Our favorite zombie Angel Crawford has come a long way from her days as a pain-pill-addicted high school dropout with a felony record. After a year highlighted by murder, kidnapping, and the loss of her home, all she wants to do is kick back, relax, and maybe even think about college.
But when key members of the “Zombie Mafia” go missing, she has no choice but to get involved. Angel is certain Saberton Corporation is behind the disappearances, yet she can’t shake the sense that a far deeper conspiracy is at work. With the small band of friends she can trust, Angel strikes out to track down the missing zombies.
From a seedy redneck bar in the backwoods of south Louisiana to a high society cocktail party halfway across the country, Angel claws her way through corporate intrigue, zombie drugs, and undead trafficking. In no time at all she's embroiled in kidnapping plits and hostage negotiations—though for once she's the one calling the felonious shots. Add some breaking and entering, criminal damage, and a wee bit of terrorism, and Angel's up to her undead ears in the kind of trouble she excels at.
But when unexpected danger threatens to destroy her, all the brains and bravado in the world may not be enough to keep her from going to pieces.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Sweat dribbled into my eyes and my ribs ached, but I stood my ground against the burly man in front of me. He flexed his hands as we slowly circled each other, his teeth bared in a sneer framed by a truly majestic beard.
His hand shot out to seize my sleeve. I twisted to break his grip, but he merely shifted to grab my shoulder with his other hand. Within about two seconds he spun, slammed his butt into my hips, hoisted me up and sent me flying.
I landed hard on the mat, breath whooshing out of my lungs before I remembered to slap my hand down.
“No, no, Angel, the slap is part of the fall.” That was my sensei, his voice laced with three months of frustration from trying to teach me the most basic aspects of jiu jitsu.
“Right,” I wheezed. “Got it.”
My brawny opponent reached down and grabbed the front of my gi, then hoisted me up to set me on my feet as easily as picking up a kitten.
“C’mon,” he rumbled. “Try it on me. It’s all about balance.”
All about balance, my ass. I weighed barely a hundred pounds, and Freddie easily topped three hundred. Lips drawn back in a snarl, I seized his sleeve, grabbed his shoulder with my other hand, then spun and tried to slam my scrawny ass into his groin in an attempt to copy the move he’d performed on me.
“You’re not going to get him onto your back using brute strength,” my sensei lectured as Freddie remained immobile. “Try a different move. Try osoto gari.”
I gave him a blank look, and he sighed. “‘Trip the Drunk Guy,’” he said, supplying my own nickname for the move.
“Gotcha!” Why did they have to use so many weird names for things? And yes, I knew it was Japanese, a beautiful and elegant language that wasn’t weird in the slightest, but I still had trouble with parts of the English language. Expecting me to remember a bunch of foreign words was asking way too much of my brain. Of course, for all I knew osoto gari actually meant Trip the Drunk Guy.
I adjusted my grip, yanked on Freddie’s arm to try and get his weight onto one leg, then shot my own leg forward and slammed it back into his to sweep it.
Like kicking a tree trunk.
“Pull on the arm,” sensei suggested, oh-so-helpfully.
“I am,” I growled, then added a belated, “sir.”
I continued to yank and pull and grip and kick and sweep until finally Freddie tumbled to the ground—with a perfect slap and fall—though I was pretty sure he’d simply taken pity on me. Sensei probably suspected the same thing, but he looked more relieved than anything. Poor guy. It wasn’t his fault that I wasn’t exactly the best learner in the world.
After my brilliant demonstration, it was my turn to stand back and observe humongous Freddie and normal size Chance go at it. My ego recovered slightly as I watched Chance get taken down over and over, though when he fell he slapped the mat and did shit right instead of flopping like a sack of flour the way I did. About a month ago I’d snapped something in my ankle because of my horrible form, but a quick snack of brains healed the damage right up. That was one awesome thing about being a zombie. As long as I had my “protein shake” in my bag—with its super special ingredient—no one, especially my sensei, ever needed to know I was hurt.
Sensei gave the two men some critiques on form, then turned to me. “Rollouts, Angel,” he instructed, gesturing to the length of the mat. “Both sides, back and forth twice, then you’re done.”
“Yes, sir!” I said with a cheerful grin, then proceeded to throw myself at the mat in the most spaztastic rolls any jiu jitsu dojo had ever seen.
I wasn’t sure, but I think sensei might have wept a little.
“Cherry red face.”
The skin parted beneath my scalpel as I let out a soft snort of derision. “Oh, please. Give me a hard one. Carbon monoxide poisoning.”
Dr. Leblanc smiled from where he leaned against the counter. Fifty-something, with thinning grey-blond hair, glasses perched halfway down his nose, and more flab than muscle around his middle, he wouldn’t stand out in a crowd, but I didn’t care about that one little bit. The pathologist for the St. Edwards Parish Coroner’s Office was one of my all-time favorite people in the world, mostly because he seemed to have absolute faith that I was capable of all sorts of great things. I didn’t always believe him, but I sure tried my best to live up to his expectations. Barely an hour earlier I’d been spazzing my way through jiu jitsu, and one of the reasons I hadn’t given up weeks ago was because, shortly after I started training, Dr. Leblanc had remarked that he would be honored if I would invite him to attend my belt ceremony once I earned my yellow belt. Honored. Before I was turned into a zombie, I’d been a drug addicted high school dropout with a felony conviction who couldn’t hold a job. And Dr. Leblanc couldn’t have cared less about any of that.
“All right,” Dr. Leblanc said, “let’s stick with the carbon monoxide subject.” He tipped his head back as he contemplated my next challenge. “Your decedent has second and third degree burns over ninety percent of his body. No evidence of other trauma. Tox scan comes back clean. Carboxyhemoglobin level is five percent. How does that level corroborate your decedent’s death by fire?”
I drew the scalpel down the woman’s abdomen to finish the Y-incision as I thought. “It doesn’t,” I said after a moment. “Poor dude probably got himself killed, and the murderer tried to use the fire to cover it up.”
“Are you sure?” He leveled a stern look at me.
“Yes,” I said, with mock-seriousness. “Well, not about the murder part,” I amended, “but about the dead-before-the-fire-started part. With only five percent on the . . .” I faltered. I knew what the damn test measured, but I had a hell of a time spouting off the word. “With a carboxyhemidoodamajigger level of only five percent, there’s no way he was alive when the fire started, otherwise it’d be way higher from breathing carbon monoxide.” The hamster raced on its wheel in my head. “Could be he died of a heart attack and dropped a cigarette onto a pile of newspapers. Five percent would be pretty normal in a smoker.” I shrugged. “Murder or accident, dude didn’t die from the fire or its smoke.”
His smile returned. “I should probably say I’m impressed, but the truth is, I’m not.”
“To be impressed I’d have to be surprised by how well you’ve absorbed the material,” he said. “And I’m not surprised at all.”
Flushing with pleasure, I returned my attention to the body and finished separating skin and flesh from ribs. “I still have a long way to go.” I set the scalpel aside and picked up the big pruning shears—the same kind I used to snip branches at my house. Not that I actually did much in the way of yard maintenance besides shoving a lawnmower around every few weeks.
“But every piece of knowledge is one more step down that long path,” he replied. He watched me snip through ribs to remove the triangle-shaped section, then pushed off the counter to step forward and peer into the chest cavity. “And one day you will look at that long path and find only a few steps left.”
“Keep being so wise, and I’m going to start calling you Most Honorable Master Leblanc,” I teased as I wiped down the shears. “You’d look awesome with a long white beard and moustache to twirl.”
He laughed. “I suppose I do sound a bit pompous.”
“Nah, it’s cool,” I said with a grin. “Just don’t ask me to punch through boards or anything.”
“I can promise you that’s not likely to happen,” he replied, then picked up a scalpel and began his examination of the throat, chest, and abdomen.
Funny thing was that I had punched through boards before—not all that long ago, in fact. A flash flood had washed my house away this past summer, and with my dad and me trapped in the attic, I’d punched and kicked my way through the plywood and tar paper and shingles to give us a way out.
