Welcome to Ripley Heights, where the fun never starts...
Series: Ravaged World, Book 2
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NEWS REPORT: SEPTEMBER 29th 2012
Terrorist attack suspected of killing up to 1500 people as commercial cruise liner, SPIRIT OF KIRKPATRICK, sinks due to massive explosion.
Joint relief efforts are underway today in the Mediterranean Sea by France, Italy, UK, and Egypt, as they to attempt to salvage the ill-fated cruise liner, Spirit of Kirkpatrick. No survivors have yet been identified and it is thought that an explosion inside the engine compartment is what caused the 33,000 tonne vessel to sink beneath the waves.
No terrorist groups have yet come forward to claim responsibility for an attack, but owners of the doomed cruise liner, Black Remedy Corporation, have claimed that, with the stringent safety measures present on all of their public passenger ships, there is no other possible cause for the disaster aside from an act of terrorism.
The company has previously been targeted by eco-terrorists and religious groups because of its reputation for operating unethically in the 3rd world, and for allegations of corruption and sabotage. While the vast, multi-national corporation has made great efforts in the last decade to conduct its affairs to a better moral standard, it is thought that there may still be groups and individuals who wish to target it.
NATO Secretary, General Able Rasmussen, condemned the suspected suicide attack as ‘despicable.’
28 HOURS EARLIER
Anna washed her hands in the steel sink and watched the blood drain away. The birth had been a success. Rita, one of the zoo’s Clydesdale horses, had delivered a healthy 80lb foal and seemed to be recovering well. Now that it was over, she was looking forward to getting home and resuming sleep she’d been woken from at 3AM.
“That went really well, I thought,” Bradley said to her. He was Ripley Height’s resident veterinary nurse and it was he who’d called Anna when Rita went into labour.
Anna smiled at the boy and stifled a yawn. “Y-yes, completely by the book. Make sure Rita allows her foal to suckle, but other than that, nature should take care of itself.”
Bradley beamed. “It was pretty bloody amazing, to tell the truth. It was my first birth.”
“You’ll see many more working at a zoo.” She spotted a flake of blood beneath her nail. “It loses its charm.”
“So…are you going home now?”
“Too blooming right I am. I’m exhausted. I’d only been in bed a few hours when I got your call.”
“One of the downsides of being a vet on-call, huh?”
“I need my sleep. Always have.”
“Sorry I had to wake you. I couldn’t have done it without you, though. You were amazing.”
“No problem.” She gave her hands one last rinse in the sink and put on her cardigan. “I’ll be back Wednesday to do a check-up. Will you be here?”
“I’ll be around. As usual. Seven days a week, eighteen hours a day. I love the work.”
Anna admired Bradley for living on the park’s grounds – he was young and eager to gain experience – but she thought he’d be better off having some semblance of a life as well.
“You should get out more,” she told him. “You’ll end up working yourself to death before you’re thirty. You need to find a balance between work and life.”
He shrugged. “I enjoy it. Tell you the truth, I like spending time with animals more than I do people. Sad, huh?”
“Yeah, very sad, but I know what you mean.” She really did understand the tranquillity being around animals brought. It was unhealthy to retreat from people entirely, though. “Get yourself out on the town. Grab a drink and a girl. Be irresponsible for a night.”
“You fancy going with me?” Bradley asked, his cheeks instantly growing red.
Anna spluttered. “Me? I’m ten years older than you. You can find better company than an old woman like me.”
“I don’t think so. I’d like to get to know you better. Besides, you’re like what…thirty-two.”
Add another three years and you’d still be a year short, Anna thought to herself. She was surprised. She’d had no idea that Bradley thought of her in that way. She didn’t know what to say or how to feel about it. It had been years since she’d dated.
“I…I’ll think about it, Bradley,” she said, and perhaps she would. The boy wasn’t without charm or looks. “See you Wednesday.”
Anna headed out of the stable’s washroom and into the corridor that reeked of oiled leather and horse piss. Rita was lain down in her stall, cleaning her mewing foal with her probing tongue. The stallion, Cassius, was in the stall beside her.
The dawn chill pinched her cheeks and invigorated her a little, but it didn’t stop her from rubbing at the fuzziness behind her eyelids. Her watch read 6AM. She was almost dead on her feet.
The real reason she’d gotten so little sleep wasn’t the call-out, it was because she’d passed out drunk, alone in her flat, at 2AM. She hadn’t even made it to the bed. It was the same way she ended most evenings. Especially when it was an anniversary.
