eing a zombie sucks. It’s hard to feel sexy when you’re bloated and starting to smell. And zombies have little or no job security. Once the zombie master is done with you, you’re leftover meat.
Tommy never planned on being a zombie, but then who does? One minute he was standing on the sidewalk outside One Shell Square in New Orleans, thinking about what he wanted for supper, and the next minute he was dead, the victim of a freak window-washing accident. Smacked upside the head by a squeegee dropped from the forty-ninth floor. He had a permanent dent in his scalp to prove it.
At twenty-four, death was the last thing on Tommy’s mind. He had a girlfriend and a job managing the Subway Shop on Poydras Street. As jobs went, it paid the bills. There was even a little money left at the end of the month to tuck into his savings account. Tommy had a plan. He was saving up for culinary school at Delgado Community College. After graduation, he and his girlfriend Robyn would open a restaurant of their own. They’d call it The Happy Vegan, and the menu would include things like homemade tortillas served with refried beans and soy cheese, avocado and tomato salad, and sweet fried plantains. It was gonna be kickass.
And then Tommy screwed the pooch by getting himself dead. Sucked didn’t begin to describe it.
He was still flitting around his body in disbelief at the morgue, unable to comprehend the wrong turn this bitch of a day had taken, when his new boss showed up. The guy didn’t look like a zombie maker. Tall and handsome in a dark-haired, lean, and feral kind of way, he had the loose-limbed grace of a young, fit animal.
He was also way too skinny. Zombie maker dude needed to eat a sandwich.
But it was his eyes that had caught and held Tommy’s attention. Purple eyes, the guy had honest-to-God Elizabeth Taylor purple eyes. A man and a woman were with him, a couple of sketchy characters. Dirty and ragged, with the nervous, used-up appearance of meth addicts, they hovered around him, skittish as a pair of stray dogs.
“Fresh,” the woman had said, eyeing Tommy’s body with ghoulish interest. Her teeth were rotted black stumps in the gaping hole of her mouth. Tommy was
and this chick gave him the willies.
“He’ll do,” Grape Eyes said, and waved his hands over Tommy’s body on the slab.
Quicker than he could say Jerusalem, Tommy had been sucked back into his body. He sat up and looked around, blinking. The examiner on the night shift had slipped out for a quick smoke. Ironically, his nicotine addiction may have saved his life. No telling what the Maker and his scary companions would have done to the poor sap.
“I have a job for you,” the Maker had said to Tommy. Seriously, Grape Eyes was a freak. He acted like talking to a dead guy was the most natural thing in the world, and maybe it was to him.
And just like that, the guy had made Tommy an offer he couldn’t refuse. The son of a bitch put a geis on Tommy—a kind of zombie maker curse that gave him total control over Tommy.
That was how, three days later, Tommy found himself
on a riverbank at the ass end of nowhere more than a hundred miles from his beloved New Orleans. Hannah, the sign at the outskirts of town had said this bit of backwoods Alabama was called. Tommy had never heard of it. Before now, that is; whoever said “ignorance is bliss” sure as hell knew what they were talking about.
The good news? The Maker had put a spell on Tommy that kept him from decomposing at the regular zombie rate—which, apparently, was roughly the decomp rate of garbage in the hot Louisiana sun. The bad news? He was rotting from the inside out. No one else would probably notice it, but Tommy could smell himself, and it wasn’t pretty. He was a fastidious guy who took pride in his personal appearance. He’d rather be dead than stink. Lucky him, he got both.
On the bright side, it could be the inside of his nose he smelled. Who was he kidding? There was no bright side to being a zombie.
He gazed uneasily at the wooden building squatting on the other side of the river. It reminded him of the troll in
Three Billy Goats Gruff,
waiting to pounce on unsuspecting travelers. Beck’s Bar, the place was called, and this was where he had to go. Apparently, demons went in Beck’s but never came out.
Tommy had gleaned this information by playing dumb and listening to the zombie maker’s conversation with his two creeper pals.
“I’m sending him on a recon mission,” Grape Eyes had said to the bony female. “There’s a place I want him to scope out, see if the rumors are true. I want to know what happened to the missing demons.”
“That’s good, that’s good,” the woman mumbled, rocking back and forth on the worn heels of her cheap shoes. She plucked at one thin eyebrow with nervous fingers. “Give the meat his orders and let’s get out of here. I need a fix.”
So now he was “the meat.” Clearly, zombies got no respect in the supernatural world. As an African American, it wasn’t Tommy’s first encounter with prejudice, but that didn’t make it any easier to stomach.
