|Home Page||Index Page|
Monster Hunter Vendetta: Chapter Four
Last updated: Saturday, June 26, 2010 10:02 EDT
Franks and Myers sat on one side of the table, Earl, Julie, and I on the other. The senior Fed still seemed uncharacteristically angry. He gestured to the folder that he had given me. “Open it.”
“Why the secrecy?” Julie asked.
“Open it…” Myers repeated. I dropped it on the table between us and flipped through the thick stack of papers. The top sheet was a sketch artist’s interpretation of the shadow man from the flight home. “The Sanctified Church of the Temporary Mortal Condition, or Condition for short, was founded ten years ago,” Myers stated, as if he had given this briefing a few times. “They didn’t come up on our radar for awhile. We thought they were just another bunch of scam artists taking money from gullible morons, until they released this…” He pulled a sheet of paper and handed it to Harbinger.
“A proclamation heralding the return of the Old Ones…” Earl frowned, “It’s a bunch of crap about welcoming our new overlords back to Earth.” He held up the paper, “And a really bad drawing of some sort of sky squid.” I had seen that particular shape once before, while my disembodied spirit slugged it out with Lord Machado for control of space and time, only the picture didn’t do it justice. In real life the Dread Overlord was as big across as ten aircraft carriers parked in a line.
“Check the date.” Franks spoke for the first time.
Julie leaned in to see. “That was printed two days before Lord Machado tried to use the artifact in Childersburg, one day before we got killed in Natchy Bottom… So, they knew beforehand?”
“Yes, and once the whole world got to travel through time for five minutes, it really helped the Condition’s recruiting,” Myers said. I was still really glad that the government didn’t know that was my fault. “They’re growing, and the word is out that their leader, this guy,” Myers tapped the artist’s rendition of the shadow man, “is building an army to help prepare the Earth for the Old Ones’ return. MCB agents were sent to investigate, but we’ve had almost no luck and I’ve lost some good men. The Condition is brutal, devious, and their magic actually works, so our intel is extremely limited.”
“Who are they?” Julie asked.
Myers picked out another sheet. “These are some of the members we know about, but they’re just useful idiots, celebrities and suckers they’re scamming money off of to fund their operations. We’ve investigated them thoroughly. As usual, they don’t have a clue what they’re into. Publically, the Condition is just another oddball religion. They preach about ending the greedy tyranny of man and building a perfect utopia on Earth, under the wise leadership of the benevolent Old Ones, of course.”
My side of the table gave a collective snort. We’d all dealt with those things before.
“I take it you can understand why my superiors are so concerned. This church has been recruiting monsters, various types of undead, and they even found a shoggoth somewhere.”
Earl picked up the picture of the Englishman. “So I take it you can’t find this asshole?”
“They call him their Shadow Lord. He’s an enigma. All of their leadership is cloaked in secrecy. Finding him is where Pitt comes in. They’ll be forced to send some of their operatives to get him, and when they do, we’ll take them. My orders are to shut this church down, no matter what. I just need an in.”
“What? Worshipping giant space mollusks that want to enslave humanity isn’t cool? What’s next, you guys going to pick on the Scientologists?” I asked sarcastically.
“I’m sensing some serious First Amendment issues on this one,” Julie offered.
“ACLU’s gonna be pissed,” Harbinger responded.
I laughed. Franks leaned forward, flipped through the stack, and pulled out a glossy crime-scene photo. He shoved it at me. It was, or had been, a woman. She had been brutally torn to bits. The laughter died off.
“Oh… That’s terrible,” Julie said.
“That was our last undercover agent to infiltrate the inner circle of the Condition, Special Agent Ashley Patterson. They left her on the front steps of her kids’ daycare like that,” Myers said. “She was still living at the time this picture was taken. They used necromancy so she could suffer longer than was humanly possible.”
Ouch. I had seen a lot of terrible things in the last year, but that made even my stomach lurch. That was a whole new level of cruel.
“Friend of mine…” Franks stated.
It was a somber moment, but that idea just struck me as odd. “You have friends?” I blurted.
Franks scowled at me but Myers continued. “Agent Patterson did find this.” The next picture appeared to be of a large piece of pink skin that had been engraved with a knife or something to leave very crude writing. “Apparently you can’t just send a message from the other side. They had to slice the note onto one of their living minions and then launch it through a portal. It can be very messy.”
“Gross.” Julie adjusted her glasses and tried to make out the words carved on the piece of meat. “To all minions of… I can’t make out the next word… Overlord? Find and utterly destroy the human Hunter known as… Owen Zastava Pitt…”
“What!” I exclaimed. “Let me see that…” Sure enough, there was my name, etched onto some sacrifice. This was too much. The Dread Overlord had declared jihad. This thing was terrifying. It was huge. “An alien god has a vendetta against me? Oh, that’s just awesome.”
“Yeah,” Franks said. “Awesome.” I swear the bastard almost smiled. Almost.
“So now we wait for the Condition to come to us,” Myers said proudly. “It turns out the Old Ones never bother to communicate with their followers here, so this message was a big deal. Capturing Pitt is now the cultists’ primary goal. They’ll do anything to get him. Any attack they launch gives us one more lead that we don’t currently have.”
I turned back at the picture of the MCB agent. She was in five pieces and still alive. I did not want to end up as a crime scene photo. “Your plan sucks.”
“This file contains everything we know about the Condition, their assets, their methods. We’ll be ready for them to make their move. In the meantime, you just go about your business and pretend we’re not here.”
