In Beauty, Like The Night
by Norman Partridge
Norman Partridge is the author of the novels Saguaro Riptide, The Ten Ounce Siesta, Slippin' into Darkness, Wildest Dreams, andDark Harvest , which was named one of the 100 Best Books of 2006 by Publishers Weekly. He also wrote a media-tie in novel The Crow: Wicked Prayer , which was later adapted into the fourth Crow film.
Partridge's short fiction—which has appeared in Amazing Stories and Cemetery Dance and in a number of anthologies, such as Dark Voices 6, Love in Vein , and Retro Pulp Tales —has been collected in three volumes: Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales, Bad Intentions , and The Man with the Barbed-Wire Fists.
In the introduction to the latter collection, Partridge describes in detail his first experience seeing Night of the Living Dead at the local drive-in. «The drive-in in my hometown had not one . . . not two . . . but three cemeteries as neighbors,» Partridge says. «Realizing that, a nasty little idea began to nibble at the corners of my imagination. I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if the dead folks in those cemeteries clawed their way out of their graves and came shuffling across the road to pay us a little visit.»
Which sounds to me like the origin of many zombie tales if not this one in particular.
The beach was deserted.
Somehow, they knew enough to stay out of the sun.
Nathan Grimes rested his elbows on the balcony and peered through his binoculars. As he adjusted the focus knob, the smooth, feminine mounds that bordered the crescent-shaped beach became nets of purslane and morning glory, and the green blur that lay beyond sharpened to a crazy quilt of distinct colors—emerald, charcoal, glimpses of scarlet—a dark panorama of manchineel trees, sea grapes, and coconut palms.
Nathan scanned the shadows until he found the golden-bronze color of her skin. Naked, just out of reach of the sun's rays, she leaned against the gentle curve of a coconut palm, curling a strand of singed blonde hair around the single finger that remained on her left hand. Her fingertip was red—with nail polish, not blood—and she thrust it into her mouth and licked both finger and hair, finally releasing a spit curl that fought the humid Caribbean breeze for a moment and then drooped in defeat.
Kara North, Miss December.
Nathan remembered meeting Kara at the New Orleans Mansion the previous August. She'd posed in front of a bountifully trimmed Christmas tree for Teddy Ching's centerfold shot, and Nathan—fresh off a plane from the Los Angeles offices of Grimesgirl magazine—had walked in on the proceedings, joking that the holiday decorations made him feel like he'd done a Rip Van Winkle in the friendly skies.
Nathan smiled at the memory. There were several elegantly wrapped packages under the tree that August day, but each one was empty, just a prop for Teddy's photo shoot. Kara had discovered that sad fact almost immediately, and they'd all had a good laugh about her mercenary attitude while Teddy shot her with a little red Santa cap on her head and sassy red stockings on her feet and nothing but golden-bronze flesh in between.
Empty boxes. Nathan shook his head. He'd seen the hunger in Kara's eyes when the shoot was over. A quick study, that one. Right off she'd known that he alone could fill those boxes in a finger-snap.
And now she knew enough to stay out of the sun. They all did. Nathan had been watching them for two days, ever since the morning after the accident. He wasn't worried about them breaking into the house, for his Caribbean sanctuary was a Moorish palace surrounded by high, broken-bottle-encrusted walls that were intended to fend off everyone from prying paparazzi to anti-porn assassins. No, the thing that worried him about the dead Grimesgirls was that they didn't act at all like the zombies he'd seen on television.
Most of those miserable gut-buckets had crawled out of the grave and weren't very mobile. In fact, Nathan couldn't remember seeing any zombies on the tube that bore much of a resemblance to their living brethren, but that could simply be chalked up to the journalistic penchant for photographing the most grotesque members of any enemy group. It was an old trick. Just as they'd focused attention on the most outrageous members of the SDS and the Black Panthers in order to turn viewers against those groups way back when in the sixties, the media would now focus on the most bizarre specimens of this current uprising.
Uprising. It was an odd word to choose—once such a hopeful word for Nathan's generation—but it seemed somehow appropriate, now stirring images not of demonstration but of reanimation. Cemeteries pitted with open graves, shrouds blowing across empty boulevards . . . midnight glimpses of a shadow army driven by an insatiable hunger for human flesh.