Nobody knew about that, though, except my dad. It wasn’t the sort of thing any normal person could do, and especially not one like me—barely a hundred pounds of skinny bitch who sure as hell didn’t look tough enough to break a toothpick, much less rip through a roof.
Then again, I wasn’t normal. Not one bit.
I moved to the end of the table and began work on the young woman’s head. Mid-twenties, pretty in a girl-next-door sort of way. Sarah Lynn Harper. The name didn’t ring a bell, but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling I’d seen her before, when she was alive.
Scalpel in hand, I made a slice from ear to ear on top of her head, then peeled the scalp back to expose her skull. Trading scalpel for bone saw, I cut a neat circle all the way around, like a bowl cut gone wrong, then took a chisel-like tool called a skullcracker, shoved it into the groove and twisted. The bone gave a satisfying crack, followed by a wet sllrrkk sound as I pulled the top of the skull off to expose the pink and grey convolutions of the brain.
The weird and gross music of the morgue, I thought with amusement, then took a deep breath and inhaled. The lovely scent of that brain filled me, but I resisted the urge to grab a handful and stuff it into my mouth. I wasn’t all that hungry, but yummm, fresh brains. I’d chow down later when there weren’t witnesses to how very not normal I was.
My desire to munch on brain matter wasn’t because I was crazy. No doubt there were people who’d argue that I had a mental twitch or three, but that was beside the point. About a year ago I woke up in the ER with memories of horrible injuries yet not a scratch on me. I soon discovered that an anonymous benefactor had arranged for me to get a job with the Coroner’s Office, and I’d been harvesting brains out of body bags ever since. I wanted the brains—hell, needed the brains—because I was host to a truly bizarre parasite. As long as I ate a brain every week and a half or so, I was fine. The parasite stayed happy, and would even fix me up if I got hurt or sick, though that required more brain-fuel. However, if I didn’t give my parasite enough brains, I’d start to fall apart—literally. Not only would I rot, but I’d lose my ability to think clearly and, worst of all, I’d get hungry. Really hungry. Hungry enough to kill for the brains I needed.
Fortunately, my job as a morgue tech kept me well stocked on brains. No need for any murderous rampages today.
The creak of the door jerked me out of my thoughts, and I glanced over my shoulder to see Allen Prejean, the Coroner’s Office Chief Investigator, step into the cutting room, a clipboard in his gloved hands.
Yanking my gaze away, I returned my attention to my work as he and Dr. Leblanc exchanged pleasantries. Allen didn’t like me. He’d made that very clear from day one by giving me everything from crap schedules to undisguised sneers and offhand comments about work ethics and unsavory lifestyles. There were plenty of people who didn’t like me or who saw only what they expected to see—high school dropout, former felon, and recovering drug addict. In other words, a loser. Most of the time I had no problem blowing it off when I got the stink-eye. In the past year I’d worked my ass off to leave my loser self behind, and if there were some people who couldn’t see it, well, screw ’em.
Allen’s barely hidden contempt hadn’t really bothered me until last summer when I’d accidentally sliced my hand open right here in the morgue. If Dr. Leblanc hadn’t been in the room it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but I couldn’t exactly say, “Don’t worry, Doc. I’ll slurp down a baggie of brains and my zombie parasite will have me fixed up in no time!” I was forced to play it out like a normal person. To save me the hassle and paperwork of the emergency room, Allen stitched it up—and not only was he vaguely decent to me while he did so, but he let slip that he tended to use his vacation time to go on Doctors Without Borders missions. Admirable shit. And in a flash I went from not giving a rat’s ass that he hated me to being bugged by it.
That’s his problem, I told myself for the billionth time. So what if he and I weren’t BFFs? He couldn’t fire me without cause, and I did my damnedest not to give him any.
I removed the brain and set it on the scale while Allen peered at the body. A few seconds later he made a mark on his clipboard, then turned away to inspect the body bag Sarah Lynn had occupied. Checking up on me, I knew. Several months ago there’d been a stink about missing jewelry, and ever since then Allen had instituted spot checks like this one to make sure personal property was removed and properly logged.
Keeping my face expressionless, I continued my work. He had yet to ding me for a single screwup, real or imagined, and I intended to keep it that way. Head down, do my work, don’t make waves. Be a good little Angel.
“Allen, did you hear Angel’s news?” Dr. Leblanc suddenly asked as he set a kidney on the scale. I dutifully recorded the weight on the white board on the wall behind him, while I wondered what the hell the pathologist was talking about.
Allen’s eyes narrowed ever so faintly. “News?” His gaze swung to me, and I noted a hint of curiosity in his eyes. Probably wondering if it was something he could add to his Angel Shitlist.
Dr. Leblanc removed the kidney from the scale and began to section it. “Angel passed her GED last week,” he announced with a broad smile. “The sky’s the limit for her now.”
Yep, I’d finally managed to scrape out a passing grade on the GED—after hours and hours of free tutoring from my coworker, Nick, along with quite a few more hours of not-free tutoring that focused on my recently diagnosed dyslexia.
I braced myself for some sort of eye roll or dismissive snort from Allen, but he managed to force a smile—for Dr. Leblanc’s benefit, no doubt. “Congrats, Angel,” he said with as much enthusiasm as a garden slug. “You’ll be heading off to college soon then, I take it?”
Heat crawled up my face at his tone and the unspoken No fucking way will you make it through a real school. This is as far as you’ll ever go in life.
“Actually, I’m going to register for a couple of classes at Tucker Point Community College next term,” I shot back before my brain could engage itself. Crap. I’d toyed with the idea and even made it as far as checking out the college website, but I’d been too . . . well, okay, I’d been too chicken to do anything more. I’d passed the GED by the skin of my teeth—by one damn point, to be exact—and only managed that because I was allowed extra time because of my dyslexia. How the hell could I make it through college?
Yet I’d gone and said it, which meant that now I was stuck. No way would I give Allen the satisfaction of being right about me, and no way would I disappoint Dr. Leblanc, not with that proud smile on his face.
“Sounds good, Angel,” Allen commented without so much as a glance my way. He made another note on his clipboard, gave Dr. Leblanc a slight nod, and then departed without another word.
The pathologist removed the woman’s heart, weighed it, and set it on his cutting board. “I suppose I don’t need to suggest that you get in there and show everyone what you’re made of?”
I snorted, forced the fierce smile Dr. Leblanc expected from me. “Nah. Got that covered.”
Shit. Looked like I was going to college.
“Now isn’t that interesting,” Dr. Leblanc murmured, frowning down at the sectioned heart.
I peered over at the abnormally thickened wall of her left ventricle. “Ventricular hypertrophy?” We saw it all the time in cases of heart disease and high blood pressure, but hardly ever in someone this young. And certainly not where there was barely any space in the ventricle at all.
“I think we can be more specific,” he said. “Cardiomegaly, young, signs of pulmonary edema, asymmetric septal and ventricular hypertrophy.” He ran the probe over the septum in the cross section. “See?”
Not only did I see, but I actually understood everything he’d said. Hot damn! Of course it helped that I was almost positive we’d seen this once before in an autopsy—
Oh, shit. We had seen this before, and now I knew why the woman looked familiar. She’d been one of the extras—a zombie cheerleader—for a movie that had been filmed in the area this past summer: High School Zombie Apocalypse!! Another female extra, Brenda Barnes, had died from the very same condition.
“We had a case like this a few months ago,” I said around the sudden chill that gripped my throat.
“Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy,” he said, expression turning grave. “Two cases in a short span of time, and this one just as perplexing as the first.”
An echocardiogram from a few months prior to Brenda Barnes’s death had shown no sign of the heart condition, yet she’d died of it all the same. After quite a bit of frustrated puzzling, Dr. Leblanc had finally decided that either there’d been a mixup in medical records or a mistake was made in the echo.
Unfortunately, I had another theory. Several months ago Saberton Corporation was busy performing pseudo-zombie experimentation. They needed a large group of test subjects, and the movie extras fit the bill perfectly. Makeup hid side effects of rot, and behavioral issues were chalked up to acting like, well, zombies. And, of course, none of the extras knew they were part of an unethical, horrible, and utterly evil experiment to test fake brains and who knew what else.
