The goat lay on its side. The bare white of its spine glimmered in the moonlight. Blood still seeped into the ground from the gaping wound. Eyes were rolled and glazed, tongue lolling out of its mouth.
The older the zombie, the bigger the death needed. I knew that, and that was why I avoided older zombies when I could. At a hundred years the corpse was just so much dust. Maybe a few bone fragments if you were lucky. They reformed to rise from the grave. If you had the power to do it.
Problem was, most animators couldn't raise the long-dead, a century and over. I could. I just didn't want to. Bert and I had had long discussions about my preferences. The older the zombie, the more we can charge. This was at least a twenty-thousand-dollar job. I doubted I'd get paid tonight, unless living 'til morning was payment enough. Yeah, I guess it was. Here's to seeing another dawn.
Zachary came to stand beside me. He had torn the remnants of his shirt off. He stood thin and pale beside me. His face was all shadows and white flesh, high cheekbones almost cavernous. "What next?" he asked.
The goat carcass was inside the blood circle he had traced earlier; good. "Bring everything we need into the circle."
He brought a long hunting knife and a pint jar full of pale faintly luminous ointment. I preferred a machete myself, but the knife was huge, with one jagged edge and a gleaming point. The knife was clean and sharp. He took good care of his tools. Brownie point for him.
"We can't kill the goat twice," he said. "What are we going to use?"
"Us," I said.
"What are you talking about?"
"We'll cut ourselves; fresh, live blood, as much as we're willing to give."
"The blood loss would leave you too weak to go on."
I shook my head. "We already have a blood circle, Zachary We're just going to rewalk, not redraw it."
"I don't understand."
"I don't have time to explain metaphysics to you. Every injury is a small death. We'll give the circle a lesser death, and reactivate it."
He shook his head. "I still don't get it."
I took a deep breath, and then realized I couldn't explain it to him. It was like trying to explain the mechanics of breathing. You could break it down into steps, but that didn't tell you what it felt like to breathe. "I'll show you what I mean." If he didn't feel this part of the ritual, understand it without words, the rest wouldn't work anyway.
I held out my hand for the knife. He hesitated, then handed it to me, hilt first. The thing felt top-heavy, but then it wasn't designed for throwing. I took a deep breath and pressed the blade edge against my left arm, just below the cross burn. A quick down stroke, and blood welled up, dark and dripping. It stung, sharp and immediate. I let out the breath I'd been holding and handed the knife to Zachary.
He was staring from me to the knife.
"Do it, right arm, so we'll mirror each other," I said.
He nodded and made a quick slash across his right upper arm. His breath hissed, almost a gasp.
"Kneel with me." I knelt, and he followed me down, mirroring me as I asked. A man who could follow directions; not bad.
I bent my left arm at the elbow and raised it so the fingertips were head-high, elbow shoulder-high. He did the same. "We clasp hands and press the cuts together."
He hesitated, immobile.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
He shook his head, two quick shakes, and his hand wrapped around mine. His arm was longer than mine, but we managed.
His skin felt uncomfortably cool against mine. I glanced up at his face, but I couldn't read it. I had no idea what he was thinking. I took a deep, cleansing breath and began. "We give our blood to the earth. Life for death, death for life. Raise the dead to drink our blood. Let us feed them as they obey us."
His eyes did widen then; he understood. One hurdle down. I stood and drew him with me. I led him along the blood circle. I could feel it, like an electric current up my spine. I stared straight into his eyes. They were almost silver in the moonlight. We walked the circle and ended where we had begun, by the sacrifice.
We sat in the blood-soaked grass. I dabbed my right hand in the still-oozing blood of the goat's wound. I was forced to kneel to reach Zachary's face. I smeared blood over his forehead, down his cheeks. Smooth skin, the rub of new beard. I left a dark handprint over his heart.
The woven band was like a ring of darkness on his arm. I smeared blood along the beads, fingertips finding the soft brush of feathers worked into the string. The gris-gris needed blood, I could feel that, but not goat blood. I shrugged it away. Time to worry about Zachary's personal magic later.
He smeared blood on my face. Fingertips only, as if afraid to touch me. I could feel his hand shake as he traced my cheek. The blood was a cool wetness over my breast. Heart blood.