Nathan wondered what the network anchors would make of Kara North. All theories about media manipulation aside, he doubted that there were many other suntanned zombies besides last year's Miss December. Stateside, the victims of an accident such as the one that had occurred on Grimes Island would have been devoured by predator zombies before reanimation could occur. That hadn't happened here, because there weren't any predator zombies on the island when Kara and the others had perished. So something different had happened here, maybe something that hadn't happened before, anywhere.
Kara raised her good hand in what might have been a feeble wave.
«Freaks,» Nathan whispered, unable to fight off his signature wry smile. «Zombie freaks.» He set down the binoculars—an expensive German product, for Nathan Grimes demanded the best in everything—and picked up his pistol, a Heckler & Koch P7M13, also German, also expensive.
The sun inched lower in the sky. The waves became silver mirrors, glinting in Nathan's eyes. He put on sunglasses and the glare flattened to a soft pearly glow. As the horizon melted electric blue and the shadows thickened beneath the coconut palms, Kara North, Miss December, shambled toward the glass-encrusted walls of Nathan's beachfront palace. Again, she curled a lock of blonde hair around her finger. Again, she sucked the burned strands wet.
Strange that she could focus on her hair and ignore her mutilated hand, Nathan thought as he loaded the Heckler. His gut told him that her behavior was more than simple instinct, and he wondered just how far her intelligence extended. Did she know that she was dead? Was she capable of posing such a question?
Could she think?
The curl drooped, uncoiled, and again Kara went to sucking it. Nathan remembered a Christmas that had come in August complete with the holiday smells of hot buttered rum and Monterey pine, the sounds of the air-conditioner running on high cool and seasoned oak crackling in the fireplace. He recalled Kara's dreams and the way she kissed and her red nails slashing through wrapping paper as she opened gifts he'd originally intended for Ronnie. And then, when he was fully ready to surrender to his memories, the shifting July winds brushed back across Grimes Island, carrying the very real stink of scorched metal and charred rubber.
The scent of destruction.
Nathan covered his nose and raised the pistol.
Two days ago, Nathan had the situation under control. Certainly, considering the circumstances, the arrangements for evacuating the Grimesgirls from the United States had been maddening. Certainly, such arrangements would have been completely impossible if Nathan hadn't had the luxury of satellite communications, but such perks went hand in hand with network ownership.
Two days ago, he was, in short, a completely satisfied man. After all, the foresight which some had dubbed paranoia was paying off, and his contingency plan to end all contingency plans was taking shape: he had his own island fortress, adequate provisions, and a plan to sit out the current difficulties in the company of twelve beautiful centerfold models.
So, two days ago, he didn't worry as the hands of his Rolex crossed past the appointed hour of the Grimesgirls' arrival, for the dangerous part of the evacuation operation had already been carried out with military precision. In rapid succession, a trio of Bell JetRanger choppers had touched down on the roof of the New Orleans Mansion, and the Grimesgirls had been transported without incident to a suburban airfield where a private security force was guarding Nathan's Gulfstream IV. Needless to say, takeoff had been immediate.
Of course, the operation was costly, but Nathan considered it a wise investment. He expected that there would be a real shortage of attractive female flesh by the time the government got things under control. The public, as always, would have an immediate need for his services, and he figured that the people he laughingly referred to as his «readers» wouldn't mind looking at last season's models, at least until the competition got into gear.
If there was any competition left. Nathan got himself a tequila—half listening for the Gulfstream, half watching the latest parade of gut-buckets on CNN—and soon he was imagining his chief competitors as walking corpses, one with gold chains circling his broken neck and an expensive toupee covering the gnaw marks on his skull, the other with his trademark pipe jammed between rotted lips, gasping, unable to fill his lungs with enough oxygen to kindle a blaze in the tar-stained brier.
Nathan grinned, certain that he'd never suffer such a humiliating end. He was a survivor. He had plans. And he would get started on them right now, while he waited.
He found a yellow legal pad and started brainstorming titles. grimesgirls: our island year. No, too much fun in that one. grimesgirls: from hell to paradise. Better. He'd have to search for the right tone to stifle those who would accuse him of exploitation. And Teddy Ching's pictures would have to match. Hopefully, Teddy had shot lots of nice stuff during the evacuation—decaying faces mashed against the windows of the Mansion, the French Quarter streets clogged with zombies—shots that stank of danger. Pictures like that would make a perfect contrast to the spreads they'd do on the island.
grimesgirls: national treasures saved. Nathan stared at what he'd written and smiled. Patriotic. Proud. Words as pretty as dollar signs.
