Book: Ghost Walking



Ghost Walking

GHOST WALKING

SOLDIERS OF FAME AND FORTUNE BOOK FIVE

H

C H A P T E R O N E

olly ran her hands across the beautifully-etched desktop in her

new apartment, closing her eyes and breathing deeply, then

coughing. The annoying thing about living above the shop was the

constant wafting scents of burning metal and grease, although it was

nothing a few candles brought in from New York couldn’t fix.

She opened her laptop and continued typing the story from the

day before, a tale that was too improbable for her to fully wrap her

head around. She was actually glad at that moment for her eidetic

memory; otherwise, she would have only remembered the dramatic

parts. This story had been saved as, No One Remembers but Us: An

Unbelievable Badass.

As her fingers began to rapidly move over the keys, her phone

buzzed. She groaned and grabbed it, putting it to her ear. “I really

thought that by now you would have given up on calling me in the

middle of the night.”

Rod hissed. “Good morning to you too, bitchy jungle woman.

Somebody miss their coffee today? I try to time it perfectly.”

Holly glanced at the mug on her desk, realizing she had only

taken a few sips. She grabbed it and let the hot liquid wash into her

mouth. Swallowing, she shook her head. “No, but I don’t think I need

a babysitter. The company must really want to get me in there.”

As Rod cleared his throat, she heard the sounds from his balcony

in the background. “Actually, I heard you had moved out of the hotel.

I called there last night your time because your cell went straight to

voicemail.”

Holly grimaced. “Yeah, I forgot to charge it. Was listening to some

really...valuable information about the Zoo. And yes, I moved out of

the hotel. I figured I would be here for a while, whether I take the

contract or not, so I wanted to feel more comfortable and at home.

There was an apartment for rent down the street, and it was the right

price and the right size for me.”

Rod snickered. “They have two-thousand-square-foot lofts out

there?”

Holly rolled her eyes. “Despite what you think based on my condo

in the City, I can be pretty happy with a tiny studio. Actually, I was

happy in Zimbabwe in my tent...after they put a floor in it. Those ant

bites nearly killed me.”

Rod shivered. “I remember that. Not something I would

recommend you ever do again.”

Holly ran her hand over a scar on her arm. “Me either.”

Rod yawned loudly. “So, do you need anything out there in the

slums to make it more manageable? I can get a care package

together.”

Holly wanted candles, but she wasn’t about to ask Rod for them.

There was always a catch. “Just that you stop your constant

nagging. That’s free.”

Rod laughed. “I got something else that’s free, but I don’t think it’s

quite big enough to reach all the way out there.”

Holly pretended to gag, then opened her mouth to say

something, but there was a loud banging on her front door. “Oh, so

sad, gotta go. Enjoy the hellish snow.”

Before he could protest, Holly ended the call and jumped up from

the chair, skipping toward the door. She unlocked it and flung it open,

assuming it was Amanda. “Did you come up for some coff...oh.”

The woman standing in front of her was tall, with tanned skin and

bright eyes. She had a toothpick sticking out of the corner of her

mouth, and a black hood pulled over her auburn hair. Her clothes

were worn but not tattered, and she had a pistol on each hip. Her

boots were military issue, and she looked at Holly as if she had

known her for years.

Holly cleared her throat nervously. “Sorry, I thought you were the

landlord. Uh...can I help you with something? If you are here for the

shop and you didn’t see her down there, she should be back soon.”

The woman blinked and took a deep breath, walking past her into

the apartment. “No, I came to see you, Holly. You might want to

close the door for privacy, though.”

Holly looked at the door and then back at the woman for a

minute, contemplating whether to make a run for it, close the door, or

just stand there with it open. Finally, she decided to close it. There

was no reason for anyone to have an issue with her. She shut the

door and walked to the center of the room, her arms crossed on her

chest. “How do you know who I am? I mean, I don’t think we’ve met.”

The woman didn’t respond, just walked over to the desk and

looked down at Holly’s laptop. Something caught her eye, and she

turned it toward her with a chuckle. Holly hurried over beside her.

“Those are just stories I’ve been told.”

The woman smiled. “I know. I was in the bar for the last couple of

stories that JB has blabbed to everyone. This one I was a bit

surprised to hear.”

Holly looked down at the screen. “Yeah, it was a good one. Wild

Bill Hickok. It definitely surprised me.”

She smirked. “Well, you can rest assured, she’s not dead.”

The woman turned and Holly narrowed her eyes, watching her

walk across the room. “How do you know that?”

The woman stopped and stared back at her. “Because I’m her.”

Holly’s mouth dropped open. “I wasn’t going to publish these

stories or anything if that’s what you’re thinking. Does JB know

you’re here?”

Billie kept a tight smile on her lips. “Not yet. I was really shocked

that my story had been told so many times, though. But that wasn’t

what caught my attention. It was the signs JB was showing.”

Holly furrowed her brow. “I don’t understand. What signs?”

Billie pushed her hood back and smoothed her tight ponytail.

“The ones that tell me he is sick as hell.”

Holly’s hands fell to her sides and the shock of having Wild Bill

standing in her new apartment left her. She turned quickly, wrapping

one arm around her waist and bringing her other hand to her mouth.

She peered out the window and up the street at the FUBAR sign in

the distance. She had noticed everything about JB from his hair to

his scent, but it never occurred to her that he was sick.

Holly shook her head. “Now that you say it, it kind of makes

sense. The clinking when he walks, the coughing the other day, and

Paula nagging him like she is his mother. God, I can’t believe that I

didn’t pick up on it. I’ve been sitting there with him for days and

days.”

Wild Bill shrugged. “He’s good at hiding shit, but I have my ways

of figuring it out. It would take knowing him for a long time to see that

he was not okay. Don’t beat yourself up about it.”

Holly wrinkled her forehead, silently looking out the window. She

felt a knot in the pit of her stomach; an ache for him. He had seen so

much and done so much, and now he was standing behind that bar

dying and not telling a soul. It fit him, though. He probably didn’t want

people to feel about it exactly the way she felt at that moment. He

wasn’t the kind of man who took pity very well.

She slowly turned back to Billie, having almost forgotten she was

there. “So what do you want from me? I’m not a doctor.”

Billie breathed deeply, running her finger over the bedpost. “No,

but you are a chemist, and you know how to mix things properly.”

Holly was confused. “Like what? Some sort of medicine?”

Billie nodded. “Something like that. I know for a fact that there are

a lot of ways those plants and chemicals in the Zoo can be used to

heal people. My problem is, I know it can be done, but I haven’t the

slightest clue how to actually do it. I find, liberate, and move

information from place to place. It isn’t my job to figure out how to

science the shit. You, on the other hand, have the brains.”

Holly bit the inside of her cheek and shook her head. “What

you’re talking about means working with substances that aren’t from

Earth, things that I have never worked with. You want me to create

something to heal JB, give it to him, and hope I don’t kill him? Uh...I

want him to get better, trust me, but I don’t want to be the one who

puts his picture up on that fucking wall.”

Billie narrowed her eyes. “Then we sentence him to a very

painful, long, and drawn-out death. The cure might very well kill him,

but if we don’t try, he will certainly die. From the signs he is showing,

I would say that it’s not that far off, either.”

Holly clenched her teeth, looking frantically back and forth. “And

what will you do?”

Billie chuckled, patting her guns. “My job. I’ll find, liberate, and

move information. You will take that information and create

something that will help our friend.”

Holly scoffed, looking at her guns. “And kill. You forgot that one

on your list of jobs.”

Billie chuckled and gave her a deadpan look. “Yes, but they ALL

deserved it.”

Holly opened her mouth but closed it again, walking back over to

the window. She peered at the mercs and soldiers of fortune walking

along the sandy streets below. They were all potential heroes for the

wall; all voyagers into the depths of the Zoo. If she had learned

anything in her time there so far, it was that people like JB didn’t

come along often. They were few and far between. The man had

been out of the Zoo for a while, but now he was dying. It seemed

almost cruel, in a way—to survive the depths of hell only to die a

mortal’s death.

On top of that, Wild Bill Hickok was standing in her apartment

asking for her help. She wasn’t sure anything she could formulate

would actually help, though. Holly knew that what Billie was asking

her to do was highly irresponsible, against the code of ethics she

had sworn to uphold, and very dangerous. She might create a

concoction that not only killed JB but unleashed the Zoo right there

in the center of the town. At the same time, though, it was for JB,

and he deserved the chance at life, or at least more life than he had

been given.

Holly eyed Billie. “What is killing him? Are we talking cancer, or

are we talking an alien illness?”

Billie sat on the edge of Holly’s bed and shrugged. “I honestly

don’t know. I haven’t asked him quite yet, but I wouldn’t be shocked

if it was something connected to the Zoo. The man was a cowboy in

that place. Nothing took him down in there, and that’s what he is

trying to tell himself right now.”

Holly put her hands together. “I would need to know what is ailing

him to treat him.”

Billie lifted both eyebrows. “Why? You study venomous alien

plants or alien lacerations in that fancy school of yours? I am a

Harvard grad, and we never touched on those subjects.”

Holly blinked. “I guess you’re right. Doesn’t really matter if I know,

because the cure is unknown in theory. I’m going to be like a mad

scientist in a lab playing with compounds I’ve never seen before and

hoping I can cure one man without wiping out the rest of humanity.

Sure, seems like no big deal…”

Billie chuckled. “I like the way you think, Miss Holly. Sometimes,

when it comes to the Zoo, you gotta just make choices and go with it.

I know you’re not a soldier, but your gut will tell you everything you

need to know.”

Holly looked at her wide-eyed. “I mean, my intuition has gotten

me out of some tight spaces, but it has also landed me in some

shitty ones.”

Billie stood, walked over, and put her hand on Holly’s shoulder.

“Considering this man means a lot to all of us, I would hope that the

intuition you get now is the one that gets you out of tight spaces.

This man means a lot more to this town and this community than you

can even begin to realize. I need your help with this, Holly.”

Holly leaned her head back and groaned. “Fine. I will do

whatever I can, but if I don’t feel comfortable with the creation, I

won’t be held responsible.”

Billie smirked. “The only person who would do that would be you,

and I have a feeling that whether you give it to him or you don’t, you

will hold yourself responsible. Nonetheless, good. We are on the

same page, then.”

Holly sat down in her desk chair. “We need a lot of information. I

mean samples, compound assessments, and any research that’s

been done on this stuff—the whole nine yards. I’ll move as fast as I

can, but I’m not going to start just throwing shit together and hope for

the best.”

Billie nodded. “I know. I’ve been thinking about all that.”

Holly stared at her, waiting for her to continue the thought, but

she stopped. “Okay...and what have you come up with? How are we

going to find out more?”

Billie cleared her throat. “Right, sorry. Not used to working with

anyone this closely. My first move is to get my operations person on

board, or at least I hope to. I’m not sure if he is going to be able to

delve into this like I can. It’s kind of off the record for my

organization.”

Holly wasn’t sure who she was talking about. “Wait, are we

talking about your guy? The guy in your ear who is obsessed with

technology?”

Billie lifted an eyebrow at her. “You were really paying close

attention to the story. Yes, that’s him.”

Holly decided to skip the explanation of an eidetic memory, tired

of talking about it. “And if he doesn’t go along with it?”

Billie chewed on the toothpick. “Then we figure out another way

around it. I’m resourceful; I’ve had to be for years. It won’t be as big

a setback as you think.”

Holly tapped her fingers on her knee and stood up. “Then I’ll

head over and talk to JB. As much as I like happy surprises, I will not

do this behind his back. He would be pissed.”

Billie chuckled. “For someone who’s only been here five or six

days, you sure know JB pretty well.”

Holly grabbed her green denim jacket and put it on. “Well, it

doesn’t take long to figure out that he is set in his ways, and he

doesn’t like people putting themselves in harm’s way for him.

Besides, it’ll help me understand more of what is wrong with him.

Right now, we are going off your intuition and a clinking noise when

he walks. That’s not quite good enough for me.”

Billie stepped in front of her. “Don’t mention my name at first. I’ll

be there in a few, I just need to handle a couple of things ahead of

time. He has no idea I’m in town, and I want to be the one who lets

him know.”

Holly stared at her for a minute. “Yeah, no problem. One thing at

a time will be better anyway. He’s going to be a bit perplexed when I

roll up on his ass playing twenty questions.”

Billie laughed, a twinkle in her eye. “I think he’ll appreciate you.

You remind me of me.”

H

C H A P T E R T W O

olly and Billie walked down to the bottom of stairs and stopped

outside on the sidewalk. Since Amanda was out, Holly locked

the office door. Keeping her eyes on the doorknob, she said to Billie,

“You know, you should really announce yourself a little better. I

seriously thought I was about to meet my end up there. The last

thing I wanted to do was be killed by some female Assassin’s Creed

character before I even had my first cup of coffee.”

Holly turned around, laughing, but Billie was gone. She looked

right and left, but she was nowhere to be seen; not even a footprint

in the sandy street. Holly let out a deep breath and shook her head.

“Great, I’ve been visited by the Ghost of the Zoo Past, and I can’t

even figure out why the hell I’m here in the first place.”

Shaking her head, she shoved her hands in her pockets and

walked toward the bar. The wind was bad that day, making it hard for

her to breathe through the blowing sand. Holly pulled a black paisley

bandana from her pocket and tied it around her nose and mouth,

looking like everyone else walking around—a group of train robbers

meandering through a dusty old Western town.

She stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the bar, pausing for a

moment to see if anyone would be thrown out today, but the place

seemed pretty quiet on the outside, at least. She pulled hard on the

door, the wind trying to force it shut as if to warn her. She rolled her

eyes at the superstitious thought and yanked harder, cracking it open

far enough to slip in. Pulling it shut behind her, she stood in the

entryway, blinking her eyes to adjust to the darkness of the room.

She pulled her bandana down to her neck and stomped her boots

on a mat where small piles of sand let her know everyone else had

done the same. There was a familiar roar of voices and the smell of

stale beer floating into her nostrils. Several of the guys at the tables

closest to the door looked over for a moment and nodded as if they

knew who she was. They quickly went back to their conversations.

