ACOYOTE YIPPED in the desert night surrounding Las Vegas.
Its sharp introductory barks escalated into a full, soulful howl at the moon.
I straightened from my feral crouch to listen.
Then I smiled.
That lonesome coyote might be the only natural critter within hearing tonight.
Even the glowing yellow moon, half full, looked pretty unnatural. Its blade-straight inner edge reminded me of a giant casino chip split down the middle.
I wasn’t used to working under moonglow. Usually Sin City’s gigantic bouquet of neon lights backlit my night-crawling expeditions.
Tonight, though, my beat was a raw desert landscape of distant mountains that made the flat valley floor into a huge, empty, open maw surrounded by massive saw teeth. I stood at its center, the moonlight reflecting from the steel studs embedding the arms, legs, and torso of my form-adapting black catsuit.
“Bite me,” I whispered at the jaundiced half-werewolf moon, “and you’ll get a jawful of broken fangs.”
Something came barreling out of the darkness right for me, as if answering my invitation. Fast and furred, the yellow-beige flowing blur grew ears, hackles, and hulking shoulders as it neared—like a panting locomotive with a boar’s-head cowcatcher.
I turned sideways as it charged by, kicking up sand chest-high. Then it wheeled and leaped for my throat.
“Quick,” I shouted, using the word as a name, not a command. A huge pink tongue swiped my jaw and slimed my costly, FBI-approved night vision goggles. Only borrowed, alas.
I couldn’t wipe the wet lenses clean on my steel-studded outfit. Scuff City. So I swept off the goggles and shook my head at the grinning wolfish face now at standing height. My waist.
“Quicksilver, you’re supposed to find prey, not me,” I told him.
I fished in the secondhand cop utility belt swagging my hips for a microfiber cloth, then glanced around. All around. The new bone-reading night vision lenses had tinted everything a Beatles-submarine yellow. I pushed them, cleaned, atop my head like sunglasses.
It was pleasant to see the true moonshine-silvered landscape, cool and serene. Silver is my talisman, including this silver-gray dog who’s half wolfhound, half wolf, and all partner. Quicksilver is more lupine than K-9, and just what a girl needs for a bodyguard and buddy after the Millennium Revelation.
Hmm. A hummock of Joshua tree–tall cactus was edging into sharper focus. I snapped the lens strap back around my head and the lenses down over my eyes. Several hummocks of cacti were shuffling toward me. Quicksilver had accomplished his Australian sheep dog act, after all.
I drew the police baton at my hip. The idea was to serve and protect, not to hurt.
And not to be hurt.
The closer they came, the bigger they got. Human figures, three of them. These were professionally big guys, the kind who walk with beefed-up arms out from their sides at acute angles, with thigh-heavy legs pushing their feet apart so they make a waddle into a threat.
Muscle, in the classic PI term.
And you just a slip of a girl, Irma commented sardonically.
Shut up, I told my inboard invisible friend since orphanage days. I’m on the tall and solid side. Quick and I can handle these Three Stooges.
Sadly, that’s about all they were. As much as twentieth-century zombie movies celebrated a dogged will to ambulate, the New Millennium’s feral zombies share the same lack of social graces, not to mention coordination.
Quicksilver immediately trotted to circle behind them and nip at their shambling heels or backsides if necessary.
The three were still shod and wore “rent”ed suits … not the hired kind, but the tattered variety rent apart by werewolf fangs and claws. Their dim memories of being torn to death by Cesar Cicereau’s werewolf mob didn’t make them want to gnaw brains yet, but somewhere deep down they must still be plenty pissed.
Nor were they visibly rotting on the hoof. In fact, their pre-chewed condition put them in more danger from predators than the other way around. Those mortal wounds had never healed, but remained blood-crusted scars of their last stand some twenty to seventy years ago. Werewolf chieftain Cicereau had been offing competition since Vegas began in the 1940s. The Millennium Revelation had unfolded a lot of mysteries along with all the variations of supernatural underworld creatures it had coughed up.
