From the New York Times bestselling author of The Maker’s Song series, a humorous, action-packed urban fantasy about a werewolf pack and an animal control officer in way over his head!
Someone is picking off fortune tellers and hippies in Oregon, snatching them out of their Birkenstocks mid-stride. And when the legend himself, Hal Rupert, Animal Control Officer, gets a whiff of the mystery, he knows he’s the man to solve it. In between proudly wrangling out-of-control cats and dogs, he’s noticed a peculiar uptick in another sort of animal…werewolves.
Hal infiltrates the country fair to investigate the disappearance of the flower children. But his real priority is protecting the love of his life, Desdemona Cohen, whose long purple tresses and black-glossed lips captured his heart the moment he first saw her standing behind the register at Hot Topic. Desdemona may have nicknamed Hal “Creep,” but he’s determined to win her heart. And, you know, save everyone else, too.
Make sure you stick around to the end. We’ll be giving away three limited edition galleys of Thinning the Herd.
Burning for Brains
Hal Rupert braked his animal control kennel-truck to a tire-smoking stop in front of Carlson’s Mortuary, slammed the transmission into PARK and jumped out of the vehicle, catch pole in hand. He tapped one end against the kennel’s latch. The metal door swung open. A fetid, moldering smell wafted out of the dark interior.
“All right,” Hal said. “Final stop. Again.”
The mortuary sign – a neon pair of praying hands – flashed on-off, on-off, into the night and smeared the rain-wet streets with ribbons of tasteful color.
“Uuunnnnhhhnnnnn,” the zombie said. Neon light winked across the clouded eyeballs. “Uuuuuuuhhhhnnnn?”
Hal rubbed his chin, pondering the zombie’s comment. He understood lycans and y?kai with no problem, but zombies were a new phenomenon in Eugene and he wasn’t sure what this one was griping about.
Cushy ride. No parts missing. Home safe—and in time for Christmas.
And captured by Hal Rupert, legendary dogcatcher (and hero), no less.
What more could a zombie want? Well, aside from a stocking full of brains?
“C’mon out,” Hal said, patting his hand against his thigh. “C’mon!”
The zombie shuffled forward, shoes scraping against the kennel’s metal floor.
“That’s a good zombie,” Hal encouraged, patting his thigh again. “C’mon!”
Another shuffling, scraping step. Another gurgle. At this rate hell could freeze over, thaw, then freeze again before the zombie moseyed over to the door.
Sighing, Hal tightened his grip on his catch pole and strode over to the mortuary entrance. Pounded on the heavy oak door.
What was with all the zombies, anyway? And was he the only one who’d noticed them trudging pigeon-toed along the sidewalks, parking lots, and inside the reconstructed Valley River Center Mall? True, until a few parts fell off and the decaying-flesh and formaldehyde stink ratcheted up to gag-inducing intensity, it was hard to spot them in a crowd—especially during the jam-packed holiday feeding frenzy crowds.
The door creaked open, and Hal looked into a serene face wearing a carefully crafted smile. “It’s after hours, sir,” the man said in smooth, soothing tones. “How may I help you?”
Hal opened his mouth, then closed it as an ominous electric prickle thickened the air. The hair lifted on the back of his neck. His fingers locked around his catch pole. His heart beat counted out time in a slow, steady rhythm – the rhythm of a warrior.
“Behind you,” a voice declared with ominous intent.
Hal pushed the mortuary attendant away with one hand, then whirled, swinging his catch pole up and around with deadly speed, air whistling as it spun and close-lined the voice’s source. The blow knocked Spandex-clad man off his rain-glistening bicycle and into the air. He hung for a moment, caught in an amber-beaded capsule of fight-time, then sprawled onto the wet sidewalk.
Hal straddled the bicyclist and thumped one end of his catch pole near the man’s helmeted head. “When will you punks learn?” he hissed, voice Fistful of Dollars tight. “Behind me, what? Werewolves? An insane squirrel? A freakin’ zombie? What’s behind me?”
“Holy shit!” the bicyclist gasped.
Hal’s eyes narrowed. “Unless there’s a steaming pile behind me, that’s not an answer to my question. Try again.”
