Excerpt: Walking Dead

Book Four of the Walker Papers

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 29TH, 9:45 P.M.

My wig itched like a son-of-a-bitch.

I wanted to say I didn’t know how I’d gotten myself into it, but the truth was, I knew exactly how I had: Phoebe Kostelis, normally my fencing teacher. Tonight, however, she played the part of my short Sapphic sidekick, working the crowd outside the party hall like she’d been born to it. They looked happy to be worked, since she wore only slightly more clothing than I did and had a body that even I coveted in a strictly Platonic sense.

I hadn’t thought this much about ancient Greeks since college, which probably meant I wasn’t having enough fun. Phoebe, on the other hand, was having a blast, wheezing with laughter as she clutched the arm of a cop I didn’t know. At least, I thought he was a cop: he was dressed as one, anyway.

But then, Phoebe was dressed in a scrap of cloth wrapped around her breasts, a very short skirt, and a blond wig that suited her even more poorly than long hair suited me. At least my wig and my natural hair color were the same: black. Phoebe’s hair was also black, and being blond did her olive complexion no favors. On the other hand, she was having fun, though I wasn’t convinced it was more fun than she’d have as a brunette. It didn’t matter either way, as long as she kept everybody’s attention off me.

I should have known better than to let her choose my Halloween costume. The last time she’d dressed me I’d ended up in an itty bitty gold lamé shirt, and jeans that stopped somewhere several miles south of my navel. This time she’d put me in a mid-riff-baring, boob-enhancing, hip-riding leather-pleated-skirt thing with ass-kicking boots and a variety of increasingly useless-looking weapons. I’d flat-out refused to wear it without a mask. Phoebe insisted that particular outfit didn’t have a mask. I insisted there was no way on this earth she could get me out of the house with my face–not to mention other body parts unfamiliar with seeing the light–showing. She’d finally given in and provided me with an golden mask “from season six” that left my mouth and jaw exposed, but hid more recognizable features, like my slightly-too-beaky nose. Between it and the wig, I hoped nobody would know it was me.

I walked through the doors a few feet behind Phoebe, who cleared the way with a quarterstaff taller than she was. I didn’t really think she needed the quarterstaff: one glower from beneath Phoebe’s Frida Kahlo eyebrow was enough to quell me, and I had an eight inch height advantage over her.

Of course, it was a party, which meant the glower wasn’t really in place. Instead of skedaddling, people grinned, and then they got a load of me. A wolf-whistle broke out, followed by a smattering of applause and a cheerfully bellowed, “Damn, Joanne, your legs go all the way up, don’t they?”

So much for not being recognized. I had a peace-knotted sword on one hip and a round yin-yang thing on the other. I loosened the yin-yang and shook it threateningly, but no one looked even slightly threatened. Someone did start a betting pool on whether Phoebe or I would win a fight. I put ten dollars on Phoebe and made my way further into the room.

The noise was astonishing. Phoebe and I had been there all afternoon setting up, only leaving an hour or so earlier to go change into our costumes. Since then, an easy two hundred people had jammed into a hall meant for maybe a hundred and fifty, and enough of them were cops that somebody really should’ve taken the moral high ground and called the fire marshal. Instead people were dancing, laughing, shouting at each other, waving red cups of cheap party drinks in the air, and generally looking like they were having a good time. I’d never helped throw a party before, much less one people came to by the hundreds. I felt all proud, and felt even better when Thor the Thunder God came through the crowd to stop in front of me with a smile. “Can I get you a drink?”

I looked him up and down, like he had to pass muster before I decided he was worthy of fetching refreshments. He did. In fact, at a guess, there was nobody more mustery at the party. He wore a tight-fitting sleeveless blue shirt with half a dozen shimmering circles set in two rows down his front, and jeans, which made him a rather modern god. Still, the loose blonde hair and the goatee he’d grown out over the last few months went a long way toward the look. So did the sledgehammer he’d strapped across his back. It looked like a much more effective weapon than either of the ones I was carrying, and I was briefly jealous. He’d foregone a traditional Viking helmet, but since the man looked like Thor in his day to day life, he really didn’t need it to pull off the costume. His smile broadened, becoming more god-like as he looked me up and down in turn. “I thought you didn’t do Halloween.”