“Okay, so why the secrecy?” Earl asked sharply. “Or was your little tantrum out in the hallway just to prove a point?”
The senior Fed shook his head. “He was my friend.”
“Then maybe you should have thought of that before you murdered him,” Myers snapped.
Earl flashed with anger, shoved his chair away from the table and stood, glaring down at Myers. His fist hit the table hard enough to crack the wood. “It was an accident!”
I’ve got to hand it to him, Myers didn’t so much as flinch, and since I knew he also knew what Earl was capable of when he was angry, that was especially impressive. “What, are you going to accidentally kill me too?” Franks hand inched toward his holstered Glock, surely loaded with silver bullets, ready to plug Earl if he should so much as twitch, and for a moment the little conference room teetered on the edge of violence. “Do it. And it’ll be the end of MHI once and for all.” The college professor was locked in a staring contest with the werewolf and the killing machine got ready to shoot everybody.
“Enough.” Julie was calm as she spoke. “Earl, sit, please. Agent Myers, we’re cooperating fully. You two can murder each other over personal business later. We’ve got work to do.” Harbinger pulled his chair back to the table. He was really ticked. Franks put his big hands back on the table. Since I was sitting next to her, I was the only one who saw Julie discreetly return her compact .45 to her lap. She had been prepared to shoot Franks under the table, Han Solo style. My God, I love this woman.
It took a moment for everyone to calm down. I don’t know what had transpired between the two men, but Earl was still flushed as Myers pulled a final piece of paper. “As for the secrecy, we’ve been eavesdropping on the Condition’s communications, wire taps, reading their mail, the usual.”
“Shocking,” I muttered.
Myers dropped the bomb. “The Condition has a spy inside of MHI.”
The three of us glanced at each other. The idea was absurd. “Horse shit,” Earl snapped. “I know my men.”
“We have several messages in here that reference a mole. You’ve been infiltrated. How many people have you hired since the battle with Lord Machado?”
We looked to Julie. She was the one who kept track of logistics. “Two training classes, twenty-six Newbies in total, made it through to hiring, with another fifty currently going through.” And the three of us knew that of those fifty, we would be lucky if half that made it through training and this current class had been the biggest that we had ever had. MHI had been drastically short handed since we had been allowed to reopen. We had been cranking through classes as quickly as possible. “You honestly think one of our new employees is working for the Condition?”
“In their mind, your company is what stopped the second coming. What do you think? You can’t trust your senior people either. Keep in mind what kind of things you’re dealing with. The Old Ones are powerful, and it wouldn’t take much to flip someone you’ve known for a long time.”
“Yeah, you know all about betraying people, don’t you, Dwayne?” Earl said. Myers’ nostrils flared, but he didn’t respond. Earl continued, “I think you’re full of it. You hate MHI, and you just want to spread doubt and get us mistrusting each other. I know how you operate. This is all about getting us shut down, but the people you answer to said we’re sticking around, and that just pisses you off to no end, don’t it?”
“For now.” Before Myers could say more, his phone rang. It was still set on that annoying version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Glaring at Earl, he answered, listened for a moment, then stood, cupping the phone so the caller wouldn’t hear. “We’re done here,” Myers did his best to act unruffled and professional. “All I require is your full cooperation against the Condition. Go about your regular business and Agent Franks will stay close to Pitt at all times. The Congressional Subcommittee on Unearthly Forces expects MHI to be willing to work with the government. Go against them, I dare you, because then I’ll get my wish and MHI will be finished.”
“Prick,” Earl sullenly murmured under his breath.
“You’ve got the file. Do whatever you want with it. I don’t care. Either way, I win. I can show myself out.” Myers adjusted his tie and buttoned his cheap suit. “I’ll be in touch.”
“So that’s it. Just keep doing our job like nothing special is happening?” I asked in exasperation. I was still having a difficult time liking this plan. If you could call being a sitting duck a plan.
“As for your job, I wouldn’t worry too much about hunting monsters,” Myers said, “because the monsters will be hunting you.” The senior agent left the room without looking back.
I glanced at Earl. He was grinding his teeth again. Julie was baffled and tired. She closed the file. We had a strange symbiotic relationship with the government. We lived off their bounties, chafed at their rules, and had to put up with a lot of their crap, but this was something entirely new.
It was uncomfortably silent for a solid minute. Franks looked across the table at three scowling Monster Hunters and asked nonchalantly, “So, what you got to eat around here?”
“Julie, could you show our guest to the cafeteria?” Harbinger asked. “Owen and I need to talk… alone.” Julie stood. Franks hesitated, his mind probably running through the potential of me being assassinated should he walk twenty feet down the hallway. Finally, he relented, shoved his bulk back from the table and followed Julie.
I waited until the door had closed. “Well… this sucks.”
“It’s a load of crap, is what it is,” he spat. “I got the call this morning. Cooperate or else. So, I guess we ain’t got much choice. Stupid government… Now what exactly happened in Mexico?” Earl Harbinger was the most experienced Hunter in the world. If anyone would know what to do, it was him. I told him everything I could think of, having learned last summer that even the seemingly irrelevant details counted. He rubbed his face wearily when I told him about being exposed to the artifact. He stopped me after the part about how Susan had told me that the mark was going to kill Julie.
“Did you tell Julie about that?” He ran his thumb down the outside of his neck. I shook my head in the negative. “Good. Don’t. Susan’s a liar, and I wouldn’t put it past her trying to manipulate you two into doing something stupid. It probably ain’t as bad as she’s making it out.”
“I’m still worried about her.”
