Apparently, it was that time yet again. Time to stick Justice with a partner he didn’t want or need with some flimsy pretense of working as a team. Maybe the guy they were assigning him was good; Justice doubted it. The guy had never worked in law enforcement before, as far as anyone could tell. In fact he didn’t seem to exist at all. He just sat there in the uncomfortable guest chair next to Justice, thin, pale, pointed face, long blond hair, and an air of judgment. He had been introduced as Merlin Pride.
“With all due respect, sir. I don’t need a partner.” Detective Justice Kinkead sat on the other side of the police chief’s desk. He pushed back his shock of shaggy hair. “I get by just fine without one. Hell, I haven’t had one in weeks.”
Zombie Control and Oversight Squad (ZoCOS) Chief, named Authority Figure, shook his head. His dark skin made the whites of his eyes look especially bright when his expression was incredulous, like it was now. “No, you haven’t had one partner, you’ve had several. That last one didn’t even last the afternoon.”
Justice leaned forward with his hands up in entreaty. “You can’t judge me by that. That guy had one week until retirement. And who has a retirement plan during a zombie apocalypse? What could his pension possibly have been? All the canned beans he could eat?”
Chief Figure shrugged his massive shoulders. It was similar to watching someone juggle boulders. “The guy before that wasn’t on his way out.”
Justice appealed to Merlin, waving his arms in wide arcs. “Come on. His name was Redd Shirt.”
Merlin’s pointed features did not change as he listened to Justice. He twirled his fine blond hair around a finger. He looked down at his tailored pinstripe suit and back up at Justice, who was still staring at him like he expected a response. Merlin slowly raised his gaze from Justice’s pecs to his face. Justice was tempted to ask if he liked what he saw, but before he could, Merlin spoke. “Red does attract zombies.”
What? This guy knew fuck-all about zombies. What was he with that suit and those cheekbones for days, a fashion model? “No, it doesn’t! And Oh-Em-Gee, that’s not what I’m trying to say.” Justice dropped his hands on top of his head, looking between the two men as if there was an invisible tennis match only he was privy to.
Merlin got up and moved to the wall. He acted casual, but it seemed as if he was trying to get out of the way of Justice’s wild gestures.
“Questionable couture aside.” Merlin leaned against the wall, pinning his shoulder between two framed degrees that legitimized Mr. Authority Figure as qualified to run a kinesiology department. “This man is clearly out of his skull.”
He gestured to Justice. “No offense.”
Justice took offense. He jumped so fast it knocked the chair over, freeing him up to jab his finger into Merlin’s exposed shoulder. With satisfaction, he noted that he had a couple of inches on Merlin, an observation he couldn’t make from sitting. “Who are you? There’s no record of any Merlin Pride in or out of law enforcement.”
Justice didn’t see Merlin’s defensive move, but he felt a sudden, searing pain in his outstretched finger. He crumpled to the floor on his knees with his finger bent back.
Chief Figure cleared his throat. “Mr. Pride possesses the necessary skills to serve with ZoCOS. Perhaps if you’d been more circumspect in how you treated previous partners, we wouldn’t have to resort to qualifying civilians to serve. As it is, everyone else with ability has either become a zombie or works as private security.” Authority sat at his desk and steepled his fingers.
The pain Justice was in wasn’t letting up. He was on the floor, afraid to move his hand lest the finger break. “Really…scraping…barrel…argh, let go of me, jackass.”
Merlin’s smile crept slyly at one corner of his mouth as he bent Justice’s finger to the point of breaking. “Say please.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.” Merlin’s cold gray eyes glimmered with a preternatural glee. He was going to do it. Psycho didn’t care; he was happy for the destruction.
Fortunately, Authority wasn’t going to allow that. “Enough. Let him go, Pride. I didn’t bring you in to break my men.”
Merlin let go but pouted like a toddler who lost his toy. “This one is begging to be broken in.”
As soon as Merlin let go, Justice sprang to his feet and swung at Merlin. “Speaking of breaking, I’m going to break your pretty little pointy face.”
Without changing his expression, Merlin caught Justice’s fist and used the momentum to swing him around, bending his arm painfully behind his back. Shoving him forward, he forced Justice’s face into the chief’s desk, bent forward in a far-too-familiar-for-comfort position. In fact, it was a position he’d wanted to be in for months. Years, if he counted his relationship with Lewis before the zombie apocalypse. But fuck if he was going to get aroused for this jerkoff.
Though if Merlin didn’t have a flashlight in his pocket, it seemed like he was aroused for Justice. Must have been a flashlight. Or a very large banana.
Justice grunted. “Fuck you.”
Merlin leaned forward to whisper in his ear, “You wish.”
“Save it for the zombies, boys.” Chief Figure winked at them in a way that Justice found incredibly smug. “As it happens, I already have your first assignment, so you can vent your sexual frustration there.”
