Joe, thank you for doing this interview for my newsletter; it’s great to have you! Please start out by introducing yourself:
Joe: Thank you, Bec! Glad to be here. Well, let’s see, I’m Joe McKinney, 45 years old, a husband, a father of two lovely little girls, police officer by night, writer by day. As a cop in the San Antonio Police Department I’ve gotten to do just about everything. I’ve been a beat cop, a traffic officer, a disaster mitigation specialist, a homicide detective, I ran the city’s 911 Center for a while, and I’m currently a patrol supervisor working the west side of San Antonio. My police career has colored my writing career quite a bit, influencing it in more ways than I can count. I’ve written a total of seventeen books since Dead City first came out back in 2006, including the four part Dead World series, Inheritance, Quarantined, The Red Empire, Dodging Bullets, Dog Days, and a bunch of others. I write horror mainly, but I’ve also written some crime fiction and dabbled with science fiction. I’ll be branching out from there in the next few years. I’ve got a cookbook in development, for example. I also just signed on to script comic books for Dark Horse and I’ll be doing other comic book scripts for Evil Jester Presents.
Why horror and why zombies?
Joe: I recently gave a talk at a middle school in Friendswood, Texas and one of the 8th Graders asked me this very question. It was appropriate for the occasion, because I grew up in that area, and my love affair with zombies started there. It was the summer of 1983. I was fourteen. That summer gave me two landmarks in my education. The first was George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, a movie that scared the ever-loving crap out of me. I watched it one night on cable and slept cradling a baseball bat for the next month. I dreamt of the living dead circling my house in the night, rattling the walls with their endless moans, forcing their way inside. No movie had ever done that to me before. Very few have done it since.
And then, just when I thought I had learned what real scary was, Hurricane Alicia made landfall. I grew up in Clear Lake City, a little suburb south of Houston. We were just across the lake from the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel and the numerous shrimp camps down in Kemah, and we were square in the crosshairs of the storm.
I spent all night in a closet, listening to the storm trying its hardest to rip my house from its foundation and send it sailing off like a kite. The next morning, I went to the front door and looked out over a sea of caramel-colored water. Every roof was missing shingles. Trees were toppled. Cars and trucks were submerged to their roofs. I saw a water moccasin glide through the swing set in my neighbor’s back yard. And at the entrance to my subdivision was a shrimp boat that had been carried seven miles inland by the storm surge. The destruction was staggering, and for a boy of fourteen, it felt a bit like the world had been turned upside down.
Of course, my fear didn’t last long. Later that day my best friend came by in a canoe and we paddled all around the neighborhood, acting like river explorers heading up the Amazon in search of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. It was a blast.
But even as the fear of those two landmark events subsided, my fascination with them was growing. And so when I sat down to write a story about how terrifyingly complex the world had become for me as a brand new father, I found myself turning back to the two most frightening encounters of my youth. And that meant horror, and especially zombies.
What was the coolest fan moment that you’ve ever had?
Joe: My coolest fan moment is also my biggest professional moment. My novel Flesh Eaters won the 2011 Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel. The presenters that year were Joe R. Lansdale and Robert McCammon. Now, as a kid, I used to skip lunch so I could save my lunch money to buy McCammon’s books. When he called my name I went up to the podium in a haze. I barely knew where I was. And then Lansdale and McCammon shook my hand and McCammon leaned in close and said, “Good job, Joe!” To have one of my literary heroes tell me that was a shining moment, and a memory I will always treasure.
Is there anything in your writing journey you would have done differently? Why?
Joe: I suspect that things happened the way they did for a reason, and truth be told, I’ve enjoyed the journey. I’ve hit a lot of milestones in my career, and checked a lot of items off the old bucket list. I’ve seen my first novel published by a major New York publisher. I’ve seen my first five figure advance, and my first six figure advance. I’ve been a best seller. I’ve been recognized by fans in airports, and I’ve seen my children beaming at career day when their daddy, the author, addresses the class. There’s been rejection and anger along the way too, but I don’t regret any of it. I think, if I could go back to a younger me and offer career counseling, I would choose sometime around January, 2007. The Joe McKinney of that time still looked on writing as a hobby, and Dead City as the one novel he had to tell. He loved writing, and short stories especially, and so he turned to those. Whereas before he had never considered publishing his short fiction, he suddenly found it easy to do with a successful novel under his belt. So, he spent a year cranking out short fiction. It was a wonderful year, and a productive one. I was doing as many as three short stories a week, and I just sold one of the stories I wrote back then for more money than I got for my first novel. But what I probably should have been doing was thinking about my next novel. Novels are where it’s at. You have to do novels if you want to make a living as a writer. Short stories are great, but unless you’re Ray Bradbury you stand a very dim chance of making a living as a writer if that’s all you do. Had I paid more attention to putting out novels, I might have reached the point I’m at now a lot sooner. But then again, maybe I wouldn’t have. As I said, I suspect things happen for a reason. Maybe this is where I was meant to be.
