So, D-Day, Z-Day, the Day the World Went Grey, I was shaking down Murphy. He was a small fish that thought he was a big fish, ’til we got hold of him. Right now he was tied up to a kitchen chair, and I had Leonard Cohen stuck in my head. I don’t even like Leonard Cohen. Too much gravel and death going on. I told Benny that once, on stakeout, after one too many renditions of Suzanne. He looked at me, with big disappointed eyes, and said ‘you don’t really care for music, do you?’ Took me a moment to get it, then I cracked up. Nobody could deadpan like Benny.
And shit, why was I thinking of Benny again? I couldn’t afford to think of Benny. Not when I was about to cut out some guy’s tongue.
Murphy was coughing hard, choking on the gag, and his eyes kept rolling up in his head. His face was streaked with tears, and he’d pissed himself. He was jerking in the chair like he was having convulsions. That wasn’t as unusual as you’d think. Okay, so it was a bit more violent than usual, and if it was up to me, I’d have untied the ropes. But we were scary guys, so we took it for granted. The brothers would have been disappointed if he hadn’t been terrified. They were probably waiting for him to shit himself. It wouldn’t be the first time. Guess that’s why we didn’t notice what was going on at first.
I was circling the chair, playing with the knife, wondering how I was gonna stop Jackie and Sal from killing this stupid son of a bitch - how I was going to stop it from being me who had to do it, again. Not that it was any better if I let them kill him instead; I'd be just as guilty anyway. If I wanted to save his life I was going to have to do something dramatic and ugly. Something disgusting enough that the brothers would buy it as an alternative to murder. I was gonna have to maim the guy. Classic Mafia would be to chop off his hands or his dick, but I couldn’t do that. Just couldn't. Couldn’t cut his eyes out either, not while the poor bastard was still alive. Besides, if I did any of those things he’d most likely bleed out or die of shock, in which case I’d have killed him just the same. The only thing I could think of was pretty damn vile, but if I did it right, the guy would live. I’d seen it done to vics before, back when I was a cop, and I’d read the forensics, the medical reports. So, I knew how to do it in the least damaging way. He probably wouldn’t die, if I did it right.
Yeah. I could sell it to the brothers. I didn’t have to kill this guy.
He was gonna break the chair if he didn’t stop shaking, though. That helped, with the brothers anyway. They took a lot of pleasure in terror. All that shaking and coughing and groaning wouldn’t do me much good when it came to actually doing it, but I’d figure something out. I always did. Seemed the Feds had picked the right guy for this gig after all. Never would have thought I had it in me, but I stood in front of Murphy, all Bookman, tapping the flat of the knife on the palm of my hand. The burn marks had almost healed by now, but it didn’t hurt to show them off sometimes, remind people just how bad-ass I was.
“You know,” I informed him, “you’re a conundrum, Murphy. Didn’t figure you for a stupid man, but here you are. What we can’t figure is why you did it. You must have known we’d find out.”
Murphy’s eyes were bugging now. Sal was managing to loom from all the way across the room, where he was leaning against the wall. He was in his gym clothes - t-shirt and sweatpants; he’d got here fresh from his workout, and his arms were pumped. That was a scary look on him, and he knew it. Most days he hid his bulk under suits I’d have died for in another life. Every now and then Sal put himself on display. Knew it scared the opposition, and besides, he must have guessed he was gonna break a sweat when we got into it with Murphy. Sal’s arms were folded across his chest; his eyes gave nothing away. Murphy had to know the guy could kill him with his bare hands. Jackie was slouching in the other chair, sucking down the last of his cigarette while he watched proceedings through narrow, suspicious eyes.
Time to up your game, Vecchio. Get these guys to trust you, and get Murphy out alive. I gave a lazy, lizard smile.
“You know what I reckon,” I mused aloud. “I reckon death’s too good for this one.”
Jackie scowled. He was good at that - his face was made for scowling. “You’re gonna let another one go free, are you? Reckon you’re getting soft, Cuz.”
“I don’t know,” Sal’s tone was mild, as usual. The voice of reason. The brothers were the world’s best double act. Good thug, bad thug. That left crazy thug, which was coming more naturally to me by the day. I really was turning into Armando.
The ghost stood by my shoulder now. I ignored the dead bastard. He hadn’t said a word to me in weeks; even if the brothers weren’t listening, I wasn’t keen to start a conversation. “Mando hasn’t let us down. Let’s see what he’s got to say.” Sal turned his eyes on me. They were shuttered, even though he smiled. “What you thinking, Mando?”
“I’m thinking -” I curved my lips back in a smile, showed my teeth - “I’m thinking that the punishment should fit the crime. Somebody gossips, we cut out his tongue.”
“Fuck’s sake, Cuz.” Jackie shoved his chair back with a scrape, ground his umpteenth cigarette beneath his heel. It smeared across the concrete floor, leaving a trail like a dirty slug. “Somebody gossips, you shoot him in the stomach. Just kill him already. Leave him in the desert where nobody’ll ever find him, and let him die slow. You want to cut his tongue out, that’s the time to do it. Send it to his boss in a gift box.”
I looked at Murphy again and hid my concern. He would have been thrashing if he wasn’t tied up. It was like that time we took a cattle prod to the last of Onofri’s guys, only it was going on longer. It dawned on me that if I didn’t do something soon, Murphy was gonna choke to death.
“Jackie has a point,” Sal said, and sighed. “I hate to do it, but -”
I frowned at Murphy, forgetting my persona, for a moment. It wasn’t just the thrashing; that cough was getting bad. I couldn’t tell if he was foaming at the mouth - the gag was getting in the way.
“That’s still an option,” I said on autopilot. “Killing someone’s a good message. Still. If he’s walking around moaning and mumbling for the rest of his life, drooling when he tries to talk, slobbering when he tries to eat - that sends a message too.” Sell it, Vecchio, I told myself. You’ve got to sell it to them.
Shit. Murphy really was convulsing now. His eyes were rolling up in his head, and his body curved back in a bow. I was surprised he didn’t break the chair - his spine even. And fuck, the noises he was making. Something cold and slithery ran up and down my spine, raising the hair from the small of my back right the way up my neck. For once it wasn’t the ghost doing it.
“Sal,” I said, raising my voice, “Fun though this is, we might not get the chance to kill him. I reckon we should cut the ropes for a little while, see what the hell is wrong with this fuck.”
“Why would we give a damn?” Jackie shouted - not just to be heard over Murphy, who was getting louder and louder, but because he was flat out furious. “We’re gonna kill him anyway - why the fuck would we give a shit if he chokes to death?”
“It’s worth figuring out if he’s taking drugs,” I pointed out. “Because if he is, they didn’t come through us. If there’s another supplier out there, we need to figure out who it is before they cut into our profits.”
Sal sighed. “Point to Mando,” he conceded, and stepped forward, held out his hand. I passed him the knife and took a step back while the big man hacked through Murphy’s bonds. The chair was jerking and skittering, and Sal backhanded Murphy, cutting his knuckles as he broke the poor fuck’s nose. He shook his hand out and cursed. As the last rope gave way Murphy went slack, as sudden as that. Sal jerked back, and Murphy hit the ground like a sack, the chair following him.
“Jesus,” Sal said. “I think he’s dead.”
A first time for everything. Salvatore Iguana shocked in the face of death.
“I didn’t hit him that hard,” he said, looking at his knuckles. I wasn’t sure whose blood that was - his or Murphy’s - could be both. I felt sick, but swallowed it down. “Shit.” Sal still looked stunned. “Maybe I did.”
Jackie edged closer, stared down at the corpse. Because the guy was definitely dead. About as dead as anyone I’d ever seen, and I’d seen my share of corpses, both as a cop and since I’d gotten here. This one was turning grey, even as I watched. You could see it spreading, like a dirty, colourless flush. Sal crouched down next to the overturned chair, and tipped the head around. “Maybe you’re right, Mando. Maybe it was drugs.”
“Maybe,” I said, still staring at the body. The bowels had evacuated in the moment of death - sometimes that happened. The room stank of fear and shit. Sal took the knife and cut the gag loose.
I can’t remember if I screamed, but I remember Murphy’s corpse lurching toward Sal. I remember him grabbing Sal by the neck, and I remember him - I remember him -
I remember him chewing Sal’s face. I remember the noise Sal made; I remember Jackie lurching toward the struggle, dropping his gun. I remember him dragging Murphy back by the hair, and Murphy turning his head, biting Jackie in the forearm. I remember the wet rip of flesh tearing from bone, the smack of sound as the bullet fisted through the air, Murphy falling, his head splattering against the wall. I remember the gun in my hand, not how it got there, and the corpse, twice dead, lying on the ground.
And I remember the exact fucking moment when Sal began to cough.
Ma was coming down with a cold. She didn’t get them often, but when she did they were bad ones. This one was worse than usual. It got into her chest, and she couldn’t stop coughing. I was worried about her.
“Stop fussing, Francesca,” she said, and slapped my hands away. “You should be getting ready to meet that man of yours. Besides, you’re my bambina, you don’t get to bambino me.” It was an old joke, a familigia thing. I think Ray came up with that one first, when we were kids. “Don’t bambino me, Ma.” he’d said. “My friends are coming over.” Yeah, it was Ray alright. My throat tightened up. I still could hardly believe it - my big brother undercover with the Mafia. He was gonna be walking around with a goat’s eye on his back. He had no idea what he was getting into. Plus, he hated the Family so much that he’d never even watched the Godfather.
“We’ve got enough Mafia thugs in the neighbourhood,” he’d said, a few months before he went under. It was Ma’s Bingo night, so it was our turn to cook. “Who needs the movies when we’ve got Zuko and Warfield at each other’s throats?” The knife moved sharp and hard against the chopping board as he killed the vegetables.
“Slow down, Bro. What did that tomato ever do to you?
He ignored me, grumbled to himself. “Why would I watch that shit for fun?”
“Jeez, Ray. You’re a policeman, you need to know this stuff.” I glared at him, tapping my foot on the floor for emphasis. “Besides. Warfield isn’t Mafia - he’s not even Italian, let alone Sicilian.”
“Like that makes a difference.”
“Of course it makes a difference!” I rolled my eyes. “I can’t believe you made detective.”
He shook his head in that impatient way he’d had since he was a kid and had all his hair. It had been nice hair too. I still think that’s why Angie left him, when he started going bald. Not that I’m saying she’s shallow, but when I was a little girl I would have married Ray for that hair. Most little girls want to grow up and marry their Pa, it’s one of those psychico - uhm - logical things. My Pa? Well, with my Pa I wanted to grow up and kick him in the - you know. But that’s another story. Besides, Ray got there first. When I was a kid he was my hero.
“Mob, Mafia, they’re all the same, Frannie.” He looked off into the distance and shrugged. “Not my idea of entertainment.”
“But they’re not the same!” I insisted, then smirked a little bit. “You’d know that if you’d ever seen Michael Corleone.”
His head snapped back so he was looking straight at me, and I could tell I’d said something wrong. He’d gone from irritated to angry in the space of one second. “Michael Corleone,” he snapped. “You’ve got the hots for Michael Corleone?”
I edged back a little bit, lifted a floury hand to placate him. Not that Ray would ever hit me, but he’d forgotten he was holding a knife, and sometimes when he’s angry he reminds me of Pa. I’d never tell him that, it would kill him.
“Uh, Ray? You do know he’s not real?”
“Of course he’s not real! But do you know that?” I opened my mouth, but he was barging on. “Real guys, real Mafia types, they’re dangerous, Frannie. You just don’t get the hots for them.” His eyes were hard, like he was trying to drill it into my head. “They’re not Al De Niro.”
“Al De Niro? You can’t even get that right! It’s Al Capone and Robert De Niro.”
“Al Capone?” He took a breath, looked puzzled, which was good. If he was puzzled he couldn’t be angry at the same time. He looked back down at the chopping board and started on the mushrooms. “He is real. He never played a Mob boss, he was one.”
“I know that, Bro.” It was my turn to shake my head and look sarcastic. “You’re the one who mixed them up.”
“Maybe it’s Al Pacino,” he muttered. “Isn’t he an actor?”
Oh, damn. He was right. I cleared my throat and tried not to blush. The dough was still too sticky.
“Pass me more flour, will you?”
He passed the flour, looking distracted. If I was lucky he’d not get that I’d messed it up.
“I’m just saying, you should watch the films. It would be like research.”
“It would be like a total waste of my time.”
“Whatever.” I scattered a handful of flour on the worktop. “But that just shows what you know. Now, if you don’t mind, some of us have work to do.”
“Work? That’ll be the day.”
That was just us, the way we were. If he’d stopped arguing I’d have known he was really angry with me. So, we went on at each other while I kneaded the dough for the calzone and he chopped the meat and vegetables for the filling.
Of course, when Ray got sent to Vegas I missed all that arguing. I worried about him. How was he supposed to know know what to do undercover when he’d never even seen the Godfather?
Right now I was worrying about Ma too. She really did look ill - and it had come on so fast. She’d already had a bad day. That little brat Suzie bit her - I couldn’t believe it. I got that she was just three, but still. Your next door neighbour tries to give you a scoop of homemade ice cream, you don’t try to take a chunk out of her. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.
And now Ma was sick. Maybe it was that thing from England that had been on the news. I didn’t really pay attention to it – there was always something. Swine ’flu this, Mad Cow Disease that. But she looked really bad, and it had come on really fast. I should have paid more attention to the symptoms. Wasn’t it some kind of ’flu? Ma was muttering a little bit, mostly in Italian.
“I’ll bambino who I like, Ma,” I said, trying to make her smile. She was shaking her head on the pillow, and I dabbed her face with a cloth. I was pretending not to be scared, because I wanted her to stay calm, but her temperature was rising fast. I’d put a load of towels in the freezer, and I was trying to blot the sweat from her forehead. I’d rolled one up and put it under her neck, but it didn’t seem to be helping - we were going through the towels fast. They shouldn’t be getting warm so quick - not actual warm. Ma opened her eyes. They were glittering and her pupils tiny. Oh Jeez.
“I’d better call the doctor,” I said, chewing my lower lip. I knew she didn’t like getting the doctor out unless it was for the kids, but I couldn’t help it. Her eyes were closed now. When she wasn’t coughing she was struggling to breathe.
“Ma?” I was getting scared. “Ma?”
“Non voglio -” she gasped, her words all broken. “Il medico,” she gasped, “non.” I was surprised she could talk at all. She hacked a cough, sweat pouring down her face. “No doctor,” she gritted out in English, getting her grammar back. “Phone the priest.”
What? Oh, God, no. “Ma,” my voice squeaked with panic. “Don’t be stupid. I’m gonna make the call.”
She grabbed my hand, squeezed hard, her eyes bugging out, big and white, and arched off the bed. Oh God.
She was fitting. Oh God. There was froth and blood foaming out of her mouth. She must have bit her tongue.
She let out one last cough, then went slack. I stared at her. This couldn’t be true - couldn’t be real. For God’s sake. A couple of hours ago she was making gelato.
The muscles of her face slid away from their usual shape, the way Nonna’s had done, on the right hand side when she had her first stroke. Only this was all over Ma’s face, and she wasn’t breathing. One minute she was Ma, then she wasn’t anymore. Her skin was going grey.
I think I screamed. I know I ran out of the room. I do remember trying 911, but the line was dead, not even a busy signal. I threw the damn phone at the wall and next thing I remember I was puking and crying in the downstairs bathroom. I don't know how long I was huddled down there. I was too scared to move.
Maria was coming through the front door.
“God, the traffic today,” she complained. “You’d think it was the end of the world or something. There were all these drunks staggering around and groaning. Musta been one hell of a party.”
I started throwing up again.
“Aw. Jeez, Frannie.” Her voice sounded sympathetic, and that was the worst because she didn’t even know yet. “And you all dolled up for your date.” I could hear her drop her shopping. She pushed her way through the bathroom door and crouched beside me, putting her hand on my shoulder. “I thought the morning sickness had stopped. Are you alright?”
“Ma,” I stuttered, and pointed up the stairs, scrunching my eyes shut. “Ma -”
Maria’s hand went still on my shoulder, like she’d already guessed without me having to say it. “Oh, God.” Her hand went away and then I heard her running up the stairs. I covered my face with my hands, trying not to heave. I’d brought up everything but my stomach.
“Ma?” I heard the bedroom door opening, then silence, then Maria screaming.
It was true then. I couldn’t even lie to myself anymore that maybe I’d got it wrong. Ma was -
Maria’s screams were gurgling now. There was thumping and thrashing going on upstairs. Sounded like Pa was back - I knew what a knock down drag out fight sounded like.
Maria wasn’t screaming anymore.
I turned, looked through the bathroom door, up the stairs. Seemed to take forever. Ma was standing in the stairwell, still grey, her face still slack, her mouth dripping blood. She had red all down her face, red all down her nightdress.
I got to my feet and ran.
Things hadn’t been right since the alarm went off that morning. Most days the noises in the neighbouring apartments would have had me banging on doors yelling ‘police.’ Thing was, I couldn’t figure out which door to bang on first. It was like they were all having domestics at the same time. From the sound of it I’d probably need backup, and besides, I was meant to pick Fraser up today. We had a lead on Casey.
Things got weirder as I drove to the Consulate. People screaming in the street and I couldn't raise anyone on the radio. It was way too early for this, and it wasn’t even a full moon. You expect the crazy then, but not anything like I was seeing. A woman ran out in front of me in her pyjama bottoms, a man’s shirt on top, half buttoned. I shouldn’t have been looking, but you couldn’t miss it - she had no bra on. Her breasts were swinging as she ran, not quite exposed, and she had a child clutched over her shoulder. The car screamed as I slammed the brakes.
“Jesus, Lady!” She spun around – a slipper went flying off her foot – and stared at me like I was an axe murderer. She was scared to death. I leaned across to the passenger side. I didn’t know what she was running from, but she couldn’t be on the street looking like that. I wanted to get her somewhere safe. “Jump in.”
Her eyes were stark with terror. “You’re one of them.”
Her kid was coughing, real bad.
“Look, I’m a cop.” I tugged out the badge and flashed it. “I can get you to the station, get our doc to see your -” the kid was wearing blue - “son. And you can give a statement. Whoever’s scaring you we can protect you -”
“They’re everywhere,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere with you.” She looked over her shoulder. A drunk guy was lurching toward her - must be her old man. She screamed again and started running.
For a minute I thought I should jump out and arrest the guy, but he looked fucking crazy. Everything was fucking crazy. I stared at the scene. This wasn’t right. This was like that conspiracy crap from the National Inquirer that nobody believed even when it made CNN. It couldn’t be that though – a killer plague from Europe? Yeah, right. It had been business as usual ’til this morning. Just another ’flu thing going around and the press making a big thing of it to sell more papers.
But this guy wasn’t the only drunk on the street. They didn’t even look drunk, now that I thought of it. What was this, some kind of new drug? Had something got into the water supply? Jesus. If I got out they’d surround me. What the hell had happened here?
I couldn’t do anything by myself, and I really, really needed to get Fraser.
The Consulate looked almost normal, in comparison. Not much traffic, no Mountie at the front door, but the crowds of crazies had thinned out the further I got out of suburbia, and this part of the city was deserted. I started to calm down. I hadn’t noticed how hard my heart had been hammering till it started to head back to normal.
“Where is everybody?” I asked as I stepped in. Fraser was the first familiar thing I’d seen all day, smart and together as always, bright red in his uniform and solid as a rock.
“I don’t know.” His voice was clipped as he strode to the front door, put his hand on my elbow. “You’re the first person to turn up today. I would have come looking for you, but I was on duty and someone had to man the desk. Up until ten minutes ago the phone wouldn’t stop ringing, people trying to get out of the States. I told them they would have to give me time to process the Visas, but they didn’t seem glad to hear it.” He looked out the window. “Then the phones went dead. What’s happening, Ray?”
My heart sank. “I couldn’t raise Dispatch either. It’s some kind of emergency.”
“What kind of emergency? The people I spoke to on the phone weren’t making much sense.”
“Well, uhm - looks like it’s city wide. People are acting nuts. Might be terrorists, a chemical attack or something.” I frowned, trying to figure it out. “Could be gas, or somebody poisoned the water.”
“It could be a virus,” Fraser mused. “Perhaps there was something in those medical rumours after all.” I didn’t need to ask him what rumours – we both knew what he was talking about. He tugged the collar of his tunic. Other than that he looked perfectly calm. “We need to get to the Two Seven.” He turned his head. “Dief,” he called sharply, and I wondered again why he insisted that wolf was deaf. I looked around for him. Dief was lying beneath the front desk, his tail down, his ears flat against his skull. “Dief?” Fraser dropped to his knees. “We’ve got to go.”
Dief whined. Fraser ducked his head and pinched his nose like he had a headache.
“Alright then. Have it your way. I’ll see you later.”
I stared. What the hell? Dief was frightened. Dief was never frightened. Maybe he knew something we didn’t. Dief whined again, tucked his nose under his front legs.
“It’s alright,” Fraser’s voice went gentler, and he stroked between Dief’s ears. “You hold the fort. Someone needs to man the Consulate after all.” Dief’s tail thumped. “Yes, of course. Wolf the Consulate.” Fraser stood then, snagged his hat from the front desk, twirled it, flicked it on his head and nodded in my direction. “Shall we?”
“Freak.” I grinned. Things couldn’t be that bad if Fraser was showing off.
We drove through back streets to avoid the crazies and crashed cars. On a couple of occasions Fraser made as if to jump from the car and run off to help some screamer or other, but I’d thought of that, and locked the doors.
“Ray,” he glared at me. “Those people need our help.”
“They need cops. Like, lots of cops. Not two cops, only one of them carrying. Nobody’s answering, so we can’t call for help. And we’re going to get them help. Lots and lots of cops.”
He opened his mouth as though to argue, then looked puzzled. “Actually,” he said, “that makes sense.”
“’Course it does. Don’t sound so surprised.” I swung the car around a corner, then flattened out at top speed once we got to the straight. Fraser closed his eyes and gripped his seat. “Just be glad you’re not driving.”