Paula’s cackling voice from across the room caught Holly’s

attention. “Yes, Joe, I did say that. And I will tell you right now, I

meant every fucking word. I can get a rolling pin up there, I just got

to bend you at the right angle. Don’t think I won’t do it, either.”

Holly smiled to herself and walked up to her normal stool, seating

herself and leaning forward on the bar. JB was down at the other end

pouring a shot for one of the guys and finishing a conversation. He

glanced at Holly and nodded as he put the bottle on the shelf and

made his way over to her. “Well, hello there. You came back. You

ready for a drink and a story?”

Holly chuckled, swirling the coaster back and forth. “Maybe. I

mean, eventually. I’m going to need a drink today for sure.”

JB furrowed his brow. “What’s going on, then?”

Holly breathed the nerves down into her stomach and smiled,

nodding for him to get closer. He leaned in curiously. She pursed her

lips and whispered to him, “I just came into some information. It’s

pretty serious, and I wanted to talk to you about it. You think we

could sneak back to your office for a few?”

JB lifted an eyebrow. “I’m not used to women pulling me to the

dark back room anymore, but how could I tell you no?”

Holly chuckled. “Trust me, it’s for your own good.”

JB laughed. “I feel like that could be a lie, but I’m going with it.

Give me a second to get Paula over here to watch the bar.”

Holly nodded and walked around the bar and to the opening

behind it that led to the office. She stood there watching as JB

walked up to Paula and quietly whispered to her. She had obviously

just gotten there a few minutes before, and looked like she had been

thrown right into the mix. She glared at JB and then looked at Holly,

wiggling her eyebrows. Holly shook her head and smirked before

looking away.

JB patted her on the back and began walking toward Holly,

clinking as usual. Paula held her arms out to the people at the bar. “I

am your bartending goddess now, my friends. What can I get you?”

One of the guys whistled. “How about a big pair of tits and a nice

warm place for my di…”

Paula put up her hand. “We all know you don’t have very high

standards. I think I got some pie in the back I can warm up for you.

You can take it in the bathroom where JB put up that half-naked

poster of a woman. Just try not to get whipped cream everywhere.”

The guy rolled his eyes. “I’ll give you some of this whipped

cream.”

Paula slapped her hands together. “In your dreams. I like a man

with a dick I can actually hold onto with my palms, not just my

fingertips.”

Everyone in the bar laughed loudly. Another guy stood up,

swirling his pelvis in the air. “John don’t even know how to use that

thing. Paula is a real woman.”

Paula nodded. “That’s fucking right, which means you wouldn’t

qualify either, so sit your drunk ass down. Not only do I like a big

dick, I like them not to be stubby like a fucking tree trunk.”

The guy grabbed his crotch as the others pulled him back onto

his stool. “You wouldn’t know what to do with this if you had it.”

Paula snickered. “You mean, like do I start a fire with it or balance

a toothpick on it?”

JB rolled his eyes and shook his head as he walked up to Holly.

“Straight back, door at the end of the hall. I’m right behind you. I

want to run another bottle of vodka up to Paula. I ran out before I

called her up. I don’t need her giving me hell if she needs to pour a

drink and doesn’t have the right shit.”

Holly laughed. “Got it.”

She headed slowly down the dark hallway, almost tripping over a

box on the floor that had been shoved against the wall. Bottles

rattled as she caught her balance and sighed. “I can’t even put one

foot in front of the other these days.”

She made her way to the office at the end of the hall and ran her

hand over the wall, clicking on the light switch. The office was pretty

bare. There was a large wooden desk with papers all over it, a

computer, a video surveillance system to the left, and a shelf full of

more liquor and a few books to her right. There were two other doors

to the room, one into a bathroom she was afraid to look into, and an

emergency exit.

Holly ran her hand over the exit door’s metal bar and nodded.

“Always have an exit strategy.”

She could hear Paula laughing loudly and JB’s voice echoing

from the front. She put her hands on her hips and looked at the

cleared space in the center of the room. With a quick nod to her

decision-making skills, Holly pushed the rolling office chair out from

behind the desk and put it in the middle of the floor. She took the

visitor’s chair, an old green chair that looked like something from an

early ‘80s doctor’s waiting room, and turned it to face the desk chair.

She brushed her hands on the sides of her legs and took a deep

breath when she heard the clinking as JB made his way down the

hall to the doorway. He paused for a moment as Holly put out her

hands and smiled. “Please, have a seat.”

JB tilted his head to the side. “Rather forward. No dinner first?”

Holly chuckled, watching him limp slightly as he went around the

chair and lowered himself into it. She stood there nervously for a

second and then rushed over to the door, shutting it and turning the

lock. She rattled the handle several times, making sure it was really

locked.

JB lifted an eyebrow and tipped his head back, watching her.

“Pretty sure that when the handle won’t turn or pull open, that means

it’s locked.”

Holly smiled and slowly sat down in the green chair. She went to

start the conversation, but the green blinking light on the camera in

the corner caught her attention. She pointed at it and grinned.

“Would you mind shutting down the video for this room? This is

private, and I don’t really want there to be a trail.”

JB cleared his throat nervously. “Why do I feel like I am

facilitating my own death here? You got a weapon under that

jacket?”

Holly snickered. “Depends on what you consider a weapon.”

JB laughed and levered himself up out of the chair with a grumpy,

“Touché. Sure, why not? I’ll turn it off. Everyone saw you coerce me

back here to the office anyway.”

Holly giggled as he typed on the system, watching as the light on

the camera in the corner went from green to red. The top right

picture on the screen went dark, letting Holly know that it had been

shut off. She could understand why he was a bit tense about what

was going on. She was acting pretty strange.

JB hobbled back over and took a seat in the chair, slapping his

hands on his legs. “Okay, come clean now. Why the skullduggery?”

Holly nodded, sitting straight up in her chair. She paused for a

moment, going over ways to say what she wanted to say. Finally, she

just pursed her lips and let it come out. “Are you dying?”

JB coughed in surprise and shook his head. “Is that what all this

is about? You are worried that I’m about to kick the bucket?

Seriously, people who have known me for two decades haven’t even

asked me that.”

Holly straightened her face. “You aren’t answering the question.”

JB shook his head. “Because it’s a fucking ridiculous question.

We’re all dying, Holly. As soon as you’re born, you start dying.”

Holly rolled her eyes. “You do realize that you are talking to

someone who can bullshit with the best, right?”

JB smiled. “I know, and I love that about you.”

Holly tapped her fingers slowly on her knee. “Do I need to

rephrase my question? Are you severely ill? Do you have an illness

that will ultimately kill you? Are you seeking treatment for something

that no one but Paula knows about? Are you hiding an illness? Are

you—”

JB waved his hands. “All right, all right. Stop. It’s obvious you

already know the answer to that question. How, I have no fucking

clue. I assume that Paula opened her mouth.”

Holly shook her head, folding her arms. “Not a word from Paula.

Not even a hint. The only time I have been around her is when you

are there too.”

JB stretched his leg out and bent over with a grunt, unlacing his

boot. “Then who?”

Holly fake-gasped. “You think I’m not bright enough to figure it out

on my own?”

JB just glanced up at her as he pulled his pant leg out of the top

of his boot. “Well, you’re about to have your answer.”

He pulled the pant leg up, revealing his metal lower leg. When he

reached the top, he slowed down, flinching as he pulled the fabric

across his skin. He rolled down the white linen sock on the end of his

leg and revealed the wound, right in Holly’s face. Where the flesh

met his metal leg, there was a shimmering blue and purple color to

his skin. It moved like food coloring in water. Radiating from the

bottom were long black lines that shot up his leg.

Holly covered her mouth. “Holy hell. How in the shit…”

JB nodded. “It’s gotten worse lately. Kind of like something spiked

it, and it’s started to move again.”

Holly shook her head. “Is there anything inside?”

JB shook his head. “Not that we can find. It looks like you could

put a needle in it and shit would come out, but that’s the color of my

leg and muscle now. The black streaks have gotten longer. They are

painful, like the lines that come out from an infection, only none of

my tests show any type of infection in my body. You can probably

imagine people aren’t in a rush to touch it and figure out what it is.”

Holly pushed away from her chair and took a knee in front of him.

She looked closer, wanting to touch it but keeping her hands locked

behind her. She tilted her head to the side, watching the colors of his

skin, so vibrant and wild, cascade. She looked up into his eyes. “And

this is painful, I am assuming?”

JB grumped, “You could say that. It’s definitely a bit

uncomfortable, especially putting this leg on, but I can’t get around

without it. Don’t really feel too intimidating as Lieutenant Dan behind

the bar.”

Holly scoffed, looking back down at his leg. “Those guys would

be scared of you even if you were nothing but a square body in a

wheelchair.”

JB wrinkled his nose. “I’d like to avoid that at all costs—not that I

think this thing will let me get that far.”

Holly sat back in her chair and rubbed her chin. “It could possibly

be some sort of exposure issue, like the alien version of frostbite. It

could also be a parasite, something too small to be seen on x-rays.

There could also be something inside, a thorn or tooth or some kind

of poisonous foreign object. I can’t really see it being anything from

Earth, though, given the strange coloring and effects. Are you having

any other symptoms?”

JB took a deep breath. “Fever and chills sometimes. Pain,

coughing, and low body strength. I’m tired a lot, too, more tired than I

should be.”

Holly nodded her head. “Whatever it is, there is something

foreign in there, whether it’s an object, a living creature, or a poison

of some sort.”

JB ran his hand over the top of his head and let it rest there. “I’ve

tried all of the doctors in and near the Zoo. I’ve seen military doctors

as favors from friends, and I even had a couple of doctors fly in here

to take a look at it.”

Holly shook her head, perplexed. “And what did they say?”

JB chuckled. “After they took their fee?”

Holly winced. “Yeah, I bet that was fucking expensive.”

JB nodded. “I had a bunch of money. Now...well, I don’t have as

much. We only know it’s something from the bite I got forever ago.

It’s festered in my blood.”

Holly’s forehead wrinkled again. “But not an infection?”

JB shrugged. “If it is, it is resistant to all antibiotics from this

planet. All medications, for that matter. They’ve pumped me so full of

drugs that I’ll never catch anything else.”

Holly looked at it again. “And have they tried any alternative

treatments?”

JB looked at her strangely. “Like what?”

Holly’s eyes slowly rose to meet his. “You know. You got the

injury from the Zoo, so I would assume that the only thing that can

heal it would be something from that same environment. Earth

medicines can’t handle it, but something from the Zoo would—

especially given that everything seems to have a connection out

there.”

JB opened his mouth, but the sound of someone knocking on the

back door of the office drew their attention. “Don’t worry, it’s locked.”

Just then, the door flew open.

W

C H A P T E R T H R E E

ild Bill Hickok stood in the doorway with hazy light shining in

from behind her. Beams of sunlight shown around her like

she was some sort of angel, but they all knew that was far from the

case. She slammed the door behind her and dusted the sand off,

pulling the bandana down from her mouth and nose. The dust settled

in a ring around her feet and she shook her head, her hood sliding

off .

Holly lifted an eyebrow. “You are so dramatic.”

Billie chuckled. “Didn’t mean to be. Guess it just comes with the

territory.”

JB just sat there, his hands grasping the edges of the chair. His

eyes were wide, but no noise came from his lips. Holly blinked at

him, wondering if he was even breathing at that moment. He was

more shocked than she had thought he would be. At the same time,

the two had some serious history, and he hadn’t even been sure that

Billie was still alive. He thought of her as more of a ghost than



anything now, but there she was in all her glory, conversing randomly

with a girl he had known for only a week. Things had to be seriously

confusing for him.

Holly walked over to the door and locked it again. She looked at it

and then at the locking mechanism. She pressed on the door, but it

was stuck in place. The lock was fully engaged; it should not just pop

open on its own. She narrowed her eyes and looked at Billie in

disbelief. How the fuck did she do that?

Billie looked at JB and chuckled, giving him a half-smirk. “Hey,

JB. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so silent in your entire existence.

What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Holly narrowed her brow. “He talked a lot before?”

Billie laughed. “More than this right here, that’s for sure.”

JB cleared his throat and grinned. “I guess I mumbled more in my

daze than I thought. In a way though, I really do feel like I’m looking

at a ghost. What the fuck is so important that it brought you back to

this hell?”

Billie rested her hands on the butts of her guns. “I think you know

the answer to that one, JB—or are you still as dense as you were as

a young buck?”

JB snickered and sat up in his chair. “I think I have fixed that

problem. I’m not as nervous around you womenfolk anymore.”

Billie scoffed. “I don’t think that was ever one of your problems. I

think you were more of a sneaker. Then again, I wouldn’t know all

that much. You saved my life; that was about all I have, besides the

fact that you have been my favorite bartender over the years.”

JB tilted his head to the side. “Over the years?”

She smiled. “Of course. You didn’t think I would never come

back, did you? For all the things you see, you were blind to me

throwing back beers at your establishment. I like that Paula lady;

good server. Doesn’t ask questions, and doesn’t think too much

about a lonely lady sitting in the back with her dark hood up. Just

served me and went on her way.”

JB chuckled, shaking his head. “I guess the stories are true about

people seeing you in the Zoo?”

Billie crossed her arms. “How stealthy would I be if someone

actually saw me? Those were stories, some brought on by

hallucinogens from the thick, some just mistaken identity. None of

them were me. Kept my legend alive, though, which I liked. This,

though…” Billie nodded toward JB’s leg. “I don’t like this in the least.

I figured it was time to come out of hiding to help you out.”

JB looked at his leg and back at Billie. “Hope you aren’t here to

kill me.” He grinned. “But if I have to go, it might as well be at the

hands of a lovely woman.”

Billie threw her head back and laughed. “You haven’t changed a

bit.”

Holly smirked and cleared her throat, reminding them that she

was still there. Billie looked down at her boots and then at Holly. “I

won’t get any support from my guy. He does promise not to say

anything, though. He’ll do his best to run interference, but he can’t

stall forever.”

Holly nodded her head. “Right, so I have to work as quickly as

possible. I get it.”

JB scratched the side of his head, still staring at Billie in wonder.

“I don’t know what you two are talking about, but it’s one of those

things I feel like I shouldn’t really ask. When you say support, are

you talking about the same guy that was in your ear years ago? The

tech junkie?”

