JUNE 12, 2012
Claire was dying.
Her five-year-old wails of pain cut piercingly through her mother’s ears as the girl squeezed around her shoulders tightly, gripping as hard as she was able, and Jennifer’s hold on her wasn’t too gentle either. One hand clamped tightly around the torn bite wound at her neck, blood pumping out from underneath Jenny’s fingers and staining them thickly as her other hand wrenched at the steering wheel, the truck slamming over someone’s body with a nasty crunch that sent them jolting. She didn’t bother checking – they’d hit a number of people already, and those that weren’t dead of them soon would be, anyway.
Rain pounded down on the truck from the outside, thick, heavy sheets of it that roared loudly, but it still wasn’t nearly enough to drown out the screams as the shambling creatures known as the undead lurched through the city, converging on people and tearing chunks out of them as best as they could see fit. The streets were a mess of jammed-up traffic, cars that had long since been evacuated when the drivers realised they wouldn’t get away if they weren’t on foot – which was why Claire’s mother hugged the sidewalk, crunching over hydrants and skidding dangerously in the rain, all the while whispering to her girl that it was going to be fine, that she was okay. Like it mattered. Jenny knew Claire was going to die, and it was hard to keep her voice from cracking as she spoke to her.
The truck screeched to a halt and he looked out in dismay as a pile of the monsters converged on a body in front of him, tearing and snarling, too huge in number to be ploughed through or driven over by even her sizeable vehicle. Even while her head whipped around in panic for somewhere to go she could hear the wheeze in Claire’s voice, her wails fading out.
“No, baby, hey, hold on!” She smoothed back Claire’s hair, shrinking back in her seat a little as one of the creatures looked up from the body, grey skin flecked with blood and unfocused eyes staring widely at them. The creature was shunted out of the way by another and it snarled, pushing back and losing interest in Claire and Jennifer to go back to its’ meal. It wouldn’t be long before it was stripped of meat, though, and they’d look to the closest living thing.
Fucking Palmer! She ground her teeth in anger, fingers tightening their pressure on Claire’s wound to try and keep the blood down, yanking out her cellphone and punching in a number. It rang only once before, with a deft click, a gratingly familiar voice crackled down the line.
“Jennifer, where the HELL are you?!” Her ex snarled.
“I’m in the CAR, you twat! Crawley Street, it’s packed, there’s no way through!”
Lazaro cursed on the other end. Claire let out another wail.
“Claire? Is that Claire?” He sounded alarmed. “Is she okay?”
Jennifer squeezed her eyes shut and curled her fingers tighter around the phone, not responding for a moment.
The silence on the other end of the phone was steely, and she could tell he knew. Or at least, he guessed.
“I’m coming.” He stated. “Stay there and lock the doors. I’ll get you out of here. I’ll fix this.”
Jennifer opened her mouth to respond, but he’d already hung up. She swore loudly and angrily, not really bothered if her daughter heard her at this point, and ditched the phone on the floor. The rain was getting louder, making it harder to see the carnage going on around them, but not to hear it. Jenny shrank down in her seat further, despairing, and slammed a finger down on the locks to shut them out, squeezing her eyes shut to try and rid herself of the sound, making a quick calculation in her head. They’d arranged to meet at Haversham Court, on the city outskirts. That meant if Lazaro was already there, he was moments away. They might still make it. The uprising hadn’t reached the inner part of the sprawling metropolis yet, and wasn’t likely to for another hour or so at most, he’d said, but the outskirts were already being overrun. They had to break through.
She didn’t know what he’d do with Claire. This obsession with the undead of his was part of what made her leave him in the first place – along with character flaws too numerous to even consider at that point – but he’d been right all along. He wasn’t insane. Just an asshole.
But if he wasn’t crazy all along, then she knew what he had in store for these creatures, and it wasn’t pretty.
It was that thought that broke Jennifer down, and she hugged Claire around the middle tightly, keeping her daughter close to her. If Lazaro didn’t come soon, she’d be dead and get up again right there in the car. Jenny didn’t want that. No way in hell. She couldn’t handle it. She’d have to push her outside or something – this was Laz’s field, not hers. Nothing to do with her.
The car lurched violently to the left and she shrieked, almost toppling out of the seat sideways as the zombie snarled next to the window, rocking the car as hard as possible. She let out a choked sob, which got louder when she realised it wasn’t being drowned out by Claire anymore. She could feel Claire’s heart beating hard and fast against her front, through her blood-soaked shirt, and it killed her. She couldn’t even focus on the fists and bodies slamming into the side of the truck, the roaring rain, the screams. There was nothing but her, Claire, and the stifling stink of blood.
Moments later, there was a quick flash of blue, and an animal groan. The rocking stopped. Jenny’s head whipped up, face streaked with tears, and she reached over hurriedly and flicked up the lock. The door was flung open moments later and Lazaro reached for Claire, blue fire crackling at his fingertips and dying away. Without a word Jenny handed her over, as carefully as possible, and Lazaro hugged her to himself, the only sign of his concern the white-knuckled grip he stepped back from the car. Jennifer’s eyes flicked around. The road was littered with the bodies of undead, some still groaning but unable to drag themselves to their feet, some still twitching and plumes of smoke rising from awful burns.
She didn’t feel a thing for them.
“The way’s clear now.” He stated sharply, hefting Claire a little roughly. His expression was dark as her breath slowed against his neck, laboured. Not long now. “Drive.”
Their eyes met for a moment. Not in an across-a-crowded-room sort of way, but at least in some mutual understanding. This was never meant to happen like this.
She reached out and slammed the car door shut, gripped the wheel in blood-soaked hands, and drove.
“This,” Christopher Maine of 32 East Parade said to the world at large, “sucks.” He received no response. Big, steaming piles of trash have no mouths, and so have a difficult time responding to anything. Given the chance, it’s likely they would have given Chris the cold shoulder anyway.
Chris sighed and speared a stray candy wrapper at his feet with the wooden stick they had issued him three hours ago. They was mostly his community service officer, but the crooked old man who kept charge of the dump had been the one to dig the stick out of a pile of junk in the cubby he called an office. It was a hack job if Chris had ever seen one, just a long bit of cracked wood with a rusty nail taped to one end. He was convinced it was giving him splinters through the cheap latex gloves he wore, and Lord knew he would have blisters by the time this was over. He imagined the wrapper, curled up in the dirt as though in fear of his awesome power, was that stuffy community service officer. Stabstabstab. That would show her. At the very least, it would show her discarded rubbish counterpart. He shook the wrapper off into the great black garbage bag he was dragging behind him and soldiered on.
The junkyard smelled particularly putrid that day, every foul stench amplified under the hot glare of the midday sun. If there was one thing worse than heaps of rotting trash, it was heaps of cooked rotting trash. Light glinted off every scrap of metal and shard of broken glass to irritate his eyes, and flies buzzed around him like tiny vultures waiting for him to keel over. Three weeks now he had been charged with cleaning the paths through the towering piles around him. Three weeks he had been given that stupid stick and made to pick up random bits of rubbish, and three weeks he had failed to see the point. What was the purpose of picking up trash in a dump? But the futility wasn’t the worst of it. Even the smell you got used to after an hour or so, but the heat was awful and the boredom absolutely killer. His MP3 player had long ago drained its battery, and there were only so many games of I Spy you could play alone in a dump.
“Four more days,” he reassured himself, rubbing at his eye with the back of his dirty, gloved hand. “Just four more days and it’s over.”
Stupid community service. He deserved better than this! It wasn’t as though he were some petty criminal, or one of those weird kids with greasy hair who listened to Slayer and spent all their time in shop class. Well, he’d learned his lesson, all right. No amount of shoplifting was worth this torment, not even if it was for Aerosmith’s new greatest hits album.
He gave a mushy, decomposing banana peel a nasty look as he blamed Steven Tyler for this whole mess. Damn his raw, biting vocals and musical versatility! And damn the harmonica, too. Chris kicked the peel out of his way into the nearest pile of random junk and kept trudging along the path sluggishly, like a depressed sleepwalker. He was just stabbing at a shred of bike tire and feeling sorry for himself when something soft and squishy smacked into the back of his head, slapping wetly against his hair and then falling away. He yelped and jumped and nearly fell over the bag he was toting in an attempt to turn around before he was assaulted again. His eyes fell immediately to the ground, where the banana peel he had just cleared from the path lay mottled and motionless at his feet.
“Hello?” he called, and his eyes darted up to scan the path. No response. A tingly feeling made itself known around the base of his spine. He was supposed to be alone here, right? But trash didn’t generally up and hurl itself at people.
He wiped at the back of his neck, disgusted to find banana residue clinging there, and narrowed his eyes. Someone had the gall to throw garbage at him, and he was going to make them pay. It was probably some jerk from school who thought it was funny that Chris had to waste his time here day after day. Marty, maybe, or Joe. Joe was the one who goaded him into stealing to begin with. But he saw no one.
“Hey!” he yelled, fighting to override the nervousness in his voice with irritation. “Whoever you are, you better show yourself!”
Nothing. The towers of junk loomed over him, still and silent, but there was nothing else in sight.
“I’m not kidding!”
“If my supervisor hears about this, you’ll—”
The trash moved. Just there, where he had kicked that damn banana peel moments before, the garbage shifted. There was no reason for it, no sudden breeze or scampering rat, no bird alighting at the top to stir up some little avalanche, and Chris’s heart began to hammer loudly against his sternum. Surely it had to be a raccoon or something, some stupid animal burrowing around and looking for food, but the thought did little to comfort him. His hands were sweating inside his gloves as he gripped his stick and stared, fixed, at that spot. It was a small lump branching off from the main hill, a little pile he had helped build up with meticulously gathered plastic sacks and broken furniture legs and what looked like part of an air conditioner. A bent metal grate tumbled down to the ground from the top of the heap, taking a shower of bags and wrappers with it that spilled back into the pathway. Chris would have been annoyed if he hadn’t been so busy being gripped by sudden terror, because there, next to a bit of white PVC pipe, was a human hand.
At least, that’s what it looked like: a human hand covered in bruises, scratches, and—oh, God—a little blood. A veined, greenish-grey, and very dead human hand.
Chris tried to swallow, and his throat tried to close itself up. His mouth was painfully dry all of a sudden, and he felt like he had been sucking on sand. Was there a body under there? A dead person? What if the mafia was involved? What if they wanted to kill him for finding it? Did they even have a mafia? He didn’t want to sleep with the fishes.
His thoughts spun and whirled in his head, growing crazier by the second, but his imagination screeched to a halt as that hand started to move. The fingers curled in toward the palm like the legs of a dying spider, then stretched back out to clutch and pull in vain at the junk all around it. It dragged uselessly at the loose earth beneath it and sent more and more precarious piles of rubbish tumbling down, until the path was covered in punctured soda cans and sheets of corrugated cardboard. Whoever it belonged was to trying to pull themselves out from under that crushing tower of garbage.
Chris couldn’t move. It was as though the dirt under his feet had turned to wet cement or quicksand and rooted him there to watch that horrifying struggle, disembodied hand versus mass amounts of trash. He was breathing fast and feeling lightheaded, and it was nearly impossible to think with any measure of logic. He needed to get out of there, to go and tell someone about this. Maybe the old man, since this was his dump. But what if the old man had done this? He was a little creepy, with his yellow teeth and constant grin. Okay, no trusting him, but he still needed to get away from this thing.
It wasn’t until the noise that Chris began to back off, the dumbfounded fear etched into his furrowed brows and open-mouthed frown making way for pure horror. It was a low, grunting sort of groan that came from somewhere deep within the pile and gurgled out like mud, gradually gaining volume.
Chris didn’t stick around to see what happened next. The scream he gave off could have been heard three towns over as the stick and bag he was holding both fell to the ground and he bolted, racing for the exit as if all the hounds of hell were on his tail – as for all he knew, they might as well have been.
Not long after Christopher beat his hasty retreat, a second hand emerged shakily from the pile, grabbed the sharp edge of a deeply-wedged piece of corrugated iron and heaved. It took only a few moments of grunting and forcing before the junk gave way completely, and with a sudden shower of garbage a boy pulled himself free of the surroundings, flopping down face first into the dirt where a broken toaster and a couple of empty paint cans tumbled down over his form, then nothing.
He lay for a moment, face down, fingers twitching and curling against the ground now and then.
Silence all around, save for the calls of a few circling seagulls overhead.
His eyelids began to slide slowly open, dull grey eyes peering uselessly at the blurry shapes all around, and he breathed in the putrid smell of the dump, wrinkling his nose up a little.
Can’t see right. Can’t smell right. Weird.
He pushed his hands into the ground and shakily tried to climb to his feet. It took three goes, but eventually he managed to get himself upright, stumbling and flexing his fingers uselessly.
He felt incredibly weird. Very stiff. Awkward. And a quick sweep of his tongue revealed that his mouth somehow managed to feel like both the bottom of a birdcage and nothing at all.
He squinted, worked his jaw a bit, and said the first thing that came to his mind.
Oh wow, that wasn’t right. He squeezed his eyes shut, rocked on his heels a bit as he tried to get his bearings, and tried again.
“Wuh. Wrrm… Where. Where am I?”
Nobody responded – but again, that’s not surprising.
The boy was a particularly odd sight, standing there in the middle of the dump. He was tall, to start with – oddly tall for how young he looked. His skin was sickly beyond repair, grayish with patterns of blue-green veins here and there. His hair was coarse and stringy, bleach-fried with oddly dyed sections of black and blue that hung around his face messily. Dead, grey eyes rimmed with sickly red stared sunkenly from a face that – when it was alive – may have been handsome once.
He stumbled in a disoriented manner but gathered himself before he had a chance to fall. He felt weird, like he’d been drinking or something, and he could barely keep himself upright. Yeah, that must be it.
He took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. Think, he told himself. Think for a second. What’s more important than where I am?
Who I am.
The answer was automatic, and it surprised him because it’s not usually something you have to ask. He racked his brain, but nothing was coming. It made him feel very uncomfortable, and maybe a little scared. A hand ran back through his dead-straight, uneven mess of hair, scratching at the top of it. He couldn’t feel the contact of his fingers.
This was beginning to get very weird.
Why couldn’t he feel anything?
Where was he?
WHO was he?
His vision, at least, seemed to be adjusting a little. All of the blobs were starting to take on a shape. Okay, so he was at a dump. Maybe if he just took a look around…
He rubbed his face a bit in an attempt to get a little feeling back, before giving up, nodding and lurching – and that really is the only word for it – toward the junkyard entrance. The guard at the front counter barely managed a nod in the boy’s direction over his magazine as the boy wandered out – that screaming kid from before had been enough excitement for one day, he’d decided.
The tall boy walked slowly down the street for what seemed like ages to him, trying to work his awkward joints into gear again. His brow was furrowed a bit and he was thoroughly confused as he glanced around the street. No doubt he would have been turning heads, but it was late afternoon and there were few people about.
It was a completely unfamiliar area, and he was starting to get more than a little unnerved. All of the shops and houses that he passed seemed odd, somehow. There was an excess of security everywhere – high fences, screeching dogs, deadbolts and locks and barred windows everywhere - but it just seemed like a normal suburban area of the city. It didn’t exactly look like a bad neighborhood or anything.
Up ahead, he perked up a bit as he caught sight of an overweight middle-aged man with long hair and a scraggly beard noisily tucking into a hotdog. Full of purpose, he headed up to the man with his best talking-to-strangers smile of polite hopefulness on his face.
“Excuse me!” He called, his voice still a little more odd and gravelly than he’d like. The man turned a bit to peer at him against the sun. “Hey, sorry, I’m a little luhrm-…” He cleared his throat and tried again. “A little lost. Can you tell me where-“
The undead boy jerked, almost as shocked by the outburst as the man had been by the sight ahead of him, who was now stepping back with bulging eyes and a pointed, shaking finger.
“Zombie?” The teen asked, utterly confused by the man’s horror. “Where?”
The boy staggered back with a grunt as a handful of hotdog slapped into his face, mustard and ketchup mushing together and getting in his eye.
“Hey!” He protested indignantly, rubbing at his face sluggishly as the other man legged it down the street. “What’s your problem, man?!”
But other passersby a little further down the street had heard the outburst and stopped what they were doing to stare. There was a pensive moment of silence, before the entire street erupted in a mess of screams and yells.
“It’s one of them!”
“Quick, get the gun!”
“No, no, somebody sound the alarm!”
“Where’s my shovel?!”
The teen stared, totally confused and dripping mustard as mad panic broke out around him. People screamed threats at him and grabbed each other amid wails, but nobody came near him.
“Look, what’s the matter with you?” The boy demanded crossly, to which someone responded by throwing a boot – which he only just dodged. “Has this whole place gone nuts?!”
“YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE!”
The boy couldn’t help but groan and think ‘What NOW?’ as a voice boomed and crackled from above, accompanied from the wail of an air-raid siren.
He looked up to the loudspeaker the voice was shouting from, embedded in a wall up above one of the buildings. The same voice echoed from another loudspeaker a few streets down, and others like it all over the city, in every sector.
“AN UNDEAD HAS BEEN SIGHTED IN SUBURBAN SECTOR G5. ALL RESIDENTS OF G5 ARE TO MAKE THEIR WAY TO THE NEAREST SECURE LOCATION.”
All over the confines of the city, people stopped what they were doing to listen in. The result was another mild panic; a mad rush for people to get to the safety of their homes or even the nearest place with a heavy-looking door. All but two; the tall, confused undead staring up at the loudspeaker and, in a completely different sector of the city altogether, a hooded figure far too involved in digging through a trash can in a deserted back alley to respond or care either way.
“A DEFENSIVE SQUAD HAS BEEN NOTIFIED, AND WILL ATTEND TO THE MATTER IMMEDIATELY.”
Jeremiah David Jones - or Davey, as he much preferred to be called - clambered back out of the trash can with a half-full can of spray-paint clutched in a gloved hand, his grin shining through the cover of the hood pulled over his face, feeling particularly pleased with himself.
It was only then that the alarm seemed to register to him, and he looked up across the street, where another loudspeaker lodged up high boomed out the same message.
“AN UNDEAD HAS BEEN SIGHTED IN SUBURBAN SECTOR G5.” Davey’s eyes lit up behind the confines of his hood, and the paint can clattered to the ground, forgotten. “ALL RESIDENTS OF G5 ARE TO MAKE THEIR WAY TO THE NEAREST SECURE LOCATION.”
There was a deft flick of Davey’s wrist, and the sunlight sparkled on the sharp edge of his flick knife. He’d made his decision.
“DIBS!” He shouted as he raced down the street, headed in the direction of sector G5, brimming with excitement.
There hadn’t been an undead sighting in the city for MONTHS, and he was going to take advantage of it.
Meanwhile, the tall, dirty boy from the dump was running in the exact opposite direction. He was shouting as well, but mainly out of fear. Behind him came shouts and cracks of gunfire as his sneakers slapped against the cracked pavement. The armed SWAT team took a moment to reload as others moved in from the back to take their place and fire shots at the teen.
“Aim!” One shouted, waving indicatively, his other hand on a walkie talkie. “Aim for the head! The HEAD!”
They’re shooting at me!
No matter how many times he ran it over in his head it sounded unreal. The boy couldn’t believe this was happening to him, sneakers squealing on the ground as he narrowly ducked another round of shots and grabbed a signpost on the corner, using it to swing himself around quickly and pelt off down another street. In his haste, he hadn’t noticed the signpost buckling and creaking under the force of his grip. All he could hear were the footsteps racing behind him, coming up fast, and the sound of his own breathing.
He couldn’t remember ever having been more scared in his life.
Just when he heard one or two of the soldiers gaining on him from behind, shouting and pointing to indicate where he’d gone, and he was so sure he’d die right there on the street…
His chin hit the ground with an ear-splitting CRACK. The impact was enough to blur his vision and send him into a daze – but still, he couldn’t fail to notice, it didn’t hurt. At all. Underneath him, the hard gravel scraped noisily at his dead skin as whatever it was that tripped him started to pull back, dragging him with it. He jerked, and twisted around a bit on himself to try and catch a glimpse of whatever it was.
The sight in front of him was not one he would forget in a hurry.
Strong, calloused fingers bunched in the material of the teen’s pant leg, gripping his ankle one-handed and dragging him backward over the gravel. The other hand curled at the edge of an open manhole, keeping a hold so that he did not fall as Davey pulled the other boy back toward him, leering cruelly. The hood of his jumper had fallen back off his face, revealing skin as dead and grey as the boy’s own, stitched up and patched hastily here and there, dead eyes narrowed in concentration under disheveled brown locks as the other boy was dragged with alarming ease back to the hole in the ground, the grate shoved aside on the road.
“Ah-!” Panicked, the boy kicked back at his attacker and dragged at the ground as he was pulled, but the power of the other boy’s grip was far too much for him and within seconds they slipped back down the manhole, darkness all around save for the light of the opening above. Dirty fingers clamped around his mouth and just below his chest, locking him tightly in back against the other boy’s grip. Davey ignored the muffled complaints and vain, disoriented struggling as he watched the hole above intently, watching carefully for any sign up above of those who had been firing at the boy he now held captive. A good few minutes passed before he finally let go, shoving the taller boy roughly away from him. A mighty splash went up as the boy hit the dirty, knee-high water of the sewer and emerged, gasping. He didn’t have time to be disgusted before Davey was on him, yanking him up out of the water by his shirt front and leering. Any hope that this boy had dragged him off the street to keep him from being shot at was shot to pieces when that knife shone again in the dim sewer light, pressing tight up against the tall boy’s throat.
“Right then, down to business!” Davey grinned, pressing the knife against thick, leathery flesh tightly. There was something to him that suggested he was talking more to himself than the other boy. “You sure caused a pretty big ruckus up there. Still, no way am I letting the big man’s flunkies hog all the credit for this o-“
That got a reaction. Davey jerked, staring wide-eyed at the boy he held. He looked an absolute picture of misery, soaked and red-eyed and looking any minute as if he might burst into tears.
“Please, just- I don’t know what I did, or where I am, or ANYTHING, just…” He choked out, hands wavering and eyes focused as best they could on the knife at his throat. “Just let me go, okay? Please, don’t kill me, don’t- don’t EAT me, just…”
Davey let go of his shirt instantly, staggering back a step or two. He was gaping. He stared like that, in utter shock, as the other boy rubbed at his neck and stared back, still absolutely terrified. Then, though, that shock made way for something closer to anger, or at least irritation.
“What the HELL, man?!” He flicked the knife shut, glaring and pocketing it. “Why didn’t you just TELL me you could talk?”
The black-haired youth just stared, brow furrowing in a confusion that almost cut through his fear. Davey lifted his gloved hands in an expression of peace, but he was still frowning. “You know I could have KILLED you right? Cut your head clean off!”
The boy SERIOUSLY felt like he was missing something here. He took a step back, sewer water sloshing around his legs as he did.
“I’m serious. I really thought you were one of THEM!” Davey hesitated, peering out at the other from under his eyebrows. “…You know, the stupid ones?”
They stared in silence at each other like that for a moment, the brunette obviously waiting for a response from this boy. His hopeless, blank stare was all that he was given, and that irritation started to slide further toward uncertainty.
“You have…NO idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
The tall boy shook his head, no. What with the knife-wielding maniac having – at least momentarily – ceased his attack, the boy was able to get a closer look at him. Davey was a good foot or so shorter than he, though that wasn’t surprising, with highly expressive features, scuffed jeans and gloved hands, all skin save for that on his face hidden from view. Davey sighed and scratched the back of his neck a little, thinking. “Alright…okay. Let’s start with something a bit easier. What’s your name?”
He was met with more blank staring and a pathetic shrug. Davey’s eyebrows creased.
“Jesus.” The boy took a step toward the other, who jerked and stepped back a bit warily. “It’s alright, I’m not trying to hurt you.”
He paused. “…Anymore.”
He took another few steps, slowly. The guy was obviously still freaked, but he didn’t move, keeping his eyes locked as best he could on the other as Davey circled him thoughtfully.
“So you don’t remember anything?” Davey sounded dubious. “Like where you came from, what you’re doing inside the walls, nothing? You smell TERRIBLE, by the way.”
“Alright, look, what is this about?” The youth sounded exasperated, craning his neck to see around as Davey came to a sudden stop behind him. “As far as I know I just woke up, and- what are you doing?!” He tried to jerk away as one of Davey’s hands clamped down on his shoulder to keep him steady, the other hand moving up to his neck to brush a few strands of hair away, eyes narrowed slightly. A trail of blood, which a touch of Davey’s fingers revealed was too dry to have been washed away by the sewer water, ran down the back of the boy’s neck and stained the collar of his jacket dark red. Davey carefully parted and lifted his hair further up to try and find the source, peering close.
“Oh, DUDE!” His voice piped with an almost excited air at the sight. “Is that your brain?!”
“What?!” The boy tried vainly to wrench out of Davey’s grip as the others fingers skirted over a cavernous, gaping wound at the back of his head. It appeared to have been caved in by something, the skin torn and a gash revealing white bone and grey matter, the whole underside of his head caked with blood. If it weren’t so gross, it would have been the coolest thing Davey had ever seen. The tall boy had no knowledge of this, however – he couldn’t feel it at all. The damage had already been done.
“Kick ASS, man.” Davey let go of his hair, wiping off his fingers on his shirt. “That’s one hell of a way to go.”
The other boy smacked at his hand, turning grey eyes on the other boy angrily.
“Get OFF me, okay!” He snarled, grabbing his shirt and wringing it out to get out some of the water bogging it down. “Look, I don’t know who you are, but-“
He hesitated. “What?”
“That’s me. Maggot Boy.” Davey gave him a broad grin, wiping off his shirt. “You know, local hero? Cleaning up the city, getting rid of the mindless, general saving of the day? Haven’t heard of me?”
“No.” The other boy said flatly.
