I was trying to remember what you were supposed to do to zombies. I just hoped it wasn't stakes in the heart, because my hands had a tendency to act as splinter magnets around broken wood. I was pretty sure that blowing heads off was pretty much a catch-all when it came to the lurching semi-dead, but we only had single-shot flintlock pistols that took half an hour of fiddling with shot and gunpowder to reload. We had thought about getting hold of some 12-gauge shotguns, but Frobisher now considered guns to be a heathen Western decadence and Rose and I, as pirates, were determined not to use anything that had been invented in the last hundred years or so.
"You're supposed to cut the heads off zombies, right?" I said, as we made our way through the jungle.
"Well, no problem there," said Frobisher, the light glinting off his ninja shortsword. "I passed Decapitation head of the class."
"Aren't you supposed to use silver bullets?" asked Penfold.
"I dunno. We could go and wrap our bullets with aluminium foil if you think it'd help."
"We are not killing anyone," snapped Rose.
"Sure, we won't kill any ONE, but how do you feel about killing any zombie?"
"They're not zombies. They're just hypnotised people. Once we kill Bulstrode they'll all go back to normal."
"So wait a minute, wait a minute," I said, calling a halt to our trek for the moment. "We're not allowed to kill a single zo - hypnotised accountant?"
"Not even if we're assailed by them from all sides and they're literally seconds from tearing us apart?"
"Well, obviously if there's no other choice, but only as the very, very, very, very, very last resort. I can't believe we even have to discuss this. These are human beings! They've got no idea what they're doing."
"This is going to sound terrible, but somehow I don't think picking off one or two of the accountants on this island would change the course of human destiny that much."
"No killing!" she almost yelled.
"Shh," said Frobisher. "Look."
We had advanced as far as the clearing with the vending machine, and through the plastic foliage we could see a figure standing in front of it. On closer inspection, it turned out to be Ian, one of the people from Penfold's department. He looked in terrible shape. He was thinner than I remembered, presumably because he'd been too busy standing around glaring into space lately to eat things, and his skin was tinged with grey. His posture was somewhat slumped, and his mouth hung open stupidly as he attempted to feed what appeared to be part of a palm leaf into the money slot. Of course the machine would constantly push the leaf back out, and he would, without emotion, attempt to cram it back in. On the whole, it was rather sad. It was like watching some kind of trained ape trying to emulate his human friends.
"What's he doing?" whispered Penfold, as we watched from the bushes.
"Zombies sometimes have vague memories of what they used to do in life," I said.
"They're not zombies," reminded Rose.
"What do we do now, Madame No-Kill?" I said. "We need to get past him to get to Bulstrode's office."
"I could knock him out if you like," said Frobisher.
"If you can do it in one blow before he can alert anyone else, then by all means be my guest."
Apparently elated that he could now make use of the ninja training he was always telling us about, Frobisher pulled down his ninja mask and vanished. It was quite impressive, the way he did it. I didn't actually see him evaporate into thin air, nor did he merely slip into the jungle. I just took my eyes off him for one second, there was a breath of mysterious wind, and then he wasn't there any more.
I caught a brief flash of black clothing here and there darting from tree to tree all around, which was certainly a bit much, because the vending machine was only about eight feet away from our hiding spot. Eventually, after another breath of mysterious wind, a flurry of black limbs materialised directly behind Ian's confused palm-leaf-inserting form, and a flattened hand scythed through the air, coming into contact with the back of Ian's neck for a fraction of a second with a fleshy thud. Then there was one of those frozen moments, such as that take place in the brief second before a zombie falls unconscious. Which is why it was so surprising that Ian just stiffened, turned around, and glared at Frobisher hurtfully.
"Again! Again!" we went, in the manner of children's television.
Frobisher used the other hand this time, in case his left hand had been subject to some kind of ninja-specific curse, and the edge of his hand slammed into Ian's throat a second time. Ian shook a little, and I think I saw a capillary burst in his eyeball, but he remained stubbornly upright. The problem, on reflection, was probably something to do with his facial expression and posture indicating that he was already unconscious and being propelled by some arcane means.
