Now that he's joined the ranks of Fort Hammer's pulse-challenged population, Hessius attempts to make a "living" as a private investigator. But when a missing persons case leads to a few zombies cut to pieces, Hessius starts thinking that someone's giving him the run-around-and it's not like he's in any condition to make a quick getaway...
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That's how many chunks the newslady said Colin Wilson was cut into. He was scattered across the desert like bits of burger wrapping and leftover fries. The cops found all the bits. Except the head. That's unusual, seeing as how the police don't tend to get involved with Wilson's type, no matter how many pieces they're in.
Of course, the news didn't play it like a murder. To the livebloods, it's more about litter. Lousy so-and-sos always leaving their body parts around, making the living waste their time picking up after them. The candy-blond anchor shrugged. Must've been an accident. Wilson's type are always getting into accidents. Cut to deodorant commercial. At times like this, you want to smellnice.
Accident, my ass. One or two pieces, maybe, and they would have found the head. Seeing as how there's no middle ground between accident and design, that meant something weirder; he was cut up on purpose. That's a lot of work. First, you have to get Colin Wilson into a position where he can't disagree, and then you have to do all that cutting. Human bone, too. Probably needed special tools. It's sure as hell not the kind of thing you do on a whim, or even out of anger. The reasons would have to run dark and deep.
And then there was the head.
I tried not to think about it, to focus on something else, but I didn't have a lot going on. I stared at my desktop, the stains looking like a faded Jackson Pollock. I tried to make animal shapes out of the Goodwill shirts piled on the floor, or see a tree in the cracks on the door.
By the time the news came back on, a late-afternoon light, the dying kind, had intruded from the broken window, making the TV hard to see. It didn't help. I couldn't get Colin Wilson's head out of mine; images of it were crawling around my brain like freshly hatched baby spiders. I didn't know Wilson from a punched hole in the wall, but I kept seeing his severed head in some coyote's mouth, an eye socket pinched between two strong canines, its saliva slapping the skull. Colin's good eye opens and he realizes where he is.
Cut to deodorant commercial.
It didn't make sense. What would a coyote do with a head? Not much meat on that bone. What really bugged me made less sense: What if Colin Wilson's brain really was still thinking? What if it knew what happened, understood that it was a lot shorter and less mobile than it used to be?
Weirder things are true. The official line is that decapitation ends it, but they don't know shit. Calling my memory bad is a compliment, but I do remember the strangest shit, like how I read somewhere that back when they used the guillotine, a French scientist asked a condemned murderer to blink twenty times after his execution, if he could. He did. When the scientist called his name, the head opened its eyes and looked at him. True story, true as anything.
And that's the living. Wilson wasn't of that persuasion. His functions wouldn't necessarily ever stop. So maybe he's still out there.
These days there are so many things worse than death that it's not even high on the list. Thousands of years we look for eternal life and what do we get? Fucking zombies. First I ever saw was in Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Scared the crap out of me. These days all I have to do is look in a mirror. Yeah, I'm one ofthose, too. Me, Colin Wilson, a hundred thousand or so others. Livebloods call us chakz—a mangled version of charqui, or, en inglés, jerky—dried meat. If we're still oozing, which is pretty rare, they call us gleets or juicers. Then there are danglers, but I'll leave that definition to the imagination.
It's not like the movies. We don't eat human flesh unless we go feral, and then it's more like we'll eat anything. We are tough to destroy, which is why I was so obsessed about that head. Cut off an arm or a leg, shoot us in the chest—we'll keep coming.
Then there's burning. Now, there's another great thought—watching your flesh curl until the heat takes your eyes away. Brr. But that begs the question, Who bothered giving Colin Wilson such special treatment? If they wanted to make sure he was gone, why not just incinerate him?
With all the love we get, why bring us back? Mostly because some idiots figured out how. Mammalian life is based on cellular metabolism, right? Ten years ago, the boffins at ChemBet's research labs came up with an electrostatic something-or-other that keeps cellular metabolism charged permanently. They call it a radical invigoration procedure, RIP for short. Ha, ha, ha. RIP a corpse, and hallelujah, the dead have risen!
The rich and famous were falling over their adopted third-world kids in the rush to bring back their loved ones. The feds gave ChemBet some huge tax breaks so the industry could grow and make the process cheaper. Everyone wanted in. Only, once the thrill died, livebloods started noticing how parts of Mom would rot off if she wasn't kept squeaky clean, or how, if you didn't talk to Uncle Stu often enough, he'd get all morose, go feral, and plant his dentures into the dog or a neighbor's kid. People not only wanted their money back, they wanted the process reversed.