“Figures. Ah well. I’m kind of a big deal.” He offered the other boy his scarred, grey hand, then thought better of it seeing as the other boy was still covered with sewer water. “You can call me Davey though. Davey Jones.”
The boy gave Davey a skeptical look.
“…Right.” He snorted, and pushed his hair back out of his face. “Okay listen. This hasn’t been the best dream so far, so if you could maybe just show me the way to-“
“Woah, woah.” Davey gave him a serious sort of look, raising a hand to silence him. “A dream? Man, you’re gonna have to wise up some. That kind of thinking’s going to get you in some SERIOUS trouble. I mean, if the humans wise up to you-“
Davey trailed off there, because something was wrong. He stared up at the other boy – he was swaying on his feet. There was something odd about his expression, his eyelids fluttering a bit. A little alarm started welling up in Davey as the other sagged a little – something could be seriously wrong here.
“Dude…dude! Hey, are you okay?” He reached up, concerned, and touched the youths shoulder lightly. He blinked, and murmured funnily, stumbling a little. It was only seconds later, however, when he staggered and slammed forward into Davey, almost knocking him back over into the water. Davey shouted out and reeled a bit, getting the others weight under his arms and staring at him oddly once his balance was eventually regained. His eyes were shut gently, and he slumped heavily in Davey’s arms, not looking like moving anytime soon, but still breathing softly.
“What the hell…hey! Are you asleep?!” He shook the other roughly, but there was no response. He was out. Davey gave him a weird look, before sighing and tugging him back over to the walkway near the ladder exit of the sewer. He put him down rather unceremoniously and squatted next to him, staring with his brow furrowed lightly, deep in thought. Who the hell IS this guy?
After a moment of that he eased him up against the wall a little bit more and untucked his soaking jacket from around him, digging in his pockets and searching for anything that might point to who this is. A pair of thick-rimmed glasses – broken – and a few soaking wadded up bus tickets – unreadable – were all he could come out with. His digging did reveal something though as he tugged at his jacket lightly. Smeared a little by the water, a name scrawled on the back of his jacket. He brightened a bit, and pulled him forward a little, pulling the jacket away from the back of his neck to read it. He squinted hard.
“…A. M. Chainey.” He frowned a bit. “Chainey? Is that your name?”
The figure didn’t respond but for a soft, sleepy murmuring. Davey fingered the tag a bit, frowning harder still, but eventually sighed and hooked his arms under the boy’s legs and the back of his neck, hefting him upright. “Alright then, whatever, you weirdo. I know a girl who’d KILL to meet y-“
The voice crackled as if out of nowhere. After Davey recovered from his heart leaping into his throat and almost dropping the boy, now hooked over one shoulder, he reached behind him and unhooked a walkie talkie from where it was attached to a rear belt loop. He didn’t seem at all happy to hear from it.
“Bring him back to the base.”
Davey raised a brow slowly, waiting a moment before responding flatly.
“Jones,” The voice warned. “Have you forgotten who you’re working for? Bring him back. NOW.”
Davey hefted Chainey’s body a bit, shuffling him over his shoulder, and worked his mouth as if considering this.
Moments later, he tossed the walkie talkie at the wall where it shattered with a tremendous CRACK and a mess of splintered plastic and wiring.
“Get BENT, old man!” He scoffed, kicking a few pieces of plastic out of his way and shouldering the load of the boy he now carried. “I just FOUND the guy, geez.”
He looked down at the body hanging over his shoulder. Chainey hung like a rag doll, his hair limp and dripping over his features. From this close you could see the blotchy discoloration of his pale skin, the veins at the corners of his mouth, the built-up gunk in his eyes.
Davey’s expression softened a bit, and he cocked his head a little. His voice came a little softer then, mostly speaking to himself.
“Not much fun is it…waking up dead, I mean.”
No response. Chainey was really out for it.
“Yeah…you got a long road ahead of you.” Davey frowned to himself, then lifted the boy a little more to get him in a better position, beaming. “Well don’t you worry, pal! I’ll make sure and help you out. Heh.” His sneakers squeaked on the wet concrete of the sewer floor, his voice bouncing around back at him the only response he received. “Might even be fun, huh?”
As he trudged onward, the engaged light on his walkie talkie flicked one or two more times sporadically, emitting a few bursts of static fuzz now and then, then died out.
Lazaro’s eyes narrowed sharply at the headset he held delicately between two fingers, the static fuzz on the other end being the only response offered up by his ever-so-irritating subordinate. Not for the first time he considered just giving up on that useless boy and having him shot like all of the other undead they managed to get their hands on, but he knew by now he couldn’t do that. Jeremiah Jones was far too useful of a commodity. However, the arrival of this new boy was…promising, to say the least. With any luck he’d prove a lot more useful than what they were currently forced to work with.
“Sir? Mr. Palmer?”
He became dimly aware of being spoken to, and tuned back in to what he was doing. He tightened his grip on the headset and turned a bit to glance back at the man behind him. The man looked slightly nervous, from what Lazaro could see below the riot helmet.
“Your orders, sir?” He asked again, with a little less temerity. Lazaro glanced idly down at the headset, fingering it lightly between bony fingers in silent thought.
“As usual, his argumentative skills are simply staggering.” He muttered dryly, slipping the set back inside his jacket.
“Should I put a call out, Mr. Palmer? We can have a team at the hangar waiting for them by the time they arrive.”
Lazaro frowned lightly and sighed, pushing his hair back. “No, just let him be. I imagine we’ve got enough of a mess to clean up as it is anyway.” He waved dismissively and the soldier snapped a quick salute before turning on his heels and beating a hasty retreat, apparently eager to be out of that room. With Lazaro, that was hardly surprising.
He peered out over the city laid out in front of him. The office of Lazaro Palmer, founder and president of the Palmer Institute, was situated on the very top floor of the highest building in the city, situated near the CBD. The building hadn’t always been used for that purpose, but there had been many like it, abandoned after the undead swept through. The city stretched out in front of him, a vast, sprawling metropolis crammed into about as much space as a small coastal city would call for, closed in on all sides by huge, looming walls with equally giant gates at four points all around, guard towers and barbed wire patterning what could be seen of the horizon over the nasty great things.
Sovereign City. Christ, what a hellhole.
Just how many were out there? Lazaro’s eyes closed and he breathed out heavily in annoyance. Undead who can think. Ask him a year ago what he thought of that and he’d have called it ridiculous. Zombies do not THINK, that’s what makes them zombies. Yet here they are. He wondered idly if there were more out there, being choked by the pockets of shambling, wandering mindless undead still roaming the country, being taken out by the foreign aid workers raking what was left of North America or just wandering about, eventually starving and rotting away in seclusion. Maybe some of them never even managed to climb out of their coffins.
He considered momentarily whether or not he cared. It didn’t surprise him in the least that he did, in fact, not. However, keeping a lid on the city’s so-called hero was enough of a trial as it stood. He wasn’t sure they could handle covering up for any more that might show up.
It’s why he had let Davey take the boy. He had bigger things to worry about – namely, the institute. There had been WITNESSES today. No doubt his Public Relations manager was already dealing with them as best as he knew how, but he knew the public would want a statement from Lazaro himself. And he was tired, so very tired.
Lazaro gave a short sigh. What a mess. He cast one final glance at the security monitors, paused on the image of the stupid-looking new dead kid they’d picked up, and flicked it off.
Better get to work.
”This is so lame, ugh.”
Samantha Hyde stood with her arms folded, watching quietly with an odd expression as the odd-haired stranger slept, his back turned on them and one arm hanging awkwardly out of the hammock. Chainey his name was, she’d been told. A. M. Chainey, and that’s all they knew. Fingering her notebook idly, she flipped a few pages and read back through her notes on him. There wasn’t much to know until he actually woke up and SPOKE to her. Sighing gently, she moved back away from the room where he lay and wandered over to a beat-up, dilapidated old couch which she promptly flopped over the back of with a big, exaggerated sigh that didn’t seem to catch the attention of the youth playing video games in front of her.
“Davey,” She whined, wriggling a little to get into a more comfortable position, “He won’t wake up.”
Davey thumbed the joystick on his controller and sent the on-screen car he was controlling careening around a corner with a tinny squeal of breaks. “Dude’s had a long day. Give him a break, why don’t you?”
“But I REALLY want to talk to him!” Blowing a few strands of hair out of her eyes she righted herself, slumping back against the back of the couch. “Really, how am I supposed to do my job with him out like that? We don’t know hardly ANYTHING about him.”
“What’s the big deal?” Davey made a face as he skidded off the tracks and slammed into a wall, giving him a chance to glance back at the girl. “It’s not as if he’s GOING anywhere. Guy doesn’t even remember who he is. When he wakes up, I’m sure he’ll have a LOT to talk about.”
“I guess so…”
From the other room, his back still turned, Chainey shifted lightly, dead grey eyes flicking to the side a little as he half-listened to them. He’d been awake for some time, now, but he didn’t think he was ready for any more interrogation right now. His head was already a whirlwind of thoughts – he was still having so much trouble coming to terms with what was going on here. He became dimly aware of a shadow in the doorway behind him again and stiffened as Sam resumed standing, watching him. Really, it was slightly creepy.
“The poor thing…” She tutted, folding her arms tight and biting her lip. “This is such a bum deal, you know? I mean he can’t go out in public, hated wherever he goes, no human food, no family, no more girls…”
“Hey, now,” Davey glanced over his shoulder, sounding indignant, as Chainey took all this in with as blank a face as he could manage, “what about me, then? I’m dead too, you know!”
“You? Oh whatever. You’re old news now, buddy.”
“Anyway,” Davey continued, going back to his game and raising his voice a bit. “Girls won’t be a problem anyway.”
“Nope!” He laughed, sitting back comfortably with another grin. “That guy’s one hundred per cent queer. You should have SEEN the way he was checking me out.”
That got a reaction. From the room Chainey was in came an indignant shout, a short scuffle, and a dull THUD as the other boy hit the floor. Davey laughed harshly and pushed the controller aside, Sam whipping around excitedly at the noise. “Thought that’d work! Rise and shine, Mister Chainey!”
Chainey’s brow furrowed a bit, and he looked up as if he were going to respond, but then he jumped and made a short sound of surprise. Sam was literally inches from his face, squatting down to get a good look at him and hugging her knees tightly. Her eyes were lit brightly as she studied him, and she looked positively enthralled by him. But that wasn’t what Chainey noticed – no, it was more the way her deep reddish-brown hair fell in her face, the fringe left free while the back were styled into thick dreads tied back off her face, her milk-coffee colored skin, full, pouty lips pulled into a grin almost too wide for her face, and her eyes, wide and dark. She was of average height for a girl, possibly a little on the short side but not remarkably so, and she was banging.
Most of all, however, she was alive. And within breathing range of Chainey himself, who mostly smelt of dirt and death and looked even worse.
“Chainey, right?” The vision grabbed his hand and pumped it up and down excitedly, all the while her eyes flicking him over like he was a prize turkey. “How are you feeling? Did you sleep okay? You need to tell me all about it, every detail about yourself and what you can remember!”
“Uh?” He responded dumbly, still overcome by this intensely enthusiastic girl still gripping his hand so tightly.
“Oh! Sorry, sorry.” She cleared her throat and let go of his hand, pressing her hand instead to her front. “I’m Samantha Hyde! I work for the institute.”
He stared at her a little, her brow creasing up a touch. Her face fell just a bit at his utter confusion.
“…you know, the Palmer institute?”
“Geez, you really DID forget, didn’t you?” She sighed lightly and straightened up – the movement revealed a quick flash of belly under her shirt, and Chainey thought he caught a glimpse of a tattoo there – before reaching down to offer him a hand up. “Come on, let’s get you straightened out a bit.”
Chainey could only nod dumbly and accept the hand as it was offered, climbing to his feet and stumbling after Samantha as she prattled cheerfully, leading him back into the main area. He finally got a chance to look around, then. The room was wide, but seemed fairly dilapidated. The walls were all made of corrugated iron, the floor cold and hard cement. It appeared more like a bunker or something than anything, but curtains and posters and things appeared to have been put up in some attempt to make the place more welcoming or something. Ratty furniture and things were everywhere, and some of the massive expanse of the warehouse-like room had been sectioned off by curtains to make more ‘rooms’, but the whole place was like one big ratty box, devoid of human necessities like a visible kitchen or bathroom. The hum of a generator could be heard over Davey’s noisy game and equally noisy protests in the game’s direction. It was painfully clear – no human lived here.
“What is this place?” Chainey asked slowly as Sam took him over to an overstuffed armchair near a flimsily set-up table covered in bits and pieces, sitting him down in the seat and rattling around in a tin box noisily.
“This is Davey’s place,” She responded. “He brought you back here. He said you passed out or something?”
“Yeah! Anyway, it used to be an airplane hangar until it got boarded up and abandoned after the wall went up. All the pilots died, see.”
Chainey squeezed his eyes shut and sighed. Apparently he was going to have to make a habit of being confused. “The wall?”
Samantha paused and glanced at him incredulously. )He kind of wished she’d stop doing that.)
“You’re kidding.” She shook her head lightly and dug a spool of medical thread and a needle from the box, setting about hooking the string through a hole. “Hand.”
He raised his hand to her. She shook her head with a smile and reached down to take his other hand in hers, yanking it over closer.
Without a word of warning, she then plunged the hooked needle deep into his skin.
“Hey-!” The undead attempted to pull his hand back. Sam looked instantly taken aback.
“What- did that hurt? Seriously?”
“Well…” Chainey glanced down at his hand. “Well no, but…” But what? But he’d expected it to? Sam gave him a pitying look, and pressed the needle into his skin again, this time on the other side of a deep laceration that ran between his index and middle finger. He couldn’t remember how it happened – possibly it got cut on some of the garbage. He couldn’t remember, he’d been kind of busy.
“I know, it’s going to take you a lot of getting used to.” She said kindly, black-brown eyes full of sympathy. “But you know, it DOES get easier. Davey had a bit of a time when we first found him, too.” She lowered her voice at that, glancing at the boy playing games. If Davey heard her, it didn’t show.
“Who’s we?” Chainey’s eyes followed Sam’s hands as she sewed up his hand, pulling the skin tight together. She worked surprisingly fast. Maybe she had experience. “That…institute you mentioned?”
“Yeah!” She pulled the string tight as she worked her way up his hand, glancing up a bit. “The Palmer Institute. We deal with all matters relating to the study and defense against the undead and prevention of future uprisings, as well as teach basic necromancy and develop new technology to-“
“Okay, stop.” Chainey’s eyes narrowed and he held up a hand, stopping Samantha in her tracks. “Necromancy? As in magic?”
She paused, and gave him a pitying smile.
“Okay look, you want me to just start from the top?”
From where he sat Davey’s eyes flicked over toward them as Samantha cut off what was left of the medical string stitching up Chainey’s hand and took a seat herself, clearing her throat before starting.
“It started about two or three years ago. That’s when the mindless first showed up. That is,” she stated, raising her index finger as Chainey opened his mouth to speak, “The mindless undead. It’s a term the Palmer institute coined to differentiate the ones who can’t think from the ones who can. They’re pretty much your stock Romero undead – shambling, stupid zombies who exist only to feed on flesh. Nobody really knows where they came from, but that’s always the case, isn’t it?” Sam picked idly at her shirt as she spoke. Chainey took this in with a look of intense unease – the way she spoke about it, this was clearly already old news. How had he forgotten about a zombie apocalypse? “The disease spread like wildfire. Bitten humans would die, and then come back to spread the infection.”
“Then, Lazaro showed up.” Samantha’s eyes gleamed excitedly. From his chair Davey made a retching noise like he was going to be sick. “Nobody knew who Lazaro Palmer was back then, not really.”
“I heard he was an English teacher.” Davey piped up. Sam gave him a sharp look.
“Yes, WELL, if you want to get technical, okay. But he was still practically a nobody, completely overlooked. Especially then, when the city was already half overrun by the dead, you know? In the middle of all the insanity he got onto the roof of the highest building in the city, stood there, and chanted. Nobody tried to stop him – they were all too busy fighting and trying to hide from the mindless. It was chaos, and as usual, he was passed over. For some reason even the undead who managed to get on top of the building couldn’t manage to touch him. Nobody would ever have put it down to necromancy. That’s absurd, they’d say.” Samantha waved a hand idly in a dismissive gesture, obviously not thinking much of such claims. “Magic doesn’t exist. But then again-“ she leant in to Chainey a little, smiling broadly. “Neither do zombies. Right?”
He could only nod dumbfoundedly in response. Necromancy? Seriously?
“Anyway, he must have been up there for hours channeling the sort of power he’d need for a spell like this. It’d be an immense drain on anyone – even someone who’d been training and preparing for this their entire life. And then…BANG!”
Chainey jumped almost a foot in his chair and drew his head back as Sam was suddenly right in his face again for emphasis, grinning triumphantly. “The whole city was covered with this bright blue light! It washed over everyone and everything. And just like that, they were gone.”
The boy stared. “Gone?”
“Yep.” Sam’s hands went to her hips and she smiled broadly. “Every single undead within reach of the glow was reduced to ashes where they were. It was INCREDIBLE. See, the light was a shield charm.” Sam dug inside her shirt and retrieved a necklace with a pendant on it. It was patterned with some sort of odd tribal design. “From something like this, only MUCH more powerful.”
“Wait, so-“ Chainey stared at Sam incredulously. “You’re a Necromancer? You? Like Lazaro?”
Sam made an embarrassed noise and waved him off sheepishly. “Oh no, no, I’m nowhere near as powerful as he is.” She smiled a bit. “I’ve still got a whole lot to learn first. Anyway, this spell - It’s only supposed to work around the area of one person, or in some cases your house, to protect from the undead. But this was extended to create a protective dome surrounding the ENTIRE city. When the source was traced back to Lazaro, who was still pouring everything he had into this spell, he explained that he could hold them off, but not forever.
They had to move fast.
He held the shield for four days and nights straight while, at his command, the city banded together to use explosives, manpower and machinery to dig a deep trench around the city to keep the threat at bay once the shield fell. On the fifth day, the trench was finished. When Lazaro heard, he collapsed in exhaustion.” There was something reverential about the way Sam explained all of this – she was in absolute awe of this man. It couldn’t be clearer. “He hadn’t eaten, slept, bathed or moved from that spot for almost a week. By all rights, he should have been dead.”
“And THAT,” Davey exclaimed loudly right next to Chainey’s ear, earning a short sound of surprise from the other boy, “is how old man Laz turned into a wrinkly old corpse mongler.”
“Davey!” Sam whirled around on her heels, dark eyes flashing annoyance. Davey grinned broadly, not at all put out by her anger, which just seemed to annoy her more. “Don’t you think a little more RESPECT is in order?”
“Whaaat? It’s just the truth!”
“Lazaro SAVED this city, Davey!” Sam’s eyes narrowed heavily, her fists curling a bit at her sides, while Davey just grinned in return, getting some sort of satisfaction out of riling her up.
“Big whoop! I’m Maggot Boy, remember? I totally save people all the time.”
“That man,” Sam hissed, leaning up and glaring in Davey’s face, “is a HERO.”
“That man,” Davey mimicked, imitating her glare exaggeratedly, “is a DOUCHEBAG.”
Chainey watched silently, his eyes going from one party to the other as they argued. He was suddenly overcome by something – his arms felt as though they were going to drop off they were so heavy, and his eyelids started slipping downward. He could barely keep his eyes open, let alone silence the yawn that followed all the while Davey and Sam were arguing.
“Alright, alright, Sam, calm down.” Davey laughed, raising both hands as the girl looked about ready to choke Davey to death with her bare hands. “Nothing for us to get all worked up about, right? I mean I just don’t like the guy. After all…can’t trust a necromancer, right?”
If looks could kill, Davey would have been a puddle on the floor then with how much malice Sam was putting into her scowl. Chainey tried to keep his eyes open to gauge what it was she responded with, but he was just so incredibly tired. He started to slump a bit, breathing out slowly, convincing himself it’d just be for a second-
“Are you two quite finished?”
The voice was icy, sharp, and contained traces of an accent Chainey couldn’t identify. It was also right next to his ear, and unexpectedly so. The zombie jolted and let out a shout, almost toppling out of his fear in shock. Lazaro gave him a dry, unamused frown as Sam and Davey both whirled around to face him.
“M-mister Lazaro! Sir!” Sam’s cheeks were bright red as both hands went to her face, wondering in horror how much exactly of their little spat he had heard. Davey seemed less impressed, however, a sneer curling his features.
“Oh, awesome. How’d YOU get in here?” He leered, to which Lazaro snorted indignantly.
“Please. It wasn’t hard, this place is mostly curtains.” Chainey’s eyes flicked over the man as he spoke. Lazaro Palmer was still alive, unlike he and Davey, but god was it ever hard to tell. His skin was sheet-white, sickeningly so, and his hair was almost as pale. If Chainey could be described as thin, Lazaro was tiny, his skin wrinkled and dry, sunken in patches and stretched tightly over what seemed to just be bone underneath. He wore a modest shirt and tie combination, but still held the air of someone with enough power to make you wish you’d never met him. Maybe the most disturbing thing about all this, however, was that he didn’t appear old. Not old ENOUGH, anyway. He couldn’t have been out of his twenties or early thirties, and it was clear his unhealthy, wrinkled appearance had nothing to do with his age.
“Wait, so-“ Chainey spoke up slowly, Lazaro’s eyes flicking back down to him sharply, “You’re Lazaro?”
“Correct. And I suppose you’re the one who’s been causing all of this fuss?” Lazaro speared Chainey with a cold blue stare, and the boy winced a little as the older man held that look long enough to make him incredibly uncomfortable. “You’re coming with me.”
Chainey hesitated. “Um, I’m not sure I-“
“Your consent is not required.”
Chainey faltered. “Er. Oh.”
“Hey, wait!” Davey straightened with a glare at Lazaro. “If he’s going, I’m coming too!”
“This has nothing to DO with you, Jones.” Palmer responded spitefully with an equally potent glare, the dislike crackling between the two practically palpable. “If you’re ready to keep your mouth shut however, I suppose there’s no real problem with that. Come along, Mr.…?”
Chainey opened his mouth to respond with another pathetic “I don’t know”, but Davey cut him off.
“CHAINEY. His name is Chainey.”
The taller boy gave Davey a confused look. “It is?”
“Very well. Come along, Chainey.” Lazaro muttered curtly, with a short glance at his watch. “Good evening, Miss Hyde.”
Samantha responded with a poorly subdued, girlish giggle, which she quickly squashed and followed up with a meek “You too, sir!”, still blushing brightly. Davey made more gagging noises and glared at her deeply as Lazaro whisked out, trailed closely by the ever-more-confused Chainey.
The night was dark as they stepped out of the door onto the cracked pavement that surrounded the complex. Davey tugged his hood up and over his face again, concealing it from view, then grabbed Chainey’s jacket and did the same to him, yanking the hood down so far over Chainey’s face he could barely see under it.
“Sorry dude, can’t let anyone see.” He said firmly as Chainey protested, tugging back and trying vainly to see out from behind the cloth. “You’ll get used to it, just keep your eyes on the ground.”
Chainey muttered a little then as Davey took a second to unroll his sleeves and pull them down over his hands, obscuring what remained of his grayish, stitched-up flesh from view. Lazaro tutted impatiently from his sleek but practical car, holding open the door for Chainey and Davey to get inside impatiently. Chainey started to move, but Davey grabbed his arm and leant in a bit to hiss to him in a whisper.
“Listen, this guy is- he’s just a total asshole, okay?” He muttered lowly. “He hates people like us. Just don’t take anything he says to heart.”
“I-“ Chainey started, but Davey had already pulled away and was jogging over to the car, yelling at Lazaro to keep his shirt on for everyone’s sake. Chainey stood for just a moment, trying not to let all this newness overcome him, before following suit and climbing stiffly into the car. It wasn’t too big of a car, but the seats faced each other as if it were a limo. Chainey shifted a little, unsure why his seat was facing forward like this – until Lazaro climbed in, when it became abundantly clear. He sat across from Chainey and stared at him coldly. If he could feel anything, he was sure he’d have felt a chill just then. Nobody could glare quite like Lazaro Palmer, he was certain of it already – and yet Davey ignored him completely, busying himself playing with the electric windows noisily. Lazaro rapped lightly on the window of the partition between himself and the driver, and the car started up with a purr of the engine, pulling out smoothly and making its way down the long driveway from the hangar.
Lazaro stared silently at Chainey for a moment or two more, sizing him up, before sighing and digging around in his pocket. Chainey craned his neck to try and see as Lazaro pulled out a folded piece of paper, straightened it out and began to read in a dull monotone.
“’At approximately ten fifteen this morning an alarm was issued with relation to a breach in the security defenses relating to an undead sighting in Suburban Sector F-6. Please rest assured that breach control is an entirely serious manner to the Palmer Institute and that there was absolutely no sign of obstruction or anything but airtight security at the gate when investigated. The breach has been revealed as little more than a childish prank instigated by one Christopher Maine, seen fleeing the scene by junkyard security. He is currently being held at the Palmer Institute for questioning and will be released with a warning.’ Mr. Chainey,” Lazaro placed the paper delicately to the side and folded his arms across his chest, his eyes still set coldly on the other boy. “I’d appreciate in future if you could employ a little more tact when wandering the streets brainlessly like you seemed intent on doing. You could have easily been killed today on-sight and you’ve caused a lot of trouble for everyone involved.”
Chainey said nothing, just looked at his hands awkwardly while Davey gave the other man a nasty glare.
“You must understand,” Lazaro continued with a gesture, either not seeing Davey or ignoring him flat out, “your arrival has caused SEVERE unrest. There hasn’t been a breach in this city’s defenses for months, thanks to the institute. My officials are doing everything they can to cover it up but it’s still made everyone uneasy.”
