The funny thing about getting punched in the gut repeatedly is that, after the first three or four blows, it’s hard to catch your breath. And that soon becomes worse than the pain. Just as I was about to pass out, Joey stopped hitting me and Lou stopped holding me up and then my face was quickly reintroduced to the wet pavement in the alley.
“Jesus, Jack,” Lou complained, “that’s been the worst bet of 1932.”
I rolled onto my back with my knees pointing up and wheezed and coughed while they looked down on me.
“You okay?” Lou asked.
I opened my eyes wide and sucked in another deep breath and nodded.
“You gonna have the money by the end of the week?”
I shrugged my shoulders as best I could on the ground.
Joey shook his head and smiled.
Lou looked to me, to Joey, then back to me.
“Next time, it’s the knees.”
They always say that.
I stayed a heap on the ground until I could feel the cold water from the street soaking through my jacket. I took one last heaving breath and struggled to get back on my feet.
“That’s the last time I bet on the Brooklyn Dodgers” I said.
I always say that.
When I got back to my office apartment, I took off my suit and gave it a brushing to clean it up as much as I thought I needed to. Which wasn’t much.
I walked over to my desk in my undershirt and shorts and rolled some cigarettes. After I had choked a couple of them down with a two or three shots of what I’ll generously call booze, I picked up the radio modulator I had been working on.
Radios may have started getting cheaper after the Great War, but they still weren’t cheap, and parts weren’t easy to come by. At least not the parts you needed to do more than just listen. The Radio Act of ’27 just saw to that.
But I knew some people who knew some people; and those people needed favors from time to time. And I wasn’t above doing those favors for a modulator in fair condition. Ham radios were legal again after the war, but only to licensed operators, and, after the war, I was done with Uncle Sam’s rules and record keeping.
I didn’t even need a working modulator– which could have cost as much as a case of real gin; I’d fixed enough shot up, mud-caked radios in the trenches of France that I just needed the parts, I could put them together. I like parts.
I don’t have a back to my radio so, after I got everything mounted and wired, I just switched it on and let it warmed up. It was already set to the bread-and-butter channel: police band. If business wouldn’t come to me, I’d go to it. And the police channel was usually a good place to find out about some domestic dispute or some missing kid or something else a private detective could turn into money.
The sound started to drip out of the radio as the tubes heated up and quickly became a waterfall of chatter. It’s hard to tell what anybody says when nobody shuts up. So I lit another cigarette, sat on my windowsill and waited to hear what the hubbub was about. With any luck, I’d get a lead to a paying customer.
Something was going on in north Central Park.
I took a long drag on my cigarette as I tried to sort it out. Then I heard a code that so startled me, I almost choked before getting the smoke out of my lungs:”Zulu Charlie Papa”—a ZCP.
I was only on the force for about five years before I had to make a choice between the job and booze but I had learned a couple of things. One was that it was better to join a dice game than to break one up, and the other was that you never mentioned a Class 4 Zombie on the radio.
Instead of “ZC4”, it was just supposed to be a ZCP, a confirmed Zombie but not necessarily a ZC3 or ZC4. As long as you didn’t deteriorate below Class 2, most people were pretty tolerant of Zombies. But ZC4s were like the walking dead, certainly more… something else, than human. And rare to find out loose. I knew that no matter what the official policy was, cops only used ZCP when they had no doubt it was a true ZC4.
I listened a little longer to make sure that the thing was confirmed dead and that there weren’t traces of any other ZC4s before I threw my suit back on, grabbed my hat, my flask, turned off the radio and the lights, and headed out. I knew I might not get a case out of it, but it’s not every day you hear about a Class 4 Zombie in Central Park.
They already had about twenty cars there by the time I showed up. That won’t panic anyone. I had made it about ten steps before a familiar grumble grumbled from the crowd of blue.
“Dangle, Masters, park’s closed.”
“Just thought I’d walk off a big dinner. You know how I can pack it away”, I said, nodding to Sergeant Daniels’ fat belly. Then I nodded over towards a guy from the newspaper we were both uncomfortably familiar with. I took a step in that direction. “Or I can go for a walk with Jacobs… and speculate.” Daniels didn’t like that.
He stepped too close.
“I should have shot you when I had the chance.”
“I should have aimed.” He grabbed my elbow and walked me away from Jacobs. “What do you think you know, and how do you think a private dick is going to make money off of it?”
“I’ll find a way to make money off of it. All I know is that you killed a Class 4 Zombie in the middle of Manhattan. That’ll be worth something to somebody.”
“We didn’t shoot it, we found it.” He wanted to see me look surprised, but he knew better: we’d played cards together for too long.
I looked around again and saw nothing but cops. “And the good Samaritan didn’t stick around for a ribbon?”
“The good Samaritan had a Tommy gun loaded down with .45 slugs. He even tossed a couple of them at a rookie patrolling the park.” He nodded towards what had to be a fifteen-year-old kid playing at being a cop. Some of the other policemen formed a protective shield around him and I saw them encouraging him to take a few discreet belts from a flask.
“Rules change much?”
“You never needed a ZC4 and a Tommy to get your itch going.” He scanned the area around us. “In fact, hand it over.”
I slid the cheap flask from my jacket as easily as I always did on these occasions and took a long slug from it before handing it to Daniels. He wiped it off and took a nip himself before sliding it into his hip pocket.
“Moderation, that’s what you’ve never learned. You’ll never live to see them lift Prohibition. You’re half my age and twice as old.”
I patted him on his fat belly as we started walking again, this time towards the band of blue. “I’ll bet my liver against your heart any day.”
I’m not comfortable around these cops anymore, not after leaving the way I did, but the ones who remembered me were usually too timid to poke me. Especially with Daniels around. The rookies tended to underestimate me, which was Jake with me.
