Mary must have gone for Bert, because he appeared in the doorway with her behind him. "Mrs. Brown, you need to let Anita go. I told you before you had the meeting how it would go." His voice was even, almost singsong, as if he'd done this before. He hadn't done it much for me, but not everyone had my charm and ability to scare people. Usually, the gun made most clients nervous, but Barbara Brown didn't give a f**k about my gun.
She glanced at Bert, but then turned immediately back to me, her hands still strangling my jacket. "You can't say no, Ms. Blake, if you say no, then it's over, and it can't be over." She began to give me a little shake with every other word. "And it," shake, "can't be," shake, "over." Shake.
Mother of God, how do I help her, and how do I get her off me without making it all worse. We had grief counselors on file, but I doubted she'd go to one. She wasn't at that therapy-will-be-helpful stage. She was at that I'm-going-crazy stage.
I stopped trying to pry her off me, but I was tired of being shaken. I decided for truth. "A murdered zombie kills its killer."
"I want them dead," she almost screamed it, and tightened her grip so that she spit in my face, just a little, accidentally.
"The zombie cuts a path of destruction through everything and everyone in its way until it kills its killer. I've seen zombies kill innocent bystanders by accident."
"Stevie wouldn't do that," she said, and her face was so close to mine I wanted to draw my face back to focus on her, but she had too much of my jacket in her hands, so that I was effectively trapped. "Stevie was such a gentle person. He'd never hurt anyone. He'd just tell us who did this awful thing."
"Mrs. Brown, Barbara," I said, and she looked at me, there was a hint of sanity in there somewhere. "It won't be Stevie, Barbara. It will be the walking dead. He won't be your son, he'll just be an animated corpse."
She lowered her face, so that I was looking down at the top of her blond head. Her shoulders slumped, and I thought I'd gotten through to her.
Bert said, "Mrs. Brown, if you'd come into my office for a few minutes, so we can all calm down, so we can all get on with our day."
I think it was the "get on with our day." She stiffened, and I had a second to decide whether I was willing to really hurt her, or not. I hesitated, and that was enough. She had me held too close with the jacket, I couldn't move back, and I couldn't raise a hand until she let me go. She scratched my face. But to do it she let go with one hand. I raised the freed arm up, and blocked her next attempt to scratch my eyes out. She let go with the other arm, but I grabbed her wrist and stepped away, pulling on the wrist at the same time. And used her own momentum to turn her around, and she ended up on her knees with one of her arms behind her back and my other arm across her shoulders. I didn't make it a true choke hold, because I was hoping that someone might drag her off me before it got that far.
My face was burning sharply, from just below my left eye to mid-cheek. Even before I felt the first trickle, I knew it was going to bleed, it just had that feel to it.
She was screaming, loud, ragged screams.
Steve Brown was closest to us, and he said, "You're hurting her."
"I'm hurting her," I said, "she tried to take out my eye."
I didn't have as good a hold on her as I should have, I was still trying to be nice to the poor bereaved crazy woman. She twisted in my grip and dug her nails across my hand. I tucked my elbow tight across her throat and pulled up sharp on her arm behind her back. She cried out, but it stopped abruptly because I was applying pressure to her neck. I knew how to do a choke hold so that all it did was make you pass out. I knew not to crush the Adam's apple or anything stupid. And I admit I was pissed by this point, but Mr. Brown shouldn't have done what he did.
He yelled, "Let her go!"
I said, calmly, I thought, "If you can't control her, I will."
She struggled, and I tucked my head down tight to her. Then two things happened at once: Nathaniel said, "Anita look out," and Mary screamed. I looked up, in time to see Steve Brown hit me in the face.
It rocked my head back and made reality shift just a little to the side, like a television that isn't quite in focus. It didn't really hurt immediately, not like the scratches at all. You can usually judge how bad an injury is by how long it takes for you to feel the pain. Quick pain, small to medium injury; long pain, not good.
It was a good hit, nice and solid. I think he'd expected me to go down, because he had this surprised look on his face. Or maybe he hadn't ever hit a woman that hard before, or maybe at all. We had one of those long seconds that seem to last forever, but are really just the blink of an eye, to look at each other over his wife's head.
I saw his lips move, but couldn't hear what he said. The only sound was a high, white, buzzing, static, and the taste of blood in my mouth. It didn't matter that it was my own blood. It only mattered that it was blood, and I was angry.
I had a moment, a heartbeat, where I smelled Barbara Brown's skin underneath the sweetness of her perfume. A moment where I could smell her skin, salty, sick, almost, sick with her grief like some poison coming out of her skin. She was wounded, she was hurt, I could end that suffering. I tucked myself tight in against her body, tight enough that her husband couldn't hit me without risking her. I still couldn't hear his voice, but I could hear something else. I could hear her heartbeat. So loud, so very loud. It was a thick, meaty sound, not like that fragile tinny sound you get through a stethoscope. This was what a heart would sound like, if you could put your ear inside someone's chest. This was what someone's life sounded like, beating inside their body, beating fast and faster. Barbara Brown had smelled like food before, but now that first flush of adrenaline kicked through her system. Some part of her that she couldn't even name knew something was wrong. Knew that danger was very, very close.
I must have closed my eyes, because I felt him looming over me. I opened my eyes to see Steve Brown about to touch me. I think he was going for my hair to pull me off his wife. But I saw the hand, and I grabbed it, just stopped it with my hand. My hand looked small around his bigger one, but my arm was solid, and when he tried to pull away, he couldn't do it.
I still had his wife on her knees with my other hand around her wrist and her arm up almost to her shoulders. Distantly, I thought, if I kept pulling I'd dislocate her shoulder. But another part of me, which felt much closer, thought, that's alright, we'd have to pull her apart to eat her anyway. True, if we were going to eat her. Were we?
I'd always thought that the beast was a thing of passion, because passionate emotions could bring it on. This wasn't passionate, this was passionless. There was no right or wrong in my head. No sympathy, no sense that these two people were fellow human beings, and it would be wrong to hurt them. That wasn't even in my head. They'd hurt me, and I was hungry, and she smelled so good, and so bad at the same time. She smelled of sickness, and I realized it was drugs. I could smell them in her sweat--acrid, bitter.
I let her go so abruptly she fell forward on the carpet, but I kept my hand on Steve Brown, and I drew him past his wife, because he had bent to see to her, and I'd pulled him off balance. He smelled of fear and anger, but nothing else. He was clean.
He stumbled, and I put a hand in his shirt, while the other used his arm to bring him in closer. I could hear his heart now, thudding, thudding, so thick, so meaty, so... so good.
I felt movement behind me, and I whirled, taking Steve Brown with me, tripping him without thinking about it, so that he was on the ground at my feet, with me still gripping his arm. Food should be on the ground.
Nathaniel was there, touching my face. I jerked back, as if he'd hit me, but with that one touch sound roared back into my head. A woman was screaming. Mary was asking, "Should I call the police?"
"No," Bert was saying, "no, we can handle this."
I doubted that. But the moment I thought that, I looked down at Mr. Brown. He was staring up at me, eyes wide, and he was afraid. I let him go as if his skin burned mine. I backed up, until I bumped into Nathaniel. I grabbed for his hand without looking, and clung to it. Just touching him helped me think. Usually all touching Nathaniel made me think about was sex or food, but today, it helped me remember that I was human and what that meant.
"Help me," I whispered.
"Everybody out," he said.