“Ramon nudged the body with his foot. “I’ve gotta apologize, Nash. You were right. This vehicle was a great idea.”
“Thanks!” Nash beamed as he pulled off his plastic clown mask. “It was more than that, it was brilliant.”
Ramon set his clown mask on the narrow counter inside the ice cream wagon, inspecting the body on the floor. “Easiest kill in a long time. The vehicle is perfect camouflage. No one’s frightened of us when we’re wearing the clown masks. We can cut him up at our leisure and haul the entire carcass back to camp.”
“Why go back?” Nash asked, putting out an arm to keep Lucky away as the dog sniffed hungrily. “We can drive around and hunt where we please. No one will hassle the ice cream man. We can live among the humans and eat well. Haven’t you ever wanted to see more of the world?”
“Too risky.” Ramon pulled open a drawer. “Scoops? Well, they might be useful later. Are there any knives in this buggy?”
“Why would there be knives in here?”
“Ah, crap! How’m I gonna cut up this guy without proper utensils? We’ll have to take him back to camp now – unless you wanna get down on the bare metal floor and chew off a piece. My old knees can’t take that.”
“Here, use this.” Nash held out his rusty knife. “You didn’t think I’d forgotten it, did you?”
“Great. Start cutting. I’ll see if there’s anything useful in the drawers.”
“Sure.” Nash knelt and sawed on the victim’s neck. “You gonna play chef?”
“Play? Cooking isn’t child’s play.” Ramon pulled out drawers and opened cabinet doors. “There’s got to be more in this ice cream wagon than just a freezer and a coupla ice cream scoops. Aha!” He pulled an appliance out of a cabinet and set it on the narrow counter. “I found a blender.”
“I see that.” Nash continued his work. “What’re you gonna do? Puree him into baby food? Did you forget your zombie dentures at home again, old timer?”
“Oh, no, I’m gonna do something much better than that!” Ramon giggled. “I’m going to make you a treat so good, you’ll be begging for more.”
“You’ll find out. Keep cutting and pass me the parts. Give me the head first.”
Ramon handed Nash a large cup full of a pink, creamy substance, then sat in the other front seat of the ice cream wagon.
“S’pose we should put our clown masks back on?” Nash wondered.
“Naw. It’s dark enough. I don’t see anyone about. Besides, I’ll keep a lookout in the side mirrors. Whaddya think of my concoction?”
“I haven’t tried it yet.” Nash tilted up his cup until thick liquid oozed downward. “Mmmph, cold! Say, this’s pretty good.” Nash’s tongue made a clicking sound as he sucked down the sludgy liquid. He took a second, larger mouthful. The sides of his cheeks fluttered as he swished it around. He exhaled slowly. “Wow, that’s … that’s so good I can’t find words to describe it! Not only does it taste like … like ambrosia, but it’s also cold and refreshing. Okay, you were right. This’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted. Why haven’t you made it before?”
“Because we didn’t have a fresh kill, a blender, and ice. And a safe, secure place to cut up our kill. It’s a smoothie, ice and brains in a blender. A brain smoothie. No, that’s not good enough. It’s a … a … a cerebellum smoothie, that’s what it is.”
“It’s absolutely wonderful.” Nash took an even bigger mouthful. “Hey, you could add a garnish.”
“Well, you didn’t eat his eyeballs yet, did you? You could drop one in, like an olive in a martini – and with a toothpick through it.”
Ramon’s eyes lit up. “Ooooh, great idea, kid!” He started to climb out of his seat, then groaned and dropped back down. “Can you fetch them? My knees are done for the night.”
“Sure.” Nash put his cerebellum smoothie into a cupholder and climbed out of the passenger seat. He returned to drop an eyeball into Ramon’s uplifted cup. It made a sticky splashing sound.
Nash dropped the other eyeball into his own cup and sat back in the passenger seat. He lifted his cup in Ramon’s direction. “Cheers!”
Ramon clinked his cup against Nash’s. The eyeball floated to the surface and rotated to stare in Nash’s direction. The corners of Ramon’s mouth twitched. “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Nash lifted his cup and took an even bigger drink.
“Don’t drink it so fast, or you’ll regret it.”
“Why would I regret…” Nash’s expression froze in a grimace of pain. “Oooh, I see what you mean. I’m getting brain freeze.”
“No, it’s brain-brain freeze,” Ramon corrected. “Slow down and savor the taste.”
Nash took several big breaths. “I’ve a mind to have some more.” He lifted his cup and took a tentative sip – then spit it out when there was a knock at his side window, next to his face. “Gaah! Where’s my clown mask?” Nash screeched, looking frantically around the cab of the ice cream wagon. “I thought you were watching for people.”
“Crap! The masks are still in back,” Ramon replied, trying to fit his cup of cerebellum smoothie under the driver’s seat, as if it was a bong to be hidden away during a traffic stop.
The knock came again, louder this time – impatient. A dark shape loomed outside Nash’s side window. Nash drew back. A nose pressed against the glass and a face came into view, ghostly and repulsive in the greenish light from the wagon’s dash lights.
“Oh, hell, it’s only Carl!” Ramon said, letting his breath out in a whoosh. “You remember Carl, right? We met him at the zombie flashmob a coupla weeks ago – Carl the Corpse.” Ramon fumbled for the window button in the dim light.
“Aren’t you boys a long way from home?” Carl snarled as the window slid down. “You’re in my territory!”
“Oh, really?” Nash’s voice turned belligerent. “Weren’t you in our territory when we met?”
Ramon squeezed Nash’s arm in warning. “Hi, Carl. Sorry about the kid. He didn’t mean anything.”
“Yes, I did.” Nash tried to shake off Ramon’s hand.
“We’re a little way from home,” Ramon admitted, smiling engagingly. “Just taking a little safari – you know, breaking up the monotony and doing something different. Falling into a rut can get a zombie caught, ya know? Don’t worry, we don’t have any intention of staying on your turf.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about.” Carl craned his neck, trying to see into the back of the ice cream wagon. “I’m worried you boys might do something stupid in my territory and leave a mess to deal with.”
“We wouldn’t do that,” Ramon protested, pressing his hand against Nash’s shoulder to keep the younger zombie from speaking up. “You know me, know I’m not a trouble-causer … or idiot. We got this new wagon and just had to try it out. We also got ourselves some foolproof disguises.”
“Oh, really?” Carl fixed Ramon with a hard stare. “You fooled me. You looked like two zombies sitting in a panel truck, painted in loud colors and with a big red plastic clown nose for a hood ornament, parked on a deserted street, all alone at three AM. Seems completely innocent and normal.”
“We do have masks, you know!” Nash blurted out. “Plastic clown masks with elastic string. They cover our faces completely. But we stopped to eat, and the old man here was bragging that he’d watch out for anyone approaching. Only, he was enjoying his drink too much and you walked right up on us. Good going, old timer.”
“Carl’s not a threat!” Ramon replied defensively. He picked up his cup and leaned across Nash to hold it out toward Carl. “Here, try this out. My own creation. It’s damn good, and really wonderful on a hot LA night.”
Carl opened his mouth as if to protest, then put the cup to his mouth. Ramon watched with anticipation on his ragged face.
“Hey, that is good!” Carl licked his lips and his eyebrows rose. He took another drink. “Damn! You ever think about opening a restaurant, Ramon? You should share this with the world – well, the zombie world, at least.”
“Not a good idea,” Nash said loudly. “If it was a success, a resulting stream of zombies would attract the attention of the living. It’d be stupid.”
