The last time I saw Malcolm Brannick alive, he looked like three kinds of hell. Which he thoroughly deserved. It was 22 December, the last work day before the Christmas break and one of those winter days so dark it feels like midnight even at noon. I had both the desk lamp and the overhead fluorescent light on in my office. We’d had a wet, miserable summer, which in turn had become a wet, miserable autumn, then a wet, miserable winter, and I’d about given up hope of ever seeing the sun again.
I crawled around the office on my hands and knees, scratching Silly String out of the carpet with my fingernails and flicking it into the bin. The scent of stale beer filled my nostrils. I hadn’t managed to determine where the smell was coming from. Somewhere sneaky, if I knew Malcolm, but my irritation wasn’t aimed at him. I was the one who had forgotten to lock my office door before leaving the Christmas party.
The remains of last year’s prank—a badly drawn zombie face with Xs for eyes—leered at me from the door despite substantial scrubbing during the year. At least the name plate—Vivia Brisk, Caseworker—remained untouched for the first time in years.
My head throbbed. Two glasses of wine shouldn’t feel this bad, but I’d done too much dying recently and my body was struggling to recover. I was born a hag, or death witch. The ability to visit the underworld is a marketable skill, but not one my body could cope with full time.
But however bad I felt, Malcolm must have felt far worse. He’d sidled in just after eleven, wafting the sweet stink of sweat and alcohol, and had immediately been summoned to Obe’s office.
The tone of the conversation, if not the words, drifted through the glass door. Obe had never been any good at giving anyone a carpeting. His muffled words sounded apologetic, but he continued without stopping, as if he were determined to get it all out in one shot.
As longest-standing employee, Obe had been pushed into acting as manager by the trustees after our old manager left in October for a better-paying job. Malcolm and I had both applied for the promotion but wouldn’t hear the decision until after the Christmas break. If it was me, then I’d be the one having to tell Malcolm off the next time he did something stupid. I didn’t know if I was relishing the thought or dreading it. And if Malcolm got the job? I didn’t want to think about that.
I binned the last largish piece of plasticky stuff and surveyed the office. I’d got the worst of it off, and the remainder would have to wait. Our cleaning service had been the most recent victim of our budget cuts, and, too late, it occurred to me I should have asked Obe to get Malcolm to clean up the mess he’d made.
I stood up too fast, and the headache that had been building at the back of my skull flooded my brain. I grabbed two headache tablets from the stash in my drawer and swallowed them with a slug from my water bottle.
When Obe’s door opened, I was midway through drafting an appeal against false dismissal for a shifter client. A copy of our leaflet, ‘Animorphism—Facts and Myths,’ lay on my desk. I’d copied the fact that animorphism couldn’t be transmitted by infection word for word, but I was still struggling to find a less patronising way to explain why a man who could shift into a hamster wasn’t a threat to anyone.
My stepfather called us ‘Citizen’s Advice for Monsters,’ which was accurate, if a little mean-spirited. The Lipscombe Trust was an independent non-profit organisation, and we got just enough government funding to keep us afloat, although I wasn’t sure for how much longer.
Malcolm popped his head round the door. He was a touch over six feet and almost reached the top of the cheap doorframe. The silver strands that had begun to appear in his dark hair were gone, and again it occurred to me to wonder why the vanity that impelled him to dye his hair wasn’t enough also to prompt him to buy a nose-hair trimmer.
He flashed me a smile that was all teeth. ‘I’m told I owe you an apology.’
I raised my eyebrows. ‘Don’t apologise to me. Apologise to Habi. I already know you’re a weasel.’
‘Oh, ha-ha. Very funny.’
I turned my attention back to the appeal against false dismissal for the hamster and picked up my pencil. ‘You owe me for dry cleaning.’
‘Yeah, sorry about that. I’ll pay.’
I looked up to give him a conciliatory smile, but he’d already gone.
Malcolm got bladdered at the Christmas party every year. That was nothing new. Neither was getting handsy with every female member of staff, including me. Nor was getting maudlin about his dead first wife. But downing six shots of tequila in a row and throwing up all over me and Habi? That was new.
Moments later, his voice drifted up from down the corridor, all sweetness. But our new receptionist must have been less forgiving than I was, because the next thing I heard was the sound of a slammed door. I hesitated then trotted down the corridor.
