Other issues the book deals with are domestic violence, the culture of silence that protects it, and Buddhist-Muslim tension. It also reminds that the Chinese are now next door, and that what’s good for China’s String of Pearls is not necessarily what’s good for us.
By request: below is the first chapter of Zeelam. Zeelam is on preorder at Amazon, and drops on May 5th. Those without Kindles can download the free Kindle app, to their Android phones or tablets.
“Let’s go! Outbreak at the Hilton, a three-year-old’s birthday party.”
Men in long-sleeved camouflage ran out of the building, assault rifles slapping against the backs. In front of the building’s “Financial Crimes Investigation Department” sign, they pulled on visored assault helmets and mounted motorbikes. Two Sri Lankan Army Defender jeeps pulled up, SL ARMY – EPIDEMIOLOGY UNIT stenciled on their doors. Other men came running out and boarded them. One handed his flamethrower tanks to grasping hands, which pulled him in next.
“The Hilton?” asked Jehan the driver, in the lead Defender. “During office traffic? Bloody bad scene.”
Lieutenant Ruven Daniels climbed into the passenger seat turned and looked back. “Motorbikes, get on the pavements and go down York Street. Defenders will take Janadhipathi Mawatha.”
The bikers nodded, and roared off, two to a vehicle. The Defenders pulled away, and started their sirens and red and blue emergency lights. The security guard outside the Steuart watched as they turned onto Hospital Lane. The early-drinking office crowd look stunned and stood in the way, before fleeing at the last moment. They hit Chatham Street and passed Namal’s Shelby Mustang.
The pollution-pink sunset was moving out to sea. Cars were stuffed into the road like Marie biscuits in a pack. Jehan harassed them with the horn, but the other cars moved aside too slowly.
“Fuck this,” Daniels opened his door and climbed down. “Everybody out! We go on foot.”
The soldiers jumped out and ran past the World Trade Centre. Chinese tourists outside the Dutch hospital stopped and took pictures of them (a local did too, but was told not to by the security guard). They hit York Street, which was already full of people rushing to get away, or coming to see the show. Rubbernecking drivers clogged the road.
Outside the Hilton’s entrance, they saw the bikers dismounted by a police barricade. Policeman lined it, T-56 assault rifles aimed at the people running out. Two of the bikers were arguing with a fat officer with a Saddam Hussein mustache and a matching frown.
“What’s going on here?” Asked Daniels. He was standing beside the board with the day’s events; 5 to 8pm was “Baby Santush Birthday Party”.
“These are your men?” The fat officer made a face like a disgusted auntie’s. “They are abusing me and making unnecessary statements!”
“Yes,” said a biker, “you’re a bunch of motherfuckers.”
“Hold on,” Daniels raised his hand, “are you the OIC?”
“Yes,” Saddam Hussein gave the biker a dirty look.
“Why aren’t your men inside? You know the rule about outbreak first responders. There are people in there.”
Saddam’s eyes bugged out. “That is not our responsibility! This is your job, here, you Army fellows can’t get late and then put this on us! That’s a fine thing no men!”
“Alright,” the Lieutenant turned to face his men. “Were going in on our own.”
Waiters, guests, and a sun-burned tourist who had lost his slippers, were straining against the locked banquet doors, bracing them. The door pressed out, bursting full, loud pounding on the other side. Animal snarling and howling came through, above Daniels could hear a woman screaming.
“Thank God you’re here!” The F&B manager had his back against the doors. Some of the soldiers rushed up and helped the waiters hold the doors back. The others formed a semicircle facing the doors, and cocked their rifles.
“What happened here?” Asked Daniels.
“The MP, Dharmapala,” the manager wiped sweat from his forehead, “he came in last night with a Russian prostitute. Checked into a room on the fourth floor.”
“You heard him,” Daniels nodded to a corporal. “Fourth floor. “
The corporal gestured to the rest of his fire team, and the four men ran down the hallway.
“Then, nothing sir. There were no disturbances, no complaints from the other guests. In the morning housekeeping found their room door open, but there was no sign of either of them. There was some blood on the bed, but we thought maybe she was having her period. Maybe he liked that? You get all kinds of people coming here with their girlfriends and mistresses.
“The next thing we know, they came out from behind the curtains in Ballroom 2.”
“What?” Jehan shook his head. “They turned, somehow met no one on their way down here, and then hid quietly until the evening? And none of the event planners setting up knew there was a Zee MP and a hooker in the room?”
Something hurled itself against the doors.
“Have you met event planners? Look, I am just telling you what I know.”
“It’s alright,” said Daniels. “You done very well containing the threat. You saved a lot of lives. We’ll take it from here. All civilians, exit that way. Put your hands over your heads so the police don’t get scared and shoot you.”
The soldiers at the doors moved back a step, and the door cracked open. Blood stained arms pressed through, waving and clawing, a torn nail fell to the carpet. A toddler’s head poked through at the bottom: it’s eyes were conjunctivitis-red. It chomped at the soldiers and growled, it’s teeth clacking loudly. It poked its chubby arms through and began crawling through the crack, it’s black Baby Chanel dress torn and bloodsoaked.
Someone shot it in the face. It exploded, spraying gore and bone fragments over the soldiers.
The creatures roared at the sound and started forcing themselves through. Crouching, firing a round at a time, the soldiers picked them off. Each bullet punching through a face and exploding out the back. The dead quickly clogged the doorway.
The soldiers pulled the doors further open, and the beasts started rushing through in twos and threes, clambering over the kill pile. The firing filled the hallway like door slams, shot after shot. Daniels wiped blood off his visor, streaking it. The soldiers moved back to make room for the pile.
