It’s 1907, twenty years after the outbreak of a zombie Plague. For a young student of medicine like Clint, the undead bodies provide an opportunity to study human physiology in the working. He is a good young man: tidy, well-mannered and hard working. Focused on his goal to become an excellent surgeon, Clint has a bright future ahead of him. If it weren’t for a shameful secret he’s forced to keep, his life would have been perfect.
Xavier, a peculiar foreigner he finds in the morgue late at night, claims to be an assistant to one of Clint’s professors, but doesn’t know the first thing about the proper way to behead zombies. Xavier’s story has many loose ends, but something about him unlocks all the emotions Clint always kept bottled up inside. When he learns the truth about Xavier, Clint finds himself involved in a conspiracy that could destroy everything he’s worked so hard for. Frightened by the possible consequences, yet strangely fascinated by the eccentric, tattooed stranger, Clint follows him to places he would never dare explore on his own.
“Off with their Heads!” is set in the universe of “Zombie Gentlemen”.
Highlight to read – POSSIBLE SPOILERS!:
Themes: ( zombies, turn of the century London, rebellion, avant-garde art, police brutality, self-discovery, poverty, class differences, alternative history, tattoos )
Erotic content: explicit m/m sexual scenes
Length: ~17,500 words
Excerpt from the book:
“Excuse me, kind sir, but may I ask what you are doing?” Clint said to a man in a surgeon’s coat, who was cutting off a zombie’s head in the morphysiology department’s mortuary. He didn’t expect anyone to be here so late other than himself and professor Deverell, whose office and laboratory were located in the far end of the university building anyway.
“I…” The man straightened his back and turned to look at Clint. He lifted a black, leather mask off his face. This way, Clint could actually look into his eyes, instead of staring into the darkened lenses of the medical goggles. The stranger was very tall, slender, and the brown leather gloves he wore for protection seemed too big for his hands. “I’m doing this… thing,” he said and took a step towards Clint, looking at him with intense, black eyes. His face was just as slim as the rest of his body, with high cheekbones and narrow features. He wore a tea-colored turban which hid all of his hair. This, along with the stranger’s foreign accent gave Clint an idea of who he might be.
“You must be professor Deverell’s new assistant?” He let his body relax. Being eccentric as he was, Ferris Deverell was always surrounded by people who were somewhat odd in the eyes of polite society. This man certainly fit the profile.
“I am. My name is Xavier Latonge,” said the stranger, after clearing his throat. “I am his new assistant. I work long hours as you can see.” He did not smile or hold out his hand, though the latter could be understood, as his gloves were covered in undead blood.
Clint gave him a polite smile. “Well, welcome to the University of St. Catherine, mister Latonge. I am Clint Hunter, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir.” Not keen on touching the stained gloves, he just nodded. “You aren’t a trained medic, I presume,” he said, looking at the wry cut on the zombie’s throat. With the spinal cord not yet severed, the creature was still moving.
He didn’t remember a world without the undead. When the Plague had broke out, he hadn’t had even been born yet and after a year at the university’s medical department, Clint was so used to those things moving and groaning when under the knife that he barely noticed, especially that they didn’t pose an immediate threat when tied down and muzzled.
“It requires far more skill than one may think,” he said with a smile, reaching for the amputation saw.
Xavier swallowed and passed it to him with obvious hesitation. “I must admit I don’t have very much experience,” he sighed. “Professor Deverell set me to this task anyway and I am a bit sloppy I suppose.”
“He must have a lot on his mind,” answered Clint, taking hold of the ghoul’s thin hair to expose its neck for a clean cut. Thick, foul smelling blood shot up and onto Clint’s leather apron through an iron muzzle as the creature coughed, with its throat already half-severed. “So how do you find London? Have you been here long?” Clint asked, pushing the saw under the Adam’s apple of the specimen.
Xavier moved to the side of the steel table, to make room for him. He was over a head taller than Clint, but when he moved, it became even more obvious that his clothes were baggy and he must have been even slimmer than Clint first presumed. The way his black eyes followed Clint’s every move, was a bit unnerving. It felt like being watched by a vulture.
“He told me to get ten heads,” Xavier said. “I only arrived here from Paris six months ago. I wish I’d had done that sooner. Paris is a dump. Not half as organised as London. They still don’t even have a proper wall, twenty years after the Plague. So there are occasional outbursts of infection within the city.”
“Oh, really?” Clint asked with astonishment. “That’s terrible! How did it survive so long without walls?”
“It has these fences and uhm….” Xavier furrowed his eyebrows. He was very pale and the skin under his eyes seemed unnaturally dark. “These big ditches where the zombies fall in when they try to reach the city. As you can probably imagine, it’s not the best of ways to prevent them coming in.”
Clint didn’t want to be rude, so he didn’t comment on it, but knowing how well his own nation had adjusted to the situation made him proud to be an Englishman. Most large cities survived, as did major railway connections, now carefully protected by walls and numerous gates, not to mention gated farms to provide food. In his personal opinion, overpopulation and strict law enforcement were a small price to pay for safety.
