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Monster Hunter Vendetta: Chapter Three
Last updated: Monday, June 7, 2010 01:33 EDT
I blinked my bleary eyes as they tried to adjust to the lighted interior of the Suburban. Suddenly I was squished against the door as someone hugged me tight.
“Julie?” She was as beautiful as ever. I hadn’t been exaggerating when I had described her to my poor dead cellmate. Tall, brunette, gorgeous, way smarter than I am, talented, and tough as nails. Julie is the spitting image of her mother, only alive and not filled with soul-crushing evil. “Oh, man! I’m sure glad to see you.” I hugged her and ran a filthy hand across her cheek. Being a tough guy, I tried not to cry like a sissy in front of the federal agents. She held me tight. She must have thought that she had lost me. I sure did hate that feeling.
She tilted her head back and kissed me. Man, I’m glad to be out of jail. Finally she broke away, removed her glasses and wiped a tiny bit of moisture from her eyes. “You taste like chemicals.”
“Lice powder. What’s going on?”
“I should ask you that. What happened at the resort? There were zombies, and then you disappeared, and then the Feds showed up looking for you.”
“It’s complicated, I’ll try to explain, but is the team okay? And what are you doing with these guys?”
“Everybody’s fine. I made Myers bring me when I found out he was looking for you. Oh, Owen, I’m just glad you’re safe.”
The driver’s side door opened and Agent Franks squeezed his bulk behind the wheel. Myers slid into the passenger side. The interior light died when he closed the door. Myers turned to face us over the seat.
“You didn’t make me do anything. I let you come,” he snapped.
“I hoped we could use her to ID your body,” Franks said emotionlessly. That made two complete sentences in one night, which was pretty good for Franks. Sadly, both of them had something to do with wishing for my death. I suppose I just have that effect on some people. Franks slammed the big vehicle into gear and gunned it out through the gate in a spray of gravel. Prisoners caught in the headlights had to jump out of the way to avoid being run down. Myers turned back around and spoke into his radio, ordering the other two vehicles to watch for an ambush. The gates of Tijira Prison faded in the background.
“And the zombie outbreak? Did we get it contained in time?” I had to know. It was stupid, but I felt like it was my fault.
“There were only a few more casualties after you were arrested. A Girls Gone Wild video crew had their brains eaten... so no significant losses,” Myers stated.
“What happened? How did you end up here?” Julie asked. “And what happened to your head? That lump is huge.”
“Shotgun butt,” I dismissed it with a wave. Unfortunately for me, traumatic brain injuries were a relatively common occurrence. “I’ll explain later. I saw your mom and dad.”
“What?” Julie’s voice rose an octave. “Here? Now?” She turned and scanned out the window. “Not again…” Normally Julie’s Alabama accent was very faint, except for when she got excited, or in this case, scared. Susan and Ray would be a dark spot in our life until they finally got staked and chopped.
“I think they’re gone for now.” I put my arm over her shoulder and pulled her close and whispered in her ear. “I’ll fill you in on what they said, but I don’t want these pricks to hear.” She nodded and her hand moved to the black mark on the side of her neck, an unconscious habit that she had picked up when she was under a great deal of stress. To most people, the mark looked like a thick black line tattoo. In actuality it was something entirely different. Susan’s parting words had been about how the mark that had saved Julie was going to eventually kill her. Not if I can help it.
“Pitt, at the resort, did you see him?” Myers queried, back to business.
“Him who?” I decided to play stupid. I knew that the Feds had not rescued me out of the goodness of their hearts and I wanted to know why.
“The leader of the Condition. The necromancer.”
“English guy, turns into a giant shadow when the lights go out, throws toilets at people, that one?”
Myers got excited. “Did you see his face?”
“A little, but it was dark.”
“I’ll have you talk to a sketch artist on the flight home. You’re now the only person we know of who has seen him in person.”
“What’s the Condition?” Julie asked.
“The Sanctified Church of the Temporary Mortal Condition. They’re a death cult. A real bunch of nut job whackos. They’ve been around forever, but only over the last year have they really shown up on our radar. The man who attacked you, he’s their leader.”
“A church? Why don’t you just go burn their compound down? You guys are Feds after all.”