“Heh, what he means is, it would be risky, and I don’t think many zombies would dare to travel to our area to eat.”
“True enough.” Carl’s forehead wrinkled in thought. “Hey, I have a better idea. How about a cooking show? You could cook up recipes and zombies could tune in and watch. You could teach zombie-kind how to prepare various dishes and help them eat better. You used to make a simply wonderful pasta alfredo.”
Ramon smiled. “Yeah, I did, didn’t I? Remember what I used to say when I served it? Now with real Alfredo, that’s what I’d say. Aaah, I haven’t made that dish in ages. We don’t have many Italians left in our neighborhood.”
“Well, what do you think?” Carl prodded.
“I dunno. I’m not exactly technically skilled,” Ramon admitted.
“That’s not a problem,” Nash interjected. “If we could round up the hardware, I could help you set up a website.”
“You think I should do this?” Ramon’s eyebrows pinched together.
“Hell, yeah. You’re a great cook. When I first became a zombie, I had a hard time adjusting to the idea of eating the living. But when you cooked up that first hitchhiker, I really began to like the flavor of human beings. Then I couldn’t face the thought of eating another flattened raccoon. And you showed me which foods to avoid, like potheads and winos.”
Nash nodded toward Carl. “He has a great idea. If we set up a webpage, we could film cooking segments and post them. You could help other zombies learn how to make a brain omelette. Mmmm, I’d never had anything as wonderful as brains scrambled with cheese and tomato and artichoke.”
“Oh, well then, I guess I could think about it.” Ramon didn’t sound entirely convinced. “Where would I get the equipment? I can’t just walk into a TV studio and ask to put on my own cooking show.”
“Don’t be dense,” Carl snapped. “You wouldn’t make a TV show. It’d be an internet cooking show. Get with the times, Ramon. You’re younger than me, after all. I can get you the internet uplink equipment. My men confiscated a computer video-recording setup and I have an associate who could patch you into an internet feed.”
“No, that could be dangerous,” Ramon objected. “We can’t let the living even suspect zombies exist, let alone brazenly transmit a show for the entire world to see.”
“Don’t you know anything about the internet?” Carl asked. “We can set up a private network and only give the address to other zombies. The living won’t know about it. And we could make it available only in the middle of the night. There’d be zero risk. Then, if things go well, we could set up a webstore, sell kitchen tools and appliances just for zombies. Maybe have multiple cooking shows – ”
“You mean, like a zombie food network?” Ramon interrupted.
“Yeah, a zombie food network. Great idea!” Carl bumped Nash’s shoulder with the back of a wrinkled hand. “You’re young. You know how to set up a server, right?”
Nash shrugged. “Yeah, I could do that, set up a camera, design a website, and configure access permissions. Would be a piece of cake. The question is, if you can get us all the equipment, is whether we can convince fuddy-duddy here – bloody fuddy-duddy – to work up a cooking show zombies can relate to and learn from. I don’t think he has the cojoñes, to be honest.”
“What?” Ramon’s eyes flashed. “You don’t think I can cook and talk at the same time?”
Nash crossed his arms. “Oh, you can talk and you can cook, but can you cook well while talking? Can you keep up the banter, the chit-chat? And can you turn other zombies into good cooks – and food aficionados?”
Ramon’s face twitched. “I can do it, and I will. I’ll show you fine cooking!” He nodded forcefully. “And I’ll get the cojoñes. They’ll be in the freezer before the show starts taping.”
“Are you ready?” Nash asked, his finger moving toward the camera’s record button.
“Yeah, I guess so.” Ramon looked around the abandoned gas station service bay, now a studio kitchen complete with lights and pans hanging from an overhead lube rack. Ramon’s eyes moved over the spices arranged on the counter now occupying the center of the bay. He put his useless hand on the ceramic cooktop until his flesh sizzled, then pulled it back. “Okay, that’s hot enough.”
Nash wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Ewww, stop doing that! I hate the smell of your burning hand.”
“I can’t help it,” Ramon responded. “After Lucky tore my hand off, I can’t feel heat anymore. I can only tell the burner’s hot when it starts to smoke.”
Nash rolled his eyes, giving off a brief yellow flash. “Then use your other hand, the hand that works. How’re you gonna stir?”
Ramon pulled up his sleeve. “I taped spatula handles on both sides of my wrist, making a splint. Don’t worry, my hand won’t fall out into the pan.”
“You gonna tape a whisk to your hand, then?”
Ramon shrugged. “If I have to. Start the camera. I think I have everything ready. I just hope Carl got the word out to other zombies. I don’t want to spend all night cooking and talking and find out no one had been listening.”
“Kinda like our dinners,” Nash muttered. “Yeah, I’m hitting the button, so talk to the camera. Look down at your notes if you get lost, but don’t be obvious about it, okay?”
“I know how to do this!” Ramon snapped. Then his face smoothed out and he smiled. “Hello, everyone! Welcome to the Zombie Food Network, where zombies like you can learn to cook like me. I’m Ramon, and this’s my new cooking show. Remember, living well isn’t just about eating, it’s about eating well.”
“Name?” Nash hissed from next to the camera.
“Uh, yeah, I’m Ramon, your zombie chef. Didn’t I say that?”
“No, no, the name of the show,” Nash said, louder.
“Oh, right.” A look of confusion crossed Ramon’s gray features. “Uh, I didn’t think about that.”
“The show’s gotta have a name,” Nash said in a normal voice, giving up on being discreet. “How about … how about, ‘Using Your Brain Pan, with Chef Ramon?’”
“Not bad.” Ramon absent-mindedly stirred a pan in front of him. “Hey, Carl brought me a gas rangetop, so I could call it ‘Now You’re Cooking With Brains.’”
Nash giggled. “Here’s another one, ‘Cooking Flesh with Ramon, Your Zombie Chef.’ Okay, maybe we should work on a name for the show later. I’m zooming in with the overhead,” Nash announced, clicking keys on the laptop computer. “What’re you adding to the skillet?”
“Brains!” Ramon dropped a large lump into the pan. The overhead camera zoomed down to show crackling and popping gray matter. Ramon adopted a deeper, more announcer-like tone. “This isn’t your brain on drugs, it’s your brain on medium heat. Never cook brains at a higher temperature, understand? D’you know why?”
“Could get brain damage?”
Ramon scowled at the younger zombie, then addressed the camera. “Because cooking brains too fast leaves them dry and flavorless. Does anyone out there want to sit down with a dried-out brain at dinnertime?”
“I don’t have a choice. I dine with you all the time,” Nash muttered again.
“We’ll come back to this dish in a few minutes.” Ramon turned down the heat. “In the meantime, let’s start on our main course. Nash, bring out the meat, would you?”
Nash left the camera and laptop, struggling to pull a body out of the freezer and dragging it over before heaving it up onto the countertop.
“Thank you,” Ramon said, inspecting the human. “Male, looks to be in his early twenties. Just killed last night and never frozen. His name’s Stan, according to his plastic nametag. Nash, my assistant, did the hunting. Nash, where’d you get him?”
“Um, well, I was driving around in the ice cream wagon to get a really fresh kill, like you wanted. There weren’t many people about. He was the first person I found.”
“Where did you find Stan? At the drive-through of a fast-food restaurant?”
“Yeah. He walked outside to have a smoke. I’d already circled the joint two or three times, so I gunned the motor and ran him down. Just proves once again the dangers of smoking.”
Ramon looked at the camera. “Quick and easy, huh?”