“What- cover it up?” Chainey scratched the back of his neck lightly, fingers passing over his badly patched-up head wound. “What for? Can’t you just tell people I’m not one of the…the mindless or whatever?”
“If only it were that simple.” Lazaro gesticulated idly. “The general public aren’t of the knowledge that the aware even exist. Besides, even if they were, with the amount of trouble the mindless have caused this city it’s doubtful it would be widely accepted. People don’t trust what they don’t know. Imagine, a zombie working for humans.”
Chainey glanced to the side, where Davey was back to fiddling around with the controls on the car – much to Lazaro’s mild irritation. “So…you work for him?”
Davey gave Chainey a defensive glare at that, like the other boy was insulting him. “Well it’s not like I have a CHOICE, right? Working with Laz means I don’t have to scrounge, and I don’t get John Q on my back. That torch and pitchfork thing gets mighty old pretty quick, you know.”
“A while back I found Davey-“ Lazaro leant over and smacked Davey’s hand as he picked at some of the lining on the car door as if trying to pull it free, earning an indignant glare. “-wandering a graveyard just inside the walls. I offered him a position under me, and he did an excellent job of thinning out the numbers of those mindless still hanging outside the walls. Now he just patrols the city, cleaning up as he sees fit. Vigilante nonsense, the lot of it.”
“Suck a dick.” Davey responded resentfully.
“Yes, well.” Lazaro raised a brow idly and shrugged a bit, settling back in his seat. “During his time with me I’d assigned a number of necromancers to study him – the first of your kind known.”
Chainey looked back at Davey as he muttered something that quite clearly expressed exactly what he thought of Lazaro’s team of experts.
“But, as you can see, he’s only really taken a shine to Miss Hyde. In any case, I’d like to offer you the same opportunity.”
It took a moment for that to catch up with Chainey, but it certainly managed to raise his own brows.
“Me? Wait-…” He looked utterly confused. “You want to give me a job?”
“Yes.” Lazaro replied simply, picking up a briefcase from the floor next to him and flicking it open, balanced on his lap. “Allow me to monitor any physical or mental changes you might undergo and clear out the odd mindless for me, and you’ll be rewarded in the same way Davey is. That is, a roof over your head, protection from the general public, and a steady food supply.”
Chainey didn’t manage to catch Davey’s pause and look of troubled uncertainty at that, or he might have tried to follow it up. Chainey scratched at the scar running up his cheek lightly as he considered it. He really didn’t appear to have much choice in the matter – and it seemed the most viable option out of the ones he’d presented himself with so far. Honestly, he was still completely lost here.
“Well, I mean, that sounds pretty-“
All three almost went lurching out of their seats in the car as with a cacophony of squeals and curses the entire vehicle went skidding out of control, followed by a sickening, wet CRUNCH.
“What the devil-?!” Lazaro snarled as the car finally came to a stop and they all got over their shock. He smoothed back his hair and wound down the window, leaning out to see what exactly it was that they hit.
The creature groaned awfully, clotted blood spilling to the floor as it climbed shakily to its hands. It was a woman, sort of pudgy. Half of her face had been torn off somehow revealing glistening muscle, and both arms lay wrecked under the wheel of the car she was trying vainly to drag herself out from underneath of. The groans she was emitting weren’t of pain, however – they were the long, animal grunts of a creature long-since passed but still somehow walking, to who pain was no obstacle anymore. Her eyes lolled back in her head and she scraped uselessly at the road as Lazaro watched, his face filling with disgust. A breach.
“Brilliant.” He sighed in irritation, like they’d hit a mailbox – not a woman. “This is just what we need.” Waving his hand out the window, Lazaro cast a mildly irritated look in Davey’s direction. "Take care of that, would you?"
Davey had pulled himself out of the car before Lazaro could finish asking. He didn’t need to be told twice when it came to one of those crawling, gaping mindless. Getting rid of them, even if it was for a man he showed obvious distaste for, had become his forte. The strange thing about it was that he looked positively delighted at the prospect.
With an excited grin, he moved toward the pathetic, putrid creature trapped under the front wheels of the car.
"Hey, Chainey, watch this!"
Chainey had exited the car as well, but it was with a highly unpleasant knot in his stomach that he trained his eyes on Davey. He was absolutely terrified, and Davey was acting as though they had just run over a treasure chest or the world’s biggest diamond, not an animated corpse.
A mouth opened up in that pile of rotting flesh, and Chainey could see the tendons working in the cheeks as the jaw quivered and the creature groaned. It was reaching out for Davey, but the gesture was oddly docile. It wasn’t hostile, but merely grasping at what it recognized vaguely as one of its own kind.
For a moment, Chainey saw disgust on Davey’s face; then the boy’s sneaker was crashing down into the skull of the mindless where it lay on the pavement. There was a nauseating crunch and a series of wet slaps as pieces of gray matter were pushed forcefully out the sides of the creature’s head, facilitated by congealing blood.
Chainey’s eyes bulged, and that knot grew to take up his entire stomach. He was going to be sick or scream or take off running. He was more horrified seeing that mess than he’d been when the thing was still moving.
With a lurching sensation in his gut, he realized it was still moving. Even as Davey’s leg flew up and down like a piston, slamming his foot again and again into that frightening array of bone and brains and blood, the creature’s fingers twitched and contorted.
"J-Jesus!" His own cry hit his ears as a sickly wail, but he was transfixed.
Lazaro’s voice issued strong and commanding from inside the car, and Chainey finally pulled his eyes away. "That’s enough, Davey. And you—"
Chainey turned his back on the scene to look into the car and was promptly grabbed by his shirt and jerked inside.
"Get out of sight, you idiot," Lazaro hissed irately. "I told you before, the public have no idea that the aware exist."
Chainey went still against the plush seat, staring at nothing and wearing his horror plainly across his face.
"Stay here," Lazaro said. His voice was firm, but Chainey would have obeyed even if it had been but a timid request. Moving seemed entirely out of the question after what he had just witnessed.
Lazaro leaned his upper half out of the car and looked down at the grotesque mess under Davey’s sneakers, which were covered in slimy red and gray. Davey scuffed them against the pavement in an attempt to remove some of the gore.
Lazaro sneered. "Christ, what a day. Do you think anyone saw?"
"Doubt it," Davey answered with a shake of his head. He had moved away from what remained of the corpse to lean against the side of the car. "This area looks pretty deserted. I imagine everybody’s still spooked over Chainey showing up earlier."
"Perhaps. Regardless, we need to lock this area down for now."
"That’s damn weird, though, isn’t it?" Davey folded his arms across his front and looked at Lazaro with his brows drawn down together. "I mean, you said before there hadn’t been a breach in months, and now this?"
"Mm. And the alarm didn’t even sound." Lazaro wasn’t as obvious about it in tone or expression as Davey, but he was just as puzzled. He reached into his dark coat and fumbled around until his fingers came into contact with something hard and oddly shaped, and seconds later he pulled free his headset.
"So, what’re we gonna do?" Davey asked as Lazaro climbed out of the car entirely.
"You are going to get off of my car," Lazaro said plainly. He slid his headset on and positioned the microphone near his mouth. "And it looks like I’m going to have to fire someone." He flicked the device on and turned his back to Davey abruptly. "Hello? HQ, come in. This is Lazaro. I’m going to need sector E-2 sealed off. Yes, it seems we’ve had a breach."
Inside the car, Chainey’s gaze had shifted from the seat in front of him to the window. He could still see the thing Davey had mercilessly stomped into the pavement, and he watched it as though expecting it to pull itself together again and get back up. It remained motionless, and the odd fly dove down to perch on some gleaming hill of decomposing flesh.
He could still hear Lazaro’s clipped and displeased tone floating in through the window as he took out his irritation on whatever poor fellow had happened to pick up at headquarters.
"Yes, I fail to see how some idiot managed to let it through the wall when every exit is controlled from the inside, but apparently—"
Chainey jerked at the sudden sound of Davey’s voice so near to him, and the start drew his eyes back into the car. Davey was climbing back inside, and he scooted close on the seat and pulled the door shut after him. He was grinning, elated.
"Did you see that? Man, that one just cracked open! Can you believe—"
"Are you insane?!" Chainey interrupted. He found that he was breathing a little hard, and his eyes were wide with fear and disbelief.
Davey looked puzzled at the outburst, and he drew back near the door impulsively, giving his companion a little space. "Chainey," he began, but Chainey just shook his head, refusing to listen.
"That was—that was that guy’s head, and you just splattered it all over the road, and—and—!"
Beside him, Davey’s features settled into an expression decidedly softer, sympathetic. He lowered his voice and tried very hard to sound logical. "Come on, man. I mean, they’re not people, right? They stopped being people a long time ago."
Chainey seemed entirely unmoved by that reasoning, and he still looked extremely upset. Davey pressed on.
"Look at it this way: Would you want to wander around like that? Sure, it’s plenty sad, but it’s not like there’s anything left of them. Not where it counts." Davey tapped a finger against his temple to illustrate his point, but Chainey simply turned his body away.
"Just… just leave me alone, okay? I can’t deal with that right now," he murmured. He was miserable, and he didn’t care who knew. He drew in on himself and crossed his arms over his chest in a vain attempt to make himself smaller as his mind whirled with the things he’d seen in the last half hour and Davey’s attempt to rationalize grinding a human being under the heel of his foot.
Davey only watched him unhappily, then slumped back in his seat, dejected as he tugged at his newly blood-spattered shirt.
"Sorry," he mumbled after an uncomfortable silence, but Chainey pretended not to hear him. "It was hard for me too, at first. It takes so long to get used to this, y’know? But if you can’t deal, well… what else have you got?"
Another silence presented itself, and Davey dropped his hands down into his lap. Both of them avoided one another’s gazes, and the subtle hum of the engine filled the car, punctured now and again by snippets of Lazaro’s one-sided conversation.
Shifting in his seat, Chainey finally broke the quiet.
"How’d you die?"
A moment passed where Davey simply fixed Chainey with a blank stare. He almost seemed surprised. Then he smacked his forehead with the butt of his palm and broke into that excited grin that Chainey was getting so used to seeing.
"I can’t believe I forgot to tell you! Oh man, it was totally awesome."
“Jack! Hey, JACK!”
Jackson Forrester shifted his hat a bit so he could see out from underneath it, wrinkling his nose in annoyance as his best friend raced up, skateboard in tow. Davey’s big blue eyes sparkled in the middle of his tanned face with excitement as he raced up the stairs to where Jackson sat at the entrance to the public library.
“Davey. MAN. Where have you BEEN?” He climbed up from his spot and brushed off his pant legs with a sigh. “You were supposed to meet me here an hour ago!”
“Got sidetracked, didn’t I? Don’t be such a girl.” Davey grinned broadly and punched him in the shoulder. “You got it?”
Resisting the urge to rub where he was punched sorely, he just muttered in annoyance and dug around in his backpack until he emerged with a video camera. “If my dad finds out about me taking this I’ll never be allowed out again. I hope you realise this.”
“My friend, this will be TOTALLY worth it.” Davey nodded solemnly, flipping his board onto the floor and testing the weight of it. “We have to record this moment!”
“Yeah, yeah.” Jackson sighed and flicked on the camera, hitting record and training it as best he could on Davey. “Just try not to get blood everywhere when you wipe out.”
“’Sif, wipe out!” Davey snorted indignantly and pushed off a bit to get a run-up. He eyed the spot he was going to, Jackson’s camera trained closely on his feet. The library ran up a huge flight of stairs, straight into the road down which was a KILLER hill. He’d done this loads of times – the amount of speed you could get up if you flipped onto the hill from the rail was phenomenal. Jackson never believed him, of course, but this time he’d have evidence! He closed his eyes and breathed out.
“Okay…okay. We rolling?”
“We’ve been rolling for a minute already you tard,” Jackson sighed in annoyance. “Just do the stupid trick already, I only got about two and a half minutes of battery life left.”
Davey took a moment to flip him off before pushing off roughly with his right foot. He crouched a little to get up to speed, then kicked off with both heels and slammed down onto the rail so hard he was almost afraid his board would split. The sound of wood scraping metal rang in his ears noisily as he ground the rail with everything he had, the wind blowing his hair back off his face and his eyes streaming from it. Jackson trained the camera on him a little shakily, grinning gleefully and following behind ready to stop at the last step – this actually WOULD be pretty cool, despite the wait – and then Davey was FLYING, kicking off the end of the rail hard to get enough air to land on the other side of the road, when-
Jackson was still frozen mid-grin where he stood, Davey’s blood splattered over the camera lens and his hands. He lowered it shakily to peer over his hands at where the other boy lay, gasping for breath in a pool of his own blood, his body bent at the most extreme of unnatural angles. The bus screeched to a halt further down the road and the driver climbed out, yelling in horror and racing back to where the teen lay. People were screaming and crying out for help and phoning whoever they could, and Jackson just stood, mesmerised.
Chainey gaped. He knew he was gaping, but he couldn’t find it in himself to try and do anything about it. He was shocked, but Davey had an eager look on his face that Chainey assumed meant he was waiting for feedback.
"Being hit by a bus is awesome?" he asked, confused.
"Oh, come on! You can’t tell me you don’t think that’s hilarious. I just wish I still had that damn tape."
Goaded, Chainey offered up a short half-smile. He couldn’t help it; Davey’s enthusiasm was simply too much.
"Ha! You see? You agree, right?"
"Man, you’re so weird…"
"Hey now, look who’s talking! You still don’t even know—"
Davey began to flounder as Chainey’s unhappy, disheartened expression stole over him once more at those words.
"… Who you… are. Um."
Chainey was still for a moment, but then shrugged and smiled again briefly. "Sure I do. I’m Chasey, aren’t I?"
"Er, that’s Chainey."
"Whatever. And I know that I sleep a lot, and I died somehow. That’s a start, right?"
Davey began to grin again and nodded, latching onto this lift in conversation. "Yeah, for sure! Nice to see you thinkin’ positive for a change."
That got a short chuckle out of Chainey, and the tension that had built up in the car started to dissolve. Davey was grateful.
"I’ve gotta hand it to you, though," he said. "You’re taking all of this really well, considering."
"Considering what? I mean, I can’t really remember anything else, can I?" Chainey asked honestly. He wondered what it would be like otherwise, if he could remember whatever there was before this. "At least I’m not missing anyone or anything like that."
Davey opened his mouth to respond, but Lazaro chose that moment to open the door and climb into the car.
"Drive," he told the driver tersely, and the car pulled forward, squishing the mangled corpse of the mindless under its tires. He turned his attention to Davey and Chainey. "The clean up crew is on their way. We’re lucky this area wasn’t busy."
"Where’d it get in at?" Davey asked.
"There’s a door open over in F-6. I’ve been told there was some sort of accident. They’re going to fill me in properly once they determine the exact circumstances."
"Okay, so, are we gonna go check it out?"
"There’s already a team on that. We are going back to HQ."
Davey looked surprised, then upset, and his voice was urgent. "What? But what if there are other mindless out there?"
"Then they’ll deal with it," Lazaro said with the same tone a father might employ with a petulant child. "You’re not the only one who can stomp on a corpse, you know. In the meantime, we’re going back to our initial plan: We’ll take this one back for testing and briefing while I wait for an update."
Davey disliked not being allowed to do breach inspections himself, and he turned away from Lazaro huffily to sulk. Lazaro calmly gave his fingernails a once over, and Chainey watched them both a while before deciding they were finished. Sighing, he turned to gaze out the window as the car sped through the city.
EARLIER THAT DAY: East Gate F-6
Earlier in the day, before any visiting necromancers or skull-stomping, Geoffrey Wilson had gone to work. Geoff was a gate security guard, and as such, his job consisted largely of sitting around and staring at bright screens that never showed anything interesting and often hurt his eyes. It was very important that his job be as boring as possible so that he wouldn’t enjoy it, but occasionally he was required to leaf through a copy of Penthouse or Playboy to give his poor eyes a rest. It was certainly a taxing occupation, and dull at best, but Geoff was no slacker.
He tried to take his job seriously. He’d seen those dead things before, back before the wall had been in place. They were really quite terrifying, shambling about and taking bites out of people like they were giant, mobile corndogs. But it was easy to feel safe inside the city with that high wall in between the real people and the things that were barely even pretending to be people.
To work at a gate station was to take a risk, because the people at the gate would be the first to go should that gate fail. Everything that entered or left the city had to pass through one of the six gates, and there was always the possibility that the latest shipment of batteries or instant coffee that kept the city going would carry with it a walking corpse or two.
Geoff had applied for the job because it sounded exciting, but he quickly learned that the system was extremely tight. It was only very rarely that the dead got in, and they were always taken care of post-haste. While Geoff knew this to be a good thing, it was still a bit of a letdown.
He turned a page, his eyes recuperating with the help of a busty and scantily clad pinup, and the horn sounded. It was loud, impossible to ignore, and boisterously announced the presence of a truck waiting outside the gate. He looked up from a perfect pair of barely covered breasts at the monitor that would give him a view of the outside world, and sure enough, a big white truck sat waiting to be granted entrance. He held down a small red button and leaned forward to speak into the microphone that connected with the speaker outside.
“Business?” he asked lazily.
“You know who it is, Geoff. Let me in,” the inside speaker drawled back at him.
Geoff laid his magazine down on the console and shook his head as though the driver would hear it. “You know you’ve got to ID yourself, Mike. Especially what with us having a breach not half a day ago.”
“Christ, for real?” The driver sounded a bit less bored, and Geoff couldn’t help feeling a little pleased at the change. “Michael Hammersley, Martin SP Dairy, ID 02593. I’ve just got today’s shipment coming through.”
“There, was that so tough?” Geoff asked the driver with that little grin that only comes with the exertion of authority over others. The speaker was silent, and he reached toward the other end of the console. This area was isolated from the rest, set apart from the camera controls and the PA system. This area opened the gate to the outside world where dead things roamed and ruled over the wasteland they had created with their unnatural hunger.
Geoff flicked a switch into the ON position and pressed the bright green button that would grant the dairy truck access to the safety of the city. A loud, shrill blast of noise sounded through the compound and cut through the air outside to let everyone know that barrier was being broken, even if temporarily, and the gate began to open in. It creaked as it yawned open, metal screeching and groaning with the effort, and the truck eased forward into the station.
Geoff hit the button to close the gate once more and pushed the switch down and off, figuring that his thrill quota for the day was met and he should get back to resting his eyes. He reached for his magazine, but his hand jerked when he heard a muffled shout. It had come from the direction of the unloading dock, separated from the surveillance room Geoff occupied only by one little wall with a tall door in the center. He turned his eyes toward it and froze as a sharp cracking noise drifted in, followed immediately by a high, agonized scream. The sounds of scuffling afterward, hard to catch through the door, finally got Geoff on his feet, his hand pulling his gun free of the holster at his side.
He turned the safety off and made for the door, yanking it open with gun thrust out before him to deal with whatever had caused such an unholy ruckus. He saw nothing but the truck, engine idling and exhaust spewing from the rear. Palms sweating and pistol gripped so hard it made his hand hurt, Geoff approached the truck with measured steps.
“Mike?” he called out. His voice sounded a lot surer than it had in his head, and he was glad for it. “Everything all right here?”
He got no answer but the continuous rumble of the engine.
When he reached the cab, he took a deep, steadying breath and yanked the driver side door open before pulling himself up onto the truck to get a look inside. He immediately wished he hadn’t.
Michael Hammersley of Martin SP Dairy looked like he had been run through a meat grinder. Blood soaked the inside of the cab, dripping from the console and staining everything dark and wet and sick. The driver had been torn open from his neck down to his stomach, sternum broken in two and ribs all cracked apart. His innards were half falling out of him, heart and lungs and intestines all glistening in the harsh light of the unloading dock like the inside of a cherry pie. His face was spattered all over with blood and frozen in an expression of abject terror only appropriate for someone who had just been gutted like a fish.
Geoff could feel his lunch pushing up his throat to revisit him as his stomach convulsed in revulsion and horror. The stink of that warm, wet meat coupled with the sight of it was enough to make his head swim, and he let loose a mindless oath as he stumbled backward, grabbing at the open door of the cab with his gun hand to keep himself from falling. The other hand went to his mouth.
“J-Jesus Christ!” he moaned through his fingers. He had just been talking to Mike not five minutes earlier, and now he was staring at the results of what couldn’t have been more than fifteen seconds of carnage.
Unfortunately, shock had blinded him, as shock often does, from the fact that the passenger side door of the cab was open and swinging on its hinges. He was woefully unprepared when a cold and leathery hand covered his from behind, stiff fingers curling around the bulk of his pistol. Geoff jerked in fright and whipped his head around to face whatever waited behind him, but his eyes began to water as a putrid stench crept up his nostrils. It reeked absolutely, some sickening mixture of blood and urine and decay, but what he could see through that sheen of tears was a thousand times worse.
Geoff could see teeth, bloodstained and yellowing and bearing a large chip right in front where it was most noticeable, and they were exposed in a terribly wicked grin. He knew he was face-to-face with the creature that had just split Mike open and spilled his guts all over the inside of the cab. He knew, but it was too late. The creature’s other hand was gripping the handle of a hatchet already streaked with blood, and it came down like a hammer into the back of Geoff’s neck. It stayed there, and Geoff went down seeing only teeth.
The sound of his fingers drumming against the tabletop echoed around the room and came back to Chainey’s ears as he sat silently, going slowly insane from boredom.
He was not happy.
Cold, calloused fingers played with the handcuffs clasping his wrists together as best he could gently and closed his eyes with a deep sigh, opening them to glance again around the room. White tiles and mirrors surrounded him on all sides, and he knew that behind one of those mirrors some scientist-type was inspecting him closely, waiting for…something, he didn’t know what. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do here. He’d been through it all today – endurance tests, mental capacity tests, health checks, X-rays, every sort of invasive and horribly awkward procedure he could think of - and some he couldn’t. Safe to say, he wanted to go. Today had been particularly long, and he needed to rest. Apparently, being dead had no effect on his needing sleep – abundantly clear with how he kept randomly nodding off, that. Someone who had been studying him had concluded he suffered from some form of narcolepsy, but apparently medication and drugs don’t work on what’s dead – something to do with blood not flowing or something. He couldn’t remember much about it.
He looked around at all of the mirrors, trying idly to gauge behind which one he’d find whoever it was. After a moment or two he pushed his hands to the table and started to stand.
The voice boomed and echoed around the room so loudly that he instantly complied, playing with his thumbs. Meanwhile, Lazaro’s fingers uncurled from the microphone and he stood back a bit again, biting a thumbnail idly as he watched the bemused zombie.
“So is there a point to this or what?”
Lazaro closed his eyes and sighed in irritation as Davey spoke up demandingly, giving Lazaro a skeptical look.
“I mean what you do in your spare time’s your own business, but I don’t wanna hang around and stare at the guy all day.” He drawled, picking at his shirt. He on the other hand had had plenty of rest while Chainey was doing his tests.
“I’m observing.” Lazaro sniffed curtly, not moving his gaze. “You think we didn’t learn from our mistakes with YOU?”
“Ahuh.” Davey raised an eyebrow at the older man, gesturing into the room. “Observing WHAT? He’s just sitting there. Still just seems kind of creepy to m-“
“Jones,” Lazaro sighed, rubbing his temple lightly, “Just shut UP for a minute. Watch.”
The dead boy glanced back boredly at first, then with a little more interest as the door at the far end of the room opened and one of Lazaro’s guards walked in, clutching a dirty, bloodied box. A spike of worry started welling in Davey’s guts as the soldier marched over to where Chainey sat at the table and placed it down in front of him. The other boy looked confused, glancing up at the man. His voice came tinnily through the speakers on Davey and Lazaro’s side.
“Hey, what’s- who are you? What’s this?”
The soldier ignored him, snapping a quick salute at the mirrored wall behind which he knew Lazaro was standing before heading back out without another word. Chainey’s eyes followed where then mans’ had been looking, but was met with only mirror.
It was then that the smell hit him.
Chainey’s eyes bugged a touch as something stirred inside him and he looked instantly back at the source – the box, cardboard sodden with blood, was leaking onto the table.
“Hey,” Davey spoke up, swallowing a bit and furrowing his brow. “That- what’s with the box?”
“Just a simple test, Jeremiah.” Lazaro responded idly, eyes trained hard on the boy at the table. “Nothing to fret about.”
“That’s Davey.” The other responded, but it was largely out of habit. He wasn’t paying attention to Lazaro because, with a sinking feeling inside of him and a whiff that reached him even through the thick glass layer keeping them from one another, he knew what was in the box.
At first Chainey thought it was disgust that kept his eyes trained on the item in front of him. Disgust that kept his eyes rooted to the table as a tiny pool of blood started slowly forming at a corner. But it was something deeper, something primal that kept his attention rooted as the smell of lukewarm flesh invaded his senses. Now he was flattening against the table, chin pressed there and fingers dragging white-knuckled against the surface as he reached, fascinated, for the item. Cautiously, uncertainly, but with a heated, growing need throbbing in the back of his mind, he dragged it closer, right in front of him, practically salivating by that point as he tore the lid from the box.
Time stood still as Chainey’s mind exploded in a rush of pure savagery and mixed-up instincts at the sight in front of him, the reheated human heart rolling a bit in the box as he tilted it up closer to him. If it were possible he would have gone sheet-white, and the cardboard warped and dented under the fingers of one hand as the other scooped out the item and clutched it tightly. Blood flowed out over his fingers and dripped onto the table freely as he stared, and slowly the corner of his mouth started to twitch upward, teeth baring slowly and a throaty snarl working its way out of his throat. His rationale was screaming at him inside, but he pushed that aside as he lifted the heart, jaw unclenching and gripping with both hands as the item raised shakily to his maw.
There was a moment where he just stood there, frozen, as Lazaro watched with a calculating expression and Davey with one of something between horror and a kind of sympathy, pity for the snarling, salivating creature at the table.