Myers either didn’t get the jab, or he chose to ignore it. “We would if we could. But the Condition is good. They work in cells. We can’t isolate their leaders, or even most of their ranking members. The Condition is up to no good. As far as we can tell they’re dabbling in some real hard core black magic. And they’re connected… businessmen, politicians, the media, even movie stars. This cult is now our number one priority.”
“Let me guess. They worship the Old Ones?”
“Yes. And they’re out to get you specifically,” he said, pausing briefly in thought. “How did you know that they were connected to those things?”
I didn’t say anything.
Myers turned around and glared at me. “Look, Pitt, if you have information, you need to share it. These guys are bad news, their leader is secret enemy number one, and right now I’m your best chance to survive them.” He tried to look friendly, and mostly failed. “I know that we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot, but I’m trying to help you here.”
“That’s our job. We’re supposed to protect and defend the taxpayers.” He smiled, and in the dark I wasn’t sure if the government man or Susan had been more intimidating, but for totally different reasons. One because it represented a soulless entity with the power to suck the very blood from the innocent, and the other because it was a vampire. The Suburban continued to accelerate down the rutted road.
Myers shrugged. He was smart enough not to waste his time. “All right, let me level with you. You are currently our only in against this cult. Just about everybody we’ve tried to infiltrate has ended up zombified or worse. I’ve finally got a man inside, but he’s low on their totem pole and they won’t reveal anything to him. We can’t get any of the known members to turn snitch, and if they seem to think about it, they’re never seen again. But the Condition’s fixated on you, and through you, it gives us a way to capture some of them for questioning.”
I put my face in my palm. “Oh come on. Why does everything seem to have it in for me personally?” I figured I knew why I was the target of the Old Ones. I had been responsible for thwarting their invasion, but the Feds did not know that. I was sure of that much, because if the Feds knew what I had pulled off, up to and including time travel, then I had no doubt that my brain would be sitting a glass jar in some government lab being poked with electrodes to see how it worked.
“About that...” Myers looked away, a little sheepish. “Sorry.”
I’d screwed up their invasion plans by not falling into line. I had no idea what Myers had to be sorry about. “Huh?”
“It was a misunderstanding,” he said. I waited for the explanation. Myers took his time, actually seeming a bit embarrassed. “See, when MHI was fighting Lord Machado’s minions, we decided to play it safe... So we... kind of... dropped a nuke on the area.”
“You did what?” Julie shouted. “You tried to nuke Alabama?”
“Only a little one. It was for the best,” he said defensively. “We didn’t think you were going to succeed. I was certain that the bad guys were going to win, and I couldn’t allow that. You know what would have happened then.”
“Gee whiz, thanks, Myers. I was right there, and I didn’t see a mushroom cloud, so I’m assuming you screwed up.”
He shrugged. “When the bomb struck, the rift had already been opened. It passed through cleanly and detonated on the other side, inside the Old Ones’ reality. It must have made them angry and from what our intel is telling us, it even hurt the big cheese of Old Ones. For some reason they think that you’re the one that sent the weapon... Hence the interdimensional hit out for you. Sorry.”
“I don’t think sorry covers the indiscriminate use of nuclear weapons, jackass,” I snapped. No wonder the Old Ones were blaming me. Not only had I wrecked their invasion, they also thought that I had attacked them in their own world as well. I’ve made a lot of people angry throughout the course of my life, but I’d never hit a 10,000 foot tall crustacean with an atom bomb before.
“So what now?” Julie snapped. “We just wait for this cult to come and kill my fiancé? I don’t think so.”
Myers shook his head. “We’re going to fly you home. I want you to go about your business, and wait for the cult to make their move. I’ll provide a protective detail to guard you, and when the cult strikes, we’ll be ready.”
“Why don’t I just go hide out somewhere? Lay low for awhile?” It was a rhetorical question. I was not the running type.
“They’ll find you. The Condition isn’t normal nut jobs. Unfortunately the stuff they believe in actually works. No. I want you in the open. And they are going to have to crawl out from under their rock to get you, and when they do...” Myers’ slammed his fist into his palm. It was actually not a very intimidating mannerism from a person that looked like a junior college English professor.
“So after they kill me, you swoop in and arrest them?”
Franks finally spoke. “They won’t kill you.”
“And why not?”