She gave her shoulders a vigorous rub and got going. The sun balanced on the horizon, ready to leap into the sky. The various enclosures of the petting zoo were filled with sleeping animals that would soon wake or nocturnal creatures that would soon sleep. The silence of the night would soon give way to the snuffling of pigs and the bleating of goats.
Up ahead were the zoo’s only truly exotic inhabitants: a small family of orangutans. Anna imagined the park owners had seen them as a lucrative tourist attraction. It was an immoral way to view such magnificent creatures, but at least time and money had been spent ensuring they were given a suitable habitat. The half-acre plot at Ripley Heights was one of the best in the country and the original pair of apes had happily produced an infant, now one-year old.
The female, Lily, was already awake, cradling her sleeping boy in her arms. Anna waved and was moved when the orangutan waved back. It wasn’t so much a surprise, as Lily was often receptive to humans, but it was still remarkable.
Lily’s mate, Brick, was sprawled out in the branches of the habitat’s mangrove tree, sleeping soundly, his snores filling the air. Lily gave Anna a bemused look that suggested she was thinking something along the lines of: men, huh?
Annaliese grinned. I hear ya, sister.
Anna’s Prius was in the staff car park up top, rather than the public one by the Rainforest Café down below. As she headed towards the park’s Jacobean manor house, Ripley Hall, where the car park was located nearby, she spotted a pair of young lovers hiding amongst the lawn’s sycamore trees. They’d obviously spilled out of the manor from some boozy, corporate function.
Half the money the Ripley Heights made was from hiring out the many rooms and facilities of it grand hall and grounds. There was a lot of profit to be made from supplying ample amounts of booze and warm beds for the night.
Anna cleared her throat loudly as she neared the two lovers, determined to let them know they’d been spotted. There was no way to avoid them on her way to her car and she was damned if she was going to be the one who felt uncomfortable.
However, the young lovers ignored Anna’s presence. The man was really going for it, nuzzling at the woman’s neck with animalistic passion. You could hear the wet, slopping sounds from several feet away.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Perhaps you should take that back inside. The park will be opening soon. Probably time to call it a night.”
The couple continued necking.
“Hey! Time to wrap it up. Party’s over.”
Finally, Anna got a response. The man ceased his fevered nuzzling of the woman’s neck and looked at her.
Anna almost collapsed as her knees suddenly went weak.
The man’s face was smeared with blood. A sliver of what looked like flesh hung from his cracked and splintered teeth. The young woman slumped to the ground, her neck torn open and gushing.
Anna stepped backwards, shaking her head and fighting the urge to vomit. Vet or not, she had never seen such a horrific sight in all her life.
“Back the hell away,” she shouted at the approaching man. “Stay back.”
The man kept coming.
Anna’s heel caught on a root and she stumbled to the ground. Shooting pains ran up her spine, emanating from her coccyx.
The man was on her immediately, falling on top of her and clawing at her shirt. He was trying to bite her.
Anna let loose a scream as the weight on top of her seemed to grow. She pushed with all her might, but it was no use. The man was too strong. His jaws snapped mere centimetres in front of her face.
“Somebody help me! Help!”
Anna craned her neck and saw Bradley racing towards her.
“Bradley, help me get this psychopath off me.”
Bradley tackled the man, throwing him to the ground. Anna clambered back to her feet, panting and whining with fright. Bradley got up and immediately went to her, cradling her in his arms as she wept.
The man rose up off the ground. Bloody tears poured from his eyes, staining his cheeks red. His face was a picture of rage.
Bradley stood in front of Anna protectively and faced the man down. “What the hell is with this guy, Anna?”
“I don’t know, but that woman is dead. He ripped her goddamn throat out with his teeth.”
The man stumbled towards them, quick and determined, jaws chomping at thin air.
Bradley wound up a punch and let fly. His fist connected hard with the man’s chin and made a sickening thup sound.
The man kept coming.
Anna was pretty sure the punch should have floored all but a professional boxer, but the man was unaffected and grabbed a hold of Bradley’s collar. The two of them collapsed to the ground in a struggle.
Bradley yelled out in agony as the psychopath clamped his teeth down on his hand, grinding at the middle and ring fingers.
“Help me,” he screamed.
Anna had to act fast. Her eyes fell upon a small picket sign, set into the ground by a short metal spike. She yanked it free and pointed it at the crazy man, her hands shaking. “Get off him now, or I’ll drive this right through your goddamn eyeball.”
The man ignored her threats and continued tearing at Bradley’s fingers, moaning in ecstasy as torrents of blood spilled from the wound into his mouth.
“I’m warning you,” Anna said.