“Understandable. But Julie will be fine. I know a thing or two about curses, and no matter what happens, she’s a survivor. She gets that from me… If you were to die, she’d get by fine. She’s a Shackleford. On the other hand, if you lost her, you’d fall apart, and for some reason, she’s taken a shine to you. So that alone will keep her around. She’s stubborn like that.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. It was odd having ultimate badass, Earl Harbinger, trying to reassure me that everything was going to be okay. Yet, I could tell that he was as nervous as I was. He loved Julie like she was his own child, but then Earl was back to business. “What else?”
“Well… I don’t know how to explain it, but I had a vision, or something, just a few minutes ago.”
Harbinger cringed. “Not this shit again…” I couldn’t blame him. Last time I had visions, I had almost destroyed the world, so it tended to be a bummer.
“Well, it was different than before, but kind of the same. I think it was some sort of flash because of the artifact. Last time I had visions, I lived through parts of the Cursed One's life. But this time, it was just some weird little thing from Myers, of all people, when I touched his hand outside, and it wasn’t even any big deal. It was just some random memory, where you guys were all eating burgers or something, but it was real… I think.” My boss reached over and poked me hard in the arm with one finger. “Ouch! Hey, quit it.”
“Anything?” he asked. I looked at him strangely. “What? I don’t know how all this weirdo magic stuff works either. What else happened?”
“That’s about it, and now you know what I do. No, I take that back. You know more than I do. What’s the deal with you two anyway?”
Earl paused for a long time, trying to think of what to say. “It don’t matter.”
That pissed me off. I had put it on the line for this company. “Oh, Myers seems to think that it does, and it looks like I’m stuck in the middle of your feud. I’ve bled, killed, and even died with this company. I think I’ve earned the right to know a few of MHI’s deep dark secrets at this point.”
He just looked defeated now. “It’s no big secret, just not something I’m proud of. There was a Hunter named Hood once, good buddy of Myers and your father-in-law to be. They were real tight, like you, Trip, and Holly are now. Until I… I killed him on accident.”
“On a mission?” It wasn’t unheard of. We made our living off the judicious use of firearms, high explosives, and pointy things in a real dynamic environment. Bad things happened occasionally. Hell, Holly had nearly blown up Trip once.
Earl shook his head. “No… look, it don’t matter. It was my fault and I made sure that it could never happen again. It was just a stupid mistake. But that’s when Myers left us, and he’s hated my guts ever since. He held me responsible, and by extension, all of MHI. I just… just don’t want to talk about it.”
I believed him. I could honestly say that I had never actually seen him look remorseful before. It was gone in an instant, and replaced with his usual gruff exterior. He coughed. “No need to worry about that. What’s done is done. Myers can kiss off. First priority, we need to keep you from getting capped by some death cult. If I let you get killed, Julie would never shut up about it.” He held up his hand and tapped his thumb and fingers together for the universal sign for nagging.
“Aw, just messing with you. We’re down to the last few days of this training class, and they’re looking remarkably good. I’ve got some experienced Hunters running it, but they could probably use some help.” None of the senior Hunters liked taking time off paying jobs to pull training duty, especially since training didn’t involve collecting any bounties, and seldom involved any killing, which were the two main reasons most of us got into this business to start with. “As of right now, you’re off active duty. You’re going to stay at the compound and help with training.”
“What?” I shouted. Harbinger’s personal team was kind of like MHI’s mobile strike force. We mostly bounced around, assisting local teams as they needed it. It was considered the sweetest gig in the company by many, and with the level of monster activity around the country being what it was, we were almost always busy. “No way. I should be out there working cases. Our team’s due to get called up anytime now.”
“The rest of us are. You ain’t. Not until this blows over. Look, Owen, it’s not anything personal. I would do the same thing for any of my men, and you would too, should you get your own team someday.” I had noticed that since I was planning on marrying his great-granddaughter and heiress-apparent, Harbinger had taken an interest in my leadership skills. “Provided you live that long.”
“That’s not fair,” I muttered.
“Fair? Boy, you’re in the wrong business if you want fair. What’s not fair is all of us getting killed walking into an ambush meant for you. The compound is the safest place for you to be, surrounded by firepower. No monster has had the guts to attack the compound in fifty years.”
“I can take care of myself, Earl.” I insisted. “This is bull—”
He cut me off. “Decision’s final, Hunter.” His tone suggested that he was not about to listen to me. Earl had been running this gang of type-A personality mercenary killers since my grandfather was in diapers. Nothing I said here was going to sway him once he had picked a course of action.
“What’s to keep them from sending an army of zombies against the compound? He did it in Mexico.”
“This place has been warded,” he explained. It was obvious that I didn’t get it. He sighed and backed up. “You know how vampires can’t come into a place unless they’ve been invited? Well, we’ve got something even better than that covering the compound. No undead can enter here, period. And if this guy’s main weapon is bossing around undead, this is the safest place you can be. No transdimensional creatures either, which rules out anything sent directly from the Old Ones.”
“How’s that work?” I asked.
“Beats me, but it does. We found a ward stone a long time ago, and set it up here. Any undead that cross the threshold of this property just explode. It’s really kind of neat. Don’t go spreading that around, though, because once in awhile some undead comes by with a bone to pick, and it’s fun to watch them blow up when they cross the gate.”
“I don’t like it…” I muttered.
Harbinger pulled out a pack of Marlboros and shook one into his hand. “I didn’t say that I’m going to make you sit here forever, did I? Don’t worry. We’ll figure out a way to deal with this cult. The Feds might not be able to handle it, but they’re a bunch of bureaucratic twits. I’ll call in some favors and we’ll start working our sources out on the dark side. We’ll find them ourselves, then take care of this problem, MHI style…”
“Which usually involves chainsaws,” I said happily.
