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Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

 

 

Santa Barbara, 1987

It wasn’t a dark and stormy night, but that was the only thing the evening of June 15, 1987 had going for it. Henry Spencer scowled as he tramped up the steps to his front door, the foul odour of the atmosphere offending his nose. “Damn drunk trash collectors,” he muttered, twisting open the front door. The dump truck had been overturned just blocks from his house, and of course the breeze from the ocean blew the stench of spilled waste to his doorstep. It had been a hell of a day and a hell of a mess, turning what should have been a pleasantly windy summer night full of star-studded sky and dimming sunset into a vaguely nauseating experience.

Chief of Police John Fenich snorted tiredly. “Remind me to have a talk with the Mayor about passing more rigorous legislation for hiring public servants,” he said. Henry had just closed a large case, one which had garnered significant media attention. Before announcing the arrest, it was only prudent for the Chief to debrief his lead investigator – and with the day as long as it had been, it was only practical to do so over steaks rather than in office.

Irritated and tired, Henry’s guard wasn’t as alert as it should have been – at least, not up enough to tell him to duck when suddenly bombarded by the flung bodies of two small boys wielding butter knives. “Diiieeeeee!” Came one high-pitched warrior’s wail, followed by the other’s, “You’re not going to eat me!”  

Instinct curled Henry’s arms so that rather than toss the boys off of him he held them, secure in his grip, as they squirmed like a pair of puppies. ‘Puppies,’ Henry thought to himself. ‘Knew there was a reason why I didn’t want any in the house.’ Aloud, he said, “Shawn. Gus.”

Shawn squealed, “Dad?! Oh no, they got you too!” and redoubled his efforts at freedom. Beside him, Gus slowly stilled.

“Uh, Shawn? I, uh.”

Henry could feel Gus hesitate.

“I don’t think your dad is – I don’t think he’s a flesh-eating zombie.”

That was apparently Chief Fenich’s cue to start laughing heartily from where he’d hung back as the two boys attacked. Henry threw a scowl over his shoulder, not caring about possible disrespect.

Shawn struggled still. “Don’t believe what he says, Gus! They’re all zombies! We’re the only ones who survived the nuclear fallout safe because of our bunker!”

Henry never quite knew where Shawn got all his ideas from, the steady supply of imagination and belief that seemed to belong only to the young and the mad. He tightened his grip on his son and said, voice low and authoritative, the unspoken you are very grounded unless you stop right now, “Shawn. Calm down.”

He could feel the fear that wound Shawn’s body tight with adrenaline, and also feel when that fight or flight response clicked off, the animal panic in Shawn’s limbs quieting. That honest terror was the only reason Henry wasn’t currently yelling his head off at his miscreant son; rather, was worried, particularly by the harsh gasping breaths Shawn drew into his lungs.

Carefully, slowly, his back protesting all the while, Henry set both boys down. Gus had the grace to look shame-faced in contrast to Shawn’s very red face, and both boys were the height of dishevelled.

“What’s this all about?” Henry did his best loom.

Shawn traded a guilty look with Gus, then looked up at his father from beneath lowered lashes. Henry inwardly groaned. The innocent look; it never boded well.

“We heard it happen,” Shawn said, earnest. “I told Gus it was a good idea to have a bunker just in case, so at least we had something to hide in. It kept us from getting the ra – radi – the poisoning thing, so we didn’t turn into zombies like everyone else.”

It had been a long day. Henry used this as his excuse for being completely and utterly baffled. He stared at his son until Shawn squirmed uncomfortably. “What do you think happened, Shawn?”

Shawn looked again to Gus, uncertain, then tried yet again to pull off the innocent look (somehow changing the angle to make his lashes seem even longer, a mystery of physics) as he said, “The nuclear strike. We heard it,” he insisted. “That loud bang. And then the smell.” His nose wrinkled to emphasize an olfactory distaste Henry couldn’t help but share. “We kept on waiting for people to come and tell us what happened, but no one did, and the streets are all empty, so we figured the nuclear blast turned everyone into zombies!”