Wind from the open door caught the paper, and Nathan trapped it against the table. For the first time he noticed the darkness, the suffocating gray shroud that had come long before sunset. The plane was horribly late. He'd been so caught up in planning the magazine that he'd lost track of time. Jesus. The Gulfstream could be trapped inside the storm, fighting it, low on fuel . . . .
The storm rustled over the coconut palms with a sound like a giant broom sweeping the island clean. Rainwater guttered off the tile roof. It was only five o'clock, but the darkness seemed impenetrable. Nathan sent Buck and Pablo to the landing strip armed with flares. He put on a coat and paced on the balcony of his suite until the thrashing sounds of the approaching Gulfstream drove him inside. He stared into the darkness, imagining that it was as thick as pudding, and he was truly startled when the explosion bloomed in the distance. Ronnie (Miss October three years past) tried to embrace him, but he pushed her away and rushed from the room. It was much later, after the rain had diminished to a drizzling mist, that he stepped outside and smelled the wreck for the first time.
Buck and Pablo didn't return. The night passed, and then the morning. Nathan didn't go looking for the boys. He was afraid that they might be looking for him. He hid his pistol and the keys to his Jeep, and he slapped Ronnie when she called him a coward. After that she was quiet, and when she'd been quiet for a very long time he played at being magnanimous. He opened the wall safe and left her alone with a peace offering.
Downstairs, he hid the yellow legal pad in a desk drawer that he rarely opened. He closed the drawer carefully, slowly, without a sound.
That was how it began, two days ago, on Grimes Island. Since then, the living had moved quietly, listening for the footsteps of the dead.
The Heckler was warm, and as Nathan reloaded it he wished that his talents as a marksman were worthy of such a fine weapon. He set the pistol on his dresser and went downstairs, fighting the memory of the purple-gray mess that Kara North's forehead had become when one of his shots—the fifth or the sixth—finally found the mark.
That wasn't the way he wanted to remember her. He wanted to remember Miss December. No gunshots, only Teddy's camera clicking. No blood, only a red Santa cap. Sassy red socks. And nothing but golden-bronze flesh in between.
Nathan took a bottle of Cuervo Gold from beneath the bar. When it came to tequila he preferred Chinaco, but he'd finished the last bottle on the night of the crash and now the cheaper brand would have to do.
«I saw what you did.» Ronnie confronted him the way a paperback detective would, sliding the Heckler across the mahogany bar, marring the wood with a long, ugly scratch. «You should have asked Kara in for a drink, made it a little easier on the poor girl. That was a damn rude way to say goodbye, Nate.»
Nathan filled a glass with ice, refusing to meet Ronnie's patented withering stare, but that didn't stop her words. «She looked so cute, too, worshiping you from a distance with those big blue eyes of hers. Did you see the way she tried to curl her hair?» Ronnie clicked her tongue against her teeth. «It's a shame what a little humidity can do to a really nice coiffure. »
Nathan said nothing, slicing a lime now, and Ronnie giggled. «Strong and silent, huh? C'mon, Nate, you're the one who blew off the top of her head. Tell me how it felt.»
Nathan stared at the tip of Ronnie's nose, avoiding her eyes Once she'd been an autumnal vision with hair the color of fallen leaves. Miss October. She'd had the look of practiced ease, skin the color of brandy, and large chocolate eyes that made every man in America long for a cold night. But Nathan had learned all too well the October power of those eyes, the way they could chill a man with a single frosty glance.
He pocketed the Heckler. He'd have to be more careful about leaving the gun where she could get at it. Coke freaks could get crazy. He poured Cuervo Gold into his glass and then drank, pretending that the only thing bothering him was the quality of the tequila. Then he risked a quick glance at her eyes, still chocolate-brown but now sticky with a yellow sheen that even Teddy Ching couldn't airbrush away.
Ronnie picked up a cocktail napkin and shredded its corners. «Why her? Why'd you shoot Kara and not the others?»
«She was the first one that came into range.» Nathan swirled his drink with a swizzle stick shaped like the cartoon Grimesgirl that ran on the last page of every issue. «It was weird. When I looked into Kara's eyes, I had the feeling that she was relieved to see me. Relieved! Then I raised the gun, and it was as if she suddenly realized . . . .»
