Another of Chuck Wendig’s awesome writing prompts today. this time, I rolled a combination of “noir” and “zombies.” Here we go:
With his remaining functional eye, Bostwick Hardcastle looked over the decomposing dame leaning on his door frame. She had curves all right, but they were falling to the floor as fast as he could take them in.
“What can I do you for, beautiful?” he asked.
She blushed and her cheek peeled away like a mutton steak.
“My sister,” she wheezed through lungs like Swiss cheese. “I need you to find her. She’s in L.A.”
Hardcastle frowned and a piece of his forehead hit the desk with a plop, revealing smooth pink skin underneath. He grabbed a hat from the rack and slid it down over his brow.
“Give me the lowdown, lady. Make it fast.” Or he was liable to out himself.
“Sabrina Benson. Thirty-three. She telegrammed.”
“Give it here.” The paper was worn from a thousand foldings and moist with smears of decaying flesh. Hardcastle made a note to wash his hands before lunch.
BEARDED FOX MOTEL IN LA. BEENIE.
A puff of post-mortem gas escaped the woman’s derriere and Hardcastle stifled a gag. The hazards of working with Zees.
“I went to the address, but no one answered,” she gasped.
“She’s alive?” asked Hardcastle, his voice a tad too animated for a dead guy.
“Yessssss,” said the woman, her tongue momentarily catching in her remaining teeth.
“You want me to save her?”
“I want you to bring her to me… in any condition.” This did not sound good.
“Mileage and fees are sixty-five. In advance. Extra if I have to chase her.”
“You’ll have to chase her.” She slid a single bill across the table where it stuck from the goo of her rotting flesh.
“Keep the change,” she added. It was twice his usual fee, but he had a bad feeling about this one.
“When it’s done, bring her here.” She dropped a business card on top of the bill. A beauty salon, of all places. The woman no longer had salivary glands, but a viscous liquid dripped from her mouth as she turned to leave.
After the door clicked closed behind her, Hardcastle turned the bolt and drew the shades. The combination to his safe was 3-15-53: Day One of the apocalypse. He would never forget, even if the putrid brains of every Zee forgot the concept of date and time.
He pulled his kit out of the safe and laid out the contents. More creams and powders than on a working girl’s vanity. He paused, concealer sponge in hand, to consider if there were women of the night in ZeeTown. He’d never been outside late enough to find out.
Hardcastle sponged gray makeup onto his forehead and layered a putty scrap over the top to simulate decay. He put away the kit, then pulled out a spray bottle and a can of sardines, one for each pocket. Sardines were the best meal you could hope for, post-fifty-three. High protein, quick to eat, and the smell didn’t draw Zees like fresh food. But sardines were pricey on the underground market. Today’s job would feed him for just about a week.
“Once more, unto the breach,” he said in a practiced raspy wheeze, staggering out into the hallway.
* * *
The sun felt good on his face, though it softened the putty in his disguise. He peeled off the false eye socket and tossed onto the passenger seat. At sixty miles an hour, no Zee would notice.
He saw a handful of cars on the road; enterprising Zees driving erratically with windows buttoned up tight and improvised air conditioners welded to the back. Mostly, they waited to drive after dark, when the air cooled and their slimy backsides didn’t slide on hot vinyl seats.
Nearly all of the living in L.A. had been bitten during the first wave. Two million people living right on top of each other made the city easy pickings. Zees came from hundreds of miles to hunt. Caravans of live people fled during the day and caravans of dead people streamed in at night.
He’d stayed, at first, to protect his family. As much good as that had done. He’d stayed, later on, to rescue the hidden stragglers he’d found. Six in a theater, living on rats. A pair of kids living in a Metro train, sneaking packages from vending machines and automats across the city. A lone woman camping in the silent arboretum.
He’d guided them to the pier in Long Beach where a tender made its nightly rounds. It was rough getting there, and some days you couldn’t make it past the horde of Zees, but if you did, it was the prettiest sight you’d ever seen. The RMS Caronia, patrolling the Pacific for unbitten survivors.
Hardcastle had an open invitation to come aboard, but thinking of those kids in the train, the hidden people out there, and his own kids, he couldn’t… wouldn’t leave the rest of them.
He swung his wood-paneled wagon into a spot at the Bearded Fox. The place was full of Zees sleeping off a night of hunting – he heard their resting moans from every open window and door. Pressing the mangled putty back onto his working eye, he closed the car door with a slow click.
There were ways to tell if a human was nearby using smells and sounds, but the most reliable method was to follow the water. No Zee needed water to live, so when Hardcastle spotted a vulcanized rubber hose snaked across the courtyard and into a window, he knew where to find Beenie.
He knocked gently. Shave and a haircut, so she would know he was a live one.
“Beenie, let me in,” he whispered.
“I’m fine. Go away.”
A nearby shuffling froze Hardcastle in his tracks. A Zee wandered out of a room to watch him. He took a few strips of putty from his pocket and dropped them on the ground.
“Shhhsshshooottt,” he lisped, “Lossst anothththther onnnne.” The Zee went back inside.
“Beenie, honey. We gotta go now. It’s getting crowded out here, doll.”
The door swung open and Beenie stepped outside. If her sister had curves, then Beenie was a goddamned sine wave. Twenty-five never looked so good on a woman… except Beenie was covered in bite marks. Old ones, new ones, in-between ones. At least fifty that he could see.
Hardcastle stepped back as she flicked her hair over her shoulder and crossed her arms.
“You’re bitten,” he said, the fake socket falling to the cement as his eyebrows crinkled.
“But you didn’t turn into…”
“None of your beeswax.”
Hardcastle felt a breath of wind behind him. He turned to see a half-dozen Zees approaching. He extended a hand to Beenie.
“Come on, we gotta run.”
She tapped her foot impatiently and kept her mouth set.
“What are you doing? They’re not going to let you out of here, kid.”
“No, they’re not going to let you out of here, mister.”
A bloated hand clamped down on Hardcastle’s shoulder, spinning him around. Behind him, Beenie continued lecturing.
“Twice a month, my sister sends some private dick over to rescue me…”
Hardcastle kicked and fought. He reached for the spray bottle of hydrochloric acid in his pocket, the one he’d used a hundred times to dissolve eyes and other body parts.
“…as if I don’t have this well in hand.”
The spray bottle was gone. A female Zee on his right had it. She sprayed and a stream of clear liquid hit his arm. He screamed as it ate through his jacket, then through his skin.
“Every one of you rides in like a knight in shining armor, keen on saving me…”
Hardcastle’s back hit the concrete. He lashed out at the things above him. A few leaned in to bite. Others pawed at him with ineffective limbs. He saw the flash of gold badge hanging from the shirt of one Zee. Another had a holster under his shredded suit jacket. He scanned the group; cops and PIs, all of them.
“…and not a single one of you checks the date on the damned telegram.”
And now, through the pain and fear, an image of the telegram came to him. Something familiar about the date stamped in the upper right corner. March 15, 1053. Day One. She’d been here for over a year, gnawed on but unturned.
“Caronia,” he rasped, not faking this time.
Hardcastle felt teeth on his shoulder. His skin stretched as they clenched, then it gave way with a pop.
“Yeah, I’ve been there. Bunch of sissies floating around in circles.”
The pain dulled and the sounds of the world became watery and muted. Beenie leaned close as the color washed out of Hardcastle’s world. He barely felt the tickle as she whispered in his ear.
“You gave it the old college try, dollface, but I’m the gal who’s gonna save the world.”