Billie smirked. “That would be him. You didn’t think I would let my

one confidante leave me, did you? He is stuck for life with my ass,

whether he likes it or not.”

JB teasingly wiggled his eyebrows. “Did you ever parade naked

around in front of him to test him? You were hell-bent on showing

him he was into more than just computers.”

Billie laughed and sat down in the green chair, crossing one leg

over the other. “I made it a point to do it the one time we were

actually in the same room together. I set it up all perfectly, too. There

was a pole in the room, low lighting, and I brought the perfect music.

I started out in my suit, you know, to get his attention. It was a bit

bulky to get wild in, but hey—whatever I had to do to get him out of

his head.”

JB chuckled. “That would have been very interesting to see.”

Billie scoffed. “It wasn’t very poetic at first. It took a lot of leaning

against the pole to unlock my gear and shimmy the hell out of it.

When I finally got the top off, I wasn’t wearing a shred of clothing

underneath.”

JB shook his head. “Bet that diverted his attention.”

Billie rolled her eyes. “Please, this man was obsessed...and not

with me. As I am trying to remove the bottoms to do some spins on

the pole like I had practiced…”

JB wrinkled his forehead. “You practiced?”

Billie shrugged. “I met a stripper on one of my trips and had her

show me a few moves. I couldn’t go in there as anything less than an

expert. Anyway, I was totally into it too, grinding, swaying, and licking

my lips. He, on the other hand, couldn’t get his mind off the armor.

He gave me more shit as I was working it with the armor than when I

was running through the Zoo full-throttle trying to stay alive. He didn’t

give two shits about my bouncing tits and shaking ass. He about

spent his load on the armor. It was definitely a hit to my ego.”

JB laughed and Holly smirked, shaking her head. “Seriously, men

can be so oblivious sometimes.”

Billie nodded, glancing at her. “That is true, but this guy is a

special kind of oblivious—I would say willfully so. His life is this

technological shit, and he has put everything—and I mean

everything, into it. Protects it better than he protects me.”

JB sighed. “Well, either he will be happy with that choice or one

day he will look back and want to kick himself in the dick for missing

out.”

Billie stared at JB for a moment. “I’m sorry about Gabrielle. I

know she was special to you.”

JB’s mouth twitched, but he looked calm. “Thanks. Yeah, it feels

like a million years ago now. Time flies out here in the Zoo.”

Billie sat forward, clutching her hands together. “Time flies

everywhere, especially when you are constantly dealing with death

and hell on earth. I guess we just learn to go with the flow.”

JB grimaced at his leg. “I guess we do.”

Billie slapped her hands together and looked up at Holly. “As

much as I would like to sit here all day and reminisce, that’s not why

I’m here. We need to figure out this affliction of yours. I’m assuming

it’s from the wound you received in the Zoo?”

Holly bent down next to them. “He says that it has fused with his

blood, which means his leg might look like the worst of it, but in

reality, it’s infiltrated his whole body.”

JB pulled his leg up. “Then why didn’t I have the physical

symptoms like the cough, exhaustion, and weakness before?”

Holly clicked her tongue, thinking. “Because there is a very good

chance that your body blocked the poison from leaving your leg for a

long time, but finally, the stress was too much and the floodgates

opened. It spread through your circulatory system, your heart, your

intestines, and everything else in your body. That was when it started

to affect the rest of you.”

Billie rubbed her chin. “So, either he is dying or morphing into a

creature from the Zoo.”

Holly shrugged. “That’s what I am assuming. Either way, the JB

we know and love is quickly disappearing, which is what we need to

stop.”

JB pulled his pant leg down. “Agreed. The only thing I can think

of that’s worse than the Zoo taking me out is the Zoo taking me in. I

hate the idea that it could be trying to morph me into its system.”

Holly put her hand on his shoulder. “Just remember, the thing you

hate the most might be the only thing that can save your life at this

point.”

JB’s eyes went distant and Holly stepped back, watching him.

Billie pursed her lips and crossed her arms. “Looks like the big guy is

having a light-bulb moment.”

JB waved his hand at her, his gaze still lost in the distance.

“Holly, do you know anything about Heavy Metal?”

Holly nodded. “Sure. I read all about them before I got here.

There was Salinger, who was brought here against his will. A

scientist who knew nothing about the Zoo. In the end, he started

Heavy Metal.”

JB nodded, bringing his attention back to Holly. “From what I can

remember, there was a point in one of his trips into the Zoo, before

Heavy Metal, that he showed himself to be more than just a normal

guy. They realized quickly that after he got over the initial shit-yourpants

moment of going into the Zoo, he was more than just a

biologist. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I’m pretty sure

there was something in there about him kicking ass and taking

names when it came to working with the blue stuff.”

Holly’s attention was piqued. “Actually, yeah. I read something

about that in the book, but I figured it was just magical fluff to make

the thing more interesting. It wasn’t a memoir, just some exmercenary

who ended up out of the Zoo writing books for the

humans on the outside.”

Billie scoffed. “James Altwood. That scum-bucket piece of shit

tried to write a story about me, but my people squashed it before it

ever got to production. He only went in three times, and people hail

him as an expert.”

Holly shrugged. “I guess for them, it’s the closest they can get to

seeing people either retire here or die here.”

JB shook his finger at her. “That is exactly right. And Salinger, he

is, or was, a biologist when he was first brought to the Zoo. He could

have some really good insight, if the stories are true, about how to

use the goop for its healing capabilities.”

Billie had pulled out her phone and was randomly typing to

someone. Holly glanced down and realized the screen on her phone

wasn’t a normal text screen. It was more like a computer in DOS

mode, a black screen with white symbols and letters. Three small

dots wavered underneath her gibberish until she finally got a

response, an equally mysterious message.

Billie looked up from her device and slipped it back into her front

pocket. “I have a contact who might know him. I just sent out feelers

for where to find his ass, although I’m pretty sure I know where to

look. If he has information, or this Salinger guy has information, I will

get it out of him.”

JB lifted an eyebrow. “Remember that Salinger is very well loved

around here, being the founder of Heavy Metal. When you say you’ll

get the information out of him, let’s try to use our polite face and

indoor voice and not rough him up, okay? His crew is like the

majority of my income in this bar every year. I would hate to see it

go.”

Billie scoffed. “Fine, but you do understand if he doesn’t cough it

up, you’ll be the one leaving and not them. Only you’ll be leaving this

Earth or getting tossed into the Zoo as some freaky alien creature.”

JB grumbled. “Who says I’ll be freaky? I could be turning into the

prince or king of whatever alien species sent the thing. You could be

disrespecting a potential member of the royal house right now.”

Billie bumped his fake leg. “I don’t think it counts until more than

one leg is infected.”

JB sat up straight and lifted his chin. “It’s running through my

blood. That probably means I could roll up and get some action,

creating a whole new race of beings on this planet.”

Billie stared at him. “I am pretty sure that would be a bad choice.

Besides, who wants an old man with a tin leg and a weird infection?

Maybe if you were rich, but…”

She smirked, lifting herself from the chair. JB shook his head with

a chuckle. “You come back, are here one hour, and you are already

busting my balls.”

Holly laughed. “She’s been here a lot longer than an hour.

Remember, she came to find me this morning.”

JB leaned forward and started tucking his pant leg in his boot.

Holly leaned down to help, but he swatted her hand away. “As long

as I got the range of motion to pull the strings, I will do it on my own.

No offense, but not tying my shoes takes me into old-man territory.”

Holly stood up, crossing her arms. “Fine, but keep up this

stubbornness and you’ll be velcroing your shoes closed before too

long...old man.”

JB gasped. “Take it back. You wouldn’t do that to a hero like me.”

Holly laughed. “I don’t know. You better watch it, Mister.”

Billie smirked, not wanting to show too much emotion. A loud

bang sounded out front, then a barrage of laughter echoed down the

hall and through the locked door of the office. JB sighed and put his

hands on the arms of his chair. “I should probably go save the

customers from Paula.”

Holly laughed. “Don’t you mean, save Paula from the

customers?”

Billie snickered. “Have you met Paula? By the time he gets out

there the whole bar will have been reduced to tears and selfloathing.

Paula will be standing behind the bar, looking at her nails

and sighing. Those boys don’t stand a chance with her. Besides,

what can you do about it, cripple?”

JB stared unhappily at Billie. “Very funny. Don’t call me a cripple.

I am not incapable of taking care of myself or getting around, for that

matter. You want to see me dance? I’ll jig. You want to see me don a

suit and roll into the Zoo? I’ll do it blindfolded.”

Billie walked forward, putting on her gloves and squeezing JB’s

shoulder. “Calm down, we’re just giving you shit. No one else knows,

so somebody’s got to be the one to tease the ever-loving hell out of

you, don’t you think?”

JB huffed. “No. I think I would be just fine without your bullshit,

thank you.”

He tried to lift himself out of the chair but quickly fell right back

down. He put up his finger and grinned. “No worries, just takes a

couple of times…”

He started to raise himself from the chair again...

H

C H A P T E R F O U R

olly rolled her eyes and walked over, pushing JB back down

into the desk chair. “Sit your obstinate ass down. I’ll do the bar

with Paula.”

JB looked at her wildly. “Are you sure you’re ready for Paula and

those wild-ass mercenaries out there? They seem harmless while

you’re sitting on that side of the bar, but when you get behind it, they

change their tune.”

Holly scoffed. “Please! I used to tend bar, remember? I may not

be a mercenary in the Zoo, but I can handle men like that. Been

around them my whole life, and will continue to be even if I don’t take

this contract. They are no different than men all around the world

working in dangerous jobs, surrounded by nothing but dicks.”

Billie smiled. “I like this chick, JB. Where did you find her?”

JB glanced up at Holly. “Just came strolling into my bar one day,

wanting me to tell her stories. I guess there was something

interesting enough about her that we kept her around.”

Holly giggled. “At first I thought it was the tits, but then I realized it

was my sparkling and fantastic personality.”

Billie raised an eyebrow. “And the tits.”

Holly laughed. “Of course, although I have to admit, no one has

given me a hard time. I’ve been left relatively alone when it comes to

passes.”

Billie swallowed and pulled out her phone, looking down at the

screen. She was distracted for a moment but then shook her head,

coming back to the conversation. “People either respect or fear JB.

They know he isn’t going to allow any shit like that, so they are as

polite as their minds will let them be.”

Holly looked down at JB. “So, what you’re saying is that you are

actually a giant cockblock.”

JB sighed. “Trust me, you will thank me in the end for it.”

Holly put her hands up, chuckling. “Oh, I’m not complaining, just

making sure I have it right. You aren’t over here hoarding all the

women under the pretense of having manners. You really do expect

the patrons to have some level of fucking class.”

JB shrugged. “I try, at least, although the first idea seems like a

lot more fun. Maybe I should have tried that from the beginning—

hoarding all the ladies for my own pleasure. I needed you around

with these ideas ten years ago, dammit.”

Billie just smirked and put her phone back in her pocket. “I’m

going to go talk to one of my contacts who knows Salinger Jacobs

from Heavy Metal. Or at least he knew him some time ago, so that

should be a help.”

JB nodded. “Let me know when you are back in the house.

Drinks on me.”

Billie smiled as she walked toward the back door of the office.

“This is why I keep you around.”

She flipped up her black hood and pressed on the door, opening

it easily and stepping out into the blowing sand. The door slammed

shut behind her and Holly narrowed her eyes. “I am starting to think

she is fucking with me.”

JB tilted his head to the side. “Is that door locked now?”

Holly walked over and pushed on the door, letting out a grunt.

“Yep, locked and not budging.”

JB just laughed. “You’ll get used to her after a while. Sneaking up

out of nowhere, popping around corners—it’s all part of her game.”

Holly sat down in the old green chair and leaned forward. “It’s

important at this point that you get some rest, even if that means

sitting back here. Things are getting worse, and the worse they get,

the harder it will be for us to take care of the situation.”

JB rolled his eyes. “Now I have three Paulas on my ass.”

Holly slapped his good knee. “It’s good for you. I also think it’s

good for you to have Wild Bill here. Your face was full of more than

shock.”

JB rubbed his face. “To be honest, I was shocked as fuck. I

always knew she was out there somewhere doing what she does,

but to see her standing in front of me...that was a lot. It means more

than you know to have her and you looking out for me, but it is just a

little strange to me that she is putting her ass on the line for this. I

know I saved her life, but she repaid that debt a long time ago. And it

wasn’t even me, it was Gabrielle.”

Holly nodded, leaning back and crossing her legs. “Right, but if

she’s here, that means it’s more than important to get this stuff taken

care of. Obviously, if she’s here, it’s serious.”

JB groaned. “And if she came knocking on your door, even more

so. She’s not known to seek help on things. She usually takes them

on head-first on her own.”

Holly smiled. “So you’ll take it easy for a while? At least while we

are figuring all this out?”

JB breathed deeply through his nose. “I suppose. I know when to

say when, and I’m at that point now. I don’t like to admit that, of

course, but you guys came at the perfect time. Every morning it’s

been harder to get up and come to the bar to work. The pain has

been insane, and the alcohol no longer touches it. I can’t be wasted

all the time.”

Holly laughed, standing up and turning the chair back around.

“Sounds like my kind of retirement—Lounging around drinking my

ass off in another world. Of course, I would prefer it without the weird

purple leg.”

JB shook his head. “If you don’t get on this, I’m going to have a

weird purple dick. That’s when I’ll throw in the towel.”

Holly wrinkled her nose. “That would not be a surprise I would

want to get as a woman. All hot and bothered, taking off some guy’s

pants and his dick looks like Barney the Dinosaur? Talk about a

mood killer.”

JB laughed hard. “Maybe I could sign up with the carnies and go

on a road trip? See the purple-dicked man.”

Holly patted him on the shoulder. “I don’t think I would personally

pay money to see that, but I know a lot of people who would.

Anyway, let me get out there and get to Paula. We need to sling

some drinks.”

JB reached up and patted her hand. “Thank you.”

Holly smirked. “I bet you’re glad I rambled in here a week ago.”

She winked at JB and walked over to the door, unlocking it and

heading out of the office. JB sat in the chair for a moment, looking off

in the distance with a smile on his face. “Sure as hell am.”

