A PHONE THAT RINGS JUST BEFORE DAWN NEVER BRINGS good news. That’s true even if you live where I do—Deadtown, Boston’s paranormal-only district. Deadtown wakes up when the sun goes down, and by five in the morning most of the zombies, vampires, and other paranormals who live here are home behind their blackout shades, pulling on their jammies and ready to turn in for the day. Not dialing up their friends just to say, “Boo.”
I stared at the ringing phone like I was expecting the thing to morph into a tarantula if I reached for it. The caller ID read BLOCKED CALL. No help there. Maybe it was a potential client wanting me to exterminate a demon—I could use the work. But norms don’t make phone calls at this time of day. They wait until what they consider business hours. And by then I’m usually fast asleep.
One more ring, and the call would go to voice mail. I let it. I was in the process of pulling on my own jammies, and I didn’t see any reason to let some ridiculously late (or early, if the caller was a norm) phone call rob me of my sleep. Of course, wondering who was calling and what they wanted would probably do that, anyway.
I watched the phone to see if the message light would start flashing. It didn’t. Instead, the phone began ringing again. And the caller ID still didn’t have a clue.
Whoever was calling was going to keep trying until I either answered or unplugged the phone. I grabbed the handset (no tarantula) and pressed Talk.
“Vicky, is that you? This is Daniel.” A pause, like he wasn’t sure I remembered him. “Daniel Costello.”
“Daniel?” Of course I remembered him. Still, I couldn’t keep the surprise out of my voice. Daniel Costello was a human I’d dated a few months back. Great guy, but things hadn’t worked out. Last I heard, he’d moved in with Lynne Hong, a TV news reporter. And of course I was with Kane, my werewolf boyfriend.
That is, if our relationship managed to survive the next full moon.
But I couldn’t think about that now. I refocused my attention on the voice on the phone.
“This hasn’t hit the news yet,” Daniel was saying, “but it will soon. There’s been a zombie attack. Three people are dead.”
“And by ‘people’ you mean . . . ?” A zombie attack anywhere was bad news. But, unfair as it may be, the fallout would be less if the attack happened in Deadtown. Paranormals killing their own didn’t attract much interest from Boston’s powers-that-be.
“Sorry. Humans. A zombie killed three humans.”
Shit. That meant hell to pay for all of us. Ever since a magically enhanced virus had been set loose on downtown Boston three years ago, the plague victims—called “zombies” because they’d lain dead and decaying for three days before reanimating—had lived with humans in a truce that was uneasy at best. Looked like that truce had been breached.
“Was it bloodlust?” I asked.
Zombies, despite their superhuman strength and their tendency to bounce right back from injuries that would kill a norm, aren’t much of a threat to humans. Unless they catch a whiff of fresh blood. The scent stirs up an insatiable hunger that makes human flesh suddenly seem mighty tasty. Talk about your awkward social situations.
“We’re checking out that possibility, but I don’t think it was bloodlust. I’d like you to come out and look at the scene.”
“Me? Why?” Daniel was more than a guy I used to date. He was also a city homicide detective. Not long ago, as a serial killer terrorized the South End, Daniel had told me in no uncertain terms to stay away from his investigation. The way he’d called me an amateur then still stung. Especially when I was the one who’d stopped the killer.
So why the sudden about-face?
“You’ll understand when you get here,” he said. “I don’t want to say anything else before you’ve had a chance to view the scene. But if you end up thinking along the same lines I am, I want to hire you as a consultant.”
“You suspect demon activity?” Of course he did. That explained the about-face. There was no other reason he’d call me in as a consultant.
But Daniel didn’t answer my question. He gave me the address, on Lincoln Street in the Leather District, and urged me to hurry.
“I’m on my way,” I said, pulling on a jacket.
GETTING OUT OF DEADTOWN WAS GOING TO BE A PROBLEM.
Even if Daniel was right that the story hadn’t made the news yet, everyone knew something had happened. Sunrise was fast approaching, yet the New Combat Zone, the gritty strip between the checkpoints into Deadtown and human-controlled Boston, was packed with zombies. At this time of day, the monster bars were all closed and the street was usually deserted. Now, throngs of zombies milled around, making the Zone look like Street Party of the Living Dead.
Except the mood was anything but festive.
