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ZOMBIES had a bad habit of shooting me in the head. Most of them knew better, but there was always that one who wanted to get lucky.
It was a wet Monday morning. Almost dawn. Broken streetlights and glass in the road; and the hulking shadows of abandoned warehouses towering above me. Dead city, dead hour. Seattle was a dark place, even with the sun. Some days felt like living in the aftermath of a nuclear winter; as though a mushroom cloud had blown over and never left.
Quiet, too. Nothing to hear except harsh breathing, a soft whine; my cowboy boots scuffing concrete and the sharpening of claws; and the rumble of the freight trains at the rail yard across from the docks, mingling with the growls vibrating softly in my ears: baby symphonies of thunder. Good music. Made me feel safe.
I rubbed wet hair out of my eyes. "Zee. Hold him tighter."
Him. Archie Limbaud. Scrawny man, sinewy as a garter snake, saddled with a crown of short brown hair plastered to his soaked skin and flecked with enormous flakes of dandruff. He was a fortysomething man who smelled like the private bathroom of a teenage boy: unwashed and vaguely fecal.
He was also a zombie. Not the brain–eating, shambling kind, either. Not a corpse. Just a man, possessed by a demon—who was using his body like a puppet. Practically the same as being dead, if you asked me.
I did not want to touch him. He sprawled on the edge of an empty parking lot, crammed against the bottom of a chain– link fence, the contents of his wallet scattered on the ground in front of me. More condoms than cash, along with one credit card, and an expired driver's license. Minutes ago, there had been a gun—a .40–caliber pistol, pointed at my head—but that was gone now. Eaten.
I hated guns. I hated zombies. Put those together with what I knew about the possessed man at my feet, and I didn't know whether to cry, scream, or kick the fuck out of his testes.
I eased off my gloves, shoved them in my back pocket, and extended my palm. A sharp little hand passed me a switchblade. Pretty thing, with a mother–of–pearl handle and silver accents. Razor edge, still wet with blood. Engraved with the initials A.L. I waved it in front of Archie's ruddy face, and his dark aura fluttered wildly around the crown of his head.
"Some night," I said quietly. "I found the body."
Archie said nothing. Part of that might have been the aluminum baseball bat pressed down on his throat. Stolen from the Seattle Mariners, if I had to guess. I could see the stadium walls of Safeco Field from where I crouched, and Zee and the others were going through a baseball phase. Babe Ruth was in; Bill Russell was out. Which pained me. At least my boys were still obsessed with Bon Jovi. I couldn't have handled that much change.
Zee, Raw, and Aaz were down on the ground, pinning Archie to the pavement. Little demons, little hounds. Rain sizzled, trickling down bony backs the color of soot smeared with silver, skin shimmering with a muscular fluidity that resembled water more than flesh. Razor–sharp spines of hair flexed against chiseled skulls while silver veins pulsed with slow beats that, if I had pressed my ear close, would have sounded like the steady thrums of bass guitars.
Red eyes glinted. I used the switchblade to tap Aaz on the back of the head, and his hair cut through the steel as if it were butter. Raw caught the bits of blade before they hit the pavement and stuffed them in his mouth, chewing loudly.
"Ease up on the windpipe," I said to Aaz. "I don't want the host harmed."
Aaz blew a kiss at the zombie and removed the baseball bat from his soft, bruised throat. Archie started coughing, fighting to move his legs. No luck. Raw was sitting on his ankles, and Zee had his wrists pinned to the pavement. Not quite crushing bone, but close. My boys were strong.
"Please," Archie whispered hoarsely. "I want to convert."
"Liar," rasped Zee, before I had a chance to tell the zombie to go fuck himself. The little demon leaned close to lick the air above Archie's brow. "Cutter lies, Maxine. He still hungers."
"He murders," I said, gripping the remains of the switchblade in my fist as a young face flashed through my mind, bloody and sliced, long brown limbs naked, splayed. Torn doll. Torn in places I did not want to remember. "She was just a kid."
"She was a prostitute," Archie said. "She was already prey."
Dek and Mal, coiled heavy on my shoulders, peered from beneath my hair and hissed at the zombie. Unlike the others, they were built like snakes, with two vestigial limbs good only for clutching my ears. Heads shaped like hyenas. Sharp smiles. Fire in their breath. Archie stared at them, and trembled.
I reached through his thunderous aura to place my hand on his clammy brow. He shied away, but the boys held tight, and in that last moment before I touched him, his eyes rolled back, staring at the delicate armor surrounding the entire ring finger of my right hand: a slender sheath of quicksilver, replete with a delicate joint at the knuckle, which allowed my finger to bend. Fit like a skin. Sometimes I forgot it was there.
