Tampa, Florida, 1400 hours Local, 15 October 2009, Countdown: 2 years, 2 months, 16 days

Mateo Cortez stepped out of his cool, air-conditioned car into the muggy heat of the Florida afternoon. He felt sweat spring out across his face and back. Florida never really shook the summer heat until late November at the earliest. Mateo could easily expect to wear shorts and sandals for Christmas. At least the bay kept things sort of tolerable.

The office building in front of him gleamed with its newness. Mateo was here to talk with the crew completing the offices for the first tenants. The owners wanted another status report. At least he got along well enough with the crews. They understood he didn’t like these interruptions anymore than they did. He was reaching in for his briefcase when he heard the screams.

Mateo instinctively sprinted into the office building. All he could think was a horrific accident. He fumbled for his phone. Mateo stopped as he saw the workers stampeding to get out of the building. That wasn’t right. These men worked on enough construction sites. Most of them had seen some pretty nasty accidents during their careers. What would send them running for their lives? Mateo spotted the crew’s foreman, Red Shaleman, and yanked the man as he tried to pass Mateo.

“Matt, we need to get out of here. Right now!” the foreman demanded. His eyes were wide with panic. This was definitely not right. Red had nearly thirty years in the business. He was known for being calm under pressure and unflappable in the midst of any crisis. Red wasn’t evacuating a job site after an incident. He was fleeing as fast as he could.

“What’s the problem Red?” Mateo asked as calmly as he could, ignoring the growing pandemonium around the two. Red’s weathered face was tense with shock. The older man couldn’t understand why Mateo wasn’t getting out of the building as fast as he could. Red tried to answer, but the words wouldn’t come. The howling moans that pierced the frantic din answered all of Mateo’s questions.

“Don’t let anyone in here,” Mateo ordered the foreman. Red nodded furiously. Mateo let the man continue running out of the building. He sidestepped as the last few workers sprinted by. Mateo put away his phone. The police weren’t going to be any help until he dealt with the problem. He walked cautiously towards the sound. The moans were definitely coming from the office suite the crew was working on. One of the wooden double doors was jammed open. Mateo stood behind the closed door. He closed his eyes and listened. The moans sounded again. Mateo opened his eyes. There were at least three of them in the office suite. More to the point, those were homing moans. The three weren’t together, but were trying to find each other. Mateo slid off his sports jacket and removed his tie. He drew his Sig P229.

What are zombies doing in Florida? Mateo thought as he peered into the office suite. The reception area was dark with only a little light filtering in from one of the offices. Mateo snuck into the room and pressed the light switch. Nothing. One of the workers probably tore something out by accident in their panic. Mateo took careful steps up to the door separating the reception area from the rest of the office.

To Mateo’s right was a cubicle farm. To the left were the offices. The midday sun streamed through their doorless openings. The light brightened the space between the offices and the cubicles, but the high walls of the cubicles kept the cubicle farm dark. Hunting in there would be nasty and difficult. The walkway between the offices and cubicles stretched back some fifty feet before curving back to a conference room. The zombies moaned again. From the sound, one zombie was in the cube farm. The other two sounded like they were in the conference room. That was a piece of good luck. If they were separated, that made Mateo’s task easier.

First, Mateo needed to deal with the zombie in the cube farm. It was by itself and the closest. Mateo took one look at the darkened cubicles before he fished out the small Surefire flashlight out of his pocket. With the Sig in his right hand and his flashlight in the left, Mateo slowly advanced into the cube farm. The movement was awkward at first, but Mateo’s instructors drilled it into him. It was slow, but it always made sure Mateo was in a stable firing position. It was also very quiet, which was a great benefit when hunting zombies.

Zombies were strange creatures. Not just because they were the walking dead. They didn’t act like any other creature in nature. A zombie would ignore the high-power beam from the Surefire, but any decent noise would bring any zombie within earshot. It was why their moans were so dangerous. A zombie moan could bring the living dead for a half a mile. Of course, if you got too close, the damned things could smell you.

The cubicle farm consisted of two rows of approximately fifteen cubicles with a walkway wide enough for two people. Mateo shone the light down the walkway. No zombie. Probably in one of the cubicles. Mateo wasn’t about to go root it out armed with only a pistol. There were easier ways to commit suicide. A sufficiently dull spoon for example. It would be easier to play the bait. Mateo slipped into the nearest cubicle. It was only the four carpeted walls. The work crews wouldn’t have installed the desks and furniture until the next week. Still, it would give Mateo decent cover.

“COME ON OUT!” Mateo hollered. The sound of a human voice was an irresistible draw for zombies. Better than peanut butter for a raccoon. Mateo braced with his pistol and flashlight up. He was ready to take down the zombie.

Mateo jumped as the cubicle wall crashed down behind Mateo as the zombie burst through. Mateo spun as the zombie stumbled at him. The familiar smell of rotting flesh filled Mateo’s nostrils as he barely escaped the lunging arms. His body fell into the familiar fighting stance as the zombie lunged again. Mateo batted the arms away with his left hand, but couldn’t get his right up for the kill shot. Mateo took a step back and felt the rear foot slide out from under him as he hit the plastic paint cover. Mateo cursed as he hit the carpeted floor. Mateo managed to twist so he fell on his left side. The shoulder shot pain throughout his body as it hit. Mateo managed to ignore the pain as his training took over. The pistol snapped up and barked twice. The bullets slammed into the bridge of the zombie’s nose. Mateo remembered just in time to roll as the zombie collapsed next to him.

Mateo looked at the unmoving corpse. Oh Lord, it was Chris Anders. Mateo despised him when he was alive. Anders acted like the worst stereotype of a construction worker and made Mateo’s job hell on more than one occasion. Yet in that instant, Mateo felt an overwhelming sympathy for the man. In Mateo’s view, death by zombie was one of the most horrific ways to die. At least Anders should be at peace.

The moans snapped Mateo back to the present. Adrenaline shot through his body. He felt the shooting pain from his shoulder lessen. Mateo stood up. The other two zombies were closer. Worse, those were definitely the short, high-pitched hunting moans. Mateo slid out of the cubicle farm back into the main walkway. The filtered daylight illuminated the two shambling zombies. Mateo tried to fall into the Weaver stance, but his left shoulder screamed in pain.

“Buck up boyo,” Mateo said to himself, mimicking his former teammate Collin Dubois, as he brought up the Sig. “Put the bloody lollipop on the stick and squeeze.” The zombie on the right fell as Mateo placed a double tap into its head. Mateo pivoted and placed the white and green dot on the last zombie. It completely ignored its counterpart’s death. It was focused on making Mateo its meal. A second double-tap stopped that from happening.

“Put the weapon down!” commanded an angry voice behind Mateo. Mateo carefully lowered the pistol to the ground. Rough hands grappled Mateo instantly. He was shoved to the floor while his arms were immobilized. One of the hands gripped Mateo’s left shoulder. The pain shot through Mateo’s body with a vengeance. Mateo could feel his body shutting down from the pain and the loss of the adrenaline.

“Oh my God, those are zombies!” exclaimed another voice. Mateo wanted to say something witty. The blackness consumed him before he could make his mouth work.

[Zombie Strike Part 2 Chapter 11]