Forreston FL, roughly fifty miles north of Lake City FL, 1730 hours Local, 18 October 2009, Countdown: 2 years, 2 months, 13 days

“Collin, put that gun away!” Mateo snapped. Collin staggered back a step with a bewildered look on his face. The pistol dropped to a low ready position. Even when caught by surprise, the former SAS soldier maintained his weapon discipline.

“Matty?” Collin asked, barely whispering the name.

“Yes Matty,” Mateo snarled, “What are you doing here, Collin?” Collin holstered his Glock. He didn’t answer Mateo’s question. He just stared at Mateo’s armor with a shocked expression. The Steve slung his carbine, took off the smooth helmet, and walked up to his former teammate. Collin looked at The Steve, but said nothing. The silence was spooky as The Steve quickly checked over his friend and drinking buddy. Finding nothing physically wrong, The Steve clapped Collin on the shoulder in a familiar fashion.

“Matty, why are you dressed in Armed Response’s battle armor?” Collin asked, finally breaking the silence.

“We’re working with them to support the M&W investigative team,” Mateo answered, “I’m guessing that’s you. When did you become part of the investigative team? There was no mention of you in any of the briefings.”

“Last minute decision. I just happened to be available,” Collin said, “I was sent to provide some tactical support to the investigators.” Collin paused long enough to take a drink from The Steve’s canteen. “The team was a former FBI agent and a man who used to work for Five. Good investigators, but neither of them could properly handle a weapon. I was tasked with trying to keep them from getting themselves killed.”

“Another failure for your rather checkered record Dubois,” Pryce said, stepping into the office. Pryce’s helmet was off, and Mateo could see the look of pure contempt in the man’s eyes. Mateo stepped between the two men.

“Did you find anything in the store?” Mateo asked, drawing Pryce’s eyes away from Collin. Pryce’s eyes bored into Mateo’s unflinching gaze.

“I don’t know just who the bloody devil you think you are Yank,” Pryce said, “You may have caught me off-guard by barking orders out there like you did, but if you think—“ Pryce never saw the butt stroke that cut him off. One moment he was letting the impudent American have what for, and the next he was on the ground with a sore jaw and that very angry American standing over him.

“What did you find Pryce?” Mateo asked in a very calm voice. The Steve and Collin looked at each other. They knew when Mateo used that very calm tone there was a fiery rage inside their friend and team leader. “Don’t make me ask again.”

“Nothing!” Pryce yelled in frustration. Pryce tried to get back to his feet. Mateo ignored The Steve pushing Pryce back down. “We found nothing in the whole bloody place. No smugglers, no zombies, and none of our people.”

“What about the container the smugglers were using?” Mateo asked, surprised there were no other zombies in the building.

“Oh, that we found. Empty. Maybe you should ask your chum there what happened. How did he survive?” Pryce shot back, “Maybe you should quit trying to threaten me and find out what he knows.” It was a legitimate point. Mateo nodded for The Steve to let Pryce off the ground.

“Just so you know hoss,” The Steve told Pryce as he helped the man off of the ground, “The bossman wasn’t threatening you. You really don’t want to tick him off. No idea what he’ll do, but it won’t be pretty. Trust me.” Pryce looked over at The Steve. The man was probably insane, but Pryce didn’t think The Steve was lying. Pryce wasn’t sure if The Steve’s words made him angry or just afraid. Mateo didn’t even notice Pryce’s dilemma. He was busy waiting for Collin to talk.

“We walked into an ambush Matty,” Collin said, “The bloody smugglers were waiting for us. Don’t know how they knew, but they did. Tom, the American, and me took cover and exchanged gunfire as soon the smugglers opened up. Told Robby to run and get the police. Instead he tells me he’s got some brilliant notion, and pops off into the store. I think he’s the one that set the zombie loose.” Mateo and The Steve cursed simultaneously. Pryce looked at Collin in silent shock.

“It all kind of snowballed from there,” Collin continued, “Tom took a couple of rounds to the chest and went down. Then all the shooting stops. A moment later, there are all these zombie moans. I locked myself in here. I don’t know what happened, but I was not about to face off against that many zombies by myself with just a pistol. Figured I could wait them out.”

“How many?” Mateo asked. It took a moment for Collin to realize Mateo was asking him a question.

“Not sure Matty,” Collin said, rubbing his chin as he thought, “There were maybe fifteen or so on the smuggler crew. I know I took down two of the buggers, and I think Tom managed to get another before he went down. So maybe a dozen of the smugglers, and probably Robby.”

“Plus the original,” The Steve added.

“Plus Tom, more than likely. We’d have found bits of him otherwise,” Mateo said shaking his head. “Fifteen zombies with a twenty-four hour head start. Oh, this is so not good.” Mateo closed his eyes and drew a deep breath as he pondered the situation.

“Pryce, get the rest of your team over here,” Mateo ordered, “We need to get moving if we’re going to have a chance of getting that town cleared. Whatever survivors are down there don’t have much time left.”

“What the bloody devil are you saying?” Pryce asked, “My team is not equipped for that kind of sustained operation. We are outfitted for a surgical operation, nothing more. I am not about to have my people go out on some ill-advised lark because you have some sort of hero complex.”

“Pryce, you have weapons and armor,” Mateo said, clamping down firmly on his burning rage, “These people don’t have time for you to run down to Lake City, switch toys, and come back up here. You have to adapt and overcome. Now get moving.”

“It’s suicide. It doesn’t even deserve being called a forlorn hope,” Pryce said flatly, as if that statement was enough to end the argument.

“Comes with the territory, my man,” The Steve said, “This is what we do.” Pryce looked at the three men in utter incomprehension.

“This is not what my team does, and I will not risk them on your insane escapades,” Pryce said. Pryce stormed out of the office. The Steve started to grab Pryce’s arm, but Mateo stopped him with a shake of the head.

“He called us insane,” The Steve protested.

“Doesn’t matter. Let him go,” Mateo said, “If we keep him here against his will, he’ll be worthless to us. Worse, he’ll probably end up getting someone killed or turned.” Mateo turned to Collin who was recovering his normal poise.

“Collin, no BS. Are you good to go?” Mateo asked.

“Don’t worry Matty. I’ve got your back,” Collin said in his familiar confident voice. Mateo gazed long and hard at his friend. Mateo already made the mistake of pushing one teammate beyond her limits. He wasn’t about to make the same mistake. Collin was looked tired, a bit scraped up, and slightly dehydrated. Under all that, Mateo could see the familiar gritty determination that made Collin such a dangerous zombie killer. Mateo clapped Collin on the shoulder and gave his friend a predatory smile.

The three men walked out of the abandoned supermarket. Mateo looked up the highway at the town of Forreston. Mateo would have been hard–pressed to clear the town with seven operators. There were just too many possible hiding places for zombies. Maybe if Mateo was lucky, some of the survivors would be able to help out. Even a couple could give his small team much better odds.

As Mateo pondered the situation, he began to hum The March of Cambreadth. The Steve introduced Mateo to the song before the team assaulted the island a few months ago. It was a good song to get the blood pumping and ready for a fight. Mateo turned back to his teammates to start planning. It was time to see how many they could make die.

[Zombie Strike Part 2 Chapter 14]