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I smell them before I see them. All the powders, perfumes and oils the half-smart ones smear on themselves. The stupid ones just stumble around reeking. The really smart ones take a Goddamn shower. The water doesn’t help them in the long run, but the truth is, nothing is gonna help them in the long run. In the long run they’re gonna die. Hell, in the long run they’re already dead.
So this pack is half-smart. They’ve splashed themselves with Chanel No. 5, Old Spice, whatever. Most folks just think they have a heavy hand at the personal scent counter. I close my eyes and inhale deeper, because it could just be a group of bridge and tunnelers in from Jersey or Long Island. But it’s not. I take that second breath and sure enough, there it is underneath: the sweet, subtle tang of something not quite dead. Something freshly rotting. I’m betting they’re the ones I’m looking for. And why wouldn’t they be? It’s not like these things are thick on the ground. Not yet. I walk a little farther down Avenue A and stop at the sidewalk window of Nino’s, the pizza joint on the corner of St. Marks.
I rap on the counter with the ring on my middle finger and one of the Neapolitans comes over.
He looks blank.
—The pizza, what’s just out of the oven?
—Tomato and garlic.
—No way, no fucking garlic. How ’bout the broccoli, it been out all day?
—Fine, give me the broccoli. Not too hot, I don’t want to burn the roof of my mouth.
He cuts a slice and slides it into the oven to warm up. I could eat the tomato and garlic if I wanted to. It’s not like the garlic would hurt me or anything. I just don’t like the shit.
While I wait I lean on the counter and watch the customers inside the joint. The usual crowd for a Friday night: couple drunk NYU kids, couple drunk greasers, a drunk squatter, two drunk yuppies on an East Village adventure, a couple drunk hip-hoppers, and the ones I’m looking for. There are three of them standing around the far corner table: an old-school goth chick, and two rail-thin guys, with impossibly high cheekbones, that have fashion junkie written all over them. The kind of guys who live in a squat but make the fashion-week scene by virtue of the skag they bring to the parties. Just my favorite brand of shitdogs all in all.
The Neapolitan is back with my slice. I hand him three bucks. The goth and the fashion junkies watch the two NYU kids stumble out the door. They push their slices around for another minute, then follow. I sprinkle red pepper flakes on my slice and take a big bite, and sure enough it’s too hot and I burn the roof of my mouth. The pizza jockey comes back and tosses my fifty cents change on the counter. I swallow, the molten cheese scorching my throat.
—I told you not too hot.
He shrugs. All the guy has to do all day is throw slices in the oven and take them out when they’re ready. Ask for one not too hot and you might as well be requesting coq au vin. I grab my change, toss the slice back on the counter and take off after the junkies and the goth chick. Fucking thing had garlic in the sauce anyway.
The NYU kids have crossed the street to cut through Tompkins Square before the cops shut it down at midnight. The trio lags behind about eight yards back, walking past the old water fountain with Faith, Hope, Temperance, Charity carved in the stone above it. The kids reach the opposite side of the park and keep heading east on Ninth Street, deeper into Alphabet City. Great.
This block of 9th between Avenues B and C is barren, as in empty of everyone except the NYU kids, their trailers and me.
The junkies and the goth pick up the pace. I stroll. They’re not going anywhere without my seeing it. What they want to do takes a bit of privacy. Better for me if they get settled someplace where they feel safe, before I move in.
They’re right on the kids now. They move into a dark patch under a busted streetlamp and spread out, one on either side of the kids and one behind. There’s a scuffle, movement and noise, and they all disappear. Fuck.
I jog up the street and take a look. On my left is an abandoned building. It used to be a Puerto Rican community center and performance space, before that it was a P.S. Now it’s just condemned.
I follow the scent up the steps and across the small courtyard to the graffiti-covered doors. They’ve been chained shut for a few years, but tonight the chain is hanging loose below the hacksawed hasp of a giant Master lock. Looks like they prepped this place in advance of their ambush. Looks like they may be a little more than half-smart.
I ease the door open and take a look. Hallway goes straight for about twelve yards then hits a T intersection. Dark. That’s OK. I don’t mind the dark. The dark is just fine. I slip in, close the door behind me and take a whiff. They’re here, smells like they’ve been hanging out for a couple days. I hear the first scream and know where to go. Up to the intersection, down the hall to the right, and straight to the open classroom door.
One of the NYU kids is facedown on the floor with the goth chick kneeling on his back. She’s already shoved her knife through the back of his neck, killing him. Now she’s trying to jam the blade into his skull so she can split it open. The junkie guys stand by, waiting for the piñata to bust.
