Joe McKinney

The January Special Guest Writer is

Joe McKinney

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joe mckinney

by Joe McKinney

For more than thirty years now, I’ve had to live with night terrors. That sounds silly, I know. After all, I’m a grown man, fifty-seven years old. A retired San Antonio police detective. You’d think I’d be above something that’s only supposed to bother children. But apparently not.  I get them, and I get them bad.

It goes something like this: I’ll bolt upright in bed, my eyes wide open. I look crazed, but I’m asleep. Sometimes I scream. Sometimes I can’t. My heart pounds in my ears. Confused, unable to move, I panic, because I know there’s something in the dark there with me. But even with that knowledge, I can’t make myself move.

Thankfully, my wife’s a light sleeper.

Frightened as my terrors make her, she shakes me. That’s always enough to wake me. I come to, out of breath, still half-convinced the walls are closing in on me, and find myself sitting up, damp sheets knotted around my legs.

“The dream again?” Margaret says.

I nod. And while she goes to get me a cup of water, I hang my head. Defeated doesn’t quite describe how these terrors make me feel, but it comes close. I feel old, fatigued beyond anything that rest can alleviate. Sitting there in the bed, waiting for Margaret to come back with my glass of water, I hate myself for what feels like weakness.  But that doesn’t stop the terrors from coming.

Two or three nights a week I go through this.

Margaret and I have been to doctors and we’ve tried their snake oil.  Nothing helps.

In fact, things have gotten worse.


In April, 1981, I was working in the San Antonio Police Department’s Crime Scene Unit.  Back then, nobody outside of police circles had ever heard of CSI. They didn’t make TV shows about us because we weren’t interesting. We did our thing and tried to stay out of the way, like janitors. The closers, the real detectives, they were the glory boys.

But everybody gets their fifteen minutes of fame, and back in 1981, I got mine. I was taking pictures of a busted lock on somebody’s tool shed when Juan Felan, who was the sergeant in charge of my unit, called me back to headquarters. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. I was supposed to get off at three. I’d been doing a pretty good job recently; I figured maybe he’d send me home early. Sergeants did that for their troops back then.

Instead, he told me he was driving me out to Brady, Texas, three hours west of San Antonio, to investigate a murder. I had to admit I was intrigued. Getting called out to the sticks to help other jurisdictions wasn’t unusual. We had mutual aid agreements with most of the agencies from the Texas Coast to the northern limits of the Hill Country. But every time I’d been called out before that, it had always been as an afterthought, always as a support player for the heavy hitters. If I was hearing him right, Sarge was going to let me be the lead on this one.

But Sarge was smiling, and that always made me suspicious. “Is there something you’re not telling me?” I said.

“No,” he said. “Honest. DPS asked for us. They said they needed a fully staffed forensics unit. All their guys are down in the Valley on some kind of drug sweep. That makes us the closest team available.”

I frowned at him. Now I had it figured out. Sarge was a good guy, but he was one of those supervisors who always went looking for ways to prove his unit had a purpose, which made him look good, but usually just meant more work for guys like me.

I said, “They asked or you volunteered?”

“Whatever. Look, I want to make a big splash with this one.”

I shook my head. “Sarge...”

“There’s a shallow grave,” he said.

That stopped me. “What now?”

He just smiled.


We rode up in his truck, all of our gear in the back. On the way, he told me what he knew.

Earlier that morning, shortly before dawn, a State Trooper named Bo Farris had been eating breakfast in a little cafe in downtown Brady. In staggers this babbling, wild-haired farmer named John Welfare. Despite his last name, he owned a farm north of town, where he grew lima beans and peaches and kept a few horses. He’d never been in any trouble. But that morning he was covered in dirt and lurching about like a loon, muttering something about impaling a woman on a fence post and burying her in a shallow grave on his property.

“That’s it?” I asked.

“That’s what Trooper Farris told me on the phone.”

“And exactly what am I supposed to do?”