Zachary unscrewed the jar of homemade ointment. It was a pale off-white color with flecks of greenish light in it. The glowing flecks were graveyard mold.
I rubbed ointment over the blood smears. The skin soaked it up.
He brushed the cream on my face. It felt waxy, thick. I could smell the pine scent of rosemary for memory, cinnamon and cloves for preservation, sage for wisdom, and some sharp herb, maybe thyme, to bind it all together. There was too much cinnamon in it. The night suddenly smelled like apple pie.
We went together to smear ointment and blood on the tombstone. The name was only soft grooves in the marble. I traced them with my fingertips. Estelle Hewitt. Born 18 something, died 1866. There had been more writing below the date and name, but it was gone, beyond reading. Who had she been? I had never raised a zombie that I knew nothing about. It wasn't always a good idea, but then this whole thing wasn't a good idea.
Zachary stood at the foot of the grave. I stayed by the tombstone. It felt like an invisible cord was stretched between Zachary and me. We started the chant together, no questions needed. "Hear us, Estelle Hewitt. We call you from the grave. By blood, magic, and steel, we call you. Arise, Estelle, come to us, come to us."
His eyes met mine, and I felt a tug along the invisible line that bound us. He was powerful. Why hadn't he been able to do it alone?
"Estelle, Estelle, come to us. Waken, Estelle, arise and come to us." We called her name in ever-rising voices.
The earth shuddered. The goat slid to one side as the ground erupted, and a hand clutched for air. A second hand grabbed at nothing, and the earth began to pour the dead woman out.
It was then, only then, that I realized what was wrong, why he hadn't been able to raise her on his own. I now knew where I had seen him before. I had been at his funeral. There were so few animators that if anyone died, you went, period. Professional courtesy. I had glimpsed that angular face, rouged and painted. Somebody had done a bad job of making him up, I remembered thinking that at the time.
The zombie had almost pulled itself from the grave. It sat panting, legs still trapped in the ground.
Zachary and I stared at each other over the grave. All I could do was stare at him like an idiot. He was dead, but not a zombie, not anything I'd ever heard of. I would have bet my life he was human, and I may have done just that.
The woven band on his arm. The spell that hadn't been satisfied with goat's blood. What was he doing to stay "alive"?
I had heard rumors of gris-gris that could cheat death. Rumors, legends, fairy tales. But then again, maybe not.
Estelle Hewitt may have been pretty once, but a hundred years in the grave takes a lot out of a person. Her skin was an ugly greyish white, waxy, nearly expressionless, fake-looking. White gloves hid the hands, stained with grave dirt. The dress was white and lace-covered. I was betting on wedding finery. Dear God.
Black hair clung to her head in a bun, wisps of it tracing her nearly skeletal face. All the bones showed, as if the skin were clay molded over a framework. Her eyes were wild, dark, showing too much white. At least they hadn't dried out like shriveled grapes. I hated that.
Estelle sat by her grave and tried to gather her thoughts. It would take a while. Even the recently dead took a few minutes to orient themselves. A hundred years was a damn long time to be dead.
I walked around the grave, careful to stay within the circle. Zachary watched me come without a word. He hadn't been able to raise the corpse because he was a corpse. The recently dead he could still handle, but not long-dead. The dead calling the dead from the grave; there was something really wrong with that.
I stared up at him, watching him grip the knife. I knew his secret. Did Nikolaos? Did anyone? Yes, whoever had made the gris-gris knew, but who else? I squeezed the skin around the cut on my arm. I reached bloody fingers towards the gris-gris.
He caught my wrist, eyes wide. His breathing had quickened. "Not you."
"People who won't be missed."
The zombie we had raised moved in a rustle of petticoats and hoops. It began crawling towards us.
"I should have let them kill you," I said.
He smiled then. "Can you kill the dead?"
I jerked my wrist free. "I do it all the time."
The zombie was scrambling at my legs. It felt like sticks digging at me. "Feed it yourself, you son of a bitch," I said.
He held his wrist down to it. The zombie grabbed for it, clumsy, eager. It sniffed his skin but released him untouched. "I don't think I can feed it, Anita."
Of course not; fresh, live blood was needed to close the ritual. Zachary was dead. He didn't qualify anymore. But I did.
"Damn you, Zachary, damn you."
He just stared at me.
