The figures were still distant as they neared the bottom of the hill, but unmistakable, a row of briefcases, suits, and frowns. Amy indicated them with a nod of her hat.
Garner turned and controlled himself from stomping a foot. “What the devil!” He glared at Amy. “Why didn’t you tell me they were coming? Isn’t this the sort of thing I pay you for?”
“I hadn’t gotten to it yet.” She snapped back. “’The network guys arrived last night on the weekly dirigible’ is only number four on my list of ‘ways today will go horribly wrong’.” She raised sculpted eyebrows at Garner and made a show of consulting her clipboard. “So, boss. #4: The network guys arrived on last night’s dirigible.” Her voice lowered further. “Rumor has it there’s a man from Fox, too, making noise about a buy-out.”
Garner cursed. “Fox knows nothing about a remake show. They’ll shut us down and eat the pieces.”
The squad of killers—purely in a metaphorical sense, of course—had reached the bottom of the hill and were now toiling upward. Base camp for the show was about a twenty minute walk from this morning’s location. These guys must be in a hurry to eat them alive.
Garner fitted his spectacles in place and stared downhill. “All right, Amy, if that’s number four, what’s today’s top three?” He wore his usual bush hunter’s outfit, but for most of the shooting of Captain Blood, the Series, he’d kept his helmet by the camera. This morning he was wearing it.
She didn’t need to look at her clipboard. “Three: We’re running out of ice to keep the film cool. Two: you’ve reached the limit on your letter of credit down in town.”
“Blast.” Garner muttered, watching their doom approaching. The fattest member of the row of suits, in a hot-looking dark tweed and bowler, was puffing hard. The others were dressed for the climate, in linen suits and panama hats.
Garner tried to mop sweat from his brow surreptitiously by pretending to adjust his helmet, then made a show of pulling out his pocket watch and consulting it. “What’s number one?”
“Mother Ugambe wants to talk to you after shooting today.” Amy tore her gaze from the death squad working its way up to them, and looked up at her boss. “She says there’s a problem.”
Garner closed his eyes, then opened them again. Out of the side of his mouth came, “Fine assistant you are.” Then he pasted a Hollywood-sized grin on his face and started downhill. “Gentlemen! What an unexpected pleasure!”
“Well, huzzah.” Amy said to his back. She turned around to look at the swath of cleared jungle where they were shooting this morning. Captain Blood and Mr. Pitt had been captured by natives—tortured some, just enough to titillate, but not turn off the female demographic—and this morning was the “ingenious fight back after escape” scene.
At least they were on land instead of that damned ship.
She clapped her hands and headed into the fray of gaffers and grips, interns and assistants steering their stars to their marks, the resident chaos of a shoot. “All right, people, let’s make magic.”
Garner showed them around the varied sets of the island, starting, of course, with the one they were already at. “They” consisted of Fitzgerald and Douglas from the network, the man Callahan from Fox, who heaved his bulk around in the tropical heat as if he’d have a heart attack any second, and some random lawyer from the ACLU. The Artist’s Civil Liberties Union was always bad news to a show-runner trying to keep all his eggs in the air.
“I’ve never seen a zombie show in filming, Mr. Garner.” the Fox man puffed good-naturedly, demonstrating his ignorance. He pulled out a monogrammed handkerchief and wiped his face, then tucked it away.
“We don’t generally refer to them as zombies in the industry, Mr. Callahan.” Garner gestured over to the far side of the clearing. Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone—Captain Blood having joined forces with his enemy Captain Levasseur to defeat the natives, only to find himself double-crossed by the infamous French pirate and captured by said natives instead—were in position waiting for their cue, swords up. “If you’d be quiet, please, gentlemen.”
“Action!” came someone’s voice.
Flynn sprang at Rathbone and the Englishman parried deftly, then leapt forward himself. They duelled, Rathbone making them both look good, like he always did. It had been an open secret in the industry for years, before and after their deaths, that Basil Rathbone was the only swordsman who could be put up against Errol Flynn, since Flynn couldn’t fight worth a damn. He was always waving his blade around and skewering people by accident. Death hadn’t improved his fighting skills.