Ben Brannick sat on one of the reception chairs, a book on his lap. His folded wings didn’t fit behind the chair, so they were settled out to either side of him. Malcolm’s son—the result of a brief fling that contributed to the end of Malcolm’s first marriage—was one of the rare winged people. His wings took up almost the length of him, great seagully things, and every time I saw the boy sitting down I couldn’t help thinking how uncomfortable he looked perched on furniture made for standard-issue humans. Ben lived with his mother in St Kilda, visiting Malcolm for only the two weeks over Christmas. In the year since I’d last seen him, the fat-cheeked thirteen-year-old boy had turned into a fourteen-year-old beanpole.
He looked up from his book and smiled. Malcolm was one of those people who take particular pride in telling others they haven’t finished a book since senior school, and for the millionth time, I thought the boy must take after his mother.
I turned back to Habi only to see she had tissue paper stuck up both nostrils. A strong scent of menthol filled the air.
‘I didn’t know you were sick,’ I said. ‘We shouldn’t get too many walk-ins today. No one will mind if you go home.’
She tapped her nose. ‘Tissues soaked in Vicks, Vivvie. Pre-emptive strike. Patricia Stull’s going to be here any minute to see Malcolm.’ The tissues made her voice nasally. My nose would have cringed if it were capable.
I forgot all about Malcolm. ‘Ben, I wouldn’t stay here if I were you. Go ask Obe if you can hide in his office. He won’t mind.’
I didn’t wait to see if the boy listened. I scuttled back up the corridor and shut the door firmly. After a moment’s thought, I pulled my copy of the day’s Metro out of my bag, screwed it up, and stuffed it against the crack under the door.
Patricia Stull wasn’t a zombie, but she smelt like one. Spending enough time in the Necroambulist Detention Centre will do that. The office always stank for hours after she visited. The woman turned up on a semi-annual basis, usually trying to get the Trust to support one or another of her harebrained campaigns, although now that I thought about it, we’d seen a lot more of her recently.
We didn’t get a lot of donations—stopping wererats from getting evicted doesn’t pull on the heartstrings—and we couldn’t afford the bad publicity that would come with her. Zombies were even less popular than wererats. Disease-infested rats can only kill you.
I opened the tiny window, letting winter air into the cramped space.
The smell arrived moments after I heard the bell go, and for the first half hour I sat typing with one hand and pinching my nostrils together with the other, all the while shivering in the frigid air.
I waited another half an hour before I typed an instant message: Is she still here?
The response came back almost immediately. Still in reception! No idea where Malcolm is.
I glanced at the time on my phone. It was just past midday. In Malcolm’s world, that meant pub time, and again he’d left his son behind so he didn’t have to tone down his booze-fuelled behaviour in front of the youngster. He’d better remember to bring the boy back a sandwich this time. I liked Ben, but I wasn’t responsible for feeding him.
I reached for my mobile and rang Malcolm’s number. No one answered. I tapped out a text message: Pat Stull here for your appt; and got a message back immediately: Bugger, forgot about that.
A minute later a mobile beeped in reception, and I heard a female voice, then the sound of footsteps. The stink grew stronger. A figure tapped at the clouded glass door to my office.
I kicked the newspaper out of the way and opened the door.
‘Ms Brisk? Malcolm said he won’t be able to make our appointment but that you should be able to help.’
Did he? I smiled politely. ‘Come in.’
I held the office door open and waved her through, resisting the urge to hold my nose as she passed. I knew her work took her into the Detention Centre most days, but didn’t the woman shower? Perhaps it was protective camouflage so no one would notice when she did finally turn.
The necroambulist rights campaigner was in her sixties, old enough to have an ‘Infected’ tattoo on her forehead and stubborn enough to have kept it. She wore no makeup and had a face lined enough that she must have been either a smoker or a sun bunny. She wore her long white hair tied into a ponytail at the nape of her neck.
Patricia’s form of the virus was the most common—a dormant version passed on in utero from her mother that would activate when she died. I felt sorry for her. It couldn’t be easy being a carrier, knowing she would zombify one day whether she liked it or not.
She slumped into the chair in front of my desk and immediately began digging in her handbag.
‘What can I do for you, Ms Stull?’
‘Oh, call me Pat. You’re Vivian, I think? We haven’t met, although I’ve seen you here before.’
I nodded. ‘Vivia. I’m one of the case officers.’