The zombie was making a mewling sound low in her throat. Dear God. I offered her my bleeding left arm. Her stick-hands dug into my skin. Her mouth fastened over the wound, sucking. I fought the urge to jerk away. I had made the bargain, had chosen the ritual. I had no choice. I stared at Zachary while the thing fed on my blood. Our zombie, a joint venture. Dammit.
"How many people have you killed to keep yourself alive?" I asked.
"You don't want to know."
"Enough," he said.
I tensed, raising my arm, nearly lifting the zombie to her feet. She cried, a soft sound, like a newborn kitten. She released my arm so suddenly, she fell backwards. Blood dripped down her bony chin. Her teeth were stained with it. I couldn't look at it, any of it.
Zachary said, "The circle is open. The zombie is yours."
For a minute I thought he was talking to me; then I remembered the vampires. They had been huddled in the dark, so still and unmoving I had forgotten them. I was the only live thing in the whole damn place. I had to get out of there.
I picked up my shoes and walked out of the circle. The vampires made way for me. Theresa stopped me, blocking my path. "Why did you let it suck your blood? Zombies don't do that."
I shook my head. Why did I think it would be faster to explain than to fight about it? "The ritual had already gone wrong. We couldn't start over without another sacrifice. So I offered myself as the sacrifice."
She stared. "Yourself?"
"It was the best I could do, Theresa. Now get out of my way." I was tired and sick. I had to get out of there, now. Maybe she heard it in my voice. Maybe she was too eager to get to the zombie to mess with me. I don't know, but she moved aside. She was just gone, like the wind had swept her away. Let them play their mind games. I was going home.
There was a small scream from behind me. A short, strangled sound, as if the voice wasn't used to talking. I kept walking. The zombie screamed, human memories still there, enough for fear. I heard a rich laugh, a faint echo of Jean-Claude's. Where are you, Jean-Claude?
I glanced back once. The vampires were closing in. The zombie was stumbling from one side to the other, trying to run. But there was nowhere to go.
I stumbled through the crooked gate. A wind had finally come down out of the trees. Another scream sounded from behind the hedges. I ran, and I didn't look back.
I slipped on the damp grass. Hose are not made for running in. I sat there, breathing, trying not to think. I had raised a zombie to save another human being, who wasn't a human being. Now the zombie I had raised was being tortured by vampires. Shit. The night wasn't even half-over. I whispered, "What next?"
A voice answered, light as music. "Greetings, animator. You seem to be having a full night."
Nikolaos was standing in the shadows of the trees. Willie McCoy was with her, a little to one side, not quite beside her, like a bodyguard or a servant. I was betting on servant.
"You seem agitated. What ever is the matter?" Her voice rose in a lilting sing-song. The dangerous little girl had returned.
"Zachary raised the zombie. You can't use that as an excuse to kill him." I laughed then, and it sounded abrupt and harsh even to me. He was already dead. I didn't think she knew. She couldn't read minds, only force the truth from them. I bet Nikolaos had never thought to ask, "Are you alive, Zachary, or a walking corpse?" I laughed and couldn't seem to stop.
"Anita, you all right?" Willie's voice was like his voice had always been.
I nodded, trying to catch my breath. "I'm fine."
"I do not see the humor in the situation, animator." The child voice was slipping, like a mask sliding down. "You helped Zachary raise the zombie." She made it sound like an accusation.
I heard movement over the grass. Willie's footsteps, and nothing else. I glanced up and saw Nikolaos moving towards me, noiseless as a cat. She was smiling, a cute, harmless, model, beautiful child. No. Her face was a little long. The perfect child bride wasn't perfect anymore. The closer she came, the more flaws I could pick out. Was I seeing her the way she really looked? Was I?
"You are staring at me, animator." She laughed, high and wild, wind chimes in a storm. "As if you'd seen a ghost." She knelt, smoothing her slacks over her knees, as if they were a skirt. "Have you seen a ghost, animator? Have you seen something that frightened you? Or is it something else?" Her face was only an arm's length away.
I was holding my breath, fingers digging into the ground. Fear washed over me like a cool second skin. The face was so pleasant, smiling, encouraging. She really needed a dimple to go with it all. My voice was hoarse, and I had to cough to clear it. "I raised the zombie. I don't want it hurt."
"But it is only a zombie, animator. They have no real minds."