“I’m delighted not to be driving,” he muttered. Sounded like his teeth were clenched. For once I didn’t take advantage of the opening. He was nervous enough in cars as it was, hell if I know why, and it didn’t seem fair to tease him about it right now. Besides, I needed to concentrate on not hitting people or colliding with crashed cars. Thank God I knew this city. And thank God Fraser didn’t open his eyes. He must have known I was making illegal turns left right and centre, riding the sidewalks, going down alleys - but if he didn’t see it he wouldn’t have to say anything about it.
“We’re here.” I slowed down, let the GTO idle as I waited for the security gate to go up. It didn’t. “Why am I not surprised?” Disgusted, I turned the car off and slammed out of it. Fraser followed, with less drama, though he was still pale from the drive. “Nobody on the security booth,” I confirmed. “Just perfect.”
“Well,” Fraser gave a bright smile, one of those that he pulled out just before he asked you to jump off a building or into the lake. “Let’s go in.”
The first thing I saw was a whole lot of nobody. Where was everyone? This was worse than the Consulate - at least Fraser and Dief had been there.
“Ray,” Fraser’s voice was low, like he was talking in church, “are your colleagues, by any chance, suffering a relapse of the ‘Blue ’Flu?’”
“Uh - not that I’ve heard.”
For once I didn’t ask him what ‘hmm’ meant. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. We carried on moving through the deserted corridors. Not a soul.
There were noises though. I could hear them down in the belly of the building. That must be the cells and interrogation rooms. Which meant somebody was here at least. I wasn’t sure if that made me feel better or worse.
Fraser stopped dead and I ran into his back. His hand was pressed up against the door to the Bullpen, right in the middle of a movement, like he’d been about to push it open and been turned to stone.
“Fraser - what the hell is going on?”
I squeezed next to him, tried to look through the window in the door. Fraser was a big block of wood. I couldn’t get past him. His mouth was hanging open, like a hinge had broken. He edged in front of me again and pushed me back a way. I shoved forward - if someone was going to shield the other it was going to be me, and besides, I needed to see what was going on. I craned my neck.
That - that couldn’t be right. I didn’t have my glasses on, but what I did manage to glimpse looked like a disco, at the end of the night when you were the only one sober. The guys were jerking around, staggering back and forth. It looked worse in here than it had outside, maybe because they were all packed in together. For the first time I had a horrible thought. People weren't drunk or high - they were -
No. That was crazy. I must be seeing things.
Fraser pushed me harder, and started edging us away from the bullpen.
“Fraser!” I grabbed my glasses and put them on. I had to know if I was really seeing what I thought I saw.
“Shut up, Ray.”
Shut up? Shut up? Benton Fraser, supercop, who never lost his temper (if you don’t count that Henry Allen thing) Benton Fraser had just told me to shut up. He was backing us out through the swing-doors at the end of the corridor, easing them carefully shut. I looked through the window and -
Oh. Oh fuck.
That really was what I was seeing.
They’d got out of the bullpen. The corridor was full of - okay, it was crazy. I’d gone and lost it, totally gone off the deep end. I was away with the fairies, deep in rubber duck country, floating with the fishes. But Fraser had seen it too - or he’d seen something. Something that had his jugular jumping, his neck white and sweating and - oh fuck, the hairs on the back of it standing up. I pay way too much attention to the curve of his throat and the nape of his neck, but I’d never seen his pulse run away like that, never seen the little hairs stand up.
I looked over his shoulder, back at the corridor again. It was like something on TV. Not just horror shows either. What if the nutjobs in the National Inquirer were right for once? What was that group called - necrophobe? Shit. Maybe they’d been on to something. The end of the world had to be nigh one day. Seemed today was that day.
But no. That was tinfoil hat stuff. I wasn’t seeing what I was seeing. I was just going a little bit nuts.
“They’ve got the ’flu, haven’t they?”
“Yes, Ray. They’ve got the grey ’flu.”
That’s when I knew what I was seeing was real. Fraser’s voice was as dead and grey as the shambling corpses we’d just seen.
“Oh, fuck. They’re zombies.”
“Be very quiet, Ray.” Fraser was still walking us backward down the corridor. “If they don’t hear us then maybe we can -”
The door burst open, and Lieutenant Welsh staggered out, moaning. Fraser screamed - shit, he screamed - and heaved the nearest thing he could find straight at the Lieutenant. The chair hit the big guy in the gut, slowing him down a little, but not enough. Behind the Lieutenant other zombies were pushing to get out. That was Jack, had been Jack, that was Dewey and that was the janitor, Mr Mop, whose name I never bothered to learn. There were others pushing up behind them.
Thank God I’d put my glasses on. I shot Welsh first, bang, right between the eyes. I know zombie stories. Didn’t know if they were true, but a headshot should work, and besides, if there was anything of my ex-colleagues in there I had to get them out of their misery as soon as possible. I owed them that much.
Welsh went down, Jack tripped over his body. I managed to get him in the head too - not as clean a shot, but it took off the side of his face and I could see his brains spilling out. Dewey looked confused and jerked toward Fraser and me, then back toward Jack. For a moment I thought the real Dewey was trying to fight it and I had a brief flare of hope. But Dewey fell to his knees and started - oh God - started eating Jack’s brains. I narrowed my focus to anything but that, shot Dewey next. Mr Mop scrambled over the three bodies - for some reason he was faster - and I took off the top of his skull. I’d never eat a boiled egg again. He fell backward. The doorway was getting crowded, slowing down the surge of other zombies. I fired until I was out of bullets. Fraser yanked on my arm then, dragged me back, let go.
“Frase?” He wasn’t moving. I grabbed onto his shoulder, shaking it. “Frase? For God’s sake, run.”
He spun on his heel, grabbed the nearest locker and heaved. I caught on quickly, and we piled the lockers into a makeshift barrier. In the corridor behind the swinging doors we could still hear the other zombies. They were moaning, fighting to get through, but between the heap of corpses and the lockers we’d slowed them down. They didn't seem bright enough to pull the doors, which bought us some time. Fraser darted his eyes up and down the corridor.
“What the hell are you looking for? The hat? Leave the damn hat!”
“Weapons,” he snapped.
“Armoury,” I said, and his eyes flashed up to mine. “If we can get there.”
He grabbed me then, and we ran, hand in hand like a couple of kids. Hansel and Gretel running from the witch, or one of those stories my Dziadek used to tell. Baba Jaga right behind us and God knows what in front.
Fraser’s hand squeezed so tight around mine that my bones hurt. I knew right then that he would never let me go.
If I had still been living at West Racine, I would not have lasted ten minutes. The moment I heard the neighbours coughing, I would have gone to see if I could assist them in any way. Living at the Consulate afforded me some measure of protection from the initial outbreak. I would never have thought that I’d be grateful, one day, for having been made homeless and being forced to sleep in my office.
I do confess that if Ray had not survived the first onslaught, I would have succumbed soon after. It sounds maudlin, pathetic even, in the more modern iteration of that word, but I would have seen no reason to continue. He did survive, though, and through him, so did I.
That first morning the city was - well, not exactly silent, but different. Erie. I could not hear as much traffic as usual; that which I did hear was punctuated by more blaring of horns than I was used to hearing, even in Chicago. The Consulate was set in a non-residential area, which lead to a certain isolation; nightly, as the business of the day tapered off, the workers returned to their homes and silence descended on the streets around me.
Sometimes that was a comfort, to know myself alone. Well, as alone as my father’s ghost would let me be. I was used to being solitary, after all. There is a profound difference between being alone and being lonely.
One night, after Ray had dropped Dief and myself back at the Consulate, I named the ache in my chest. We had gone for dinner after work, Ray and I bickering cheerfully as to whether it was a pizza night, or if Chinese would be better. Dief was open-minded. His lupine nature was becoming more and more canine the longer we remained in Chicago. He sat on his haunches as we stood in the street debating the virtues of our respective food preferences. His big head turned from side to side as he watched us eagerly; his tongue lolled out, and his tail thumped heavily on the sidewalk. I can’t remember now which position I took in the pizza - Chinese debate, but in the end, Ray threw his arms up and said, “Dief gets the tie-breaker.”
“Dief will just go wherever is nearest.”
“Well, good. Because time, my friend, is a-wasting, and my stomach is eating itself. Come on. Where you want to eat, Dief buddy?”
As I guessed, we ended up at the nearest eatery that would let Dief in. This took a certain amount of dishonesty. “Don’t tell everyone he’s a wolf, Frase, Jeeze. Haven’t you learned anything in Chicago?” So we ended up in a sports bar, watching the hockey and eating burgers. I was not a great fan of bars, but the game was welcome, and the burger was decent. Ray had leant back in his chair, his face glowing in the light of the television. He looked up at the players on screen, laughing, gesticulating with his burger, not noticing that he was dripping ketchup on his shirt. Dief was looking at him adoringly, snapping the french-fries that Ray dropped him at random intervals
“Cupboard love,” I muttered. I was slipping Dief bits of my meat patty - that had to be better for a wolf than all that carbohydrate. Ray would have had a beer, I think, but in deference to my anxiety about him driving after even one bottle of the substandard American beer on sale here, he was drinking mineral water served with a wedge of lemon. He had stared at the lemon disgustedly and dropped it on my plate.
“Lemon. What do they think I want with lemon?”
I had plucked it off my plate and casually eaten it, including the peel. His jaw dropped, and he stared at me.
“You did not just do that.”
“Do what, Ray?”
“You did! You just ate a raw lemon. Why aren’t you, like, bleeding from the eyes?”
“Ah.” I gave as sage a nod as I could manage without smirking. “Well, in the Far North we take our vitamin C where we find it.”
He stared at me a moment longer, then shook his head, like Dief coming out of water.
“Wow,” he said, and took another bite of his burger, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Talking through his food, he said, “you are a freak, Fraser, you know that?”
“It has been said,” I admitted, and smiled. Even talking with his mouth full, he endeared himself to me. As I told him once, I find him attractive. Ray shook his head at me, his eyes warm and amused, then looked back at the screen.
“Oh, dammit! There’s blood on the ice! We missed it. Damn.”
“I’m sure we’ll see it again on replay.”
“That’s not the same,” he sighed, then laughed. “I ever tell you the first time Dad took me to a game, I started crying when we didn’t get the instant replay?”
I may have gaped a little. This had to be his form of revenge for the lemon. “You are teasing me.”
“Nah,” he shook his head, grinning. “Mind you; I was only four.”
“Oh.” I tilted my head and looked at him. He seemed to be telling the truth. “Well. That explains it then.”
When the game was over, he drove Dief and myself back to the Consulate, dropped us off on the steps outside. As always, when he dropped me off, there was a sense of something missing. Dief felt it too. His tail, which had been a proud, happy plume for most of the evening, drooped, and he hung his head dejected. Ray scratched him on the forehead, his own head hanging a little. “See you tomorrow, Diefster,” he said, then flashed me a smile. “Pick you up at noon?”
“Yes.” I cleared my throat. “If I finish my paperwork early I may have time to work with you on the Casey file.” I had called it the Casey case once, and he had laughed so hard that I thought he would choke. “Has there been any progress on that?”
“Not much. I could do with your help.”
I nodded, still feeling at a loss as to how to say goodbye. If he had been a woman, of course, I could have kissed him. The very thought was preposterous. Ray was still in love with his wife.
His ex-wife. Sometimes even I forgot, so intense was his devotion to her.
I stood on the steps that night and watched him drive off. Dief moved up beside me, leant his head up against my leg. I buried my fingers in his fur, scratched behind his ear. This, at least, was not cupboard love. My throat closed up, and I blinked sharply, my eyes blurring. That was the night I admitted it to myself. I hated living at the Consulate. It was lonely. I was lonely. Not alone. Lonely.
More than that. I loved Ray Kowalski.
I would have carried that secret to the end, of course, if the world hadn’t ended first. By then it was nearly too late.
One of the perks of being a Mafia boss is that you don’t have to worry about gun permits. After I’d killed Sal and Jackie, I got myself out of the ‘interrogation room’ real fast, grabbed as many weapons as I could carry and all the ammo I could find. That was a lot of firepower. I got out of the building, slammed the doors, locked them, and leaned back against the wall, sucking in breath, looking up at the dazzle of the sky like it could bleach my eyes clean of what I’d seen. My face was wet and I shut my eyes against the scalding sky.
“I just lost my fucking mind.” My voice shocked me and I covered my face with my hands, the barrel of Jackie’s gun knocking up against my face. I jerked and threw it away, took stock of myself. I was a mess, my expensive suit spattered with blood, and myself done up like an action hero with way too many guns.
What the fuck was I thinking? What the fuck were the Feds thinking? They had really screwed up this time, putting me under. Jesus God. I was supposed to dig out the dirt on these guys, hang the bastards out to dry. Not have a psychotic break and fucking kill them. All I had done was create a power vacuum, and some other family would take over. I’d never get in with the other families, never be in a position to infiltrate them, ruin them from the inside. I’d just screwed up the whole fucking op.
‘It’s a bit late for prayers.’
I jerked again. Armando was standing in front of me, his own crisp suit spotless, his face blank.
“I thought you’d stopped talking to me,” I said, like the crazy person I was. Nothing there but air. When Armando went quiet I’d kind of missed him, kind of been grateful, thought maybe I was getting less crazy, maybe I’d get through this gig.
Well, that was a crock.
‘You need to move.’
“Why?” I narrowed my eyes, trying to think. “Why would you help me? I just killed Sal and Jackie.”
‘They were already dead.’
“God,” I groaned, and banged the back of my head against the wall. I was so fucked up. “Make it stop.” Maybe the Feds would lock me up in a nice quiet padded cell. I had to talk to Cash. He was my handler - let him handle this.
‘I said move.’ Armando shoved his fist right into my chest, squeezed. I don’t even know what sound I made as he walked backward, dragging me along. I could feel my heart, contracted in his fist, beating fast and thready, hear my lungs tighten up and wheeze. What, was he trying to save me or kill me?
He let go, and I fell to my knees in front of the car.
I scrambled to my feet, threw myself inside - anything to stop him from hurting me again - dragged myself across by the steering wheel, sat awkwardly. That would be the damn rifle I had strapped across my back. I twisted, untied the thing, threw it in the back seat. Armando was sitting beside me in the passenger side, glaring.
The key, the goddamn key. I scrabbled in my pockets. Oh God, don’t let me have lost it. Don’t let it be back in there with the brothers...
There. Jumbled in amongst the bullets. I pulled it out, hands shaking, shoved it in the ignition. The car stalled, I cursed, banging my head on the steering wheel, and tried again. This time the engine growled into life, and I put my foot flat, carving a track against the rubble. Sand and gravel sprayed up like shrapnel; a rock struck the side window, and it cracked like a gunshot. I flinched to the side, kept on driving as the glass fell in.
‘Not that way.’
“What way? I’ve got to turn myself in.”
Armando twisted in his seat, anger radiating out of him like a cold wind.
‘Don’t you dare.’
“Why not? What are you going to do? Kill me? Well, do it then!” I slapped the horn. Way off in the distance a vulture rose in the air. “I never asked for this shit,” I yelled, “so just do it.” I slammed my foot on the brake. Where did I think I was running to anyway? It was death by Mafia wherever I ran. The Feds weren’t going to protect me after I’d fucked up this spectacularly. “Go on then, kill me!”
“No? What do you mean ‘no’? You’ve wanted me dead ever since this whole thing began.”
Armando looked at me. He blinked. Why did he blink? He never blinked. ‘No,’ he repeated, and shook his head.
“You said it,” I insisted. “Remember? ‘Betray them and I will make your life a hell.’” My eyes widened. “That’s what you’re doing, isn’t it? You’ve driven me mad.”
Armando leaned close, stared at me with his dead, green eyes.
‘You are but mad north by northwest.’
The fuck? What the fuck did that mean?
‘Your Mountie friend.’ The ghost’s lip curled in disdain. ‘Benny.’ He turned in his seat and raised his arm, pointed. ‘Go North.’
Chicago wasn’t straight North, but it felt like it. Maybe it was because I wanted nothing more than to get back to Chicago, to get back to my family, to get back to Benny but -
Something caved inside me. Resistance, fear, disbelief, hope even; I just caved in like a rain-damp rotten ceiling. Yeah, I knew I was crazy, I knew I’d never get there. The Feds or the Mob would find me first. The zombies even, assuming I wasn’t hallucinating them. But Armando was right. I had to try.
I turned the car around.
Maria had left the keys in the station wagon. It drove Ray mad, he kept saying anyone could steal it. “I only left it five minutes to get the shopping in. You’re paranoid, little bro,” she’d say, or something like it. Ray hated that, hated that Maria had two years on him and rubbed it in his face any chance she got. Well, it served him right. He rubbed his extra six years in my face all the time.
Maria. Ray. I’m never going to see them again.
I could hear myself hiccuping. It was setting the baby off. I could feel him - her - moving.
This isn’t happening, this isn’t happening.
The baby kicked inside me. This is happening.
I got into the station wagon, kicked off my high heels - couldn’t drive in them - shouldn’t even have been walking in them, but I’d wanted to look pretty for Rennie. He hadn’t seen me in ages - my fault - and I had big news for him after all. I’d been nervous, but I’d been looking forward to seeing him - I’d been –
I started crying again but ignored it. The gear ground as I started the engine up and looked over my shoulder. Ma was lurching down the front steps. I slammed my foot on the accelerator, and the car jolted backward with a wet thump. Maria had left it in reverse.
Oh God, I’d hit Ma. I started to scramble my way out of the car. For a minute I forgot that thing wasn’t Ma. But she - it - stood up and then I knew it wasn’t Ma at all. I threw myself back into the station wagon, slammed the door, and this time when I put my foot to the floor the car surged forward like it was supposed to, the tyres squealing against the asphalt. One thing about the Vecchio children - we can drive like maniacs. Ma drove like a little old lady.
I glanced in the rear view mirror, and the dead thing was following me. It was leaving a red track behind it like a slug. Bits and bones were hanging out. I slapped the mirror, knocked it crooked so I didn’t have to see, and looked straight ahead. That was not the last picture I wanted of my mother.
So, I made like a Vecchio and drove like a lunatic while the baby kicked. I’d better not crash, two lives depended on it, and I’d not had time to put on the seatbelt. Besides, I was getting big. I didn’t like the way seatbelts cut into my belly. I’d been going to ask the midwife if it was safe to wear the things.
I was meant to have a prenatal checkup today, after I’d seen Rennie. Somehow I didn’t think it was going to happen.
God. For the first time everything felt really real. I’d known I was pregnant, I’d been counting the weeks and days. I’d been smiling at the ultrascans and saying I didn’t want to know what sex it was ’til the baby was born. Maria had laughed at me. “You can’t wait till the morning to find out what’s for breakfast, how can you wait for that?” I couldn’t explain it. All my life I’d wanted to be a Mom, and this might be the only time I ever did it. I wanted everything to be special, everything to be right. All that excitement was like nothing now, like a shadow of the real thing. I was going to be a Mom. It was suddenly the fiercest thing I knew. More than Ma dying, and whatever she’d done to Maria. It wasn’t cute anymore. It wasn’t exciting. It was terrifying. I was pregnant. Anyone tried to hurt me, they were hurting my baby. I’d kill anyone who came at us and not even blink.
But first, I had to get away, find somewhere safe. Somewhere I could have my baby and nobody would eat us.
Maria was right. Traffic was crazy and getting crazier. Those grey things were shambling and stumbling through the streets, on the road. Some of them looked worse than Ma. Some of them weren’t even shambling - they had broken backs or crushed legs. People must have driven over them, and they were crawling. I gritted my teeth and ploughed right through them. I’d crashed into my own mother, this was nothing. There was grey and red gunk on the windscreen, and thump after thump after wet thump, and I wasn’t going to think about what that oatmeal stuff was. So long as the window didn’t crack, I didn’t care. For a minute I thought of putting the wipers on, stopped myself just in time. All that would do would be to smear the stuff all over the glass. It was hard enough to see as it was. When it started to rain I was grateful. It was a deluge of biblical whatevers, and it sloughed the windscreen clean. I was even more grateful when I got on the freeway. Crazy drivers were still everywhere, some cars crashed up, but there weren’t as many grey people. I could weave around them, and I didn’t give a damn about anybody else. All I needed was to get out. I just needed to get me and the baby out of there.
Yeah. It’s not very feminine, feminist, whatever – but this was a whole new world. I didn’t know how long this was going to last, but I was going to need someone to look after me and the baby. For God’s sake, I was pregnant – running and fighting off dead guys wasn’t gonna be easy. It wouldn’t have been easy even if I didn’t feel like a whale, and I was only gonna keep getting bigger. I needed someone strong, someone reliable. Someone who wouldn’t die on us, someone who wouldn’t turn grey and eat us.
And God, I missed Rennie. Not that he’d be any good at protecting us from zombies. He was just too – gentle. That was something I liked about him, a man who loved me and wouldn’t hurt me. Someone kind. Now that it came down to it, I couldn’t think why I hadn’t told him yet – what the hell had I been thinking?
Okay, I know what I was thinking. I didn’t want to get married again, that’s what, to be stuck with a guy who was going to hurt me and let me down – which, how stupid was that? Rennie was nothing like Vinnie, he’d never hurt me. But even though he was big and sweet and goofy, even though he was great when it came to playing with kids, letting them climb all over him, that didn’t mean he’d be a great dad. That’s what I’d been worrying about. I’d been thinking too much, thought myself into a corner – because yeah, maybe kids do need someone they can look up to, not walk all over. And maybe Maria’s kids did have him wrapped around their little finger. But they loved him too, you could see that a mile off. And wouldn’t that make Rennie a great dad? Kids need someone to love.
Oh God. I hoped the school was on lockdown and the kids were all safe inside....
My brain skidded away from that thought. They were safe, of course they were safe. Big old school like that – they’d lock the doors down and wait for the cavalry to arrive. And, I hate myself for it, but I knew the roads to the school would be impassable. All those terrified parents going looking for their kids – if I went looking for Maria’s kids me and the baby would end up being eaten alive. Literally. And I couldn’t go to Rennie’s either, because his apartment block was probably full of them by now. Besides, he was doing his own school thing. I didn’t even know which school he was doing the talk at.
