Excerpt: Dead Peasants (A Zoo Crew Novel) by Dustin Stevens

As part of the book tour of Dead Peasants, the second novel in the Zoo Crew series, Dustin Stevens agreed to give you a preview of the book. Scroll down to read the first two chapters of Dead Peasants!

Bargain Mart, long a fixture in the Missoula economic structure has fallen on hard times. Things are dire,
and if a financial windfall doesn’t arrive soon, their doors will close.

Across town, a woman grieves her recently deceased husband. Sitting alone at her kitchen table trying
to put her life back in order, a call arrives asking where his quarter million dollar life insurance policy
should be sent. A quarter million dollar life insurance policy she never knew existed.

Answering the phone on the other end of her call for help is Drake Bell, third year law student at the
University of Montana. Joined by his partner Ava, and his loyal friends the Zoo Crew, Drake must
attempt to make sense of the case Alice presents him.

A case that only grows more complex as people continue to pass in Missoula, all with ties to Bargain Mart, all with large life insurance policies attached to them. Policies known in the corporate world as Dead Peasants…



Bargain Mart.

A nationwide chain that took the business models of Target and Dollar General and mashed them together in quite an unholy union.

Not quite as odd a pairing as military intelligence. Definitely more so than tits on a bull.

The scheme began in the early 1980's. It was fairly straight forward. Supply foreign crap designed to look like foreign goods.

Sell it to cheapskate Americans at bottom dollar prices.

When the stuff inevitably broke down, sell them a replacement.

Despite the inherent, obvious flaws in the plan, the damndest part of it was it worked.

Founded by a pair of bumbling brothers from Mississippi, the chain started with six stores along the eastern seaboard.

They were careful to avoid places such as New York or Boston. Even Baltimore and Miami were too upscale. Instead they sought out mid-level markets to spin their concept.

Portland, Maine. Charleston, South Carolina. Athens, Georgia.

Port towns. Military towns. College towns.

Places with an abundance of people and a deficiency of liquid capital.

Even a couple of idiots knew poor people needed to buy stuff too.

The plan worked beautifully.

Within a year, the number of Bargain Marts went from six to sixteen.

Another year and that number grew to forty-two.

By year three, stores stretched everywhere east of the Appalachians. Dotted the entire region like zits on a teenager.

Even at forty-two stores though, they were nothing to make any of the power players in the market sweat.

That changed when two things happened simultaneously.

First, the economy went in the tank. Correction, it went through the tank and straight to hell.

Disposable income became a thing of the past. Something spoke about in hushed whispers.

A pipedream and nothing more.

Real estate values collapsed. Personal net worth evaporated.

Financing an education was almost impossible. A good thing to, as there were no jobs for college graduates anyway.

A total shit storm if there ever was one.

Second, the brothers were bought out.

The pair and their business model were fine for a thriving economy. Neither one though was particular well suited to guide them through a downturn.

When Cerberus Venture Capital called from Britain and made an offer, the pair jumped at it. They didn't care that they were giving it away at fifty cents on the dollar.

They wanted out. This was their chance.

Cerberus took over three weeks later. Never was a company name more fitting.

In Greek mythology, Cerberus was the three headed dog that guarded the underworld. It allowed souls to enter hell, but none to ever return.

In the business world, Cerberus was the brain trust of three of the most ruthless businessmen ever to walk the planet.

High-end educations obtained at Harvard, Oxford, the London School of Economics. A complete lack of manners. Crass to a fault.

Major inferiority complexes directed at their colonial cousin America.

The transaction between the two sides wasn't so much a negotiation as it was a mercy killing. Cerberus would have, could have, and in fact should have, paid many times over what they did.

After they got the brothers into a room, they low-balled them just to prove they could. For fun.

It was a precursor to the way they would conduct all their affairs as far as Bargain Mart was concerned.

In the two years after taking over, what Cerberus performed wasn't so much an expansion as an explosion.

Six weeks after taking over, a nationwide land-grab began. Buildings went up almost overnight. Store managers and employees were hired by the hundreds.

Nothing stood in their way. If it even tried, it was bought out or destroyed.

Most surprising of all though was no matter how vile their practices became, the American populace embraced them.

Consumers loved them for offering goods at affordable prices. Economists praised them for innovative business practices. Politicians lauded them for igniting a struggling economy, putting people back to work.

Bargain Mart soon landed on every corner in the country. Remained there over the ensuing decades, as recognizable as Starbucks or McDonald's.

Like clockwork the company would show up, throw up a cheap structure, hire a few hundred employees.

People needed work. Cities needed money.

No matter how much people should have been questioning what was going on, everybody was too afraid to. Fearful that their sudden bounty of opportunity might disappear just as fast as it arrived.

If people themselves didn't, at the very least the communities they lived in should have.

Communities such as Missoula, Montana.

Chapter One

"I would have made a shitty vampire."

