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Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:01:11

"If it gets free, I'm shooting it," Domino said.

Nicky was beside me now. He had the AR snugged to his shoulder. "Let us shoot it."

"When the sun rises."

"Anita," Domino said.

The zombie freed one leg, only a bit of its foot still caught in the dry dirt. "Hungry . . . hungry . . . hungry." It said it like a mantra, as if that were all that was left in his brain.

"Susannah, Eddie, get ready."

"Just give the word, Anita," she said.

"Wait for it," I said, and raised the shotgun to my shoulder. I sighted at the zombie's face as it gazed up at Domino as if it had picked its target. They could be single-minded sometimes. "I've got the head," I said, voice even.

"Arm," Domino said. He probably didn't have a clear shot at much of anything else; I probably should have let him have the head. I might even have said that, but then two things happened at once; the sun rose like a ball of fire above the trees and the zombie freed itself.

It grabbed the edge of the grave to scramble out. Nicky's rifle sounded first and the zombie stumbled, one leg taken out at the knee, but it still held to the edge and was still trying to get out. I pulled the trigger and the shotgun rocked in my hands, putting a lot of energy into my shoulder where I held the butt. The top of the zombie's head exploded into blood, brains, and bits. It pulled itself up on the lip of the grave. Domino fired and one arm vanished at around the elbow, so that the zombie started to slide back into the grave. I fired at the head again and took the rest of it. If it had been a vampire it would have lain down and known it was dead, but it was a zombie, and headless it kept fighting to get out of its grave.

Nicky had moved around so he could shoot the other leg that was helping to push the body up and out. It fell a little into the grave then, only one hand holding on, and then Domino shot that hand into bits and the zombie fell back into the hole.

"Burn it!" I yelled, and stepped back from the grave. Nicky followed my lead, but Domino was still beside the hole. He fired again.

"Domino, get back!" I yelled that, too.

He glanced up, as if he hadn't realized we'd moved back. Maybe he hadn't heard over the guns. He moved back to stand with us, as we gave the grave over to something more cleansing than bullets.

The flamethrowers whooshed to life and filled the grave as if we were trying to set fire to hell. The heat drove us back; without the protective suits, human flesh would burn as quick as anything else. The sun was chasing back all the shadows, but under the tall trees it was still dusk, the fire rolling back out of the grave setting the last shadows of night dancing around us. Then something appeared at the lip of the grave; it was covered in flames, but it still moved. It took a moment for my eyes to see that it was using the stumps of its shattered arms like blades driven into the ground, almost like belaying pins as if the grave were just a mountain to scale. Nicky shot it in the upper chest with the AR a second before I shot it and the chest exploded into flame and burning bits. It fell back into the grave, and they kept pouring fire into the hole.

Sunlight patterned through the leaves above us and the fire stopped, as if the coming of the day had made that impossible, too. Susannah came over, dragging the hood of her suit off. Her face was dewed with sweat. It's hot working that close to hell.

"It'll burn for a while longer, but it's done."

Now that they weren't actively burning it I could smell the burning meat. Burning person may smell like cooking meat, but zombies don't. They always just smell burned and acrid. I fought an urge to cover my nose and breathe shallow.

"Burn it to ashes and bones," I said; my voice was empty and sounded unmoved by any of it.

"This is usually good enough," Susannah said, wiping sweat from her forehead.

"This isn't a usual kind of zombie. I need as close to ashes as you can get it."

"You're going to treat it like a vampire, aren't you?"

"We won't be able to get much ash, but we can give you burned bones. It's going to stink if you put it in your car to transport it."

"I've got containers in the car."

"Okay, I'll tell Dad. I'm not sure we brought enough fuel with us to do what you're asking. It takes a lot of heat to turn a body into ash and bone."

"Zombies are like vampires; they burn better than human bodies."

She nodded, shrugged, and then shook her head. "Okay, like I said, let me see if we have enough with us to get the job done." She went to talk to Eddie and see if they had the supplies they needed.

Manny came up as she left. "What are you going to do with the ashes?"

"There's a stream just down the slope," I said.

"It's a tiny stream; you can't put much into it, or some hiker will find human remains and call the police. They get upset about wasted man-hours," he said.