The bicyclist rolled suddenly, his gloved hand darting into his fanny pack. Catch pole spinning, Hal knocked the taser out of the man’s hand the moment he yanked it free from the fanny pack. It bounced and tunked against the pavement.
“You just landed on Santa’s naughty list, punk.”
A spark of recognition and fear lit the taser-punk’s eyes. Now he knew who he was dealing with – Bad-Ass Rupert – and maybe, just maybe, was smart enough to count himself lucky.
Hal glanced over at his truck. A pasty-faced head with disheveled hair peeked out of the kennel. Hal patted his hand against his thigh. “That’s right!” he called. “There’s a good zombie! C’mon, boy. C’mon.”
The zombie stared. Its mouth dropped open. It drooled. “Nnuuummmmm.”
“What the fuck is that?” the taser-punk whispered. “Did you say – zombie?”
Hal nodded. “Sounds like it thinks you look mighty tasty, son.”
The taser-punk’s eyes widened. He jumped to his feet, but Hal catch-poled him against the mortuary’s stone face. “I don’t think so,” Hal said, voice low. “You still haven’t answered my question.”
“Behind me, what?”
“Am I on some stupid we-made-an-idiot-outta-you show?” Taser-punk asked. A tremulous, hopeful smile crept onto his lips. His helmeted head swung left, then right as he searched for hidden cameras.
“Trust me, you don’t need help being an idiot. Now. Behind me, what?”
“Excuse me,” a smooth, soothing voice interjected. “But what is . . . that?”
“One of your clients,” Hal said. “I spotted a CARLSON’S label sewn into the suit collar. Thought I’d bring it back.”
“One of our . . . clients?” the mortuary attendant stepped out of the doorway to stand beside Hal. His expertly plucked and shaped brows slanted downwards as he frowned. “But, that’s impossible. Our clients are deceased.”
“Clearly doesn’t keep them from being misplaced or walking away,” Hal replied.
“Nnuuuuuuuuuuuuunnnnmmmm,” the former Carlson’s client confirmed.
The bicyclist’s eyes widened. He twisted and squirmed against Hal’s catch pole.
Hal thumped him back into the wall. “Behind me, what?”
In the street he heard a shuffling, dragging sound as the zombie negotiated the rain-slick pavement. The taser punk flailed. His breathing picked up speed.
“Behind me, what?” Hal repeated.
“ZOMBIE!!!” the taser-punk screeched.
“True, but intel I already possessed.” Hal lifted his catch pole from the bicyclist’s chest. Nodded his head. “G’wan. Get out of here. You’re lucky it’s the holidays and I’m in a generous mood.”
Eyes wide, face pale, the taser-punk hit the sidewalk running, all ass and elbows. The thwap-thwap of his sneakered feet gradually faded. Hal shook his head and grinned. So stunned by his encounter with Hal Rupert, the Hal Rupert, poor kid left his bike behind. Hal stood it up and toed the kick stand down. He’d be back once he regained his senses.
“Excuse me,” the mortuary attendant said. “What am I supposed to do with that?”
Hal glanced in the direction indicated by the attendant’s pointed chin. The zombie bumped into the curb, staggered back a step, shuffled forward, bumped into the curb. Staggered. Shuffled. Bumped. Repeat.
Sighing, Hal grasped the zombie’s bony arm and hauled it onto the sidewalk. It pawed at Hal with a claw-fingered hand. Slowly.
“NnnnnUUUUUUnnnnn!” it insisted.
“Trust me,” Hal murmured, “guy was empty calories.” He aimed the zombie at the mortuary’s opened front door and the man in the fine suit. The man’s eyebrow arched.
“I don’t believe we accept returns.” The man offered an apologetic smile and clasped his hands.
“You promise final rest,” Hal said, tightening his grip on his catch pole. “This one ain’t resting.” He stared at the attendant. Hard. Knew a hero’s uncompromising resolve gleamed in his eyes.
“Are you mad?” the attendant asked. His gaze flicked to the return shuffling towards the door, one hand outstretched. “What would I do with . . . that?”
Hal shrugged. “Call your boss. I dropped off two strays last night.”
The mortuary attendant back-pedaled with amazing speed as the zombie bumped against the threshold. Staggered. Shuffled. Bumped.
Hal hooked a hand around the zombie’s bony arm again and helped it over the threshold. “Yuuuuuummmmmm!” it enthused, cloudy eyes fixing on the attendant.
