Miguel Balder lived in a neighborhood behind Lone Star University, a small community college that had taken it upon itself to develop a very one-sided rivalry with Louisiana State University. I followed the CDC dipshits’ car as it hung a right past a sign that read “The ORIGINAL LSU!!!” (As Louisiana State was established sometime around 1860, and Lone Star in 1974, this was a lie.)
Moss had pulled up Balder’s address on his phone while Stahlberg wrapped the second little girl’s head in a garbage bag and taped it up. I re-covered them with the tarp while Stahlberg cast her eyes to the ceiling and shook her head. Then I followed them outside and across the street. They’d stashed their white Ford Five Hundred behind the fenderless van. Before I pulled out into the street after them, I watched a blue van pull up next to the unfortunate accountant’s Caddy. Four men in formless white jumpsuits got out. The driver paused by his open door and stared at me until I goosed the go-pedal and left the parking lot.
I stared at the Five Hundred’s taillights. I wondered if they were going to kill me after we found the rest of the zombie Petersons. I had, after all, attacked Stahlberg, had very nearly snapped her neck.
Only . . . Moss could have done it right then. He had every right to: he was protecting his partner from an unstable, uncontrollable lycanthrope. Put a bullet in my head and leave me for the removal team. With two zombies down, it was a level playing field. No werewolf required.
Or they could have done it after drugging my coffee. Put in a little more of whatever they used. Smother me with one of my throw pillows while I drooled on the couch.
They hadn’t. Maybe they couldn’t. They worked for the government, and they struck me as low-level drones. They had their orders, and for the moment, tapping me out wasn’t one of them.
I could be totally wrong. Maybe the instant I stepped into Miguel Balder’s living room, my brains went on his wallpaper.
For a few dark moments, I didn’t care. I thought, Whatever. Just . . . whatever. As long as it’s quick.
Then their brake lights flashed on, and I saw the little girl–Alexa? Dayton?–with her throat cut, her eyes unfocused, her teeth clacking together, dried blood under her fingernails. Somebody did that. Somebody killed a seven year-old and forced me to kill her again.
My teeth began to ache. I took a deep breath and forced back the urge to change.
Moss steered their car to the curb of a white frame house with an 80-something Camaro parked in its narrow driveway. I parked behind them. This neighborhood was a mix of families and college students. You could tell which was which by the age of the cars in the driveways.
The house on the right of Balder’s was a red shotgun-style with a For Rent sign taped to its front door. His left-hand neighbor was a yellow frame with an empty driveway.
Moss and Stahlberg exited their car. I followed suit, met them in the space between our cars. Moss rubbed his chin. “Blinds are down,” he noted.
Stahlberg said, “You take the front. We’ll take the back.”
“You serious?” I said.
They nodded in unison. I repeated a suspicion that David and I had voiced after our CDC website search had turned up no mention of agents: “Are you guys really with the CDC?”
Moss frowned. “Why would we lie about that?”
“Why would you tell the truth? Come on, level. Are you really FBI? Is there really an X-Files?”
“No,” Moss said. He sounded amused.
“NSA? CIA? S.H.I.E.L.D.?”
“No, no, and fictional,” he said. “Any other questions?”
“Who killed the Petersons?”
He cocked his head towards Balder’s front door. “The answer hopefully waits inside.”
It was almost six o’clock. The street was quiet, but the house directly across from Balder’s had four cars parked at the curb and another three crammed into the driveway. I smelled barbecuing meat–steaks, sausages–from the back yard. Someone laughed. I debated going to my car for the Glock subcompact I kept in the center console.
Moss and Stahlberg started walking toward the left-hand side of Balder’s house, which was separated from the yellow frame house by an unkempt rows of bushes. I decided against the gun and trotted to the front. I tried the rusted screen door–it was unlocked–and then started to knock on the wooden door. There was a very familiar pair of decaying smells oozing from around the door frame. I changed my mind about knocking and tried the doorknob.
It turned. I pushed the door open. Its hinges creaked, which was perfect. The smell that drifted out was nauseating, but I’d prepared for it. I hesitated a few seconds before stepping into the house.
I stood in the dim living room. A dark-paneled wall separated it from the kitchen. To my right, another paneled wall, a closed door shutting it off from the bedrooms and bathroom. To my left, a large entertainment center pushed against the other wall. The fiberboard unit was crammed with game systems, games, DVDs, Blu-Rays, and a flat screen TV that barely fit. Directly across from me was a futon, turned so its occupant could watch the TV, which was turned off.
The occupant was Daniele Peterson. Her eyes were open. They blinked, slowly. I walked behind the futon, my own eyes on her. It sounded like she was chewing on something.
I went into the kitchen, following the odor of her husband, Micah. The kitchen was big, enough room for a round dining table and a washer and dryer against the far wall. The back door was there too, and by all rights the agents should be either knocking on that door or already gaining entry, and of course they were doing neither, the sons of bitches.
