Author's Note: A little something for Halloween. If you happen to be a zombie afficionado, I should point out that I know next to nothing about the creatures so forgive me any undead goofs. <g> My thanks to Judy for the beta!
"Braaaains . . ."
JD Dunne looked up from the report he was typing, a frown creasing his brow. What had he heard? He waited a moment, looking about himself carefully in an attempt to determine the potential presence of joking co-workers.
Nothing. The others had all gone home, or out for a pre-weekend drink after work. He had stayed late himself, needing to fix two of the computers and catch up on a few pieces of paperwork before Monday rolled around.
Shaking his head, he went back to his report. Nathan had been chiding him about working too hard just this morning. Apparently he was right!
A few more sentences into the document, he heard it again; a low gravel-throated whisper of a word, barely audible even in the quiet office.
"Braaaains. . ."
Standing abruptly from his desk, his chair rolling back and hitting the wall hard enough to make him jump at the noise, he demanded, "Who's there? Buck, if that's you, I'm not in the mood. I just want to finish this report and get out of here. Now come out where I can see you!"
Abruptly, JD got his wish. From the area of the break-room, a tall figure shambled forth, his gait too unbalanced to be called a walk.
"Buck?" the young man asked again, hesitation in his voice as he surveyed the misshapen, grayish-complected figure. It was definitely Buck Wilmington, but he looked as if he'd been in some horrifying accident. There was blood everywhere on his skin and clothing. Patches of hair had been torn from his scalp in ragged clumps, and some of it was still dangling from strips of skin that hung loosely from his head, neck and hands, allowing the decaying flesh underneath to be seen clearly. JD's nose wrinkled as his roommate came closer, his impression of dead and putrescent flesh growing stronger as he caught a whiff. "Buck, what the heck have you done to yourself? This is a pretty sick joke, even for you."
"Braaaains . . ." the ghoul hissed, a terrible smile of anticipation peeling his cracked lips back from broken yellow teeth.
Unable to stop himself, even if he knew he would be paying for it in howls of laughter and endless teasing later, JD backed up and raised his hands in a warding-off gesture as the creature reached out to touch him.
"Now Buck, I think this has gone just about far enough," he said sternly, trying to pretend there was no audible tremble in his voice.
A large hand came down upon JD's shoulder from behind and he yelped before he could stop himself, spinning around to face a new presence. He breathed a sigh of relief, seeing that it was, "Josiah!" Then his smile fell as his older friend stepped further into the light and showed that he looked every bit as gruesome as Buck. More so, in fact. His throat almost appeared to have been ripped out. The flesh was shredded and blood-soaked, bloody tendons and a disgusting display of exposed bone showing through the tattered flesh. JD's eyes bulged as he saw that one of the other man's blue-gray eyes had been pulled from its socket, hanging in a gelatinous ball on his cheek and leaving the socket empty. Not wanting to believe what he was seeing, JD repeated another, far more tentative, "Josiah?"
The creature gurgled, a horrifying sound, and JD's heart thundered as he realized that he could actually see blood bubbling in the torn flesh of his ruined throat as Josiah attempted to speak.
"No!" he squeaked, falling backward over the edge of his plastic carpet protector as the nightmare versions of both his friends simultaneously made a grab for him. Scrambling backward in a terrified crab-walk, JD looked around frantically for an escape route. The office door seemed impossibly far away. Even as he thought it, the knob turned and the door swung open, revealing Ezra Standish, whose normally fair complexion had lightened to such an extreme bluish-white pallor that JD just knew there could not possibly be any blood left in him.
As his eyes traveled over the new arrival, JD gulped hard. He had thought for a moment that Ezra was attired in a dark red suit, but as the other man moved, he realized that he had found the missing blood. It had completely soaked the light colored material of Ezra's tailored business suit, staining it crimson. Tattered threads decorated the chest area and as he lurched stiffly forward, his movement revealed a large hole in his chest. JD whimpered when he realized that he could see the office wall on the other side, the hole having gone clean through Ezra's body.
"Braaains . . ." the man hissed, the word somehow sounding even more menacing when spoken in that cold, emotionless, southern drawl.
"Guys, guys, come on now!" JD stammered, using the wall as leverage to get back up to his feet, thankful for its solid presence behind him. "You don't want to hurt me. I don't know what's happened to you, but I'm your friend! I'm a genius, remember? I'll think of a way to fix this!"
Inside his private thoughts, JD figuratively slapped himself upside the head. Sure guys, I'll just write up a computer program that will bring the living dead back to perfect health. Shit!
"Or, or, or . . . Nathan! Yeah, that's it. We'll all go see Nathan and he'll figure something out!"
JD frowned, his fear increasing exponentially when Ezra suddenly smiled, his bloodshot green eyes filled with an unholy light as he pointed toward the conference room to JD's left and whispered again, "Braaains."