Ronnie tore the napkin in half, then quarters. «They don't realize, Nate. They don't think.»
«They're not like those things on TV, Ronnie. You noticed the way she looked at me. Christ, she actually waved at me today. I'm not saying that they're geniuses, but there's something there . . . something I don't like.»
Bits of purple paper dotted the mahogany bar. Ronnie fingered them one by one, lazily reassembling the napkin. Nathan sensed her disapproval. He knew that she wanted him to strap on his pistol and go gunning for the Grimesgirls as if he were Lee Van Cleef in some outr'e spaghetti western.
«Look, Ronnie, it's not like they're acting normal , beating down our walls like the things on TV do. We just have to be a little careful, is all. There are eleven of them now, and sooner or later they'll all wander close to the gate the same way that Kara did. Then I can nail them with no problem. And then we can go out again . . . it'll be safe.»
«Don't be so sure.» He made the mistake of sighing and her voice rose angrily. «They didn't fly in by themselves, you know. There was a pilot, a copilot . . . maybe even a few guards. And Teddy. That's at least five or six more people.» Now it was her turn to sigh. «Not to mention Buck and Pablo.»
«You might be right. But who knows, the others might be so crippled up that they can't get over to this side of the island fast, or at all. Or they could have been incinerated in the explosion. Maybe that's what happened to Buck and Pablo.» Nathan looked at her, not wanting to say that the boys might have been someone's dinner, and she pursed her lips, which was a hard thing for her to do because they were full and pouty.
«Hell, maybe the boys got away,» he said, realizing that he was grasping at straws. «Took a boat or something. I can't see the docks from here, so I can't be sure. It could be that they reasoned with the girls, tricked them somehow—«
«Are you really saying that zombies can think? That's crazy! If they're dead, they're hungry. That's it—that's what they say on TV. And Kara North sucking a little spit curl doesn't convince me otherwise.»
Nathan cut another slice of lime and sucked it, appreciating the sharp tang. It was the last lime on the island, and he was determined to enjoy it. «Maybe the whole thing has something to do with the crash,» he said, taking another tack. «I can't figure it. I saw the explosion, but all the girls seem to be in pretty good shape. Kara was missing a few fingers and her hair was singed, and a few of the others are kind of wracked up, but none of them is badly burned, like you'd expect.»
«We could drive out to the plane and see what happened for ourselves,» Ronnie offered. «They can't catch us in the Jeep.» She touched his hand, lightly, tentatively. «We might be able to salvage some stuff from the wreck. Someone might have had a rifle, maybe even one with a scope, and that would be a much better weapon than your pistol.»
Nathan considered her argument, then jerked his hand away as soon as he realized what lay behind it. «Who was bringing it in for you? C'mon, Ronnie . . . you know what I'm talking about. Who was your mule this trip?»
She tried to look hurt. Did a good job of it. «You think you're quite a detective, don't you? Well, round up the usual suspects. Ronnie's a coke freak waiting on a mule. Buck and Pablo pulled a Houdini, or maybe they had a powwow with Kara and her pals, the world's first intellectual gut-buckets. C'mon, Nate, put it together for me, but do it before those things out there turn nasty and come after us.» She grabbed the remnants of the napkin and flung purple confetti at his face. «Wake up, boss. The party's over. Me, you've got figured, but them . . . they're dead, and they're hungry, and that's that.»
She let the words hang there for a minute. Then she rose and walked to the stairs, gracefully, like brandy pouring from a bottle. With fluid elegance, he thought wryly. He watched her calves flex, enjoyed the way she swung her ass for him. Eagerly, he ran his thumb over the little plastic breasts on the cartoon-inspired swizzle stick.
«Me, you've got figured.» She did the measured over-the-shoulder glance that she'd used three years ago in her Grimesgirl centerfold, then turned and ran long fingers over her naked breasts, along her narrow hips. Nathan's thumb traveled over the cute swizzle-stick ass; he pressed down without realizing it, and the plastic snapped in two.
Ronnie laughed, climbing the stairs, not looking back.
After he'd come, Nathan kicked off the satin sheets and opened the wall safe. He cut three lines on a vanity mirror and presented them to Ronnie, then hurried downstairs because he hated the sound of her snorting. In the kitchen, he popped open a Pepsi and took a box of Banquet fried chicken out of the freezer. He chose two breasts and three thighs, placed them on a sheet of Reynolds Wrap, and fired the oven.
