Deadtown

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TWO RULES I LIVE BY: NEVER ADMIT TO BEING A SHAPESHIFTER on a first, second, or third date with a human. And never, ever bring along a zombie apprentice wannabe on a demon kill.

Lately, given my lack of a social life and my kinda-sorta relationship with a workaholic werewolf lawyer, Rule Number One hadn’t presented much of a problem. At the moment, it was Rule Number Two that was giving me trouble. Of course, I’d only formulated Rule Number Two about thirty seconds ago, but I intended to uphold it for the rest of my life—assuming that I’d make it out of here and have a rest of my life to live.

Rule Number Two was thanks to Tina, who—against my orders—had followed me into my client’s dream. I was here to exterminate a pod of dream-demons, and the last thing I needed was a teenage zombie in a pink miniskirt.

“Hi, Vicky. I thought you might need this.” Tina waved my flamethrower, then looked around. “Whoa. It’s weird in here.”

Weird didn’t half describe it. We stood in the middle of a huge circus tent, the top stretching up and up until it disappeared somewhere in the stratosphere. Eerie music from an out-of-tune calliope swirled through the air. All around us loomed dozens of crate-sized boxes painted crayon-bright red, blue, and yellow. Suddenly, a box to my right flipped open. With an earsplitting screech, an evil-faced clown sprang out, jack-in-the-box-style. I raised my pistol, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. The bronze bullet nailed the demon-clown right between its eyes. It shrieked, bobbing around on its spring, then dissolved into a puff of sulfurous mist.

“Cool!” Tina brandished the flamethrower. “Let me do the next one.”

“Uh-uh. You’re getting out of here. Now. Before the client wakes up.” I went over and nudged her toward the dream portal, but she shook me off and walked away.

“Don’t worry. Georgie-poo’s sleeping like a newborn baby.”

“Mr. Funderburk to you.”

“Whatever. Anyway, how can he wake up? That was, like, an industrial-strength sleeping pill you gave him. I want to look around. I’ve never been inside somebody’s dreams before.” Her mascaraed eyelashes fluttered against her spongy, gray-green skin. “Well, once, when I was alive, Joey Toma sino told me he had this dream and I was in it.” She sighed. “But I didn’t know I was in it, you know?”

I made a snatch for the flamethrower, but Tina spun around and danced out of reach. As she did, the ground rolled under our feet, sending up puffs of sawdust and making Tina stagger.

“What was that?” she asked.

“A bad sign.” The ground shook again, ominous, like the shudder that runs up your spine before something really, really awful happens. “You’re trespassing in Mr. Funderburk’s dreamscape. You’ve gotta go.”

She laughed. “I bet the earth moved more than that in Joey Tomasino’s dream.”

I grabbed her arm and tried to drag her toward the dream portal, but she dug in her heels. I’m stronger than a human, but zombies have incredible strength—something happened to their muscles between death and reanimation. I couldn’t budge her.

The ground was rippling in steady waves now, making it hard to stay upright. “This is bad,” I said, shaking Tina’s arm. “If the client wakes up, we’ll both fade into dream limbo. You want to be stuck in here forever?”

Tina yanked herself away and strolled across the bucking ground, her arms out like those of a tightrope walker. She stopped beside a box and knocked on its lid. “Yoo-hoo. Any demons in there?”

The box flew open and a figure emerged. Tina stumbled backward and hoisted the flamethrower.

“Don’t!” I shouted.

Too late. A blast of fire roared from the weapon, incinerating the figure and shooting past it to burn a hole in the wall of the circus tent. Tina fell, landing on her butt and dropping the flamethrower. The jet of fire whipped back and forth like an angry snake, igniting more jack-in-the-box boxes, the calliope, the Eiffel Tower—who knows how that got in here, but it was blazing now. I ran over and picked up the weapon, snapping the safety on before the whole damn place went up in flames.

Tina stared at the ashes of the box she’d blasted. “That wasn’t a clown.”

“No, it wasn’t even a Drude.” Drudes are dream-demons, the kind I’d been hired to exterminate. “You just torched Mr. Funderburk’s mother.” No question about it; I’d seen her photo on George’s nightstand.

“Oops.”

A howling began in the distance, from somewhere outside the dream. The noise got louder and louder, and the dreamscape bounced around like an earthquake redefining the Richter scale. The howling shaped itself into a word: “Mama! Mamaaaa!” Outside, George was moaning and shaking his head—signs he was waking up. If that happened, Tina and I would be trapped forever inside this freak-show circus or, worse, locked in the basement that stored the symbols and themes of George Funderburk’s subconscious. I’d seen enough topside to know that was not a place I wanted to be.