Still, three guys heading for a lone woman was never a safe situation, even if she had a hundred-and-fifty-pound dog in attendance.
“Okay, fellas,” I told them, brandishing my club, “welcome to Rancho Second Chance-o.”
That stopped them dead in their tracks.
Or perhaps what had stopped them was sighting the low bunkhouse and corral behind me, where a horse lifted its head to nicker. Home, sweet, home on the range. Don’t ask me why, but horses have a soothing effect on feral zombies.
I stepped aside to let the trio stumble into the ranch’s safety zone surrounded by silver barbed wire fencing. That’s when a pack of shadows rushed me from the surrounding sagebrush, from every last bush.
A coyote pack!
No time to play zombie tourists.
My night stick prodded all three Zobo butts hard to keep them moving, and I raised my right arm just as the lead coyote leaped for my throat. With my leather-gloved palms at both ends, I managed to wedge the police baton between its fangs, then twist my upper body. That threw the alpha male off to the side in time for me to knee the next coyote in the leaping chest, so it fell back.
Quicksilver, snarling and snapping up a storm, was harrying ears and tails and flanks to drive back the middle of the pack of five. Coyotes don’t weigh much, maybe thirty pounds, and neither Quick nor I wanted to kill them. These were just desert dogs, doing what comes naturally. It’s actually harder to fight off opponents you only want to discourage.
From the grunting sounds behind me, the zombies had roused to kick away coyotes trying to slip through the barbed wire isolating the corral, protecting the nervous horses that had bunched and whinnied.
Quick raced over to add the discouragement of his big bad wolf teeth, while I shouted and flailed with my baton, trying not to break any animal’s delicate leg.
Between the kick-dancing zombies, Quicksilver’s slashing speed and teeth, and my shouts and hard knocks, the coyote pack was retreating, snarling, with ears down.
The oncoming dirt-bike roar of a Ranger RZR utility vehicle spitting up twin funnels of sand and snapped-off brush finished the job. The coyotes vanished into the moonlight-dappled sand as if made of it.
The ATV ground its noisy way to the enclave’s open gate. I followed, dusting off my supple yet rhino-hide-tough Inferno Hotel catsuit. The driver doffed his helmet and goggles. My Vegas-based, designer suit–wearing ex-FBI guy was looking provocatively off-Road and Track.
Oooh, chica, Irma purred in my mind. Our Ricardo is flaunting his muy macho mode. My motor is revving.
Yup, my uninvited alter ego is the Queen of Shallow.
“Coyotes?” Ric greeted me. “Are they okay?”
Quicksilver circled the Ranger to sniff its huge tire footprint, hackles raised.
“A bit bruised and cut,” I said. “We pick a time were-wolves aren’t out and then run into their innocent little brothers on a tear.”
“They must be hungry to pack in fives,” he said. “Coyotes generally stick to mated sets or run in threes.”
“Like zombies?” I asked, nodding at the stolid waiting trio.
“Just more stragglers from that lot I resurrected at Cicereau’s Starlight Lodge.”
“What are you going to do with them?”
“Keep them out of the zombie trade, at least. You bring something back from the dead, in whatever state, you’re kinda responsible for it.”
His words left me speechless. My tough FBI guy didn’t know it, but I may have done exactly that with him.
“I really understand,” I said in a serious tone that slipped past him. His mind was still on the wandering zombies.
“The rest have scattered pretty far,” he said, “but I won’t need you and Quicksilver for roundups after this. Didn’t know if Cayuse here”—he slapped the Ranger’s sand-blasted engine cover—“would work to round up stray Zobos. It sure does. They shy like horses at unnatural sounds.”
“Jeez, Ric. A man and his wheels. You’ve named that mobile mechanical monster of overbearing tires and sheer ruckus?”
“You’ve got Dolly.”