Not wanting to see, but too afraid not to look, JD turned his head, moaning when he realized that both Vin and Nathan were standing in the doorway, each looking about as fresh as a week old banana peel. Nathan's skin was a peculiar shade of greenish gray and there were yellow-seeping pustules dotted around his cracked black lips. His normally healthy white teeth were broken and yellowed, much like Buck's had been, and both his gums and the whites of his eyes were blood-flecked. He held up a syringe, half filled with brown liquid, and gave the plunger a short squeeze that sent a squirt of the fluid flying up into the air. Unlike his companions, he did not speak his desire for JD's brain, nor did he attempt to, but the glee-filled madness in his eyes was somehow worse.
JD stared at Nathan, barely able to even look at Vin Tanner. The normally handsome Texan appeared to have been burned alive. His hair was half gone and the remaining flesh covering his scalp, face, neck and body on the right sight was charred and ruined, lumps of bubbled tissue and bodily fluids still dripping from exposed bone. The stench he exuded was stomach-churning and JD had to clap a hand over his mouth as the dead sharp-shooter held out a flesh-free hand, mere inches from his face, the revealed bones clicking audibly as they stretched in a slow grasping motion. Hungrily, he groaned, "Braaains . . . "
JD's breathing grew harsh and ragged, his heart doing its best to thump straight out of his chest as he ducked under that reaching hand and dove between Josiah and Nathan, stumbling and nearly falling in his haste to reach the sanctuary of Chris Larabee's office. It had its own door and while it might not keep the others away for long, it should give him a few minutes of sanctuary in which to call for help.
Chris! He would call Chris, convince him somehow of the terrible fate that had befallen their team. Chris would help him.
A voice greeted JD as he dove into the office and slammed the door. Seized with a sudden horror of being alone in the dark, JD fumbled the light switch on and looked around. Chris Larabee sat at his desk. His flesh was intact, his color was good, and everything appeared to be exactly where it ought to be.
"Chris! Oh, thank God you're here. You're not going to believe what's happened. The guys, our team, our friends! They're all dead, I mean undead, I mean they've all been turned into . . ."
"Zombies?" Chris asked calmly, standing and casually rounding the desk to face JD. His smile was calm and pleasant, amused even.
"Yeah!" As his eyes adjusted to the bright light in the office, JD frowned. Chris had been wearing jeans, a white shirt and a brown sport-coat when he left the office. Now he was attired in a finely tailored black suit that fairly reeked of wealth, and matching highly-polished black shoes. His perfectly tied silk tie and matching pocket handkerchief were also unrelieved black, the tie held in place by an onyx and silver clip, the tiny gleam of metal providing the only trace of color to be seen. Even his hair and eyes seemed much darker and completely free of luster. His appearance was so incongruous with the typically casual Chris Larabee that JD momentarily forgot his fear and blurted, "What's with the outfit? You look a Goth version of Ezra!"
The calm smile never leaving his face, Chris ignored the question and reached out to open his office door, ignoring JD's yelp of warning. The slavering undead, who had been scratching and thumping at the closed door, poured into the small space. Five sets of eyes stared intently at JD, making his flesh crawl. He backed into the high cold office window, whimpering when he realized that there was no escape.
The zombies had stopped behind Chris, almost appearing as if they were waiting for him to give them permission to advance. The man in black eyed JD dispassionately. "You see, JD, I can always use another soul for my collection and my friends here deserve a chance to feed."
Desperately, JD climbed up on the desk, shoving against the window to force it open. "Stay back! I'll jump if you come any closer! Then you won't get anything!"
To his dismay, the zombies only leered and Chris actually laughed. "Do it if you feel the need. It will change nothing. Do you really think none of the others attempted to escape that way?" He gestured at the other men, actually stroking one hand over Vin's burnt cheek and peeling away a bit of the charred flesh. He dusted the remnant from his fingers with casual disregard. "They tried, and they failed. You see, JD, you're already mine. You gave yourself to me and there is no escape."
"Gave . . . what are you talking about?"
Chris smiled again. "It was all there, in your contract when you agreed to work here." Shaking his head, he mourned, "Nobody ever reads the fine print. To be one of the greatest agents in the country, someone who had the best friends a guy could ever ask for who, together, would be an unbeatable team of heroes . . . a family . . . that's what you asked for, isn't it?"
JD's pale face lost even more color. "After my mom died," he whispered. "When I came west to join the ATF . . . I wished for all that. I said I'd give anything for them."
"To be precise," Chris corrected, holding up one long index finger. "You said you'd give your soul for those things."
"My soul," JD whispered, cold sweeping over him.
Chris glanced to his left and right, the amusement gleaming once more in his eyes. "Amazing how common a dream that is . . . a place to belong, people to care about you . . . and how easily fools will give away their most precious possession to have it."
"But I didn't know! It was just an expression!"