I had to be selfish, for me, for the baby. For Maria’s kids, in the end. If they survived this they’d need someone else in the family to look out for them. I’d be no good to them dead. So I had to be selfish. Had to find Rennie. He wouldn’t be anywhere near the restaurant yet. Yeah, I was all dressed up for the meal early, but that was just me trying on clothes and things.
I felt sick again, but there was nothing to bring up. The road was slick and the car slid. I slowed down a bit, and a pink grey splodge slid down the windscreen. It was raining hard now, and the dead things were thinning out. I was out of the suburbs. Where should I go? Who could I trust if I couldn’t find Rennie?
Fraser. I laughed, and put my hand on my belly. Fraser, of course. He wasn’t the Dad, but he’d see it as his duty to look after us. He liked babies, and he maybe even liked me. Besides, he was the Canadian superman. He was indivisible or something. No way he couldn’t fight those things off, no way he’d turn into one of them. And if he did, if he turned into one of them, then I didn’t want to live in this world.
I got past the last of the traffic, slowed down to a safe crawl and started making my way to the Canadian Consulate.
The armoury was past the cells, through the changing rooms and a left turn past the showers. We’d got as far as the cells without running into any zombies, but the minute we opened the door we could hear them. Moaning, some of them laughing, banging their bodies up hard against the bars. If they hadn’t been dead they’d be hurting themselves. Hell, I don’t know. Maybe they were hurting themselves. Who knows what zombies feel? I don’t, none of us do. It’s not like we can ask them. Sure doesn’t look like there’s anybody in there – but maybe there is. Maybe it’s like they’re having a bad dream, those ones where you can’t wake up and –
Shit, I don’t want to think about it. I didn’t think about it then. We just kept running, not looking at the prisoners. It was enough to hear them. I could tell from the sound that they’d gone grey.
“Hey!” There was a voice from the last cell on the left, and banging, rattling noises. Not like the zombies’ thumping and moaning - more rhythm to it. Intentionic - shit. I’m as bad as Frannie sometimes, I hate when I lose a word. Intentional. That’s what it was. Someone was shaking the bars and meant it. Someone was yelling in actual English and making sense. Like whoever it was had their own brain still, wasn’t looking to eat mine. “What’s going on!” The voice was panicked. “People, hey!”
I’d been keeping my eyes front so as not to see anything, and was struggling to open the next door, but that voice was desperate and I looked over my shoulder. The last cell in the corridor had only one person in it - a Trannie hooker. Her blonde wig had slipped off revealing a tight afro, and her makeup had run. Before I’d met Fraser I’d have called her a ‘he.’ Fraser had been quite snippy about that, and gave me a lecture. I kinda snarled at him at the time, but when I’d calmed down I thought about what he’d said; yeah, he was right. He didn’t say it in as many words, but I’d been a prick. Me and every other cop I knew – except Fraser of course.
“What’s going on?” She shook the bars again when she saw we were looking. “For God’s sake, don’t leave me in here.”
Fraser spun on his heel, tugging me around with him. “I’m sorry, Ma’am,” he said. “I have to ask you first, has anyone bitten you?”
“Bitten me?” She laughed, sounding hysterical, which made sense given how her day was going. “Honey, I don’t do that kind of thing. Nobody’s tried to bite me since...” she counted the days. “Week before last, and he was singing soprano when I’d finished with him.”
“Fraser,” I said, “she’s been bit. We can’t let her out.”
Fraser had let go of my hand, and was fumbling in his tunic.
“Fraser!” I raised my voice. “Did you hear me? We let her out she’ll try to eat us.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? People are eating each other?” She pushed right up against the bars, craned her head around as though she had a chance in hell of seeing what was happening in the next cells. “What’s going on out there?”
“Don’t worry, Ma’am, we’ll let you out. You have to come with us though –”
“Like fuck you’ll let her out, Frase!” I glared at him, then at the prisoner. “I’m sorry, I’m real sorry, but we can’t –”
Fraser was ignoring me. “My name is Constable Benton Fraser,” he was saying. “I first came to Chicago on the – good God. I’m sorry. I’m babbling.” He dropped something, and knelt to retrieve it. It glinted on the ground. What the hell? He had lock picking equipment?
Of course he did.
“Fraser! Jesus Christ, you’re gonna get us both killed.”
“My colleague Ray is justifiably anxious about the risk of infection, but given the rapidity with which the contagion has spread it seems to me that the dormancy period is relatively brief. If the gentleman who attempted to bite you had been infected then I’m sure you wouldn’t be here now.”
“You’re an expert on zombies now?” I snapped.
“Zombies?” The prisoner stepped back from the bars, putting her hands up like someone had a gun to her.
“Well, yes. I’m sorry, Ma’am, but the word ‘zombie’ does seem to be the most suitable shorthand at the moment –”
“It’s not shorthand, Fraser! This is not a fucking metanome -”
“It’s not that either! For God’s sake, Fraser! They’ve taken over the station, and you’re having a chit chat with a hooker like the world didn’t just officially HIT THE BLOODY FAN!” My throat was hurting I was shouting so loud, and I shoved him hard enough that he rocked. “Give it up, we have to get out of here.”
“As I was saying, zombie is as good a word as any,” Fraser continued, his voice steady, “given how little we know about the source of –”
“Gah!” I shoved him again, but he just knelt down in front of the lock and – I don’t know. Planted himself. The guy was a fucking tree, he’d put down roots. I had to think of a different way to get him moving. “Pitter patter, Fraser.” I jerked my head in the direction of our escape exit. I was not gonna hit him. I was not gonna hit him. I made a real effort to sound reasonable, but it came out pleading instead. “God’s sake, buddy, we gotta go.”
“Not without – I’m sorry, Ma’am. What’s your name?”
“Not ‘Ma’am,’ that’s for sure.” She pushed her face back up against the bars and tried to look down the corridor. “Jesus.”
“Your name is Jesus?” Fraser’s voice squeaked. I nearly laughed. “Or, should I pronounce that as in Spanish? I only ask because I thought -”
“You always talk so much when you’re being chased by zombies?” She glared at him. “Save the day already. I’m a princess in peril.”
“What’s your name, lady?” I put as much attitude in my voice as possible. If we were going to be stuck with her - and knowing Fraser he’d get his way - then we needed to call her something instead of ‘Ma’am’ or ‘hey, you.’
“Lola,” she snapped, “you wanna make something of it?”
Fraser was scrabbling with the lock now, his eyes fierce as he twisted the picks into the mechanism. “What would I make of it?” he asked, like he really didn’t know.
Lola didn’t look like she was buying it. “Because you’re a cop and I’m a -”
“I assure you, Lola, although the law requires us to arrest you, I have no prejudice against sex workers.”
Wow. Fraser really meant what he’d said to me, back when he gave me the lecture. He really did see this woman as - well - a woman. A weird bubble of pride rose in my chest. I could have kissed him, but we had a) a witness, b) a building full of zombies, and c) no fucking time.
The lock clicked, and Fraser stepped up and back, swinging the door open. Lola lurched out and threw her arms around him.
Next thing I knew, Lola was lying on the ground and Fraser was holding me back.
“Ray! Ray! Ray!”
“What!” I turned in his grip and seized his shoulders. “Oh God, Fraser, she bit you.”
“No,” he said, looking real calm given the crowd of undead in the cells, moaning and rattling and screaming, and the fact that I was clutching him so hard he was gonna have bruises. “She didn’t bite me, Ray. Lola was merely hugging me, in gratitude, I assume, for my having let her out.”
“Yeah, like the man said.” I looked down at Lola, and winced. She was wiping her face and giving me the evils.
“Oh, fuck. Lola, I’m sorry.”
“You better be. If it was up to you I’d still be in there.” She grabbed one of the prison bars and pulled herself up. Her cheek was glossy and swollen already, and if looks could kill we should set her on the zombies. Assuming they could die twice, which I really hoped they could. If they were like the ghosts in Pacman and just kept coming back again and again, well then, we were fucked.
“Are you alright, Ray?” Fraser’s voice was low, like I was the only person in the room.
I looked back at him. His face was still, expressionless almost, but his eyes were shining with concern. Was I alright? What did he think?
Fraser was alive and unbitten. Of course I was alright.
I kissed him.
His lips were dry and chapped, and the kiss was fast and fierce. It was the sweetest thing I’d ever tasted, and all too brief. He pulled back and looked at me with a storm of confusion on his face. I half expected him to hit me.
“Come on,” I managed, and took his hand again, put one palm between Lola’s shoulder blades and propelled her along. My lips were tingling, and I licked them automatically, as though I could sweep the taste of Ray into myself, where I would never lose it. I wished we had time, that I could have kissed him back. I wished I knew why he’d done it. It was love, I knew that much. It was gratitude that I was alive. But whether he felt the way about me that I did about him was another matter.
Oh, but I was rambling. Fleeing for one’s life was no time for contemplation. Focus, Benton. Focus. My father had not made an appearance yet, but I could hear his voice as clearly as if he were there, reminding me of my duty, holding me to task. And right now it felt as though I had a duty, a very important task to carry out. Protect Ray and Lola, of course, but more than that. There was something else, someone else, tugging on my attention....
Oh, Lord, I jolted to a stop. Of course.
“I need to leave a message.”
“Yeah?” Ray was clearly frustrated. I could feel it through the tension and tremor of his hand. Gently I squeezed it and let go.
Most rooms at the Two Seven had notice boards. This one was a white board, and fortunately there were both a rag to wipe off previous writings, and a marker pen.
I scrubbed the board clean, then wrote in Italian: ‘Cold out here. Warm me up.’ I fretted for a moment that I must have made a syntactical error, then accepted that this was not the time to worry about grammatical perfection. Ray would understand. Beneath it I wrote the Vecchios’ postcode, longhand, also in Italian. I wanted to reduce the chances of anyone other than Ray understanding the message. People might be desperate enough to risk going there looking for supplies, and while I wished nobody any ill, I most certainly did not want to bring trouble upon us or the Vecchios. When people are hungry enough they will do almost anything to survive, and there was surely going to be looting before this day was over.
“What is that?” Lola asked, staring at the white board.
“Message for a friend,” Ray said gruffly. Of course, he might not understand what I had written, but he clearly recognised Italian when he saw it and guessed what I was doing. “Frase, you reckon it’s spread as far as Vegas?”
“Possibly. Even if it isn’t, he’ll know about it.”
“You reckon he’s still alive out there?”
“If he is,” I said, as certain of it as I ever had been, “he will be coming back to Chicago.”
“He’d ditch the gig? Just like that?”
“Yes. He’d do anything for his family.”
“Okay.” Ray cleared his throat. “What’s that say underneath?”
“Ah –” If I told Ray now that I planned on taking us to the Vecchio household he would, with justification, have a violent reaction. “It’s a private code.” That much was true. “It should give him some idea as to what our plans are.”
“Right.” Ray’s voice was flat. He clearly knew that there was more to the code, but he kept it to himself. He started walking again. My hand felt empty so I reached out again for his. His palm was warm against mine, more reassuring than words would have been.
The next door was easier to pick, possibly because nobody on the other side was rattling against it in a desperate attempt to get out. The click was barely audible, but the door opened easily, and we were through into the locker rooms. There were three bodies on the floor, none of them grey. It looked like murder/suicide, but I had no time to go over the scene; besides, there would be no justice for these victims, anymore than there would be for Jack and Tom, for Mr Greene or Lieutenant Welsh.
“Bench,” I said, and grabbed an end. Ray grabbed the other and we dragged it up to the door. Lola took an instant longer than Ray to grasp my meaning, but when she did she grabbed one, and hefted it by herself to the door, propping it up higgledy piggley at a diagonal, balanced across the first one, securely wedged between the wall and the door.
“Come on,” Ray insisted, tugging me after him.
“Lola,” I called.
“I’m not stupid,” she growled. “I’m sticking with you guys.”
That was good. She was strong and handy, a quick thinker it seemed, and most importantly of all, a living human being.
“Thank you kindly,” I said, glancing back at her. She had a run in her stockings, and was padding uncomfortably on practically bare feet. Of course, she would have had her shoes taken from her in central booking. Probably high heels. I fretted for a moment. We’d have to find her shoes soon, or she would injure herself. Particularly considering the sort of terrain we were likely to cover.
We were through the next set of doors now, passing the showers. None of them were running, no bodies there. The place was as chilly as the morgue. I wondered what was happening down there, whether any of its occupants had woken up. I wondered if Mort was safe. He was, of all of us, the one most at risk. It hurt my heart to think of that old, opera loving epicure meeting such a grizzly end. We had been going to attend La Traviata later in the month.
Don’t think about it.
I couldn’t not think about it. Even as I grappled with the final lock the unwanted thoughts kept stumbling through my head. I wondered what was happening on a wider scale; if there would be anyone to look after Mr Greene’s bed-bound mother, if Jack’s infant daughter and wife would be safe, if Tom’s father had someone to remind him to take his insulin. If this outbreak was a localised disaster then they might yet be safe.
If it was broader in its scope then –
“Frannie’ll be okay.” Ray’s voice was quiet, and his hand dropped on my shoulder, squeezed. “Don’t worry, she’s strong. And I’m here, Frase.” I hadn’t realised that I’d spoken aloud. I didn’t correct his assumption that the Ray to whom I’d been referring was him. Ray Vecchio, I thought, out in the desert, fighting different monsters. Was this plague as far south as Vegas? Was Ray trapped in a casino, or a penthouse somewhere, surrounded by the undead? Would his ending be more ignominious than my most horrible imaginations? In my worst moments I had feared that his cover would be broken, that he would be taken out and tortured, shot. But this was so much worse. If he were infected, if he turned into one of those things -
I couldn’t focus on the lock; my eyes blurred with unshed tears. Dammit. I blinked and they slid down my face. That was better. I could see.
The door swung open, and we were in the armoury. Ray strode past me, started examining the weapons, selecting them with precision and confidence. Lola stood next to me, her wig hanging from one hand. I was surprised that it hadn’t been confiscated when she was booked. Either the officer on duty didn’t recognise a wig when he or she saw one, or had simply shown some compassion. Probably Kate then. I wondered how Kate was.
“What are we doing?” Lola asked. I wasn’t sure if it was a practical or existential question, but in either case I knew exactly how she felt. It dawned on me then that I was still kneeling. My hands were shaking, and I realised, too late, that I was going to vomit. I managed to turn, to keep the worst of it away from Lola and Ray. It splashed against the tiling, hitting my trousers. I held my hands out, helplessly. I’d soiled the uniform. Somehow that didn’t matter. The uniform was already spattered with blood and brains and I’d lost my hat.
“You alright there, Buddy?” Ray was turning, his arms full of firearms.
“Yes, quite fine,” I declared, despite the evidence to the contrary. I made it to my feet, and swayed for a moment.
“’Cause you don’t look fine.”
“Ah. Well.” I felt courage returning to me at the sound of his voice. “Appearances would be deceiving.” I cleared my throat. “Lola.” I turned to our newly found companion. “Can you fire a gun?”
“What do I look like? A thug?”
I blinked. “Not particularly,” I said. “I just wondered whether you had any experience with firearms, and if so, whether you have a valid permit. It would be a useful skill at this juncture.”
Lola gave me a blank stare, then turned to Ray. “Does he always talk like a book when he’s scared?”
“He always talks like a book, period.”
“I’m not scared.” I glared at them. “I don’t get scared.”
“Yeah, sure.” Lola shook her head. “You just ate bad sushi.”
“I haven’t eaten sushi recently,” I said, puzzled at the assumption. “But -”
“Okay, Frase,” Ray gave us both a filthy look and continued to organise the weapons. “Choose your poison. And what is it with you two and the jibber jabber? We’ve got to get out of here. Can you quit the small talk?”
“I beg your pardon, Ray. I shall reassess my priorities.”
“Well, do it quietly.” He held out a gun to Lola, handle first. “Here you go -” She stepped back, shaking her head. “For God’s sake, take it! I’m giving it to you, it’s not like I’m gonna shoot you backwards.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Sucks to be you then. A cop’s giving you a gun. Never thought you’d see the day, huh? It’s not like I’m gonna arrest you for it.”
“Didn’t you hear me?” Lola was staring at the gun, looking almost as afraid of it as she had when she first heard the word ‘zombies.’ “I can’t fire that thing.”
“You need something to defend yourself,” Ray snapped. “It’s not that hard. Snap off the safety,” he showed her, “point it at any dead guys who shamble up to you,” he turned and pointed at imaginary zombies, “and squeeze the trigger.”
“I can’t,” she said, and stepped so far back she hit the wall. I directed a narrow look at Ray and gave a microcosmically small shake of my head.
“That’s very wise, Lola,” I reassured her. “If you’re not used to handling a gun, then it really is best to let others do so. We’re both trained professionals. You can be our lookout.”
She closed her eyes, and the relief that coursed over her face was palpable. Ray frowned at her, then gave me a glance of apology. Clearly he recognised, as I did, that Lola was suffering from some kind of PTSD.
“Okay, you can take one of these instead.” Ray pulled down a truncheon. “Bit old school, but just pretend it’s a baseball bat. You wanna make it bigger just click it and flick it.” He demonstrated, and the club tripled in length. Lola laughed.
Ray groaned. “Seriously? Come on. Show me.”
Lola took the thing, depressed the button to return it to its original shape, frowned. “Like this?” She flicked her wrist and swung the weapon. “That okay?”
“Perfect. No dildo jokes.”
Dildo jokes? I opened my mouth, then thought better of it.
“If you say so, Officer.” Lola had stopped hyperventilating, and was still swinging the truncheon. She seemed quite confident with it. I was glad to see that she did have some means of self-defence.
“Okay, Frase. These look good for you.” He held out two guns. “Sorry, Lola.”
I hesitated for a moment. Ray stared at me incredulously. “Not you too! Come on. I know you can fire a gun - I’ve seen you do it.”
“I don’t have a -”
“Jesus Christ, Fraser!” He shoved a gun at me. “Is this about having a valid gun licence? Take it, or I’ll fucking shoot you myself.” Lola made a small sound in her throat, but Ray didn’t hear it. “It’s not like paperwork matters at the end of the world.”
Put like that he had a point. I took the gun, and he nodded, handed me more, and fistfuls of bullets. I filled my pockets, separating them carefully so that different calibres didn’t get mixed up.
“How much of this shit are you guys taking?” Lola’s eyes were wide, staring at us as we armed ourselves.
“Hopefully enough,” Ray said. “Okay, that’ll have to do. Come on.”
“Where are we going?” It struck me that my whole plan had been to get as far as the armoury. Beyond that I had no idea where we were going next.
Ray had no such problem. “There’s a corridor in the basement,” he said. “Leads to the tunnel we use to get prisoners to the court.”
I frowned. “What if it’s already infested?”
“Hang on, the courthouse?” Lola shook her head. “Uh uh. I know those places. What time is - ten o clock? It’ll be packed. As if lawyers aren’t bad enough anyway, no way I want them eating my brain.”
“We won’t come out in the courthouse.” Ray’s face was tight, a nerve ticking in his jaw. “We’ll come out in their holding cell. Fraser here can pick our way out. Then we can go through their basement, and -” he gave a fierce and mirthless grin. “You’ll love this, Frase. Through the generator room, down another set of steps, and we have access to the sewers.”
“Oh God,” Lola looked down at her feet.
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “We’ll think of something.” I wasn’t going to mention it to Ray yet, but if it came to it, she could wear my boots. Our feet seemed a similar size, and I suspected mine were more acclimated to rugged terrain.
Lola hugged herself. “Yeah,” she said. “We’ll think of something.” With an air of dignity she tugged her wig back on.
“You don’t mind if I -?”
I straightened it for her, flicked out her tresses and stood back to assess the effect.
“You look lovely, Lola,” I informed her. She flashed me a smile and ducked her head, looking a lot shyer and younger than she had a moment before.
“Come on.” Ray flicked his eyes back toward the way we’d come. “We gotta go. Follow me.”
After a while I just stopped thinking. Armando directed, I drove. It was kind of peaceful. The desert rolled past me, and that was fine. My mind was a blank, and this was all a movie, happening to some other poor bastard.
I woke up when we got to the airfield.
Why hadn’t I thought of that? The brothers had their own airstrip.
Oh. That’s why I hadn’t thought of it. It was a stupid idea, that’s why.
“I can’t fly that thing,” I said, glaring at the airplane. “Sorry, but if this is your plan then you screwed up.”
Armando looked at me with contempt. I didn’t give a fuck. He was dead, what did he know?
“Mr Langoustini, thank God!” I jerked my head around. Al was running toward me, bright red and sweating, his gut bouncing as he ran. I wouldn’t have thought he could run at all, let alone that fast, or in that heat. I pulled a gun on him. Didn’t even have to say anything; guns are magic that way. He just froze on the spot, hands up.
“What you thanking God for?” I snarled. “He didn’t send me.”
“Just - just - I’m glad you’re still alive.”
I narrowed my eyes. I was used to people bullshitting me, but it didn’t look like Al was lying. He was glad to see me. Which made no sense, because everyone knew I was a stone cold murderous fucker who’d shoot you for knocking his drink. I was covered in blood pointing a gun at his head, and all I could see in Al’s eyes was gratitude.
“Are you?” I asked playing for time. “Glad to see me?”
“Yes.” He heaved in a deep sobbing breath. “Everyone else is - they’re all - everyone is -”
“They’re all dead,” he blurted out. “They’re all dead, but they’re - they’re -”
“Walking around eating people’s faces?”
“Yes!” He forgot to hold his hands up, hugged himself. “Jesus, yes.”
I took a step toward him. Not close enough that he could bite my face if he suddenly went grey, but enough to intimidate him.
“Strip,” I told him.
“I’m not the Boss.”
Another flash of relief. “Is Sal still alive?”
Al’s face fell. “Jackie?”
“Guess I’m the Boss then.” Al’s face crumpled. I forget sometimes how much these schmucks loved their hierarchy. Like the Brits and the Royal Family. “Strip.”