I know the “Books for Troops” thing just kinda happened. Tell us about how it came about and the response you’ve had from supporting authors:
Joe: Sure, that’s a great program, and one I’m very proud to be a part of. A few months ago I got an email from one of my readers who said that he’d sent several of my books to his grandson, who is stationed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Apparently the books were very well received, and quickly made the rounds to all the guys stationed there. Our troops are starved for reading material, and anything from the States is eaten up at once. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to send a few books that way, so I put something up on Facebook, asking if any horror writers wanted to send something along. I really didn’t expect the response I got. Several hundred authors contacted me over the next few hours and days, and ultimately sent me over two thousand books. I sent one shipment of about 1,200 books a few weeks ago, and have since learned that the troops have already devoured them. Another batch of books is going to go out this week. And it was super cheap to do. If you send to a U.S. military base it’s the same as shipping anywhere in the U.S., and so sending all those books only cost about $160 bucks. I feel really good about the project.
Is the “Books for Troops” something you’re considering continuing in the future?
Joe: I would love to do so. The thing is, my reader’s grandson rotates back to the States in February, so I will need a new contact to ship to. It’d be great, I think, if another horror writer developed a contact over there and took point on this. Bagram is an Air Force Base, and it’d be nice to share the love with other branches of the service. If anybody does pick this up and runs with it, I will be there to donate books, and I’ll do it with a smile on my face.
Do you have a writing goal that you have yet to achieve? If so, what is it?
Joe: There’s always another mountain to climb. If I ever wake up and decide that I’ve done everything I want to do, then that is the day I will retire my pen for good. Luckily, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. I have a lot of things still to do. For example, I want to write the story of Ambrose Bierce’s disappearance. I want to have an ongoing comic book series. I want to write movie scripts. But above all, I want to look back on a long writing career and be able to honestly say that I was hungry from start to finish. I want to be able to look myself in the mirror and say, “Yep, you did good, kid!”
I’ve noticed that you still contribute to anthologies (I know ’cause we keep getting in the pages together – LOL!), what do you look for when considering an anthology to submit to?
Joe: I do! And I think if we appear in any more anthologies together we’ll have to get some sort of common-law spouse arrangement! But why do I choose the books I do? I honestly wish I could tell you. I just don’t know. Part of it is interest in the project, of course, but it’s also a question of due dates. For example, I just turned down an invitation to an non-fiction, academically-oriented anthology that I wanted desperately to be a part of. It had everything I look for: a chance to write something different; a chance to stretch my boundaries; a chance to reach a new audience; and it even paid well. But unfortunately, I could’t do it. You see, I have four novels and six short stories due by April, 2014. At this point, if I take on any more projects, I may implode. There is a limit, unfortunately, and I’m pretty much at it right now. The next for-the-love anthology I submit to is probably a good ten months away.
What has been your favorite writing moment in 2013?
Joe: Several months ago, my twelve year old niece went to her school’s librarian with a zombie book. The librarian said, “I ordered this book for the library because I love zombies. Do you?” My niece replied: “I sure do! My uncle writes zombie books.” The librarian’s smile turned to a questioning frown. “Really?” she said. “Who’s your uncle?” My niece told her, and was surprised to see her librarian nearly faint. As it turns out, the woman is a big fan of my books. So she called me up and asked if I’d be willing to speak to her students. I said yes and the next thing I knew I was on the way to Friendswood, Texas, which is pretty much where I grew up. Then this librarian handed me a microphone and I found myself talking to more than eight hundred students. If you’ve ever addressed a huge performance hall full of eight hundred twelve year olds then I bet you get what that moment was like for me. If not, I can tell you now that it was absolutely awesome! If you’ve ever doubted for the safety of our nation in the years to come, trust me, we’ve got some mighty talented youngsters waiting to take the reins. It was a great time!
Is there anything writing wise that you struggle with? If so, how do you deal with it?
Joe: Always, and every part of the writing process. If your writing isn’t challenging then you simply aren’t challenging yourself to be better. In particular, beginnings are hard for me. I struggle to set the right voice for the characters, and to really get into their heads. Once I’m there the writing gets easier, but finding that groove is always a challenge.
Tell us about your most recent release:
Joe: My latest is a stand-alone zombie novel called The Savage Dead. It came out in September. From a story point of view it’s a political thriller that ends in with zombies on a cruise ship. Picture Vince Flynn meets The Love Boat, but with zombies thrown in. But to give you a glimpse behind the scenes I will say that this book is the culmination of my interest in the insanity that is the Texas-Mexico border. The region is so rich with cultures and history, and yet so riddled with poverty, and drugs, and human trafficking, and a thousand other pots set to boil over that I fear we are ignoring a powder keg of cataclysmic proportions. That region will, I believe, in the years to come, prove to be America’s next Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Vietnam. As a police officer in an administrative position I am savvy to some rather disturbing intelligence coming out of that region, and I can tell you that our military and our cops are doing things there that would make the plot of a Tom Clancy novel look pedestrian. I wanted to bring out some of that sense of urgency with The Savage Dead; and hopefully, in the process, stay true to the wealth of culture and tradition unique to that area. I do truly love it, that mash up of cultures and political systems, but I fear it just the same.
Is there anything you would like to share that I haven’t asked you about?