Daniels and I worked our way up the path towards the officers surrounding the shaken rookie. Daniels gave him an “atta boy” slap on the shoulder as we passed him. The rookie smelled of vomit and whiskey. I should have given him the heads up that this was just the beginning, but why ruin the surprise.
After we passed the group, Daniels started his favorite song. “You know, if you’d lighten up on the juice you could probably get your badge back.”
I didn’t bother to groan, that had been written out of the routine years ago. “Ya think?”
He didn’t push it and I knew he was acting out of habit. The one who got away, the prodigal son, whatever you wanna call it. I knew that he felt like he had failed me. Well, he had, but that had nothin’ to do with nothin’ – as they say.
Another thirty yards into the park and we found Cohen and O’Brian, apparently the lead detectives.
“Well, look here, Cohen, ‘Nick Carter’ in our very midst, right out of the magazines, and it didn’t even cost us a dime. So, Sergeant Daniels, should we just dangle or should we stick around to sweep up after the Master detective is done? Get it, Jack? Master detective?”
Cohen said nothing and just regarded me from the corner of his eye. He always was the smarter of the two.
I let Daniels do the talking for now.
“You really want this dragging out? You wanna be the lead detective on a case where a ZC4 is found wandering Central Park? Nobody’s gonna give a hot damn about a madman with a Tommy raining lead in the park next to that. And, as I recall, you didn’t do so good the last time you were on a ZC4 case. As I remember it, a kid on the beat fresh out of the academy closed that one.”
When Daniels had finished, O’Brian half squinted is eyes at me as the corner of his mouth bent upwards. “Well that kid’s not a kid anymore, and he’s not a cop. So maybe he should take it on the heel and leave this to the professionals.”
Cohen reached out and put his hand on O’Brian’s elbow. “Let’s see what he’s got.”
Cohen stepped aside and I could see the recovery unit a few paces farther on. The two of them had on deep diving suits like Central Park was on the bottom of the Atlantic. They had lights attached to their heavy, domed helmets that cast bright cones of light thru the park when they moved their heads. They both looked down and I got the first close-up of a ZC4 I’d seen in years. Technically, it was almost two ZC4s because the Tommy gun had cut it almost in half from the hip up halfway through the skull.
It was dressed in a dark gray one-piece that was somewhere between hospital scrubs and a jumpsuit. Its skin looked more like pudding than skin and I wondered how it kept its shape, especially with the festering wounds and blisters that must have covered at least a third of the exposed skin.
The clothes had no markings at all to show where they had come from, though they were clearly mass produced. The government uniforms they give ZC4s are instantly recognizable and any kind of hospital would have its name stamped on it somewhere, even the Zombie sanitariums. Much of the jails have special Zombie uniforms since fingerprints are useless.
Speaking of fingers, one of the hands on this one was clinched tightly and the skin was freshly peeled from the space between his thumb and index finger.
I took a couple of steps towards the Zombie.
Daniels, Cohen, and O’Brian started to chirp together. “Jack, Jack, Jack…”
I ignored them and continued on until I was close enough to squat next to the body. The two recovery officers pulled back in some kind of horror as if my presence was now as much a threat to them as the Zombie.
Idiots. I was as much of a threat as the Zombie, which meant not at all. People may have gotten used to a certain level of Zombie, but a ZC4 made them retreat back into their shells like hermit crabs. Nobody was sure how the disease spread and most people seemed to think that the worse it got, the easier it spread. I didn’t know much, but I knew you couldn’t catch it just from touching a Zombie.
I reached down and lifted its hand from the dirt. My nose curled up from the stale stench of the thing, like buttermilk and tar. I got as close a look at it as my stomach would allow. The recovery officers had been as careless as their job would allow, but I was still able to confirm my suspicion that something had been yanked from the Zombies death grip.
I stepped back towards Daniels and the others and pulled out my handkerchief. I may not have been worried about catching anything, but I still didn’t want that Zombie slime on me. I repressed a shudder and took my time wiping my hands clean.
O’Brian bored easily. “Well, professor, got it all figured out yet or do you need a drink to collect your thoughts?”
Before Daniels could get worked up again, I stepped back up towards them. “First tell me what it had in its hand.”
Cohen and O’Brian exchanged a quick glance they thought didn’t reveal their frustration.
Cohen whistled and signaled to one of the recovery agents who somehow heard him under that thick helmet. “Just this.”
The recovery officer turned to me and I was blinded momentarily when his floodlights bore into my skull. He took a couple of steps towards us. Well, towards me since the other three took a step backwards. A thickly padded hand appeared before me between the two blue suns that still threatened to blind me. It held a note.
The part of the note that was legible under the blood and goo looked like it had been scrawled by a ham-fisted monkey: IEN…12…HARLE
“Not much help there. Don’t suppose you’d share the rest with me after the lab guys clean it up?”
I could hear Cohen smile as he talked. “You’ll be the first we call. Now, what’s your take?”
I took a breath, but barely hesitated. “It was murdered.”
The three of them barely hesitated before they laughed.
O’Brian’s laugh stopped first as it turned into steam. His eyes were more piercing than the floodlights I was just staring into. “You goddam drunk. You think this is all a game?”
“It is a game, and you’re the one being played for the fool. That Zombie escaped from somewhere, somewhere nobody wants anyone to know about, and somebody chased it up here. If your new kid over there hadn’t stumbled into the middle of the hunt, the Zombie remains wouldn’t even be here. You’d better hope the lab can make something of that note, ’cause that’s the only hope you’re gonna have before this gets a lot, lot worse.”
I held my hand out angrily to Daniels until he handed me back my flask. I emptied it with a long draw before I got back to the sidewalk.