Behind Marco was a closed metal door, a window in the middle. The flashlight's reflection in the glass burned like a sun in a starless universe. A small placard read DINING CAR in dirty red letters; next to it sat a large rectangular button. PRESS. The door had been hydraulic--hit the button, the door slid open. Wouldn't work now.
"There'll be a release somewhere for emergencies," Marco said, scanning the jambs. "Like power failures. Or when resurrected corpses eat all the people on board."
Henry Marco is a zombie bounty hunter. He lives in the Evacuated States, the western half of the United States not governed by the New Republicans, but by the dead, who he tracks down, one by one, for breathing and grieving relatives living in the Safe States lying east of the Mississippi River. It's not clear who is comforted more when he finds his target, the relatives or Marco, although he's driven to keep doing it. He does get paid for it, but money's the last thing he really needs right now.
What drives him is his wife, presumed dead and walking in all those familiar places those whispers of memories make the dead return to. Only Danielle's body refuses to show up where expected, so he refuses to leave his Spanish Revival abode until he finds her. For a head doctor he's one head case himself, full of false ambivalence and suppressed death wishes, but he manages to do his job well enough.
And there lies the crux of the matter in V. M. Zito's The Return Man. Marco's reputation gets around to Homeland Security. Benjamin, his partner drumming up business from back east, is paid a visit by them and they strongarm Marco into using his gift for finding sentimental stiffs to find one in particular, a Dr. Ballard, whose importance to them, and just about every other government outside the United States, makes the doctor's body a hot commodity: with the infection contained to the U.S., Ballard's body may hold the antidote, or at least an inoculation, against the disease. With the threat of Benjamin's brains being splattered unless he cooperates, Marco has no choice.
Like much of the zombie fiction today, the military is involved, biological terror instigants are involved, and crazed people with nefarious plans are involved. Unlike much of the literature, Zito brings a zest for zombie-pickings, close calls, and character motivations through dialog, thoughts, and actions: there's Marco, a ghost of his former self, reluctantly caught in the middle of a covert tug of war; there's Wu, the Chinese sleeper agent, a killing machine as effective as any zombie; the Horesemen, a militia made up of very determined anarchists chasing after Marco and Ballard; and Osborne, who directs Homeland Security with a hidden agenda and sends Marco on his unmerry way to find Ballard.
Last seen in California, in a maximum security prison that's now filled with a few thousand zombies, Marco's got his work cut out for him. He and Wu team up, but zombies aren't the only ones wanting to take a bite out of Marco's back as their travel to California involves a dangerously stalled locomotive and unnecessary side stops along the way that can kill more than time. Eventually you begin to wonder who will get Marco first: the zombies? Wu? the Horesemen? or Marco himself? He has a habit of knowing better but not following through on it.
Zito packs each chapter with enough zombies and the living mayhem to make the 414 pages summer-breeze by, although there are times the flailing limbs, chomping teeth, and tactical disadvantages and missteps blur into impracticality; but his style keeps the suspenseful momentum going forward, just as determinedly as Marco and the secret assassin at his side. And those ubiquitous zombies.
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