The men swept into Max’s Café American more quickly than the light receded from a blown-out candle. This was a dangerous prospect for them, the men, that is. Café American, as it was locally called, was known to cater to dangerous individuals; Ne’er do wells, ex-military, both American and Cuban, foreign men and women fleeing from the world-wide zombie apocalypse and, even worse, the dead themselves.
To move on an establishment filled with such entities took no small amount of courage, but to move on the owners, that took a whole other level of chutzpah. The bartender, Max, looked up with some concern as the men moved in. Former cartel, brutal, hungry. Working with a few zeds of their own. Max thought. Get Nick out of here. This last was to his partner in crime, Jane Stewart, who was working the floor as a waitress. He didn’t have to vocalize commands to her, on account of the fact that neither of them were what one might properly call ‘alive’ anymore. Max’s son, Nick, was and Max aimed to keep it that way.
Stewart nodded and slipped out the swinging doors that led to the hotel proper during the commotion, before any of the men spoke. When the hub-bub had died down one of the men, a wiry looking man two meters tall, stepped up to the bar with his short double-barreled shotgun and asked, “You the owner of this dump?”
Max nodded and poured the man a beer, putting it in front of him. The glass immediately started to perspire from the difference between the ice-cold beverage and the heat of the room.
The man looked at the beer and then at Max, “I said. Are you the owner of this dump?” He stared hard at Max, his eyes squinting.
“I am.” Max answered, pretending that he didn’t understand that the man was requesting a formal transfer of ownership.
The man raised the shotgun to shoulder height and aimed it at Max, “One more time. Are you the owner of this dump?”
Max leaned forward until his forehead was resting against the barrels of the gun and said in a low tone, “I am.”
The sound of the gun going off was deafening, Max’s head exploded outward over the bottles of liquor and the mirror behind the bar. Ragged lumps of blue-gray matter and blood, speckled with ivory flecks of bone were sprayed everywhere.
The triggerman laughed, “Hah! See Edwardo? Zombie or man, he still died.”
The zombie beside him, armed with a pistol, carrying a rifle and with three knives in his belt nodded. He leaned over the wide bar to look at Max’s body laying behind it and saw blood, lots of blood. As he watched it spurted one last, weak time from a heart that only beat because that was what Max was used to, the fluid from the body joined that in the pool already there on the worn rubber floor mat. “Easier than I thought, Matías. Easier than we heard. I thought the owner was supposed to be some sort of cabrón?”
“Oh, he is.” This came from a short, stocky man wearing sunglasses, unlike the others in this place, he had only a knife at his belt, an ugly, sturdy looking thing that paid homage to Jim Bowie.
Matías nodded at one of his men, who went to stand and loom over the man sitting on the edge of his booth. The regulars, all started edging very slowly away from the two men. “Don’t you mean, ‘was’?” Matías laughed again, “English is such an imperfect language, perhaps I misunderstood?”
“Well, don’t take my word for it.” The short man said, “Ask him yourself.”
Matías turned back around to see Max standing behind the bar again, pouring a fresh beer.
“Cojeme!” Matías swore, breaking open his gun and speed loading two more shells.
Edwardo, put a hand on Matías’s shoulder, “Brother, it didn’t work the first time.”
“That’s impossible. His fucking head was gone! Zombies don’t survive that.”
A grunt drew his attention to the short man, who was pulling his blade out of the thug next to him. With a smile the guy said, “Some reputations are more true than others. Do you want me to kill them all, Max?”
“Sit down, Gus.” The short man did, adjusting his dark glasses. Matías caught a peek of his opaque eyes as he did so.
“Ciego…” With a flick his gun was ready to fire again.
“We need to leave, Matías.” Edwardo said, he turned to Max, “Please forgive me. Us.” He tugged Matías backward, only to have the other man angrily shrug him off.
“I want to know what this shit is! What are you?” More grunts and yells followed, Matías looked around the bar to see his men falling to the predations of the patrons.
“Stop!” Max yelled out. The violence ceased. “Matías, is it?” Matías nodded, taking a step back. “Well I am tired of killing people. I had an idea you might be paying me a visit; you wrapped up the south side pretty well, got people worked up and I’m in your way. So, I understand why you had to come here. You didn’t want an island of resistance as you consolidated your power over the barrio. In a way, I have to thank you for not making me come to you. You’ve been bad for business. I am willing to accept a certain amount of that, but we don’t need another petty thug ruling like a dictator over our people.”
“We were wrong…” Edwardo said, before Matías interrupted him.
“Who are you?”
Max ignored the question, “Matías, go on, get out of here. Take your men with you. Be happy with what you’ve got and rest up for that day when your second in command or some other young wannabe comes gunning for you. It only ends in violence for you.”
Matías started to say something, but Edwardo grabbed him from behind, in a wrestling move, forcing his head down. “We’re going.” Edwardo assured Max. The pair struggled, the zombie was ‘super’ in every aspect, Matías himself smashed one of Max’s heavy tables like it was a toothpick, indicating he’d slain his own share of zombies. The pair backed out of one of the wide doorways into the street, where the music had never really died down, of his men, perhaps three of the twelve made it out, the rest had been taken care of by the customers.