The other kid has jammed himself in a corner in the obligatory pool of his own fear-piss. His eyes are rolling around and he’s making the high-pitched noise that people make when they’re so scared they might die from it. I hate that noise.
I hear something crunchy.
The chick has the knife in. She gives it a wrenching twist and the dead kid’s skull cracks open. She claws her fingers into the crack, gets a good grip and pulls, tearing the kid’s head open like a piece of rotted fruit. A pomegranate. The junkies edge closer as she starts scooping out clumps of brain. Too late for that kid, so I wait a couple seconds more, watching them as they start to eat, and listening to the other kid’s moaning go up another octave. Then I do my job.
It takes me three silent steps to reach the first one. My right arm loops over his right shoulder. I grab his face with my right hand while my left hand grips the back of his head. I jerk sharply clockwise, pulling up at the same time. I feel his spinal cord tear and drop him, grabbing the second one’s hair before the first one hits the ground. The chick is getting up off the kid’s corpse, coming at me with the knife. I punch the second junkie in the throat and let him drop. It won’t kill him, but he’ll stay down for a second. The chick whips the knife in a high arc and the tip rakes my forehead. Blood oozes from the cut and into my eyes.
Whatever she was before she got bit, she knew a little about using a knife, and still remembers some of it. She’s hanging back, waiting for her pal to get up so they can take me together. I measure the blank glaze in her eyes. Yeah, there’s still a little of her at home. Enough to order pizza and pick out these kids as marks, enough to cut through a lock, but not enough to be dangerous. As long as I’m not stupid. I step in and she thrusts at me with the knife. I grab the blade.
She looks from me to the knife. I’m holding it tightly, blood spilling out between my clenched fingers. The dim light in her eyes gets minutely brighter as something gives her the word: she’s fucked. I twist the knife out of her hand, toss it in the air and catch it by the handle. She turns to run. I grab the back of her leather jacket, step close and jam the knife into her neck at the base of her skull, chopping her medulla in half. I leave the knife there and let her drop to the floor. The second junkie is just getting back up. I kick him down, put my boot on his throat and stomp, twisting my foot back and forth until I hear his neck snap.
I kneel and wipe my hand on his shirt. My blood has already coagulated and the cuts in my hand have stopped bleeding, likewise the cut in my forehead. I check the bodies. One of the guys is missing a couple teeth and has some lacerations on his gums. Looks like he’s been chewing someone’s skull. Probably it belonged to the clown I took care of a couple days ago, the one with the hole in his head who tipped me off to this whole thing. Anyway, his teeth aren’t what I’m interested in.
Both guys have small bites on the backs of their necks. The bite radius and size of the tooth marks make me take a look at the girl’s mouth. Looks like a match. Figure she bit these two and infected them with the bacteria. Happens that way sometimes. Generally a person gets infected, the bacteria starts chewing on their brain and pretty soon they’re reduced to the simple impulse to feed. But sometimes, before they reach that point, they infect a few others. They take a bite, but don’t eat the whole meal if you get me. No one really knows why. Some sob sisters would tell you it’s because they’re lonely. But that’s bullshit. It’s the bacteria compelling them, spreading itself. It’s fucking Darwin doing his thing.
I check the girl’s neck. She infected the others, but something infected her first. The bite’s been marred by the knife I stuck in her, but it’s there. It’s bigger than the others, more violent. In fact, there are little nips all over her neck. Fucking carrier that got her couldn’t decide if it wanted to just infect her or eat her. Whatever, all the same to me. Except it means the job isn’t done yet. Means there’s a carrier still out there. I start to stand up. But something else; a smell on her. I kneel next to her and take a whiff. Something moves behind me.
The other NYU kid. Right, forgot about him. He’s trying to dig his way through the wall. I walk over to him. I’m just about to pop him in the jaw when he does the job for me and passes out. I look him over. No bites. Now normally I wouldn’t do this, but I lost a little blood and I never got to eat my pizza, so I’m pretty hungry. I take out my works and hook the kid up. I’ll only take a pint. Maybe two.
The phone wakes me in the morning. Why the hell someone is calling me in the morning I don’t know, so I let the machine get it.
—This is Joe Pitt. Leave a message.
—Joe, it’s Philip.
I don’t pick up the phone, not for Philip Sax. I close my eyes and try to find my way back to sleep.
—Joe, I think maybe I got something if ya can pick up the phone.
I roll over in bed and pull the covers up to my chin. I try to remember what I was dreaming about so I can get myself back there.
—I don’t wanna bug ya, Joe, but I figure ya gotta be in. It’s ten in the morning, where ya gonna be?
Sleep crawls off into a corner where I can’t find it and I pick up the damn phone.
From the Trade Paperback edition.