As the older man went over his inventory and prices, I perused the room. I looked at the writhing, sometimes naked bodies in various states of decay. My eyes set on a tiny figure in a far corner, spinning around with the intensity of a whirling dervish. She’d once been a small child, about five years old. She scowled and glowered at me with blank eyes, the pupils of which had taken on a color of sour milk. Partially clad in a blood-spattered pink-and-white dress, she looked like a tattered Raggedy Ann doll that had been dragged through the mud. Her little voice was part of the hoarse, off-tune vocal symphony, hissing and inviting me to join her hellish little tea party. She looked as if her mother had dressed her up to give an Easter speech at church the day of her demise. She wore frilly little socks that had been powder puff pink at one time. Her clothes being unseasonable for this time of year, I imagined she had been walking around the woods since before Labor Day, preying on forest creatures. One of her white patent leather shoes was missing and there was a dirty bow still propped in her matted, once-golden hair. She was secured to one of several cylindrical poles that had been installed and cemented beneath the barn floor. As she made a run at me, the forward motion and limit of her chain caused her to go in circles. Round and round she went, stopping to growl and chomp at the air with her stained, jagged baby teeth. Then she’d go in circles again. A normal child would have dizzied and given up, but she continued this cycle, clawing the air with her little hands, opening and closing her fists angrily.
I concentrated on the others instead. The little girl became a spinning blur in my periphery that I was trying to ignore. It was much easier focusing on those that were in tattered work clothes and even a mustachioed man in smoking jacket and gore-stained ascot—anything but the little girl.
“Oh, we get a fresh shipment ‘bout ev’ry couple o’ weeks,” I heard Maynard brag. “Most of ‘em are put down out in the field, but the best are delivered to me to sell.”
“What happens to the ones nobody buys,” I asked, still avoiding the determined gaze of the tiny flax-haired terror, daring me to go over and read her a bedtime story.
“Well, we don’t release ‘em back into the wild, that’s fer sure,” the broker of undead flesh said with an unsettling chortle. He was smiling at first, but the upturned corners of his mouth flattened out into a straight, serious line that resembled a jagged slash made with a dull scalpel. The friendliness in his face had downgraded to a stoic mask, jowls sagging. “We burn ‘em.”
“Burn them shits,” Steed piped in from the amen corner. “Sounds good to me!”
Maynard studied my face, his glasses helping him to take in every detail with clarity. “Magda got ya spooked, huh? Looks like she done chose you. They do that from time to time, almost like selectin’ a mate.”
He didn’t blink and only his slash of a mouth moved. “That’s the lil’ girl you done turned away from and refuse to look at. She got eyes for you.”
Steed spotted her and snickered at the cartoonish fashion of the creature that had at one time been dainty, now propelling herself around incessantly. “She’s a vicious lil’ thing, ain’t she?”
Maynard’s arms crossed over his chest. “Sonny,” he said to us both, as if teaching a lesson, “If I loose them chains, she would chew you up with them tiny, needle-sharp milk teeth of hers. Whatever she was in life, she ain’t no more.” He paused for a moment, rubbing his chin, working math in his head. Then he smiled a rather reptilian grin. “Shit, I’d be willin’ to throw her in with the lot for a special price.”
I glared at the farmer, who had seemed so warm before. He was a businessman and trading bodies, selling little girls, even burning them, was just par for the course. I suddenly wanted to put as many miles between Maynard and this place as quickly as I could.
“You might not wanna judge me too harshly,” he said, collecting the bills Steed handed him. He licked his thumb and counted out nine notes that bore the face of Benjamin Franklin.
“After all,” Maynard continued, pointing, “You the one out here in the middle o’ the night buyin’ corpses for god-knows-what and who-shot-John. You also the one transportin’ undead bodies ‘cross state lines. That’s a federal o-ffense accordin’ to Madame President herself.”
I looked at Maynard and didn’t like him very much. He pocketed the knot of cash and beamed his serpentine fangs. Though spoken softly, I’d heard his threat loud and clear; was sure he was connected to local and state law enforcement agencies that turned a blind eye to his late-night business activities. He could probably land me in jail or make me disappear with a simple phone call if he wanted.
Of course, I could have also cleared leather and let two bullets crack his fucking cranium before he could speed dial or pull the trigger on that double-barreled boom-stick. I could then feed him to his zombie horde, including Magda. Their hisses would be gurgled in the red froth of his blood.
Two rounds in three seconds.
“Not passing judgment, Maynard,” I said solemnly, taking the high road. “I just never seen a zombified little one up close.”
The monstrous tyke was in the corner of my eye, growling, snapping and doing her nightmarish rendition of a washing machine’s spin cycle.
“No problem here. No siree bob.” He held up the greenbacks. “It’s all ‘bout the money, son.” To that, he laughed, his lungs full of phlegm. “All about the money.”