The attendant shrieked and scurried away down the tastefully carpeted hall into the low-watt gloom.
Releasing the zombie’s arm, Hal stepped back outside and grabbed the door handle. “You oughta rig up one of your hearses like my kennel-truck and make nightly runs,” Hal called. “Starting to look like this city needs a zombie-catcher.”
A distant shriek echoed along the hallway as Hal shut the door. Angling his catch pole across his shoulder, he strode to his pickup. He closed the kennel door and latched it. The faint smell of decay blotted out the usual stink of wet fur and animal musk. Hal shook his head. He’d have to hose the kennel down when he returned to the Lane County Animal Regulation at shift’s end. He stowed the catch pole in the truck bed. Climbed into the cab.
As he burned rubber out into the street, headlights streaking the wet road like gleaming ghostly fingers, he pondered the mystery of the zombies. A mystery that his catch pole alone couldn’t solve.
Zombies. Magic. An image popped into Hal’s mind of his beloved, the alluring Desdemona—purple-tressed, kohl-lined blue eyes, lovely pale face, slim corseted waist. The mere thought of her stirred the burning embers of love within his heart into a blazing fire. As did her pet-name for him, whispered in dulcet tones, Fruitcake. Pleasure slid a fevered hand down his spine.
Wait. Magic. Zombies. Desdemona. Where’d he been going with that train of thought before seductive images of his Goth warrior queen captured his attention? Oh. Louis Dark, Desdemona’s best friend. Goth-boy was a refugee from New Orleans after Katrina. A shifter brimming with magic. Voodoo. Zombies. Aha! The connection circle completed.
Hal felt a tight smile curve his lips. He steered the pickup towards Willamette Street. Tomorrow Louis would be at the Holiday Market, reading cards and palms while his partner, Hunter Lawrence, peddled wiccan-brewed home defense (the gift that only begins once unwrapped). The perfect time to pay Louis a visit and see what he knew about Eugene’s sudden holiday crop of shuffling dead.
Hal stepped off the bus, catch pole in hand, and crossed 13th Street to the fairgrounds in long strides. Brakes screeched. A car honked. “Idiot!” a man screamed.
Hal grinned. Another grateful citizen protecting his identity by pretending not to recognize him. Hal winked. The red-faced man flipped him off. And doing a damned fine job, too.
Hal crossed the fairgrounds parking lot to the expo building hosting the yearly holiday market. Inside the booth filled building, he worked his way through the dense crowd of last minute shoppers—dreads-sporting Grateful Deadheads, gray-bearded old-school hippies, and white-collar Eugenians in Nike polos, khaki slacks, and Birkenstocks, their sock-clad feet a grudging concession to winter. The air smelled of fresh-cut pine, gingerbread, and cedar.
Children shrieked and wailed Christmas demands as their tight-lipped parents dragged them past booths full of glittering, magical toys.
Hal wove through the tight press of shoppers desperate for one final bargain, past booths displaying tie-dyed undies and pajamas, hand-carved oak furniture, and New Age jewelry, finally stopping in front of a shopper-thronged booth marked with a purple pentacle. Hal eased his way to the front.
“There you are,” Hunter Lawrence said. His long hair was tied back to reveal its buzz-cut sides – colored purple today. A smile touched the Wiccan’s lips. “Louis said you’d be dropping by.” Light from the overheads sparked silver fire from the crescent moon pendant hanging around his throat.
“Saw it in the cards, right?” Hal asked. Tiny stoppered vials, packets of colored powder and polished stones rested on the black velvet lined counter. Etched in elegant calligraphy, a sign: MOONGUARD HOME DEFENSE.
“Hey, Hal.” Dressed in his usual leather and latex steampunk fashion, the black goggles perched on top of his head keeping his black, platinum, and blue dreads back from his café au lait face, Louis looked up from where he sat cross-legged on the throw-rug covered concrete floor, a smile on his lips.
Hal nodded. “Louis.” He angled his catch pole across his shoulder. Colorful and well-used tarot cards formed a Celtic cross on the rug. Hal tilted his head to study the layout, but Louis’s long fingers swept them back into the deck. “How’s business?”