Alice Galt stared at her husband. In twenty years of marriage, she'd come to expect random statements.

Still, this was a bit out there, even for him.

"Oh yea?" she asked. "How's that?"

In the hospital bed beside her, Craig Galt peeled back his lips in an exaggerated smile. Tendrils of bright red liquid lined his gums. They snaked down, filled in the cracks between his teeth.

"I hate the taste of blood. Always have."

Alice was long past any outward display of shock at the sight of physical deterioration. Her husband had been living with emphysema for the past five years.

The progression had been gradual. Each phase lasted just long enough to allow them to acclimate.

A simultaneous blessing and curse.

It started simply enough. Nothing more than shortness of breath. A touch surprising for a forty-year old man in good physical condition. He had made a living as a logger, which kept him outdoors and active.

Still, he had spent the better part of his life sucking on unfiltered Camels. This sort of thing came with the territory.

Besides, they weren't twenty anymore, and they both knew it.

After that came the coughing.

Like the breathing, it started innocuously. Little bursts to clear a tickle from the back of the throat.

Couple months later, sputum tinged with yellow and green began coming up.

Few months after that, traces of blood started coming too.

Six months further, the cilia in his nose and throat were completely dead. No more mucus of any kind.

Just copious amounts of blood.

He didn't really even have to cough anymore. It was just kind of always there. Passed up and down his trachea as freely as the air he breathed.

Alice shifted her gaze down to her hands folded in her lap. They were already the hands of someone much older than forty-five.

The skin on them was dried and cracked. The nails were all chewed down to the quick.

A perfect microcosm of what the last few months had done to her.

Restless nights. Bouts of nausea. Vomiting from the constant sight and smell of blood.

"That's a shame. You'd have made such a handsome vampire."

Craig smirked. "Dracula or Twilight?"

The question brought a smile to Alice's face. She raised her eyes and stared over at her husband.

Once so thick and strong, he was now reduced to a hollow shell of his former self. Gone were his trademark barrel chest, his thick arms from years of swinging an ax and hefting timber.

Even gone was a fair bit of his full dark hair.

In their place was a body that had aged a lifetime in just six months. His face was drawn and gaunt. Excess skin hung from him.

Even in the bulky hospital gown, the toll was plainly obvious.

The only thing that remained undeniably the same was his twinkling hazel eyes. Now, whenever she looked at him, it was there Alice made a point to stare.

"I was thinking True Blood," Alice said. "Dracula is too hokey, Twilight too teenage-girl."

Craig returned the smile. There were no teeth visible.

Just enough blood to coat everything in a sheen of red.

Alice held the smile. Waited as another chunk of her dissolve fell away and disintegrated.

She reached over and took the suction wand from the tray between them. Extended it towards him.

Craig accepted it without a word and held it between his cracked lips. A steady stream of red filled the clear tube. Siphoned the blood into a reservoir behind him.

A nurse had been by just a couple of hours before to empty it. It was already almost full again.

"You know, if that were the case this would be a lot easier on all of us," Craig said.

"If what were the case?"

"If I was a little bit more True Blood. If the taste of blood didn't make me gag just to think about. I could drink down all this stuff instead of sucking it out."

Alice's face fell horror-struck. "Why?"

Craig laid his head back on the pillow. He rotated his gaze to stare up at the ceiling.

"Couple of days, the iron build-up would be enough to kill me. No more forcing us to sit around here, waiting it out minute by minute."

Tears pooled at the underside of Alice's eyes. She reached out and clasped her husband's right hand in her own.

"Don't you do that, don't you even think that."

"I'm just saying..."Craig said.

"And I'm just saying right back! You will stay here with me and we will fight this, together, for as long as it takes."

Craig's eyes fell shut. A single tear slid from his left side and down his cheek.

He made no effort to wipe it away.

Instead, he reached across his body and dropped his hand atop his wife's.

"I'm here, and I'm fighting. It's just sometimes, I can't help but wonder."

Alice squeezed his hands tightly. Focused her eyes on the monitors across from her.

A pulsing green line buzzed left to right across the screen. His heart rate was strong. His breathing was the problem.

"Well, don't," she whispered.

Chapter Two

The Rattlesnake.

Not the reptile, the federally designated wilderness area on the east side of Missoula.

Starting on the edge of town, it inched its way north along the base of Mount Jumbo. Followed the creek that bore the same name, thus dubbed over a century ago because of the abundance of rattlers that called the area home.

Housed entirely within the Lolo National Forest, it was comprised of nearly 33,000 acres of dense pine trees. Hiking trails and streams threaded through it like veins. Lakes dotted the countryside.

No motorized vehicles of any kind were allowed.

Needless to say, it was a favored destination of the Zoo Crew.

A faded sign greeted Drake Bell as he swung into the parking lot. Mustard yellow letters against a mud brown background.