“We’ll do what we always do, Phil. They need us to process it so they can close the door on this guy. We’re going to be the ones to make that happen.”

“Sounds like the door’s pretty much closed already,” I said.  “I mean, the trooper got a res gestae confession, right? Even a bunch of rednecks should be able to get a conviction on that.”

“Phil, please. This is important.”

I shrugged. “Yeah, well, as long as you’re paying the overtime,” I said.


We got lost twice, but eventually we pulled onto a dirt road that wound back through a tunnel of mossy oak trees to a little rundown farm waist-deep in Johnson grass. Trooper Farris’ Dodge Diplomat waited in a little clearing to one side of the house, and on the far side of that, a white Chevy van with the Channel 5 News logo on the side.

I whistled.

“Damn,” Sarge said. “What’s the news doing here?”

“I don’t know. Looks like they got here without getting lost, though.”

He glared at me. “Shut up.”

We got out. It was getting to be late afternoon and crickets jumped in the tall grass. I looked around. A brown, bored horse watched me from a nearby pasture. A breeze caused me to shiver unexpectedly. I could smell a storm coming.

“I think we better hurry,” I said.

Sarge nodded. “Yeah. There’s Farris.”

The Texas Highway Patrol fosters this reputation that their troopers are big and bad and beyond reproach. They bill themselves as the preeminent law enforcement body in Texas. But in reality, most of the troopers you meet are rednecks in shiny uniforms. They’re good guys, most of them, and good cops, nearly all of them, but they’re still rednecks.

And redneck pretty much summed up my first impression of Bo Farris. He was tall, real tall in fact, slender, a Marine Corps anchor peeking out from under the sleeve of his right arm. A regular civilian might have seen a rugged good ’ole boy who had things well in hand. But I was a cop, and I recognized that harried look in his eye. I knew he was glad to see us.

Then I saw a flash of red hair over by the news van and I knew why.

“Howdy,” Farris said. He tipped his cowboy hat at Sarge and extended his hand. “You Sergeant Juan Felan?”

“I am,” Sarge said. Sarge pointed at me. “This is Detective Carroll.”

“I’m the one who does all the work,” I said. “Call me Phil.”

Farris smiled and we shook hands. “Bo,” he said.

Farris looked back at the news van. He pushed his cowboy hat up on his forehead and huffed.

“Maureen giving you trouble?” I asked.

He gave me a blank look.

“The redhead,” I said. “Maureen O’Connell.”

“Oh,” he said. “Yeah, she’s, uh...well, she’s a determined lady.”

“She’s a bitch,” I said. “How long has she been here?”

He chuckled. “Yes sir, sounds like we’re on the same page. She’s been here about two hours. Keeps asking why I’m not doing anything but standing here. Between you and me I’m running out of excuses.”

I grimaced. I could only imagine what his afternoon had been like. Maureen O’Connell used to date one of our Homicide detectives. This guy, his name was Jesse, was a real smooth talker, great in the interview room. Great with suspects. He could talk to anybody. More importantly, he could make them talk. He was a good looking guy and he was single and he had a thing for newscasters. 

Turns out, he was also dating one of the reporters from the local Spanish station at the same time he was going out with Maureen. The two reporters were at a murder scene when they confronted each about it and got into a nasty fight. A fiery Irish redhead and an equally fiery Spanish lady—it was a fight to remember. And of course Maureen had had it in for cops ever since.

“She’s a firecracker,” I agreed.

“I’ll talk to her,” said Sarge.

Farris looked relieved. “I’d appreciate that.”

“Looks like we’re going to get some rain here before too long,” Sarge said, pointing off to the west where a dark line of clouds was forming. “Why don’t you two get started?”

He left to go talk to Maureen O’Connell.

“That was pretty decent of him,” Farris said.

“He just wants to see himself on TV. Where’s the grave?”

He led the way down a narrow path through the tall grass. We crossed a dried up creek bed, went through some scrub brush, and entered a small clearing surrounded by hackberry bushes. I saw a jagged piece of wood sticking up through a patch of ground that had recently been turned over.