Paula poured three shots and slid them across the bar to the

patrons, then collected the money, typing the sale into the register

and putting the money away. When she turned around, she put her

arms out. “Who’s next? What you got? Throw it at me.”

One of the guys chuckled. “You heard her, boys. Throw ‘em at

her.”

Paula narrowed her eyes. “If it starts raining dicks behind this bar,

I might have some weird shit to explain to the boss when he gets

back out here. Keep those bad boys in your pants.”

Holly laughed as she turned the corner, grabbing a bar towel and

wiping up the mess on the back counter. Paula walked over, her

back to the patrons. “You on bar duty today?”

Holly glanced up at Paula. “Mmhmm. Just letting the boss take a

rest day.”

Paula raised her eyebrow. Holly finished wiping up and leaned

toward her, whispering, “I know about JB and his injury. He showed it

to me a few minutes ago. I know that every day it’s getting worse.”

Paula hung her head. “Dammit…”

Holly looked at her curiously. “What’s wrong?”

Paula let out a deep breath and tapped her hands on the counter

top. “I’ve been trying my best to look after him. I’ve been calling in

doctors, taking him to the appointments, and trying to make sure he

wasn’t doing too much.”

Holly put her hand on Paula’s shoulder. “And you’ve been doing

an amazing job.”

Paula nodded. “Yeah, but if you know, that means it isn’t getting

any better. I was hoping that one of these treatments was going to

magically make him well. At the same time, though, I knew if it were

something that came from the Zoo, then human medicine was going

to be pretty pointless. You still have hope, though.”

Holly understood. “Well, now you have me to share the burden.

We want to give him as much time to rest as we can while other

things are being worked on to help him.”

Paula raised an eyebrow and put up her hands. “I don’t want to

know the rest, but I don’t mind working extra. We can split up his

shifts, and I can rearrange the waitresses on the floor so I don’t have

to be out there all the time.”

Holly nodded. “Let’s try to make it so you aren’t picking up

everything. I’m not working on anything but my own personal

research right now. That can wait, and I can focus on keeping this

place going. Doesn’t mean JB won’t come back into the mix, but we

want to let him relax for as long as possible.”

Paula completely agreed, and the two worked out a plan to keep

the bar going and comfortable for both of them. When they were

done, Paula looked her up and down. “So, do you know what you’re

doing?”

Holly chuckled, grabbing a glass and flipping it around. “I’ve been

behind a bar a few times.”

Just then one of the guys yelled, “Hey, gimme a Singapore Sling,

simple on the rocks.”

Paula handed Holly the shaker and nodded. “Let’s see what you

got, Toots.”

Holly giggled and went to work, moving from station to station.

She filled the shaker cup with ice and grabbed the pineapple juice.

Pouring it from close to far away, she added two shots of the juice,

followed by a little over one shot of gin. She flipped a lime wedge in

the air and caught it behind her back, squeezing it into the cup.

Putting on the lid, she shook it hard, moving her hips like she was

dancing.

Paula lifted her eyebrows as Holly strained the drink into a Collins

glass and finished it up with a splash of seltzer and a spoonful of

grenadine. She waited until the grenadine had sunk to the bottom

and garnished it with a lime wedge and a cherry. She twisted the

wrapper from the straw and stuck it down into the drink before

pushing it to the guy at the end who had ordered it.

Paula put her hands on her hips and stared at the guy as he took

a long sip. “Well?”

The guy smacked his lips. “Probably the best one I’ve ever had.

This chick knows what the hell she’s doing.”

After that Paula didn’t ask any more questions, and they went to

work filling orders and talking shit to the patrons. Holly stood on the

right side, drying glasses and listening to new stories from a few

guys and a couple gals at the end of the bar. They were all about the

heroic Heavy Metal mercs. They talked about shit from doing

backflips while you cut off locust heads to a guy who had used the

spine of a jag to stab a dino. She wasn’t sure how true any of it was,

but it was definitely entertaining to listen to.

One guy put his hands up and dropped his shoulders. “This

motherfucker was huge—I’m talking bodybuilder on steroids. He

fucking slit the jag’s neck, grabbed it by its tail, and ripped the

fucking spine right out of it. He broke one of the long pieces across

his knee and met the dino in the middle. Of course, they sparred a

bit, but in the end, he took that bone and jabbed it straight into the

dino’s throat. Shit was bananas. He collected the goop from it and

got his money. I heard he split after that. Moved back to wherever he

came from and lives the lavish life now.”

One of the women snorted. “Or he lives a life of coke and

whores.”

The guy shrugged. “That sounds fucking lavish to me. I’m not

even gonna lie.”

The front door cracked open and Holly looked over, finding the

two guys JB had tossed out the day before trying to sneak in. “Hey!

Are the two of you complete imbeciles? One week—that’s what the

boss fucking said. That’s as many days as the fingers on both your

fucking hands! Now get out of here before I put my boot in your ass

to move you.”

The guys quickly backed out and slammed the door. Paula

laughed, walking up beside her and drying her hands off. “Ten?”

Holly shrugged with a smirk. “They can’t count, so I don’t want to

make them subtract three. They might cut off their fingers to make it

happen.”

Paula laughed. “You fit in just right around here.”

One of the guys looked at Paula. “Hey, let’s have Holly do

another drinking contest. She goes until she gets one wrong. When

she does, she has to give it to someone at the bar. Paula makes the

drinks.”

Paula looked at Holly. “What do you say? You up for it?”

Holly shrugged and turned to the guys. “All right, but if I win,

every one of you has to tip us twenty bucks. If anyone stumps me,

they keep the money.”

The people at the bar glanced at each other and each pulled out

a twenty, setting it in front of her. “Fine, but we pick the drinks, tell

Paula, and she makes them. Otherwise, you bitches will cheat up a

storm.”

Paula threw her head back. “Ha! They got our fucking number,

Holly.”

Holly gave the guys a thumbs-up and Paula made her way over

to them, taking the first two drinks and jotting them down on her

hand. They started out simple, giving her drinks like martinis,

margaritas, and anything else they had heard of somewhere along

the way in a bar. After about ten easy ones, they got out their

phones, researching drinks to try to stump her any way they could.

Holly thought it was funny. They didn’t care if they lost their

twenty bucks; most of them planned on tipping that much anyway.

They wanted to be the one who got that smart Holly to mess up.

They also found it incredibly hot to watch this young tanned girl

behind the bar, taking shots and spouting off shit half of them didn’t

even understand.

Number nineteen was harder than the others, but she got all of

the ingredients. “And grenadine beneath the blue curacao.”

Everyone groaned. One of the guys put up his hand, handing

Paula a ripped piece of paper with the ingredients on it. She lifted an

eyebrow and shrugged, hiding from Holly as she mixed the drink.

When she was done, she slid it over to her. Holly put one hand down

on the counter and took a deep breath, starting to feel the effects of

nineteen sips, gulps, and sniffs of liquor.

She put it to her lips and wrinkled her forehead. She went

through the obvious flavors, the liquor, the fillers, and the bubbly

Sprite on top. The guy shook his head. “One more ingredient you’re

missing.”

Holly tasted it again, smacking her lips together. She opened one

eye and looked at the people staring at her with anticipation.

“Orange juice?”

The guy let out a loud buzzer sound from his throat. “It was

grapefruit!”

The whole bar cheered and booed at the same time. Holly

laughed and passed the drink over to the guy. “Well, I can’t be a

winner every time, right?”

Paula smirked as she slid the stack of money toward him. He

laughed and pushed it back to her. “Thank you. It has been a

pleasure doing business with you.”

Everyone sat back down as Holly picked up a cheese stick and

munched, looking at the handful of cash Paula had. “Holy crap, they

would have kept going all day.”

H

C H A P T E R F I V E

olly walked through the bottom door outside of the shop and

closed and locked it behind her. It was really late, so late that

barely anyone was on the street anymore. Either they were home

sleeping, in the Zoo camping, or at FUBAR, too drunk to realize it

was time to go the fuck home. She looked up the stairs and let out a

loud groan as she pulled her legs one at a time up the creaking

steps. She put her key in the top door and kicked it open, dragging

herself through and hitting the light switch.

She looked around and let out a deep breath, glad that she was

finally home. She hadn’t worked like that since college. Not to

mention she’d been half drunk all night, continuing to take shots with

Paula so the buzz wouldn’t wear off and send her crashing to sleep

behind the bar. She locked her front door and tossed the keys to the

side, staring at the bed and then at the shower. Holly lifted the front

of her shirt to her nose and grimaced, smelling the remnants of

alcohol on her collar. Her hair was stringy and hardened from

splashed juices, and her boots stuck to the floor as she walked.

She sighed as she peeled off her shirt and tossed it on the floor



before going into the bathroom. The water was hot, and the pressure

was good since Amanda wasn’t working below. She let the steam

surround her and the alcohol rush out her pores. She had a lot on

her mind, but at that point in the night, it was all jumbled to the point

where she couldn’t figure out what was most important to focus on.

Holly finished up in the shower, taking her time to smell the sweet

floral fragrances that came from her body wash and then lotion once

she had stepped out onto the cold tile floor. She pulled on a pair of

pajamas and took the time to blow-dry her hair. She hated a wet

head in her bed, especially with sand blowing all over the place.

When she was finished, she let out an exhausted breath and

headed to bed, falling face-first into the fluffy comforter. She groaned

as she pulled the covers up over her and snuggled in, wrapping her

arms around the extra pillow. It didn’t take long for her to pass out;

the combination of alcohol and exhaustion had done her in. She

slept hard, not dreaming as she usually did. Her mind had a habit of

taking the things it remembered from the stories and reenacting

them in her sleep. This night though, it was just hard slumber.

Several hours later she rolled over in the bed, reaching across

and turning the clock toward her. She groaned, seeing that it was

four in the morning. She lay there face-down in the pillow, wondering

what could have possibly roused her from such a deep sleep. She

knew she’d been out hard; the crust of drool on her cheek was prime

evidence.

Just as she was about to curl up and fall back to sleep, she heard

the squeaking of the desk chair across the room. She kept her head

in place but her eyes opened wide, staring into the darkness. The

chair squeaked again and Holly slowly turned over, looking at the

dark silhouette of someone sitting in front of the window at her desk.

She gasped and jumped from the bed, running across the room and

flipping on the light switch.

As soon as she did, Billie swiveled around in the chair and gave

her a huge smile. Holly grabbed her chest and stomped her bare feet

on the ground. “God, don’t you knock?”

Billie chuckled, looking at the ceiling. “Door was open, so I

figured you wanted me to come in.”

Holly stared at the door, the lock firmly in place. She put her

finger to her mouth, replaying her steps when she came in. She

swore she had locked the door, but then again, she’d only been halfalive

at that point. She could have turned the knob on the dresser

and thought it was the lock on the door. At that point, she wasn’t sure

if Hickok was lying. Holly made a mental note to do better at locking

it from then on. She didn’t know what kind of freaks could follow her

back to her place.

After a minute of contemplation, Holly finally gave up, walking

over and grabbing her robe off the back of the bathroom door. She

slipped it on and then climbed onto the end of the bed, leaning her

head against the poster at the end. She yawned loudly, suddenly

remembering how exhausted she was.

Billie smirked. “You were sleeping really hard. There were a few

moments of mumbles, but the rest was just snoring.”

Holly narrowed her eyes. “How long have you been here? And I

don’t snore!”

Billie shrugged. “Whatever you say, princess. I’ve been here a

little while. I got done with my research and figured you needed to

know the details. I scoped out FUBAR, but you were already gone,

and it was too quiet for me to sneak in and out without being seen.”

Holly rolled her eyes. “Don’t you ever sleep?”

Billie picked at a thread on her jacket sleeve. “Ghosts don’t get

tired.”

Holly wiped her eyes. “Mmhmm. So, you have me awake and

ready to go now...kind of. What did you find out about Salinger?”

Billie spun back and forth in the chair. “Well, I found out that

Salinger does know that there are healing properties in the petals of

the Pita plants. Apparently, when he was out with his team before

Heavy Metal, he was able to make a serum of sorts from goop and

saline, although he admitted it probably wasn’t as effective as it

might be with only those two ingredients.”

Holly put out her hands. “That’s great. We just need some Pita

petals and we will be all set. It shouldn’t take more than a few hours

to make something like that.”

Billie shook her head. “Hold on now, I’m not done. He told me

that in order to really cure something, to really give it what it needs,

you have to take the goop from the whole plant. There isn’t enough

goop in the petals of a few flowers to make a true healing solution for

anything other than maybe a scrape.”

Holly slumped. “But that’s impossible. The only way you get a

whole plant is by paying big money and having it airlifted out. I mean,

even then you have a twenty-five percent chance of actually making

it. I have money, but not that kind of money. How in the world did he

get one out?”

Billie shrugged again, raising her eyebrows. “He probably took it

and brought it out. I’ve heard rumors that he brought out a very

young plant, one too young to produce the pheromone, then nursed

it and grew it until he could extract from it.”

Holly slapped the bed. “We don’t have that kind of time. I mean,

by the time the thing got big enough, even if we could keep it a

secret that long, JB would be either an alien or dead.”

Billie reached in her jacket and pulled out a flask, taking a sip.

“You know, you should really learn to calm those tits. You get so

riled. It’s a problem, yes, I agree. Problems are good, though,

because there is almost always a solution. We just have to figure out

what that solution is.”

Holly looked up excitedly. “What about the beasts they call dinos?

Those have goop in their necks.”

Billie shook her head. “I asked, but apparently it’s not quite the

same as what comes from the Pitas. He didn’t know what would

happen if we used that kind. Pitas have the pure stuff; the stuff we

can use to heal him long-term.”

Holly bit the inside of her lip and hopped from the bed, beginning

to pace. “So, what we need to even start this process is goop.

According to Salinger, the goop is the key to healing, even though he

isn’t really sure how it works. Not that he would know. He’s a

biologist, not a biochemist. In any case, he has seen it with his own

eyes.”

She paced back and forth but finally stopped, looking at Billie.

“So, hold on…if he knows this, then these companies must know it

too.”

Billie yawned. “What companies?”

Holly ignored her pretense of being uninterested. “The

companies that have been paying money out the ass to get the goop

and do research on it. They must know that the goop has the ability

to heal people.”