Welcome to the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area.

Under it, a list of rules and regulations Drake had seen a hundred times before.

The headlights of his truck passed in a half arc through the parking lot. Came to a stop just inches away from a clump of ponderosa pine trees in front of him. He left the engine running, but didn't bother to get out.

Despite the clock registering just past six-thirty, there were three other cars in the parking lot. All Isuzu Outbacks, the smallest four-wheel drive on the market.

Drake had no doubt their owners were out somewhere accompanied by a trio of Labradors.

An Outback and a lab. The western Montana uniform.

"Good call leaving the heat running," a thick baritone voice said from the seat beside him.

Drake didn't bother to look over at his friend and roommate Ajax. He could hear him rubbing his hands together, blowing warm breath between his fingers, on the seat beside him.

"A little gift for both of us," Drake said. "Many more days like this and we'll be trading our hiking shoes for ski poles."

"At least when we go skiing, we can dress for the occasion. I hate this in-between shit."

Drake smirked. He knew exactly what Ajax meant. It was too damn cold to fish. There wasn't enough snow up on the hill yet to ski.

In-between shit.

A pair of low-slung headlights appeared in the rearview mirror. Drake shifted his gaze from the trees and watched as the car pulled into the lot. Slid to a stop beside them.

A plume of dust and gravel kicked up, engulfing the small car.

A moment later, a dark shape emerged from the opposite side and walked around to Drake's window. Wrenched open the door and pushed inside without a word.

"Morning sunshine," Drake said. Slid his body to the right. Watched as Sage Keuhl took over the driver's seat.

"Morning yourself, Ajax."

Ajax kept mumbled a response. Kept his fingers steepled in front of his lips.

"I see our boy here is bright-eyed and bushytailed this morning," Sage said.

Drake smirked again. "Sometimes I think he forgets he's the one from Boston and I'm the one from the South. Aren't I supposed to be freezing to death?"

Ajax mumbled something incoherent again.

"Yeah, but I remember it wasn't all that long ago and you were getting chills in anything under sixty degrees," Sage countered.

"One week," Drake said. "I needed one week to acclimate from the sauna that is Nashville."

"Still..." Sage said.

Drake opened his mouth to comment. Thought better of it. Changed directions instead. "You heard from your brother?"

"Not this morning," Sage said. "Texted him last night to make sure he knew where we were meeting."

"Did he reply?"

"Said he'd be here."

Ajax pulled his hands away from his mouth. "He texted me at one o'clock this morning trying to get me to go to One Eyed Jack's with him."

"Ah hell," Sage said.

"He'll be here, he'll just be late," Drake said. "I wonder why he didn't text me?"

Ajax snorted. Not a full laugh, but the same general idea. "Would you have gone?"


"Exactly," Ajax said. "We all know the rules. After midnight, we better be in mortal peril or have just spotted your future baby mama. Otherwise, let sleeping bears lie."

Drake started to reply. Cut himself short.

Ajax was right. There was no point trying to deny it.

Instead, he turned his attention back to Sage.

"You have us plotted out?"

"I was thinking we'd head up to the lookout this morning," Sage said. Didn't bother to consult a map.

She'd been over every inch of this forest many times before. If she suggested a route, that was the one to take.

"Sounds good," Drake said.

"I figured this might be one of our last hikes of the fall," Sage said. "Might as well make it a good one."

Comfortable silence fell over the group. All three stared out the front windshield into the forest.

A heavy sheen of frost clung to everything. Masked the traditional greens and browns into an uneven shade of white.

Hinted at the extreme cold that would greet them as soon as they stepped outside.

Just a week past Halloween, the weather in Missoula was more frigid than usual. A strong Indian Summer had lasted well into September, giving them all hope that winter would be a long time coming.

As much as they enjoyed skiing, they much preferred maneuvering the world without being bundled up like Eskimos.

Those hopes came crashing to a halt the first of October. Temperatures dropped nearly thirty degrees overnight. Unlike most days that time of year, they didn't rise again the next day.

September 30th the high temperature was sixty-four degrees. October 1st it was thirty-five.

Drake's body was only now beginning to feel comfortable again. Clearly, Ajax's was still getting used to things.

If Sage noticed either way, she didn't let on.

Outside, an owner of one of the Outback's emerged from the shadows. Middle-aged. Completely bedecked in black North Face gear. Tuft of blonde hair peeking out beneath her woven hat.

A chocolate lab bouncing circles around her feet.

Drake watched with bemused attachment as she loaded the dog into the back of the car and drove away. Not once did she even look their way.

"See something you like over there?" Sage asked.

Bemusement evaporated, but Drake didn’t have a chance to respond though. Behind them, a pair of high-beams lined by orange parking lights pulled into view.

It parked at an angle on the other side of Sage's car and another dark silhouette spilled out.

Kade, the last of the Zoo Crew, had arrived.

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