He pushed the brim of his cowboy hat up his forehead. “That’s it,” he said. “You have any idea how long this is gonna take?”

“Hard to say. You ever watched an archeological dig on TV?”

“A what?”

I frowned. “This could take a while.”

First thing I did was photograph the scene. Next I stuck probes in the ground and measured the decomposition gases coming up through the soil. That gave me a picture of the body’s orientation and helped me gauge how much ground I was gonna have to dig up. After that, I drove stakes in the ground at the corners of the plot and used string to set up a search grid.

I took more photographs.

By that time a crowd had gathered. Sarge and Trooper Farris stood to one side, Maureen O’Connell and her camera crew stood by opposite them.

I started to dig, slowly peeling back layers of dirt.

About six inches down, I found the body.

In the Texas heat, bodies can turn bad pretty fast. I saw a murder victim once that had been floating in a creek for two days. The body was bloated and blackened. Turtles and carp had gotten at the face and eaten away everything below the nose. What was left of the hair and scalp slid off the skull in a greasy ooze when the body was extracted. Even the veteran cops were gagging from the smell. My job was to get in close and search for evidence, but even from six inches away I couldn’t tell the victim’s sex or race.

I figured this one wasn’t going to be anywhere near that bad. It had been in the ground less than twelve hours. Rigor mortis would have set in, leaving the body stiff as furniture, but nothing too much beyond that. It shouldn’t have started to rot, or smell, puff up the way bodies will do.

But I could smell it even before I cleared away all the dirt.

I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and saw Maureen O’Connell and her camera crew backing away, lips curled in revulsion.

I frowned to myself, then looked back at Farris. “I thought you said this happened this morning.”

He nodded. “Yeah, just before dawn.”

“That’s when he killed her, or that’s when he reported it to you?”

His eyes narrowed, like he hadn’t considered that question before. “Both,” Farris said. A pause. “I reckon.”

I shot Sarge a worried glance. He swallowed and squinted at the body. 

Still frowning, I knelt over the grave and went back to work, brushing away the dirt. The body didn’t look right. When somebody dies, when their body sits out for a while, exposed to the Texas weather, the eyes start to film over. The skin turns waxy and a little yellow. The low parts, where gravity pools the blood, turn a dirty looking purple. Arms and legs stiffen from rigor mortis.

But none of that had happened with the body upon which I was working. I could tell it was a woman I was looking at, but she was ghastly.

Her clothes were nothing but soiled rags. Where there should have been white, smoky-colored eyes, there were black gummy pits. The body was almost skeletal, the skin of the arms and legs cracked like old dried leather. Her hands were blackened and gnarled, the fingers spindly as oak twigs. Her face was almost unrecognizable, malformed and diseased.  The expression, with those black, vacant holes where the eyes should have been, was malignant. I can think of no other word to describe it.

As I stared into that repulsive face, the split and cracked lips started to twitch. I felt a hitch in my throat. I gasped for air, but before I could breathe, the woman’s mouth fell open and a centipede writhed its way through the lips and tumbled down her chin.

“Oh God,” I said, battling the nausea welling up inside me.

I heard one of Maureen O’Connell’s camera crew throw up.

Something buzzed in my ear. I looked up, and noticed flies murmuring in the air around me. I waved them away, but they were insistent, landing on the woman’s face and testing the borders of the eye pits.

Maggots caused a ripple in the decayed cheek. I snapped a couple of photos and then gingerly touched the woman’s lips. Her mouth sagged open slightly, enough that I could see a jagged line of cracked and blackened teeth that looked as though they had been sharpened.  There were wide gaps between them, and they were different sizes and pointed at odd angles.  But they were like fangs. I took my hand away and rocked back on my heels.

Flies buzzed in front of my face.

I heard Maureen gag and I looked up. She was staring at the body, a look of disgust and horrified curiosity on her face.

