David reached inside the Charger. He was about to kill the engine, but paused. He looked at me, grinning.
“What?” I asked, stepping around Stahlberg. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “It’s apt, that’s all. Listen.” He turned up the radio.
Johnny Cash singing “Ain’t No Grave”.
There ain’t no grave can hold my body down
When I hear that trumpet sound I’m gonna rise right out of the ground*
I said, “So are we the band of angels coming after him?”
David shut off the car. “Guy’s got taste, at least.”
Moss tapped me on the shoulder, which I hate, by the way, and said, “Nah, the problem is the guy’s got a taste. We need to get going.”
“Track him,” Stahlberg said. “Still wind, low vehicle emissions area. You should be getting his scent with no problem.”
I didn’t like that she knew as much about my abilities as she did. That brought on the next question: How?
I sniffed the air. “He went to the mall.” Hamilton’s trail was easy to follow. He smelled like gently rotting meat soaked in Axe body spray.
“That way?” Moss pointed to the Books-A-Million.
“Yeah.” I started to follow it, the agents behind me. I went five steps in Hamilton’s trail before I noticed David’s absence. I paused and turned around. “Hey. You coming or what?”
“Or what,” he said, leaning with his butt on the Dodge’s trunk, his arms folded. “We have to finish at Best Buy.”
Moss and Stahlberg said, at the same time, that this was more important. I rolled my eyes behind their backs.
David smiled. “Look. You guys get Hamilton, you get to leave, be it today, which I hope, or tomorrow. Either way, Deputy Anderson and I have to stay. We have to deal with not doing our jobs right now. So, I’m going to go back and finish. Deputy Anderson, you okay to proceed?”
Hmm. If one of us was up to something, we called the other Deputy whoever, rather than using our first names, which was our usual habit.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“All right. Call me if you find him.”
I watched him walk away. Then I returned to Hamilton’s scent. After the first five steps, he’d started weaving a bit, and I followed suit, because I didn’t want to lose him.
We finally entered the bookstore. Smells of new books and magazines and the clerk by the front door. Floor wax. Lemon-scented Lysol. Hot plastic. Coffee from the Joe Muggs coffee shop in the front of the store. There were few customers, but enough.
I came to a halt near the DVDs. I closed my eyes for a second. “Goddammit.” I opened them. Focused in on a copy of Underworld. I grimaced and finally admitted that I had lost him.
Moss was on my left. “You are kidding me. How can you lose him? Even I smelled him at the car.”
Son of a– I glared at him. “Oh really? Did you smell him in the parking lot and at the doors too?”
He sighed. “I did not.”
“Then back off. There are a lot of conflicting scents, all right? And that is not helping.” I pointed to the ceiling.
Stahlberg spoke from behind me. “The air conditioning. Circulating air. Stirring things up.”
“Exactly.” I rubbed the back of my neck. “Look, he can’t have gotten far, based on how he walked here. Let’s split up and search the mall.”
There was a directory outside the bookstore. We gathered around it.
The mall was a big box, with multiple street entrances. The Macy’s, on the far end of the mall, was the only store that had a second floor. Stahlberg went for it. Moss said he’d take the area on the way to Sears. I went for the old fountain area and the food court. The food court was usually fairly crowded. A zombie would stick out there.
I found him in the fountain area, sitting on a bench in the sunken area between the Dallas Cowboys Pro Shop and the Ricky-Ticky-Taco. I walked to him, slow, my hand not on the butt of my gun, but ready to grab it if needed.
He sat on the end of the bench, near a waste can. I took the other end. There was an arm’s length of space between us. For a second, I felt nauseated. Then I adjusted, and finally said, “Joshua. How are you?”
He didn’t look at me. He stared straight ahead, at a glossy black piano from the Lone Star Piano Company. His throat worked. His jaw moved, clicked gruesomely, finally opened. His voice was a dry croak. “I’ve been better.”
“I suppose so.”
“I’m dead. I . . . was, I mean.”
“I think the technical term is zombie.”
“I . . . bit my girlfriend.”
“Yeah, Joshua, you did.”
“Josh. Hurt her?”
“No, you scared her, is all.” A white lie, why not?
He closed his eyes. “I didn’t mean to. Had this urge. Just . . . gave in.”
“I can understand urges.”
“No.” He turned his head. I swear I heard tendons creak. “You can’t.”
“Josh, yeah, I can. More than you think.” Like the urge to open up a bad guy’s throat. If David ever found out that I’d given in multiple occasions, he’d–
No, best not to think about that. Here and now. With a zombie. Focus.
His chest moved. He made a noise.
I think he was trying to sigh.
“Like now. I want to . . . bite you. Eat you.”
“Well, don’t. That would ruin both of our days.”
“You need to kill me.”
“I’d do it myself, but . . . I don’t know how. I thought . . . about walking into traffic. Interstate. In front of a big truck.”