"Prey," I murmured. "And what does that make you?"
"One of a million," he whispered, shaking; staring at me with hate in his eyes. "You can't kill us all. When the prison walls fail—"
"You'll be rat meat to the rest of the demons," I interrupted, still thinking of the girl I had found in an alley only blocks from here, summoned to her still–warm body by Zee and the others, who had roused me from bed to hunt her killer. "Your kind will be slaughtered, just like the humans. You're nothing to the others. Even your Queen has said so."
"Hunter—" Archie began, but I didn't let him finish. I knew everything he was going to say. I had heard it thousands of times since my mother's murder, and thousands of times before that, as well.
I was going to die. I was never going to reach old age. The world was going to end.
All of which was true. But, whatever. His voice hurt my head. His sour scent, hot and prickly, made me want to vomit. I was tired, and cold all the way through to my soul, and there was a girl who had lost her life to night for no good reason. She had suffered a bad death—and only because the parasite possessing this man had wanted to feed on her pain. I did not even know her name. No ID, no nothing. Lost forever.
Not the only one, either. The world was a big place. Too many predators: human, zombie, or otherwise. And just one of me. Nomad, born and bred, who had settled in this city longer than any other. Abandoning all others, so I could have some semblance of a normal life.
I ground my palm even harder against Archie's brow, and exhaled a soft hiss of words: sibilant and ancient, a focused tongue that made my skin tingle, and my hand burn. Archie's breath rattled, and he strained upward as his aura swelled, trying to escape me.
No such luck. The demon was young. Easy to exorcise. I drew it out, watching the passage of its wraithlike body churn through the human's open mouth like poisoned smoke. Archie went limp. Raw and Aaz released his legs, while Dek and Mal slithered off my shoulders, winding down my arms to be near my hands. Their tiny claws pricked my skin like kneading cats, and their soft, high–pitched hum of Bon Jovi's "Social Disease" filled the air.
When the last trail of the parasite's writhing body was free of the human man, I held it in my hand with that soft, shrieking darkness spilling through my fingers, and felt a cold bite in my skin, like a glove of frozen nettles. Zee stepped over Archie's still body, and the others extended their razor–tipped claws.
I gave them the demon. I did not watch them eat it.
I knelt by Archie and checked his pulse. Strong, steady. His eyelids fluttered, but he stayed unconscious, and I backed away quickly, rubbing my sweaty palms on my jeans. I had no way of knowing what this man had been like before being possessed, though I guessed he hadn't been the happy type. Stable, mentally robust people did not get possessed by demons. Too much work. No cracks to exploit.
But this man, Archie Limbaud, would wake up a murderer—and never know it. Demons left no memories in human minds. Just chaos, ruined lives. Friends and family who would never look at you the same way.
"Maxine," Zee rasped, rubbing his mouth with the back of his sharp hand. "Sun coming."
I knew. I could feel the sun, somewhere beyond the black skies and rain, slowly creeping up on the cloud–hidden horizon. I had minutes at most.
"Pay phone," I said to Zee, and he snapped his claws at Raw and Aaz, who were prowling the edges of the dark lot, slipping in and out of shadows. Both of them loped close, graceful as wolves, and whispered in Zee's ears. Zee cocked his head, listening; and after a moment, pointed.
I said nothing. Just walked away from Archie. I did not rush. I did not look back. I held the handle of the switchblade and slid it into my hair. Listened to metal crunch as Mal chewed and swallowed. I could have left it. Evidence.
But I wanted the man to have a second chance. I wanted him to wake up, confused and amnesiac, but without the burden of murder. No one deserved that—even though there was a small part of me that felt like his hands were dirty. Dirty as mine. I could not stop rubbing my palms against my wet jeans. Felt as though Archie Limbaud's stink was all over me.
Early morning continued to be quiet, the drizzling mist softening the streets and rough, broken edges, and I drank in the cold air, savoring the chill of wet hair curled against my flushed cheeks. The boys moved through the shadows, invisible except for brief glimpses of their red eyes. I kept wiping my hands and thinking about the dead girl. And my mother. She had warned me before she died. She had warned me it would be like this. Always, victims. Victims, everywhere. And me, never fast enough. Always playing catch–up.
I found a pay phone two blocks away. Battered relic, covered in graffiti. I dialed 911 and left a brief message with the operator—teenager dead, murdered, several blocks south of Safeco Field—and hung up. Wiped off my prints, then remembered I could have worn my gloves. I was still rattled, not thinking straight. I wanted to go back to the dead girl and wait with her body—as if that would make a difference. Ease, somehow, the pain and loneliness of her murder.