That, ChemBet didn't know how to do. Neither did the government. They say decapitation is surefire, D-cap, but, like I said, I'm not so sure. It sounds too much like something a PR flak cut and pasted from a movie script.
Point being, people stopped ripping for love, but they couldn't just D-cap Grandma, not unless she went feral first. Those early revivals account for about half the chak population. The rest are another story.
Me, I was still obsessing about Wilson's head when I finally got my distraction. Misty, my assistant, walked in wearing a tight blue number with fishnet stockings. She's a liveblood. Nowadays you can see it by the flush to her face. When we met six months back she was a crack addict, picking through garbage to survive and turning tricks when things got really bad. So bad she tried working my neck of the woods, the Bones.
She was such a little, half-starved thing, I felt bad for her, which is saying something. Usually chakz don't feel much, even physical sensations. Oh, sometimes a sock in the jaw still feels like a sock in the jaw, or a nightmare can rock your world, but everything tends to be at arm's distance. Maybe it was her hazel puppy-dog eyes or the cracked teeth, but feeling for her gives me something to pay attention to. I also figured there were places a liveblood could get to that a dead guy couldn't, so after I got some food in her, we made a deal: She'd try to keep clean; I'd try to keep from going feral.
Our fingers remain crossed.
She strutted toward me, modeling her dress. It was something new from the thrift store, cleaned so carefully you could see only the outlines of the stains. Aside from the fact that she could stand to lose the stockings, she should've known flirting with me was a waste. When I said she moved me, I didn't mean she moved my groin. Hell, I'm afraid to look down there since they brought me back. Officially, chakz don't have a sex drive.
She meant well, wanted to keep me engaged with my environment so I didn't get too morose over, oh, I don't know, my entire fucking existence. I appreciated the effort, and she was sort of fun to look at.
Trying to play my part, I attempted a wolf whistle. It came out more like a spastic steam kettle. Chakz are bone-dry. I should've taken a drink first, but the effect doesn't last long, and the liquids slosh around inside so much you can never be sure when or where they'll come out.
Misty got the idea, though. She winked. Then she flashed a business card.
I leaned forward for a closer look. Nice paper, maybe even linen. William Turgeon, Esq. No address, just the name and a cell phone number, like he was a place all by himself.
"You find that in the street?"
She blew a raspberry. "No, stupid, he's outside. Wants to see you."
"Me? Really? He's not lost?"
"Nope. Asked for you by name. Says, 'Is Hessius Mann here'?"
That's my name. The hand-painted sign on the door says I'm a detective. I don't particularly agree with the title, but I keep that to myself. And I do get clients, sometimes among the living. Unfortunately, your average liveblood is about as knowledgeable about chakz as they are about how evolution works, so when one shows up, they usually want me to kill and eat someone they don't like. Then they get all incensed when I say no. Most likely, this was more of the same.
On the other hand, it could be a blackmail case, especially with that fancy card. Those're good, but few and far between. See, it's best to tell your hired dick what you're being blackmailed for. Livebloods don't like chakz, but they don't seem to mind telling us everything. Not only are we dead, our memories are so wonky our testimony's not admissible in court. A plus for someone with a secret, a minus for me.
When I was alive, my recall was photographic. It was half the reason I had my job. These days, I remember the weirdest crap. The Beatles' last album? Abbey Road. They recorded it after Let It Be. My middle name? Your guess is as good as mine. Oh, I can still have a decent conversation. It's the transition from short- to long-term memory that's AWOL.
Misty adjusted my jacket and straightened my tie. I felt like a rotting, life-size Ken doll.
"So, should I send him in?" she asked.
I held up a gray finger. "Keep him busy a minute. Say I'm on the phone. There's something I want to do first."
Soon as she left, I forgot what it was. The television? I clicked it off. No, something else.
Talking head? No. Oh, yeah. The head.
After I was ripped, one of the first things I realized I had to do was buy a little handheld digital recorder to store all those details I used to have at my fingertips. Took a week to remember to buy the damn thing. Now I was always losing it. I felt around on the desk, then my body, and finally found it in my pants pocket. With a press of the red dot I rattled off what I was thinking about Colin Wilson, for future reference.
If I ever remembered that I made the recording, that is.
