Never buy a dead guy a drink.
When your business is kicking over rocks and chasing what wriggles away, there aren’t too many rules, but still, that’s a good one. And yet there I was, sitting across from a smirking stiff in a rotting blue suit, smiling at him like he was my type at last call and sliding a beer across the table to those greedy greenish fingers. I’d even left my iron locked in my car. If I didn’t know me better, I’d say I’d set myself up for one nasty night of surprises. I mean, I always knew some monster might do me in, but I didn’t figure I’d be showing it where to stick the knife.
The things we do for nice chunk of change and the soft hands holding it. I swear.
Don’t get me wrong about the booze – it’s not that zombies can’t drink. Christ, it’s practically the only thing that gets them off. Without boring you with the finer points of necromancy, suffice it to say that taste is just about the only pleasant sense they’ve got left. So most of them drink and stuff themselves every chance they get. Sure, there are still some old-fashioned cannibal zombies out there chowing on brains, but these days when the hunger hits most of them will just shuffle off to the Golden Arches. Your guess is as good as mine what that says about the rest of us.
My rule? I’d love to say it was inspired by something as noble as being repulsed by the horror of the dead walking among the living, but that’s not true. I’d even love to be an old-fashioned bigot about it and say I hated zombies just because, but that’d be a lie – I’ve met some stand-up dead folks in my time. Hell, I used to partner with one, but that’s going back a ways and doesn’t matter much now anyway. Hit me up for it a drink or ten later if you want to know. Right now I’m working.
No, the reason I don’t buy zombies booze ultimately boils down to something petty and personal: Even the nicest dead folks are horrible moochers. Do something for them once and you’ll never meet again without them expecting the same. They’re like stray cats you leave milk out for once, only these cats never sleep and they know all about credit cards. My buddy Jenny Ink says it’s because the curse of undeath leaves zombies feeling forever unfulfilled, and so they grab at anything and everything that makes them feel even the smallest bit loved and alive. I say it’s because being dead makes them assholes. There’s a c-note riding on the question, by the way, that I doubt either of us will ever collect.
I needed this sit-down bad, though. I try to get by without the gossip from the cemetery set, if only to avoid the inevitable bar bills, but so far the case was cold leads and slammed doors. Like it or not, the dead know stuff that the living don’t. It’s not a spooky magic thing, exactly – the dear departed just tend to have lots of free time and not too much in the way of morals. You don’t believe me, try writing a list of what you’d do if you were invisible, could walk through walls and crawl inside people to make ‘em do what you want. Not exactly a Sunday school to-do list, I’ll wager. And that’s just the ghosts. Zombies can’t do the walk through walls gag, true, but little known fact? Anytime they take a bite out of someone, they learn a little something. They actually slap your brain on a plate and chow down? That’s your life story in one serving, with fries and coleslaw on the side and a slice of pie for after.
Anyway, sooner or later, all that spying, cannibalism and assorted perversion adds up to a pretty big pile of information. And I’d been around enough to know that if it was weird, and more importantly if it involved booze, Dave was the zombie to talk to. Fortunately for me, he had a habit of leaving the Boneyard at seven each night like clockwork, using his hoodoo to slip into the same neighborhood bar where he’s been a regular for the last fifty years, thirty-one of them postmortem.
“So tell me where I can find the Philosopher’s Shot,” I said. I made sure the glass was on his lips when I asked. I may buy the guy a drink, but it doesn’t mean I have to let him enjoy it. I thought about Honey’s eyes, blue as the sky through a summer school window, pleading with me as she pressed the check into my hands. Strictly for motivational, damsel-in-distress purposes, I told myself. Not because I’d seen them in my dreams every night since we met. No sir.
I watched some beer sputter back in the glass, propelled by a curse. “Christ, Frankie, you always this much fun on a date?”
“You should see me at the movies.”
“I like the outfit, too. Very classic.” It was a crack, not a compliment. For some reason it seems to bother monsters a lot more than regular people that I still wear a suit and hat to work. Don’t ask me why. The way most of ‘em bitch about the modern world, you’d think they’d appreciate a little nod to times past, but no such luck. Most folks just assume I’m doing it for the image, and I guess that’s part of it these days, but put all the cards on the table and it’s just what I like. Sue me.
“You like this, you’ll love the little silk number underneath.”
“Think I’ll pass.” Dave considered the bottom of his glass for a few moments, a glum look cracked into those crumbling white features. When he looked up and saw me still sitting there, I guess he decided I wasn’t going to go away. If he still breathed, he would’ve sighed as he put his glass back down. But he didn’t, and so it was just a silent film gesture. “Who wants to know anyway?”
