Monday, September 16, 2013

Part Five

I stood there for a long moment, holding the door open. The boiler rattled into silence, and the only sound in the room for a long moment was her breath. I tried to read her face, but she wasn’t giving me anything. Finally, I took a step back to let her in. “Alison,”I said. I didn’t trust myself to say anything more.

“Tom,” she replied, walking inside and closing the door behind her. She didn’t say anything else. She looked around the room as if I was giving her a tour, but it only took a few seconds before she couldn’t hide the fact that she was avoiding my eyes. There just wasn’t enough to look at besides me. The room had a bare concrete floor that I kept scrupulously clear of any stains or mess—I was holding up pretty well, but even the most well-preserved corpse was still a corpse. I didn’t want to make things messy for Paulie. There was nothing on the walls except for a calendar that still read ‘June 1997’. I had a cot in the corner with no blankets. The room’s only window was too high to look out of, and it didn’t matter because the room faced onto an alley anyway. The only light came from a single bare bulb in the ceiling. If the lock had been on the outside instead of the inside, I probably could have gotten the ACLU to sue on my behalf, but nothing kept me here but knowing where else I could go. Alison still stared at it for a solid minute before she said anything past my name.

“You’re…keeping well, Tom,” she said, her fingers twitching as she spoke like she was aching for a cigarette. Alison gave up smoking about a week before I died, about three days after the first wave of resurrections. She told me she didn’t want to die of anything that would ever let her come back. I thought about blowing smoke into her face, but it didn’t seem to be worth the effort to inflate my lungs again just for that.

Instead, I sucked in just enough air to respond. “Probably all that junk food,” I said. “All those preservatives had to be good for something.” I gestured to the cot. “Have a seat and tell me why my ex-wife came down to see me.”

That got me a little eye contact. Alison’s eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, the kind you get when you wake up crying every morning and fall asleep crying every night. I’d seen that look a few times on homicide detail, talking to family members on those cases that dragged on for years without ever getting any closer to the killer. I wanted to sit down next to her and comfort her, but I knew that wouldn’t go well. “’Widow’, Tom,” she replied coldly. “The word you’re looking for is ‘widow’.”

It was about then that I noticed she was still wearing black. I’d been dead almost six months now, and she was still in mourning. Still, I figured it was a lot harder to move on when the dearly departed had an apartment downtown and was still making calls on your cell phone plan. Of course I felt sorry for her. She was my wife, and she was grieving like hell. But I’d have felt a lot sorrier for her if I hadn’t been the one she was grieving for.

I decided not to push it, though. If there was one thing I’d learned from all those hostage situations, it was that you couldn’t change someone’s mind about love by fighting with them. I bit my tongue—not literally—and said, “What do you need, Alison? You know I’m still trying to get someone to answer my question about benefits, nobody wants to stick their neck out before they rule on Knudson’s appeal—-“

“It’s not about money,” she said. “It’s…I was talking to Shauna, and she said that Bob mentioned that he saw you with Jim the other day. While he was, you know…on duty.” Her face was agonized with indecision, as though she wasn’t sure that she could talk about it even here, even third-hand. I didn’t know what she was worried about; Alison had never been a policewoman, but she’d been married to one for seven years. She had to know the way that gossip worked. If Bob knew, and if Shauna knew, and if they were talking to Alison about it, then it must have occurred to her that it couldn’t have been that big of a secret anymore. But maybe being dead changed the rules about that, too. Maybe dying was the kind of thing they wouldn’t even talk about behind your back.

“Not sure what you’re asking,” I said, “but yeah, I still talk to some of the old guys. They ask me about stuff sometimes, stuff that doesn’t make it back to headquarters. It’s not a big deal, or anything. You don’t have to worry about it screwing up my payout, whatever they decide it’s going to be called. Everyone downtown is turning a blind eye to the whole mess.”

“Can you listen for a minute, Tom?” she snapped. “I just told you it wasn’t about your stupid pension.” I’d heard her, but I hadn’t believed her. Not when Paulie had told me that Bob had told him that Shauna has said that Alison had put the house up for sale and moved back in with her mother. My Allie wasn’t a proud woman, but she’d bite clean through her own lips before she blamed me for dying on her. She already felt bad enough for admitting I was dead. If one of us was going to bring up money, it was going to have to be me.

“It’s about…” She lowered her voice. “You still do cop stuff, don’t you, Tom? Even after it killed you, you still do it?”

“Yeah.” I tried to take a drag off my cigarette, but I realized it had burned down to the filter while I wasn’t paying attention. I tossed it into a metal bucket in the corner that I was using as an ashtray. “I figure it’s got to be safer now than it was when I was alive, right?”