But maybe Sarah Lynn was different and already had the heart condition? The thought that more people would die months down the road because of Saberton’s bullshit made my stomach turn. “Anything in her records about it?” I asked, clinging to the slim hope.
“Nothing about any sort of heart condition in any of her records,” he said, dashing my hopes to the ground and stepping on them. “And she has a lot of medical records. Lymphoma . . . and two months ago she went into remission.” He let out a sigh.
“She traded cancer for a fatal heart problem?” I didn’t like the direction of my thoughts, but I couldn’t share them with Dr. Leblanc.
“It does appear to be a supremely tragic twist of fate,” he said. “It’s possible some aspect of her treatment contributed to the heart condition. But I’ll check everything out thoroughly, especially with the similarity to the previous case.”
And what if he discovers that both were extras in the movie? The thought unsettled me deeply. Would he report the link to authorities? Would they in turn dig up Saberton and its zombie research? As much as I hated the idea of the Saberton assholes getting away with murder, the last thing the zombie community needed was prying from outsiders.
He picked up a scalpel and carefully sectioned the heart while I busied myself with sewing up the incision. As much as I liked Dr. Leblanc, all I wanted right now was to get away so I could process this crap.
After we finished, I returned Sarah Lynn to her body bag and placed the clear plastic bag of organs between her legs. Under normal conditions I’d wait until I was alone in the morgue, then go into the cooler and collect that brain for my own dining pleasure. But not this one. It would stay right there in the bag with the liver and kidneys and other organs. I wasn’t about to risk screwing up my zombie parasite by eating a Saberton-contaminated brain. It might as well have been a lump of sawdust for all the appeal it had now.
I tucked the body away in the cooler, cleaned up the morgue and readied everything for the next day’s autopsies. With that done, I grabbed my phone from my purse then headed outside and to the other side of the back parking lot. Dr. Ariston Nikas ran the zombie research lab where I worked part-time, twice a week. If anyone had answers about autopsies and zombie research, it would be him, but I wasn’t about to risk that someone might overhear.
Dr. Nikas answered on the second ring. “Hello, Angel,” he said, a smile in his pleasantly accented voice. “I was about to call you.”
“Oh? What do you need?”
“No, you go ahead first,” he said. “It must be important if you are calling.”
I checked around me, then lowered my voice. “You remember the movie extra who died from the Saberton experiments a few months back? We just had another case. Sarah Lynn Harper. She was an extra too. Twenty something with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy that wasn’t there two months ago.”
With those two words my hopes for a non-Saberton explanation sank. “You think the experiments caused it?”
“That would be my first theory,” he replied solemnly “It’s unprecedented for that condition to develop in such a short time frame. The common denominator for both victims is Saberton.”
“There were a couple of hundred extras,” I said, stomach knotting with anger and dread. Most of the extras had been unemployed, laid off from a factory Saberton bought and closed. The company had promised to rehire everyone once Saberton got some big juicy defense contract, but that had yet to happen. “All of those people could die or get screwed up? We have to do something!”
“Philip smuggled enough of the Saberton research data to me that I may be able to develop a counter agent,” he said, referring to Philip Reinhardt, a Saberton employee I’d been forced to turn into a zombie when I was a prisoner in Dr. Kristi Charish’s secret lab. Philip turned out to be an undercover operative working for Pietro Ivanov—the head of the local “Tribe” of zombies—and it was because of heroic efforts on Philip’s part that Dr. Nikas was able to stay a step ahead of most of Saberton’s bullshit.
Dr. Nikas released a sigh heavily tinged with regret. “I’d truly hoped the death of Brenda Barnes had been an isolated incident.”
“I’m with you there.” I began to pace in the parking lot to vent some of my anger and frustration. “But there’s something else. Sarah had lymphoma that went into remission after the filming, and when we autopsied her, it was like she never had it. The same shit that killed her, cured her.”
Dr. Nikas fell silent for a moment before answering. “That would be my conjecture. It apparently mimicked the zombie parasite’s healing ability, which is . . . remarkable.”
“It’d be cool if it didn’t come with the whole dying thing,” I kicked savagely at a pine cone in my way. “Saberton hasn’t stopped, have they? They’re still experimenting.”
“They have too much invested to stop,” he stated. “They aren’t operating in south Louisiana anymore, but I have no doubt they’re forging ahead with some form of zombie research. Without Philip undercover with them anymore, my information is sketchy.”
A number of curse words leapt to mind, but I held them back for Dr. Nikas’s sake. “So, what were you going to call me about?”
“I have a new protocol ready for Philip that I’d like to start as soon as possible, balancing his parasite with yours. Would you be able to come in at two this afternoon?”
I stopped pacing and tried to think if there was anything I needed to do after work. The drive to Dr. Nikas’s lab took about half an hour and burned up gas I could barely afford, but I was willing to do it if it would help out my zombie-baby, Philip. Dr. Charish’s stupid fake brains had badly screwed up Philip’s zombie parasite, and without Dr. Nikas’s work to repair the damage and stabilize him, Philip would’ve been dead ten times over. In fact, about once a week I volunteered blood and time so that Dr. Nikas could use the zombie mama-baby connection to develop treatments for him.
My left arm began to itch, as if in response to my thoughts about blood samples. The needles the lab used had a special coating on them to keep the parasite from closing the skin and clogging the needle, and ever since I’d started giving blood frequently, a few months back, I’d had this stupid itch. On the other hand, Philip had improved tremendously in that time, which made it worth putting up with a relatively minor annoyance.
“I can come at two,” I said. “But aren’t you going out with Pietro today?”
“It’s a late day,” he replied. “We’re doing dinner instead of lunch, so no worries.”
“That’s good,” I said, relieved to hear the “date” hadn’t been cancelled. Dr. Nikas didn’t get out much, and the occasional outings with Pietro always seemed to do him good. “I clock out of here at noon, so I’ll run home and change after that, and see you a bit before two.”
After we said our goodbyes I returned inside and settled in to work on organizing and labeling the shelves in the supply room. Although this sort of busy work usually distracted me pretty well from various troubles and worries, it sure as hell didn’t work this time. By the time Nick walked in a half hour later, I’d labeled every shelf, arranged protective gear by color, and lined up scalpel blades by size.
Nick the Prick. That’s what I’d secretly—and sometimes not so secretly—called him for the first several months of my time with the Coroner’s Office. At some point this past spring he’d become plain old Nick to me. He still had his pompous, know-it-all moments—lots of them—but he’d also patiently tutored me for my GED without asking for any sort of payment, and had been unexpectedly kick butt helpful and supportive after I lost everything in the flood.
He stood in the doorway now and surveyed my handiwork. “Everything okay?” he asked.
“Sure!” I chirped. “Couldn’t be better.”
“Right.” He nodded slowly, lips pursed. “Is that why you labeled that box of gloves ‘Hand Cover Things’?”
Shit. I gave a weak chuckle and ripped the offending label off the box. “I wonder how that happened.”
His mouth tightened into a worried frown. “Maybe your dyslexia has developed into preliminary dementia.”
For a second I thought he was serious, then I rolled my eyes and flicked the wadded-up label at him. “You are such an ass.”
“I think that’s been established,” he said with a trace of amusement in his green eyes. “And ass or not, I don’t believe you.”
“Yeah, sorry,” I said, sighing. “I have some things on my mind and can’t focus worth shit.”
“Think you can focus on walking and carrying?” I gave him a baffled look, and he continued, “Doc is swamped, and I thought he could use a cappuccino. Me too, for that matter. You want to go to Dear John’s Café with me to help carry?”
“You mean stop this whirlwind of inaccurate labeling?” I asked even as I dumped the label maker into a drawer. I doubted he really needed help carrying stuff, but rescuing me from my self-inflicted mental misery was the kind of gesture that had lost him his prickhood.