“That’d do it, I suppose.”
“What . . . if it didn’t? Can you . . . shoot me in the head?”
How could I answer that? Yeah, I could, but these guys want to take you to Atlanta first? They’ll poke and prod and God knows what else, and then, maybe, they’ll kill you, if you don’t die on your own?
Let’s give the truth a whirl.
“Josh, listen, you need to know this: the CDC wants me to take you to them. They want to find out how this happened. So they can stop it from happening again.”
“How . . . how are they going to stop it?”
“I don’t know. But I’m supposed to take you to them. Will you come with me?”
He actually managed to shout. “No!”
Heads turned. They saw my uniform and kept staring. I gave them my best This is official police business, so fuck off look. It didn’t work.
“Josh. It’ll be okay.”
“Suppose . . . suppose I tried to bite you? You’d have to . . . shoot me.” He grinned. It was horrible. His gums were gray.
“I wouldn’t have to shoot you.”
“Then . . . someone else.” He pointed at a gawker, a fat woman in a purple dress. “Her. She’s . . . nice and juicy.”
He closed his eyes. “Stacie. How is she?”
“She’s fine, Josh.”
“I didn’t mean to do it. Had this urge. Gave in. Stupid.”
“I know, Josh.”
“You gotta stop me. Please.”
I looked at him. Really looked at him. Alive, he’d been a good-looking guy. Now, he was pale, except for bruised-looking places under his eyes and jaw. His brown hair stuck up in places. Deathbed head. His green eyes had a light film over them, like a cataract. He–
Wait. Was he crying?
Sure looked like it. There was moisture dribbling down his cheeks, anyway.
“Please stop me. Just kill me. I don’t wanna go to Atlanta. I want to die. Please. Please help me.”
“I’m getting worse, just stop me before I bite Stacie, I want to bite her, eat her, please stop me–”
My cell phone jingled. I had a text message. I pulled out the phone from the pouch on my gun belt. “Josh, just wait a second, all right. Calm down.” I looked at the screen. David.
Called cdc they work
there but somethings
up dont trust them.
Have you found josh
Moss coming from my left. Walking briskly, eyes on Josh.
“Go,” I whispered to him. “Get out of here.”
“I will, shut the fuck up, just go, meet me at Mitchum High’s baseball field, all right?”
God, please don’t let him give in and eat a bunch of Girl Scouts between here and there.
He saw Moss. Lurched to his feet. Looked down at me. “You’ll be there?”
“Wait for me. Under the bleachers. Just hold on, Josh, I’ll be there, I promise you.”
He staggered to the food court. If he made it out the doors, it’d be a straight shot to the baseball field. I had assumed, of course, that he knew where I was talking about. I hoped he did.
Moss sped up. “Stop him Anderson, what the hell?”
I put myself in his path. “Listen, Moss, I think we should–”
He shoved me aside. “I don’t give a fuck what you think.”
I grabbed his arm. Dug my fingers in until I felt bone. Stopped him. He sucked in air. “Let go.”
“Just wait, all right? This is wrong. He doesn’t want to go with you. He wants to die.”
“He’ll die, eventually. Let go of me.”
I let go. He rubbed his arm, grimacing. “All right,” he said. “You want to talk, let’s talk. Somewhere private, though, okay? We’ve gathered an audience.”
I looked around. The mall wasn’t very crowded, for a late Sunday afternoon, but the few who were there were very interested in us. The fat woman in the purple dress had her iPhone aimed our way for a picture. Next stop, Instagram.
“Shit,” I muttered.
“Indeed. How about over there?” He tilted his head to his left, toward a long corridor that contained the restrooms and water fountains.
Mindful of David’s text, I followed Moss. Halfway down the corridor, there was a large alcove that originally housed the mall security office. They’d since moved to the old K-B Toys store. Moss stepped inside. There was a counter halfway inside. He leaned against it, folded his arms, and gave me what I considered a very patronizing look. “So now you’re all pro-zombie.”
Man, he’d layered on the cologne since I last saw him. “I just think that if he doesn’t want to go, we shouldn’t force him to.”
“Don’t start lecturing me on rights and all that shit. He’s dead. He’s got no rights.”
“Tell me what you’re going to do to him. Why you don’t want him dead right now.”
“I told you.”
“Tell me again.” Fricking cologne. Made my nose tingle. Wiped out every–
I felt something press into my back, just to the left of my spine. Then every muscle in my body tightened. My teeth ground together. I heard zapping.
Then the lights went out.
<*I didn’t get permission to use the lyrics, but the songwriters were Ethan Johns and Tom Jones (what? not the sweaty, bare-chested guy, right?), copyright Seconds Out Publishing LLC, Three Crows Music, Lark Music, and oh my god please don’t fucking sue me.>