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By Wm. Mark Simmons
Baen BooksCopyright © 2005 Wm. Mark Simmons
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWe die with the dying: See, they depart, and we go with them. We are born with the dead: See, they return, and bring us with them. -T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets It's alive! Alive! -Colin Clive as Dr. Henry Frankenstein, Frankenstein
She's alive! Alive! -Colin Clive as Dr. Henry Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein
Who's going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow! -Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West, Reanimator
At first glance Deirdre looked human.
Of course, Deirdre always got more than just a glance-even back when she was human.
Once upon a time she had been a stunning beauty with pale skin, blue eyes, and auburn hair. That was before she died last year.
In death she was transformed by the twinned viruses the undead carry in their blood and saliva. As a vampire she had gone from "stunning" to "unearthly" on the beauty meter. Her auburn hair turned the color of arterial blood; her sapphire eyes replaced by haunted rubies and her skin a whiter shade of pale and as luminous as the moon.
The fangs, of course, went without saying.
But she had undergone another extreme makeover in drinking my mutated blood a few months ago. Now her sharp, pointy teeth were all but gone. More obviously, her skin was approaching themocha and cream shade that came from a daily regimen of sunbathing-something you rarely see in a redhead and never in a vampire. Which was the point, I suppose, as Deirdre was no longer technically undead.
My unique hemoglobin didn't make her human, again, you understand. The crimson eyes were an obvious clue that she was no longer the girl next door. That and the fact that she could still bench- press a small truck. But while I couldn't give her back everything that she had lost in her original transformation, she seemed content: being "un-undead" suited her just fine.
If only Deirdre's situation suited Lupé, as well.
My significant other understood, of course, that I needed a security chief and bodyguard who was conversant with the unique nature of my enemies, could stop a bullet without flinching, and could-well-bench-press a small truck. She also understood the unique obligations involved as (technically speaking) I was the one who had brought Deirdre "over" and (literally speaking) I was the one who had brought her "back." Lupé knew something about blood-bonds and curses and debts-that-do-not-die even when we do the mortal coil shuffle.
Still, Deirdre was major eye candy. Worse, she had made it clear that, when it came to swapping body fluids, we needn't limit ourselves (as we had on the two previous occasions) to blood alone.
It required frequent reminders to all and sundry that my heart belonged to Lupé.
Deirdre, it seemed, had someone else's heart right now.
She was holding it in the palm of her hand.
And it was convulsing as if it were still alive.
"Where did you get that?" I asked, sensing light gathering at the dark edges of my vision.
She held the squirming cardiac muscle toward me, oily red fluids drooling between her fingers and sheeting down her arm. "Don't you recognize it?" She smiled demurely. "It's yours."
I looked down at the gaping dark hole in my chest ...
And awoke in a tangle of sweat-soaked sheets.
* * *
The upside to having daymares on a regular basis is that you stop going through that whole disorientation phase and learn to wake up real quick. The downside was that they were lasting well past sunset and I still woke up feeling exhausted.
I groaned out of bed, hoping I hadn't murmured Deirdre's name while Lupé was in earshot. Even when she's in human form, Lupé doesn't have to be in the room to be within earshot.
In the bathroom I found a note taped to the medicine cabinet mirror. Gone for groceries and DVDs. Movie night tonight ... L~
I reached through the shower curtains and wrenched the cold water handle. Tonight was the Big Night: I had a lot to do and I couldn't waste time trying to put a Freudian spin on today's bad dream.
Even if there was a good chance I would get my heart ripped out before the sun came back up.
* * *
T.S. Eliot's "Little Gidding" begins with: "Midwinter spring is its own season / Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown, / Suspended in time, between pole and tropic ..."
The dead of winter in Louisiana is something like that: short sleeves one day, a sweater the next. Tonight, the weather hadn't made up its mind. I buckled my shoulder holster over a sleeveless tee and shrugged into a flannel shirt but left it unbuttoned so I could reach the Glock-20 loaded with silver frag-ammo under my left armpit. Opening the screen door, I stepped down and walked barefoot through the January chrysalis of my new back yard. The brown, withered grass sighed beneath my feet, not quite dead, not quite alive.
Like me, in a sense.
Except that, come true spring-mid to late February-the lawn would burst forth with new life while I would be ... well ... what?
All flesh is grass but, where most folks end up succumbing to the Lawnmower of Life, some of us cheat the mulching process and come back as ghastly perennials. Considering the last eighteen months of my so-called half-life, there was probably a fertilizer analogy I could come up with ... but I didn't want to go there.
I stepped on a mushroom and felt it dissolve between my toes. Forget the green stuff; a pale, nocturnal parasite was probably a better analogy for my condition. That's me: a real "fun guy."