“I thought so too,” I said dryly. “Phoebe thought otherwise.” I tugged the mask off and rubbed my nose. If people were going to insist on knowing who I was, at least I could indulge in breathing. Besides, I’d been kidding myself about being unrecognizable. Phoebe’d chosen the outfit because I had the physical stature for it: in bare feet I stood half an inch under six feet tall, and had the breadth of shoulder that came with working on cars most of my life. Or, I guessed, if I was going to stay in character, with swinging a sword all my life. I’d actually only been doing that for about six months, which was a lot more than I’d ever imagined doing. Anyway, Seattle’s North Precinct police department wasn’t littered with women my height, so even though the point of a costume party was disguise, I probably would have had to arrive as a short bald man to actually be mistaken for someone other than myself.

Thor was still grinning at me. “I think this is one match-up they never had on the show. We should get our picture taken.”

“You’re seriously deluded if you think I’m going to let anybody take my picture in this get-up.” Thor waved at somebody as I spoke, then turned me around. A flash went off in our faces and I tried to lurch two directions at once: toward the camera to destroy it, and toward Thor, possibly to destroy him, too. Our photographer squeezed away through the crowd, leaving me to bonk my head on Thor’s shoulder and groan. “Thanks a lot. Anyway, I never saw the show. Why would she be running around with Thor? I thought she was, like, Greek.”

“How could you have never seen it?” Thor asked incredulously. “Don’t you ever just turn the TV on and watch whatever’s on?”

I shrugged. “Not really, unless I catch a Law & Order marathon. I don’t watch a lot of fantasy shows.”

“Mmmph.” He considered me a moment. “Maybe I wouldn’t either, if I were you. You want that drink?”

All of a sudden, I did. Thor’s reminder wasn’t enough to get my panties in a bunch the way it would’ve a few months ago–which was good, since there was no way to discreetly de-bunch panties under my itty bitty skirt–but an out-loud mention in public was a tad on the overwhelming side. Overwhelmed must’ve shown in my face, because Thor pushed off through the crowd, people making way for the thunder god without thinking about it.

A dippy little grin edged its way across my face as I watched him go. He was a good guy, probably better than I deserved. Certainly better than I’d treated him as when we’d first met and saddled him with the Thor nickname. I mean, yeah, he was tall and blonde and gorgeous and had shoulders slightly wider than the Grand Canyon, but I’d been pissed off that he’d replaced me as a mechanic at the cop chop shop, and had given myself license to call him whatever I wanted.

I’d been, if you wanted to get right down to it, a bit of an asshole. I hoped I was starting to improve, but in the meantime, Thor–whose real name was Edward–had admitted that as nicknames went, Thor wasn’t bad. I wouldn’t have expected him to put on a costume and run with it, but people surprised me all the time. Sometimes I surprised even myself.

Like now. I popped up on my toes to gain another couple inches in height, and for once I ran with it and gave myself permission to see a little more clearly.

Not just see, but See. Edward had an aura that suited the nickname I’d given him: it was all stormy grays and blues, with shattered bits of white crashing through it. He was, by nature, good-humored, and those sparks of brilliance were usually pleasantry, but I expected if he got his dander up, they’d be as deadly as the lightning Thor was supposed to be able to call.

For a few seconds, the entire room danced with light. Everyone was in high spirits, obvious from not only the laughter and ribald teasing, but the warmth and camaraderie of people feeding each other’s energy and keeping it going in a positive cycle. It felt good to revel in that energy, but watching it constantly made the real world harder to see, and despite it all, I still preferred the real world.

It’d been nearly a year since I’d been laid out in a parking lot with a sword in my lung, and a smirking coyote had offered me the choice between death or life as a shaman. In all my waking hours I’d never thought of wanting any kind of mystical gifts or healing powers, but I’d wanted to die even less. It had occurred to me once or twice since then that even in the absolute worst of circumstances, there were choices to be made. The sticky bit was that we tend to think of choices as being one good thing versus one bad thing. When the available options all suck, you took the one you could live with.

In my case, that was a very literal what I could live with. It’d taken me the better part of six months to chin up to the responsibilities I’d agreed to, and finally doing so had changed the shape of my life. Now I could turn a second sight on and off without so much as a blink, Seeing more deeply into people than was comfortable, and that was the least of my esoteric talents.

A party was not the time to be dwelling on my unnatural skill set. I did blink, even if it wasn’t necessary, to clear away the glimmering colors, and moved to lose myself in the crowd. Edward would be able to find me; I was taller than almost everyone in the room, and he was taller than I was. I squirmed by a pair of clowns whose eyes were on the level with my breasts. The one with his nose in my cleavage looked entirely too pleased. I threatened him with the yin-yang thing and his companion had the good sense to turn his face away. I turned the other direction, hiding a laugh. Being amused by people ogling my chest seemed out of character for my leather-clad persona, nevermind me.

