ORANGE JUICE & OTHER THINGS
After he’d taken her money, Cornelia Mus had offered P.T Lyfantod another drink. Grateful though he was, he’d declined. He'd tipped his glass to her as he downed what was left of his first, made some lame comment about never wasting good whiskey, and left with a warm burning in his gut.
The bouncer outside handed back his gun without comment. Apparently he’d already received his orders. Lyfantod thanked him, climbed into a cab that was idling by the curb just for him, and gave the address to his flat. It was nearly ten o’clock. Lyfantod sat in the back of the taxi in silence for the twenty minutes or so it took him to get home. He was trying to decide if he’d learned anything useful from Mus about the case, or if he’d just taken on another futile responsibility in the search for her brother. She’d said that she and her brother had never left the city, and yet there was no record of either of them for nearly ten years until she'd opened up her club. No record of Reggie’s death. Why was that? In this day and age, living without a paper trail a mile long was unusual. Nothing at all? Practically unheard of. Perhaps they’d gone to a private school? One that didn't make their records public. He should have asked.
Before he knew it he was home. He paid the cabby and dragged his feet through the chilling snow, took care not to slip as he trudged up the icy stairs to his flat. He peered in warily as he opened the outer door. The hallway, dimly lit by light from the outside, proved empty. The shadows held no unseen assailants. This time.
He plopped down at his desk, and despite the fact that the quality of what Cornelia Mus had offered him was far better, by force of habit more than anything else, he reached into his the deep bottom drawer down by his knee and felt around for his bottle. He continued to do so until he remembered, to his great disappointment, that he'd finished the last one and neglected to buy another. This realization filled him with a profound sense of angst. Going back out into the cold was entirely out of the question. He had neither the inclination nor the energy to struggle back into his boots nor, for that matter, to move from that very chair. So he put his feet up, leaned back onto the rear legs of his chair, crossed his arms, and stared at nothing in particular. He kept this up for quite an impressive amount of time.
At ten till one by the face of his clock, faintly visible in the cold light from the window, hard pressed to say whether or not he'd spent the last two hours asleep or awake, Lyfantod realized that he was hungry. Groggy, he set his chair back flat on the floor with a loud clack and stumbled into the kitchen to scrounge for food. In the cupboard he found a half-finished jar of peanut butter. He shoved slow spoonfuls of the stuff into his mouth for ten drowsy minutes or so before his mouth dried up and stopped working. He replaced the jar, threw the dirty spoon in the sink, and fell face-first into bed. He was asleep in seconds.
When he woke again it was still dark. In fact, he thought, it might have been darker than before. He blinked and rubbed the heels of his hands in his eyes and wondered why on earth he was awake. Lyfantod was a sound sleeper, generally speaking. It was rare for him to rouse in the middle of the night, and as far as he could tell he didn't have to pee. He tried to recall what he'd been doing before he'd gone to bed, but the answer entirely eluded him. He noted that he was still wearing his shirt and trousers, though at least his boots were off. Going to bed with one's boots on was never a good sign. He wondered why his mouth felt sticky. He began feeling about his tongue but was soon interrupted from his search.
He knew why he had awoken.
Someone was pounding, loudly, rhythmically at his door.
BANG. BANG. BANG.
A chill ran down his spine that had nothing to do with the cold. He was wide awake now. The knocks were slow and deliberate, each delivered a second after the other. An interval of five breaths, and three more. He imagined his heart beating in time with the sound.
BANG. BANG. BANG.
Even through the two intervening rooms and the hall, it sounded like munitions going off. It sounded like someone was trying to take the door off the hinges. Lyfantod took the gun from under his pillow, checked the cartridge and the chamber, released the safety, and stepped warily out into the kitchen in his stocking feet. The little room was diffuse with white light from the moon and snow, shining in his little window.
BANG. BANG. BANG.
He crossed the hall to the office door, opened it without turning on the light, and stepping lightly, he stole into the room. He stood, gripping the handle of the gun with bloodless fingers and never took his eyes from the door.
“Who’s there!” he shouted, afraid, and angry that he was afraid. The pounding stopped. He waited for an answer, but there was only silence.
“I said who’s there?!” he bellowed, louder this time.
“I’ve got a gun!” he told the silence. “Vodorov?”
He waited. Thirty seconds. A minute. The intensity of his gaze ought to have bored holes in the foggy flemish glass, but it stubbornly remained, revealing only darkness. His capacity for waiting ran out. He took one step forward, then another. He approached from the side, doing his best to cast no shadow. Standing by the door he listened, shoulder pressed tightly up against the wall. He could hear nothing from the other side. No quiet breathing. No telltale heartbeat. He slid his fingers over the lock. Pulled it back as gently as he could, and waited. He left it that way for another anxious minute, waiting for whoever might be standing on the other side to make their move. But no one came.