This wasn’t just a twist of logic. This was a backflip, an entire gymnastic floor routine, an extreme yoga twist of logic.

Henry sighed and took his policeman’s hat off his head, dragging his hand through his hair and massaging his forehead. He knew the root to all this. “You boys watched the monster marathon last night, didn’t you.” It wasn’t even a question, he was so sure of the answer – and Gus’s small voice confirmed with a quiet, “Yes sir.”

“I told you not to watch that for a reason,” Henry said. Not that he’d expected to be listened to, not really. Shawn was too headstrong, and Gus too willing to be convinced. “You see why now? It turns you into a bundle of paranoid nerves.” Henry sighed. “You boys go put those butter knives away.”

Gus moved toward the kitchen obediently, but Shawn paused. “Dad?” he’d put a bit of a quiver in the word, because he was a manipulative little bastard; even knowing that, Henry’s ire still melted just a bit.

“Yeah, Shawn?”

“What was that loud bang? And the smell?”

Henry groaned. “What do you think? Use your brain, son. What would cause that kind of noise and that kind of smell?”

Shawn frowned, and before he could say the first thing that leapt to his mind, Henry interrupted with a world-weary, “No zombies, Shawn. No aliens, either. Or enemy soldiers parachuting in to wreak havoc on our streets.”

Shawn pouted, briefly, though the pout quickly transformed again into a frown. “Uh,” he said. “There’s not a lot that smells that bad… and not a lot that can make that kind of noise… Was it the, uh, the… did the dump truck crash?”

It was enough to make Henry smile. “Very good, Shawn. Yes. The dump truck got overturned. They’re still cleaning up the streets. The reason why you haven’t seen anyone outside is because the smell out there is five times worse than the smell in here.”

“Oh.” Shawn seemed disappointed. “That’s not as cool as zombies.” He turned to follow Gus into the kitchen, but once more paused on the threshold of passing through. He looked at Henry over his shoulder and asked, tentative, “You promise not to be mad, right? We thought everyone was dead. We were just protecting ourselves.”

Alarm bells began to ring in Henry Spencer’s head. “What do you mean?”

Something in his tone must have tipped Shawn off to an imminent blow-up, because his eyes widened comically large and he darted into the kitchen, yelping, “Gus! Make a break for it!”

Henry stalked grimly forward, only to rock back on his heels in shock. The entire kitchen – the entire kitchen – had been turned into a mass of blankets and aluminum foil coverings, thrown together in some sort of haphazard structure. “The bunker,” Henry muttered to himself, before raising his voice and bellowing, “SHAWN! GUS! COME BACK HERE RIGHT NOW AND CLEAN THIS MESS UP!”

Chief Fenich chortled from behind him, sounding light-hearted where he’d been downtrodden for weeks. He clapped Henry on the shoulder. “Hell of a son you’ve got, there, Spencer,” he said. “Hell of a boy.”

Hell was about the right word for it, Henry had to admit.

 

Santa Barbara, Present Day

It was one of those irrepressibly sunny days Santa Barbara seemed so fond of producing, with clear skies as far as the eye could see and a sparkling horizon set over the ocean. The temperature was a few degrees short of ‘scorching’ and the humidity was balmy and tropical. It was a good day to work on the oceanfront in the greatest business ever created. The psychic detective business, that was.

For all these fortunate facts, in addition to other ones such as awesome hair and a great smile, Shawn wasn’t feeling all that privileged. Rather, he was morose. Gloomy, glum.  A regular Gus, in other words, which was part of the problem – Gus hadn’t been a regular to the office, not for the last little while. ‘Visiting family,’ Shawn snorted. Why visit family when you had Shawn Spencer right here? And to top it off, in all the time Gus had been gone (three whole days!), not one interesting new case had come across Shawn’s desk.

Well. There was that one with the supermodels and the fashion show, but that had been done already, and Shawn was frankly glad Gus wasn’t around to go all diva yet again. And there was that case with the zookeeper and the nest of snakes, with the missing sapphire – not to mention the case with the aviatrix who had somehow lost her own plane.

