"Jack!" Austin shouted. "Jack, don't do this!"
"Not your call, Samaritan," Jack Ketch said. He shook his arm, shedding droplets of blood in the direction of the zombie. The zombie growled... and stepped back.
"What the hell?" Krista murmured. "If he was another zombie, that thing would be going for him nine times out of ten!"
"Jack!" Austin pressed, "is this really what you want to do? You paid a price to get where you are now: Here, with us, as one one of us. Human."
Ketch's lips contorted in a silent snarl. "Don't insult your own intelligence," he said. "I see how people look at me. I hear how they talk. Freak. Cannibal. Killer. Outcast of the outcasts. Why not go back?"
"Because you've come too far to come back," Austin said. "Because, even if you could... Do you really want people to say you were the one who came this far, and quit?"
Ketch looked past the zombie at Austin, and at Krista behind him. "Is that really what you think?" he asked, not quite rhetorically. "That you wouldn't have things back the way they were?"
Austin felt Krista's hand slip into his, and he squeezed. "Yes," he replied.
Ketch's gaze turned back to the zombie, and hardened. "That's your choice, Samaritan," he said, "and maybe it's the best- for you, and the people you're with. But I have to make my own choices for myself, and I have my own people to think about."
Austin frowned. "What do you mean, Jack?" he said. "Is there someone in trouble out there? If so, I'll do everything I can to help."
"It's not your problem," Ketch said, "and you have trouble enough of your own."
Suddenly, Abbie stepped between Ketch and the zombie. Austin stifled Krista's shriek. "That's BS, Jack," she said. "I might not know you the way he does, but I know you're one of us. You're one of us because there's people here counting on you. So suck it up, because if you want to go so bad, you're going through me."
Krista gave a screech of alarm, and someone cocked a gun. Abbie took a deep breath as the zombie stalked closer. Then, in a motion too swift to follow, Ketch lunged in and struck over her head to split the zombie's skull like a melon.
As night fell, the zombies were still noticeably thinned, though the ones that remained were more active. Inside the mall, people were still milling around, talking, and frequently taking respectful, curious or nervous glances at Jack Ketch. The ex-leper, meanwhile, sat quietly to one side, and Abbie sat beside him.
Abbie stood up at the shout of a sentry. Outside, a truck, an SUV and a squadron of bikes pulled up to the side entrance. The larger vehicles were instantly recognizable as Branson's Dodge D200 and Tal's Caddy. Abbie darted to the door, but halted at a stern look from Austin. He stepped out of the door, and Sydney and two Amazonesque sisters from Circus Circus's trapeze act followed. Only Branson came to meet them, emerging from the rear door of the crew-cab truck.
"I gather," the chieftain said, "that you had a busy day. And a fairly successful one."
"That's right," Austin said. "We successfully tested a method of eliminating a large number of zombies in an indoor environment."
"Impressive," Branson said coolly. "I'm very interested in learning more about your techniques."
"I'm sure you are," Austin said, in a pointedly neutral tone.
"Have the casinos made any decision about my... requests?" Branson asked, shifting subjects.
"Treasure Island, Circus Circus and Sahara are all prepared to house some of your men," Austin said. "Treasure Island has offered the Buccaneer Bay pool area, the other two have adjacent properties you can use."
"That would spread us out across the strip," Branson said. "We would be stronger at a single location."
"That was considered," Austin said. "It was decided that it was a fair tradeoff."
"If I wanted to keep my men together, where might we go?" Branson asked. "Surely, there's some unoccupied casino..."
"Not nearly as many as you might think," Austin said. "On the strip, most of the large properties are either already full, or too damaged to stay in safely. It would be easier to find a location off-strip. Specifically, there's the Hard Rock casino, east of the Boulevard, or Stratosphere in the north... We concluded either would be acceptable."
"...For our needs," Branson said with a subtle, sardonic smile. "I see you don't care for pretenses. But trust me, I'm used to it... Ah, another thing, we would be glad if that fellow, the one who makes the big guns... Q? Well, we would be glad to have his services. We ran across a few... unusual pieces of technology, that he might be able to tell us about."
"That would be his choice, but I'm sure he would give it due consideration," Austin said.
"Yes, I expect he would," Branson said. He handed over a folder. "You can show him these. Ahh... one other thing... how is Ms. Kansas doing?"
"Mrs. Kansas is doing fine," Austin said, his voice turning colder. "If that will be all." He promptly turned away and went back inside. Abbie pushed her way out, just in time to lock eyes with Tal before he drove away.
"Jack," Abbie said, later. There was a pause before she spoke the question: "Have you ever knew you had to do something... but you couldn't do it?"
After a long pause, the ex-leper answered, "Sounds like the story of my life." Abruptly, he stood up, then paused to take Abbie's outstretched hand.
Together, they marched for the exit.