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

The man slipped his hand inside her dress and began to fondle her breast. The camera caught the flinching in her eyes; she so didn't want him to do it, but nothing except her eyes was able to say no.

"Did they give her a sedative that keeps her immobile?" Zerbrowski asked.

"We looked into that," Manning said, "and if she'd been alive then maybe, but we know she isn't alive. Notice she never breathes. A live human being needs to breathe. She's a zombie, so she could be kept immobile just by orders from whoever raised her."

"Does she breathe in later films?" I asked.

"She talks, and you have to take air in to do that, but other than that, no."

The man was wearing a pair of silk boxers with hearts on them, like a parody of dressing up for a romantic evening, except for the mask, which didn't match the almost silly-looking shorts. Yes, I was concentrating on details that might help me find any clue to who this was or where it was happening, but I was also already trying to concentrate on the details that wouldn't haunt me as much. The silly heart shorts were almost a kindness, a break in the horror, like whoever was picking out the costumes had goofed.

I missed the heart-covered shorts when he stripped them off, because then I had to concentrate on his body, looking for birthmarks, or tattoos, or anything that made him not a generic guy in a mask. I didn't want to look at his body, didn't want to search every inch of it for identifying marks. I wanted to look away, but if the woman, because that's what the eyes meant, if the woman in the film had to endure it, then I wouldn't look away. I would not flinch and miss some visual that might lead us to these bastards. Though part of me knew that if just watching the films would lead anywhere, the FBI would have found it by now. But I watched it anyway, because most cops believe that they will see something that everyone else has missed, it's the hope that keeps us all putting on the badge and gun every morning. When that hope runs out, we find different jobs.

A man off camera told her to lie on the bed and she did it instantly even while her eyes showed just how much she didn't want to do it. The naked man in front of the camera slid her panties down those long legs that were still covered in grave dirt, the one high heel still on. Someone had painted her toenails a soft pink, as if it still mattered with closed-toe shoes and a corpse. I expected more of her clothes to come off, but the naked man just climbed on top of her with no preliminaries, except to move her dress a little out of the way.

Zerbrowski breathed out, "Jesus," behind me.

I didn't look at him, I didn't look at anybody, and none of us looked at each other, because when watching this kind of shit, no one wants eye contact. You don't want the other officers to know you're afraid, or too emotional, and if anything this awful excites you, you don't share that either. None of the other cops want to know.

The only plus was that the camera had moved back enough to catch the sex, so we couldn't see her eyes. She just lay there like the corpse she almost was, and that was the only tiny saving grace. He ended by taking his dick out of her body and did the obligatory porn movie end to show that he'd actually gone.

The film ended there, and I felt my gut loosen a little. I'd watched it all, bully for me. Bully for us all.

"The production value goes up as the films progress," Brent said.

I turned and looked at him. "What do you mean?"

"The almost joke-worthy boxers go away, but the camerawork gets better, and they put more personal touches around the bedroom to make it look less like a set and more real," he said.

"Is it always the same guy on stage?" Zerbrowski asked.

"For most of the films, but there's a second, younger-looking guy featured in the last two," Brent said.

"How many films are there?" I asked.

"More than I want to sit through again," Manning said.

I looked at her and saw a terrible tiredness in her eyes, as if just watching the one film had aged her. She shook her head. "Play the next one, Brent; let's just get this over with."

I didn't tell her she didn't have to watch them again, I let her handle her own shit, to do anything else would have been a breach of the "guy code" that all police work revolved around. The sex of the police officer didn't change the code. I only broke it with friends, or when I couldn't help myself, like Manning had when she asked about my engagement. That seemed like a long time ago, and Brent was right: pretty, pretty princess talk was looking a whole lot better.

THE FILMS WERE relentless. They eventually got her out of her burial clothes. We saw the zombie naked, in lingerie inexpertly put on her, so that I was pretty sure there was no woman on their crew. By the fourth film the zombie looked more rotted, which is something that happens to zombies eventually, no matter how good they look at the beginning. Zombies rot, it's one of the things that sets them apart from ghouls, or vampires; not all corpses are created equal.

I waited for the rot to spread, but it didn't. It just stayed with one eye filmy white, while the other was still clear and grayish-blue. Her skin had taken on a bluish tinge, and the cheeks had begun to collapse inward; the breasts were only perky because the implants held them up, but her body looked different naked now, more skeletal, but that was it. There were no other changes, the rot just stopped in midprocess, and her eyes were still full of terror. Sometimes they let her talk and she begged them not to make her do this or that, but seemed unable to disobey that male voice just off camera. I was betting it was the animator who had raised her from the grave. At first I'd thought the animator had raised her, taken his money, and fled, but now I knew he had to be nearby, because the rot had started and then stopped, and for that you needed voodoo of the blackest kind.

"Well," Zerbrowski said, "I'll give the sleazebag props for stamina, but it's a shame that abuse of a corpse isn't a capital crime."

Brent paused the images; I think any excuse at this point to take a breather sounded good to all of us. "We thought they were just changing clothes on her to make it look like time was passing, at first," Brent said. "But notice the calendar on the wall."

"It's not just there to make it look more homey?" Zerbrowski asked. He made little air quotes around "homey."

"Nobody puts a calendar in their bedroom unless it's the only space they have to live in," I said.

"Exactly," Manning said, "did you notice?"

I thought for a second. "The month changed."

"Zombies rot, always, that's the rule that Anita taught me. It can't be a month later."

She nodded. "It's not proof that much time actually passed, but we think it may be their way of showing clients that they've done something very unique."

"Her soul is back in her eyes, that wasn't unique enough?" I asked, and my voice didn't sound neutral the way I tried to sound this early in an investigation. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to pull off neutral with this case; sometimes you can't.

"You saw it," Manning said.

"We both saw it," Zerbrowski said.

"Would you have said her soul was back in her eyes, Sergeant?"

"I'm not that poetic."

Manning looked at me. "I don't think Marshal Blake was being poetic."

Zerbrowski looked from her to me. "I think I'm missing something."

"Don't feel bad," Brent said, "it took us weeks to figure it out."

"Figure out what?" he asked.

"Were you being poetic, Marshal Blake?" Manning asked.