“Gus. Take over for me? Go get Maggie, she’s about had a stroke.” Maggie was the newest bar maid, a saucy favorite of the clientele, who was already famous for sleeping around.
Gus sighed and went after the woman, who was crying in the kitchen, under the watch of the two cooks, one armed with a meat cleaver, the other with a Bushmaster. “Come here, dear. It’s okay, it was just a flesh wound. Max is alright.” To the two cooks he said, “We have bodies to process, ASAP. Nine, I think.” The cooks nodded and then Gus added, “And get Rambo behind the bar!” The two went out into the main room and started yelling at the workers and offering up free drinks to any who helped drained the living of their blood for later resale to the zombies.
When Gus finally stepped back into the bar itself, Maggie given the night off and three shots of tequila, he went behind the bar next to Rambo. The muscular young man, perhaps twenty years old nodded at him and continued to pour drinks as dictated by the cooks. Knowing already what he would see, Gus looked anyway; there was no body, no blood, no indication that Max had been blown away here ten minutes before. No, that’s wrong. Behind the bar, the mirror was cracked, where a bone or shot fragment had hit it. One of the bottles of top shelf was cracked open as well, with half the liquor gone.
“Rambo, hand me the Laphroaig.”
Gus pointed, “That one, in the broken bottle.”
“Oh, yeah, shit, Max is going to be ballistic, we ain’t ever gonna see one of those again.” He gingerly took the broken bottle down, careful to conserve what whisky remained in the bottom of it.
Gus took it and cleared off the top, there was a snit of the amber fluid left in the bottle. He looked at Rambo, who looked away and went to pour another beer. “Could be full of glass shards.” Gus’s body went rigid for a moment, then softened and he nodded, “What doesn’t kill me, must be good for me.” He pressed the shard to his lips and drained perhaps a third of the remaining spirits into his mouth. He tilted his head back, face almost to the ceiling and very, very slowly swallowed. A trickle of blood dribbled down his chin, from where he’d cut it on the bottle while drinking.
“Rambo, you got this?”
“Sure thing, chief.”
“I’m going to be right over there, enjoying my whisky.” Gus pointed to ‘his’ table, which remained empty.
“I’ll yell if I need you.”
Gus already knew Rambo wouldn’t be yelling tonight, sometimes Café American had two or even three exciting moments an evening, not lately though. Things had been quiet. Matías was the first bit of excitement and the first strong man to come by, since Nick had arrived nearly six months ago.
“We’ve been in tighter spots.” Matías said.
“Name one.” Edwardo told him. They were almost back to their home base, a massive mansion on Old Cutler Road.
“He has to have a weakness. I thought you checked him out? This is your fault, you said he was just a dude, a human.”
“I said he looked like a human. He was not a human. He is not alive, not like you, not like me. I don’t know what he is, but we better go around him.”
“Leave him in place? Like a mole hill in my perfect lawn? No. We take his son, his girlfriend, that one called Stewart. We take them and use them as leverage.” Matías kicked in the front door to his mansion, it weighed upwards of two hundred kilos, yet he pushed it off the hinges. Edwardo cringed; repairing things was more difficult these days, it wasn’t like anyone was still making parts anymore. Fixing Matías’s damage was becoming an expense the gang could ill afford.
Once inside the two gunmen there relaxed when they recognized their leader. One of them spoke up, “They are out back, jefe, just like you asked. We called them all in.”
“What?” Matías asked.
“Oh fuck.” Edwardo said, he stopped dead in his tracks.
“Who the fuck is out back? What do you mean like I asked?” He leveled his gun at the hapless guard and fired one barrel into his stomach, “I don’t ask. I order, you stupid pendejo!”
Despite this Matías continued forward, through the foyer and out onto the back deck, most of his gang was assembled, waiting for him, “Why the hell are you all here? Who is out controlling the streets?”
“They came because we asked them to. In your name, sorry if we were out of line.” Called a voice from the lawn, which sat half a meter below deck level.
Matías looked over and saw a tall lanky man wearing dirty clothing and steel toed work boots. “Gringo, you don’t give my men orders.”
Back in the foyer, behind Edwardo a woman’s voice said, “You too, Edwardo.”
He turned around and slowly raised his hands, the barmaid, Stewart, stood there, unarmed and seemingly helpless against the zombie’s guns and knives. The debate on whether to run or not was cut short by Stewart’s words, “If you run, you die. I promise you.”
Keeping his hands away from his armaments he turned to follow Matías, who was now yelling at those in the back yard. “I know I don’t know you. I also know Matías has made a terrible misjudgment.”
“I don’t want to die again.” Edwardo said.
“Funny how we have different feelings about our own mortality. What are you proposing?”
“I…I don’t know. Could you use me? I mean…for something? If not, please, make it quick.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Stewart told him.
Outside Matías was cussing his men, the dirty gringo and the world. Finally, he seemed to run out of steam, “So? Why are you still here? Get back on the streets!”
None of his men moved.
“What are you waiting for?” Matías screamed.
