Nick looked out the window to see a boatload of police cars at the school as they slowed down. There were two ambulances and even a fire truck. "What's going on?"
Tad shook his head. "Not sure ..."
Casey's face lit up. "Does this mean no school? Oh thank God, I didn't finish my social studies homework."
The police wouldn't let them park in the school lot. Instead, they waved them down the street and away from the crowd. Tad went over to Royal and parked outside of Fifi Mahoney's. "I've got to know what's going on."
Nick concurred. Leaving his backpack in the SUV, he walked over to the school with Tad and the girls.
Many of the students were milling around in groups while reporters asked a few of them questions. Brynna and Casey broke off to join their friends.
Nick followed Tad as he headed over to Ms. Pantall, who was standing with three other teachers.
"Hey, Ms. P," Tad called, "what's going on?"
She let out a slow breath before she answered. "You won't believe this ... Brian Murrey tried to eat Scott Morgan."
Nick's eyes widened at the unexpected explanation. Had he heard that right?
Tad gaped. "What?"
She nodded as she gestured toward the school's entrance. "They were in the cafeteria before the bell, acting completely normal, when all of a sudden Brian attacked him for no reason. He started chewing on his arm and tearing at his skin like a rabid dog with a steak. I've never seen anything like it in my life. It was so gross."
Tad passed a wide-eyed stare to Nick. "Is Scott all right?"
In perfect timing to the question, Scott came out of the school on a stretcher with two EMTs watching over him.
Nick drifted away from them so that he could listen in on a few other conversations, including that of a female reporter who was talking on her cell phone. There had to be more to this story than what Pantall was saying to Tad.
"I'm telling you, Bob, something's going on. What with the attacks last night and now this ... How many cities have six cannibal attacks in twelve hours?"
Well, it was the Big Easy where they had a slack attitude over most things. But even the stoutest New Orleanian usually drew the line at eating human flesh.
Most days, anyway.
Then again, Halloween was just around the corner. If not for the cops, he might think it a prank.
"They're questioning the kid now. He seems out of it. Like his brains are rattled or something. But you should have seen the vic's arm. He tore it down to the bone and his classmates said he ate all the flesh like he was starving for it. You think it could be something voodoo related?"
Yeah, anytime something freaky happened, blame the Goth or the voudoun communities—'cause normal people could never be insane. Maybe he should remind the reporter that the infamous serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer hadn't been a voodoo worshiper either and Brian, until this, had been a normal jock like the rest of the team. A little dumber than most, but he was a poster child for normality.
Until he tried to eat Scott...
Nick moved away from her, closer to the ambulance where they were loading Scott. There was a white bandage over his arm that was red as more blood seeped through it.
Scott was sobbing. "All I did was reach for his milk. He could have just said no. He didn't have to eat my arm.... God, I'll never be able to throw a ball again. I'm gonna lose my scholarship, I know it. We'll never make the state championship now. Terry can't throw for squat. Man, the season's over. Why? Why did he do this?"
That seemed to be the question....
"Hey, kid! Get back behind the barricade."
Nick nodded to the officer before he obeyed.
"Hey, Nick!" Frank McDaniel ran up to him. "Hear what happened? Brian ate Scott. How cool is that? Man, I wish I'd seen it. That's what I get for being late to school. I miss all the good stuff that happens."
Jason laughed in agreement. "I just hope whatever got into him isn't catching. I don't want no one coming up and trying to gnaw on my flesh or me going after someone else. Sheez. My mom's a vegan. She grounded me for six months last summer when I ate a cheeseburger at McDonald's. Can you imagine how long she'd ground me for eating a person?"
Frank cast a hungry look over to the group where Brynna and Casey were standing. "Oh man, if it is catching, I hope Casey Woods gets it and comes for me. If you gotta die, no better way to go than to get eaten by the head cheerleader."
Jason high-fived him. "Yeah, all right. Sign me up for that too. I definitely want to be her chew toy."
Nick ignored his friends as he caught sight of his lab partner Madaug St. James, who seemed to be muttering to himself as he stood off to the side of the ambulance. An almost stereotypical nerd, Madaug had a black gamer T-shirt on underneath his blue button-down that had been left open. His dishwater blond hair was cropped short and he had large blue eyes that were always covered with thin-rimmed glasses.
Even though Nick knew the name was pronounced "Man-dug," he, like most of the people in his class, usually pronounced it "Mad Dog." But that always irritated Madaug and right now he looked agitated enough.
"Hey, dude. You all right?"
Madaug froze at his question. "Uh, yeah. It's terrible, isn't it? "Epically gruesome."
Madaug nodded. "I can't believe it. I just can't believe it."
Neither could Nick. "Well, I guess the bright side is you don't have to worry about Scott or Brian picking on you today in gym class, right?" Last time Nick had been in school, Brian had worn Madaug's gym shorts and then forced Madaug into them after he'd sweated all over them.
Gross and nasty.
Madaug didn't respond to his question as he continued to fret.
Out of the crowd, one loud voice suddenly drowned the others out. "I'm telling you people, it's a zombie attack. Zto the O to the M to the B to the I, E. Zombie. Open your eyes, people, before it's too late and he eats someone else. Any of you could be next on the Zombie Apocalypse Menu. Heed my words and stock up on ammo! I got a new shipment coming in today!"
Nick knew that voice. He just wasn't used to hearing it this early in the day.
Big Bubba Burdette, the owner of the Triple B store.