But Basil was still the best. He darted forward, letting Flynn under his guard and neatly disarmed himself, falling to his knees.
They couldn’t hear the dialogue from this distance, but it was something flowery from the French pirate, and equally bold and righteous from the show’s star, Captain Blood.
“So, what are they normally called?” Mr. Callahan asked.
“Re-actors.” supplied the ACLU lawyer.
Amy put down the water bottle. Keeping their stars hydrated was a tricky business. Most intelligence stayed after death, originally, and personality for sure, but the longer a body spent underground, the dumber it was upon waking. Getting “the boys” to drink their water constantly was a pain, and ten times worse here in the tropics because it really did need to be constantly.
Re-animated flesh normally had no use for drinking water: a zombie lived by the blood spilled at his awakening. But a re-actor needed to look more alive for the screen. That meant plump skin, and constant water intake. The most common complaint from a re-actor was, “but I’m not thirsty.”
“Thank you, Amy.” came the cultured voice behind her.
“You’re welcome, Mr. Rathbone,” was the automatic response. She turned and twitched at his collar, inspecting the pale torso visually. Touching re-actors used to bother her: the soft clamminess, the sense of decayed muscle underneath the skin. What truly kept them moving? Blood, Mother Ugambe said. Just blood. The houdun just did it, was all. Called them up through the ground and they came. It made her shiver to think about. She wanted to be burned when she died—but what if they could call you back from that, too?
“You didn’t let him cut you, did you?” There was no sign of damage beyond the mark on his shoulder from yesterday. Mother Ugambe was already fixing that, with her dark salve made of milk, blood, and powdered snakeskin. Another thing Amy would never understand.
In the meantime, costuming would just have to keep it covered.
“I’m fine, my dear.” The dead man smiled at her, then directed his gaze across the clearing to their visitors. “Who are our visitors?”
“Network fellows. Nothing to worry about.” She didn’t look him in the eye. Rathbone must have been a deuced clever man to still be so sharp all these years after his death. Amy tugged his costume back together, her hands aware of the coolness of him, in the same way she would have been aware of someone’s body heat without touching him. That flesh was always cold, even in the tropics.
Amy gestured the make-up guy over for a touch-up, then headed to check on Errol Flynn, who was doing his best to charm the script supervisor, as usual. Most of the women on-set were immune to his attractions, but he was the eternal optimist.
“The fight today looked great but you’re not drinking enough,” she said over her shoulder to Rathbone. “You look drawn.”
The dead man nodded at her retreating back and accepted another bottle of water.
“So, Mr. Garner, we want to talk to you about the ratings.”
Garner had taken them around that morning’s location, then rowed them out to the ship—no steamboats here, coal was too expensive on the island—and walked them around. The ship’s sails were down and only a skeleton crew was aboard. The second unit wouldn’t be arriving for another hour.
Captain Blood, the Series, was one of the first, the oldest, and the best since anyone starting working with re-actors. Filmed on location and everything. The best since the houdun demonstrated it could be done at all. “We’re still tops in our bracket, Mr. Douglas.”
Douglas, whose eyes were like a shark’s, only colder, and Fitzgerald shared a glance. Fitzgerald removed his panama hat and smoothed the handlebars of his mustache before continuing. He was wearing the height of men’s summer fashion, all crisp white linen like something straight out of Vogue.
“Resurrecting Errol Flynn and keeping the filming in black and white was a stroke of genius, Mr. Garner,” Fitzgerald broached. “It gave the show such a distinctive look. But our Nielsons show he’s falling out of favor with the twenty-somethings because he’s not realistic enough, and their grandparents aren’t a solid enough bloc of viewers to hold advertisers on their own.”
“Not realistic enough. It’s a pirate fantasy in the Caribbean! Disney just based a ride on Captain Blood last year. It’s not supposed to be realistic!”
