ROAN knew he should never have taken Nadia Rubin’s case the moment he took it.
She couldn’t afford him, she’d know he was taking pity on her and would probably resent it, and it wasn’t his usual thing anyway. She was asking him to be a bodyguard as much as a detective, and that really wasn’t his thing.
Still, how did you turn down a fellow infected? Especially when they were being threatened by another infected. It almost felt like a duty.
What she was, was a waitress who wasn’t wearing enough makeup to cover all the broken blood vessels beneath her eyes, indications of past beatings. She was a cougar strain, in the midst of a divorce from her abusive husband, Mike Oliver, who’d been threatening her. The problem was, the threats were obscure and personal—leaving dead flowers inside her car, leaving dead mice on her porch, flooding her e-mail with spam, putting dog shit in her mailbox, throwing red food coloring on her door—and to get him arrested she’d have to prove he did it. The cops had talked to him, but it had had no effect whatsoever, and she was sure he was going to ratchet things up, mainly because she’d finally gotten a restraining order. Right now she had no idea where he was living, as he’d been evicted from his last apartment, and all his family lived in Alabama or Virginia. What she wanted Roan to do was twofold: find where Mike was and catch him in the act of vandalism. If she could prove something, she could get him arrested for harassment and violating the restraining order.
Oh, and he was cougar strain too. Apparently they’d met through the Church of the Divine Transformation. Sometimes Roan wondered if the universe took perverse pleasure in mocking him.
She couldn’t afford him at all. But he accepted her hundred dollars and lied and said that was his exact fee, and then did a little checking around. He called Gordo but got Seb, who told him Gordo was on vacation. A forced vacation, as Connie had been insisting he take it easier since his heart attack, and he had to play along if he didn’t want to spend the next few months sleeping in the guest room. (Roan totally understood.) Luckily, for all his Joe Friday stoicness, Seb was willing to help. No shock, Oliver was in the system, and one report had flagged him as a TI—total idiot. Great. Usually a guy marked TI was happy giving shit to cops or other authority figures, no matter how big their truncheons or Tasers. They were usually also the first to sue, even though they generally caused their own problems. So yeah, it figured that Mike would be one of those. This guy sounded like a real gem. Why were any women straight? Seriously, if this was the class of guy available, why bother? Not that gay guys couldn’t be abusive dirtbags, Matt’s crackhead stalker proved that, but that just made Roan wonder why evolution even bothered with men. Maybe women would luck out and men would become totally redundant one of these days.
Maybe humanity would become redundant. He suddenly remembered that weird conversation he’d had with Doctor Rosenberg, and immediately shoved it out of his head.
He couldn’t find Mike. He’d flashed his picture to many of the no-tell motels around town, but he just didn’t have time to cover them all, and sometimes the smells were so strong in certain offices (body odor, cigarette smoke, and cheap, heavy aftershave) he couldn’t actually tell if they were lying to him. (He added Aqua Velva and Old Spice to his olfactory shit list, just beneath Axe.) Oliver may have been a TI, but he knew enough not to use credit cards to rent a room.
Nadia lived in a trailer park, the oddly named Golden Bough, but luckily a trailer across the way from her was empty and abandoned. A heavy lock, chain, and hasp were attached to the front door to keep squatters out, so Roan just went ahead and forced a window open. (It was a trailer. None of the locks were especially sturdy.) The trailer was empty inside but hadn’t been long abandoned, as he could smell faint traces of old cigarettes, food, booze, dog, and diapers. A foreclosure? Probably, or people who just picked up and moved in the middle of the night, leaving behind a ratty old trailer and a mountain of bills.
One of the windows had a good view of Nadia’s trailer, so he settled down for a stakeout, pulling out things he’d brought in his messenger bag. He called Dylan to let him know he was staking out a client’s place and explained the circumstances as he set up his digital camera on a tripod. Dylan was worried, mainly because nothing “domestic” (as in domestic violence) ever came out well. Like he had to tell him that? It was a domestic violence incident that had torpedoed his career as a cop. He still had an extra special hatred for bullies, anyone who beat up someone weaker or smaller than themselves. But if he sat down and was completely honest with himself, he was a bully, because almost no one he fought was strong enough to compete with him. That was the problem with being a freak of nature.
Night settled uneasily, and he watched Nadia come home in her little Accord, dented and rust stained, and she looked around as she unlocked her door and went inside. She didn’t see him, but she wouldn’t—he was far enough away from the window that seeing him would be difficult unless you came right up to it, and since he was both wearing all black and had no light source (he didn’t need one; he had the night vision filter on the camera), he was as good as invisible in the fading light. He allowed himself a schoolboy moment of thinking he was a ninja, then let it go.
He ate a sandwich he’d bought at a deli on the way there, quietly pining for the spicy angel hair pasta Dylan was making tonight (at least he’d leave him leftovers), putting enough mustard on the bread to cover up the taste of subpar turkey. He’d also bought a Mountain Dew and an energy drink, both of which tasted like Satan’s ball sweat with differing amounts of sugar, but he didn’t buy them for taste. He bought them for caffeine and sugar, stuff to keep him awake and alert. He listened to a Stephen King audiobook on his iPod, only one earphone in so he could listen for exterior noises. He doubted he’d hear anything, but it was good to cover all the bases.
