Does something smell funny? Enjoy the first chapter of the new, freshly unearthed Dan Shamble, Zombie PI novel, UNNATURAL ACTS, now lurking in book stores.
I never thought a golem could make me cry, but hearing the big clay guy’s sad story brought a tear to my normally bloodshot eyes. My business partner Robin, a lawyer (but don’t hold it against her), was weeping openly.
“It’s so tragic!” she sniffled.
“Well, I certainly thought so,” the golem said, lowering his sculpted head, “but I’m biased.”
He had lurched into the offices of Chambeaux & Deyer Investigations with the ponderous and inexorable gait that all golems have. “Please,” he said, “you’ve got to help me!”
In my business, most clients introduce themselves like that. It’s not that they don’t have any manners, but a person doesn’t engage the services of a private investigator, or a lawyer, as an ordinary social activity. Our visitors generally come pre-loaded with problems. Robin and I were used to it.
Then, swaying on his thick feet, the golem added, “And you’ve got to help my people.”
Now, that was something new.
Golems are man-sized creatures fashioned out of clay and brought to life by an animation spell. Tailor-made for menial labor, they serve their masters and don’t complain about minimum wage (or less, no tips). Traditionally, the creatures are statuesque and bulky, their appearance ranging from store-mannequin smooth to early Claymation, depending on the skill of the sculptor-magician who created them. I’ve seen do-it-yourself kits on the market, complete with facial molds and step-by-step instructions.
This golem was in bad shape: dried and flaking, his gray skin fissured with cracks. His features were rounded, generic, and less distinctive than a bargain-store dummy’s. His brow was furrowed, his chapped gray lips pressed down in a frown. He tottered, and I feared he would crumble right there in the lobby area.
Robin hurried out of her office. “Please, come in, sir. We can see you right away.”
Robin Deyer is a young African American woman with anime-worthy brown eyes, a big heart, and a feisty disposition. She and I had formed a loose partnership in the Unnatural Quarter, sharing office space and cooperating on cases. We have plenty of clients, plenty of job security, plenty of headaches. Unnaturals have problems just like anyone else, but zombies, vampires, werewolves, witches, ghouls, and the gamut of monsters are underrepresented in the legal system. More than enough cases, if you can handle the odd clientele and the unusual problems.
Since I’m a zombie myself, I fit right in.
I stepped toward the golem and shook his hand. His grip was firm but powdery. “My partner and I would be happy to listen to your case, Mr. . . . ?”
“I don’t actually know my name. Sorry.” His frown deepened like a character in a cartoon special. “Could you read it for me?” He slowly turned around. In standard magical manufacturing, a golem’s name is etched in the soft clay on the back of his neck, where he can never see it for himself. “None of my fellow golems could read. We’re budget models.”
There it was, in block letters. “It says your name is Bill.”
“Oh. I like that name.” His frown softened, although the clay face was too stiff to be overly expressive. He stepped forward, disoriented. “Could I have some water, please?”
Sheyenne, the beautiful blond ghost who served as our receptionist, office manager, paralegal, business advisor, and whatever other titles she wanted to come up with, flitted to the kitchenette and returned with some sparkling water that Robin kept in the office refrigerator. The golem took the bottle from Sheyenne’s translucent hands and unceremoniously poured it over his skin. “Oh, bubbly! That tingles.”
It wasn’t what I’d expected him to do, but we were used to unusual clients.
When I’d first hung out my shingle as a PI, I’d still been human, albeit jaded—not quite down-and-out, but willing to consider a nontraditional client base. Robin and I worked together for years in the Quarter, garnering a decent reputation with our work . . . and then I got shot in the back of the head during a case gone wrong. Fortunately, being killed didn’t end my career. Ever since the Big Uneasy, staying dead isn’t as common as it used to be. I returned from the grave, cleaned myself up, changed clothes, and got back to work. The cases don’t solve themselves.
Thanks to high-quality embalming and meticulous personal care, I’m well preserved, not one of those rotting shamblers that give the undead such a bad name. Even with my pallid skin, the shadows under my eyes aren’t too bad, and mortician’s putty covers up the bullet’s entry and exit holes in my skull, for the most part.
Bill massaged the moistened clay, smoothed the cracks and fissures of his skin, and let out a contented sigh. He splashed more water on his face, and his expression brightened. “That’s better! Little things can improve life in large ways.” After wiping his cheeks and eyes with the last drops of sparkling water, he became more animated. “Is that so much to ask? Civil treatment? Human decency? It wouldn’t even cost much. But my people have to endure the most appalling conditions! It’s a crime, plain and simple.”