The ACLU man piped up. “That’s not the realism we’re talking about, Mr. Garner. We’re talking about your stars.”
“The industry moves faster every year,” Garner muttered to the deck.
“Pardon?” said the man from Fox who’d come to buy his pieces, after this shark and Fitzgerald did the hard work of breaking him.
Garner turned a smile on him. “Nothing, Mr. Callahan.” He gestured them back down to the dinghy to head back to shore and their precious show’s destruction.
“They’re shutting us down, Amy,” he whispered as soon as they had a moment away from the rest of the cast and crew. “Fox’ll buy up the equipment and partial rights, cheap, that’s got to be why Callahan’s here. God only knows what’ll happen to our boys.”
By the time he’d gotten their murderers back ashore, Amy had packed up and moved shooting to their second location of the day, to film the escape scene out of the cave and up the cliff. Errol Flynn sat outside his trailer, under the awning, dutifully drinking water under the watchful eyes of an intern, Rathbone at his elbow, matching him bottle for bottle.
They were filming Mr. Pitt’s climbing scene first, so Errol wouldn’t be on camera for at least an hour.
“For dropping two points?!” Now it was her turn to swear, index finger thrusting at Garner’s chest. “It’s a cheap reason, boss. You know it.”
The two re-actors moved for a moment as if listening, then resumed their poses of a dead man’s indifference.
“Yeah, I know.” He pulled her close, sending a warm frission down Amy’s spine. “Look, they say the boys aren’t realistic enough, anymore.” He glanced over at them, swigging their Belgium Spring water. “Or something.”
“It’s only been one week!” She whispered back, forgetting attraction for the moment. “One week? We could rebound easy! Especially with this two-parter.”
“Yeah, I know, Aim. Don’t tell me, tell them.”
Amy stomped off, one hand grabbing her hat as she moved. “I’m gonna go find Ugambe. Realistic, my aunt Grace.”
No Ugambe. The woman who animated their re-actors was nowhere to be found on set or at the show’s base camp. Amy hiked into the town that doubled for Tortuga and Port Royal when needed and found a pay phone, cranking the metal handle until the little meter read “charged”, then dropping in her dime. She called Ugambe’s grandson—he was the only one in their village with a phone—but he said she was in a ritual and wouldn’t be available until that night.
Well, no point angering the voodoo priestess who kept their show filled with undead. Even if we are about to get cancelled.
She headed back to the set, keeping in the shade where she could since she didn’t have her parasol.
Amy hadn’t been able to find Ugambe, Garner read it on her face as soon as she got back. She sidled up next to the ACLU lawyer. The lawyer thought she was good-looking, in the fitted sleeves and calf-length skirt of a modern woman, attire somewhat simplified for traipsing around in the tropics. That much was obvious. That she deserved the attention was obvious, too.
No time for jealousy. If he could use sex appeal in their favor to keep the show alive, Garner would in a heartbeat.
“Look.” The shark, Douglas, was still speaking, one side of his mouth wrapped around a Cuban cigar. He carried a little brass case for them—Garner had seen it earlier. The Shark smiled, but it was just teeth; any friendliness stopped long before it could reach those cold eyes. He slung an arm around Garner’s shoulder. “We’ll stop production now, just past the show’s peak, ending on a high note. Then, we bring him back after 5, maybe 10 years.” The Shark clapped him on the back. “So, cheer up! It’s only a few years. A decade, tops. Just keep Flynn and the Englishman in,” an airy gesture, “storage or whatever until then and everything will be fine. Ready-made comeback.”
Amy felt eyes on her and turned, slowly, to not attract the Shark’s attention. Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone were both looking her way. And for dead men, they did not look happy.
Amy finally found Mother Ugambe deep in the jungle, tending a fire. She wore a faded cotton dress and her headscarf. None of the cast or crew of Captain Blood, The Series knew how old she was. Amy suspected it was a lot older than Ugambe looked.