A big chunk of a man in a blue satin evening gown with a matching bolero jacket edged through the crush, trying not to step on anyone. I escaped the clowns and waved my mask in greeting. “Hey, Billy. You look great.”

Billy Holliday, paranormal detective extraordinare–he saw dead people–my work partner, and overall one of the solid, reliable linchpins of my life, looked me up and down and said, “You look surprisingly naked.”

I covered my bare stomach with the mask and wondered if a blush could start as low as the xyphoid process. It felt like it. “I don’t think that was the response I was looking for.”

Billy, without a hint of genuine repentance, said, “Sorry,” as his wife appeared at his elbow. “I’ve just never seen you quite so, um.”

Quite so um. There were probably worse compliments a girl could get, but overall I think I’d have preferred better. Then again, married men probably weren’t supposed to open with a salvo of you’re surprisingly naked to begin with, so maybe I should take what I could get.

“Bill, you’re not supposed to let the pregnant wife get lost in the madhouse.” Melinda Holliday stood a full foot shorter than her husband, and wore a velvet tuxedo that properly squired his evening gown. Wonderfully long tails nearly dragged on the floor, and she adjusted a cummerbund stretched over a very round belly as she examined me. “Joanie. You look…”

I sighed. “Surprisingly naked?”

“Well,” she said cheerfully, “yes. Fantastic, actually, but surprisingly naked. Who convinced you to wear that?”

I said, “Phoebe,” in a voice that I hoped spelled her doom.

Melinda laughed, which boded poorly for my doom voice. “Half the force will thank her for it. Have you seen Michael?”

“Michael? Morrison?” I didn’t know a lot of other Michaels, but I never thought of my boss by his first name, and found it bewildering that Melinda did. “Morrison’s at my party?” I had a fair amount of experience with the world ending. None of it had looked anything like a costume party, or else I’d have put Morrison’s attendance down as a sure sign of the apocalypse.

Melinda’s eyebrows shot up. “You invited him, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t think he’d come!” Curiosity got the better of me as I craned my neck to look around. “What’s he dressed as?”

“A cop, of course.” Melinda sounded delighted.

I squinted. “He is a cop. That’s not a costume. Unless he’s in uniform, but that’s cheating.”

Billy, sounding every bit as pleased as Melinda, said, “Oh, he’s in costume.” I turned my squint on him, then peered around again. Morrison typically wore suits, except for when protocol demanded he pull out the full captain’s dress uniform. I hadn’t seen him in that since a funeral in June, and while he’d looked handsome and solemn and reliable, just as a police captain should, I didn’t think he should get away with it as a Halloween costume. Especially when I’d let Phoebe put me into some strategic bits of leather and a sword. I’d have died of hypothermia if the party wasn’t a success.

Thor reappeared, bearing drinks and a look of amusement. “Have you seen the captain?”

“I don’t even believe he’s here.” I took one of the plastic cups he offered and sniffed its contents–pink and foamy–suspiciously. “What is this?”

“I didn’t ask. There were two choices. One involved dunking my head and apples. I took this one.” He took a sip of his own drink cautiously, then made a moue. “Typical fruit-drink-and-soda party stuff.”

Reassured, I took a sip, then coughed, eyes tearing. “You forgot to mention heavily spiked.” I blinked tears away, then took another sip more carefully. Woo. Worse than the Johnnie Walker I’d gotten wasted on a few months ago. At least I expected that to knock me senseless.

Melinda heaved a melodramatic sigh. “Do they have anything non-alcoholic?”

“They better. I told Phoebe we had minors attending the party.” I nodded at Melinda’s belly. “You look ready to pop.”

“I was ready to pop three weeks ago. I’ve forgotten what my feet look like. My children have taken to calling me El Blobbo.”

“They have not,” Billy said equitably. Melinda beamed at him and he said, “They call her La Blobbacita,” which earned him a sudden reversal of the beam into a credibly injured pout.

“When’s the big day?” Thor took a swig of the pink drink and made a face.

Melinda let go of her pout to sigh gustily. “November sixth.”

“Well, that’s not too bad, right? Only another week.”

Spoken, I thought, like somebody who’s never been pregnant. I didn’t say it out loud because it opened up a whole bunch of questions I had no desire to answer, but the look Mel gave him pretty much said what I didn’t.

