He was on his third beer of the evening when he thought he heard a noise in the backyard.
Hank DeSilvo scowled and looked out the window over the kitchen sink full of dirty dishes. He could see nothing but darkness, and maybe a bit of reflected light from the television. This was probably a bad time to remember the back porch light had blown out two days ago, and he’d forgotten to replace it.
Not that it mattered. The only light currently in the house was coming from the television, and as long as he ignored it, he developed enough night vision to make out a shape moving in the back garden. Or was it the wind moving a shrub? Kind of hard to say.
He slammed his can down with an annoyed grunt. It was probably the Hindle’s stupid ass dog again, shitting all over the place and tearing through his garbage. He hated that fucking thing, some ugly Rottweiler mix that they insisted was a “friendly” dog, and yet it always had a look in its flat, black eyes that was just this side of rabid. They never leashed the damn thing either, and apparently his yard destruction was “cute.” He was just about out of this fucking place and that damn thing had to make a final appearance. And it was final all right; he was going to make damn sure of that.
He went back to the living room, glancing at the game as he walked past—it was a fucking damn boring game anyway—and got his shotgun from the cabinet. It was illegal as all hell, a sawed-off thirty ought six with the barrels cut so short you could have stowed it under a jacket, but the barrels had been filed down expertly; it wasn’t just the rough work of a desperate amateur but the sign of a pro. Which was why, when they’d searched the drug mule’s truck and he’d found it wedged under the front seat, he hid it in his trunk and didn’t report finding it. It wouldn’t have added that much to the mule’s sentence; he already had enough rock in his glove compartment to put him away for the rest of his pointless life, especially if it was his “third strike” (and it was, no surprise there), and he doubted the guy was so stupid that he’d actually ask why he wasn’t charged with owning an illegally modified weapon. Yeah, he was dumb; you had to be dumb if you were speeding and had a few thousand in rock in the car, as well as being obviously stoned yourself. But asking after that was a special kind of stupid, the kind only politicians and people on reality television ever seemed to crest.
He cracked open the gun and made sure he had some shells loaded in it before snapping it shut again with a sharp flick of his wrist. Man that felt good. This was a real man’s weapon, made him feel a foot taller and made of pure muscle, and he knew why that meth fuckhead was carrying it around with him. A weapon like this was a real god-killer; it made you feel invincible.
It was pure overkill, of course. The Hindle’s dog was fairly big, and yet one shot from this gun would rip it in half clean down the middle, as well as make a boom loud enough to set off every car alarm on the block. But what the fuck did he care? He was an ex-cop; he’d say the dog charged him, and on his property he could shoot the fucking thing if he wanted. He’d swap out the sawed-off for his Remington before they arrived. Ballistics wouldn’t match, but by the time they proved that, he’d be long gone. Good-bye shit-hole city, hello tropical paradise. It was just a shame that it took him this long to collect.
He stood at the back door for a moment, cradling the shotgun gently, and let his eyes get adjusted to the dark before going out onto the concrete patio. He had a mini Maglite with him with a red lens over the bulb, so if there was something he needed to see he could twist it on without losing his night vision. Not that he needed to make a direct hit; even if he just winged the dog, he’d probably rip half its face off, maybe a leg.
First step off the patio his foot squelched in something; it felt too liquid to be shit, but the smell that hit him was meaty, redolent of shit and offal and God knew what else. Had that fucking dog already strewn his garbage about? Goddamn it.
Holding the shotgun in one arm, he turned on the flashlight and looked down at what he’d stepped in.
At first it looked like a puddle, which didn’t make sense since it hadn’t rained in a week, and the thought that it was dog piss was dismissed since it was dark, and dog piss wasn’t usually black. Or was that red-black? Swinging the light outwards, he saw greasy, ropey strands that couldn’t have come from his garbage can, and then a big hunk of raw, bloody meat like a lamb shank … only it was too long and thin to be a shank, too dark, and ended in a paw.
It was a Rottweiler leg.
Someone—something—had dismembered the Hindle’s psychotic dog and spread about a third of it all over his backyard. He saw the leg, which was the biggest piece, an assortment of internal organs, loops of intestines laid out like fallen party streamers, and lots of blood. But where was the other two thirds of the dog?
The hair stood up on the back of his neck, and he knew he had to get the fuck inside now. But as he turned, shotgun at the ready and braced against his hip, he saw the flash of white teeth in the dim moonlight, and his brain sent out the impulse to pull the trigger.