“Just get him off me,” Bradley yelled.
Anna saw no other option. The man clearly wasn’t going to stop. It was as if some wild fever had taken over him, removing all powers of rationality. The man was a vicious animal.
Anna leapt forward and drove the metal spike into the man’s shoulder. It sunk easily into the soft flesh and sinewy muscle.
The man didn’t flinch.
Anna couldn’t believe what was happening. The man felt no pain, even when stabbed. She stood stunned and disbelieving. Bradley’s screams became a faraway echo as she tried to make sense of the situation.
Anna snapped out of her daze and rushed forward, yanking the spike from the man’s shoulder and releasing a jet of blood into the air. At that same moment, Bradley’s fingers finally came free of their knuckles, gristle and cartilage tearing and giving way. Bradley wailed as his two fingers disappeared into his tormentor’s mouth.
Anna took her opportunity. The crazy man had lifted his head as he came away with Bradley’s severed digits in his jaws. He chewed the severed fingers ecstatically, even as Anna lifted the spike into the air and brought it down hard against the top of his skull. The sharp metal fought against thick bone, but quickly delved deep into the soft tissue beyond.
The man’s body went stiff. His chewing stopped and he toppled sideways onto the lawn.
Bradley shuffled away on his back, clambering as quickly as he could from his now-dead attacker. He held his injured hand in front of him as he stumbled to his feet, too much in shock to pay it much mind.
“Come on,” Anna said to him. “We need to get you some help.”
They took off towards Ripley Hall. There were several phone lines inside which they could use to call help.
Anna had to almost drag Bradley up the steps to the front doors. He was weak from shock and leaning on her for support. “Come on,” she encouraged. “We just need to get you inside and then you can sit down.”
She pushed on the door handle and shouldered open one of the two heavy wooden doors. A crystal chandelier and several wall sconces brightly lighted the foyer, but the reception area was entirely deserted.
To Anna’s immediate right were Ripley Hall’s grand dining room and the kitchens beyond. To her left were the function suites and bar. Straight ahead was the winding staircase that led to the two upper floors and bedrooms.
She headed for the vacant reception desk. Behind it was the door to the front office. She tried the handle and was disheartened to find it locked.
Bradley flopped down on a nearby swivel chair and closed his eyes as he fought against the pain. His finger stumps dripped slick trails of blood, which began to form sticky pools on the floor.
Anna banged on the office door. “Hello? Is anybody in there?”
She turned and put her hand on Bradley’s shoulder. “Just hold in there.”
She edged around the reception desk until she was back in front of it, then searched around. Shawcross was the manager of Ripley Hall and he would never usually allow the front desk to go unattended like this. She palmed the service bell and waited while its chime echoed off the walls.
Nobody came, even after ringing the bell several more times.
“This is ridiculous,” she said. “Somebody always mans the front desk. Where the hell is Shawcross?”
Bradley tried to focus, but his eyes were red and irritated, like he had a bad case of hay fever. “He…he must be somewhere. The guy n-never leaves.”
“A lot like you, then,” Anna said with an impotent grin.
There were noises nearby. The sounds of shuffling feet.
Anna looked around at both the entrance to the function suites and the doorway leading to the dining room.
“Hello?” she shouted. “Hey, we need help here.”
“I don’t like this,” Bradley said, his voice thick with phlegm. Anna examined him for a second and worried about his condition. He seemed far worse than he should have been.
Somebody appeared in the arched entrance of the function suites. It was one of the maids. Anna could tell from the woman’s green tabard.
“Finally! I need to call an ambulance and get my colleague somewhere comfortable. Do you have a key to the office? I need to perform first aid immediately.”
The maid said nothing. She just stared at Anna.
“Hey, can you answer me, please? I’m not messing around. Bradley is hurt.”
The maid continued to stare at Anna curiously.
“Look, if you can’t help me, can you at least get Shawcross? Where the hell is he?”
The maid took a step forward and Anna spotted the blood in her eyes.
The maid let out an animalistic screech and then launched herself towards Anna.
Anna wavered, but survival instinct soon took over, making her leap behind the reception desk.
“She’s like that guy outside,” Bradley shouted. “She’s crazy.”
Anna could make no sense of it, but she knew Bradley was right. Whatever had been wrong with the man outside was also wrong with the maid, who now leapt over the desk and reached out to grab hold of Anna. Without thinking, Anna picked up the keyboard from the desk’s computer station and smashed it over the woman’s head. Several keys came loose and a bloody wound opened on the back of the woman’s skull. She grabbed a handful of the maid’s tabard and pulled her across the desk then grabbed the shattered keyboard by its cord. Quickly she wound it around the maid’s neck, pulled as tight as she could.
