CHAPTER 1 It was a cold and snowy afternoon in the Unnatural Quarter. The blizzard struck with howling winds and whiteout conditions; temperatures dropped to well below freezing. And we still hadn’t recovered from that morning’s dust storm and blistering heat. People say that if you don’t like the weather in the Quarter, just wait an hour—especially when the weather wizards are feuding. I trudged along the sidewalk, braced against the pelting snow and sleet, heading back to the offices of Chambeaux & Deyer Investigations. My sport jacket was not made for the weather, and the biting wind probed like a proctologist’s cold finger through the crudely stitched bullet holes in the fabric. My dead skin couldn’t much feel the chill, but even embalming fluid will freeze if it gets cold enough. I stepped in a thick puddle of slush, which soaked my shoes and socks. Sure, I should have worn galoshes. But edgy private investigators don’t wear galoshes—not even zombie private investigators. The howling wind nearly tore the fedora off my head, but I used one hand to hold it in place, ducking down as I grumbled about the weather wizards’ campaign season, when the two candidates felt the need to show off their skills, although I doubted they impressed anybody. I’d gone out to the Ghoul’s Diner for a cup of coffee on a slow afternoon. Before leaving, doing my due diligence, I checked three different, and competing, weather stations. While the giggly brunette and the sculpted Ken-doll-wannabe prognosticators had predicted a range of meteorological phenomena, none of them mentioned anything about a blizzard in the next hour. I should have known not to rely on a weather forecast. A black-furred werewolf scuttled across the street in front of me, his entire body matted with snow. He huddled under a porch overhang while he fumbled to unlock the door of his walkup, but his clawed fingers were so numb that he dropped the keys in the snow. He growled as he fished around, and when he found them, they were too ice-encrusted to fit in the lock. No, the weather wizards were not winning any votes here. With Alastair Cumulus III and Thunder Dick campaigning to prove who was the better weathermancer, this unpredictability would go on until Election Day. . . . The Chambeaux & Deyer offices were only a block away. I can’t help my stiff-legged gait, but at least I don’t slouch and shuffle like some of those poorly preserved zombies. A guy has to have some measure of pride. I keep myself as fit and limber as possible—considering my condition. There’s only so much you can do with a dead body, and rigor mortis has lasting effects. With joint supplements, however, as well as a once-a-month maintenance spell performed by a pair of witches (former clients of mine), I do all right. Some people even consider me handsome in certain light . . . preferably dim light. My girlfriend, Sheyenne, certainly thinks so. Admittedly, she’s a ghost, but her vision is unimpaired. A sharp gust blew so hard I could feel snow slipping through the bullet hole in my forehead and into my skull. I had thought about adding more putty before I set out for my cup of coffee, but the day had been deceptively bright and sunny. Now, when I got back indoors and the snow melted inside my head, it was going to slosh around in there and make an annoying sound in my inner ear. When I reached the door to our building, the whiteout parted in a backlash of wind, and I was surprised to see a figure sitting on the steps, not even trying to get out of the freezing storm. He wore rags and fingerless gloves. His bony knees, visible through holes in his trousers, were drawn up to his chest. A floppy fabric hat was tugged down on ropy clumps of gray hair that looked like dreadlocks but were actually just tangles. His skin was a blotchy assortment of grays, tans, and putrid greens. “Hello, Mr. Renfeld,” I said. “I don’t often see you outside of your office.” It’s always good to stay on cordial terms with your building super. Despite the blinding snow, Renfeld seemed relaxed and comfortable, and his grin showed a reasonable, though not optimal, number of teeth. He said in a wet, mucousy voice, “Just came out to enjoy the weather.” “This is the type of weather you enjoy?” He adjusted his knees and let the white wind blast him. “It’ll change.” “It’ll change,” I agreed. Mr. Renfeld is a ghoul with a bad skin condition and a taste for putrid flesh, but he’s nice enough in his own way. I’ve got nothing against ghouls . . . or zombies, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, mummies, demons, witches, or any of the other creatures that haunt (or just inhabit) the Unnatural Quarter. Renfeld manages the building, which has office space for our agency as well as ten other tenants, most of whom keep their doors barred and windows shuttered—possibly illicit operations or storefronts for sham corporations, or the tenants might just be recluses. I don’t do much snooping unless somebody pays me. On the other hand, business had been awfully slow for the past week; maybe I’d satisfy my curiosity after all. . . . “Finally rented those basement tenements,” Renfeld said. “They’ve been on the market for a while.” “I didn’t know you had basement tenements for rent.” I didn’t know we had basement tenements at all . . . and I’d never even been in the building’s basement. “Couldn’t afford to advertise. I just spread word on the street and under it,” Renfeld said. “When I finally added a new building entrance, that did the trick. Best investment I ever made.” Snow swirled around me as I stood on the front step. If I were sensible, I’d get inside out of the wind, but I was having a good conversation. “There’s a new entrance? I heard all the banging and construction. As the cliché goes, it was enough to wake the dead.” “Sorry about the noise,” Renfeld said. “Don’t worry about it. These days it doesn’t take much to wake the dead. They’re mostly light sleepers.” As a detective, though, I might need to have an alternate entrance so that I could sneak in or out of our offices without being seen; I wanted to know my options. “Where is the new door?” Renfeld pointed a gray finger toward his feet. “Down below, direct access to the sewer system—lots of demand for that. Your regular key should work.” “Good to know. I could have taken an underground shortcut and stayed out of the snowstorm.” In a hurry to get inside