She didn’t rise to the bait. (I’m honest enough to admit that was exactly what it was.) She just slumped her shoulders and and took a deep breath, like a teenage girl at her first confession. “Then I need your help,” she said.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Part Four

She stopped about ten feet away from me, putting her weight on her good leg and glaring at me with eyes that were still sky blue underneath their death-white film. We stared at each other for a long time. Neither one of us was in any hurry.

"I been watching you," she said. Her voice was badly slurred, with a whistling inflection where the air escaped through the hole in her cheek.

I let my jacket hang open enough to give her a good look at my shoulder holster. Technically, I shouldn't have had a gun at all, what with me being on administrative leave and everything. But somehow, nobody had ever gotten around to actually collecting my firearm. There was a real problem with shoddy paperwork at the station these days, but I was too busy not being a cop anymore to care. "You can watch all you like. Not much to see, though."

"I been watching you," she said again. I started to wonder if maybe she didn't have some head trauma after all. You saw a few of those, too, wandering around Vineyard Street. People with brains that were damaged, but not damaged enough to let them rest in peace. Some of them had wound up that way from whatever it was that had killed them; others had tried to end it all and wound up doing just enough damage to fuck themselves up too badly to finish the job. A few had gotten on the wrong side of panicky civilians, people who had seen one too many zombie movies and decided to be the Thin Gray Line between humanity and the zombie hordes. Nobody was sure whether it counted as murder, so the cops had been locking them up on charges of corpse mutilation and illegal use of firearms within city limits.

“You got someplace to be.” Her words shook me out of any suggestion that she wasn't all there. “You don't walk like the rest of us, you walk like someone going somewhere.” She stared at me. I stared back, not giving anything away. That was the nice thing about being a zombie. It gave you one hell of a poker face. “Where you got to go?”

I'd been wrong, I realized. She wasn't one of the crazy ones at all. She was one of the desperate ones. There was no way of telling how long she'd been here, but it had definitely been since the day she died. With that kind of damage, her options would have dried up quicker than most. She was looking for a way out, and I'd been elected as her knight in shining armor.

“Sorry,” I said. I didn't want to hurt her, but one of the things you learn when you're low in the water is that you can't take passengers. “No guests, no visitors. I'd let you come, but I'd get kicked out too and then we'd both be down here again.” Her face fell, what was left of it, but I could tell she understood. Somehow, that made me feel even more like shit.

“Then why you come by here?” she asked. Her voice wasn't quite angry, but it was definitely upset. “I seen you, like I said. Every day, you walk up Vineyard Street. Then a while later, you walk back down. Why you come by here if you got someplace else to go?”

I gave a little shrug. “Because if I didn't walk by here, maybe I'd wind up here.” She nodded slowly at that. “What's your name?” I asked her. I didn't know if I'd ever see her again, but I didn't want to forget her.

There was a pause. I wondered how long it had been since someone had asked her. “Sara,” she said at last. She looked like she was about to start crying. I didn't think either one of us wanted to see that.

“Nice to meet you, Sara,” I replied. After that, we both turned and walked away. What else was there to say?

* * * * *

The question stuck with me for the rest of my walk down Vineyard Street. It hung with me as I crossed over to Franklin, and walked the last three blocks to a tenement on Franklin that was only about two steps up from condemned itself. It wasn't until I went down into the basement, and slumped down onto my cot in the utility room next to the boiler that I really let myself think about it. Why did I go anywhere near Vineyard Street?

I lit another cigarette and drew in the smoke. My ex-wife always said smoking was going to kill me, but it had never gotten the chance. If I still slept, I'd have had to worry about smoking in bed, but I didn't do that anymore. I didn't eat, I didn't sleep, I didn't breathe. I didn't have any needs anymore. That was the worst part about being dead. Not that you weren't needed, but that you didn't need. Everything was optional as a zombie.

That was why I walked along Vineyard Street every night. Because it reminded me of what I would be like if I didn't find something to keep myself going. That was why I kept talking to my old buddies on the force; it wasn't for them, it was for me. It was something to make me stir my dead bones off this cot, out of this room, and into the world. Because it wasn't as though the world was going to come knocking at my door.

It was right about then that someone knocked on my door. Yeah, I hated cheap irony too.

I shambled to my feet and shuffled over to the door. I figured it was maybe Paulie, my landlord. Well, I called him my landlord but he didn't charge me rent, and I couldn't pay anyway. Paulie was an ex-cop friend of mine who'd tried his hand at real estate after he retired, and had bought this building with plans to fix it up nice. He'd never had much luck with that bit, but he kept it clean and he didn't screw his tenants. And he had a spare room for an old pal who had saved his life once or twice, even if that old pal was a zombie. Paulie was good people...but even he didn't come down here just to talk. He must have heard from someone who was asking for my help.