So maybe Shawn had managed to keep himself busy, but it still wasn’t the same. Half the fun in running a fake psychic detective agency was having Gus to boss around and/or impress. It just wasn’t as cool when people assumed all his leaps of genius were granted by the spirits – well, okay, it was cool, but in a completely different way.

In the midst of his brooding, Shawn almost missed the bizarre sight of two dozen bloodied people, wearing torn clothes with what looked like bits of their faces rotting right off the bone, shambling down the walkway outside his office. Except of course Shawn never missed anything, and of course he would never miss anything so out of place.

Neither did anyone else: spectators gathered at the edges, pointing and laughing and making disgusted faces as the mass of rotting humanity lurched its way past. Frowning, Shawn stood. His insatiable curiousity drove him out the door, where he joined the closest group of those watching, and asked the group in general, “What’s going on?”

“You don’t know?” a pubescent boy asked incredulously. His voice was still breaking, and so rose in pitch until it squeaked, painfully. The boy flushed and didn’t elaborate, too ashamed of his voice; the girl next to him (similar facial structure, siblings or close cousins) continued, “There have been flyers all over town for weeks, dude, not to mention the websites. It’s the ZomCon.”

“ZomCon?”

She gave him an Are you for real? look, which made Shawn bristle, but she went on to elaborate, “Zombie convention. You know. People come dressed up like zombies. They talk about dressing up like zombies. They give out prizes for dressing up like zombies. Your typical geekfest.” Her tone was derisive and, by the way her brother/cousin was glaring at her, unappreciated.

“Right,” Shawn said. “ZomCon. So, what’s – “ he gestured at the retreating backs of the ersatz zombies, “that all about?”

“It’s the zombie walk,” the boy said this time, voice lower and calmer. “They start and end the Con with a zombie walk.” He added, tone wistful, “It’s supposed to be a lot of fun.”

“Yeah, if you’re a dork,” the girl said. She rolled her eyes and tossed her hair and turned to her brother/cousin. “Come on, Dev, Mom said she wanted us home an hour ago.”

‘Dev’ looked longingly after the crowd one more time before shrugging and following the girl away from the crowd. Shawn quirked his eyebrow after them, bemused. It wasn’t often he saw a guy so thoroughly whipped by someone he wasn’t dating or married to.

And while Dev was constrained by sisterly/cousinly domination, Shawn shared no such set-backs. Consumed by curiousity and the perpetual need to be where the strangest things were, Shawn followed after the crowd of zombies.

One pineapple smoothie and a few blocks later, Shawn discovered where exactly the zombie walk’s final destination was: none other than Santa Barbara’s own Antioch University. The campus was overridden by the rotting disfigured bodies of ZomConners, and even those dressed as the living rather than the dead seemed to be getting into the spirit of the event, stumbling around and muh’ing. Some didn’t even draw the line at drooling on themselves (or others).

It was weird, sure, but also amusing in a way Shawn hadn’t expected – he was used to being the most bizarre person in any given room. Here, that expectation was eclipsed by the myriad of ways in which the ZomConners attempted to deadify – deaden? – themselves. Grinning, Shawn turned his head to say, “Check out the guy with brains coming out his nose,” to Gus, remembering of course that Gus was still in Connecticut at the last minute. He scowled to himself. Doing things on his own wasn’t as fun as he remembered it being.

Maybe he should call up Jules?

No. She was probably working. Though that had never stopped him before… Shawn grinned and flipped open his cell, pressing the speed dial for Juliet’s phone. It rang three times before she picked up and said, annoyance in her voice, “Shawn, is this an emergency?”

“Does it have to be?”

She sighed. “I’m in the middle of something right now.”

“What? A new case?” Eagerness crept into Shawn’s voice, echoed out into his words. Juliet’s next words deflated his hope at gaining a new diversion.

“No, actually, this is something personal.”