Franks didn’t answer. Myers patted the terse man on the shoulder. “You’ll be safe because you’ll be under the personal protection of my best men, led by Agent Franks himself. His primary mission is to keep you alive.”
The very idea was preposterous. Franks? Protecting me? “Screw that,” I sputtered. “I’ll take my chance with the zombies.”
“I’ve never failed a mission,” Franks said simply.
“And what about the Natchy River Bottom?”
“Doesn’t count,” Franks replied. I saw his cold eyes flick to the rearview mirror. He watched me for a moment before returning his attention to the road. Franks had gotten just as dead as the rest of us before I had managed to erase five minutes of time. He had put up an amazing fight and had taken inhuman amounts of damage before going down, but he had still lost.
“I can protect myself,” I stated.
“MHI can protect him,” Julie added. “We’re better at this than you federal guys anyway.”
“Civilians,” Franks muttered as he swung the wheel hard and took a sharp right onto a less traveled road. I didn’t know if he meant us or the other drivers.
“You don’t have a choice. Your country needs you, Pitt,” Myers said.
“Needs me as bait! I’m not down with that. Get yourself a different worm for that hook, Myers. I don’t trust your people at all. And it’ll be a cold day in hell before I put my life in the hands of that jack-booted thug.” I gestured angrily at Franks. The big agent ignored me.
“You’re going to let us protect you from the Condition, or we will make life very difficult for MHI. If you think you had it bad last time around, just push me and see what happens this time,” Myers threatened. “You’ve used up your political goodwill from last summer, Harbinger isn’t Congress’ golden boy anymore, and my agency has been moved from Justice to Homeland Security.”
“Didn’t know that...” Julie said. Top secret shadow government reorganizations didn't usually end up in the papers.
“Which means I’m now authorized to screw with your company more than ever before.” Myers had once been a member of Monster Hunter International before he had left and joined the government. I did not know what had caused him to leave, but he certainly packed a bitter hate for us ever since. MHI had been shut down once before by executive order and I knew that some factions of the government were just itching for us to give them an excuse to do it again. “I’m prepared to take this all the way. Are you? Think on it.”
Julie muttered something profane about Myers’ ancestry under her breath. We both knew the senior Fed wasn’t bluffing. The dark Mexican countryside flashed by outside the window as I glared at my reflection. This certainly sucked. In the previous twenty-four hours I had been attacked by a shadow necromancer and his zombies, beaten by Federales, deloused, visited by vampires, reunited with a shard of the most evil artifact in the known world, been targeted by a death cult, and had it topped off by being placed under the protection of a man who could best be described as not a member of the Owen Z. Pitt fan club.
No one spoke for a long time. Finally Myers turned back around to watch the road, knowing in his little black bureaucrat’s heart that he had us beat. Julie rested her head on my shoulder. I grabbed her hand and squeezed. We had faced worse together.
Or so I thought.
“What’s on your mind?” I asked quietly.
Julie had pulled me aside once we had disembarked at the small airport. A US Air Force C-130 Hercules was refueling nearby, and soon we would be on our way back to the States. The night sky was bright under the full moon and I could make out the shape of Agent Franks shadowing us thirty feet away. He was scanning the chain link fence, looking for anything moving in the desert scrub. The man certainly took his job seriously. They were running some sort of loud compressor near the aircraft, so I wasn’t worried about him overhearing us. Julie and I stood in the darkness behind a diminutive aircraft hangar while she went off about the day’s events.
“This is crap,” she hissed. “I’m so sick and tired of the Feds.” She was obviously upset, and her pretty features were drawn into a hard scowl.
“And...” I prompted. I knew her too well. There was obviously something else.
She grimaced. “And what the hell were my parents doing here? I hate to say it, but when they offered a truce, I actually believed it. If they ever did anything against us, Earl would make it his life’s work to track them down. I at least thought they had the sense of self preservation to avoid that.”
“Believe it or not, I think the truce is still in effect...” I briefly explained the nature of Susan’s visit, but I’m ashamed to say that I held something back. I did not mention Susan’s promise that Julie was going to die from the mark. I felt bad for withholding information, and I would tell her, but just not yet. For all I knew, Susan was lying, scheming, trying to find some way to unite more of her family into her dark world, the evil bitch.
