Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Dead Mann Running Excerpt
REBIRTH sounds great, doesn’t it? Sounds like hope, possibility, spring. Nope. It’s more like that poet T.S. Eliot said, April is the cruellest month.
Not that the rest of the year’s much better. Take November for instance. Take it on a boring night as a fat rain fell, the drops thick and icy cold, but too lazy to turn to snow. I was slumped in my ratty recliner, getting ready to watch Nell Parker, a dead stripper I’d had an unusual relationship with, on the tube. Sure, I could’ve shut it off, but there’s nothing like seeing the face of someone you want to forget every day on TV.
She’d gotten the gig partly as blowback for the Chak Registration Act; chakz, short for charqui, or dried meat, being the preferred term for us zombie-types. Thanks to an undead-riot caused by a pal of mine, an awful lot of livebloods died. Jane and Joe average didn’t like that much, so some pretty Draconian laws were passed. As a nod to the bleeding hearts worried about chak rights, a “good” dead person was given a talk show.
Nell was better than good, she was perfect—smart, pampered, and nothing missing. Her skin was white and silky smooth, not the usual rough gray, her black hair straight and shiny. Oh, they had to work at it. I read the studio was kept below sixty to ensure rot didn’t set in. But best of all, Nell was also the only chak with eye color, green, no doubt to match her benefactor’s last name, he being billionaire pervert Colby Green. He and his powerful buddies loved chakz any way they could.
Despite the fact that TV was a definite step-up from pole dancing at Green’s private
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orgies, Nell never seemed to appreciate it. She tried to look harmless, knowing that the whole point was to show that all chakz weren’t a threat, but there was always a hint of disdain in those emerald eyes. It made me feel like she was looking at me.
The show itself was bullshit, fluff designed to make LBs feel better about imprisoning us. Not that I blame them for that. If a chak gets too depressed, they go feral. That’s kind of like going postal, but only if George Romero directed it. Thanks to the new laws, any chak who could speak or write had to take a monthly emotional stability test. Pass, and you’re free to enjoy your second-class citizenship for another month. Fail, and they put you in a concentration camp until you do go feral. Then they safely destroy you. They’re not clear on how they do the destroying. No one likes watching sausages getting made, or burned.
On the plus side, we all get free cell phones. Not that many of us know how to use them. In theory, they can be used to track us if we go AWOL. In reality, the guard, a volunteer group composed mostly of testosterone types who used to spend their weekends chopping us up with machetes, is charged with chak control, and they don’t like sharing with local law enforcement. It’s moot in my neck of the woods. Fort Hammer doesn’t have the equipment to track anything. All in all, not so much Big Brother as his big, dumb, inbred cousin.
To be fair to Nell, she tried to branch out. She’d done a series of interviews with no less than ChemBet’s head of R & D, Travis Maruta, the man who made zombies real. A mousy guy you wouldn’t think had it in him to swat a bug, let alone change the world, he went on about how hard he and his wife Rebecca were working to improve the human race even more.
The way I heard it, Rebecca was a second-rate chemist, but a first-rate dominatrix. She’d gotten Travis into some kinky shit that made Colby Green look like a virgin. I doubted either of them gave a damn about anything except getting each other off.
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But there are lies, and then there are damned lies. The former would be something no one believes, like if I were to say Nell Parker meant nothing to me. The latter would be a whopper, like my execution. When that needle pierced my soft pink skin, I thought at least nothing worse could happen. It wasn’t the first time I was wrong, but it was the last time my skin was soft or pink.
When DNA evidence threw out my conviction, I was subjected to ChemBet’s patented, self-perpetuating, neo-magical, electrostatic Radical Invigoration Procedure, RIP, for short. I came back with dry skin, brittle bones, sixty percent of my IQ, and none of my photographic memory. And they said I was one of the lucky ones.
Now my memory’s like an old dog without a leash. It either lies around doing nothing, or winds up eating things it shouldn’t. When I thought Nell betrayed me by going back to Green, it reminded me of what an angry guy I’d been when I was alive. After that, I started thinking she was better off without me. I contented myself with stalking her on TV, but that night, she came on without the fake smile and barely able to speak.
“Dr. Travis Maruta,” she finally managed, “was found dead yesterday in his ChemBet laboratory, apparently from a self-administered overdose of an unknown substance. It was November twelfth, the eighth anniversary of his invention of the RIP…”
Some chakz would find the news satisfying; others say that real death was too good for him. Some would be too decayed to have an opinion. Me, I was thinking, Suicide? Maybe the whiny son of a bitch finally realized what he did.