“You’re not going on a date again with that old guy, are you?” Shawn made a face just remembering the SWAT dude, old enough to be halfway to the grave; more than old enough to make picturing him and Jules together a creepy overall experience.

“Not that it’s any of your business,” Juliet said, an edge to her tone, “No. This is a different kind of personal. Family.” There was a loud crashing noise in the background, and Juliet yelled to someone, “Get out of the kitchen! There’s a reason no one ever asks you to cook at Christmas!” and then she came back on the line. “Now’s seriously not a good time, Shawn. I’ll talk to you later.”

Before Shawn could weasel out of her how soon ‘later’ would come, she’d hung up on him and left him frowning in consternation at his cell phone.

Thankfully at just that moment two startlingly familiar zombies wandered across Shawn’s field of vision and he grinned broadly. This was going to be good.

Chief Vick let out a particularly harsh yelp when Shawn dropped his arm around her shoulders. The strangely guttural noise wasn’t at odds with her get-up: fair hair crusted black and red, skin an unhealthy pallour, clothes little more than rags – she made the quintessential zombie. The least-expected one, too, or perhaps second-least, as her tall older sister was even more unlikely to masquerade as the undead – yet Barbara Dunlap managed to pull the look off with a kind of aplomb typically seen only in diplomats and actors.

Shawn had to revise this opinion not even two seconds later as he noticed zombiefied Iris Vick peering at him from over her aunt’s shoulder, having been strapped into a carrier across Dunlap’s back. Tiny, adorable, and dead, she grinned gummily at Shawn and waved one tiny fist gleefully.

“I gotta say, I love the look,” Shawn grinned.

“Mr. Spencer!” Vick said. “Get your arm off of me!” She shoved him away, and then glared furiously at his exuberant face. Vick was always a champion glarer (something she had learned as the partner of one Henry Spencer, as fate would have it, which probably had some measure of influence on how she consistently managed to rein Shawn in when he was at his most wild), and something about the caked-on make up only increased the vitality of her stare. “What are you doing here?”

By her side Dunlap crossed her arms over her chest. She’d gone for the more ghoulish look as compared to Vick’s choice of oozing viscera – where Vick was painted red and nauseous green, Dunlap was pale, chalky and grey, lips the dark blue of drowned bodies. Iris had been costumed in a manner reminiscent more of her mother than of her aunt, though not even the most gruesome of makeup could detract one iota of cuteness from her overall appearance.

“What are you doing here?” Shawn returned. He wished he’d thought to grab Gus’ camera, the one Gus had hidden in his locker back at the Psych office. He’d make do with his camera phone as soon as Vick’s attention was drawn elsewhere, anyhow, but still, it was the principle of the thing.

Dunlap was the one to answer, head tilted at a jaunty angle. “Sisterly bonding time,” she said. “Kare used to just love zombie movies.”

Vick rolled her eyes. “Actually, I used to have nightmares of zombies eating my flesh after you made me watch movie after movie of them.”

“Same difference,” Dunlap grinned. “We entered the family contest division.”

“Family contest?”

Dunlap looked as if she were about to elaborate, but Vick shut her up with a jab to the side. “Mr. Spencer,” she said. “I’m sure you have better ways to spend a Sunday afternoon. If you’d please go and occupy yourself elsewhere, I’d be much obliged.”

Shawn raised his hands in gesture of surrender and backed away slowly. He couldn’t help the broad grin stretching his face, making his mouth ache. 

Vick smiled grimly and turned away, presumably to say something to her sister. Iris waved at Shawn, and he took this opportunity to whip out his cell phone, flip it open and ready it to take a snapshot – “And no photos!” Vick’s sharp voice cut across Shawn’s scheme. Shawn silently cursed.

Sometimes, he thought, it was almost as if Vick were the psychic, not him.

*

It had been hours since Gus had checked in with him, so Shawn took the opportunity to call up his best bud while walking through the various attractions the ZomCon had to offer. He passed by a group attempting to do a synchronized lurch, their arms and heads flailing as one. The phone rang, but instead of Gus picking up it was –

“Hello?”