Billie laughed. “Right, so I’ll just go over to one and knock on the

door and ask them to share their findings with us. I mean, they’ll be

more than happy, right?”

Holly groaned. “No. They’ll never share that with anyone. It’s

probably the exact reason why my company has been hounding me

to take the contract to go into the Zoo. They don’t care about flavors

for their alcohol, they want the goop. Fuckers. Or maybe not... I don’t

know anything at this point.”

Billie raised an eyebrow again. “There you go, being dramatic

again. You are going to give yourself a stroke one of these days. I

don’t know why you give two shits about these companies. Seriously,

they don’t care about any of us. They didn’t collect the goop and do

the research to help people. Please. Those sonsofbitches got it so

they can make a payday and buy themselves more yachts and

prostitutes. That’s what I never understood about some of these

mercenaries.”

Holly sat back down. “They want a payday like anyone else. It’s

the next gold rush.”

Billie shook her head. “That’s not what I mean. These people go

above and beyond for the companies. Jump through hoops to fulfill

contracts. They are loyal to the man, and the man would rather have

shot them dead than actually pay out for some of those contracts.

They hoped they would find someone good to get the goop but that

they would only survive a couple of times. Then they wouldn’t have

to adjust the rates and lose money. They could move on to the next

die-hard rookie to get a few more gallons of their precious goop for

them.”

Holly looked at her, surprised. “Man, for a person who is in some

sort of merc business, you sure hate the man.”

Billie sighed. “I don’t hate the man, but when you’re in my line of

work…”

Holly lifted an eyebrow. “Oh yeah, and what line of work is that?”

Billie ignored her question. “You meet a lot of powerful people

who do terrible things with their money. Like the mercenaries,

though, you usually turn the other cheek. You never know when that

douche bag will be the next one paying your bills. But being loyal to

them is just plain fucking stupid.”

Holly nodded, throwing up her fist. “Preach it, sister. Down with

corporate America!”

Billie scoffed. “If you think it’s just America, you got another think

coming. The majority of the wealth lies with families in royal

bloodlines like the Saudis. They are the ones who control everything.

The Chinese—they have the lockdown on the technology. They are

the ones I think will crack the code of the Zoo first.”

Holly wrinkled her forehead. “The code?”

Billie looked at Holly with amusement. “Yeah, the code. The

reason that the Zoo can be good for us. Not just the goop, but yes,

the goop is the mainstay in the whole thing. We don’t know if this

missile was an act of war or a gift. We see death as bad, so we

assume it was hostile, but what if the goop is the secret to our

existence? It would make sense.”

Holly cleared her throat and shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

“You sound kind of like a conspiracy theorist. You know, those tin-hat

people?”

Billie chuckled. “God, if they knew what I know, the whole world

would implode. Except for the damn Flat Earthers. They are just

complete morons.”

Holly giggled. “So, if the information we need—the shortcut to

helping JB—is with the companies, how are we going to even start to

get our hands on it? I know just from being in the business I’m in

there are secret departments of companies no one knows about.”

Billie smirked. “We shove the ball gag right in the metaphorical

mouth of one of these bitches. We give them what they stole from

the people.”

Holly pursed her lips. “You’re freaking me out with the ball-gag

shit.”

Billie stood up and waved her hands around. “Don’t you get it? If

they aren’t going to hand over information that will save lives, then I

will take my ass to them and snatch it right out of their pockets.”

Holly immediately became wary. “Look, I want to save JB just as

much as you and Paula, but I don’t know if stealing from one of

these companies is smart. These people will murder for the rights to

the goop. They will hunt down anyone who tries to fuck with them.

We might save JB, but then the rest of us get a bullet in our heads

while we’re sleeping.”

Billie waved her hands. “They’ll torture you first and then put a

bullet in your head. Trust me, you’ll be wide awake for it.”

Holly opened her mouth to ask how she knew but thought better

of it. She shook her head and put up her hands. “I just don’t want to

go to prison or be murdered. That’s my concern.”

Billie smiled almost giddily. “If they won’t give us what we want

when we ask, we will take it without asking. Trust me, I’m pretty sure

I know who has the information you need, and hopefully they haven’t

updated their security since the last time I was there…”

Billie’s voice trailed off, and she rubbed her chin. She was deep

in thought, and Holly was slightly terrified about what was running

through her mind. “Um, just how much stealing stuff have you done?

And for Christ’s sake, who do you do this all for?”

Billie blinked and turned toward her. “I am a ghost for a reason. I

don’t discuss what I do, what I’ve done, and who I do it for. I’ve never

revealed the secret, and I never will. If you are too scared to help

with this, I can find someone who won’t be.”

Holly swallowed hard and shook her head. “No. Calm down,

Rambo, okay? I just was asking a question. Besides, you should

always have a cautious one on the team to calm the situation.”

Billie laughed. “You’re right. My tech guy is usually that person. I

guess you are his replacement for the time being.”

Holly groaned. “As long as I don’t have to watch you do a weird

striptease on a pole, I’m fine with that. I probably won’t be helpful

until you get me the information, but hey, whatever I can do to save

JB’s life…”

Billie rubbed her hands together. “Good. This shouldn’t be hard,

and I should have your information in the next day or less. I just want

to make sure you are ready to see it when it happens.”

Holly nodded, watching Billie gather her things and walk to the

door. “Don’t tell a soul about what we talked about, not even JB. Do

you understand? The future of this project will depend on it.”

Holly shook her head, holding onto the bedpost. Billie walked out,

slamming the door behind her. Holly sank back down on the bed and

sighed. Her eyes flashed to her door and she walked over, carefully

tugging on the handle. “Locked! How the fuck does she do that?!”

H

C H A P T E R S I X

ickok stood on the edge of town with her hood up and the

bandana covering her face. She kept her head down, the wind

blowing sand all around her. The sun wasn’t up yet, and she was

right where her contact had told her to be. As she stood there in the

cold desert morning, a large white cargo van came rolling through

the empty streets. As it approached, the driver pumped the brakes

and rolled his window down slightly.

Billie stepped forward and handed him an envelope of cash. He

took it and thumbed through it before nodding toward the back of the

van. She went around, the back door swinging open as she got to it.

She climbed inside and grabbed the guy inside by the jacket,

bringing his ear to her lips. “Tíng zài Shou-Canter gōngyè de

biānyuán.”

The guy nodded and closed the back door, pushing her past

several people pressed against the sides. The driver looked in his

rearview window and nodded at Billie before taking off. The shuttle

wasn’t one of the legal ones. It took people like her, and others

escaping bad luck at the camp, over to the Chinese encampment.

They weren’t too far away, and they would be released in different

spots along the edge of town. There was Security at the gate, but

they were easily paid off if you knew the right ones. Billie had

instructed them to drop her at the far corner of the Shou-Canter

Industry building. It was a joint Chinese and American company

doing research on the goop.

They were the ones who would know exactly what Billie needed

to find out.

When the van reached its destination, Billie dropped out of the

back and strolled up to the corner where there was the least security.

She put down her duffel and changed clothes, putting on her suit and

HUD. It had the maps and information she needed to maneuver

through the building. The only difference was that this time, her guy

wouldn’t be in her ear.

She programmed her HUD and focused on the cameras along

the path leading to the back door. In a deep tone to mimic her

operations guy, she clicked her aimed EMP button. “One click and

the signal will be cut for approximately forty-two seconds. And...go.”

Billie took off, making sure to keep low but move quickly up the

path to the back door. She looked back and forth and pulled a card

key out of her pocket, sliding it through the lock. The buttons glowed,

and she looked up at the dim light on the camera. Finally, the door

clicked and she snuck inside, closing it firmly but quietly as the green

light clicked back on. Staying low, she moved down the hall, taking

out any camera her HUD found before she got to it.

She came up to a corner and straightened, pressing her back to

the wall. “This would be a fucking lot easier if my partner hadn’t been

such a pussy and was here to fucking help. But nooo, here I am all

by my fucking self.”

Billie pulled up the spy drone screen in her HUD and began

programming the devices to detach from her gear. “Okay, what the

hell is around this corner?”

She lowered her voice, pretending to be Operations. “I’m

probably eating a pizza right now, watching tech porn with the latest

server chip. It’s going down to infinitesimally small lines that

increased the computational effort a full 2.1% over last year. I’m

going to…to...Ohhhh GOOODDD…”

Billie snickered, imaging her operations guy blowing his load over

a technology show on his screen. “He’s sitting all alone with his

fucking gadgets while I’m in enemy territory trying to steal shit. I

swear I picked the wrong job. I should have been a stripper or

something.”

The screen showed her the images from the spy drones. They

moved precisely, staying just above the cameras’ line of sight. She

narrowed her eyes, finding the cameras pointing to the same exact

locations they had the last time she had come here. That was a good

thing, since she knew the moves to get through without anyone

noticing. She couldn’t use her EMPs on those; if the screens went

down for even a few seconds, an alarm would sound. She was in an

area of the building that was pretty tight on security. Luckily there

weren’t any workers milling about. In about an hour, though, there

would be, so she needed to get a move on.

Billie clicked a button on her watch and set a timer for the exact

moment the camera swiveled. At eight seconds she got down low,

and at eleven she rolled across the hall and pressed her back to the

wall. She waited three more seconds and duckwalked in a zigzag

through the corridor, and at twenty-two seconds she rolled forward,

hitting the end of the hall right below the cameras.

She smiled to herself and clicked off the timer, then slid her card

key through the lock. She waited several agonizing seconds before it

unlocked and carefully opened the door behind her. She cracked the

door open and crouched, going inside. There were no cameras in

the room, and something told her that the workers were doing things

in there they wanted no record of.

She chuckled in pride as she walked over to the desk. “I don’t

need no help. I did it all on my own.”

As she sauntered, her shoulder hit one of the screens and nearly

knocked it off the table. She turned quickly and caught it, closing her

eyes and breathing heavily. “Okay, maybe I should calm the fuck

down with my big ego before I wreck myself.”

She carefully pushed the screen back onto the desk. As she was

about to move on, the light from her headlamp caught a series of

numbers written on a Post-it beneath a large tabletop calendar that

had been shifted in her stupid move. She went around the desk and

narrowed her eyes, looking at the screen. Shrugging, she put her

fingers on the keyboard and began entering the information into the

login screen. “It’s worth a try, I guess.”

The screen clicked open and she chuckled. “Good sleuthing

skills, Hickok.” That was Operations Guy.

She changed to her own voice. “Why, thank you. It’s nice to be

recognized for my brilliance once in a while. Now, what to put the

information on.”

She patted her suit, realizing she hadn’t brought anything to save

what she found. She rolled her eyes and looked around the room,

finding labeled drawers at the back. She went over and scanned the

writing. “Printer paper, pens, staples…no, not what I need.”

Billie ran her finger down to the bottom drawer and stopped,

opening it. “Aha, just what I was looking for.”

Piled neatly in the drawer was a shit-ton of blank flash drives.

She grabbed the one with the most memory and ripped open the

package, tossing the trash in the can. She closed the drawer and

headed back to the desk, settling herself in the chair, then rolled her

shoulders and furrowed her brow, looking at the chair. “Fucking

ergonomically designed bullshit. Not comfortable in the least.”

She went straight to the files she needed, finding them relatively

easily considering they were supposed to be top secret. Inside the

system, everything seemed to be labeled exactly what it was, only in

Chinese and not American. She pushed the flash drive into the

computer and began the download. “Good thing I know Mandarin,

suckers.”

As she waited for the download, she leaned the chair back and

looked around the desk. She picked up a flyer talking about a big

tech convention in town, rolled her eyes, and tossed it back down.

“Fucking tech nerds. They probably went to the convention and

fondled every one of the forty-eight-inch high-level displays or

something. God, what’s it take to turn one of their heads? Give me a

good guy who loves sports. Easy to get their attention.”

She picked up a picture on the desk, looking at the guy. He was

wearing a Shou Industries polo and hugging some pretty girl. “Well,

apparently not all of them are incapable of relationships...unless

that’s his sister.”

She looked at the picture again, refusing to believe that her

operations guy was the only one with the weird fetish. “Yeah, it’s

probably his sister. His girlfriend is probably virtual.”

Billie put the picture back down and looked around the office,

waiting for the download to finish. There was a steady beeping and

she sat up straight, then slowly put one knee on the floor and

crawled between the cubicles until she reached the source of the

sound. On the counter was a coffee maker set to a specific time to

begin the brew. She rolled her eyes and got back up, looking at the

time on her HUD.

It was getting too close for comfort. She liked to be in and out of

places long before anyone else had a chance to decide coming in

early would be a good idea. She hurried back over to the computer

and flicked the mouse, looking at the download time. “Come on,

move faster. For a tech company, they sure haven’t mastered

download speed. I could download on my Mac tablet faster than this.

Unfortunately hacking it wasn’t an option because SOMEONE

couldn’t help me out in this scenario.”

Billie tapped her fingers on the desk, looking down at the Post-it

with the username and password on it. She shook her head and

chuckled. “Seriously, what moron would really leave their password

written under their calendar pad? Someone is going to get fired

today, and his name is…”

She picked up a memo from his inbox. “Shozan Chin. Sorry,

buddy, but don’t worry—your virtual girlfriend probably has a setting

to make you feel better.”

At the bottom of the Post-it, Shozan had written DO NOT STEAL!

Billie chuckled, shaking her head. “Well, shit, at least this guy seems

to have a sense of humor. That’s more than I can say for my guy.”

She pushed the calendar back up and fixed his desk. The longer

she could keep the company from noticing that someone had

downloaded the information, the more time she had to make it back

to the others. With her ability to sneak in and out, it might take them

more than a day, which was ample time. They would have no idea

that it had been her.

She plopped back down in the chair and flipped through the

screens on her HUD. There were old messages archived from her

guy, usually yelling at her for turning her HUD sensors off during an

operation. Sometimes she just needed the silence of the moment to

think things through. It didn’t always go smoothly. When she had to

improvise, having him yelling in her ear was a major distraction.