"Can I kill him now?" asked Frobisher openly.
And then Ian extended an arm in my direction, now that our cover had been completely blown, and started screaming like a foghorn, which was extremely unnerving and no mistake. Frobisher hit him again and again, first with the edges of his hands, then his fists, then he was performing really impressive flying kicks, but still Ian's zombie form refused to cease its klaxon yell. Finally, losing patience, I emerged from my hiding place, took up a handful of unwrapped Stinger bars and jammed them right into Ian's open gob, where they immediately bonded with his teeth and cemented his mouth shut. Then Frobisher kicked his legs out from under him and I stood on his chest.
"Do you think he alerted anyone?" I asked.
And then we heard it, a distant rumbling on the edge of hearing, which began quiet enough to be dismissed as wind but soon became the tramp-tramp-tramping of an undisciplined army, forcing their way through plastic vegetation. It was impossible to isolate from which direction it was coming. The four of us found ourselves standing back-to-back, rotating slowly, covering all the angles. By unlucky chance, I happened to be the one in the right position to see the advancing threat.
"I can see movement," I reported, fearfully. The trees were becoming agitated, and they trembled in sync with my knees for a moment before the trembling became a swaying, and the swaying became a shaking, and then...
...then the jungle parted like Penfold's hairdo and the accountant army was there, a writhing mass of people in shirtsleeves and unflattering beige garments, forcing their way forward. There was Maureen, and Julia, and all the other miscellaneous faces I had seen passing by here and there during my work experience and taken absolutely no interest in whatsoever. Although they fought their way towards us, hastily pushing each other aside to be the first to get their hands around my throat, not one of them had any expression on their faces beyond mild dislike. It was very disturbing, like being under attack by ugly mannequins.
"Back to the ship!" ordered Rose. "Run!"
We didn't need telling twice. We ran.
"Oh, yes," I yelled. "If they come one at a time we'll easily fight them off!"
"Shut up!" whined Frobisher.
The chase was a curious one. The sheer mass of accountant zombies caused them to run slower than us as they crawled all over each other, but we had to run around the various trees and overhanging branches, while they had enough sheer weight to force them instantly out of the way. Between those factors we managed to keep about fifteen yards ahead, and this gap began to gradually expand after we had the bright idea to throw our packs and equipment away and lighten our burden. At the time, we didn't think much of it, since there were plenty more of everything on board ship. Matters grew more complicated when we arrived back at the beach.
"Where's the little jolly boat?!" I asked, pertinently, because it wasn't there.
"Look," said Rose, her voice low with hopelessness.
The little jolly boat wasn't on the beach anymore. It was next to the anchored Black Pudding. And on the deck, clearly silhouetted against the setting sun, were row upon row of unmoving zombie pirates.
"Oh no," I said. "They stole the little jolly boat. They took it to the ship. And now they've freed the pirates."
"That's a little jolly unsporting," said Penfold, perlexed.
We all jumped when one of the pirates jumped into the water, then began to swim towards us in a slow, menacing fashion, like a grizzled, one-eyed shark. More pirates joined him. On top of that, crashing noises behind us informed us in several languages that the beach was going to go from being safe territory to not very safe territory at all within the next few seconds.
"Rose, since this is probably the end," I said. "I think I should set the record straight. You know how I told you it was Frobisher who drank all your mouthwash and you were really angry and said he couldn't come round your flat any more?"
"Yes?" she said, in a very menacing voice.
"I just wanted to tell you... that... you were absolutely right to say that."
"Shut up, Jim."
"Erm," piped up Penfold. "Is that supposed to mean something to us?"
We could see what he was talking about, because all the collected zombies had paused in their advance to look at it. From somewhere in the island's centre, someone was letting off flares. They climbed up into the sky like towers of smoke and flame, are stark, bright beacon in the darkness of our hearts.