While he waited for the chicken, he turned on the television and fiddled with the satellite controls until he found something besides snow. Immediately, he recognized the Capitol dome in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, just below the CNN logo. It was a favorite camera setup of Washington correspondents, but there was no reporter standing in frame. There wasn't a voiceover, either.
A gut-bucket in a hospital gown staggered into view, then lurched away from the light. Another followed, this one naked, fleshless. Nathan watched, fascinated. It was only a matter of time before one of the zombies knocked over the camera or smashed the lights. Why didn't the network cut away? He couldn't figure it out.
Unless he'd tuned in some kind of study. Unless the camera had been set up to record the zombies. Bolted down. Protected. That kind of thing.
But to send it out on the satellite? It didn't make any sense. Then Nathan remembered that all satellite broadcasts weren't intended for public consumption. He might be picking up a direct feed to CNN instead of a broadcast from CNN. In the past he'd enjoyed searching for just such feeds with his satellite dish—on a location to network feed, you could pick up all the nasty remarks that reporters made about the government gobbledygook they fed to the American public, and you could find out what really went on during the commercial breaks at any number of live events.
Nathan stared at the CNN logo superimposed in the corner of the screen. Was that added at the network, or would a technician in a mobile unit add it from location? He wished he knew enough about the technical end of broadcasting to decide. He switched channels, searching for another broadcast. When he was sure he'd exhausted all possibilities, he tried to return to the CNN transmission.
He couldn't find it.
It wasn't there anymore.
A blank hiss filled the room. Nathan hit the mute button on the remote control. A few minutes passed before he noticed the burning chicken, but he couldn't bring himself to do anything about it, didn't want to look at it. Images coiled like angry snakes in his mind, ready to strike, ready to poison him. The explosion, the fleshless zombie on TV, Kara North's mutilated hand.
The snakes struck, and Nathan lurched to the sink and vomited Pepsi.
First he heard her shouts, and he was up off the couch and almost to the stairs before he remembered that he'd left the gun on the kitchen sink. He pivoted too quickly at the foot of the stairway, lurched against the wall, and then ran to the gun, Ronnie's insistent cries still filling his ears.
He returned to the staircase just as she began her descent. «He was calling me,» she said, her eyes wild, unfocused. «Outside. I heard him. I went out onto the balcony but I couldn't see . . . . But I talked to him, and he answered me! Christ, we've got to let him in!»
«You mean someone's alive out there?»
Ronnie nodded, naked, shivering, her hair a sweaty tangle. Nathan didn't like what he saw any better than what he'd heard. Maybe she was just strung out. Maybe she'd been dreaming. Sure.
One of the gut-buckets had pounded on the gate and she'd imagined the rest.
Or maybe someone had indeed survived the crash.
«We're not opening up until I check things out,» Nathan said. «Just stay here. Don't move.» He squeezed her shoulders to reinforce the order.
Upstairs, he punched several buttons on the bedroom wall before stepping onto the balcony. Deadwhite light spilled across the compound, glittering eerily over the glass-encrusted walls and illuminating the beach. A man wearing a blue uniform stood near the gate. Either the pilot or the copilot. His complexion was sallow in the artificial light, and his chin was bruised a deep purple. He stared up at Nathan and his brow creased, as if he hadn't expected to see Nathan at all.
The pilot's mouth opened.
In the distance, a wave washed over the beach.
«Ronnie . . . I've come to see . . . Ronnie.»
«Jesus!» Nathan lowered the Heckler. «What happened out there? The explosion . . . how did you—«
«Ronnie . . . Ronnie . . . I've come to see . . . Ron . . . neeeee. I've come . . . .»
The muscles in Nathan's forearms quivered in revulsion. He forced himself to raise the Heckler and aim.
He fired. Missed.
Muddy gray eyes stared into the frosty light. Wide, frantic. The thing waved its hands, wildly signaling Nathan to stop. He fired again, but the shot whizzed over the zombie's shoulder. Hurriedly, it backed off, ripping at its coat and the sweat-stained shirt beneath.
Nathan's third shot clipped the thing's ear just as it ripped open its shirt.
«I'm expected,» it screeched. «Expected and I've come to see . . . .»