now, I tipped my fedora to Mr. Renfeld, dumping the accumulated white slush on the step. “Enjoy the weather.” Renfeld continued to grin, looking up at the sky. “I’m anxious to see what’s next. I hope it gets blustery. Nothing beats a blustery day.” As I entered the building, a gust of wind slammed the door shut behind me. I stomped the residual snow from my feet, once again ruing the fashion considerations that precluded edgy detectives from wearing sensible protective footgear. But, alas, style trumps sense every time. I reached our offices on the second floor, CHAMBEAUX & DEYER INVESTIGATIONS painted right on the door. It would have made my mother proud, if my mother had ever cared. I was content to be proud for myself. Maybe this wasn’t the glamorous career I’d once dreamed of, but detective work paid the bills. And I wasn’t getting any younger—or any more alive. Sheyenne hovered at her desk to greet me with a sparkling smile on her luminous, half-substantial visage. She’s a gorgeous blonde with big blue eyes and a great figure, and she’s even smarter than she is beautiful. We no longer have a physical relationship, since she no longer has a physical body, but we satisfy ourselves with an ectoplasmic one, and sometimes that’s pretty damn good. She frowned at my blizzard-modified state. “Beaux, you shouldn’t be out in weather like that—you’ll catch your death.” “Already caught it.” I removed my fedora and shook the snow from my sport jacket before hanging it on the rack next to the door. “I’ll dry out.” “Nothing wrong with being moist and dank, ayup—that’s what I always say.” The burbling voice came from our conference room just off the main reception area. Seated at the long table was a frog demon the size of a small man. He had glistening green skin with black leopard spots. His golden eyes were the size of softballs, and twitchy nictitating membranes flickered up and down over them. He wore a frock coat with a high collar to show he was a respectable businessman. Across the conference table, my partner, Robin Deyer, stacked manila folders and removed the last few sheets of paper. Robin’s a lawyer, but not a typical one. She has a heart and a compassionate streak a mile wide. “We’ve almost wrapped up Mr. Lurrm’s file, Dan—all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed, signed in slime and duly notarized.” When the amphibious creature chuckled, his lower throat ballooned out. “Please just call me Lurrm, Ms. Deyer—no need to use Mister. We’re all friends here, and besides, I’m in my androgynous phase. Ayup.” His throat billowed out and back. “I’m so excited about this I can barely restrain myself from exuding ooze.” I think the frog demon was smiling, but with a mouth that wide it was hard to tell. “Open for business: the improved, refurbished, and totally legitimate Zombie Bathhouse. Ayup! The sign with our new name got installed yesterday. Recompose Spa.” He rubbed his soft hands together. “We did our VIP sneak preview last week as a shakedown for new customers, and today we’re open to the public.” “If any customers can make it through this weather,” Robin said. “The weather networks can’t agree on when the blizzard will end.” “The weather anchors can’t agree on what temperature water freezes,” Sheyenne said. Lurrm puffed his throat again. “The blizzard might help business. If you’re frozen and crusted with ice, there’s nothing like a good soak in a hot-springs pool. Ayup.” The Zombie Bathhouse had once been a front for the evil body-parts smuggler, Tony Cralo, an obscenely fat zombie gangster. After Cralo’s downfall, the Zombie Bathhouse shut down and fell into rapid and dank disrepair, until Lurrm and his investors refurbished it. The frog demon hopped from his chair and stood on powerful legs, adjusting his frock coat. “I know the place had a bad reputation, but I plan to change that.” He was a bouncy sort. His long tongue flicked in and out of his mouth in excitement. “The Recompose Spa will be a family place, absolutely no underworld connections, everything aboveboard.” When Lurrm shuddered, the leopard spots danced on his slick skin. “And everything disinfected regularly. Nobody’s going to get warts from my bathhouse!” “I thought frogs and warts went hand in hand,” I said. Lurrm blinked his nictitating membranes. “That’s just an old wives’ tale, Mr. Chambeaux. Toads cause warts, and don’t let any of them tell you otherwise. They’re rather sensitive about it.” Robin searched through several manila folders and brought out a certificate for Lurrm. “Recompose is one hundred percent legitimate. Your business license, sales tax forms, health certificate, OSHA clearances, immersion waiver forms— everything you need.” “I’m very grateful for your assistance, Ms. Deyer.” Delighted, the amphibious creature turned to me, jittering up and down. “We even have an employee manual! I insist that you all come and take a look tomorrow. I promise a tour and special discounts. Ayup.” Robin handed over all the forms, licenses, and certificates he needed, including a leather-bound corporate manual and a hand-press seal (which might be a challenge for the frog demon with his squishy fingers). “We’re very supportive of our clients. We’ll be there.” “Weather permitting,” I added. The frog demon bundled up in his frock coat and left our offices prepared to face the cold and snow, but by now the clouds had vanished and been replaced by dense fog. When the offices were quiet again, I realized I didn’t have anything to do. “Slow day,” I said. Sheyenne said with the flirtatious lilt that she used just for me, “If you’re that bored, we could spend more time together.” “We always spend time together. Almost all day, every day.” “Quality time.” “Every second with you is quality, Spooky.” “Good save.” She picked up a set of folders and drifted off to the file cabinet. I was eager for another exciting mystery. Solving cases is what makes me tick—in fact, I don’t do much else with my life, or afterlife. I define myself by being a detective, zombie, or otherwise. But I needed something more glamorous than preparing business licenses and health department forms. Robin wrapped up the paperwork for the Recompose Spa and put all the folders on Sheyenne’s desk. “This may not be exciting, Dan, but cases like this are our bread and butter. Our workload is just like the weather—wait a few minutes and it’ll change.” And it did.