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Here at MHI it is easy to get so caught up in the big things that Hunters often forget all of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to keep this company running. You can’t do the job without your support staff. —A.L.

Small Problems

Jim Butcher

“Here they come again,” said Fred, scratching at his potbelly nervously. “Now keep your head down and your mouth shut, Sid.”

I didn’t say anything back to Fred, who was not the boss of me. I just kept working on getting the old electrical outlet out of the wall.

Monster Hunter International headquarters in Cazador was a right solid piece of work, but it wasn’t exactly new. I mean, some of it was. Any time something got destroyed by monsters, I guess they built it back as new as they could. But this particular hall back to the trainee barracks must have been left alone by the forces of evil, because it was pretty run-down.

I got the cover off and the central bracket screw undone and started working the outlet box out of the wall. It was a tight fit, and I had to pull hard enough to sit me back on my butt when it finally came free.

My shoulders went back and bumped into the legs of a trainee named Don something or other as he walked by. He had his buddies, Tweedles Dee and Dum with him. They never gave me their names, so I had to make do.

Don was just coming back from the range and smelled like expended propellant. And sweat, of course. Summer in Alabama means sweat. Don was one of those good-looking fellas who had always been bigger and stronger and faster than everyone around him, and figured that meant he could treat them however he liked and get away with it.

“The fuck is wrong with you, dummy?” Don said.

“Excuse me,” I said about the same time.

Don swatted the back of my head. Which I did not appreciate. I turned to look at him, and he was squared off over me.

“You could have injured my knee. Maybe you don’t get it,” Don said, “but I’m the talent around here. You’re a goddamned janitor.”

“You stink,” I said. “Should maybe take a shower.”

Fred winced.

The Tweedles snickered and Don’s face turned red. Redder. Summer in Alabama means sunburns, and plenty of them.

“I’m about tired of your mouth,” Don said. “Get up.”

I squinted at him and said, “You want to fight me.”

“It isn’t going to be a fight,” Don said. “I’m going to teach you some respect is all.”

“Uh-huh,” I said.

Well. Don was about six inches taller and maybe sixty pounds heavier than me, and he was a trained soldier and about to be a Monster Hunter and all. So I didn’t feel too bad about whipping my fist up into his balls.

It wasn’t a real hard hit, the way I was sitting there, but Don made a funny noise and staggered, and that gave me room enough to come up swinging. I got picked on a lot when I was a kid. Bullies like giving it to the little guy. But they don’t like it so much when you paste them a few times, and I’d learned about that.

I fetched him a good one on the nose, drove my shoulder into his stomach, and pushed him across the hall and into the other wall. Once he bounced off that, I went to work on his belly like it was the heavy bag. That was going pretty well until the Tweedles grabbed me and pulled me off.

There were two of them and one of me, and they knew how to work together. I hear they teach the Marines that now. I got in a punch good enough to hear someone’s nose break, and after that it was my turn to be the heavy bag. Don staggered back in about the time it was down to my getting kicked and stomped on. It doesn’t take much of that to make for a good beating.

“What the hell is happening here!” demanded a sudden voice, a woman’s, cracking like a whip.

The beating stopped. I’d curled up in a ball to take most of it on my back and shoulders, which didn’t feel good but was a lot better than taking kicks to the ribs, guts, and groin. I hurt, plenty. I had an eye that I could see out of and lifted my head to see a genuine Monster Hunter bracing the trainees.

Miss Holly wasn’t particularly big, but there was something about the woman that told you that you really didn’t want to get on her bad side. She’d been a showgirl or some such back before she’d gotten into the life, but these days she was something fearsome who happened to look like she did. She’d squared off against the three trainees like a mountain lion sizing up three spikehorn bucks and deciding which one to eat first.

“Boys, boys, boys,” Miss Holly said, “that isn’t how things are done around here.”

The three trainees had the good sense to look ashamed. Well, the Tweedles did. Don looked like he might have had trouble standing up without the wall to help him.

“He started it, ma’am,” one of the Tweedles mumbled.

Miss Holly gave him a look that would have peeled paint. “One of him, and three of you, and you expect me to believe he started it?”

“He cheated,” Don wheezed.

That drew a bright, scornful laugh out of her. “What are you expecting out there? Marquess of Queensbury rules?” She eyed Don up and down and said, “You need a hospital?”


“You better hope he doesn’t,” she said, gesturing toward me.

“Or what?” Don asked.

Holly gave him a smile that would have made a wise man uneasy. Too many teeth. “Don—it’s Don, right? You ever hear of the hot-crazy quotient?”

Don glanced at the Tweedles for support, but didn’t get much. “Uh. Yeah, I guess.”

“Well, Harbinger has what you might call a competent-asshole quotient,” she said. “Attempting to rough up the staff makes me think you might be on the wrong side of that quotient, from Earl’s point of view. What do you boys think? Do you want to get on the wrong side of that valuation in the boss’ eyes?”

The mention of Earl Harbinger had what my books would have called a salutary effect on the trainees. He’s that kind of fellow.

