained the red dot on the creatures nose-hole. “Just a few more inches if you please.” His heart was beating like the percussion in a speed-metal band whose drummer was having a seizure. “Just a few more inches.”

The creature paused. “Skkkkk…”

“That’s it. You can do it.”

“Haaakaaaa…” It stubbornly refused to budge.

“This will be over soon enough.”

“Hhheeeeellp…”

Hrab’s could swear his heart stop. His own voice was raspy and his throat dry as a cactus. “What did you say?”

“Mmmeeee…”

“It’s responsive. Jesus, it’s responsive!” He was talking to the recording his glasses were making as well as himself. They sometimes referred to the glasses as the “black box.” The only thing left from which to reconstruct an “accident.”

The creature pulled back around the corner.

“We can help you. Just come back around the corner. We can talk.”

Body parts flew across the laundry room and bounced into the room Hrab was standing in. Exanguinated. Flesh stripped to bone.

The thing let out a keening wail. It ran around the corner.

Hrab dropped the hammer.

The gunshot shook windows throughout the row-house.

The specially designed bullet was slow and fat, and impacted the creatures face dead center. It exploded in a cloud of white foam that surrounded the head and congealed like marshmallow cream. It constricted and solidified faster and faster, until the foam around the neck snapped the spine and severed the head.

The creature fell to the ground, and its head bounced off it’s corpse.

Hrab pulled the hammer back again. There were only four chambers in this pistol. The bullets were too damn big for any more. Three more shots. And an unexplored room with no way to see around the corner.

They had to be head shots in order to minimize infection vectors. The recoil on Kiki was too much to get a second shot fast enough to be protective, so it was either look around the corner and take his chance he could get a shot, or…

Hrab walked back up the stairs.

ERC men were all over the house. Two in full HAZMAT suits were combing through the garbage and taking samples. Two others in black combat gear with automatic weapons and limited flame throwers were waiting.

Alonzo had already been escorted from the premises.

Hrab said, “I got one. I think that’s it, but I haven’t cleared it.”

“We’ll take it from here, sir.” One of the soldiers took out a hand scanner and the other checked his assault rifle’s light and camera.

“You might say he didn’t come out a-HEAD.”

A HAZMAT person held out her hand and Hrab pulled off his bag and handed over his gun and gloves. Her response was dry. “Good one sir.”

His face and shaved head were covered in sweat.

He walked out of the house into a tunnel of plastic and metal mesh. He could see out enough to briefly watch the small, nearly silent, black helicopters hovering off the street, and the huge personnel carriers preventing anyone from coming and going. Nobody within five blocks was going anywhere anytime soon.

He stepped into the decontamination room, where he stripped off everything. Even his glasses went into a special box where they would later be wirelessly scanned for data and then destroyed.

After the nearly hour long procedure, he was in a new suit, with new glasses, and heading back to Area 51, where a huge burrito, a can of diet Coke, and a nap was waiting for him, rewards for a job well done.

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