I just stared at that thin, pleasant face, afraid to look away from her, afraid to look at her. My chest was tight with the urge to run. "It was a human being. I don't want it tortured."
"They won't hurt it much. My little vampires will be disappointed. The dead cannot feed off the dead."
"Ghouls can. They feed off the dead."
"But what is a ghoul, animator? Is it truly dead?"
"Am I dead?" she asked.
"Are you sure?" She had a small scar near her upper lip. She must have gotten it before she died.
"I'm sure," I said.
She laughed then, a sound to bring a smile to your face and a song to your heart. My stomach jerked at the noise. I might never enjoy Shirley Temple movies again.
"I don't think you are sure in the least." She stood, one smooth motion. A thousand years of practice makes perfect.
"I want the zombie put back, now, tonight," I said.
"You are not in a position to want anything." The voice was cold, very adult. Children didn't know how to strip skin with their voice.
"I raised it. I don't want it tortured."
"Isn't that too bad?"
What else could I say? "Please."
She stared down at me. "Why is it so important to you?"
I didn't think I could explain it to her. "It just is."
"How important?" she asked.
"I don't know what you mean."
"What would you be willing to endure for your zombie?"
Fear settled into a cold lump in the pit of my gut. "I don't know what you mean."
"Yes, you do," she said.
I stood then, not that it would help. I was actually taller than she was. She was tiny, a delicate fairy of a child. Right. "What do you want?"
"Don't do it, Anita." Willie was standing away from us, as if afraid to come too close. He was smarter dead than he had been alive.
"Quiet, Willie." Her voice was conversational when she said it, no yelling, no threat. But Willie fell silent instantly, like a well-trained dog.
Maybe she caught my look. Whatever, she said, "I had Willie punished for failing to hire you that first time."
"Surely, Phillip has told you about our methods?"
I nodded. "A cross-wrapped coffin."
She smiled, brilliant, cheery. The shadows leeched it into a leer. "Willie was very afraid that I would leave him in there for months, or even years."
"Vampires can't starve to death. I understand the principle." I added silently in my head: You bitch. I can only be terrified so long before I get angry. Anger feels better.
"You smell of fresh blood. Let me taste you, and I will see your zombie safe."
"Does taste mean bite?" I asked.
She laughed, sweet, heartrending. Bitch. "Yes, human, it means bite." She was suddenly beside me. I jerked back without thinking. She laughed again. "It seems Phillip has beaten me to it."
For a minute I couldn't think what she meant; then my hand went to the bite mark on my neck. I felt suddenly uneasy, like she'd caught me naked.
The laugh floated on the summer air. It was really beginning to get on my nerves.
"No tasting," I said.
"Then let me enter your mind again. That's a type of feeding."
I shook my head, too rapid, too many times. I'd die before I'd let her in my mind again. If I had the choice.
A scream sounded in the not so far distance. Estelle was finding her voice. I winced like I'd been slapped.
"Let me taste your blood, animator. No teeth." She flashed fang as she said the last. "You stand and make no move to stop me. I will taste the fresh wound on your neck. I won't feed on you."
"It's not bleeding anymore. It's clotted."
She smiled, oh so sweetly. "I'll lick it clean."
I swallowed hard. I didn't know if I could do it. Another scream sounded, high and lost. God.
Willie said, "Anita. . ."
"Silence, or risk my anger." Her voice growled low and dark.
Willie seemed to shrink in upon himself. His face was a white triangle under his black hair.
"It's all right, Willie. Don't get hurt on my account," I said.
He stared at me across the distance, a few yards; it might as well have been miles. Only the lost look on his face helped. Poor Willie. Poor me.
"What good is it going to do you if you're not feeding off me?" I asked.
"No good at all." She reached a small, pale hand towards me. "Of course, fear is a kind of substance." Cool fingers slid around my wrist. I flinched but didn't pull back. I was going to let her do this, wasn't I?
"Call it shadow feeding, human. Blood and fear are always precious, no matter how one obtains them." She stepped up to me. She exhaled against my skin, and I backed away. Only her hand on my wrist kept me close.
"Wait. I want the zombie freed now, first."
She just stared at me, then nodded slowly. "Very well." She stared past me, pale eyes seeing things that weren't there or that I couldn't see. I felt a tension through her hand, almost a jerk of electricity. "Theresa will chase them off and have the animator lay the zombie to rest."