Billy grinned. “She’s doing jumping jacks every morning to try to hurry things along.” He bent to give her a kiss, promised, “I’ll find you a drink,” and cleared a path through the crowd. Evening gown or no, he was by far a big enough guy to do that easily, though it closed up behind him again.

Melinda, beaming, called, “My hero,” after him, then folded her arms across the top of her tummy and looked around. “Good party, Joanne.”

“Thank you. From shut-in recluse mechanic to partying shamanic police detective within a year. You too can get on this ride if you’re over this tall.” I waved a hand near the top of my head, then took another hasty swallow of my drink. Apparently it was more potent than I’d realized, if it was taking me from wanting a drink so I didn’t have to think about my mystical power set to babbling about it.

Melinda, bless her, snorted and stood on her toes in an attempt to reach the required height, while Edward leaned forward to knock his forehead against the side of my still-lifted hand. He had a good three inches in height over me, and his voice dropped somewhere around his, um, knees, as he murmured, “I wouldn’t mind getting on that ride.”

This time I was sure a blush could start around the xyphoid process. His smile turned into a grin and he watched that blush go all the way down, which only served to enhance it. I whispered, “Stop that,” but not with any particular conviction.

He brought his gaze back up to my face and leered, then laughed and stepped in against me. I elbowed him with even less conviction than my scolding and he slid an arm around my waist, looking pleased with himself. “You brought it up, so now I get to ask something I’ve been dying to.”

I said, “No dying,” semi-automatically. Too many people around me had died, or had had alarmingly close calls, this past year. I didn’t like even joking about it.

Apology flashed through his blue eyes and he nodded, but he went ahead and asked, “Halloween’s a spooky time of year. Does it kick things into overtime?”

I frowned, first at my drink, then at my date. “Why? Have I been acting weird lately?”

He and Melinda said, “No more than usual,” in tandem, and he laughed as Melinda presented a high-five for him to match. “Nah. I was just curious, and you don’t usually bring it up, so I thought I’d seize the opportunity.”

“That’s not all you’ve seized.” Billy presented a cup of water over Melinda’s shoulder. She waddled around to present him a kiss of thanks, and he smiled broadly before remembering he was haranguing Thor. “Is this guy bothering you, Joanie?”

“Terribly. Help, help.” I made a feeble attempt to escape, then blew a raspberry and leaned against Thor. “I haven’t noticed any correlation between the time of year and the amount of weird in my life, no. Get back to me in five years and I might have a better, what do you call it.”

“Survey sample?” Melinda suggested.

“Yeah, something like that. But I don’t think it fluxes and rises with the time of year. I mean, what kind of mystical portence does the second week of July have?” It probably had something. My knowledge of the arcane, while vastly better than it’d been a year ago, wasn’t exactly all-encompassing. Besides, everything that’d happened in July had been my fault, not some kind of magic cosmic conjunction.

“Well,” Thor said, “it had enough mystical portence to make me ask you out. That’s got to count for something.”

“No,” Melinda said dryly, “what’s mystical is she said yes.”

“I had to. It was Alan Claussen’s band. I like them.” I actually scraped up a few lines of lyrics up, half-singing, “Ill met by moonlight, first kiss, stolen late at night,” which got a round of applause from Melinda as Thor staggered back as far as the press of people would let him, a hand over his heart.

“I see how it is. I’m only wanted for my concert tickets.”

I patted his shoulder, since he’d only escaped to about eighteen inches away. “Your concert tickets and your uncanny talent under the hood. There are worse things a guy could be wanted for.”

Too late, I realized the error of my phrasing, and raised my voice to say, “He’s a mechanic! I’m a mechanic! I like guys who are good with cars!” over Billy and Melinda’s synchronized, “OooOOooh!”

“The lady,” Thor said cheerfully, “doth protest too much. You’re not helping yourself.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know.” I was too pink-cheeked and laughing to get myself out of that alive anyway, so I took a swallow of my fizzy drink and reveled in the sheer simple fun of being teased by my friends.

“Jo!” Phoebe squished through the crowd and seized my arm. I straightened away from Edward and Phoebe shook me, yea veritably. I went agglty while she said, “You have so got to get a load of your boss,” and swung me around to face the door. Still rattling, I looked for Morrison and whatever costume had everybody I knew insisting I needed to see him.

Instead the doors flew open and an entire cadre of zombies lurched through them.

from WALKING DEAD
Book Four of the Walker Papers
available now

Walking Dead

CE Murphy

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