Joe: Thanks for asking! Yes, actually, there is something I’d love to talk about. I have a book called Dog Days coming out in December. The book is actually the third in a series that JournalStone Publishing is doing called Double Down. The idea is simple. Take one author with some name recognition, and let him choose a writer that hasn’t yet received the kind of opening into the business that he or she deserves. Previous editions to the series have partnered Gord Rollo with Rena Mason and Lisa Morton with Eric Guignard. I’m partnering up with a San Antonio-based writer name Sanford Allen, who wrote a book called Dark Passage. If you remember the old Ace Doubles you probably have a good idea of what these Double Down books look like. Basically, you have two novels printed in the dos a dos style. Read one story through, flip the book over, and you find a second novel. It’s pretty cool, and it gave me a chance to explore an experience that happened to me back in 1983. Of all the things I’ve written, Dog Days may be the most autobiographical. I’m hoping it makes for good horror.
Thank you again for stopping by. It’s always a pleasure!
[An excerpt from THE SAVAGE DEAD by Joe McKinney. Scheduled release date is September 3, 2013 from Kensington Press]
Outside her window, Dulles International Airport sank into the darkness. Pilar Soledad watched it fade to black, aware that something vital inside her was hardening. It was always the same on these return trips to San Antonio, as layer by layer she peeled away the fiction that was her life as Monica Rivas, Washington DC lawyer, socialite and Mexican-American rights activist, leaving only a core of ice too numb to care for much of anything.
Her gaze shifted to her reflection in the window.
The woman looking back at her was gentle, kind, sweet. She wore silver hoop earrings and a light mineral makeup, a powder, with a cool, muted red lip gloss. Her black hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail that draped over the shoulder of her tweed suit jacket. It was a good look for her, professional and stylish, bespeaking of old money and cultured tastes.
But Monica Rivas was a lie.
Like everything else about her, Monica Rivas was a cold, cruel, carefully constructed lie. And in moments like this, as she faced the transition from Monica to Pilar, she felt so bitter, like for all her struggles, all those years spent clawing her way out of the gutters of Ciudad Juarez, of fighting against the gangs that tried to turn her into a common whore, that for all that, she had achieved little more than a sort of pointless circularity, a racehorse going ‘round in circles at full speed, never getting anywhere. There was so much hatred inside her, so much resentment at the world that had created her. Had she not learned to bury all that rage over the years she probably would have put a gun in her mouth and ended it all. Instead, she stared at her reflection and let the walls come up around her heart, one after another.
From beside her, she heard a sharp intake of breath, and turned from the window.
In the seat next to her was an old Hispanic woman, short and fat, her dark complexion belying her Indio heritage. The woman was gripping the armrests of her seat, her teeth clenched, eyes shut hard.
Pilar reached over and took the woman’s hand in hers. It was the kind of thing Monica would do.
Surprised, the woman looked at Pilar.
Then she smiled.
“Thank you,” she said, breathing a little easier now that she had someone to lend her strength.
“Taking off is always the hardest part,” Pilar said in Spanish.
The woman’s smile brightened. “Oh, are you from San Antonio?”
“Yes. Well, years ago. I haven’t been back in a long while.” The lie was practiced. It came easily.
Speaking Spanish seemed to relax the older woman, for the tension was gone from her face now. She even turned toward Pilar, as though they were sitting on a porch swing together rather than roaring steadily up to altitude.
“Are you going home then?” the woman asked. “To your family?”
Automatically, at the mention of family, Pilar thought of Ramon Medina. It was hard to hold the smile on her face.
“Yes,” she said. “I still have some connections there.”
“How nice,” the woman said.
She went on talking, that old woman, but Pilar, for the most part, tuned her out. She was nodding politely, offering vague noises of encouragement now and then, but in her mind she’d turned back to darker times. She was thinking uneasy, alone thoughts, the kind of thoughts that kept her awake at night, staring up into the darkness, even when she was playing at being Monica Rivas.
She remembered a time, twenty years ago now, when she was in the back of an 18 wheeler with a boy she knew only as Lupe and fifty-three other migrant workers trying to get across the border into Texas. She had to have been eight, or possibly ten, because she’d been small enough to cower behind a field box that had recently been used to transport onions. She could smell them even now. And Lupe, he would have been younger than that, for she’d been able to shield him with her body when the old woman – an old woman much like the woman sitting next to her now – had gone into cardiac arrest from the heat and died.
She collapsed right next to them, and when Lupe saw the old woman was dead, her face slack and powdery white in the daylight that slipped through the cracks in the trailer’s walls, he’d gone still. Even after all these years, she could still hear his silence next to her, how awestruck he had been at being closed in with the dead.
“Why won’t they let us out?” Lupe asked. He huddled against her, trembling, even though it was hot like an oven in the trailer. They hadn’t moved in a long while, and several of the men had kicked and scraped and pushed against the walls, one by one dropping from heat stroke and dehydration. Looking across the silhouetted forms crowded into the trailer, she could tell that most of them were dead already.
“They’ve probably left us here,” she said. “Disconnected the truck and left us here by the side of the road.”
“But why? We paid them, didn’t we? We paid them what they wanted.”
She thought about the frightened look on the truck driver’s face when he opened the back and learned that four of the migrants riding in his trailer had died. She thought about the men surging against the doors when they closed, their screams of rage and horror as the padlock clamped shut.
“Yes, we paid them.”
“Then why?” He was starting to whine.
She squeezed his hand until his whining turned to whimpers.
“Stop it,” she said. “Be quiet. Somebody will come soon.”
“My head hurts,” he said.
“You’ll be okay.”
“I want to throw up.”
“You’ll be okay. Just stay calm. Don’t move if you don’t have to. Somebody will come.”
