“You were with Tom when you saw her?”
Sacchetto paused, his fingers beating a tattoo on the tabletop. “Look, I know I promised to tell you, and I will, but I think I’m only going to tell you some of it. The rest … Well, maybe you better hear that from your brother.”
“From Tom? Why?”
The artist cleared his throat. “Because Tom’s been hunting her for five years.”
THE ARTIST POURED HIMSELF A THIRD CUP OF COFFEE, THOUGHT ABOUT IT, then got up and fetched a bottle of bourbon from a cupboard and poured a healthy shot into his cup. He didn’t offer the bottle to Benny, who was fine with that. The stuff smelled like old socks.
“I grew up in Canada,” Sacchetto said. “Toronto. I came to the States when I was fresh out of art school, and for a while I made money doing quick portraits of tourists on the boardwalk in Venice Beach. Then I took a couple of courses in forensic art, and landed a job working for the Los Angeles Police Department. You know, doing sketches of runaways, of suspects. That sort of stuff. I was always good at asking the right questions, so I could get inside the head of a witness to a crime or a family member who was looking for someone. And I never forget a face. I was in a police station on First Night. Lots of cops around me, lots of guns. It’s how I survived.”
Benny didn’t know how this was going to relate to the Lost Girl, but the artist was in gear now, and he didn’t want to interrupt the man’s flow. He placed the card on the table between them, and sat back to listen.
Sacchetto sipped his spiked coffee, hissed, and plunged back in.
“You grew up after, kid, so all you know about is this world. The world after. And I know you’ve probably learned a lot about the world before the Fall in school or from hearing people talk. So you probably have a sense of it, but that’s really not the same thing as having belonged to that world. You live here in town, with a slice of what’s left of the population. What’s our head count at the New Year’s census? Eight thousand? When I was working on the boardwalk, I’d see three times that many people just sprawled in the sand, soaking up the sun. The freeways were packed with tens of thousands of cars, horns blaring, people yelling. I used to hate the crowd, hate the noise. But … man, once it was all gone—I’ve missed it every day since. The world is too quiet now.”
Benny nodded, but he didn’t agree. There was always something happening in town, always some noise or chatter. The only quiet he’d heard was out in the Ruin.
“When the dead rose … The noise changed from the sound of life in constant motion to the sound of the dying in panicked flight. I heard the first screams just as the sun was setting. A guy in the drunk tank died from a beating he’d gotten when he’d been mugged. I guess the cops didn’t realize how hurt he was. They thought he was asleep on the bunk, didn’t know he was dead. Then he woke up, if that’s the right word. ‘Resurrected’ is closer, I guess. Or maybe there should have been new words for it. If there’d been time, if the world had lasted longer, I’m sure there would have been all sorts of new words, new slang. Thing is, the zoms—they weren’t really ‘back’ from the dead, you know? They were the dead. It’s been fourteen years, and the idea still won’t fit into my head.” He closed his eyes for a moment, looking inward—or backward—at images that even his artist’s imagination could not reconcile.
“The Lost Girl,” Benny prompted gently.
“Right. That was later. Let me get to it how I need to get to it, because one thing leads to another, and if I tell it out of order, you might not understand.” He took another sip of coffee. “The guy in the cell started biting the other drunks. Everybody was screaming. The cops thought they had a nutcase on their hands, so they did what they were trained to do: They unlocked the cell to try and break up the fight. But by then at least one or two of the other drunks were dead from bites to their throats or arteries. It was a mess—blood all over the walls and floor, grown men screaming, cops shouting. But I just stood there, staring. All of the colors, you know? The bright red. The pale white of bloodless skin. The gray lips and black eyes. The blue of the police uniforms. The blue-white arcs of electricity as they used Tasers. In a weird, sick way it was beautiful. Yeah, I can see the look in your eyes, and I know how crazy that sounds, but I’m an artist. I guess we’re all a little crazy. I see things the way I see them. Besides, I was around death and dying all the time. I was around pain and loss all the time. This was so real, so immediate. Even working with the police, I’d never been there at the moment a crime was committed … and here it was. Murder and mayhem being played out in all the colors in my paint box. I was transfixed. I couldn’t move. And then the dead drunks woke up, and they started biting the cops. After that … The colors blurred, and I don’t remember much except that there was screaming and gunfire. The younger cops and all of the support staff—the people who weren’t street cops—they went crazy. Screaming, running, crashing into one another.