“No, ma’am,” they mumbled.

“Well, then. Hit the showers.”

One of the Tweedles gave Don an arm, and the three of them shambled off toward the barracks.

Once they were gone, Miss Holly sighed. “Why is it always the good-looking ones who are assholes?” She turned to me and shook her head. “Damn it, Beauregard. Don’t you have anything better to do than get yourself beaten up?”

She gave me a hand up, and passed over a bandana. I cleaned off as best I could with it.

“What happened?” she asked me.

“Nothing to worry about now, Miss,” I said.

She lifted an eyebrow. “If I’d come down that hall five minutes later, they’d have kicked your guts out.”

“Maybe not,” I said. “But you did come. And it’s over now.”

“Yeah? What happens the next time they run into you in a dark hallway?”

“Don’s the big dog in that pack, and I reckon he’ll remember he got some bruises, too,” I said. “Look. This wasn’t personal. This is how some folks are. They have to test the boundaries. Now they know how far they can push me.”

“They know?” Miss Holly asked. “Or you know.”

I had to smile at that, because she had a point. “Well…let’s say we are all gonna be more comfortable with one another now. Someone will buy someone a beer later. It will be fine.”

“Men,” Miss Holly said. “You going to be all right?”

I rubbed at the back of my head. There were bruises forming under the hair, and one eye was swollen shut, but an ice pack and aspirin would help that some. I wasn’t going to be comfortable for a couple of days, that was certain. “Sure,” I said.

“You know, Earl isn’t going to appreciate hearing about you roughing up his trainees,” Holly said. “He does need them, you know.”

“Mister Earl is a good man,” I said. “He’ll understand.”

She shook her head and looked after the trainees. “Three of them and one of you. And you gave about as good as you got.”

“Well, Miss Holly,” I said. “I cheated.”

She snorted and put out a fist. I bumped it with mine. My knuckles were a lot more swollen and bruised and cut up and scarred than hers were.

“I’m looking for Fred. We’re still having a problem with rats. Have you seen him?”

I looked up and down the hallway. My fellow janitor was nowhere to be seen. Fred had a big belly but he didn’t have much of a stomach for fighting. “I see him, I’ll be sure to tell him, Miss Holly.”

“It’s just Holly,” she said.

“Please, Miss. I’m Southern.”

That reply drew a smile, and it made her look as fine as a frog’s hair split four ways. “Your first name is Sid, right?” she asked.

“Thucydides,” I said. “Sid to my friends. Which I reckon you are, after today.” I offered her the bandana back.

“Keep it,” she said. “You want to head to the infirmary, have them check you out?”

“Naw,” I said. “I got some more work to do.”

“Okay, tough guy,” she said and strode off. “Try not to pick a fight with Z before the end of the day.”

“No, ma’am,” I said. And I meant it.

Owen Zastava Pitt wasn’t the sort who needed to test boundaries.

I got back to work on the wall outlet—and found it lying on the floor.

Now that was strange. It should have been wired up. Maybe the wires had been so old that they’d broken off. I picked up the outlet and checked. It was an old one all right. All the fittings and screws were tarnished with age—except for the screws on the connections themselves, which were shiny where they had been loosened…recently.

I squinted. That old box hadn’t moved in years. And yet someone had undone those screws in the last few days.

From the inside of the wall.

I got the little flashlight out of my toolbox and peered into the opening in the wall. The wires weren’t there. Apparently, whoever had unscrewed them had taken them, too.


Now that was damned peculiar.

* * *

A few days later, Mister Milo had dissected some damned thing and it was time to clean up, so Fred and I were on the scene.

“What the hell kind of monster is this, do you think?” Fred asked me as we got to work with the mops and buckets.

“A messy one,” I said. The strands of the mop were sticking to some kind of thick, tacky ichor that had drained onto the floor around the operating table. I tried pulling it away and the strands just ripped away from the mop.

The corpse was a sort of sickly gray color, speckled with flecks of purple. There were several dozen tapered tentacle-looking limbs, sort of flopping everywhere, and two pairs of heavy crablike claws that poked out from beneath a shell that swirled and humped without any apparent pattern. It must have weighed half a ton if it was an ounce. I knew because I’d loaded it onto the reinforced autopsy table with a forklift that morning.

And it smelled. It smelled like rotten compost mixed with dead fish sitting in the back of a car on an August afternoon.

“What’s the PUFF on something like that, you think?” Fred asked.

“Gotta be over twenty thousand,” I said. I poked a series of gouge marks on the shell with the end of my broom. “See there? Bulletproof.”

Fred snorted and nodded toward the shredded mess where the thing’s head had once been. “Not everywhere.”

“I heard Pitt was right underneath it before he started pulling the trigger,” I said. “Can’t imagine that’s going to be a popular tactic for the teams.”

“They think killing things is hard work,” Fred spat. He wrenched his mop, grunting, until he managed to rip it free of the ichor. He eyed the half-ruined mop head and sighed. “They should try this part of the job.”