Then they both jerked backward as with a wet SLAP the organ slammed into the one-way wall in front of them and slid down onto the floor, leaving a long trail of thick, congealing blood in its wake as it slid downward. Lazaro glared through the pinkish-red trail at Chainey, who was gripping his head with bloodstained hands and looking horrified, shuddering and fighting desperately for control of whatever madness had passed over him.
“Okay!” He laughed in an extremely forced manner, eyes flicking around to try and find which window Lazaro and Davey were behind. “Very funny, guys! Let me out now!”
No response but the dull echo of his own voice back at him. He swallowed shakily, hands twitching as he studiously ignored the blood dripping from his fingers and still pooling on the floor near where he’d tossed the wretched thing.
“Lazaro? Davey? Someone!”
Davey’s expression fell and he bit his lip unsurely, staring at Chainey through the glass as he whipped around and yelled helplessly, ignored, all the while that smell pervading his senses. It was even getting to Davey a little – for Chainey it had to be near impossible to get through.
“Fucking sick…” He muttered, pressing close to the glass and pushing his hands in his pockets.
“Mm, isn’t it just?” Lazaro responded, eyeing Chainey with some degree of satisfaction. This is what he’d been wanting to see – reaction. It hadn’t taken Davey much longer than him to flip out like this, but that still wasn’t saying a lot. It was the malice in Lazaro’s voice that really got to Davey, and the boy scowled at the older man hatefully.
“I meant YOU, asshole. This is BEYOND low.”
“How’s that?” The necromancer mused, casting a glance at Davey before returning his attention ahead. “He needs to find out sometime.”
“Yeah, but not like THIS!” Davey protested, waving a hand at the scene in front of them. “This is just-“
Davey’s eyes flicked back ahead, as did Lazaro’s. Chainey was suddenly way too close, pressed to the glass tightly, his nose, forehead and the palms of his hands pushing tightly against the glass and smearing a little of the blood trail there. His dead grey eyes were narrowed with a disturbing degree of clarity that he hadn’t held since the moment he woke up, trained directly on Lazaro’s face. His nails dragged down the glass with an awful screeching, and his mouth was partially open, dripping trails of saliva and awful, sodden snarls and hisses rumbling through the monitor.
Safe to say, Davey was severely creeped out. But Lazaro stared ahead at the boy, nothing but mild interest showing in his features through his frown. He lifted a hand and pressed his fingers to the glass, and Chainey’s cuffed hand instantly followed, pressing there tightly and moving slowly along with Lazaro’s as the older man moved his, tilting his head forward to drag his tongue through the mess of blood.
Davey hesitated. “He can see you…?”
“Mm. No.” Lazaro drew his hand back casually. Chainey did the same, but instead slammed his fists roughly into the glass with a much more audible snarl. “He can smell me.”
Davey shrank back a touch as Chainey’s fists slammed again and again into the wall, punching and scraping at it and growling, trying desperately to break through to what fresher meat he could make out through the barrier of the glass. He was gone, it was so clear to see. Lazaro tutted in annoyance as the wall creaked ominously, moving over toward the door at the edge of the room. Davey’s eyebrows shot up.
“You’re not going IN there are you? You’ll be torn apart!”
Lazaro just gave Davey a snort in response, and flung open the heavy door, letting it slide shut behind him. The stark white tiles were a mess of blood from both Chainey’s footprints and welling up around the heart on the floor. Chainey turned on his heels a bit, hunched and staring ravenously, his body tensed. Lazaro watched with an unnatural degree of calm as Chainey’s fingers curled tightly into fists, tightening and pulling away from one another, the chain linking his wrists creaking pitifully with the force of the boys’ preternatural strength straining to break the link between them. All the while Chainey’s focus remained on the man in front of him, and with a snarl he dropped to a crouch, fingers pressed tight to the floor ready to push off. Still Lazaro watch, unimpressed, and it was only when the boy launched himself from his position, eyes sparking hunger and hands tearing the chain between them like spaghetti that he moved. His lips moved softly in a short mutter, inaudible to anyone but himself, and he sidestepped the undeads’ path smoothly, following with one arm to grip the boy’s wrist and twist it backward at an awkward angle with a motion that seemed far too quick for someone of his build. Chainey snarled as he was pulled back and forced into place, tearing at Lazaro’s arm gripping his, and he would have freed himself easily if not for the sudden spark of blue light that flew down Lazaro’s arm like liquid lightening, spreading from the tips of his fingers and traveling down Chainey’s arm and over his chest, circling up around his neck in a thin trail of glowing blue flame that crackled loudly. It did nothing to Lazaro, but it began to warp the arm it gripped, fingers of Chaineys’ hand cracking and curling backward on themselves unnaturally.
Davey’s throat constricted as he watched, horrified, and slammed a fist into the wall, screaming at Lazaro to stop, that he was going to kill him, but it went unheeded as the older man wrenched upward on Chainey’s arm vindictively. The good thing about these creatures was that you never had to be gentle with them – they couldn’t feel a thing anyway.
“I’ve killed millions of your kind with this spell, zombie.” Lazaro hissed cruelly into Chainey’s ear, as he fought to break free from the sudden force keeping Lazaro’s arm locked to his. “Surely one more won’t hurt.”
“I’ll tear you APART!” Chainey screamed in response, his voice sodden with saliva and thick with frustrated, testicle-shrinking loathing. All the reaction he got was a roll of Lazaro’s eyes.
“Yes, well, that might be a bit difficult with one arm.” He emphasized his point by sending out another powerful burst of energy, and Chainey’s hand curled back in on itself, the bones in his wrist emitting loud cracking noises and his palm pressing to his upper forearm unnaturally. “Now I’ll thank you to cooperate.”
With that, he let go, using his free hand to shove Chainey away roughly with his palm. The blue light gone, Chainey whipped around, nursing his damaged hand with a sour glare at the older man. The smell of blood still screamed in his head, and he wanted so badly to tear this man apart, but the flicker of blue that passed over Lazaro’s arm at short, random intervals was a very good indicator of that being a bad idea. His eyes narrowed, and instead slid sideways toward the window. Lazaro’s gaze followed, and he sniffed lightly.
“Ah. Glad you’re back with us, then.” He moved up a few feet closer to the window where the boy was looking and leant down to pick up the discarded heart. It made a squelching sound that banged around Chainey’s eardrums and kindled that fire again, and he started to growl under his breath – silenced when Lazaro lifted a finger indicatively, tossing the organ up and catching it again with his free hand. The boy grit his teeth, but stood still, eyes following the heart as the man toyed with it idly. His mind still reeled with the power of that hunger barely concealed, but the damage to his hand had been enough to cut through to his sanity – if just.
The fingers on his broken hand twitched and curled with a series of unhealthy cracks as Lazaro made his way over to the table Chainey had been seated at, pulling out a chair and gesturing for the boy to take a seat as well. When he remained where he was, Lazaro just sat down himself and pulled his chair up to the table, inspecting the heart.
“I want you to listen close,” Lazaro spoke, not looking at Chainey – who was staring at him quite hard, himself. “What you’re experiencing is a state which we here refer to as feral.” Chainey rolled the word around in his mouth softly, but his attention was still trained on Lazaro’s hands as the man continued. “It’s considered to be the state of mind found halfway between a mindless and an aware. You see, your kind-“ and he stated that with a certain degree of malice – “…are not as wholly domesticated as we’d like. You’re still monsters, no matter how much you’d like to think otherwise, and certain…triggers set this off.” He waved a free, bloodied hand idly as he spoke. “Heightened emotional response, extremes in danger and, of course, simple hunger. I trust you haven’t eaten since you woke?”
His pale blue eyes slid to the side. Chainey hadn’t budged – it was debatable how much of this he was actually taking in. Lazaro decided to press on regardless. “This, of course, turned out to be a rather nasty shock where Davey was concerned. Now, Mr. Chainey…” Lazaro placed the heart gently in the box and folded his head, looking back up at Chainey with a furrowed brow as the undead began to pace a little a few feet from where Lazaro sat like a caged animal, the older mans’ gesticulations sending fresh waves of the scent of blood his way, “I don’t particularly like your kind. In fact, I believe it’s safe to say I find all of you filthy monsters absolutely repellent in every sense of the word. However, the fact that you can think for yourself and take orders has proven very useful to our studies. The only reason neither of you…medical and scientific anomalies haven’t been autopsied on is that your possession of free will would mean that one would have to consider that murder. Doubtful you’d be missed, if in fact you CAN murder what’s already dead, but…in any case.” He sat back comfortably in his chair, almost leisurely, and sized the tall, skinny, pathetic wretch in front of him up with disgust. “It’s not going to do either of us any good if you can’t control that pesky temper of yours, is it?”
Chainey was by that point desperate to tear into this man, if not for the sake of his hunger then to shut him the hell UP already. Before he could put any of this to words, however, Lazaro was on his feet, the box in his hands, and Chainey’s interest was again piqued.
“So what I would SUGGEST is-“ The necromancer shoved the box roughly into Chainey’s arms, the action causing the boy’s eyebrows to jerk up in surprise, caught off guard, “…you keep yourself fed.” He kept his glare level with Chainey’s, forehead creasing into a warning scowl that almost matched Chainey’s. “For everyone’s sake.”
Fingers tightening on the box until it warped so badly under his grip it almost fell apart, Chainey’s eyes followed Lazaro as he walked out without another word. The boy stared at the door out of which the man left, before his eyes lowered to the box in his hands. Lazaro pulled the door shut behind him, cutting off the zombie’s response, and marched toward the exit of the dark room. Davey’s eyes flicked up from where he sat and he scrambled to his feet.
“Lazaro! Hey!” He grabbed the older man’s sleeve to keep him from leaving. That got a reaction – Lazaro half-turned to spear the boy with a scowl, yanking his arm back out of Davey’s grip as though burnt. Davey seemed undeterred. “Goddammit, just WAIT! You’re not seriously going to LEAVE him there, are you?! You set that whole thing up to study him and-and now you’re not even going to WATCH?”
Lazaro’s brow raised slightly. “Surely you don’t think I want to see that? Besides, Jones, as you constantly seem to FORGET, I’m a very busy man. I don’t have time to babysit you two.”
Davey couldn’t believe his ears. His fists clenched at his sides and he ground his teeth sharply, trying to control his anger. “God, look, I’ve BEEN where Chainey is. I know what it’s like! He’s alone, and scared, and- and he needs our HELP!”
“So HELP him then, you insufferable child.” Lazaro chided, pale blue eyes flashing irritation as he shouldered his jacket. “I’ve got better things to do with my time. Make sure you’re not seen when you go home.”
With that, he pulled open the second door and left through a long narrow hallway, Davey watching him incredulously all the while it took the heavy door to close softly behind the man. His eyes narrowed darkly and a frustrated snarl left the boy.
“Yeah, that’s right! Keep walking!” Davey yelled at the closed door as if as an afterthought. “Like we need your help ANYWAY, asshole!”
Davey’s jaw clenched in anger at the silence that met him in response. Murmuring irritated threats under his breath, he turned back to the window – and walked straight into Chainey’s front, giving off a short sound of surprise. The glare slipped off to be replaced with surprise, and then a slightly forced, uncertain smile. Chainey’s eyes, dead as ever, were slightly hollow and creased unhappily, and he seemed vacant, miserable. The shorter boy tried to think back to when he first had to deal with this. The moment wasn’t exactly clear to him, but he was certain he hadn’t dealt with it too well.
“Chainey! Hey, what’s-…I mean…” Davey floundered a bit, trying to get the other boy to return his gaze. “Are you…okay?”
Chainey didn’t respond for a good while. Davey wondered uncomfortably if this was when he was supposed to offer him a hug or something. They DID only meet the other day and all, and he was still unconvinced how straight this dude was and-
“Can we just leave now?” Chainey spoke a little abruptly, still not lifting his gaze from the floor. His voice was tense, roughly edged, and Davey decided there and then to drop it – trying not to look too relieved at the lack of any overemotional display.
“Yeah, sure, no problem.” He nodded, jerking his head toward the door with a slightly-too-big grin, “Let’s go check out that breach, huh? This place gives me the creeps anyway.”
Chainey trailed a bit behind Davey, doing nothing to alleive the awkward silence as they walked. His movements were a little stiff, closed off, and Davey was all too happy not to tackle the subject with him. All the while, Chainey’s thoughts screamed inside his head, trying to block that smell from his memory, the sight, and trying to ignore the whole, perfectly intact heart still sitting in the box where he’d left it in the room.
That man had seemed so sure he’d just take it. That’s what bothered him the most. His jaw set as he willed his thoughts to stop railing against him, convince him to run back inside and tear the organ apart with teeth and fingers, fighting against the repeated phrase that grew stronger with every step they took away from the mirrored-in room, Davey talking avidly beside him about something-or-other.
I am a person. I don’t eat people.
EAST GATE F-6: 6.24pm
Geoff Wilson’s face stared frozen in horror upward as two men from forensics hooked their arms up under his armpits and around his heels and with a grunt lifted his still, dead, blood-drenched body onto a stretcher, maneuvering him so that his feet were inside the bodybag as they pulled the zipper upward.
Noah Fei watched, stepping back with the ‘ew, gross’ air of a fourteen year old girl who just saw a boy pick his nose as a little blood from the man’s near-severed arm dripped precariously close to his expensive leather shoes. He shuffled back a few steps, making a short note on his clipboard, before casting a short glance about and sighing inwardly. He wasn’t exactly pleased about this. In fact, if it were in his nature, this would be about where he’d be giving anyone nearby scathing remarks and cursing so hard he got big ugly veins all over his forehead. But hey, that wasn’t his style. Noah generally left the raving and snide comments to Mr. Palmer – it was part of Noah’s job description not to let things get to him.
“So you’re certain these are the only victims?” He gave one of the cleanup crew a winning smile as the two he had been observing zipped up the bodybag and wheeled the corpse toward a waiting unmarked white ambulance. “I mean I may not be an expert, but this looks like a liiittle too much blood for just two guys.”
The officer snapped a quick, overly formal salute (to which Noah rolled his eyes, but secretly liked it a bit) before responding. “You’d be surprised how much blood a person has in them, sir!”
“Of course, of course.” Noah nodded, pursing his lips. They were probably right – he didn’t usually deal with situations like this upfront. He took another look around. The coverup was well under-way, the whole area of carnage sealed off away from public view and a number of men dressed similarly to the forensics officers took photos of the crime scene from all angles. A delivery truck stood in the centre of the taped-off scene, right door torn from its hinges, front window smashed and covered with debris and what could only be described as flecks of intestine. The unbroken door was dripping blood as well, and in between it in an act of sick fuckery Noah had been yet to see anything rival in his line of work the words ‘Ha ha’ had been written by finger in yet more blood, along with a poorly scrawled smiley face. The second body was being removed as he watched, torn from the inside out and slumped inside the vehicle.
He peered down at his notes.
Lots of blood.
I am fucked.’
He figured it said all there was to say.
“What the hell is this?”
Ah. Noah smiled grimly to himself as the voice from behind him grated angrily. Time to work the magic, fat lot of good it’d do. He turned, fixing his smile into something more pleasant, to face the accusatory glare of officer James Anderson of the Sovereign City Police Department, his slightly uncertain-looking partner hanging close behind. Noah had dealt with Anderson many times before – he didn’t exactly LIKE doing it, but as the face of Public Relations for the entire Palmer Institute it was his job to deal with all brushes with Johnny Law.
“Officer Anderson, SO good to see you. Been a while!”
“Save it.” The man snorted, eyeing the crime scene. “You want to tell me what you lot are doing here?”
“Ah.” Noah’s smile widened. “WELL, you see, officer, we’re dealing with this.”
“Bullshit you are, this is a crime scene!” He sneered, looking over Noah’s shoulder. “And THAT is a corpse. You mind telling me what you institute fucks are doing poking your nose in what’s clearly police business?”
Noah spread his arms in a gesture of innocence. “Now, wait, you see, this was written up as a breach. As I’m sure you know, all incidents of breach control are well within the bounds of the Palmer Institute’s jurisdiction and are therefore subject to investigation by-“
“You got two dead guys on hand.” Anderson stated flatly. “That’s police business.”
“Listen,” Noah responded, resisting the urge to add ‘you filthy, stupid ass’ on the end, “We both know I’d rather not be here, but rules are rules, you know? We can handle this. Let me assure you that the level of professionalism on hand at the Palmer institute is second to none, but if you’d like to take it up with my manager I’d be more than happy to-“
“Like I want to talk to that creepy old bag of bones,” Anderson spat in irritation. “Spare me the sweet talk, would you? I want this lot-“ He gestured around at the institute employees, some of which had paused to watch the growing scene, “out of my crime scene. Pronto.”
Noah’s lips pursed a touch, but he still maintained his smile as best he could. “I understand, but as I said, this is our jurisdiction. There’s very little I can do about it other than reassure you that our on-site security is doing everything in its’ power to prevent civilians from-“
“Walkin’ around like they own the place?” The cop drawled, eyes flicking to the side behind where Noah stood. Noah hesitated a bit, before following his gaze. What appeared to be a teenage girl walked around the damaged truck with interest, snapping photos on what appeared to be a crappy disposable camera. Noah made a valiant attempt not to turn white, his smile frozen in place, as Anderson gave him a shit-eating smirk.
“Second to none, huh?”
Noah hesitated, before waving the policeman off distractedly and heading over in the direction of the girl, who most of the workers appeared to be ignoring, while Anderson said something rather unsavoury in response to being fobbed off like that.
God, why me? Noah thought to himself while attempting to regain his smile, though it twitched at the corners, as he tapped the girl’s shoulder. I must be the hardest-working guy in the whole damn city.
“Excuse me Ma’am,” He said smoothly – but firmly, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Sam glanced over her shoulder in surprise, before giving Noah a short wave and a teasing smile.
“But I only just got here! Have a heart, Mr. Fei.”
The man’s shoulders sagged a touch, and he sighed upon catching sight of her. “Oh, it’s you.” He ran a hand back through his thick black hair.
“Well don’t sound too excited.” She snorted exaggeratedly, using her free hand to lift a lanyard hanging from her neck with an official Institute clearance pass hanging from it, waving it in Noah’s face. “Besides, surely you know that being that I receive my orders DIRECTLY from Mr. Palmer myself I’m more than welcome to investigate all probable breaches in whatever manner I-“
“Yeah, sure. Investigate.” Noah glanced over his shoulder at Anderson, who was monstering one of the forensics officers now as he spoke. “Like this isn’t about fuelling that creepy little dead-people fetish of yours or anything?”
Samantha turned red, and whipped back around to face the crime scene. “For your INFORMATION, that’s not a fetish, it’s my job, thankyou very much.”
“Yeah, yeah, calm down.” Noah waved it off with a wry smile. Despite his reaction to her being there, he liked Sam okay. She at least was pleasant, and a lot less stiff than a lot of the other Institute cronies. Plus he knew it got up a lot of their noses that someone her age reported directly to the Man himself, and he generally somewhat admired anyone who could cause that sort of irritation just by existing – well, save for a certain of course. Plus she had a sweet little wiggle on her, something he was quite certain his wife would more than likely shank him for noticing.
She rolled her eyes lightly, and lifted the camera to take another quick snap. “Whatever, old man. So what’ve we got here?”
“Two dead, believed about three hours. Lazaro’s got some test results to examine, then he’s on his way.” He stated, flipping over a page. “Seems pretty straightforward. Not really sure why I’m here, honestly.”
“Well that’s easy,” Sam gave him a look, folding her arms lightly. “’Cause it was zombies.”
“Yeah, well, no, it wasn’t.”
Noah sighed, clicking his pen idly. “Right. You’re basing this on what?”
“Well wasn’t a breach called in earlier? The one that wasn’t Chainey. ‘Sides, I’m a necromancer, man.” She looked smug. “We just know.”
“Chainey, is that the new one?” Noah pushed a hand back through his hair, giving Sam a skeptical look. “Look, we’ve got two dead. One gutted, one found with an axe lodged in his neck. A zombie couldn’t use an axe, okay?”
“An aware could!” Sam persisted, looking stubborn.
“Given the ratio, do you know what the chances are of that? Besides, they didn’t eat anyone, just stole the guy’s shoes. There’s just too much evidence for me to write this up as an undead attack.” All true, though he wasn’t quite ready to let the police officer know that just yet. Call it immature if you will, he’s allowed to not like a guy.
“That’s so weird…” Sam muttered, frowning lightly to herself.
“Tell me about it.”
“I mean, what would a zombie need shoes for?”
Noah closed his eyes and breathed out heavily as Sam mused to herself.
“Samantha. It. Was. Not. A zombie.”
“Says you,” She retorted childishly, and moved away from Noah a little. He rubbed his forehead a bit in irritation, but decided to leave her to it. Like she said, she was an employee, and had every right to be there as well – whatever her reasons. Despite what she might say, Noah could see the excited glint in her eye as she examined the weird message on the window of the truck, the way she lingered a little when passing the soaked-through carpet of the vehicle and the rivulets of blood still dripping from the edge of where the door was. He wondered sometimes why a clever, attractive young lady like herself never appeared to be dragging some boy around behind her like most teenagers, but truth be told if he’d been faced with a girl as obsessed with death as she is he’d have high-tailed it away first sign of it, too. So weird.
“Just don’t touch anything, alright?” He called after Sam as she moved further off toward the massive gate, where she waved off what he was saying idly. Her neck craned as she moved it up, looking as far as she could. The structure was big enough across to allow vehicles of any size to enter, and high enough to reach the top of the wall. Either side of the gate up at the top of the wall was girt by a guard tower with openings on all sides. Blood trailed down from the windows of both. Whoever it was that did this, they were obviously trying to make a point.
As she mused on this, she sighed, and snapped a hand back behind her quite suddenly to grab the cold, dead, scarred one that was currently reaching slowly, carefully, for her shoulder.
“Don’t even THINK about it, Jeremiah Jones.”
Davey yanked his hand back and made a face, his trick ruined. “Man! How’d you know it was me? That’s DAVEY, by the way.”
“Please! I’d know your stupid stink anywhere.” She smiled teasingly at the other boy, who scoffed and pulled off his hood. A few of the Institute workers were frowning at him slightly, some moving away from where he stood, but the lanyard around his neck kept him from being messed with. They all knew who he was.
“AWESOME stink, you mean.” He retorted, to which Sam rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, Davey, exactly! AWESOME.” She glanced around a bit before giving Davey an accusatory glance. “Where’s Chainey? Don’t tell me you’ve ditched the poor guy already.”
“No way! He’s off being a fag somewhere, I guess.” He glanced around a bit, wrinkling up his nose. It didn’t take him long to spot the beanpole – he wasn’t far behind, one of Davey’s caps and a scarf obscuring his face from view and his sleeves pulled down far over his knuckles, hiding any hint of him being undead from the public. From his stance he didn’t seem too pleased – Officer Anderson was jabbing a finger in his chest and mouthing off at him with as much intimidation as he could muster up. Sam’s eyes narrowed, and she handed Davey her camera.
“Hold this a second.” She muttered, stalking off toward the two of them. Davey blinked and followed shortly after, mirroring her look. Neither of them were particularly fond of the man.
“Officer!” Sam barked, taking Chainey’s arm in one hand. It was extremely tense – the man must really have been upsetting the poor guy. She gave Anderson a bitter smile. “Is there a problem?”
“Yeah,” He drawled. “Kid’s got no clearance. Even the chink can’t dispute that.”
“His name is Noah.” Sam retorted in annoyance. “And this is Chainey. He’s with me.”
“Oh is he? Yeah, Hyde, I’ll bet he is.” The cop snorted, giving Davey a nasty glance. He didn’t particularly approve of Lazaro’s seemingly undead-friendly regime.
“Yes, he is.” Sam stated, scowling at Anderson. “Besides, this isn’t even your jurisdiction you know. When exactly are you going to quit poking your nose in other peoples’ business?”
“Ah, I dunno. How ‘bout when you grow some tits?” He drawled in response.
“Hey!” Davey squared up to the man in anger as Sam went red and sputtered a bit, pushing past Chainey who didn’t seem at all deterred by it. “You watch your mouth, huh?”
Anderson just glared sharply at Davey in response, not backing down a step. “Oh look, it speaks! Look sister, you just make sure and keep your little pals-“ He emphasized this with a hard jab to Davey’s chest with his index finger. “-out of my way.”
Sam went to respond hotly, but just grit her teeth, reaffirming her grip on Chainey’s arm. Davey looked as if he might very well take a swing at the man, but then Sam tugged at Chainey, pulling him away from Anderson without another word. Davey narrowed his eyes and shoved Anderson roughly aside, turning to follow his friends and ignoring the rather choice insult that followed him.
Sam turned Chainey a bit to look at her once they were a fair enough distance away from the man, looking up at him worriedly. “Don’t pay attention to him, Chainey.” She said emphatically to the tall boy, glaring at Anderson over her shoulder. “He’s just an asshole. How’re things going anyway? You had some tests, right?” She smiled in a friendly manner at Chainey. He stared at her so hard it seemed as though he was trying to bore holes in her face using only his eyes. Her smile twitched a little, and she glanced at Davey, who looked a bit pained. She gave Chainey a ‘one sec!’ motion and moved over to Davey. The taller undead’s eyes followed her, a cartoonesque image of a walking steak all he could picture.
This was a terrible idea. Anderson’s insults hadn’t gotten to him because he had barely seen the man through the haze of desire to tear out his throat. It was worse than with Lazaro – the smell of blood here was almost choking him, the spilt blood and flecks of organ everywhere and the overall scent of death to the place. He shivered despite not feeling any cold and twitched, trying to focus.
“Is he okay?” Sam whispered to Davey, as soon as they were a reasonable distance away.