“Me.” Three stories above him, on the roof of his house, sat Max. Next to him was an Hispanic man, also sitting.
“It was a lie then? To get me out of your bar? You’ve come to kill me.”
Max slid of the roof dropping the three stories to land on his legs, making no effort to cushion his fall, yet he touched down like feather. The Hispanic man dropped as well, but he did flex his knees as he landed.
“You’re going to let them do this? Kill them!” Matías yelled to his men.
Still no one moved.
“We got here before you by a goodly amount.” The man on the lawn said, “We had a talk, we may have busted a few heads. This is the worst of your lot too.”
“Hank is right. They aren’t going anywhere.” Max said.
“You’re taking over then? It’s your gang now? Cabrón.” The word came out quietly. Matías swung his gun up, as fast as he was, the Hispanic man by his side was faster, knocking the short gun out of the man’s hands into the side of the house. The barrel of the gun pierced the façade, leaving it hanging there like the world’s bluntest throwing knife. A sharp slap with the back of the man’s hand sent Matías to the ground.
Matías tried to rise, but found he was held by a pair of strong arms dressed in dirty flannel. Max stepped forward onto the chest of the man and addressed the people on the lawn below the deck. “Things change. Power shifts and new leaders arise. Hank was right, you’re the worst of the worst that Matías had to offer. You can be proud of that, I guess. Or embarrassed by it. For being the worst, it means you’ve raped, murdered and extorted the people here, turning them into chattel. If I were you I’d be repentant and appalled at my own actions.” Beside him, the Hispanic man repeated what Hank said in Spanish.
“Thank you, Juan, Hank, for getting these men here.” Several of the men in the crowd had gone down on their knees, a few had tears streaming down their face and more than a couple were making the sign of the cross.
“Now I’m going to kill you. Not because I want to, not because I hate what you’re doing, though I do, but because I have to. You came to my Café, your leader threatened me and my blood and you subjugated the people who were doing better without you around. I hope this lesson will be taken to heart by any other gangs who attempt to move in.” Without another word, Max sunk into Matías’s chest, his feet pulping his body with no more effort than a child popping a balloon. There was no blood, that precious liquid flowed into Max. In seconds where Matías had been was only dust and gear. “Do it.”
Hank and Juan sprang into action. Stewart took a moment to lean into Edwardo and say, “Don’t go anywhere.” Before she joined the fray, cutting through the gathered men like a knife. Some of the men were no longer normal, many of them were super zombies themselves, of these few were able to match any of their opponent’s skills and they all fell, one by one until only some of the kneeling men were left.
Max looked over at Stewart and Edwardo, “I thought he died too?”
“I have had a change of heart. He asked for a job and mercy, in that order.”
With a grunt Max turned back to the dozen or so men still existing on the lawn, “You men, come up here.” He added, “Now.” As some of them hesitated.
He gestured for them to stand with Edwardo, back near the house. With a weary sigh he said, “I left you alive to pick up the pieces of the neighborhood. If I killed all of you someone worse would move in. Also, you’re alive to send a message to anyone else who wants to come in here and try this again. The message is, ‘Don’t try this again.’ Can you deliver that message?”
“Yes.” Or “Si” come from the men’s throats, Edwardo’s included.
“He’s the leader now.” Stewart said, hitching her thumb at Edwardo. “If you fuck things up, we’ll be back.”
“I can’t, I can’t control the streets with what I have left.” Edwardo said, “I know not everyone was here, but that leaves us only a couple of dozen men…”
“Fuck, does it always have to be this hard?” Max asked, “First, open the house up, bring the neighborhood in, show them what happened and tell them we let you live and that you’ve changed your ways. Second. Change your ways. Restore what you’ve taken from the people here, that means give it back. Tell them the rape and extortion are going to stop and find something productive to do. You’ll have no trouble with the neighboring gangs, but there will always be troublemakers coming in. Form a fucking militia to deal with that. Just get it done.”
“And get more than a few women into the militia. This machismo shit has got to stop.” Stewart swore, “Listen to your goddamn morals! If something in the back of your head says you are doing something wrong you damn well better listen to that voice.”
Swallowing hard Edwardo nodded again, “We can send people to the Café, to let you know what we are doing.”
“Why the fuck would you do that? I’m not your leader and what makes you think I won’t know what’s going on? Just try to be decent.” Max said. “I have a lot more going on than settling neighborhood disputes.”
He walked forward and the men spread apart to give him a clear path. When he reached the gut shot man in the foyer he paused to touch him. The others watched as the man crumpled to dust much as Matías had. There was a round of gasps and more praying.
Hank, Juan and Stewart stayed back to have a few more words with them while Max walked out. They caught up with him easily after they left; Max was not walking back to the Café, but to the beach. He was quiet and brooding. Silently they flanked him and walked the many blocks to the ocean. Stewart broke that silence by asking, “How long will they last?”
“Six months.” Max answered, “We’ll have to ask Gus when we get back, but I give it six months before what went down tonight wears off and the next tin-pot dictator tries to take over.”
Stewart nodded, “This isn’t working, is it?”
“No, Jane, it is not.”