Micah stood by the refrigerator on my left, swaying slightly, like there was a strong breeze. An iPad dangled from his fingers. His whole body swiveled around to face me. One eye was cloudy, the other still normal. His skin was light gray, dotted here and there with dark purple patches.
“I’m a cop,” I said. I pulled out my wallet, flipped it open to show my badge. “Sawyer County Sheriff’s. We’ve been looking for you guys.”
Manuel Balder (I guessed) was seated at the dining table. He had an orange extension cord wrapped around him, securing him to a chair. He was pale and sweaty. His left arm appeared to have a few bites taken out of it. His sneakers, I noted, were blinding white, where they weren’t dotted with blood.
He raised his head, looked at me. His cracked lips parted, and he said, “Help.”
Micah Peterson lifted the iPad. He wrote something on it with a shaking finger. Then he showed me the tablet. Scrawled on its white screen in pink letters: u relly a cop?
I nodded. Peterson smeared his hand across the screen and wrote something else.
He tossed the iPad on the table. Balder jumped. Peterson turned to me, made a jerky movement toward the table that might have been a head tilt on a living person. I stepped toward the iPad, keeping an eye on him.
I read: ask mig wha hapnd
“Mig,” I said, “what happened to them?”
Balder groaned. “They’re zombies.”
“No shit. And completely your fault, I’m guessing.”
He shook his head. I took the chair next to him. From here, my back was to the door, but I faced Micah Peterson and the living room. Balder’s right arm also appeared to be chewed on.
“Miguel. Tell me what happened.”
White flecks of spit flew as he shouted, “I told him already! I told him it wasn’t my idea, but he won’t listen!”
“Well, he’s undead, so . . . ” I shrugged. “Tell me. I’m a better listener.”
Miguel was a shit storyteller, though. I managed to glean that the Petersons’ accountant thought they were stealing money from their meth business. Then he–or someone else–contacted the Dingos.
“Wait. The Dingos? The biker assholes? How are they connected to this?”
“New connection,” Balder said. “New way to run meth out of the state. Matt set it up. He knows some of the guys. Benoit wants to go bigger. Bigger operation. Mack doesn’t. He wants to stay small-time. Benoit thinks he’s thinking of getting out. Plus he’s stealing money.”
I glanced at Micah. His jaw was clenched. He tottered forward to the iPad, erased its screen, and scribbled something. He shoved the tablet to me.
lie never stole $
I considered this. Then I said, “So the Dingos killed the Petersons. Including the little girls.” It fit. While I never put murder past anyone, the brutality of these murders didn’t jibe with a fat accountant and a skinny guy with snot runners dangling from his nose. If the Petersons had been shot, I could have believed the pair to be responsible. But the throat cutting, that was right up the Dingos’ alley.
Balder nodded frantically. “Yes! Not me! I was there but not me!”
“You were there,” I said. I leaned back in the chair. “So. Since I seriously doubt that the entire club was there, which Dingos did the deed? Real names or nicknames, it doesn’t matter.”
Balder said two names: Haste and Gnat.
Squeak from the living room as Daniele Peterson got off the futon. Shuffle-shuffle across cheap carpet as she came into the kitchen. Next the scuff of her Reebok sneakers across the faded green linoleum. Her mouth opened and closed repeatedly, like a fish gulping on dry land. She bee-lined to Miguel, who started to scream. I stood up and went to the back door.
I unlocked it and swung it open to reveal Moss and Stahlberg at the bottom of a set of tilting concrete steps. Stahlberg had her phone out and appeared to be playing Candy Crush. She looked at me. “Screams are a bit loud with the door open,” she said.
I closed the door behind me and walked down the steps. Moss grabbed my arm before I could pass him by. Yanking my arm free occurred to me, but I was too tired.
“So they’re still lively,” he said.
“You don’t want to kill them? Again?” He let go of my arm.
I shook my head. “I’m going home.”
He rubbed his cheek. “You said you’d help us.”
“You said you wanted me to help you even things up.” I jerked my head toward the back door. “There’re two zombies left and two of you. Things are even.”
He grimaced. “We could still use your help.”
“No. I don’t care if you do put a bullet between my eyes, I’m done helping. Fuck off.”
Moss looked surprised. “Put a bullet between your eyes? Why would we do that?”
I looked at Stahlberg. “How’s your neck?”
Moss made a pshaw sound. “For that? That’s a normal Sunday for her. She gets under everybody’s skin. I’m used to coming to her rescue. I put a gun to your head, sure, but I wasn’t planning to pull the trigger. Then or now.”
“Even though I really, really wanted to kill her?”
He half-smiled. “If you had really wanted to kill her, a gun to your head wouldn’t have stopped you.”
“The screams have stopped,” Stahlberg said.
Moss said, “Face it, Anderson, you’re one of the good ones.”
I rolled my eyes and walked away. I looked back, before turning the corner of the house. The agents were moving into the house, guns drawn.
I dropped into my car and drove home. I had a late night ahead of me, and I wanted to grab a nap first.