"I know. I'll be careful, but a little in the stream here, and a little bit more dumped into the river on the way home."

"Different bodies of running water," he said, studying my face.

"You want to make sure that no one else can raise this one as a zombie again."

"It's not a vampire, Anita. It's just a zombie. We've never taken these kind of precautions for one of them."

"Have you ever seen a zombie act like Warrington did?" I asked.

"Anything close to this kind of behavior?"

"I've never even read about a zombie like him in back issues of The Animator." That was the professional publication for us zombie raisers.

"And I've never seen anything like it in any of the preternatural biology write-ups either."

"That's probably not a good thing," he said.

Susannah came back over. They had to get a second tank from their truck, and the body was still big enough to look like a body, but they were able to scrape some ash and bone fragments into the two small screwtop containers I gave them. The containers were in my vampire-executing kit in case I needed to spread vamp ashes; like Manny said, we'd never done it with zombie ashes before, but hey, there's always a first time.

Zerbrowski joined Manny and me and said, "I've never known you to treat a zombie like a vamp, Anita."

"Cautious in my old age, I guess."

He raised an eyebrow at me. "If you're old, then I must be ancient."

"And I should be dead," Manny said.

Nicky and Domino joined us; they had been having a little heart-to-heart of their own. I didn't know what it was about, but Domino wasn't happy. I'd ask later, or they could tell me later; right that minute I didn't have anything left to play emotional caretaker for anyone else. I was having my own issues about Warrington, and the ghouls, and what the fuck was going on with my necromancy. And I was tired of the weretigers in my life pouting about shit; what was it with all of them and all the fucking angst? The voice in my head that tried to be more reasonable than my temper, or my personal intimacy issues, said I had more weretigers in my life than any other kind of shapeshifter and maybe it wasn't the tiger part that made them pouty; maybe it was just the sheer number of them. On one hand that was a positive thought, it wasn't just because they were tigers, but on the other hand it put me right back into thinking there were too many people in my life who looked to me for most of their emotional support. Always nice when the reasonable part of me manages to be both helpful and unhelpful in one fell swoop.

I explained what I was going to do with the jar in my hand, because bodyguards tend to get cranky if you just walk off without them.

Nicky just came at our back without asking. I didn't mind; if I hadn't wanted to keep one hand free for my gun and had a container of zombie ashes in the other, I'd have taken his hand in mine. A little comfort would have been a good thing. At least I had the shotgun back behind my shoulder on the tactical sling, so it didn't take up another hand. Nicky and Domino had done the same thing with their long guns.

"Be careful going under trees with the tac slings, they can get caught," I said. Honestly, I was saying it more for Domino than Nicky. I knew my Bride could handle himself in actual woods. He'd proven that in Colorado, not that long ago.

"If that was for my benefit, just say so," Domino said.

"Fine, city boy, be careful under the trees near the stream."

"I've been camping before, Anita."

"Near Vegas," he said.

"Yeah, why does that matter?"

"I don't see many trees in the desert, so my caution stands."

"You won't give an inch, will you?"

I frowned at him. "I don't know what's got your panties in a twist, Domino, but I don't have the energy to deal with it right now."

"You never do," he said.

I sighed, and turned to Manny and Zerbrowski. "Can you give me and the guys a few minutes?"

"Of course," Manny said, and walked away.

Zerbrowski looked at me and then at both of the men. "I was going to make a smart-ass comment, but I can barely have a serious relationship with one person; I don't know how the hell you're doing it with this many." He tipped an imaginary hat and started to walk away.

"She's not," Domino said.

Zerbrowski stopped, looked at him, and then looked at me.

"It's not serious with all of us, Sergeant, or not equally serious; trust me."

"Go, just go," I said.

For maybe the first time ever, Zerbrowski just walked away from a barrel full of snarky comments instead of shooting the fish. I really appreciated it. When the three of us were alone I turned to Domino and said, "What the hell was that about? This is work for me, and I don't bring personal stuff to work."

"Nicky may be able to separate out work from personal like that, and maybe you can, too, but I'm not that good at compartmentalizing."