Instead, I kept walking, taking a westerly route away from the rail yards, toward Chinatown. I saw no one but caught glimpses of headlights crossing distant intersections. The rumble of the trains seemed louder. The air tasted sharper, and suddenly electric, as though a city full of alarms had just gone off and I was feeling the pulse of thousands of eyes opening at once. In my ear, Dek and Mal began humming more Bon Jovi. "Have a Nice Day."
"You, too," I said hoarsely, reaching into my hair to scratch their necks. "See you tonight."
I stopped in the shadows, well off the street, and the rest of the boys slipped free of the darkness to gather close, hugging my legs, running their cheeks against my knees. The boys liked to be tucked in. I slid my knuckles against their warm jaws and savored the rumble of purrs. Their skin steamed in the rain.
Zee peered up at me and tugged on my hand until I knelt before him. Very carefully, he cradled my face between his claws, searching my eyes with a sad compassion that made my throat burn.
"Maxine," he rasped gently. "Sweet Maxine. Be your heart at ease."
We had seconds, nothing more. I kissed my fingers and pressed them against his bony brow. I thought of my mother again and caught myself in heartache. She had said good night to the boys like this, for all the years they were hers. I could not stop thinking of her to night.
"Dream," I whispered. "Sleep tigh—"
I never finished. I got shot in the head.
Just like that. Right temple. Not much sound. The impact shuddered through my entire body, every sensation magnified with excruciating clarity as the bullet drilled into my skull—the inexorable pressure of a small round object, crushing my life. I could feel it. I could feel it. My brain was going to explode like a watermelon. I had no time to be afraid.
But in that moment—that split second between life and death, the sun touched the horizon somewhere beyond the clouds—
—and the boys disappeared into my skin.
The bullet ricocheted, the impact spinning me like a rag doll. I fell on my hands and knees, and stayed there, stunned and frozen. I could still feel the punch of the shot—the sensation so visceral I would not have been surprised to reach up and find the bullet grinding a path into my skull.
I touched my head, just to be sure. Found hair and unbroken skin. No blood. My entire right arm trembled, and a dull, throbbing ache spread from my sinuses to my temple, all the way through to the base of my skull. My heart pounded so hard I could barely breathe. All I could see was pavement and my hands.
My transformed hands. My skin had been pale and smooth only moments before, but tattoos now covered every inch: obsidian roping shadows, scales and silver muscle shining with subtle veins of organic metal. My fingernails shimmered like black pearls, hard enough to dig a hole through solid rock. Red eyes stared from the backs of my wrists. Raw and Aaz. I closed my eyes, trying to steady my breathing, and felt five corresponding tugs against my skin. Demons, inhabiting my flesh. Minds and hearts and dreams, bound to my life until I died.
My friends, my family. My dangerous boys.
Somewhere distant I heard police sirens wailing. My 911 call, coming this way. I had to get up. I tried, and fell. Gritted my teeth and dug my nails into the concrete. Tried again.
This time I managed to stand. I started walking, stumbling, but did not go down. My head pounded. I bent over once, still moving—afraid to stop—gagging uncontrollably. Felt like my stomach was going to peel right up through my throat, but instead of making my head hurt worse, the pain eased.
I touched my right temple with a trembling hand, savoring the smooth, unbroken skin. Momentarily in awe that I still lived.
I had been shot before. Frequently. All over. Never felt a thing. Bullets bounced off me during the day. A nuclear bomb could hit me in daylight, and I would survive—without a scratch. Might be a different story at night, when the boys peeled off my body, but I never underestimated their ability to keep me alive.
But no one—no one—had ever had the foresight—or the balls—to try killing me in that moment between night and day, caught in transition between mortal and immortal.
Near–perfect timing. Any earlier, and the boys would have killed the shooter before the bullet could be fired. Any later, and I would have been invulnerable. Which was exactly the case. Saved by a fraction of a second.
Too damn close. I scanned the shadows but saw nothing except for warehouses and dark windows, and the glitter of downtown Seattle to the north, all the lights of the city frozen like the unwavering pose of fireflies. Nothing unordinary. No shooter, waving a flag. But I felt watched. Someone, somewhere, out there in the darkness. Long range, or else the boys would have felt their presence well before the attack.
Zombie, I thought. Had to be. No one else who knew what I was would try to hurt me.
"You almost died," I said out loud, needing to hear the words, to hear myself—as though I required some proof of life. Maxine Kiss. Almost taken out, just like my mother—with a bullet through the brain.
A zombie had killed her. But that was different.
It had been her time to die.