“It made it easier for the dead to catch them, and the more people they bit, the more the situation went all to hell. A cop I knew—a woman named Terri—grabbed my sleeve and pulled me away a second before one of the zombies could take a bite out of me. She shoved me down a side hall—the hall that led to the parking lot. She told me to get into my car and get the motor running. Then she turned and went back down the hall to get some other people out.” He sighed. “I never saw her again. All I heard was gunfire and the moans of the dead.”
“Is that where it all started?” Benny asked.
The artist shrugged. “I don’t think so. Over the years you talk to people, and you hear a hundred stories about how it all started. You know what I really think?”
Benny shook his head.
“I think that it doesn’t matter one little bit. It happened. The dead rose, we fell. We lost the war and we lost the world. End of story. How it happened doesn’t matter much to anyone anymore. We’re living next door to the apocalypse, kid. It’s right on the other side of that big fence. The Rot and Ruin is the real world. Our town isn’t anything more than the last bits of mankind’s dream, and we’re stuck here until we die off.”
“You always this depressing or is it that crap you poured in your coffee?”
Sacchetto tilted his head to one side and stared at Benny for a ten count before a slow smile formed on his mouth. “Subtlety’s not your bag, is it, kid?”
“It’s not that,” said Benny. “It’s just that I’m fifteen, and I have this crazy idea I might actually have a life in front of me. I don’t see how it’s going to do me much good to believe that the world is over and this is just an epilogue.”
Sacchetto chuckled. “You’re smarter than I thought you were. Maybe I should have given you the job.”
“I don’t want it anymore. I just want to know about the Lost Girl.”
“And I’m wandering around everywhere but in the direction of the point, is that it?”
Benny gave an “if the shoe fits” kind of shrug.
“Okay, okay. Long story short, I got the hell out of Dodge.”
“Out of LA. No one else came out of the police station … At least no one alive. After I sat in my car for ten minutes, I saw the desk sergeant come shambling out. His face was smeared with red, and he was holding something in his hands. I think it was a leg. He was taking bites out of it. I spewed my lunch out the side window, backed the hell up, spun the wheel, and burned half a block’s worth of rubber getting out of there. I had three quarters of a tank of gas, and I was driving a small car, so I made it pretty far. To this day I couldn’t tell you the route I took getting out of LA. The streets were already going crazy, but I beat the traffic jams that totally locked down the city. Someone told me later that thousands of people were trapped in their cars on blocked streets and that the dead just came up and … Well, it was like a buffet.” He shook his head, sipped some coffee, and continued. “I passed under a wave of army helicopters flying in formation toward downtown. Had to be a hundred of them. Even with the windows closed and the sound of rotors, I could hear the gunfire as they opened up on the city. When my car ran out of gas, I was actually surprised. I was in shock. I never even looked at the gauge. I ran the tank dry and then started running. I got to a farmhouse and met up with some other people, other refugees. Fifteen of us at first. This was around midnight now. By dawn there were seven left. One of the refugees had a bite, you see, and we still weren’t connecting the bites with whatever was going on. To us it still wasn’t the ‘dead’ rising. We thought it was an infection that made people go crazy and act violent.
“A few people had cell phones, but everyone they called was just as confused as they were. All the lines to police or government were jammed or were down. People kept trying, though. We were all conditioned to believe that our little phones and PDAs would always keep us connected, that they’d always be a pathway to a solution. I guess you don’t even know what those things are, but it doesn’t matter. The batteries eventually ran down, and as you do know, help never came. Everybody was in the same mess.
