Gil's All Fright Diner

A. Lee Martinez

Tor Books

CHAPTER ONE

 
In the middle of nowhere, along a quiet stretch of road, the diner dreamt of the hungry dead. And of two men.
 
Well, not men exactly.
 
Earl bounced in his seat as the pickup quaked. His beer slipped and settled in his lap. He grunted curses as he snatched up the can too late to prevent a yellow puddle around his groin.
 
“Hell, Duke, do you gotta hit every goddamn hole in the road?”
 
Duke shrugged and offered a mumbled apology.
 
“Yeah, well just try and watch it.”
 
Earl reached into the pool of empty beers. “Damn it, Duke! If that’s the last beer, I’m going to have to kick your ass.” Like Arthur with Excalibur, he withdrew a full beer. “You got lucky.” He popped it open and gulped down half its contents.
 
Duke grunted.
 
“How we doing on gas?” asked Earl.
 
“We got enough.”
 
“How much we got?”
 
“Enough.”
 
“Damn it, Duke, can’t you just answer a goddamn question?”
 
Duke took a moment to lean out his window and spit. “We got enough, Earl.”
 
The rusty gray truck bounced down the dusty road, more of a dirt trail really. Worn shocks were helpless against the rocky, hole-ridden roadway, and with each jolt, the engine rattled as if it might rip free. The tape player didn't work; something the passengers had learned at the cost of a Hank Williams, Jr. cassette. Spools of black tape hung from the radio's jaws, the inevitable end of an unsuccessful rescue attempt. The passengers rode in silence with only the clatter of seventy-six empty beer cans to fill the quiet. Seventy-six was the exact number of tallboys that could fit in the front seat before space limitations demanded a transfer to the bed.
 
The vehicle was an unlikely means of transport for the Earl of Vampires and the Duke of Werewolves. But for a vampire who happened to be named Earl and a werewolf who liked to be called Duke, it was perfectly acceptable. Truth be told, they had called on much worse when the occasion demanded it.
 
“We got like thirty more miles to the nearest station, y’know?” Earl glanced at the fuel gauge. It trembled on empty. “Shit. Should’a filled up at the last place. I told’ja, didn’t I?”
 
He contented himself by tossing dirty looks Duke’s way the next few minutes.
 
The vampire was a stringy fellow, pale—as one would expect—with an overbite, a large nose, and a ridiculously unsuccessful comb-over. The werewolf was large and hairy, even in his current man form. His monstrous gut barely managed to squeeze behind the steering wheel. A green baseball cap tried, and failed miserably, to contain the thick mane of dark brown hair atop his head. He had never been able to grow a beard, but a permanent five o'clock shadow covered his face.
 
Earl wore threadbare overalls that were at least as old as he was. (Which, for the record, was much older than he looked but still not all that old for a vampire.) Duke wore denim jeans, a leather jacket, and a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan NO FAT CHICKS.
 
"Next chance we get, Duke, we should get some new tires, too."
 
"Tires are fine."
 
"This one's ready to blow."
 
"No it ain't."
 
"What the fuck to do you know about tires, dipshit?"
 
"I know it ain't going to blow."
 
"Fine, but when it does, you're changing it."
 
"Fine."
 
Duke didn't bother to point out the truck was currently riding on its spare.
 
Rattling quiet fell on the cab once again. It lasted through the next half-hour. The pickup's working headlight cut through the darkness of a cloudy night and sliver of a moon. The occasional forlorn mailbox or animal carcass marked the otherwise unremarkable miles. Finally, a beacon of shimmering neon dared pierce the dark. It was a ten-foot sign beside a bunker of concrete. The sign read GIL'S ALL NIGHT DINER.
 
Duke pulled off. "I'm hungry," he explained, before Earl could set about busting his balls.
 
Earl set about to busting anyway. "You could'a ate earlier. I told'ja to get something earlier."
 