To drive her memories of that time away she took the old woman’s hand again.
“You’re so very sweet,” the woman said.
Pilar smiled, wishing that were really true.
# # #
It was nearly midnight when she disembarked at San Antonio International Airport. The airport was almost deserted, the shops along the concourse all closed up, nobody but a few bored custodians wandering around. Pilar never checked baggage on these flights back and forth between Washington DC and San Antonio. Everything she needed, and that wasn’t much, she kept in her carry on.
She made her way with the other passengers down to the exits where she rented a car on her Monica Rivas credit card. Less than ten minutes later she had the airport in her rearview mirror and was looking for a place to pull over.
She found it in an abandoned gas station parking lot.
She turned out the lights, rolled down the windows, and waited. Washington had been hot and sticky with humidity when she left. Here, in San Antonio, it was even hotter, but the night air was dry and still and scented by a nearby magnolia tree in bloom. It pleased her. Even if coming back here stirred up a lot of memories she’d rather forget, there was still something satisfying, even welcoming, like a narcotic sleep, about the South Texas nights.
And with the windows open and the night air moving across her skin she could almost hear Lupe laughing at the sparks rising on the hot air above the open fire they’d lit the night before they were to board the 18 wheeler and make the trip across the border. They were out on the black hills above Ciudad Juarez, behind a cluster of tarpaper shacks, sitting on car tires. They didn’t have anything to eat but some gum she’d stolen from a shop down in the city, but that was okay. Lupe was happy just listening to her talk about the wheel of fortune and what was in store for them.
“If you start at the bottom of the wheel and rise to the top, that’s a comedy,” she said.
“And if you start at the top and you go to the bottom…”
“That’s a tragedy,” she answered. “But that’s not us.”
“We’re like those sparks, right?” They both watched pinpoints of light rise into the air, winking out above their heads.
“That’s right. Our life’s a comedy.”
Oh how he’d laughed about that.
And oh how it hurt now to think about him laughing.
At 12:30 a.m. she took out her iPhone and called up a Gmail account that she shared with Ramon Medina, head of the Porra Cartel. The inbox contained a few junk emails, but those were unimportant. It was the draft folder with which she was concerned. The cartels had learned early on that the NSA routinely monitors international email accounts. Anything going in or out of the country is scanned for key words and hot button topics by some of the most sophisticated software analytics ever devised. And when items of interest are developed, they’re copied and read and the senders placed on the watch lists for more intensive scrutiny.
The Porra Cartel had figured out ways to be careful. Anytime they needed to relay large amounts of computer files, as she’d done with all the information she’d lifted from Paul Godwin’s phone, they simply typed up an email on the dummy account they shared and saved that email in the draft folder. A simple routine was devised. When a scheduled check of the account was due, as hers was now, she simply logged in using the password they shared and checked for drafts. Unless the NSA knew the account name and the password, they stood almost no chance of intercepting the message.
Waiting in the drafts folder was a single message, written in Ramon Medina’s clipped, terse style:
- ..esto es algo bueno que lo puedo usar…en el edificio gris en Potranco y Westover Hills…lo que necessita aqui y ahora…R
That was good, she thought. He’d liked what she’d sent him and felt like it was something they could use.
Now to see what he wanted her to do about it.
He’d given her directions to meet him, and she had a vague idea of where he meant. Ramon Medina never used the same place twice, but he generally felt more comfortable on San Antonio’s west side.
She got on Loop 410 and headed west. The roads were nearly empty, much as the airport had been. Pilar put the car on cruise control – even though her Monica Rivas identity was air tight and the cops would never find anything if they stopped her, there was no reason to leave a footprint if she could help it – and headed into the darkness at the edge of town.
Her thoughts kept turning back to Lupe. The Texas Highway Patrol had finally rescued her from the 18 wheeler, but not before Lupe and 39 others died of heat stroke. After that, she went to sleep every night hating herself, blaming herself for his death. She’d wake up in the morning hoping it had all been a sick nightmare, but of course it wasn’t. He was just a child. He had counted on her, believed in her, and she’d let him down. That was the part that really chewed her up inside. She’d been careless. And now he was dead.
The Border Patrol had taken her from the Highway Patrol, questioned her, assigned her an identity card, and put her on an old school bus with bad air conditioning. Then they’d driven her back to the border, back to Ciudad Juarez. There they’d turned her out, a ten-year-old orphan, left to wander the streets of the murder capital of the world. Other girls her age were forced into prostitution, but not Pilar. She learned to avoid the gangs, and even managed to steal the food she ate from right under their noses.
Ramon Medina was a young man then, still in his early twenties. He’d made a name for himself with a string of eight liner gambling houses that catered to the American tourists, dozens of whorehouses, and of course a tight leash on the growing trans-border drug trade. His personal office was one of the places Pilar went to steal food, and, more and more, money.
For two years she stole from him, until one night when he and three of his men had surprised her rifling through his safe, which she had learned to crack on one of her first visits. One of the men tried to grab her, but she fought him. He was three times her size, and still she fought. She almost got away, too. She would have, if Ramon hadn’t put a pistol to the back of her head.
“So young,” he said. “And so ready to die.”
She closed her eyes and waited for the shot.
But it didn’t come.