“Yes. Yes, it does.” He flipped open his MHI logo Zippo and lit his cigarette, indicating that this was bothering him more than he was letting on. He usually didn’t smoke inside the main building unless he was under a lot of stress. “In the meantime, you stay low here at home base.”
“If the compound’s so safe then what about this spy?”
“I think Myers is a liar,” Harbinger answered, a little too quickly. “But… I didn’t get this old by not being paranoid. Look, you think getting stuck on training duty is a joke, fine. Congratulations, you’re now responsible for rooting out this mole if there is one.”
Now I figured he was just humoring me. “And just how am I supposed to do that?”
Harbinger shoved the Feds’ file folder toward me. “I don’t know yet. Use your imagination. I’ll gather the others that I know we can trust, and you can meet me in the main conference room at six. Ditch the federal weasels on the way. In the mean time, don’t let Franks screw around with any of our stuff. I don’t trust that guy.”
“Okay, first off, we need to set some ground rules,” I spoke slowly and avoided using big words so Franks wouldn’t be confused. Past history indicated that when he got confused, he tended to hit me. He and the three other Feds were sitting across from me in the MHI cafeteria. Franks was on his fourth sandwich and apparently had a metabolism like a blast furnace. The other agents -- Torres, Herzog, and Archer -- listened intently. The one thing I could say for the Feds, they did take their jobs really seriously. “You don’t need to be so close. Here at the compound, I’m safe.”
Franks snorted. Agent Torres actually raised his hand, which made me feel a little silly. I pointed at him.
“Owen. May I call you that?” I nodded. My friends around here usually just called me Z, but it would be a cold day in hell before I ranked anybody from the MCB as friends. “I know this is awkward, but we’re just here to help.” Torres was the youngest, and seemed sincere. He did seem to really respect MHI, which was abnormal. After the meeting, Holly had told me that she thought he was the cutest too, which had caused me to roll my eyes so hard that I had actually hurt myself. He had given me back my precious guns though, so I was inclined to not totally hate him.
“When people from the government tell me they’re just here to help, I get nervous. You’re supposed to blend in, right? We’ve got a giant Newbie class going on now, the compound's crowded, and always having four of you walking in formation around me looking like a bunch of storm troopers isn’t going to help.”
Archer spoke. “So what do you expect us to do? Just sit back and wait for the Condition to murder you?” Archer was tall, but unlike most of the overly buffed MCB, he was skinny. The average Fed made your average Hunter look pretty dumpy. But Archer was thin, with an angular nose, and a large Adam’s apple. He had one of those hair cuts that worked if you were a Marine, but otherwise just made you look kind of silly, with the buzzed sides, and the perfectly straight flattop, so symmetrical that it had to have been done with surveying gear.
“Look, Pitt, we don’t want to be here anymore than you want us to be,” Herzog said. She was the first female MCB agent I had met, all of five feet tall, and built like a bulldog, complete with jowls. She also had the worst attitude. “We all know this is a bullshit assignment, and I don’t know what we did to piss Myers off to get stuck doing this scut work, no offense, sir,” she nodded at Franks, who stopped chewing long enough to grunt an affirmation. “We should be out killing monsters, and taking down the Condition the old fashioned way. Beating the ever livin’ hell out of everyone in it until somebody squeals where the bosses are, and then putting a bullet in the brain of every last one of the squid-worshipping fanatics. We kneecap enough of these assholes and cut off enough thumbs, somebody will talk. They always do. We need to be out there putting the fear of God into these freaks, not babysitting… you.”
Torres had mentioned Border Patrol at the airstrip. Archer had an 82nd Airborne tat on his forearm. All the MCB types apparently started out in regular government jobs, so I had to know. “Herzog, who were you with before being recruited by the Monster Control Bureau?”
“Internal Revenue Service.”
God help us. “Oh… well…okay then.” That made sense. I had a sneaking suspicion that she had once audited my old job. Somebody from the IRS had actually taken the time to draw frowny faces in red ink on a depreciation schedule that I had filled out. She seemed like the type. “Look, personally I agree. I would much rather have you out there doing your thing, cutting thumbs off and whatnot, and not following me around. Like this, you’re going to stick out. This just isn’t going to work.”
“The only Hunters who know who we really are is Harbinger and his immediate people,” Torres suggested to Franks. “We can blend in with the new recruits. Nobody, including the Condition’s spy, will ever even know we’re on site unless Owen needs us.”
“You three, maybe… but everybody knows of Franks,” I pointed out. I didn’t add that his reputation for brutality had an almost urban legend quality to it in Monster Hunting circles. “He’ll have to go… I don’t know, live in the forest or something.”
Torres was undeterred. “Okay, then the cover story can be that Agent Franks is a liaison, assigned here to build camaraderie between private sector and governmental Hunters.” The man was just chock full of helpful suggestions, though I still liked my live in the forest idea better. Franks nodded slowly, as if the idea of him being an ambassador of goodwill made any sense whatsoever. “We stay out of your way, we’re still accomplishing our mission, everybody’s happy.”
“Everybody saw your great big airplane land today.”
“Nobody was close except for your friends. We can say it was for Agent Franks. The rest of us are late additions to the class.”
I bit my lip. Torres had a point. “That’ll work, but there’s one more thing.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, is our putting our lives on the line to protect you from the forces of evil inconvenient?” Herzog asked, just oozing sympathy.