The maid tumbled from the desk and tried to straighten up, but was held back by the tangled wire around her throat. The more she pulled, the tighter the bonds became. She was unable to move more than a foot away from the desk.
Anna grabbed the back of Bradley’s chair and started rolling him across the reception hall away from danger.
“What the hell is going on here?” she said. “Where the hell is everyone? And why the hell are people acting crazy?”
Several more bodies appeared in the entrance of the function suites. Anna could tell right away that the strangers were all dangerous.
The mob was a mixture of uniformed staff and assorted guests. They were each covered in blood and hanging chunks of flesh, perhaps their own, perhaps not. All at once, like a demonic choir, they screeched at the top of their lungs.
Anna became aware of more people behind her. She peeked over her shoulder and saw that another snarling mob flanked her.
Bradley was weeping and cradling his head in his hands. “We are so screwed.”
The mobs charged from both sides.
Anna grabbed Bradley’s chair and raced towards the only place she had left to run: the grand dining room.
The cavernous dining room was empty when she entered, yet its monolithic mahogany tables and delicate ornate chairs lay disturbed. Blood coated everything and Anna almost slipped in a puddle of it as she sprinted across the room. If not for Bradley’s chair offering a handhold, she may have gone down on her face.
The mob pursued her. If not for their wild lack of coordination, Anna would already have been caught. It was likely still inevitable that she would be soon.
Ripley Hall’s kitchen was up ahead, accessed via a pair of swinging oak doors. Anna raced towards them now, desperate for sanctuary, but the effort of pushing Bradley in his chair was starting to slow her down. The mad rush of bodies behind her was gaining. She wasn’t going to make it.
The kitchen doors ahead of her suddenly opened. A face popped out from the gap.
“Come on,” said a stranger, a woman. “Quickly! They’re right behind you.”
Anna summoned a final burst of strength and leant forward against Bradley’s chair. She managed to pick up speed, but her attackers gained on her with every step. Eventually she exerted herself so hard that she was screeching at the top of her lungs just like them.
Anna hit the kitchen doors like a battering ram, using Bradley as an unwilling plough. He went sprawling onto the tiles and started to moan, while Anna’s legs gave out and sent her tumbling to her knees.
People scurried around the kitchen, shouting at one another in panicked voices.
“Come on,” said one of the strangers. “Get the table back up against the doors.”
“I’m doing it, I’m doing it!”
“Damn, they’re at the door. They’re going to get in.”
“No, no. We’re fine. Just keep pushing.”
“There, see. We’re fine.”
Anna peeled herself off the floor and crawled over to Bradley. His skin had gone alabaster and his finger stumps continued jetting blood onto the floor.
“Is he bitten?” asked a voice that she recognised. It was Shawcross, the manager of Ripley Hall.
Anna stared up at him, surprised by his wild ginger hair that was usually so neatly combed and his flush red face that was usually so pale.
She shook her head in confusion. “What?”
“Bradley,” he said impatiently. “Did one of those things bite him?”
Shawcross smashed his fist against the wall. “Fuck sake, just answer the question, woman.”
Anna didn’t understand. She didn’t know what was happening and she certainly didn’t know what made Shawcross feel he had the right to talk to her like this. “I…I…”
“Yes, I’m bitten.” Bradley uttered from the floor. He held up the mangled stumps where his fingers used to be. “I need help.”
“You’re beyond help, son.” Shawcross shook his head and marched to one of the aluminium work counters. There, he picked a wooden meat tenderiser from a hanging set of utensils. Everyone in the room backed away and gave him space.
“What the hell are you doing?” Anna asked him, bewildered.
“What does it bloody well look like? We have to kill him.”
Bradley’s eyes went wide and he tried to sit up. He couldn’t manage it, though, and flopped back down onto his side. Anna stood over him protectively.
“Are you insane? You’re not killing anybody, you lunatic.”
“He’s serious,” said a nearby woman, who seemed anxious, but had a steely determination in her eyes. “Have you not seen what happens when someone gets bitten?”
Anna shook her head and held out a hand to keep Shawcross from advancing any further. “No, I haven’t. I have no clue what’s going on here. All I know is that there’s a dead woman in the gardens and people keep attacking me. Can somebody here please explain things to me?”
Shawcross sighed and leant up against one of the kitchen counters. He lowered the meat tenderiser so that it hung less-threateningly by his thigh. “It started in the middle of the night,” he began. “Everything just went to hell.”