“Good,” Hunter Lawrence said. “Very good, actually.”
Hal met Lawrence’s gray eyes. “Yeah? How good exactly?”
The Wiccan frowned. “What’re you saying?”
Louis uncurled from the ground with a shifter’s fluid grace and stood beside his partner. Light reflected from his dark green eyes. “Zombies,” he said, voice low. “For true.”
Hal nodded. “Exactly. You wouldn’t be trying to create a need for your –”
A shriek cut through the air.
“No, behind you,” Louis said, pointing a finger. “Zombies, you.”
More screams pierced the pine-scented air. Hal’s fingers grasped his catch pole as he whirled, spinning it up and over like a samurai’s katana. He stood, catch pole poised over his head, his heart pounding out a slow, measured rhythm.
A hero’s rhythm.
The zombie, dressed in a flower-printed dress and white gloves, trudged along a center aisle, mouth open, looking very much like everyone else. Except for the head canted at an unnatural angle. Dead giveaway.
People scattered in all directions, eyes wide, dreads flying and Birkenstocks slapping the ground.
The zombie bumped into a food booth. Organic lemonade and strawberries slopped onto the counter and spilled onto the concrete. The zombie staggered back a step. Shuffled. Bumped. Staggered. Shuffled. Bumped. Staggered. Shuffled. Etc.
Time resumed flowing at normal speed again. Hal lowered his catch pole. Rubbed his chin. Considered. Seasons could pass before the zombie escaped the booth and managed to get within brain-munching range of anyone.
“Is that why you asked about business?”
Hal glanced over his shoulder. Lawrence watched the zombie doing its shuffle-repeat routine, face calm. But his voice was cold and tight, his words clipped.
“Yeah,” Hal admitted. “I thought maybe Louis, being from the bayou and all –”
Lawrence’s gaze shifted to Hal. His gray eyes darkened; storm warning. “You thought Louis’d desecrate graves and the dead?” he asked. “To drum up holiday business? Because he’s from Louisiana?”
Quite certain the answer should be no, oh hell no, Hal held the Wiccan’s gaze feeling like he was doing a shuffle-bump-stagger routine of his own. “Well, not desecrate, exactly – that’s a harsh word . . . ” Hal snapped his mouth shut. His fingers locked around his catch pole. Sweat beaded his forehead. Never good to piss off a witch. He wondered if he could catch pole Lawrence before he fired off a spell.
“Hal has the way of it,” Louis said. “Mostly.” The shifter slipped out from behind the booth’s counter, leather and latex creaking with his movement.
Louis’s words hit Lawrence like a bucket of cold water, dousing the fire in his eyes. “You did . . . what?”
Louis shook his head. “Bayou-brewed mojo,” he said. “Hal was right about the voodoo coming from home, but wrong about it being mine.”
Hal pursed his lips. Considered. Bayou-brewed? How many refugees from Katrina had settled in Eugene/Springfield? He shifted his attention back to the zombie in its Sunday-best. Shuffle. Bump. Stagger. Shuffle. Hal narrowed his eyes. Was the jaw now hanging just a tad askew?
Recovered from their initial shock, people trudged back into the market, in twos and threes. One of them walked into a REST ROOMS THIS WAY sign. Bounced. Shuffled.
Hal’s heart skipped a beat. Not holiday market patrons, no. Zombies. A whole freakin’ undead herd. A frustrated groan told him that the living herd still watched. Zombies or no zombies, they had gifts to buy, dammit. So they waited for a hero to take action. Their hero. Hal Rupert.
And it was a job he took to heart – to protect the citizens of Eugene (and Springfield); his people, each and every one of them. Living and dead. Undead. Whatever.
Facing the zombie horde, Hal stepped forward, twirling his catch pole in a deadly figure-eight pattern. “Who’s first?” he said.
“Nuuuunnnnn,” one zombie volunteered, hands outstretched.
Hal interpreted the comment as Yum! Hero brains! He smiled. He was getting the hang of zombie talk. He danced forward and swung the pole down across the volunteer’s skull. KRAAACKK! Then spun away, catch pole whistling through the air.
The zombie staggered to a stop, cloudy eyes blank. Well . . . even more blank. A trickle of formaldehyde leaked from the dent in its skull.
“Nuuuummmm?” it questioned.