She sighed, thinking about it. If she hadn’t sworn to herself that

she would eventually get her operations guy to at least ask her out

on a date, her mind would be more in tune with what was going on

around her. She spent too much time daydreaming about the idiot

and not enough focusing on the job at hand. She was a warrior, after

all. She shouldn’t be stuck in ditzy teenager mode. She absolutely

loathed the fact that she had to fight for attention versus an object

that was upgraded every year. Meanwhile, she had to struggle to be

as good this year as last. Aging couldn’t be turned back like it could

be for the systems he worked with, or at least not yet.

She looked at the download and wondered if the information it

contained would have clues to the goop properties being able to

improve or enhance performance. She could be like a real-life robot,

getting a dose of goop and suddenly becoming the next-generation

spy. She shook her head, realizing she was allowing her brain to go

through a complete wormhole of technobabble.

She groaned and watched the download count down the

seconds. “I’m starting to sound like him. Not a good look for me.”

Finally, the download was complete, and she pulled out the drive.

She held it up to her mask and smiled before slipping it into a secret

armored compartment on her suit. Even if they took her down, they

would never find the information she had stolen. Her suit was

impressive, despite the fact that the HUD still flickered from time to

time. She had thought that with the new upgrades it would stop, but

years later she was still slapping her helmet in the middle of a black

ops mission.

Billie took a deep breath and headed out of the room, careful not

to leave anything behind. She cracked open the door and peeked

out. No one had come in yet, but she knew they would soon. She

moved carefully through the crack in the door and let it quietly shut

behind her. She pressed her back to the door and set the timer in her

watch again. In reverse order, she moved down the hall, rolling,

duckwalking, and then rolling again. As she made her last roll, she

sent out an EMP charge to the camera around the corner.

As she swerved around the corner, the camera went off and she

took off down the hallway. She had to move fast and get back

outside the building and out into the desert. She’d paid the van to

pick her up somewhere out there. She would walk until they came

by.

Moving through the maze of hallways, she paused at the edge of

each one, peering with her spy drones for any sign of movement or

life. The halls were clear, and the EMP was taking care of any other

technological threat without affecting the company as a whole. It was

brilliant. It would only show a momentary issue with the cameras, not

the technology in the building. No one would ever figure it had been

an electrical pulse. The technology was top secret.

Billie reached the last hall and took off down it, getting to the

door. She slightly opened the door and paused, hearing voices

outside. Two guys were smoking cigarettes. “Yeah, there is a video

card. It’s pretty pricey, but you can watch porn in 3D.”

The other guy scoffed. “Please. There is a whole virtual reality set

up now. You can buy the doll, which is connected to the computer to

move like whoever is in the VR simulation you have. It’s like fucking

a real chick, only you don’t have to drop any lame pickup lines. It’s

pretty much tits, bro.”

Billie lifted an eyebrow and looked behind her. Come on, you

morons. Finish up and get the hell out of here.

One of the guys blew a smoke ring over his head. “Are you going

to the technology convention in town? I heard they are pulling out all

the stops for this bitch, like something we would find back home.”

The other guy scoffed, dropping his cig and stomping on it. “Fuck

yeah, I am. I heard from one of the HR girls that they are going to

have forty-eight-inch high-level displays on everything. And you will

be able to try out the newest VR that allows you to work from home

with whoever in the office is connected through the same system.”

The first guy put out his smoke. “That would be the shit. I could

make my avatar wear clothes but personally be in my living room

butt-ass naked.”

The guys started to walk away. “That’s gross, dude. Remind me

not to shake your virtual hand.”

Billie tapped her foot, waiting for them to disappear around the

corner of the building. She slid through the door and out to the path

leading to the edge of town. She moved carefully, shoving her HUD

into her duffel. She didn’t take the time to change again, so she just

slipped on her boots and headed into the desert, wanting to get as

far away as she could.

“D

C H A P T E R S E V E N

id you get the list of stuff I left on the desk?” Hickok said as

Holly came out of her bathroom drying her hair.

Holly gasped and closed her eyes, shaking her head. “Seriously,

you need to stop doing that.”

Billie shrugged. “And you need to learn to lock your doors.”

Holly’s mouth flew open, and she stumbled through some

inaudible words before pouting and throwing her towel on the bed.

“At least I put clothes on before I came out here. You would have

gotten a real show.”

Billie snickered. “Please, like I haven’t seen a naked woman a

million times in my life.”

Holly lifted an eyebrow. “Hey, I’m not judging. To each his own.”

Billie rolled her eyes. “Did you get the stuff?”

Holly sighed. “What, you mean the air-gapped computer and the

weird shady-ass program from the guy who was waiting on the

corner for me with a brown paper sack? Yeah, I got all that. Plus, as

an added bonus for my efforts, I got a real good whiff of body odor I

was not prepared for. Your people need to learn about hygiene.”

Billie took the computer out of the box. “Not my people. Just

contacts along the way.”

She put the flash drive from the guy on the corner in and ran the

program. Holly looked over her shoulder. “What are you doing?”

Billie typed in a code and pressed Enter. “These computers try to

pick up wi-fi even if you turn it off, then anyone can hack your system

and see what you are doing stroke for stroke. That is not what we

need to happen. Most likely when the company finds out information

was stolen, they will have professional hackers in every town

scanning for anyone who might be looking at this info. This program

puts up an invisible cement wall. They won’t be able to look through

it, and they also won’t even know it’s there. That way they don’t get

suspicious.”

Holly lifted her eyebrows. “Wow, that’s pretty fucking intense.”

The computer dinged and Billie pulled the first drive out and

dropped it on the floor, smashing it under her boot. Holly cringed.

“Careful with the floors, man. My landlord will shit herself if I fuck this

place up.”

Billie ignored her and picked up the pieces, pouring them into

Holly’s hand. “Throw that in the trash.”

Holly sneered and walked over, pressing the foot pedal on the

trash can and tossing the little metal and plastic pieces into the bin.

Billie put the other drive into the computer and put in the password

she remembered from the desk. The files opened, and she moved to

the side.

Holly walked up with wide eyes, taking a seat and pulling the

computer in front of her. “Is this the information?”

Billie laughed. “I sure as fuck hope so. Everything is labeled in

Chinese, but when you click the folders, the titles are also in English.

This should start you in the right direction.”

Holly nodded and started clicking. She glanced back at Billie,

who was wandering in the small kitchenette area. “I have some food

in the fridge and cabinets. There is a coffee maker there, and the

coffee is in the freezer. You are more than welcome to anything you

find.”

Billie waved. “Thanks. Appreciate it.”

The time went by with Billie pacing the floor behind Holly, eating

oatmeal and waiting for her to find what she needed. Holly kept her

attention on the screen, reading through the information as fast as

she could. The company knew how to create certain goop salves to

help with various ailments, but their big project was something that

would continue the existence of humanity for a very long time. They

weren’t there yet, though, and couldn’t figure out the last bit of

information to get there.

As much as Holly wanted to read more about it, she focused on

the reason she was in possession of stolen information. She turned

her chair around and looked at Billie. “I can make a simple salve to

help him temporarily while we figure out the cure, but I will need Pita

petals to create it. As many as can be collected, and they need to be

fresh.”

Billie nodded and dropped her bag on the floor. “I guess I’m going

in, then. First, though, I need to rest. Nobody gets out when they go

in as beat as I am.”

Hickok stood at the entrance to the Zoo; there was no one else

around. It was dark out, the time it was easiest for her to sneak in

and out without anyone seeing her. She snapped her HUD on and

took a deep breath, then scanned through the downloaded programs

and found the Zoo. It looked like her ops guy had updated it for her

behind the scenes.

Billie smiled. “Thanks, dude.”

Of course, he wasn’t there to answer her, but she had to give

props where they were due. When she got her screen up, she put in

the coordinates from her intel of where she could easily find a Pita

patch not too far off the beaten path. Apparently some had been

picked, but of course not all of it. It was useless to the mercs looking

for a payday, but it would provide just what she needed.

Billie took a deep breath, remembering the moment when she

had been lying in the dirt, assuming she was done for. She had

looked at the stars for the first time since she was a little girl. It was

the last time she had done it, too. She had no time for frivolous

fantasies—unless of course they had to do with her ops man. Then

she was rolling through Fantasyville with a stop in Tie Me Up, Tie Me

Down Land.

Billie chuckled at her thoughts as she stepped through the veil of

the Zoo. “Choo, choo, motherfuckers.”

It had been a long time since she had been inside, but it felt both

familiar and just as dangerous as before. The enhanced colors in her

headlamp were vibrant and wild, and the vines curled over the trees.

They shifted and hissed as her light hit them, but she just ignored

them, not interested in a fight with a man-eating plant at that

moment.

She pulled up the map on her screen. “Let’s see, where am I

going? Probably some human-hunting saber-tooth beaver waiting for

me there.”

She lowered her voice like her ops guy. “Nonsense. All animals

have been digitally uploaded to your server. This baby is capable of

cataloging and updating even when you switch off. She goes all

night long.”

Billie rolled her eyes and pulled up the map, realizing she’d just

irritated herself. The Pita patch was only four clicks northwest of

where she was. She pulled her pistol and held it at the ready as she

began walking through the thick.

Curtains of vines hung down, and she carefully moved through

them into a clearer section of the jungle. “Excuse me, plants,” she

muttered. “Not trying to wake you.”

Hickok knew there were probably a dozen or more new species

of animals out there, not to mention the venomous plants that liked

to hide under the brush. She didn’t care, though. She needed to get

in and out so she could help JB. That was the most important

mission on her mind at that moment. Besides, her new armor was

state-of-the-art; a rocket launcher couldn’t pierce the shit. She was in

the mood to boot-stomp some asshole predator coming for her at

that moment. The Zoo was the reason her friend was dying, and the

Zoo was going to correct the mistake, or she would release holy hell

on the place. She wasn’t sure how, but she would nuke the fucker if

she had to.

Shit, she had connections.

As Billie stepped through the undergrowth she paused, hearing

gunshots to her right. “Computer—”

The HUD interrupted her. “My name is Isabella.”

Billie clenched her teeth, knowing her ops guy had programmed

her with that name. Talking through her teeth, Billie continued, “Okay,

Isabella, open the scans. I want to know if there are humans close

by. Sounds like a fight.”

The system did its thing, quickly coming back with results. “There

are five heat signatures four hundred yards to your right. Guns are

being fired. There are also nine C83s attacking.”

Billie furrowed her brow. “Pull up the file on C83.”

The system flashed a large picture of a long, scaled animal that

looked like a cross between a crocodile and some sort of taller fourlegged

creature. In the notes, it described the kill zone. “One armorpiercing

bullet to the throat or chest will drop the creature and kill it.

One to the head will roll it over for better access to the kill zone.”

Waving away the information, she brought her gun up and

headed toward the scene. She was still a serious adversary, even

more so than before. She was wiser, older, and full of tricks she had

learned. Not to mention, she was ready for some payback to the

fucking Zoo for all the hell it was putting her through.

She crept along the sidelines, looking through the trees. She

turned off her light and used her infrared to find the mercs and the

beasts they were fighting. A smirk moved across her lips as she

leapt into action, dodging and weaving through the trees. She fired

her weapon at the incoming crocs, hitting two in the head. Just like

the notes said, they rolled over on their backs.

Billie hadn’t brought a ton of ammo since she planned on being in

and out, so she pulled a knife and charged the rolled crocs. As she

ran, another swerved toward her. She hopped into the air and

grabbed a branch. Swinging her legs hard, she landed on top of the

croc, blasting it in the head and then leaping on top of the other two.

She jammed her knife into their throats one after the other and

sawed them open. Blue blood poured over the ground as the life left

them.

She could hear the other team continuing to shoot, but she was

unsure whether they could see her. She didn’t care, though. She was

there for her own reasons.

Hickok circled back to the third croc and raised the knife over her

head. Plunging it downward, she stabbed it in the heart, pushing as

deeply as she could until it died. She yanked the knife out and

looked up just in time to see another leaping at her. She put her

hands up and caught its jaws, slamming its mouth shut. Before the

legs could get to her, she swung the beast in a circle and launched it

into a nearby tree. She sprang after it and grabbed its head.

Reaching down to her shin, she pulled out a short sword and

stabbed it through the beast into the trunk. The croc thrashed,

banging against the tree until it went limp. She grabbed the handle of

the short sword, grunting as she yanked it back out of the tree, using

one boot for leverage, and wiped the blade off on the leaves on the

ground. She raced toward the main group and staying to the side,

fired her weapon at the crocs, helping the other soldiers control the

fight. She was dressed all in black, surging through the night like an

angel sent to help them.

When all the crocs were dead and the jungle was silent once

again, Billie stepped back into the trees and disappeared into the

dark. The only things she left behind were the stories of the ghost

and the dead croc bodies on the ground.

FUBAR was hopping that night, crews coming in and out at all hours.

Holly reached up for a bottle of liquor, looking at Paula. “I thought

people were out of the jungle by nightfall.”

Paula shrugged, pouring three shots. “Apparently some company

put a twenty-four-hour bonus on all Pitas, so teams are saying fuck it

and going in and out in the dark. I think it’s dumb.”

Holly rolled her eyes. “It is dumb. They are purposely putting

these people’s lives at stake for goop. Fucking stupid. At the same

time, though, the mercs don’t have to participate, I guess.”

Paula smiled at Holly, picking up some shots. “No, they don’t, but

money is a big incentive for a lot of them.”

Holly shook her head as she set a drink down and took payment.

She glanced at Paula as she put it in the register. “Just like

everything else in life, the rich prey on the poor.”

Paula patted her back. “Welcome to the world of big planes and

fast cars, but only for the rich people.”

Just then, the door flew open and five members of one of the

Heavy Metal teams walked in the door. They were covered in dirt

and what looked like dried goop. The bar went quiet as they walked

through, stopping at the bar and slamming a hundred-dollar bill

down. “This is to get the team started. We got one hell of a story to

tell.”

Holly took the hundred and put it in the register as Paula went to

work taking orders. Holly pulled out the beers as they yelled the

names out and set them on the bar. “What kind of story?”

The main guy was tall, with broad shoulders and huge arms. He

took a long gulp of his beer and let out a deep breath. “We just

fought a hell of a lot of crocs.”

Someone down the bar waved their hands. “What’s new? Those

bastards are taking over.”