I was finished when the door swung open. Misty held on to the knob, stretching her thin arm across our guest, putting herself in the doorframe along with him. She knew he'd have to rub against her to come in. Poor Misty, she wasn't very subtle. I understood why she was interested. His suit cost more than the building. It wasn't his looks. He was big, though not exactly fat. The word I'd use is puffy.
Unlike Misty, William Turgeon was not a lot of fun to look at, but it was unavoidable because he took up so much space. He was a six-footer, rounded, not obese, but his proportions were off. Largish head, squat arms, oversize hands. The clothes helped. The lines of the suit matched his body snug as puzzle pieces, but overall he looked kind of like an overdressed, overly large baby.
As he squeezed past her, she tried to make eye contact, but either he wasn't interested or he was real good at hiding it. She gave me a no-playing–Pretty Woman–today shrug and made herself scarce.
It was late and my office didn't get much light to begin with. The room was dark enough for his Stetson to keep most of his features in shadow. I could see the whites of his eyes, but that was about it. What I could see of those pupils were all over me. He was checking me out for something. What, I didn't know.
"Hessius Mann?" he said. It was an even voice, not unfriendly, but high-pitched. On the phone I might think he was a woman.
I stood and caught a glimpse of my bony self reflected in the window. The suit was decent, but something stuck up from the top of my head. Hoping it was hair and not a piece of scalp, I nodded a greeting. I didn't bother putting out my hand. Livebloods don't like to touch us.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Turgeon?"
He took off his hat and planted himself in the smaller chair in front of my desk. The old wood creaked loudly, but it didn't collapse. A good look at his face did nothing to deter my impression of him as a giant baby. His head was a series of puffy ovals, fat little egg shapes. As for his hair, well, he should have kept the hat on. It was braided in tight cornrows. Not the fashion choice I'd have made.
"You used to work for the police?" he asked.
He'd done his homework. I didn't like talking about my past, but Turgeon looked like he had money, and I wanted some. "Yeah. It's no secret."
"Until you were accused of beating your wife to death after discovering she'd had an affair with the chief detective, Thomas Booth?"
Nobody likes a show-off. Some things have emotional resonance even with a chak. That, for instance. Really strong feelings are physically uncomfortable for us, like forcing too much water through a thin, cracked tube. We don't like it.
"What's this about, Mr. Turgeon?"
He narrowed his egg eyes. "You can be offended. You're higher-functioning than most."
"You're pretty high-functioning yourself, for a liveblood."
"I'm sorry. I need to be sure who I'm working with."
The apology surprised me. We don't usually get that. It made me relax, but just a little. "Let me clear something up for you right now. I don't kill and eat people."
The puffy lines under his chin wobbled as he shook his head. "It's nothing like that. I have a touchy situation to resolve. I have to trust you first, though. May I ask another personal question?"
"Try it and see how it goes."
The chair creaked again as he shifted. "At work one day you received an e-mail with a photo showing your wife, Lenore, engaged in coitus with your boss."
He looked as if he were going to giggle when he said coitus. This time, I wasn't aware of having an emotional reaction, but my body disagreed. My knee started twitching.
"You put your fist through the wall," he went on, "then raced home. Your boss, concerned, followed with some men. They found you hovering over your dead wife. She'd been beaten with your baseball bat. You claimed you found her that way, but no one believed you; you were known for having a temper. You were found guilty and executed."
Point of pride, desire for the job, whatever, I struggled not to react, but my knee just wasn't doing it for me anymore. Fucking memory. It never rains but it pours. Fractured images, burning pricks, stabbed my brain: the color photo of Lenore and Booth together, the side of her enraptured face making a shadow on the nape of his neck, the feel of plasterboard buckling against my knuckles, the twisted, almost clownish look of surprise on Booth's face as he burst into our kitchen and saw all the blood. Then a blur.
The next clear sensation was my execution, the needle sliding into my arm, fishing for a vein, the sense of relief that it was all over. But it wasn't. Next thing, it's a few months later and I'm staring at the herpes sore on the lower lip of a chain smoker. He's giving me my ten-minute exit interview, explaining how I was one of the "lucky" ones. A grave diggers' strike left me on ice, refrigerated for three months. Between thick, wet coughs he says that with the right makeup, if I kept the lights low, I'd almost pass for a liveblood.
Never tried it. Kept forgetting.
He hands me my wallet and the little green vial I had in my pocket when I was arrested. Inside the wallet's sixteen bucks and two condoms. Lenore and I had been trying to have a kid, but when I didn't get a raise, she decided to wait.