For as different as the cartels were, they all shared a strong patriarchal structure. Women were good for decoration, and for recreation, but not for business. Still, something about her had impressed him. She was feisty. She was smart. At twelve, she had succeeded in robbing him blind, getting in and out of his compound with the ease of a professional burglar. She would have gone on stealing from him, too, if he hadn’t been forced to come back here unexpectedly. Ramon knew talent when he saw it, and he saw it in her.
Over the next six years he made her into a real professional. By her late teens she could slip in and out of any compound, government or otherwise, like a ghost. And she was a natural with computers, with financial networks, with business management. She became indispensable to him, helping in every part of his operation.
Even the killing.
As his operations in America grew, he created the Monica Rivas alter ego. He built a fictitious biography for her, making her the only daughter of one of Mexico’s wealthiest coal barons. He got her into Harvard, paid her way. Paid her way through law school at the University of Virginia, too.
In return, she’d become his faithful spy in Washington.
Ramon Medina, she thought. There had been a time, years ago, when she actually believed she was in love with him.
But she was older now. She knew better.
She turned her car into a church parking lot that bordered the abandoned warehouse Ramon was using for this meeting and parked behind a large cluster of shrubs that had gone to riot. The church was small and poor looking, which probably meant it didn’t have video cameras, but there was no point in being careless.
She went around to the side of the warehouse and saw three guys standing just inside an open doorway. She knew them at a glance. Knew their kind, anyway. They were like all the other common foot soldiers taken off the streets of Ciudad Juarez, tattooed, skinny, unkempt, with a perpetual feral look in their eyes, like dogs that were never fed enough. Men like these died by the dozens every day in Ciudad Juarez, their only claim to fame the horrors that were ravaged on their bodies.
They saw her coming and separated from the shadows. One of the men – Jesus, she thought, he’s not even wearing a shirt – put out his cigarette and walked right up to her. He looked her over, head to toe, leering hungrily.
“I’m here to see Ramon,” she said, not wanting to waste time with these losers.
The man laughed. He glanced over his shoulder at the two men behind him. “Ramon se esta putas caras en estos dias,” he said.
This brought a laugh from all three men.
“I am no man’s whore,” Pilar said.
The man looked back at her, a stupid grin still on his face. Perhaps, at that moment, he sensed the change in her posture, or perhaps he saw the look in her eye, but either way it didn’t help him.
He was still grinning when she drove her fist into his throat, crushing the hyoid bone. The man staggered backward and fell over. He was choking, holding his throat, rolling on the pavement like a fish out of water.
The other two men were already pulling the pistols from the waistbands of their jeans, but they weren’t fast enough either. Pilar sidestepped the first man, and when his right hand came up with the gun she caught his wrist, pushed it high to get the arm and the gun out of play, and then brought the blade of her foot down hard on the side of his knee. The bone crunched beneath the kick and the man cried out. He sagged into a crouch, his leg unable to support his weight. That gave her the height advantage she needed. Using her weight as leverage, she twisted the man’s gun hand around, turning in a circle so that he was off balance. He tried to hold on to the gun, and that was a mistake. She snapped the bones in his wrist and sent him tumbling away.
All of this happened in the time it took the third man to pull his weapon, and by the time he did, he found himself staring down the muzzle of the pistol in Pilar’s hand.
Pilar kept the weapon trained on the man’s forehead.
He glanced back toward the warehouse door, where Ramon Medina was standing with several of his personal bodyguards. The man turned back to Pilar, and she could sense his uncertainty, his damaged machismo. What would Ramon Medina think of him now, beaten by a girl they’d had outnumbered and outgunned? That’s what he’s wondering, Pilar thought.
He looked at the two men behind her. Both were still writhing and coughing, unable to get up.
If he had any self respect at all he’d try to slap me, Pilar thought.
She smiled at him, inviting him to make the next move.
He didn’t take the bait. Instead, he muttered, “You fucking bitch.”
Pilar had been dealing with jerks like this little man her entire life. As a child she’d run from his sort, men who leered at her with dirty faces and bad teeth, their intentions and desires plain on their faces. For years she’d lived in terror of what such men would do to her when they caught her. But that was a long time ago, and she wasn’t a little girl anymore.
She wasn’t running anymore.
And she didn’t take insults from anyone anymore.
Pilar closed on him before he could react and slammed the butt of her gun down on the bridge of his nose, shattering it with a sickening crunch. The man wilted below her, but Pilar wasn’t about to let him go. She was no whore. She was nobody’s bitch. The nerve of the man. Who the hell did he think he was?
A red curtain of rage dropped over her.
The blood rushed in her ears. She let the rage fill her.
She knelt over the man and brought the gun down on his face, slinging blood everywhere, smashing teeth and sending them skittering across the pavement like spilled coins.
The man’s eyes lost focus. His hands dropped to the pavement. But Pilar didn’t stop hitting him. The rage was too strong in her, her need to crush this son of a bitch too powerful.
She slammed the gun down on his mouth. “Bastard!”
“How do you like that?”
“Tell me I’m a bitch now.”
Again and again and again.
“I said, Enough!”
Ramon’s words cut through the rage that had momentarily blinded her. He was the only one that could do that to her, pull her back from the edge.
She looked down at the man she’d just attacked. He wasn’t moving anymore.
Pilar’s chest was heaving, the gun was still raised above her head, blood dripping down her arm. Every nerve felt raw from too much adrenaline.
“You’re done there,” Ramon said.