‘Well, it’s to do with our campaign regarding unclaimed remains. We want to get you on board, maybe get the Lipscombe Trust to co-head the campaign? Having a respected charity like yours behind us will add a great deal of influence.’
That’s not going to happen. ‘Malcolm’s in charge of dealing with that sort of request. I generally just deal with smaller stuff—individuals mostly—so I won’t be able to help, I’m afraid. I’ll be happy to pass your paperwork to Malcolm for him to look at.’
She produced a folder covered in red plastic, which she opened and laid out on my desk. She carried on as if she hadn’t heard me. ‘The campaign will make a real difference. Do you know over three hundred bodies go unclaimed in London every year? Necroambulists who have access to easy and legal nutrition won’t be a threat to anyone.’
‘Easy and legal nutrition,’ I said with a mildness I didn’t feel. ‘Ms Stull… Pat, the stigma’s enough that most people refuse to acknowledge zombies even within their own families. They’re not going to suddenly approve of dead strangers eating human flesh.’
She waved her hand at my comment as if swatting away a fly. ‘Yes, yes, I know the whole cultural issue around it, but it’s only humane. What’s happening now is a disgrace. To drag people from their homes, away from their families in the middle of the night just because they’re dead is a breach of their human rights.’
Patricia’s voice was beginning to get a little high pitched. She was passionate about this. I’d never met a campaigner who wasn’t.
‘It’s a medical condition,’ she said, ‘Medical! No one throws cancer patients into a pit and leaves them to rot. Necroambulism has been around for millennia, and it hasn’t resulted in the zompocalypse.’
‘Yet,’ I said. ‘The New Zealanders might beg to differ. If there are any left who aren’t just moaning and shambling around.’
Patricia’s mouth tightened. ‘You’re deadist. I’d expect better from the Lipscombe.’
I had no intention of being drawn into it. We’d never support her campaign. We’d made huge strides in non-human rights, but the human public wasn’t even close to ready to accept morgues handing out bodies to be eaten. It didn’t help that technically I knew she was right. Zombies killed because they had to. A zombie who ate human flesh on a regular basis staved off decay and became almost indistinguishable from any living person. Without the flesh, they became nothing more than the ravenous, mindless monsters so beloved by B movies.
Patricia’s plan meant there would be nothing to stop them from being accepted members of society. Or at least nothing but the usual prejudice against the non-human.
The real reason I objected was that cannibalism gave me the heebie-jeebies. I studied her face. There were tears in her eyes. Patricia Stull wasn’t just passionate, she was desperate. She knew what was coming, and she wanted out.
‘Patricia, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that, but I’ve been on every zombie call-out the police have had for the last five years, and with the exception of the very newly dead who simply haven’t had the opportunity yet, I’ve never seen a zombie who wasn’t also a murderer. I get that rotting alive is a crappy thing to happen to anyone, but their human rights don’t trump anyone else’s.’ I stood up in an attempt to signal the conversation was over. I held up the red folder. ‘I’ll pass this on to Malcolm.’
Patricia’s face drained of colour. For the first time, she seemed to really take a good look at me. Her eyes drifted downwards from mine, towards my nose that looked like the front end of a Boeing, to my pointy chin, to the warts at the base of my neck that I hadn’t had time to get burned off.
‘What?’ I said, but I knew.
‘You. You’re the hag,’ she whispered. ‘You’re the one the police take to the kidnappings. You send people into the pit.’
‘Extractions, not kidnappings,’ I corrected her. ‘And I don’t send anyone anywhere. They’re destined for the Detention Centre the moment they reanimate. That has nothing to do with me. I’m just a consultant.’
Patricia rubbed her eyes with the heel of her hand. She stood slowly, as if she’d found the conversation physically painful. She shook her head. ‘You should be ashamed of yourself.’ She stalked out without waiting for a response.
I felt bad for her, but feeling bad was what got the New Zealanders into the mess they were in. I pushed the emotion to the back of my mind and, because I couldn’t push the lingering stink away too, went to beg some tissues and Vicks off Habi.
Malcolm staggered in at half past two, stinking of beer and cigarettes.
‘Just a few Christmas drinks, Vivvie. Hair of the dog and all that. Jeez, it stinks in here. You haven’t been dead in here again, have you?’ He choked out a laugh.
That’s when I called him an asshole. The next time I saw him, he was dead and surrounded by men with big guns.