“Brenton, my man,” Shawn said breezily. “Gus around?”

“Shawn,” Gus’ brother said evenly, tone almost amused. He’d never participated in the hijinks Shawn and Gus had gotten into as kids, but he’d never told on them when they’d done something worth getting in trouble over. Brenton was like Gus in that he overachieved and worked hard; he was unlike Gus in that he never wanted to even join in the fun. Gus could be tempted – Brenton would just laugh and back away, treating life as a spectator rather than participatory sport. “Burton is out at the moment. He should be back in an hour or so.”

Nonplussed, Shawn asked, “Why do you have his phone?”

“He forgot it,” Brenton said easily. His voice hitched at the end of the sentence and Shawn narrowed his eyes. Brenton was lying.

“Right,” Shawn said. “Do you know if he needs to be picked up from the airport tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow? Burton’s not going back tomorrow. His flight’s not until Wednesday morning.”

What the hell? “He didn’t mention that,” Shawn said. Gus hadn’t been mentioning a lot of things, lately. “Can you get him to call me back tonight?”

He passed by what seemed to be the zombie organizer, a small woman directing a horde of zombies all about the campus grounds, imperious. Shawn paused to better appreciate her delegating skills – not to mention her costume. Though all the zombies were dressed in torn clothes, hers had very strategically placed rips.

“I’ll let him know you want to talk to him, yes,” Brenton said. “Listen, Shawn, I’ve got to run. It was good hearing from you, I’ll talk to you later.”

“Yeah, you too,” Shawn said, and closed his phone. He stood for a moment, staring at it – he didn’t want to be one of those co-dependent losers who had to always be in contact with his best friend. But even when he’d been road-tripping for the majority of his early-and-mid twenties, he’d called Gus multiple times a day. Shawn frowned and shook his head, resolving to find something with which to occupy himself – like, say Ms. Hot Zombie over yonder.

Shawn put on his most charming grin and loped in her direction. The sunlight made her painted-gray skin look almost fetching, and she looked cheerfully willing to entertain Shawn’s presence, returning his smile with interest.

“You’re not registered to be here,” she said, a mischievous light in her eyes. “No wristband.”

“I need to register?” Shawn asked, and poured some more wattage into his smile. “Shawn Spencer, psychic detective.” He put forth his hand, and she shook it cordially.

“Dahlia of the dead,” she introduced herself. “Psychic detective, huh? Don’t worry, I’ll cover for you if any of the ZomCon police try to kick you out.”

“There are ZomCon police?” Shawn didn’t let go of her hand, and Dahlia didn’t seem inclined to be let go of. She smiled sunnily and nodded in the direction of a particular zombie who wasn’t stooped over as the others tended to be.

“Security officers,” she said. “Hired to keep things from getting rowdy. We had to work hard to get them into costume.”

“We?”

Dahlia shrugged coyly. “My sisters and I sort of organized this undead shindig.” She waved one arm around at the milling mass of zombies, dragging her hand loose from Shawn’s grip. “A lot of effort, but well worth it, I think.”

“Definitely,” Shawn grinned. “So, tell me, where do I get one of those wristbands?”

“Let me show you,” Dahlia said, took him by the elbow, and began to guide him to one of the nearby buildings. Shawn bounced slightly in glee and let himself be dragged. Along the way he saw Dev, from earlier, talking to a zombie girl with similar costume to Dahlia’s when it came to strategic ripping. Good for you, buddy, Shawn thought. Way to escape your sister’s clutches.

Dahlia pointed out an exhibit of horror movie castoff costumes, and Shawn spared a moment to think about how Gus would have loved it – well, maybe not, given the recurring nightmares he’d had as a kid after Shawn had made him watch monster movie after movie – but Gus would still have thought it cool.

Enough, Shawn told himself. Gus isn’t here. He smiled down at Dahlia and resolved to enjoy himself; he’d had fun without Gus before. Lots of fun. Tons of it, in fact.

Yeah.