A rain drop hit the dirt beside me. I realized then that I’d been so overcome by the grave stench beneath me that I hadn’t noticed the gathering storm above me. I looked up through the trees and saw a black, roiling sky rolling in. The Texas Hill Country doesn’t get gentle rain the way other places do. It gets long stretches of hot and dry punctuated by apocalyptic rain storms. I could see black clouds rolling over rocky hillsides, lightning snaking its way through ominous darkness. We were going to get a belly washer.

Thunder shook the air as though in answer to my thoughts. Already the wind was tossing the trees about, and the raindrops stung my cheeks.

I stood up. “We’re gonna need to cover the scene,” I said.

“What are you going to do?” Maureen said.

She was looking at Sarge, and he answered her. “We’ll cover it up as best we can. It’s getting dark anyway. I have a tarpaulin and a frame tent we’ll put over the scene here. That should keep it dry for the night. We’ll pick up where we left off in the morning.”

We went back to the truck to get the supplies. Sarge climbed into the bed and handed the tarp down to me, followed by a hammer and some tent spikes. “You saw that woman’s face,” he said.


“What do you think?”

“I think it’s time to turn this over to the locals. I don’t want any part of this.”

“We can’t do that, Phil. We got obligations.”

Suddenly I felt resentful. What business did he have talking about obligations when it was down there in the grave digging around the lady with the pointy teeth?

But the anger cleared the next instant. Sarge meant well. He was one of those men who went through life not really knowing the hardship they cause for others. He was blissfully ignorant of that.

I could have argued with him about it.

But I didn’t.

For all his eagerness to please the higher ups, and for all his vanity, Sarge was basically a good man trying to do a good job. He cared about people, even if his decisions sometimes raised a few eyebrows.

You can’t really argue with a man whose heart is in the right place.

“I don’t think we’re getting the full story,” I said, trying to turn the conversation back to his original question.

“Yeah,” he said. “You and me both.”


Later, after the scene was as safe as we could make it, Trooper Farris asked if we wanted join him in his patrol car. The storm was upon us by then, lightning snaking across the black sky, rain moving across the open fields in wind-driven, silvered sheets. The bored horse that had been staring at us when we first arrived was now snorting loudly, obviously scared. I felt for it, but I had no idea how to help it. I knew nothing of horses.

“Wait a minute,” Maureen O’Connell said. She was holding a clear plastic poncho over her head, and she was nearly shouting to be heard over the rain. “Why can’t we go inside the farmhouse?”

“It’s still a possible crime scene, ma’am,” said Sarge. “Nobody goes in until it’s been searched and cleared.”

“Where are we supposed to go, then?”

Sarge shrugged. “You can head back to San Antonio or you can sleep in your van.”

She glared at him, but Sarge didn’t back down. I had to hand that to him, he didn’t back down.

Finally, Maureen motioned to her people and they went back to their van.

Farris watched her go, then turned to Sarge, “You guys think we’re gonna do any more work tonight?”

“We’re done for the night,” he said. “Tomorrow morning I figure we can finish up and then go for breakfast.”

Farris nodded. “Well, if we’re officially off-duty...I got some beer in the trunk, if you guys are interested?”

I glanced at Sarge and caught his smile.

“Yeah,” I said. “I could go for a few beers.”


Sometime during the night, a flash of lightning woke me. I was drunk. My eyelids felt like they were made of concrete. I was sprawled across the back seat, and when I rolled over, a wave of beer cans clattered to the floorboard.

Groaning, I sat up.

Sarge was sleeping in the passenger seat, his raincoat over him like a blanket. Farris had his face pressed up against the driver’s side window. He was snoring softly.

More beer cans fell to the floor and Sarge grunted, but didn’t wake.

The storm had picked up outside. The wind was really slamming the trees, throwing them about with howling gusts so strong they even rocked the car.

Another flash of lightning lit up the night.

I leaned forward, my forehead almost touching the window, squinting out at the dark.

Someone was walking around out there.

