The First Chapter of Infected: Epitaph
While it wasn’t the first time Roan had been at Gracie’s diner at one in the morning, it was the first time he’d been here with Dee.
Roan had been at Panic, trying to make up with Dylan for a fight they’d had earlier (over Roan sleeping in the cage, of course, a common thing to fight about nowadays), when Dee called him and asked to meet at the all-night diner. He sounded so oddly subdued and distracted that Roan agreed. He wondered if Dee and Luke had finally broken up for good.
When he arrived, he found Dee at a back corner table, alone with a cup of diesel-grade coffee and a picked-at slice of apple pie. On closer inspection, Roan realized Dee hadn’t eaten any of it, simply autopsied it with his fork, leaving a jumble of innards spread out across the dessert plate like a disemboweled victim. Wow, he really should have asked Dylan what was in a bearded-lady cocktail before he drank it.
As soon as Roan ordered a diet soda from the waitress and she walked away, he asked, “What’s up?”
Dee gazed at him, tired and a little sad. He was probably fresh off work, as he was still wearing his EMT jacket, with his photo ID clipped to his breast pocket. “Ben McFarland’s dead.”
“Oh, sorry.” Roan hesitated. “Who?”
Dee’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “You know, Ben. My Ben?”
It took him a moment, but he got it. After they’d broken up, Roan eventually got together with Paris, and Dee got together with a nurse named Ben. While he and Paris started their epic, tragic romance, Dee and Ben broke up after a month. From what he understood, their relationship was very tempestuous. “Okay, got it. He wasn’t very old, was he?”
He shook his head. “Thirty-eight. He committed suicide, washed down a handful of oxy with lime vodka.”
“I’m sorry.” Roan paused briefly as the waitress brought his soda. “Lime vodka?”
Dee shrugged. “He liked it. There’s no accounting for taste.”
“Apparently not.” He took a sip of his soda, which was painfully cold, before asking, “Is it a surprise? His suicide.”
“Yeah, but… also no, do you know what I mean? He wasn’t a Droopy Dog like you, but he was… moody.”
“Droopy Dog? I object to that. I’m a mopey bastard.”
Dee quirked an eyebrow at him. “In other words, Droopy Dog.” He played with a chunk of apple on his plate before adding, “Even so, I don’t really see you committing suicide, at least not in a traditional way. Suicide by cop or cat or something, that I could see. Some form of symbolic self-immolation.”
“Gee, thanks. Is there a purpose to this ego boost, or did you just want a sympathetic ear?”
Dee’s eyes flashed with irritation. “I want you to look into it. I want to know why Ben killed himself.”
“He didn’t leave a suicide note?”
He shook his head. “Nope. He took a fistful of pills and went to bed, intending never to wake up again. He got his wish. But here’s the thing: he was totally straight edge. As much as he liked lime vodka, he only drank on special occasions. He had a year-old bottle of the stuff in his freezer, half-full. The whole time I was with him, I saw him drink twice.”
“People change. Look at me.”
“He wasn’t a pill addict. Believe me, you’ve given me a crash course in that.”
Roan couldn’t help but chuckle, rubbing his face to avoid the temptation to reach across the table and smack Dee. “Goddamn it, man. If words were weapons, I’d have bled out already.”
“Oh, you can take it.”
“Now I’m having a flashback to our third date.”
Dee fixed him with a caustic glare. “Can you stifle the smartass remarks for five minutes?”
“Stop verbally beating me up and I will. Look, I’m sorry about Ben, but can you dial down the pissy?”
For a moment it looked like he might argue about it, but he let his fork clatter to his plate and sighed. “I’m pissed off, and Ben isn’t here to take it out on, so you’re convenient.”
“Fifth date.” Dee kicked his leg under the table. “Ow!”
“This shouldn’t bug me!” Dee exclaimed, almost shouting. Luckily, there were few people here right now—just a drunk wrestling with a burger and a woman who looked like a nightshift worker, guzzling coffee by the gallon. She looked over at them warily, but was too tired to get worked up over it. In the background, the DJ for the Spanish station was talking about an upcoming concert over the speakers of a small, tinny radio. Dee closed his eyes and visibly forced himself to calm down. He was only partially successful, but at least he lowered his voice. “I deal with death all the time. Ben and I weren’t really that close, although we stayed friends. I actually dated one of his exes, with his blessing. This shouldn’t bug me.” He put his head in his hands, elbows propped precariously on the edge of the table. “Why does this bug me?”
Roan felt bad for him. Although Dee would deny being moody himself, he was, and he could vacillate between his unemotional, Vulcan calm (otherwise known as his work mind-set) and his usual self (his at-home mind-set), which was more on the bitter/bitchy side. In fact, Roan always thought Dee would make a good drag queen in the attitude department, even though he had neither the desire nor the body type to pull off the look. Although he definitely had the cheekbones for it.
“Because it does. You knew him, and he did a stupid, shitty thing. Maybe you had an issue or two unresolved, which will now always remain unsettled. It isn’t right and it isn’t fair, and it doesn’t matter that you encounter that a lot. Sometimes it still stings. Which is why maybe you should leave well enough alone. It’s possible there is no satisfying answer to why he killed himself. Some people just lash out in anger.”
