Author's Note: The next chapter, enjoy!

Left 4 Dead

Chapter Two

The Veteran

2 Weeks Before First Infection…

And I'm having a shitty day.

For assistant manager Hank Pembrook, life in the big city had prepared him for a lot.

As the big city often did.

In his 48 years of life beneath the radar, the city had robbed him four times, twice at knife-point, once at gun-point, it had taken one of his kidneys and put two stones in the other, got him hitched consecutively to two cock-block wives the latter of which took his apartment in the settlement and ran over his dog on the way out of town, and as a topper somehow managed to turn a horse-race into a temporary albeit terrifying debt to the mob. He hadn't been back to that track in 3 years.

Pembrook had lived in the city for 48 years.

It showed.

Over time the bone-chilling breezes of the rainy streets and the self-centered cruelty of his fellow man had slowly ebbed away at Hank Pembrook's character like sandpaper on ice….but it'd also shown him the ropes. It taught him the rules of the game. Through his wilted acquaintances and knee-buckling intimacies Manager Hank Pembrook slowly developed an unmatched prowess in the art of reading people. And yes, it was an art. One of the few arts left in the icy grease-trap that was this city. Being good at reading people could save your life.

Especially in a town like this.

Especially when you were a job-interviewer.

Especially now.

A shitty day indeed…

"So," Pembrook straightened his papers on his desk, readjusting his glasses on an off-centered nose. "It says here that you're from Wyoming originally. Nice state Wyoming, got some family near there. Get Christmas letters all the time."

The man across the interviewing table didn't respond. He hadn't touched his coffee in ten minutes. He hadn't even moved.

Pembrook cleared his throat, scratched his chin.

He knew he was a man, an older man. They'd talked on the phone last Tuesday. The man had arranged the meeting for seven a.m. and arrived at six . When he entered Pembrook's office, he'd slanted the reading light away from him as he sat down, giving only a grizzled, angular profile for Pembrook to look at against the glass panel of his door. From the window a horizontal beam of light from the morning sun outside slanted across the lap of the older man, illuminating a pair of tired, weathered hands. Occasional the left one —always the left one— would drift up into the shadows to tap a bit of ash from the end of a glowing red cigarette that drooped limply from his lips, glowing in the darkness like an idle radio. He'd entered with it lit.

That is the only time he moved.

Sometimes, when the man would take a drag, Pembrook could make out a red-hued detail of the man's face, occasionally catching the reflection of a pair of glassy blue marble eyes embedded deeply in a puckered, pulled face.

"I see you've worked in a number of alternative jobs as well. Is that true?"

"Yes, you could say that."

Gravel. Pembrook could hear it in his voice now that they weren't on the phone. It sounded so much thicker in person, like a scratched record being played on by a heavy dull needle. Pembrook had an aunt who was a smoker, had that same gravely tone. She was a hefty brunette with hoop earrings, high-heel pumps and a thick Brooklyn accent sounding all the more grimy and delicious with that black tar built up in the back of her lungs. She died in her bathtub two weeks before the Christmas of '04, naked except for a still smoking cigarette in her hand left hand. Doctors said that it was the smoking that'd done it. She was 43 years old.

This man looked like he'd already crested sixty.

Jesus, he must've have lungs like the Good-Year Blimp.

"But it also says that you haven't held any of them down for very long. According to this you've had six other jobs and all lasted less than a month. Three weeks at one, two weeks two weeks at another, one here lasted less than nine days…. How can we feel comfortable that your interest in our company won't be as short lived as the others?"

There was a pause across the table as the man took a long, crinkling drag on the cigarette, lighting up like a neon light. Pembrook caught his eyes again. Glassy, hazed, but as sleek and cold as razors. When he spoke long streams of serpentine smoke rolled into the light. He sounded tired. "I just…needed to find the right job, Mr. Pembrook. For me. I've been around for a while. It'd be nice to find a job that relaxes me. I have a lot to offer. You won't regret your decision."

Pembrook frowned. Something about the way he puffed that damn cigarette gave him the inkling that he'd said that exact statement before. Six times as a matter or fact. "Well I can't promise anything, sir, but that is assuring to hear." He glanced down at the paper again. "You got a wife at all? Kids?"

"Nope."

"Any immediate family you're living with?"

"I live alone."

"Are you capable of working long hours?"

"I can go three days without sleep if that's what your asking."

"Good, good. How about your crisis skills?"

Those baby-blue marble eyes blinked slowly. "Come again?"