Nathan swore, stunned by the sight of a half-dozen plastic bags filled with cocaine secured to the zombie's chest with strips of medical tape.
Ronnie's mule. Two days dead and still trying to complete its deal.
The thing moved forward. It was smiling now, sure that Nathan finally understood.
Nathan took aim—Nathan, stop!— but black lights exploded in his head before he could squeeze off another shot. «You're crazy, Nathan!» He hit the balcony floor, cutting his left eyebrow on the uneven tile, and his mind had barely processed that information and recognized Ronnie's voice when he realized that the Heckler was being pried from his fingers. «He's alive, and you tried to kill him!» He tried to rise and this time he glimpsed the heavy German binoculars arcing towards him.
He had just managed to close his eyes when the binoculars smashed into his bloody brow.
Screaming. God, she was screaming.
She must have realized the truth.
Nathan struggled to his feet just as Ronnie's cries were punctuated by gunshots. He leaned against the balcony and tried to focus on what was happening on the beach.
But they weren't on the beach. The big gate stood open, and the dead pilot was inside the compound, backing Ronnie across a patch of stunted grass. She fired the Heckler and cocaine puffed from one of the packets taped to the thing's chest. She got off three more shots that destroyed the zombie's left shoulder. Its left arm came loose, slithered through its shirtsleeve, and dropped silently to the grass. The thing stared down at its severed limb, confused by the sudden amputation.
Ronnie retreated under the jutting balcony.
The zombie followed her into the house.
Nathan stumbled through the bedroom doorway. Ronnie wasn't screaming anymore. That sound had been replaced by subtler but no less horrifying noises: the Heckler clicking, empty, the zombie whispering Ronnie's name. Dizzily, Nathan reached the top of the stairway just as Ronnie mounted the first stair. He tried to grab her but the pilot got hold of her first and tugged her away.
It stared at her for a moment, still pleading, as if it only wanted her to take delivery, but as it pulled her closer its expression changed.
Its nostrils flared.
It pushed her down onto the stairs and held her there.
Its mouth widened, but no words were left there.
Its eyes were wild, suddenly gleaming.
Dry teeth clamped Ronnie's left breast. She squealed and pulled away, but the thing punched its fingers through her left thigh, holding her down. An urge had been triggered, and suddenly the gut-bucket was insatiable. Its teeth ripped Ronnie's flesh; it swallowed without chewing; it was a shark in the grip of a feeding frenzy.
Nathan backed away, staring at the zombie, glancing at the empty pistol on the hallway floor. Another gut-bucket shambled forward from the shadowy bar. This one had something in its hand, a machete, and Nathan was suddenly glad that he was going to die because he didn't think he could bear living in a world where you couldn't tell the living from the dead, where fucking corpses could talk, could remember, could fool you right up to the moment when they started to bite and tear and swallow . . . .
The rusty machete cleaved the pilot's head from his shoulders; the dead thing collapsed on top of Ronnie.
The holder of the machete stared up at him, and Nathan froze like a deer trapped by a pair of headlights.
«Christ, boss, don't worry. I'm alive,» Buck Taylor said, and then he went to close the gate.
Buck said he couldn't eat or drink so soon after cleaning up the remains of Ronnie and the gut-bucket pilot. Instead, he talked. Nathan tried not to drink too much Cuervo Gold, tried to listen, but his thoughts turned inexorably to the puzzle of the pilot's strange behavior.
«So the storm was coming down in buckets, splattering every damn inch of soil. Pablo was drinking coffee, and I'd had so much that I just had to take a piss, but it was really coming down—«
The rusty machete lay before Buck on the oak tabletop; his fingers danced over the blade as he spoke. He had once been a center for the Raiders—Good Old Number 66 had never missed a game in seven seasons of play—but Nathan couldn't imagine that he'd ever looked this bad, not even after the most desperate contest imaginable. His bald pate was knotted with bruises, and every time he touched them he looked wistful, like he was wishing he'd had a helmet.