Big picture, I couldn’t care less. Sure, I wished he’d killed himself before he came up with the RIP, but blaming Maruta for my problems was like blaming Henry Ford for car accidents. When they switched from Nell to a “real” newscaster, I got bored, turned the set off, and took to watching the shadows on the floor.
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I was doing a pretty good job thinking nothing, when a knock came at the door. Answering was Misty’s job, my assistant, but she was out with Officer Chester O’Donnell, a boy toy she’d met while I was in jail. When the knock came again, I remembered it might mean money, and that was in short supply. Business, never booming, had gone downhill since the camps opened. Mostly, I’d get some chak hoping I could help him or her cheat on their next test, which I couldn’t. Misty ran a little memory class that made more than I did, and she hated charging.
But, seeing as how you never know, I shambled into our so-called reception area. The bottom half of the door wobbled from a third rap.
“Who is it?” I asked.
No answer, but the next knock came faster. With a grunt, I opened the door.
No one was there. Not even a raven squawking nevermore. A cold, wet gust of wind slapped my face and set a loose bit of cheek-skin wobbling. I should’ve had Misty sew it, but the cold weather, while it helped me keep, made me lazy, like a reptile. At least the building was rotting faster than I was. The three story walk-up lost half a wall last week. The rooms across the hall were no longer habitable. A chak or two downstairs were the only other occupants. You get what you pay for, and the landlord stopped charging rent when the building was condemned.
I started thinking the knock was a loose board about to fall, but didn’t see any new leaks. And then I looked down.
Six inches from my feet sat a weathered briefcase, cracked and dented as my loafers. But that wasn’t the first thing I noticed. That’d be the hand gripping the handle. As usual, an arm was attached, but after that, nothing. No head, shoulders, knees, or toes, just briefcase, hand, and arm.
There’s a knock-knock joke in there somewhere, but I don’t know what it is.
As I stared, the hand let go of the case, raised its fingers and wobbled the tips as
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if feeling the empty air. It regripped the handle and squirmed, stub first, dragging itself and the case inside. It crawled through the front room and into my office, leaving a thin trail on the floor. I thought it was oozing the gray stuff chakz have on their insides, but a closer look told me it was rainwater mixed with street grit.
At the center of the office floor, it stopped, like it was expecting me to join it.
I wondered if I’d fallen asleep in the chair. Chakz are tough to kill. Knife wounds, gunshots, even the loss of a limb or two, won’t stop us, but our pieces, unless it’s the head, don’t generally get around on their own. Still, I’d seen a walking skeleton and a laughing skull, so I didn’t think it impossible. There was a lot about the radical invigoration process no one knew for sure.
I stuck my head out and looked down the hall, in case it was some joker with a remote. Livebloods don’t bother with me, and the only chak I knew warped enough to pull something like this was Jonesey, and he’d been shipped off to the camps after failing his last test, stupid bastard. We tried to help him study. Well, Misty did, I wasn’t speaking to him on account of he was the one who caused the riot. Maybe, like Nell, he was better off. He’d already gone feral once, until I slapped him out of it. You can do that sometimes.
Other than the wind, and the rain pouring from the gaping ceiling holes to the mottled floor, there was nothing. No second arm, no torso, no legs or head that’d fallen behind.
I closed the door and turned back, half expecting my guest to be gone. It wasn’t. It was still there, rapping its fingers on the case like an impatient salesman.
Comfortable that it wasn’t going to bite, I stepped closer for a better look. Its skin didn’t look chak-gray, but my sense of color isn’t great at night. It wasn’t thin. It had muscles, legit, not baby-smooth like a bodybuilder’s. The fingers had less character, but they were thick, rugged. A workingman’s arm, if I had to guess. It kinda reminded me of my father’s arm, a thought that added tothe scene’s dreamlike feel.
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Christ, I hadn’t thought about Larry Mann in ages. I wouldn’t say he was a violent man. If I did, I was afraid he’d hit me. But that was crazy. The arm couldn’t be his. Its fingers were intact. Dad lost the top halves of four digits when he fell into a circular saw. He was so drunk he didn’t even notice they were gone until he reached the hospital.