*

Three hours, a lunch of candied ‘brains’ (Dahlia had insisted Shawn would like them, and they actually hadn’t been too bad though their appearance was a trifle offputting), and a quick intervention between two rival zombie accessory dealers (zombie accessories, apparently, consisted of quantities of fake brains and fake blood – he didn’t ask for more specific details) later, Shawn finally wandered off of the ZomCon grounds. Dahlia’s number was saved in his phone’s contact list. Shawn was contemplating whether or not he should call her – he was really good with first dates, but not so much with second ones, and he didn’t know under what realm their afternoon together had fallen: date territory, or casual hanging out.

Antioch University was a scant seven minute walk from the SBPD, and Shawn took advantage of this fact by quickly ducking into the station. Knowing ahead of time that Vick wasn’t in, Shawn was willing to bet a bushel of pineapples that he’d be able to get some new case details out of Buzz. Somehow, Buzz always seemed to be at the station, even when it was deserted by just everybody else.

Well, Shawn thought to himself, Lassiter always seemed to be there too. Poor guy obviously didn’t have much of a social life, being divorced and all. (Shawn studiously ignored the fact that he, too, was dropping into the police station on a Sunday afternoon. For someone without a ‘real’ job, as his dad would call it, Shawn was actually quite the workaholic.)

Buzz greeted him with a smile and Shawn spent a few moments ‘reading’ the officer’s aura. It was a fun parlour trick and it kept Buzz’ hero worship and awe fresh, and so was worth doing.

Buzz owed him one for looking after his little nephew the week before, and Shawn shamelessly called the debt in: access to all active case files. Most of them were boring affairs, but there were one or two that showed real promise for future fun – one involving monkeys, another sea pirates (Shawn scrutinized closer and discerned that those were actually already closed cases, from a while back, which were just going through the final paperwork stages. Seriously, though, how had he missed out on sea pirates and monkeys?) – when Lassiter swept the folders out of Shawn’s greedy grasp.

“Spencer,” he scowled. “What in the name of Justice are you doing here?” Lassiter was looking particularly harried, hair ruffled rather than immaculate and tone lacking that biting diction Shawn had grown accustomed to hearing.

Mildly concerned, but mind more in the headspace of figuring out how to exploit the apparently-weakened Head Detective, Shawn said, “I ran into the Chief this afternoon and decided to head over to the station, check things out.” Most would take these two statements to be causally related – the way Shawn intended for them to be taken – with his running into Vick naturally leading to him coming into the station, presumably under her orders. Nothing could be further from the truth, but then again, that was what Shawn specialized in: being as far from the truth as possible without breaking the laws of reality.

Unluckily for Shawn, Lassiter had been well trained in the loops of logical thinking and, more relevantly, was wise to the ways of one (fake) psychic. “I don’t think so,” he growled, and grasped Shawn by the upper arm, and made to toss him out the main entrance.

“Oh, come on, Lassy,” Shawn protested and wiggled wildly. Lassiter’s grip was firm, but Shawn was used to slipping out of it. He’d had years of practice with his dad, after all. “You know you want me on your case. Whatever case that might be.”

“Dream on, Spencer,” Lassiter snarled, and hoisted Shawn ever closer to the doors.

“Uh, guys?” Buzz’s hesitant voice behind them stopped both men in their tracks. Lassiter and Shawn each turned his head. Buzz held a phone in one hand. His brow was furrowed; his hair looked demoralized. “I’m getting some weird reports from the zombie convention. Should I, uh. Go check it out?”

Shawn looked to Lassiter. “Vick’s at the convention,” he said quietly. “With her daughter.”

Lassiter darted a quick look between Shawn and Buzz, then growled in consternation. “Stay here, McNabb,” he said. “We’ll call in if we need backup,” and he finished hauling Shawn through the front doors – only instead of kicking Shawn out, dragged Shawn alongside him.

There was an eighteen second argument over whether or not they should take Lassiter’s car down to the ZomCon, Lassiter arguing for and Shawn against – “Seriously, dude, it’s only a few minutes’ walk, you’d waste more time trying to find a parking space.” Lassiter scowled but conceded.