I strained to see into the darkness and the rain, but it was no use. The house was a looming shadow off to my right and the trees around it danced crazily in the wind. It was hard to think straight with all the beer I’d drank. My mouth tasted horrible and my neck hurt from sleeping on it wrong. Briefly, I wondered what the horse I’d seen earlier was doing.

And then the lightning came again and I saw Maureen O’Connell walking toward our car. No, that’s not right. Staggering is a better description of how she was walking. She had one hand up over her face, shielding it from the slashing wind and rain, and she was struggling to keep her feet.

Great, I thought. She was on her way to shoot video of the cops passed out on a pile of beer cans. Great.

I put my head down on the seat. For a moment I considered trying to hide the beer cars, but drunk as I was I could tell there were too many of them for that. Besides, my head was spinning, and I was sinking down into unconsciousness.

I belched and closed my eyes.

Slipping back into oblivion, I wondered what was taking her so long to knock on the window.


The storm was gone by morning. I woke with sunlight on my face, my skin hot. From the front seat, Sarge groaned like a wounded animal. Farris grunted, sniffled, then sat up straight.

“What, huh?” he said.

I patted him on the shoulder. “At ease, Marine.”

He sagged down into his seat, remembering where he was, and mopped a hand over his face. “Oh God,” he groaned.

“Yeah, you and me both,” I said.

I burped, and felt an acid burn climb up my esophagus. I had to pause for a second, unsure if the burn was going to lead to me puking my guts out. Finally, my stomach settled and the burn subsided.

“Okay,” I said. “Who’s ready to go look at a dead body?”

We climbed out of the car.

While I was stretching, trying to work out the kinks I’d developed from sleeping in the car, I saw Maureen O’Connell’s mutilated body in the grass a short distance away.

“Whoa!” Sarge yelled. “Hey Phil!”

“Yeah, I see it,” I said.

I walked over to the body. She was on her back, one knee bent, her legs spread open. Her skirt was hitched up to her waist, revealing pantyhose over a surprisingly plain pair of white panties. But it wasn’t the panties I noticed.

I was looking at the hole where her neck had been. From the base of her chin to the top of her sternum, her neck was just gone. Her face was pale from lividity, flecked with blood. For a moment I got lost in the emptiness of her gaze.

I thought, Maybe a mountain lion. Maybe a wild hog. They have both out here.

Either way, it was going to be hard to explain how a woman died so close to two police officers.

It was hard to do, but I forced myself to look away. The dead have a way of drawing you in. I scanned the tall grass for tracks around the body, but there were none. None that I could see anyway.

I turned back to Maureen’s body. Back to her face. Back to her open eyes.

I couldn’t help it.

“What the hell’s going on?” Farris said from behind me.

“We need to lock this area down,” Sarge told him. “Do you have anyone else who can help us?”

“County might be able to send us somebody.”

“Call them, then. Christ, I can’t believe this. Right under our noses. This is bad, very bad.”

“Looks like a mountain lion got at her,” Farris said. “If it was a mountain lion, hell, she could’a been attacked right next to us and we’d have never heard nothing.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Sarge said.


I shook my head. Farris might not have known what Sarge was getting at, but I sure did. Here was the SAPD’s biggest critic, brutally slain just a few feet from one of their detectives and a supervisor. When the news got a hold of this, they were going to crucify us.

I rocked back on my heels and thought for a moment.

From where I squatted in the tall grass, I had a view under Maureen’s news van to a small patch of ground on the other side.

Something caught the light of the morning sun. 

I got up and walked over toward Maureen’s van.

“Phil!” Sarge said sharply. “Hey Phil, where you going?”

I didn’t answer him. I made my around the back of Maureen’s van and saw one of her cameramen flat on his back, neck ripped open. I didn’t see the other one, at least at first. He was behind a hackberry bush, on his side, one arm draped over his forehead like he was trying to shield his eyes from the sun. Only the morning sun hadn’t reached that part of the yard yet.  It was still dark from the overhanging trees and a curtain of Spanish moss.

