“No,” Thor Slaymaster said.
“It’s an important mission, Mr. Slaymaster. The President knows you’re the best person to handle it.”
Thor Slaymaster stayed silent. He knew if he did this long enough, the little man with the neatly parted hair, the horn-rimmed glasses, and the briefcase would go away, allowing Thor Slaymaster to recalibrate his air-defense system.
“Satellite imagery says the National Gallery is still intact. We know the Matisse was being stored in the sub-basement. We have the security codes. What we need now is someone to retrieve it, and you’re the best qualified person to do that.”
The State Department official was correct, but only because Washington, D.C. was the largest zombie population cluster in North America. Although the zombie outbreak had been largely confined to the Southeast, the hardiest zombie tribes had made their way to Washington and had settled there. Determined opposition had kept the zombies contained within the Beltway, but penetrating deep within Washington itself was a challenge for even the most determined zombie hunter.
“Look, Mr. Slaymaster. The President owes the French Premier a big favor after the incident with the Omega Box. Returning this painting to France is a matter of national honor. He has instructed me to give you whatever you need to accomplish this mission.”
Charlie stuck her head out from the ordnance room. “Does that include a new helicopter? Mil-spec?”
“I can have one here within the hour,” the State Department representative said.
“He’ll go,” Charlie said.
“Charlie,” Thor Slaymaster said. “This is not your decision.”
“If I have to hear you complain about your old helicopter one more time, you will have a different decision to make, one that you won’t like.”
Thor Slaymaster didn’t like being cornered by his girlfriend, the way that he didn’t like movies with subtitles or plain-cake donuts. But there are times when every man has to bow to the inevitable.
“Make sure you get them to fill up the fuel tank on the helicopter first,” Thor Slaymaster said. “You. Tell me about this painting.”
“It is called Pot of Geraniums,” the State Department representative said. “It shows a pink flower with a large green stem in, well, a pot.”
“This is a national treasure?” Thor Slaymaster asked.
“For the French.”
“Remind me never to go there.”
The stretch of open grass between the National Gallery and the Air and Space Museum would have been a perfect place to land a new, mil-spec helicopter, if it wasn’t for the teeming hordes of zombies milling around.
“What do you think?” Charlie asked.
“I think this is a suicide mission,” Thor Slaymaster said.
“You like those.”
“You misunderstand,” Thor Slaymaster said. “I do not like suicide missions. Sometimes, they are necessary. This mission is about retrieving a picture of a flower in a pot. It is not necessary.”
“So, what’s the plan?” Charlie asked. “You want to try going through the roof?”
“Cause a distraction,” Thor Slaymaster said. “Pick the ugliest building you see and blast it.”
“Is that one ugly enough?” Richie the helicopter pilot asked, pointing towards a large pile of crumbling concrete just to the north.
Most of the zombie horde around the Gallery moved towards the smoking rubble of the nearby Hoover Building, but there were still a few stragglers. Charlie fired her chain guns into the remaining zombies, clearing enough open space for a quick landing. From there, it was a straightforward march into the Gallery, interrupted by shotgun blasts and the dying moans of zombies.
Generations of thieves and looters had taken every scrap of artwork out of the Gallery long ago. Thor dashed through the Rotunda, taking care not to step on the few remaining shards of sculpture. A few zombies lingered in the corridors, and Thor dispatched them with his shotgun. He found a stairwell that looked clear of zombies, and jammed the door behind him shut, taking a moment to reload.
To Thor’s surprise, the sub-basement was well-lit. The room where the painting was supposed to be kept opened with a touch. The Matisse was there, sitting on an easel, in plain view.
Thor Slaymaster activated his wireless headset. “It’s a trap, Charlie,” he said.
“Isn’t it usually? Who is this time?”
“One way to find out,” Thor Slaymaster said.
Thor Slaymaster pulled a handgun out of a shoulder holster and took careful aim at the painting. He fired, and the painting toppled off its easel. He waited a long moment for a net to fall from the ceiling, or a cloud of toxic gas to be released, or an explosion. The explosion took a few seconds longer than he expected, and came from a different direction.
“God damn it, Slaymaster,” a very loud voice shouted. “You weren’t supposed to do that!”
Thor Slaymaster turned and found a very large, angry man in the remnants of an Air Force general’s uniform screaming at him.
“I was careful,” Thor Slaymaster said. “I made a tiny hole in the corner. Easy to fix.”
“You were supposed to return that to the god-damned French Ambassador! That was a priceless work of art! A national treasure! The President will be furious!”
“I did not vote for him,” Thor Slaymaster said.
The general’s red face clashed horribly with his ragged blue uniform. “We brought you down here to recruit you. To see if you had what it took to help us reclaim this city from the zombies.”
“This is how you recruit? No wonder the military is losing people.”
“But you’re a loose cannon, Thor Slaymaster. You’re a menace to everyone and everything around you.”
“I was designed that way,” Thor Slaymaster said. “What’s your excuse?”
“You listen to me, Slaymaster,” the general said.
“Why? You haven’t said anything interesting yet.”
“You think you’re tough? I have spent my whole career crawling down the tunnels and subways of this fair city, killing every zombie I saw, just to try to keep some semblance of a national security apparatus up and running. I don’t need you to come down here and tell me jack-squat, Slaymaster.”
“There is no national security, General. There is no nation. All we are is a collection of problems. And most of those problems accumulated right here, in this city, because people refused to face up to their responsibilities.”
“Fancy talk,” the general said, “coming from someone with no real responsibilities.”
Thor Slaymaster smiled a smile fierce enough to cause even a dedicated zombie-hunter to take a step back and reconsider his lifestyle choices. “I am responsible, General. I am responsible to my team. And right now, they are waiting for me. Do you have the real painting?”
The general reached into a nearby file drawer and extracted a hard, cylindrical plastic case. “Here it is. How did you know?”
“You would not have endangered the mission by leaving the real painting in a vulnerable location.”
“Just so,” the general said. He handed the painting to Thor. “You shouldn’t keep your team waiting.”
“Thank you, General. And… good luck, with the whole national-security thing.”
“Good luck to you, Thor Slaymaster, with the whole zombie-killing thing.”
Thor Slaymaster headed back up the stairwell and fired a small rocket into the jammed door at the top of the stairs. When the echoes faded, he reactivated his wireless headset and stepped over a pile of charred zombie corpses. “Coming up, Charlie. Hot LZ. Be ready for pickup.”