Page 104

“I’d rather take my chances with you than anyplace else I can think of, if it’s all the same.”

I raised my eyebrows high enough that they crested above the tops of my sunglasses. “Oh? What’s the logic behind that?”

“I know I haven’t known you or your brother for long, and you don’t have much reason to trust me; what I’m about to say probably won’t help with that. But Buffy was a friend of mine for years. She was a good person, and she never meant to hurt anyone, but if I don’t stay with this team long enough to make sure you remember that, one day the news is going to get out, and she’s going to be remembered not as a great writer and a good friend, but as the cause of the Eakly Massacre and the cat’s paw behind the death of Rebecca Ryman. The best she’ll be able to hope for is ‘traitor.’ And I won’t have that.” I could hear the frown in his voice. “I’m staying because I have to. You can try to make me leave if you want to, but it’s not going to be fun for any of us.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.” Giving Shaun’s hand a final squeeze, I stood and walked over to sit down at my computer. This close up, my screen was a little fuzzy, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. “If you feel that strongly about staying, you stay. We’re glad to have you.” My screen blinked at me, prompting for a password. I entered it. Shaun could get me online, but that didn’t mean he could access my files. Starting to type, I asked, “What’s our general status?”

“Buffy’s death hit the newswires five minutes after it happened,” said Shaun, moving back to his own machine. “But that’s not the fun part.” He paused, portentously, until I glared at him. He’s good at detecting glares, even through dark glasses. “You want the fun part?”

“Yes, Shaun,” I said. “I’ve been asleep for ten hours, and I want the fun part.”

“Fine. Here’s the fun part: Our deaths hit the wires at the same time.”

My eyes widened. “What?”

“We were all reported dead,” Shaun said. “Half the news sites had the story before anyone could contradict it, and half of them are still listing you as deceased.”

I looked to Rick, who nodded.

“Whoever called the CDC made sure the call was ‘accidentally’ made on a channel that several local news sites monitor for gossip,” he said. “We all got listed as dead before we even made it to Memphis. They printed a retraction about Shaun when he posted to complain about the CDC coffee, and about half the sites did the same for me when I threw up the DAR blurb.” He quirked a smile. “I’m not interesting enough to spread as quickly as a Mason.”

“And me?” I asked, too annoyed not to.

“Still dead,” said Rick. “They’ve got some great conspiracy theories going, too, about Shaun and me concealing your death until we can prove you weren’t doing something forbidden by your licensing.”

“Thus invalidating my life insurance,” I said, putting a hand over my face. “Is there any more good news?”

“Only Buffy made it to the Wall,” Shaun said. “She’s the only one whose death has actually appeared in the public CDC database.”

I bit back a groan. “How many people think we faked our own deaths to up ratings?”

“A lot,” Shaun said, voice going grim. “On the plus side, if we’d really been doing that, it would’ve worked. We gained another three points of market share while people waited for the grisly details to pop up.”

“And have they?”

“On us? No. On Buffy? Yeah. It’s all over the place. Somebody broke into our main camera upload and—”

“I get the picture. I’ll get our official report up tonight so we can put these damn hoax rumors to rest and let people know I’m still breathing. Buffy deserves better than to have her death tarred with some publicity stunt we didn’t pull.”

“How official is this official report going to be?” asked Rick.

“You mean, ‘am I going to include the call the CDC got?’ ” I asked. He nodded. So did I. “Yes, I am.”

“Is that—”

“Wise? Safe? A good idea? No, on all three counts, but I’m going to do it anyway.” I pulled up my e-mail and started scanning the list of senders, looking for Mahir’s name. “Somebody who’s depending on secrecy wants us out of the way. So screw ’em. We’re taking that secrecy away.”

“And when they start shooting?”

“Who says they’ve stopped?” Even with Buffy’s astonishingly well-constructed filters, the amount of spam that had managed to get through was daunting. I began deleting. “That reminds me. We need to hire a new head for the Fictionals.”

Rick shot me a sharp look. “Doesn’t that seem a little abrupt? Buffy just died.”

“Buffy’s death was abrupt; this is necessary. The Fictionals aren’t like the Newsies or the Irwins. They won’t keep working just because they don’t know how to hold still. They need management, or it turns into a million works in progress and nothing that actually progresses. Unless we want to start getting angry letters from people wanting to know where the next installment of some fifty-part serial romance is, we need a new division head.”

Shaun blinked. “Buffy didn’t name anyone?”

“Buffy thought she was immortal. Talk to Magdalene; even if she won’t do it, she can probably suggest somebody who will.” Suddenly tired again, I set my spam purge to run on auto and minimized the window, pulling up the staff LW&T directory. That archive contained a current copy of the last will and testament of every employee currently on the After the End Times payroll, including details on the dispensation of their intellectual property. Properly filed and witnessed wills are legally required for all businesses whose normal routine brings them into contact with federally established hazard zones, the infected, or members of the working press. Journalists: as dangerous as zombies under modern American law. According to the directory time stamps, Buffy’s file hadn’t been updated since we left California.