“Yeah, hang on, Paulie,” I said, sliding the chain off the door. “I'm not as young as I used to be--”

I opened the door. It was my ex-wife.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Part Three

Again, not that any of this was official. Nobody was rounding up the undead and putting them in camps or anything. We’d never do anything like that, not in America. It was just one of those things that kind of…happened. You came back from the dead, and you couldn’t touch your assets because everything was all tied up in probate and there wasn’t any legal precedent for trying to claim your own estate. Without money, you couldn’t find a place to stay, and you couldn’t just wander the streets without being busted on a vagrancy charge. So you wandered until you found a spot you couldn’t get kicked out of. And you stayed there.

The old Roman Catholics used to believe that there was a place on the outskirts of Hell, called Limbo. It was where you did your time if you hadn’t done anything really wrong, but you couldn’t get into Heaven because…fuck, who knew? Probably every time you asked, some paper-pushing angel gave you a vague answer without ever looking you in the eyes. Even God had people who fell through the cracks. That was Limbo. The place on the edge of Hell for all the people who didn’t fit anywhere else. When I heard about it in church, I always pictured it in my head as a sort of endless, gray, empty nothing full of people who stood around, staring vacantly into space and getting rained on.

I didn’t picture it that way anymore. I didn’t need to. I knew exactly what Limbo looked like, and it was those five blocks on Vineyard Street along the river.

It was crowded. The crowd had grown a trickle at a time over the last six months, with a heart attack here and a careless driver there, probably no more than nine or ten each day but they kept coming. Nobody did a census, but I figured there were almost two thousand people crammed into those five city blocks. They were two thousand dead people, too. We didn’t rot as fast as corpses used to, which was another one of those things that scientists kept saying they’d have an answer for any day now, and my sense of smell wasn’t what it was when I was alive. But even I could smell that. The stench alone kept most of the living away.

It was dark, too. Most of the streetlights were broken, and nobody had stopped by to change a bulb in…oh, about six months. Funny, that. Nobody lit any fires anymore; zombies didn’t feel the cold, and all the transients had either moved on or joined the Vineyard Street crowd in a more permanent sense. Hell, life probably hadn’t changed for them all that much.

I walked along Vineyard Street with my head down, trying not to make eye contact with anybody. Most of the time, that wasn’t very hard. A lot of the people on Vineyard Street had already given up on life the same way it had given up on them; they didn’t have the nerve to off themselves permanently, but they couldn’t face unlife. They just wanted to escape. But they couldn’t eat, sleep, drink, or do drugs, so they just sat there waiting for whatever was keeping their bodies animated to give up and leave them alone. They were no problem to anybody. I was more worried about the crazies and the desperate ones.

Being dead took everybody different. Nobody really adjusted to it, but some people handled it better than others. The ones who went really nuts usually wound up shrink-wrapped in a warehouse somewhere—the cops didn’t make much of an effort at policing Vineyard Street, never had, but the really bad crazies didn’t limit their activities to the zombie ghettos. That didn’t mean that everyone left over was sane, though. It just meant that they were smart enough to avoid getting caught at being crazy.

About two blocks in, I figured out that I was being followed. It was the sound that gave them away; one foot dragged when they walked, making a scraping sound on the asphalt that gave them away even with the bad light. I walked a little faster. I didn’t want to run, not unless I had to, but I wanted to make whoever it was work to keep up with me. The more distance they had to close to get to me, the more time I’d have to figure out what to do about them when they got there.

Four blocks along, and that scraping sound was starting to get on my nerves. I knew better than to think they’d give up; we didn’t get tired or fatigued the way a living person would. I could walk to Timbuktu, and that scraping sound would follow me every goddamned step. I didn’t really feel like walking to Timbuktu, though. So instead I headed for one of the few remaining streetlights that hadn’t fallen victim to vandalism or neglect, and waited in the dim sodium light for whoever it was that was following me.

She was young, younger than I expected. From the look of her face, what was left of it, she was no more than seventeen. She’d been cute when she was alive, too; the features on the left side of her face could have been those of a magazine model. The right side, well…if I had to guess, I’d say she bit it in a motorcycle accident. No head trauma, or she wouldn’t still be walking around, but she must have skidded along the ground for a good few feet to abrade off that much flesh. Her right arm was a mangled mess, and her right leg dragged in an awkward way that suggested she’d broken it in a few places when she died. I pegged her for exposure and blood loss from the broken arm. I never thought I’d be glad to get a slug in the chest, but walking down Vineyard Street made it clear that there were a lot of bad ways to die.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Part Two

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.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Part One

I took a drag off my cigarette, drawing smoke into lungs that were probably already coated with the stuff. I didn't really feel it, not the same way I did when I was alive; my lungs still inflated, with a bit of effort and a duct tape patch over the bullet hole that was responsible for my current situation, but I didn't really feel the smoke swirling around the way I used to. It just felt kind of warm. Without a working circulatory system, the nicotine didn't get into my bloodstream and make all those wonderful chemical changes that made life temporarily worth living...which was fine by me, because I wasn't living anymore.