Lyfantod steeled his resolve. He grasped the knob, stood there frozen for a moment of silent preparation, muttered a prayer he knew was futile, and in one fluid motion flung the door open and sent the muzzle of his detective special sniffing into the shadows like a boarhound. For the briefest of moments, the black lay impenetrable to his eyes, and then a hand emerged. A large hand, ignoring the outstretched pistol and reaching for his throat. Grasping for his eyes. He could see bone, where time and earthworms had stripped away dead flesh. He fired.
The muzzle flash was blinding. The explosion deafening in the confined quarters of the room. For an instant, the gruesome figure rocked back into the hall, pushed off balance by the force of the blast. And then, in defiance of mortal weakness, it advanced again.
The zombie was tall, with broad shoulders that slumped unevenly where the meat had melted away. Skin once a rich shade of brown was now a sickly black and green. The body was encased in an ancient leather jacket with silver-spiked epaulet; desiccated blue jeans with holes at the knees; old Chuck Taylors held in place by putrefaction. Atop its head a slumping, moldy high-top fade. A skeletal face with no lips and hollow, sunken eyes. This abhorrent creature had once been Reginald Mus.
The worst was the eyes—milky white like the ghoul’s. They turned Lyfantod’s blood to ice water. This was no mindless fiend. Those eyes could see. Could feel. Death had not granted this boy any release. Reginald stared at Lyfantod for a second that felt like an eternity, the hole in his belly still smoking. He opened his mouth, doing horrible things to the exposed muscle there, and spoke.
“Ssshhtaaay aaa—aay hrong-ngy sshisssterr.”
His voice was raspy and wet at the same time. His speech impaired by lack of lips and rotten tongue. His breath carried the graveyard stench of cold earth and rotting flesh. It was too much for old P.T. His hands shaking like leaves, he fired. And fired. And fired, unloading his entire cylinder into the creature before him until his gun only clicked when he pulled the trigger.
Reggie fell back another step with the impact of each slug. But he didn't fall down. The zombie looked down at the new holes opened in its decaying body just long enough for Lyfantod’s ears to stop ringing; slowly raised its head. Those eyes bore deeply into Lyfantod’s own, and in absolute proof that what he faced was no longer human, it roared. It was a horrible sound, full of anguish. Full of rage.
Lyfantod dropped the spent pistol and ran. Before he had taken three steps, slapping footfalls came pounding on his heels. Reggie caught him in the hall, a powerful hand wrapping around his wrist, unpleasantly damp. Lyfantod struggled, but the grip was too strong, and he found himself being turned—being pulled to the ground.
He landed on his back, and the zombie fell atop him as he scrambled to escape, and cold, bone-tipped fingers closed around his throat. He could feel the life being squeezed out of him; the oxygen being denied his brain. Moldy spittle dripped down from a putrid mouth as Reggie pulled Lyfantod’s face toward his own, moaning and growling, teeth stamping like angry white horses.
Lyfantod managed to get his knees up, put his feet between himself and the zombie. He kicked with all of his terrified strength, and Reggie was lifted into the air. Desiccation and missing flesh had made him lighter than he once had been. Reggie’s grip didn't loosen as he was shoved away, and those bony fingers raked deep gouges in Lyfantod’s neck.
Blood ran rivers down Lyfantod’s chest. He clutched the wound as he turned and tried for his bedroom once more. He made it into the kitchen this time before he heard Reggie coming for him. As he reached his door, Reggie’s hand slashed across his back, tearing cloth and flesh like tissue paper. Lyfantod screamed and bucked, instinctually driving his shoulder and elbow backwards into Reggie’s chest, taking advantage of his greater weight, knocking the zombie back.
Just as quickly he reversed again and dove into his room, hands straining across his bed for the sword leaning dusty in the corner. Reggie’s hands curled around his ankle as he reached the hilt. Lyfantod held on fiercely as he was dragged backwards through his sheets, leaving a trail of red smears. The zombie that had been Reginald Mus seemed intent to climb him like a fallen tree. He pulled himself forward on Lyfantod’s prone body.
The shaking hands Lyfantod held above his head grasped the heavy blade--a simple sword with no scabbard. A fact that favored him now. He strove with all his might, strengthened by his fear, and swung the blade over his head and buried it deep in Reggie’s shoulder.