He swiveled around to include Robin, Sheyenne, and me. “That’s why I came to you. Although I escaped, my people remain enslaved, working under miserable conditions. Please help us!” He deepened his voice, growing more serious. “I know I can count on Chambeaux and Deyer.”
Now that the bottle of sparkling water was empty, Sheyenne returned with a glass of tap water, which the golem accepted. She wasn’t going to give him the expensive stuff anymore if he was just going to pour it all over his body. “Was there anyone in particular who referred you to us?” she asked.
“I saw your name on a tourist map. Everyone in town knows Chambeaux and Deyer gives unnaturals a fair shake when there’s trouble.” He held out a rumpled, folded giveaway map carried by many businesses in the Quarter, more remarkable for its cartoon pictures and cheerful drawings than its cartographic detail.
Sheyenne flashed me a dazzling smile. “See, Beaux? I told you our ad on the chamber-of-commerce map would be worth the investment.” Beaux is Sheyenne’s pet name for me; no one else gets to call me that. (Come to think of it, no one had ever tried.)
“I thought you couldn’t read,” I said.
“I can look at the pictures, and the shop had an old vampire proofreader who mumbled aloud as he read the words,” Bill said. “As a golem, you hear things.”
“The important thing is that Mr., uh, Bill found us,” Robin said. She had been sold on the case as soon as the golem told us his plight. If it wasn’t for Sheyenne looking out for us, Robin would be inclined to embrace any client in trouble, whether or not he, she, or it could pay.
Since joining us, postmortem, Sheyenne had worked tirelessly—not that ghosts got tired—to manage our business and keep Chambeaux & Deyer in the black. I didn’t know what I’d do without her, professionally or personally.
Before her death, Sheyenne had been a med student, working her way through school as a cocktail waitress and occasional nightclub singer at one of the Unnatural Quarter high-end establishments. She and I had a thing in life, a relationship with real potential, but that had been snuffed out when Sheyenne was murdered, and then me, too.
Thus, our romance was an uphill struggle.
While it’s corny to talk about “undying love,” Fate gave us a second chance . . . then blew us a big loud raspberry. Sheyenne and I each came back from the dead in our respective way—me as a zombie, and Sheyenne as a ghost—but ghosts can never touch any living, or formerly living, person. So much for the physical side of our relationship . . . but I still like having her around.
Now that he was moisturized, Bill the golem seemed a new person, and he no longer flaked off mud as he followed Robin into our conference room. She carried a yellow legal pad, ready to take notes. Since it wasn’t yet clear whether the golem needed a detective, an attorney, or both, I joined them. Sheyenne brought more water, a whole pitcher this time. We let Bill have it all.
Golems aren’t the smartest action figures in the toy box—they don’t need to be—but even though Bill was uneducated, he wasn’t unintelligent, and he had a very strong sense of right and wrong. When he started talking, his passion for Justice was apparent. I realized he would make a powerful witness. Robin fell for him right away; he was just her type of client.
“There are a hundred other disenfranchised golems just like me,” Bill said. “Living in miserable conditions, slaves in a sweatshop, brought to life and put to work.”
“Who created you?” I asked. “Where is this sweatshop located? And what work did you do?”
Bill’s clay brain could not hold three questions at a time, so he answered only two of them. “We manufacture Unnatural Quarter souvenirs—vampire ashtrays made with real vampire ash, T-shirts, place mats, paperweights, holders for toothpicks marketed as ‘stakes for itsy-bitsy vampires.’”
Several new gift shops had recently opened up in the Quarter, a chain called Kreepsakes. All those inane souvenirs had to come from somewhere.
More than a decade after the Big Uneasy brought back all the legendary monsters, normal humans had recovered from their shock and horror enough that a few tourists ventured into the Quarter. This had never been the best part of town, even without the monsters, but businesses welcomed the increased tourism as an unexpected form of urban renewal.
“Our master is a necromancer who calls himself Maximus Max,” Bill continued. “The golems are mass produced, slapped together from uneven clay, then awakened with a bootleg animation spell that he runs off on an old smelly mimeograph. Shoddy work, but he doesn’t care. He’s a slave driver!”
Robin grew more incensed. “This is outrageous! How can he get away with this right out in the open?”
“Not exactly out in the open. We labor in an underground chamber, badly lit, no ventilation . . . not even an employee break room. Through lack of routine maintenance, we dry out and crumble.” He bent his big blunt fingers, straightened them, then dipped his hand into the pitcher of water, where he left a murky residue. “We suffer constant aches and pains. As the mimeographed animation spell fades, we can’t move very well. Eventually, we fall apart. I’ve seen many coworkers and friends just crumble on the job. Then other golems have to sweep up the mess and dump it into a bin, while Maximus Max whips up a new batch of clay so he can create more golems. No one lasts very long.”
