Angel Crawford has finally pulled herself together (literally!) after her disastrous dismemberment on Mardi Gras. She’s putting the pieces of her life back in order and is ready to tackle whatever the future holds.
Too bad the future is a nasty bitch. There’s a new kind of zombie in town: mindless shamblers, infectious and ravenous.
With the threat of a full-blown shambler pandemic looming, and a loved one stricken, Angel and the “real” zombies scramble to find a cure. Yet when Angel uncovers the true reason the plague is spreading so quickly, she adds “no-holds-barred revenge” to her to-do list.
Angel is busting her ass dealing with shambling hordes, zombie gators, government jerks, and way too many mosquitos, but this white trash chick ain’t giving up.
Good thing, since the fate of the world is resting on her undead shoulders.
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Ten more measly miles. My index fingers drummed a happybeat on the steering wheel. I hadn’t been home in three weeks—not since MardiGras, when a four-wheeler chase through the woods ended with me literallyfalling apart. Flying limbs. Rotting chunks. Not pretty.
Up ahead, a squirrel darted onto the road, then thoughtbetter of it and dashed back to the pines. My heart pounded stupidly hard, andI eased my death grip on the wheel. In theory, I was regrown, rehabbed, andready to take on the world. In reality, this was my first time in the driver’sseat since the accident, and I was still getting used to my new parts.
Thankfully, there was almost no traffic along this partof Highway 51—the rural, two-lane road between the zombie research lab and myhouse. Even with my extra-cautious driving, I was making good time.
I dug through the baggie on my lap for a desiccated brainchip—a get well gift from my friend Naomi. Perfectly freeze-dried and dustedwith Cajun spices, it was the certified junk food of the zombie gods.
My phone buzzed the instant I stuffed the chip in mymouth, with the caller ID showing “Z.B.” I rolled my eyes, unsurprised at thecall. A little over a year ago, I’d been forced to turn badass operative PhilipReinhardt into a zombie, which I figured made him my Zombie Baby. In return,Philip had become a teensy bit protective of me. If I didn’t answer, he’d nodoubt come looking for his Zombie Mama.
I stuck in an ear bud and hit the answer button. “HeyZeeBee!” I chirped. “How’s it going?”
“You snuck out of the lab.”
“I didn’t! You just happened to be in the bathroom when Ileft.”
“Riiiiiight.” Lucky for me, he sounded more amused thanpissed. “Dr. Nikas recommended you stay another day.”
“Yep. Recommended, not ordered. It’s cool. I don’t haveto go back to work until tomorrow, so it’ll be fine. I’m just gonna hang outwith my dad.”
“I could have driven you home. I’m not sure your reflexesare up to—”
“Dr. Nikas wouldn’t have let me go if he was worried.”He’d actually said I wasn’t quite back to my normal self, but was likely noworse off than most drivers out there. That was good enough for me. “You didyour zombie-baby duty and wheeled me around to my classes last week. You’re offthe hook.”
He laughed. “I give up. Don’t come crying to me when youhave a fender bender.”
“You’ll be the first one I blame.” I caught sight of acar in my rear view mirror. It was a good half mile behind but closing way toofast. “Let me call you later. Gotta focus.”
My speedometer read sixty-two mph, which meant thisasswipe was doing at least ninety. My contrary side dared me to slow down andstraddle the center line, but the morgue tech in me had seen enough vehicularfatalities to put an end to that fantasy.
With one eye on the rear view mirror, I edged close tothe side of the road and slowed to a respectable fifty. Despite my bluster toPhilip, I didn’t trust my reflexes a hundred percent yet. And I trusted thespeeder’s level of stoopid even less.
Especially considering the flash of blue lights in thedistance behind him. The speeding car swerved into the other lane even as Ieased my right wheels onto the narrow band of gravel between road and ditch. Istopped and waited. Three. Two. One.
My car rocked in the wake of the speeding silver Camry. Icaught the barest glimpse of the driver as the car blew past. Male. Maybe. Istayed put and kept watch behind me, not about to move until the pursuitpassed.
An unmarked midnight blue Dodge Charger flew by, thoughnowhere near as fast as Mr. McSpeedy. The driver had dark hair and a surlyexpression—Detective Mike Abadie. Not my favorite person, but a good cop. Itlooked like he was either backing off from chasing the Camry—since high speedpursuits risked civilians—or he was herding the guy into a roadblock.
Curiosity clamoring, I snagged the last brain chip fromthe baggie and pulled onto the highway. If it was, indeed, a roadblock, I’dfind out soon enough.