Pilar lowered the weapon, and was about to get up when the man groaned through his busted teeth.
She slammed the gun down one more time.
Then she looked up at Ramon Medina. “Now I’m done,” she said.
Ramon sighed. He was wearing a dark blue tailored suit, a white silk shirt with a gray tie and crocodile skin boots. When she’d first met him all those years ago he’d looked just like every other street thug trying to carve out a section of Ciudad Juarez for his own, but the years, and more lucky breaks than any ten men deserved, had polished him. Just like they’d done her. These days, Ramon Medina looked more like the wealthy playboys of the Mexico City club scene than the leader of the largest cartel in Northern Mexico, and despite the rage still simmering within her, Pilar remembered again why this man had held her in such sway for so many years.
She stood up, blood dripping from her face, her clothes, her hands.
“I see you’re trimming off some of the dead weight from my staff,” he said.
She smiled. “Isn’t that what you pay me for?”
“I pay you for all kinds of things, Pilar.” He put his hands in his pants pockets and studied her. “How was your trip?”
“Would you like to get cleaned up before we talk?”
“I thought you said it was urgent.”
He nodded. “Always straight to the heart of the matter, eh?”
“You should know better than anyone.”
His expression remained pleasant. If he had any idea of the heartache he’d caused her over the years, all the things she swore she’d never do but did anyway just because of what he meant to her, he made no sign of it.
Oh, he knew, she thought. He knows everything there is to know. He’s the only man who knows everything there is to know about me.
He just doesn’t care.
Ramon turned to his bodyguards and gave instructions for the injured men at Pilar’s feet to be brought inside.
“That one there, the one that’s all beat up, take him to Dr. Rosato. Tell him I want a demonstration on the floor in fifteen minutes.”
The men were removed inside, and Pilar and Ramon were left alone. He stood to one side and ushered her inside.
“What, no hug?” she said.
His smile broadened. “It is good to see you, Pilar. I missed you.”
# # #
“What exactly am I looking at?” she said.
She was standing in Ramon’s office, staring through a pane of one-way glass. On the other side of the glass was a fairly large open room, a few boxes here and there, some rusting pieces of machinery, a few doors along the back wall.
Aside from the men she’d injured outside, now sprawled out on the floor, there was nothing much of interest.
Ramon flicked his wrist, checking the time on a slim gold watch around his wrist.
“Any minute now. It takes about ten minutes for someone as badly injured as our friend out there to feel the effects.”
“When did you get the watch? I don’t remember you ever wearing jewelry.”
He gave her his best smile, perfect white teeth gleaming in the lamplight from his desk. “Do you like it? It was a gift.”
“Does it matter?”
She turned away. “You’re a bastard.”
“Come on, Pilar. Don’t be like that.”
She didn’t take the bait. She wasn’t going to get into this again. How many times could he play her like this, keep her coming back for more like she was on some kind of string?
How many times would she let him?
Nodding toward the window, she said, “Tell me what I’m supposed to be looking at.”
He stood up from his desk and came over to the window to stand by her side.
“I’ve diversified quite a bit over the years. Drugs and weapons pay well, but the real money is in investing. American sports franchises, banks, software startups, you name it. And, among other things, I happen to own significant interests in six different biomedical research firms, which is why you’re here.”
She nodded toward the man she’d pistol-whipped. He was on his back, a puddle of blood forming around his head. “I don’t think biomedical research is going to help that guy.”
“No,” he said. “You’re right about that. He’s definitely a dead man.”
“So what am I supposed to be looking at?”
“Just wait.” He looked at his gold watch, then flashed that disarming smile of his again. “It should be any minute now.”
She scowled, but said nothing.
Pilar turned her attention back to the three men out in the middle of the warehouse floor. Two of them were moving, rising shakily to their feet. The third wasn’t going anywhere, though. She could see that from here.
Must have done more damage than I thought, she realized. Of course, the bastard deserved –
The thought broke off clean. The man she’d injured so badly was convulsing. He was coughing blood all over the floor. She’d seen men die from beatings before, and that wasn’t what was happening here. It looked more like something was inside him, and trying to tear its way out.
“What’s wrong with him?” she asked.
The room wasn’t lit very well, but as the man flopped around on the floor, Pilar got a pretty good look at his features. He was ghastly. Something was wrong his face. She’d smashed him up pretty severely, but she hadn’t caused that. Not those injuries. The cuts on his face looked black. That wasn’t bruising. She could see that. That was disease. And the skin around the black, diseased wounds was mottled red and shot through with burst blood vessels, like fresh burn marks.
“I didn’t do that to him,” Pilar said. “What is that? What’s going on?”
“I know you didn’t. I did.” Ramon pointed back to the floor. “Just watch.”
The man stopped fighting. As Pilar watched, he sank to the floor and went still. Pilar’s brow furrowed. Had he just died? It sure looked that way. But then, he climbed to his feet, stood there stupidly for a moment, then started to look around the room.
“This is the tricky part,” Ramon said. “Sometimes they don’t attack. They just stand there.”
Pilar looked at him. “What are you talking about? What is this? What did you do?”
“Always so many questions, Pilar. Even when you were a little girl, you always questioned me. What have I told you? Don’t ask questions. It keeps you from hearing the answer.” He pointed to the window. “Ah, good, he’s one of the movers. See? Look.”