“I’m sure the morgue will survive,” he said, then turned and headed for the door in quick strides. Halfway there he hesitated, as if remembering he should have waited for me, and I smiled to myself and hurried after him. As if to make up for running off without me, he held the door and flashed a genuine smile. He wasn’t a big guy, only a few inches taller than my not-quite five foot three, but he carried enough attitude for a guy the size of Andre the Giant. I hadn’t seen much of Nick since the GED tutoring finished. He usually worked a different shift, but since my awesome partner Derrel was off on vacation to the Bahamas for the next ten days, Nick was filling in for him.
Even though we’d worked together for close to a year, I didn’t know all that much about Nick. Aside from making sure people knew he was a pre-med student, he didn’t volunteer much personal information. Every now and then I’d ask about his family or what his childhood was like, and each time he would either suddenly realize he had something else he needed to do, or he’d quickly change the subject.
Maybe the two of us weren’t all that different. Not that he’d been a loser addict dropout or anything, but maybe being a pompous prick was his way of putting something in his past behind him and saying, “Fuck y’all. I’m here, and I’m cool no matter what.”
Or maybe I was just making shit up to hear myself think.
Outside, a cool breeze made me wish I’d grabbed my jacket. It wasn’t cold enough to bother going back for it, but it left no doubt the Louisiana summer was over. We took a shortcut across the back lot then skirted the St. Edwards Parish Courthouse to put us on Dead End Way, a busy avenue that had long outgrown its name.
“Anything I can help with?” Nick asked after we crossed and started down the side street toward the shop.
It took me a second to realize he was referring to my lack of focus. “Nah,” I said. “Personal stuff. I’ll get over it, but thanks anyway.” I couldn’t exactly tell him I was worried about the long term effects of unethical zombie research on innocent people.
“You always shake bad shit off in no time, so I bet you’ll be doing better before the day’s out.” For an instant he looked embarrassed by his own words of encouragement, then he cleared his throat. “Maybe some hot chocolate will perk you up. My treat.”
I gave him a warm smile. For all his Nickitude, I appreciated the decent person and friend under it all. I kind of suspected he liked me, but he seemed to be totally respectful of my relationship with Marcus, and he’d never said or done anything to make me feel uncomfortable.
“Thanks,” I said. “Don’t mind me. I’m just moody.” I hesitated, then forged on into scary territory. “I sorta told Doc I was going to sign up for college classes next term.”
His head snapped around. “At TPCC? That’s a big step.”
I stuffed my hands in my pockets, his shock confirming my suspicion that it was a big and stupid step. “Yeah. I should probably back out and wait until I have more tutoring under my belt with Jennifer.” And that could be a while since the dyslexia specialist cost a fortune. I had to space out my sessions in order to pay for them. Hell, for that matter, how was I supposed to pay for college?
“No!” Nick commanded, bringing my near escape from college to a screeching halt. “You can do it. No point in putting it off. And, uh . . .” He trailed off and seemed to find the sidewalk ahead very interesting.
The guy could be kind of cute when he got flustered. I hid a smile. “And what?”
“Maybe I could help out,” he blurted a little too eagerly, then backpedaled to a more casual, doesn’t-matter-to-me tone. “I mean, you know, if you get stuck on something.”
My smile slipped out as this particular worry faded away. “I’d like that,” I said and meant it. “Though I still don’t know how I can afford tuition.”
“Financial aid,” he said firmly. “Grants, scholarships, loans. I’ll help you with the applications.”
Well, there went my last remaining excuse. “Okay, so do you think I should take Introduction to Life Sciences or Biology one-oh-one?”
“If you want the credits to really mean something, take one-oh-one. Life Sciences won’t transfer to a four year school.”
“Wait.” I blinked, then shook my head. “A four-year? I haven’t even thought about that.”
Nick shrugged and lifted his chin in his I-know-all-about-this posture. “No point in wasting time,” he declared. “Better to have credits that transfer than not. It’s the only smart choice.”
I gulped. One-oh-one was sure to be a lot harder than Life Sciences. “I guess that makes sense,” I said weakly, wishing it didn’t.
“Of course it does,” he said as he opened the door to the shop. A delicious mix of smells flooded out—coffee and chocolate and all sorts of baked gooey things. “I’ll order. You want anything besides hot chocolate?”
“Since you’re buying, I’ll have one of those cherry cream cheese pastries,” I replied with a grin. “I love those things.”
“You got it,” he said and joined the line by the counter.
Dear John’s Café offered good beverages, pastry, and snacks, along with plentiful booths and decent free Wi-Fi. But its claim to local fame was the paper enshrined on the wall near the register—a Dear John letter that actually started off with “Dear John.” The letter had been written to the owner, John Hickey, ten years ago by his wife when she left him for his brother’s ex-wife. According to local legend, after a heavy drinking binge and a night in jail, John realized it was the best thing that had ever happened to him, quit his insurance sales gig, traded in his Lexus for a Toyota, downsized his house, and invested everything in the café. Who the hell knew if any of it was true, but it made a good story, and great coffee and a solid business model made for a booming business.
“Angel,” a woman called from the far end of the shop.
I looked toward the voice and saw Pietro Ivanov and Jane Pennington cozied up in a half-circle booth by the back wall. Jane gave me a warm smile and gestured for me to come over. A pleased tingle ran through me as I waved and returned the smile. It still floored me that anyone as cool as Congresswoman Jane Pennington wanted anything to do with little old me. She even called me on occasion when she wanted to poll “ordinary, everyday people” for opinions. I was far from either, but I wasn’t about to tell her that.
I tapped Nick on the shoulder. “Hey, I’m going to be by that booth by the back wall,” I told him. “Come find me when you’re done? I have some people I want you to meet.”
He nodded acknowledgment, and I headed back toward Pietro and Jane. Pietro was a rich-as-fuck local businessman, and also uncle to my boyfriend, Marcus Ivanov. But more importantly, Pietro as head of the local group of zombies, devoted himself to their survival and welfare, at times by whatever means necessary. I didn’t always agree with the “necessary means” Pietro and his organization used, but I’d also learned that none of the issues they dealt with were black and white.
Plus, I didn’t have much room to talk. Less than five months ago I’d bashed a man’s head in with a baseball bat and then feasted on his brains. Sure, he’d been shooting me seconds before, but there was no denying I’d used necessary means to remove the threat.
Pietro watched me approach, a relaxed smile on his face that only seemed to make its appearance around Jane. Sixtyish-looking, stocky but fit, he complemented her effortless elegance perfectly. Half-finished cups of coffee and the remains of a shared pastry sat on the table in front of them. I gave Pietro a nod of greeting then smiled to Jane. “I didn’t know you were in town.”
“I’m not really,” she said with a quiet laugh. “Only passing through to take care of a little business in my district and see Pietro.”
I glanced over as Nick approached. “This is my friend Nick Galatas,” I told them. “He’s one of the death investigators at the Coroner’s Office, and he’s also totally responsible for me finally passing the GED.” I grinned. “Nick, this is Congresswoman Jane Pennington and Pietro Ivanov.” I didn’t try to hide the hint of smugness in my tone that I knew such cool people. If the situation was reversed, Nick would be all over it.
Nick did the handshake thing with both of them, seeming totally confident and comfortable. “I helped a little with Angel’s preparation and studying,” he said, “but Angel was the one in the test room. She worked hard and earned it.”
A little heat rose in my face at the praise. I had worked hard, dammit, but it was still cool to have it recognized. “It’s too bad you can’t be here a little longer,” I said to Jane. “You’re going to miss the oh-so-awesome Nutria Festival this weekend.”
Pained amusement lit her eyes. “Believe it or not, I gave a speech there last year on the condition of our wetlands.”
Pietro laid his hand over hers on the table, gave it a squeeze. “We met at an incredibly tedious fundraiser only a few days after that. Jane stopped me from slitting my wrist with a broken champagne glass to escape the boredom.”
A joke from Pietro? If he didn’t watch out, having Jane as a girlfriend was going to turn him into a normal person.
Jane laughed. “I’m not sure it was quite so dramatic,” she said.
“You were still a state senator then, if I’m not mistaken?” Nick asked.
Pietro smiled broadly. “Right up until the now former Congressman Dale Grubbs was caught taking kickbacks.”