"You did all that, just then?"
"Theresa is mine to command; didn't you know that?"
"Yeah, I guessed that." I had not known that any vampire could do telepathy. Of course, before last night I hadn't thought they could fly either. Oh, I was just learning all sorts of new things.
"How do I know you're not just telling me that?" I asked.
"You will just have to trust me."
Now that was almost funny. If she had a sense of humor, maybe we could work something out. Naw.
She pulled my wrist closer to her body and me with it. Her hand was like fleshy steel. I couldn't pry her hand off, not with anything short of a blowtorch. And I was all out of blowtorches.
The top of her head fitted under my chin. She had to rise on tiptoe to breathe on my neck. It should have ruined the menace. It didn't. Soft lips touched my neck. I jerked. She laughed against my skin, face pressed against me. I shivered and couldn't stop.
"I promise to be gentle." She laughed again, and I fought an urge to shove her away. I would have given almost anything to hit her, just once, hard. But I didn't want to die tonight. Besides, I'd made a deal.
"Poor darling, you're shaking." She laid a hand on my shoulder to steady herself. She brushed lips along the hollow of my neck. "Are you cold?"
"Cut the crap. Just do it!"
She stiffened against me. "Don't you want me to touch you?"
"No," I said. Was she crazy? Rhetorical question.
Her voice was very still. "Where is the scar on my face?"
I answered without thinking. "Near your mouth."
"And how," she hissed, "did you know that?"
My heart leaped into my throat. Oops. I had let her know her mind tricks weren't working, and they should have been.
Her hand dug into my shoulder. I made a small sound, but I didn't cry out. "What have you been doing, animator?"
I didn't have the faintest idea. Somehow, I doubted she'd believe that.
"Leave her alone!" Phillip came half-running through the trees. "You promised me you wouldn't hurt her tonight."
Nikolaos didn't even turn around. "Willie." Just his name, but like all good servants he knew what was wanted.
He stepped in front of Phillip, one arm straight out from his body. He was going to stiff-arm him. Phillip sidestepped the arm brushing past.
Willie never had been much of a fighter. Strength wasn't enough if you had shit for balance.
Nikolaos touched my chin and turned my face back to hers. "Do not force me to hold your attention, animator. You wouldn't like the methods I would choose."
I swallowed audibly. She was probably right. "You have my full attention, honest." My voice came out as a hoarse whisper, fear squeezing it down. If I coughed to clear it, I'd cough in her face. Not a good idea.
I heard the rush of feet swishing through the grass. I fought the urge to look up and away from the vampire.
Nikolaos spun from me to face the footsteps. I saw her move, but it was still blurring speed. She was just suddenly facing the other way. Phillip was standing in front of her. Willie caught up to him and grabbed an arm, but didn't seem to know what to do with it.
Would it occur to Willie that he could just crush the man's arm? I doubted it.
It had occurred to Nikolaos. "Release him. If he wants to keep coming, let him." Her voice promised a great deal of pain.
Willie stepped back. Phillip just stood there, staring past her at me. "Are you all right, Anita?"
"Go back inside, Phillip. I appreciate the concern, but I made a bargain. She isn't going to bite me."
He shook his head. "You promised she wouldn't be harmed. "You promised." He was talking to Nikolaos again, carefully not looking directly at her.
"And so she shall not be harmed. I keep my word, Phillip, most of the time."
"I'm all right, Phillip. Don't get hurt because of me," I said.
His face crumbled with confusion. He didn't seem to know what to do. His courage seemed to have spilled out on the grass.
But he didn't back off. Big point for him. I would have backed off, maybe. Probably. Oh, hell, Phillip was being brave, and I didn't want to see him die because of it.
"Just go back, Phillip, please!"
"No," Nikolaos said. "If the little man is feeling brave, let him try."
Phillip's hands flexed, as if trying to grab on to something.
Nikolaos was suddenly beside him. I hadn't seen her move. Phillip still hadn't. He was staring where she had been. She kicked his legs out from under him. He fell to the grass, blinking up at her like she'd just appeared.
"Don't hurt him!" I said.
A pale little hand shot out, the barest touch. His whole body jerked backwards. He rolled on one side, blood staining his face.