“A shard of the artifact? How? It disappeared in Childersburg. I always assumed that the Feds got it when they cordoned off the area. How did my mom end up with part of it?”
I shrugged. “Beats me. All I know is that it hurt like hell when she touched me with it. I’m scared to death of that thing.”
“Do you think...” She searched for the words. “Could it be starting again?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. I hugged her tight. I was terrified of the things that artifact had done, and could do, and more especially, what it allowed me to do. I’d rather kill myself than risk turning those things loose. “I just don’t know.”
“Oh, Owen… I’ve got a bad feeling about this. I thought I’d lost you.”
“I’m not going anywhere. I promise.” Saying that made me think of another promise. “I lost my gear. The pistols you gave me… your brother’s pistols. They meant a lot--”
She stopped me flat. “We can replace the guns. I can’t replace you.”
Franks shouted at us, “It’s time.” As if to accentuate his words the big engines turned over and the props began to roar.
“He’s such an asshole...” Julie mumbled into my shoulder. She pushed slowly away, and we started toward the waiting plane. “Speaking of which...” she raised her voice, “Agent Franks!”
The Fed nodded in her direction.
“At DeSoya Caverns, last summer, I asked if you had taken care of my father, I asked if you had let him turn into a vampire, and if you had let him escape. Since Owen just saw him, I’m assuming that you lied to me.” Julie was intimidating when she was angry.
I don’t think Franks’ brain was wired with the capability of being intimidated. Franks shrugged. “Classified,” he said simply, turned and walked toward the plane.
“Oh, hanging out with him is just going to be a blast, won’t it?” she asked.
“And for awhile there I thought that me and Franks had come to terms...” We walked under the runway lights. The C-130 was drastically loud. The other Feds were carrying their gear up the loading ramp.
“Mr. Pitt? Ms. Shackleford?” A black-clad agent approached us. He had removed his helmet and balaclava and had tucked them under one arm. This one was young, and seemed friendly enough. His skin was deeply tanned, his nearly buzzed hair black, and his eyes twinkled when he smiled. There was a squat but heavy looking duffle bag slung over one shoulder. He shouted to be heard over the engines. “I’m Agent Torres. I’m on your protective detail. It’s an honor to meet you.” He held out one gloved hand, and surprised, I shook it. It was not normal for the Feds to be nice to MHI personnel.
“You must be new,” I shouted.
“Yes. Just assigned to the Bureau. I came over from Border Patrol.” He shook Julie’s hand as well, and his face betrayed his surprise at the impressive strength in her handshake. I had had that reaction the first time I met her as well. “Ms. Shackleford, I read up on your family in the Monster Control academy. Wow, all I can say is, wow... You guys are amazing. Your great-grandfather was one of the pioneers of monster hunting. This is a real honor.”
“Well, thanks,” Julie stammered. Apparently I wasn’t the only one surprised at meeting a friendly agent. My usual encounters with them involved bullying, threats, intimidation, and the occasional fist fight.
He unslung the duffle bag and handed it to me. “I think this belongs to you.”
The bag was as heavy as it looked. I unzipped it, peered inside, and was greeted with a wonderful sight. “Abomination!” I shouted. I put the bag down and pulled out my customized Saiga shotgun. I pulled back the charging handle to check the chamber and the bolt was as slick as ever. It was a brutal weapon, a shortened, full-auto magazine fed 12 gauge, complete with underslung 40mm grenade launcher, EO-Tech holographic optic, and -- the piece de resistance -- a side folding, silver inlaid bayonet. Abomination and I had been through some serious things together. It wasn’t just my gun, it was damn near my friend.
“And my STIs... And my armor!” I was really geeking out now. My two .45s, built originally for Julie’s brother Ray, had been put back in their holsters. The only thing missing was my Ganga Ram, last seen lodged in a zombie’s skull. “No freaking way. This is awesome.” In my defense, you don’t get very far in my line of work unless you really get to know and love your equipment. “I thought these babies were gone forever... how did you find them?”
Torres seemed rather proud of himself. “My team secured the perimeter at the prison. I found this bag in the hands of a fat federale, dead in the parking lot. Looked like he was planning on taking these home, but he’d been ripped apart, you know, and the bag was open, and when I shined my light on it, I saw this.” He pointed at the Happy Face patch. “And I’ve heard how hard it is to earn one of those! I figured if you were still alive, you were going to want your gear back.” He shrugged. “No biggie.”