“I couldn’t have possibly won the special election to replace him without your help and support,” she told Pietro, voice warm with affection, then gave me a smile. “And as much as I regret missing out on nutria jambalaya,” she shuddered, “I’m off to New York this afternoon for a few engagements before The Child Find League Fundraiser Saturday, then back to DC. Committee meetings, staff meetings, and more meetings.” She shuddered once again.
“You’re on the House Judiciary Committee, right?” Nick asked, in a way that made it clear he already knew the answer. At Jane’s nod he continued with a smile, “Congratulations on that. Impressive feat for a freshman Congresswoman to score a spot on such an influential committee, but I suppose having doctorates in Political Science and Law helped considerably.”
I tried not to look as surprised as I was at the two doctorates thing. And here I’d assumed she was a medical doctor. Duh.
Jane chuckled. “It certainly didn’t hurt, though I’m still getting used to the maneuverings and behind-the-scene deals that aren’t taught in the classroom.”
Nick gave a knowing nod. “Your detractors who are complaining that you’re not doing enough to secure a defense contract for Saberton don’t understand how the system works.”
An expression of true regret swept over her face. “I would love to wave a magic wand and reopen the factory so that all those people could be rehired,” she said, referring to the employees laid off after Saberton bought a farm machinery company and then failed to obtain a hoped-for defense contract. “But the sad and brutal truth is that in order to ensure Saberton lands that contract, I would have to expend every bit of political capital I’ve acquired in the past few months, and owe quite a few favors besides.” She sighed. “I can’t afford to ‘blow my wad’ on the Saberton contract.”
Nick nodded again. “Not when there are bills coming up for programs and funding that have far more impact on this area,” he said. “Wetlands, drilling rights, flood control. It would be a short term fix with long term issues.”
I glanced over at Nick, probably with my mouth hanging open, impressed and surprised that he had a clue. Hell, more than a clue. I caught the gist of what they were talking about, and as much as I wanted to see those factory jobs come back, I had a hard time getting behind anything that helped Saberton Corporation in any way. I figured Pietro couldn’t either, not with their track record of fuck-y’all exploitation of both zombies and regular people. Yet Jane’s reasoning seemed logical and sound, and not at all based on an “I Hate Saberton” point of view. Then again, as far as I knew, Jane still knew nothing about the zombies. I had no idea if or when Pietro planned to tell her, but that sort of thing was waaay into the sort of none-of-my-business that I actually abided by.
Jane smiled at Nick, genuine and appreciative. “You know my pain. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. I’m going to have to find other solutions for the unemployment situation.” She sighed. “It’s a frustrating dance.”
Pietro leaned in and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “One you do with poise and grace, my dear.”
Jane gave Pietro a warm smile accompanied by a soft-eyed look that left no doubt how she felt about him.
Time for Nick and me to leave the lovebirds to do their thing. “We should get going,” I said. “It was great running into you two.”
Jane reached and touched my arm. “It was wonderful to see you, Angel, and a pleasure to meet you, Nick.”
We made our goodbyes and headed to the counter. I picked up the box with pastries and glanced over at Nick. “How did you know so much about that stuff?”
“I read a lot,” he said with a shrug as he collected the carrier with the drinks. “And this is a hot topic, locally.”
“I’m saving up for a computer,” I said as we headed to the door. “Maybe I can watch news videos or something.” A gust of wind sent leaves scuttling along the sidewalk as we stepped out.
“It’s important to keep up with what’s going on,” he replied with a knowing nod.
“By the way, thanks for asking me to come with you. I needed the distraction.”
He shot me a smug look. “I know.”
Laughing, I punched him in the arm, hard enough for him to feel it, but not hard enough to spill the coffee and chocolate he carried. I had my priorities.
He made a show of rubbing his arm, but we were both smiling when we returned to the office.
The living room was empty when I walked through my front door, but I heard the shower—our only shower—running. Crap.
“Hey, dad,” I yelled through the bathroom door. “You gonna be much longer?”
“Be a coupla minutes,” he hollered back. “I just got in.”
Double crap. No way could I fake it and go to the lab without a full shower. Not with bone dust in my hair and the smell of yuck clinging to me. “I gotta be somewhere,” I shouted. “And I’m all dirty from the morgue.”
“Yeah, well, if you stop shouting at me I’ll be a lot faster,” he shot back.
Sighing, I bit back an obnoxious comeback. He’d only get revenge by staying in the shower even longer. Stripping off my clothes as I went, I headed to my room and killed some time finding stuff to change into once I no longer reeked of morgue-funk. Well, killed a couple of minutes. Didn’t take long to go through my miniscule wardrobe. So far I’d managed to replace the necessities I lost in the flood: work uniforms, bras and undies, socks, a couple of pairs of jeans and some miscellaneous shirts. And I had exactly one nice outfit—a butt-hugging skirt and a silky blouse, with some fuck-me pumps that I’d scooped up on clearance, beating out a busty redhead who’d been reaching for them.
I resisted the very silly urge to put on the skirt and blouse and pumps since they’d be incredibly inappropriate for going to the lab, and pushed down the totally crazy bit of wondering how Philip would react to me in the outfit—and where the hell had that come from anyway? Instead I found jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt. But with my clothes all nicely laid out, I had nothing left to do except wait with increasing aggravation as the shower continued to run. And now my dad was singing. Singing! Scowling, I wrapped a towel around me and marched back down the hall.
“C’mon, Dad!” I yelled with an accompanying pound on the door. “I’m gonna be late! What the hell’s taking you so long?”
“I’m washing my goddamn hair!”
“Y’only got about twelve hairs on that head of yours!”
His response was to start singing again. Loudly and badly.
It was war.
I tested the doorknob. Locked, and I had a feeling he’d nipped out and done so while I was going through my clothing. Sneaky bastard. But I could be devious too. I ran to the kitchen and turned the cold water on full blast, then went to the half-bathroom near the front of the house, turned that water on, and flushed the toilet for good measure. Listening, I waited, and about fifteen seconds a yelp and cursing rewarded my efforts, followed by the shower going off.
I quickly turned the water off in the bathroom and kitchen, then returned to the hallway outside the main bathroom, leaned against the wall and folded my arms over my towel-covered chest. I heard grumbling and muttering, but also a rustle of sound that I hoped was a towel drying flesh.
My dad yanked the door open and gave me a dark scowl, but I thought I detected a gleam of appreciation in his eye. “You’re lucky I got somewhere to be, Angel,” he huffed, then marched off toward his bedroom with the towel wrapped around his waist, leaving a trail of wet footprints down the hallway.
With a smug smile, I claimed the shower, and didn’t even mind that I had to clean out the drain first.
Since I was already running late, I made do with a quickie shower that was enough to wash the smell of death off me. Probably a good thing I raced through it, since even at super speed the water temp edged toward not-even-close-to-hot by the time I rinsed off. I dressed quickly, shoved my fingers through my wet hair along with a bit of gel, swiped some mascara across my lashes, grabbed my purse, and headed for the door.
Then stopped dead at the sight of my dad standing in the kitchen, buttoning his cuffs and whistling. I sniffed. Cologne? And, wait, cuffs? Not a t-shirt or sweatshirt?
Nope, Dad had on black denim pants—not raggedy jeans—a plaid shirt that actually looked stylish, and cowboy boots. His hair was combed, and his face free from stubble.
“Do you have a job interview?” I asked.
His smile was nothing sort of smug. “Nope. Got me a date.”
It took me a second to re-engage my brain, and I barely stopped myself from saying, With a woman? “With who?” I managed instead.
“Tammy Elwood,” he replied. “She tends bar down at Kaster’s.”
“I don’t know her,” I said, unable to keep the suspicion out of my voice.
The look he gave me was tinged with amusement. “I bet I know lots of people you don’t, Angelkins.”
I knew I was being silly, but damn it, my dad simply didn’t date. “How long have you known her?” I asked, trying a different tack.
He slipped a jacket on. “Not long. It’s actually a double date with Belluci and his lady. They’re kinda settin’ us up together.”