The main guy shook his head. “That’s not the story. I don’t know if

I would be sitting here right now if it weren’t for the ghost in the

night.”

Everyone went quiet. “Like Wild Bill?”

The guy shrugged and Holly cleared her throat nervously, trying

not to let anything show on her face. “I don’t know who it was. It was

fucking pitch-black out there and we were fighting for our lives, when

out of nowhere this black-suited warrior ran through the trees and

started slashing crocs.”

One of the guys nodded, wiping beer from his beard. “They

started out with a gun, but then started just using their hands to slam

crocs all over the fucking place. They pretty much used their knife to

fucking gut the sonsofbitches while holding their jaws shut with one

hand.”

The main guy nodded. “And whoever this fucker was, they did a

backflip through the air, landed on a croc, and ripped its fucking

throat out with their bare hands.”

Another patron of the bar called, “Bullshit.”

Another guy from the team shook his head. “Fucking God’s

honest truth. This merc, whoever he was…”

The main guy raised his beer. “Or she.”

The guy nodded. “Or she. They were the most lethal thing I’ve

seen in the Zoo in a very long time. By the end of it, they had flipped

almost half the crocs, and there was nothing but heads and severed

limbs all over the ground. Then they just stepped back into the

darkness.”

The main guy shook his head. “It was fucking insane. We tried to

track them to thank ‘em, but there wasn’t any heat signature or

footprints. It was seriously like they were nothing more than a fucking

ghost out there.”

Holly looked down at the drink she was pouring and smirked,

knowing for damn sure that had to have been Billie. She had gone

out to find Pitas but made sure to send these unsuspecting mercs

back with one hell of a fucking story.

H

C H A P T E R E I G H T

ickok laughed as she turned on the heat shield so no one could

detect where she was going. She put her dagger back in its

sheath and pulled her rifle around in front of her. She was getting

close to the Pita patch, and she wanted to get the petals and get the

fuck out of there. She’d had her fun, but now it was time to go.

She paused for a moment and wrinkled her nose. “I sound like

Ops. Fuck me, getting responsible and shit.”

She continued walking, not hearing much of anything as she

went. Most of the animals were asleep; she figured the crocs had

only attacked because there were mercs out at night, which was

strange in and of itself. Billie didn’t give a shit, although she did

wonder what the guys would say when they got to FUBAR. Holly

was going to have to hold it together, hearing stories she knew were

about her. Billie didn’t think it would be a problem, though. Holly

knew it was important to keep her mouth shut.

The red dot meant the Pita plants were close. She reached a

narrow gully and jumped down, using her climbing skills to get to the

other side. When she stood up, she wiped the leaves and dirt off her

and stared at a veil of vines between her and the plants. Slowly she

moved through the hanging vines, not wanting to upset anything.

She got through them easier than she thought she would but

stopped in her tracks.

In front of her were a pair of bear-like creatures, each of them

having two heads. They stood about seven feet tall, their claws were

sharp and silver, and their fur was bright white with a long strip of

black down the back like a reverse skunk. They both snarled at her

and she slung the gun over her back again, putting up her hands.

Slowly she lowered her right hand to her dagger and unclicked it

from her belt.

She swallowed hard and stepped to the side, noting the plants

right behind them. “All right, boys, let’s just take it easy now.”

There was no fear in Billie’s heart, but she absolutely respected

the creatures. The beasts in the Zoo might be alien, but they were

alive none the less. She was in their territory; they were only doing

what was necessary to protect their home. At the same time, though,

she was protecting the people in her life who had been hurt by that

very thing.

One of the bears roared, the sound echoing through the trees.

Billie tilted her head to the side. “Now, now, just calm down for a

moment. You see those plants back there? I need those petals. I’m

not leaving here without them, so you can either get out of my way,

or you can die. The choice is pretty simple, and it is yours to make.”

As she talked, her HUD scanned the creatures, giving their stats.

They were strong and hard to kill, but if you were able to get a knife

to their throat, they died pretty easily. They were flesh and bone, just

like her. The thought was comforting since she knew they wanted to

eat her, but it also made it harder to want to take their lives. She

might have become wiser with age, but it had also brought the

realization of all the lives she had taken through the years. She

made it a point to kill only when absolutely necessary now.

“I’ll say it again. Either get out of my way, or I will have no choice

but to put this knife in you and watch you die.”

The bear to the right snarled with both heads and lunged, swiping

his claws. Billie jumped back, slicing her dagger down the cheek of

its right head. The bear stumbled back, screeching and clawing at its

face. She knew she wouldn’t be getting to those plants without one

hell of a fight, and she sighed and muttered, “I should have saved

my fucking energy.”

Both bears took off at the same time, charging straight at her.

She waited until the last second before turning sideways, arms in the

air, and sliding right between the two of them. She came out on the

other side and watched as they slowed their gallop, their sharp claws

raking divots in the ground.

The bears turned around and snarled. The one on the left

charged again, coming straight at Billie. She put up her arm and

blocked a sideswipe from the beast, punching it square in the nose.

She stopped, surprised at her own reaction, and looked at the blood

trickling from its snout. She smiled and punched the other one, not

wanting to give them enough time to react. The bear lurched up on

its hind legs and roared loudly.

Billie took a step back and took a deep breath before lifting her

leg and kicking the bear in the stomach as hard as she could. The

beast slid back several feet and fell to the ground, gurgling in its own

vomit. The other bear immediately attacked, racing toward her at a

speed she hadn’t known bears could achieve. Then again, these

were two-headed furry beasts, not really bears.

As the bear drew close, Billie jumped high into the air, bring her

knees to her chest. Her feet caught on the top of one of the bear’s

heads and she flipped over it, landing on its back. Billie laughed at

herself for a moment and kicked her heels into the bear’s sides.

“Giddyap, bitch.”

She lifted her arm in the air and swung it around as the bear

attempted to buck her off. Before she could lower it, though, the first

bear was on her, wrapping one of its mouths around her arm and

dragging her off the other bear’s back. It sank its teeth into her

armor, pinching her skin. Billie could feel the warm blood pooling

under her suit. The bear shook its head back and forth, whipping

Billie from side to side before letting go. She flew through the air,

tucking her body into a ball before she slammed into the side of a

large tree.

With a grunt, she fell to the ground and put her hands beneath

her to steady herself while her ears rang. She took a deep breath

and looked around, locating her knife a foot away. She coughed,

blood splattering inside her HUD. She sniffed and crawled forward,

pain surging through her. She wrapped her hand around the

dagger’s hilt and slowly pulled herself to her feet. She’d had enough

of these bastards; she didn’t want to play anymore.

The bears looked at her as she let out a low scream and charged

straight for them. At the last moment, she veered toward the one on

the right, her dagger in the air. When she got close, she blocked a

blow from the bear and dragged her knife down its arm. “How does

that feel, you sick furry sack of shit?”

The bear screamed, waving its other arm at her. She put up her

hand to block her face and screamed as the bear’s claws pierced the

armor on her shoulder and dug through her flesh. With gritted teeth,

she grabbed the tuft of hair on the bear’s head. “I need those fucking

petals! You should have just gotten out of the motherfucking way,

you sack of shit!”

She lunged forward, tackling the bear to the ground. They rolled

through the dirt and leaves, Billie not even feeling the weight of the

beast as it rolled over her. When she stopped, she was on top, and

the bear was disoriented. She didn’t hesitate, raising her dagger high

and then moving her arm swiftly downward, stabbing the blade into

its throat. Gargling sounds came from both of the beast’s heads as

she sliced hard to the right, spraying the other bear with its

companion’s blood.

Billie pulled the knife back out and stood up, watching the life

leave the animal. She wiped her knife on the side of her suit and

looked at the blood pouring from her arm. She hadn’t brought a pack

with her, so she would have to wait until she got back to tend to her

wounds. They weren’t life-threatening, or at least not yet.

She stumbled slightly sideways as she turned toward the Pita

plants, untouched by the battle. The HUD began to fritz, and

Isabella’s voice buzzed in her ear. It was just her and the last bear,

face to face in the Zoo. She reached up and unclicked her HUD,

removing it from her head and dropping it on the ground next to her.

The screen went black, but Billie had her eyes glued on the twoheaded

bear in front of her.

One of the heads was growling while the other kept its focus on

the dead bear, whimpering softly. Billie wiped the sweat and blood

from her mouth and forehead and took a deep breath. “I didn’t want

to kill your friend. I think you know by now, whether you understand

me or not, that this is war. I’m not here for the money or the glory.

Those petals will save my friend’s life. They will mend the damage

your home did to him.”

The bear stopped growling but kept its place firmly in front of the

plants. It was obvious it knew she was there for them, but there had

to be some sort of middle ground. Billie knew she might not have

enough strength to get through another fight. She didn’t want to die

in the Zoo, but she wasn’t going to leave without getting what she

had come for.

Pulling her gun in front of her, she held it tightly to her chest. “I’ll

say it again. I’m not leaving here without those petals. You can get

out of my way, or you can die.”

They stood there in complete silence, even the trees stopping

their normal swaying. Billie could smell the sweet odor of the plants

behind the bear. She put up her hands and reached in her pocket,

pulling out several zip-lock bags. “I just want the petals. I won’t pull

the plant.”

Hearing the word “plant” made the bear snarl and show its teeth.

Billie stopped for a moment and then continued, moving her foot

forward a few inches at a time. She knew that there was no way

around it if the bear attacked. The least she could do was try to get

to the Pitas and show it she meant no harm to the plants

themselves. She wasn’t sure if the animals were intelligent enough

to understand, but she wasn’t going to underestimate them again.

The bear’s heads made low growling noises as she continued to

inch closer to the plants. They didn’t flinch, though, they just turned

with her as she moved. Everything in Billie wanted to hurry, but she

knew any sudden moves might set it off, and that was the last thing

that she wanted. She was so close to her destination she could

literally smell it. As she reached the edge of the flowering plants, she

put up her hand and slowly got down on one knee.

She held up the bag to the bear, and it sniffed the air without

getting any closer. The head on the right snorted and looked

uninterested while the one on the left kept its golden eyes directly

trained on her. Slowly she lowered her hand to a flower and looked

at the bear, lifting her eyebrows. The bear snarled and stepped

forward, so she pulled her hand back.

She looked up at the canopy, noticing that the stars were getting

harder to see. Daybreak would be coming soon. She needed to get

out of there before anyone found her. “I’m just taking the petals. I

promise, just the petals.”

She reached back down and plucked a petal gently, putting it in

the bag. The bear narrowed its eyes, but took a step back and sat

down. It puffed out its chest and Billie let out a deep breath, nodding

her head. “That’s right, just the petals, and then I leave the Zoo.”

The bear sat there watching every petal she plucked. It kept its

eyes trained on her hands, waiting for any sign that she was going to

try to pull a plant. Billie wasn’t going to lie; the thought had crossed

her mind before she had entered the Zoo. Having a plant would

solve the whole problem—provide the petals for the salve and the

plant for the main cure. With the bear watching with his two heads,

she knew there was no way she was getting out of the Zoo with an

intact plant. She would have to make do with the petals and hope

that Holly would be able to use what she plucked.

Billie was no expert on Pita plants. She had never actually gone

into the Zoo for one. But she did her best, remembering watching the

mercenaries in the past gently pull the petals, trying not to bruise

them. She looked down at her bags and sighed, seeing that she was

only halfway through. She needed to pick up the pace.

Putting the bag down, she started using both hands. The bear

sniffed, about to stand, but relaxed as he watched her work. Billie

found it strange that the beast had no problem with her plucking the

petals of the plant. It was like their god, the thing that made all their

lives possible, but he was okay with her taking its flowers. It made

her think there was a reason—or maybe the bear just didn’t want

another fight. She didn’t know, nor did she care all that much.

Finally, she finished filling the last of the bags. She carefully

sealed them and put them in the pouch on her waist, then slowly

stood up, putting her gun on her back and nodding at the bear. Billie

walked slowly past it and over to the dead one on the ground. The

bear watched as she took a knee and crossed herself.

She wanted to show it respect, so she recited the only prayer she

knew—one from her youth in Catholic School. “Into your hands, O

Lord, we humbly entrust our brothers and sisters. In this life you

embraced them with your tender love; deliver them now from every

evil and bid them eternal rest. The old order has passed away:

welcome them into paradise, where there will be no sorrow, no

weeping or pain, but the fullness of peace and joy with your Son and

the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.”

She crossed herself again and looked at the other bear, which

was watching her with more curiosity than malice. Billie slowly stood

up and grabbed her HUD, carrying it at her side instead of putting it

back on. She walked to the veil of vines she had initially come

through and stopped, looking back at the bear. They made eye

contact, and Billie would swear, just for a moment, that she could

see intelligence in its eyes.

Her feet carried her forward even though her eyes were glued to

the bear. She stepped through the veil of vines, which woke and

began to shrink upwards from the confusion. The bear watched her

leave, and Billie could feel its eyes as she headed out of the Zoo.

The beast stood on all fours and walked over to the dead creature on

the ground. It lowered its heads down and sniffed the body, and then

the ground where Billie had knelt.

Slowly the bear picked up its heads and looked through the

jungle at Billie, who was weaving through the trees.

A

C H A P T E R N I N E

manda walked the half-block to her shop, twirling the keys

around her finger. She whistled to herself as she went, looking

at the bright sky overhead. It was a beautiful day, and the wind had

finally died down. When she reached the door, she put the key in

and turned, hearing the lock click. She opened it and turned on the

light, putting her things down behind the counter.

Yawning, she went to unlock the shop door, but it opened as

soon as she touched the doorknob. She stopped for a moment,

thinking about the night before. She always locked that door, but at

the same time, she had been in a hurry to go have a drink with a hot

Hispanic man from the American side. She shrugged and walked

inside, still whistling as she walked across to the lights. As she

approached, she slowed her steps, looking around in the dark.

The smell of dirt and soil permeated the air, and the stench of

dried blood pierced her nostrils. She slid her hand down and gripped

a wrench on the table beside her. Reaching up, she flipped on the

lights and whirled around, bringing the tool up in front of her. She

stopped, frozen in her place for several moments. All sorts of things

had been running through her mind, but what she was seeing was

not any of them.