I had to resist the urge to hug him. “Thanks, Agent Torres. I appreciate it.”
“Consider it a professional courtesy. Hey, I’m going to help guard you for awhile. Just call me Anthony.” He shook my hand again. “Really nice to meet you guys. I’ve got to go.” He smiled, waved, looking almost like an embarrassed teenager, and ran to rejoin his team on the ramp.
I turned to look at Julie. She was as perplexed as I was. She mouthed the word "damn." I put Abomination back in the bag and zipped it shut. When I picked up the duffle, the weight seemed familiar and reassuring.
“Maybe this won’t be as bad as we thought,” I said. “I didn’t know the Monster Control Bureau employed anybody nice.”
“He must have slipped past human resources.”
Cazador, Alabama. Population 682. A pretty much run of the mill little village nestled deep in the woods south of Montgomery. A quick drive through town -- and there was no such thing as a long drive through Cazador -- wouldn’t reveal much except the catfish plant, a few stores, and a pair of churches. But a few miles out of town was the headquarters compound of Monster Hunter International. The main office building was two stories on the surface, and built like a medieval fortress. From the air it looked like a wide, squat bullfrog. The other buildings were spread out -- a hangar for our plane and chopper, the sunk-in bunker that was the armory, Milo’s prefab workshop, the body shack, and a handful of small buildings that served as the barracks for the Newbie training classes. A tall chainlink fence which was topped with razor wire and coated with kudzu enclosed an area largely made up of bulldozer-pushed berms of red clay soil. MHI’s shooting range facilities were top notch.
The Air Force plane came in low over the thick forest surrounding the compound. For a brief instant I saw Skippy’s village flash by underneath, then the mostly hidden homes were gone. Seconds later the tires chirped as we hit runway.
“Hey!” the Fed shouted. His voice sounded nasal through the intercom headset. “Mr. Pitt. Pay attention.”
“Huh?” I glanced away from the window. The sun was rising, and the view had been nice. It was a picture of the man that had attacked me at the resort, a lean face, square jaw, intense eyes, short hair. “Yep, that’s pretty close.”
The agent swiveled the laptop back so he could look at the screen. “What about it isn’t right?”
“I don’t know. It was dark, and he was beating the living hell out of me.” Plus it was hard to explain that I had not seen a soul inside when I had looked through the man’s eyes. How exactly do you convey that to a sketch artist? “Besides the little demon-leech monster thingy that crawled out his mouth, that’s good enough.”
The C-130 rolled to a stop near our hangar. I removed the ice pack from my swollen forehead and unbuckled my harness. The Monster Control Bureau had been nice enough to clean my cuts, wrap my ankle, and provide some pain killers. I was in a pretty happy place. Yep, the government issues good pain killers. The drugs had even made the uncomfortable web seats, temperature swings, and noise bearable.
The hydraulics that powered the loading ramp made a truly impressive amount of noise as it was lowered to the ground. Most of the agents were already standing, preparing to exit the plane. Many of them looked slightly nervous. The last time they had been here had been to secure the compound and arrest Julie and me. In the aftermath many of them had gotten royally beaten by a slightly perturbed Earl Harbinger. I recognized a few of them, including one agent that had a slightly crooked nose. If I recalled correctly, I think that I might have given him that nose. He scowled at me, then flipped me the bird, low enough that I would see, but that it wouldn’t come to Myers’ or Franks’ attention. Yep. That would be the guy. Grabbing my bag, I stood and headed for the ramp. Julie was right behind me. We would be damned if we waited for the government men.
A few Hunters were already waiting for us on the tarmac. Earl Harbinger still appeared to be in his forties, and I knew that if I died of old age, by that time he might look fifty. Wearing that same old leather bomber jacket that was like an MHI fixture, Earl stood stiffly, his arms folded in front of his chest, his cold blue eyes examining the plane and its occupants. He was really just an average looking guy, not big, not particularly intimidating in any physical way, but he emanated a certain old-school toughness, a wily competence that smelled of tobacco smoke and pure animal cunning. Earl Harbinger was not a man to trifle with, and that was only taking into account his human side.