He leant over, tugged at his boots first. “I’m not wearing a wire, Boss.”
I laughed out loud. “Like anyone gives a fuck about wires anymore. You think the Feds are looking at us now?”
“I want to see if anyone bit you.”
A look of relieved understanding crossed his face and he smiled up at me as he tugged off his shirt. “I’m clean, Boss.”
“All of it.” If I’d been checking for wires I’d have probably let him keep his pants on. You could tell those things under boxers and socks. But for this to work I had to see all of him. “Okay. Stand still.” I circled him, keeping the gun steady. I should have felt sorry for him, naked in the desert with his hairy manboobs on display and his belly hanging over his floppy dick, but the main thing I had to do was live, just a little longer. If this guy turned grey and tried to eat me a thousand feet up then I’d never see my family again.
Al looked fine though.
“Okay. Put your clothes back on.”
I should be grateful, I supposed, that Al wasn’t that smart. He hadn’t realised yet that there weren’t any Bosses left. What was the point of being King when the whole kingdom fell?
I still had the guns though. A plane. And one subject.
“You can fly this thing, right?”
“Yeah, yeah.” He wiped the sweat off his face.
“And you were gonna just take it, weren’t you? Steal my plane and fly off with it?”
Al froze again. I laughed, slapped him on the back. “Don’t worry, Al. That I can respect. You didn’t know any of us had lived after all.”
“That’s right, Boss.”
“Here,” I jerked my thumb over my shoulder. “Get the stuff from the car. We’re gonna need it.”
“Sure thing.” Al snapped to it, like a good little flunky, started pulling guns and ammo off the back seat - I could hardly remember putting it there, but it was a relief to see it now.
“And the trunk,” I told him. We had a pretty extensive medical kit back there. Along with a box of sharp implements, a shovel and a cattle prod. Al didn’t even blink, just started handing me the junk. We moved quickly - we could see for miles in all directions, but we were still in a hurry to get off the ground.
“Okay. This bird ready to fly?” It looked it. He’d moved the blocks, the steps had been rolled up to it, and the doors stood open.
“Yes, I just checked everything and -”
“I don’t need the technical details. Just get me to Chicago.”
“Chicago? Uhm -”
“That a problem?”
“We don’t have enough fuel for that.”
I gave him a filthy look. I might not be an actual mobster, but I was well briefed, at least when it came to the Iguana brothers’ assets. I was their damn accountant after all. “That thing can fly two thousand miles easy,” I told him. “We set out now, even on a bad day we can be in Chicago five, six hours tops. Do not try shitting me.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to - yeah. Okay. Chicago.” He talked too much when he was nervous. I hadn’t paid too much attention to him before, he was too far down the food chain, but I remembered that about him now. He prattled. Like I used to, back when I was Ray Vecchio. “So, uh, Boss. What’s in Chicago?”
My hand crept up to my throat, to the chain I still wore with my mother’s cross on it. There was a compass in my left hand pocket. Benny had given it to me a thousand years ago. Used to be his Dad’s.
Home, I thought. If there’s anyone left.
Al was jiggling from foot to foot, staring at me with a question in his eyes.
“None of your business.” A wave of exhaustion and revulsion swept up in me. Everyone was dead, the world was fucked, the op was over, and I was still being Armando. “Just get me there.”
Al ducked his head, and I strode past him. Armando walked with me.
Rennie wasn’t there. I hadn’t really expected him to be, but still. I’d been hoping. He told me last night that he was on a half day, but he’d done something to annoy the Inspector. She’d sent him off to a local elementary school, to give a talk on the RCMP. It wasn’t much of a punishment - when I called he was making them cookies shaped like caribou and gingerbread Mounties. He made a big point of telling me how much he liked kids, and I wondered if he knew. That would make things - that would have made things -
Damn. I was not going to cry. After he’d seen the kids he’d have gone home to get ready for our date. I could just see him in his little box of an apartment, dithering, probably making me cookies too. The thought made me smile, even though my eyes were all prickly. I really wasn’t going to cry. Though my makeup was probably already ruined.
Fraser wasn’t there either. Nobody was there. For a minute I was disappointed for the wrong reasons. Maybe I did love Turnbull - I wasn’t sure yet, though I was getting that flutter in my chest when I thought about him. But even if I did love him, who wouldn’t want to look at Fraser? I mean, God, that man’s so pretty. Today was different though. I didn’t want to look look at him. I just wanted to know he was safe. It was getting late and the place was empty. It wasn’t meant to be empty, was it? I’d never been here before, but shouldn’t it be full of gorgeous red Mounties?
I looked around to double check - maybe someone was up the stairs? I shivered. Somehow the place felt empty - or haunted or something. Even if it had been full of RCMP guys dancing around singing the Canadian National Anthem it would have been creepy as hell. Like Morticia Adams might be hiding in a corner. Fraser lived here? Why? If he was that hard up for an apartment he could have moved in with us. Ray’s bedroom was empty, he could have had that.
Maybe it was me. The sudden thought made me miserable - I’d thought it before on bad nights, before Rennie, that maybe the reason me and Frase never got together was because he didn’t like me at all. Maybe he was too polite to tell me to back off. I mean, it wasn’t like I hadn’t tried. If I’d been any more obvious I’d have been spinning around a pole or dancing the seven valley thing.
That was it. I was too obvious. Fraser probably thought I was cheap. Ray had tried to warn me. Men like Fraser didn’t go for girls like me. Maybe Rennie wouldn’t either. Not now. Maybe he’d look at me, all blobby and pregnant and think what a mess I was. And even if he didn’t why would he even want me back after I’d dumped him? After all, he wanted kids. That didn’t mean he wanted me.
Jesus. I was so stupid. I sat down on the stairs, hugged my head in my arms, and cried. I felt like a seven year old again, only now there was no Ma to make me hot chocolate, hug me better. There was no Maria to comb my hair. There was no Ray to stand between me and Pa, or hit the boys who called me names.
Everybody was gone. Fraser wasn’t here, and even if he was he probably hated me. I was all alone.
I heard a clicking across the floor, and my breath stopped. It was too much. Some other horrible thing was coming to get me. If I made myself small maybe it wouldn’t see me -
Something pushed up into the side of my face, and I peeked through my fingers. Dief was looking up at me with his big gentle doggy eyes.
“Dief!” I threw my arms around him, and he licked my face. “You’ll look after us, won’t you?”
He nudged my belly like he was saying ‘hi’ to the baby. Then he stood up on his back legs, balancing his front paws on my knees and yapped. His tail gave one wag, two. Not like he was happy - he didn’t look happy. But like he was glad to see me. He licked my face again.
“What are we gonna do?” I asked him. I sounded like Fraser. He was always talking to Dief. Sometimes I thought it made him sound crazy, sometimes I thought it was cute. Now that I’d seen where Fraser lived I could understand it. Fraser was lonely. I wish he’d told me. Not that it would have made any difference. Everything was real clear today, and I knew that he hadn’t wanted me at all. It was just a daydream. But I still wished he’d told me. If I’d backed off a bit, treated him like a brother, maybe he’d have been less alone.
Too late now.
“Where’s Fraser?” I asked. “He didn’t turn into one of them, did he?” The thought was horrible, but I had seen too many horrible things today.
Dief tossed his head, yipped. Sounded almost like I’d insulted him. Of course Fraser didn’t die, Dief was saying. Don’t be silly. I smiled. If I hung around Dief long enough I’d be talking to him as easily as Fraser did.
“Okay then.” I fixed Dief with a solemn gaze. He looked solemn too. “What are we going to do now? It’s not like I know where to go.”
Dief got to his feet, ran to the front door, balanced up against it and -
“Wow.” I’d never seen a dog do that before. Well, dogs for the blind did it I suppose, but still. Dief was turning the handle.
I got up to see better what he was doing. He wasn’t trying to open the door. He was turning the knob in the wrong direction.
Dief yipped, his tail wagging for real now.
“You know, that’s not a bad idea.” It was a solid building, you’d need a battering ram to get through those doors. There wasn’t anyone outside that I had seen, and the other offices up and down the block seemed empty too. Even if those things were outside I didn’t think they had enough brains to pick the lock. And there had to be some food in the kitchen. Plus, half of Maria’s shopping was in her car. If I was brave enough to go out for it at least the tinned stuff would be good for a while.
“Better go look at the kitchen then,” I said. “Come on, Dief.” For the first time I felt a bit better. I had a half wolf to defend me, and was in one of the safest buildings in the city. It probably had bedrooms. Even Fraser couldn’t be sleeping on the floor. Ooh - and there was probably a bath. I could stay here a while. Maybe in a week the army would have come in and cleared the streets. There must have been a state of emerging declared - it couldn’t be long before someone came to look after the survivors.
I smiled at Dief, and I swear to God, he smiled back.
I was one sick fuck to be jealous of Vecchio. Of course Fraser was gonna leave his buddy a message. Just - it sounded kinda hinky. That was one weird message Vecchio had left Fraser. ‘Cold out here, warm me up.’ Seemed even weirder now that Fraser was writing it back. Yeah, he might have thought I wouldn’t get it, but I’d sat through enough Latin masses as a kid that I had some idea of Italian, and besides, I’d learned a little of the lingo for this Vecchio gig – not that I really needed it. But what the hell did it mean anyway? ‘Warm me up’? There’d been gossip about the Mountie and Vecchio. Not that I believed it - not really. Fraser seemed completely uninterested in anyone - kind of like his sex buttons had been switched off. He didn’t notice anybody. Well, sometimes I thought he noticed me, but that might just be that he loved me. Not that he loved me.
So. Yeah. No clue what Fraser and Vecchio had been to each other. Though - now I thought about it, that could be why Fraser’s sex buttons weren’t working. If he was still hung up on Vecchio I didn’t have a chance.
Vecchio wasn’t the worst thing though. The worst of it was, Fraser had cried. I mean, he puked as well, that was bad, but it was the way he cried when he said ‘Frannie’ that got me. And then I found myself wondering if the gossip was true and Fraser was the Dad. Jesus, sometimes the gossip in a cop station was worse than my mother’s knitting circle. It was stuck in my head though. How many Vecchios has he fucked? a mean voice whispered. It sounded kind of like Dewey, which wasn’t really fair, because yeah, Dewey and me had our differences, but he hadn’t been that bad a guy before he started eating Jack’s brain.
Why was I thinking so much shit anyway? For one, all that mattered was not turning into zombie chow. And for two, Fraser wasn’t the kind of guy who would knock up Vecchio’s sister if he and Vecchio had been a thing. And even if he did knock someone up he’d stand by her. That duty thing ran through him like red through rock candy, or like Italian through Vecchios. You couldn’t take it out of him, or he’d just not be Fraser any more.
I didn’t know what was going on with him though. Fraser wasn’t someone who cried - except he was crying. His expression didn’t even change. He got on with what he was doing, and the tears just fell down his face like he didn’t notice them at all. He picked the lock, got the door open, and puked. He didn’t seem to notice that either. Even after we’d sorted out the guns and ammo, even when we’d started moving to the basement I’d glance across and catch the odd gleam of wetness trickling down his cheek or dropping off his chin. We were holding hands again. He had his other hand on Lola’s shoulder, we were walking steady and calm, and he was still crying.
“Okay, this is it,” I said, my voice low. I didn’t think anyone would be down here, but it didn’t hurt to be careful.
“What’s the floor like?” Fraser asked.
“Uh - down?”
“I mean, is it rough under foot.”
“Not really. Well, when we get past the boiler room, I guess.”
“And by that stage I assume it is dark?”
“Yeah. And I don’t reckon the sewers will be the best.” I looked at Fraser’s feet and winced. “Sorry about the boots, buddy.”
“It’s perfectly all right,” he said, and knelt down.
“Hey hey!” The freak was taking them off. “The boots stay on. You are NOT wading through the sewers in the bare feet.”
“Well,” Fraser sounded perfectly reasonable as he tugged the boot off. “It’s either me or Lola, and I’ve noticed that she’s limping.”
“Honey,” Lola said, “I don’t want your boots.”
Fraser looked startled, like he hadn’t considered that. “Really? They’re very good boots, and I’m sure they’ll fit you.”
“They fit you too, and I don’t need any favours.”
Fraser’s jaw set, and I knew right there that Lola had lost the argument.
“It’s not a favour,” he said. “It’s common sense. Your feet are more -” he glanced down at them, taking in the glittering nail varnish that poked through the toe of one torn stocking. “Well, they’re more delicate than mine.”
They weren’t that much more delicate, I wanted to say, but couldn’t figure out how without offending Lola. I mean, she had to know she had big manly feet, but Fraser had a point. Lola presumably didn’t go for ten mile runs on a regular basis.
“Just because I’m a lady I’m not feeble,” Lola declared.
“I never suggested you were feeble. Just that you’re limping, and I don’t want you to hurt your feet any further.”
Lola folded her arms and glared at Fraser. He turned the big sad eyes on her. “I’m sorry that I offended you.”
Great. The Mountie gaze of tragedy. There wasn’t a woman or man alive who could resist it. “I’m sure that if you hurt yourself and fall we can keep going fast enough that any zombies can’t catch us, and if you do get an infection in the sewers through injuries to your feet then I can fashion some herbal remedies that might help ameliorate the resulting fevers and any sepsis -”
“Alright! Jesus, I’ll wear the damn boots. Just stop looking at me like that.”
Yeah. I called it. I shook my head. I had to choose my battles today. If Fraser wanted to wade barefoot through shit that was his business. It’s not like things could get much worse.
Fraser yanked the second boot off, and handed it to Lola, who looked embarrassed as all hell. She was probably blushing, but you couldn’t really tell.
“I’ll pay you back for this,” she said. “I mean, I owe you. She looked at him again, with that liquid gaze she’d directed at him earlier. Fraser was peeling off his socks - of course they’d be worse than useless in a sewer - but he would have been oblivious anyway. Yeah, well. Just because he was blind didn’t mean I couldn’t seen what had happened. Lola had fallen for his manly charms. Not that I blamed her, but it didn’t mean I had to like it.
“Hey,” I snapped. “Eyes front. You can go googoo later.”
Lola looked offended, Fraser looked puzzled. I didn’t have time for this. I jerked my head at the door.
“Go on, Frase. Do your thing. Credit cards don’t work here.”
“Ah, of course.” Fraser remained crouched on the floor and started working the locks. I looked down at him, the strength and length of his neck, the power in his shoulders, and wondered how he’d felt about me kissing him. He hadn’t hit me, but then he hadn’t really kissed back. Maybe he was just poleaxed. He sure didn’t seem to be firing on all cylinders. For one thing, he was calm as a cucumber, but the tears were still squeezing past his eyelids. He wasn’t sobbing, just leaking.
Oh, Ben, I wish I could help you. Let me help you. I’d never called him Ben in real life - I wouldn’t have dared - but right now he looked so vulnerable. Even though he was being the perfect gentleman and perfect hero, giving up his shoes and cracking locks like a superspy, he looked like a kid who’d been hit one too many times. My hand itched to stroke his hair. I grimaced and turned my head away. Lola was looking at me. The smile she gave me was pained and compassionate. She got it.
“It’ll be alright,” she said, her voice gentle. “You guys are gonna get us out of it.”
“You can’t know that,” I said, startling myself by my stupid honesty. I should be reassuring people, not doing the ‘we’re all going to die’ routine. I felt like Shaggy from Scooby Do.
“Yeah, I know it,” she said, doing a better job than me at keeping up morale. “You got us this far.”
“There,” Fraser interrupted us. “Open.”
We piled through, and Fraser turned again, knelt. He was gonna wear his knees out at this rate.
“What are you doing now? We’re in.”
“It seemed an appropriate time to lock the door,” Fraser said, and started picking the lock again. Unpicking. Whatever you call it when someone does it backward. It mightn’t be that good an idea, I thought, if we ran into zombies further down, but the corridor echoed and I couldn’t hear anything suspicious. Fraser’s ears were way better than mine. If he couldn’t hear anything either we were probably safe.
“That’s a great idea.” Lola grinned. “I told you that you guys would get us out.”
I grinned back at her. She was so sure of us that it kind of made me feel good, like maybe she was right and we would get out of it.
Fraser stood, and we started our way down the corridor. I remembered all the times I’d walked down here, guarding a prisoner on the way to court. It felt weird to be here and not be on duty. Like I was the prisoner or something.
Stupid thought, Kowalski. You’re not a prisoner, you’re escaping.
We all were. That’s what I told myself anyway. We were getting the fuck out of dodge.
The concrete was cool beneath my feet, which was a relief. It grounded me, literally, waking up another sense. A conduit for touch, the opportunity to feel and find my way in the dark.
The corridor was well lit, as of yet, but the lights could fail at any moment. The electricity
plants were staffed by human beings after all. If the infection had spread as swiftly as I feared then it might not be long at all before the lights went out.
“Now, Son. That’s no way to be thinking.”
I glared at my father. What a time to make an appearance. Not only was I a captive audience, I was a captive audience who couldn’t say anything without his companions thinking he had a hole in his bag of marbles.
Not now, Dad, I thought fiercely. Even if I had said it aloud he would have probably prattled on over me. He was not the best of listeners, even when he was alive. The afterlife didn’t seem to have improved matters.
“You know,” Dad straightened his shoulders and managed to look noble and uncomfortable at the same time. “It is only in the face of danger that we can truly find our own courage.” Splendid. An inspirational speech. I was in for it now. I shook my head and tried to ignore him. He cleared his throat and continued. “Only in the face of death do we truly feel alive. Only in the face of loss that we -”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Dad. Shut up.”
Lola and Ray froze.
“Honey?” Lola looked at me with concern. Ray pointedly did not look at me. He started walking again like nothing had happened. He didn’t let go of my hand either. That had to be a good thing.
“Ah.” I squeezed Ray’s hand. “I’m sorry. Wool gathering, I’m afraid.”
Lola looked unconvinced. Ray affected total ignorance. I wished I could ignore my slip up as easily.
“Listen,” Lola said. “I know what it’s like. I mean, not personally, but, uh, friends of mine. We could - uhm - we could maybe find a drug store. There’ll be something, if you’re missing your meds or -”
“Hey!” Ray snapped, cross now. “Nobody’s missing their meds. Frase is okay. Aren’t you, Fraser?” I caught the hint of uncertainty in his voice and glared at my father for putting it there.
“Yes, I’m fine.” Dad gave a broad shrug - a gesture of ‘who, me?’ combined with apology. It was the best I was going to get, and I supposed I should be glad for that much. “I’m just - tired.” That was true in as far as it went.
“You and me both,” Ray muttered. “Okay. Here’s the next door. Frase?”
It seemed that all day I had done nothing but run, open and shut doors, build barricades and follow Ray’s lead. Because Ray was our leader in this. It was an odd feeling, to let him take such charge of the situation - normally I took that role on myself, and he tolerated my arrogance in doing so. But now though - well, it was liberating in a way to know that I could trust him. We would not have got this far without his quick thinking.
“You wouldn’t have gotten this far if you didn’t know how to pick a lock, Son. Proper preparation. I’m proud of you.” I glanced up at Dad, startled. He’d never said that before.
“What are you thanking me for?” Ray was trying not to look worried.
“More like who is he thanking,” Lola said, astutely. “It’s okay,” she added. “It’s a coping mechanism. He’ll be fine.”
“Look here, Lady, there is nothing wrong with -”
“I was thanking you for getting us this far, Ray.” It was not exactly a lie. I was grateful to him, I had just been thinking as much before my father’s interjection.
“Dissembling, Son. Honesty is the first casualty in a crisis.”
“Thanks, Frase.” Ray was smiling at me, his face as warm and happy as I had ever seen it. There was a tug in my heart as something in it shifted, as though it were a shard of iron and Ray the lodestone. Every cold thing yearns for the sun. I was mixing my metaphors, but his smile always did bewilder me. This one shone. You would almost think we were at the start of something beautiful, not the end of everything.
“Yeah, right.” Lola’s voice broke my trance. “Talk about googoo eyes.”
I ducked my head, embarrassed. The tumblers in the lock fell into place, and my knees clicked as I pushed myself back to my feet. Normally I would have held the door open for my companions. Under the circumstances, however, it seemed less than valiant to let anyone else go first. I raised a finger to my lips, a redundant gesture, and stepped through. We were in the cells.
“We’re here, Boss.”
I could see that. I’d been watching the approach as long as he had - longer in a way, since I’d been picturing it in my head from the moment the plane left Nevada. I’d been trying to prepare myself for whatever I’d find. Chicago would still be there, I knew that, but what kind of state would it be in? If it looked anything like the other towns and cities we’d seen on the way then things weren’t good.
Everywhere we travelled there were signs of the disaster. The freeways were full of crashed traffic. Some of the cities were on fire. We were flying low enough that we could see the people sometimes. I remember a family, as we flew over Kansas. They were standing in the middle of a field, waving desperately. Looked like three adults, two kids. We’d seen a broken down station wagon earlier. They must have got out and walked.
We couldn’t stop for them. I didn’t even suggest it. They could be dead already and just not know it. All it took was for one of them to have been bitten. We didn't know how infectious this thing was. Maybe all it took was a paper cut and a drop of zombie blood. Besides which, we only had enough fuel for the journey. If we landed now we might never reach Chicago. That’s what I told myself, anyway.
Benny would have stopped.
When we flew in over the outskirts of the city I could see whole suburbs flooded. Okay, floods happened sometimes, but not like this. The roads were washed out, and there were no rescue or repair ops in sight. I couldn’t see a single moving vehicle on the roads anymore. I could see movement though. Dead guys walking - you could tell they were zombies from the way they moved. If my life hadn’t depended on looking like a heartless mobster I might have cried. Looked like my whole city had gone grey.
Why the hell had I come back? This was Armando’s idea, I thought, bitterly. False hope. Chicago was a warzone. What were the chances that Ma, Frannie - any of them - had survived? Even Benny couldn’t have survived this. For fuck’s sake - there was no way I was going to find any of them, and I was going in anyway. I glared at Armando; true to form, he hadn’t said a word from the moment we left the desert.