He didn’t have time to wonder why it never happened as the teeth ripped open his throat.
According to the movies and several TV shows of questionable reputation, being a private detective was a thrilling occupation, or at least a somewhat exotic one. Roan wondered if that was ever true.
Right now he was just awash in the exotic drama. He was seeing the sunrise coming up over the freeway as he fought off yet another yawn, and forced himself to gulp the horrible transmission fluid that the 7-Eleven laughingly called coffee in the hopes of staying awake long enough to get home. He hated living so far out in the middle of nowhere, but it was for the best for several reasons. He liked his privacy; in fact, he required it. So did Paris.
And he was coming back from his exotic case du jour, namely taking photos of a man meeting his mistress at a fleabag no-tell motel, getting enough pics of them in compromising positions (it was nice of them to go to a sleazy motel with few good photo angles and then fuck in the car) that his client was sure to have grounds for voiding their pre-nup. She’d clean up big-time in divorce court, and he’d still get nothing more than his measly hourly fee and applicable expenses. It was so much glamour he could hardly stand it. Just add a breakfast burrito and a bad case of hemorrhoids, and boy howdy, there was the dream. Raymond Chandler, eat your heart out!
He supposed he shouldn’t complain, because at least he got out in the field, even if it was in the side of town where burning cars on the side of the road had become a point of interest in the tourism brochures. Most of the work he did was background checks and credit checks, all easily done from his computer at home or in the office, and the occasional missing persons case or what Paris liked to call the “Springer cases” (cheating spouses/significant others/whatever the hell). Those Springer cases made you feel nice and sleazy, like you were a voyeur participating in the acts, but the worst thing as far as Roan was concerned was the reaction from some of those suspicious lovers/spouses when he told them their fuck buddy wasn’t cheating on them. Most were relieved, which was fine, but the ones he abhorred, the ones that really made him hate the human race, were those who insisted that they were cheating. Either he hadn’t looked hard enough or was working with the goddamn bitch/bastard. Rather than be glad, they were sure there was something wrong and that their partner couldn’t be trusted.
His advice—for them to break up with their significant other and move on, because clearly they were unhappy and trying to pin the blame on their partner—was generally met with rage, snits, and threats of physical violence. He kind of hoped they would try something with him, but so far no one had.
He wondered if they knew he was one of the viral children; certainly the cops had for the very brief time he was on the force. He was pretty sure two years was more than enough time to make him anonymous again, but you could never really be certain. It didn’t help that he had a freaky-ass name like Roan McKichan, an aggressively Scottish name that almost no one could pronounce properly. (For some reason, many people liked to pronounce Roan “Ro-Ann”—did he look like a woman?—and McKichan was usually pronounced “McKick-In” or “McKitchen.” They seemed absolutely baffled that the “I” was pronounced like an “E”, and it was McKee-Cann, which some people liked to tell him wasn’t at all the way it was spelled.) At least he had teamed up with a man with a name even worse than his: Paris Lehane. Yes, they could easily pronounce it, but he always faced the question: “Like Paris Hilton?”
Roan liked to say yes, yes, exactly like Paris Hilton. Only he wasn’t a skanky blonde heiress with no discernible talent and a disturbing nose. Paris was a man who looked like the athlete he had been before he was infected and went a bit nuts, and he had some discernible talent. Perhaps he had the bit nuts thing in common with Hilton—she was probably so heavily medicated, you couldn’t tell.
Finally Roan turned down the gravel drive leading to the house, yawning all the while, and parked behind the ’68 GTO Paris had been attempting to restore in his free time. The body needed a lot of work still—there was quite a bit of rear-end damage, rust spots marring the fender, and the left side was dotted and splashed with primer—but there was no fear of anyone stealing it, because Paris had pulled out the engine to rebuild it, and it was currently spread out on a tarp on the floor of the garage. If someone wanted to steal his GTO, they’d need a tow truck.
Roan dumped out the sewer mud jokingly called coffee on the side of the driveway, then tossed the cup in his car garbage can as he grabbed the bag containing his laptop and digital camera, which were also known as the backbone of his business, and headed for the house.