Trip Jones stared grimly at the descending ramp, his dark features drawn into an intense frown. Normally Trip was probably the happiest, most easy going and likable person that I had ever known, but his last encounter with Feds had involved a massive beat down, with him being on the receiving end of the beating, so he was understandingly distrusting. Trip was from Florida, Jamaican by ethnicity, devout Baptist by belief, and MHI moral compass by default. Trip was our Samaritan, our good guy, if you will. He was a Hunter because he was by nature a hero. Comparing myself to my friend always made me feel guilty because I knew that I could never be the kind of man that he was.
Holly Newcastle could best be described as hot, both in looks and temperament. Fiery by nature, always looking something like a villainess from a Bond movie. Only a fool would underestimate her. Our former stripper liked to play up the dumb blond angle whenever it was convenient, but she was sharp as a tack, mean as hell, and probably the most merciless Hunter I knew. She regarded the plane with a mischievous grin. If Trip was a Hunter because he was a hero, Holly was a Hunter because it was the best legal avenue she had to inflict violence on the forces of evil, and she was damn good at it.
Earl’s face lit up when he saw Julie and me coming down the ramp. After Susan had disappeared and Ray had gone into seclusion, Earl had been like a father to Julie and her brothers. The man looked relieved, yet exhausted, but he always looked tired the next few days after a full moon. Being locked in a concrete cell while you attack the walls in a psychotic rage all night will do that to you. He gave Julie a quick hug.
“Jules, Owen, welcome back...” He stuck out his hand and shook mine with his standard eye-watering and bone-crushing grip. Trip and Holly descended on me, clapping me on the back and demanding to know what had happened. The three of us had started out in the same class of Newbies, so we had been through some crazy things together. It was good to be among friends again. Other Hunters approached in the distance, drawn to the commotion and the sight of the massive plane. A lone figure, dressed from head to toe in black, watched from near the hangar. He waved awkwardly when he saw me, then slunk back into the building as the Feds disembarked. Skippy did not like crowds, or most people for that matter, but especially hated anyone from the government. The Feds clustered around the ramp, bunched up, checking out the compound, a few of the experienced ones no doubt taking stock for the day when the political winds changed and they finally got the order to shut us down by any means necessary.
The plane’s engines died and the runway was suddenly very quiet. The two groups stood separated, like the freshmen boys and girls at a high school dance. Finally Myers and Franks broke away and crossed the divide. Myers’ imitation-silk tie flapped over his shoulder in the wind. The two stopped in front of Earl. Nobody offered to shake hands.
“Earl...” Myers said.
“Well, if it isn’t Special Agent Dwayne Myers,” Earl responded, just oozing contempt. Myers’ first name was Dwayne? I learned something new everyday. “And his faithful sidekick, Mongo.” The quiet brute nodded slightly. I did not think Franks actually liked anyone, but he did seem to slightly respect those who might present a challenge in a physical confrontation. Now, Harbinger versus Franks? I would pay serious money to watch that one because I didn’t care how tough the Fed was, I’m pretty sure if he caught Earl in a bad mood, they would have to scrape Franks up and carry him out in a couple trash bags.
“I’m guessing you got the call?” the senior agent queried. Myers’ voice and attitude was cold. I knew that he despised Harbinger, as Myers used to work for him, and though I did not know the specifics, I certainly knew that there was some bad history between the two.
“I did. And I don’t like it one bit. Are all these...” Harbinger gestured contemptuously toward the Feds, “the ‘protective detail’? Because if you’re going for subtle, that ain’t it.”
“No. I’m leaving four handpicked men. They’ll shadow Pitt and try to look like your people… so sloppy… and unprofessional. The rest of us will be on standby. We’ll be staging out of Montgomery until this is resolved. I’m expecting MHI’s full assistance. The legality of continued private Monster Hunting is coming under congressional review next session and you wouldn’t want me to testify that you didn’t want to cooperate.”
“Oh, we’re the spirit of cooperation... So now why don’t you take your goons and get the hell off my land?”
“Believe me, I can’t wait. But take this. You should at least know what you’re up against.” Myers held out a manila folder. “I don’t think you realize the magnitude of the threat that’s coming for you.”