Brains gone? Hal interpreted. “Long gone,” he replied and spun again. He caught a glimpse of Louis peeling off his latex shirt – preparing to shift? – while Lawrence ran towards the crowd of terrified onlookers.
Hal twirled his catch pole up and –
The air thickened and held him like a dragonfly trapped in tree sap. His muscles trembled as he struggled to swing the catch pole down. His breath rasped in his throat; the air tasted like honey, a sticky-sweet hero-trap. Sweat trickled down his temples. Beaded his forehead.
“No more of that, boy.” A woman in jeans and a white-lace blouse strode across the zombie-dotted market, her café au lait-colored skin smooth and ageless. “Drop that ugly-ass pole.”
Fire seared Hal’s hand, crisped his flesh, ashed his fingers. Or it felt that way, in any case. Teeth gritted, he fought the illusion (it was illusion, right? Right??) and imagined his fingers intact and tight around his catch pole. Squeezed his eyes shut. Felt his muscles knot and cord.
A big cat’s challenge-screech clawed through the air. The hero-trap vanished and Hal stumbled forward and dropped to one knee. Wiping sweat from his forehead, he used his catch pole to pull himself up onto his feet.
A black panther, fur gleaming beneath the overheads, circled Voodoo-Lady. Louis’s tail switched back and forth as he paced. His muscles rippled beneath his sleek hide.
Voodoo-Lady lifted her chin and smiled. “Don’t trust your safety to MOONGUARD,” she said, her bayou-steeped voice carrying across the square. “You think Wiccan white magic gonna save yo’ asses from all the things that go bump in the night?” She shook her head and snorted.
What the . . . ? Hal glanced over his shoulder at the crowd Lawrence guarded with a dome of silver-blue light, light he laced from strands beaming from the MOONGUARD wards on the concrete.
Lawrence caught Hal’s gaze, slapped a hand against his forehead. Shook his head. Hal read his thoughts: Zombies as a competitor’s freakin’ advertisement.
Hal returned his attention to Voodoo-Lady and the black panther stalking her. And locked his hand around his catch pole.
“You gonna need dark magic to protect you from bad things,” she said. “And that’s exactly what you’ll get from Antoinette and MAMBO SECURITY. Hell, someone owes you money and is too damn shiftless to pay you back?” She winked at Hal. “Need a little more street cred than you’d get sending a dogcatcher with a flimsy catch pole to collect your debt?”
Hal met Voodoo-Lady’s – Antoinette’s – gaze. Held it. Smiled. Thumped the end of his catch pole against the ground.
“MAMBO SECURITY will drop off a few zombies on the deadbeat’s doorstep and we’ll collect what’s owed and more, for true” she said. “And right now, we have a Christmas special going on.”
A few interested oooo’s arose from the huddled crowd.
Louis’s ears angled back on his head. His tail lashed faster.
“Far from true,” Lawrence called, his voice clear and silver-toned. Magical.
Hal swiveled so he could watch both Antoinette and Lawrence.
The Wiccan stepped forward. “Dark magic always leaves a taint,” he said. “Dark magic draws dark things, ensuring you’ll always need it.”
Antoinette crossed her arms over her chest. “And this creature here?” she asked, nodding her head at Louis. “I suppose he’s all white-magic pure?”
“Louis’s pure magic and, better still, he’s alive,” Lawrence said, lifting an eyebrow.
Hal thumped his catch pole against the ground in appreciation. The zombies bumped into each other and various booths, milling aimlessly, except for a few that’d zeroed in on the crowd and now bumped and bounced against the MOONGUARD shield like moths against a glass covered porch light. TAP. TAP. TAP. Burning for brains.
Antoinette’s hands dropped to her hips. “MAMBO SECURITY guarantees its services.”
“And your zombies?” Lawrence asked. “You guarantee they won’t eat the wrong brains?”
Antoinette narrowed her eyes. “You challenging me, boy? Think that wise? I’ve been working magic since before your daddy was in diapers. Can you summon the dead?”
“Don’t need to,” Lawrence said, his voice even. “I have the living on my side.”
“Have you asked the dead if they wanted summoning?” Hal asked. “Don’t seem like enthusiastic employees to me. What kind of benefits does MAMBO SECURITY offer?”