»—so I hacked my way into the forest and got under a tree, that kind with leaves like big pancakes. And I started to piss. And just then I heard the engines. Holy Christ, I got zipped up quick and—«
The twin sixes on Buck's football jersey were smeared with slimy black stains. There was a primitive splint on his left arm, held in place with strips torn from a silver-and-black bandana. The massive biceps swelling between the damp strips of wood was an ugly color much worse than the blue-green of a natural bruise. It reminded Nathan of rotten cantaloupe, a sickly gray color. And the smell coming from the other side of the table was—
»—pissed all over my leg. I ain't ashamed to say it, because the left wing tore off just then and I thought I was dead for sure, with the plane heading straight for me. So I dived—«
Quickly. The pilot had been able to think quickly. He'd ripped off his shirt to show Nathan the cocaine. He'd gotten Ronnie to open the gate. And even though he'd lost an arm to Ronnie's gunfire, he'd acted as if he believed that he was still alive until he got close to her, the first live human he'd encountered since reanimating. That confrontation had triggered his horrible—
»—second thoughts, but there wasn't time. The broken wing flipped around in midair like a piece of balsa wood. No telling where it was gonna end up. Then the 'stream slammed sideways into a big stand of palm trees that bounced it right back onto the landing strip. It rolled and the other wing twisted off. And the wing that was still in the air—«
Came down on the machete. Buck's fingers did. Nathan watched them, and he slid away from the table, eased away from Number 66.
«I could see Pablo in the van. Even through the storm. I saw him trying to find a place to set his coffee. And then the wing hit the van, and the damn thing just exploded.»
So the van had exploded. That was why the zombies hadn't been burned. The plane hadn't even caught fire—its fuel tanks were probably near empty after fighting the storm. But the van had had a full tank.
«I'm ashamed about that, but there was really nothing I could do. The fire was so intense. Even the zombies didn't go near it, and by the time it burned itself out there wasn't anything left of the van or Pablo.»
Nathan's fingers closed around the pistol. He remembered the pilot ripping open his shirt. He remembered the pilot grabbing Ronnie, the momentary confusion in his muddy eyes, the excited gleam as he surrendered to the feeding frenzy. Buck was in control now, surely he was. But what would happen when he came close to his boss?
Nathan raised the Heckler. Buck grinned, like he didn't quite understand. Nathan looked at Buck's wounds, at the untouched glass of beer in front of him. Good Old Number 66 wasn't drinking, and he hadn't wanted any fried chicken. Maybe he didn't want fried chicken anymore. Maybe he didn't realize that yet, just like he didn't remember what had killed him.
«Buck, I want you to go back outside, back out with them,» Nathan said, speaking as he would speak to a child. «You see, risking temptation is the dangerous part. It'll make you lose what's left of your mind.»
«Boss, are you okay? Maybe you should get some sleep, stop thinking about Ronnie for a while. Maybe you should—«
Oh, they were smart. Getting smarter every minute. «You can't fool me, Buck. You can fool yourself, but you can't fool me.»
Nathan aimed and Buck jolted backward, out of his chair, scrambling now. The first bullet exploded his left biceps, shattering the makeshift splint as it exited, but Buck didn't slow because football instincts die hard. He sprang to his feet, tucked his head, and charged across the kitchen.
His eyes shone with vitality, but Nathan was certain that it was the vitality of death, not life. Buck launched himself in a flying tackle and together they crashed to the floor. Nathan raised the Heckler, and Buck couldn't fight him off because the wound in his left arm was too severe, so he fought back the only way he could. He bit Nathan's shoulder, set his teeth, and tore.
Nathan screamed. White blotches of pain danced before his eyes.
Nathan's finger tightened on the trigger.
A bullet shattered the skull of Good Old Number 66.
Nathan saw it this way:
The crash had killed them instantly. All of them. And when they opened their eyes they found themselves on Grimes Island, just where they were supposed to be, and they imagined themselves survivors. They wandered through the lush forest, across the coral beaches, finding nothing to tempt them, nothing to trigger the horrible hunger.
Trapped in a transition period between death and rebirth they retained different levels of intelligence but were limited by overwhelming instincts. Instinctively, they knew enough to stay out of the sun. It was a simple matter of self-preservation, for the tropical sun could speed their decay. The instinct to devour the living was strong in them as well, but only when they were exposed to temptation. Nathan was sure of that after his experiences with Buck and the pilot. He was also certain that as long as temptation was absent up to the very point that the feeding frenzy took control, the dead of Grimes Island could still function at a level that separated them from the gut-buckets. Oh, they functioned at different sub-levels as he'd seen with Kara North, the pilot, and Buck, but in some cases, they functioned just as well as the living.
