There was a long pause. I always hated long pauses in a hostage situation. Dead silence was a sign that the perp was thinking about his options for the first time, and coming to the conclusion that they were all shit. Inside that house, Miller was hitting rock bottom, trying to make up his mind about whether or not he could keep going after losing everything that ever meant anything to him, or whether he should just end it all now and get it over with. A pause like that ended either with someone walking out the door with their hands in the air, or with a gunshot. I hated not knowing which.
It felt like about a minute before Miller spoke again. I’d have been holding my breath if I still breathed. “You’re not just saying that? You can really find a marriage counselor for us?” He sounded like he’d been crying, or at least doing what passed for crying among zombies. The tear ducts dried up after about a day or two, but you could still make your lungs do the rest of it. It looked stupid, but most people look stupid when they cry anyway.
I sucked in some air and went back to the megaphone. “No bullshit, Miller,” I said. Which was bullshit. I knew pretty damn well that Wanda would get a say in whether or not she wanted marriage counseling, and if she’d been ready to cut him out of her life before this, I couldn’t really see how holding a gun to her chest would endear him to her. She was probably going to tell him to fuck off sideways as soon as he was in custody, but by then it would be somebody else’s problem.
I would have said I loved my job, but I wasn’t getting paid anymore. Now it was just a hobby.
There was another one of those pauses I hated so much, but this one wasn’t quite so bad because I knew what it meant. Miller was in there busily convincing himself that the shit hadn’t quite hit the fan despite everything that had happened, and that he still had a chance to come out of this with his wife and his life and his world not quite so broken. Deep down, he knew I was lying; but he also knew that if I was lying, then everything was over for him and suicide by cop was the best of a crapload of bad options. Miller wasn’t ready for that, not yet. If he was, he’d have done it a couple of minutes ago.
Sure enough, the door opened slowly and out came a zombie with blackened skin, covered with cracks that showed the raw redness of burns that were never going to heal. “Okay,” he said. “I’m coming out, I’m unarmed. Don’t shoot!”
I wheezed out another half-sigh, this time in relief. To be honest, my record in hostage negotiation has not been good; Miller made my tenth attempt at talking some poor zombie down from doing something stupid, and I’ve seen four of them end in gunfire. I was kind of surprised at first that people were coming to me instead of going through channels, until I found out that the official hostage negotiators had a success rate with zombies of under ten percent. They didn’t know how to relate to someone who’d died and come back, so they couldn’t form a rapport with them.
Officially, of course, there was a hostage negotiator called. It was a requirement in a situation like this. The duty record would show that there was a call placed at the beginning of the stand-off, and the hostage negotiator would note in that same duty record that he got there as fast as he could but that the local law enforcement had already resolved the situation when he arrived. My name wasn’t on any of the paperwork. How could it? I wasn’t even a cop anymore.
I handed the megaphone back to Kowalski. Kowalski knew the score just like I did; he was a beat cop for twenty years, and he knew all the things that didn’t wind up on paper anymore. Nobody wanted to hear them downtown, and nobody wanted to say them here. Nobody was going to write down, “The dead have risen from the grave and the universe has stopped making any goddamned sense. Decided that getting the fucking job done was more important than procedures that were written to cover a whole different world than the one I woke up in today. Thank you very fucking much, I’ll turn in my badge now and save you the time and effort.”
It sucked, but at least it meant I had something to do with my free time.
After that, I kind of wandered away. The official cops didn’t need me anymore; they had panicky wives to calm down and crime scenes to secure and weapons to tag and a perpetrator to bring to a holding cell. Or whatever passed for a holding cell these days. Most big cities like ours had already reached capacity on their official holding cells, because zombies couldn’t go to trial until someone figured out whether or not they could be held legally responsible for their actions. City Hall had gotten pretty innovative with their storage techniques; last I heard, they were shrink-wrapping the perps and stacking them in a warehouse on the edge of town. On a living person, that’d probably qualify as cruel and unusual punishment. But nobody even knew what the term meant when it came to a walking corpse. Let’s just say it was a pretty big inducement to keep your nose clean if you were undead.
Instead, I headed uptown, towards the river. Towards Vineyard Street.
I wouldn’t have said it into the megaphone, but Miller was absolutely right about Vineyard Street. The only reason the zombies stayed there—I’d have said “lived”, but I was never that big on irony—was because nobody else wanted the land. The only buildings there were condemned due to flood damage, the vacant lots didn’t even have value as vacant lots because they went underwater every time the river crested, and the only people who ever found a use for it before the dead came back were drug dealers and homeless people. There was occasional talk of ‘gentrification’, but nobody wanted to spend the kind of money it would take to make the place habitable. Then people like us came along, and suddenly there was a whole new use for the places that nobody ever wanted to go.