They were two minutes from the campus when the first wave of screaming zombies ran towards them, ran past them, panicked and moving not at all like the dead. They were very much alive, and very much afraid. Lassiter stepped in front of the rushing crowd with his badge out and almost got trampled, Shawn’s quick grab the only thing that saved him from being toppled.

“Stay out of the mob,” Shawn advised quietly, voice and body tight with tension. This many scared people did not bode well. In fact, it would be in their best interests to – “Lassiter, call Buzz. We’re going to need back up. Judging by this, we’re going to need ambulances.”

Lassiter didn’t bother arguing, which was how Shawn knew they were well and truly in trouble.

They finally got one zom-woman to stop and talk to them, though her face was wet with tears, streaking her makeup, and her voice rose ever higher in pitch as she told them, “It happened right in front of me! Oh my god, it was – it was so horrible, I’ve never – “

“Calm down, ma’am,” Lassiter said, and Shawn patted her arm soothingly. “What happened and where?”

“In the auditorium,” she gasped. She was paler than the face paint she wore. “We were having our first rally when – oh god, when – he just jumped onto the stage, and he had a gun, and he pointed it at me and then at the man next to me, and then he pulled the trigger – oh, oh,” she moaned and began to hyperventilate.

Shawn and Lassiter traded grim glances. “Ma’am,” Lassiter said, “Wait here for the ambulance and have them check you out. Do you understand?”

She nodded distractedly and Shawn patted her one last time, and then they were moving onward.

“A gun,” Lassiter said. He walked at a pace that would have been a run for someone with shorter legs. “Someone brought a gun to a crowded room where there were children –“

Shawn knew Lassiter was thinking specifically of one child, the child he’d helped deliver into the world: Iris Vick. Shawn was thinking of her too, thinking of how small she was and of the crazed mob that had almost taken down Lassiter. Shawn lengthened his stride to match Lassiter’s, even though that meant he had to jog a little. Anything to get there faster.

*

He’d spent the majority of his day in the auditorium, so Shawn had no trouble guiding Lassiter straight to its entrance. Those few zombies they encountered had the glassy shell-shocked looks of trauma victims; they were the ones who had frozen rather than fled the scene of the shooting. The ambulances arrived at the scene at roughly the same time as Shawn and Lassiter, and paramedics were attending to the worst of the spectators. Some had been run over by the mob and nursed sprained shoulders and ankles; some had sustained worse injuries. One teenager Shawn passed cradled his arm close to his chest, bone bent at an unnatural angle.

This is why, Shawn thought, angrily, This is why you don’t yell ‘Fire’ in a theatre, because the panic is worse than anything else you could do.

Inside the auditorium, Lassiter was the first officer to arrive on the scene – and it was easy to see where the scene was, too. A tight knot of humanity was gathered near the stage, surrounding what Shawn assumed was the victim. Damn. Shawn called for the nearest paramedic to come with them, and they proceeded with their grim forward march.

Dahlia was one of those near the body, and she turned when Shawn called her name, throwing herself into his arms. Not something Shawn would object to, ordinarily, though the circumstances left him sick to his stomach.

The paramedic kneeled next to the body. A slight middle aged man, crusted with blood and gore: he looked familiar. Shawn peered closer. He was one of the zombie accessory dealers he’d encountered just an hour or so ago. Lassiter occupied himself with taking statements from the other bystanders as the paramedic began emergency CPR – though it was by far too late to do any good.

“He just shot Ted,” Dahlia was crying into Shawn’s shoulder. “Just – pointed the gun and shot him, Shawn.”

“Who? Who shot Ted?” Shawn curved his arm around Dahlia’s back. He’d had practice with distraught females.

She shook her head. “I don’t know, he was all in costume, just like everyone else here – he came out of nowhere.” She sniffled. “In the panic, after, I don’t know what happened to him. He must have run off. Oh god.”

“Did he take the gun with him?” Shawn asked insistently.

