(Originally published in The Help Anthology for Preditors and Editors, 2008)
Glen jogged from the killing room, wiping copious amounts of thickening blood on his apron, as soon as he heard the bell.
"Afternoon, can I help you?"
His first customer in days looked old and haggard, the knees of his overalls caked with thick Colorado clay and cow feces. "Um, hello. You're a meat processor, right?"
"Yup, just as the sign out front says. I'm a fourth generation butcher," said Glen. "Can I offer you a cup of coffee?"
"Yes, thank you."
Glen realized the man was not old, as he had first assumed. Probably in his late twenties, but he's been through hell. Shit, he looks older than me. He poured the customer a cup, and topped his own off. After setting them down on the counter, he said, "It's almost the end of October, so we're past the regular small-ranch season. Still, we can process cattle and swine pretty quickly."
"Yeah, well, I have a small problem with my cattle." The man wouldn't look Glen in the eye.
"Okay, erm ..."
"Samuel. My name's Samuel."
"Okay, Samuel, we can't process any cattle with symptoms of Mad Cow disease. The FDA prohibits it, and we have to shut down the plant and sterilize everything." Glen took a pull at his coffee. "My suggestion is to make a big bonfire and get rid of them."
Samuel sighed and stared at his cooling cup. "It's not Mad Cow. It's worse."
Glen raised an eyebrow. "Worse? What's worse than Mad Cow?"
"I have zombie cows."
"Yup, zombie cows. They're dead, but they won't lie down."
Glen started laughing, and between snorts said, "Okay, you got me. Who sent you in here, my brother-in-law?"
Samuel finally stopped looking at the walls and stained calendars. His voice became firm, as though he had come to some decision. "I wish it were a joke. I have one of them in my horse trailer, you want to see?"
"Sure, sure. Zombie cows, who'd have thought it."
The men walked through the stainless steel-covered front door into the bright sunshine and turned left, towards the holding pens. Samuel's truck was an old sixties Chevy, and the battered brown horse trailer with expired plates had seen better days.
Samuel stopped and put his hand out before Glen could look in the back. "I need to warn you, Frieda is in there, and she's the worst of the herd. I think she was attacked by a mountain lion last month, and that's when I noticed they were all undead. It ain't a pretty sight."
"Fine, fine, let's have a look-see." Glen half-expected his brother-in-law to pop up inside the trailer and shout, "Boo!"
He peered over the edge of the dented swinging door on the back of the trailer. "Hello, big fuzzy girl." He turned to Samuel. "She's a Scottish Highlands cow, right? So what's wrong with her?
Samuel was busy inspecting a twig stuck in a dried cow pie. "Look closer."
Glen shook his head and looked again. Frieda's soft, slime-covered nose stretched towards him, probing for food, her broad purple tongue smeared snot over her mouth.
"She's acting like a regular, curious cow, so ... oh, crap." Glen's eyes had adjusted to the dim interior of the trailer, and he saw long strands of dried, twisted intestines protruding from a large gash in her side, sweeping the floor mat as she swayed back and forth.
"Yeah, and that wound is over a month old. She still eats, but it all squeezes out the hole in her side."
Glen gagged and stepped away from the trailer. "Jeez, you need to put her down, she's suffering."
Samuel kept looking away from Glen, kicking at the parking lot gravel. "I did. Six rounds to the back of the head. She didn't even flinch."
Glen looked around, wishing a crew from some reality show would jump from behind the bushes and shout 'You're on Candid Camera!'
"Why did you come here with this ... this dead thing? Bring it to some scientist or a vet." Glenn noticed there were no flies buzzing around the trailer, even with an eviscerated dead cow in it.
"Well, that's not what I want. I'd like you to process the herd for me. I'll pay double."
Glen looked stunned, his mouth hung open until he could formulate a coherent sentence. "Are you stoned? Get this disgusting thing away from here before I call the cops."
Samuel stopped gazing around at the scenery and looked Glen in the eye. "You don't understand. The meat has been aging for over a month, and the cows have been moving around, so the meat is unbelievably tender. It's unlike anything you've had before. We butchered one of them ourselves, and everyone's agreed it's the best damn steak in the history of meat."
"You're high. Shit, you must've slipped something into my coffee, so I'm stoned too." Glen started to back away, until Samuel pulled a small Colt semiautomatic pistol from his back pocket.
"Go to the passenger side of my truck and talk to my wife. Right now."
Glen thought about running from the crazy rancher, but he couldn't outrun a bullet, so had no choice but to march over to the open window on the pickup. Samuel kept his distance, but the gun never wavered.
A young woman occupied the passenger seat, with a big open plastic margarine container on her lap. "Here, Mister, eat this." She held up a fork with a chunk of steak skewered on the tines.
"No arguments, eat." Samuel raised the gun barrel so it pointed at Glen's face, the dark muzzle opening growing larger the longer he stared. Glen closed his eyes, hoping this was all a bad dream and he was about to wake up sweating and tangled in his flannel blankets again. He opened his mouth, and Samuel's wife put the steak in.
It was simply the best steak he'd ever had the pleasure of eating; the moist tender meat had no unusual flavor or texture. Glen kept his eyes closed as he chewed, surprised at how much he was enjoying the undead steak. "This is just, well, delicious. Jeez."
Samuel pocketed the pistol. "We've been selling steaks at thirty dollars a pound. We have a waiting list, and we can't butcher them fast enough." He waited until Glen opened his eyes and swallowed, then continued. "It's saved our ranch. We've had zombie steaks daily, with no side effects."
"Yeah. Yeah, I'll process them for you, but I'd like fifteen percent of the steaks." Glen ran the numbers in his head: 850 pounds times point one five, times thirty dollars. Almost four thousand dollars worth of beef. "How many cattle?"
"Three hundred head, which reminds me ..."
Glen tuned him out. Four thousand bucks times three hundred is ... over a million dollars.
Samuel poked Glen's shoulder. "You paying attention? I said I need the heads back, undamaged."
"Why?" Glen's head was filled with images of a new house, a hot new wife, big trucks and a yacht-sized bass boat
"Well, you'll get creeped out when you're processing them, but the heads don't stop moving. We've been letting them gnaw on the rest of the herd until the skin breaks. That's enough to make them zombie cows."
"Hell yes, we have a deal. Let me call my brother-in-law, he has a cattle transporter."
Samuel started looking at the ground again. "Well, we also have some more work for you, if you'll process them." He cleared his throat. "We have these pigs, you see, and they've developed really sharp fangs as of late..."