Tampa, Florida, 2300 hours Local, 15 October 2009, Countdown: 2 years, 2 months, 16 days
Mateo Cortez woke with a start. Pain flashed through his body as he realized he escaped the nightmare. As he lay back in the unfamiliar bed, Mateo decided it was probably time to seek professional help. The nightmares were getting worse. Mateo finally looked around the room. It looked like a hospital room. Some sort of IV drip was hooked up to his left arm. Other unfamiliar machines beeped and displayed what Mateo assumed were his vitals. There was something though that said this wasn’t a hospital room. Could it be an infirmary in the county jail? Mateo could remember the end of the fight with the zombies in the office complex. The men who appeared at the end were definitely cops. Did they arrest him? He didn’t have any restraints on him.
"Yo, boss-dude, glad to see you’re awake," The Steve said as he entered the room. Mateo relaxed a bit. If The Steve was here, it wasn’t jail. Unfortunately, that meant Mateo had no clue where he was. The Steve ambled into the room with a casual walk. He was dressed in a black t-shirt, tan cargo shorts, and flip-flops. The Steve picked up Mateo’s chart from the foot of the bed and read silently for a minute. Outward appearance notwithstanding, The Steve was an excellent medic – as Mateo could attest to personally.
"Well my man, it looks like you managed to dislocate your shoulder," The Steve pronounced, "Doc put it back in and knocked you out with some pain killers. You’re shiny. It’s just gonna hurt a lot. You should be out of here, no prob."
"Where exactly is here?" Mateo asked, "I take it this isn’t Tampa General. Are we even still in Florida?"
"Oh, yeah, we’re still in Tampa," The Steve answered, putting down the chart, "Mackenzie and Winston rented out one of those medical parks and stashed you. They even had a doc come in and fix you up." Mateo was trying to forget about being involved with the shadowy insurance firm. Now, they just showed back up when he least expected it. What was that line from The Godfather?
"Exactly how did M&W know about this little incident?" Mateo asked in a controlled voice.
"C’mon my man – zombies?" The Steve said as if that explained everything, "As soon as the cops reported zombies in Tampa, M&W swooped in, plucked you out of police custody, and snagged me to watch over you. I think they’re tracking something." Mateo arched an eyebrow in a silent question. Zombies showing up in Florida spontaneously was ludicrous. If M&W was involved, then it was likely the zombies Mateo fought were linked to something bigger. Possibly, something world threatening.
Mateo’s stomach dropped as Nigel Brown walked into the room. Mateo had nothing against Brown personally. The representative for M&W had done right by Mateo and his team the last time. That said, the last time Mateo ended up leading his team against an acolyte of an Aztec god, and not everyone made it out alive, in one piece, or even sane. Every instinct in Mateo was screaming the immaculately dressed Brit’s appearance in Tampa boded ill.
"I’m glad to see you’re awake, Mr. Cortez," Nigel said with a sharp English accent. Brown was smiling, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes. Nigel was worried about something. That wasn’t good. Nigel didn’t worry about small things. Mateo decided not to waste time dickering around with pleasantries.
"What do you want Nigel?" Mateo asked, trying to soften the blunt words with a calm tone, "Or more to the point, what does M&W want with me? Enough to do all of this?" Mateo motioned to the room. The bluntness caught Nigel off-guard. His brown spectacled eyes darted around as he collected himself.
"Um, well, yes, I can see how it appears," Nigel temporized, "Please believe me that M&W didn’t provide this medical care to place you in our debt. You’ve done us a service, and this is the least we could do." Nigel paused long enough to clean his glasses with a handkerchief.
"As you’ve clearly surmised, there is more to those zombies you dispatched earlier," Nigel said, "M&W has reason to believe that an unknown party absconded with at least one zombie from Skull Island." Mateo frowned. Skull Island was the one place on Earth known to be habitated by zombies. It was also home to Zombie Strike!, the reality-slash-game-slash-extreme sport show.
