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Jason (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 23) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:58:25

"We heard that about her, and you're right, Blake. I did come in here expecting the proposal to have softened that reputation. I didn't think I had that much girl left in me, and if I'm assuming that it softened you up, then your male colleagues must be making your life . . . difficult."

It was my turn to laugh. "That's one way of putting it, but honestly it's the whole engaged-to-a-vampire thing that's making some of my fellow officers doubt whose side I'm on."

"Vampires are legal citizens now, with all the rights that entails," she said.

"Legally, yeah, but prejudice doesn't go away just because a law changes."

"You're right about that," she said. "In fact, some at the Bureau thought we shouldn't include you in this case because of your proclivity to date the preternatural."

"Proclivity, that's polite. So what made you decide to trust me?"

"You still have the highest kill count of any vampire executioner in the United States, and only Denis-Luc St. John has more rogue lycanthrope kills than you."

"He raises Troll-Hounds. They're the only breed of dog ever raised specifically to hunt supernatural prey. It makes him the king of tracking through wilderness areas after shapeshifters."

"Are you implying that the dogs make him better at the job, or that he's somehow cheating by using them?" she asked.

I shrugged. "Neither, just a statement of fact."

"Now that Anita has passed muster, and I'm included because I'm her friend, show us some skin, agents, or stop teasing," Zerbrowski said.

"Oh, you'll see skin," Brent said, and he looked older again.

"What the hell is on the video, Agent Brent?" I asked.

"Zombie porn," Brent said, and hit the arrow in the middle of the screen.

"SORRY, AGENTS, BUT that's not new. It's sick, but it's not new."

Brent hit the screen and froze the dark cemetery scene in midmotion. It was shaky and dark, and there were no zombies or anyone else in sight yet. The two agents looked at me as if I'd said something bad.

"Did we pick the wrong animator?" Manning asked her partner.

"I've been approached for years to help people make sex tapes with zombies. Dead celebrities bring out the creeps the most." I shivered, because the whole thought of it was just so wrong.

"My favorite of your sickos like that are the ones who want you to raise their high school crush," Zerbrowski said.

"Yeah, now that they have money and success they want one more go at the girl who rejected them in high school, or college." I shook my head.

"That's sick, as in seek-a-therapist sick," Manning said.

"Agreed, and I honestly think they don't really believe it's going to be a zombie. Somewhere in their minds they think she'll rise from the grave and he'll be able to prove he's worthy and live happily ever after."

"Wow, Anita, that's a romantic take on the sick bastards that just want to boff the girl who rejected them in high school." Zerbrowski actually looked surprised.

I shrugged, fought off a scowl, and finally said, "Yeah, yeah, one epic proposal and I go all girlie on you."

"Boff," Agent Brent said. "I didn't know people used that word anymore."

"You young whippersnappers just don't know a good piece of slang when you hear it," Zerbrowski said.

"Don't listen to him, he's not that old. His hair just went all salt-and-pepper early."

"It's the last couple of cases, they scared me so bad my hair went white." He delivered it without a grin, deadpan, which he never did, and if they'd known him, they would have understood he was lying, but they didn't know him.

"Hair doesn't actually do that from fear," Brent said, but not like he completely believed it.

Manning looked at me, raised an eyebrow.

I waved her back to Zerbrowski. "It's his story, not mine."

Zerbrowski grinned at me, and then at the agents. "Just trying to lighten the mood, that's part of my charm."

"It is, actually," I said, smiling back at him.

"The sergeant is here because he's your partner when you work with the Regional Preternatural Investigation Squad. Everybody calls it the Regional Preternatural Investigation Team, but officially it's not," Manning said.

"It's the nickname," I said, "they call us RIPIT, both for the 'Rest in Peace,' and because most of the crimes are violent, things get ripped apart. Other cops and even the media have used RIPIT for so long that people want the T in the actual name of the squad."

"Are we letting ourselves get sidetracked on purpose?" Brent asked.

Manning nodded, and sipped her coffee. "I think we are, so back on target. Another reason we're talking to you is that you have made more official complaints to the police than any other animator about illegal or morally questionable zombie-raising requests. Once you had a badge of your own and were officially an officer, too, the complaints went down. I'm assuming that people didn't want to bring their illegal activities to a U.S. Marshal."