Nash snorted. “I wish! He got caught under the ice cream wagon. I didn’t want to stop right there in the parking lot and pull him out from underneath, so I had to drive a block or two and find a nice, quiet, dark spot. I had to bust my ass to pull him out from underneath the wagon. You may want to use meat from the front. It won’t have any dirt or gravel in it.”
“I see.” Ramon lifted the victim’s head and grimaced. “Crap! There’s a muffler burn on his shoulder. Couldn’t you have done a better job of killing him?”
“What was I supposed to do? Get out and ask him to hold still while I clobbered him?” Nash gestured at the motionless form. “You told me to find someone who wouldn’t be missed, and who’d be a fast and easy kill. A safe kill. No one cares about a guy working the night shift at a burger joint. But after I had him out from under the wagon, he took off running. I had to chase him down and run him over again. He deserves the label ‘fast food.’”
Ramon grimaced. “Okay, folks I guess we’ll have a lesson in how to salvage damaged meat. Trim off any bruised, burned, or shredded portions. We’ll save them for stew.”
“I’ll eat that,” Nash volunteered, eyeing the chunk of meat Ramon sliced off.
“No, not now,” Ramon snapped, popping Nash’s outstretched hand with the side of the knife blade. He pointed the knife toward the camera. “People, I’ll teach you how to handle all types of meat, good and bad. There’s a way to cook everything. This is the cooking show for you, whether you prefer fresh kill … or overkill.” Ramon shot Nash a dirty look. “First, I’m gonna slice him open and show you how to clean out the offal, then bag and freeze it for storage. Okay, so first make sure your knife is good and sharp, then you start with a vertical cut from his breastbone down.”
Ramon pulled a knife from the knife block, selecting one with a thin, gently curved blade. “For cutting up your corpse, you don’t want to go with a big, clumsy blade. It may look romantic to choose a butcher knife that’s big enough to flense a blue whale, but you want a delicate tool instead, one that can be moved in fine motions to cut around connective tissue, avoid internal organs, and slice close to bone without scratching against it. Cooking is more like surgery than battle. Keep that in mind. A promising steak or roast can be quickly turned into a bloody, hacked-up mess if the chef doesn’t wield the knife with finesse.” Ramon talked as he cut, inserting the knife below Stan’s ribcage and moving it carefully downward.
“D’you need help with anything?” Nash asked.
“Um, sure.” Ramon paused in his delicate sawing motions. “We could use a vegetable of some kind to go with Stan.”
“Vegetable?” Nash’s lip curled. “One of the benefits of being dead is not having to eat broccoli or cabbage.”
“No, it isn’t for eating. It flavors the meat,” Ramon said. “Haven’t you learned anything about cooking from me?”
“Fine! Can I make a request, then? Nothing green, okay? Only the meat should be green.”
“Ugh, I can’t believe you.” Ramon resumed his careful gut-cutting, taking care to not let the knife tip plunge too deep. “Potatoes, then. And just for your information, when I’m cooking, the meat is never green – not when I’m done, at least.”
As Nash moved over to the walk-in cooler and opened the door, the victim sat up, grabbing Ramon’s wrist as the knife blade sliced down toward his beltline. Ramon grunted in surprise, struggling against Stan the not-quite-dead fast-food fryer. Stan snapped the spatulas holding Ramon’s detached hand in place, reducing Ramon to one hand. “Help! Food fight!” Ramon shouted.
“What?” Nash said in an annoyed voice before noticing what was happening. “Crap, you revived him?”
“Get over here!” Ramon’s remaining hand was being twisted backwards by Stan’s two hands, forcing the knife from Ramon’s grasp. The knife clattered onto the concrete floor of the service bay.
Nash rushed to the opposite side of the countertop, dropping his bag of potatoes and seizing Stan’s wrists, but was unable to pull Stan’s hands from Ramon’s arm.
“Do something!” Ramon hissed through gritted teeth. “Get … the … knife.”
Nash leaned over Stan, trying to see the knife. When that failed, he seized the sides of the cut in Stan’s belly and pulled it wider. Intestines fell into Stan’s lap. Stan ceased struggling and moaned loudly, staring down in horror. Nash grabbed a loop of intestine and threw it around Stan’s wrist, then tied it into a knot.
“Wha…? Who are you? What’re you doing?” Stan screeched, going pale.
“Oooh, good work, kid!” Ramon said admiringly as he pulled his arms free. “How’d you know to do that?”
“The knot?” Nash adopted a superior tone. “Call it gut instinct. They teach that in zombie school nowadays – the gut truss.”
“Zombie school? What … oh, I get it, the joke’s on me. There’s no such thing as zombie school.”
Ramon turned to the camera. “Today’s lesson in subduing a victim was demonstrated by my assistant, Nash. Guts are strong enough to be effective restraints. The trick is to get the knot really tight, but that’s easier said than done, as guts are terribly slippery. Nash, why don’t you bind his feet, too.”
“Me? Why can’t you do it?”
“Cause I’m busy selecting the proper pan, assistant.”
“Let me go!” Stan howled, struggling to pull his hands free.
“How hard can it be to select a pan?” Nash grumbled, moving closer and tugging more length of intestine from out of the thrashing Stan. “You only need one hand for that, and I don’t want Stan to kick me in the spuds.” Nash grabbed Stan’s legs, but had to let go of the intestines. Nash’s voice rose. “I’m going to need your help to tie his ankles!”
There was a loud clang and Stan sagged forward, unconscious.
Ramon brandished his frying pan, looking at it appreciatively. “Cast iron isn’t right for every cooking task, but was the right pan for right now.”
“Thanks,” Nash said with relief. “He’s a lot stronger than I expected for a loser working in fast food. Maybe he never ate there.” He gave Stan a push, causing the unconscious form to fall back on the countertop. “You still want me to tie up his ankles?”
“Naw.” Ramon waved a hand dismissively. “I only said that so he’d focus on you and I could whack him.” Ramon sighed in frustration.
“What? We managed to knock him out, didn’t we?”
“Yeah, it’s not that.” Ramon frowned. “A traumatic death can sour the meat. A human should die quickly, painlessly, and without fear. This meat isn’t going to be as good as it could be.”
“That can’t be helped.” Nash lifted one of Stan’s limp arms. “You want me to massage him a bit, see if I can relax his muscles before you cut him up?”
“No, let’s get back to cooking. It’s time to make pan-fried Stan. Wash and peel the potatoes, will you?”
“Sure. Can I leave you alone with him?”
“Don’t be an ass!” Ramon snapped. “Get busy on the potatoes. Pan-fried Stan would go good with fries.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m going,” Nash called back over his shoulder.
“Here’s a good peeling knife,” Ramon said loudly. He pulled a knife from the knife block and ran a finger along its edge before plunging it into Stan’s leg, vibrating from the force of insertion.
Ramon peeled the wrapper from a stick of butter and dropped the stick into the cast iron skillet. He selected onions from a basket. He was reaching for a peeling knife when Stan pulled it out of his leg and stabbed Ramon in the chest.
“Urk!” Ramon staggered backwards, bumping into a workbench, staring down at the knife handle in surprise. “Good aim, Stan. It went right into my heart.” Ramon wrapped his fingers around the handle and pulled it out with a sure motion. The blade was shiny and dry.
“Stan, Stan, why’d you do that?” Ramon wiggled the knife reprovingly. “You’re just delaying the inevitable, you know. You disappoint me, Stan. It breaks my heart when food goes bad … though you didn’t actually hurt my heart.”
Stan’s eyes were comically wide. His lips fluttered. “Who are you?” he squeaked. “Why didn’t that kill you?”