He nodded at the barely visible black bulk of my ’56 Caddy convertible. Her full name was Dolly Parton, and she had the awesome chrome “bumper bullets” to prove it. She was parked on the dirt road that was way too far from the highway asphalt for my taste and her black-satin finish.
“Come inside.” Ric dismounted easily in his spandex race driver jumpsuit. “I’ll show you the setup. We need to get these Zobos tucked away for the night and the next few weeks. Now that they’ve got horses to tend and guard— and are safe behind silver wire—they’re ready for rehab.”
“Rehabilitation for what? Basket weaving?”
“I don’t know yet. I just can’t leave any known dead wandering around to be meat for the Immortality Mob.”
I followed him inside the rambling barbed wire, shaking my head and muttering “Cayuse?”
Quicksilver couldn’t trot away from the parked Ranger fast enough. We were two of a kind, urban creatures, especially when that citified outpost was Las Vegas, the capital city of all things spectacular and supernatural in 2013.
Inside the fence I saw the usual barn, horse corral, and bunkhouse.
The three rag-suited Zobos were being tended by four of their ilk, this set wearing Lee jeans, work boots, and plaid cotton shirts with pearlized buttons.
Quicksilver whined behind me, whether from confusion or outraged fashion sense, I couldn’t tell.
The brown leathery look of the Zobos’ visible skin evoked human cowhands who worked outdoors in the desert. Ric could even open a dude ranch with these guys. The Lazy Z.
“This place looks like the Louisiana Hayride TV show set,” I commented. “What do feral zombies eat? I suppose these guys haven’t worked their way up to brains.”
“That’s a bad rap. They eat nothing … yet. Right now they just feed and water the horses. These are the sleepwalking dead. Since drops of my blood animated them, they have to obey me. I don’t know if the Immortality Mob exists, but I do know somebody’s learned to exploit zombies.”
“We need a word out of earshot, Montoya,” I told him. How sharp were Zobo senses, or brains, anyway?
We moved to lean against the crossbars of the corral fence, watching the half-moon reflected in the darks of large equine eyes. As a coyote howled in the distance, the horses did an uneasy soft-shoe over the desert floor.
“Other than your obsession to leave no zombie wandering unclaimed,” I told Ric, “what’s the point of collecting the ones you raised at the werewolf mob’s Starlight Lodge? They were all likely other gangsters who got in Cesar Cicereau’s hair.”
“To find dead bodies, I simply have to dowse for them with a forked piece of wood or wire, like dowsers do for water. To raise them, drops of my blood have to ‘baptize’ the dowsing rod. In a sense, those zombies are my blood brothers now.”
“Despite being hoodlums and criminals in life?”
“The werewolf mob also ran down and killed a lot of unlucky innocent bystanders over the decades. Even you were on their menu just a couple months ago.”
“True. I guess whoever the Zobos were, they’re blank slates now.”
“Right,” Ric said. “And anybody can round them up … to use and abuse them.”
“Especially the mysterious Immortality Mob you and Hector Nightwine obsess over.”
“People talk about the Immortality Mob, but nobody knows what or who they really are. That’s worth an obsessive interest.”
“Somebody has to handle leasing the CinSims to the Vegas attractions.”
“Human lawyers,” Ric said. “And technicians go public to service the CinSims’ location chips if any wander off their prescribed territory, but they’re mere hirees. Whoever masterminded the process of overlaying the Hollywood personas on zombie bodies remains a mystery. No one knows if it’s weird science, or magic, or the intervention of some as-yet-unknown paranormal entity.”
“Brrr,” I said, as the night wind riffled the horses’ manes and chilled my spine. “I doubt Vegas or me can stand any more ‘unknown paranormal entities.’ The Karnak Hotel’s ancient vampire empire is evil enough under the ground. Don’t you have a way to de-raise these Zobos?”
“Doesn’t work like that, Delilah.” Ric watched a palomino colt side-dance toward us. “There’s no easy way to kill a zombie. The reanimated dead can’t die again. That’s what is so evil about raising them in the first place.”