Antoinette’s hazel eyes killed and resurrected Hal a thousand different ways.
Hal snorted. “Take a number and get in line, lady. People are just dying to whack me. Comes with the job.”
She blinked. Opened her mouth. Closed it. Tilted her head.
A low growl rumbled up from Louis’s throat. He sprang. Antoinette’s hands blurred through the air, her red-nailed fingers tracing burning symbols in the air. Veves. Voodoo glyphs of power.
A net of pale gold wove around Louis’s black-furred form, snaring him in mid-leap, mid-snarl, his lips wrinkled back to reveal thick, curving fangs. Mojo-caught. The shifter hung in the air within a shimmering translucent ball like a gnat in a soap bubble. A huge freakin’ gnat in a huge freakin’ soap bubble, granted. A gnat . . . panther . . . who happened to be the best friend of his beloved.
Hal leaped up and thumped one end of his catch pole against the bubble. Ripples shivered across the bubble’s thin surface and Louis blinked a few times, but otherwise nothing changed. Panther still in bubble. Bubble still in the air. Okay, then.
Hal sucked in a deep breath of pine and zombie scented air and danced around the bubble with a warrior’s precision and grace, hitting the bubble with double blows from his catch pole. Spun away. Danced forward. THWACK-THWACK! Pirouetted. Spun. Battered the bubble like a birthday piñata. Hal spun to a stop. Nothing. Well, more ripples and blinking, lots of blinking, but otherwise . . . .
“Excuse me,” Hunter Lawrence said, stepping past Hal to the light glimmering bubble. The Wiccan lifted his hands and murmured words in a language Hal didn’t recognize, but suspected was Gaelic.
A zombie with a peeling cheek shuffled towards Lawrence, fingers scooping through the air in anticipation of plowing into warm brains.
Hal herded the zombie with gentle, but insistent taps of his catch pole until it turned in the direction of its mistress. “That’s the boy,” Hal said. “Fetch!”
“Nuuuunnnnnn,” it agreed.
“Cernunnos,” Lawrence breathed and closed his eyes. Silver light starred out from his hands and from the crescent moon pendant at his throat and merged into one gleaming shaft of light. Opening his eyes, Lawrence hurled the shaft with a flick of one hand.
It pierced the bubble. Louis tumbled to the ground, twisting in mid-plummet to land on his paws. “You all right?” Lawrence asked, shooting Louis a sidelong glance.
“Rowrr.” The shifter prowled forward through the grass, green eyes fixed on Antoinette.
She etched another burning symbol in the air as the zombie shuffled closer, then pursing her lips, she blew the glowing symbol into the zombie. The air crackled with electricity and the zombie stiffened and crisped on the spot. Crumpled to the ground, no longer the walking undead, but just an inert, disinterred body.
Hal caught a whiff of ozone and fried flesh. A zombie-zapper. Nice.
“MAMBO SECURITY will zap away all trouble,” Antoinette called.
“Trouble you created,” Lawrence said. “MOONGUARD isn’t a protection racket. We don’t unearth the dead to frighten clients into expensive contracts.”
The crowd cheered the suggestion. Lawrence closed his eyes and shook his head. Hal couldn’t tell who in the blue light-shielded crowd had shouted that particular bit of wisdom, but strongly suspected it was a ganja-smoker. And considering smoke now filled the shield-dome, it could’ve been any one of them. Or all.
“ARM WRESTLE!” some other budding genius in the crowd yelled.
A smile lit Antoinette’s lips. “Hoo-whee! I’ll pick a champion for MAMBO SECURITY and you choose for MOONGUARD HOME DEFENSE.”
“Are you seriously suggesting we arm wrestle for business?” Lawrence asked.
“You chicken? Whoever wins won’t have to worry about sabotage for . . . a year.”
“Only a year?”
“Long enough,” she said. “What you want, boy? The sun and the moon?” She shook her head, chuckling, her dark curls swinging against her ageless face. “Looks like you got that already with your at-will-shifting lycan.”
“Rowwrr,” Louis grumbled. He flexed his claws.
“You can’t be the champion, little boy,” Antoinette said. “You part owner in MOONGUARD, so you disqualified.”
“I’ll champion MOONGUARD,” Hal said, angling his catch pole over his shoulder.