“Yeah, it is.” I had no patience for this nonsense. I didn’t ask for their help. “Inside this, the main building, you’re not allowed past the first floor. When I’m working here at the compound, my room is upstairs. Upstairs is off limits. The basement is off limits.” Really, I didn’t care, but I knew that MHI had a lot of things stashed around here that they really didn’t want the government to know about. Hell, I still didn’t now what was in half of the basement. Plus it was one more way for me to be a pain in the ass to Franks’ Goon Squad. I can’t help it. I really do have an anti-authoritarian streak.
“That’s not going to make our mission any easier,” Torres suggested gently.
“You want to blend in with the Newbies? They aren’t allowed past the first floor either until they’ve graduated training. Deal with it.”
“Myers warned us that you’d be difficult,” Archer said, raising his voice slightly. “So that’s how it’s going to be then. Who the hell are you to—“
I raised my hand and cut him off. “You want to go upstairs, get a warrant. Otherwise, shut it, buzz cut. We all know why you’re here, and that’s to capture some assassins. You could care less what happens to me. So worst case scenario, I get killed, then you can mop up and your boss is happy. This whole damn thing is his fault anyway, and I don’t have to have you all crowding my personal space.” That seemed to really piss off Herzog and Archer. Torres looked like it hurt his feelings that I would question his honest intentions. He was almost like a governmental version of Trip.
Surprisingly enough, Franks didn’t argue, he just kept chewing, taking the time to savor the Wonder-Bread and bologna. Finally he swallowed and wiped his mouth with the back of one massive hand. “Whatever... It’s your funeral.” He glanced across his team and nonchalantly ordered, “It’s settled. Hang back until someone tries to kidnap Pitt. Interrogate the survivors.”
Somehow that didn’t give me a real good feeling.
The file on the Sanctified Church of the Temporary Mortal Condition was fat with color photos, weird intel, and disturbing reports. I had spent the last three hours poring over the notes, and the more I read, the more worried I got. It had grown dark outside and stuffy inside the second floor conference room.
“Man, what a bunch of jerks,” Milo Anderson said as he leaned back in his chair, holding a sheet of paper in front of his bushy red beard, eyes darting back and forth behind thick round glasses as he read through the list of the various atrocities. “I never knew there was this many ways to sacrifice a virgin!”
“Better watch out, Trip,” Holly muttered under her breath as she flipped through the pages, her shoes up on the conference table, absently chewing a pencil between her teeth. “They’re coming to get you.”
Trip studiously ignored her and kept on reading factoids about the people who wanted to bundle me up and ship me across the universe to be devoured by a giant mollusk. Harbinger had said that he was going to bring in the people he trusted, and apparently, that was pretty much everybody that would normally be here anyway, which wasn’t exactly surprising. When you spend this much time risking life and limb with people, they aren’t just co-workers, they’re family. And apparently, having one of that family personally threatened gets taken pretty damn seriously.
“So which of y’alls got a plan on how we kill all these folks on here?” Dorcas asked, holding up the list of the suspected cultists. She slurped noisily from her coffee mug. Normally our senior-citizen receptionist wouldn’t be in a team planning meeting, but she had taken an almost grandmotherly liking to me over the last year. Either that or she was just itching to shoot somebody.
“We’re Monster Hunter International, not Doofus Hunter International,” Julie said soothingly. “We’re not interested in these chumps. Most of them probably don’t even know what they’re involved in. Besides, knowing the government, their intel is probably wrong on half these names anyway. Sorry, Dorcas.”
“Tempting though…” Holly said, glancing at the list. “I hate that guy’s movies.”
“Terrible actor,” Trip agreed.
Albert Lee was the last to arrive. He limped into the room carrying a stack of books hastily gathered from the archives under one arm and balancing his cane in the other. Lee had worked as our archivist ever since his leg had been severely injured at DeSoya Caverns. Though mighty handy on demolitions, his real calling was in research. He put the heavy books down and then thumped me hard on the back. “Good to see you made it home, man,” he said with a grin.
I shook his offered hand. “Good to be home, Al.”
“Wait ‘til you see what I found. Dude, you are so screwed,” he said as he sat down next to me, his metal leg brace creaking audibly. I felt bad whenever it seemed to cause him discomfort, which was often. I had been serving as his team leader when he had taken that hit and I still held myself responsible. Realistically, there was nothing that I could have done differently, but that’s still how I felt. Lee, a tough former Marine, had never uttered a single word about it, except to joke about how it had finally given him an excuse to buy a badass sword cane.
The room was relatively full. Earl Harbinger, Julie Shackleford, Milo Anderson, Trip Jones, and Holly Newcastle were normal fixtures, as they made up the backbone of my team. In addition, Skippy, our pilot, and leader of our orc contingent, was standing quietly at the back of the room, still wearing his hood and goggles, unwilling to take a seat at the table, even among his friends. It wasn’t that Skippy was unsociable, it was just that being around humans was always painfully awkward for him. And compared to most of his people, he was the life of the party.
The only other active Hunter present was someone that I only knew in passing, and had never personally worked with, other than briefly last year when all of MHI was gathered for DeSoya caverns. Her name was Esmeralda Paxton, Seattle team lead, and she was the one who had drawn the duty of training this Newbie class. Paxton was probably only a little over five feet tall, in her early forties, with auburn hair tied up in a bun, and wearing wire-rimmed glasses. She had on a folksy patchwork vest, a fashion that really didn’t seem to fit in with all the hardened killers. She looked more likely to bake up a plate of chocolate-chip cookies than to stake a vampire, but Earl trusted her enough to lead a team in one of the most active parts of the country, and Julie’s very own younger brother had been assigned to her care, so apparently she was a lot more dangerous that her motherly looks indicated. She had not spoken much yet, but continued to study the material intently.