“At dawn a bunch of hunters came through the area and began clearing out the zombies. We thought that it was over, that somehow the good guys had gotten ahead of it. We went the opposite way, thinking we were heading in the direction of safety, of order. We didn’t get two miles before we hit a wall of them.”
“Zoms. Maybe ten, fifteen thousand of them. God only knows where they came from. Some city or town … or maybe they started out as a few and the others followed with them, tracking movement the way the zoms will. Don’t know, don’t care. We kept running, kept trying to hide, but they smelled us—or heard us. They kept coming. We picked up a couple more survivors, and at one point we were back up to close on a hundred people. But, like I said, there were thousands of them. Thousands. They were in front of us, behind us, on both sides. They came at us from everywhere, and we died. I was in the center of our pack, and that was the only reason I survived. The dead kept dragging down the people on the edges of the pack, and with every few hundred yards, we lost another couple of people. Sure, we were faster, and one-on-one we were stronger, but we had no clear path to make a straight run for it. Then we went down into a valley near a vineyard.
“By now our group was down to twenty-five, give or take. We’d started arming ourselves. Rocks and tree branches. A few farm tools we found. A couple people had guns, but the ammunition had run out long ago. The valley had a stream running through it, and we splashed across. That helped. I think the dead lost the scent, or maybe it was the sound of the stream. Those of us who crossed where the water churned over some rocks—where it was noisy—we got across without being chased. Seven of us made it to safety that way. Me, four men, and a woman and her little daughter. The woman, though … She was pregnant. Two days away from her due date. Two of the men had to hold on to her arms to help her run. And I carried the little girl. We ran and ran, and even though the little girl was only two years old … After a thousand yards it felt like she weighed a hundred pounds.” He stopped for a moment, and Benny saw a shadow was moving across his face. “I’ve never been a strong person, Ben. Not physically, and not … Well, let’s just say that not everyone’s as strong as your brother.”
He looked suddenly gray and sick, and older than his fifty years. He drained the cup and turned to stare longingly at the bottle of bourbon on the drain board, but he didn’t get up to fetch it.
Benny watched the emotions that flowed over the man’s face. The artist was one of those people who had no poker face at all. Everything he felt, everything he’d ever seen, was there to be read.
After another few moments Sacchetto continued his story. “Somehow—maybe it was fear or adrenaline or maybe we’d gone completely crazy—we kept running. Four or five miles on the other side of the vineyard, we found a cottage. Pretty little place tucked into the woods. We managed to get the pregnant woman into it, and we locked the door, closed the shutters, and pushed all the furniture against any opening where the dead could get in. There was food and water and a TV and a laptop. The owners were nowhere around. While the others helped the woman settle down on the couch, I turned on the TV, but all we got was a ‘please stand by’ message from the Emergency Broadcast System. So I turned on the computer and skimmed the news. The Internet was still up. Do you know about the Internet?”
“Yeah. They cram all that old-world stuff into our heads at school.”
Sacchetto nodded. “Well, I was able to access news feeds from all over the world. By then it was everywhere. I mean, everywhere. Europe, Asia, Africa. Cities were in flames. Some areas had gone completely dark. The military was in the field, and the authorities were saying they were making headway, pushing back the dead, stopping their advance.” He shrugged. “Maybe it was even true at the time. My cell phone was back at the police station, but I sent e-mails to everyone I knew. I didn’t get very many replies. Those that did get back to me said that it wasn’t happening where they were, but as the day went on, they stopped replying to my e-mails. The situation kept getting worse and worse, until it was spinning completely out of control. The news reports were all mixed up, too. Some of them said that the dead were moving fast, some said that they couldn’t be killed, even with head shots. One reporter, a guy who was a really well-known news anchor from New York, reported that his own family had been slaughtered, and then he shot himself right on camera.”