“Mama!” George’s heartbeat thundered through the dreamscape. Sleeping pill or no sleeping pill, he was working himself into a state that would catapult him out of his dream—the way it happens when you wake up suddenly, your heart pounding and a scream dying on your lips. We had ten, maybe fifteen seconds left. I shoved Tina, hard.

“Get through the portal! No more screwing around!”

This time, Tina listened. She scrambled, half-crawling, to the dream portal, a doorway of shimmering, multicolored light, then jumped into the beam. Immediately she bounced backward, like she’d tried to hurl herself through a trampoline.

All around us, the circus tent was going up in flames, roaring and popping, throwing lights and shadows across Tina’s terrified face. George was screaming now; in here, it sounded like a million fingernails screeching down a million blackboards. Tina put her hands over her ears and again tried to shoulder her way into the portal.

“Vicky! I can’t get through!”

I caught up with her. “There’s an exit password. Keeps the Drudes in.” I mouthed the secret word and shoved Tina into the portal. Her body shimmered for a second, dissolving into a Tina-shaped outline of sparkling colors. Then she disappeared, sucked back into the real world.

Damn, how I wanted to follow her. But I couldn’t. Not until I’d finished the job.

With Tina gone, the place was shaking a little less, so maybe George was settling back down and I could—

An explosion ripped through the air, knocking me to the ground in a shower of sparks and hot ash. I scrambled for cover, then checked out the situation from behind an abandoned clown car. Fire raged through the big top as, one by one, the boxes blew up. That would get rid of some Drudes—and God knew what other dream figures were hiding in there—but I couldn’t let the flames destroy George’s whole dreamscape. If that happened, he’d never dream again, and that meant a one-way ticket to insanity. Not to mention the fact that I’d burn to cinders along with everything else.

Think, Vicky, think. Dreams don’t follow the same rules as reality. I had to use dream logic to put out the fire, then try to repair the dreamscape—if the chaos in here didn’t jolt George into waking up first. It was a plan, or the closest I could come to one at the moment.

I tried wishing the fire away. Sometimes that works in dreams. Closing my eyes, I pictured a bright, happy circus scene: a bright, happy tent (flame-retardant) filled with bright, happy people. “Make it real,” I whispered. “When I open my eyes, this is what I’ll see.” Taking a deep breath, I opened my eyes.

The ringmaster ran past me, screaming, his top hat on fire. To my right, a snack cart exploded, showering flaming cotton candy over the stands as spectators trampled each other while trying to find an exit. So much for bright and happy.

Time for dream logic, take two. I tried free association. Fire. Out. Water. Lots of water. As soon as I thought water, I thought of elephants—don’t ask me why. It made perfect sense at the time. A line of elephants pedaled into the ring, each on its own tricycle, trumpeting sirenlike wails. It sounded a little bit like a brigade of off-key fire engines, and I crossed my fingers. The elephants triked over to the pool at the foot of the high-dive platform, then stopped. Each elephant rolled off its tricycle, did a ballerina-style pirouette, then began using its trunk to siphon up water and spray it on the flames. Sizzling sounds hissed through the air. Within seconds, the fire was out.

“Thanks, guys,” I called, waving as the elephants floated skyward, then disappeared. Their trikes turned around and pedaled themselves out of the ring. Everything was back to normal, or as normal as it gets in a dream.

Except that all around me, everywhere I looked, George Funderburk’s dreamscape lay in ruins. Steam rose from piles of wet, stinking ashes. The circus tent was three quarters gone; here and there, a few singed ribbons drooped. Beyond them, a charred, dreary landscape stretched out in all directions, the kind of dreamscape that brought depression and despair to waking life. Gray, gray, and more gray—the fire had burned out all the colors. Don’t let anyone tell you that people dream in black and white; that’s a severely damaged dreamscape. Dreams are supposed to be in hi-def, razor-sharp color. No way could I leave the place like this—the poor guy would be worse off than before he hired me.

Years ago during my training I learned a technique for re-booting a person’s dreamscape, but I’d never actually tried it in the field. Today would be my chance—if I could remember what to do. It was the only hope I had of putting things right.

First things first, though. I couldn’t attempt a reboot until I’d flushed out all the demons. Otherwise, they’d reinfest the place and we’d be back to square one. So before I did anything else, I’d finish the job I’d been hired to do. I pulled out the InDetect I wear on a cord around my neck and turned it on. It hummed to life, then was silent. Turning in a slow circle, I held it at arm’s length and listened. After a quarter turn it clicked, softly at first, but as I took a few steps, sweeping the InDetect back and forth, the volume and the speed of the clicking picked up. Drude, dead ahead.

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