“Ah, I dunno…” Davey scratched the back of his neck lightly, glancing at Sam. “Lazaro talked to him about…you know. I think he’s a bit shaken up.”
Sam’s hand went to her mouth and she looked worried. “Oh no! The poor thing…”
“Yeah, he was a real-“ Davey stopped halfway through his sentence, as a faint sound hit his ears – something whistling in the wind, getting closer. His eyes shot up, and widened hugely. In a split-second, without thinking, he grabbed Sam’s sides and dropped to the ground curled over her form tightly, her short yelp of surprise drowned out by the ear-shattering crash of metal, glass and plastic crashing down on Davey’s spine, chunks of the TV monitor that had just fallen from, assumingly, the sky flying everywhere and lodging painlessly in Davey’s skin through his shirt. Sam gasped, remaining unharmed underneath the boy, as shouts rang out from all around and footsteps thundered toward them to find out what was going on. Even Chainey’s attention was drawn from eating for that moment as Davey and anyone nearby whipped around to face what could only be described as slightly manic laughter from overhead, from the guard tower from where the monitor had been thrown was.
“Yo, FAGGOT boy!” A voice crowed. It was slightly gravelly, while at the same time a little nasal, a young voice. Davey frowned, and spoke out of the side of his mouth quietly as he turned.
“Sam, stay down a sec.”
He stood and shielded his eyes against the sun to try and see who it was leaning out of the tower. It was a boy, couldn’t have been older than fourteen, cheeks still rounded with baby fat and large eyes dulled and greyed. His mouth was split into a wicked grin, characterized by a large chip where the front was, his hair firetruck-red and his skin the same dead grayish-green as his and Chainey’s, darker around where a strip along his mouth and cheeks had been patched up.
He was dead.
There was another one.
“Might wanna watch your head!” He crowed, giggling madly.
“Who the hell are you?!” Davey yelled, scowling up at the boy. “You could have killed her, you fucking maniac!”
“Yeah, bummer eh?” He laughed again, wiggling his fingers in a little wave at Sam, who sat dumbfounded where she was dropped. “Next time I’ll try harder!”
BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!
Davey and the boy in the tower both jumped as a round of shots was fired off, chipping chunks of stone out of the wall nearby him. Anderson swore as the rounds he fired off missed the undead, who just giggled mockingly as he reloaded.
“Heeey, now that’s more like it! Come on, copper, see if you can keep up!” His hands drummed against the windowsill cheerfully and in seconds he was gone from view, out the back entrance to the tower. Anderson swore, and whipped a two-way out from his belt.
“Yeah, we got a two-fourteen at east gate F-6, I’m gonna need backup. Repeat, there’s a-“
“What the hell were you thinking?!”
Anderson tried to wave Noah off as the man stormed up to him, turning his back on him, but Noah just slipped around so he was facing him. “You can’t shoot at that kid!”
“Oh, and why the hell not?”
“BECAUSE, he’s one of the…y’know, the thinking ones!” Noah raged, and was responded with a withering glare.
“Are you fuckin’ retarded? I don’t care WHAT he is, he clearly wiped out those guards, and that means he must’ve done in the-“
“Sir!” Noah glanced aside as one of the forensics workers saluted. “I checked the stairs to the tower – he must have gotten out some other way, we can’t find him anywhere.”
Noah swore, and Anderson scowled at him.
“Yeah, brilliant. Nice job there, cocksucker!” He waved Noah off irritably and barked the order for backup into the radio again as Noah sighed and flipped open his mobile, punching in Lazaro’s number to give him a report of what happened.
Davey looked around at all the growing panic, considering going after the newcomer as well as he pulled a chunk of glass from his arm absently. Just who the hell did that guy think he was? His attention was grabbed, however, as Sam pushed out from under him a bit and gave a short sound of discomfort. He knelt next to her, his brow furrowing in worry.
“Hey, you okay?” He eyed her over carefully. She gave him a short smile, nursing her hand a bit.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m okay. Thanks, Davey.” She nodded as Davey frowned and took her hand in his gently. A piece of glass jutted out from the soft flesh of her palm. “It’s nothing, seriously.”
He took the glass gingerly between his thumb and forefinger, pulling it out as gently as he could, but it still earnt him a wince from the girl.
“Sorry… Jesus, you need to be more careful, Sam.” Davey said firmly, looking back at her with concern as they stood. “You’re not like us. You could’ve been killed just now.”
She laughed shortly, embarrassed. “Yeah, ‘cause falling TVs are so insanely common and all.”
“I’m serious, Sam! You should go home, clean that up. Me and Chainey’ll take you.” He nodded at her hand. She rolled her eyes.
“Davey, thanks, seriously, but it’s FINE. Really, it’s just a scratch, I-“
The sound had been there throughout the entire exchange, slowly escalating in volume, but it was only now just growing audible enough to be heard as Sam trailed off. Slightly hesitantly, her eyes slid to the side to look directly at Chainey, who now stood inches from her, staring, snarling, tugging at the scarf at his neck absently. Samantha recognized the look instantly, and she yanked her hand back from Davey, stumbling back away a few steps from Chainey, but the warm blood dripping from her hand had been enough for him – in this place, surrounded by so much already-aging carnage, and as desperately hungry as he was. He snarled, tipping his cap back off his face with his forearm and grabbing out with the other one, reaching for Sam, saliva-sodden growls crawling free of his throat as his head screamed for blood.
Moments later his head smacked back against the ground with a terrific CRACK, and the bloodlust made way temporarily for a mixture of confusion and anger when he found Davey on top of his chest, sneakers pressing into the gravel on either side of him and fists clenched in Chainey’s shirt to yank the boy’s head up off the ground so that they were eye-to-eye.
Davey was furious. His eyes flashed with fire and his fist drew back to slam into Chainey’s, knocking a little more sense into the bewildered boy – that and mildly angering whatever it was ticking underneath his conscious.
“You dumbfuck!” The boy roared, raising his fist in threat of another blow. “You didn’t eat, did you?! You KNEW you had to! What are you, a moron?”
Chainey’s eyes narrowed and he grabbed at Davey’s hands, hissing angrily and trying to pry them off of his shirt. “What does it matter NOW?! I need SOMETHING to-“
This time the blow came to his midsection. It caught him less by surprise, but it still had him reeling. Chainey parted his lips to choke out a mouthful of cold, thick, congealed blood the blow forced up.
“Davey!” Sam cried out, looking worried. “Okay, that’s enough now!”
“You never do that!” Davey either didn’t hear Sam or ignored her. He’d lost patience with this guy. Didn’t he realize what he could have done? “This is why you get FED, you understand?” Davey let go of Chainey’s shirt then with a snort of anger, climbing back up off of him, fists still clenched at his sides. He stood between Chainey and Sam, the two undead boys glaring at each other – Davey with an overprotective fire in his expression, and Chainey with something more desperate, more primal to him. They looked ready to spring at one another any second, and it’s hard to say who would have come out on top.
“Hey, hey, what’s going on?” Noah’s voice cut through the moment, soft but firm as he looked from one to the other. Sam bit her lip, and glanced around. Almost everyone had stopped to watch them, and a number of the more proactive officers were reaching for what could only be concealed firearms. “Listen, I don’t know what you guys’ deal is, but Lazaro’ll be here any moment now. Watch yourselves, huh?”
“Davey…” Sam tugged lightly on the sleeve of the boys’ shirt. Davey pursed his lips, then yanked his arm out of her reach.
“Yeah, Noah.” He muttered lowly. “We were just leaving.”
Noah gave them both an uncertain look, then glanced around at the milling-about officers, barking an order for them to get on with the cleanup. As they hurried back to work and Chainey dragged himself to his feet, Davey moved up a bit so he was close enough for him to whisper to him.
“Listen close, you.” He raised his index finger to Chainey, voice still shaking with anger. “I’ve kept an eye out for you so far, ‘cause hey, I figured you could use a hand. But I am NOT gonna stand around and watch you threaten my friends. So whatever, you do what the fuck you want, just stay away from us. You can figure it out by yourself.” He glanced back at Sam, who was looking at them both, distraught. “Like I had to. Sam! Come on, we’re out of here.” With that, the boy headed back toward the entrance to the main street.
Samantha hesitated. “Davey…”
“NOW, Sam.” Davey gave her a short look that said it all. Sam looked for a moment like she might retort, but thought better of it. She looked back at Chainey, mouthed a ‘sorry’ to him, and trotted after the other boy, whispering to him as they walked.
Chainey stood where he was and watched them leave, everything a mess in his head. A certain despair was welling in him at the sudden realization that now he really had nowhere to go, but it was completely drowned out by the hunger. Oh, god, the hunger was like fire now, racing through him. He felt almost weak from it, desperate as he was.
His deadened eyes slid sideways to where Noah stood.
The older man gave him a look.
“Yeah, don’t even think about it.”
Chainey’s brow furrowed in anger and he let out a frustrated snarl. This was torture! He grabbed the scarf at his neck and yanked it up, pulling down on his cap, and took off at a sprint. He knocked one or two of the institute’s finest out of the way as he did so, and Noah started, yelling after him.
“HEY! Hey, someone stop that kid!”
For some reason, though, nobody seemed in any mood to get in his way just now. Noah growled in annoyance as a few hesitated, then raced after the boy a good half-minute after the fact, keeping themselves nicely out of harm’s way. It did nothing for his mood when the wail of a police siren hit the air minutes later.
He cast a sidealong glance at Anderson, who gave him a shit-eating grin in return.
“Oh look,” He trilled insultingly, “The backup’s here.”
“Eat me.” Noah snarked back, somewhat uncharacteristically.
Lazaro was going to murder him.
Chainey’s eyes were the size of soup plates as he looked around main street, his hastily put-together disguise only just hiding his growing apprehension at where he was. Aside from the few people milling about the huge borders put up by the Institute to keep people from wandering into the crime scene, and despite the recent undead scares the area had received, it was a fairly typical Saturday afternoon in eastern Sovereign City. Chainey felt as though he could feel every pulse vibrating through the pavement underneath him, practically hear the blood pumping under loose layers of flesh as people walked and yelled and chattered around him.
He half-ran along the street slightly awkwardly, breaking into a run as he slammed into an old man and was almost stopped for a lecture. He tripped over a bum and almost hit the ground, tried to edge his way around a group of teenage girls, and ran headfirst into a tall, slightly dirty man holding a clipboard and a pile of leaflets. He mumbled an apology and tried to push past, but a hand in his chest stopped him in his tracks.
“Woah, woah, hey there!” The man smiled, all-too cheerfully. “I’m Greg from the Wilderness Society. Care to take a moment so I can let you know a little about what we-“
Chainey pushed the cap back off his face and opened his mouth in a yellowed, decaying snarl, glazed milky eyes and clawed fingers painted for Greg a pretty eloquent picture of just how much of a shit he gave about the Tasmanian Rainforest just now.
He staggered back, dumbfounded, as Chainey yanked his cap back down and staggered away, the encounter not having helped things any. He leant against a wall and tried to get his thoughts together as Greg quickly picked up his backpack and left to set up shop elsewhere as fast as he could manage, curling his fingers into a fist and grinding his teeth. He needed to sit for a bit, get away from these people. Find somewhere to stay for a bit and-
The police siren rang in his ears so loudly he thought they were going to burst. It caught him by surprise and then, guilt catching up with him, he picked up and raced most of the way down the street to duck into a back alley, knocking over a huge bag of trash rested against a dumpster and ducking down there, his feet slipping and hands gripping his shoulders as he almost immersed himself in garbage for the second time in however many days, back pressed against the dumpster as he stayed rooted where he was, listening to the sound of the siren growing louder, louder, and then dimmer as it passed where the alley opened onto the street. Chainey curled up a bit, clutching his hands to his ears and making himself as small as possible as he tried to drown out the noise in his head. If he could just get a moment to himself, just to think, to try and work through this-
Chainey jerked upright at the sound, his hands going to his sides and a short gasp leaving him. His eyes flicked around for a moment or two before, making sense of the sound, they lowered to the ground. A black and white kitten sat in front of him – small, unassuming, radiating pure waves of adorability at it. Chainey stared at it for a moment, its big blue eyes seeming to return the gaze, before it purred and moved to rub up against his leg where he sat.
His eyes were trained on the cat, and slowly, slooowly he reached out to it, not wanting to scare the animal off. It seemed fairly tame, however, so it made no move to run as he gripped it by the scruff of the neck and raised it to eye level.
He wasn’t thinking as he held the inquisitive cat in front of him, as it stared at him and gave a plaintive little mew. He wasn’t thinking when he worked his mouth slowly, that hunger screaming at him inside. And he wasn’t thinking as he opened his mouth and moved the small, warm body towards his open jaws, knowing there was something innately wrong about this but, by now, nothing but a total slave to his hunger.
The meat hit the ground with a wet SLAP, flecking Chainey with a little lukewarm blood. The boy froze and stared at the torn-off arm, lying plain as day right in front of him as the cat squirmed impatiently in his hands, and his eyes followed upward to the face of the one who had dropped it in front of him.
“I wouldn’t if I were you.” A voice chirped from behind the confines of the stock-standard Palmer Institute riot helmet concealing whoever it was’ face. “Cat don’t really cut it. You’ll just be hungry all over.”
The helmet was looking at him upside-down from above, whoever wearing it hanging by his knees from an overhanging light pole, swaying back and forward. He could just about make out the crooked grin behind the dark shatterproof material of the helmets’ visor as the other unhooked his legs from the pole and dropped to his feet with a loud SLAP of wet shoes on concrete.
Chainey didn’t bother wondering, however – he was done mulling this over. Almost as soon as whoever it was had finished speaking he dropped the animal, grabbed the limb from the ground, raised it to his mouth, and tore off a generous chunk of flesh between powerful jaws. The newcomer scooped the kitten up in his arms and cradled it a bit, scratching under its’ chin as he watched and the kitten purred, unaffected. The meat was warm and slippery, and it slid down Chainey’s throat in a manner that both calmed and excited him at once. He tore into it with abandon then, ripping bits free with teeth and fingers and grunting as he ate, his desperate need to sate his hunger overcoming any wariness he might have at this generous act. It was only when the officer turned and slid to his knees against the dumpster to sit next to Chainey that the boy took a short moment to give him a cursory glance. He was way shorter than any officer he’d seen so far under Lazaro’s command, and his sneakers were like boats on his feet, scuffed and soaked in blood. One glance was enough to tell him they hadn’t originally belonged to him. And aside from that there was the smell. It drowned out even the maddening scent of blood, this guy’s foul stench.
Chainey worked the mouthful around his mouth and swallowed, his brow furrowed and his entire lower face dripping blood as he eyed the sneakers.
“You killed those people.” He stated bluntly – nothing accusatory to his tone, just matter-of-fact. The other boy smirked behind the confines of the helmet, and used the thumb of a blood soaked glove to flick the visor up off his face, the other still cradling the nestling cat against him.
“Yup.” He stated flatly, then offered Chainey his free hand. “Owen Wright.”
Chainey didn’t bother to take it in return, just kept his eyes trained on the boy’s stitched-up face and tore another generous chunk off the arm with a terrible sound, chewing slower now, savouring the feeling it gave him. Owen’s smirk grew and he let his hand drop, instead using it to remove the helmet and shove his hand back through his greasy red locks.
“Aight, be that way.” Owen’s large eyes glanced up at the sound of the dimming siren, and he cocked his head, giving a chipped, yellowed grin. “You sure are a popular guy, aren’t you?” He lifted the cat to his face with a series of ‘oh yes he is! Yeees he is!’-es before setting it down, where it rubbed around his ankles and let off a few soft purrs.
“Mm.” Chainey grunted, using the back of his hand to wipe at his mouth and not yet saying anything, looking down at what was left of the arm. That insane hunger was finally sated, his brain finally slowing its pace – but it might not be such a good thing. His mind slowed, a heavy lump started to gather at the base of his throat. He kicked the arm away from him a bit and turned his hands over in front of him, looking at them hard. He at least didn’t want to attack whoever was nearest him now, but his head wasn’t any less of a mess. He looked up at Owen, who was grinning at him with a hint of malice now, and worked his mouth a bit. This boy made him incredibly uneasy.
“How’d you get out of there?” He questioned. Owen barked in laughter and scratched his belly through the material of his shirt idly.
“Like it was hard! People get all up in a tizzy f’you get ‘em in enough of a panic.” He straightened the collar of his stolen uniform and put on a serious expression, snapping a salute. “’Sir, all clear up there sir, couldn’t find nobody up in that tower sir!’”
Chainey curled his fingers a bit, staring at the younger boy. “…So where’s the real guard?”
“Well,” Owen chewed his lip thoughtfully, leaning back against the dumpster and kicking up his feet a bit. “I reckon half of him’s still up in th’ staircase, and the other bits are sorta-“ He gestured with his free hand. “All over up there.”
He snorted with laughter and dug around in his ear with a pinky finger while Chainey’s stomach lurched as the realization finally caught up with him. This guy- this kid – killed at least three people today, probably more. And he barely batted an eyelash over it. Chainey’s fingers tightened in the material of his pants, suddenly quite overcome with the desire to get the hell out of there. But…
“Why’d you do it?” He demanded quite suddenly. Owen blinked at him a bit, so he figured he should continue. “I mean – you didn’t eat any of them, so why’d you kill all those people?”
“Hey, good question. Got a better one for you, Mary Jane,” Owen rearranged himself, putting on an expression of polite curiosity, “What in the FUCK do you care?”
Chainey reeled a bit, his brow furrowing. “That’s not an answer.”
“Nah, nah. Good question though. Why?” Owen shifted a bit, eyes gleaming, and gestured at Chainey. “I mean you’re not retarded, like, you GOTTA know what they think of us.”
“Of you.” Chainey frowned, and Owen laughed spitefully.
“Oh come ON, don’t kid yourself huh?” He raised his hands indicatively, that horrible grin still plastered over his features. The kitten butted up against his legs for attention, mewling impatiently, so he picked it up and placed it in his lap for a pat while he talked. “Tell me somethin’, how’s the last couple days been for you, huh? How’s the hospitality up at that crapshack institute?” He scratched at the stitches holding together a nasty gash all the way around his neck absently while Chainey hesitated, staring at him. Owen put on an expression of mock sympathy. “You really think you’re one of them anymore?”
“Shut up.” Chainey muttered angrily, but Owen persisted.
“They don’t want us, buddy. That really so hard to get? Look, look!” He grabbed the ruined remains of the arm Chainey had attacked. He shook it a little as if it were waving, grinning at Chainey and talking out the corner of his mouth. “’Hiya Chainey, look! I’m meat! Ha ha!”
“Shut UP!” The taller boy squared on Owen, grabbing the front of his shirt and dragging him to his feet, the cat leaping off with a disgruntled mewling, upset. Owen squealed exaggeratedly and waved the arm around like it was flailing, then burst into a mad fit of giggles. Chainey gaped incredulously. “You can’t seriously think this is funny! This whole situation fucking SUCKS, what is wrong with you?!”
“What’s wrong with YOU?” Owen shot back, his free hand grabbing at Chainey’s then and the grin slipping off. “Seriously, you and your retard buddy. What kinda freakshow denies its own nature? You’re not a HUMAN, moron. You’re not even a real zombie.” His lip curled upward. “You’re stuck in the middle, just like me.”
“Exactly, so why are you LAUGHING about it, you sick fuck?!” Chainey yelled, pressing Owen hard into the wall with both hands. Owen gave him a sardonic smile in response, digging his fingers into Chainey’s hand uneffectively.
“I’m just movin’ with the order of things, Anthony.” He flapped the arm in his grip idly. “And I’m pretty sure that makes me the only one of us who’s actually got it together, wouldn’t you say?”
“No I-!” Chainey started. Then he stopped. His mind reeled, playing back the boy’s comment in his head, gaping at Owen. He stared like that for a moment, agape, and Owen raised a brow.
“What? Careful, you better shut that thing ‘fore someone puts a cock in it.”
“What did you say?” Chainey asked quietly, his fingers tightening in Owen’s shirt and his face registering absolute shock.
“I SAID, you better shut-“
“Not THAT!” Chainey shook him impatiently, his eyes narrowing in a glare. “You called me Anthony!”
Owen paused, his grin slipping off. He quite suddenly looked rather guarded.
“…uh. No I didn’t.”
“Yes you did! I HEARD you!” He slammed Owen back against the dumpster harder, grinding his teeth. “Anthony, is that my name?! How do you know that!?”
“Let me GO, dickface!” Owen snarled, pretense lost. He kicked out at Chainey, but the other boy was stronger, bigger. He kept him pinned tightly. The cat meowed loudly, weaving in and out around Chainey’s legs – which the boy ignored.
“NO! You tell me what you know! Who the fuck are you?!” He shook Owen madly, the boy’s head banging against the metal dumpster with a dull ringing.
“Shit, QUIT it!” Owen snarled, grabbing the back of his head with his free hand. “Look fucker, FINE, I’ll talk, but if you fuck my head you’ll never hear a word ANYWAY, you get me?!”
Chainey scowled angrily, still holding Owen where he was. His expression was echoed in the other boy’s face with equal malice, until finally Chainey dropped him, fists clenching. Owen stumbled a bit, then straightened out his shirt. He glared pure daggers at Chainey for a moment or two, before finally speaking up.
“So. You really forgot everything, huh.”
“YES. Now talk.” Chainey snarled. “What do you know?”
Owen stared at him hard for a moment or two, before sighing softly. He glanced to the side, then gestured for Chainey to come closer. The boy hesitated, before stepping forward cautiously, leaning down so that he’s close enough that Owen can whisper to him.
“I know,” Owen hissed lowly, his voice dripping with spite, “that you’re a moron.”
Chainey saw the flash of metal before he felt it slam up into his stomach, the knife piercing brittle skin easily and dragging upward under Owen’s force. The boy moved fast, his spare hand slamming to Chainey’s chest and sending the taller boy sprawling onto his back on the ground, eyes widened in total horror as he clutched at his stomach and tried to stop his own organs from spilling out over the ground. If you’ve never experienced seeing your own intestines fall out, it’s not something to look forward to.
“You IDIOT!” Owen spun the blade around in his fingers, and that terrible, chipped grin was back, taking over almost half of his face. “Didn’t your mama ever tell you not to listen to killer zombies who tell you to come closer?” He sighed a bit, tutting and shaking his head teasingly as Chainey struggled to get up. Before he could manage, however, Owen was on him, shoving him down onto the ground and holding the knife up to his throat.
“Now you listen to me.” He stated, his eyes wild and all hint of laughter gone from his face. “You might not remember me, but I damn sure remember you, ‘Tony. And let me assure you right here and now, me being here’s no coincidence. Soon as I heard about you and your little fuckpal’s little operation down here, well, had to come see my old friend, right? Rest assured, Anthony Michael,” He said, grabbing Chainey’s face and lifting it a bit, the blade pressing through the other boy’s neck, his voice a low, guttural hiss. “I am going to fuck you up.” Owen’s eyes flashed fire. He pressed the knife in harder and Chainey let out a short choked sound as he felt it dig in, the pressure there but the pain not coming through.
Chainey squeezed his eyes shut, fingers curling at his sides, and only vaguely heard the shout as it came. Owen’s head whipped to the side at the sound, however, and he was shoved roughly off of Chainey, sent sprawling onto the ground. He let out a grunt as he skidded to a stop a few feet away and straightened up, glaring. Chainey coughed and grabbed at his throat, cold blood at his fingers from where the knife had been but no massive damage there. The boy would have had to have cut through far enough to sever his head to do anything worth worrying about.
He looked up at Davey, who was currently stood above Owen with a look of total disgust, fingers tightening around his own knife.
“Dude, you smell like shit.” Davey wrinkled up his nose and made a face. “Rank.”
“Davey!” Chainey straightened up a bit, looking hopeful, but Davey gave him a nasty look that stated he quite clearly was NOT in the clear just yet that made Chainey shrink back again, hand staying at his stomach still.
“Laz’s looking for you, man.” He stated loftily, eyes turning back to Owen. “You too. And he is puh-iiiiiissed.”
Owen blinked back up at the two, before his face split into a grin and he climbed to his feet.
“Glad you could make it!” He dusted off his arms as he straightened. He eyed Davey’s weapon and tutted, scratching at his earlobe with his own long, serrated hunting knife. “Seriously though, what’re you expecting to do with that?”
“You kiddin’? I don’t even NEED this thing to take you down.”
Owen snorted. “Big talk.”
“Sure is. You didn’t hear?” Davey leant in a bit, shoving Owen with one hand and scowling at him distastefully, the other hand thumbing the Maggot Boy sticker on his hoodie pointedly. “I’m the sheriff ‘round these parts.”
“We’ll see.” Owen smirked, shifting into a lower stance.
The three undead all glanced up then as a voice barked from the entrance to the alley. A nervous-looking cop stood his ground, pistol aimed directly at Owen’s head.
“They’re in here!” He yelled over his shoulder, trembling a little. Davey rolled his eyes.
“No, hey dude, it’s cool, I got this.”
He was responded to with the ear-shattering crack of a bullet being fired. Davey and Chainey swore and ducked. Owen grinned nastily and dropped the blade, giving the cop a wiggly little finger-wave. His free hand shot up and he yanked the helmet back down. The cop shrieked and let off a few rounds, most of which missed, one of which hit the thick covering of the helmet and stuck there harmlessly, and one of which hit Owen in the chest, doing nothing but sending him reeling a bit. Seconds later the boy had grabbed the edge of the dumpster and pulled himself up, jumping from there to shimmy up a nearby light pole and propel himself up the wall and over the edge of the roof using his grip on outcropping ledges and window panes to lever him up one-handed. The cop, Davey and Chainey all gaped a bit at this display.
“Huh. Well…huh.” Davey said bluntly.
Seconds later, they regained their senses. The officer whipped back around to train the weapon on Chainey and Davey as three or four more policemen raced over to back him up.