"Wasn't hungry then." Duke tugged the brim of his cap so that it nearly covered his eyes as he pulled his girth free of the driver's seat. The pickup's suspension groaned as the truck rose three inches.
 
"You could'a got a sandwich. That's your problem. You never think ahead. You're always living in the now. You've got one of them there reactive minds."
 
Duke cursed the day Earl had gotten his hands on a dog-eared copy of Dianetics.
 
The werewolf stopped to sniff the air.
 
"Now what?" Earl asked.
 
"Nuthin'." He tilted his head. "Thought I smelt sumthin' for a minute there."
 
"What? What d'ja think you smell?"
 
"Zombies."
 
"Jeezus, Duke, there ain't nuthin' for a hundred miles. Where the hell would zombies come from?"
 
"Over there."
 
Duke jerked his thumb over his shoulder as he entered the diner. As if on cue, the dust raised by the pickup's arrival settled, revealing a small cemetery.
 
"Oh."
 
Duke went inside.
 
A big, black raven perched atop the diner’s neon sign. The bird tilted its head to stare at Earl with one cruel ebony eye.
 
“What are you looking at?”
 
He flung a pebble at the raven but missed. The bird didn’t seem to care. It stayed on its perch without ruffling a feather. Sighing, Earl headed inside.
 
Duke's worn hiking boots squeaked with each step across the diner's worn linoleum floor. Earl's flip flops mutely thumped. The diner was abnormally large given its desolate location. There were enough booths, tables, and barstools to service a small army. But the room was empty. The overhead lights hummed obnoxiously. Two cheap desert landscapes hung by the bathrooms. A potted fern hung from a support column. A cracked ceramic pot sat in a corner. These efforts failed miserably to add character, and the place was so devoid as to be almost vulgar in its blandness.
 
The most eye-catching detail was a brownish red stain, about a foot long at its widest, at the base of the column. A normal person wouldn’t give it much thought, mistaking it for rust or mildew. But both Earl and Duke had sensitive noses. It smelled of blood. The stain looked old, but the odor, though subtle, was fresh.
 
A voice came from the back. "Be right with you."
 
They found seats at the counter. The odor of grease made Duke's stomach rumble.
 
Earl continued with his psychoanalysis. "Now me, I've got goals, and my mind acts upon those goals in an enlightened manner. I've achieved myself a state of clear. Whereas you just act on whatever impulse enters that fool head of yours."
 
"Least I got myself a shadow."
 
The vampire glanced at the floor. His shadow was indeed gone again. It did that quite often. Sometimes disappearing for hours or even days. Earl always hated that. He just knew that wherever it went, it was having a better time than him. And when it was in its rightful place, it had a tendency to move around against his will, taunting him and making a general nuisance of itself. Of all the problems of the undead (too many to list, really) the shadow was perhaps the most trivial yet most annoying.
 
Knowing how much it bothered Earl, Duke cracked a hint of a smile.
 
Earl scoured his mind for a clever comeback. He finally settled for a snarled, "Fuck you."
 
The kitchen doors swung open, and a tall, plump woman lurched into the front. She wore a T-shirt and jean cutoffs that hugged her jiggling behind, but only barely. Cellulite rolled down her legs in flapping waves with each step. A soiled apron stretched across her immense breasts. Her hair, a frazzled bleached-blonde mess, slung to the left of her face and just past her shoulders. She smiled, revealing teeth the size and color of corn kernels. A stained tag pinned to her collar had the name Loretta in bright green letters next to a beaming happy face.
 
"Morning, boys. What can I get you?"
 
Duke fished deep into his pockets and dropped a handful of crumpled bills and eighty-three cents in change. "What'll that get me?"
 
The waitress pushed the money around with the eraser end of her pencil. "Grilled cheese sandwich, some fries, cuppa chili, and a Coke."
 
He nodded.
 
"Nuthin' for me, thanks,” Earl piped in. “I already ate."
 