“Then why were you born with that gift?”
“Because it’s a curse? Every paranormal ‘gift’ is a power waiting to be corrupted.”
“My mirror-walking too?”
“Look what it’s brought you. You’re afraid to use mirrors now that you’ve imprisoned Cicereau’s ghostly daughter in that mirror-world.”
Mirror-world seemed to work like a fey origami box. It could stretch in all directions or take a quirky left turn and have you suddenly facing your worst enemy. I wasn’t going there again—unless forced—until I figured out its rules and regulations.
“Where did the bodies you raised years ago end up,” I asked Ric, “with the Immortality Mob?”
“There wasn’t one yet. They went where the live illegal aliens went. They were smuggled across the border as cheap labor on ranches and in factories. CinSims came later.”
“Why raise only Mexicans for CinSims?”
“Maybe because border crossings are myriad, and expected. My native country is full of people yearning for a better life in the U.S.”
“Los desperados y los desaparecidos,” I said in his native Spanish. “The outlaws and the disappeared.”
I’d been studying my English-Spanish dictionary since meeting Ric, particularly the slanguage edition for any naughty words he might use in the heat of lovemaking. Of course, Spanish is a Romance language. Its musical lilt to an Anglo ear can make even a whispered obscenity sound sweet, not that I’d caught Ric using anything but impassioned prose on the flattering level of, oh, the Song of Solomon, say.
His Latin blood made him muy expressive. A night with him was a better self-esteem enhancer for a girl than winning the Miss Universe contest.
Um-mm, Irma seconded me. Although I’d always locked her down during the main event, she still had a front-row seat for the warm-up rounds, like now.
“Excellent pronunciation, paloma.” Ric nuzzled my cheek as the palomino whinnied approval. His lips whispered against mine between a string of soft kisses interspersed with nips. “You know your mouth drives me loco when it speaks my native tongue.”
That one sentence had taken a full minute to articulate between the lip-lock action, and it drove any sense of night chill from my bones. Ric’s mouth pulled back to let me speak against the caressing pad of his thumb, which only prolonged the dizzy desire.
I was melted Velveeta cheese in deep need of a … breadstick. Men love to prove they can drive every thought out of even the most coolheaded woman. They had a point.
Get a room, Irma moaned in my vacant mind. Please!
“Amor,” I whispered to Ric over her mental whimpering, “a Zobo roundup isn’t my idea of a rendezvous. Have mercy and tell me more about the current social and political situation in your native land.”
He laughed, easing off the romantic pressure to answer my grad school question. “You’re a hard woman to shake off an inquiry. I hesitate because I don’t enjoy acknowledging the brutal state of lawlessness in the land that birthed me.”
“You care, even though you were enslaved there as a child?”
“Especially because of that. Think. Mexican soil near the U.S. border is a no-man’s-land thick with unclaimed corpses. Thousands perished trying to cross the border and were left in shallow graves. Others were undiscovered victims of the drug cartel wars or, like the hundreds of murdered women in Juarez, the white slave trade. The dry desert landscape preserves corpses. Look at the Egyptian mummies.”
“No more mummies for quite a while, please,” I said with a shudder. The dry desert landscape also cooled off plenty at night.
Ric absently put an arm around my shoulders to warm me. “The desirable CinSim zombies only come from the Mojave and Sonora deserts that reach into California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico, not the Chihuahuan that straddles the Tex-Mex border. Something in the Mojave and Sonora sand is a prime natural preservative. Perhaps that’s why the Egyptian vampires immigrated here via their underground River Nile centuries ago. You got a good look at these latest guys from Cicereau’s Murder Inc. lodge?”
“Yeah, they appear pretty whole for having been werewolf pack bait. With some plastic surgery on their death wounds, they could pass as live.”
“How do you think the Immortality Mob, whoever they are, get such clean canvases for their Cinema Simulacrums? You can’t show a fine film on a scratched movie screen.”