"How did they do that?" Mateo asked. The revenues from the television show and hunting trips, along with M&W’s covert support, paid for highly-trained teams of game wardens to prevent people from snatching a zombie off the island.
"We don’t know. We weren’t even aware of what happened until an outbreak occurred in Panama around the Canal Zone. At that point, we started an investigation and discovered the theft," Nigel continued, "Now the outbreak here. Needless to say, this has the firm’s attention."
"So, what?" Mateo asked with a touch of frustration, "You want me to track down a possible smuggler? I’m not a PI. I wouldn’t have any idea of how to investigate something like this." Nigel was unfazed by Mateo’s retort.
"That part wouldn’t be your concern," Nigel said, "The firm already has retained some of the finest investigators available. Former members of your Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as some from Thames House." Those people would be from the British Security Service, also known as MI5. "We already have an investigative team tracking the perpetrators. What the firm requests from you would be to lead the armed response team being assembled to assist the investigators." Mateo’s eyes narrowed.
"Lead a team again?" Mateo asked with a deadly quiet voice, "Do you really think that’s a good idea?"
"No," Nigel said shaking his head, "I don’t think you’re ready. Yet, you are one of the rare individuals on the planet who can do combat with the undead, and you have led a team previously into combat with zombies. Those qualities cannot be overlooked. Especially with time being a critical factor. We must stop these perpetrators before another outbreak occurs."
"C’mon boss-man, I got you’re back," The Steve said, striking his familiar pose – brilliant smile and both thumbs up.
"I can’t," Mateo said, "You’re right Nigel, I can face zombies without fleeing in terror, and I can fight them, but I can’t lead a team for you. I’ll help your team out as a shooter. I can do that much." The Steve looked crestfallen, but Nigel nodded in understanding.
"Will you be willing to be an operator on the armed response team?" Nigel asked The Steve, "Even if Mr. Cortez is not the leader?"
"Yeah," The Steve said grudgingly, "Someone’s got to show the newbs how things are done."
"Well then, I will leave you two to catch up," Nigel said, "The doctor will be by in the morning to check the shoulder. Barring anything unforeseen Mr. Cortez, you should be released shortly after that. Please expect our team leader to contact you within forty-eight hours." Mateo and The Steve said goodbye as Nigel walked out of the room.
Nigel stepped out into the muggy Florida night. He couldn’t understand how civilized human beings could live in such an environment. The humidity was bad enough Nigel wondered if he would need gills to just walk around. Grumbling, Nigel pulled the phone out of his jacket. He still had one phone call to make before he could retire for the evening.
"I assume you owe me twenty bucks now," said the deep melodic voice in greeting, "How’s our boy?"
"He dislocated his shoulder during his brief skirmish, Mr. Blanchard," Brown asked, annoyed more at himself than anything else, "Mr. Cortez should be fine for our purposes. How did you know how he would react to our proposal?"
"My brother, I know my people," Kenn Blanchard answered. Kenn, aka The Black Man With A Gun, was popularly known as the host of Zombie Strike! and head honcho at Skull Island. Unbeknowst to the general public, Kenn was also M&W’s operational commander for dealing with the growing number of zombie incidents. Kenn liked to see himself as a sort of Nick Fury-like leader of the anti-zombie forces. After being forced to watch some of the American superhero movies, Nigel could see a bit of the character in Kenn’s bearing, but Nigel believed it was the compassionate preacher side of the man that truly allowed Kenn to bring out the best in those under him.
"I won’t deny Mr. Cortez’s ability as a zombie hunter, but I still believe we’re doing him a disservice by bringing him into this operation," Nigel protested, hoping to change Kenn’s mind.
"Nigel, that man’s been Chosen, with a capital C," Kenn said with an earnest sincerity, "You’ve read over what we recovered from that temple. You can call it fate if that makes it easier for you, but Matt’s one of the keys. He just needs a nudge down the right path."