 Dahlia shook her head, said, “I don’t know, I couldn’t see anything, it all happened too fast.”

Shawn made more soothing noises. “It’s okay,” he said. “Don’t worry, everything’s fine.”

“Uh, guys?” the paramedic looked up at them. Her forehead was crinkled in consternation. “This guy is dead, but he didn’t die from a bullet wound. As far as I can tell, despite all the blood, none of it’s his.”

Lassiter frowned. “What do you mean? He was shot.”

“Yeah, not so much,” the paramedic said. “I’m guessing all the blood is from his costume, because there’s no hole he wasn’t born with here. If anything, I’d say he died from a heart attack.”

Huh. It was a good thing Shawn had picked up some small sense of decorum from being Gus’ best friend, because he almost said out loud what he was thinking : this case just got a lot more interesting.

*

His arm still around Dahlia, Shawn led her out from the macabre auditorium into the light of day. Lassiter followed after and Shawn was about to throw a quick quip the tall Irish officer’s way when he noticed Dunlap’s profile in the distance.

The Coast Guard Commander’s lean body cradled Iris Vick in her arms, and even from this distance, Shawn could tell Dunlap was shaken, and badly. Extricating himself from Dahlia, he jogged to Dunlap’s side. Iris stared at him solemnly, her large eyes red from what Shawn had to assume was a crying fit.

“Hey,” Shawn greeted. “You guys got out okay, good.”

Dunlap flinched and tightened her hold on Iris. “I – she pushed us out of the way. We were standing at the back of the room. Near the doors. And she pushed us-“ Dunlap broke off suddenly and shook herself, presumably to regain composure. Her gaze was fixed to a point in the distance.

“Commander,” Shawn said slowly. There was a sick sensation growing in his stomach, an iron hard ball of unease. “Where’s Chief Vick?”

Dunlap didn’t respond, didn’t waver in her regard, and the nausea grew stronger until it was poison pumping through Shawn’s veins. He didn’t want to turn and look. He had the feeling that what he would see would be yet another countless image he would never be able to forget, cursed by his memory, condemned to a prison of horrific remembering.

“What’s going on?” Lassiter asked, coming up behind Shawn. His tone perked up at the sight of Dunlap, that ridiculous crush of his rearing its weird, freaky head, but even someone as socially oblivious as Lassiter could tell all was not well.

“I don’t think we want to know, Lassy,” Shawn murmured. He didn’t want to turn and look. He did anyway.

At first, Shawn didn’t even know what he was looking at. There were ambulances littered all over the campus, after all. It took him a moment to zero his vision in on the gurney being wheeled into the back of one of them, the careful hands of the EMTs strapping the body carefully in. It took Shawn a moment to give that still, limp form a name.

Lassiter had turned at roughly the same time, formed the same connection, let loose a stream of rough invectives. Shawn felt like joining him. Dunlap didn’t even bother covering Iris’ ears, and actually seemed about ready to let loose some of her own.

Together, tense and full of fear, Lassiter, Shawn, Dunlap and Iris watched as Chief Karen Vick disappeared into the back of an ambulance. It immediately ran its siren and began to drive off.

“You think Cottage Hospital?” Shawn asked Lassiter. Lassiter nodded. Shawn scanned the grounds for a convenient police vehicle to commandeer. The power of Lassiter’s laser blue glare alone would compel a reluctant officer to hand over his keys. “Let’s go.”

“I can’t,” Lassiter said, surprising him. “I need to stay here and control the scene. Take McNabb and the Commander.”

Shawn frowned but didn’t protest. It made an unfortunate amount of sense. He motioned for Dunlap to follow him, having already picked out McNabb’s abnormally tall profile in the distance, questioning some more of the shell-shocked zombie crowd.

“Spencer!” Lassiter called, and Shawn half turned to show he was paying attention. “Call me as soon as you get there. As soon as you know –“

Shawn nodded tensely. Of course. “Everything’s going to be fine,” he muttered, too soft to be speaking to anyone but himself. “Just fine.”



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