I should be grateful for that, I supposed. Al would have noticed, and I didn’t want the pilot deciding I was a liability and throwing me out of the plane. The fact was that, of the two of us, I was the one who was expendable. Al hadn’t figured that out yet, but I couldn’t count on him staying loyal forever. At some point the penny was going to drop that there weren’t any Bosses anymore. Up here, Al looked like a different man. Not that long ago he had been standing buck naked in the desert, looking like he was going to shit himself. If you’d looked at the two of us back then you’d have thought I was the strong one. Now I was falling apart in slow motion while he was totally focussed on his task. Being in the Pilot’s seat had calmed him right the fuck down. Me? I had nothing to do but panic.
“Where do you want to put down?”
My mouth was dry. There were no good choices. Wherever we landed was bound to be infested. Something as loud as a plane was going to attract a lot of attention. I had to get to my family though. I had to know if they’d survived.
I craned my neck. “You see over there, Millenium Park?”
Al furrowed his brow and looked out across Lake Michigan. “We’d be better landing on the island,” he said. “I saw an actual airstrip there, and there’s bound to be fuel -”
I snapped my head around, gave him a full on Armando glare and snarled. “You telling me what to do?” He flinched. I hadn’t pulled out my inner mobster for a while. “If I wanted to land on Meigs Field I’d have said so. I know where I’m going, and I don’t want to fucking swim there.”
“Yes, Boss. Sorry, Boss.”
“Damn well better be.”
“I’ll have to turn around a few times though, to get the angle of descent right.” Al was frowning, trying to work out logistics. “The skyscrapers are too high, and that stage thing is in the way.”
“Look, can you do it or not?”
“Yeah, I can do it.” He looked at me sideways. I couldn’t read his expression. Maybe he was thinking about ditching me. It was definitely time to get out, even if I was landing in hell. He opened his mouth, shut it, looked nervous, then braced himself and spoke.
“Who you coming to save?”
I stared at him. How the hell would Armando have answered that? I had no clue, and the ghost wasn’t about to help. Fuck it. I slumped my shoulders. “I got family here,” I admitted. “No-one you’d know.”
“Oh.” Al’s voice was suddenly sympathetic. “Your goomah?”
Why not? It was something he’d understand.
I thought of Maria’s kids, the cousins, Little Tony’s school friends. A whole damn tribe of brats kept turning up at Ma’s table. That house was full of kids.
“We always wondered why you never had a goomah,” he said. “Should have realised you were being smart. You probably thought they were safer up here.”
That was too familiar for a flunky, but maybe Al was a capo by now. Everything he’d just done, the loyalty he’d shown, would have have made him a shoe-in for a promotion if the Mob still existed. Maybe in his head it still did. I reckoned in my own head it always would. I’d always be a wiseguy now, never have a chance to be a cop again.
“Yeah.” I looked down at my ruined city. My voice was just loud enough to be heard over the engine. “I thought my family were safe.” That was the whole damn reason I went undercover in the first place. To protect them.
“I’m sorry, Boss.”
“Okay.” I swallowed. “You got enough fuel to at least get yourself out of here?”
“Yeah. I’ll set you down, then see if I can refuel on the island.”
Armando would have commanded him to stay. I could feel him beside me, thinking just that. Fuck you, Armando. Al turned the plane and I closed my eyes. “Al. When we land, take some of the guns. Defend yourself.”
“Yeah.” Al was a little choked up. “Listen, if you get out of Chicago you can find me at -”
“Don’t tell me where you’re going. I don’t know if those things have memories. If I do get bitten you’re safer if I don’t know.”
“Boss -” he sounded like he was about to cry, but cleared his throat. “You got your seatbelt on?”
I checked it and nodded. This was it. If Al had judged the descent correctly I was going to be landing in zombie territory any minute now. I could already see them swarming in from Michigan Avenue and Columbus Drive. God Almighty, I was going to be surrounded. What the hell was I thinking? And if Al hadn’t judged it correctly we were going to crash into the Pritzker Pavilion. Well - it would be quick at least.
The earth rose to meet us, and I closed my eyes as we finally hit land. “They heard us,” Al said, when we’d skidded to a halt.
“I thought they would,” I said, unclicking the belt, twisting in the seat and arming myself. Took the med kit, left the tools with Al, a few of the bulkier firearms that I couldn’t carry.
“Listen, if you run east that’s safest. Didn’t see so many that way.”
“Yeah. Zombies aren’t much into fine art.” I faked a smile, glancing in the direction of the Art Institute.
Al gave a nervous laugh and continued. “When I take off it’ll confuse them. They should follow the noise of the engine.”
I was crouched by the open door now, rolling out the rope ladder. No time to set down the steps before the zombies got here, and if we used the emergency chute it would slow down Al’s escape. I closed my eyes and swallowed. This man had saved my life - at least for a little while. I might not survive the next few minutes, let alone the day, but because of him there was the smallest chance that I might find my family, my friend. That there might still be something for me to live for.
“Al,” I said. “Just -”
“What you’ve done for me -” I choked, wiped my eyes. Shit. Now was not a good time to get emotional. For a moment I had the crazy urge to tell him who I really was. I wasn’t so far gone though. That would be suicide, just as much as jumping into a herd of zombies. The guy was so damn loyal to the Iguanas - if he knew who I was he’d put a bullet through me for betraying them. The way I felt I just might let him.
But I had to do something for the guy. Something that would mean something to him.
I looked him square in the eye. “It’s not Boss. It’s Mando.”
Al’s mouth opened and shut for a moment. I raised my hand, placed it on his head. I couldn’t remember the full ritual, and wouldn’t have had time for it anyway. I could only think of two words that I could gift him with.
“Oh, God,” he said, head down. He really was crying now. I kissed him on the forehead, couldn’t remember what came next. Stupid, sentimental fucks, both of us. I jumped, caught one of the rungs, and scrambled my way out of the plane. Turned my back and started running east. I heard the zombies - still a fair way off, but so many of them. Behind me I heard the plane’s engines start up. For the whole length of time it took me to cross the park I could hear the plane circling and banking above. Al was distracting the zombies for as long as he could. I guess he lost sight of me when I hit the streets. The plane rose.
Good luck, Al. I sent the thought out to Whoever might be listening, even though I wasn’t so sure anymore that He gave a fuck about any of us.
I put my head down, thanking Benny, not God, that at least I was a little fitter than I had been a couple of years ago. I ran.
I was crying in the Consulate kitchen.
When I was a kid and Ma was upset about something, she’d cook for us. If Pa broke one of her figurines, she’d sweep up the bits, make sure we didn’t tread on any of them, and go into the kitchen to fix us grilled cheese. When he was trying to sleep it off and he shouted at us for making too much noise she’d make crespelle. When Ray said he’d fallen downstairs and we pretended to believe him she’d made pasta fazool, even though it wasn’t a Thursday.
When things got bad, Ma would cook. The worse they were, the more she’d feed us. If she’d not been bitten she’d have made it her mission to cook for the survivors and feed the world.
But Ma was dead. She’d never cook for anyone again.
She’d have loved this kitchen, I thought, like that kind of thing mattered anymore. It was big – not quite industrial big, but it had a top notch Maytag stove, and big, shiny metal counters, with ladles and spatulas and chopping knives all up on the walls, like the kitchen was an art museum or something. The refrigerator was taller than I was. I opened the door and stared in at the light. All the ingredients in there blurred until there was nothing but colour and the smell of fresh produce. I couldn’t even see what I saw for a minute, if you know what I mean. What I mean is, maybe I blanked out for a bit. It’s not like the stuff in the fridge was important or anything. It was just too much.
After a while I noticed that I was cooking. There was nobody but Dief and me to feed, but Dief was following me around looking hopeful. I couldn’t tell if my nose was bunged up from crying or the diced up onions. There were heaps of chopped vegetables in front of me, shredded basil, dried beans soaking in boiling water. Looked like I was making pasta fazool.
I started laughing. It wasn’t even a Thursday.
Okay, what was that?
Fraser seemed fine now - well, he was still leaking tears, but not as bad as before. It was like maybe he was running out of them. Other than that he seemed almost okay. It still didn’t seem to bother him much that he was leaking, he maybe hadn’t noticed, but it bothered me. Because - shit.
“Shut up, Dad.”
Seriously - what the hell was that? Lola got it wrong - of course she had. She’d been infrying - complying - inferencing - what is that damn word? Anyway, it was obvious what she thought. She thought Fraser was delusional. That fucking crack about meds. Fraser wasn’t some kind of schizo. He was just tired. That’s what he said. And he didn’t lie.
Yeah. He didn’t tell lies, but sometimes he forgot to tell the whole truth. What if there was something he should have told me? He’d always been a bit weird - I said so myself, all the time. “Freak.” Okay, I said it friendly - a buddy buddy thing. But maybe there was more to it. Talking to a deaf wolf isn’t normal, is it? And then there were all those times I found him in his closet talking to himself. I used to think that was because he had no privacy at the Consulate. But now I was thinking -
It didn’t matter what I was thinking. He was fine. He’d opened every door for us, he’d kept running. If it came to it, he’d fight. Fraser was fine. Fuck you, Lola.
And besides, he’d thanked me. He trusted me. He’d looked up at me with that shining face. Googoo eyes, Lola called it. Maybe she was right. Maybe Fraser did see me the way I saw him.
If we survived this I was going to kiss him again.
I wasn’t going to kiss him in a fucking sewer though.
“What are we going to do for light?” Lola asked, just as Fraser and I were twisting the manhole cover loose.
Oh crap. Literally. I hadn’t thought of that.
“Ah.” Fraser paused.
“Fraser, please tell me you’ve got a flashlight in your pumpkin pants.”
“Uhm - I’m afraid -”
“What happened to proper preparation!”
“Well, to be fair when I left the Consulate this morning I hardly expected that I’d end up wading through a tunnel full of faecal effluvia in the pitch darkness while fleeing zombies.”
“We are so screwed,” Lola declared. “We’re either gonna get eaten or we’ll drown in shit.”
“That is not helpful, Lola,” I snapped.
“You know.” She tilted her head and looked resigned. “All things considered, I’d sooner drown in shit.”
Fraser took a deep breath and yanked the cover loose. I peered down. It didn’t actually smell that bad. He crinkled his nose for a second though, then smoothed out his face and looked bland. Yeah, figured he could smell it.
“It will be okay,” he stated, with a ‘trust me, I’m a Mountie’ voice that told me he was secretly agreeing with Lola on the ‘fuckety crap, we’re all going to die,’ thing. “We’ll go single file. I go first, Lola, you go in the middle, Ray, take up the rear. If you keep one hand on the forerunner’s shoulder -”
“Forerunner?” Lola sounded as confused as I felt.
“The person in front.”
“You coulda said that,” she muttered. “How come I’m the middle of this cop sandwich anyway? I thought I was your look out?”
“You won’t be able to see beyond your nose,” I pointed out.
“Indeed. Besides which, if someone does come behind us, or in front of us for that matter, Ray and I have firearms. We can dispatch any threats at a distance.”
“We wouldn’t see any threats.” Lola’s whole body slumped. The Mountie boots looked ridiculous on her, paired up with fishnet stockings and a mini skirt, but then she lifted her head, squared her jaw, and all of the sudden she looked pretty damn noble. “Well. Let’s do it.”
Fraser went down first, Lola followed. I watched them disappear into the black mouth of the manhole, took a deep breath and climbed in after.
The water wasn’t as deep as I feared. It only ascended as far as mid shin. It was as cold as I expected, which made me hiss in a sharp breath. I waited till I could feel Lola’s hand settle on my shoulder; she was left handed. Behind us I could hear Ray splash down.
“Is everyone holding the shoulder ahead?”
“Yeah,” Ray’s voice.
“You know I am,” Lola, so close I could feel her breath on my neck.
“Right you are. Well, before we proceed, a few things to look out for.” I paused a moment to give them time to pay attention. The smell was crowding my senses, making my eyes water. “The most important thing is that we stay close to the wall. We are walking on a ledge, designed for the maintenance crew. If we step to the side we’ll fall into the canal.”
“Jesus, Fraser! Lola was right. We’ll drown in shit.”
“Not necessarily. Come along now, after me. One, two, three - go.” I took a step forward and made my voice as cheerful as possible. “There really is nothing to worry about. We’d almost certainly be able to pull out whoever fell in.”
“Yeah, but we’d all be covered in shit,” Lola grumbled as she shuffled behind me. “Probably die of Ebola or something instead.”
I resisted the urge to correct her by pointing out that infection with the Ebola virus was not a high risk down here. Hepatitis, salmonella or e-coli were far more likely to finish us off.
“Listen to the woman, Fraser.” Ray paused a beat. “The quality of the water alone will probably kill us.”
I laughed out loud at the in-joke. I could almost feel Ray smiling behind me.
“What’s so funny?” Lola did not sound amused.
“What, you don’t see the humour in this?” Ray sounded more cheerful than he had a minute earlier. “I think it’s hysterical.”
“Well. Be that as it may, we need to stay safe. So, I would like to add further, that if either of you hear any squeaking, or feel a small furry body running past you, then please don’t jump or scream.”
“You’re talking about rats, aren’t you? Oh God. I can’t stand rats.”
“I like rats.” It was Lola’s turn to sound like she was smiling. “I used to have two white rats - they were really cute - clever too. If I’d given them little bitty knitting needles they’d have probably knitted each other socks.”
“That’s nice, Lola. Real helpful. Glad to hear we’ve got a rat whisperer on board.”
“Ray,” I chided him. “Please.”
“Okay, okay. So, rules are, we hang onto each other, follow the leader, stay close to the wall, don’t scream at rats, and try not to drown in shit?”
“That would about cover it.”
“How do we know where to get out though? It’s pretty dark in here. And gonna get darker when we walk further in.”
“Man has a point.”
“Thank you, Lola. You hear that, Frase? I have a point.”
Privately I wished that we’d been able to secure the manhole cover as a security measure - but the chances of pursuit were fairly slim. I managed not to sigh - any indication of concern would only worry my companions. “Well,” I made myself sound as cheerful as possible, “as it happens the darkness should make it easier for us to spot points of egress. We should see chinks of light through the manhole covers.” I didn’t point out that there would be no light if we were still in the sewers when night fell. I had no intention of still being here at nightfall. If my memory of the sewer system was accurate, if I counted the turnings correctly, if I didn’t panic, if I didn’t - well, if I didn’t drown in shit - well then we had a fair chance of coming up almost by the Vecchio’s house. Perhaps Francesca was there. And I needed to leave a message for Ray there -
Why was I so certain he had survived?
“Oh, he’s survived, Son.” I sucked in a panicked breath, but managed not to scream or jump.
“What was that?” Lola said, running up against me as I startled to a stop. “A rat?”
“Rat? Oh God.”
“Not a rat,” I reassured them. “We’re perfectly fine so far.”
“So, what are we waiting for?” Ray sounded angry, which told me that he was in fact afraid.
“I’m just counting turnings in my head.” The deflection was not exactly a lie. I had automatically been keeping track of the turns.
“Wait, what?” Lola’s voice squeaked behind me. “You know the sewer system off by heart?”
“Well, not by heart, exactly. But, I have a fair idea of the subterranean topography of Chicago, and have had cause to navigate it before. In fact, the history of the Great Lakes sewer systems is fascinating -”
“But, you have some idea where we are?” Lola’s hand tightened on my shoulder.
“Uhm - yes.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Ray muttered.
“Thank God.” Lola’s voice was fervent. “We might not drown in shit.”
“Yeah.” Ray sounded surprised. “Hey, things aren’t as bad as I thought.”
“Don’t say that!” Lola sounded genuinely alarmed. “You’ll jinx it. And in case you didn’t notice, I’m black. Black folks always die first in zombie movies. So, don’t screw it up, or I’ll push you in.”
“Nobody’s going to push anyone in.” I shook my head, not that they could see me. “Are you both ready to go?”
“Ready as we’ll ever be, I reckon.” Lola patted my shoulder, in an attempt, I assume, to reassure me. It was, in fact, surprisingly reassuring.
“Yep. I’m ready too.” Ray chuckled. “Lead on, MacDuff.”
He was teasing me, his own form of encouragement. I had told him several times that the quote was ‘Lay on MacDuff.’ A wave of affection overwhelmed me for a moment, and I closed my eyes, leaned against the wall, hopelessly tender. Even though there was no way he could have seen me he spoke.
“You okay there, Frase?”
I made a noise of assent and opened my eyes. It made no difference to my vision at all.
Time to go.
“On three,” I said. “We’ll go slow.”
Behind me Lola made a nervous sound. Ray was so silent that if I didn’t know better I’d have thought he wasn’t there. The thought flitted through my head that I was Orpheus, that I must not look behind me, or I would lose everything.
“One, two, three.”
We started to shuffle through the dark.
I’d come out on the right side of the park, but with all the ducking and diving and running away from dead guys I’d got turned around. Now I was going to have to go the long way home. And at this rate I was going to run out of ammo before I got there. Fuck, shit, damn, crap, fuck.
Hang on. I smacked my head as I ran. Stupid Vecchio. The Two Seven was on the way. Since I was going so near to it I should swing by, check it out. There were one of two things that could happen. Either it was a zombie death nest, or all those armed cops had managed to defend the place. And if they’d managed to defend the place, Fraser might be in there. And if Fraser was in there he’d have been keeping an eye on my family. They might even be in there with him....
I swung right and belted down the road. I’d lost count of how many zombies I’d killed, or at least disabled by now. I’d had to chuck a couple of guns already - too much weight when I’d run out of ammo for them. The sharp-edged medkit was bouncing on my back; I was going to be all over bruises if I got out of this alive. But at the moment I was running out of useable weapons. So much for arming myself against the Apocalypse - all very well being armed to the teeth, but if you didn’t have time to put bullets in your gun you were pretty much screwed.
I had got some use out of the rifle though. Probably Benny could have reloaded the damn thing while running, but I wasn’t Superman, so I’d just been swinging the thing and clubbing zombies on the head. Lucky for me their balance wasn’t so good. I hadn’t killed any of them that way, but it was kinda satisfying to see them topple like bowling pins. Besides which, it slowed them down.
Now, though, my arms were aching, and I didn’t think I could keep swinging - let alone running - much longer. I was sweating through my Armani and wishing Armando hadn’t worn suits, though I knew it protected my skin a bit. Even so, I could feel myself slowing down. My muscles were burning, I was wheezing like I had pneumonia, and it was getting harder and harder to stay ahead of the pack. I fumbled in my jacket pocket - this was my last loaded gun. I’d have to make every bullet count. I clicked off the safety.
Five minutes ’til I got to the precinct.
Kid coming up at me from the left. Grey, groaning.
No kid anymore. My hand and wrist hurt from the jolt of the shot.
Skinny dude with red dreadlocks and a leather jacket straight ahead. Fired again, skinny guy down.
Blonde in a powder blue power suit staggering toward me, one high heel, one foot bare. Fraction of a second to turn and aim, then she’s gone too.
Red suit, turning toward me. I froze. All I could see was the grey skin of its hands, one with a fistful of roses, the other reaching out toward me, fingers curled and hooked. Oh God no, not Benny -
Not Benny. Thank God. Turnbull. What used to be Turnbull.
When he hit the floor he didn’t have much of a head anymore. My hands were shaking, but I didn’t drop the gun.
Then I was in the building and flung the front doors shut. I spun around, gun cocked and loaded. I turned a full three hundred and sixty degrees; the whole damn place looked empty.
I took a breath, crossed the lobby to the booking desk, nothing. Edged down the corridor, made it to the stairs. Not a sign of life. Not a sign of unlife either.
At the top of the stairs I turned left, toward the Bullpen, then froze, halfway between one step and the next.
I could hear voices. Moaning.
Run, Vecchio, run. I gotta run.
Fuck it. My colleagues were in there, my friends. My best friend - Benny. He might be in there. If he was in there, if he’d turned - I couldn’t leave him like that. If Benny had turned into one of them then I owed it to him to kill the thing wearing his face. I’d done as much for Turnbull. How could I do less for Benny?
I nearly turned around though. If I didn’t see, if I never knew, then maybe Benny could be alive somewhere. I couldn’t go though - I had to know.
‘Run.’ Armando in my head again. Great. He had to get mouthy now.
“Fuck off,” I snapped, and carried on edging down the corridor.
‘You owe these dead men nothing.’
“You’re a dead man. I owe you nothing.”
‘Run,’ he repeated, the single word like the crack of a fist across a cheekbone.
God, I hated Armando. How would he know what I owed my friends? Apart from the brothers he’d had no friends of his own. Maybe Al, towards the end, in a way.
And what the fuck was wrong with me? Why the hell was I talking to Armando anyway? Yeah, I was stuck with him, he was walking right next to me, but he was no friend of mine.
For the space of one breath I squeezed my eyes shut. My next step would take me round one more corner, leading straight to the Bullpen. I knew that anything I saw in there I would never unsee. The image of Jackie and Sal burned behind my eyelids, Turnbull in the red suit, a nightmare for that horrible moment when I thought that he was Benny.
I refused to see those things. I ground my teeth till my teeth squeaked and my jaw cracked, then opened my eyes again.
Don’t think. Just do it.
I reloaded my best gun, gritted my teeth. My heart was hammering harder now than it ever had before, in my whole life. I was going to die here. I was going to stroke out.
‘Don’t go in there.’
“Fuck off, Armando.”
‘You listen to me -’
Who the hell did it think it was? Pop? I barked a laugh and checked the safety.
‘Don’t try to die.’
The ghost had never called me by name before. I didn’t care.
I turned into the corridor, raised my gun, and ran toward the zombies.
I’d just about cooked everything I could find - well, the fresh stuff anyway. I’d fed Dief. I’d risked letting him out the back into the enclosed Consulate garden. High walls, really high. No way anything was getting in.
It was hot outside now. I’d forgotten the air conditioning was working inside. The electricity hadn’t gone down yet. I wondered how long that would take. I’d seen some movie one time, where the terrorists attacked the local power plants. I couldn’t remember what happened next, just that there was a lot of screaming, and people dying horribly, and things going on fire. I hadn’t seen any fires yet.