I tapped a zombie on the arm. He was tall and could see over the heads in the crowd. The face that turned to me—spongy, gray-green skin with deeply sunken cheeks, bloodred eyeballs protruding from their sockets, thin lips pulled back from yellow teeth—looked like a vision out of a norm’s worst nightmare. But I’m not a norm, and here he was just your average man, or monster, on the street.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Protest.” Recently, several zombie groups had organized marches against the restrictions placed on Deadtown residents. The first demonstration or two had been covered by the press, but then media attention had wandered elsewhere. Zombies marching through Deadtown? Big deal. As long as they stayed on their own side of the border, no one cared.
This gathering wasn’t like the marches, though. For one thing, there were no signs. No speeches shouted through bullhorns. And the feeling in the air was one I could only describe as menace. Real anger was simmering here. Things could get ugly, fast.
I moved into the crowd. The zombie’s hand clamped my shoulder.
“Don’t bother,” he said. “They’ve sealed the border.”
Of course. If a zombie had attacked some humans, that’s the first thing that Boston’s paranormal-hating police commissioner, Fred Hampson, would do, even before he made any kind of official statement. But word spreads fast in Deadtown. Zombies heard about the restriction, but not why it had been put in place. And even if they knew a zombie had killed three humans, many would still be here protesting, anyway. After all, if one norm murdered another over on Marlborough Street, Hampson wouldn’t seal off the entire Back Bay.
An amplified voice cut through the crowd’s rumblings, but it wasn’t to make a speech or lead a chant. “This is an unlawful gathering. Disperse at once and return to your homes.”
The Goon Squad had arrived.
Deadtown’s police force comprised joint zombie-human teams armed with exploding bullets—one of the few things that could kill a zombie, or at least make undeath not worth living. Now, Goons moved into the Zone, dressed in riot gear and carrying big-ass automatic weapons. With their faces shielded by visored helmets, you couldn’t tell which cops were zombies and which were human. They all looked like storm troopers from an invading alien force.
The bullhorn repeated its commands. The crowd stirred, restless, poised uncertainly between retreat and riot. The silence felt heavy with threat, like a gathering thunderhead.
“Let us through!” a man’s voice shouted.
Somewhere, glass shattered.
A roar erupted from the crowd. Bodies surged toward the Boston checkpoint. The yelling resolved itself into a chant: “Let us through! Let us through!”
I struggled to keep my feet under me as shouting zombies shoved from all sides. I tried to move toward the curb, but it was useless pushing against a wall of tightly packed zombie bodies.
An acrid smell—was that smoke?—reached my nostrils. There was another crash of glass, and a group of zombies broke away, charging toward the buildings that lined the street. I ran after them. Ahead, a jagged, gaping hole marred the plate-glass window of The Wild Side, a monster bar. The breakaway zombies were storming it. They punched out the remaining glass and climbed inside. A minute later, they were back at the window. One clutched a cash register. Others passed beer kegs out to their friends.
The Wild Side wasn’t enough for the looters. Zombies yanked at the locked door of Creature Comforts, the next bar over. Shit, that was my hangout. “Stop!” I screamed, my voice swallowed up in the din. Not that a group of rioting zombies would pay the slightest bit of attention to a lone, five foot six shapeshifter, even if they could hear me.
“Ram it!” someone shouted. Through The Wild Side’s smashed window came—hell, was that the bar? Four zombies grabbed it and backed up, ready to use it as a battering ram.
I rushed forward. If I could get between the zombies and the door . . . Who was I kidding? I’d end up squashed like a swatted fly against the door of my favorite bar. I watched helplessly.
“Two!” The zombies around me backed up, cheering, to give the looters more room. I stumbled back with them. I hoped Axel, the bar’s owner, had insurance.
The looters never finished their countdown. The door slammed open, banging hard against the wall. Axel’s seven foot tall silhouette filled the wide-open doorway. Even from where I stood, the looters’ gasp was audible as they froze. Axel stepped outside, shut the door behind him, and folded his arms. No gun, no riot gear, just a badass troll protecting his turf.
The looters fell back. Some disappeared into The Wild Side. Others rejoined the crowd. Axel stood there like the Colossus of goddamn Rhodes, his beady eyes promising trouble to anyone—zombie, vampire, human, whatever—who took one step too close.
Around me, the crowd headed for the checkpoint again. Someone shoved me from behind, and I almost fell. I lost sight of Axel as I concentrated on not being trampled to death in a zombie stampede. The bullhorn, still shouting commands, was barely audible.
Then, a burst of gunfire sounded.
Everything stopped. Voices cut off in mid-chant. Raised fists halted in mid-shake. For several seconds, silence reigned.