Oh, lordy. Rick Belluci was a loud redneck with a huge beer gut who seemed to know every racist, sexist, and otherwise inappropriate joke in existence. He and my dad used to be drinking buddies, staying out every Thursday night until the bars closed or kicked them out. I could only imagine what kind of woman Belluci would think was right for my dad.
“Are y’all going to a bar?” I asked, trying hard to be casual, but I heard the edge of worry in my voice. Dad had been doing pretty good with controlling his drinking lately, and I wanted it to stay that way.
He gave me a faint smile, understanding in his eyes. “We’re just gonna go see a movie and maybe get a bite after, I promise.”
“Well, call me if you’re gonna be out too late.”
To his credit he didn’t laugh. “Only if you promise to do the same.”
That was fair, I supposed. “Deal.” I moved to him, gave him a kiss on the cheek. God, but we’d come so far. He responded with a hug, then left the house, a spring in his step that I didn’t think I’d ever seen before.
My dad has a date. How weird was that?
I wanted a distraction from my worries about Saberton’s experimentation, and the universe happily obliged. I rubbed my arms against the frigid air of what I called the Head Room as I peered into the vat. About two feet across, the container looked like an oversized stainless steel crock pot, but I sure as hell didn’t want to eat what was cooking in it.
“That,” I said with a shiver of disgust and delight, “is seriously gross.”
Thick, dark pink liquid like blood-tinged mucus oozed its way around the vat, while something resembling a deformed fetus drifted below the surface of the snot. Stubby little hands curled up by its chest, and misshapen lumps like developing organs formed a weird pot-belly. Uneven legs splayed out in opposite directions. No umbilical cord, and the heart wasn’t beating, but I had the weirdest impression the entire thing was vibrating, like a buzz from a beehive.
From neck to butt, the fetus-thing was about two inches long, but the truly weird and gross part was the full-sized head. Wisps of dark hair clung to the skull, waving sluggishly in the thick liquid. The face had Korean features, though it was hard to tell right now with the blotchy grey and shriveled skin.
Kang. The first zombie I ever knew, besides myself. Or rather, the first zombie I ever knew who I knew was a zombie. Kang had taught me a lot about survival as a zombie: how often I’d need to eat human brains, how exertion increased the hunger, and how my mental faculties would degrade along with my body if I went too long without eating brains. But Kang hadn’t listened to me when it counted, and he’d ended up the victim of a serial killer who’d been targeting zombies and chopping their heads off.
And that was one hell of a seriously complicated story.
I pulled my gaze away from fetus-Kang. His vat was one of six in the dimly lit room. A pale and thin man with dark wavy hair crouched by a control panel as he made adjustments—Jacques Leroux, the lab tech and Dr. Nikas’s assistant. On the other side of Kang’s vat stood Pietro, the relaxed smile of earlier now hard and flat as he looked down at Kang.
Dr. Nikas stood next to Pietro, his arms folded loosely over his chest as he peered into the vat. Average height and unimposing, the director of the lab had light brown eyes set in a kind face, and brown hair pulled back in a ponytail that hung to his shoulder blades. I didn’t know exactly what Dr. Nikas was a doctor of, but I figured it was a lot of different things, especially since I had a strong suspicion he’d been around for more than a few centuries, even though he didn’t look older than late forties. While Pietro ran things, Dr. Nikas was the heart and soul of the lab and, from what I’d seen, had final say on what happened within it. On the outside, the lab was a drab industrial building smack dab in the middle of Nowhere, Louisiana with nothing but pines and swamp for miles in any direction. However, within those boring walls was a high tech research lab and small medical facility, like something out of a science fiction movie.
“Kang grew that much in only one day?” I asked Dr. Nikas. “I changed the fluid yesterday morning and he was still a prune-skinned head. Same as he’s been for months.”
“Amazing, isn’t it?” Dr. Nikas said. “My theory is that he hasn’t been quiescent at all, but rather, preparing.” He leaned over the vat and peered with avid delight at the deformed thing that could have been straight out of a horror flick. “Assessing resources and checking the DNA blueprints one might say.” He lifted his head and gave me a warm smile.
The hard line of Pietro’s mouth flattened even more. “Ari, how long before you know if the memory is intact?”
Dr. Nikas straightened. “I don’t know when I’ll be able to determine anything about his memory or cognitive function,” he said, and I didn’t miss the emphasis on “his.” This wasn’t an impersonal lab experiment to Dr. Nikas. Each vat in here contained a severed zombie head, and every single one was a person with their name on the vat handwritten on a card in elegant script. Little personal touches like that told me Dr. Nikas gave a shit. “It may not be until he fully regrows,” he added.
“How long will that take?” I gestured at fetus-Kang. “I mean, this happened in less than a day.”
“It’s one of the many things we still don’t know,” Dr. Nikas said with gentle indulgence. “This growth happened very quickly, but he has been in stasis again for the last six hours.” He spread his hands. “It may come in spurts. Or it may not happen again until we move him into the full vat where he has ample resources.” He gestured in the direction of the new coffin-looking container on the other side of the room. “It’s all very new territory. Theoretically, the potential is there for full regrowth to happen quickly—perhaps within weeks. We’ll know more after he grows again.”
Jacques moved around the vat to check another control panel, and I stepped back and out of his way. “You’ll, uh, track the rate of growth over time and then make a projection from that?” I asked Dr. Nikas. A year ago—hell, six months ago—I wouldn’t have known what any of that meant.
Dr. Nikas’s smile widened. “That’s right, Angel,” he said. “Jacques can show you how to access the charts and raw data on one of the workstations. You can see our current projections and watch as they adjust with additional data.”
Pietro frowned in obvious impatience. “Can’t the EEG give you some indication of what memory or cognitive function Kang will come back with?”
Annoyance whispered across Dr. Nikas’s face. “It shows us nothing more than it did before the growth,” he stated. “With the parasite fully encapsulating his brain, this is what we get.” He nodded toward a screen that showed flat lines alternating with wild spikes every few seconds. Even I could tell it was screwy. “Until the parasite activity returns to baseline, I can’t tell what Kang’s functional level is.” He exhaled. “Remember, he came in from Kristi, and her initial preservation and handling was far from optimal.”
I didn’t bother hiding my sneer. Dr. Kristi Charish was the neurobiologist who’d kidnapped me then used me for her psycho zombie experiments. She’d been under Pietro’s house arrest ever since he’d captured her after the secret lab fiasco and, like Dr. Nikas, lived at the lab 24/7. However, unlike the good doctor, she wore a tracking anklet and had round the clock supervision by one of her three assigned guards. Kristi had shown herself to be an unstable, reckless, and treacherous bitch, and had broken more laws than I could count, but we couldn’t exactly turn her over to the cops. Yes, officer, this respected scientist kidnapped me and made me chew on a couple of almost dead guys. Why? Oh, y’see, I’m a zombie and eat human brains, and she . . . Wait, what are you doing with that Taser? Hey, stop! Ow!
It would only go downhill from there.
She was currently working with Dr. Nikas to develop a nutritional substitute—a.k.a. fake brains—that zombies could survive off of instead of human brains. I had little doubt that if Kristi wasn’t such a sharp researcher Pietro would have made her disappear rather than keeping her, and I suspected that was the only reason Dr. Nikas tolerated the outright slavery under his roof. Setting her free simply wasn’t an option.
Dr. Nikas gave me a nod. “You can close it now, Angel.”
Pietro backed away from the vat as I replaced the lid, but his gaze lingered on fetus-Kang for another few seconds before shifting to Ari. “I want to be kept apprised of any changes,” he stated, then pivoted and briskly exited the room.
Dr. Nikas and I followed him out, leaving Jacques to finish his adjustments.
“Angel, I’ll meet you at the central lab in about five minutes,” Dr. Nikas said tightly as we reached a cross-corridor. “I need to have a brief chat with Pietro.”
“Gotcha.” I didn’t mind being left out of that particular chat. I continued straight while Dr. Nikas turned left, but when I passed the door to the lounge off the central lab, I spied Pietro’s head of security, Brian Archer, sitting on the couch and flipping through a decade-old magazine.