“Did you come here in a zeppelin, sir?” he asked, cutting through the monster’s spine and finally releasing the head. The rest of the rotting body stilled in an instant.
“Yes.” Xavier opened a big leather bag, where he already had three zombie heads, all of them twisting their lips in anger, but making no sounds, like a choir of mutes. “It took me over a year to save up for the trip. I came here with a few friends, but we… fell out,” he said, as his jaw tightened.
“I am sorry to hear that,” said Clint, dropping the head into the bag and proceeding to another steel table. He noticed that three of the bodies stored for this week laid there completely still in the dim light of only one lamp that didn’t even reach the depths of the elongated room.“Why does he need that many heads? Taking the head pretty much makes the rest of the specimen useless and those bodies will be needed for physiology workshops tomorrow.” Clint checked the thick, leather cuffs securing the zombie before exposing its neck like he did minutes before.
“It’s a secret project….” Xavier walked behind him in slow steps. “Are you busy, later tonight, mister Hunter?”
Clint focused on the neck he was cutting through to make the process as clean and effortless as possible.
“I don’t think so, why? Does the professor need help?” His whole body tingled at the prospect of being let into his magnificent laboratory. Only the chosen few were allowed in.
“Well, you seem very skilled with the saw… And ten heads will be heavy. Maybe you would be so kind to help me carry them later?” His eyes narrowed a bit, as he watched another head being cut off.
“I’m a quick learner.” Clint laughed, his eyes stopping at Xavier’s lips for a split second. In contrast to his overall features, they looked very soft. He dismissed that thought soon enough to make his gaze seem accidental. He couldn’t let himself go like this. Definitely not here, at the university. His movements became sharper, stronger, as if his body needed to get rid of the tension and the monstrous head fell off quick, straight into the bag Xavier leaned in with.
“I can imagine. How old are you? Twenty?”
Clint laughed with a pleasant feeling in his chest. “Do I look that mature?”
“Less?” Xavier eyed him up, moving away by a step. “It’s more about how well you’re dealing with the undead.”
Clint felt a flush on his cheeks, but he just proceeded to yet another table.
“I’m eighteen, but a year of medical studies takes its toll on a man.”
“Aww,” Xavier said, but didn’t smile, which was strange. “You don’t even remember the Plague.”
Clint cleared his throat with an unpleasant sting in his gut. “I don’t. Why?”
“This kind of world must be all you know.” Xavier’s French accent sounded fascinating and exotic to Clint, but the way the man just stood there watching him work was a bit awkward.
“I… I guess it does, yes,” he said, trying to focus on the undead child whose head he was now splitting from its body. The dress she wore was still recognizable as pink. At least because of the muzzle, less of her face was visible.
“What is your stand on the changes that are being lobbied lately by the Humanists, mister Hunter?” Xavier asked, speaking slowly, as if he were very careful with his words. “They would change the only world you know.”
The low, humming sound of Xavier’s voice made Clint uneasy. It felt like it reached deep into him and touched a nerve.
“Well… have you been to Hyde Park yet, mister Latonge?” he asked, severing the thin neck and once again dropping a growling head into the bag, before it even went silent.
“No, it’s closed off to those without enough money or status.” Xavier’s lips tightened. “What is it that I would see there?”
Clint left the immobile body, moving to the next straight away. “Once in a while I scrape enough money for the entrance fee and–” he trailed off, not sure how to put his thoughts into words. “It feels free to be behind that fence, mister Latonge,” he said, daring to look at the other man. “I walk to the farthest corners where there are few people and just spend the whole day laying on the grass. Even the sky seems more blue,” he added with a smile.
To his embarrassment, Xavier only cocked his head, his gaze becoming even more intense. “So are you saying you are for fighting zombies and clearing out the land behind the London walls?”
Clint gave him a sceptical look. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Many people don’t want that. They prefer the squander of the city than a new war. Would you join the army, mister Hunter?” he asked, raising his eyebrows and for the first time since they met, a small smile appeared on his lips. It didn’t seem like a very pleasant smile though.
Fear trailed up Clint’s spine, but it only lasted for a moment. “I will be a surgeon. There are too little of us to be wasted in the battlefield,” he said with conviction, trying not to avoid Xavier’s eyes this time. Clint didn’t expect him to pick on his size. True, he was slim, with thin-boned hands and the face of a boy, but Xavier himself was no gladiator either.
“Now that’s very self-centered!” Xavier huffed, pushing another head into the sack. “What about all those other people who maybe are not as fortunate to be surgeons, or carpenters or things of that sorts?”
“Like you, sir?” Clint inquired, colder than he intended. Blood from the wound he was now deepening sprayed onto his gloved hands when he lost his grip on the saw for a second.
Xavier sneered. “That’s very insolent, coming from a seemingly polite little man.”