There was a goat tethered nearby, and two chickens in a little wicker cage.
“I told Mr. Garner to come, Miss Amy.” The old priestess said disapprovingly.
“Yes, Mother Ugambe. But I wanted to see you first.” She sat down in front of the fire, lifting her hat to dab ash on her forehead with one finger, then put a dot on the back of each hand. The ash was warm but not painful. The sun was still setting. It would be full dark by the time she got back to camp.
“What troubles you, child?”
Amy sighed. “Mother Ugambe, I’ve got two network hacks, a guy from Fox ready to buy us out, and an ACLU lawyer chewing my boss’s—” she abruptly censored herself. Mother Ugambe didn’t like crude speech from a woman. “They’re just dying to shut us down. And—” and this was the betrayal of her boss that made her heart ache, “I think they’re right. Our re-actors just aren’t getting there anymore. They’ve lost their—, their—.” What the ACLU lawyer had called ‘realism’.
“Dead men were never meant to walk for so long, Miss Amy, supported by just one sacrifice.” Mother Ugambe pointed her chin at the animals. “They need to feed.” The jungle was suddenly a lot darker than it had been a moment ago. “That is why I sent for them.” The old woman told her. What glittered in her eyes, Amy didn’t want to see.
Amy looked at the cute little goat, munching obliviously on the branches of the tree it was tethered to, without a clue of what lay in store, and the chickens in their little cage.
There must have been sounds beyond the goat, and the rustling of Mother Ugambe’s dress as she shifted slightly, and the fire, something beyond the old woman’s fathomless eyes watching her decide. But she couldn’t hear them. There was Mr. Garner’s hand on the small of her back, their shared passion for the show—her mind skittered away from the word ‘passion’ and then returned—and it was all about to be lost.
Amy leaned forward, fire crackling in front of her. “What do we do to make them better, make these network guys go away, and save our show?”
The old woman, face black and wrinkled, gave her a slow look, painted in shadow and light from the fire. “Is that what you want? Is this all that you want?”
Amy considered what she’d just asked for.
The houdun is nothing compared to the jungle of Hollywood. “Yes, Mother Ugambe.”
The sound of Mother Ugambe’s chanting followed her all the way back to camp. Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone were already waiting for her. Each held a Belgium Spring water bottle, doing their undead best to keep hydrated, as ordered.
Amy took the bottle from each of them, and guzzled most of one on the spot. She stifled a burp and wiped her mouth with her palm, not wanting to disturb the ash on the back of her hand. This was not a night to be wandering the jungle without protection.
She didn’t want to look them in the eyes. She didn’t want to touch them, that coldness steaming off them the way heat would from a living person. Colder tonight, walking holes in the heat of the jungle. Dead things. Dead things that walked.
No, she didn’t want to touch. She suddenly never wanted to touch again. And yet, “Do you know where to go?”
The two re-actors looked at one another. “We hear it.”
Dead things that smiled.
Amy watched for a long time after they disappeared into the jungle, hands wrapped around herself. Then she looked at the little compound of tents. She knew before she walked over, that Garner’s was still empty.
She checked the ash on her face and hands, but it was just a delaying tactic. Mother Ugambe had said not to follow.
Then she stepped back into the jungle.
Things rustled, at first. Small creatures scurrying, and a snake, she was sure, a snake flowing down from a tree behind her. Amy refused to look, just kept pressing forward. She was almost cold, now, fear killing the tropical heat of their choice in filming locations.
The natural sounds of the jungle damped down, in favor of some other noise she was just starting to hear. It started in the bones of her ear, as if from inside, not out. An itch that resolved into singing. Or chanting, as she crept forward into the lushness of the jungle. Mother Ugambe, bargaining with the loa.
Somewhere ahead Amy thought she saw light. Then other voices became audible. A little closer, and then she could see.
The Shark and the others were on one side of Mother Ugambe’s fire. The animal cages were empty. Ugambe had used them as an appetizer.