Wow, and Bubba hadn't burst into flames by getting up this early in the morning. Who knew? He'd have sworn the man was half vampire.
Standing well over six feet tall, Bubba was an interesting mix of redneck and Goth. Case in point, he had on a Dawn of
the Dead T-shirt with a red flannel shirt pulled on over it. His baggy jeans were complemented by a nice pair of black Doc Martens that were decorated with red skulls. With short black hair and a goatee, Bubba was terrifying to behold. But the minute he opened his mouth and that thick Southern drawl came out, he looked less like a threat and more like a giant fluffy panda bear.
At least so long as you didn't interrupt his watching Oprah in the afternoon. Bubba said anyone dumb enough to do that deserved to have his entrails spilled.
And that thick drawl made most people underestimate a man whose IQ was off the charts. In fact, Bubba had graduated at the top of his class from MIT with degrees in both computer science and robotics. Now, he owned the Triple B—a gun and computer store where you could hire Bubba to hack anything in the world, legal or otherwise, and if that didn't work, he'd shoot it for you just to put it out of your misery.
The reporters left Bubba as they tried to interview more students.
Bubba spat a bit of his chewing tobacco onto the pavement. "That's right, troglodytes, ignore the only one who knows what's going on. The only one who knows how to save your putrid, insignificant lives. Go back to your media-induced comas where you believe all the crap spieled by greedy politicians who control you with ill-conceived lies and consumer-driven distractions."
"Aren't those consumer-driven distractions what keep you in business, Bubba?" Nick asked as he approached him.
Bubba narrowed his dark brown eyes on Nick with disgust. "Don't sass me, Nick. I'm not a morning person and I might take my ill mood out on you."
"Yeah, I know. So what are you doing up at this hour, anyway?"
"Haven't slept. Got a call from Fingerman at oh dawn thirty telling me there were zombies on the loose and that he needed reinforcement. So I grabbed my gun and we went hunting in the bayou." Normal people might find this conversation odd, but then all conversations with Bubba were odd, and zombie hunting was just another service he offered at his store.
"Mark get eaten?"
"Nah, the little wuss fell asleep on the way back to the store. He's cuddled up in the front seat like an infant girl, sucking his thumb and holding his jacket tucked under him like a pillow. Don't know what I'm going to do with him."
Nick opened his mouth to make another comment when he realized that conversations had stopped. The hair on the back of his neck stood up. Turning his head, he saw Brian being led out of the school in handcuffs.
Except for the blood marring his letterman's jacket, he looked normal. Completely. Totally. Normal. Yeah, his skin was a little pale and his eyes sunken like he hadn't slept well. But other than that...
No one could tell he'd tried to eat his best friend.
Brian slowed as he neared the captain of the team. Their gazes locked in such a way that it seemed like they were communicating without speaking.
The cops shoved him forward.
Brian kept his gaze on the captain until he was forced into the police car.
Nick looked at Bubba. "Is it just me or was that weird?"
Bubba gave him a droll stare. "Is there any part of this day that hasn't been weird, boy?"
"So what do you think caused this?" Nick asked.
Bubba scratched his head. "That I'm trying to figure out. Normal zombie attacks—"
That made Nick wonder what would qualify as an abnormal attack.
"—are done by dead people brought back from their graves. They're under the control of their masters and attack humans to get a taste of blood. But this ... the kid wasn't dead yet. Makes no sense to me."
"Maybe someone spiked his Wheaties?"
Bubba shook his head. "Well, there is some chemicals what can give a human zombie-like symptoms. But none of them make a person eat another one. Maybe it's some bioterrorism test being run by the government. Don't be drinking no tap water or seafood until I do some testing."
Nick grinned. "I don't normally drink my seafood, Bubba, but—"
"Don't get smart with me, Gautier. I still got loaded weapons from last night."
Nick opened his mouth to speak, but a hysterical scream silenced him.
"Oh my God! The coach just ate Mr. Peters! Someone help! Help!"
The police went running into the school as the secretary came dashing out, screaming in terror and tearing at her hair.
Nick froze as those words about Peters seeped into his brain. On the one hand he was horrified the man had been eaten. On the other...
He was strangely happy. The sanctimonious pig kind of deserved it.
Nick, that's so wong. He heard his mom's voice in his head. Yeah, maybe it was, but he still couldn't help thinking it was some kind of divine payback.
The police forced the crowd back as the media rushed the school, trying to get photos and footage.
Suddenly, the vice principal was outside with a bullhorn. "School is canceled for the day. Students go home. We'll be calling later in the day with information. Please ... disperse and leave. Any student found on campus will be suspended. Now go home and don't come back here today."
"And hopefully tomorrow too," one of the students shouted.
Bubba spat more tobacco out. "It's good to be you today, huh?"
"Yeah, as long as I don't get eaten by my football team.... Can I come hang in your store and do some research on this?
Bubba nodded. "Sure, but you've got to open it for me and watch it while I catch some Z's."
That sounded fair to Nick. "Let me get my backpack and I'll head straight over." He left Bubba to find Tad, who was standing in a large group of seniors.
Intent on their discussion, none of them saw him.
"I'm telling you, we need to notify the council and the Dark-Hunters. This has Daimon written all over it."
"Not in daylight, it don't. Daimons can't attack until the sun goes down and you know that. They'd be toast if they stepped one foot outside right now."
"But there were more attacks last night and this is spreading. My money still says it's Daimon related. They're doing something. Mark my words."
One of the seniors rolled his eyes. "A Daimon can't convert a human. That's the first lesson we're all taught."