Pilar turned back to the glass. Inside, the man with the ruined face was staggering forward, advancing on the man that Pilar had hit in the throat. Pilar didn’t react when the first man attacked. She didn’t react when he pushed the man’s chin up and leaned into his neck, exposing the bruised throat. She thought maybe he was checking the damage she’d done to his friend. But when the man started to tear into that bruised throat with his teeth, pulling huge strips of flesh away with the broken stubs of the teeth he had left, Pilar gasped.
“My God,” she said.
“Oh no,” Ramon said. “God has nothing to do with this, I assure you. That right there is good old-fashioned American biomedical research. Nearly a billion dollars of it, in fact. It took my labs almost two years to modify the Clostridium bacteria that’s causing that reanimation.”
Pilar’s only response was a long, muted groan. The man was eating that guy. Actually eating him.
“Ramon, what have you done?”
“Incredible, isn’t it?” Ramon said.
He laughed. “Pilar, I’m surprised at you. Don’t you see what’s going on out there?”
A gunshot kept her from answering.
Inside the room, the third man was backing away from his two companions, a look of abject horror on his face. He held a pistol on the man with the ruined face, but Pilar was unable to tell where the shot he’d just fired had gone. The cannibal was climbing to his feet now, so he hadn’t been hit.
Or had he? There was a blackish-looking hole on his right shoulder, and as he lurched forward, that arm didn’t come up.
Four more shots rang out, all of them solid center mass hits to the chest.
Pilar nodded in approval as the man with the ruined face fell backwards onto his butt and sat there, staring up at the man who had just shot him. Strong will, Pilar thought. The human body, she knew from experience, could withstand a huge amount of violence and damage and still carry on. She’d once slashed an American soldier’s belly wide open, and then been surprised when the man ran away from her. She’d chased him for four blocks through the slums of Ciudad Juarez, the man cradling his intestines as he ran, before finally putting him down. It all depended on the amount of fight an injured person had in them. This man, with four gunshots to the chest and one to the shoulder, might still hang on for a few hours, though he wasn’t going to be getting back up.
But he did.
Pilar gaped at what she saw. The wounded man was actually getting back to his feet. His moans did not surprise her. The man must be in terrible pain. But the fact that he was on his feet, and stumbling toward the man with the gun again, shocked her. It wasn’t possible.
“He only has one chance,” Ramon said. “He needs to take out the medulla oblongata, here, at the base of the brain pan.”
Pilar glanced at him.
Ramon pointed at the back of his own head, where his skull met the spine. “Right here,” he said. “What snipers call the kill spot. Hit there and all autonomic functions cease.”
Pilar turned back to the window. Out on the floor, the man with the gun had managed a head shot that blasted away most of the top of the other man’s skull. A tattered flap of his scalp was hanging down the back of his head.
“Nope,” said Ramon. “He missed it.”
Pilar was speechless. It was impossible, completely and unbelievably impossible, but the man was still on his feet. She expected him to fall over any minute, but he didn’t. He staggered forward. The man with the gun started to plead with the man to stand back.
“That won’t help,” Ramon said. “Once somebody’s infected, and the bacteria have had a chance to take over, the person can’t be reasoned with. All they want to do is attack. Doesn’t matter who, doesn’t matter what. They’ll even go after their own children. If our friend out there wants to get through this, he’ll have to destroy the medulla oblongata.”
None of what Ramon was saying made sense. He could be that way, cryptic, but she had never felt this over her head with confusion before.
“Hmm,” he said. “Nope. He’s done for. Look.”
Pilar hadn’t even realized she was staring at Ramon.
“Look,” he said again, and pointed toward the floor.
She did as he commanded. The man with the ruined face had knocked the other man down. The room filled with screaming. Pilar watched it all with a blank expression on her face. What had Ramon done? That man should be dead, but he wasn’t. He was missing the top of his head and his chest had a handful of metal in it, yet he was still making a meal of the man. Oh God, he was eating him.
“He is dead, Pilar,” Ramon said.
“What?” For a moment, she thought she’d said something out loud, but then she reminded herself that he had always been able to do that. No one else she’d ever known, except maybe Lupe, when she was younger, could read her face as well as Ramon Medina. Whether she liked it or not, she had no secrets from him.
“You’re wondering why he isn’t dead. That’s because he already is dead. He died before he attacked that first man.”
Pilar shook her head.
“It’s true. Here, watch.”
Ramon pounded on the glass. Out on the floor, the man looked up, trying to find the source of the sound.
“Though they’re dead, they still respond to sight and sound. There’s no other real brain function that we know of, though. Well, except that needed to move around and grab stuff. In all other ways, they’re dead though. No breathing, no thirst, no nothing.”
He beat on the glass again, and this time, the man got up and crossed to them. He walked right into it, then, to Pilar’s horror, started trying to chew his way through it, beating on it with his gore-stained palms, smearing blood all over the glass.
“He’ll stay like that for hours,” Ramon said. “Once they catch the trail of something, they just keep going until something else comes along.”
Pilar stared at the man. He was ghastly. She’d seen people tortured before, dismembered, burned, scalded with acid…this was worse. Worse by far.
“It’s the eyes, isn’t it?” Ramon said.