"An expression?" Striding forward, his hand shot out faster than JD could see, dragging him down from the desk with super-human strength and setting him gently upon the floor. His expression turned hard and cold. "Perhaps you should pay more attention to how you express yourself in the future."
JD's face became pleading, hopeful. "Do I have a future?"
Chris blinked, as if in surprise. He cocked his head thoughtfully. "Good point." Shoving the young man forward into the eagerly reaching arms of the zombie horde, he added, "I picked this one for his brains, guys. Try to savor the experience."
As the hungry undead pushed him to the floor, eager hands and mouths ripping and tearing at his flesh, JD screamed, a long anguished sound that seemed as if it would never end.
Chris drew a deep breath, shutting his eyes and smiling as if he were hearing a chord of sweetest music.
JD sat up so abruptly that he fell right out of his office chair.
"Easy, kid, it's just me!"
"Buck?" he squeaked, scuttling back to stare up with wild eyes as his best friend leaned over him in an attempt to help him up. "Is it really you?"
Buck fell back a step, confused. "Who else?"
JD studied him. No blood, no rotting flesh, no undead odor. He still wasn't quite ready to believe his eyes, however. "What are you doing here?"
"Checking up on you," he said frankly, squatting down to be at eye level. "We stayed at the bar until closing time but you never showed up to meet us, like you were supposed to. Called around to the others, but none of them had seen you either. Nathan happened to mention that you'd been looking kind of tired today, so after I checked back home, we followed a hunch that you might have fallen asleep at your desk and came back here to have a look."
A throat cleared, and he looked up with a gasp as he noticed the rest of his teammates for the first time. They were standing near the office door, looking at him with a mixture of amusement and outright concern on their faces. They, too, looked completely normal.
"I realize it's a bit much for six of us to be playing mother hen at one o'clock in the morning," Ezra said with a smile, "but given your usual predilections for punctuality and sharing information on your physical whereabouts, we were naturally a bit concerned. I hope you won't hold our overprotective impulse against us, Mr. Dunne."
JD heaved a huge sigh of relief. Ezra's wordy explanation was like a balm to his shattered nerves after all those grunted demands for his brain! He climbed to his feet with a helping hand from Buck, happily allowing Nathan to give him a quick once-over. "I fell asleep, I guess. Had the most horrible nightmare ever!"
"What about?" Josiah asked, his interest piqued. He had been making an informal study of dream interpretation for years.
Embarrassed, he admitted, "Well, you were all trying to kill me."
"What?" they bellowed, making him jump nervously.
"Sorry, kid," Vin said, patting his arm in a soothing gesture. "Guess we weren't expecting that one."
He laughed, a bit shakily. "Me, either. It seemed really real." Another, stronger laugh followed. "At least you all look a heck of a lot better now! You were pretty damned ugly."
"What do you mean?" Buck asked, frowning as he reflexively patted his dark hair into place.
Blushing hotly, JD confessed, "Well, see, in my dream you were all, uh . . . "
"All what?" Josiah pressed, eyes alight with interest.
"Zombies," he blurted quickly, flinching in anticipation of their reaction.
They looked at one another, incredulous expressions giving way to grins as all six of them burst into hearty laughter. Vin held out his arms and did a Frankenstein monster-walk, swiping one hand at JD. "I vant to suck your blooood."
"He said zombies, not vampires," Buck scolded, still chuckling.
"They don't like blood?"
Ezra considered the question. "They always appear to have lost a great quantity of it in those cheap schlock horror movies, so perhaps they do. I believe their main diet is consistent of gray matter, however."
"Brains?" Nathan said incredulously. He never could be persuaded to join the others when they gathered to watch horror films.
JD could not help himself. He shuddered from head to toe at that word.
Nathan was instantly back in doctor-mode. "You okay, JD? You got a chill?"
"Little one," he said, preferring that excuse to admitting the real reason for his reaction. "I was feeling a bit feverish earlier."
"Must be the reason you thought we'd all joined the undead," Chris teased, giving him a penetrating stare that expressed his concern clearly.
JD nodded. "You didn't, actually."
"I wasn't a zombie?" Chris clarified, sounding oddly disappointed.
"No, but you were in control of all of them."
"I think we'd better get you home before you start imagining we're all aliens next," Buck chided, gently leading his young roommate toward the door while the others grabbed JD's coat and backpack and powered down his computer for him.
As they moved out toward the elevator, JD looked again to Chris. "Is there any fine print in my work contract?"
Chris raised an eyebrow. "Maybe a little bit of legalese. Why?"
Shaking his head, JD waved off the question. "Nothing. It just popped into my head."
The blond man's features settled into a small grin as he watched the others pile into the open elevator. "Nobody ever reads the fine print anyway," he murmured, eyes flashing darkly as he got in and allowed the car to begin its long journey downward.