My gun was digging into my back, so I shifted forward in my office chair. That was better; now it was just the comforting pressure of the inner-skirt holster, tucked away underneath my short royal blue suit jacket. I’d stopped wearing my shoulder holster except when I was on an active warrant as a U.S. Marshal. When I was working at Animators Inc. and seeing clients, the behind-the-back holster was less likely to flash and make them nervous. You’d think if someone was asking me to raise the dead for them that they’d have better nerves, but guns seemed to scare them a lot more than talking about zombies. It was different once the zombie was raised and they were looking at the walking dead; then suddenly the guns didn’t bother them nearly as much, but until that Halloweenesque moment I tried to keep the weapons out of sight. There was a knock on my office door and Mary, our daytime receptionist, opened it without my saying Come in, which she’d never done in the six years we’d been working together, so I wasn’t grumpy about the interruption. I just looked up from double-checking my client meetings to make sure there wouldn’t be any overlap issues, and knew something was up, and knowing Mary it would be important. She was like that.
She’d finally let her hair go gray, but it was still in the same obviously artificial hairdo that it had always been. She’d let herself get a little plump as she neared sixty and had finally embraced glasses full time. The combination of it all had aged her about ten years, but she seemed happy with it, saying, “I’m a grandma; I’m okay looking like one.” The look on her face was sad and set in sympathetic lines. It was the face she used to deal with grieving families who wanted their loved ones raised from the dead. Having that face aimed at me sped my pulse and tightened my stomach.
I made myself take a deep breath and let it out slow as Mary closed the door behind her and started walking toward my desk. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I didn’t want to tell you over the phone with all the clients listening,” she said.
“Tell me what?” I asked, and fought the urge not to raise my voice. She was about one more uninformative answer away from getting yelled at.
“There’s a woman on line two, she says she’s your future mother-in-law. I told her you weren’t engaged to my knowledge, and she said that she didn’t know what to call herself since you were just living with her son.”
I was actually living with several men, but most of them didn’t have families to use words like son. “Name, Mary, what’s her name?” My voice was rising a little.
“Morgan, Beatrice Morgan.”
I frowned at her. “I’m not living with anyone named Morgan. I’ve never even dated anyone with that last name.”
“I didn’t recognize it from your boyfriends, but she said that the father is hurt, maybe dying, and she thought he’d want to know about his dad before it was too late. The emotion is real, Anita. I’m sorry, maybe she’s crazy, but sometimes people don’t think clearly when their husband is hurt. I didn’t want to just write her off as crazy; I mean, I don’t know the last name of everyone you’re dating.”
I started to tell her to ignore the call, but looking into Mary’s face I couldn’t do it. I’d trusted her to screen callers for years. She had a good feel for distraught versus crazy. “She give a first name for her son?”
I shook my head. “I’ve never dated a Mike Morgan. I don’t know why she called here, but she’s got the wrong Anita Blake.”
Mary nodded, but her expression looked unhappy. “I’ll tell her that you don’t know a Mike Morgan.”
“Do that. She’s either got the wrong Anita Blake, or she’s crazy.”
“She doesn’t sound crazy, just upset.”
“You know that crazy doesn’t mean the emotion isn’t real, Mary. Sometimes the delusion is so real they believe it all.”
Mary nodded again and went out to tell Beatrice Morgan she had the wrong number. I went back to checking the last of my client meetings. I wanted to make sure that no matter how long it took to raise each zombie, I wouldn’t be too late for the next cemetery. Clients tended to get spooked if you left them hanging out in graveyards too long by themselves. At least most of the meetings were historical societies and lawyers checking wills, with the families of the deceased either long dead or not allowed near the zombie until after the will was settled in case just seeing the loved ones influenced the zombie to change its mind about the last will and testament. I wasn’t sure it was possible to sway a zombie that way, but I approved of the new court ruling that families couldn’t see the deceased until after all court matters were cleared up, just in case. Have one billionaire inheritance overturned because of undue influence on a zombie and everybody got all weird about it.
Mary came through the door without knocking, “Micah. Mike was his nickname as a kid. Morgan is her name from her second marriage. It was Callahan. Micah Callahan’s mother is on line two, and his dad is in the hospital.”
“Shit!” I said, picking up the phone and hitting the button to put the call through. “Mrs. Callahan, I mean, Mrs. Morgan, this is Anita Blake.”
“Oh, thank God, I’m so sorry. I just forgot about the names. I’ve been Beatrice Morgan for eighteen years, since Micah was twelve, and he was Mike to us. He didn’t like Micah when he was a little boy. He thought Mike was more grown up.” She was crying softly, I could hear it in her voice, but her words were clear, well enunciated. It made me wonder what she did for a living, but I didn’t ask. It could wait; it was just one of the thoughts you have when you’re trying not to get caught up in the emotions of a situation. Think, don’t feel, just think.
“You told our receptionist that Micah’s dad was hurt.”
“Yes, Rush, that’s my ex, his father, was attacked by something. His deputy said it was a zombie, but the bite isn’t human, and it’s like he’s infected with something from it.”