Clint’s chest heaved and for a moment, he didn’t know what to say to that. “I’d rather not have this conversation,” he finally said, chopping the head off.
“I just think it’s ridiculous to say that this kind of war will help!” Xavier raised his voice, putting the head in the bag with irritation. “What about the zombies that are thrown out by the sea? It’s like the world is just throwing them up at us and there is nothing to be done!”
“You sound like a Johner,” said Clint with a sudden realization. His heart skipped a beat at the thought that someone who believed people should surrender their souls to God by being bitten by an undead could be working at the university.
“I am not a Johner!” Xavier exclaimed, looking back towards the entry to the room. They were both shivering from the cold in the mortuary. “You’re not listening, are you?! I’m saying that war is not the answer, not that we should pull down the city walls and just stand there till they come for us!”
“What a relief,” muttered Clint. “Get the head?” he asked, as the one he was working on was almost cut off.
“You know, mister Hunter…” Xavier swallowed, visibly agitated. “We’re already late, let us go. He’s waiting at the worker’s exit to pick them up. He said this is an urgent matter. I don’t want to lose my job. Better nine heads, than to be so late.” Xavier rushed to tie the sack.
Clint turned around, baffled. “Why would professor Deverell wait at the back door? The most modern laboratory in all of Europe is his to use.”
“It’s a secret project! I told you,” huffed the other man, quickly taking off his long leather gloves. “You are privileged to even know about it!” Despite the protection, the pale skin of his long, bony fingers was now bluish from the cold.
“You couldn’t predict I would be here,” murmured Clint, taking off a thick, rubber glove and tossing it to the blood-stained table.
“Well, if you weren’t here, by accident, you wouldn’t know, now would you?” Xavier raised his eyebrows, clearly annoyed, and put on a pair of tight-fitting black gloves. “Let’s go,” he said and passed him the edge of the bag, so they could lift it together.
Clint fought a battle within himself before grabbing the other side of the bag with his still gloved hand.
“Thank you,” Xavier finally said, as they made their way out of the freezing mortuary.
Clint didn’t answer for a moment, wanting this awkward situation to be over. He closed the heavy door with his foot hard enough for the locket to fall into place on its own.
“Go straight ahead.”
Xavier nodded and looked at Clint with those black eyes of his for a moment, before turning to gaze at the corridor behind them.
“They won’t escape on their own,” Clint felt obliged to explain as they moved deeper into the sparsely lit part of the morphysiology wing.
“Oh… good. Just making sure. I’m new to this.” Xavier tried to move faster, but it was Clint who was leading them.
“Why would he send you here alone instead of coming in person?” asked Clint, starting to feel uneasy about Xavier’s story. Something just didn’t seem right. The darkness of the corridor didn’t make him feel any better either and then, they heard steps from afar.
“Anyone there?” Clint recognized professor Deverell’s melodic voice.
“Fuck!” With a sudden hiss Xavier grabbed Clint’s hand and dragged him to the side, desperately pushing the handle on a door that turned out to be open. They fell into the small storage room and Xavier closed the door quietly, leaving them in absolute darkness. The only sounds were those of their breaths. With Xavier silent, his body so close that Clint could feel his warmth in the small space, initial shock transformed into numbness. He heard every beat of his own heart, blood furiously pulsing in his temples.
“What are you–” he mumbled, but Xavier put his hand over Clint’s lips, forcing him into silence. With Xavier’s chest pressed to his back, Clint could feel how ferocious the man’s heartbeat was.
“Don’t say another word,” Xavier whispered, leaning into his ear. “If you get us into trouble I will say you were my accomplice and drag you down with me, you hear me? I can be very persuasive.”
Clint shivered, frozen in place. He couldn’t believe this. How could this man even get into this part of the building? Only authorized personnel and students had keys to the main entrance. Could it be Xavier had an accomplice within the university?
His breath became raspy at the thought of being accused of helping him. If it came to that, he would be permanently expelled and worse. True, there had been zombie body parts missing from time to time, but getting caught equaled facing severe criminal charges.
They heard steps from the corridor and one more time, the professor called out, but then he must have turned back and after a long moment, they no longer heard any more pacing. Xavier’s hand on his lips was shaking, and his chest heaving. Clint had no idea what this man was anymore or what to expect of him. Was he scared, excited or plain mad? Why would anyone need ten zombie heads?
He leaned back, his teeth clattering in the dark. “Why are you doing this?”
“I need those heads and I am not getting involved with the Johners, or with the mobs for that matter, to get them,” Xavier hissed, finally moving away. “Come on, let’s finish this.”
“No, you are robbing university students and scientists of necessary specimens,” Clint said in a weak voice. Why was this happening to him of all people?
There was a moment of silence that felt like forever, before Xavier finally spoke out again.
“Please Clint, help me. I will tell no one of your involvement. And I promise these heads won’t hurt a soul. It’s for my art manifesto sculpture. I sacrificed so much to get this far…”
“Excuse me, your what–?” Clint’s mind went blank . And since when were they on a first name basis?