“Hey, you missed the freak show,” I said, ducking into the lounge. “Kang’s head is way gross.”
Brian set the magazine aside. “I think I get enough freak show without an extra dose,” he said with a casual smile. Brian didn’t have the kind of looks that turned heads, but he made up for it in presence. He looked like he was in his forties, but he once told me he’d been a zombie for a little over fifteen years, and I’d never worked up the nerve to ask him his age. I’d never seen him looking sloppy or dressed casually, and today was no different. Dark navy suit, cream-colored shirt with a tie that coordinated without calling attention to itself. Short brown hair and deep brown eyes. Nails neatly trimmed. No jewelry of any sort. Not a man to be fucked with.
“Yeah, I guess you do,” I said with a laugh as I flopped into a chair. “What are you doing out here? Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“I have a security meeting not far from here in a little while,” he explained, then tapped his upper chest. “I figured now was a good time for Dr. Nikas to check out my port and test a new mod.”
I’d only found out about ports and mods a few months ago, but I was seriously considering putting them on my Christmas list. Mods—modifiers—were specialized drugs that revved up or toned down parasite activity as needed. The port itself was implanted beneath the skin and provided an easy way to get a mod into the body. With a port, mods could either be delivered quickly, dumping into the system all at once, or the drug could be stored and set to release slowly. Mods could have some pretty awesome effects, such as more efficient brain usage, or better senses, or resistance to the kind of tranquilizers that worked on zombies. All sorts of useful stuff.
The drawback was that only one or two mods could be used at the same time, and some couldn’t be mixed at all without big side effects. They were a lot like regular human drugs in that respect.
“Everything go okay with that?” I asked.
“Some kinks with the mod still, but it’s looking promising,” he said. “It’s designed to be a short term turbo charge of zombie abilities. Speed, strength, reflexes, senses, that sort of thing. Would be nice to have for emergencies.” He stretched and stifled a yawn. “But right now I’m simply waiting to see if Mr. Ivanov has anything for me before I take off.”
“Don’t let the excitement of it all overwhelm you,” I said with a grin. “How’s everything else going?”
“Business as usual in the zombie security world,” he said, which I figured was his way of saying he couldn’t talk about anything. “Never a dull moment with the Tribe.”
The Tribe. Pietro Ivanov’s organization was actually a number of corporations—a chain of funeral homes, real estate, construction, and even health care clinics that disguised the zombie research. And probably a ton I didn’t have a clue about as well. Up until a couple of months ago I’d privately referred to the whole deal as “The Zombie Mafia,” yet after some time working steadily in the lab, I discovered that the people in the organization—humans and zombies alike—referred to it as “the Tribe.” After some thought—and with the greater knowledge I had of Pietro, his people, and his goals—the reality of the whole common-ties-common-support thing settled in, and I grudgingly agreed that Tribe was a better nickname.
Most of the time, at least. There were reasons the whole Mafia tag had come up in the first place, and that undercurrent was still alive and kicking.
I peered at Brian. “Don’t you ever get to go off and play on your own?”
Brian’s eyes widened in exaggerated wonder. “You mean . . . not be on call?” Then he laughed. “I have down time, sure, but I’m never truly off duty.”
“Well, that sucks,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “When do you get to be your own person?”
“I’m doing what I want to do,” he said, giving me a reassuring smile. “I have a couple of hobbies to fill in the gaps. I can’t imagine a different lifestyle.”
I wondered about the gaps. As far as I knew, he didn’t have a girlfriend. At one time he’d seemed seriously interested in my best friend, Naomi—formerly known as Heather—but that fell flat when she hooked up with Kyle Griffin, one of Brian’s top security guys.
Brian seemed content enough, though, and I knew it really wasn’t any of my business. Not that I’d ever let that whole “none of my business” thing stop me from being a nosy buttinsky before.
“Well,” I said, “if you’re okay with your schedule, I guess I won’t need to have strong words with Pietro after all.”
Brian grimaced, obviously not entirely sure I was teasing. “Not on my account.”
“I’ll behave,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
He wiped his brow in mock-relief, though maybe not totally mock. “Don’t go getting me into trouble,” he said, then stood as a tall, black woman with braids that hung to mid back entered the room. Radiating ultra-confidence with a dash of scary calm, Rachel Delancey was Brian’s second in command, and one of the few female zombies Pietro had working for him.
Her gaze slid over me as if I was a steaming pile of dog shit on the carpet before it came to rest on Brian. Yeah. We weren’t going to be best buds anytime soon. Her idea of security probably didn’t include a new zombie like me hanging around at the super secret lab. But I had a niggling feeling there was more to it than that. She’d seemed okay with me at first, then gradually went colder than a polar bear’s ass. I’d tried a few times to be friendly but got nowhere. The only thing I could figure was that she’d found out about my loser past and thought I was a security risk. Or maybe she thought I was going to take advantage of Marcus or Pietro or Dr. Nikas. Whatever the deal was, I couldn’t see any way to change her opinion of me. Oh, well. Her loss.
“Everything set for Dr. Charish’s transfer?” Brian asked her, and I realized he was referring to the mental health breaks that Dr. Nikas insisted be provided for Kristi. Pietro would’ve been fine with Kristi chained to a lab station and locked in a cell at night, but that shit wouldn’t fly with Dr. Nikas. At his insistence, and despite Pietro’s grumbling, Kristi was allowed to spend two days every few weeks at one of Pietro’s remote hunting lodges.
Rachel shot a quick and disapproving glance my way as if she really didn’t want to say anything with me in the room. I kept my smile on my face and resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Who the hell did she think I’d blab to?
“We’re good to go,” she told Brian. “Simon is driving Chris and Dr. Charish, then the other two on her guard rotation will meet them at the lodge after the security meeting.” She passed him a paper. “Here’s the full schedule.”
Brian looked over the schedule then passed it back to her. “You’re aware that Mr. Ivanov will be heading up there as well?” She replied with an affirmative, and he glanced at his watch. “Everything looks good then. I’ll see you in about half an hour for the meeting.”
Rachel gave a crisp nod and threw one last disapproving glance my way before sweeping out.
I made my best Bite Me face at her back. “I can’t get over how warm and fuzzy she is to me. The constant adoration is getting a little embarrassing.”
Brian stifled a laugh. “She’s opinionated but efficient as hell and damn good at what she does.” He abruptly stood, eyes on the doorway. A few seconds later a scowling Pietro stepped in. Damn, Brian either had a super-senses mod working or was seriously tanked on brains. I hadn’t heard, seen, or smelled whatever Brian had. But in the next instant I remembered the dude had a wicked sense of smell. Like, crazygood—he could even tell by scent alone if someone was lying.
“Any changes, sir?” Brian asked Pietro.
Pietro shook his head. Whatever the chat with Dr. Nikas had been about, it hadn’t left him in a sunny mood. “I’ll meet with Kristi at the lodge as usual, then go out to dinner with Ari. I’ll call you after I leave Kristi, as we need to discuss some matters.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll be clear of the security meeting before you leave the lodge.” Brian checked his watch again. “Speaking of which, I should get going unless you have anything else for me, sir.”
Pietro responded with a vague wave of dismissal. Brian gave him a respectful nod, shot a quick smile my way, then departed.
Pietro wiped the frown from his face as he shifted his focus to me. “Angel, we didn’t have a chance to speak earlier,” he said. “Ari tells me you’re doing very well here at the lab. Is it something you want to continue with?”
“Yeah, totally!” I replied, doing my best not to grin like an idiot at the praise from Dr. Nikas.
“Good. We’ll talk in a few days about making your position here more permanent, though in an arrangement that will fit in around your morgue work.”
“That would be awesome,” I said fervently, though I clearly heard the unspoken reminder that I was allowed to work at the lab only because Pietro allowed it. I worked for him, not Dr. Nikas, and he didn’t want me to forget that. “And, um, I’m going to be taking a couple of college classes next term. Is it okay to work my schedule around that too?”
He raised his eyebrows. “That’s excellent, Angel. We’ll certainly discuss that as well.”