Frowning, Lawrence turned to look at Hal. “I don’t like this,” he said, voice low. “She’s up to something.”
“What’s she gonna do? Toss a chicken at me? I can handle chickens. A sharp rap to the beak —”
“Noooo,” Lawrence murmured. A smile ghosted across his lips. “No chickens and probably no zombies, but . . . ”
Hal squeezed Lawrence’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’s just arm wrestling. What could go wrong?” With a wink, he strode to the market’s center. Slid his fingers along his catch pole. Stood it beside him.
“Who’s the champion for MAMBO SECURITY?” Hal thumped his hook pole against the concrete. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
“So be it!” Antoinette cried, stepping back. She spiked a tiny ball to the ground just in front of Hal. Black smoke reeking of sulfur curled into the air. “Allons!”
The column of smoke coiled up and up. Hal waved his catch pole through the air, dissipating the smoke. A heap of entwined and entangled green plants and black soil mounded up from the concrete. Six feet high, Hal estimated, and about eight wide. A couple of white-petaled flowers blossomed on top of the heap. The reek of stagnant swamp water and moldering vegetation closed Hal’s nostrils.
What the hell? He poked the mound with his catch pole.
A hand shaped of mud and green plants wrapped around the catch pole and jerked. Hal’s feet lifted from the floor as he stumbled forward, fingers locked around the catch pole.
Do we have lift-off? Oh, yes, ladies and gentlemen, but we’re circling back for a smooth-as-silk landing. Thank you for flying Rupert Airlines.
Jaw clenched, Hal yanked at the same moment the heap released the pole. He hit the floor hard, ass-first.
“Mrrowwr!” Louis exclaimed.
Shambling Mound? Hal wondered, jumping back onto his feet.
The Mound shambled closer. Okay, then. It extended an arm. A huge arm. Tender green shoots curled up from around its fingers. Hal frowned.
“This isn’t right!” Lawrence protested. “That creature’s not even human!”
“No conditions against non-human champions,” Antoinette said. “Just against business owners.”
“By the stars,” Lawrence muttered.
“I’ve got things under control,” Hal said. He eyed the Shambling Mound as it edged ever closer. So, basically, he was to arm wrestle a mulch pile. He rubbed his chin and pondered the situation. A magical, stinky mulch pile.
How hard could it be?
Hal thumped his chest and smiled a hero’s grim acceptance. “Let’s do this,” he said. Then, resting his hook pole in the grass, he stretched out belly-down on the floor, one elbow – his wrestling arm – propped up, hand open and ready.
“By the stars,” Lawrence muttered again.
The Mound humped and shambled across the concrete with a moist, sucking sound, trailing vines and mud behind it. It stopped just in front of Hal. Its thick, plant encrusted arm snaked out. Offered its hand.
Hal slid his fingers around the cold appendage, grasped a solid handful of mud and greenery. “So how do we want to do this? Best two out of —”
The Shambling Mound slapped Hal’s arm over onto the floor. Game over.
“Hey! We haven’t even discussed terms yet!”
The Shambling Mound said nothing. Just quivered a little. Possible monster-plant laughter? Hal pulled his hand free. Shook off the black, stinking mud. Propped his wrestling arm up again. “Now, wait until we’ve —”
The Mound’s fingered appendage wrapped around Hal’s hand and smacked his arm over onto the floor again. DING-DING-DING! End of rooooound two!
“BOOOOOO!” someone in the Wicca-shielded crowd yelled.
Hal grinned. Another citizen protecting his identity even now. Pride lifted his head and propped his elbow back up. Fixing a stern gaze on the Shambling Mound, he offered his hand again.
The Mound quivered. Hal strongly suspected it was laughing.
“Y’all had two practice runs,” Antoinette said, her bayou-lilting voice rippling like dark water across the market. “This be the for-keeps round.”
“Let’s do this,” Hal said, locking his gaze on the Mound’s uppermost flowers. Might be eyes. Might be flowers. Hard to tell with swamp creatures. He clasped the offered mud-slick hand. Sucked in a deep breath. Nearly choked on the rotted vegetation stench. Steeled his muscles.
And slammed the vined appendage down onto the concrete. Mud spattered Hal’s face. He stared at the flowers – magnolias? – on the Shambling Mound’s head. One bobbed as though caught in a breeze.