The government would send someone to fix things though. They’d have to. Unless they’d all got bitten too.
Oh God. I cracked up. Dief looked at me, puzzled - yeah, deaf Dief, right. I cracked up again, and he wagged his tail, like he wanted to get the joke.
“Can you imagine the Clintons all zombified?! I sniggered. “Or Bob Dole, or - or -” I snorted I was laughing so hard - “Richard Daley!”
Dief just looked at me and waited till I’d laughed it out. He probably didn’t have a clue who these people were - and to be honest, I wasn’t even sure what they did, other than look important and talk too much. They were the government, though. They had to have some kind of plan.
When I’d calmed down I stood in the back garden, and breathed in. I could smell herbs; lavender, rosemary, mint and thyme. Tarragon, I thought, surprised. That was hard to come by. Someone was a serious gardener. I wished I’d known these were out here when I’d been cooking earlier.
I strolled down between the raised vegetable patches - a nice selection of salads. Lettuce, arugula, radishes. Vines climbing the walls - they’d turn into beans and tomatoes and peppers at some point.
I knew who’d planted this garden. Not Fraser. Yeah, he could do anything, but it was Rennie who had talked about his garden, loved it. He’d brought me flowers that time, cooked me a meal and brought it to the station. When we’d stopped talking about donkeys and mules, and country music, I’d told him how lovely the flowers were. He beamed at me. “That will be the garlic, Ms Vecchio. Roses love garlic.” And then he’d gone on and on about natural planting, and how roses feed garlic, and garlic keeps the flies off roses.
I went up to the roses now, and bent down. In the earth between the rose vines I could see the pointy green tip shoots pushing out; the garlic smelled delicate, almost sweet, because the bulbs were young. Yeah, definitely. This was Renfield’s garden.
“Oh, Rennie,” I whispered, and put my hand on my belly. The baby was asleep. My baby. His baby. I should have told him.
And then I was crying again. I’d wasted so much time. If I never saw him again I’d miss him forever. This garden might be the nearest thing I’d ever have to being with him again. I tried to smile, though it hurt, and looked around.
Roses. I could see some stems, carefully cut, the exposed heart of the stem still green. He must have picked me roses.
I wanted to pick one, to tuck it in my dress. But the roses were alive - I couldn’t kill them, not if they were part of him.
The garden was beautiful and peaceful, and suddenly I couldn’t bear to be there. I covered my face and ran. Into the Consulate, up the stairs. Oh God, where could I hide?
Dief whined and circled me, looking like he was tiptoeing his footsteps was so light, like he was being a ballerina or something, then he pushed his snout up against my knee. I dropped my hand into his ruff and hung on for dear life. I was staring blankly at a door that said ‘the Queen’s bedroom.’ Dief nudged it with his snout.
“In here?” I whispered. “Am I safe in here?”
He didn’t say anything, but he was a wolf after all.
“Okay then.” I put my hand on the cool brass handle and turned it, stepped in and shut the door.
That slog through the sewers was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done. It was scarier than fighting zombies even. At least I could see those fuckers. This was like being blind. Every single step I took I was sure my foot was gonna slip, that I was going to tip over into the shit. And Fraser might say he could pull me out, but that was bull. He might be Superman, but if he couldn’t see me he couldn’t save me.
“Frase?” I whispered, just to hear a voice.
“Yes, Ray?” He sounded so calm, so much like his normal self that I could have cried.
“Hey, what about me?”
“I can tell you’re fine, Lola. I’m holding your shoulder, remember?”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry.” Lola sniffed. Sounded like she was holding up okay at least. Mind you, she was the one holding on to Fraser. I’d have felt better if I’d been hanging onto him too.
“Could you, uh, could you like, talk?”
“Well -” He sounded reluctant. Probably pissed off with me being so clingy.
“It’s okay. Forget I asked.”
“No, it’s fine, Ray. It’s just - I’m trying to count turns.”
“Oh, right. You’ve, uh, you’ve not lost count have you?”
“No, no. Actually -”
“It would help me focus if I counted them aloud. You don’t mind, do you?”
God, no, I didn’t mind. I was sure he was just doing it to make me feel better, but I’d take it.
“No, that’s fine. I don’t mind. Count away.”
“Yeah, go on.”
Fraser cleared his throat. “Second left, coming up, then right. Five and a half metres -”
“Ah.” He thought for a moment. “Sixteen feet and three quarters, give or take. Then right again, then left.”
“How does he remember that stuff?” Lola hissed at me.
“He has a computer in his head.”
Fraser raised his voice. “Turn right, thirty five degrees. Twelve feet. Left, then straight for quarter of a mile...”
Yeah. Yeah, this I could do. As we walked on the sound of his voice made things seem a little brighter.
Actually - it really was a little brighter. I couldn’t make out any detail, but I could see Lola’s shoulder, a darker shape of black against the dark. And Fraser had stopped counting.
“What’s going on?”
“Well, we’ve arrived.”
“Thank fuck for that,” Lola declared. “Where’s the way out?”
“A few steps forward. Edge slowly after me. You’ll feel the metal ladder on your right.”
“Well, I did say edge slowly.”
“Are we there? Are we there?” The panic was crowding me again.
“Yes, Ray. Now, if you and Lola could stand either side of the ladder. I’ll go up first, open the manhole cover, and see if the coast is clear. If it’s safe to do so, you can follow me.”
“Please-please-please-please,” I chanted. I’d got as far as the ladder now and was hanging onto its side. I heard Fraser climbing up. His feet must be killing him, I thought. Metal rungs on bare feet, not nice.
A shaft of light opened up above us. Lola and I both lifted our heads like flowers to the sun. I laughed. One time I told Fraser as a joke that I was a poet on the inside. More like I was just a clichéd sap. I didn’t care. The sun was shining.
“You first,” Lola said. For a second I thought of being a gentleman and letting her go first. Only for a second. If she was going to do the noble thing I was going to run away from planet claustrophobia as far and fast as I could. I was up that ladder so fast I nearly banged my head on the side of the manhole as Fraser pulled me out. I rolled over onto the ground and lay panting at the sky. It was raining - I was lying on the road between the sidewalks, and the water was running around me like a fast stream; I was soaked, but it was clean, and it was clear and it was fucking wonderful. I closed my eyes and laughed and let it rain on me.
“You’re a gentleman.” That was Lola - to Fraser, not me, obviously. I rolled my head and looked. Fraser was holding her hand as he helped her out, totally blind to the way she was looking at him. I didn’t give a fuck. Lola could look at Fraser however she liked, I loved her. I loved us, all of us, even myself. We were alive. Fraser had got us out of there alive. I closed my eyes again, and heard the clang of the manhole cover being replaced.
“He okay?” That was Lola again.
Come on, Kowalski. Man up. I rolled over and pushed myself to my knees, then stood, looked around.
I knew where we were. All my happy leaked out.
“Still looking for Vecchio?” I tried to keep the sour tone out of my voice. It was unfair. Don’t think I managed too well. Fraser looked at me uncomfortably and rubbed his eyebrow. Of course, he had every right to look uncomfortable. He was shivering with cold.
“Well. Possibly, though I suspect we are more likely to find Francesca and her family.”
“Who’s Francesca?” Lola looked at the two of us, trying to puzzle it out. “She a girlfriend?”
“No!” Fraser’s voice squeaked with alarm. “She’s - she’s a friend.”
“She’s kinda like my sister,” I said.
“It’s a long story,” Fraser interrupted. “It takes exactly two hours to tell.” He took a deep breath. “I would be grateful if you two would guard the back of the house for me. I’ll go in the front and clear out any - uhm - any hostiles I might encounter.”
That was a euphy - whatever. That was bullshitting if I ever heard it. He meant zombies. He meant if the Vecchios had all turned into zombies he’d shoot them for us.
I swallowed. I couldn’t imagine doing that - bad enough that I had shot the Duck Boys, Welsh and the rest. No way I could take down Frannie or Maria or the kids. Even so - I knew I should go in with Fraser. He shouldn’t have to face that alone.
But there was Lola to think about. I had guns, and she didn’t. If I left her here she was vulnerable. Yeah, she could take a swing at the damn things if she had to, but she was a civilian, and I had a duty to protect her. Fraser would like that - he was all about duty. But I had a duty to him too, and besides, what kind of coward let his buddy go into a nest of zombies all alone? I couldn’t even look at him, I was so ashamed of myself.
“Uh, Frase, I can do that for you.”
“No, it’s fine, Ray. I know what I’m looking for. And,” he ducked his head. “I need to leave a message.”
I didn’t know whether to feel sick with relief that I had a real reason not to go in, or if I felt like a bastard because I was jealous of Vecchio. He was risking death just to leave a post it note? Yeah, that was Fraser though. If he loved you, he loved you, he’d do anything for you. And Fraser was allowed more than one friend, wasn’t he?
“You know Vecchio might never see it?” I couldn’t stop myself.
“Well, if I don’t leave the message he’ll certainly never see it.”
Tetchy. I couldn’t blame him.
“Sorry, I’m a dick.” I raised my head and looked at him. It wasn’t jealousy I was feeling, not really. It was fear. I was afraid. I was afraid that this was the last time I’d ever see Fraser. Fraser, in his bare feet, and his torn uniform, with his hair mussed up and curling, jet black with rain and sweat.
Christ, he was beautiful. My throat nearly closed up. “Ben,” I managed to choke out. His head jerked up, his eyes fixed on mine. “Don’t die.”
“Ray.” He stepped up to me and put his hand on my face. My heart was beating so hard I was dizzy. His face was so sad. There was something else there, something intense and warm and scared and yearning. “I can’t, I -” He stopped talking. Moved his head forward, rested his forehead on mine. His lips moved, like he was praying. I couldn’t understand what he was saying - that Inukty type language. Before I could ask him he pressed his lips against mine. My arms went up around his waist and then we were kissing for real.
When we came up for air he stepped back, panting. He looked almost high; his face was flushed, his eyes glittering, and I knew from the feel of his body against mine that he was hard.
“You’ve got to come back now,” I told him.
“Yes, Ray.” His smile was radiant. “Understood.”
My whole body was buzzing as I crept around the side of the house. My fingers were hot where they had twisted into his hair, my mouth was full where his tongue tasted mine. The kiss sang through my veins - even my frozen feet were warm. My erection felt almost irrelevant.
It was also completely inappropriate, I chided myself. I had to keep my wits about me, to prepare myself for whatever I would find in the Vecchio household. This was no time to be elated, or lost in dreams of love. For God’s sake, I had no idea, even, what I would see when I turned the corner.
What I saw nearly undid me.
She was trying to walk on broken legs. She kept falling, dragging herself along by her hands, blood and faecal matter trailing behind her. Somehow her intestines had found their way out of her abdomen. She was grey as concrete, and her teeth were flaking brown with dried blood, shreds of flesh between them.
No sign that she recognised her name, no glimpse of acknowledgement. Her eyes had dried out from lack of blinking, were puckering with dehydration and yellowing in her head. Soon, no doubt, the crows or maggots would have them.
“Oh, Sophia.” My voice cracked, and I raised the gun. “Mi dispiace.”
How utterly inadequate words are. For a moment I thought I couldn’t do it. I saw a field of snow, a woman shielding a small child. Blood on the white, and a man with a rifle pointed straight at her, at us, at me -
At her. Sophia, Mrs Vecchio. Not my - not me.
This was not me, raising my gun to Ray Vecchio’s mother. I could not shoot her. I would not shoot her. I would give up, let her finish her approach and tear me apart.
No. I could not give up. There was still the taste of a kiss upon my lips.
I’m doing this for love, I told myself. Love for Ray - both of them. Love for Sophia, who had accepted me into her home for her son’s sake. Love for that whole joyful, exuberant, maddening family.
Dry-eyed – there were no tears left in me - I shot Ray Vecchio’s mother in the head.
You watch movies and when it comes to the firefight the hero’s always got two guns blazing, plus he’s lobbing handgrenades. Anyone who has ever learned to handle a gun knows that’s baloney - they’re dangerous fucking things. If you got a gun in your hand you want to be paying attention to it, not splitting your focus in half. You can’t aim two guns at the same time, least of all when you’re running. Yeah, you could fire them, but you’d just waste ammo.
Still, I went round that corner wishing I could just blast a hole in the whole damn world if it would keep the monsters away from me. But, for all I knew, Benny was around that corner. I couldn’t stand to shoot him again.
In the end I didn’t need to use my weapon. Yeah, I could hear the zombies screaming and moaning, but I couldn’t actually see any of them. The noises were coming from deeper inside the Precinct. I turned the last corridor toward the Bullpen and ran straight into a heap of sandbags.
They weren’t sandbags.
I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment, then forced them open. Made myself look.
It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen heaps of dead bodies on the way here. It wasn’t like I hadn’t personally shot people in the head just to get in the damn building. It wasn’t like - it wasn’t like anything; nothing real, nothing like anything I’d ever seen before or imagined.
It was just - it was -
This wasn’t some random pile of dead people. Any pile of dead people should be - sick, wrong, disgusting. Any other day it would have been. But I’d seen so many things on the way here. And one thing the Feds taught me was how to turn a blind eye to horrors that I couldn’t change. So, I’d stopped seeing people on the street as people, or even ex-people.
I couldn’t not see this. Everyone in that heap of dead bodies was someone I’d worked with or next too. Jack had half his head missing, wearing his best suit - he must have been planning on going to court today. Welsh had one hand resting over his belly like he needed an antacid.
And of course, right when I needed a witness, at least a fucking ghost to rail against, Armando wasn’t there.
This wasn’t even my worst nightmare. Just before I left for Vegas, Frannie had got the job to replace Elaine as Civilian Aide. I mean, I know what Frannie’s like - the chances of her keeping the job more than a few weeks was pretty much laughable - but I’d been having horrible flashes of finding her zombified. Even if the job hadn’t worked out for her, she could still have been at the Two Seven - I knew my sister. In an emergency she’d go looking for Benny.
Not that I blamed her. That’s what I was doing after all, and I’d travelled further to get here.
Pretty much everyone I worked with looked to be dead, but at least Frannie wasn’t one of them, and neither, thank God, was Fraser. My heart was still stammering in my chest from the shock I had when I flashed on Turnbull and thought he was Benny. God knew what he was doing at the Two Seven, or come to think of it, why he had been carrying roses.
Nothing I could do for anyone now, except get out of here.
I took a breath and made myself think. Whoever had shot them showed mercy - and skill. Most of the - the victims - had been taken down with good clean headshots. Benny was a good shot, I knew that. I’d seen him on the range. This looked like his handiwork. I couldn’t think of anyone else who might have survived and was that good a shot - maybe Welsh, back in the day. I was a good shot myself - better than I let on, though I think Benny guessed it - but I wasn’t sure I’d have had such a steady hand facing my colleagues. It was bad enough shooting Turnbull.
I passed my hand over my face. Whoever had done this, there was no sign of Benny. No sign of anything but death. But at least I had a moment to pause, to count my ammo. Six bullets left. Enough for five zombies and -
I hadn’t realised that I was so low on bullets.
And then I had a plan. It just appeared in my head like a vision or something. I had to get to the armoury.
I spun on my heel - I never needed to look at these bodies again - and jogged down the corridor. The door was blocked - looked like someone had piled lockers up against the doors, but I couldn’t quite see. I’d have to go into the janitor’s closet and break in. There would be a crawl space above the ceiling tiles. I’d worked in this crappy building long enough that I’d seen it being repaired a thousand times, knew where all the fault lines were.
Okay, Vecchio. Go.
I turned back down the corridor toward the closet, and there, like a sign, was Benny’s hat, lying on the floor.
I lifted it, almost reverently, dusted the brim. I had the mad thought that if I could just get the hat to Benny everything would be alright.
And then I was in the closet, clambering up the filing cabinets, with Benny’s Stetson fixed firmly on my head.
It was a lovely room. Big soft carpet - I’d forgotten I was in the bare feet. I wriggled my toes in it - the Queen was probably used to this kind of thing, thought everyone had carpets like this. I wondered was she a zombie yet, or if it was just Chicago that had gone mad. It didn’t seem as funny to think of the Queen as a zombie as it did thinking about politicians. She’d always seemed a classy lady. Not as classy as Princess Diana, but then who was? And - huh. Maybe she was a zombie too.
The light was changing now, the sky going red, which seemed like it fitted. It was going to be a beautiful day tomorrow. Red sky at night....
I walked up to the window and looked out. Somebody had broken the glass, looked like they’d thrown something through it, which was weird. It was the only thing in the Consulate that made it look like anything was wrong.
The streets outside were wrong though. Since I’d got here the zombies must have spread out of the suburbs. Still not as many as I’d seen on my way here. I watched them, stumbling along. Couldn’t really see the blood from up here, but they still looked like monsters. I didn’t feel sorry for them. Didn’t feel worried about the kids, didn’t feel sick wondering if Maria had turned into one of those things yet or if Ma had just killed her. I didn’t know how this worked.
Dief came up beside me and stood up, looking out the window with me. He was probably getting hair on my new dress, the one I’d brought for Rennie, but it wasn’t like it mattered anymore.
We could die in here, me and the baby. Dief was a wolf, he could probably manage, though he wouldn’t leave me anytime soon. Not while I was alive.
But even with Dief on my side, I was getting scared. I watched all those dead people jerking away like broken piñatas swinging in the breeze and it was beginning to dawn on me. I wasn’t getting out of the building by myself.
I could watch the zombies, though. They were kind of interesting and there was nothing else to look at anyway. No - I didn’t say that right. What I mean is, they were the only things moving out there, and sometimes you can’t not watch a bad thing. Like a car crash, everyone slows down to look at it. Even if they don’t admit it, everyone likes a car crash, so long as they’re not in it. If I looked out the window at the zombies then I wasn’t in the picture with them. I could pretend I was safe in here.
Some of the zombies actually looked like they’d been in a car crash. Maybe some of them had been. Some of them, if you didn’t know what a zombie walked like, could just have been drunk. Guys in suits lurching along with briefcases. Why you’d want to go to work on a day like this I don’t know. And why a zombie would still be hanging onto their briefcase was beyond me. Wouldn’t they drop it? Those guys must have really loved their jobs.
Three of them had stopped, were standing in a circle. I leaned forward - they hadn’t found a human had they? Whatever it was was too small. It was -
Oh. I didn’t want to see that. I stepped back and drew the curtain.
“Poor kitty,” I whispered. Dief whined.
“I should go to bed, shouldn’t I?” It was still kinda early, but it’s not like there was anything else to do.
Dief looked pointedly at the wall. I stared for a moment, then figured out what he was saying.
“Yeah, and turn the lights out. Don’t want anyone thinking there’s anyone in here. I mean, maybe those things wouldn’t know, but they might, mightn’t they?”
Dief thumped his tail. Once for yes, I thought, and scratched his forehead. “Okay then.” I walked away from the window, turned off the light, and felt my way to the bed. As I tried to get comfortable (the bump made it hard) I could feel the bed dip. Dief was turning around in circles behind me. I shifted to give him space and he settled at my back with a sigh. I could feel his warmth pressed between my shoulder blades, right where my muscles were tense and aching. Seemed like he knew what hurt.
I felt a swipe of tongue against my neck, and closed my eyes against the dark.
I thought my watch was broken. Two minutes crawled by like it was two hours, and then I heard the first gunshot. Lola jerked like she’d been electrocuted and her mouth opened wide. Looked like she was screaming, but she didn’t make a sound. Christ. I put my arms around her and hugged her tight. She was shaking, and I patted her back, rubbing my hand in a big flat circle.
“It’s alright,” I was saying, “Fraser’s fine, Fraser’s golden.” Because he had to be. Fraser was always fine.
A second shot blasted out, and Lola did scream that time. Her arms squeezed so tight around me that I could hardly breathe. “Sorry, sorry,” she said, “oh God.”
“He’ll be fine, he’ll be fine...” Please God, he’ll be fine. Yeah, typical. Good Catholic boy, doesn’t go to church forever. World ends and he’s praying. Babcia would be so proud. I didn’t have to pray - of course Fraser would be fine. I didn’t need God to know that.
After a while Lola released me and pulled back. I stepped away and took a good breath. “Sorry,” she said again, though I think she’d been apologising for a while at this point. “I’m not normally - I’m not normally a coward.”
“Hey!” I declared. “You’re not a coward. You’re not scared of rats or the dark, that’s more than I can say.” I gave her a grin to try and make her laugh. She gave a thin, watery smile, looked like she was about to say something, then her eyes shifted and widened, white with fright. She was staring at something over my shoulder.
I froze. For a moment I was scared to turn in case she’d seen a ghost. Then I heard a footstep behind me and my heart started beating again. I turned, and there he was, Fraser, with his face pale and the muscles around his mouth tight and twitching.
I rushed at him - pulled him fiercely up against me in the biggest hug I had. He was rigid in my arms, like I was hanging on to a pillar of stone, but I could feel his heart, beating too hard and too fast against my chest.
“Fraser,” I said, and kissed him. For a moment he was unresponsive, then his lips moved against mine. Not a good kiss - but a coming alive kiss, like maybe I was kissing him awake from a nightmare. I stepped back and raised my hand to his face. His eyes were shining - not the bright happy look that he’d had when I kissed him a few minutes or years ago. More like - you know when the road first ices in winter? Looks almost the same at first, but it’s not the same. When you get right up to it you can feel it. It’s not safe. Fraser looked like that, or like a metal shield had come up behind his eyes. They weren’t even blue anymore. They were grey, and Jesus - I hadn’t known eyes could do that. It was worse than when he’d been crying.
“It’s okay,” I lied, “it’s okay.” Then, “I’ve got you,” which was true. His lifted his hand to where my own hand rested on his cheek, and grasped my wrist like he needed to know I was there.