“Hands in the sky! Move it, move it!” One crowed. Chainey instantly obliged, one hand reaching shakily upward as the other still clutched bloodied at his stomach, keeping himself together. The officers gaped as he pulled himself to his feet, waving his free hand in a gesture of innocence. Davey wrinkled his nose and followed their line of vision, his own knife clattering to the ground. His eyes bugged a bit.
Chainey was staring down the barrel of at least five pistols by then, and still he felt nothing but slightly dazed at the feeling of holding his own organs in his hand.
That is, until Lazaro shouldered one or two of the officers aside roughly. He stared levelly at Chainey, who suddenly realized the situation he was in. He was standing inches from what could only be the torn-off arm of a murder victim, covered in blood, out of disguise and out in public in broad daylight, having just let a murdering psychopath out of his grasp, and the whole mess had been mostly because he didn’t do what the man told him in the first place. Something about the look in Lazaro’s eyes told Chainey the other man’s thoughts weren’t far off his. Davey glanced from one man to the other, and suddenly he wasn’t so sure he didn’t pity Chainey at least a little.
“At ease.” He muttered to the surrounding officers, voice bubbling with barely-concealed rage. They hesitated, but agreed. Chainey shifted awkwardly under Lazaro’s burning gaze for a moment before piping up.
“This isn’t what it-“
The man raised an index finger instantly to silence him, jaw clenched tightly in anger. He then swung the finger around behind him, pointing at his car parked on the street outside the alley.
“Get. In. The car.” He hissed.
Shoulders sinking, Chainey obliged, mentally gearing himself for the chewing out of a lifetime – if not worse. Davey made a face at Lazaro and mimicked his sputtering anger, but not to his face. He didn’t like the guy, but shit, he wasn’t stupid.
Behind them, the kitten watched them go, unaffected except for an air of mild curiosity. It broke its concentration to continue cleaning its paw, stretched out a little, then trotted her way out of the alley, oblivious to the situation that had unfolded around her.
“…of all the…”
“Couldn’t for just ONE day…”
“USELESS little punk, I can’t believe I have to…”
“Should just send you down to the LAB, is that what you want?! You complete and total -“
The tennis ball bounced from Davey’s hand against the smooth, polished floorboards with a satisfying, rhythmic series of SMACKs as he bounced it against the floor over and over, the sound drowning out the occasional bout of muffled curses coming from Lazaro’s office as he absolutely roasted the other boy inside.
He stretched out a bit in the chair up against the wall, scuffing his dirty sneakers against the floor a bit and catching the ball to keep it still a moment while he listened to the threats and angry ravings that were going on inside the office. He’d come around somewhat about Chainey when he had heard the predicament his dumb new sidekick had gotten himself into – partly because he was guilty over ditching the guy, partly because he was honestly worried they’d cut him open for this, but mostly because Sam said she would cut off all of his fingers and hide them while he slept if he didn’t go apologise to Chainey IMMEDIATELY.
He wrinkled up his nose in annoyance, fingering the ball a bit. He felt a little conflicted. When he had first showed up at the institute, there was NOBODY like him. He was the only thinking undead, and nobody trusted him. Back then he didn’t even have Sam to look out for him – it was just Lazaro, his creepy little gang of institute lackeys, and the accusatory stares of a building full of people projecting the loss of their family, friends or mentors onto his head. Davey had learnt not to care about that anymore, especially now he had someone like Sam who’d actually treat him like he was still human, but Chainey’s appearance had stirred up all sorts of feelings again. Especially with the kind of reception he was getting. People were nicer to Chainey, handled him with kid gloves, performed less invasive and cruel tests on him than Davey had gone through. Davey set the precedent, and now Chainey was giving them hope. If there’s more than one, there could be more than two of them. If they were really lucky, their existence may someday point to a way to FIX all this horrible mess, to get back those who mattered to them – and all it took was someone else to come along like Davey, to prove that he wasn’t just a freak accident ready to boil over any second.
And yet here he sat, waiting for the lanky idiot to blunder out and start whining again so he could make nice.
“Davey my man, you are way too nice.” He muttered to himself grouchily, kicking up his feet.
He was about to get up and leave, go through with his original plan of staying the hell away from Chainey from now on, when the door to Lazaro’s office swung open and Chainey walked out.
As he shut the door behind him, Chainey leaned back up against it and closed his eyes, clenching his jaw tightly. A hand curled and bunched in his shirt, under which lay a freshly stitched scar going up his stomach where he’d been stabbed. His brow was creased and he looked an absolute picture of lost, dumped-on misery, shoving his hands back through his oddly-dyed hair. Davey felt a sudden surge of sympathy for him. He couldn’t leave Chainey alone with this. The guy clearly needed him.
He cleared his throat a bit and leant forward in his chair. Chainey’s head tipped to the side sluggishly, looking fed up and hassled. The expression disappeared instantly to make way for surprise and a bit of guilt, Chainey straightening up a little. Davey winced a bit inside and stood up.
“Uh.” He started, not really knowing what to say.
“Mm.” Chainey responded in kind.
They stood there a moment, awkwardly, before Chainey finally spoke up.
“Listen, you know…about- well, about the thing.” He gestured a little. “You know.”
“Yeah. I know.” Remembering it sent another little flicker of irritation through Davey, which must have showed because Chainey instantly looked more awkward still.
“…I’m sorry.” He said, and Davey frowned.
“Look, it’s not ME you should be apologizing to.”
Chainey cringed. “I know, I know, I’m just…” He sighed heavily, scratching at an arm, and Davey’s expression let up a little.
“…Still. S’okay.” Davey shrugged, pushing his hands into his pockets and looking at his feet. “She’ll probably be okay with it.”
“You think?” Chainey looked unconvinced, thin brows furrowing worriedly. “I mean it’s not really like…’sorry I tried to eat your brains’, I mean, it’s kind of a hard thing to find on a hallmark card I guess.”
Davey snorted, a grin spreading over his face, and he gave Chainey a pointed look.
“You’re clearly underestimating how weird Sam is. She’ll be okay with it, swear.” He shifted a bit, a little more at ease now. “’Sides, brains are a waste of time anyway.”
“Oh yeah.” He rolled his eyes and gestured with his hands. “See there’s all that hair and skull to get through, and that’s hard enough in itself. Then you gotta make a big enough hole to work it out through and when you do it’s just gloppy grayish crap. Totally overrated.”
“You make this all sound so romantic.” Chainey’s eyes rolled, and Davey shrugged.
“Calling it like it is! Now bone marrow, THAT’S good.” He mimed breaking something in half. “Snap, slurp, chuck out the rest. Too easy!”
Chainey gave him a weird look. There was a short moment of silence, before both boys eventually burst out laughing. It was just such a ridiculous thing to be discussing – as it goes, if they didn’t laugh they’d probably cry.
After a bit, grinning and still giggling a bit, the two looked at each other. There was a pause where, with a short glance over Chainey, Davey offered him his hand.
“So we’re cool?” He asked uncertainly. Chainey looked at him for a moment more, before smiling warmly in return and taking Davey’s hand with a firm shake.
“Yeah, we’re cool.” He paused for a bit. “And hey, thanks for y’know. Saving my ass back there.”
“You mean with that midget?” Davey snorted and waved it off. “Whatever, guy’s clearly a fuckhead. You could have taken him.”
He paused. “…Maybe.”
“Yeah, whatever. Forget it. Come on, let’s go see Sam.” Davey gestured for Chainey to follow him. “You GOTTA see her place, it’s ridiculous.”
- - - - - - - - - -
The walls were plastered with ugly paper, stained and yellowed from smoke and age. The whole place stank of asbestos, and there was a fat kid in the hallway staring at them.
Chainey’s gloved fingers tugged up a bit at his scarf, pulling it closer around his face as Davey rapped on the door of Sam’s apartment, yelling for her to come out.
“She seriously lives here?” If Chainey were alive to contract it, he’d be too afraid to touch anything for fear of tetanus. The whole building felt like a deathtrap. He wrinkled up his nose lightly.
“Hey now, be nice. Not her fault she’s a big HOBO.” Davey said that a little louder than necessary through Sam’s door, a hand cupped around his mouth for effect. He still probably wasn’t heard over the rustling and banging around inside Samantha’s apartment, though.
Chainey could feel the kids’ eyes burning a hole in the back of his head and glanced over his shoulder to give him his best ‘go away’ look without the kid actually being able to see anything of his face. Disguising himself every time he came out was becoming a pretty huge pain pretty fast.
There was a loud rattling and scuffling before the door was yanked open. Chainey turned back to look at Sam – and almost jumped out of his skin. A giant face stood in the doorway, gargoylesque, with a great gaping maw and crisscrossing patterns of what could only be blood all over it. Dried tribal paint patterned angry frown lines over its wooden features and feathers and ornate rings hung from holes punched in either side.
“Jeez, Sam, put it away will you?” Davey jeered. Sam shoved the mask up off her face, glaring at the boy and waving a bloodstained hand at him.
“God, you’re gonna ruin everything! Go away, would-“ She started a bit, and her glare was automatically replaced with a surprised grin at the sight of Chainey – who was still trying to scrape his heart off the roof of his mouth. “Chainey! Hi!”
“Er.” He glanced at Davey, then back at Sam. “Hi?”
She looked around the hall and ushered them in, pulling the door shut tight and locking it behind her. “Sorry about that, I was just in the middle of something. No big!”
Davey muttered something under his breath and Sam gave him a dirty look. Chainey didn’t really notice – he was too busy not stepping on anything. The place was packed. Sam’s whole apartment couldn’t have been bigger than most houses’ living rooms. It was completely dilapidated, and above all, a complete MESS. Clothes, living items and furniture littered the room – along with about twenty tons of ornate-looking tribal stuff. Masks, statues, charms, relics, jewelry, and a truckload of burning incense mixed with the stuffy scent of the closed-up room gave it the air of one of those backstreet shops you buy something creepy at and, when you turn around, is no longer there. To top it all off, the shelves were lined with what looked like pickled dead animals – most of them showing signs of at some point having been road kill.
Chainey must have been gaping a bit, because Sam’s eyes followed his in their path around the room, and then she beamed.
“Pretty cool right? I need all this stuff for my necromancy. Very important!”
“Oh whatever,” Davey scoffed, picking up an aztec-looking statuette that clearly had nothing to do with voodoo off a shelf.
Sam gave him a glare and slumped back in an overstuffed couch over near the far wall, shoving a bunch of stuff off the cushions to make room for the guys if they want to sit. “Well okay, not ALL of it clearly, but you know. But it’s so good to SEE you!” Sam grabbed Chainey’s hand and yanked him down onto the couch next to her. “I was so sure Lazaro was gonna…you know…” She made a series of elaborate hand gestures that vaguely resembled someone having their head cut off, chest split open and organs ripped out.
“Um. Well no. No, I’m fine.”
Sam smiled brightly at Chainey’s response.
“Good, I’m so glad. So what can I do for you guys?” She leant back a bit, fluffing up a cushion. “A bit out of your way, isn’t it?”
“Chainey jus’ had something to SAY is all.” Davey said pointedly, giving Chainey a look. The taller boy jerked a little and nodded, the oddness of the room having distracted him from his original intention.
“RIGHT. Right.” He breathed out slowly, and looked down at his hands in his lap while Sam watched imploringly, blinking. “Sam, I…listen, I’m REALLY sorry about…”
He trailed off.
“About?” She looked a bit confused. Chainey gave her an odd look.
“About… you know.”
Sam looked blank. Chainey raised an eyebrow at her slowly.
“…That whole thing where I tried to eat you? You know?”
“OH!” A hand went to her mouth. “Oh, Chainey, you haven’t been beating yourself up over that, have you?”
“Well…” He looked at Davey, who gave him a deadpan sort of ‘told you’ look. Sam smiled encouragingly and patted Chainey’s shoulder.
“You forget or something? Dead kids are sort of my business.” She stretched out a bit and waved a hand idly in gesture. “What kind of necromancer would I be if I didn’t know how to handle a zombie, for christs’ sake!”
Chainey’s brow creased a bit, and he looked at his hands in his lap. This felt very weird. Still… “So we’re okay then?” Sam gave him a broad smile and patted his hand gently.
“I told you, didn’t I? I’m here for you.” She looked up at Davey with a stern expression. “We BOTH are, right?”
“I went back for him, didn’t I? Geez!” Davey huffed and made a hideous face at her, returning to playing with the mask in his hands. Sam rolled her eyes before turning back to Chainey.
“So what happened? Last I heard you were found squaring off with that wackjob right? The whole CITY’S on alert now, the institute’s desperate to find him.” She shifted a bit on the couch, looking excited. “Did you talk to him? What’d he say?”
Chainey blinked, and looked down at his hands, remembering. Something HAD come up, something he’d almost forgotten about in all the excitement.
“Yeah, he…” His fingers tightened a bit in his lap. “He knew my name.”
That got their attention. Sam withdrew a breath and stared at Chainey wide-eyed, glancing at Davey, who looked suddenly interested.
“No kidding? What is it?”
Chainey looked up at him. “Anthony, he said. Anthony Michael.”
“Anthony? For real?”
“But this is great!” Sam beamed, grabbing Chainey’s hand again and squeezing it in hers. “It means he knows who you are! Which means-“
“Which means he’s probably the one who killed me.” Chainey said flatly.
Silence again – a little more tense this time, Sam’s grin slipping off.
“It makes sense…” Davey turned, leaning against the wall and frowning a bit. “It’s a pretty big coincidence, him just happening to show up here right after you after us not having any real dramas for a while. Maybe he followed you?”
“Impossible.” Sam stated just as Chainey went to respond. “The institute hushed it up, remember? Nobody knows he’s here outside of us! Besides, there isn’t another inhabited area around here for AGES. You’d have to be crazy to travel all this way just to find someone you already thought was dead to begin with.”
“Yeah…” Chainey mumbled.
He couldn’t get Owen’s face out of the front of his mind. The way his fake friendliness had twisted away so easily into hate as soon as Chainey found out who he was. He wondered how long the kid would have kept it up before killing him if his name hadn’t slipped out. Jesus, what did he DO to this guy?
His thoughts must have been showing up on his face, because Sam’s brow creased in worry and she sat up a bit to look at Chainey a little closer.
“Listen, don’t worry about him.” She said soothingly, looking back at Davey. “Lazaro won’t rest until he’s found – he won’t last a night out there with them on his tail. You’ll get your answers soon enough, right Davey?”
Davey looked unconvinced, but after a sharp look from Sam he mumbled a ‘yeah, sure.’
Chainey looked down at his feet, scuffing his shoes on the floor a bit and looking thoughtful. Somehow he wasn’t so sure either. The kid had seemed so…confident. Either he was just a total nutcase, or he’d done this sort of thing enough before to not be the slightest bit phased at the idea of walking right on into a quarantined little city like this and starting fires right under Lazaro’s nose.
Sam was probably right though – more than likely it was the first option.
He looked up again, and returned Sam’s smile with only a slightly bitter twist, looking from one of them to the other.
“Guys,” he began. “I…”
He trailed off, staring forward blankly. Sam and Davey looked at him closely.
“I…?” Davey motioned for the boy to continue, raising a brow.
Chainey stared for a bit before his eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped onto the floor with a loud thwump, hitting a pile of stacked books and earning a shriek of surprise from Sam.
The other two stared at him for a bit, before Davey sighed heavily.
“See?” He muttered, gesturing at Chainey. “Told you he does that.”
- - - - - - - - - -
The door creaked ominously on its hinges as Owen slipped inside the upper floor, his fingers curling around the edge of the door and his dull grey eyes narrowed as he scanned the dark room. The fingers of his free hand gripped tightly to the neck of the fucked-up crackhead he’d found on the lower level, limp under his fingers. He tossed the body to the far end of the room with preternatural ease, and dumped his backpack on the ground. He’d been scaling rooftops and slipping through shadows all night, his speed and strength giving him an advantage over those following him and his diminutive stature and unforboding presence helping him to go undetected among those who weren’t. Most people avoided anyone who smelt as bad as him in any case.
He sat down next to his bag and pulled off his hooded sweater, the institute uniform and helmet long since having been discarded in his backpack for being covered with telltale bloodstains – added to the fact that he was a good foot or two shorter than even the smallest institute guard. Sighing contentedly, Owen dug around in his backpack aided by the moonlight through a dusty window in the wall. Rustling among his clothes and sparse belongings he dug out a flimsy piece of newspaper, holding it up to the light and frowning at the picture. His gut roiled with anger at the photo emblazoned all over the front page, the half-torn off logo of the Daily Dead smudged and incomprehensible, as was the story - typical tabloid junk, no doubt. But the image was blurred to begin with, and nothing particularly leapt out at him save for one figure, shot from behind and circled in red pen. The photographer clearly hadn’t been paying any heed to the figure in the background, but Owen would recognize that retarded dye-job anywhere.
He still couldn’t quite believe it. Anthony Chainey, back from the dead – sort of. His fingers curled tightly in the paper, almost tearing it under his grip, and his yellowed, cracked and gappy teeth ground together tightly. It was enough to make him choke. Here he was, burning up inside because this fuck still walked around on two legs, and the asshole didn’t even remember who he was.
“Fucker.” Owen snarled, curling up a bit against the wall and hugging his knees, resting his chin on his arms and glaring at the opposite wall.
“Mrrr.” The wall responded.
Owen jerked upright, his eyes widening. He stared for a moment more before slowly climbing to his feet, his knife scraped against the ground as he stood and walked cautiously over to the window. One hand behind him clutching the knife, poised and ready, he used the other to ease the window up with a soft squeak. He waited one or two seconds more, before the noise came again.
“HA-!” He leant out of the window, both hands gripping the knife above his head ready to strike.
The kitten on the fire escape stared up at him blankly, then mewed again and proceeded to lick herself. Owen blinked, lowering the knife and watching the cat. His brow creased and he glanced around for a bit, before dropping the knife on the floor nearby and leaning out as far as he could, stretching out to pick up the kitten and lift it back inside.
“Did you follow me here…?” He looked incredulous. That was a long enough way for HIM, let alone a little baby cat like this. The kitten purred and dug its claws into the leathery, cold skin of his arm, making itself comfortable. Owen looked oddly at the little animal for a moment or two, before sliding back down onto the floor and cradling it a little more securely in his arms. Chainey momentarily forgotten, he scratched behind the kittens’ ear and cocked his head a bit, frowning. “Don’t really have anything for you right now…”
His fingers smoothed back over the cat’s body, and it stretched out, yawning and turning around in his lap a bit, digging its claws ineffectively into him a few more times before settling and curling up in his lap. He smiled a bit and scratched under its chin.
“…Sure, whatever then.” He mumbled, leaning back against the wall where he sat and pulling his hood down over his face while, miles away, the inner city swarmed with people out for his blood. It didn’t matter. He could ruin them all – and he would, if they stood in his way. He came here for one thing and one thing only – but if he felt like having a little fun on the way, he would.
“Time’s up, ‘Tony.” He hissed with more than a hint of malice, turning the knife in his hand and watching the light glint off of it, fascinated, while the cat’s warm mound rose and fell softly with its breath in his lap.
The room was smaller than most people would expect of Lazaro Palmer. This goes with the assumption that as soon as anyone becomes hugely powerful or influential in any particular area, their desire to have a living quarters vaguely the same size as Vegas becomes somewhat more difficult to ignore. In all honesty, not many people knew that this building was actually home to the man – in fact it was something he kept particularly close to his chest. The room was small, and dark, located on one of the underground levels of the Palmer building, sparsely decorated save for a large machine hooked up to the man where he lay on his bed, keeping track of his breathing and pulse, and a heavy-looking metal door built into the opposite wall, locked with a touchpad. Lazaro slept on his back, fingers curling and uncurling and features twitching in a disarming manner while he slept. Nothing the man did ever really seemed particularly comfortable, to himself or anyone around.
His already-creased brow furrowed further as an obnoxiously loud phone drilled a hole in his ear with noise from his bedside table. His eyes snapped instantly open and a hand slapped to the phone, dragging it to his ear.
His voice was groggy from sleep, but with a sharp, angry edge. The exertion sent the horrible machine he was hooked up to off in a series of sharp whirrs and clicks, which he ignored. If he listened to that damned thing every time it told him he was killing himself with effort he’d never get anything done.
“Sorry, Mr. Palmer,” Noah’s cool, crisp tone met his ears, in a tone that implied he wasn’t honestly particularly sorry at all, “Phone for you.”
“Tell them to go away.” He grunted in annoyance.
“Yes, but you see, it’s the Mayor. He’s sort of desperate to know what the-“
“Tell him,” Lazaro repeated slower, in the tone he saved for conversing with the mentally disabled and the elderly, “To go away.”
Noah’s deep, heavy sigh reverberated around Lazaro’s head as the man wiped at his face, tugging a few of the sensor pads off of his arm in irritation so that he could reach.
“You always make my job so easy sir. Alright, fine, I’ll tell him.”
“Good.” Lazaro pushed a hand back through his hair slowly, breathing out deeply. His eyes closed softly, and he thought for a moment. There was a moment of silence before Noah spoke up again.
“Something on your mind, sir?”
“Noah, at this point it’d be more odd to find a time when something’s not on my mind.”
He rapped his fingers against the bedside table, breathed out, and spoke again.
“Fei, set up a press conference would you? I suppose it’s about time we cleared up one or two things, kept the people on our side.”
“Yessir. How’s three-“
Noah paused then as, from the other end of the phone came a rather violent series of hacking coughs. He frowned lightly, flicking an imaginary speck of dirt from his benchtop. Waking Lazaro was never the best move, for many reasons.
“Three’s good.” His boss rasped from the other end after a moment or two of that. His voice was oddly weak-sounding, sickly. Noah’s jaw set, and for a moment he lost that formal edge to his voice, speaking to Lazaro as an equal.
“Take your pills, Laz.”
Lazaro wrinkled up his nose in irritation and responded with a snort, flicking the phone off. He pressed a hand to his chest as he coughed again, once or twice, rubbing there and then moving an arm to his face to wipe at it.
His hand came away wet. He glanced at it, and wasn’t surprised to see flecks of blood.
It was always the worst whenever he woke up. He liked to try and avoid sleep if he could help it, because of this, but the honest truth was he could no longer manage to stay up for longer than three or four hours a day without becoming weak, sick - and nobody could see this. It wasn't any of their damned business, to start with, and it certainly wouldn't help the current issues running around. He slowly eased himself upright, having realised he wouldn't be sleeping again anytime soon - not with the heavy, wet pain in his ravaged chest and throat which often occurred upon waking - and pressed a hand to his forehead, ignoring the blood it transferred there. It was almost ironic, how much he hated the disgusting dead, and yet he was likely closer to the grave than any of them.
His glare hardened. No point dwelling on that right now. No, there was a much larger issue - or smaller, depending on how you looked at it.
"Owen." Lazaro spat the word like it was diseased - and it probably was. It had been weeks since the boy had shown up, now, and there had been six deaths since then. Pieces had been removed - likely to be eaten - but all of them were killed by weapons, not torn apart by hands and teeth as was the style of those wretched beasts. On top of that, at least one item of clothing had been stolen from every victim. Owen was incredibly obvious about his murders, and by all rights should have been caught by now. In fact throughout it all only one fact remained consistently hidden; that he was undead at all. For all the public knew it was a case of serial murder, not a breach at all. Lazaro knew better than to be alleived by this fact. Whatever his reasons, he knew the boy wouldn't be hiding their secret this well for the institute's benefit. No, judging by his behaviour, it was more likely he was mocking them than anything.
He drummed his fingers on the bedspread, closing his eyes and thinking. They needed to get rid of him, that was for sure - yet for all their efforts, both the institute and the police had had endless amounts of trouble locating the boy, let alone apprehending him. He was stronger than six men combined, faster still, and his only weak point - his head - remained under the protection of a shatterproof riot helmet whenever they had come across him. Nothing penetrated it.
A short series of buzzing beeps gave him cause to open his eyes moments later, and he looked to the source - the mounted alarm on the wall. It went off at six hour intervals, flashing and beeping to get his attention. Lazaro often slept through it, but a similar one in Noah's possession meant that the cause didn't go without being taken care of long. He swung his legs out of the side of the bed and climbed to his feet with a little effort, pulling the suction cups connecting him to the machine off his arm. He padded to the opposite wall, punched a number into the keypad and, with a few short beeps of recognition, pushed on the hard metal with a short grunt of exertion.
The door creaked open loudly and Lazaro stepped into the room. The air was stale and musty, closed off from everything save for the door in the wall. A bed similar to Lazaro's sat against one wall, but smaller, and with no sheets or sign of apparatus. Next to it was a small top-opening freezer. A small girl lay on the bed propped up a bit against the wall, fingers twitching slightly every now and then and brow furrowing in her sleep. Lazaro stood for a moment in the doorway, watching, before making his way over to the bed and sitting down next to her. A hand went carefully to her forehead and ghosted back over her hair gently, too light to wake her fully, brushing her fringe back off her face. The motion was feather-light, but it still sent a flicker through her features, and her eyelids slowly peeled back, squinting a little in the light. Big, watery, milked-over grey eyes slid slowly upward until they met with Lazaro's face. The two looked at each other in silence for a moment before the girl, still groggy from sleep and the effects of her last shot, dragged herself forward from the wall like a bandaid being pulled from a wound and leant upward, straining at the ties binding her hands to the sides of the bed, reaching for the man she no longer recognised as her father.