She nodded, still staring at the man on the other side of the glass. Ramon was absolutely right. The look in this man’s eyes was the same as what she’d seen staring back at her from severed heads on tables or looking up at her from inside duffle bags. Exactly the same. Distant, profoundly vacant.
“That’s when you finally believe they’re dead, when you look in the eyes.”
“Are you saying that man’s a zombie?”
He laughed. “Yes! That’s it exactly.”
“You made a zombie?” A thousand questions raced through her head. But there was only one that really mattered. “Why?”
“Pilar, you don’t need me to tell you that. You’ve spent enough time in the United States to know them as a people. They consume. That’s what they do. They always have to have the newest thing, the latest thing. Bigger and better. And they always want more. More drugs, more food, more money. America is a mouth that can never be fed enough.” Ramon laughed at that. He pointed out the window. “Just like our friend out there. Pilar, you should see those things eat on a corpse. They’re like dogs. They’ll eat until their bellies burst open, and then they’ll keep on eating. They can never eat enough. Just like our friends north of the border.”
She finally turned away from the horror show on the other side of the glass. Ramon was smiling at her, his hands in his pockets, black hair shiny in the low light from the lamp on his desk.
“Since when are you a philosopher?” she said.
“It’s not philosophy to give the people what they want, Pilar. That’s marketing.”
“So, what is this thing you’re marketing? A virus of some sort?”
“No, better. A flesh-eating bacteria.”
“Ask him,” Ramon said, pointing at the window. “He can tell you I’m not. This bacterium is a mutated form of Clostridium perfringens, which is pretty common. It’s used as the main ingredient in self-rising breads, for example. In fact, I’m told it’s common enough as a cause of food poisoning that most people produce an antibody against it. But it can get really nasty if it gets a hold of you. Even the common variety can cause fatal infections, if left untreated. And it’s what causes gas gangrene in dead bodies. You can’t tell from here, but our friend in there is probably smelling pretty ripe right about now.”
“It gets better. Like I said, we’ve caused it to mutate. What we’ve got going on in there is strain of C. perfringens that’s been genetically crossbred with Lactobacillus rhamnosus.”
“Lactobacillus? That’s the stuff in yoghurt.”
“That’s right. Very good.”
“I’m surprised you’ve heard of it, though.”
“I just read the pamphlets, Pilar.”
“So how does it work?”
“Well, apparently it has the ability to influence the neurotransmitters that regulate our physiological and psychological brain functions.”
“And that causes this?”
“We hadn’t planned on that. All I wanted was something that could piggy back off of a food supply and cause as brutal a death as possible. I wanted impact.”
She looked once again at the zombie still beating on the glass. “Well, that’s certainly impact.”
“It’s the monster America deserves.”
“So tell me, what exactly are you planning on doing with this monstrosity you’ve made?”
“Oh, Pilar, you’re disappointing me. You haven’t figured it out yet? You brought me the perfect opportunity when you got Senator Sutton’s schedule.”
She frowned at him.
“You wouldn’t seriously consider releasing this thing on a city, would you?”
“No, of course not. We couldn’t control what would happen in a situation like that. If it wasn’t contained early enough, we might very well end with something right out of The Walking Dead.”
“You watch that show?”
“It’s become interesting to me lately.”
“Besides, releasing this on one of the Senator’s scheduled events would probably miss her. There’s no way to ensure that she’d eat from whatever food we decided to piggy back the bacteria on, which is probably going to be cold cuts or bread, something like that.”
“What we needed was an enclosed environment,” Ramon said. “We needed somewhere that was isolated and completely enclosed for several days at a time. That way, we could be certain we got to her.”
She frowned at that. Where did he honestly expect to find circumstances like that?
And then it hit her.
“The cruise she’s taking. You’re going to release this on a cruise ship.”
It was brilliant. She could see that. She could picture it, a cruise ship gliding into the docks at Cozumel with thousands aboard. The psychological impact of that would be catastrophic, and Ramon Medina would come out on top. He’d be the king. No other cartel could touch him, they’d be too afraid to. The Americans would be the same story. They’d be too afraid he’d release his little bag of horrors on one of their cities.
“You realize they’ll vilify you worse than they did Bin Laden, don’t you?” she said.
“They will. No question about it.”
“Let them. As long as they fear me, they’ll have enough sense to stay away.”
She shook her head. “God, I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I do, Pilar. I know exactly what I’m doing. But I need your help.”
“Me? What can I do?”
“I need someone onboard that ship.”
She laughed out loud. “Yeah, right.”
“Pilar, I need someone on that ship to make sure the plan goes like it’s supposed to. I need to know that the Senator is dead.”
“But, what about…?” She gestured toward the zombie on the other side of the glass.
“You’ll have all the information you’ll need to stay safe.”
“Her cruise is in two weeks. You expect me to master everything there is to know about this bacteria of yours in two weeks?”
“I didn’t send you to Harvard for nothing.”
She didn’t know what to say to that. Pilar stared at the zombie and tried to fathom what was going on behind those dead eyes. The ghost of her own reflection stared back at her, much as it had done from the airplane’s window, and she found herself happy, for now at least, for the walls she’d built up over the years.
“Pilar?” he said. “Please do this for me. I wouldn’t trust anybody else.”
Damn him, she thought. The bastard had to make it personal. He really knew how to get to her. She’d never been able to tell him no.
She closed her eyes.
“Fine,” she said. “I guess I’m your girl.”
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