Chapter Seventeen

                When confronted with over fifty properly created zombies, most people’s first impulse would be to run in the opposite direction. My reaction was to poke them with a figurative stick. I grabbed a small stone from the ground at my feet, aiming it in the middle of the horde. It struck a taller undead man in the center of the forehead. He growled, lunging forward. The rest of his zombie counterparts followed suit, surging towards me in a wave. But like their prior, ill-fated brethren, a magical barrier contained them. They didn’t smack into an invisible wall with slapstick expressions of shock, or anything, they just stopped shambling at me.
            Though I wasn’t afraid of them, I wasn’t equipped to deal with all of them (seriously, where did they get the bodies from this time?). I needed reinforcements.
            Jogging back to my car, I dialed Penny’s number. It rang and rang, but there was no answer. I called again and again until, finally, his scratchy, groggy voice mumble-yelled, “You better be bleeding and in need of the emergency room, Spencer.”
            “There are more zombies,” I said.
            The line was silent for several long seconds. “Where?” he asked, now wide awake.
            “Out in the swamp past Wilkesville,” I said.
            “I’d ask why you were way out there, but I figure it has something to do with Wesley.”
            “Well,” I said, “It was a dead end. So, you can still track him and not tell me.”
            He started to talk, but I cut him off. “Speaking of not telling me things, I guess it just slipped your mind to tell me that you were accepted to Arcadia.”
            He went dead quiet (funny, the dead a few dozen feet behind me were anything but), before saying, “I was waiting for the right time to tell you.”
            Sarcastic, angry words were at the forefront of my mind, but now wasn’t the time for this fight.  
            “We’re going to deal with the zombies tomorrow,” I said.
            “Fine,” he sighed. “I’ll call you in the morning.”
            “Fine,” I said, hitting the end icon on my phone.
            I had appointments with clients the next day, nothing serious, but I couldn’t leave early to exterminate undead. Penny and I agreed we would meet at my office at six and head over to the abandoned neighborhood.
            He showed up after 6:30 and he wasn’t alone. McGregor trailed in a few feet behind him.
            I chose to ignore the unwanted visitor for the time being. “Where have you been?” I asked Penny.
             “See, I told you she’d be pissed,” he said to McGregor
            McGregor didn’t acknowledge Penny. “Sorry to crash the zombie killing party, Caro,” he said. “I thought you might be able to use the extra help.”
            His eyes were doing that sparkling, melty thing again. Damn him. It’s not that I disliked McGregor, but after our last meeting, I knew he couldn’t be trusted. I didn’t want to spend excess time with him until I figured out what he was after.
            I didn’t say any of this out loud, but gave him a tight smile and thanked him. When McGregor wasn’t looking, I glared at Penny, who shrugged.
            We managed to drive a few miles before Penny said, “So, way to go on not pursuing Wesley’s background. Thanks for taking me seriously.”
            I made a tsking sort of noise with my tongue. “I was doing basic research and following up a lead. I didn’t know—“
            He snorted. “Oh, you knew, liar,” he said. “You wouldn’t have gone out last night if you didn’t think you’d found something.”
            “Fine,” I said, gripping the steering wheel until my knuckles turned white. “You’re right. But I found more zombies. If I’d listened to you, they’d still be an active threat.”
            “I would’ve found them!” he said, slamming the flat of his hand against the dashboard. “And I would’ve told you, if you just waited.”
            “What’s the point of waiting, Penny? We can deal with them now, and we’re closer to finding the coven responsible. There was no need to prolong the investigation.”
            “Right, cause your safety isn’t a reason to be cautious.”
            “It’s not,” I said. “Because I know how to protect myself.”
            “And I can do it better,” he snapped.
            My eyes flashed to McGregor’s reflection in the rearview mirror. He was staring at his lap, a weird, uncomfortable-yet-highly-amused smile quirking his mouth.
            “I can’t believe that you’re pulling this shit after lying to me about your college application,” I said.
            “I didn’t lie about it,” he said. “I just chose not to mention it.”
            “That doesn’t make any sense. Why wouldn’t you tell me?”
            “Cause I didn’t want you to make a big deal about it.”
            “Well, it’s kind of a big deal, Penny.”
            Our eyes met for just a second. He was the first to look away.
            “There were other things to take into consideration,” I said.
            “And you’re upset when I try to protect you,” he said.
            “It doesn’t just effect you, asshole.”
            Penny opened his mouth to reply, but McGregor broke in. “Where the hell are we?” he asked.
            I’d just pulled onto the swamp-surrounded county road. “The middle of nowhere, obviously,” I said.
            I filled them both in on what I’d found at the abandoned community. The houses looked uninhabitable, but the path wasn’t overgrown, indicating it was used pretty frequently.
            “It’s probably the coven’s hideout,” I finished.
            Both boys nodded in unison—my perfect little bobble-heads.
            “Any idea where they got the bodies this time?” Penny asked.
             “Not a clue. Wherever it was, they got a lot better at covering it up.”
            I glanced at the rearview mirror again, catching McGregor’s reflection, and facts connected in my brain: 1) the pack knew about the vandalism at Willow Hill because Wesley was obsessed with it, and 2) student volunteers aided in the cleanup process.
            I gave a little gasp. “Your pack helped clean up the grave robbing,” I said.
            Penny’s neck popped, he turned towards McGregor so fast. And this is why he should’ve talked to me before he decided to join the pack.
            McGregor coughed that hesitant, knowing you’ve been caught in a lie, kind of cough. “I authorized Wesley to have some guys help him out with cleaning up the vandalism.”
            “And you didn’t mention this at any point before now because?” I asked.
            He shrugged. “The guys told me they laid sod and straightened crooked tombstones. I didn’t make an immediate connection to body stealing.”
            “Why would you?” I asked. “But you figured out what Wesley was up to as soon as I told you about the zombies.”
            “My loyalty is to my pack.”
            I pressed my lips into thin lines, piecing together McGregor’s motivations. All he cared about were his werewolf brothers. He knew, maybe not the whole story, but enough to be worried that Wesley was into something nefarious. McGregor was aware of my reputation, and knew I’d become involved eventually. That made me a threat to the pack. I needed to be neutralized, and he was going to do that by getting me on his side. He’d tried charm, but my general disregard for people made me immune to his persuasive brown eyes. But he’d succeeded with his second gambit, recruiting Penny. My fingernails gouged half-moons into the soft plastic of my steering wheel.
  The only sound in the car was the crunch of gravel under the tires and the call of waterfowl. The sun was falling below the horizon, painting the sky in streaks of orange and purple as dusk gathered.
            We went around the bend in the road, bringing the shacks into full view. Penny and McGregor made similar snorting exclamations of shock at the tiny, deserted village in the middle of the swamp.
            “Why are all the lights on?” Penny half-whispered.
            “Got me,” I said.
            We all got out of the car, each movement taken with slow deliberateness, as though we were afraid to disturb the no one out there.
            I pulled the carpet square in the trunk back, revealing my permanent stash of weapons, causing McGregor to whistle through his teeth.
             “Remind me not to get on your bad side,” he said.
            I smirked, grabbing the machete and wiping the shining sharp blade on the edge of my shirt.
            Penny grabbed the ax, but McGregor took his time going through each weapon.
            “No crossbow?” he asked.
            I snorted. “Do you know how to use a crossbow?”
            “How hard can it be?” he asked.
            I shook my head, disabusing him of his Darryl Dixon fantasies by handing him my 9mm and a box of ammunition.
            By the time we started walking towards the invisible zombie holding pen, night had taken over. They boys followed me in silence, walking through the cluster of houses until we reached the clearing.
            “Holy shit,” Penny said, when he got his first full view of the undead.
            I’m not sure what alerted the zombies to our presence—whether it was the sound of Penny’s voice, or the scent of our freshly pumping blood—whatever it was, they turned toward us, groaning and thrashing at the invisible barrier.
            “Do you have a game plan?” McGregor asked.
            I’d spent a considerable amount of time this morning going over our plan of attack. I turned, opening my mouth to explain how it would go down, but before I could get a word out, Penny and McGregor’s expressions turned from curious to dangerous; both sets of eyes taking on that wolf-y glow, jaws hardening, lips pulling back into snarls.
            Penny gripped my bicep, turning me to once again face the zombies, only it was a different kind of undead that caused the boys to start wolfing out.
            A tall figure stepped towards us from the shadows with feline-like grace. He didn’t look older than twenty-five; skin unblemished; cheek bones sharp enough to cut diamond; leanly muscular; white-blonde hair so perfect that Draco Malfoy and Eric Northman would die of jealousy.
            “Caro Spencer, we meet at last,” he said. His voice was lightly accented, going liquid around the consonants.  A smile stretched his perfect Cupid’s bow mouth, revealing the lethal points of his distended fangs.


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