If this bothered Lazaro, he didn't let it show. He leant back a little so that he was well out of reach of Claire's sluggish motions, turning away instead and bending to retrieve a black package from the freezer near his feet. He unzipped it and removed a syringe and a bottle from a series of them strapped to the inside of the pack, drawing out a measure of the substance and flicking the syringe to remove any air bubbles - not that it particularly mattered when dealing with the undead, but he didn't really like to think of Claire in that way if he could help it. Pressing one hand to her forehead with a practised ease to push the girl back against the wall and out of harm's way, he pressed the syringe to the inside of her arm and injected the liquid into her arm, uncertain whether the low hiss that followed came from Claire or the needle. She jerked a bit, slowly, knees bending as her feet slid up and back down the mattress, but her state was already slowing even further still, what signs she'd shown of coming out of her drugged stupor disappearing. Lazaro's eyes locked with hers levelly, keeping her head where it was pinned to the wall, until with a soft, inhuman sort of rumbling growl she slumped forward again and relaxed against the bed, the fast-acting drug working its way through her deadened system. He kept her propped up for a moment or two more before letting go, certain she was back out cold, and set about straightening up her nightgown and pushing the hair back out of her face, generally tidying up.
It ate him up inside that those two...imbeciles could be like they were, be able to retain their cognitive thought and still find time to moan about it while his own daughter spent all of her time locked up in this stuffy little room doped up on Doctor Sutton's miracle juice so that she didn't try and tear his throat out as soon as look at him. Why? That was the question this whole damn operation was set up to find out, so why couldn't they figure out what made the aware tick yet?
Lazaro's brow furrowed and he sighed, his hand sliding down over Claire's cold, greying cheek, brushing over her chin, and falling short of touching the aging bitemarks on her neck. It was only temporary, he kept assuring himself. Only three people in the world knew Claire was down here - himself, of course. And Noah, who fed and sedated her when Lazaro couldn't. And finally Marianne, the one who'd come up with the solution in the first place. He lifted the syringe and eyed it, a little amber liquid still clinging to the inside of the glass. No other drugs or medication worked on the undead, nothing seemed able to have any effect on their mind or body but this.
He could use it on Owen, he mused. Eventually they'd probably have to, to bring him in. But there were only a precious few vials left, and the idea of wasting it on that ingrate made his skin crawl. Nobody had any clue how to make it or where to get the materials for it but Marianne Sutton herself. Honestly, the idea of going back to the woman he laid off was almost as bad as wasting the remainder of it on Owen was. But there was no way around it - the effects only lasted up to six hours at most, and he was running dangerously short. Everywhere he looked, there were always problems. Just for once it'd be nice if things would work themselves out. He knew it didn't work like that, though.
Lazaro twirled the empty syringe in his fingers for a moment, watching his daughter, before sighing and packing it back away, getting up to leave without another glance while she slept.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
"Get down! Move it, move it! On the floor, let's go, now!"
The shotgun let off an ear-splitting bang as the first shot was fired into the ceiling, sending flakes of plaster tumbling down onto the head of the terrified convenience store clerk as she hit the floor, shrieking and gripping her head in fear. The balaclava-clad man with the shotgun whipped around, breathing hard and cocking the weapon as his pulse raced in his ears. There were screams and shouts of fear from the shoppers as they huddled on the floor where he'd told them to be, but none of them were moving.
"SHUT UP!" He yelled, trying not to let his voice break. He swallowed and licked his lips drily - he hadn't exactly wanted to be doing this. Truth be told he was probably as scared as the people on the floor - hopefully nobody else could tell that though. With a sudden start, he remembered what he was actually there for, and whirled around to focus the gun back on the clerk, shoving the shotgun in her face and making her squeal in terror. "Alright, I want everything you got, in the bag, NOW!"
She curled in on herself a bit and sobbed, too scared to get up, so he poked her with the gun. That didn't really seem to make things any better.
"In the bag! Are you listening to me?!" His mouth felt dry with horror. He knew Richie was waiting in the car for him to come out any second now. He KNEW he'd drive off without him if he took too long. Someone was gonna call the cops any second, and they were gonna come, and he didn't have the money, and she was still on the floor, and someone would be able to ID him and he'd be-
There was a faint 'dingaling' as the doors to the stoor opened to indicate someone entering.
"-sort of garagey-skate punk, but that's kinda generalising." The door swung shut behind two figures, one tall and skinny and the other shorter and slightly more built, both in oversized hoods pulled down over their faces. The shorter one was gesticulating as he spoke. "Seriously man, I'll have to show you some when we get home. They're-"
He paused, and looked in the direction the taller figure was looking, now slightly rigid, hands directly in the air. The barrel of a shotgun was pointed directly at his face.
"ON THE FLOOR!" The man holding the gun roared, trembling, the weapon going from one to the other. There was only a moment before the tall boy started to sink to his knees, when the boy in red grabbed his arm with a sigh to keep him standing. The would-be theif's eyes went from one to the other, and he opened his mouth to repeat the yell even louder, when an economy-sized can of tomatoes cracked him directly between the eyes and he fell back with a curse, the gun going off with another way-too-loud BANG accompanied by another series of shrieks and curses from the terrified customers. The man with the gun teetered a bit, ready any second to fall and crack his head open, when a gloved hand grabbed the front of his shirt, twisting him upright while the other clamped over his holding the gun. He shrieked and attempted to wrestle the weapon away, but it was wrenched out of his grip as if he were a toddler. The figure in the red hoodie then used the butt of the instrument to crack him once again on the temple, much harder this time, and with a low groan of pain his body slumped in Davey's grip, eyes rolling back in his head. Davey eyed the man and tutted pityingly, dumping the weapon on the counter to pull off the man's balaclava and let him hit the floor, slumped in a pile.
He looked back over his shouder. Chainey still had his hands up.
"What the hell are you doing?" He demanded, rolling his shoulder.
"He had a gun!" Chainey protested as he lowered his arms, sounding miffed.
"You're a sidekick now! You're supposed to wrestle it off him! Or at least yell for ME to do it."
"I couldn't, he had a GUN." Chainey grumbled, a little put out now. Davey HAD done that with impressive ease.
The other boy rolled his eyes, hidden behind his hood. Chainey was never going to get the hang of this. He became suddenly aware that people were starting to push themselves up, still looking scared and uncertain. He felt a pang of annoyance at the body at his feet. Weren't things already crappy enough in this place without the general public running around with shotguns and making it worse?
"Alright, everyone!" He called, raising his hands in indication. "It's okay! I, Maggot Boy, have successfully subdued the criminal! You can all go back to whatever it is now!"
A few people stayed on the ground, looking confusedly at each other. Most, though, seemed to catch on and slowly climbed to their feet, a few smiling. One attempted to start up a slow clap, but everyone was too shaken up so that fell on its ass.
"Police ought to be here soon. You have a good one!" Davey turned to leave, satisfied, when Chainey cleared his throat. He hesitated, then remembered why he'd come in the first place.
"OH., right. Yeah. Hey, 'scuse me." Davey leant back from the counter and sucked in air through his teeth, looking around a bit before snatching up a fun pack of Red Clouds and dumping it on the counter, smiling winningly at the shaking, sobbing clerk. Davey wasn't too good with crying girls - usually he either stood awkwardly to one side or just pretty much ignored it when it happened. "Ring this up for me, will you?"
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
"You know," Chainey sighed in irritation as they climbed the stairs to Sam's apartment (the elevator was out - from the police tape Chainey had the sneaking suspicion they may have found a body in it or something, but he didn't care to say so) "That whole nasty situation could have been pretty easily avoided in the first place."
"Can't do that, sir! Nope!" Davey slung the plastic bag over his shoulder, grinning cheerfully at his partner. "You see the love in their little faces? I was on the MONEY today, huh!"
"We were only there cause you had to get your stupid candy." His eyes flashed. "Fat lot of good it'll do US."
"Honestly, Anthony," Davey emphasised (he'd already made it perfectly clear how dorky he felt the boy's real name was - Chainey didn't honestly feel anyone going by Jeremiah had any place to comment, but Davey tended to go into a sulk when you called him out on things sometimes), "You're so selfish sometimes. You never used to bring candy to your big hairy men?"
Chainey gave Davey a withering glare. "I'm sure Sam'd be super pleased to hear you've been referring to her as your big hairy man."
"Hah! Yeah." Davey paused for a moment at the top step, before returning Chainey's expression seriously. "Don't you tell her."
Which just earnt him another eyeroll.
Davey shoved the door open roughly without so much as a knock, as he was inclined to do at Sam's. "Samanthaaaaa!" He trilled, pulling his hood back off his face and ruffling up his hair as he shoved his way through her junk. "Where you at, girl?"
She barely glanced up from where she sat on the couch upside-down, legs hooked over the back of the couch and hair trailing on the floor, with a half-empty bowl of popcorn balanced on her lap as she watched her tiny, busted-ass TV avidly. Davey grinned and grabbed her feet in an attempt to yank her back off the couch, and she shrieked, kicking out at him.
"Davey!" She frowned at him crossly and rearranged herself a bit. "I'm trying to watch this, do you mind? You know I don't have to bother with you 'til monday."
"That's some way to greet your conquering champion." Davey puffed out his chest a bit and dumped the bag of candy in her popcorn bowl. "Spoils of war!" He climbed over the back of the couch to join her as Chainey stumbled in over a pile of clothes and fought his way to the overstuffed armchair where he plonked himself down. Sam lifted her head a little to get an eyeful of the bag Davey dropped, and her frown turned instantly to an ecstatic grin.
"Oooh! Davey, you didn't have to do that!" She put the bowl to one side and righted herself, giving the would-be superhero a playful punch to the shoulder. "That's so sweet, thankyou!" She scooped up the bag of candy to attempt to wrestle it open. Davey beamed smugly as he watched her tear at the packaging, first with fingers, then with her teeth, grunting in irritation. Chainey gave the two a sidealong glance as she finally tore it open and they launched into their usual back-and-forth, his own face ticking into a vague sort of frown. It had taken him a few weeks to become accustomed to the company of the two, but the dynamic wasn't exactly hard to pick up on. They were friends - close friends. Sam only really seemed vaguely aware of how close sometimes, though. In fact the way Davey looked at her sometimes was deeply troubling and set off all sorts of warning bells in Chainey's mind. There was no danger for Sam - any idiot could see Davey would never hurt her or let anyone do the same - but he couldn't help but wonder what, exactly, Davey expected to ever come of it. If anything.
Still, not that it was any of his business. He could tell if he was smart he'd just stay the hell away from that one. Not like there wasn't enough complication already without lumping some awkward crush from beyond the grave business onto the pile.
"So you're sticking around for the show, right?" Sam popped a piece of candy in her mouth, glancing from Davey to Chainey. Davey raised a brow, glancing at the TV.
"Show?" It didn't look like anything special. Some sort of cop show, from the looks of it.
"Oh, so you haven't heard? I figured it was what you were here for." Sam gesticulated, her face splitting into an excited grin as she swallowed. "Lazaro's giving a press conference at three. It's going out live."
Davey heaved a deeply irritated and put-upon groan. Chainey wasn't quite so disgusted, but his thoughts ran at least a little along the same lines.
"What's he going to be talking about?" He glanced at Sam, then the TV. "We'd probably already know whatever he's discussing, right?"
"Sure, but it's weird!" Sam waved a hand, digging around in the bag of candy. "He practically NEVER shows himself to the public these days. He hasn't answered a question or done an interview since the institute showed up, even. He usually gets Noah to go over everything for him. They announced it this morning - the whole COUNTRY's gonna be tuning in. The institute's research and advances in defense affect everywhere that was under attack in the first place, you know." She added at Chainey's dubious look. "Not just Sovereign City."
"It's just gunna be more lies and crap." Davey snorted, picking at his shirt. His original cheer had slipped easily into a sulky frown at the fact that the conversation had, once again, turned to that jerk.
"I don't think so," Sam gave him a dirty look and a light shove, which he made a face at. "Otherwise he could just send Noah out like usual. The people like him, you know!"
"No, they just don't hate him. Everyone hates Lazaro."
"That's not true at all!"
Chainey sunk in his chair a bit and pushed his hair back off his face, already growing a little tired of their near-constant bickering on the subject. He found his mind wandering again, watching the TV as the credits ran for the program, focus flickering. It was like this often for a few hours after he fed - it was fine when he kept occupied, but when he was just sitting and thinking he tended to feel a little sluggish, lethargic. Not like when he randomly passed out - it just made it that much easier to zone out on things. He often wondered if Davey got the same thing, but he'd neglected to ask. Eating wasn't exactly something either of them liked to address.
His focus was grabbed, however, when the TV cut from the end credits to a newsreader standing outside the now-familiar front entrance of the Palmer building.
"Hey...hey!" Chainey sat up a little as the two stopped, looking to the TV.
"...gathering in huge numbers for the first real public appearance of Lazaro Palmer, Managing Director of the Palmer Institute for Undead Studies." The newsreader prompted. "The announcement came as a surprise, released just two hours ago, and yet that hasn't stopped the ensuing media frenzy." Sam listened intently, argument forgotten. Despite himself, even Davey quietened down and paid attention as the camera cut to the inside of the institute, where reporters clustered in huge numbers in a spacious room for not-so-quiet pre-drinks. Lazaro was absent, of course - he wasn't one for socialising. "Among those gathered is Jennifer Houston, author of the controversial bestselling exposé on the private life of the man himself-"
"WHAT'S SHE DOING THERE?!"
Davey and Chainey both almost jerked out of the chair in shock as Sam roared, her eyebrows meeting in anger and her fingers tearing the candy bag so bits fell in her lap as the camera cut to a tall, stately woman in a stylish pant suit almost as dark as her short black hair. Her green eyes shone coldly and one hand nursed an almost-full glass of chardonnay as Noah mingled, flashing her his handsome smile and speaking leisurely, putting on all of his charm - at a closer glance, however, it was obvious it was extremely forced, and it was obvious she could tell. Even without knowing what they were saying, the dislike crackling between them was practically palpable. Around them was the only area of the room that wasn't particularly crowded, either.
"Who's that?" Chainey asked a little hesitantly, his eyes sliding sideways to look at Sam. She looked as though there should be smoke coming from her nostrils from anger, eyes narrowed in slits at the woman on the TV as the reporter prattled on.
"Lazaro's ex-wife." Davey noted, with maybe a little more glee than necessary once he'd calmed down from Sam's outburst.
Chainey's eyebrows shot up in shock.
"He was married?!"
"Yeah, it weirded me out too."
"Wow. I-..." Chainey tried to imagine the sort of woman who'd want to marry Lazaro. It wasn't easy. "Wow."
"You think that's weird, you should check out her book." He sniggered. "You know she said one time Lazaro-"
"It's not TRUE, okay?" Sam's eyes flashed in anger and Davey grinned infuriatingly at her in response. "That woman is evil, okay? Lazaro saved her LIFE and- and all she did was screw him over! It's DISGUSTING."
"So - why is she there?" Chainey looked back at the TV, but by now it had cut away from the two. "And why's Mr. Fei being nice to her? Can't Lazaro just kick her out?"
Sam pursed her lips in thought for a while.
"...I don't know." She finished lamely. "I have no idea why he would want that WOMAN there. It's common knowledge he can't stand her."
They sat, quietly, and watched as the newsreader prattled through the other items to be highlighted at six, and the bulletin switched to an ad for carpet cleaner.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
"That woman," Lazaro seethed, his arms folded on the desk and his eyes passing over the monitor displaying the conference hall. Jenny sat right in front - of course - with her legs folded primly, notepad rested in her lap. "I can't stand her."
"You're the one who invited her." Noah mused, marking off a checklist and not paying the monitor a second glance. "God knows why. Are you going to tell me what this is all about yet?"
"I told you," Lazaro mumbled in annoyance, fingers drumming on the tabletop. "Routine damage control."
"Right." Noah responded drily with a deft flick of his wrist, snapping is ever-present clipboard shut. "Much as I appreciate you suddenly deciding to take an interest, I can't help but think there has to be SOMEthing more to this."
"I don't recall paying you to think, Noah. Just to keep the mouth-breathers on our side."
"Ouch," his PR manager smirked, tucking away his pen and glancing at his watch. "You about ready to go on, your excellency?"
Lazaro gave him a withering glare in response and climbed to his feet, dusting off the front of his shirt. His eyes closed, and he sighed. He so deeply hated dealing with the press. Still, nothing for it. He rose to his feet and strode to the curtain sectioning off the backstage area from the conference hall. As soon as he moved into the room the general mutter of conversation rose in volume exponentially and his hand went up to shield his eyes irritably from the flash of a dozen cameras. A few of the crammed in reporters stood, already attempting to fire questions at him over the general chatter, but he just made his way to his podium and leant there with his arms folded while Noah took up a position at one much the same, to the left. Lazaro carefully avoided any eye contact with the silently appraising woman in the front row, frowning down at the podium and sifting through the notes that were left there for him while Noah gave the crowd a brilliant smile and calmly asked those already yelling to take a seat and assuring that all questions would be addressed in due time.
"Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the Palmer Institute we'd like to thank you for coming down today." He stated. Even though he had no idea what Lazaro intended to discuss today, he'd been involved in enough of these sort of things to know the general protocol by now. "If you'd all like to take a seat we can get down to business."
He glanced sideways to where Lazaro stood, drumming his fingers impatiently and looking, as ever, like warmed-over death. Noah sighed inwardly. It was hard enough to make this guy look good when he played the miserable shut-in card. But they were live now, and there was no way he could hide the disgust in Lazaro's eyes as the media hounds eventually took their seats. It was another moment or two (Noah was quite suddenly worried the man had set this whole thing up to embarrass him with his silence - who knows with Palmer), but then Lazaro began to speak, his voice sharp over the booming mic.
"I'm sure you're all curious to know why I called you here." He spoke monotonously, leaning forward a little. The lighting was harsh, emphasising his sallow features, his sunken eyes and jutting-out, angular cheekbones. Not a good look. "I'd like to take a moment to dispel any further rumours and fears that may be running around with regards to how the institute is running. Firstly, with regards to the recent breach, I can do little but ensure you that the Palmer Institute is on watch 24/7 to keep Sovereign City free from danger as much as is humanly possible. All recorded cases of failures in breach control have been severely dealt with, and as much as I am able I assure you it won't be an issue in the future. Secondly, pertaining to the recent string of inner-city assault and murder charges, I can only extend my regrets to the families of those involved. The Institute is conducting investigations into whether or not these are matters of importance to our cause, but in all likelihood this has little to do with the institute and more to do with the Sovereign City Police Department." His eyes flashed as he rattled all of this off. His tone was so flat and disinterested in what he was saying it was as if he were a bored teen reading off a teleprompter, but there was none in sight. He glanced around levelly as cameras flashed and reporters scribbled madly in their notepads. After holding the silence for a bit, he started up again. "Furthermore, I'd like to discuss the matter of maintenance on the city wall is council business, and that all enquiries in that field should be put to their offices rather than the-"
"Mr. Palmer," Jennifer called from the front row, raising a delicate hand and looking unimpressed thus far. "Who is Maggot Boy?"
A few laughs came from the back end of the crowd. Some reporters looked plain confused. Noah's expression froze on his face, and he wrestled to stop it from displaying his alarm. He glanced to where Lazaro stood. The man's face was passive, betraying nothing but mild annoyance at having been interrupted.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Houston?" He responded, his tone thick with dislike. She smiled lightly.
"Maggot Boy - Sovereign's would-be superhero. I just assumed you would know."
"Based on what?" His voice was like ice.
"Witness reports claiming they've seen him return to this building after a hard day's work saving mankind." She responded with wide, innocent eyes. By now a general murmur had kicked up, and those who knew who she was talking about had their eyes trained directly on Lazaro, who was frowning down at her deeply.
"Ma'am," Noah laughed, trying to fight back his sudden nervousness, "I assure you, the Palmer Institute has never and will never taken any stock in vigilante justice. I mean," He smiled broadly, "For one thing, if we were affiliated with Maggot Boy, he'd at least have a better disguise."
That got a few laughs, and the tense air in the room relaxed a little. Lazaro and Jennifer's eyes were still locked, however, as she waited for the man himself to respond.
"Maggot Boy, as I gather it," Lazaro folded his arms where he leant, "appears to be a bored, self-righteous and incurably stupid young man, angry about the situation as it lies and trying to do something about it - in his own pointless kind of way. I'm sure there are those who can relate to that. In the future, please take care to remind your witnesses that not everyone wearing a hooded sweatshirt is our 'superhero'."
Jennifer didn't remove her cool gaze from Lazaro even after he'd finished responding. It didn't seem to bother him though as he looked away, surveying the crowd.
"Are there any more questions, now? So that I'm not interrupted again." He spat sharply, looking through the crowd of journalists as if daring anyone to waste his time.
Despite his intimidation, there were a few hands still in the air. One queried his relationship with Ms. Lilya Baronova, a Russian supermodel he'd falsely been rumoured to have stayed with in a british hotel he never went to (He just stared infuriatedly at this reporter until the man felt stupid enough to sit back down), a few demanded to know what he wanted to do about the failing economy, the childcare issues, the situation in Bosnia etc. It was only when Lazaro's mouth tightened at the edges with rage and he looked any moment like he was going to bust a vein in annoyance that Noah cut in.
"Folks, if you wouldn't mind keeping your questions related to strictly Institute-related business it'd be great." He smiled winningly, regretting this whole thing already. This is what you get when you put a single-minded Necromancer at the head of a city with the worst public official it had seen in decades. Wasn't the Mayor's fault his predecessor was torn apart in front of him - it'd left the poor man a little loopy. But it didn't make Lazaro any happier to be the public's go-between until the electoral process got sorted out. A number of the hands in the crowd went back down at that. Noah looked around a bit before catching sight of one hand still hovering in the air near the middle section of the crowd. Lazaro looked too fed up to field any more at that point, so Noah gestured for him to go on. The journalist stood, looking uncertain and clutching his notes, but Noah's 'Go on' smile seemed for the moment to overcome Lazaro's steely glares.
"Well, sir, I mean - regarding the rumours of..." He paused, and started again. "Is it true that they can think now? The-...you know. The undead."
There was a general lull in the air. Every person in the room leant forward in their chairs, listening - even Jennifer tensed as she waited for a response.
Noah laughed cheerfully. "Think?" He spread his arms in a gesture of innocence. "If the insitute had made any advances of THAT size it would be public knowledge by now. I assure you, there is no such thing as-"
He had to stop then, as Lazaro raised a hand to him in an indication for silence. The reporters stared at him. He was rubbing his forehead with his free palm with his eyes closed, looking pale, tired, and suddenly - to Noah's alarm - very sick. He was just about to motion for the conference to be cut short for the man's health when Lazaro stood, gripping the podium tightly, and opened his eyes to turn his full gaze on the nervous young man who had asked the question - who shrank back a bit under the fierceness of it.
"They exist." He said hoarsely. "We call them aware, and we currently have two under control at the institute for purposes of study and-" His voice raised in volume to cover the sudden din as almost everyone in te room stood up and started yelling, questions being fired and cameras going off like crazy, "-AND, we aren't as of yet sure how many are out there. I would like you to direct all further questions to my protege Mr. Fei, who will be glad to tell you whatever you need to know."
Noah's jaw had almost hit the desk in front of him, and he couldn't hide how pale he suddenly was as Lazaro pushed back from the podium without another word, ignoring the voices behind him as he stalked off back behind the curtain. Noah's eyes slid cautiously back to the conference - he could barely hear himself think over the din. He looked with dismay at the tens of microphones shoved in his face, and made some vain attempt to compose himself.
"Er- one at a time, please." He stated lamely.
- - - - - - - - - -
Back at Sam's apartment, there was absolute silence. They stared at the TV blankly as on the screen Noah prattled nervously about subject testing, experimentation, danger level, and basically smoothed and glossed over the gigantic upset Lazaro had just caused. Davey was the first to break the silence.
"Yeah..." Sam's brow knit in worry. "Lazaro looked awful near the end there...maybe he wasn't feeling himself?"
"Does it really matter?" Chainey looked relieved at the news, smiling broadly at the TV as the shock started to fade. "They know about us now, so we don't have to keep hiding anymore! Right?"
Sam smiled a bit, but looked unconvinced. Davey just snorted.
"I don't get the feeling it's going to work like that, man." He watched the TV, his gaze close, unfocused. Chainey's smile slipped a bit, and he glanced back as well. At a second glance, he could tell what he meant - among the crowd at the conference, more of them looked angry than anything else at the news, scribbling furiously in their pads.
"Still," Davey beamed hugely. "Least more people are gonna know who Maggot Boy is now, I guess. Score!"
Chainey and Sam exchanged glances, and both sighed.
The door to Lazaro's office slammed open with a force that rattled the windows in their panes and echoed around the closed-in walls with their faux-wood paneling. The man seated at the big mahogany desk didn't even bother looking up from his paperwork as he shuffled it idly between two wrinkled hands— the conference hadn't ended more than an hour ago, and he knew exactly who it was threatening to send his door flying from its hinges. Only one individual would really have the gall for that sort of rash action in the face of Sovereign City’s designated saviour.
"How did it go?" Lazaro asked. There was a certain disinterest to his query that suggested he knew full well how it went.
Noah Fei’s chest rose and fell hard, as though he had just run a marathon. First to reach the finish line earns the right to beat his boss’s face in with a lead pipe! He leaned a heavy hand on the edge of the desk as Lazaro continued stacking papers and pushing them aside, like Noah was barely worth his notice. Noah’s eyes sparked with an uncharacteristic, barely contained anger as he fought to catch his breath, his fists curled in frustration at his sides.
"Lazaro," he began, taking a deep breath to help steady himself, "you…"
Lazaro finally looked up from the all-consuming task of sorting papers. At the sight of the calm, collected, and apparently perfectly healthy man sitting in front of him, Noah cut loose with a string of the foulest expletives and vilest threats that Lazaro had ever been subjected to. As his name was abused up and down, right and left, he placed his pen at the top of his desk, parallel with those various stacks of forms and legal documents. He let Noah rant. Mad sweeps of arms and a series of rather unmistakable and not very kind hand gestures conveyed clearly enough what Noah couldn't quite get across with mere words. Lazaro waited patiently until the man seemed about finished, having worked himself into a renewed state of breathlessness and disheveled black hair, before he cut in.