“I really appreciate it,” I said in relief, meaning every word. Not only did I enjoy the hell out of the work, but I also had a fairly hefty loan from Pietro to pay off. When my dad and I lost everything in the flood after the spillway collapsed, we only recovered because I was able to borrow money from Pietro to buy a new place, along with cars, clothes, and all the other shit that comes in handy when dealing with Life.
“You’re welcome,” Pietro said with a slight nod as if I’d said exactly what I was supposed to say. “I’ll call.” And with that he turned and headed out.
I wandered back to the central hub of the lab to see if Dr. Nikas was ready for me, but found it unoccupied and quiet other than the soft ping of one of the workstations with an analysis in progress. This domed circular room formed the heart of the complex, with several corridors and doors going off in different directions, and thick sliding glass security doors that led toward the exit. Fancy equipment lined the walls, and a semi-circular island in the middle of the room held even more machines and computer workstations.
Not more than half a minute later, Dr. Nikas stepped out of the hallway that led to his office, looking somewhat harried. I had a strong feeling he’d waited for Pietro to leave first.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
He blew out a breath. “Forgive me. He gets to me sometimes,” he said, then shook his head. “Nothing to worry about. My full focus is now on you and Philip and the parasite-balancing procedure I wish to attempt.”
“If this is a bad time to, er, balance my parasite we can always do it tomorrow,” I said.
“It isn’t a bad time.” He gave me a reassuring smile. “Philip will be here any minute, and he needs this,” he added. “I have a few things to get ready, but I won’t keep you two waiting long.”
“It’s cool.” I held up my phone. “I brought a book.” Well, an audiobook. My reading speed was somewhere between garden-slug-slow and oh-my-god-glaciers-are-faster, but thanks to the local library’s audio lending program I was gradually catching up on all sorts of books that were “should” reads, as well as a good number that were just plain fun.
“Excellent,” Dr. Nikas murmured as he turned to leave, though I wasn’t sure he actually heard me. Already he had the familiar unfocused look in his eyes that told me he was sorting through a new research problem.
I dropped into a chair at one of the computer workstations, stuck my earbuds in and settled down with the book—a purely fun one, and a few minutes later Philip Reinhardt entered through the glass doors. He had a smile on his face but also a heaviness in his step as though the movement took effort. Philip was a good looking guy, with blond hair cut close above a ruggedly handsome face, but his blue eyes revealed the pain he tried to hide. I hit pause on the book and yanked my earbuds out.
“Hey, Zombie Mama,” he said with a grin. “Ready for another day of excitement?” He rubbed his arm. “Jacques just stuck me about a dozen times. I think half of them were just for fun.”
“I feel ya! He got me earlier. I’m starting to think he’s more vampire than zombie.” I rubbed at the itchy place on my arm.
“A vampire zombie.” He laughed softly. “Now that would be a rough life. He’d need blood and brains.”
“Well, Jacques is in the right place for it.” I gave Philip a thoughtful look and made a point of stroking my chin. “Coincidence? Hmmm . . . got a stake handy?”
“I could probably find a pencil around here, but if the parasite heals the stake wound, it could get ugly.” He did his own thoughtful chin-stroke. “You’d need a stake to the heart and a bullet to the brainstem at the same time.”
“You’ve thought about this.”
He gave me an innocent smile. “Who wouldn’t?”
“Most normal people?” I suggested.
“That counts us out.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
Together we headed into the treatment room to wait for Dr. Nikas. Power lights glowed on several of the devices on the counter, and Dr. Nikas’s odd shorthand covered half the whiteboard on the wall beside the cabinets. A near-empty glass of sparkling grape juice beside a stack of computer print outs told me he’d already been working in here this morning.
The procedure chair looked like a cross between a recliner and a torture device, but I plopped into it anyway. Its position gave the best view of the awesome mural that covered the entire far wall—a scene of a rolling grassy meadow and a distant mountain with brilliant blue sky above. Philip leaned against the exam table, and I surreptitiously studied him. Adjusting to life as a zombie wasn’t a breeze under the best conditions, and his had been pure crap. His parasite was damaged from the bad fake brains Kristi had fed him shortly after he was turned, and as a result he suffered excruciating chronic pain, muscle spasms, and other unpleasant symptoms—a mess of afflictions we simply called the Plague. Much of that had been brought under control or was improving with the treatments, but he still wasn’t anywhere near a hundred percent.
“Your color is better,” I remarked. “But you look worn out.”
He nodded, unoffended by the observation. “My sleep has been off, and the leg pain hasn’t let up,” he admitted, “but otherwise it’s been a decent week.” He snorted and quirked a faint smile. “I puked my guts out after the last treatment, but luckily it didn’t last long. I’m all for no puking this time.”
I grimaced. “Yeah, that sucks. I wish there was more I could do.”
“I’m not complaining,” he assured me. “I promise. Without you helping I doubt I’d have made it this long.”
“Gotta take care of my zombie baby,” I said with a smile that masked a persistent sick fear. After eating the bad brains Philip had turned two of the Saberton guards into zombies, and both had died within three months of being captured by Pietro’s people, despite Dr. Nikas’s best efforts to save them. My blood helped in treatments for Philip, but I still worried. What if the treatments stopped working? What if my blood stopped making a difference?
I took a deep breath and tried to focus my worry into anger at the one who’d done this to him. None of this would have happened without Kristi Fucking Charish.
Philip’s gaze went to the door as it opened, and he pushed off the exam table. Speak of the devil. “Good morning, Kristi,” he said with a pleasant smile to the slim, auburn-haired woman who entered.
She gave a slightly tremulous smile in return and kept her eyes away from me as she moved closer to Philip. “You’re waiting for the new treatment?” she asked, reaching toward him as if for reassurance.
He took her hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. “We are indeed.” He glanced toward the door again as Rachel entered, then he returned his attention to Kristi. “This must be an outing day,” he noted.
“Outing weekend,” Rachel stated, tone brisk but pleasant enough with Philip. “Chris will be leaving with Dr. Charish in a few minutes, but she wanted to see you first.”
Philip gave a low chuckle and tucked a stray wisp of hair behind Kristi’s ear. “Of course you did.”
I watched in stony silence. Philip had no reason to like Kristi, and every reason to hate her fucking guts. Yet they sure as hell looked buddy-buddy.
No, not like buddies, I decided. More like . . . a master and his dog. I didn’t have the warm fuzzies for Kristi either, but this docile version seriously creeped me out. I’d seen her like this before and had assumed she was medicated, but now I realized that wasn’t likely. After all, Pietro kept her alive because she was useful and clever, and she wouldn’t be either if she was drugged to the gills.
A man with bright green eyes and about a billion freckles stepped into the doorway and leaned against the frame. “Philip, you’re hogging all the beautiful women,” he said with an infectious grin. Chris Peterson, another member of the security team.
“Can you blame me?” Philip replied. Kristi turned and gave Chris a bright and genuine smile.
“Not one bit!” Chris stuffed his hands into the pockets of a faded leather bomber-style jacket and gave me a nod and Kristi a quick wink, but the smile he turned on Rachel had a lot more heat behind it. To my surprise her expression softened, and she responded with a look that could only be described as sultry. Hot damn, tough as nails Rachel wanted to get nailed?
What People are Saying About This
"Rowland has come up with a perfect blend of creepy, scary, yet emotionally touching adventures for her gutsy and endearing heroine.... Do not miss out on this exceptional series!"
—RT Reviews (top pick)
"An incredibly fun series, and a breath of fresh air in an increasingly crowded field.... While there's no denying that the basic premise is fascinating and entertaining, the real draw there is Angel's personal journey of growth and self-discovery."
"Rowland is a hilarious writer, and her White Trash Zombie series shines in a crowded genre."
—USA Today (for series)
"Humor and gore are balanced by surprisingly touching moments as Angel tries to turn her (un)life around."
—Publishers Weekly (for series)
"Rowland's delightful novel jumps genre lines with a little something for everyone mystery, horror, humor, and even a smattering of romance. Not to be missed."
—Library Journal (for series)