Raymond Shackleford the 3rd, semi-retired super-Hunter, who Julie referred to as Grandpa, and the rest of us normally just called Boss, was sitting at his customary seat at the head of the table. He had aged quite a bit over the time I had known him. His white hair was getting wispier, the scarred side of his face around his eye patch was beginning to droop, and I was sad to notice that his nagging cough had gotten worse since we had left for Mexico. He was more of a symbolic leader. Earl Harbinger, real name Raymond Shackleford the 2nd, ran the day to day operations of the company, but there was no way that the Boss was going to sit out on a death threat against one of his Hunters. Missing his right hand, he banged his stainless-steel hook on the table to get everyone’s attention.
He cleared his throat. “All right, people. What’s the consensus?”
“Z’s hosed,” Trip suggested.
“Thank you, Mr. Jones. All in favor?”
The entire table said Aye, then laughed at my expense. “Thanks guys,” I muttered. Julie patted my hand under the table.
“All right, enough of that tom foolery,” the Boss ordered. “Threat assessment?”
“Very bad, sir,” Lee hoisted the first book. “Nobody knows who this necromancer is. I’ve been reading up on them today, and that title can be used for anybody that dabbles in death magic, animating the dead, all the way up to some really bad men who’ve done some terrible things.”
“What kind of terrible?”
“Pretty much anything you can think of. The last MHI case I can find involving one was in Haiti, 1978. There was a high body count on that one,” Lee replied.
“I remember that,” the Boss said. “That was the man who had all those doppelgangers working for him, replaced all the city authorities, and then held himself a big old massacre.” We’d learned a bit about doppelgangers in training, but hadn’t spent much time on them since nobody had seen one for decades. They were perfect mimics, and historically the mysterious creatures had caused all sorts of trouble. “Good thing we haven’t had to deal with those cursed shape shifters since.”
“No, you’re thinking of Cuba in ’53,” Harbinger corrected his son. “Haiti was the one where the necromancer sewed all those bodies together into that giant flesh golem.”
“My memory ain’t want it used to be,” the Boss replied simply. I noted that Harbinger looked a little sad at that. It had to be difficult to see your loved ones age a decade for every one of yours.
“Either way you get the point. This could be potentially really ugly. Historically they’ve raised the dead, invented totally new kinds of undead, opened portals to other dimensions, that kind of thing,” Lee said. “And I’m assuming it gets worse.” Our archivist pulled on a pair of surgical gloves before opening the largest, dustiest, and oldest book. The cover was bound in ornate leather and the pages were hand inked on yellowed parchment. Lee was very careful, almost delicate, in order to not damage the ancient tome. “The Feds' notes mentioned that the Condition has a pet shoggoth, so I figured I would see what one of those could do…” The drawing was of some horrible, bulbous, lumpy, asymmetrical thing, with far too many mouths and eyes. I was really hoping that the artist had been exaggerating. “There are passing references to them in different places. This one is in Arabic, but it had the most info on them.”
“Nasty… What’s it do?” Holly asked.
The Boss and Harbinger exchanged a quick glance. The Boss spoke first. “They’re a pain in the rear, is what they are. My brother Leroy and I fought one once, right here in Cazador. It moved into the forest years back. Stinky, messy beast, started eating townsfolk and livestock. I tried to kill it, but it got away.”
“You never told me you’d hunted a shoggoth, Grandpa.” Julie leaned across me to see the book. “I didn’t know those still existed.” Julie frowned as she studied the picture. “Wait a second… Mr. Trash Bags?”
“Who’s Mr. Trash Bags?” I asked.
Her mouth fell open as she recognized it. Julie pointed at the old book. “Right there! That’s Mr. Trash Bags! He was my imaginary friend when I was a little girl. We used to play games together in the forest. He was big and cuddly and sweet. You know how imaginary friends are. But that’s totally him, Mr. Trash Bags. I was like six years old, but I still remember.”
She had to be pulling my leg. “Your imaginary friend was a blob?”
“Sorry, Jules. He wasn’t imaginary,” Earl said apologetically. “And you were four. We never could figure out why it didn’t just eat you. You cried for days after we chased it off.”
Julie leaned back, looking flustered. “Wow… that… that really sucks,” my fiancée said slowly. “He was such a nice… thing.”
“Yes, and that’s why I didn’t tell you,” her Grandpa said. “I figured you didn’t need to know that your best friend was a soul-sucking creature from the great beyond. I hope you understand, my dear. Please, carry on, Mr. Lee.”
Lee appeared a little surprised that one of his managers had been friends with a horrific blob. “Uh…yeah. Shoggoths are basically servants, manual laborers to the Old Ones. They do their bidding, run errands, eat people, dig tunnels, that kind of thing. To quote the original author, who’s only referred to as the Mad Arab, 'To look upon their hideous thousand eyes is to invite horror and the suffering of infinite madness, within tombs of blackness where the innocent are devoured for eternity.’ And so on.”
“He seemed really nice…” Julie said hesitantly. “This is a major bummer…”
“They’re amorphous. They can change shape quickly, but they’re about fifteen feet across and weigh around two tons,” Earl said. “They can communicate, but they’re relatively stupid. Just brute force, steamrollers, made out of tar and eyeballs. And they eat everything.” Except for a four year old girl, luckily. Julie seemed to be taking it well, but she came from a long line of Hunters who were proud of their flexible minds. Harbinger continued. “Fire chased it off last time. Milo, I want all the flame throwers checked out and ready to go.”