Pembrook glanced up and smiled.

"Now, I know this job may not seem like much, but believe me, it can be a real hot-zone sometimes, especially during the holidays. What we want to know is are you capable of handling yourself in emergencies?"

Those old, sea-captain hands idly folded.

"Yes." he said finally. "Yes I am."

Pembrook nodded, his eyes drifting down to the last sentence under his personal information. He froze.

Oh Christ, Pembrook almost groaned aloud.

He's a vet.

For a job like this, a vet was every job interviewer's worst nightmare. Pembrook was good at reading people but it didn't take a Sigmund Freud to recognize that tell-tale psychological mind game they'd play with you with their green berets and camouflage pants when sitting across your desk. Vets who went prowling for jobs like this were the ones that didn't have the family or the income to turn anywhere else and where banking on melting their employer's patriotic heart with that bullet they took to the ass-cheek while carrying their CO' out of an enemy hotzone before a Napalm strike. Well, it wouldn't work on Pembrook. No siree. His great grand-daddy came to this country a poor Irish immigrant. He lived a poor Irish immigrant, survived the trenches of Normandy a poor Irish immigrant, and returned to America just in time to die alone a poor Irish immigrant. One more than one occasion in his career, Pembrook had turned down veterans ten years this man's senior and had tossed pocket change into their Styrofoam cups as he passed them on the street the next morning. If this guy wanted a job he'd have to earn it fair and square.

"It says here that you also had some….military experience, correct?"

At this the man's tone changed. The gravel of all those cigarettes suddenly faded, replaced with something older, stronger, but at the same time infinitely youthful. A voice before the tar and gravel. Before the fog in his eyes. Pembrook easily recognized it as the voice of a military man. A voice that'd tasted blood, smoke, mud, and glory within seconds of each other.

Christ, here it comes…

"Yes I have." The man said cleanly. "Served under a Lieutenant George K. Harker 5th Platoon. I was stationed in Da Nang and fought the Charlies for five years. Served two tours Got an honorable discharge after a 'nade scrambled my knee up something good in the TET offensive. Still got the scars. It looks like a star."

Pembrook nodded quickly not really listening, his eyes already scanning down to the next bullet on the paper.

Oh this keeps getting better and better…

"And it also says here you've been diagnosed with mild PTSD, is that true?"

There was a pause, then the gravel slowly trickled back into the man's voice, sounding low and unhappy once more. He removed his cigarette from his mouth and crushed it next to his coffee cup, twisting it like a heel on a bug. "Nobody walks out of Nam without it, mister. It's the boys who do that you've oughta keep an eye on."

"That's good, sir, but you didn't answer my questi-…."

The old man dug around in his vest pocket, holding up his hand as he removed a crinkled packet of smokes and tapped one from the end.

"I'm fine, I'm fine." He grinned, biting the cigarette in picket-fence teeth. "Just keeps me from sleepin' sometime. Doc's been giving me pills for 'bout a year now, I'm fine. Nothin' sinister."

He flicked a tiny, metallic lighter on from one of his many pockets, leaned forward and cupped his left hand over the flame as he lit the tip of his cig like he was outside. He took a drag, his eyes never leaving Pembrook.

The assistant manager could feel his gaze, could tell that he could see his discomfort. Could sense his hesitancy. This guy had worked and lost 6 jobs already and attended god-knows how many interviews. He knew when he was losing ground.

Pembrook glanced back down….sighed.

It was common knowledge of the business world that passing jobs off to individuals with any history of mental health problems was just a lawsuit waiting to happen. It was like ordering food from a down-town Mexican restaurant. One bad decision and you and everyone eating from your plate gets their asses completely destroyed. Putting faith in other people was a risk. Pembrook couldn't afford that risk right now. He was good at reading people and this guy was about as vague as a pop-up book. War had a way of branding the mind. Turning strong, young men into broken relics of smudged metals and troubled memories waiting until a clogged artery or sleepy heart finally retires them permanently from the streets of the nation they sacrificed their sanity to protect. Sometimes Pembrook forgot that this city had no bias. It screwed everybody.

He hesitated. Sighed again.

From across the table, the man's eyes drank in Pembrook's every movement, those wide, ghostly windows never missing a thing as Pembrook bit his lip and mad up his mind.

It wasn't worth the risk. This city didn't allow the luxury of risk.

He paused, glanced at the paper, then up to the man sitting across from him, puffing away.