But Tommy was smart. He kept his mouth shut and learned more. More than he wanted to know. He found out the zombie maker’s two buddies were demon-possessed humans. That explained their emaciated, worn-out condition. Possession was apparently hard on the human body. Grape Eyes, on the other hand, was something called a demonoid—half human, half demon. The demon half must be the source of Grape Eyes’s power. No normal human could do the things he did. And to think, less than a week ago Tommy would have laughed at the idea the boogeyman was real.
He eyed the river with distaste. He didn’t have a boat and he wasn’t a strong swimmer. Not that it mattered now that he was Deadsville. He couldn’t drown. But he didn’t relish the thought of going in that brown water. Even less the idea of what might be in it. Suppose a catfish decided to take a bite out of him? A corpse would be a delicacy to one of them big old scavenger fishies. But the onus the Maker had placed on Tommy compelled him to cross the river
boat or no boat, Tommy-eating-fish or no Tommy-eating-fish.
He weighted himself down with rocks and started across. It was the weekend before Thanksgiving. The water had to be cold, but Tommy couldn’t feel it. The muddy bottom was squelchy and full of silt, and sucked the shoes right off his feet. Too late, he regretted not taking them off but he couldn’t go back for them, not with the geis upon him. The compulsion to reach the bar was strong, like the gravitational pull of a large moon. The water was deep and dark. Thankfully, he couldn’t see much. Something large bumped past him, and Tommy picked up the pace. Tommy the Zombie, gator bait.
This sucked. This sucked
He missed the dock and came up in a slough a short distance downstream from the bar. Dumping the rocks, he floundered clumsily through the water to the ladder at the end of the pier and climbed up the wooden slats. Clothes dripping, he paused half in, half out of the water and looked around. It was late afternoon, maybe an hour before sunset. A couple of boats bobbed at the end of the boardwalk, but otherwise the place seemed quiet. Tommy had a feeling things livened up once the sun went down. Beck’s struck him as the kind of place people went under cover of darkness.
Or maybe not. The bar somehow looked better from this side of the river. Cleaner, tidier and less menacing, almost as if it had shed a disguise. No trash or empty bottles littered the porch or the dock. Everything seemed well maintained, loved even, which was an odd thought to have about a dive bar.
Tommy started to lumber onto the dock, but something made him pause on the ladder. The onus was still there, but the urge to reach the bar had been replaced by a sense of expectancy. He and Grape Eyes were connected by an invisible thread, and Tommy could feel him on the other end of the line. The Maker was tense, expectant. Something was about to happen, something the Maker had been waiting for a long time, the real reason he’d sent Tommy here.
Tommy stayed put, nervous, but obedient to the demands of the spell. The screen door on the porch swung open and a young woman stepped out of the bar, a large, scruffy dog at her heels. Judging from the mutt’s lean body and rough gray coat, there was Irish wolfhound somewhere in the dog’s lineage, and not too far back.
The woman, on the other hand, was pure thoroughbred. Tall and lithe, she moved with the muscular grace of a dancer or an athlete. The black long-sleeve T-shirt she wore clung to her high breasts, and her long, shapely legs were encased in a pair of tight jeans. Suede boots hugged her slender feet. Balancing a bowl and its contents in one hand, she strode across the porch with her head down. Her dark silky hair hung around her face, obscuring her features. She came down the steps and onto the pier.
“I’m worried about her, Toby,” she said, talking to the dog. She had a sexy voice, dark chocolate and smoke, the kind of voice that did things to a guy—even if the guy happened to be dead. “She’s such a little thing and so thin,” she said. “I know she’s hungry, but she won’t let me near her. Maybe a can of tuna will tempt her.”
The dog sat at the bottom of the steps and turned up his long nose in disdain.
“Don’t give me that I-hate-catitude. She’s just a kitten.” The woman knelt on the side of the dock and peered into the thick underbrush that grew along the muddy bank. “Here, kitty,” she called softly. “Beck’s brought you something to eat.”
Nothing stirred in the bushes.
“I know you’re there. I’ll leave the bowl here, in case you change your mind.” The woman settled back on her haunches with a sigh. “Okay, be stubborn. But I’m not giving up on you.”
Placing the bowl near the steps, she rose and pushed her silky dark hair out of her face. Tommy stared at her in surprise. She was beautiful with smooth skin and clean, strong features. The word “pretty” would never be used to describe this woman. It was too anemic and sweet. She had a fierce, wild beauty, as perfect as a rose and as sharp and piercing as a thorn.
Tommy’s nose twitched as the delicate scent of jasmine drifted past him on the breeze. He squinted, hoping the eye rot hadn’t set in. Yep, the chick on the dock looked terrifyingly familiar. He knew her. Or, to be more precise, he knew her male counterpart.
The woman called Beck was the zombie maker’s twin. Tommy would bet his afterlife on it.