Loretta disappeared into the back. Duke, who had seen a man's fresh innards spilt upon the ground on more than one occasion, averted his eyes from the disagreeable trembling flesh of her exit. Earl was too busy looking for his shadow to notice.
 
The waitress's head bobbed about in the rectangular window that allowed a glimpse into the kitchen. "Where you boys headed?"
 
"Nowhere in particular," Earl replied. "Just driving."
 
"Nuthin' wrong with that. Hell, sometimes I wish I could pull up stakes and just go wherever the Good Lord sees fit to take me." She slapped something on the grill, and sizzling filled the air. "You boys didn't see nuthin' strange on your way in, did'ja?"
 
Earl snorted. "Strange like what?"
 
"Nuthin'. You'd know it if you saw it. So where you from?"
 
"Around."
 
She grinned. "Sorry, I just get to chatting on these slow nights. Don't mean to pry into your business."
 
Ten minutes later, she set a plate before Duke. The cheese dripped a puddle of grease, and the fries were soggy and brown. The chili was steaming hot, though. He dipped his spoon into the thick brown concoction and took a bite.
 
"How is it?" Earl asked.
 
"Good. Little heavy on the garlic."
 
Duke leaned close and let his traveling companion get a strong whiff of his breath. Earl recoiled, tumbling off his stool and hitting the floor. His nostrils flared, and his face contorted into a scowl.
 
"You asshole."
 
Duke chuckled.
 
Loretta smiled. Her smile vanished as her eyes fell on the glass diner doors. "Aw, damn it. Not tonight."
 
Earl glanced to the front. Nine shambling corpses in various stages of decay were pressed against the glass. Their yellow eyes (for those that had eyes) stared hungrily. Purple tongues licked peeling lips.
 
"Told'ja I smelt zombies," Duke said without turning from his meal.
 
The walking dead smashed their way through the glass doors. The lead corpse, in a blue paisley suit, stumped forward on stiff legs.
 
"Don't you worry none, boys. I'll handle this."
 
Loretta pulled a double-barreled shotgun from behind the counter, took aim, and squeezed the trigger. The blue-suited zombie's head exploded in a rain of dirt, bone, and maggots. The corpse took one more step before falling over. The next zombie suffered the exact same fate.
 
She removed the spent shells and fumbled around under the counter. "Damn. I'm out of ammo. Hold on. I got some more in the back." With a speed that belied her size, she rushed into the kitchen.
 
The seven remaining zombies shuffled forward, slowly closing the fifteen feet from the door to the customers.
 
"You wanna handle this, Duke?"
 
“I'm eating."
 
"You saying I'm afraid?"
 
Duke sighed. For an enlightened vampire, Earl could be damned sensitive.
 
“I didn’t say nuthin’ of the sort.”
 
“You implied it.”
 
“Damn it, Earl. If I got sumthin’ to say, I just say it. I don’t imply shit.” The werewolf swallowed a third of his sandwich in one bite. "Anyhow, don’t you got one of them clear minds. I didn't think you got scared."
 
"I'll show you who's scared."
 
The vampire rolled up his sleeves and walked up to a zombie. He unleashed a clumsy right hook. His target made no effort to get out of the way. The zombie's jawbone flew across the room with a dry crack. He stumbled back.
 
"I ain't scared of nuthin'."
 
He landed another punch on a second opponent. Her head spun around to face her back.
 
"I'm immortal, you dipshit!" Earl shouted to Duke. "You think a bunch of worm-ridden pricks are gonna bother me?"
 
He summoned all his unnatural strength and thrust his fist into a zombie's chest. Fragile ribs and desiccated organs gave way, and his forearm thrust through the corpse. He pulled, but the arm was stuck.
 
"Goddamn."
 
The impaled zombie grabbed him by the throat. Vampires didn't need to breathe, but even the undead could be inconvenienced by a crushed larynx. Earl kicked his attacker's thin leg. The limb broke off at the knee. The hopping zombie tightened its grip as its brothers and sisters encircled their prey.
 
"Uh, Duke," Earl rasped, "A little help here."
 