Immediately Merlin let go and backed off from Justice. “Oh gross. As if I’d fuck him.”
The hell? When was the last time he’d heard someone say that? “Gross? How old are you?” Justice stood, wringing his wrist and finger, settling for verbal insults since Merlin appeared to have incredible reflexes. He’d get the drop on him at some point.
“How old are you?” Merlin mocked in a high-pitched voice.
Oh, so that was how it was going to be. “Seriously?” Justice swung around to Authority, holding his arms out in appeal. “Chief, really.”
“Come on, kids; we’re all adults here.” Chief Figure clapped his hands like a basketball coach. Yes, those kinesiology degrees were paying out in spades. “Listen up. We’ve got a whole mess of the living holed up by zombies in a factory.”
Justice crossed his arms, keeping his back to Merlin. “Hang on. I thought the zombies woke up and went back to their jobs and continued to work peacefully.”
Merlin stood directly behind him, close enough that his breath made Justice shiver. “Maybe someone slipped, cracked their skull open, and one of the zombies got a taste of brain. Lucky for me I’m not a zombie. With Justice as my partner, I’d starve.”
Justice refused to move. He knew Merlin was doing it on purpose, to make him acknowledge he was there. It was a battle of wills, and Justice refused to lose.
Authority held up his hands to stop them. “Boys, I don’t know the whys or hows of what happened in the factory. As you know, some zombies are angry. Most came back and went right back to work. Didn’t even miss a day. Makes me proud to be an American.”
Merlin leaned in, practically whispering in Justice’s ear. It was far more thrilling than it had any right to be. “Is that what we’re calling them? Undead Americans?”
“Get off me!” Justice hated to push the brat away, especially after his spectacular pep talk to himself, but Merlin smelled really good, like bay leaves and lime. Old-fashioned, classic. Too bad he was such a complete dick, because when he wasn’t talking, he wasn’t hard to look at. Maybe what that pretty mouth needed was to be fatter. Swinging around with his fist balled, he hoped he’d have the element of surprise.
This time, Merlin caught his arm, lifted it up, and turned the momentum into a disco spin, which was even more embarrassing than if Merlin had just kicked Justice’s ass in front of God and everybody.
Merlin laughed. “You’re really shit at this, but I admire your tenacity.”
Justice was glad Authority spoke before he had to respond, because he had no retort.
“All right, all right, kids. Let’s use this energy on the zombies.” Authority skirted his desk and pushed them both unceremoniously out of his office, giving them the address before slamming the door behind them.
They stood outside the office, eyeing each other. Finally, Merlin broke the silence. “You remember earlier, when I said no offense?”
Justice fished the keys to his official police vehicle out of his pocket. Was this going to be an apology? About time. Maybe they could salvage this partnership after all. “Yeah?”
“I was lying.”
Keys in hand, Justice marched toward the parking lot, shouting loud enough for the whole precinct to hear. “I hope you die and come back a zombie so I can kill you on the clock.”
Merlin mimicked, his voice high and shrill. “I hope you die and come back a zombie so I can get plowed by your cock.”
The room dissolved into laughter. It echoed down the stone hallway that led out to the parking area. Justice threw the door open, face blazing, and headed for his enormous red Hummer.
Merlin took one look at it. “Compensation much?” He stood next to the passenger door, waiting.
For a moment, Justice sat in the driver’s seat, considering whether to let him in or not. Hell, he could run Merlin over and claim he didn’t see him. After all, the blond was a slip of a man. He’d probably be a small bump. Not even a pothole.
Merlin pounded his fist on the window. “Stop sitting there with that shit-eating grin and let me the fuck in, you psycho.”
Justice unlocked the door. “It’s a utility vehicle. They’re very good for off-road driving and keeping zombies out when they want to get in.”
Merlin looked around the dark interior, at the seats and extra space behind as he crawled in. He smirked as he belted in. “Oh sure, but we both know there were no zombies when you bought this thing.”
“How would you know if I had this before the virus broke out? Looting’s rampant. Besides, this is just the sort of vehicle ZoCOS should be assigning its members to drive.” Justice shoved his key in the ignition and twisted it.
Merlin rolled his eyes. “The plates read JSTS-4-ALL.”
Justice shoved the not-at-all-a-compensation-mobile into gear. “Shut up.”
So what if he had this car beforehand; it was a good thing he did. He enjoyed sitting in traffic and spending the majority of his income on gas. That was his prerogative.
They drove in silence after plugging the address for the factory into the GPS. Normally, being bossed around by the sanctimonious voice pissed Justice off, but he knew if he got lost or veered off course, Merlin would use it as an excuse for even more jackassery. Better the devil you know.
Cutting eyes to Merlin, he observed the blond staring out the window, looking up at the tall buildings like a tourist. That way, he looked innocent, as if he were a young man being shown the city. Almost sweet.