He shouldered the bag as he dug out his keys, and wondered if he should bother to be quiet. It was Paris’s time, more or less, right? They ran on different viral cycles, and sometimes when he got caught up in work, he’d forget. If it was his time, he’d be in the basement, so he didn’t have to worry about being quiet—not for now at least. Later on Paris might be pissed at him, but he’d deal with that later, once he was rested and fully caffeinated.
But as soon as he was in the door, he knew something was wrong.
It was several things all at once. When he closed the door, a puff of wind seemed to move through the house, bringing with it a taste of fresh outside air. There was also another scent wafting after it, one of pain and the musky smell of a cat mixed inextricably with that of a human. Altogether it was like sour milk with a hint of flesh, iron, and fresh-cut grass. Not only weird, but immensely troubling. “Paris?” he asked, alarmed, putting his bag on the side table before venturing into the living room.
What awaited him there looked like the aftermath of an explosion. Half of the sliding glass door leading to the backyard had been shattered, broken glass sparkling like fractured diamonds on the slate gray outer deck, and the curtains were partially torn down, the fabric billowing in the breeze like a collapsed sail. An armchair had been reduced to kindling with random clots of stuffing, and the coffee table was tipped over, its legs sticking up in the air like a dead insect. On the floor between the table and the couch, naked and curled up in fetal position, was Paris, semi-conscious and panting through the pain. He looked totally human, his skin slicked with sweat, but when his eyelids flickered open, Roan could see his eyes were still almost totally amber, the whites mere spots in the corner, his pupils still dark vertical slits. It was common that the eyes were the first to change and the last to go.
“I’m sorry,” Paris gasped. “I fell asleep upstairs, and when I woke up.… I tried to get downstairs, but.…”
“It’s okay,” he lied. Considering Paris’s strain, him getting out was never a good thing. Not only was he quite noticeable, but the amount of damage he could do was extraordinary; they were lucky to have just lost some furniture and a sliding glass door. He hoped that was the extent of it all, but Roan was not a natural optimist. That’s why they lived out here, in the middle of nowhere, far from other people: less chance of collateral damage if everything went wrong. When you were a werecat, you always had to think about these things.
They had an emergency first aid kit in the downstairs bathroom, so he retrieved it, sorting through the contents on his way back. Most first aid kits were full of gauze, BAND-AIDs, and Neosporin, but this one was custom-made for them. That meant it was full of disposable hypodermics and lots of painkillers. After his transition, he ached, but it wasn’t too bad. Then again, he was a virus child, and they were different; the virus integrated into their DNA fully, rendering them slightly different than those who started out human and later became something else. He heard that, for them, the pain was excruciating, and often hastened their deaths. Paris seemed to be living proof of that.
He loaded up a needle with the fentanyl analogue he’d picked up last time he was in Canada. Not only was it cheaper and easier to get there, but they didn’t ask so many questions if you identified yourself as an infected. They just assumed you wouldn’t make such a thing up.
He knelt down beside Paris and stabbed the needle in his butt. He was in so much post-transition pain he didn’t even notice. He looked up at Roan, the amber receding but the pupils still slits, and said, “I’m so sorry.…”
“Don’t worry about it,” he assured him. There was no point in worrying about it now; what’s done was done. He couldn’t turn back time and sling Paris in the cage in the basement.
Paris sighed and his whole body seemed to relax as the drug took effect. His muscles stopped spasming like they were trying to burst out of his skin like angry aliens, and he seemed to sag into the carpet bonelessly, not so much losing consciousness as slowly sliding out of it.
Roan grabbed the throw off the couch and spread it over him, deciding to get down on the floor and lie beside him, wrapping his arm around him for comfort. Paris leaned back into him, glad for the contact. “You don’t think I hurt anyone, do you?” he muttered, his voice fading away.
“We live in the middle of nowhere. Who could you hurt?” But even as he said it, he knew if Paris had been closer to consciousness, he would have heard the hesitation in his voice. Yes, they lived in the middle of nowhere, but it wasn’t really that far from people, and a little less than a mile away was one of those suburban housing projects that seemed to spring up like toadstools. Paris easily could have covered the distance, eaten an entire family of four, and still have had most of the night to kill. So to speak.
If only the strain reflected the character. Paris was the kind of man who wouldn’t hurt a soul, and yet he’d ended up with the fiercest strain of them all. Roan knew himself to be a darker, harder person, and yet Paris’s strain could kill his with little trouble.
Like he needed one more reminder life wasn’t fair.