Ramon turned the knife over, inspecting it as if to ensure the thrust hadn’t dulled the edge. “You can’t kill me, Stan, ’cause I’m not exactly alive. See any blood squirting out?”
Stan tried to pull himself backwards. His feet thrashed, knocking spice bottles off the countertop. Failing to move backwards, he lunged for the knife in Ramon’s hand.
“You want it?” Ramon taunted. “Here, take it. Do your worst.”
Stan snatched the proffered blade with both bound hands and buried the knife to the hilt in Ramon. Ramon looked up, his fingers drumming on the countertop. “It’s doing nothing for me,” he announced, making a show of inspecting his fingernails. “Go on, give it a twist, give it a wiggle, you won’t make me suffer … but you might make me giggle.”
A whine issued from Stan’s throat. His pupils expanded to blot out the color of his eyes as he pulled the knife out of Ramon’s chest.
“Wanna try again?” Ramon’s mouth twisted into a smile. “Maybe you’ll get lucky and hit something vital, eh?”
“Hey!” Nash shouted, dropping a potato. “What’s going on?”
Ramon grinned. “Playing with my food, that’s all.”
“Give the knife back!” Nash ordered, his finger pointing sternly at Stan.
Ramon held out his hand to Stan. Stan shifted his grip, then thrust the blade into his own chest. Spittle bubbled out from between his lips and his eyes bulged. Then he went limp, falling backwards.
Ramon lifted an eyebrow. “Finally, he cooperates! Too bad we can’t train them to do that every time. It’d make our jobs easier if they killed themselves. Speaking of which, why wasn’t he dead when you brought him in?”
“I don’t know,” Nash answered, stooping to gather up the scattered potatoes. “Do I look like a doctor? He seemed dead after I ran over him a couple of times. And I figured a day in the cooler’d finish him off. Just toss him in the pan and he’ll simmer down.”
“Is the camera still on?” Ramon asked, recovering his senses. “Crap! We aren’t doing much cooking for a cooking show.” He twisted a knob on the cooktop. “Let’s process Stan and cut him into some steaks while we’re waiting for the skillet to heat up. Um, first we get the guts out of the way. Hold your arms out and I’ll wind them up, get them offal the counter. Then I’ll filet Stan into tidy bits.”
“I gotta say, that was damn good Stan.” Nash rubbed his distended belly. “I didn’t think you could make him taste so good.” He tossed the bone he had been gnawing toward a corner of the service bay.
“Hey, put it in the box!” Ramon chided. “No bones left behind, remember?”
“We can clean up when we’re done.” Nash swept his arm to encompass the service bay-cum-studio. “We’re celebrating! Celebrating your first successful cooking show episode, celebrating the beginning of the Zombie Food Network. I don’t know about you, but I’m having another Bloody Mary – uh, Bloody Stan. There’s still some left, right? I never woulda thought vodka and hemoglobin would go together so nicely.”
“I don’t know about the successful part,” Ramon replied.
“Aw, now, don’t sound so glum. No one loves a gloomy zombie!”
“No one loves a happy zombie, either,” Ramon muttered. “The show was a disaster. I was disorganized and unprepared. I forgot my lines. I musta said ‘Ummm’ at least a hundred times. The meat should have been prepared and ready to go. Viewers expect to see action, action, action, accompanied by lively banter, with me looking into the camera and smiling and talking, looking like I’m having the time of my life. That’s what viewers want to see, to share in.” Ramon sighed and kicked at the now-empty platter. “Instead, we looked like a pair of clowns. Not only did we have to do all the cutting and prepping on camera, while viewers waited, but we had to fight Stan and kill him during the show. How much time did we waste there? Don’t tell me the show was a success!”
Ramon’s head turned. “Hold on, what’s that?”
Ramon’s head turned slightly left, then right. “I hear a buzzing. Don’t you hear it?”
“Maybe you’re attracting flies again,” Nash suggested.
“No.” Ramon got to his feet. He moved to the countertop and glanced over the pots, pans, and mess, picking up an item. “Ah, the cellphone from Carl is making noise. It must be defective.”
Nash’s eyes rolled. “Seriously, you don’t know about the vibrate setting? You some kind of Neanderthal zombie? Hit the talk button, old man.”
“Oh, okay.” Ramon punched the button and held the phone up to his ear. “Hello? Hi, Carl. Listen, I can explain…”
Ramon nodded, holding the phone up to his ear. “But … but…”
“Well, what did Carl say?” Nash demanded when Ramon put the phone down. “Did he hate the show?”
“No, he thought the show was okay.” Ramon sat down next to Nash. “But he chewed my ass about killing Stan on the air. Said it was sloppy and careless.”
Nash nodded. “All things you’ve said to me. It’s funny, all the times you’ve lectured me about avoiding discovery by the living, and here you are getting lectured by Carl.”
Ramon didn’t answer.
“Is he pulling the plug on the show?” Nash said in a gentler voice.
Ramon shrugged. “He wasn’t sure. Said he still wants to pursue it as a business enterprise, says he has big ideas for the Zombie Food Network. Said he was going to call around and find out whether the living are alarmed.”
“I don’t see why you let Carl push you around,” Nash observed after a silence. “You know how to survive among the living. Is it something personal? Did you two have a big falling out somewhere in the past?”
Ramon fiddled with the spatula taped to his wrist. “Carl has friends, lotsa friends. He’s not someone you want to make angry, if you get my meaning. He’s been a prominent member of the Corpsicana family since before he was undead. So you treat him with respect, understand?”
“I don’t see why. He’s just another crotchety old zombie – like you.”
“Look, kid, you better listen to me.” Ramon waved his spatula in the air. “It doesn’t matter if he gets on your nerves, okay? You treat a made man – a made undead – with respect at all times. You don’t wanna sleep with the fishes, after all.”
“There’s the phone again,” Nash announced. “You want me to answer?”
“No, I’ll do it.” Ramon grabbed the cellphone and looked at the screen. “It’s my cooking show, after all. Hi, Carl. What’s the news? Is the show dead?”
Ramon listened, then gave a forced chuckle. “Thank you. I didn’t know I was funny, either.”
“Hit the speaker button,” Nash instructed, pointing at the key. “I wanna hear.”
Carl’s voice boomed out from the cellphone. “Zombies loved your show! They said killing the food on-air gave it impact, made it believable and touching and reflected the plight of all zombie-kind. When I mentioned not including a kill, they said the show wouldn’t be nearly as good without it. So you boys do another show, okay? Do it the same way. Everyone complimented you for making it entertaining as well as educational. I must say, I was surprised how much effort you boys put into making the show lively and humorous.” Carl laughed abruptly. “Lively, ha! The show’s gonna be big, really big. I’ll provide next week’s live specimen, so you boys don’t need to waste time hunting. And give me a call if you need anything.” Carl hung up.
Nash took the cellphone from Ramon’s hand, pressing buttons. “I’ll see if we received any messages.”
“Did I get any fan mail?” Ramon asked.
“You oughtta learn to do this yourself,” Nash grumbled. “Yeah, there’re at least ten text messages and e-mails for you.”
“What do they say? Did they love the show?”
“Yeah, they loved it. Huh! There’s an e-mail from a Nancy.” Nash shook his head. “No … there’s something wrong here.”
“She didn’t like the show?”
“No.” Nash frowned. “She says our show lifted her spirits, says she’d been depressed and thinking of ending it all. Now she has something to look forward to, a reason for living.”
“She can’t be a zombie if she talks about a reason for living.”