The Mound hadn’t resisted. It’d let Hal win. Had thrown the fight.
“Not possible,” Antoinette breathed. “Do over! I demand a do-over.”
“That was the for-keeps round,” Lawrence said. “And I claim my year free of sabotage from MAMBO SECURITY.”
Wiping mud from his face, Hal wondered if the Shambling Mound, like the milling zombies, was an unenthusiastic, unwilling employee – one who’d just flipped off its boss and given notice.
Grabbing his catch pole, Hal climbed to his feet and brushed at the knees of his jeans. The Shambling Mound lumped across the concrete, heading for the exit.
Lawrence looked at Antoinette, his gray eyes grim. “Unmagic the dead,” he said. “Let them return to their rest.”
Antoinette glared at the retreating Shambling Mound, hands on her hips. “No good, street-dragging pile of weeds,” she muttered.
Sitting beside Lawrence, his tail curled around his paws, Louis growled.
“I heard you,” Antoinette snapped. Her fingers scribbled glowing symbols into the air then, with a sigh, she lifted a hand to her puckered lips and exhaled.
One by one, the bumping, shuffling, drooling zombies crumpled to the concrete, dead once again.
“I want one, mommy,” a child’s voice cried. “I want my own zombie for Christmas!”
Lawrence wrapped Hal up in a hard-muscled and sandalwood scented hug. “You never fail to amaze me, Hal Rupert!”
“Well, I —”
“Hold that thought,” the Wiccan said, releasing Hal from his embrace. He loped across the market to his MOONGUARD-shielded crowd. Kneeling, he touched and deactivated the wards. The blue light vanished. People looked around at the unmoving bodies littering the market, and then swarmed over to the MOONGUARD HOME DEFENSE booth.
Louis purred. And winked. Rising to his paws, he padded towards MOONGUARD.
Hal rubbed his chin, whiskers rasping against his fingers. Remembered Louis saying, Hal has the way of it. Mostly. He had the feeling that MAMBO SECURITY would conveniently go out of business. If it ever existed. And Antoinette? It’d be like Hunter Lawrence to offer her a job. For a bayou boy born and bred, Louis played a very fine hand.
Angling his catch pole over his shoulder, Hal left the market and walked yo the bus stop. A hearse marked CARLSON’S MORTUARY glided up to the curb. On 13th, Hal heard screeching brakes, honking horns, and the crunch of metal on metal. A voice shrieked, “What the fuck is that?!”
Hal wished the Shambling Mound well and a Merry Christmas and hoped for a rematch one day.
As he ambled along the sidewalk to the white-grated bus bench, a voice intoned, “On your left!”
Hal whirled, catch pole swinging.
Meet Adrian Phoenix!
Adrian Phoenix writes urban fantasy and is the author of The Maker’s Song series, and the Hoodoo series, the third book, Black Moon Mojo will be out in 2016. (and the forthcoming Sons of Darkness series.) She lives in Springfield, Oregon in a zombie-free home (except when meeting deadlines) with three cats, Amiga, Keats, and Emily and has two sons and three grandchildren and two granddogs.
She loves to read and see movies, enjoys hiking with her granddog, Cielo, (immortalized in Black Dust Mambo and Black Heart Loa), and hanging out with friends. She also loves creepy things and yearns to go on a paranormal investigation. She also hopes to do a haunted tour one day. She also loves, loves, loves music – and anything by Trent Reznor is high on the list. She also loves to hear from my readers and fans, So please feel free to contact her!
Want to purchase Adrian’s novels?
Thinning the Herd
The Maker’s Song (5 Book Series)
Urban Fantasy Collection – Vampires: A Rush of Wings, Staked, Wicked Game
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Thank you Adrian Phoenix for taking part in Literary Escapism’s Black Friday!
Adrian is giving away three limited edition galleys of Thinning the Herd. To enter, all you have to do is answer this one question: What does one get a zombie catcher for the holidays? Remember, you must answer the question in order to be entered. (US Only)
Have you checked out the other Black Friday contests yet? Check out the Master List to see all the Black Friday giveaways. All Black Friday contests will remain open until December 31st. All giveaways are subject to LE’s Giveaway Policy.