The rest of him left us about a year after that. Mom tried to lie about it. He’d been a drill sergeant, so she told me he’d signed up for Special Ops, but I saw the papers marked dishonorable discharge. I figured he was out on the streets somewhere, missing his fingers more than he missed us.
Whatever. The arm wasn’t in any position to say who it belonged to, or what it wanted. Maybe if I got it a pen? I stepped behind my desk and pulled open the top drawer. Outside, the hiss of wheels on wet asphalt mixed with the rushing rain.
I don’t know how the arm could’ve heard it, maybe it felt the vibrations, but like a demented cross between snake and monkey, it let go of the case, righted itself at the elbow, sprang to my desk and bounded over to the windowsill. The fingers felt frantically along the glass, down to the wood. It was trying to open it, to get away.
“Wait!” I shouted. Like it could hear me. What could I follow that up with?
Don’t jump! You’ve got so much to live for!
I tried to grab it, but it punched a pane, shattering the glass and a good chunk of rotten wood. With a rubbery twitch, it tumbled into the gray. I snatched at the air. The wind sent bullets of rain into my face. I leaned out of the hole it’d left and looked down at wet trash, a rusted Dumpster, and puddles.
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THROUGH the broken window, I heard a warm, familiar chuckle. It was Misty, laughing good-naturedly at a taxi driver’s joke before closing the passenger door. Chester had sent her home by cab again.
November wind and water bitch-slapped the unpaid bills on my desk. The briefcase sat on the floor like a lottery ticket begging to be scratched. Whatever was in it might solve my money troubles. There could be a reward for returning it. But something told me to stay away, not even think about it.
Tough luck about the thinking. When I was ripped they gave me a new set of clothes and a pamphlet. The clothes didn’t fit and the pamphlet wasn’t good for much, but it did warn that chak bodies could be unpredictable. My left knee, for instance, shivered without warning. Lately, it was thinking I couldn’t control. The tired wheels turned in my homicide detective head, but I had no idea how to put the brakes on.
When Misty walked in half a minute later, I was back in my chair. She looked good; meat on her bones, verve in her movements. She was a world away from the starving addict who used to think she could pass for a chak. But everything comes with a price. In this case, it was her increasingly annoying optimism.
Hair and clothes damp, she shook the rain from her umbrella. “What am I going to do with you?” she said when she saw me. The smile on her face kept her from looking disapproving. “You’ve been sitting there feeling sorry for yourself since I left, haven’t you? Moping.”
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“Mostly. How was the date? Bowling again?”
She leaned the umbrella against the wall and worked the buttons on her thrift store overcoat. “Don’t change the subject. If it wasn’t for you passing that test, I swear I’d be sleeping with that sledgehammer next to my cot again, waiting for you to go rabid.”
“Don’t tell me what word to use. You think there’s a difference?”
“My mouth can’t foam. And don’t you tell me you trust that government questionnaire. Not after they took Jonesey.”
Her face went a little sad. She’d liked Jonesey, too. “You said yourself he tried to eat you in an alley.”
“He got better.”
“You’re also the one who told me once they go, it’s only a matter of time.”
“Something I heard on TV.”
“Watching your girlfriend again? The one you won’t speak to even though she got you out of jail?”
“I heard that a long time ago. Good Morning Fort Hammer, I think.”
She hung the coat on a stand and came closer, which didn’t take much. My office, the front room, the half bath, and the walk-in supply closet she used as a bedroom would all fit in a stretch limo.
She gave me a somber once-over. “Your memory’s getting better.”
“Because you drill me every day.”
She slapped my shoulder. “Every other day. You know that.”
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“It’s a fucking game, Misty. Passing doesn’t make me safe any more than failing made Jonesey dangerous. Look how many idiots get driver’s licenses. That’s a test, ain’t it?”
“You are one big dead baby, Hessius Mann. I’m trying to hold on to hope here, that’s what keeps it from happening, right? Or do you enjoy acting like a piece of furniture? I can’t even feel comfortable going out with Chester for a few hours with you…” Her voice trailed off.
She had more energy and I was getting slower. We’d become a bad combination. That much was obvious even to me.
“About the boy toy, I’ve been meaning to tell you…”
“He has a name,” she said. In a huff, she turned her back, walked off and grabbed a towel.
“So do I. He ever use it, or is he still calling me it?”
I was trying to be nice, but couldn’t manage it. I could say chakz have trouble with emotions, but really, I was being an asshole.
“He’s working on it. It’d help if you’d talk to him. Even nod at him.”