"Nikolaos, please!" I said. I had actually taken two steps towards her. Voluntarily. I could always try for my gun. It wouldn't kill her, but it might give Phillip time to run away. If he would run.
Screams sounded from the direction of the house. A man's voice yelled, "Perverts!"
"What is it?" I asked.
Nikolaos answered, "The Church of Eternal Life has sent its congregation." She sounded mildly amused. "I must leave this little get-together." She whirled to me, leaving Phillip dazed on the grass. "How did you see my scar?" she asked.
"I don't know."
"Little liar. We will finish this later." And she was gone, running like a pale shadow under the trees. At least she hadn't flown away. I didn't think my wits could handle that tonight.
I knelt by Phillip. He was bleeding where she had hit him. "Can you hear me?"
"Yes." He managed to sit up. "We have to get out of here. The churchgoers are always armed."
I helped him to stand. "Do they invade the freak parties often?"
"Whenever they can," he said.
He seemed steady on his feet. Good, I could never have carried him far.
Willie said, "I know I don't have a right to ask, but I'll help you get to your car." He wiped his hands down his pants. "Can I catch a ride?"
I couldn't help it. I laughed. "Can't you just disappear like the rest of them?"
He shrugged. "Don't know how yet."
"Oh, Willie." I sighed. "Come on, let's get out of here."
He grinned at me. Being able to look him in the eyes made him seem almost human. Phillip didn't object to the vampire joining us. Why had I thought he would?
There were screams from the house. "Somebody's gonna call the cops," Willie said.
He was right. I'd never be able to explain it. I grabbed Phillip's hand and steadied myself while I put the high heels back on. "If I'd known we'd be running from crazed fanatics tonight, I'd have worn lower heels," I said.
I kept a grip on Phillip's arm to steady myself through the minefield of acorns. This was not the time to twist an ankle.
We were almost to the gravel drive when three figures spilled out of the house. One held a club. The others were vampires. They didn't need a weapon. I opened my purse and got my gun out, held down at my side, hidden against my skirt. I gave Phillip the car keys. "Start the car; I'll cover our backs."
"I don't know how to drive," he said.
I had forgotten. "Shit!"
"I'll do it." Willie took the keys, and I let him.
One of the vampires rushed us, arms wide, hissing. Maybe he meant to scare us; maybe he meant to do us harm. I'd had enough for one night. I clicked off the safety, chambered a round and fired into the ground at his feet.
He hesitated, almost stumbled. "Bullets can't hurt me, human."
There was more movement under the trees. I didn't know if it was friend or foe, or if it made a hell of a lot of difference. The vampire kept coming. It was a residential neighborhood. Bullets can travel a great distance before they hit something. I couldn't take the chance.
I raised my arm, aimed, and fired. The bullet took him in the stomach. He jerked and sort of crumpled over the wound. His face held astonishment.
"Silver-plated bullets, fang-face."
Willie went for the car. Phillip hesitated between helping me and going.
"Go, Phillip, now."
The second vampire was trying to circle around. "Stop right where you are," I said. The vampire froze. "Anybody makes a threatening gesture, I'm going to put a bullet in their brain."
"It won't kill us," the second vampire said.
"No, but it won't do you a hell of a lot of good, either."
The human with the club inched forward. "Don't," I told him.
The car started. I didn't dare glance back at it. I stepped backwards, hoping I wouldn't trip in the damn high heels. If I fell, they'd rush me. If they rushed me, somebody was going to die.
"Come on, Anita, get in." It was Phillip, leaning out of the passenger side door.
"Scoot over." He did, and I slid into the seat. The human rushed us. "Drive, now!"
Willie spun gravel, and I slammed the door shut. I really didn't want to kill anyone tonight. The human was shielding his face from the gravel as we rushed down the driveway.
The car bounced wildly, nearly colliding with a tree. "Slow down; we're safe," I said.
Willie eased back on the gas. He grinned at me. "We made it."
"Yeah." I smiled back at him, but I wasn't so sure.
Blood was dripping down Phillip's face in a nice steady flow. He voiced my thoughts. "Safe, but for how long?" He sounded as tired as I felt.
I patted his arm. "Everything will be all right, Phillip."
He looked at me. His face seemed older than it had, tired. "You don't believe that any more than I do."
What could I say? He was right.