“I know. I was with you long enough. And that wasn’t a dig.” He dry-washed his face, and Roan wondered if he was hiding tears. He couldn’t tell. “If I killed myself one day, would you just let it lie? Wouldn’t you want to know why I did it?”
“I’d just assume it was related to me driving you crazy.”
“Good guess. But answer the question.”
Roan knew what Dee was doing. Dee was manipulating him, using his own basic nosiness as a weapon against him. That didn’t mean it wasn’t wildly effective, though. “Goddamn it, Dee, you know damn well I would. But I’m still telling you, there might not be an answer.”
“Okay, fine. If you can’t find an answer, I’ll live with it. But will you look?”
Roan took a drink of his soda to buy time, but they both knew the answer already. “Yeah, of course I will. But I reserve the right to say I told you so when it all goes horribly wrong.”
“Agreed. Which reminds me….” Dee grabbed a messenger bag, which was sitting beside him, and dug a couple of things out of it. The first, a key on a bottle-opener key ring, he tossed at him.
“What’s this?” Roan wondered. It was a generic-looking key.
“Ben’s apartment key.” Then Dee showed him the open page of a magazine and asked, “What the hell is this?”
“This” was a picture of Roan, shirtless, flipping off the camera. It was the photo from the issue of Future Shock, which had just come out. “My tribute to Iggy Pop?”
“Exactly. You look like a fucking rock star here. What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
“Um, didn’t I just say?”
Dee slapped the magazine down on the table. “You’re making infection look cool. Stop it.”
“I am not!”
“You are. You don’t mean to, but look at you. You’re a hot guy whose infected status doesn’t stop him from being a stud.”
“Wow. You’re just mood swinging everywhere tonight, aren’t you?”
Dee rolled up the magazine and hit him on the arm with it. “Stop it, I’m serious. Look, your defiance attracted me in the first place, but now you’re sliding into a dangerous territory. You’re the closest thing to a superhero the world has, even if only a handful of us know it, but that’s just part of the story. No one knows the pain and the hardship and the painkiller addiction behind it all. Pictures like this, where you’re getting your swagger on, can’t convey how much it’s all killing you. Some kid is gonna see this and think this could happen to them.”
“I’m not a normal infected. I was born this way.”
Dee gave him a well-practiced “fuck you” look. “Like some idiot is going to make that distinction.”
He had a point. Actually, he had several, and Roan had to admit he looked great in that picture. While the lion coming out more had many obvious problems, an unexpected side effect was his sex appeal had gone way up. You could ascribe most of it to an increase in pheromones, but not all of it. It was bothersome to think the lion was more attractive than him, but on the other hand, he could sort of see that. “If it’s any consolation, print media is dead.”
“It’s online too.”
“Oh… well, it’ll probably be seen only by kids who are already leaning toward cat worship anyways.”
“You want me to hit you again?”
“Is violence your answer to everything?”
Ooh, the “fuck you” look again. He was making no friends here. Luckily, he didn’t have to be friends with Dee, and since they were exes, that was a tenuous thing anyway. Roan examined the key, even though it told him nothing, and asked, “Do I get an address with this?”
“Yes, smartass.” Dee put the magazine back in his messenger bag and took out a piece of paper that he slid across the table. Oh hey, he’d MapQuested the location for him.
“So you assumed I’d say yes.”
“Considering all the free medical care I’ve given you, you owe me.”
That could be argued, but he was in no mood to do so. “Won’t I be interrupting his family? Don’t they want his things?”
Dee shook his head. “His family is in Indiana, and they liked to pretend their little queer boy didn’t exist. He didn’t have a boyfriend either, in case that was your follow-up question.”
“That you knew of.”
“Are you implying I don’t know everything?”
Roan smirked at the joke—it was a joke, right?—and pocketed the key. “Sometimes we don’t know people as much as we think we do. Hell, I can guarantee we don’t. We all keep secrets, and they usually die with us.”
“Wow, how fucking morbid is that?”
“Morbid, sure, but true.”
Dee raised an eyebrow at that. “Projecting much?”
“Not much, just enough.”
Dee scowled at him, clearly disapproving of his smartassedness, but hey, what did he expect? Dee knew him, and this is what Roan was.
To appease Dee, Roan asked him about his day, and it sounded like a fun one, but when you were in the emergency services business, you got to choose between dead boring and dead terrifying, with almost nothing in between. He didn’t miss it, even though his life now didn’t seem short of terror.
When his cell hummed in his pocket, Roan was sure it was Dyl, asking if he was coming back to the club or if he’d see him at home. But he was surprised to see Seb’s number displayed on his phone. He almost never called him late unless something was wrong, which meant it was his night for wrongness.
“Yeah, we got a cat problem?” he asked, answering the phone.
“Er, yeah, but probably not in the way you mean,” Seb replied, sounding tired. “I don’t need you to rush to a scene, I just thought I’d give you a heads-up.”
“A heads-up about what?”
Seb paused a little too long for Roan’s liking. “There’s a new tiger-strain infected in town.”
Just the words “tiger strain” made his stomach clench and burn. “Who?”
“Don’t know. We just keep finding the bodies.”
What had he thought about having enough terror in his life? Apparently he’d jinxed himself. Damn it, he had to watch that.