I stepped around so I could see his face and the gaping wound. His face was ghostly pale, dark in places with dirt. Bits of grass were caught in his black hair. His mouth hung open in a perfectly formed O, as though he were still surprised by what he’d seen in his last moments.

Only then did I notice the total lack of blood in the grass. With the wounds I was seeing, the scene should have been ankle-deep in it. But aside from a few spattered drops here and there, nothing.

I started back to Maureen’s body.

Sarge and Farris met me as they were coming around the back of the news van.

“Looking for blood,” I said to them, and kept walking.

“What?” Sarge said. He watched me walk back to Maureen’s body. “Where the hell are you going?”

I stood over Maureen’s body and looked around.

No blood. Why hadn’t I noticed that before?

I put my hands in my pockets. There was a chill in the air left over from the storm the night before. By midday, as the Texas sun beat down on the grass, this place would be hot and damp as a sauna. But for now, I shivered.

I looked over to the horse pasture. The horse was gone. I figured it would have enough sense to get out of the rain, but I didn’t see any signs of where it had got off to. The fence to his enclosure was still intact, the gate closed.

The main house was quiet too, nothing there.

Finally, I went over to check the crime scene that had brought us to John Welfare’s farm. The tarp had been nailed down with tent spikes, but now it was thrown off the shallow grave like a carelessly tossed bed sheet. Uneven ruts in the mud extended out of the grave, like the body had been dragged from it. I found the fence post a short distance away.

At the time, I remember telling myself the rain had washed the blood off the business end of that fence post. I told myself that the ruts in the mud were marks of a mountain lion dragging a carcass away. There was a reason Maureen and her camera crew had been, for lack of a better word, exsanguinated.

An animal had done all this, of course.

A mountain lion.Maybe a feral hog, but probably a mountain lion.

And when the body in the shallow grave disappeared, we figured the dead woman with the jagged teeth had been dragged away by scavengers, more animals. We were in the country, after all.

It was the only thing that made any sense.

And that is what we reported, with Farris our witness to back up our account. We took the heat from the press, and barely hung on to our jobs. The ensuing months were stressful until new stories pushed Maureen O’Connell’s death out of the headlines and life went on.


For everyone else, the nightmare faded from memory. But I still get night terrors. In my dreams, I wake up on the backseat of that patrol car and I sit up, and I see Maureen staggering onward against the wind and the rain. Only in the dream her face isn’t lost in blur. I can see it clearly. 

And I recognize the delirious panic and fear in her eyes. In the dream, I don’t fall back to sleep amid a clatter of beer cans. In the dream, my gaze wanders across the empty field, and I can see the dead woman with the jagged, pointy teeth pulling herself from the shallow grave, clawing her way free of the tarp and through the mud.

It’s only a dream, of course. But in that moment before my wife wakes me, and I’m paralyzed with fear, I can hear something wet clawing and slapping its way from the hallway into our room.

And in recent months, the dream lingers long enough for me to see the thing raise its head and open its mouth, exposing a jagged line of sharpened teeth.

Joe McKinney is the San Antonio-based author of several horror, crime and science fiction novels. His longer works include the Dead World series, which includes Dead City, Apocalypse of the Dead, Flesh Eaters and Mutated. His other books include Quarantined, Dodging Bullets, The Red Empire, The Predatory Kind, Dead Set: A Zombie Anthology and The Forsaken. His short fiction has been collected in The Red Empire and Other Stories and Dating in the Dead World and Other Stories.

In his day job, Joe McKinney is a lieutenant with the San Antonio Police Department, where he currently works as a patrol supervisor. Before promoting to sergeant, Joe worked as a homicide detective and as a disaster mitigation specialist. Many of his stories, regardless of genre, feature a strong police procedural element based on his fifteen years of law enforcement experience.

A regular guest at regional writing conventions, Joe currently lives and works in a small town north of San Antonio with his wife and children.

For more information visit his website HERE

Below are the first three in Joe's zombie books from the Dead World Series:

dead city


flesh eaters
















































































































































































DEAD CITY apoc flesh