NITA STARED AT the dead body lying on the kitchen table. Middle-aged, and in the place between pudgy and overweight, he wore a casual business suit and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses with silver handles that blended into the gray at his temples. He was indistinguishable on the outside from any other human—the inside, of course, was a different matter.
“Another zannie?” Nita scowled at her mother and crossed her arms as she examined the body. “That’s not even Latin American. I thought we moved to Peru to hunt South and Central American unnaturals? Chupacabras and pishtacos and whatever.”
It wasn’t that zannies were common, but Nita had dissected plenty during the months she and her mother spent in Southeast Asia last year. She’d been looking forward to dissecting something new. If she’d wanted to cut up the same unnaturals as usual, she would have asked to stay with her dad in the States and work on unicorns.
Her mother shrugged, draping her jacket over a chair. “I saw a zannie, so I killed it. I mean, it was right in front of me. How could I resist?” Her black-and-red-striped bangs fell forward as she dipped her head and half smiled.
Nita shifted her feet, looking at the corpse again. She sighed. “I suppose you’ll want me to dissect and package it for sale?”
“Good girl.” Her mother grinned.
Nita went around to the other side of the dead body. “Care to help me move it to the workroom?”
Her mother rolled up her sleeves, and together they heaved the round, deceptively heavy body down the hall and onto a smooth metal table in the other room. White walls and fluorescent lights made it look like a hospital surgery room. Scalpels and bone saws lay in neat lines on the shelves, and a scale for weighing organs rested in front of a box of jars. In the corner, a tub of formaldehyde caused everything to reek of death. The smell kept sneaking out of the room and making its way into Nita’s clothes. She found it strangely comforting. That was probably a bad sign.
But, if Nita was being honest with herself, most of her habits and life choices were bad signs.
Her mother winked at Nita. “All ready for you.”
Nita looked down at her watch. “It’s nearly midnight.”
“And I want to sleep sometime.”
“So do it later.” Her mother waved it aside. “It’s not like you have anything to get up for.”
Nita paused, then bowed her head in acceptance. Even though it had been years since her mother had decided to illegally take Nita out of school, she still had some leftover instinct telling her not to go to bed too late. Which was silly, because even if she’d had school, she’d gladly have skipped it for a dissection. Dissections were fun.
Nita pulled on a white lab coat. She always liked wearing it—it made her feel like a real scientist at a prestigious university or laboratory somewhere. Sometimes she put the goggles on even when she didn’t need to just so she could complete the look.
“When are you heading out again?”
Her mother washed her hands in the sink. “Tonight. I got a tip when I was bringing this beauty back. I’m flying to Buenos Aires.”
“Pishtacos?” asked Nita, trying to hold in her excitement. She’d never had a chance to dissect a pishtaco. How would their bodies be modified for a diet made completely of human body fat? The promise of a pishtaco dissection was the only thing that had convinced Nita moving to Peru was a good idea. Her mother always knew how to tempt her.
Nita frowned. “Wait, there are no pishtacos in Argentina.”
Her mother laughed. “Don’t worry. It’s something even better.”
“Not another zannie.”
Her mother dried her hands and headed back toward the kitchen, calling out as she went, “I’m going to head to the airport now. If all goes well, I should be back in two days.”
Nita followed and found her sitting, booted feet on the kitchen table as she unscrewed the top of the pisco bottle from the fridge and took a swig. Not cocktail-drink pisco, or mixed-with-soda pisco, just straight. Nita had tried it once when she was home alone, thinking it would be a good celebration drink to ring in her seventeenth birthday. It didn’t burn as much as whisky or vodka, or even sake, but it kicked in fast, and it kicked in hard. Her mother had found her with her face squished against the wall, crying because it wouldn’t move for her. Then Mom had laughed and left her there to suffer. She showed Nita the pictures afterward—there was an awful lot of drool on that wall.
Nita hadn’t sampled anything in the liquor cabinet since.
“Oh, and Nita?” Her mother put the pisco on the table.
“Don’t touch the head. It has a million-dollar bounty. I plan to claim it.”
Nita looked down the hall, toward the room with the dead body. “I’m pretty sure the whole wanted-dead-or-alive thing ended in the Old West. If you just turn this guy’s head over, you’ll be arrested for murder.”
Her mother rolled her eyes. “Why, thank you, Nita, for teaching me such an important lesson. Whatever would I do without you?”
Nita winced. “Um.”
“The zannie is wanted for war crimes by the Peruvian government. He was a member of the secret police under the Fujimori administration.”
No surprise there. Pretty much every zannie in the world was wanted for some type of war crime. When your biological imperative was to torture people and eat their pain, there were only so many career paths open to you.
That reminded Nita—there was an article in the latest issue of Nature on zannies that she wanted to read. Someone who had clearly dissected fewer zannies than Nita, but with access to better equipment, had written a detailed analysis of how zannies consumed pain. There were all sorts of theories about how pain was relative, and the same injury on two people could be perceived completely differently. The scientists had been researching zannies—was it the severity of the injury that fed them, or the person’s perception of how much it hurt?
They’d also managed to prove that while zannies could consume emotional pain, as well as physical, the ef...