Les took two steps then stalled, shaking his head. I actually meant were you an analytic robot, before. Are you afraid of losing yourself? I’m bloody terrified. "I can’t do that. I can’t."
Hyde nodded. "Your glow is weak, flickering. You can probably do it now, because you overlapped with someone with power. But you’ll lose it. The altered cells aren’t as healthy, as vigorous as the others. They’ll die out, and in a couple of years be gone altogether." She shuffled her feet in embarrassment. "That’s according to one of the witches I merged with. I guess we’ll see, in the next few years, whether that’s how it works, or not."
And now you sound like a normal person. Do you even notice the jump between personalities? Les took a deep breath, released it. "Right. So, let’s check the house."
Hugh led the way. As usual, he knocked and walked right in. Les had noticed it the first day, all the unlocked doors, with and without branches barring them. Bloody trusting of people, out here in the country. If it weren’t for the tree branches sealing everything . . . well, no burglars have shown up. So far. Or maybe they got eaten by zombies and dinosaurs.
There was damage to the plastered ‘southwestern adobe’ style house, a hole the rats must have used. There were dead rats in the entry. A tiny decorative table on its side, a broken lamp and some other knickknacks spilled across the floor.
Les looked around carefully, but there was no sign of live, or zombie, rats. "It wasn’t like this when we searched."
Hugh nodded. "Lenny? Mary Elizabeth? Anyone home?" He stepped over the table and Les followed, Delphi right behind him.
Les turned as movement caught his eye. "In the backyard."
A pair of dead rats kept the sliding glass door from closing completely. Hugh pushed it open and stepped out.
Les stopped as he spotted the zombie on the patio.
It turned and help a woman step over a half circle of crushed rats. The woman was clutching a pair of Pekinese dogs. Dogs and woman were shivering.
Les choked faintly. The zombie was protecting her? He looked carefully. Oozing pus, bruised, off color flesh. Definitely a zombie. He swallowed. "Well, another friendly zombie. Good. Do you know Red McAiever? Last I saw, they had him halfway healed. Could I offer you a ride to the hospital?" And then I’m going to sit down and have a fit of hysterics.
The new zombie was in excellent shape. Lenny Wooten, anxious wife hovering, nasty little dogs growling.
"What did you treat him with? He has pus pockets but the rim of the sores looks like the skin is healing." Tasman swallowed and backed away. Wish I hadn’t had lunch!
Lenny looked lost, and a bit worried, and his wife did all the talking.
"I used extra chlorine in the pool and he soaked for an hour three times daily. I only used the power washer the first day, I was afraid it was too rough on him. And, well, I went down to the aquarium store, I don’t have any fish right now, but I used to, and I bought some antibiotics there. Fish antibiotics, but they’re the same things as human antibiotics, honest. And, well, I prayed a lot."
Tasman nodded. The wife – Mary Elizabeth – had a short perky hairstyle, black with golden brown streaks through it, symmetrical side-to-side. Big brown eyes, with large irises.
I’ve seen a lot of streaky hair lately. Is it a local fad, a local hair salon with a fixation? Or is it related to the Overlap?
Tasman eyed the two dogs Mary Elizabeth kept clutched to her. Some sort of Pekinese crosses, they didn’t look quite . . . right.
They all merged. The woman with someone with golden brown hair, the dogs . . . who knows? Maybe not even anything canine. Cats, raccoons? Even coyotes wouldn’t be too large. She eyed the odd fur of the dog’s ruffs. It almost looked like feathers, mixed in with the silky hair. The black dog had sharp eyes, like a crow . . . Right. Concentrate on the zombie.
"Well. Let’s get Lenny on to some IV antibiotics, and we’ll see if we can finish the healing you’ve got started. Have you talked to someone about the Fairgrounds? You’ll be safe there."
Mary Elizabeth gulped and nodded. And clutched her little dogs. "I don’t think they’ll let me keep my babies there."
Babies. Ugg. People and their dogs. Give me a nice dignified cat any day.
"I’ll talk to them about it, Mary Elizabeth." Hugh was in so many ways such a small town cop, on first names with half the people here.
Les rolled his eyes.
Mary Elizabeth beamed.
And they trust him.
Hugh watched Del, and worried.
She looked thin, and her hands shook slightly as she spooned up egg drop soup.
He felt a little shaky himself, and he hadn’t performed any magic. Because you didn’t need to. This woman is very powerful. He scowled and tried to ignore the voice. It wasn’t his. Even if it did sound gleefully proud and possessive.