The flashbacks retreated. Turgeon was still talking in his high, sweet voice. "Your fellow detectives were so eager to convict you, some DNA evidence was kept hidden from the defense. Between that and irregularities in your arrest and trial, you were exonerated and restored. Most people still think you're guilty."
He paused. His eyes flared as if he felt guilty about dragging all this up, but he didn't say anything else. I figured that meant it was my move.
"Is there a question in there?"
He rubbed the brim of his hat. "Well… did you do it?"
I leaned back and twisted my head. Something in my neck cracked. I hoped it wasn't bone. "I'll answer you, but first, I like to know who I'm working with, too."
Turgeon pulled out an envelope and tossed it on the desk. It slid a little before coming to a halt against a crack in the veneer. I didn't have to pick it up to see it was stuffed with hundreds. Decent amount for a liveblood detective. For a chak? A fortune.
"I don't know what sort of cases you usually get, but I'm certain this isn't one of them. Your police background makes you perfect for what I need. I don't care if you lied to the jury, but I can't take the risk that you'd lie to me." He moved his shoulders in what seemed an apologetic fashion, then lowered his voice to a boyish hush. "So, did you kill your wife?"
"Honestly?" I told him. "I don't remember."
"In the court transcripts you say you were innocent."
"Did I? I've read them a few dozen times, but a chak's memory, right? I get flashes, but the actual moment? A total blank."
That's why I never went looking for her real killer. I'm afraid I'll find out it's me.
He zeroed in on my eyes. Like that would help. Idiot, you can't read chak eyes. It's like watching someone zoned in front of a TV or video game. They don't call it a zombie look for nothing. You can't tell a thing by looking at our eyes.
I met his gaze nice and steady, but it was like that lame wolf whistle I gave Misty, going through the paces out of politeness… acting, like a friend of mine says, as if, in this case as if I were still alive. Turgeon's eyes were a weird baby blue, the color so consistent he must have been wearing contacts. Funny thing to be vain about, but beauty's in the eye of the beholder.
Finally, he said, "I believe you," as if we were in his no-girls-allowed tree house, making some kind of pact.
A man of many pockets, he pulled a photo from one. It was a head shot, posed, showing a square-headed forty-year-old with close-cropped curly hair, a few lines on his face, and a decent smile. The top button of his blue shirt was loose, the collar not completely ironed, so whoever he was, he wasn't anal. Into himself enough to pose for a head shot, though.
"Frank Boyle," Turgeon said. "His father, Martin, was a close friend of my firm's founder, Mr. Trent Derby. Martin Boyle passed away last week from lung cancer and left all his money, a considerable sum, to his eldest son. I have to find him and let him know about his inheritance."
It was starting to make sense.
"Let me guess. Frank's a chak, right? On the streets somewhere, no known address?"
Turgeon nodded. "Exactly."
"Even so, why hire me? Why not a liveblood, or go to the cops?"
He rubbed his hat again. "It's complicated. He has a living brother and sister who are both contesting the will. They're people of influence who wouldn't think much of… getting rid of a chak to preserve their fortune. Mr. Derby is concerned that they may have already reached out to the local police and any real… uh, liveblood detective in the area. Sorry, no offense."
"None taken. I get your point. They'd never hire a chak, right?" I drummed my fingers on the envelope and tried to look as if I were thinking about it. "You're leaving out the other complication. Frank might be feral."
Turgeon made a funny little swallowing sound. "Naturally, that's a concern."
"Natural's got nothing to do with it." I laid my palm on the envelope. "I get paid whether he is or not, long as I find him for you before the sinister siblings?"
He nodded at the money as if embarrassed it was too little. "That's for accepting the job. I'll pay the same if you find him first, feral or not. Time is of the utmost. You have to start now. I need… I… expect immediate action. They can't be allowed to find him first."
I flipped through the bills. It was more than I'd guessed. I looked up into Turgeon's eyes, trying to suss him out. Mostly he looked nervous, which pretty much matched his story.
I picked up the envelope. I started to put it in my jacket pocket, forgetting there was a tear in the bottom. Before it fell into the lining I pulled it out and shoved it into the top desk drawer, trying to make it look like that had been the idea all along. The drawer stuck. I cursed under my breath until I got it closed.
"You'll take the case?" Eggman asked.
"Hey, you're the Eggman. Goo goo g'joob," I said.
I don't think he got the joke.