The corpses fell upon him in a hog pile.
 
"Shit."
 
Duke stuffed a handful of soggy fries into his mouth and took off his jacket followed by his T-shirt. He was in the middle of unlacing his boots when Loretta returned. “Where’s your friend?"
 
He nodded towards the mound of moaning dead.
 
She blasted two of the corpses on top and reloaded hastily. "I'm really sorry about your friend there. How about a free slice of apple pie? Just let me take care of these godless abominations first."
 
Duke pulled off his jeans and stood completely naked. The werewolf found it saved time not to bother wearing underwear. He tossed his clothes in a heap on the counter.
 
"That's alright. I got it."
 
The bear of a man transformed into a wolf of a man. His impressive six-foot-five frame expanded and widened into a hairy ape-like shape. Powerful muscles bulged beneath coal black fur. Terrible claws sprouted from his fingertips. Thick yellow teeth grew from his gums. Duke dropped to all fours.
 
"Damnation," Loretta uttered breathlessly.
 
Your average zombie is not a combat machine. Their fighting prowess springs from a single-minded determination and a certain walking corpse stick-to-itiveness. Your average werewolf is an unrivaled killing machine, vicious teeth and claws coupled with supernatural grace, power, and the ultimate predatory instincts. Duke was not your average werewolf. He cut a swath through the corpses, twisting off their heads with casual effort. Within four seconds, the five remaining corpses were sprawled on the floor in a twitching mass.
 
"Damn it, Duke," Earl growled. "I think one of those things took a bite out of me."
 
Duke chuckled dryly. "Zombies ain't got no stomach for undead flesh. You know that." He walked back to the counter and had a seat. The metal stool bent under his full lycanthrope weight.
 
"Now, how ’bout some of that pie?"
 
Loretta eased back the shotgun's hammers. "You boys ain't planning on any funny business?"
 
"That depends on the pie."
 
"Actually, ma'am, we ain't killed nobody in ages," Earl reassured her.
 
"What about that trucker last Tuesday?" Duke asked.
 
"Oh hell, he don't count. He was asking for it. Look, miss, under all that hair, Duke is just a big ol' puppy dog, and I already ate. What say you lower that. We won't hurt you, and unless you got silver buckshot in there, it won't really do much to either of us."
 
Loretta, seeing the wisdom of his words, laid her shotgun on the counter. "Well, you fellas seem nice enough, and you did save me some ammunition. Guess a free slice of pie ain't too much to ask in return."
 
She went to the rotating pastry display, currently empty save for half an apple pie.
 
"This sort of thing happen much around here?" Earl asked.
 
She sighed. "Every couple of weeks. It's usually only three or four of the bastards. I don't have to tell you, it's really cut into my business."
 
"You tried anything about it yet?"
 
"Got the preacher to bless and exorcise the cemetery after the second time. I guess it didn't take. After that, I figured I could wait them out. That's the weird part. Can't be more than a hundred graves in that place, but I've killed more than a hundred and fifty since. Hundred and eighty-one counting that batch. Damned if I can reckon where they're all coming from. Nobody's been buried in there for years."
 
"Sounds like a problem," Earl remarked.
 
She nodded, setting a plate before Duke.
 
The werewolf wrapped his immense hands around a fork and took an experimental bite.
 
"Well?"
 
She stared at his wolf's head, looking for any sign of a smile on his muzzle.
 
"He likes it." Earl pointed to the werewolf's briskly wagging tail.
 
"Glad to hear it. I made it myself."
 
She clapped her meaty hands together. "Say, you fellas looking for work?"
 
"We can look into that zombie problem for you," Earl agreed.
 
"Actually, I was talking about helping me lay a new gas line for my stove. But if you take care of those damn corpses, I'd throw in a hundred bucks and some gas."
 
The werewolf and the vampire exchanged thoughtful glances.
 
Duke slid his empty plate toward her. "Throw in another piece, and you got yourself a deal."