Lyfantod was no swordsman, but the edge was sharp, and sliced through the leather of Reggie’s jacket to wedge itself in his collar bone. It seemed that the zombie could still feel fear, if not pain. Perhaps it was simple self-preservation, but it stumbled back, the blade lodged awkwardly in its body.
Lyfantod lay on the bed paralyzed as Reggie, all-too-human eyes looking into his one last time, and fled. He listened, breathing heavily, to the sound of footsteps retreating through his kitchen, his office, the distant clatter of the sword as it fell to the floor, and the silence that reigned at last when the all other sounds were gone.
Eventually he stood, his intention to check to make sure that Reggie had really gone, but after taking only a single step he collapsed to his knees, finding to his great surprise that his legs would not support him. Down on the floor, he lifted a hand to his neck and found that the blood was still oozing out of him. Too much blood. His vision wavered. The phone.
Inch by agonizing inch, Lyfantod dragged himself through the kitchen, through the hall, which had never been this long before, he was sure of it. In his office he was vaguely aware of the unbloodied sword lying in the middle of the floor. The door stood open.
He reached his desk. It was all he could do now to pull the phone down to him by the cord, and for once he was grateful for twentieth century inconveniences. The heavy black handset came down with a clatter, bruising him. With the last of his strength he reached out to dial, but it was too much. The dark room grew darker. Reality faded to a faint buzzing between his ears, and Lyfantod, lying in an inky pool of lifeblood, fell entirely unwillingly into oblivion.
* * *
Lyfantod could hear voices. Two men, talking quietly. He was stiff all over, and had trouble moving his neck. Lifting a hand, he found it wrapped in bandages. He opened his eyes and saw the ceiling—lit, he realized, by bluish daylight. The stiff, creaking leather beneath him was his couch. Looking down he saw he was wearing his pajama pants. His shirt was gone and white tape was wrapped around his chest.
“He’s awake,” one of the voices said.
With an effort, Lyfantod swung his legs down and tried to sit up. The effort left him lightheaded and he nearly passed out. Then someone was there, maneuvering him into a seated position. He looked up into the pale blue eyes of his closest friend. “You,” he rasped.
“Who else?” said Calder O’Dwyer. “Brought company as well.”
“Company?” asked Lyfantod vaguely. “How long have I been out?”
“Make him drink this,” commanded a deep, resounding voice from behind Calder.
Lyfantod lifted his head, looking past Calder to find a peculiar man standing there, proffering a heavy sloshing skin of some liquid. The man was a study in incongruity. His features were South American and he had skin like old shoe leather. He was dressed in a brown tweed suit with elbow patches. Tattoos issued from his immaculate sleeves and sharply-pressed collar, onto his wrinkled hands and neck. His fingers were covered in rings, and bracelets rattled on his wrists. A choker made of teeth and other small bones was wrapped tightly around his throat. His cheeks were sunken, his black eyes lively, and his hair was tied into a round bun behind his head, with three feathers—two black, one red--sticking out behind him. His ears were drooping, weighted down with gold hoops, and waggled when he moved. He finished the ensemble with slick, crocodile skin shoes. At least, Lyfantod thought it was crocodile. Witchdoctor.
“Drink,” the man insisted, shaking the skin at him.
“What’s in it?” said Lyfantod warily taking the skin and sniffing it.
The man peered at him gravely, his eyes like pools of deep water. “Orange juice.” A small smile played across his lips, vanishing before Lyfantod was sure it had ever been there at all.
“Right.” It smelled like orange juice. Giving Calder a glance that said, “If I die…” he lifted it to his lips and drank.
It tasted divine.
He drank and drank, and would have swallowed the bottle itself if he could have. He drained it all without stopping for breath, and when it was empty all too soon he shook it, panting, above his outstretched tongue to dislodge any last drops that might be stubbornly trying to avoid the fate of their fallen brethren. “That was good,” he said.
Calder looked archly at the Witchdoctor. “Orange juice?” he asked.
“And other things,” he replied glibly, shrugging.
Lyfantod sprang to his feet, holding his hands up and gazing at them to see if his nails were growing any faster. “I feel amazing.”
“That’s good to hear,” said Calder. “Mind filling me in on what happened?”
“Got attacked. By a zombie.”
“Yeah. A teenage zombie. Built like an NBA player without the shoulders.”
“It’s part of a case.”
“You almost died,” Calder observed.
“I feel like it. Or I did.” Lyfantod looked past his friend at the other man in his home, allowing the two of them to catch up. Waiting. “I feel much better now. Much much better. Thank you.”