“A client,” I said. I took an extra long swig to let him swing, waiting, then watched his look sour even worse as he realized I wasn’t going to drop the name after all. “One who’s paying well enough for me to skip the foreplay, so stop changing the subject.”
“Yeah? What’s a rich gig for you these days? A hundred bucks?” Dave’s eyes lit up and his face split in a nasty smile. No lie – I could hear the skin on his cheeks tearing a little. Goddamn zombies. “Fifty?”
I flirted with the witty retort of breaking his ankle under the table, but discarded it on the grounds that Dave was probably a screamer. You’d be surprised what sissies the undead can be. “It’s an honest living,” I said with a shrug, putting just a little more emphasis on that last word than was strictly necessary.
“Fuck you,” Dave hissed. Brother, let me tell you, the days of the classy Lugosi-talking creatures are long gone. I never thought I’d miss all that Old World bullshit, all fancy accents and fake Shakespeare phrases, but there you have it.
The glaring contest lasted about a minute. Dave even put some juice into it on his end – I could feel the energy at the tips of my fingers – but I’ve seen worse. Hell, I’ve taken worse to bed and never bothered to call it after. Some fancy writers have said the eyes of the dead are like fish eyes, all cold and inhuman. And Dave’s eyes might have been creepy that way, if I didn’t know he was cheap lush in a cheaper suit. The only difference between life and death was that the booze couldn’t kill him twice. So he could pour on all the magic juice he wanted, and it wouldn’t matter. As it was, it was like watching a goldfish try to scare off a great white by taping a fin to its back. It’d be pretty damn funny if it wasn’t so desperate.
“So are you finished yet or what? Jesus, Dave. Just tell me what you know about the Shot and where to find it and I’ll let you finish the rest of that in peace. Promise.”
“There’s no such thing as a Philosopher’s Shot, Frankie. You know that.” On paper, he was right. Of course, on paper a lot of things work out nice and neat, like wedding vows. And I saw his eyes dart at mine over the edge of the glass, nervous. I caught the look and it made me stop for a second. A lot of petty political stuff happens in Creep Town – bowing, long names, saving face, tea and crumpets, all that Old World jazz. But Dave was really nervous, and it wasn’t all because of me. This wasn’t just about the etiquette of the underworld. Something was spooking him. If I’d thought about that more I wouldn’t be in the mess I am now, but that’s work these days.
“Bullshit. You took me for a beer already, I’m not buying a line too.” I put down my drink and cracked my knuckles, completely casually and without any implied threat of violence at all. I’ve got hands with almost a hundred years of boxing in them, so it I know it sounds impressive. Sure enough, his eyes widened and I guess he could see just how friendly I was going to be about the matter. “Talk.”
“You don’t scare me,” he hissed. He slid back just slightly as he said it, though, cradling his glass to his body almost like a child. Priorities. I took a slow swig of my own glass. “I heard you’re in deep with the Lurks again anyway. A little bird told me they’re going to put you down for what you did to Zu Ket’s brother.” He giggled. “You’re going to be even deader than I am, when they catch you.”
Twice in one night; if word was getting around, that must mean the Lurks were getting ready to move. I guess putting a torch to a thousand year old creep with a thing for young boys qualifies as big news in some circles. I knew there’d be paybacks to deal with from that job eventually, but from the sound of it Ket’s crew was already talking hexes. Damn mummies always have a serious hard-on for revenge.
But I’d have to worry about toilet paper garrotes and getting a plague in a package some other night. I checked my watch. Maybe six hours left, which meant it was time to stop messing around and twist something of Dave’s until it snapped. And in a way, he’d just made my job easier. I leaned in close, so the brim of my hat almost touched his eyebrows. “If I’m in so deep, why not see who else I can drag down to keep me company?”
“You wouldn’t try anything,” Dave protested. “Not with the sun down.” But the only thing shaking more than his voice was the ice in his drink. He noticed and put the glass down quickly, steadying one hand with the other, but he had to know I’d caught it too. His shoulders sagged and whatever fight he’d had to start with was gone. He couldn’t have folded any more obviously if he’d been a country club napkin.
I didn’t answer right away, just gave him my business smile. I’m kinda proud of it, actually – I’ve been working on it for years. It’s a combination of I’m a big guy plus a touch of I have a weapon, with just enough I occasionally hurt people for money thrown in to really make ‘em sweat. Strictly speaking, that last bit is a little bit dated, but turns out breaking legs is like riding a bike. You never really forget, and it shows.