I swallowed. I didn’t want to ask, Fraser didn’t seem like he wanted to talk, but that was Vecchio’s family in there. I’d never met the man, but I knew all about him from his files, from the way people talked about him. Well, I didn’t know everything. I didn’t know why he’d gone to Vegas, but I bet it was for all those justice things Fraser lived by. Making sure that families were safe, could tuck their kids in at night, all of that crap. Maybe just his own family - I’d wondered if he was trying to protect them somehow, I mean, his Pa was mobbed up - but that would be heroic too. The bastard was some kind of hero anyway, at least the way Fraser talked about him. Everyone else talked about him like he was a regular guy behind on his paperwork, with a bit of an attitude and not enough hair. Fraser thought the sun shone out his ass. And this was where the guy’s mother and sisters lived, his nephews and nieces. I was supposed to look out for them ’til he got home.
“Were there any -” I didn’t know what to say. Zombies? I couldn’t say that in the same sentence as Frannie or Ma Vecchio. What had Fraser called them? ‘Hostiles’? I couldn’t say that either, but there must have been ‘hostiles.’ Fraser had fired the gun twice. “I mean, were there any -”
Fraser stepped back from me, and gave a blank smile. His hand slid from my wrist and he turned his palm against mine. Our fingers interlinked but he didn’t seem to notice. He looked at Lola with his not-smile, like he thought it was reassuring. Which it really wasn’t.
“We have to go.”
“Frase?” My voice cracked. “Were they okay in there? Were they...?”
Still with that blank smile he started walking.
“Fraser?” Lola’s voice was almost calm, nowhere near as panicked as mine. “What happened?”
“Nothing.” Fraser tugged me along after him and Lola followed. We both did. That’s what people do with Fraser - follow. I needed to know he was okay, that I could trust him to hold it together - but no way could I trust him on that. Not now. I loved him, but he lied: “There was nobody home.”
Aeschylus once wrote that ‘in war the first casualty is truth,’ although a later interpretation of the aphorism suggests instead that the first casualty is innocence. I cannot say that I have always been truthful or innocent, although I have that reputation, and God knows, I tried. But I can say that after what I witnessed at the Vecchio household I would never be either again.
As I left the scene of the crime I noted that the sun, of course, was still shining. It was easing down toward the horizon and glanced in bright diagonals against the asphalt, still rain-slick and shining. It was, I supposed, beautiful.
Ray was asking me what had happened. He was gazing at me, into me, with such fierce honesty and valour that it hurt. I felt as though I was staring at a snowfield on the year’s longest, brightest day. All I wanted to do was drink in that brilliance, even if it blinded me.
But I couldn’t look too long. If I lost myself in his truth then I might tell him all the truths that I needed to forget.
“Were they okay in there? Were they...?”
Ray’s voice, which had been a background to the preoccupation of my thoughts, broke into my consciousness at last. He and Lola were staring at me. Ray’s mouth was a lipless line, as though he was trying to hold in words that he didn’t want to say, but that were pushing their way out of him anyway. Lola’s eyes were far too insightful. Ray squeezed my hand, and Lola spoke.
“Fraser, what happened?”
I smiled and started moving. Told a lie that was the truth.
“There was nobody home.”
‘È freddo fuori, farmi caldo.’
I stared at the whiteboard. That meant - Benny was –
Wow, who’d have thought his Italian was that bad? A laugh burst out of me and I realised my cheeks were aching. I had no idea how long I’d been standing there grinning like a loon, but -
“Oh my God.” I turned to Armando, who was standing next to me again. “Mando -” his cousin’s pet name slipped out. “Benny’s alive.”
‘So I see.’ His response was sour and I remembered who I was talking to. ‘Why is he leaving you messages like -” he sneered - ‘like that?’
Oh, yeah. In Armando’s world nothing was worse than being a fanook, and even in bad Italian that message would look pretty gay to a wise guy. “It’s not like that,” I blustered, like I had to defend myself from a homophobic ghost. It really wasn’t like that, though sometimes I wished I did swing that way, because I’d do almost anything for Benny, and weren’t the happiest couples I’d ever met best friends too? If he’d been a woman I’d have proposed by now, even if he - well, ‘she’ - would still be the most annoying person in the world. I mean, I loved Benny in every other way, it just seemed unfair somehow that I couldn’t love him like that too. He understood though, and I never even felt uncomfortable about him being a bit bent. He was just - Benny. I straightened my shoulders and glared at Armando. “You had a best friend, didn’t you? You know what that’s like.”
Armando’s face went still - even stiller than usual - then he gave a curt nod. He’d have done anything for Sal, we both knew that.
“So, I’m going to find Benny, and I don’t care what you think. You don’t like it, you can fuck off.”
‘He’s your family,’ Armando said. I blinked. The dead fuck actually understood.
He nodded, and winked out. I glared at the space where he wasn’t. In, out, on my side, against me. I couldn’t figure the ghost out at all. I didn’t even know if he’d be back. If he wasn’t would I miss him?
Fuck him. I turned back to the white board. Benny’d written down my postcode, so that must be where he was headed next. Now I knew where he was going, where I would have to go. The armoury had been raided - looked like more than one person had been through it. Either Benny and I weren’t the first to think of this, or he’d been here with someone else - yeah, of course he would have been. Benny wasn’t the kind of guy who’d leave someone behind. If he was headed to my place he was going to try to save my family.
Maybe they had a chance.
I was dreaming about Rennie. I knew I was dreaming, and I knew he was there too. He was in his red Serge, and took his hat off like he always did, respectful, like he thought I was a lady or something. The baby started kicking like a mule and I woke up. Rennie was still there.
He beamed, and sat on the edge of the bed. The mattress didn’t dip at all. Dief shifted behind me and rested his head on the crook of my shoulder. His tail made a sleepy flapping sound like he could see Rennie too and was glad about it. I didn’t know why that surprised me, and I didn’t know why I couldn’t move.
Rennie laid his hand on the quilt, near my head but not touching. “Ms Vecchio,” he said, still smiling. I rolled my eyes. Okay, that was really Rennie.
“How many times do I have to tell you? We’ve slept together. I’m Francesca.” I’d tried, but even with my best threats to withhold sex or ziti he’d never been able to call me Frannie, which - well, I kind of like that now. His eyes grew warmer.
“How did you get in here?”
“Ah, well.” He cleared his throat. “There was a lot of paperwork involved, and it was a bit of a rush job, but fortunately I have an aptitude at cutting through red tape.” He frowned. “Although, I could have wished that they would have allowed us more time.”
“What are you talking about?” With a really embarrassing grunt I managed to heave myself up into a sitting position, then remembered that I looked like a whale. I flushed. “What do you mean ‘red tape’?”
“Francesca.” His voice was very gentle. It always was, but this was more. Like he wanted to tell me something and didn’t know how. “Francesca.” He said my name like Ma says - said - her rosary. Like he thought it was beautiful and special. Like he maybe thought I was. I reached out a hand to him, but somehow, even though he didn’t move, I couldn’t touch him. My hand was too heavy and I dropped it on the pillow. “Francesca,” he said. “I want you to know that it was the privilege of my life to have met you.”
My heart started beating faster and I blinked hard. “No,” I said. How dare he? “No, you don’t get to say that. Not like you’re -” I tried to reach him again and my hand still didn’t want to move. He just sat there smiling, like he was really peaceful and really sad at the same time. “Rennie!” My voice squeaked. “You aren’t - you can’t - we’re having a baby!”
He shifted slightly, and the mattress sagged, just a little. He put his hand in my hair, and it felt like fog. When he kissed me his lips were cold. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know if you can see me again.”
“Why wouldn’t I be able to see you?” I asked, though by now I knew.
“I promise you,” he squared his shoulders, “whether you see me or not, I’ll stand on guard for you. Both of you.” His hand moved and rested on my belly. It was warm and heavy now, like a real hand, and the baby jumped again, like it knew its Daddy.
“Please,” I begged him. “Please don’t go.”
“I wanted to give you these,” he said, and laid some long stemmed roses on my lap. “I know that five is not the traditional number, but...” he blushed. He was looking more like himself all the time. “Well, it’s five months since we - since we first -”
“Don’t you dare, Rennie!” I shouted at him. I knew this was my last chance. “If you go now I’ll kill you!”
He looked puzzled. “That would seem to be a redundant gesture. In fact, at this point it would be impossible.”
He was getting too near to saying it. I couldn’t let him say it. I managed to raise my heavy arms. He leaned into me, and it felt like a real hug. I could even feel his breath on my cheek, cold but there. There was one more shadow of a kiss, chilly on my lips, and then there was nothing in my arms at all.
When I stopped crying I was lying back down and Dief had moved around the bed. He was licking my face, which was gross, even for him, because I knew I was covered in snot.
“Ewh.” I tried to push him off - if I could sit up I could turn the light on and persuade myself that it had been a horrible dream. Something on the pillow crunched as I moved, and I dusted off my face. Why was it dusty? Why was my head bunged up? I shouldn’t have cried so much, I’d had a nightmare, that was all.
But when I did turn the light on, I knew it wasn’t a dream. Rennie hadn’t left me roses, but there were petals on the pillow, red and dry.
The streetlights weren’t coming on. Yesterday I’d have thought it was dark, but then yesterday I hadn’t walked miles through a pitchblack sewer. At least out here I could see stuff - and God, the stuff I could see. For the first time ever in Chicago I could see a sky full of stars. The more I looked at them the more they freaked me out. I don’t know who said stars twinkle. They don’t twinkle. They pulse. These ones were throbbing, all kinds of different colours. They made the sky heavy. It was like somebody had put a cut glass bowl over the city and let it shine. It scared the shit out of me.
It’s not that I hadn’t seen stars before, of course I’d seen stars. Faint fat stars through smog sometimes, or even big sky stars when we went on road trips or camping. And I’ve seen stars since, you get used to them. But seeing them over the city like this, where I’d never seen them before - somehow I’d never got it, just how many stars there are. There was this whole world outside of Chicago, and we’d ignored it. Because we couldn’t see it we just carried on like it wasn’t there. And then our little world fell to pieces and the stars were right where they’d always been.
I was craning my neck to look up at them, sort of like Babcia did when she first came here from Polweis, only she was looking at skyscrapers. I wished I’d asked Babcia more questions about Poland, whether there were skies like this when she was growing up, but I was glad that she’d not lived long enough for me to know I should ask her.
“Is that what you meant when you said you were walking in the sky?”
There was silence for a moment, but I felt a slight squeeze of my hand. It was the first spontaneous response Fraser had made since we left the Vecchios’ and I looked from the stars back down to our hands then up to his face. He was smiling.
“Yes, Ray,” he said, like he knew what I was thinking. “That’s exactly what I mean.”
Behind us, Lola coughed. I flinched, like we’d been caught necking at the station.
“Guys,” she said. “I love a good cop romance, but I vote we find somewhere safe and get you two a room. Before, you know, the zombies eat us.”
“Ah, well.” Fraser cleared his throat and tugged his collar - he had to be feeling better if his nervous ticks were coming back. “We’ll be under shelter reasonably soon. The Consulate is only half a block away -”
“Only?” Lola snorted. “Half a block is a long way if the zombies catch up to us.”
“Hey, we been lucky so far....”
“Lucky?” Lola gave me a filthy look. “Oh, God. You just had to say it. What did I tell you about jinxing things?”
“Well, the concept of jinx is....” Fraser’s voice trailed off and his eyes widened. “Oh.”
Lola groaned. “Don’t tell me. They’re behind us?”
“Uhm - in a manner of speaking....”
“What do you mean, in a manner of speaking?” I hated that my voice went squeaky, but it had been a long day, and I really didn’t want to look over my shoulder. “Are they behind us or what?”
“It would be more accurate to describe them as - massing from all sides.”
“Moron!” Lola clunked the back of my head.
“That’s for jinxing us all to death.” For a weird moment I grinned at her - she reminded me of Frannie. “What are you smiling at?”
“Nothing.” I grinned at Fraser. His head was angled to one side, and he was looking at me with an anxious little line furrowed right between his eyebrows. “What? What you looking at?”
“Uhm - nothing.” He signalled urgently with his head. “Run?”
Lola rolled her eyes at us both and took off at a steady pace. “Move! Do not make me come back there.”
Fraser seemed to break out of a trance and we started running together. Even though I didn’t look over my shoulder I could hear them, the zombies, coming up behind us.
I didn’t look back, but I did look up. The stars were still everywhere. They made the world sharp and strange, and the bastards just kept shining, on the living and the dead. They’d shine when I was dead too.
I got that Fraser loved them. I could see they were beautiful. But I gotta be honest.
I hate stars.
The Consulate was in sight, but I recognised that the chances of our attaining our goal were diminishing by the second. Ray and I were nearly out of ammunition. The remaining hostiles were thinning in number, and impeded by the bodies in their paths, but they were relentless.
It had seemed for much of our journey that the office districts were safer than the suburbs had been. It dawned on me now that others must have thought so too and headed in this general direction. I wondered how many of them had started their attempted escape already infected, and how many had been bitten on the way.
It didn’t matter now. Such speculation was my way of not thinking about the mercy killings and suicide that I saw in my future. I kept this final plan to myself. There was no need to cause Ray or Lola to despair. They were both putting up such valiant fights and I was desperately, achingly proud of them.
At some stage in her younger years, Lola must have played baseball. If so, I could only commend her coach. Without having consulted each other the three of us were edging into a triangular formation, literally covering each other's backs as we faced outward. Ray loaded and fired, loaded and fired, as calm as if he was in the shooting range and hitting every target. Lola danced back and forth on her feet, as light as a boxer. I could see her taking the occasional fluid lunge as she swung her baton. The wet ‘crack-thud’ as she smashed her targets across the head was shocking in its ferocity every time, more shocking to me than the report of the firearms. It seemed that Lola honestly thought she could knock the heads clean off the necks. The human body - even a recently deceased one - is remarkably resilient, but I did find myself wondering if she could succeed in her attempts at blunt force decapitation. Perhaps it would be possible some days further down the line, assuming that the animation continued indefinitely post mortem, and assuming putrefaction of the corpse continued at a normal rate. As it was, the injuries that Lola was delivering were sufficiently severe that her would-be assailants were stopped in their tracks. After her first few attempts, in which Ray or I had to spin around and ‘finish them off’ so to speak, she perfected the art of angling her baton and swinging it so sharply against the temple that the skull cracked. Whether the creatures were dead or merely dazed I did not know, but I did know that without Lola’s expertise we would have all joined their ranks by now.
Somehow wondering about such things as rates of decomposition amongst the undead helped me stay calm, even as I carefully picked my targets to ensure the maximum efficiency of each shot. Every single one of my dwindling supply of bullets had to count. I suspect that much of Lola’s explosive aggression was a redirection of her terror at the sound of guns. I genuinely believe she was more afraid of our weapons than she was of the walking corpses.
To my side Ray’s profile was impervious. Even now I was keenly aware of his presence. It was, at one and the same time, a source of comfort and profound regret. If I had only had the courage to reach out to him before all of this. We had missed so much, wasted so much time. I loved him dearly, and wished he wasn’t by my side - yet I thanked God that he was here even as I wished him somewhere safe.
Our triangle was getting smaller, tighter, and I could no longer estimate how many of bodies surrounded us, or how many active aggressors were left. The bones of my hands and wrists were aching from the jolt of the gun. Lola was panting - I hated to think how tired her arms must be getting - and what little time we had was running out.
I had let everyone down. I had led Ray and Lola into a trap. And if my other Ray had survived, if he came looking for me, then I had left him clear directions as to how to walk into the exact same trap.
Soon there would be no choice but to turn and kill Ray, to kill Lola, and then - if I was lucky - myself. Nobody was saved.
I was surprisingly calm at the loss of all hope.
She’d died outside.
I couldn’t prove it from the evidence, but I just knew. I knew it was Ma, and I knew she’d been murdered.
I sagged over my knees, hugging myself. It was like a belly wound; hurts like hell and you bleed out slow. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t breathe -
No. Not now. Break apart later. I sucked in air and nearly puked. Don’t crack up now. Read the fucking crime scene.
There was blood everywhere. I was getting used to blood, but not this much, not on my doorstep. Someone (Ma, it was Ma) had been hit with a car which sped off. That hadn’t killed her though, because she had still been crawling. I could see the stains all down the drive and the sidewalk. She had dragged herself up and down them in a loop; it didn’t look like something a zombie would have done. The zombies went looking for food even when they had to crawl, though I’d seen a few just standing there - a priest outside his church, some women at the school gates. Maybe some zombies had enough of themselves left that they stayed near the places they had loved, the people they had loved. I didn’t know.
If it had been Ma - and the shudder that slimed up my back said it was - maybe she had been waiting for her family to get home. Had she been waiting for the kids to get off the school bus? Maria to get back from the store, Frannie to get back from work? Had she been waiting for me? And then what would she have done? Would she have welcomed us home or tried to eat us? And where was she? Where was the - where was the - the body? Where was the body?
It had been Ma. My heart was a clenched fist - I just knew.
No. Look at the scene. Look at the damn scene.
By the steps to the porch I saw a splash of red and a hole that had been punched in the decking - one bullet hole, bigger than you’d think. I could work out from angle the exact place the killer had been standing when he or she shot her.
I followed the blood.
Ma was in the living room. Whoever killed her had carried her in, laid her on the couch and covered her with the quilt she’d been working on since Christmas. Even before I lifted the sheet I knew who the killer was. Who else would take the time in the middle of the damn Apocalypse to lay her out? It was him. It had to be.
And there it was, proof. There was a hole in Ma’s head and pennies on her eyes. Canadian dollars - loonies. They were placed bird side up.
For one blinding, white-hot instant there was nothing but rage and hate; if he had been in the room I’d have killed him where he stood. The picture was so vivid in my head that I could see him. He was standing at the foot of the couch with big sad eyes and not a word to say, and I shot him stone dead.
Then the image was gone and I felt nothing. Ma’s face was grey - greyer even than death normally was. Her jaw had dropped open in death; jaws do that before the undertaker sorts it out. I wished I had some string or something, so I wouldn’t have to look down at the cave of her mouth. But I couldn’t have even done that, I couldn’t even have closed my mother’s mouth for her. I could see the shreds of flesh between her teeth, the dried blood on her chin. Benny hadn’t killed my mother, he’d killed a zombie.
I couldn’t kill Benny. He’d done what I never could have done, he’d saved my mother. I owed him now, forever, and I was still wearing his fucking hat. I was crying, and it didn’t matter at all. None of it mattered. Who gave a shit anyway?
I laid the sheet back over what had been my mother’s face, and went looking, hoping - please, please - that there would be someone - anyone - left alive. It only dawned on me now that the house had changed since I was last here. They’d redecorated, replaced a lot of the furniture. It was like I’d never been there. There wasn’t a soul downstairs. When I searched upstairs I found my eldest sister dead in the Master bedroom. It didn’t hurt as much as finding Ma, like I’d run out of places where anything could bruise me.
Maria had been trapped in the bedroom, somehow; there was blood everywhere. Looked like there had been a hell of a fight. I didn’t throw up, but my mouth tasted bitter. Yeah, I could read a crime scene. Ma had killed Maria. She’d killed her first born child, tried to eat her.
There was a body on the bed, but I couldn’t look at it yet. It was Maria though. Frannie hated that perfume.
When Maria ‘came back’ it looked like she’d knocked something up against the door and not been smart enough to move it out of the way. Benny must have been the one to get through the door. He’d shoved it open, along with whatever was blocking the way.
That chair, maybe, or Nonna’s big old clock that ticked but never chimed. They were both broken on the floor, and when Benny pushed the door whatever it was had scraped and left tracks on the new carpet. I couldn’t be bothered to work out which one it was. The whole room was trashed, everything was broken anyway.
And yet - Benny had forced his way into this room, even though he must have known Maria was in there. He’d have heard her, scrabbling and moaning against the door. He have known that Maria was a -
Why would you force open the door to a room with a zombie in it?
I knew why. He’d done it for Maria, and he’d done it for me. Benny had risked his life to break in just so he could shoot her.
I managed to look at the bed then, properly. He’d laid her on it, tucked her in like she was a child. What would he call it? Funerary rites, or something. Nobody dying in Chicago today was getting a funeral, but at least Ma and Maria had been given some respect. I lifted the shawl Benny had placed over her face. The bullet hole was neat in the middle of her forehead. Her skin was grey as flint, and two loonies rested on her eyes. I looked down at her, and thought of all the times we’d squabbled over the years, all the times we stood up for each other. Thought of when Alicia was born and Tony got stuck in traffic, how I’d driven Maria to the hospital swearing a blue streak about her idiot husband, and she told me to stop making her laugh or her waters would break and she’d give birth in the Riv.
I covered her face back over with the shawl.
Pinned to the headboard was a handwritten piece of paper. Condoglianze.
I almost laughed. I almost puked. Benny was offering me his condolences. I reached out and plucked the paper from the board. On the back of the sheet was his ‘signature’ code, written in Italian. ‘Cold outside, warm me up. Canadian Consulate, new building.’ Beneath the words was a hand drawn map.
My mother was dead. Maria was dead. There was no sign of Frannie, no sign of the kids. There was no sign of Big Tony, but I didn’t really give a damn about him. Even standing next to Maria’s body I couldn’t feel bad about her husband.
But Benny was still alive, or had been a few hours ago. And maybe he’d shot the people I loved, but he’d spared me. It meant I didn’t have to do it. I didn’t know what would happen when I found him; I’d either kill him or kiss him. But I had to find him. I just had to.
Dief was asleep at my feet and I was zombie watching when I saw them, just at the intersection by the traffic lights, not that the traffic lights were on. At first I thought I was seeing ghosts again, but ghosts wouldn’t have needed to fight off zombies, and they wouldn’t have stood back to back the way these guys were.
I frowned at them. They seemed familiar, and that’s when I thought ‘ghosts,’ because they looked like Fraser and Ray. But they were at a distance, so maybe I was seeing things wrong. If I was going to imagine Fraser I’d have put the hat on him, and he’d have been coming to the rescue, not losing a fight with dead people. And the Fraser look-alike was firing a gun. Fraser didn’t even carry a gun.
He could have got one, though. I mean, I’d have got one if I’d known where they were, though I’d probably miss the target. Shoot my foot off or something. I could hear the gunfire, and it wasn’t just Fraser - next to him was a tall skinny figure with spiky hair. Ray. That had to be Ray.