“You need sleep,” he said. “I can do only so much. The body must do the rest.”
“I’ll sleep when I’ve solved this case and people stop trying to kill me,” said Lyfantod, his mouth working a little faster than usual. “Err. Dead people. At this rate, I’m not going to be able to get any sleep anyway. Not with zombies in my living room.”
“You really ought to get a better lock,” said Calder.
“I uhh… let him in.”
“Then the lock isn't the problem.”
Behind Calder, the Witchdoctor cleared his throat loudly. “There is,” he noted, “the matter of payment.”
“Right,” said Lyfantod. “Sorry. How much do I owe you?”
Lyfantod sputtered. He stared at the man, jaw hanging open stupidly. “Six thousand?” he said. “For orange juice and bandages?”
“And other things,” said the Witchdoctor. “You lost a great deal of blood, and the salves I put on your wounds contain ingredients quite difficult to come by,” he said. “Incidentally, I urge you not to remove those bandages for at least 72 hours. Follow these instructions and you will find your return to health remarkably expeditious. Removing them early could have… consequences,” he said ominously. He paced the room. “There is also the matter of my making a house call, which costs. The rituals I performed, which cost. The unfortunate hour that I was forced from bed. And,” he ran a finger along the edge of Lyfantod’s desk before looking him in the eye, “my silence.”
"Which costs," said Lyfantod and Calder and the same time. The Witchdoctor smiled.
“So it’s like that, is it,” said Lyfantod. “There’s just one problem. I don't have six thousand quid. I don't even have six thousand happy thoughts.” He went for his pocket book which was in his coat, and rifled through it, removing a thin stack of bills. “I have… five hundred and sixteen” he said, holding them up.
“Perhaps a trip to the bank.”
“If you want five hundred and twenty six quid, sure.”
“Don’t you get paid?” said Calder.
“Business is slow,” said Lyfantod crossly.
“I suppose…” said the Witchdoctor slowly, “an exchange could be arranged. Do you have anything of value?” His sharp eyes began scanning the room. “I noticed you wore rings.”
Lyfantod curled his hand into a fist. “No,” he said, a little too loudly and a little too quickly. “Ah... erm… sentimental value.”
“Pity.” He wandered around the room, touching things, taking everything in. His eyes had the same look a hungry man got at a buffet that someone else was paying for. Eventually he stopped. He appeared to have had an idea. The look on his face made Lyfantod nervous. “A heart,” he said at last.
“Beg your pardon?”
“A heart,” he repeated.
“Where am I supposed to get a—“
“A zombie heart,” he clarified.
“Why would you want one of those?” asked Calder, who sounded more curious than surprised.
“For my work, of course,” he said. And to Lyfantod, “You did say you were working on an investigation involving zombies. In fact, if I understood correctly, you had one in this very room not long ago.”
“I did but—”
“I don’t suppose you plan to talk to them.”
“Well, no but—”
“Then it shouldn’t be any trouble,” he said decisively. “Solve your case, and when you have overcome your foe, cut open his chest, and bring me a heart of one of the undead. You might do well using that.” He nodded toward the sword that Lyfantod had used on Reggie, which was now propped up in the corner.
“In any case,” the Witchdoctor said, interrupting him for a third and final time, “if the rumors are to be believed, there are quite a few of them stirring up trouble in our little berg.” He made a grand gesture to encompass the city. “I only require one heart. I’m certain you will be positively spoiled for choice. When you get it—” He walked over to the couch and reached down beside it, where it soon became clear he had left his bag: a surprisingly ordinary-looking worn, leather doctor’s case. “Put it in this.”
He undid the clasp, reached in, and tossed Lyfantod a small pouch made of skin, with a simple drawstring closure. He closed up his bag and made for the door. “You have two weeks,” he said, twisting the knob. “You’ll not want to take any longer. Gentlemen.” He bowed his head and departed. If he'd been wearing a hat, Lyfantod was sure he'd have tipped it at them. There came the sound of receding footsteps before he called back, his voice diminished by distance: “You needn't worry about freshness!” And then he was gone.
Lyfantod sighed. Calder vanished into the kitchen. Lyfantod could hear him rummaging around in drawers, looking for something. When he returned he was holding a pack of playing cards and a bottle of spirits. The cards were Lyfantod’s, but he could only guess where the liquor had come from. He held up the cards and waggled the bottle. “Fancy a game?” he said.
Lyfantod stared at him in silence for a very long moment. “Alright,” he said at last. “Just the one.”