"Come on," I said, heading towards it.
"Jim, wait, it could be-"
"I've had enough darkness in my heart, I'm going where the light is." And I broke into a run. As I'd hoped, the others did likewise, not wanting to be separated.
Then we had resumed our flight, and were again running through jungle being hotly pursued by a mindless army of accountant murderers. Interestingly enough, this whole chase thing was only the second time in my entire life in which I had found myself running for my life away from a group of people whose jobs involved mathematics in some way. Of course, last time it had only been a group of three pursuers, that group being the mathematics department at the high school I went to, but I had genuinely been running for my life for reasons I'd rather not go into. For some reason all I could think about was this incident, perhaps because my brain was trying to think of a way to distract me from the nightmare my life had become.
The accountants were still behind us, but I didn't dare look over my shoulder at any time to see how far. The moment I did so I just knew some previously unnoticed artificial tree root would find its way in front of my foot. I opted to concentrate on a point directly in front of me, keep my legs going like twin piston engines and try to block out the pain that rose from my feet with each time they slapped upon the ground.
We finally arrived at where I estimated the flares had come from, and we found ourselves on the lower slopes of the huge fibreglass volcano. Here, well hidden behind lips of rock, was some kind of cave entrance. It would have been completely invisible at first glance. We only saw it because Steve was standing there, waving his flare gun. "Jim! Penfold!" he yelled. "In here! Quickly!"
That seemed as good an idea as any. We threw ourselves quite unnecessarily through the cave entrance and landed in a considerably painful heap on a metal grating floor. The very nanosecond we were through the door, Steve slammed a button on a nearby wall and a steel portcullis dropped from the ceiling. A moment later, the accountant army smashed against it, and the unfortunate souls at the forefront of the mass acquired some very nasty cross-shaped bruises all over their faces.
We now found ourselves in some kind of maintenance tunnel, probably connected to the underground river we had encountered earlier on in chapter five. Both ends were blocked off with portcullises (portculli?), sealing us off in a space about fifteen feet across and five feet wide.
"This is where I've been holding out against Bulstrode's horde," explained Steve, still leaning against the portcullis button. "They've been up against the exit trying to get in for days. When I heard that scream a few minutes ago, and they all drifted off, I knew they'd found something more interesting. I had a feeling it'd be you."
"Yeah, well," I said, picking myself up and dusting myself down, taking an uneasy look at the outstretched hands feeling for us through the gate. "That's me up and down, I know how to make an entrance."
I took a moment to examine Steve. He seemed pretty much as he had been the last we had met, but with the following new aspects, each of which told its own story: several tears in his white collared shirt, a set of day-old scratch marks in his cheek, the absence of a tie and a couple of blood spots on his neatly-pressed grey slacks. He also seemed to have lost a little weight.
"How solid are we here?" I asked, while my comrades continued to roll around groaning on the floor.
"We're kind of soft and chewy on the outside but with a hard filling of bone and cartilage-"
"I meant, how secure is this place?"
"Oh. Well, pretty secure so far. But Bulstrode doesn't really care about me. It's you he wants. As long as anyone has the recipe for Fog Juice, a threat to his scheme exists. That means you. I'm not sure if he could get in here if he really wanted to, probably best to assume not."
"Why is that best?"
"Because I don't know about you, but personally it makes me feel better."
By now Rose had gotten up, and was trying to decide which of us to glare at. "Jim," she said. "Could we have some introductions, please?"
"Oh. Sorry. Rose, Steve. Steve, Rose."
Steve extended a hand to shake. "Shame we couldn't meet under brighter circumstances."
Rose extended her hand, too. Then, in a move so fast it only occurred to me to interrupt it after it was already over, she threw him against the wall, where his head met a steel panel intimately. Steve collapsed, unconscious.
"Or even circumstances that were lit to any degree at all," I said, more out of surprise than anything else.