Perhaps something in human flesh, once devoured, triggered the change in behavior. Maybe something in the blood. Or perhaps it was the very act of cannibalism. Nathan didn't know the cause, didn't much care.
His wounded shoulder was scarlet-purple and swollen. Five days had passed since Buck had attacked him, and he couldn't decide if the bite was worse or better. Just to be safe, he'd injected himself with antibiotics, but he didn't know if his first aid made the slightest difference.
He didn't know if he was alive, or dead, or somewhere in between.
To clarify his thoughts, he noted his symptoms on the legal pad he'd hidden in his desk after the plane crash. Many were perplexing. He wished that he could consult with a scientist or a doctor, but his first attempt at stateside communications had proved fruitless, and soon he was afraid to communicate with anyone. He didn't relish the idea of ending up as a science project in some lab, and he didn't want an extermination squad invading Grimes Island, either.
The thing that bothered him most was that his heart was still beating. He couldn't understand how that was possible until he remembered that Buck's heart had been beating when he'd shot him—Nathan had felt it pounding against his own chest as they wrestled on the floor—and he was certain that Buck had been dead. Looking at his wounded shoulder, remembering the fire in Buck's eyes when he'd attacked, Nathan was positive of that. There were other symptoms, as well.
He couldn't eat. Every evening he cooked some fried chicken, even though the smell made him gag and the oily feel of it made him shiver. Last night he'd forced himself to eat two breasts and a thigh, and he'd spent the next five hours coiled in a cramped ball on the kitchen floor before finally surrendering to the urge to vomit. And he couldn't keep down Pepsi or Jose Cuervo either. The Cuervo Gold was especially bad; it burned his throat and made him miserable for hours. He did suck ice cubes, but only to keep his throat comfortable. And he'd started snorting the cocaine that Ronnie's mule had brought in, but only because he was afraid to sleep.
Cocaine. Maybe that was the problem. They said that cocaine killed the appetite, didn't they? And he'd started using the stuff at about the same time that he'd stopped eating. But five days without food . . . God, that was a long time. So it had to be more than just the cocaine. Didn't it?
He closed his eyes and thought about hunger, about food. He tried to picture the most appetizing banquet imaginable.
Nothing came to him for the longest time. Then he saw Kara North's mangled hand. The pilot's severed arm. Buck's ruined head.
His gut roiled.
He opened his eyes.
The facts seemed irrefutable, but somehow Nathan couldn't bring himself to leave the compound or, conversely, let the Grimesgirls enter. They were on the beach every night, enjoying themselves, tempting him. Miss November and Miss February sang love songs, serenading Nathan from the wrong side of the glass-encrusted walls. He watched them, smiling his wry smile on the outside, inside despising his cowardice.
He was bored, but he didn't risk watching television, either. If the networks had returned to the airwaves, he would certainly find himself looking straight into the eyes of living, breathing people, and while he seriously doubted that such a stimulus could trigger the feeding frenzy, he didn't want to expose himself, just to be on the safe side.
He didn't want to lose what he had.
So he snorted cocaine and wrote during the day. At night, he watched them. They all came to the beach now, even Teddy Ching. He had no legs; that's why he'd taken so long to cross the island. But Teddy didn't let that stop him. He dragged himself along, eagerly pursuing the Grimesgirls, his exposed spine wiggling as happily and uncontrollably as a puppy's tail. Three cameras were strung around his neck, and he often propped himself against the base of a manchineel tree and photographed the girls as they frolicked on the beach below.
More than anything, Nathan wished that he could develop those pictures. His Grimesgirls were still beautiful. Miss July, her stomach so firm, so empty above a perfect heart-shaped trim. Miss May, her skinless forehead camouflaged with a wreath of bougainvillea and orchids. The rounded breasts of Miss April, sunset bruised and shadowed, the nipples so swollen. The sunken yellow hollows beneath Miss August's eyes, hot dry circles, twin suns peering from her face with all the power of that wonderful month.
Twin suns in the middle of the night.
She walks in beauty, like the night . . . in beauty, like the night . . . of cloudless climes and . . . starry skies and all that's best of dark and bright . . .
And all that's best of dark and bright . . .
Nathan couldn't remember the rest of it. He wrote the words on his yellow pad, over and over, but he couldn't remember. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them the sea was hard with the flat light of morning.
He hurried inside long before the sunshine kissed the balcony.
The beach was deserted.