"Well," he smiled like a bastard. "I'd first like to thank you for coming in today and talking with me, your résumé is truly a testament to your experience and skill as a hard worker and a patriot for your country," He paused, scratched his nose. The man watched soundlessly. "However…..I don't think that your expertise is what this company needs at this point in time and it wouldn't be fair if I let your military experience influence-"

"Oh, cut the shit, son."

Pembrook stopped. Blinked. "Ex-cuse me?"

There was an exceptionally long exhale of smoke. "You heard me, cut the shit. Just cut it out." The man calmly removed the cigarette and stood up, Pembrook noticed the faintest hints of a limp in his left leg. "I don't want this job just as much as you don't want to give it to me. I admit that. I admit that I'd rather be back in Nam peeling the gout out of my foot with a knife than be stuck in a vest shaking hands with your customers, but damn-it, I just don't have a choice anymore."

His chipped, angular form stepped forward, strong sea-captain hands wrapping around the corners of Pembrook's desk, digging in so hard he could hear the wood groan. The assistant manager could see the man's gaze harden, his ghastly blue eyes burning through Pembrook's dull brown ones like hot embers through silk. "You think I have PTSD, boy? You're damn right I have PTSD! It's the only thing keeping me from going crazy in this country. Don't talk to me with your balls in your pocket and pat-on-the-back-bull-shit. Don't think for a moment you have the right to talk to me like that."

Pembrook's cheeks were flustered as he stood up. "Sir, I respect your position sir, but consider what's fair to the other potential-"

"Can it, Sally!"

Pembrook promptly canned it.

"I don't have the patience to be talked down to, son! If that grenade had landed three feet to my left my pelvis would have been blown up through my brain and I would have gotten my name carved into a wall and gotten eternal niche in the history of this nation, but instead I shook hands with the president, got a purple heart, and am now have to scrounge for money because little chicken-shits like you won't give me a job in a god-damn department store! And you want to lecture me about being fair? Spineless turds like you just twist my gut, boy. Why, even my daughter knew that-"

And then

…quite suddenly…

the man stopped.

Just…stopped.

Pembrook's bladder continued trembling as he shrank in his seat, expecting another outburst, expecting the man to leap up on his desk, hang him from the ceiling do whatever the hell those vets did to people over in Nam.

But he didn't.

Instead, like the touch of death, all emotion temporarily drained from the old man's face like life from a rose. His brow lifted, lips gently parted, and that pulled, taught face slowly relaxed. He let go of Pembrook's desk, glanced downwards, his left hand unconsciously placing the cigarette between his lips again.

He sat down.

Cleared his throat.

When he spoke, he spoke quietly.

"I didn't serve half a decade over seas, watch boys too young to shave have their brains shot out and have a pound of metal removed from my knee just to be turned away from a job like this. Please, for the sake of an old soldier's pride, give me this one favor. Please."

Pembrook was still cowered in the bowels of his chair like a skidmark on a pair of skivvies, but once he saw that this man's temper had cooled down, he eased slowly himself back up in his chair, letting his pulse ease up. He swallowed hard, his still shaky handing running through his thinning blonde hair.

"We'll…we'll definitely keep in touch." Pembrook said finally. "I'll try to…pull some strings. Or something. I'll…see what I can do."

The man nodded his head. Said genuinely, "Thank you."

Pembrook nodded nervously, pushing over a piece of paper as cautiously as a man pushing a bone to a pit-bull. "Here's a number you can reach us at if…if you have any further questions or anything." he cleared his throat. "Though I think we've…. covered all the information we needed to cover already. Oh, and, uhm, take this…" He reached beneath his desk and slid over a shiny plastic tag to the man who stopped it with a thin, pointed finger. He held it up. Scrutinized it.

Welcome to Shop-N-Go Supercenter.

My name is .................!

How can I help you today?

Pembrook grinned weakly. "It'll be your nametag should you get this job. We go by first names only. I have you marked down as William as of right now. Is…is that good?"

"Bill."

Pembrook flinched. "Say again?"

The nametag went spinning back across the table back into Pembrook's lap, the man's glassy, starry-night eyes still cold in the glow of the cigarette as he took another slow, deliberate drag as he headed for the door.

"My name's Bill. It's what my buddies all used to call me."

Pembrook waited until the door clicked shut before letting loose a huge sigh over the back of the chair.

A shitty day indeed…

"Death is one of two things. Either it is annihilation, and the dead have no consciousness of anything; or, as we are told, it is really a change: a migration of the soul from this place to another."

-Socrates