I could see from a mirror that she’d scrunched her face, sending rainwater from her hair down her cheeks, into the towel. The smile she came in with was gone. Great, now I’d ruined her evening.
I raised a hand to slow her down. “That’s what I’m trying to say. I think I misjudged you two. I mean, I thought he needed sex and you needed a favor. Maybe that’s how it started, but, it doesn’t look that way anymore. You’re still going to meetings, and more often than not, you look… happy.”
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The smile came back in a flash. I didn’t know whether to feel good or bad about it.
“So I have your permission to date him now, Dad?”
“No, but he’s got a salary and a real place. If you wanted to leave…”
When she turned back I finally noticed that the ice green blouse she wore looked new. She wasn’t unhappy again, but she was serious. “And what would happen to you if I did? We’re in this together, remember? How can I think about moving out when all you ever do is… what the fuck happened to the window?”
I was wondering when she’d notice.
“Oh, that. An arm punched its way out.”
“Your desk is soaked.” She rushed toward it with the towel and nearly tripped over the briefcase. “And what the hell is this?”
A few drops of rain fell from her to the case.
“The arm dropped it off before it jumped out the window.”
She laughed, and then stopped. “Seriously? Have you been drinking? Can you drink?”
“I can go through the motions.”
She looked back down at the case. “What’s in it?”
“You didn’t open it?”
“If I did, I’d know.”
She lifted the case and plopped it on my desk, mushing a few soggy bills in the process. “What if it’s a job, something to work on? Better yet, something that pays.”
Before I could answer, she flipped the latches.
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It opened easily. Whatever was inside bathed her in a quiet blue light.
“Fine. Have it your way, Pandora. What’s in it?”
She twisted the case away. “You want to see, get off your leathery ass.”
“Misty…” I groaned and shifted, planning to get up. I wasn’t fast enough. She picked up the case and headed toward the front room.
“Now you have to walk for it. Shamble for me, zombie-man.”
“Don’t play with that thing! What if it’s poison? Remember the nerve gas?” She stopped. “And if there’s any fingerprints, you’re ruining them.”
Gently, she put it back on the desk where I could see. Inside, it was mostly foam, the edges stained a sickly brown from the dirt and water that’d seeped in. In the center were two glass vials, each nearly filled with a clear, bluish liquid. The streetlight outside the window had given them the glow. We stood there staring like we were watching an interesting movie.
Misty broke the silence. “You really think it could be poison?”
“Doesn’t matter what I think. It is what it is. Best guess? Drugs. Drugs is always a good guess. A stash swiped off a dealer by a stupid chak who didn’t get away in one piece.”
“Wasn’t there a chak living down the block that was just a head, torso and arm?”
I prodded the foam. “No arms. One leg. Vernon Gray. They took him to the camps a month ago after he tried to fill out the test with his foot.”
She gave me a look. I knew what it meant. “Yeah, I remember some things.”
“So, what’re you going to do about it?”
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“Me? Not a damn thing. Cops would never come here, but you could call Chester. Then it’ll be the police’s problem.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“What? You want me to taste it?”
“You’re a detective. You could try, you know, detecting.”
“I am! Handing it over to the cops is the smart move! Stop being so damn cheery and get realistic. It’s a briefcase with two glass vials. What else am I supposed to detect? I could yank the foam out and see if there’s anything underneath it, but if the blue stuff is dangerous some of it could get loose.”
She crossed her arms. “That case was brought to you for some reason. Are you really going to just give it away?”
“Why not? If a bullet’s got your name on it, does that mean you shouldn’t duck?”
She turned away. “Have it your way. I’ll call Chester.”
We were stuck in a stupid dance, but I didn’t know how to get out of it. I didn’t want to drag her down, but I didn’t want her dragging me up.
As she went into the front room to get her cell, I couldn’t help looking at the vials again. Unmarked, clear glass, real thick. Could be from a high security lab or a dollar store. Damn.
A frigid blast turned me back to the window. I grabbed the towel she’d left on the desk, balled it up and stuffed it into the broken pane. The effort gave me a view of the roof across the alley.
It was probably a shadow, but I shuddered just the same. If I were the melodramatic
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type, I’d say it looked more like a figure that’d been watching, and now it’d seen enough. After all, an arm had just brought me a present. Who knew what else was out there tonight?
“...a must-read for urban fantasy fans.” – Starred review from Publishers Weekly
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