The waiter brought their entrees. General Tso’s Chicken and Mongolian Beef.
One sweet, one salty, both with plenty of protein.
A new voice snickered. Festival food, food for a feast. Ordinarily a peasant like you would have rice. Shut. Up. If you were lucky.
Hugh heaved an exasperated sigh. I wonder which one you are? That first shepherd? Boyer Pyotr?
Now the voice was silent. Of course.
Koi pond and fountain inside, stylized plaster pictures on the wall. Tacky dragon fountain outside. Hunan Garden was the finest Chinese Restaurant in the world, in his moderately well travelled opinion.
It was early for dinner, late for lunch. The restaurant had only one other occupied table, an older couple across the room.
Safe to talk, no one to overhear. "We need to keep track of energy expenditures, and eat regularly."
Delphi dimpled. "That was diplomatic. I’ve got at least three women nagging at me. Do you have voices in your head?" She spooned out steamed rice, passed the bowl to him.
Hugh took a couple of large scoops and reached for the beef. "Yes. Will they fade, like you told Les?"
"Pretty quickly, from what I retained of Nalda’s knowledge. I’m writing it all down, to work from later. Do you remember things like the words of power?" She served herself chicken and they swapped platters.
Hugh snorted. "It’s not so much that I remember, as a word just pops out when I need it. I’ll start keeping a record too. I don’t know if I hope I’ll keep the magic, or if I’ll be relieved if it fades away."
"I want it." She smiled wryly. "But what happens now is out of my hands. I just keep wondering that maybe if I keep using it, it’ll stick. But the nags say right now I’m to eat and get a good night’s sleep before I try anything else." She took a bite of the sweet and spicy chicken.
Hugh’s head nodded agreement.
He froze. No. You are not taking control. To prove it, he put his fork down. Made his hand stay still in his lap. "Will you go back to the hospital tomorrow?"
"Yes. Do you think I can get in on my own?"
Hugh chewed his lip. "Agent Bishop is probably making a full report, right about now." He grabbed his fork and started eating.
"Oh. Drat. I’ve done something monumentally stupid, haven’t I?" She looked worried, but kept eating.
Hugh shrugged. "Hard to say. Short term, you can help the zombies with enough of their wits about them to heal. Long term . . . I don’t know. I merged with a dinosaur right in front of half the Feds. Only thing I could think to do."
She chewed and swallowed. A faint smile came and went. "Perhaps it’s just as well the effects of the Overlap are temporary. Probably those odd influences and knowledge will be fading steadily over the next month."
Hugh met her eyes and nodded his understanding. "I hope you have enough time to heal the zombies. Well, a few more of them. Our zombies."
"I have an idea about that. I’ll need good internet access, though."
"That I can provide."
Delphi had had her truck stuffed with top of the line computer equipment. "All my stuff finally got here from New York."
Hugh turned over his desk and connection to her, and choked a bit at what she could do.
"Nothing illegal. Really." She protested. "I’m just hiding where this is coming from and sending it to every public forum anywhere, clearly labeled as what it is. It doesn’t travel, or damage any computers."
"But you could."
"Don't you know most of the best hardware and software people were hackers, at one point or another of their careers."
She chuckled. "I was in there at the start. And never harmed anything, and never got caught. Anyway, that’s all I can do, tonight."
The report left out the part about magic words and rats dropping dead.
Les stared at it like it was a poisonous snake.
It was not helping his appetite for dinner.
"So, you found a friendly zombie today?" Ron looked worried. "I don’t like the way we’re turning into stereotyped zombie hunters, shoot on sight, kill them all. This isn’t a movie damn it."
Jason Mata walked over to join them. "What do you have?"
"A zombie husband protecting his wife and couple of yappy little drop-kick dogs from the zombie rats. No sign of the human type zombies, and the rats ran off when we drove up. I drove Lenny to the hospital and got him checked in and getting loaded with antibiotics. He was stable. Did you get a report from Dr. Lee on three of the patients? They improved suddenly this morning and still had no sign of infection, when I called, a half hour ago."
"Yes. I’ve informed the Director, and the treatment regimen is being touted around the various cities dealing with the same problem."
Les paused. Looked down at the written report. I won’t change it. She was exhausted after healing a few patients. She’ll be lucky to save any more at all. I’ll get her to some other hospitals . . . but most of the zombies are going to die in the next week. Period. There’s only one of her.