Merlin jumped when he noticed Justice sizing him up. So he was fallible. The corners of Merlin’s mouth turned down, like he knew he’d been caught letting his guard down, and he stared at the GPS.
Pointing a very clean, manicured finger at the map, Merlin said, “I thought the factory district was over here.”
Letting off the gas enough that Justice could take his eyes off the road briefly, he eyed the dashboard GPS and then looked up at the road they’d been directed down. It was south of the city by a few miles. In less apocalyptic days, the traffic would’ve made the ride take three times as long. As it was, he barely noticed they’d left the ZoCOS jurisdiction.
These areas were generally considered no-man’s-lands. The burbs had their own security militias and didn’t much care for anything government controlled, thank you very much. But between the sites of gentrification and white flight were these pockets of little to no protection. Justice wondered if the chief had misread the map.
Or maybe this factory was producing something very important that would benefit the welfare of mankind.
Justice nodded. “It is outside of my usual patrol. Maybe it’s a bomb factory or uranium plant or something. One of those NIMBY factories that are essential, but no one wants it in their backyard.”
“Uranium? There are no uranium mines around here, you tool.” Merlin twisted his mouth to the side and leaned forward, squinting at something ahead. “Dingy’s Dongs?”
Justice turned his head. “What?”
Merlin checked the GPS and then looked up again.
Beyond the trees, a long brick building was forming up with a row of windows high up, some of which were open. Not secure enough for a uranium plant. Or mine. Merlin was right about no uranium mines, but he was on about dongs, so how smart could he be?
Just then, a painted sign with a giant pink hippopotamus giving a dong-shaped thumbs-up popped into Justice’s view. Beneath it, in cartoony airbrushed letters of blue and purple, read Dingy’s Dongs.
Justice tilted his head. Those were awfully whimsical bomb ads. “Are dongs a kind of bomb?”
Holding up a hand, Merlin said, “Don’t even pretend not to know what a dong is.”
“Oh.” Justice’s jaw dropped as he wrapped his head around this new development. “But why would zombies attack dildos? And even if they did, why would we care?”
“Most people wouldn’t care, but I’d hate to think of a ‘masc only’ wonder like you having to go without.” Merlin air quoted the words pointedly, then gave a sneer before he jumped from the cab as they approached the locked gates and had them open with the swiftness and dexterity of a professional lock picker.
Stung from Merlin’s implication, Justice gunned his engine, pointing his Hummer at Merlin.
Merlin held his hands palm up and curled his fingers forward, mouthing, Bring it.
Oh well, what’s one more lost partner? Justice grimaced, knowing he wasn’t the sort of guy who would kill someone—not even an annoying guy like Merlin. But the prat did need to learn some fucking respect.
Tossing the Hummer into gear, he lurched forward a few feet. For half a second, Merlin’s pale face whitened, and then his expression hardened. That was the last Justice saw of him before there was a loud crash on the roof of the Hummer.
Justice looked up. “Shit!” The zombies must’ve been closer than he thought. One must’ve grabbed Merlin through the fence or jumped on the car or something. Justice didn’t know what had happened, but what he did know was that he’d put his partner in jeopardy for no good reason and now he felt terrible.
He made light of losing so many partners, but it took its toll. No man, no matter how big a jerk, deserved to be ripped apart by zombies. Not even Merlin.
In a heartbeat, Justice pulled the parking brake and grabbed his ax and shotgun. He burst out of the cab, gun leveled, ax strapped to his back. “Merlin? Merlin, just stay still. I’m coming for you.”
The sound was above and behind him. Justice brought up his gun, ready to shoot. He whirled around and froze when he saw Merlin sitting cross-legged on top of his car.
Looking unimpressed, Merlin patted imaginary dirt from his suit. “Asshole. You could’ve gotten tire marks on my couture.”
To avoid shooting him as much as to keep abreast of their situation out in the open, Justice whirled back around. “How did you get up there? Did a zombie throw you?”
“Hah!” Merlin jumped from the roof of the Hummer, landing just behind Justice. “A zombie throwing me! No. I jumped, you homicidal maniac. You were going to run me over!”
Justice pointed the shotgun at the gate and then whirled around again, aiming down the long, dusty road to the factory proper. It was lined with weeds, but there were ruts where vehicles drove through. “I didn’t see you jump.”
“I’m very fast.” Merlin helped himself to the ax on Justice’s back.
“A little too fast. Are you sure you’re not part zombie?” Justice started down the road toward the building without looking back. He was annoyed that Merlin hadn’t brought his own weapon, but his heart was still pounding.
“Yeah, because zombies are known for their swiftness.” Merlin double-timed his steps so that he stood in line with Justice. “Try to think of me as a blond ninja.”
Copyright © Clancy Nacht, art by P.l. Nunn