The re-actors were on the other side of the fire, not close as though they drew comfort from it, for the dead could not draw comfort from anything. Errol Flynn stood in an heroic pose instinctively, one foot propped on a convenient stump.
Mother Ugambe’s hands were covered in blood, and a man in a mask danced opposite her, in painted markings Amy didn’t understand. Her grandson? She couldn’t tell.
The four points of the compass, and Amy, in the dark.
Mother Ugambe flicked blood on The Shark and his companions. They all seemed entranced. Only Callahan reached for his face with a handkerchief, but he did it like a man drunk, or sleepwalking. All he did was smear the blood over his face, not remove it.
Amy could see from her vantage point that Garner had blood on him, too. “No! Garner!” The man’s head whipped as she screamed. But the two dead men didn’t move a muscle.
“Amy!” He shook off the trance but couldn’t seem to move. “Amy!”
“Feed and be whole,” Mother Ugambe said, flicking blood a second and third time as she spoke. “Feed and be whole.”
Flynn darted like a hawk, and Amy screamed again.
“No,” she whispered as a dead man approached her through the trees and gripped her upper arms. She couldn’t scream. She wasn’t sure if she’d fainted, if she’d dreamed, if anything. Mother Ugambe was chanting, and men’s voices were screaming, but it was somehow distant. “Where is Garner?”
“Hush, my darling girl.” Rathbone’s flesh said, eyes dark holes in the jungle black. “There is one more thing for you to do.” And kissed her, parting her lips with his tongue before she could fight him off.
Amy could taste cold, and a layer of warm blood on top of it, and something vile, something that tasted like ash and made her shake. She wept against his mouth, but was unable to keep the taste away. He swallowed her up like sobs were wine.
Her face was wet as he drew back. She could taste copper and a slimy grey flavor in the back of her throat. Amy started hiccupping tears, shuddering, wanting desperately to feel safe in a man’s arms and knowing it would never happen. “Monster!” She choked out. She wanted to kill them. Or die.
Rathbone was speaking to her through her sobs, those awful chill fingers brushing her hair off her face. “You will seal the spell, Amy, when he comes to you. Seal it with blood.” He put a hand on her breast for a moment, parody of a lover’s caress. “It’s what you want.”
She cried even harder, desperate to get away. “Garner. Oh, god, please.” But Garner couldn’t hear her. He was deep in the spell now, as deep as the visitors who’d plagued them. If Mother Ugambe had marked Garner, what could she do to protect him?
“Hush.” Strong arms scooped her up and they moved swiftly, easily, through the jungle. Amy weeping uncontrollably like a child against a cold chest, and then Rathbone settled her into the tent, taking her shoes off as though she were a doll, then began pulling off her clothes.
His chill fingers on her bare flesh was a hundred times worse. She batted him away.
Rathbone stood, letting Amy fumble the rest of her clothes off. She lay down, naked, not looking at the zombie. The heavy canvas of the tent was dark. She could smell it better than see it.
Rathbone’s voice was familiar, even in darkness. Even now. “You get what you asked Mother Ugambe for, Amy. But you always pay in blood.”
She couldn’t look at him. She could feel him looking at her, gaze like another pair of cold fingers trailing down her skin. Then gone.
Amy lay on her bed, tears running down the side of her face, until he came. Her Garner. She didn’t know how long it took, but something screamed in the dark just as Garner pulled open the tent flap and stood there, panting. “Oh, God, Amy. Amy! They—“
She didn’t need light to know how wide his eyes were, the trembling high crack of his voice told her what he’d seen. “Oh, God, Amy! He bit Callahan’s neck!” Stumbled to her bed, hand grasping at her breast.
“Sweet Jesus—” Confused. Scared. Excited.
She put her hand on top of his and held it over her heart. “I’m here, my love.”
They kissed, and the taste in her mouth spread into him, working some magic Amy couldn’t understand.