Julie rubbed her neck. “Well, that just makes me sad.”
Now it was my turn to pat her hand under the table.
Esmeralda Paxton raised her hand to politely to cut in. “You have more problems than just a shoggoth, not that those aren’t terrible enough, mind you. One of these intercepted e-mail messages mentions, and I quote, ‘The High Priest is prepared to use Force and Violence to satisfy the requests of the great Old Ones, no matter what the cost.'”
“Well, he did hit me with a toilet,” I pointed out. “That’s pretty damn violent.”
She shook her head. “Force and Violence are capitalized.”
I looked at her stupidly. “Cultists are bad at grammar?”
“They’re proper nouns?” Trip asked. “Those are names.”
Esmeralda smiled and pointed at Trip. “Bingo. And if this is who I’m thinking of, the Los Alamos team fought them once before, back when I was a Newbie.”
Harbinger thought about it for a moment, scowling. “Cratos and Bia? It can’t be. That was twenty years ago.”
“Seventeen years. Please don’t try and age me prematurely, Earl,” the petite woman scolded him. “I’m not a little old lady yet, though I do eventually plan on being a surprisingly aggressive little old lady. They use the old Greek names for Force and Violence. They’ve been around for a really long time. Some say they’re immortals.”
“Everything’s immortal,” Earl stated, “until you figure out how to kill it.”
“My team tracked them across southern Europe. They were easy to follow, since they made a mess wherever they went. We even managed to ambush them once, only to discover that they were virtually indestructible. Then they vanished into thin air. We never did get to collect those bounties.”
“So, who are Force and Violence?” Julie asked. “I don’t remember this one.”
“We’re not sure what they are,” Esmeralda explained. “Physically, they seemed similar to ogres, but they’re smarter, or at least the female, Bia, is rather clever. The male, Cratos, is dumb as a rock, but unbelievably strong. They’re either ancient or they took their names from minors gods in the Greek pantheon to give that impression.”
“Ancient Greece, like Zeus comes down from Olympus and turns into a giant horny swan, kind of stuff?” I asked. “Because, you know, this stuff wasn’t weird enough as it is already.”
Earl leaned back in his chair, deep in thought. “Don’t mock ancient Greek monsters. A minotaur near cost me my life, once. There’s nothing tougher than a giant bull man with bulletproof hide… I made a coat out of him.”
“Well, we don’t really know what they are. But they’re monsters that show up every so often and go on a killing spree. The weirdest thing was that they didn’t just kill people, they killed other monsters too. Their behavior was a mystery. This message might not even refer to the same creatures, but I just thought I should point it out,” Esmeralda said. “If we run into two humanoids, and one’s twelve feet tall and bright red, and the other’s about eight feet tall, and purple—“
“Stop.” Skippy suddenly cut her off. His gravelly voice made me jump. He had been so quiet that I had forgotten he was even in the room. The orc walked up to the table awkwardly and stared at Esmeralda, goggles tilting to the side. “Skippy… knows. Knows these...” he said some unpronounceable word in his own language. “Like you, Harb Anger, like MHI… they hunt. But bad. They bad things. No honor… Not hunt, to protect… hunt for kill. Hunt for make suffer. Hunt my people. Many Urks die.” Skippy bowed his hooded head toward us, his shielded eyes inscrutable as ever. Speaking English always seemed painful to him. “Enemies… pay to kill many Urks.” He said that same word again.
“What’s that mean?” Trip asked. My friend had spent a lot of time at Skippy’s village over the last few months, fascinated by the tribe, and had been picking up a lot of the orcish language.
Skippy stood awkwardly, tilting his head to one side, trying to find the words in English. “Think you call… Hit Men.”
“Assassins…” Esmeralda nodded thoughtfully. “That makes sense. We never did know why they attacked where they did, but there did seem to be a definite pattern. Then when their work was done, they just disappeared.”
“This just keeps getting better and better. Ogre hit men…” I muttered. This Condition was just full of fun. “So, they’re like the monster version of us?”
“No!” the orc responded with surprising intensity. Skippy shook his head vehemently. “Not like MHI . No honor!”
“How are they different, Skippy?” Trip asked calmly.
The orc continued to shake his head, agitated. Skippy seemed really offended by the idea that his adopted clan was anything at all like these things. “You, Hunters, paid money… for kill monster. These two… They kill, but paid… paid in souls. Eat the soul, live forever.” Skippy finished talking and then retreated quietly back into the corner, seemingly embarrassed by saying so much. The others continued to talk back and forth in excited tones. Hunters tend to get pumped at the prospect of taking down something new.
My attention was diverted from the conversation as the conference room door swung open and another person walked in. I recognized him immediately, but was taken completely by surprise. The others didn’t seem to notice.
The newcomer was about as tall as I was, but where I was hulking, he was lean, and where I was ugly, he was movie-star handsome. He was wearing standard issue MHI body armor only his was in black, had been tailored to fit better, and it still apparently had that magic ability to never get dirty. The spot where the green happy face with horns patch had been on his arm was blank Velcro now, but other than that, he looked exactly the same as the day he’d resigned.
“Hey, everyone, sorry I’m late. We had to wrap up today’s training first. We started the Newbies on long range rifle.” Grant Jefferson, former Hunter, apologized as he walked up to the table. “I came as soon as I could, Earl. Why is Agent Franks guarding the staircase?”