It was hard to believe that Myers had once been one of us. The very thought made me cringe. I reached for the folder, and as I did so my fingertips touched the agent’s thumb. Black lightning crashed behind my eyes.
I was sitting on a wooden bench. The delicious smell of sizzling beef drifted from the nearby barbeque. It was nearing sundown, and the heat had broken under the soft Alabama breeze. Fireflies danced in the nearby forest.
“Dwayne, how do you want your burger?”
“Medium,” I answered without hesitation.
“Gotcha...” Big Ray Shackleford answered as he squished the patties with a spatula. “Honey?” The flames hissed as the grease dripped through the grill.
“Rare. No, super rare.” Susan Shackleford was sitting on a lawn chair to my right. She sighed as she tried to get comfortable. She was eight months pregnant and having a hard time. I tried not to stare at Susan. Even heavy with child, she was still the best looking woman I had ever known, but she was also my best friend’s wife. “On second thought... How about you just kind of warm up the outside?”
“Can do.” Ray took a second to wipe his meaty hands on his apron and then took a long pull from his beer. He set it down with a satisfied grunt. Ray cut an imposing figure, big, muscular, confident, pretty much everything that I wasn’t. “Earl? Dorcas?”
“Rare.” Harbinger was sitting at the picnic table. I was still intimidated by my boss, but now that he had picked me to be on his team and had let me in on the family secret, I felt much more comfortable in his presence.
“Medium, Ray. And I mean medium. Not all black and crispy. Don’t screw it up again. Damn boy, but I ain’t never known nobody to burn up a good piece of meat like you.” Dorcas was also at the picnic table, busy cleaning her .45 Long Colt on top of a piece of newspaper. She was kind of like our mother figure. A bitter crone of a mother figure for sure, but I knew that she loved us in her own demented redneck way. “Damn, idiot. Should have let me cook.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ray responded automatically. I don’t think that I would ever get used to these southerners and their incessant politeness to their elders. “Hood?”
“Well done, please.” The voice came from behind me. Hood was the youngest member of the team, and supposedly I was his trainer. In actuality he was so on the ball that sometimes it was like he was teaching me. I had even overheard Harbinger talking about how he had never met somebody with a better gift for Monster Hunting. Not bad for a fat kid from Birmingham.
“Since you’re the Newbie, you’re lucky if you get grill scrapings.” Ray laughed hard and drained the rest of his beer. “Julie! Get daddy another beer!”
“Okay!” the little girl shouted. She leapt gracefully off the nearby tire swing and ran for the house, her pony tail whipping behind her. She was only eight, but already I could tell that she was going to be the spitting image of her mom and sharp as her dad. That one was going to be a heart breaker. She disappeared into the massive old plantation house with a slam of the screen door.
I glanced around at the other Monster Hunters. Grandpa Shackleford was engaged in an animated conversation with some other Hunters about how Ronald Reagan was the most pro-monster hunting president we’d had since Eisenhower. He kept swinging his hook for emphasis. That red-headed teenager that Earl had saved in Idaho recently, Milo, was doodling on some scrap of paper, probably about some other weird invention that he had come up with. A few others were drifting up, summoned by the smell of the barbeque, and Ray began to shout questions at each of them. The MHI staff were in a good mood, and rightly so. The case that we had just cracked had been a tough one, and we were feeling invincible.
“Yo, Myers,” Ray said.
“We kicked some ass today, didn’t we?”
I leaned back on the bench and stretched my bad arm. A vampire had wrecked my rotator cuff and ruined my shot at ever pitching in the majors, but if I hadn’t had that encounter all those years ago, then I would never have gotten to become a part of this. I looked at the patch sewn on my sleeve as I turned my arm, just a little green happy face with horns. It wasn’t much, but it meant a lot to me.
“We sure did, Ray. We sure did.”
These people were my family.
“What are you staring at?” Myers asked me belligerently.
Reality came crashing back. Glancing around, runway, big airplane, my friends, and a bunch of scowling Feds, I was at the compound, out on the tarmac, but I had just been at a barbeque… at Julie’s house, only it had been a long time ago… and I had been… Agent Myers? What the hell? “Nothing…”
Myers shook his head and released the folder, probably thinking that I was a complete moron. I must have been out of it for just a few seconds. “Like I was saying, you need to know what you’re up against. Do you have someplace where we could talk in private?”