She stroked his hair as the spell took him. Someone screamed in terror quite close to the tent, now, and Amy felt rather than heard the inexorable approach of dead footsteps. She shut her eyes, but it didn’t help. Saw with all the clarity of nightmare a man’s fingers peeled back from where they clung to a tree. There was another scream.
The high breath of panic of the man in her arms transmuted with the magic in her kiss to something else. Something needy and animal, and Garner’s mouth abruptly crushed her own, pinning her head to the pillow.
He couldn’t hear the screaming out there. Couldn’t hear the sound of a man dying as Amy took her mouth to the fingertips that rested on her breast, suckled them one at a time. She could. Every terrible gasp.
“Amy. Oh, God, Amy.” The invocation was worshipful, now. His mouth covered her breast, where their hands had been.
Amy spread her legs, and said her line. “Come to me, darling.” The tears on her face didn’t matter. He’d think it was just the loss of her maidenhead, anyway.
There was a wet sound outside the tent. Like eating.
Amy shuddered in Garner’s arms.
The sunrise peeked over the ocean all pink and friendly and beautiful and not the last day of Captain Blood, the Series. Garner grinned at it. Way to go, rosy-fingered dawn. Why’d he been so worried, anyway?
The re-actors looked great. They looked better than great. Flynn had that bloom of pink, well-fed health that showed even in black and white, and Rathbone looked perfect, hell, they probably both looked better than when they’d made the original Captain Blood film back in the 30’s. Rathbone was picking his teeth as Garner approached.
He joined them on the little hillock, where his stars were looking out at the start of the day, Errol Flynn putting the moves on his assistant already, though it wasn’t half-past dawn and they’d been up all night.
Flynn’s fingers trailed down Amy’s arm, with what Garner knew was that queer coolness to his touch that only a reanimated actor had. “I feel like myself again.” the re-actor smiled down at her, with that charm that had tumbled god knew how many into beds around the world, back in the day. “It’s been a long time, Miss Amy. A very long time.”
“Hands off my assistant, Mr. Flynn.” Garner warned, wrapping his arm around her waist and fitting them together. She shuddered and leaned into him. “You cold, sweetheart?” He kissed her forehead and she shook her head.
Rathbone granted them a cocked eyebrow and showed teeth appreciatively when Amy looked up at him. The re-actor pulled a thread from his teeth and inspected, then discarded, it. The color was indiscernible in the light of the sunrise, but it might have been brown, something like tweed.
They stood together and watched the sun arrive, casting its rays on the living and the dead.
“Well, I think our ratings will tick up nicely with this episode, don’t you?” Garner said, releasing Amy reluctantly, patting his pockets for his cigarettes. “Two-parters are always popular.” The Shark and company had been sent on their merry way, after their checkup visit. Not such bad chaps after all. Garner didn’t really think about it, though. He had much more important things on his mind. Like the show. And his girl.
“We have cash for ice, too.” Amy put a hand over a front pocket, voice low. “I’ll send a couple of interns in an hour. The store should be open by the time they get to town.”
She fumbled with her clipboard for a moment, suddenly clumsy. Then handed something over. “You left these, um—.” In my tent, she didn’t say. Garner didn’t remember having put them in his pocket, but he must have. What he remembered about Amy’s tent was a hell of a lot more important than a cigar case.
The tin was dented in one corner, and there was a reddish-brown smudge there that Garner couldn’t make out, but the cigars were in excellent shape. Well, well. The Shark dropped them traipsing around out there on his little tour of the sets. Poor Shark. Maybe he’d send the man a couple replacements, next time they were in Hollywood.
He pulled one out and leaned over to let Amy light it.
“Amy.” He blew out smoke, looking down to the sea. “I take it all back.”
She wedged the lighter into her clipboard. “Sir?” Her voice wavered.
“You’re the best assistant I’ve ever had.”
She flicked eyes sideways at him, then at the walking dead their lives revolved around, and leaned close to him as if his arm was still around her. So he put it around her.