“I don’t like to think of my CinSim friends in Vegas as hitchhiking on gussied-up corpses.”
“Why not? They probably had cosmetic procedures when alive and acting.”
“So your Zobos can be rehabbed?”
“That’s the idea. If they can be used by the baddies, why can’t they be employed for their own good, at least?”
“And you own this … arid land.”
“I own a thousand acres of it.”
“I didn’t know the FBI paid that well or that you were with them that long.”
“Consulting pays a lot better. These acres are too far from everything, even Area 51, to cost much.”
“Don’t remind me of ‘alien’ issues,” I complained as a joke.
Ric grinned. “California isn’t the freakiest state in the nation anymore, Nevada is.”
“You haven’t seen Kansas yet.”
“I will soon,” he said, brushing a kiss across my temple. “I can’t wait to start our road trip back to where you grew up. It’ll be a change of scene and a chance to put your ghosts to rest.”
I agreed. Ric needed a change of scene after what Vegas had dished out to us recently. I wasn’t sure my past was any place to find R & R, but I kept quiet.
He reached over to pat a white-blazed horse forehead farewell. “Seven Zobos corralled tonight is a good start,” Ric said. “They’ll probably attract their former in-ground buddies. We need to get back to civilization, get a shower, some sleep.”
A horse whinnied agreement. We must reek if the livestock wanted us washed.
“Most girls are horse-crazy at some stage.” Ric nodded at the restless half-dozen mustangs and purebreds, bracing a motorcycle boot heel on the lower crossbar. Somehow that didn’t do the trick of turning him into Clint Eastwood.
“Not me. I was fighting off vamp boys at that age.”
He grinned. “You make me wish I was a vamp boy. You look tasty in the moonlight—mother-of-pearl skin, sapphire eyes, ebony hair.”
Okay, I was about to blush. What girl believes she’s good enough looking, deep down? And I’d had a head start at self-loathing nobody around me had bothered to head off or even see, except Ric.
But I was a piker.
Ric had been through hell and back, maybe even the literal one, since childhood, and recently he’d been vamp-drained of almost every last drop of blood. My Snow-assisted kiss of life had restored his heartbeat, and the docs had declared him fine, but I’d regarded making love as therapy ever since. I was tiring of playing therapist and ready to pronounce him normal again, relax, lose my protective instincts, and enjoy the ride.
So if me in the moonlight brought it on, I was willing to stand there gooey-eyed and sop it up. Looking at Ricardo Montoya had never been a chore for me, either. Girls aren’t supposed to wax verbally enthusiastic about how guys look—unless they’re Dan Brown’s wife describing the dimple in Robert Langdon’s chin—but Ric was the disgustingly tall, dark, and handsome Hispanic edition, only he now had one silver iris to add an exotic air. An eye patch would look dashing too.
I stared into that silver eye, unguarded by a brown contact lens for this night-work, and saw my face reflected, tiny and shiny, exactly as he’d described it. His left iris was a reflective silvery surface, a miniature mirror, but I doubted I could dive into and through it with anything but my mind’s eye.
“You never got this mushy before your eye turned,” I said more throatily than I’d expected. “Maybe I just look better through it now.”
There you go, Irma objected. Putting us down again.
Ric mock-growled back and kissed me like yesterday, today, and tomorrow rolled into one mega-moment. His lips slipped along my cheek and under my ear, nibbling.
“Back to my place, then, for all that jazz.”
By then Quicksilver had finished checking out the perimeter and even he was growling. His tolerance for sloppy sentiments was lower than mine.
“We do leave the motorized critter behind?” I asked.
Ric glanced over his shoulder at the ATV. “’Fraid so. You’re gonna be my only ride tonight.”
Um, frisky. Irma approved. Quit worrying, girlfriend. The man had a blood count of zero for a couple days there. Even vampires need a fresh feed to get it up.
I do so not want to think about that, I told her. You are getting a time-out, girlfriend, starting now.
© 2010 Carole Nelson Douglas