I hadn’t seen him since last summer. I glanced at Julie and she was as surprised to see her ex-boyfriend here as I was.
“Have a seat, Grant, I’ll catch you up later,” Earl said, gesturing at an open spot across the table from me.
He wasn’t the only one that needed some catching up. “Hey, Grant. Why are you here, exactly?” I asked, probably a little louder than I needed to. The bad acoustics of the conference room were probably what made me sound a little more perturbed that I should have been. Acoustics. Yeah.
“Oh, hi, Julie,” Grant said, easily ignoring me as he smoothly slid into the chair. He casually put his armored elbows on the table. “When did you get back from Mexico?” His tone was friendly.
“This afternoon…” she said slowly. I didn’t know which was more of a surprise for her, Grant or Mr. Trash Bags. “MCB flew us back.”
“Sorry I missed you earlier. Your brother is still out on the line. He said to tell you he’ll catch up soon.” Grant pretended to notice me for the first time. “Pitt, good to see you,” he lied politely.
I grunted something noncommittal.
He turned his attention right back to Julie. “And congratulations to you two on getting engaged. That’s just great.” His fake smile was very convincing.
“Thanks.” Julie was not deterred by small talk. “What are you doing here?”
Grant raised his eyebrows. “No one told you?”
“Aw, crap. Forgot,” Earl said quickly. “It’s been a busy few days. While you were in Mexico, Grant came by, asked for his old job back.” I glared at Trip and Holly. They’d gotten back yesterday. Apparently they had forgotten to mention Grant’s rehiring during all the excitement. They knew how well the two of us got along. Trip made eye contact and shrugged, as if to say whoops. “We’re so shorthanded, I was glad to have the help.”
“I guess the whole Hollywood thing didn’t work out for you, huh?” I asked suspiciously.
He just smiled. His perfectly capped white teeth looked almost like Tic-Tacs. “No. It was fun, but Hunting is my true calling. I’m glad to be home.””
I bit my tongue. Home? Sure, he had seen some horrible things while in the clutches of the Seven, but everybody had been as nice as possible to him in the aftermath, and he had still walked away, a quitter.
“Well… it’s good to have you back,” Julie said civilly. Their breakup had been a bit on the icy side. I hadn’t been there for the actual “discussion” part, though I had been there when she’d knocked him out with the butt of an M14. Julie had never wanted to talk about it, so I had left it alone. With Grant gone, it had been one topic of conversation that we’d just mutually avoided.
“Where’s your team patch?” I asked, being a complete jackass. Grant’s hand subconsciously flicked to his arm, and just briefly he let slip a scowl. The golden boy never could handle failure.
Earl, sensing tension, spoke again, “I’ve assigned Grant to help Esmeralda with training for now. When the other Leads come in at graduation in a few days, we’ll find a spot for him on one of the teams. We need all the experienced Hunters we can get out there in the field.”
“Glad to help,” Grant replied, still glaring at me. I smiled, noting that his once perfect nose had healed with a slight bend from when I had broken it.
“Yes, yes, back to business,” said the Boss, who apparently could not care less about our petty personal dramas. “Anything else we need to know about this Condition?” Nobody had mentioned the potential spy. Earl caught my eye and shook his head slightly so the others wouldn’t notice. Apparently we were keeping that part a secret.
“We’re dealing with an organization that has a couple hundred human members, tops,” Earl said. “And most of them are going to be fanatics rather than professionals. Their leader’s powers are useless here, so we should be relatively safe from a direct assault. Unless he sends his other non-undead monsters against us, and if that happens, we’ll just button up and deal with them. In the meantime we need to prepare for any other threats he comes up with. None of you will breathe a word of this to anyone outside of this room. We’ll come up with a plan for this Condition.” He began to rattle off duties. “Everyone, keep an eye on Franks. I don’t trust him. Lee, see what you can find out about these ogre things from the archives. Julie, Dorcas, I want you to contact all the team leads, give them a brief rundown about this cult and see if any of them can scare up any local intel. Milo, Trip, Holly, go see the elves, check if they’ve had any dealings with them.”
Holly groaned out loud.
“I really do know them better than anybody, I guess.” Milo squinted toward me. “My wife’s about to have a baby, and if I’m off talking to trailer park elves about you when she goes into labor with my first child, I’m holding you personally responsible.”
I nodded slowly, not really sure how I was going to help with that.
Earl continued. “Esmeralda, Owen will be helping you with training. Don’t let his goofiness fool you. He’s actually a decent firearms instructor.”
“I certainly could use another hand,” she said.
“And you’ll be adding three undercover federal agents to your class,” Earl added. I believe that Esmeralda actually groaned louder than Holly had about the elves. Apparently the Seattle team leader got along with the government as well as everyone else at MHI. “Yeah, I know. Just pretend they aren’t here.”
“Damn Feds, on my property,” the Boss murmured. I swear that if he wasn’t such a gentleman, he would have spit on the floor. The government paid a large portion of the bills through PUFF, but that didn’t mean we had to enjoy working with their Hunters.
“Can I at least be extra mean to them?” Esmeralda asked.
Harbinger smiled that predatory way only werewolves can. “But of course.”
“I’ve got just the thing.” Esmeralda grinned back. “Milo, we’ll need some more cow entrails for another Gut Crawl tomorrow. It wouldn’t be fair if our late arrivals missed out on that.”
“I don’t have anything fresh,” Milo stated.
|Home Page||Index Page|
Comments from the Peanut Gallery: