Hart Throbbed

Plagued States of America Origins, Book 1

When Infinity Pictures leases an entire passenger train to film its latest blockbuster, the cast and crew of the zombie action movie Hart Throbbed climb aboard for an express ride to hell, compliments of a nefarious Breckenrock subsidiary illegally transporting damaged spent fuel rod containers from the local nuclear reactor facility. With only hours to retake their runaway train bound for St. Louis, Jason Hart and the rest of the cast take a crash course in method acting by battling for survival against patient zero and the horde of zombies spawned along the way. In this prequel to the Plagued States of America series, the origins of zombie half-breed Penelope Hope are finally known.

Coming Soon!

TWO DAYS BEFORE PRINCIPAL SHOOT, THREE A.M.

TRAINYARD ACCESS GATE


THE GRAND MONACAN TRAINYARD stretched out in the fog for over a mile beneath the glow of a hundred stadium lights. Through the haze, endless spurs of train cars slumbered on their tracks, tracks that split and split again and kept splitting to feed a hungry thirty-eight parallel lines. Curt Simmons knew how many lines he had, but couldn’t tell you how many lights there were around the facility. He hardly ever thought for a second about the lights, except when the ones he needed were out, or when he wished he could put out the one he was standing under.

They may as well have been shining all the lights on him. After all, the fog wasn’t so thick that no one on the lines wouldn’t notice him standing at the auxiliary access gate. He stopped his nervous pacing to take a drag from the nearly spent cigarette he held pinched between his fingers and looked at his watch. Goddamned asshole was never on time. Curt squinted through the chain link gate at the access road, wondering how much longer it would be.

A train whistle blew three quick bursts that echoed across the yard. One of the goats was backing out with its cut of cars to move to another line for storage, or hookup to a ready line. It was about that time of day to setup the cargo spurs. Day? Ha! Curt hadn’t worked a day shift in twelve years. Grand Monacan might have run twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three-hundred-sixty-five days a year, rain or shine, but they didn’t need Curt or his crew out during the day. Just passenger rail after ten. Cargo at the Monacan was handled at night.

He closed his tired eyes and shook his head. Eight more years. That’s how long until his pension was at seventy-five percent. Eight more grueling, exhausting years, and who was to say he’d even make it? Anything could happen, after all.

Curt looked at his watch again. He had half a mind to walk away. Screw Charlie Panarello and his dirty money. He didn’t need it. It was insurance. It was an extra bump to make sure that if things went south, he’d have some cash set aside to make up the difference, a buffer on top of his retirement money.

He took the last drag from his cigarette and dropped the butt to the ground, mashing it with a boot. Headlights glimmered in the foggy haze beyond the chain link fence. A vehicle was approaching on the access road. He hoped it was Charlie. If it was anyone else, it would be pretty suspicious him just standing here waiting. The vehicle’s lights grew brighter as they rounded the last bend, turning to shine directly on the gate. Curt held a hand up to shield his eyes, squinting through the glare. The vehicle slowed and turned its nose away to park just outside the gate. Curt recognized the green stripes across the fenders and the seal on the door of the otherwise white pickup truck, the colors and emblem of the railroad police.

Curt waited for the driver of the vehicle to get out before he let out a sigh of relief. It was Charlie.

“You’re late,” Curt said through the fence.

Charlie approached the fence, ignoring him except to say, “You said something the other day about being interested again.” Charlie looked up and down the fence line. He didn’t seem nervous. Cautious was more like it, like a wolf scoping the area before going in to gnaw on the remnants of someone else’s kill.

“Yeah, you said to meet,” Curt replied. “What have you got?”

“Another dead-head run. Three more of those flatcars. Interested?”

“Yeah,” Curt said, nodding. “Definitely.”

“Good. Cut ‘em in at the end of 6022 for St. Louis. It’s gonna be a z-train.”

“Wait,” Curt said, scowling in confusion. 6022 was the engine being lashed to those fourteen leased passenger coaches for that movie crew. “They’re all passenger cars.”

“Yeah, so what?”

“That train’s only going to be pulling forty, fifty tops,” Curt said, meaning its speed. It had been a big deal getting the permits to run the train so slow all the way to St. Louis. Other trains had to be rescheduled around them, and it was as big a cluster as a derailment. Everyone had been groaning about it for days.

“So, what’s the problem?” Charlie asked.

“It’s going to take more than eight hours to get to St. Louis. That’s two crew shifts.”

“Two? Why? You can run one for twelve.” Charlie meant that Curt was legally allowed to schedule one person to drive the train for up to twelve hours on a single shift, which was true.

“The union would have a fit. We can’t hide anything over eight.”

“I don’t see the problem. You said you got a guy.”

“I do. A guy. One. That means he can’t work by himself on that train and be legal on arrival. The union will know.”

“So don’t tell the other hogger. I don’t give a shit how you do it. Logistics isn’t my department.”

Curt let out his breath. He didn’t like the setup at all. Last time he got away with it by re-assigning his guy to work the train himself, but it was only a six-hour run.

“Same deal as before,” Charlie said. “You in or not?”

Curt nodded reluctantly. The money was too good to pass up.

“Here’s the paperwork,” Charlie said, sliding a set of rolled-up forms through one of the holes in the fence between them.

“Yeah, but, um…my guy,” Curt said, staring at the papers stuffed in the fence, purposefully avoiding Charlie’s eyes. “He needs a bigger cut. Five grand or he won’t do it.”

“Five grand?!” Charlie growled. “Are you fucking with me?”

“No,” Curt said, holding his hands up placatingly. “No, he said he won’t do it again unless he gets more. Said it wasn’t worth it.”

“Wasn’t worth it?”

“Hey, I can’t do it myself. Foremen don’t ride. You know that.” Curt could ride, as cargo, but it would look damned suspicious. He didn’t exactly have an aunt who lived near St. Louis or anything. And he didn’t actually need five grand. He only needed twenty-five hundred, but he wasn’t about to give up a chance to get the same for himself.

“Get someone else,” Charlie said.

“By tomorrow? How? I only have the one guy. He’s worth it, okay. He did the last job. He knows the drill. Think of it like insurance, okay.”

Charlie let out his breath, his shoulder slumping forward as he leaned toward Curt and the fence. “Only this time, got me?” Charlie said, pointing through the fence at Curt. “You find another guy, or I will.”


TRAINYARD MENS LOCKERS, FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER

MARK “MAYBE” MAYBERRY leaned his head in through the locker room door as though he wasn’t sure about being here. Curt waved for him to come in, which he did by stomping his feet on the mat before cautiously advancing, looking into both bays of lockers as he approached.

“Anyone in the toilets?” Maybe asked, throwing a thumb over his shoulder toward the bathrooms.

“Yeah, no one,” Curt said. “I checked.”

Maybe glanced down the length of bathroom stalls as though he didn’t trust Curt. All the stall doors were wide open.

“What’s up?” Maybe asked. “Did you get it?”

“Yeah,” Curt said, nodding. “We’re golden. Pull a full ten tonight and don’t come in tomorrow. I don’t want you outlawed when the train rolls.”

Curt meant the hog laws that prevented anyone from working longer than a twelve-hour shift. Maybe was already at five for the day, so that meant he was getting overtime tonight to make up for missing tomorrow, and that way he’d be legal when the train left the station.

“What about my bonus?” Maybe asked. He meant his extra twenty-five-hundred dollars for doing the job.

“You’ll get it, don’t worry. They agreed.”

“I don’t want to do this again, neither,” Maybe said sourly. “I ain’t gonna say nothing if other cars go missing, but I don’t want to be the one hooking them up or carrying the papers again. It ain’t on the up-and-up. I did it ‘cause I needed the money, but it’s giving me ulcers again, boss.”

Curt nodded. “I understand. You’ve got a wife and a kid. You don’t need the added stress of this. Hell, it’s got me scared. Once this one’s done, I think we should both get out.”

Maybe nodded in agreement. “I think you should, boss. I really do.”