"You'd be surprised how many people think that just because I raise the dead I have to be evil, with a capital E, but yeah, the requests for zombie one-nighters and zombie sex slaves went down once I could do my own arresting."

"Disturbance of a corpse was a misdemeanor for years," Manning said.

"That's one of the reasons there are tapes of this shit out there, because even if they were caught, it was a slap on the wrist. The money they could make from the tape, because it was a tape back when it started, was worth the risk even if they were caught," I said.

"The penalties are stiffer now, but still not the same as if a real human were involved," she said.

I shrugged. "I don't make the laws, just help enforce them."

"You have done your best to enforce the laws as written, and suggested changes in the laws based on your experience, which is one of the reasons we picked you to bring into our little problem," Manning said.

"We all know it's out there, agent, so what's the big secret? All the other zombie porn has been either people in good makeup, with no real zombies involved, or one of the zombies that's been raised for fieldwork in California, or in other countries. The zombies in those films are little better than actual corpses."

"These are different," Manning said.

"Show us," I said, and added, "please." I added the please because what I really wanted to say was either you're being all wimpy for FBI or something more sarcastic. I'd been a little grumpy lately, even for me, so I was trying to monitor myself and only aim the grumpiness at bad guys.

Brent hit the screen again and the shaky camerawork continued to be shaky so that you could see it was a cemetery at night, but that was about it. It was like the opening to an amateur horror flick where someone had gotten a new camera for Christmas, and then it steadied. I wondered if someone new was holding the camera, or if the holder had just gotten a handle on it. The answer to that question was the difference between one bad guy and two.

There was a very abrupt jump in the film from empty cemetery to a blond woman clawing her way out of the grave. At first I thought it was an actress who had been buried in soft earth to about her armpits, but then the camera got a close-up of the eyes and I knew dead when I saw it. The zombie crawled out of the grave the way I'd seen thousands do before. It had some issues with the skirt of the dress it had been buried in, and the clinging grave dirt, which happened sometimes, and then it stumbled free, standing crooked because one high heel had apparently been left in the grave.

The body was tall, statuesque, with blond hair to her shoulders. Cleavage showed at the plunging neckline of the white dress, which meant the breasts had probably be

en implants. Real breast tissue wasn't going to be that perky without a woman fluffing them back into place, and the zombie didn't know enough to do that. The small spotlight or whatever was attached to the handheld camera showed us the eyes were pale gray that might have been bluer when she was alive. Blue mingled with any color from gray to green or even hazel tended to shift with a person's moods more than most eye colors. Alive, she'd probably been beautiful, but there wasn't enough home for that now. So much of a person's attractiveness is their spirit, their personality. Zombies didn't have much of that.

The next scene, if that's what you wanted to call it, was of the zombie in a standard bedroom except there were no visible windows in the room, and there was just something off about it. I wasn't sure why I didn't like the room, but I didn't. The zombie was wearing the same clothes as in the cemetery, they hadn't cleaned her up at all, so that she looked horror-movie wrong in the bedroom with its flowered bedspread and tile floor. That was part of the wrong; no one put tile in their bedroom. They did another zooming close-up of the zombie's eyes and this time they weren't empty. This time they were terrified.

"FUCK," I SAID, softly but with real feeling.

"You see it, too, then," Manning said.

Zerbrowski said, "Why do the eyes look scared? Zombies don't feel fear, right?"

"Normally, no," I said.

Zerbrowski got up from his chair and moved over closer to where the rest of us were sitting. "Why do the eyes look like that, then?"

"We don't know," Manning said. "What you're about to see is impossible according to our own experts."

My skin was already cold, my stomach tight, because I was very afraid that I knew exactly what the "impossible" was going to be.

A man in one of those all-leather masks so that only his eyes and mouth showed walked into sight. The zombie's eyes followed the movement, but the rest of her stood immobile. Probably she'd been told to stand there, and until told otherwise, she had to just stand there, but they hadn't told her not to move her eyes, so she followed the man's movements like a human victim who had been tied up. She was tied up, tighter than any rope or chain could ever make her. Fuck, I did not want this little film to go where it was headed. I prayed silently, Please, God, don't let them be able to do this to her. God answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is no.