Harbinger nodded. “Let’s go.” He motioned to the main building. All of the Feds began to follow and he raised his hand. “No, just the protective detail. The rest of you assholes can stay on the plane.” My boss didn’t wait for any sort of disagreement, he just spun on his heel and led the way. I did note, however, that he was grinding his teeth together rather violently.
Still reeling from what had just happened, I reached out and grabbed Julie’s hand. Nothing happened. No flash of black lightning, no visions. She looked at me strangely.
“Z, are you okay?” Holly asked me. “You look kind of flushed.”
I shook my head. I couldn’t say anything in front of the Feds, but the last time I had lived someone else’s memories, Lord Machado’s to be precise, it had been powered by the same artifact that Susan had just exposed me to again. “No, I’m fine. Must have been the flight... Let’s get this over with.”
Franks regarded me suspiciously as I walked after Harbinger and Myers. Finally, he nodded at three other agents. They picked up their gear and followed.
The group entered the main building, passing quickly through the entryway, as Earl was walking at a pace that indicated he wanted to get this done with. Agent Franks made note of the portcullis chained above us, almost approvingly.
“Welcome home, Z. Milo told me you’d killed yourself a mess of zombies,” Dorcas, our secretary, receptionist, and semi-retired Hunter, said from behind her massive desk. She looked like a typical matronly Southern grandma, except for the Ruger Redhawk bulging from the shoulder holster underneath her knit sweater. “I can always count on you for a good killin’ story or two, about the only entertainment I get around here nowadays.”
“Yes, ma’am, I’ll tell you all about it after this meeting.”
When she spied the Feds coming up behind me, her smile vanished, and her eyes narrowed so dangerously that they turned into little slits. For a second it looked like she thought about going for that magnum. “Myers…” she spat.
“Dorcas,” the senior Fed responded slowly.
“How’s the traitor business treating you?”
Myers was unperturbed. “Good, good… How’s your leg?”
“It’s made of plastic. How’d you think it’s doing?”
“Yes, of course…. Forgot. See you around.” Myers nodded smugly and followed Earl down the hallway. The hate-filled look that Dorcas cast after us almost peeled the paint off the walls. I paused for a moment. Our receptionist was usually cranky, hell, she was prepared to commit murder if any of the other employees messed with her lunch in the cafeteria fridge, but I had never seen her like that before.
I waited until the Feds were out of earshot. “What’s that about?”
She sneered. “Old times… me and Judas there have a score to settle.”
“What’d he do?”
“He saved my life...” Dorcas shook her head and went back to answering the phones. “Now get. I’ve got work to do.”
I caught up with the others as they were entering the smaller conference room we had set aside on the first floor. It was going to be a tight fit, but apparently Harbinger didn’t want to give the Feds access to the nicer room on the second floor. Myers had stopped Earl in the hallway right in front of the wall of silver memorial plaques and was speaking. “Just you, Shackleford, and Pitt. I have some very sensitive information, and it’s on a need to know basis. My men will stay out here.”
“Negative.” My boss gestured at Trip and Holly. “They’re on my personal team. Anything you can say to me, you can say to them.”
“Your team?” Myers grew furious. His face turned red and he raised his voice. “The great Earl Harbinger? Not keeping secrets from his team? That’s new.” It was a surprising change in demeanor. The small man went to the memorial wall and started scanning back through the names, obviously looking for one in particular. He finally found the one he wanted, chronologically over a dozen deaths before the large number from the Christmas Party of ’95, and stabbed his finger into it. “No secrets? So, you’ve told your team about Marty then?”
Earl did not respond for several seconds. All the Feds except for Franks appeared surprised at their commander’s sudden emotional outburst. Franks looked bored. The Hunters were confused. Finally my boss sighed, apparently not prepared to debate the point. It was shocking to see him back down on his own turf. “You two, wait outside. Don’t let these guys touch anything,” He pointed at the rest of the protective detail. Trip and Holly knew not to argue. They stepped aside.
I stopped to read the indicated plaque as the others entered the conference room. The plaque had a small picture of a young man with a sly grin on his chubby face.
Nothing really set it apart from the other four hundred and some odd other plaques on the wall. I went into the meeting.
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