If I was seeing things then wouldn’t Fraser be coming to my rescue? I squinted. The moon had come up. It was fat and yellow, and everything was very bright. I could see him - that was Fraser. He was in the bare feet. Why would I imagine him in the bare feet? I wasn’t sure, but it looked like his uniform was filthy. I’d never have imagined him barefoot and dirty, without his hat on. And of course that was Ray was next to him, though his hedgehog hair looked brownish in this light. If I was going to imagine Fraser with Ray - I hate myself sometimes, and I hate this but it’s true - if I was going to imagine Fraser with a Ray it would have been my Ray, my brother Ray. Plus, who was that with them? Long, curly hair, nice legs, tall as Fraser, bashing the brains out of zombies. I stared harder. The blonde one, she - he? she was wearing Fraser’s boots. I’d never imagine that.
Oh my God. That was them. That really was Fraser and Ray and - whoever. They must have saved someone on the way - of course they did. And - shit. They were fighting them off, but there were too many zombies coming at them. Ten, fifteen minutes maybe, and the things would have crawled over the dead ones, and then it would all be over.
“Dief!” I yelled and jumped back from the window. Either he’s not deaf or he just felt me moving, but he was up in a flash. “Fraser’s out there!” He knew what that meant. He flew out the door as soon as I opened it, and then we were downstairs. I didn’t know where the guns were, but there was a big ornamental sword thing on the wall; no, that would be too heavy. I ran into the kitchen instead, grabbed the biggest meat cleaver I could find. Dief was whining and scrabbling at the front door. I yanked it open, and then we were both outside. We ran together as far as the station wagon. I’d left the keys in it, just like Maria used to - it’s not like the zombies were going to steal it - so I slammed my way into the driving seat and turned on the engine. Dief flicked his head - he’d seen that I was safe, then he snarled, lips curled back, teeth bared. For the first time ever I knew he was a wolf. He turned from me and it was like he got bigger in the moonlight. His ears were flat, his fur standing up on end - I didn’t know that was a real thing till I saw it - but there he was making himself huge. He gathered himself up, and there was a flash of white; he was flying along, to the sound of the fighting. I couldn’t see it from down here, but I knew exactly where it was. I shoved my foot on the accelerator and flew after him, overtook.
Those bastard zombies had killed enough people I loved. Damned if I was going to let them kill anyone else.
We were losing. I didn’t know how many bullets I had left and I wished to God I did, because those things were going to tear us to pieces, and I needed three bullets. But maybe it was for the best. I didn’t know if I could do it. I hoped Fraser had some plan to get us out of this, because I was fresh out of ideas. I squeezed the trigger, and nothing happened. That was it. I was out of ammo. We were dead.
Behind me at four o'clock Lola was grunting with each swing, still going, and when I turned my head head look at her I could see sweat pouring down her face. Her eyes were fierce and I knew that she knew we’d lost - I’d stopped firing - but she didn’t give up. She knew we had minutes at most, but she wouldn’t stop swinging till the baton broke in her hands or the zombies ate her. I don’t know if I ever loved a woman as much, beside my mother.
I couldn’t think about her. If I thought of her or Dad it would kill me before the zombies even got me. I’d never got to say sorry to Dad, I’d never got to say goodbye to my Mum.
Behind me at seven o’clock Fraser paused in his own shooting. He must be out of ammo too. He stood still as a stone, and I could hear him breathing. It was the most precious sound I’d ever heard - he was still alive - but I’d never hear him breathing again. This was it.
But no; he wasn’t out of bullets. He was loading his gun again. He was doing it slower than usual. Why was he going slower? We couldn’t afford the wait. Automatically I counted the clicks as the bullets dropped into the chamber, and then I knew.
One. Two. Three.
Oh God. I turned to him, dropped my gun, and gazed right into his eyes. They were colourless in the starlight and moonlight, and it looked like his heart had been ripped right out of him. He smiled at me anyway, a tiny smile but real, like even now I made him happy.
“Lola first,” I whispered, so she wouldn’t hear. I knew he’d hear - he heard everything. “She’s scared of guns. Lola first, so she’s not afraid.” Of course she was afraid now, but she was fighting. I didn’t want her to know that despite her fighting there was no escape, no way out at all.
Fraser jerked his head in a nod, then turned to Lola. Her back was turned - she was watching for the next wave of zombies, and couldn’t see him raise his gun arm, couldn’t see him aiming at the back of her head. I could see his mouth moving, like he was praying, and then -
Bright lights, headlights, and the sound of a horn blaring. A car skidded right into the zombies that had been gathering on Lola’s side of the fight. The engine roared - someone was killing the gears - and the car jolted forward and back. I could hear the bones crunching beneath the tyres, and then a streak of white burst past the car.
It was Dief, all teeth and claw, every inch a wolf. He lept at the zombie closest to Fraser, and with a wet tearing noise ripped out his throat. His fur wasn’t white anymore. He snarled and hurled himself at another, then another. Behind me the car stalled. I heard a voice shouting “get in the car, get in the car, get in the fucking car!” I was going crazy. That sounded like Frannie, but Frannie didn’t swear. I turned, and Lola was running to the car. Frannie was out and running in the other direction, toward Fraser and me. We stood there stunned, and Frannie’s eyes were furious. She was in a red satin dress, like she’d been going to a party or something, but she had a fucking cleaver in her hands. “GET. IN. THE. CAR.” She shoved me sideways, spun on her bare feet and slammed the cleaver deep into a zombie’s throat.
I hadn’t even seen the zombie. I couldn’t stop looking at her.
Behind us Lola banged on the horn, then the car started up. For a nasty moment I thought she was going to drive off and leave us, but instead she threw the car into gear and drove right past us, straight into the herd of zombies. She swung the car around on its axis, just the way Frannie had. The zombies fell on either side, then Lola drove back toward us and flung open passenger side, then twisted in her seat to open the back door. Frannie was hacking at something, and Lola yelled: “You heard the woman. Get in the goddamned car!”
Fraser jerked into action, grabbed Frannie from behind, arms wrapped round her chest, below her boobs, above the baby bump, and he swung round, started running to the car. I was right after him. Behind us Dief carried on fighting. I looked over my shoulder, and he looked twice as big as he should be. The zombies didn’t stand a chance. Frannie was yelling, smacking Fraser’s arms. She’d dropped her cleaver and she seemed really pissed about it, like she wanted nothing else in her life but to chop zombies to death. Did I say I loved Lola? Christ, I loved Frannie too.
“The baby,” I yelled at her, as Fraser bundled her into the back seat. “You gotta look after the baby.” She froze, then pulled herself up into the far corner, huddled herself small. Her face was going tight and shocked. Fraser grabbed me then, shoved me into the seat beside her. “Hey!” I yelled, and he slammed the door, started running in the wrong fucking direction.
“Dief,” he yelled. “Dief, come back!”
“He’s deaf, Fraser!”
Fraser might as well be deaf for all the response he made.
Ben wasn’t coming back. Dief wasn’t coming back. He was shaking one of those things like Buddy used to shake his squeaky toys. Fraser - idiot, idiot Fraser - was running right into a zombie herd to save his wolf. God damn it! The wolf had a better chance than Fraser - at least he had teeth. I turned and tried to get out but the doors were stuck. Took me a minute to figure it out then -
“Undo the fucking child locks!”
“I’m not losing all of you,” Lola snapped, and swung the car around, taking out a few more zombies, but going in the wrong direction, going to the Consulate.
“That’s Fraser!” I surged forward in my seat to try and grab her, to damn well make her turn back around.
“Sit the fuck down! He’ll be fine!”
“You lying bitch!” I snarled. “You’ve given up on him!”
Frannie put her hand on my arm. “Sit down, Ray,” she whispered. “Please. He’s Fraser, he’ll come back.” She looked out the window and pointed at the Consulate door. “Here,” she told Lola. “Pull up here. That’s where we go in.”
I looked over my shoulder and I couldn’t see Fraser anywhere. Couldn’t see Dief. Couldn’t see anything - there were clouds now. They were like rags in the sky, dirty flags. They’d skidded out of nowhere, blocking the moon and the stars.
Oh, Jesus. I started crying. I couldn’t see him at all.
Dief was on the other side of the intersection, behind a row of trees that valiantly lined the sidewalk. The wind was up and the trees groaned like the dead. The light was intermittent - clouds were whipping across the sky, alternately exposing and obscuring the scene. Dief had a large something by its neck and was shaking it, jerking it from side to side, much as a terrier shakes a rat. There were other figures lurching toward him - not many now - and I slowed my pace for a moment to scoop up Frannie’s meat cleaver, which glinted for a moment as the clouds thinned out. I could have wished it was Lola’s baton, that would have given me more distance, but a blade would do very nicely.
I curved my hand around the handle, getting used to the heft of it, and put on a burst of speed. There were fewer hostiles now - barely half a dozen - and I swung low at one of them, taking out the tendons at the knee. It collapsed, face first and I kept on running. It wasn’t truly dead, of course, it would be able to crawl, but I had effectively hobbled the thing. Francesca’s arrival in the station wagon and the wild zig-zag curve with which she wiped out so many of our enemies made my task easier. Even as I ran Dief took down another one. There were only four left now, that I could see, and really - what was four? We could outrun four. There was no need for Dief to still be here, no need at all for either of us to be out here -
Recently I had suspected that his deafness had to some extent improved and that he had partial hearing at least. He lifted his head to my call and confirmed it. “Dief!” My voice was hoarse and desperate and I slapped my leg as I ran. “Come on! Leave it!” He lowered his head and curled his lips back over his teeth. His snarl was a long, low rumble; even knowing him as I do my blood chilled. Only a fool gets between a wolf and his prey.
But he was not just a wolf, he was my friend. There were not many of the lurching figures around him, but even one would have been too many. I couldn’t leave him out here alone. I kept on running, directly at the group gathering on him, and swung my weapon. I grunted with the effort of aiming deep and hard and true. I felt the blade jerk and stick - in the hyoid bone, if my estimation was correct - and yanked it free. The creature turned toward me as I pulled back, and I swung again and again. I should have aimed for the knees as before - a neck is a hard thing to chop - but I didn’t have the distance or the angle. On the third swing the head was dangling, as though by a string. I shoved it in the chest and the creature fell backward. I turned and there was another approaching me; Dief had his jaws clamped around its torso, pulling loose its external oblique muscle. I raised the cleaver again, and staggered. One of the fallen was trying to wrap its hand around my ankle like a claw. I yanked free of it, knowing, viscerally, not to kick it. I couldn’t risk putting my bare foot anywhere near its teeth. Staggering back my ankle turned under me and I stumbled from the curb. Dief was still trying to drag one of the creatures away from me. His best efforts did little to slow it down.
Please, no. My right leg nearly went out from under me as my ankle twisted. The creature that had grabbed my leg was still dragging itself slowly toward me. Its entire torso was crushed - the car must have run over it several times - but it kept on crawling. I stepped back from it, but my ankle turned again. With a grunt I dropped to my knees and swung the cleaver down in a high arc. Apparently you could sever their heads from their shoulders, if they were damaged enough to start with. I pushed myself backward and up, and oh - that hurt. Don’t let me die because of a sprain. How stupid. I was so close to safety - we were so close to safety. All I needed now was to persuade Dief to leave this place, to get back to the Consulate - a wave of pure exhaustion threatened to overwhelm me. No. All I needed was to lie down. As it was, I wouldn’t even be able to run.
I pulled my arm back, braced myself, prepared to swing the blade again. Dief still had his jaws clenched around his prey’s torso, but even though he was now tearing at its internal abdominal muscles the thing kept coming. Its intestines were falling loose and sloppy, and he still kept coming, dragging Dief behind him. This had been a strong man, better muscled and stronger than me, and even death didn’t seem to have slowed him down. Dief wrenched his head free, then savaged the thing again, with as little effect. I knew, instinctively, that by the time I had hacked at it sufficiently to make it stop, it would have bitten me. I gritted my teeth. That was no reason not to try.
And then the creature toppled backward and Dief let go. Its face was... gone. I stared at it, bewildered. A minute ago it had had a face.
The silence ringing in my ears gave way to another gunshot and I spun around to the sound, belatedly understanding what I had heard and seen. The last of my enemies had been shot. All at once every ache and old injury I was carrying rushed in and hit me as real pain; my feet, my back, the pounding hurt behind my eyes. I stumbled again, fell to one knee and groaned. I didn’t think I had it in me to get back up. There was a figure marching toward me, masculine from the height and gait, cradling a shotgun across its chest. The moon had come out again, but it was shining at the gunman’s back. All I could make out from the silhouette was the shotgun, the lanky stride, the swing of a long coat and what looked like a Stetson on its head. The figure paused in front of me, lowered his gun, just enough to point it at my chest. Why was - why was he aiming the gun? All of the hostiles had been killed. But this person was not aiming his rifle at a hostile. This person was levelling his weapon straight at me.
I should know who this was - I did know who this was - but my mind had stopped, was spinning in circles.
It couldn’t be him. I didn’t deserve to see him, even if he had come to kill me, as my crimes demanded. I’d killed his family. I’d killed his mother. My voice cracked.
He moved closer, pushing the muzzle of the rifle hard against my sternum. I could have knocked it aside, perhaps, but I couldn’t move. By the time he stopped he was close enough that I could see his stubble, even in the poor light. His mouth was soft but his jaw was tight. The brim of the Stetson obscured his eyes, and I couldn’t read him at all. For three ticks of my heart, maybe four, there was silence. Then he spoke.
He was down on one knee, like he was genuflecting in the church, or like I was Capo Famiglia and he was a goomah begging forgiveness. I’d seen that. I’d seen guys kneel and beg Sal for mercy. Some of them even got it.
It wasn’t that. I knew it wasn’t that. I wasn’t the Boss and he wasn’t a flunky, and I wasn’t Armando; I wasn’t going to kill him, even if I did have a gun pointed at his heart. I was cold to my bones but my hands weren’t shaking. My rage was ice pushing through my veins, pulsing sharp and hard. But the cold flooding through me was more than frozen anger; it was something else. To this day I don’t know what it was that was beating through my heart.
I’d wanted to see him so damn much. I’d travelled across the country, fought my way through the city, past zombies - yes, for my family. And yes, for him. Famiglia, I’d told Armando. Benny was family. Not even by choice, though from the outside it might have looked like it. He just walked into my life one day, and there it was. He was my brother. Not like any other brother I’d ever had, not like - not like Paulie, who’d moved a billion miles away to Florida and called Ma twice a year. Benny was Benny. He just was. Mio fratello sempre. I’d seen that zombie try to take him down, and I’d shot the thing without even thinking, and then I’d shot the one after it. Even if there’d been more of them than I had bullets I’d have still gone in there and fought the things off him with my bare hands.
Why the hell was I pointing a gun at Benny? I’d come all this way to see him. I should help him up. I’d seen him stumble, and I’d seen him sway on his feet, and if he sank to his knees he wasn’t begging forgiveness, he was just tired, that was all. He was at the end of his strength, and his face was pale in the moonlight, his eyes too big in his head. For once his uniform was a mess and his hair was plastered flat against his head. He’d been caught out in the rain.
“Benny,” I said, and dropped the rifle. I grabbed him by his biceps and pulled him to his feet.
“Ray,” he said again, his arms going up to grasp my shoulders; he started to smile. His whole face was blossoming with it. He was so glad to see me, and nobody smiled like Benny. Nobody. This was his megawatt smile, his sunrise over snowfields smile. In my head I saw my mother smiling at him as she served us lasagne, and then I saw the coins on her eyes. I couldn’t bear it. How dare he smile?
Next thing my knuckles were burning, Benny was staggering back, slammed against a tree, and Dief had thrown himself at me, front paws on my chest and snarling in my face.
If I’d been sane I’d have been scared out of my mind. Anyone with half a brain would be scared of a wolf, especially that wolf. His white fur was dark and he smelled stale and metallic. I’d been in the Mob - even before today I’d have recognised that smell. I could tell Dief was covered in blood, and I’d seen what he’d done to those zombies. But I wasn’t scared of him. I was scared of me.
God, I’d hit Benny. I raised my hand and looked at it, like it belonged to somebody else. I’d killed people with this hand, yet hitting Benny felt like the worst thing I’d ever done. Dief’s snarl quieted to a growl, like low and distant thunder, and I still wasn’t scared of him. My knuckles were split. There was blood running down the back of my hand, soaking my shirt cuff. I didn’t know whose blood it was, Benny’s or mine.
“Jesus, Benny.” I could feel my mother’s disappointment in me, taking the Name in vain, but what could I do? The Name took us in vain when He let this happen; I blamed Him. He wasn’t the one who’d hit Benny though, that was all me. “I’m sorry.” I dropped both hands to my side. Dief shifted a bit to the side and backed off; somehow he knew I wasn’t going to hurt Benny again, but his upper lip was still curled back, his ears still flat. Dief could still turn on me. It would serve me right.
I took a step toward Benny. He didn’t move, just looked at me, wary but sad. I knew that face - I’d felt that face myself, from the inside out. It was resignation, like he was expecting me to hit him again, and like he thought he deserved it. I’d always thought I deserved it when Pa hit me. Benny was cradling his cheek like the kid that he wasn’t. I reached a hand out and winced, touching his face on the opposite side from where I’d hit him. “I’m sorry.” My voice croaked like a rusty hinge, and I knew that my ‘sorry’ didn’t fix a thing, but I had to say it. I took Benny’s Stetson off and held it out to him. I could see his eyes move from my face to his hat. “I came to give you this.” I didn’t even know what that meant or why I said it, but it was true in its way. I wanted him to be him again, the Mountie, and the hat meant that to him. Meant it to me, for what it was worth.
He reached out and took his hat by its brim, turned it in his hands. I nearly said sorry again, bit my tongue instead, hard. He looked up at me and smiled again - not the radiant one which made me so angry earlier, but still - he was glad to see me.
“Thank you, Ray.” He put on the hat. I started breathing funny then, and - dammit, I was crying. He stepped up close to me, like I’d never hit him, and he hugged me. I was bulky with all the crap I’d lugged out of the plane and out of the station, but he still got his arms around me. I hugged him back and he let me cry a bit on his shoulder, then I pulled away, wiped my snotty face on my sleeve. These clothes were well and truly ruined.
“We’d better go,” I said. “This new Consulate of yours.”
“Yes,” he said, looking startled, like he’d forgotten all along that was the plan. His plan even. “Right you are.” He started walking, then winced. I looked down and grimaced. Where the hell had his boots gone?
I’d ask him later. For now, he was tired; it looked like he’d sprained an ankle, I’d punched him in the face, and more than that, he looked half in shock. I looped my arm around him and let him lean on me. “This way?” I asked, setting off across the street. I could guess which way it was from the way the zombies were scattered on either side - it was like there was a pathway, like some crazy bastard had done a Moses and come barrelling through in a car and parted the grey sea. I grinned at my own stupid metaphor. Benny wasn’t the only one who was tired - I was almost drunk with it. If I ever found a bed I’d sleep forever and not wake up.
“Yeah,” Benny sighed. “This way.”
We crossed the street like a couple of drunks, turned right and kept on walking. Dief sniffed around our feet - I’m not sure he’d forgiven me, but looked like he didn’t want to kill me anymore. “Those doors,” Benny said, “up these steps on the left.”
I froze. He lurched a couple of steps forward before realising I’d stopped. “What?” he said, staggering back. I couldn’t speak. All I could do was point at the station wagon. Bashed up, dented, but our station wagon. Benny followed the direction of my finger, looking blank for a moment - then he looked shocked. “What is wrong with me? Francesca. How could I not have said - Francesca, Ray. She’s in there.”
I found my voice. It was a whisper. “She’s alive?”
“Yes, Ray.” His whole face lit up in his megawatt smile again. “She’s alive.”
Oh God. I crushed him in a hug and kissed him, then I let go and ran at the steps, tripping over them, scrambling up them, yelling my head off. I could hear Benny limping up behind me, but I couldn’t stop to help him. I started pounding on the door. “Frannie! Frannie! Frannie!” It was the only word I had. I raised my fist to bang against the wood again, and the door swung open. I staggered forward - and oh, God. She was there, she was alive. She was -
“Frannie.” And then she was hugging me, and I was hugging her, and we were inside. I heard Benny limping, Dief’s claws going tick tock on the floor, and the door slam behind us. And, oh God. My sister, my little sister. After everything, after hell and high water, after Ma and Maria and so much death - after all of that, Frannie was alive.
The long day has rolled into night, and the long night fades toward day. The sun went down in fire and rises this morning as a grey ghost, thread-thin in the east. In the Consulate six sleepers have found their peace, for a few more hours at least.
Francesca Vecchio lies on her side in a fourposter in the Queen’s bedroom. A bolster cushion props up one knee to ease the tightness in the small of her back. Her hand lies in a protective curve across her belly. Beside her Lola Malone is wearing Fraser’s long johns and hiding her head under the pillow. Her wig hangs on the back of a chair. She is snoring.
Outside the door Ray Vecchio is sitting on an ornately embroidered chair. A shotgun lies across his lap, but his hands hang slack by his sides. He has fallen asleep at the post he insisted on taking, his long neck arched back at an awkward angle, his face finally relaxed. Dief lies at his feet, his ears twitching, eyes slitted. He sleeps with his senses open, as wolves and dogs do. Every now and then he half opens his eyes and flicks a distrustful glance at the ghost that stands by Ray’s side. The ghost is wide-awake, its face a mask. Armando Langoustini stands guard for reasons of his own.
Ray Kowalski has finally persuaded Benton Fraser to not sleep in his office. They have taken the second guest room, across the hall from Francesca and Lola. They fell together into sleep, as though dropping down a well, and are tangled in each other’s limbs. Fraser’s right arm is trapped beneath Ray’s body, and will hurt in the morning. He will be glad of it. Ray has flung a leg across Fraser’s hip, and his head is on his shoulder. Fraser’s breath stirs Ray’s hair.
The peace will not hold. The sun is rising; in the light of a new day the sleepers will wake, and will have to plan for a future. But for now they sleep while the world turns on.