Three miles later, I rounded a curve and slowed at a seaof flashing red and blue lights ahead. Two Sheriff’s Office cruisers wereparked along the right shoulder while Abadie’s Charger and an unmarked darkgreen Chevy Impala blocked my lane. On the other side of the highway, the Camryrested with its nose in the ditch. The driver lay face down on the asphalt as atall, black woman in plainclothes handcuffed him. Beside her, Abadie holsteredhis weapon.
Closer to me, a stick-thin deputy with scraggly blondhair packed away a set of spike strips. Beckett Connor. We’d been out on at leasta dozen scenes together over the past year. Decent guy. Bad haircut.
The second deputy motioned for me to stop. Fit, muscled,hair shorn in a crisp high and tight. He’d been hired only a few months ago,and though we’d chatted on several scenes, I couldn’t remember his name for thelife of me.
I rolled down my window, trying to not be too obvious asI peered at his name tag. “Hey...” U. Blagojevic? How the hell was thatpronounced? “...You!” I said brightly. “What’s going on—whoa!” My train ofthought derailed as my gaze lifted to his face. “That’s an impressive sunburn.”
“Hey, Angel.” He managed a weak smile from histomato-colored face. “Yeah, Connor and I spent four hours on the wateryesterday.”
“And you’ve never heard of sunscreen?”
Connor barked out a laugh, his face and arms darn near asred his partner’s. “Our boy here brought the sunscreen, except turns out it wasplain ol’ lotion. But hey, my skin is as soft as a baby’s bottom!”
“Uh huh. If my baby’s bottom looked like that, I’d takeit back to the hospital.”
“Wouldn’t blame you,” Connor replied with a wink thenturned away to load the spike strip case into the trunk of his cruiser.
“So, anything exciting going on here?” I asked U.Blagojevic, lifting my chin toward the man being handcuffed.
He shrugged. “Just another day at the office. You knowhow it is.”
Well, that was completely unhelpful. But before I couldask a more probing question, Connor hollered that the road was clear.
“You can go on through now,” Blaggy said. “But take it easy’til you’re past the vehicles.”
I rolled up my window then took full advantage of my slowspeed to shamelessly gawk at the spectacle. The Camry’s tires were thoroughlyshredded, and the airbag lay like a deflated jellyfish over the steering wheel.Abadie and the plainclothes woman had pulled the handcuffed guy to his feet,allowing me a good view of him. His nose was bloody, and he had on a tailoreddark grey suit. Definitely didn’t look like a typical car thief. Maybe he wasan embezzler on the run? Or a serial killer? Whatever his crime, he lookedpissed.
The woman glanced my way, and all thoughts of the badguy’s identity fled. Short-cropped greying hair and a distinctive scar thatstarted beneath one ear and ran across her throat. FBI Special Agent SorshaAberdeen. Her eyes narrowed in recognition.
Crap. I yanked my gaze away and continued past thevehicles. I had plenty of questions, but no way in hell was I going to stop andask them. Not while an FBI agent who I suspected knew zombies were real wasaround. I’d only met her once, right before Mardi Gras during her investigationof a short film that included footage of real zombies. I’d pretended the zombierot on my cheek was part of a costume—but that woman was smart and suspicious,and my gut told me she wasn’t fooled by my fib.
As soon as I was clear, I stepped on the gas and got myass out of there. My paranoid side expected the FBI agent to come chasing afterme, but my rear view mirror remained free of flashing lights and officialvehicles.
I eventually turned onto the road that led to my housethen slowed behind a FedEx truck, most likely destined for old Mrs. Grady, wholived across from us. Ever since her husband passed away last year, she’d takento ordering nonstop from the shopping websites and got deliveries damn nearevery day. Sure enough, the truck stopped a few feet beyond my driveway.
The driver exited the truck carrying an Amazon box aboutthe size of a sofa pillow. I hopped out to check the mail and gave him a wave.“Hiya, Chester! Another one for Mrs. Grady, I see.”
“Nope. This one’s for you, Angel. Good thing you’re here.Can’t release it without your sig.”
“For me? Huh.” Maybe my dad had ordered a welcome homegift for me. Or a new toilet seat. Knowing my dad, it could go either way.
I tossed today’s bills and junk mail onto the passengerseat then exchanged my signature for the package. Definitely big enough for atoilet seat, but a bit too heavy.
While Chester delivered an unwieldy pile of four packagesto the neighbor, I set the box on top of the mail and drove on up to the house.A warm, fuzzy feeling wrapped around me as I climbed out of the car.
An almost-new, two-bedroom prefabricated house withsky-blue siding and a tidy porch. Real gravel for a driveway, too, instead ofthe carpet of crushed beer cans it once had. The place wasn’t much, but it wasours—replacing the rickety excuse for a house that got washed away in the floodlast year. But even if it had still been the same old piece of crap house,I’d’ve been just as thrilled.