“Aw, fuck, the Hell do I care if you get killed anyway?” Dave laughed. It was an ugly sound, like a belt cracking across a kid’s back. He jabbed a finger at his glass, as though accusing it of betraying him, still not quite meeting my eyes. “Chinatown. The Shot’s in Chinatown. There. Congratulations. Happy hunting, Frankie.”
Chinatown. Damn. I should’ve known. I felt my heart slow down, and for a minute I thought it would just quit on me right there. Chinatown was about the last place I wanted to go tonight. Strike that – I didn’t want to go there, period. Not now, not ever. But especially not while I was working. I knew what would be coming next even before I spoke, but I said it anyway. It’s like asking the surgeon with the sad eyes if your wife is going to be all right. You know the answer already, but you have to hear it from someone else to make it real. “Yeah? Who’s got it?”
“Emperor Red.” Dave spat the name at me. Zombies aren’t known for their people skills, but they can sniff a hint of misery a mile off. Even a two-bit stiff like Dave could see that name hit me like a kick in the crotch, and just like that he’d forgotten all about pissing himself with fear. I’d ruined his social hour, but he’d ruined my night. What a miserable pair of bastards. “Are we done now?”
“Unh,” I managed by way of agreement. I fixed my eyes on my drink, barely noticing as he slimed out of the booth and into the crowd. He was out of sight and I was halfway to forgetting him already when I heard him call out to me over the rumble of conversation. I swear. Some assholes just have to have the last word. “Hey Frankie! Didn’t anyone tell you that Bogie’s dead?”
“So’s your mother.” Yeah, I know, the king of all weak comebacks. But when I looked up, I could see Dave’s eyes were burning and his free hand was clenched in a tight white fist. He actually held eye contact for about two seconds before he remembered that he was still scared to death of me and turned toward the bar with a frightened little jump. I shrugged. I guess even alcoholic zombies can miss their momma.
I sat there for a few more minutes, playing with my glass in my fingertips. It didn’t matter that my appetite was still out of town. I wouldn’t be drinking for the taste. At that moment I wanted to down that glass and twenty others like it and forget all about Honey, her dying husband and a bottle full of magic juice. What did some idiot have to go and make that damn potion anyway? You had to know people would get killed for stuff like that. Hell, killing would look good compared to what people would do for a drink that cures all that ails you and makes you immortal for a few hours. How can you be smart enough to cook it up and not smart enough to realize that? All this job could do was get me killed, maybe even Honey and her husband too. I lifted the glass to my lips, tasted a little on my tongue.
And put it back down. I got up, grabbed my coat, tossed a careless handful of bills on the table and headed for the door. Because I’m not a totally nice guy, I made sure I gave Dave a hard shoulder on my way through the crowd. I didn’t stop to see what his reaction was; his opinion of me couldn’t get much worse anyway. I had work to do, and I didn’t need to think of Honey’s eyes again to remind me. It just needed to be done.
I don’t care what they say in Sunday school – your conscience is not some prissy little white-robed dope that sits on your shoulder and whispers in your ear. If you’ve got one worth a damn, he’s a big, deaf, muscle-bound bastard who knows how to twist your arm behind your back until you stop fighting and do as he says, quick-like. I hamstrung mine a long time ago, so sometimes he’s a little late on the scene, but what can I say? I’m not proud of it, but at least I can sleep some nights when he’s around. And trust me, after a century or so, a good night’s sleep is worth a lot more than you might think. Besides, I figure everyone works with at least one son of a bitch. I just happen to be self-employed.
All I had to do now was head to an illegal casino in Chinatown, arrange a meeting with a sword-wielding god of luck and convince him to part with a bottle of liquid immortality, so that someone he’s never heard of can beat a cancer he probably deserves. A casino where I still owed twenty-three thousand dollars, last time I checked. Run by that same Chinese little god, who still has a scar I gave him back in ’43. On his face.
Yeah. This should be no problem.
You might think I’d be upset by all of these things, but I’m a professional. I think I even whistled as I went out the door, something classy, Sinatra maybe. To my trained investigative mind, the situation was really quite simple: I was going to die. And if dumb luck actually held and I walked away from tonight intact, the advance I’d gotten meant my rent was already paid for the month.
Either way I was guaranteed a warm place to sleep.
This piece was originally written for a grad school writing seminar, and became my thesis. It’s currently being expanded into a horror noir novel called One Hell of A Dame. Hope you enjoyed it! Happy Halloween hangover, everyone!