By now you'd think there would be a clear-cut diagnosis of my actual condition. But, no: I was left with two starting presumptions.
One, that I actually died in the automobile accident that killed my family and was "reborn" in the hospital morgue ...
Or, two, that I was only presumed dead while "Virus A" from Bassarab's blood put me in a healing trance. Lacking the combinant factors of "Virus B" that resided in the old vampire's saliva, the infection started converting my body into something new-neither fully human nor technically undead.
Add to either scenario the subsequent contaminants and blood-borne pathogens from my encounters with Kadeth Bey's tanis leaf extract and the demon-laced blood of Elizabeth Báthory-well, the "either/or" factor became rather hazy. And while the distinctions seemed important to some, I had to wonder: in the end did it really matter? My wife and daughter were still dead and the Las Vegas Demesne was booking odds on me attaining the same status within the month.
But this wasn't the night to think about depressing things like vampire vendettas and daymares concerning misplaced hearts, it was an evening made for romance! A sliver of moon hung over the graveyard like a leprous grow-light in Death's terrarium. The wind had freshened, bringing the odor of distant rain and nearby rot. I could see a storm was finally brewing and that meant tonight had to be "The Night."
If Lupé and J.D. ever got back from Blockbusters, that is.
I reached into my pocket, fished past my grandmother's ring, and retrieved a small vial of Mentholatum. I rimmed my nostrils with ointment before continuing to the far end of my property.
One minute I was alone, the next I was outnumbered three to one.
You might think that the ability to see into the infrared spectrum would give me all sorts of advantages. But infravision is worth diddly-squat when the creatures coming at you have no body heat. The dead were a dozen yards away before I finally saw them.
Three corpses shambled toward me; their clumsy, unbalanced rhythms reminiscent of a trio of winos in fully soused search-mode for the nearest liquor store. The one in the middle looked freshly dead while his wingmen had been in the ground a great deal longer. They stumbled to a stop against the waist-high stone wall that separated the cemetery from my backyard.
Unfortunately this wasn't a dream: the stench of dust, dirt, mold, and chemically retarded decomposition continued its forward momentum, slamming past the menthol barrier and up into my nostrils like a slow-motion train wreck. I sneezed and set a brown paper bag on the ground.
"Yo, Cséjthe," the big one on the left said. It sounded more like he was sneezing, in turn. The proper pronunciation of my last name, "Chay-tay," requires a tad more articulation than most decomposing tongues and palettes can muster.
I stood about a foot back from the stonework on my side and tried to breathe shallowly. "Boo," I greeted, "Cam."
Boo grinned; Cam nodded. Boo was scary when he grinned. Cam was scarier because he couldn't. In "The Mending Wall" Robert Frost wrote that "good fences make good neighbors." I wonder if Bob knew how well that analogy extended to graveyards.
In point of fact, however, it wasn't the cemetery wall that kept the dead off my property. My real privacy fence was the line of consecrated salt along the base of the crumbling concrete partitions that bordered my property on three sides. Don't get me wrong. I get along pretty well with a lot of the deceased-but-not-quite-departed. But some of them just aren't real clear on the issue of boundaries. Hey, if they're out of the ground-major clue!
Until Mama Samm came and put a hoodoo barrier around my property I had endured a nightly parade of rotting corpses to my back door. Some wanted help in matters of unfinished business, others were just lonely. Still, there had to be some limits. Now I just replaced the salt every month or so. More often when it rained.
"This here's The Professor," Boo said, indicating the cadaver between them. Cam sort of nodded. A suicide, Cameron had propped a double- barreled shotgun under his jaw and tripped both triggers as his last living act. While the mortician's art has come a long way the funeral was still a closed casket affair. Cam isn't geared for post mortem small talk.
The Professor didn't look anything like Russell Johnson so I politely refrained from asking after Gilligan or Mary Ann. He did, however, look as if he was in a state of shock. It's really hard to tell with the freshly dead; they all have that look of mild surprise or severe disappointment.
"You're not real," he said.
I've been told that I have "issues" but that wasn't what he meant.
"Well, of course he ain't the real Baron Samedi," Boo said. "Don't matter, though. He's still our-whatchamacallem-buddy-man."
I sighed. "Ombudsman. Except I ain't. Aren't. I'm not," I corrected. It didn't matter that I wasn't the Vodoun Loa of the Dead: half of the corpses in the cemetery still believed it, the other half didn't care. There's something in my tainted blood that draws them to me like moths to the flame.
"Aww, he's just modest," Boo continued. Cam just nodded.
"He's not real," The Professor insisted. "You're not real!"
"Huh?" said Boo.
"I am asleep. This is a dream!"