Box and mail in hand, I trotted up the steps and pushedthe front door open. “Hey, Dad. I’m home—”
“Surprise!” my dad hollered and popped up from behind thesofa. All on his lonesome, but grinning wide enough for twenty people.
I grinned right back and placed the box on the coffeetable. “You throwing me a one-man surprise party?”
“Sure,” he chortled. “I thought about inviting all yourfriends and zombie pals and such, then decided, screw ’em. I wanted it to bejust the two of us.” He hurried over and wrapped me in a big, bony hug. “I’m sodamn glad to have you home, Angelkins.”
“I’m glad to be home, Dad.” Tears stung my eyes as Ihugged him. He’d done the best he could to raise me after my mom went toprison—where she killed herself a few years later. Unfortunately, my dad’s besthad been pretty rough at times. But that was all behind us now. He’d soberedup, and we were closer than we’d ever been.
He smelled of Aqua Velva, toothpaste, and...cigarettesmoke, damn it. He’d told me he was going to quit. I suppressed the urge togrill him about it since it would probably end up with us fighting. Not onlywould that ruin the moment, but Jimmy Crawford was so stubborn there was a goodchance he’d go out and smoke a pack out of spite.
He finally released me. “Whatcha got in the box?”
“No clue. I thought maybe you’d ordered something forme.”
“I ain’t ordered nothin’,” he said. “Open it up and seewhat it is.”
Armed with a box cutter, I made short work of what had tobe half a roll of packing tape and soon opened the package to reveal abrand-spanking-new PlayBox game console.
My dad gave a low whistle. “That sure looks nice. Who’sit from?”
“Hang on.” I dug out the packing slip. It didn’t show aprice but had a gift note.
Angel, hope you’re feeling better and get a chance toplay soon. Your friend, Arnold Stein.
Huh? Who the hell was Arnold Stein, and why would hesend—
A chill raced down my spine. What if someone was tryingto plant a bug in my house? Lord knew I’d made plenty of enemies during thepast year—Kristi Charish along with everyone involved in zombie research atSaberton Corporation.
Easy enough to find out, though. Tomorrow, I’d borrow thelab’s listening-device scanner doohickey and do a thorough sweep of the house.Couldn’t hurt to be smart and suspicious.
My dad peered over my shoulder. “Who’s Arnold Stein?”
“No clue.” I didn’t want to get my dad worried in case itturned out to be nothing. “It has to be a zombie, though, considering this.Arnold Stein knew I wasn’t well, and no way would work send me anything.” Ikept my tone light as I lied through my teeth. “But I don’t know everyone inthe Tribe. He could be the Tribe guy who takes care of shit like condolenceletters and Christmas bonuses, y’know?” The Tribe was a tightly knitorganization of zombies and a handful of humans whose objective and purpose wasto ensure the welfare and well-being of zombies—by any means necessary, attimes.
That seemed to satisfy him. While he peered atcomponents, I reread the note. What if “Arnold Stein”—A.S.—was actually AndrewSaber?
Philip wasn’t my only zombie baby. Last fall, Andrew hadbeen shot during a raid on Saberton in New York. I’d turned him—with hispermission—to save his life, but becoming a zombie wasn’t all sunshine androses for him. First off, he was a Saber. His mother, Nicole Saber, was the CEOof Saberton Corporation, as well as the driving force behind their heinousabuse of zombies. If she ever found out Andrew was a zombie, he’d end up as aguinea pig in one of Saberton’s special research labs. Zombie Hell.
Unfortunately, he’d come awfully close to exposure rightbefore Mardi Gras, when Marla the cadaver dog indicated on him. I suspected oneof Andrew’s bodyguards had then tattled to Nicole about the dog’s behavior.
Fortunately, Andrew had anticipated that kind ofdisaster, and with the help of his primary bodyguard, Thea Braddock, he’dexecuted his planned exit strategy. Now, as far as anyone could tell, Andrewwas “visiting possible factory locations overseas.” Whether there was any truthto that or not, at least he was out of his mother’s clutches.
But why the hell would he give me a PlayBox? Sure, I’dsaved his life but, to be honest, we really didn’t like each other. Andrew wasthe last person who’d send me a get-well card, much less an expensive gift.
With that, my brilliant theory went kablooey. I’d have todo more digging to find the real sender.
My dad poked at the console. “Well, don’t that beat all.I always wanted to try one of them things.”
“I’ll let you kick my ass in, uh”—I held up the includedgame cartridge—“Swords and Swagger later.”