As he watched Nadia’s trailer, watched lights go on and off in various rooms, his mind wandered to the problem of what he was going to tell Dylan. When Dylan had picked him up from Willow Creek, Roan had told him Rosenberg had said it would take a week or so for results to be known from all the testing, with the blood work possibly taking two. This wasn’t exactly true; some of the tests would take a week or so. But she’d given him some of the results before Dylan arrived, and he’d still been trying to process them as he packed up his small bag. The week was over, and they were into week two now. Dylan was starting to get suspicious, and Roan couldn’t blame him. He was going to have to tell him something. Was it going to be the truth? He didn’t want to, but he couldn’t rely on Dylan’s willingness to play along forever. But what did he say? He wasn’t even sure he’d completely processed what she’d told him yet, mainly because he’d avoided thinking about it as much as possible. But on this dark and boring night watch, he had nothing but time to think.
She’d used technobabble and tried to be nice about it, but she was saying he wasn’t really human anymore, wasn’t she? The virus was doing something to his body, beyond what it had already done. He was becoming something else, which he should have known when his transformation began to happen so rapidly, when things began to shift without his knowledge. A Faith No More song lyric tripped through his mind like an accusation aimed at himself: He made us proud, he made us rich, and how were we to know he’s counterfeit.
He just wished he could’ve made Dylan rich.
About two hours after the last light went off in Nadia’s house, when his audiobook was done and he was listening to These Arms Are Snakes’ album Easter, he saw movement on the grass plot of the trailer next to Nadia’s, someone trying to sneak past, avoiding the gravel on the street and the porch lights on in front of most of the trailers. Was it some guy stumbling home drunk, or had Mike made his job easier by coming after her his first night on the job?
He couldn’t get a good look at the guy’s face, but the build looked similar. (He was wearing all dark clothes too, the bastard.) There was a glint of metal as he removed something from beneath his jacket, and Roan didn’t think it was a gun. A knife? Maybe a crowbar. But he didn’t like the fact that the guy was making a beeline for her trailer.
Roan ripped off his iPod and called 9-1-1 on his cell, using the ID number he had with the police department. Okay, it only identified him as a “consultant,” someone on the periphery of actual police work, but they’d act faster (at least in theory). He left the line open and dropped the phone on the floor after giving the address, climbing out the window and sprinting across the street toward Nadia’s trailer.
Mike was in his own world; he didn’t hear him or see him, so Roan pulled out his MagLite and twisted it on, shining it in his startled face. “Stop right there, Mike. Drop it.” Mike turned toward him, his face already a mask of belligerence. Roan could smell beer on him, but not enough to call him drunk.
“Who the fuck’re you?” he snapped. “Get off my property.”
“This isn’t your property. It’s Nadia’s, and you’re violating the restraining order. I’m giving you a chance you don’t deserve. Leave, now.” It was a crowbar, and currently he was holding it like a bat, the metal bar hanging down beside his leg.
Mike scowled at him. Roan could see every bit of his stubble, like tiny iron filings driven into his pores. “You the guy she’s fucking, huh?”
Roan scoffed. “Why do you abusive assholes always say that? Just ’cause you’re cheating on her doesn’t mean she’s cheating on you.”
Mike took a step toward him, tapping the crowbar against his leg. “Get the fuck outta here before I shove this up your ass.”
Roan knew exactly what this comment would do, how Mike would react to it, but he made it anyway. Once a smartass, always a smartass. “Oh, so you’re gay now, are you?”
Mike charged, giving Roan a one-handed shove to the chest that sent him back a couple of steps as he brought the crowbar up with his other hand, going for the head. If Roan had been normal, he’d probably have had his skull pounded in. Luckily, he wasn’t.
He brought up his left arm to block the crowbar and at the same time threw a right cross that he judged to be pretty soft, but hard enough to send Mike a message.
And that’s where it went horribly wrong.
He heard the crack of bone on impact, and since he didn’t feel any unusual pain in his hand, assumed he’d just broken Mike’s jaw or cheekbone. But Mike dropped like a stone and started seizing the moment he hit the ground, back arching and limbs flailing like he was trying to fight off some invisible beast. Roan had two seconds to process what he was seeing and realized, with a wrenching, stinging sensation in his gut, that he no longer had any ability to judge how hard he was hitting anyone.
He hadn’t broken Mike’s jaw. He’d broken his skull.
He dropped to his knees and confirmed Mike’s airway was clear, really the only thing you could do for a seizing person. He was aware that a light had come on in Nadia’s trailer about the time Mike had tried to stave his head in with the crowbar, but he hadn’t paid any attention to it. Now he heard the door open, and without looking back, he told her, “Call 9-1-1 and tell them Roan McKichan requests an ambulance ASAP at this location. Got it?”
He saw a rectangle of light on the patchy square of ground that passed for Nadia’s “lawn.” She was in the doorway, a watching shadow, but she had yet to move. “Why?” she finally asked, and in it he heard the years of bitterness, the cold hatred aimed squarely at her soon-to-be ex (or late) husband, the type of hate you could really only have for someone you used to love. He wondered if Dylan would ever take on that tone while talking about him.
“Do it!” he snapped, not caring if she took some of his rage. The one person he really wanted to get angry at was himself, but he knew from having actually tried it that beating up yourself did no good at all and was never as satisfying as it should have been.
She finally disappeared inside the trailer again, taking her sweet time about it, and he heard the siren of a police car, faint but growing louder.
This had been such a horrible mistake. After what Rosenberg had told him, he shouldn’t even be around humans anymore. He closed his eyes and punched the ground until he felt a bone in his hand shift and break, and he had to swallow back a roar that was more anger than pain.
He’d always known he was a freak among freaks, but after this, everybody was going to know.