She slowly lowered her tool, whispering under her breath. “El

fantasma del zoológico.”

Leaning against a table was Hickok, looking somewhat worse for

wear. Chuckling, Billie shifted, knocking her HUD to the floor. “The

ghost of the Zoo. I heard they call me that, but I hadn’t actually heard

it from anyone.”

Her armor clanked and sparked on her body, lights flickering red

and yellow on the control panel on the front. The armor had been

torn back, and wires stuck out. Some were slashed, while others sat

quietly in their stations, not connected. A small plume of smoke

came from the section of her shoulder where the whole suit armor

had been ripped off.

Billie grunted as she straightened. “I heard you were the best

armorer in the business, or in town at least. I saw you had a drop-off,

but this armor isn’t something I could just leave here without an

explanation.”

Amanda swallowed hard and looked over to the door, then

hurried across and shut and locked it. Turning back, she put the

wrench down and walked over to Billie, staring in bewilderment. “I

have heard many stories of the ghost of the Zoo, but I thought they

were all bullshit.”

Billie lifted her arm and then let it fall. “Seems not, though this

time I got pretty banged up, not going to lie.”

Amanda crossed her arms. “So you are Wild Bill Hickok. That’s

crazy. And before you say it, I assume you don’t want anyone to

know you’re here.”

Billie smiled. “That would be nice. Thanks.”

Amanda took a deep breath, raising her shoulders and letting

them fall. She began to circle Hickok, looking at her armor, then

whistled loudly. “What the fuck did you get into a battle with?”

Billie chuckled. “Some sort of large furry animal with two heads.”

Amanda nodded, smacking her lips. “A duo bear, or so they’ve

nicknamed them. I’ve never seen anyone come out alive after

battling one of those.”

Billie nodded. “Well, there were two, but I only battled one. The

other let me do my business and leave.”

Amanda circled back around to her front narrowed her eyes. “Are

you serious? It just let you leave?”

Billie shrugged. “Maybe it’s just my lucky day.”

Amanda pointed at her gash. “Not too lucky.”

Billie looked at the suit. “So what do you think? Can you fix me

up?”

Amanda lifted both eyebrows, examining the claw marks down

the side of the suit among the rest of the terrible damage. She

picked up the HUD and looked down at it. “This is some seriously

advanced shit.” She ran her hand down the claw marks. “I am

guessing you were never here, and I’ve never seen this? Because to

be honest, I never have seen this kind of armor before. I don’t think

there is a single person in this town, military included, who has gear

like this. It looks custom-made, and some of the parts I’ve never

seen before. ”

Billie chuckled, nodding. “Let’s just say we would both be in a bad

place if anyone found out about this. This is the perfect time to really

take me being a ghost seriously. I am not here, even when you are

facing me and talking to me. If you’ve heard the stories, most likely

what you have heard is true, especially the older ones. They usually

hit the nail right on the head. In and out, covert, no ties—that’s me.”

Amanda crossed her arms over her chest. “But why? Why not get

your team to fix it? I mean, you work on your own, but there is no

way you don’t have a team of people behind this suit.”

Billie shrugged but didn’t say anything.

Amanda lifted an eyebrow and put her hands on her hips. “Look,

you landed in my shop. I am all about keeping secrets, but I won’t do

anything for someone who keeps me in the dark. I like to be in the

know for my own protection. I’ve worked on covert suits before, and

it never turned out well. There was either a problem with the wearer

or a problem with the pay. The pay is one thing, but my safety is a

whole other level. And I can tell you right now, there is no other fixer

in this town who will keep your secret.”

Billie sighed and put up her hand. “All right, I get it. I don’t get

caught very often between a rock and a hard place, but today would

be that day, I guess. The truth is, I’m not supposed to be here,

exactly. This operation is off the non-existent books. If I go back, I

won’t be coming back with this armor. I am here to help a friend who

did me a favor many moons ago. When I am done, I’ll be gone, but I

am going to need this suit again before that happens.”

Amanda stared at her for a moment and pursed her lips. “Do you

have anyone who can vouch for you?”

Billie thought about it for a second and then pointed at the ceiling.

“Your tenant, Holly. She knows I’m here, and she knows why. But no

one else can know. This is important; otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”

Amanda took a deep breath. “No shit. This is probably one of the

weirdest things that has happened to me since I got here. And I used

to go into the Zoo, if that tells you anything about the mundane

nature of my life.”

Billie laughed. “I’m starting to like the idea of mundane.”

Amanda snickered. “I don’t blame you.”

The armorer took a deep breath and examined Billie’s suit from

top to bottom. “There’s only one group I know who works with this

stuff. They are the only ones I know I can trust…”

Hickok groaned as she pulled herself into a semi-sitting position in

the bed. She tried to keep all wounds off the linens since she knew

Holly might have an aneurysm. She had left her suit with Amanda

and made her way up to the apartment, Amanda opening the door

for her this time. She didn’t have it in her to go through her magic

routine.

Carefully she took a shower, trying to rinse her wounds as well as

possible without passing out from the pain. She had been injured

numerous times in combat situations, but she always had

somewhere to go to get taken care of. One time she hadn’t, but that

was exactly why she was there—to pay JB back for him and

Gabrielle saving her life. That was the one time she knew that

without help, she would not have survived.

The jingle of keys caught Billie’s attention, and she tried to sit up

straight in the bed as Holly walked through the door. She glanced at

Billie and shut the door behind her, tossing the keys on the table. “I

guess I need to get her a key,” she mumbled to herself.

Putting down her bag, Holly sighed and walked over to the bed,

really looking at Billie for the first time since she had walked in. “Holy

shit!”

Billie blinked and grinned at her. “Yeah, things didn’t go as

smoothly as I thought they would.”

Holly looked down Billie’s body, noticing the startling bruises at

first and then the gaping gashes on her shoulder. They weren’t

bleeding anymore, but they looked bad. Holly raced into the

bathroom, looking at the blood in her shower and on the floor.

Billie yelled from the bed, grimacing, “I’m sorry. I promise that as

soon as I can move my arm, I will clean the hell out of your

bathroom.”

Holly came around the corner with a first aid kit and shrugged.

“It’s not like you had a party. You were wounded and bled in the

bathroom. Don’t have to apologize for that. Jesus.”

Billie looked at Holly as she pulled out gauze and other things.

“Really, all of this isn’t necessary. It’s just a flesh wound; it’ll be fine. I

just need to rest and let it heal.”

Holly lifted an eyebrow. “I’m pretty sure I can see bone. That

needs to be sewn up and bandaged so you don’t get an infection.”

Billie nodded toward the fridge. “We have other sick people,

someone sicker than me, to worry about. I put the five bags of petals

in the fridge. I can’t promise they aren’t bruised since I was under a

bit of pressure while I was picking, but they were healthy plants and

there seems to be a lot of goop.”

Holly looked at the fridge and back at Billie. “They can wait a little

longer. Seriously, what did this to you?”

Billie sighed. “Apparently it is called a duo bear. It has two heads,

and there were two of them. One I killed, the other I bargained with.”

Holly poured peroxide on a square of gauze. “You bargained with

it?”

Billie nodded. “Well, kind of. I promised not to take the whole

plant and told it I didn’t want to kill it, so it watched me pick the petals

and let me go.”

Holly shook her head, pressing the gauze to the wound and

ignoring Billie’s gasps of pain. “You can’t do anything without it being

legendary, can you?”

Billie chuckled through the pain. “Nope. What would be the point

of that?”

Holly smiled and pulled out a suture. “I don’t have any pain meds,

so...yeah.”

Billie took a deep breath and closed her eyes, leaning her head

against the headboard. “I’ve had worse. Just do it and get it over

with.”

Holly was impressed by how Billie handled the pain. She moved

as fast as she could, not going too deep with the needle, but deep

enough to ensure she would keep the sutures in. Billie had closed

her eyes and gone into a meditation of sorts, trying to block out the

excruciating pain.

Holly finished the last stitch and tied the knot, dropping the

needle with her rubber gloves into the box to throw away. “There.

You can’t fight duo bears with those stitches, but you should be able

to lift a glass. I covered it with gauze and cream to prevent infection,

but it needs to be changed at least once a day.”

Billie nodded. “Thanks, Doc.”

Holly groaned as she got up from the bed and disposed of

everything before thoroughly washing her hands. She went over to

the fridge and pulled out the bags of petals. She yawned, putting her

hand on the edge of the counter to hold herself up.

Billie chuckled. “Was it busy at the bar?”

Holly looked back at her, rolling her eyes. “Oh, yeah, and it got

busier after that group of mercs you helped came back with stories

of the ghost in the Zoo. You apparently killed a whole bunch of

crocs? With a dagger?”

Billie laughed. “Yeah, that was me. Had I known I would be

fighting a hell-bear later, I would have saved my energy. But hey, it is

what it is. They needed the help, so I helped.”

Holly piled up the bags and put them back in the fridge, realizing

that she was just too exhausted from her shift at the bar to even

think about working with them. Billie had paid a high price for them,

so she didn’t want to screw it up. “I am going to need some sleep

before working on the salve.”

Billie nodded. “How is JB?”

Holly laughed as she went over to the dresser and pulled out her

pajamas. “He was fidgety and grumpy. Then, when he was finally

able to get up out of the chair, he paced around the bar, just staring

people down.”

Billie leaned her head back and laughed. “That sounds like him.

He never liked idle time.”

She changed right there, not wanting to go back into the bloody

bathroom. Holly pulled on the polar bear fleece pants. “Well, he was

driving me and Paula nuts by clinking around and staring at us. After

about four hours of that, he came back and told me to go the fuck

home. He wanted to work a shift, so I will go back tomorrow to

relieve him so he can go home and get some sleep. The man is like

a fucking vampire, only without healing abilities.”

Billie shook her head. “I mean, I can’t blame him. I’m the same

way. I’ve always had something to do. Another mission to go on,

another hideout to get to. I have never been very good at just

resting.”

Holly waved her hand. “Move your broken ass over. I need to lie

down.”

Billie groaned as she moved over in the bed and pushed the

covers out from under her. Holly paused as she folded back her side

and fluffed her pillow. “Are those my clothes?”

Billie looked down at her t-shirt and sleep shorts. “Oh, yeah.

Sorry. I needed something light to put on when I took my suit off. I

should have asked first, but you weren’t here.”

Holly shrugged and climbed into bed with a loud yawn. “I don’t

have the energy to care. Not that I do. Use whatever you need. I am

just going to take a short…nap…”

Before she could get the sentence out, Holly was fast asleep.

Billie smirked and rolled her shoulders, looking out the window as

the sun was going down. She hadn’t ever been there long enough to

notice that the town was real and the people in it were actually pretty

cool. Then again, she had never been anywhere long enough to

notice anything like that. She was a drifter, a ghost in the night, a

spirit among the living. She had always assumed that was what she

would be for the rest of her life.

“I’ve got to get the suits fixed for the general and our men,” the

captain said, walking down the block toward the Armorer.

His assistant hurried along beside him. “Did we really need to

come all the way over here from the American side?”

The captain stopped out front of the shop and glanced at the

assistant. “She is the best in the Zoo area. Probably the best

anywhere, and I heard we can trust her with secrets of our armor, so

here I am.”

The assistant pointed at a note on the door. “And there she isn’t.”

The note on the door read, “Temporarily closed. Gone to the

American Enclave for a job. Be back soon.”

To be continued…

A U T H O R N O T E S - M I C H A E L ( T O D D ) A N D E R L E

J A N U A R Y 8 , 2 0 1 9

THANK YOU for not only reading this story but these Author Notes

as well.

(I think I’ve been good with always opening with “thank you.” If

not, I need to edit the other Author Notes!)

RANDOM (sometimes) THOUGHTS?

Working in paradise.

It isn’t often I get to work in a location that is…well, if it was a few

degrees cooler, paradise.

I’m at the Hyatt Regency Phuket Resort (Kamala Beach)

Executive Lounge sitting on a lounge chair that is in about 5” of

water. I have on jeans (yes, I’m stupid that way) and a t-shirt (no

surprise there.)

I’m about to work on the beats for SoFF10 after these Author

Notes. Why am I working when paradise is all around me?

Because Paradise is possible because of writing and publishing.

I know not everyone is as successful writing as I have been. BUT

—if you like the ZOO and fancy you have a story or two in you, then I

am working on offering a chance for you to write a few books in this

series.

The details are being worked out with D2D (Draft2Digital) and I

don’t have all of them, but I WANT to make writing in the ZOO a

possibility.

However, I’m just building the tools; what you DO with the tools is

up to you. If you write crap, then it won’t go anywhere, I promise you.

I have nothing (yet) to share except, “It Is Coming.”

As the boss told Michael J Fox in the movie Secret of my

Success…

What you accomplish when you are in will be up to you.

HOW TO MARKET FOR BOOKS YOU LOVE

We are able to support our efforts by you reading our books, and

we appreciate you doing this!

If you enjoyed this or ANY book by any author, especially Indiepublished,

we always appreciate if you make the time to review a

book, since it lets other readers who might be on the fence to take a

chance on it as well.

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS

One of the interesting (at least to me) aspects of my life is the

ability to work from anywhere and at any time. In the future, I hope to

re-read my own Author Notes and remember my life as a diary entry.

Hyatt Regency Resort, Phuket.

Here are my thousand words. Have fun describing them Hillary

(our audio narrator):

[Edit from Zen Master Steve - Hillary Huber is a multi-time award

winning narrator with hundreds of audiobooks to her credit. She’s an

immensely talented and creative woman. It’s time for her to lean into

the mic and describe Michael’s “thousand words.”

Check out the audiobook versions of Soldier’s of Fame and

Fortune if you want to hear how this goes.]

(Click here to see a larger version)

FAN PRICING

If you would like to find out what LMBPN is doing and the books

we will be publishing, just sign up at http://lmbpn.com/email/. When

you sign up, we notify you of books coming out for the week, any

new posts of interest in the books and pop culture arena, and the fan

pricing on Saturday.

Ad Aeternitatem,

Michael Anderle


home | my bookshelf | | Ghost Walking |     цвет текста   цвет фона   размер шрифта   сохранить книгу

Текст книги загружен, загружаются изображения



Оцените эту книгу