The tray piled high with severed arms in the refrigerated case had come unclipped from its shelf and was in danger of being tipped by its wares. Mr. Russell, the owner of “Russell’s Fresh Flesh”, unlatched the door and had the tray secured without missing a beat in his sales pitch to the new potential customer.
“I was the first to try and make a go of this business. Sure, you got them popping up all across the country now… maybe even across the world, but I’m the one who started it all.” He leaned back against the case with his hands on his hips, ignoring the squeaks and scratches behind him. “I was running this store nearly twenty years before the plague. I still have old-fashioned goods in the back. M’ brother-in-law sees to that. Don’t get too many folks in that still need ‘em, but there’s a few regulars. They like having Harlan wait on them. Makes them more comfortable, dealing with one of their own kind.”
Gibson didn’t even attempt to feign interest. He hadn’t yet lost the skeptical aura he’d worn since he stepped in. “I’m used to getting my own,” he said. He pushed his glasses up a bit higher on his nose. “I just don’t have the time anymore. They aren’t milling about on every corner like they were a couple of years ago. After working all day, it seems like a hassle to go hunting them. I was out for hours last night before I found one, and it was more bones than was worth the trouble.”
Russell nodded sympathetically and sagely. He knew his schtick. “That’s exactly right. There’s nothing wrong with purchasing it. Did you go out chasing down cattle back in the day if you wanted a steak? Of course not! That’s what I’m here to help you with, sir. We do all the work and you can save yourself a helluva lot of leg work.” He walked back to his counter, giving Gibson a clear view of the case.
Gibson reluctantly stepped forward and scanned the selections. The arms were on the top shelf, fastened with straps to the tray. Some hands tugged at them. Others grappled with each other or grasped at the tray and the glass door. Less recognizable parts filled the middle shelf and a row of heads, each with a mouth guard tightly in place, were lined up neatly on the bottom. They twitched, rolled their eyes, and made whistling noises through their nostrils.
“Where are the legs?” Gibson asked.
“I keep them in the big cooler. They would just kick out my door if I tried to stuff them into this little thing, now wouldn’t they? I do have whole ones, too, by the way, if you need ‘em. Family get togethers and such. Most folks, once they start shopping instead of hunting, realize that they don’t really need as much as they thought. You can get better parts here than you’d find out on the street.”
“How do you get enough to stay in operation?”
Russell laughed. “Harlan doubles as bait. Those things may have learned to avoid us, but they are still brain dead when they smell a real, chemical-free human. They will do anything to try to get to him, so they make it easy.”
Gibson looked suspicious. “Why would he do that?”
“He’s my golden goose. He knows I wouldn’t let anything get close to him. He’s got a safe place here. Better to be live bait than wind up…” He jerked his thumb at the case. “Lot of humans would like to have it as cozy as Harlan. They still have to watch their backs 24/7. He doesn’t. But he earns it. I couldn’t run this place without him.” Russell swiped a rag across the counter. “He couldn’t take the vaccine. That’s why he’s still a real honest-to-God human. Not his fault. Lot of folks had a reaction to the test and had to take their chances.”
Gibson nodded and relaxed a bit. “Yes. I had a cousin who couldn’t. After her husband and sons were vaccinated, she left for awhile…found a retreat for dealing with the changes. She’s back home now. She was the one who told me about your shop.”
Russell beamed from ear to ear, his fangs sparkling like they were freshly polished. “I had no idea you were Jennie’s cousin! How about that! Aren’t her boys just the scrappiest things you ever saw? She sure has her hands full.”
Gibson smiled himself and Russell mentally made a notch. He could still charm just about anyone or anything. Gibson picked up a small jar from its counter display. The contents were thick and black. “What is it?”
“Homemade zombie jelly. My wife made that. We end up with all sorts of spare parts, as you can imagine, so she’s taken to canning them. Damn good stuff.”
“Why do you refrigerate them?”
“Keeps them better preserved for a longer time. Still get pieces and parts falling off, but not so much.” He reached down and picked up a canister. “Would you like a sample?”
Gibson reached into the jar of quivering chunks and daintily pickup up a small piece. He popped it into his mouth and closed his eyes for a moment. “That IS good! How do you achieve that kind of a flavor?”
Russell set the jar back. “We have our own livestock. When we catch them, most of them are not in the best shape. You know how they get?” Gibson nodded and licked his lips. Russell continued. “We feed them, get them cleaned up, get them filled out to where they almost look like people again. Then we harvest them for the benefit of good folks like yourself.”
Gibson set the jelly jar down beside the cash register. “I am sold, Mr. Russell. I would like this and, if you don’t mind,” he gestured towards the case, “would you help me make a selection? I have a carry in tomorrow and I need to make appetizers…”
Harlan could hear the voices faintly through the wall as he swept the floor. He hummed as he swept. A shrill beeping came from his watch. He clicked it off and put away his broom and dustpan. He turned the sign on the door to “Back in a minute” and locked it up tight. He fetched the heavily-laden cart from the cooler and pushed it slowly but steadily towards the rear of his section of the store. He unlocked the door and went through, mindful of the slight bump in the doorway.
The room beyond was small, formerly a breezeway, but additions had been built recently around it. He went through the door to his right first. This room was large, well-lit, and had a room-length, floor-to-ceiling cage along each side. “Dinnertime!” He called out cheerily. The people inside the cages heaved themselves off of their beds or the floors and staggered drunkenly to the bars, hands outstretched. Harlan continued to hum as he passed sandwiches and pints of juice and milk. They didn’t seem to notice how he squeezed an occasional hand or arm as he moved through. He had a notebook in the cart and he filled it in at each stop. When he reached the end, when the cart was empty, he turned it around and checked his notes. He pulled a key out of his pocket and unlocked one of the cage doors.
“Hey there, fella” he said to a heavyset man with a milk moustache. “Want to go for a walk? C’mon. Atta boy!” The man followed him dazedly out. Harlan relocked the cage. All was quiet. The ones who had eaten fast were already feeling the effects of the tranquilizers and were looking drowsy. He left the cart and hurried his person along while he was still on his feet.. Out through the door, back to the breezeway, and through the next door they went. This room was built the same as the other, but only one long, barren cage. Plexiglas kept the zombies from reaching through.
Harlan opened the cage door quick and pushed the man in before the zombies had time to gather. He wiped his hands on the leg of his pants as he went back for his cart. His watch beeped again. Dinner time was over. It was time to re-open the shop.