"I had no idea you had such a vested interest in my mother, Fei."
"What were you thinking?!" Noah raged, his calm exterior well and truly cracked. "Do you have any idea what the consequences of this will be?"
"I'm vaguely aware, yes." Lazaro sniffed lightly and plucked a small black address book from one corner of his desk, leafing through its pages with slender fingers.
"Lazaro—Mr. Palmer—this ruins everything we've worked for. You just told the whole city—the whole world exactly what we've been trying so hard to hide! That's what you set this thing up for?"
His boss gave him a severe look over those crisp white pages. "Don't speak to me like I'm an idiot, Noah Fei. I know exactly what I've done, and I know why I’ve done it."
"Then tell me, please!" Noah dropped himself into a black, straight-backed chair in front of Lazaro's desk that had just enough cushion to look nice without providing any real comfort. He looked exasperated. "Don't just throw me to the wolves like that. It's not just your ass on the line, you know."
Lazaro was silent, gazing, unfocused, out the window opposite his seat. It offered a view of the jagged skyline, a partial cityscape he found no more beautiful or awe-inspiring than a pile of dog droppings on a park sidewalk. His personal quiet expanded and filled the room until it became something large and oppressive, much like the man who spawned it. Noah was about to demand a response when Lazaro finally spoke of his own accord.
"Do you know how many people live in Sovereign City, Noah?"
The man hesitated, then shrugged his shoulders. "Couple million, maybe."
"Try twelve." Lazaro's eyes flicked from left to right, taking in the dense cropping of buildings that spotted the horizon like a badly played game of Tetris. "That's twelve million people crammed together inside the city walls, and still a good percentage of the streets are always empty. You don't just come back from an undead apocalypse, Fei. They won't leave their houses after dark, but they won't move. This is their home." His thin lips twisted themselves into a frown as he spoke, a show of disapproval for the words leaving his mouth. "Sentimental morons. If they didn't rely on me to do everything short of tying their shoes, I'd get off this ruined continent the first chance I got."
"Touching," Noah snorted. He wasn’t finished being angry quite yet.
"Mm. Whatever the reason is, they're terrified but they won't leave." He stood from his chair, then, and moved over across to the window, peering out. "So with twelve million paranoid refugees - and that IS what they are, most of them - suffocating in this hellhole, looking for the first sign of trouble and the first sign of someone to blame for it, how long do you think it'd take before someone noticed our violent new friend?"
Noah frowned, beginning to catch on.
"...you wanted to tell them before they found out through him." Lazaro nodded once sharply at Noah's statement.
"It was risky enough with Jeremiah and Anthony running around making fools of themselves." He muttered bitterly. "But who knows how long the other one would have played along? He's not in our pocket. He has nothing to lose if people found out what he is, so he had an edge over us there. Until we find and capture him, we can't let him have any sort of advantage. Bar none."
"Okay," Noah rubbed his forehead, sighing a little. "But why did you run out like that? You could have stuck around and leant me a hand, you know."
Lazaro's posture stiffened, and he tightened his jaw. Noah's eyes ran over what he could see of the man's face, but it was unreadable. His mind flicked back to that moment, and he remembered vaguely how Lazaro had seemed just before he had run out. He was so pale, so hoarse. Oh god, if Lazaro was throwing up blood again it was no small wonder the man had left in such a rush. But he could tell whatever had happened, Palmer wasn't likely to offer it up too easily.
"So then," Noah decided to change the subject, righting himself a little in the chair. "What now? What does this mean for the institute?"
Lazaro's brow furrowed, the multitude of lines patterning his worn face deepening in thought.
"Well it won't be easy," He mused. "People won't like it. There'll be all sorts of ridiculous conspiracy talk, of course, and naturally they'll want to see our test subjects." He picked at a loose stitch on the cuff of his sleeve irritably as he thought. "I think we'll have to double our efforts to bring in that menace, too. It's infuriating, but he's just too good. I have no idea where he learnt to evade capture like he has, but nothing we throw at him seems to work."
A steely silence followed. Something in Lazaro's air struck Noah as a little off though, and he thought he could tell what it was.
"You have an idea, don't you?" Noah frowned a little at Lazaro. Whatever it was, he was clearly hesitant.
"Mm." He chewed a thumbnail, and sighed. "I think we'll have to use Sutton."
Noah's face twisted in dislike.
"Ugh, her? She creeps me the hell out."
"She's the only one I've ever met who can bring in an aware." Lazaro turned to face Noah. "And I'm sure she'll be happy to have her old position back, once we tell her she's free to open him up. If there's anyone in the world who'd object to an autopsy on that pest I'd be very surprised."
Noah pursed his lips. Autopsy talk - definitely Marianne's area of expertise.
"But you two didn't exactly part on the best terms," He stated, sitting up a bit in his chair. "What if she doesn't listen to you when you ask her to come back?"
"Me?" Lazaro gave Noah a disdainful look, folding his arms across his chest. "I can't be dealing with every little thing, Fei. You're in charge of public relations aren't you? She's the public, go and relate."
Noah's stomach curled as he spoke and he groaned inwardly. Of course. Lazaro's pride wouldn't let him go and beg some ex-employee to come back personally. The thought of even talking to Marianne Sutton made his spine crawl - she just made him uncomfortable, and he was one hundred per cent certain Lazaro knew it, too. God dammit all, he had to be the hardest working man in Sovereign City - and that more than included Mr. Lazaro Palmer himself.
"You drive me insane, sir." Noah sighed, running a hand back through his hair and getting out of his chair.
- - - - - - - -
At the exact same moment, outside of an electronics shop in the inner city suburbs, Owen was watching TV. Well, as much as you can when you can't hear anything. He was up close to the window of an electronics appliance store, wearing a sweater he appeared to have stolen from a girl twice his size which almost reached his knees, the hood flopping over his face with ridiculous sewn-on cat ears. He had thought it was funny, and the fatass couldn't argue him taking it if she had no head, could she?
Krissy peeked out of the inside of his sweater, curled up in the hastily-made sling he'd constructed around his neck for quick getaways - he'd grown very fond of the little cat in the past few weeks. She mewled up at him and he scratched her head, distracted, sucking in through the gap in his teeth with a low whistle as his well-hidden eyes scanned the subtitles. It was a slightly delayed broadcast, and the newsreader was just going over the highlights of the press conference.
"Sneaky little prick." Owen snorted, shoving a hand deep in his pants to rearrange his shiny new hacksaw where it hung. (He could feel the blade digging into his skin, and even though it didn't hurt that didn't mean he wanted it swinging around down there.)
So Lazaro caught on! He grinned in a satisfied manner, knowing he'd gotten on the guy's nerves that bad. He was making a stir, and that's all he really cared about. Whatever, the wrinkly old douche could say what he liked - he knew he was better than them, and he'd keep taking advantage of that fact as long as he needed to. Didn't matter if the general population eventually found out what he was.
Something grabbed his attention from the corner of his eye, and he glanced across. A woman who looked about thirty-something standing near the window as well was staring at him disgustedly - he was pressed up close to the glass, with one hand still wedged firmly in his pants.
"Afternoon honey!" He crooned, pointing downward with his free hand. "Want a look? No charge!"
She muttered something foul and stalked off, shouldering past him despite his shoulder only coming up to her chest. He laughed and watched her go, patting the kitten's head. Krissy meowed and rubbed herself against his chest.
"Nah, not her." Owen responded softly as the woman left - he often had conversations with the cat. He considered it mildly less crazy than talking to himself. "Somethin' younger, I think."
He was pretty hungry, though. Owen had never really faced starvation before, exactly - he'd first eaten flesh within hours of finding himself undead, and had enjoyed it so much he'd never even considered going back. It meant he never got any of that pesky feral nonsense, but it wasn't exactly as if he needed to be any more of a savage. He hadn't eaten today, however - he'd treated himself to a sleep-in, then zigzagged around the city to keep anyone who may or may not be following off his trail - every little bit counts - and had on his way overheard a good deal of excited buzz about the conference. He wasn't exactly Mr. Current Affairs, but it had aroused his interest at least enough to take a look.
"Hurry UP, god! You're so slow!"
"In a minute, okay, I just want to see!"
Owen's eyes slid to the side again with interest as again someone approached, this time at a run, and pressed up close to the window. This looked more promising - it was a boy, about the same height as Owen if not a touch taller, with girly blonde hair and a ridiculous red and white striped sock cap, the rest of him dressed in a highschool uniform. His breath fogged the window a little as he looked excitedly in at the TV, his eyes scanning the subtitles.
"Is it over? Did it finish already?" The disappointment was thick in his tone as he spoke, fingers curling against the glass.
"Of course it did, it finished at like three thirty." Another boy in uniform, this one pale as a ghost with immaculately styled black hair and nails painted the same colour walked up to the blonde and gave Owen a disgusted look as he clamped a hand over his nose to block out the stench none too subtly. Owen just looked back ahead with a private smirk to himself, pretending to be interested in the TV while he listened. "I don't know what you're so eager about anyway, it'll be rerun all over TV tonight."
"But I want to know now!" The blonde boy looked crestfallen, and glanced across at Owen. "He talked about Maggot Boy, right? What did he say?"
Owen raised a brow and went to respond, but the pale boy cut in.
"GOD, Parker! I'm TIRED, I want to go home. Let's just get out of here." Parker just waved him off irritably in response, pressing his nose to the glass and sighing.
"I wish they'd tell us who he is." He mumbled wistfully, tracing a pattern against the glass. "It's so AWESOME that we have a superhero at all, you know? We should totally go walk down a dark alley sometime so we can get accosted and he can come rescue me, don't you think?"
"Ugh, NO." The other boy snorted as Owen fought back a fit of laughter. "The whole thing's so stupid. Maggot Boy. I can't believe you're INTO that, PJ." He eyed the TV critically, his brow wrinkling at the sight of Lazaro. "Bet it's just that guy in secret, anyway."
"Ew! Micah!" Parker gave his friend a disgusted look. "No it is NOT! Maggot Boy doesn't sound a thing like him, anyway."
"Well that'd be a relief at least. You can't do much worse than Lazaro." Micah shouldered his backpack as he talked, wrinkling up his nose like he'd swallowed something nasty. "He looks like someone's peeled off all of his skin, run it through a rinse cycle, tied it to three elephants running in different directions and then tried to staple it back on his face."
PJ gagged and shoved Micah's shoulder, which earnt him a reproachful sound. "You are so DISGUSTING! Come on, let's get out of here before you make me puke."
"Gladly." Micah gave Owen a pointed glare and took Parker's upper arm, steering him away from the boy and whispering to him in a scandalised sort of manner as they walked off - most likely about Owen. The redhead watched them as they walked, and his mouth stretched into a broad grin, fingers tightening on the saw down his pant leg. As soon as they rounded a corner he turned to follow at a leisurely pace, watching around the corner until they were a safe distance away and moving to scale the opposite wall silently, completely unheard under their banal chatter. He kept to the shadows and pressed himself against the brick wall, trotting across the buildings' concrete edging with surprising ease. He crouched in a shallow recess near the next corner as the two parted ways with a wave, watching with narrowed eyes. As Parker headed off in one direction, Micah in the other, Owen's eyes flicked back and forth between the two in a silent game of 'eenie meenie miney mo'.
A finger pointed in Parker's direction, and a grin split his face.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The concrete floor rose up to meet Parker with a dull crack as he fell, shoved, onto the floor of the musty room. His eyes swam with bright lights for a moment or two as the blow dazed his senses, but soon he could feel the press of a sneaker digging into his back, shoving him down harder. He squeezed his eyes shut and screamed as hard as he could, but it came out muffled and barely audible from behind the electrical tape gag. Owen smiled in a satisfied manner and brushed his hands off on his jumper as the other boy burst into tears, shrinking away from the undead and sobbing as best he could behind the tape. Terror gripped his stomach so tightly it felt like it was being twisted into balloon animals as Owen brandished his hacksaw, holding it up to the light and examining it.
"Stop whining, seriously." He rolled his eyes a bit as PJ bawled at the sight, a sorry mess of tears and screams and misery. He dumped the thing in front of him with a metallic clatter, Parker's bound feet jerking back instantly. The original blows to the head Owen had given him had made it hard to discern exactly where they were, but he knew it was somewhere off a main street (he would consider that a little reckless of the guy, were his mind in any state to consider such things), it was underground, and he could detect the faint, acrid smell of stale blood. His fingers shifted as he pulled at them, wrestling with the rough rope binding them together, but it wouldn't come loose and he couldn't concentrate with the guy circling him like he was.
Owen knelt down in front of Parker, wrinkling up his nose thoughtfully. His breath REEKED. After a moment or two, he reached out. Parker squeezed his eyes shut and choked out a gasp, pulling away, but Owen's fist bunched in his shirt and pulled him closer. He yanked the hat from the boy's head and examined it silently for a second or two, before snorting and tossing it aside.
"Crap, crap, crap. Got anything good?" He pulled Parker's backpack over to him, unzipping it and sifting through, largely ignoring the quiet sobbing from the boy as he tossed books aside disinterestedly and eventually just overturned the bag, shaking it to empty everything out onto the floor and doing the same with PJ's pack. He didn't protest too much - he knew that what was on the line here was a lot more important than anything he had brought home with him from school. He shrank back against the wall and tried to make himself as small as possible, watching and choking back more quiet tears as Owen kicked boredly at pencilcases, smashed Parker's phone underfoot, pocketed his MP3 player and flicked through a Spiderman comic tucked into the front pocket of his bag. Owen noticed without a whole lot of interest that almost everything Parker owned had some sort of comic book superhero motif - though it was mostly related to Spiderman.
"Sensing a pattern here." He muttered boredly as he picked up the Spidey wallet at the bottom of the pile, flicking through it and relieving it of its cash. He didn't really need money, honestly, but it was a force of habit that had him taking anything that struck his fancy before getting to work on his victims; the invasion of privacy seemed to REALLY get to them sometimes. With that in mind he unclipped the photo window and held the wallet up to the light as a bunch of snapshots unfolded, pics of Owen with friends and family, a few with Micah, one or two of movie stars Owen didn't recognise and wouldn't give a damn about anyway. He was about to jeer at a particularly stupid one of Parker when the boy looked to be about eleven or twelve when something made him stiffen, mouth still forming the first vowel of whatever he was going to say as he focused. Parker cried out against the gag as Owen tore a photo right at the bottom from the window and shoved PJ against the wall, fingers tight on his neck and voice reverberating loudly in his ear.
"If you scream," He hissed in a voice that made PJ's skin crawl, dirty fingers picking the edge of his gag in indication, "I'm going to break your neck. Understand?"
Parker forced back a sob and nodded slowly, terrified eyes focused on what he could make out of the hooded figure's face - not a whole lot. Owen squeezed his throat a little in indication, making Parker squeak in fear against the gag, and then tore the tape back enough to reveal the boy's mouth in one rough, fast movement that tore a layer or two of skin from Parker's lips and drew another cry from him.
"Oh god!" PJ sniffed, curling up on himself a bit and pleading desperately. "I don't know w-who you are but please, please don't hurt me! Let me go, please, I won't tell anyone you-"
"Shut up!" Not at all interested, Owen was shoving the photo in the boy's face, up so close PJ had to pull his head back tight against the wall to try and focus. "What is this? How do you know him?!" He pointed at a figure in the photo. It was a boy, tanned, taller and more muscular than Parker with a clown's grin, holding a grumpy-looking Parker in a rough headlock. PJ hiccupped and let out another sob of terror. Owen slapped him across the face roughly and shoved the photo up again, a degree of urgency to his voice. "Tell me!"
"That- that's my brother!" He choked, his toes curling in his shoes and his cheeks stained with tears, eyes flicking from the photo to Owen's face. "My brother Davey, Davey Jones!"
"You two get along, do you?" Owen demanded, fingers tightening roughly on the edge of the photo.
"No, he's dead! He died last year, look, can't you just let me-"
"And you haven't seen him since?"
Owen shook his head. "Forget it." He turned the photo around to take a look at it again. He was silent for a good half minute as he stared, Parker's quiet crying the only sound in the room. Eventually, Owen pocketed the picture and looked at PJ, studying, deep in thought. A gloved hand raised and pushed the hood back off his head. His face was split into a cruel grin, eyes sparking with the possibilities. Parker pressed back against the wall tightly in terror and let out a shriek, which was cut short when Owen's hand slapped to his mouth. The undead looked up at the entry to the room, eyes narrowed. Satisfied nobody heard, he looked back at PJ and raised the hacksaw with a warning expression that said everything. Fresh tears spilled down Parker's face, but after a moment or two he nodded softly to show he understood. Owen let go, satisfied the boy wouldn't act up again, and sat back on his haunches.
"Son of a bitch." He gripped Parker's forearm in one hand, yanking it over closer and hooking two fingers under the knots he had made. With a sharp tug he tore them loose, tearing the rope under his fingers and tossing it over his shoulder. Confused, Parker looked from his hands up to Owen, who patted him on the cheek lightly, still with that grin that turned PJ's blood to ice, "I reckon we're going to be seeing a lot more of each other from now on."
Before Parker could respond other than for a terrified widening of the eyes Owen had flattened the gag back over his mouth with his palm, filthy fingers pressing into PJ's face to shove him back against the wall. He righted himself, brushing off his front and pulling his hood back down over his head. Parker couldn't keep his eyes from the boy, terrified any moment he would turn around and follow through with his original murderous threats; and yet though he was sure he hadn't moved his gaze, he told himself afterward he must have imagined the boy call out and whistle until a little white mound of kitten bounded out from the dark corner and jumped into his outstretched hands. Because that's just ridiculous.
As Owen headed back up the steep, inbuilt concrete steps leading back up to the main street, bounding up two at a time, Parker tore the gag from his mouth, wrapped his arms around his knees, and let his shoulders shake with the force of his sobs.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The Lily Rose Bakehouse was tucked into a fairly quiet little corner of the CBD, off a main street and wedged between a print shop and a post office. The building was painted pale yellow with blue windowsills, a white-framed door and a white roof. In all the time it had been there it never appeared dirty or peppered with graffiti like many of the central stores - not to say that it never was, but it was always cleaned and taken care of in no time at all. It looked starkly out of place, like a children's drawing of a house or a dollhouse of some sort, and it drew good business because of it.
Noah eyed the cupcake-looking building from the sidewalk with immense dislike. If it wasn't for his wife's nagging love of their strawberry bunlets he'd avoid any contact with the place whatsoever, but today it was completely unavoidable. He straightened his tie and marched up the path, feeling ridiculously out of place as he pushed the door open.
A pleasant tingle met his ears as the door opened, and he was instantly greeted with a rush of warm air and the smell of freshly baked bread. The inside was painted in the same manner as the outside, with yellow walls and blue racks of baked goods lining the walls, and a chalkboard up top behind the counter listing the specials. A few businessmen on break sat at one of the benches waiting for their order, and two staff busied themselves behind the counter.
"Can I help you sir?"
Noah started a little and glanced at the girl who spoke to him, a great chubby girl with a broad smile and a stupid little hat with Lily Rose on it in pink cursive, carrying a tray of muffins to one of the racks. He smiled a little, distracted.
"Er- does Marianne Sutton still work here?"
"Oh yes!" She smiled wider, balancing the tray on a raised leg with ease as she used her hands to steady the rack and load onto it. "She's out back right now - she'll be off at four."
Noah dreaded the thought of waiting another two hours for the woman to finish. He took hold of the tray to help this girl and gave her his best look of slightly anxious hopefullness.
"Well I mean I was really wanting to talk with her NOW is all. Could you just tell her it's Noah for her? I think she'll want to see me." He flashed her a brilliant grin and she flushed a little.
"I'll see what I can do, sir." She mumbled, nodding and waddling off to go return the empty tray. Satisfied, Noah sat at one of the spare benches and folded his arms on the bench. At the other table the men had stopped talking and were now watching Noah as subtly as they were able. Noah's face was fairly recognisable by now to some. Really, he was more the face of the Institute than Lazaro himself these days. Noah busied himself flicking through one of the magazines left on the bench, glad for the fact that they weren't approaching him. He wasn't in the mood for any sort of professional discussion today.
"Excuse me, sir!"
He glanced up, and the girl who had served him before was gesturing him over. "This way." He replaced the magazine with a nod and got to his feet, following her through the side door to the counter and into the warm kitchen behind the partition. The pleasant smell of baking was far stronger in here. At a big white table in the center a woman in a summery dress, apron and heels stood with her back to them, kneading bread dough roughly.
"Ms. Sutton?" The girl gestured for Noah to come in from the doorway, and as he did Marianne looked over her shoulder. Her bright smile lit up the room as she turned, wiping her hands off on her apron and reaching out to Noah with one.
"Mr. Fei, what a surprise! Lovely to see you again."
"Hope I'm not interrupting." He responded, shaking her hand once firmly and pulling his fingers back maybe a little too quickly.
"Not at all, not at all!" She waved it off, moving around to the other side of the table and pulling out a chair for Noah. "There's always time for bread, I've always said." She laughed musically and gestured for him to sit down.
"Er...right." Noah took the seat as it was offered and watched her bustle around the kitchen, clearing off the table a bit. Marianne's bubbly, homemaker attitude had always been warm and sweet. She never seemed to drop it - not even with a knife in her hand and a blood-spattered surgical gown. Actually, he had never known her to smile more than when she was taking part in her calling; the reality of which was that it had absolutely nothing to do with baking.
He jerked a bit as she dumped a plateful of cookies in front of him with a flourish and took her seat.
"Oh- er, I don't really eat sweet th-"
"Oh go on," She smiled and pushed the plate closer, and Noah had a sudden vision of the witch from Hansel and Gretel in her face, "Try one."
Noah looked at the plate helplessly, but not wanting to seem rude, he took a cookie off the top of the pile, examined it silently, then broke a bit off the corner and tried it hesitantly. As soon as he'd determined it was safe to himself, he relaxed a touch and took a slightly larger bite. It wasn't that Marianne was evil, exactly. She was just completely unpredictable, and Noah didn't trust the madwoman as far as he could kick her.
"There, see? It's a new recipe I'm trying." She beamed. "Pumpkin and ginger."
"S'good. Thankyou." He responded, swallowing his mouthful and tapping the briefcase in his lap with his fingers, feeling awkward. Marianne didn't seem to experience the same, however, taking a cookie off the pile and breaking off a bit herself.
"So, Mr. Fei," She popped the bit of cookie in her mouth, swallowing without seeming to chew, "How can I help you?"
Not wanting to mess around, he snapped open his briefcase and took out a folder, placing it in front of Marianne on the table.
"We need your expertise."
She eyed it for a moment or so before flicking it open and flipping through with only a cursory glance, stopping at what appeared to be a police sketch. One of her brows raised lightly, and she ran her fingers along the picture, following the curve of the large, angry stitches patterning the sneering face. Noah watched warily as the corners of her mouth twitched, trying to gauge her reaction.
"Another one?" Her eyes flicked up a bit with a private sort of smirk. "In case you hadn't noticed, Noah, that's not exactly my area anymore."
"Come on, Marianne." Noah folded his arms on the table, looking imploringly at her. "We both know you'd much rather be behind a knife than a cookie cutter again."
Her smile faded instantly, and her eyes took on a fairly cold look.
"Yes well. Maybe your boss should have thought of that before having my medical license revoked." Her tone was particularly spiteful at that, and she pressed her hands to the benchtop to help her get to her feet and move back over to the cutting board. "If you'll excuse me, I have orders to fill. If you don't mind-"
"You can keep him."
That earnt him a pause, and Marianne's expression froze. Noah watched her closely, his tone careful as he continued.
"You'll be paid exactly what you were when you were on staff. Same pay, same benefits; but Lazaro doesn't want this one. You can do what you like with him, so long as you bring him down for us. Owen, his name is."
Marianne eyed Noah silently as he spoke, folding her arms slowly, her mind racing a million miles per hour.
"Anything? After that unfortunate incident with Mr. Jones?"
Noah tried not to let his queasiness show at this. Though he wasn't in the business of sympathising with the undead, he didn't feel there was anyone alive who wouldn't feel for what this woman put Davey through. He could only try to imagine having this sparkly, musical woman chattering friendily over you while you were strapped alive to an operating table, her hands feeling out, touching and examining exposed stomach organs. It was enough to make him churn, so he didn't like to think how Davey felt on the matter. It was why she'd been axed in the first place - not because Lazaro felt any sympathy for Davey, of course, but because she'd been expressly forbidden to perform any surgery until they found out what made the thinking undead tick from the outside. Davey Jones was the only one of his kind; he was in no way expendable.
"This is different." He said sternly, tapping his fingers on the table. "Nobody knows how to bring them down except you. On the other hand, if you were willing to sell us the formula for-"
"We've been down this road, Fei." Marianne gave him that sweet smile again, her voice singsongy. "A gentleman never asks, a lady never tells!"
"...Right." Noah lapsed into silence as he let Marianne consider it, tapping her chin, her expression thoughtful.
"...All off the record, I assume. I'm quite certain this is fairly illegal."
Not that she particularly minded, of course.
"Completely off the record. Nobody will ever have to know, if you're discrete enough. And you'll have full access to the Institute's funding and facilities again." That seemed to strike a chord in her, and her eyes lit up. Not for the first time Noah tried to imagine what working for a living in a bakehouse kitchen must feel like for a disgraced ex-surgeon of Marianne Sutton's caliber.
Silence hung over them like a cloud; tense and wary in Noah's case, contemplative in Marianne's. It was a good minute or two later before she extended her arm to Noah, her mind brimming with possibilities and her painted lips turned up in a smirk as he took her hand and shook it, their eyes meeting for a firm moment before she let go.
"Alright, Fei. I'm in."