"A dream?" I looked around. "Looks more like a nightmare to me."
"Hey!" said Boo.
A moldy green hand rose up and gripped the top of the crumbling wall. "And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake," intoned a new voice. In life it might have been deep and resonant, in death it sounded wheezy and clotted, as if the speaker were missing a lung and had something stuck in his throat. Something like roots and leaves and cemetery earth. "... some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. The prophet Daniel, chapter twelve, verse the second," the new corpse finished, dragging itself more or less erect to lean against the stone barrier.
Well, hell, Preacher," Boo exclaimed in a wounded voice, "which ones are we?"
I think the new arrival was attempting an expression of contempt-something hard to pull off when you don't have the complete palette of skin and muscles to work with.
"He's got a point, Jerome," I said to the cadaver whose Pentecostal proclivities had earned him the nickname "Preacher." "Ole Boo, here, has never given evidence of having any shame whatsoever."
Cam wheezed as though he was laughing. The Professor squeezed his eyes shut and looked as if he was wishing himself back into his bed.
"Atheists," Jerome scolded.
"Now hold on there, Preacher," Boo puffed, "that ain't entirely true. By strict definition I'm an agnostic and Cameron, here, was Unitarian. I'm bettin' that The Professor is one of them secular humanists. Right, Doc?"
"Organized religion is nothing but codified mythology mixed with superstition," The Professor said, still careful to keep his eyes squinched shut.
"A rational mind," I observed, "dedicated to logic and the scientific precepts."
"Yes," he said, easing one eye open.
"Boy, are you in deep doo-doo!"
"How about you, boss?" Boo asked.
I considered the rows of aged and crumbling headstones. "I don't know anymore."
"If you so-called agnostics would read the Bible-"
"'O that thou wouldst hide me in the grave,'" I interrupted, "'that thou wouldst keep me secret, until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldst appoint me a set time, and remember me.' The Book of Job, chapter fourteen, verse the thirteenth."
They all stared at me as if I had grown an extra head. Reaching down, I pulled an old book out of the sack. "eBay's gotten pricier of late; Jerome, but I got you the Kübler-Ross." I handed it to born-again dead man.
"Josephus?" he queried, taking the old tome with trembling hands. "I know there's a copy in the West Monroe library."
"I'm not kyping library books for you, Jerome."
"I'll give it back when I'm done."
I shook my head. "You don't take care of them. It's not your fault, considering your present address, but I think it's best if we get you your own copies."
"What you need books for, Preacher?" Boo shifted his grasp on The Professor's arm as he tried to pull away. "Can't you just pray to God for your answers-you bein' so righteous and all?"
"Now, boys," I soothed, "we're all just doing the best we can to figure out how it all works."
"And some of us," Boo added, "are trying to figure out why we're not already in heaven instead of slumming with the sinners on the slag heap of the dead."
Jerome turned on his heel and stalked off in a huff. Well, actually, it was more of a shamble-off-in-a-huff kind of thing.
"Hey," the big corpse called after him, "have you tried hopping? Maybe y'all gotta jump-start that Rapture effect! Beam me up, Jesus!"
"That's not very nice," I said.
"Aw, he's always askin' for it." But he did look a little ashamed. "And what am I gonna do? Piss off God? Oooo, He might strike me dead! No, wait ... He might banish my soul to wander the earth after I die! No wait ..."
"Alright, you've made your point." I rummaged through the sack and pulled out a packet of oddly shaped dice. One die had eight sides, another ten, and yet another twenty. "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game dice," I read off the package and handed it to Cam. "You play D & D?" It was a rhetorical question-in practical terms, anything you asked Cam was a rhetorical question.
"E & E," Boo answered for him.
"Ectoplasm & Exorcists," he elaborated. "Plays with the Gorsky twins over in the northeast plots."
I just looked at him.
"You know ... you're kibitzing at a séance and suddenly a fifteenth-level exorcist bursts into the room and begins reading from the Roman Ritual. What do you do?"
I shrugged. "Make a savings throw?" I reached into the sack and pulled out another book. "Here, Boo; Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead." As I handed it to him, he relaxed his grip on The Professor, who wrenched himself free and ran back into the mists of the cemetery.
"Oops. Guess we'd better go fetch our newbie before he finds a way off the grounds and really stirs up a ruckus!" As he turned to go, he ruffled the pages of his new present. "Hey, no pictures!"
"It's a war story, Bubba, not necrophilial porn."
He shrugged, took a step, and then stopped. "Hey, Hoss, I think we got company."
Excerpted from Habeas Corpses by Wm. Mark Simmons Copyright ©2005 by Wm. Mark Simmons. Excerpted by permission.
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