“How many guests?” Yelled Jehan, back against the door, a pistol in one hand and a machete in the other.
“All the slow ones,” yelled Daniels.
A man with his leg bitten off crawled around the door and clawed at Jehan. Jehan hacked down with the machete, it chopped through like a coconut. He shoved his boot against the corpse’s shoulder and wrenched his blade free.
The herd began to thin. They pulled the doors wider, and finally completely open. Wearing thick rubber gloves, the door-holders formed pairs and dragged corpses from the entrance. Machetes rose and fell, chopping through necks. A glaring head with a Ramani Salon’s haircut rolled in front of Daniels. It’s eyes stared at him, raging infection red.
“Let’s clear it.”
Table cloths were stained red with more than wine. Shredded flower settings were strewn across the floor. A baby Zee in an Oshkosh romper had got tangled in baby blue bunting, and was eating a severed hand with perfect nails. It looked up at the soldiers as they fanned into the room, and then went back to biting the hand that fed it.
Zees crouched feeding in clusters over corpses on the floor, and on tables. Most were in designer clothing and shoes. The sound system was playing The Summer of ‘69.
“I love this song!” said Jehan.
“Shut up,” said Daniels. “Focus.”
The machete-men joined them, and working with riflemen they began clearing the hall.
“So this was some three-year-old’s birthday party?” Asked Jehan, beheading a one-armed woman wearing a Sonali Dharmawardena cocktail dress. “This is why I vote JVP.”
Daniels frowned. “It doesn’t make sense. Corporal Mendis says there’s no other infected in the building,” he shot a Zee wearing a black and white Ramona Oshini, that suddenly got up and charged. “How did they come down here and hide, without attacking anyone else?”
“Sleepers,” said Jehan. “They must’ve woken up and found themselves here, when the setup team came in. Probably too afraid to leave in case they got asked questions. They wouldn’t take a chance, and then come evening, they went symptomatic.” A two-year-old Zee came running towards him. He kicked it, hard, and the baby sailed away. Someone else shot it before it could get back up.
“But when they were symptomatic last night, they should have killed people.” Said Daniels. “Even late at night, I can’t believe they didn’t encounter anyone. And why come here?”
“They prefer to prey on women and children. It is the wife beater virus.”
“But there weren’t any here last night. How could they know to hide here? Zees can’t read.”
Some of the other soldiers began beheading and lining up corpses by the entrance of the hall. A couple started removing gold rings and chains from a dead woman. They saw Daniels staring at them, and they quietly put them down like guilty schoolboys.
“I don’t know,” Jehan shrugged. “But I have a question. What was Dharmapala doing in the Hilton?”
“He was fucking, Sergeant.”
A large table flipped over and an obese, naked man, balding and covered in blood stains, roared at the soldiers.
“It’s the MP!” Yelled someone. “Shoot him, shoot him!”
Several assault rifles fired, throwing back the naked Member of Parliament. Unflinching, it raised out its fat hands like they were claws, eyes bright red, and got up and charged again.
A single shot rang out, entering his forehead. The Zee went down and the soldiers cheered. One ran over and took a selfie with it.
“I know he was fucking!” Jehan turned back to Daniels. “I mean, why did he come to the Hilton when he was just with a Russian hooker?”
“That’s a very mean thing to say. Maybe he wanted to be nice to her.”
“Lieutenant, a hooker doesn’t insist on the Hilton. A mistress does.”
“So then where’s the mistress?”
He turned and walked to the entrance where the corpses were being laid out. Two soldiers sharing a smoke looked up at him. One was a sergeant, his hair gone to salt and pepper. He had a scar running across his cheek: a souvenir of the last war.
“Check all the women, and the pretty-looking men,” said Daniels.
“What are we checking for?” Asked Scar Face.
“A mistress, Raveen.”
The soldiers looked at each other.
“Look at how these women were dressed,” said Raveen. “They must have thrown bras at Enrique.”
“Now that is an unnecessary comment,” said the other soldier waggling his head. “But Sir, all bored, Colombo 7, housewives, no? My wife - not me! - She follows the gossip pages on Facebook. Look at the state of our country, Sir.”
Daniel sighed. “Raveen, don’t talk like that again in my presence. Now check under all the tables, and behind all the curtains.”
“There are no more, Sir,” said a soldier across the room. “We got them all.”
“Well check for any that are hiding.”
“But Zees don’t hide at night, Sir.”
“Just do it!”
Slowly, the soldiers began to check under table cloths and behind drapes.
“All done,” said Raveen a few minutes later. “This is a waste of time. Sir.”
“No,” Daniels pointed, and started walking. “No one has checked the table with the cake.”
“It’s in the center of the room,” said Jehan. “Nothing would hide there.”
Daniels stopped at the cake. It was in three tiers , each one as baby-blue as the bunting. White marzipan clouds decorated it, and on top was a figurine of a blue-uniformed, airline pilot.
Daniels lifted up the tablecloth with the tip of his rifle.
The Zee screamed and charged out, Daniels fired but the shot went wide as she shoved the gun aside. She barreled into him and knocked him to the ground, a woman in a black nightee with a ball gag hanging around her throat. She spat blood on his visor and clawed at his uniform, nails digging.
The side of her head exploded. The Zee collapsed over Daniels, who rolled her off and got to his feet.
Jehan holstered his smoking pistol. “Either that’s the mistress,” he walked over to Daniels, “or children’s birthday parties are only suitable for adults. To be fair, it’s never about the children anymore, is it?”