“That’s monstrous.” Robin took detailed notes. She looked up, said in a soft compassionate voice, “And how did you escape, Bill?”
The golem shuddered. “There was an accident on the bottling line. When a batch of our Fires of Hell hot sauce melted the glass bottles and corroded the labeling machine, three of my golem friends had to clean up the mess. But the hot sauce ruined them, too, and they fell apart.
“I was in the second-wave cleanup crew, shoveling the mess into a wheelbarrow. Max commanded me to empty it into a Dumpster in the alley above, but he forgot to command me to come back. So when I was done, I just walked away.” Bill hung his head. “But my people are still there, still enslaved. Can you free them? Stop the suffering?”
I addressed the golem. “Why didn’t you go to the police when you escaped?”
Bill blinked his big artificial eyes, now that he was more moisturized. “Would they have listened to me? I don’t have any papers. Legally speaking, I’m the necromancer’s property.”
Robin dabbed her eyes with a tissue and pushed her legal pad aside. “It sounds like a civil rights lawsuit in the making, Bill. We can investigate Maximus Max’s sweatshop for conformance to workplace safety codes. Armed with that information, I’ll find a sympathetic judge and file an injunction to stop the work line temporarily.”
Bill was disappointed. “But how long will that take? They need help now!”
“I think he was hoping for something more immediate, Robin,” I suggested. “I’ll talk to Officer McGoohan, see if he’ll raid the place . . . but even that might be a day or two.”
The golem’s face showed increasing alarm. “I can’t stay here—I’m not safe! Maximus Max will be looking for me. He’ll know where to find me.”
“How?” Sheyenne asked, sounding skeptical.
“I’m an escaped golem looking for action and legal representation—where else would I go but Chambeaux and Deyer? That’s what the tourist map says.”
“I’ve got an idea,” I said. “Spooky, call Tiffany and tell her I’ll come to her comedy improv show if she does me a quick favor.”
Sheyenne responded with an impish grin. “Good idea, Beaux.”
Tiffany was the buffest—and butchest—vampire I’d ever met. She had a gruff demeanor and treated her life with the utmost seriousness the second time around. But she had more of a sense of humor than I originally thought. Earlier that afternoon, Tiffany had dropped in, wearing a grin that showed her white fangs; she waved a pack of tickets and asked if we’d come see her for open-mic night at the Laughing Skull, a comedy club down in Little Transylvania. Maybe we could trade favors. . . .
I knew Tiffany from the All-Day/All-Nite Fitness Center, where I tried to keep myself in shape. Zombies didn’t have to worry about cholesterol levels or love handles, but it was important to maintain muscle tone and flexibility. The aftereffects of death can substantially impact one’s quality of life. I worked out regularly, but Tiffany was downright obsessive about it. She said she could bench-press a coffin filled with lead bricks (though why she would want to, I couldn’t say).
Like many vampires, Tiffany had invested well and didn’t need a regular job, but due to her intimidating physique, I kept her in mind in case I ever needed extra muscle. I’d never tried to call in a favor before, but Sheyenne was very persuasive.
Tiffany the vampire walked through the door wearing a denim work shirt and jeans. She had narrow hips, square shoulders, no waist, all muscle. She looked as if she’d been assembled from solid concrete blocks; if any foolish vampire slayer had tried to pound a stake through her heart, it would have splintered into toothpicks.
Tiffany said gruffly, “Tell me what you got, Chambeaux.” When Bill emerged from the conference room, she eyed him up and down. “You’re a big boy.”
“I was made that way. Mr. Chambeaux said you can keep me safe.”
After I explained the situation, she said, “Sure, I’ll give you a place to stay. Hang out at my house for a few days until this blows over.” Tiffany glanced at me, raised her eyebrows. “A few days—right, Chambeaux?”
Robin answered for me. “That should be all we need to start the legal proceedings.”
Bill’s clay lips rolled upward in a genuine smile now. “My people and I are indebted to you, Miss Tiffany.”
“No debt involved. Actually, I could use a hand if you don’t mind pitching in. I’m doing some remodeling at home, installing shelves, flooring, and a workbench in the garage, plus dark paneling and a wet bar in the basement den. I also need help setting up some heavy tools I ordered—circular saw and drill press, that kind of thing.”
“I would be happy to help,” Bill agreed.
“Thanks for the favor, Tiffany,” I said.
The vampire gave me a brusque nod. “Don’t worry, he’ll be putty in my hands.”