“Impossible,” Ramon responded. “Carl said our netcast is set up for only zombies to see.”
“Sure. We’re only giving out the URL to zombies, but it’s still possible for the living to stumble onto it.”
“Can’t we block the … the whatever, the urinal, so only zombies can access it?”
“Yeah, but then zombies couldn’t see our show unless we gave them permission. So complete security has its drawbacks, see?”
Ramon sighed. “You’re the tech expert. But we don’t have to respond. This Nancy, if she’s one of the living, will get bored and the problem’ll take care of itself.”
“Dude, haven’t you repeatedly warned me about the dangers of letting the living find out about us? We gotta stop the show!”
“You’re blowing this out of proportion,” Ramon declared. “Nancy’s probably some old lady, living alone with a cat or two, who watches cooking shows while eating the same canned blenderized meat product she feeds her cats.”
“But … but she’s one of the living!”
“You don’t know that.”
“You are so in denial!” Nash snapped. “I can’t believe after all the times you’ve lectured me about safety, you’re the one who’s breaking the rules – your own rules – just because you’re enjoying sudden popularity!”
Nash held up one hand and counted down with his fingers. Then he pointed to Ramon and twirled his hand.
Ramon’s Adams apple bobbed rapidly. “Ladies and gents, welcome to our second cooking show here on the Zombie Food Network. Is your idea of food prep running over pedestrians? Are you getting tired of eating scrambled Gregs?” Ramon leaned forward, looming larger in the camera’s image. “Would you like to learn how to cook a Jehovah’s Witness to remove the bitter taste?” Ramon waved a ladle above his head. “Welcome to the second episode of Now You’re Cooking With Brains. I’m your host, Chef Ramon. I’ll teach you how to cook. Not only that, but I’ll teach you how to cook well, how to make eating the living an art form, a transcendent experience.”
“Don’t forget our new feature,” Nash reminded him from off-camera.
“Right! Today, we’re starting a new feature, Catch of the Day. Send us a picture of the human you recently killed and ate. Along with that, tell us how you prepared your dish. Got a favorite barbeque sauce? Know the best way to clean a Deadhead? Let us know and we’ll pass it on. There’s no reason you can’t help fellow zombies eat and live better. And, best of all, you can call, e-mail, or tweet us a question. Want to know what type of wine goes best with kidney? Just ask, and I’ll provide a suggestion – and a pithy response.”
“All questions about kidney require a pithy response,” Nash muttered from the side of the camera.
Ramon’s face twitched. “Crap, the meat! Do we have it?”
“Relax, old guy!” Nash moved closer, leaning in to look into the camera. “Our friend sent a delivery over just for the show. It’s a middle-aged guy, trussed up like an aquarium lobster in a seafood restaurant.”
“Sounds like a real timesaver.” Ramon pulled a knife across a sharpening stone, generating a metallic screech. “Home delivery – what every zombie wants. Where’s this live one?”
“I put him in the cooler.” Nash lowered his voice. “You sure it’s wise to have another killing on-air?”
Ramon held up his knife and inspected the edge. “Yeah, I’m sure. With screaming and blood spraying everywhere, our viewers’ll love it. Ratings are everything in LA, kid.” He motioned toward the walk-in cooler at the far wall of the garage’s service bays. “Bring out our first guest. Let’s get cooking!”
Nash returned dragging a middle-aged man. His ankles were bound together and his wrists were tied in front of him.
“Put him up on the counter,” Ramon ordered.
Nash moved close to Ramon, putting his back to the camera. “We’ve got a problem,” he muttered, jerking his head toward the victim.
“He’s … um … he’s…”
“Spit it out.”
Nash lowered his voice further. “He’s … uh … already dead.”
Ramon’s eyebrows pinched together. “You sure? How’d that happen?”
“I may have left him in the cooler too long,” Nash admitted. “I thought he’d slow down a bit, but didn’t think he’d kick off.” Nash rolled his eyes to the side to indicate the webcam. “What should we do?” he whispered out of the side of his mouth.
“Crap!” Ramon muttered through slightly open lips. “Carl’s going to be pissed.”
Nash brought a hand up to the side of his face to hide his mouth. “Why don’t we pretend he’s still alive?”
“That couldn’t possibly work,” Ramon responded in a barely audible voice. “Watchers’ll see he isn’t breathing. And he’s as colorless as a frozen cod.”
“Mmm.” Nash rubbed the back of his neck. He looked at the camera and spoke in an unnaturally loud voice. “Folks, we’ve got some food prep to do, so we’ll have to turn the camera off while we wash and cut vegetables.”
“Wait, we can’t have dead air,” Ramon whispered. “Viewers might leave our webpage and not come back. Can you put on a food image and a nice soundtrack?”
“Yeah, good idea.” Nash moved off to the side to the laptop controlling the recording and transmitting setup, tapping keys while Ramon smiled awkwardly at the camera. “Okay, sound and video is off. You can let the smile drop … and let your gut hang out.”
Ramon glanced down. “What? Where? My guts are all still in.”
Nash snickered. “Made you look.”
Ramon shot Nash a dirty look. “Help me with this guy. We need to pull him up on the counter and fix his eyes open. No one’ll believe he’s still alive if his eyes are closed. D’you have any clear tape?”
Nash shook his head. “No. It wouldn’t work, anyway. It’ll reflect light.”
“Then what would you suggest?”
Nash went into the office of the abandoned gas station and returned with a stapler. “Watch and learn, old timer. You do understand stapler technology, don’t you?”
“I would, but you’re dead.” Nash lifted one of the victim’s eyelids and brought the stapler into position. “Here, hold his eyelid up.” Nash moved to the side to make room for Ramon. “I can’t do it and work the stapler at the same time.”
“Sure.” Ramon extended his good hand. “There. Go. Ow!”
“Sorry. Okay, hold it still this time.” Nash grunted as he drove the second staple home. “Good! Other eye.”
Nash stepped back several paces. “Just as I thought. The eyelids fold over the staples and hide them. Now, how are we gonna cover his pasty complexion?”
Ramon rummaged through the bottles underneath the counter. “I know how to make fake blood. We smear some on his face so it looks like we’ve already beat him up.”
Nash peered at the bottles Ramon had pulled out. “What’s wrong with squirting ketchup on him?”
“Wrong consistency,” Ramon said brusquely. “A good chef can tell ketchup. It’s too thick to pass for blood.”
“Okay.” Nash watched as Ramon combined a couple of reddish syrups and stirred. “Can you make something that tastes good, too?”
Ramon paused in his stirring. “Like a glaze? Good idea.” He selected another bottle. “Too bad we don’t have the camera on, kid, because you’ve just hit on a very important point. A good chef makes food taste good, but a great chef makes food that tastes good and looks good.”
Ramon selected a spatula and daubed the dark red mixture on the victim’s face. He inspected his handiwork. “As long as you don’t zoom in too close, no one will be able to tell it’s not blood.”
Nash returned to the laptop. “Smooth your hair down,” he instructed, his finger poised over the record button. “And … go!” He tapped a key.
“We’re back, folks.” Ramon smiled broadly at the camera. “Sorry about the interruption, but we’re still working out our routine. So, we have our food here.” Ramon gestured at the bound and made-up corpse. “Tell me, assistant, what do we know about today’s meat?”
Nash squinted at the corpse. “Judging from his complexion and our source, I’d say he’s Italian food. Say, we could call him Entrée! That’s a good Italian name.”
Ramon shook his head. “Entrée’s a French word! Sorry I asked. Let’s get to the meal prep.” Ramon cuffed the dead man on the side of the head. “What’s your name?”
When there was no response, Ramon picked up a small paring knife. “I said, what’s your name?” Ramon forced the tip of the knife into the side of the dead man’s nose, then looked up into the camera.
“I think we’ll have to get rough,” Nash commented as he moved to stand in the camera’s view next to Ramon. “Whack him a good one!”
“It would be my pleasure,” Ramon growled. He hauled off and struck the corpse in the face. “Crap!”
“What?” Nash looked questioningly at Ramon. “Did you hurt your hand?”
“No. I broke my spatula splint, that’s all.”
“Ah, jeez.” Nash’s eyes rolled. “Here, let me hit him while you fix your spatula hand.” Nash slapped the corpse’s face. A red smear extended across his palm from the blow. Nash lifted his hand to his face and licked it off. “Mmmm, say, that’s pretty good!”
Ramon nudged Nash with an elbow. “Of course it’s good. There’s nothing as tasty as fresh blood.” Ramon leaned down, bringing his face closer to the corpse. “Still not going to talk? Okay by us. We love to draw blood, don’t we, Nash?”
“Sure do.” Nash picked up a small sauce pan and whacked the corpse on the head. “Gonna talk now, dude?” He pressed it against the corpse’s face, squashing the victim’s nose and cheek. “We can do this all night, you know.”
“Here, let me try.” Ramon edged Nash sideways. He positioned the tip of the knife blade in the ear opposite from the camera. “Talk, or I’ll push this all the way in.”
“Wait!” Nash grabbed Ramon’s arm. “Won’t that damage the brain?”
“True. There’s no point in wasting a perfectly good brain.” Ramon turned on a gas burner built into the countertop. The burner hissed and leapt into flame next to the victim’s head. Ramon pulled a metal spoon out of a drawer and held it in the flame. “Burns are the most painful injuries. Argh!” Ramon jumped back as the fake blood glaze burst into flames. “Crap, I used too much brandy.”
“I’ll get a cup of water.” Nash ran toward the utility sink at the side of the service bay.
“No!” Ramon bellowed. ” Soak a towel and bring it here.”
The victim’s face sizzled when Nash returned and spread the wet towel over the flames.
Ramon lifted a corner. “Yeah, it’s out now. Thanks.”
“Too bad,” Nash said at last. “I love flambé! Or is it fondue?”
“Flambé. This’s one tough guy.” Ramon chuckled, glancing sheepishly at the camera. “Today’s kitchen safety lesson wasn’t planned, but now you know, never throw water on a pan fire! You have to smother the flames. Oh, crap!”
“My spatula splint is slipping.” Ramon lifted his arm. His torn-off hand dangled at a strange angle.
Nash sighed in exasperation. “I told you tape wouldn’t work. But would you listen? Hold on, I saw the thing to use.” Nash went to a storage cabinet and poked around. He returned with several nylon zip ties in his hand. “These won’t let loose. Cops use them sometimes when they don’t have handcuffs. Put your arm out. There. Is it too tight? Is it cutting off your circulation?”
“What circulation?” Ramon sniffed. He put his good hand on the victim’s neck, feeling for a pulse. “Well, that did it. He’s dead. Must’ve had a heart attack when we lit his head on fire.” Nash used the camera’s remote control to pan down to Entrée’s face. He leaned closer to Ramon. “Uh, how do we explain him catching on fire?” Nash whispered.
“Let me think,” Ramon muttered. “Wait, I know.” He gestured for Nash to bring the camera back up to his face. “You zombies out there, you’re probably wondering why Entrée burst into flames. My assistant Nash here saw me stirring up a glaze, using brandy, and had the brilliant idea of using it to … uh … extract information. But we didn’t expect it to kill him, though.”
Nash pushed his own face into the camera’s field. “There you have it, folks. For a little while there, Chef Ramon had a real, beating heart.”
“Would you stop that?” Ramon pushed Nash away. “Cooking is serious business.” He frowned in concentration. “Now I hafta figure out what I can do with him.”
“Well, his brain’ll be a bit cooked, on the outside at least. So I can’t use any of my raw-brain recipes.”
Nash blinked. “You’ve got raw brain recipes?”
“Of course! There’s a dozen ways to eat a brain other than just raw and plain. No chef worth his salt would cut the brain out and serve it to guests as-is. There’re garnishes, spices, sauces – ”
“How about cheese?” Nash asked. “That’d be great! Take a fresh, raw brain, put a coupla squares of Velveeta on it, and pop it in the microwave until it melts and runs down.” Nash licked his lips.
“Ugh.” Ramon grimaced. “Never do that to a good brain! And you know Velveeta isn’t really cheese, don’t you?”
“Oh? Well, how about head cheese, then? It’d be the perfect cheese to put on a brain.”
“Head cheese isn’t a cheese, either.” Ramon’s face wrinkled in distaste. “It’s called head cheese, but it’s really jellied meat bits made from the head of a cow or pig.”
“Really?” Nash frowned. “You mean I’d have to add cheese to head cheese? Seems like a waste of time.” Nash glanced at the cellphone. “Here’s an idea.”
“You have a cooking suggestion?” Ramon said contemptuously.
“No. I received a tweet from a viewer who wants to make a suggestion.”
“A tweet? You taking suggestions from a pigeon now?”
“A pigeon?” An amused look crossed Nash’s face. “Maybe a stool pigeon. That’s probably what our meat supply here was, since he was delivered by our friend Carl. No, a tweet is a short electronic message. This person, Nancy, suggests mixing the brains with brandy. Nancy tweets that you might be able to thicken it up and use it as a nice glaze, then warns a brains-brandy glaze’ll be a fire hazard.”
“Someone’s watching?” Ramon had a stunned expression on his face. “And she wants to make a suggestion?”
“Okay, folks, you heard it. Chef Ramon is shocked anyone is listening. So today’s meal isn’t the only one with a glazed look.”
Nash made a throat-cutting, wrap-it-up gesture.
Ramon gave a regretful look at the corpse in front of him. “It looks like our show’s over, friends. Tune in again next week and we’ll pull this guy from the cooler and make something out of him. What do you think we should make, Nash?”
Nash shrugged. “It’s always a good time for grilling out.”
“Grilling it is, then.” Ramon pulled at the zip tie holding his spatula. “Good night, folks. Remember, a good zombie kills his own food. Eating roadkill isn’t dining – and it sure isn’t living!”
Nash dropped his hand to indicate cut-off. “And … we’re off the air.”
“Ah, a much better show.” Ramon smiled. “Our ratings will go even higher now.”
“No, it wasn’t a great success,” Nash snapped, his demeanor abruptly changing. “This was our second – and final – show. We’ve got to shut it down. We can’t risk discovery.”
“What’re you talking about?” Ramon waved a knife in the air.
“The tweet from Nancy – you remember her? It was followed by an e-mail. She says she wants to meet you in person.”
“So? So someone likes my show. What of it?”
“What of it?” Nash snorted. “The living shouldn’t be watching. Hold on.” Nash pulled the cellphone out. “It’s Carl. I’ll put him on speaker.” Nash punched a button. “What’s up, Carl?”
“That was good, boys. Not quite as snappy and full of life as the first show, but still popular. Viewership increased by eight percent.” Carl sounded pleased. “Next week, we could do a lot better, though. I already have some ideas. Next week’s kill should have a bit more punch to it.”
“Wait, wait,” Ramon responded, flapping his spatula hand in the air. “This’s a cooking show, not a hunting show!”
“We have a problem,” Nash interrupted. “One of Ramon’s new fans is a threat. A woman named Nancy’s been sending messages to us, and she’s not a zombie.”
“What do you mean?” Carl’s voice turned business-like.
“She’s one of the living. And she wants to meet Chef Ramon in person.”
“No, no way,” Carl responded. “No one can come to the studio!”
“He’s over-reacting,” Ramon protested. “He doesn’t know anything about this Nancy. She sent us a couple of messages, that’s all.”
“She’s one of the living,” Nash said stubbornly. “In her e-mail, she says she’s dying to meet you – and underlined the word dying.”
“Not good,” came Carl’s voice from the cellphone. “We’ll have to move the studio.”
“No, we have to shut it down,” Nash rejoined. “This’s dangerous. Somehow, this Nancy seems to have figured out who and what we are. There’s no way we can film another episode, even if we find a new location. And if word gets out among the living, they’ll find us, no matter where we go.”
“Nash’s right,” Carl agreed. “The living simply cannot find out about us.”
Ramon waved his spatula hand at the cellphone. “This Nancy isn’t one of the living! There’s no proof, no indications. She’s just a fan of the show, that’s all.”
“You’re in denial,” Nash accused. “You want to keep enjoying your new-found fame.”
“I say we take precautions, then see what happens.” Ramon crossed his arms. “We shouldn’t jump to conclusions.”
“Hold on.” Nash pressed a button on the cellphone. “It’s another text from Nancy.”
“Hmmph!” Ramon snorted. “The real danger here is that Nancy’s texting and driving.”
Nash’s eyebrows rose. “You know about that, but don’t know about a phone’s vibrate mode?”
“Stop bickering,” Carl ordered. “We don’t have much time to make a decision. Just what does Nancy say?”
“Right.” Nash looked down at the cellphone’s screen. “She … uh…” Nash squinted at the text message. “She says she knew Stan, and says our killing of him looked too realistic to have been faked … and no one’s seen him in a week.”
“Oooh, not good,” Carl said in a low voice.
“So?” Ramon’s voice was belligerent. “She can’t prove Stan’s dead.”
“Wait, she sent another text.” Nash’s lips moved as he read it. “Listen to this. She says she’s tired of living. She wants us to kill her, wants to be the main course on the next show. She even has recipe suggestions. She only asks that we make it quick and painless – unlike poor Stan.”
“Yeah, she already told me that,” Ramon said.
“Oh?” Carl responded. “How many times have you talked to her, this woman you don’t know?”
“We’ve exchanged e-mails several times.”
“Do you know what this means?” Carl’s voice over the speakerphone crackled with barely-suppressed tension. “This means danger!”
“He’s right,” Nash agreed. “What if Nancy knows who we are – and what we’ve been doing? She may’ve told others, too.”
“That’s not even the worst possibility!” Carl snapped. “What if it’s one of my family rivals? What if, instead of a suicidal woman, an army of goons show up at our secret studio?”
“Both of you are being completely stupid!” Ramon glowered at Nash. “She is just what she says she is – a sick woman who wants to die, and as quickly and painlessly as possible. She’s told me about crippling depression and worsening paralysis.”
“Why doesn’t she just eat a bullet, then?” Nash demanded.
Ramon shook his head. “She’s afraid she’ll screw it up and live, but with even more paralysis and pain. She wants to be on my show. She wants me to end her life.”
“This’s still all about the attention, isn’t it?” Nash waved a hand at the camera. “You won’t acknowledge she’s a threat because you don’t want to quit, now that zombies are watching the show.”
“What threat could she be?” Ramon grabbed a knife from the counter. “Afraid she’ll stab me, like Stan did? Oh, I know!” Ramon threw out his chest. “Maybe she’ll rip my other hand off, right?”
“Ramon, listen to me!” Carl barked. “We can’t risk discovery. And we don’t know how much danger she represents.”
“Exactly,” Ramon replied in a normal voice. “We need to find out how much she knows.”
“How would you do that? Better yet, how would you do it without risking even greater exposure?”
“It wouldn’t be difficult.” Ramon glanced around at their makeshift studio. “You’ve got guys, right, Carl? We load up all the studio stuff. Then I give her the address and invite her over. You have some guys – big, armed guys – hiding in back and waiting nearby in big, black cars. Then we see who shows up, a sick woman who just wants to die, or a squad of your enemies. Either way, we kill everyone who shows up.”
Ramon’s words were followed by silence. “Well?” Ramon finally demanded. “What do you think?”
“It could work,” Carl agreed.
Nash spread upraised hands. “Okay, whatever. I guess it would be better to find out whether we’ve been compromised than to disappear and never know. Just make sure you don’t get all sentimental and be unable to finish her off when the time comes.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me.” Ramon hefted the knife again. “I’ve never had a problem with killing my food.”
“Yeah, everything’s ready,” Ramon said into the cellphone. “All of your men are hidden. Everything’s ready. Nancy should be here in about ten minutes. Don’t worry, I’ll call you the moment – oh, crap, a car is here.”
Ramon padded over to the overhead door of the first service bay and peered out through a small square glass pane. “Carl, I was right. It’s just her, alone. She’s getting out of her car, looks to be in her late thirties. No gun or anything. Your guys that’re watching the gas station, do they see anyone else? Good. Gotta go. I’ll talk to her and see what she knows.” Ramon clicked the phone shut.
The bell on the door of the office portion tinkled. Footsteps explored the office portion as Ramon turned over a five-gallon bucket over and sat down, waiting in the center of the first service bay.
A face peered through the doorway from the office portion. The face was lined and slack. Dull eyes swept around the interior of the two service bays.
Nancy flinched when she saw Ramon sitting on the bucket, waiting. “Are you … are you Ramon?”
“Yes, ma’am. And you are Nancy. Are you alone?”
A puzzled look crossed her face. “Of course. If I had someone, I might not want to die.”
“Ah, right. Sorry.” Ramon cleared his throat. “I don’t want to pry, but why do you want to be killed?”
“Why?” Nancy looked around the service bay. “I have frequent depression and migraines. Then I was diagnosed with a new problem, a degenerative disease that will soon leave me totally paralyzed.”
She paused to fish out a hanky and blow her nose and wipe away the tears beginning to form in the corners of her eyes.
Behind Nancy, Nash stuck his head out of the washroom doorway to roll his eyes dramatically. Ramon gestured angrily for him to pull back out of sight as Nancy approached him, still looking around.
“So, are you sure about ending it all?” Ramon prompted gently. “Have your family and friends agreed to this?”
“Nobody knows.” Nancy’s gaze fell. “No one’ll care. No one’ll even notice. There won’t be anyone to care for me as my disease progresses. And doctors say it’ll progress very rapidly.”
“I’m … ah … I see.” Ramon’s voice dropped. “You sure you won’t change your mind?”
Nancy’s head came up and her eyes hardened. “No, I won’t. I’ve already tried to kill myself, but failed. I’ve had my stomach pumped twice. Then I cut my wrists, but they stitched me up and made me go to some half-trained shrink. He just made me feel worse.”
Nancy looked Ramon over. “Are you a serial killer? You don’t really look capable of killing – or at least, you don’t look very healthy. And you’re a lot older than I expected.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I know how to kill,” Ramon said softly.
“Did you really kill Stan? Are you a cannibal? I’ve never met a cannibal before.”
Ramon glanced furtively at the doorway where Nash was hiding. “No, it’s worse than that,” he whispered. “I’m a zombie.”
Nancy’s eyes widened. “No kidding? Will you eat me after I’m dead? Promise I’ll be dead before you chew on me.”
“Will you make some wonderful dish from me?”
“Uh, yeah. Do you have anything in mind?”
“Well, I’ve always dreamed of myself as being baked slowly, in a really good sauce.” Nancy reached for a purse, then realizing it wasn’t there, she held up her hands. “I’ll write it down for you. I’ve found the perfect recipe with an absolutely wonderful sauce. And I know a great salad to go with it. Do you like salad?”
Ramon wrinkled his nose. “Not particularly, no.”
“Oh…” Nancy’s face fell. “Well, how about a good wine?”
“Sure … as long as you’re not marinated in it before you die. We zombies don’t much like the taste of alcohol in our food.”
“Okay.” Nancy took a deep breath, loosening the top buttons of her blouse. She threw her head back and raised her voice. “I’m here, and I’m ready to be eaten, ready to die!”
Ramon got to his feet just as Carl’s zombie goons rushed in. They set upon Nancy, knocking her to the floor and snapping at her thrashing arms and legs with their bared teeth. Nancy screamed in fear, then howled as several of them bit into her flesh.
“Off! Let her go!” Ramon bellowed, grabbing first and then another of Carl’s zombie goons, pulling them off Nancy and shoving them away.
Nancy scrambled to her feet, pulling away from another attacker. Her blouse sleeve tore away and Nancy darted away, dashing out of the abandoned gas station and running away.
Nash rushed out from his hiding place. “What the hell? Why’d you let her get away?”
“I didn’t,” Ramon snarled. “Carl’s boys jumped the gun.” Ramon ran to the window. “Shit! I had everything going just right until they jumped out!”
The cellphone rang. Ramon snatched it out of his pants pocket, flipping it open violently. “Carl! You need to control your goons. What happened? They jumped out before I could strike the killing blow. Now she’s escaped and is running around out there somewhere.” Ramon listened briefly. “No, that won’t do, Carl. Listen, I just talked to her. She’s alone, and she’s told no one. No, your guys shouldn’t go out to search for her. Do you really think it’s a good idea to have a pack of zombies running around out there, chasing a lone woman? I’ll go get her. Pull your men out. I’ll call you when I find her.” Ramon shut the cellphone without waiting for Carl’s answer.
“I’m going with you,” Nash announced. “Get in the ice cream wagon. I’ll drive. No, don’t argue with me. I’m not waiting here. Let’s move.”
“There she is,” Ramon called when they were at least six blocks from the gas station. A shape appeared in the darkness ahead of their headlights. “Pull up slowly. Don’t startle her.”
Nash eased the ice cream wagon to a stop. Ramon leaned out off the side window. “Psst, Nancy! It’s me, Ramon. Are you okay?”
From where she huddled on the empty sidewalk, Nancy held up an arm, pulling her sleeve back to show an ugly red wound.
“I’m really sorry about them,” Ramon called. “They were only supposed to protect me, not attack you.”
“Protect you from what? What does a zombie need protection from?”
“Nevermind that. Will you talk to me?”
“I don’t know.” Nancy wrapped her arms protectively around her knees, sitting on the sidewalk on the edge of the pool of light cast by the ice cream wagon’s headlights.
“Please come over here,” Ramon begged.
“Are there any other zombies in there?”
“No.” Ramon gestured at Nash. “It’s just him and I, that’s all.”
“What about the other zombies?”
“I’ll make sure they’re gone. Will you come back?”
Nancy go to her feet and moved closer to the window. “I will, but only on one condition – I still get the death you promised me.”
“You still want me to kill you?” Ramon stared into her eyes.
“Yes, and on your show. My death should be a spectacle, a banquet. Cook up a grand meal from me, a meal like you’ve never cooked before. Can you do that? Will you?”
“Yes, I will,” Ramon declared. “I’ll have Carl’s guys put everything back, the whole studio, then leave. It’ll be just the three of us – and the best zombie cooking show the world’s ever seen!”
“I’m ready now,” Nancy called out through a crack between the washroom door and frame. She put an arm out, then the door flew open and she stepped out into the service bay, twirling so her red dress flew outward. “What do you think?”
“Looks good,” Ramon acknowledged, barely giving the dress a glance.
“Climb up on the counter,” Nash directed. “I put a small pillow there for your neck.” He watched as Nancy climbed up and positioned herself on the countertop.
“How is my hair? Is it still okay?”
“Good, fine,” Ramon answered, dragging his largest kitchen knife over a sharpening stone. “You look great, positively delicious. You’ll look even better when I’m done with the garnish.”
“Hold on, your lipstick needs touching up.” Nash put out a hand and Nancy passed him a tube. Nash dabbed at several spots on her lips. “Press them together,” he instructed. His hand dropped down to her neck as she rubbed her lips together.
“I felt that!” Nancy accused, glaring up at Nash. “What’re you doing? Drawing a dashed line across my neck?”
“Yeah,” Nash admitted. “I wanted to make sure the old-timer swung for the right spot.”
“It’s too high,” Nancy responded. “Cut a quarter inch lower, or you’ll hit a vertebrae and make a real mess of my neck. And then it won’t be fast and painless.”
“Fine, I’ll do that.” Ramon moved to Nancy’s side and motioned for Nash to attend to the camera. “Are you both ready? Let’s get the show going.”
“I’m ready.” Nancy patted the sides of her hair.
“Okay, here goes then.” Nash pointed at the little red LED on the front of the camera. “We’re on in … three … two … one…”
Ramon nodded toward the camera. “Ladies and gents, welcome to our third cooking show here on the Zombie Food Network. You’re watching Now You’re Cooking With Brains, and I’m your host, Chef Ramon. I’ll teach you to cook well – and eat well.”
“Nash, pull the camera back a little,” Ramon instructed. “The lady you see here is Nancy. She’s been fighting depression, and now has been diagnosed with a degenerative disease. She volunteered to be killed live on the air.” Ramon lifted his big knife. “And when we say live, we mean live! She wants death to be as fast and painless as possible. So I’ll put a blindfold on her. And since I’m going for fast and complete severance of her neck, I’m using the biggest, heaviest knife I have.”
“No, that isn’t the right knife,” Nancy objected. “You should use something smaller and thinner, so the blade doesn’t drag as it cuts.”
Ramon’s chest puffed out. “Who’s the chef here? This is absolutely the right knife.”
Nancy sighed. “You men, always thinking the biggest tool or weapon is the best. Too much weight in a knife makes it hard to control.”
“No, not true.” Ramon waved both hands. “Once I establish a proper aim, I shouldn’t need to change my arc when I start swinging!”
“Nancy, you can’t tell him anything,” Nash interjected. “Believe me, I’ve tried.”
“Oh, no, this is my death!” Nancy declared, raising an arm up into the air. “You can’t tell me I don’t have any choice in the matter.”
“I’m the chef!” Ramon thundered. “We’ve complied with almost all of your requests. But on this, it is my choice. I won’t use an unsuitable knife, even if you think it would look better. Don’t forget, you’re merely the main course here.”
“I won’t be silenced!” Nancy screeched, grabbing the sides of the countertop to sit up.
Ramon’s arm swung down, the swing ending with a loud thunk.
“Oooh, nice kill!” Nash whispered appreciatively. “Clean and complete. And bloody. Our viewers’ll love it. I’m zooming in!”
“Shit!” Ramon exclaimed as he wiggled the knife to pull it free from the wood of the countertop. “I forgot to get those recipes from Nancy. I really woulda liked to see what recipes she picked for herself.”