But I still smoked. Why? Same I reason I did everything else I did, I suppose. Force of habit.
I took another drag, just to feel like I hadn't totally wasted the effort of lighting the damn thing, then tossed it to the ground and stubbed it out with my shoe. I gestured to Kowalski for the megaphone and made the effort of filling my lungs again. “Miller?” I shouted through the megaphone. “Miller, I know what you're going through, believe me, but this isn't going to help your situation.”

The voice that came back sounded a lot like mine. There's a kind of voice that only zombies have, something you can't really describe but you know it as soon as you hear it. It's something that says that your throat doesn't produce phlegm anymore, something that tells everyone who's listening that your saliva dried up days ago and your tongue is dry and cracked in your mouth but you don't really feel it. It's the voice of a human being who's dead and still talking.

Or in this case, dead and still screaming obscenities. “Fuck you, pig! You don't know shit about me! You don't know shit about Wanda, either! We're gonna work this out, you'll see! She just needs know, to get what I've been going through! Then she'll see that she needs me the same way I need her!”

She needs you like she needs a bullet in the chest, I thought to myself, but I was too smart to say something like that out loud in a hostage situation. Guys like Miller were pretty much a daily occurrence ever since the dead started coming back. They got killed—Miller had it rougher than some, he bit it when his restaurant went up in a grease fire. I was puffy and gray, but at least I didn't look like Rick Baker got an Oscar for me. Miller got up off the slab, went back home to the wife, and found out the hard way that she took 'till death do us part' literally. She called 9-1-1 from her bathroom. That was where I came in.

I wasn't on the force anymore. Not officially. It wasn't because I died, of course. It never is. According to the paperwork, I was on an 'indefinite paid leave of absence', receiving counseling for 'possible post-traumatic stress disorder' on account of how I got shot in the chest in the course of duty. My reinstatement was pending a full psychiatric evaluation from a qualified specialist who would determine whether my lethal trauma had affected me psychologically to the point where I was no longer fit to perform my responsibilities as a police officer.

But every time I tried to find out who was considered to be a 'qualified specialist', I got a vague answer from a paper-pusher who wouldn't look me in the eyes, and my pay got held up in a dispute over whether it should be workman's comp, pension or death benefits. It's the same all over. Nobody wants to be the first person to get sued for discrimination by a dead person, but everybody knows the score.
So officially, I was either retired, crazy or dead. Unofficially...well, here I was with a megaphone in one hand and a gun in the other, giving a heart to heart talk to a walking corpse. They say life takes some unexpected turns, but it's nothing compared to death.

“Look, Miller,” I shouted through the megaphone, “I know this is hard for you! Believe me, I know! But being dead isn't going to make her love you!”

“You don't know that!” Miller shouted.

I tried to sigh in exasperation, but I hadn't really taken enough of a breath first to make it sound like anything more than a wheeze. “I know you think that she'll understand you better if she's dead too,” I said into the megaphone. “But do you really think she's not going to be bitter about dying? Who do you think she's going to blame for that, Miller?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the snipers moving into position. I didn't envy them their job; back when zombies were just something you saw in the movies, everyone knew how to kill the undead. “Shoot 'em in the head!” But in the real world, the head was a small, moving target with plenty of fluid and bone surrounding the actual important bits. That's why police were trained to aim for the center mass. Which, as I was unliving proof, did sweet fuck-all to a zombie.

That was why everyone was counting on me. Tom Haney, zombie hostage negotiator  I should have got business cards printed up, but I'd already spent all the money on cigarettes. “Look, Miller. You have to be patient, here. This is a big adjustment for both of you, and it's not going to happen overnight. Give her some time to think about it, go out to one of the settlements on Vineyard Street and talk to her by email. You've got nothing but time, now, believe me.”

“I don't want to go hang around with a bunch of dead fucksticks!” Miller shouted. “I want my goddamned wife!”

“Look, Miller,” I said, “I don't want to make threats here, have to know that you're not going to get her like this. You kill her, and the cops here won't stop shooting until they get a head shot or you drop the gun. Even if you survive that, it's not going to end well for you. The only way out is to surrender your weapon and let Wanda go. Do that, and I'll see if I can pull some strings and get a marriage counselor for you.”