“Zombies rarely attack people.”
“I know that!” She yelled it. I heard her taking deep breaths, drawing in her calm. I heard the effort over the phone, could almost feel her gathering herself back. “I’m sorry, but when Mike left us he was so horrible, but Rush said he’d found out that Mike did it to protect all of us, and that some of the people had their families hurt by these people.”
“What people?” I asked.
“Rush wouldn’t tell me details, said it was a police matter. He was always doing that when we were married, drove me nuts, but he said that he’d found out enough to know that other wereanimals in that group had their families killed, and Mike had to convince them he hated us, or they would have hurt us. Do you know if that’s true? Does Mike want to see his father? Does he want to see any of us?” She was crying again, and just stopped trying to talk. She hadn’t been married to the man for nearly twenty years, and she was still this upset. Crap.
I was remembering that Micah’s dad was a sheriff of some flavor, and now his mom was telling me that somehow the dad had found out more about Micah and his animal group than I thought anyone with a badge, besides me, knew. I’d had to kill people to rescue Micah and his group, and I hadn’t had a warrant of execution, so it was murder. I was a little leery that Sheriff Callahan apparently knew more about it all than I’d thought. I knew that Micah hadn’t talked to his family in years, so how had his dad found out, and how much did he know?
It was my turn to take a deep breath and make myself stop being so damn paranoid and deal with the crying woman on the other end of the phone. “Mrs. Morgan, Mrs. Morgan, how did you know to call here? Who gave you this number?” Maybe if I made her think about something more ordinary she’d calm down.
She sniffled, and then said, in a voice that was hiccupy, as she tried to swallow past the emotion, “We saw Mike in the news as the head of the Coalition.”
“The Coalition for Better Understanding between humans and shapeshifters,” I said.
“Yes”—and the word was calmer—“yes, and you were mentioned in several stories as living with him.”
I wondered if the stories had talked about Nathaniel, the guy who lived with us, or the fact that I was also “dating” Jean-Claude, the Master Vampire of St. Louis? I almost never watched the news, so I didn’t always know what was being said in the media about any of us.
“Why didn’t you call the Coalition number and ask for Micah directly?”
“He said really awful things to me last time we spoke, Ms. Blake. I think I’d fall completely apart if he said that again to me with Rush hurt like this. Can you please tell him, and then if Mike wants to see us, to see Rush, before . . . in time . . . I mean . . . Oh, God, I’m usually better than this, but it’s so terrible what’s happening to Rush, so hard to watch.”
“Happening? What do you mean?”
“He’s rotting . . . he’s rotting alive and aware and the doctors can’t stop it. They have drugs that can slow it, but nothing slows it down much.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. You mean that something preternatural attacked Mr. Callahan and now he’s got some disease?”
“Yes,” she said, almost a breath rather than a word.
“But they’ve seen it before, this disease?”
“Yes, they say it’s the first case outside the East Coast, but they’ve learned enough to slow it down. There’s no cure, though. I overheard a nurse call it the zombie disease, but she got in trouble for saying it. The older nurse said, ‘Don’t give it a name that the media will love.’ I heard doctors whispering that it’s just a matter of time before it hits the news.”
“Why do they call it the zombie disease?” I asked, partly to just give myself time to think.
“You rot from the outside in, so you’re aware the whole time. Apparently it’s incredibly quick, and they’ve only managed to prolong the life of one other person.” Her breath came out in a shudder.
“Mrs. Morgan, there are questions I want to ask, but I’m afraid they’ll upset you more.”
“Ask, just ask,” she said.
I took in a deep breath, let it out slow, and finally said, “You said prolong. For how long?”
Shit, I thought. Out loud I said, “Give me an address, phone numbers, and I’ll tell Micah.” I started to promise we’d be there, but I couldn’t promise for him. He’d been estranged from his family for about ten years. Just because I’d have gotten on a plane for my semi-estranged family didn’t mean he’d do the same. I took all the information down as if I were sure of his answer.
“Thank you, thank you so much. I knew it was the right thing to do to call another woman. We manage the men so much more than they think, don’t we?”
“Actually Micah manages me more than the other way around.”
“Oh, is it because you’re police like Rush? Is it more about the badge than being a man?”
“I think so,” I said.
“You’ll bring Micah?”
I didn’t want to lie to her, but I wasn’t sure the absolute truth was anything she could handle; she needed something to hang on to, to look forward to while she sat and watched her ex-husband rot while still alive. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, just thinking it was terrible. I couldn’t leave her to watch it with no hope, so I lied.
“Of course,” I said.
“See, I’m right, you just say you’ll bring him. You manage him more than you think.”
“Maybe so, Mrs. Morgan, maybe so.”
She sounded calmer as she said, “Beatrice, Bea, to my friends. Bring my son home, Anita, please.”
What could I say? “I will . . . Bea.”
I hung up, hoping I hadn’t lied to her.
Excerpted from Affliction by Laurell K. Hamilton
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