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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:53:55

The woman's bite had been neater, but it had also been in her face, as if the zombie had tried to tear off her cheek. 'I can't tell how much damage was bite and how much was excised afterward.'

Rogers answered, 'The patient wouldn't sign off on the surgery to excise her wound. It was only after the patient realized that the disease was going to do more damage to her face than the surgery that she agreed to it, but it was too late. The disease had made its way to her brain and there was nothing we could do. I cut away as much of the infected tissue as I could, but when I realized that it wouldn't save her life, I did what I could to make her comfortable. Once this thing gets into a major organ that is needed to sustain life there isn't anything we can do, except pump them full of painkillers and make them comfortable until the end.'

I stopped looking down at the woman's ravaged face and back up at him. 'Is that why Sheriff Callahan is pumped up on pain meds? Has it reached a major organ system?' My pulse sped a little, but outwardly I was calm, my best blank cop face forward.

'No, the disease is also incredibly painful, and since we can only slow it, not stop it, we make the patients as comfortable as possible.'

He nodded. 'I swear, Rush was lucky it was an arm wound. I was able to take a lot of the flesh. I thought I'd gotten it all, honestly, but it's as if you can't cut fast enough to stay ahead of it. If we hadn't had the earlier patients to treat so we knew to put him on massive full-spectrum antibiotics and use the hyperbaric chamber, it would have spread everywhere by now, but we're learning more with every patient.'

'Why didn't you excise flesh from the man's shoulder wound?' I asked.

'He was the first we found alive. The emergency room doctor tried treating it as less virulent than it turned out to be. In his defense, you see the mess that the wound was. The thing really tore at him, so it was treated as a regular zombie bite, since they carry their own types of infection. By the time the attending doctor called me in it was simply too late. The infection had reached the man's heart, and there was nothing we could do.'

'Are you saying that his heart was rotted away?' I asked.

Dr Shelley answered that question. 'Yes, it was quite decayed. I'd never seen anything like it. You can see that the flesh on most of the chest is clean and looks healthy, but when I did the autopsy the heart looked more like the area around the initial wound.'

'Why did his heart rot? Why her brain? Why didn't it eat the outer healthy flesh first?' I asked.

'We aren't a hundred percent certain,' Rogers said, 'but we think that this infection enters the bloodstream through the bite and rides the blood into a major organ system and rots from both ends, so to speak.'

'So, bad luck about the face bite hitting the brain,' I said.

'And if you'd known to excise the shoulder wound on the man, then he might have been able to hold on,' I said.

'If he'd been a later victim instead of one of the first, I believe his odds would have been as good as the sheriff's,' Rogers said.

I didn't like the way he said it, not that Rush would make it, but better odds, but we all knew that unless a miracle cure showed up, it was just a matter of time for Micah's dad. He and I had gotten on the plane knowing that, but still ... I shook it off and concentrated on work, clues, we needed fucking clues. If we couldn't save Micah's dad, then maybe we could find who raised the aberrant zombies and kill them. Revenge wasn't a substitute for saving his dad, not even close, but sometimes it's the best you can do, and it beats the hell out of nothing, or that's what I was going to keep telling myself until I couldn't believe it anymore.

'Where are the earlier victims, the ones who died even faster than shoulder-wound here?'

Rogers and Shelley exchanged a look; it wasn't a look you see often between doctors, especially when one of them is a trauma surgeon and the other is a coroner. They didn't want to see the bodies again. Something about them bothered both doctors. What the hell?

'We'll have to go into the other area,' Shelley said.

'Other area?' I made it a question.

'Where we keep the bodies that are so decayed that we, well, we wouldn't want the smell to contaminate everything. No one would be able to work down here.'

'You mean the room for floaters and bodies like that,' I said.

'Yes,' she said, and she gave me a curious look, as if she hadn't expected me to know that.

'These don't smell that bad; in fact, shouldn't the infection make them smell worse?'

'That is one of the odd things about it; it doesn't seem to have the odor to match the putrefaction process. It's a small blessing for the patients and their families, but it is odd.'

I frowned down at the bodies. 'But you put the other dead bodies in the area with the stinky stuff; why?'

'The early bodies decayed more completely. The infection spread from the initial bite site to encompass fifty to eighty percent of the available flesh in just hours.'

'Wait, hours?' I asked.

'These victims died in hours?' I asked.

'The man did; we were able to prolong the woman's life for three days.'

'Did the early victims in the lockbox die from the infection hitting a major organ group?' I asked.

'No,' Rogers and Shelley said together. She motioned to him.

He continued, 'Actually, the infection seemed to spread faster through the flesh until it hit a major organ. It's almost as if as the patient begins to die, the infection slows. It shouldn't, but it seems to, and I emphasize seems to, because we have far too small a sample set to be sure of much with this infection.'

'Understood, you're investigating the disease the way we're investigating the crime,' I said.

He nodded. 'Very much so.'

I shook my head. 'I don't know enough about this kind of disease to hazard a guess, but is there a pattern to the wounds on the other victims?'

'What do you mean, pattern?'

'Well, the neat bite is in the woman's face. The rough bite is a shoulder wound. We know we have multiple zombie whatevers; what I'm asking is, does one zombie bite on the arms and shoulders and the other one bite on the face, or was the bite placement just what they could grab? Do they have a bite preference?'

'Two of the victims had facial wounds,' Burke said behind us.

It was almost startling, as if we'd forgotten the other cops were back there.

'Three of them, including the sheriff, were shoulder, arm, or back wounds,' Al said.

'You said you had witnesses to some of the attacks. Did they report differences in how the zombies attacked?'

Al seemed to think about it and then glanced at the other officers. They all sort of shook their heads and shrugged. 'The witness statements read like a horror movie,' Rickman said. 'I don't mean they're horrible, but more like they're describing a scene from a movie.'

'What do you mean?' I asked.

Rickman looked at the other men, and it was the first sign of insecurity I'd seen in him. I wasn't sure if it made him more human and likable or if it should have worried me.

Burke said, 'My guys were the first on the scene for one attack, and I know what the detective is saying. Zombies are the shambling dead, slow - relentless, but slow. One thing all the witnesses agree on is that these zombies are human-fast, at the very least, and maybe a little faster, which is movie stuff, not reality.'

'The one flesh-eating zombie I dealt with was more than human-fast,' I said.

'Why does eating flesh make them faster?' Rickman asked.

In my head I thought, I've seen zombies after they've eaten flesh and they haven't been faster, but I can't say it to a roomful of policemen, because I was the one who had raised the zombies and used them as defensive weapons. I'd done it every time to save my life and the lives of other innocent people, but none of it had been sanctioned by the police, and in fact I wasn't entirely sure the police would have okayed it regardless of circumstances. Technically as a marshal with the preternatural service I could use my psychic abilities to do my job; there were no caveats on what psychic abilities I used to finish my job, and since my job was to execute people ... technically I was now covered if I did it in the future. In reality I wasn't sure the police would be able to overlook it. At best I'd lose my badge; at worst I might be up on charges of using magic to kill people, which was an automatic death sentence. It was a gray area for the law, but the price was a little too high for me to want to test the limits of it.

'Marshal Blake, Marshal, can you hear me?'

I blinked and realized that Burke had been talking to me for a while, and I hadn't heard. Automatically I said, 'I'm sorry, can you repeat that? I think I was thinking too hard.'

'Too hard about what?' Rickman asked.