The fluorescent lighting flickered in the Forsythe County old courthouse basement, and Blas whined and crept closer to Stacy until he lay against her ankle. “It’s all right, boy,” she muttered, flipping through reams of musty yellow paper. A heavy door creaked open, adding a sliver of light to her dim work.
An old woman poked her head through. “You ok down there?”
Stacy nodded. “I’m ok, Mrs. Hennessee.”
The woman peered at Stacy over her glasses, a beagle poking its wrinkled nose out from underneath her skirt. “I don’t think your teacher means for you to spend all day down here just for a – what was it again?”
Stacy forced herself to look up and smile at Mrs. Hennessee, who had checked in on her five times in the last three hours at the sleepy historic courthouse. “A project on the history of Forsythe County’s zoning regulations.”
Hennessee nodded her head and dipped away, shutting the door again behind her. Twenty minutes later the door creaked open once more.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go out and play? Your youth only lasts so long. Go meet boys. I’ll tell Mr. Teacher that you did a great job.”
Blas growled, and Stacy kicked him in the ribs. “That’s very considerate of you, Mrs. Hennessee. Honestly, I love zoning law. This is exactly where I want to be right now.”
“Hmph.” Mrs. Hennessee shook her head and grumbled something about “kids today,” and the door closed again.
Forsythe County had rock-bottom corporate tax rates, so this was where Sable Engineering’s official business was done before the new courthouse was built in 1994. Stacy didn’t like lying to poor old Mrs. Hennessee, but you couldn’t be too careful when going up against the richest family in Nevada.
If the Sable family had engineered SP-12 as part of a master plan for domination, she might expect to see zombie-related companies going on their books before recorded cases, or at least before it became clear the disease would be widespread. Instead, she saw aggressive buyouts starting in the mid eighties, shortly after media attention on the disease spiked.
Not ahead of the curve, she wrote on a yellow legal pad in her diligent reporter cursive, Just quick on the uptake.
Very quick on the uptake. Stacy reserved judgement. It’s not immoral to make a profit from a bad situation if you do it by providing a necessary service and you’re not making the situation worse. People need dogs to protect them, those dogs need training. We need Safety Patrol to pick up bad actors. We need services to humanely quarantine the infected who turn themselves in. It’s not pretty, and certainly it could be handled better, but someone has to do it.
Blas scratched his side and yawned loudly. The door creaked open once more, but Stacy beat Mrs. Hennessee to the punch. “I’m done!”
Where once there was empty desk space in Mr. Gobi’s office was now piles of papers. Previously shining teacher awards were now grey with dust. Even Cody had to push old takeout containers out of the way to access his dog bed. Mr. Gobi himself, however, lit with purpose. “Stacy, I’m so glad you came to me. It’s difficult to think about a situation that has been the same since before you were born, but let me tell you, Dogs as the solution was not a foregone conclusion.”
Blas sat at attention, not understanding what was said, but resonating with the energy in the room. “Believe it or not, in the eighties we thought dogs vs zombies was the liberal solution. This terrifying threat loomed in the shadows. No one understood it, and we were sure we had to do something.”
“You were there?”
“I was a kid. I mostly understand it in retrospect now that…” Mr. Gobi trailed off.
“At the time, the dominant philosophy was that every man, woman, and child should own a gun. The only solution to flesh-eating undead lurking in your midst was to be able to shoot one if he lunged for you. Instead of ‘will your five year old be safe with a gun’ it was ‘will your five year old be safe from zombies without his child-sized shotgun?’ It seemed on the verge of becoming law until the breakthrough – we can’t always tell when someone’s a zombie, but dogs can. Tests got more accurate, too. Suddenly the mythos turned on its head, and zombies stuck out like sore thumbs. Instead of the lawless land of undetectable zombies, dogs were judge, jury, and occasional executioner.
“So, we thought, now we don’t have to be afraid anymore. We can really focus on curing this awful disease. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, people got more scared. The concept of the zombies grew to include an idea that their consciousness left them at some point, even though no studies were being done to measure zombie cognitive function. There wasn’t political will to really fund research for the cure or to, at the other end, systematically eradicate the infected. Everyone was frustrated and people said ‘well, that’s compromise.’”
Stacy couldn’t stop herself. “Why? Why wasn’t anyone looking for a cure?”
Mr. Gobi shrugged. “They did try for one, but it went awry. Greenfield University in Iowa had a big study, but instead of relief from the symptoms, the patients degraded faster. Overnight, they were crawling all over campus biting everyone they could get their hands on. The news was already there, of course, and nobody talked about a cure after that.”
Stacy shook her head. “That’s horrifying. Did they ever figure out how it happened?”
“Everybody has their pet theory, but what’s lacking is evidence. Mutual Holdings Ltd. means the Sables had a motive, but you know that’s not enough. We have higher standards here at the Romero Star.” His mirthless grin assured Stacy that he knew this was well beyond the high school newspaper.
A flickering, off-color CRT monitor hummed as Stacy plugged in another VHS tape. She’d had to travel all the way to Rice University’s media studies library to find a catalog of old TV commercials. Actors shooting actor zombies in the early eighties gave way to dogs tackling them in the late eighties and nineties. By then, the makeup was so good that she wouldn’t blame someone who hadn’t met one for thinking the footage might be real. Stacy also noted the increasing prevalence of “incurable” as a description of zombieism in the PSAs and news broadcasts. Occasionally a bespectacled person in a white lab-coat would show up on screen while the voiceover said something about “hubris” or “well-meaning scientists.” She took careful notes about the content of each one and the name of the company that funded it in the bottom corner.
She cross-referenced the companies against WhoOwns.org. About 85% of content describing zombieism as incurable and late-stage zombies as “mindless” came from subsidiaries of Mutual Holdings Inc. That was enough for Stacy, but she needed a smoking gun. Surely there were old documents somewhere in Sable Engineering. She pulled out her laptop and looked up the company’s virtual tour. Several hours later, she had made it through buildings A-Y and read the description of Building Z, which included historic document storage.
She just needed to get in. Time to call in a favor.
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