Dead on Unbound Worlds: The Dreg Files, Day 3


The Hoarder

By Kelly Meding

(continued from part 2)

The stink of igniting paint stripper and searing goblin flesh stayed with Ash during the drive across town. Their new target lived in a trailer half a mile east of Mercy’s Lot, near the city freeway loop, in one of the poorest sections of the city. Single- and double-wides dotted several blocks in a landscape of poverty and despair. Few Dregs came out this far, preferring the closely-packed bodies of the city. Ash was a little surprised anyone cared enough to bother reporting the strange smells and noises coming from Mrs. Bettina Kearney’s trailer at night.

She was less surprised that a patrol car had gotten no answer to their knocks on the door earlier in the day, and had left without bothering to search the place. The Triads had several people in the Metro Police Department who filtered information to the right places and kept the real police oblivious to Triad activities.

Kearney’s trailer stood on a small plot of grassless land, surrounded by other, equally old trailers. Lawn flamingos and wire fencing screamed of earlier eras, and few of the nearby homes had been updated in the last thirty years. Rust spots, moss and mildew, dents and faded paint was the norm, as were untended flower gardens, broken lawn furniture, and tire-less cars parked in weedy parking spaces.

Jesse parked their SUV behind a Volvo that desperately needed to be washed of its accumulated bird droppings. Grass stood overgrown around all four wheels. It was still early, only about three a.m., and the homes around them were silent and dark. Kearney’s trailer had an addition built onto the rear, giving it the shape of an elongated L.

“Stone and Jesse, go around to the back door,” Ash said. “I’ll go in the front. If she’s a half-Blood, like Wyatt said, don’t hesitate.”

She received two nods. Everyone tumbled out of the vehicle, weapons ready–Jesse and his ax, Stone and her knives. Ash unsheathed Hex, her katana, and gave the blade a loving smile. More than forty Halfies had seen their cursed lives ended by Hex.

Contrary to popular myth, vampires were not human, and had never been human. They were a species that consumed raw sustenance, not unlike most predatory carnivores, and they had learned long ago to not feed on humans–or if they did, to not leave the human alive. Vampire saliva possessed a highly-infectious parasite that attacked human physiology, changing their bodies and affecting their minds. Many went insane. Others adapted and, in turn, continued to hunt and infect humans.

Mrs. Bettina Kearney had apparently adapted.

They had no guarantee that Kearney was home, but she would be. Halfies often nested in a familiar, safe place, and their information said she was a widow who lived alone. Ash slipped across the yard to the front door, silent as a shadow, stealth her friend. The vaguest scent of rot met her on the stoop.

She studied the metal door. The small, central window was covered with duct tape from the inside. A quick glance at the windows on both sides of the door showed the same thing. The tape both protected the interior from direct sunlight and sealed the odor inside. Mostly. Kearney had been a Halfie long enough to reinforce her nest, which matched up with one neighbor’s statement of having not seen her leave the trailer in two weeks.

Not that she was a social butterfly beforehand, according to the neighbor. After her husband’s heart attack five years ago, she’d become something of a recluse. How she’d ever stumbled onto a Halfie in order to get bitten was a mystery.

Ash’s phone vibrated; Jesse and Stone were in position. She sent a nonsense text back so his phone vibrated as well, then she was ready to go inside.

She tested the knob. It turned easily without squealing, and she pushed. Inch by inch, checking for a chain that she didn’t see. The hinges squeaked. A rush of hot, humid, foul-smelling air stung her nose and made her stomach slosh. It was the smell of rotting things. She paused to listen and heard nothing.

Strike that–she heard the faint scrape of metal on metal. A moment later, she identified it as a sliding glass door, probably the rear door Jesse had been told to enter through. Ash shouldered the door open, preparing to lunge inside katana-first. The door had other ideas.

It bounced off something behind it and slammed against Ash’s left arm. The knob banged into her ribs and nearly knocked her backward. Breathing carefully through her mouth, she pushed the door again. Slowly this time, until it stopped moving again, barely halfway open. Lack of interior light meant her eyes took longer to catch what was blocking the door.

“Blessed father,” she whispered.

“Holy shit,” came an answering hiss from Stone’s direction.

Ash eased past the door and into what she assumed had once been a living room. Shadows blanketed the narrow space, only adding to the sense of closeness and oppression. Produce boxes, plastic bins, shopping bags, baskets, and every other imaginable container created several walls of…stuff. Ash couldn’t catalogue everything she saw in the dim light. Books, water bottles, ribbon spools, copy paper, stuffed animals, empty baby food jars, shoes, blankets, a record player, fake flowers–too much.

It looked like a storage unit, not a home. A narrow path cut through the floor-to-ceiling mess, forward a few feet, then branched left and right. Her nose told her the kitchen was somewhere on the right–rotten food and rancid grease were unmistakable–which meant the back door and bedrooms were left. Ash pulled a penlight out of her pocket and flashed the beam down the left corridor.

Jesse held his hand up, covering his eyes from the glare. He was half-hidden by another wall of trash, which continued down the length of what had to be the hallway. Ash pointed with two fingers. Jesse nodded. He and Stone would search the back end of the house, while she went the other way.

Light flared behind her as one of them produced a penlight to share. Ash crept forward, trying to ignore the press of the hoarded items filling Mrs. Kearney’s trailer. The hopeless desperation of it made Ash’s heart ache. She shoved away the flash of empathy. She couldn’t afford to sympathize with the woman who’d lived here. That woman was dead, and a half-Blood remained in her shell. And that half-Blood needed to be neutralized.

The closer Ash got to what she assumed was the kitchen, the heavier the air became. The sweetness of rotting meat collided with the tang of liquefied produce and the nauseating reek of curdled dairy. She didn’t want to see what those eye-watering smells were actually attached to and was grateful for the narrow beam of the penlight. Here and there hung an over-burdened curl of flypaper, black with insects drawn by the stink.

Her corridor ended at what appeared to be a table and chairs–all overrun with paper shopping bags of what had once been groceries. The black tops of what had possibly once been bananas peeked out of one, and another had darkened all around the bottom from an oozed liquid. A sack of potatoes had begun to sprout in the middle of it all–the only truly identifiable item in the forest of mold and rot.

The available counter space was overrun with boxed items–pasta, cereal, instant rice, burger helper kits–and canned goods. Some of the cans deepest in the pile seemed swollen, and a few had leaked something brown onto the mottled tile beneath. The refrigerator and sink were partially visible, the latter overfilled with dirty dishes and caked-on scraps of food. The refrigerator door was ajar, and cool air wafted out around Ash’s ankles. She left it alone, no desire to see what was currently spoiling in there. She’d seen quite enough.

Perhaps Kearney had planned to eat some of it eventually, but the kitchen had obviously remained untouched since she’d been infected.

A high-pitched yelp of fright–Stone, from the sound of it–was cut short by Jesse’s terse, “Ash!”

She spun gracefully on her heel and charged back down the narrow path, her katana at the ready. Jesse and Stone were blocking the hall halfway down, facing an open doorway. Stone was bent double, one hand over her mouth. Jesse was wide-eyed and slack-jawed, staring into the room they’d discovered. Ash smelled it before she eased past Jesse and could see.

Read part 4 of The Hoarder


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