Tasman walked in, glowing. She walked across the room to them.
Les smiled at her, and saw with a pang that she was looking at Mata, not him.
"I’ve got three patients so improved I’m tempted to call them healed. I’m going to get optimistic, if I’m not careful. Lenny, the new patient, is aware. He can’t talk, he's got a nasty wound in his neck, I'm thinking about reconstructive surgery if he can kick the zombie . . . problem. But he’s following the conversations. His wife was feeding him antibiotics for fish aquariums and loading him with vitamins. Not a bad guess on her part." She spread a pleased smile around and sat down abruptly. Blinked back tears. Sniffed. "For a while there, I didn’t think I’d be able to save any of them."
Les wished he dared a hug. "You’ll save more of them."
She wiped tears and suddenly giggled. "Either that or they’ll be saved by the magicians. There are ‘instructions to all witches and wizards’ going viral on the internet. Magic spells and instruction on how to save a zombie. It’s quite funny."
Les blinked. Took a cautious breath. Instructions to witches and wizards? "Witches and wizards? I wonder how many doctors will be desperate enough to let them try?"
She threw her hands out suddenly. "None, I hope. Good Lord, it’s utter trash. This week has been so bizarre, I can feel my grip on reality slipping."
Les froze. Does she really not see? Has she rationalized away her merge with that sheep? Don’t I wish I could! He did not touch his head. "A week ago I’d have sneered at anyone suggesting that I’d be on a zombie hunt. And tomorrow morning we’re going to be back on the streets, looking for them."
"I wish this wasn’t real too." Mata patted his shirt pocket in an habitual smoker’s grab. Sighed in resignation and pulled out a pack of gum.
Tasman took the offered stick, Les shook his head.
Mata popped one in his mouth. "Just . . . don’t hesitate if the zombie is coming at you. Some of them need to be stopped, permanently. The situation in the cities is frightening."
Les took a deep breath, and braced himself. "Looking on a map, the zombies seem to be sticking to the inner most, most highly affected areas. Is that the same in the cities, or do they roam further out?"
Ron cocked his head. "They could evacuate some areas. Just until they had the situation in hand." His tone went a little wry at that.
"My patients, the ones that can talk . . . Red and Gabby, and Cathy all fussed constantly about wanting to go home. Maria and Justin didn’t, then this morning Justin started in wanting to leave, to go back. And Lenny, but he can’t talk, so I don’t really know what he’s fussing about." Her eyes narrowed. "I’ve never seen this so-called hotspot."
"I could drive you up there, if you’d like." Les perked up. An opportunity for a private conversation!
Mata stiffened. "That could be dangerous."
Les read his body language all too easily. Damn. Competition.
Tasman nodded. "Just a quick look. A lot of other hotspots have scientists all over them, so we probably don’t need to study this one, particularly. I’m just curious."
Les turned and looked at a window. "Right. It’s still light enough out. And we won’t even get out of the car."
Ron grinned and handed over the keys. "I’m going to go remind my wife and kids what I look like. Have fun, children. Inspector? Do you have any specifics from the other areas? How many of them are finding friendly zombies?"
They were still talking as Les held the door for the doctor and escorted her out.
The short August day was ending fast as they drove across the last ridge and spotted the river, silver winding through the sepia rocks.
Les looked to the left. "There should be a dirt road . . . here we go."
He turned the car and drove slowly. There was a line of cars, and up ahead the flickering light of an open fire. The flames were bright, as the sun set.
Tasman frowned. "What are people doing, up here?"
Les rolled his window down a few inches. "Drums? Are they insane? Wait here, I need to roust these people out, send them home. Or someplace safe, at any rate."
He slipped out of the car, closed the door behind him. It had gotten hot. Sweat beaded his forehead and he pulled his tie loose as he walked up the hill. Unbuttoned the top button.
The full moon rose over the eastern hills.
Two figures had their backs to him, sitting on the ground, thumping the drums in their laps. Men, by the short hair, the width of their shoulders. Beyond them, women danced around the campfire.
No, in costumes, with animal heads, like the reports about the Egyptian Gods. The costumes covered their backs with hair and ended in tails. In front, they were quite naked, from the chins of their animal heads all the way down long, long legs.Les stopped and stared in utter disbelief. Sweating, and his head hurt. He walked forward in a daze, dropping his shirt behind him. Kicking off his shoes as they ceased to fit. He was the King of the Dance, the primeval male, the Horned God. He danced.