I grunted and nodded. “Cook it away, you think?”

“Probably just make us have to chisel it off again, but it’s worth a try. I’ll get the flamer.”

Fred hurried off toward the supply shed, and I started clearing everything out of the immediate area around the autopsy table. Mister Milo was more or less the senior technician, which at MHI means that he worked with a lot of experimental guns and ammunition. It would be a little awkward to set a few barrels of propellant on fire while we were trying to clean the place up. I was getting cases shut away in storage closets when I heard a sound behind me.

I’d only caught a little hint of it out of the corner of my eye, but it looked like the thing on the table had moved.

Standard training seminars in other companies mean you learn about team building and sexual harassment and five-year plans. At MHI, you get drilled on how to survive a spectrum of weird things that might happen which your average corporate HQ just don’t got to worry about.

And part of that training is specifically what to do if you think something just might, might be an active hostile.

You run like the dickens and find someone with big guns to shoot it until it isn’t active no more.

I went for the door like a shot and as I did, something came flying off the table and right at me. It wasn’t much bigger than one of those little handbag dogs you see people with sometimes, but it was moving fast, faster than I could much see. I just got an impression of something reddish smeared with black, with eyes like tiny burning coals and teeth too numerous and too large for its mouth.

It hit me like a medicine ball thrown by a real big guy—it was too dense and heavy for its size, too. I was already trying to fall out of the way, so it hit me hard enough to knock me the rest of the way down and knock half the wind out of me before skittering off my chest and hitting the wall of the workshop. It rang the metal wall like a great big bell and left a dent in it the size of a bowling ball—and I got a good look at it for the first time.

It was built long and low and wide, like some kind of desert lizard. Its head was too damned big, something between a tiny alligator and a pit bull, and its front legs were about twice as big as the back ones and equipped with a couple of talons each that left deep scratches in the steel wall as it thrashed its way to its feet, focused on me, and let out a furious hiss.


I ain’t much afraid of a fight, but I ain’t a damned fool, either. I didn’t wait around to give it a chance to come at me again. It might have been little, but it was quick, and it was armed well enough to cut steel. I figured it wouldn’t have much problem with my coveralls, or the flesh beneath. I was on my feet and running before it had fully gotten its balance back, out the door, into the sunlight, and smack into Fred.

We both went down and I felt a sudden hot pain in my leg. Fred was carrying the flamer, which was basically an insecticide sprayer we’d rigged up with more flammable fuel and a propane pilot light. That’s what had burnt my leg. I seized the flamer from him and hoped he’d taken the time to pressurize it before lugging it up. I turned the wand to the door of the workshop and squeezed the handle.

Fred had gotten it ready. Flame washed out into the doorway.

The critter, whatever it was, must have hit the fire because it let out the most god-awful scream I’ve ever heard—high-pitched enough to make my fillings ache. I kept the spray of fire aimed at the door until the screaming stopped, and then I kept it there for a few moments more.

By the time I let up and lowered the wand, there were a couple of tufts of dried grass and weeds on either side of the workshop door that were burning, but the critter, whatever it was, was gone.

“What the hell, Sid!” Fred stammered. “What the hell was that?”

I shook my head and rubbed at my chest, where the thing had hit me. I had a feeling that I had gotten real lucky. Like, if that little critter had gotten its claws into me, it would have just buzzsawed its way right on through.

And there would still be the original mess to clean up, sure as anything.

Some days, this job is just one damned thing after another.

* * *

“Sid,” Mister Pitt said a while later, in his office. “We swept the entire workshop, but we didn’t find anything.”

I sat across from him. Mister Owen Pitt had his own office and it was surprisingly small and surprisingly neat. Pitt didn’t exactly look like a small, neat guy. He was about my age, right around mid-twenties, and one of the bigger, meaner-looking cusses I’d seen in a life thick with big, mean cusses. He was educated, too. Accountant for the organization—and he could handle a shotgun like Fritz Kreisler could play a fiddle.

“It was there,” I said.

He lifted both hands. “We found the marks on the wall. I believe you.” He rubbed a hand back over his hair and sighed. “Milo thinks it might have been some kind of parasite in the mirelurk.”

I smiled slightly. “Mirelurk, huh?”

“I killed it, I name it,” Pitt said. “We’ll have everyone keep their eyes open, but we’re dry. Maybe it crawled off and died.”

“Maybe,” I said. I straightened my coverall a little and said, “You didn’t call me in here to tell me nothing got found.”

He cleared his throat uncomfortably and said, “Yeah. Look, Sid. Some things have come up missing.”

I frowned for a minute and then said, “I’m not a thief.”

“It’s just that,” he began.

I stood up and said, louder, “I’m not a thief.”

Pitt rocked back in his chair and his eyebrows went up. “Sid,” he said, in a level tone, “you’ve got to be kidding me. You’re a buck fifty. Maybe.”


“So I’d break you in two,” Pitt said.

“Unless I got lucky, yeah,” I said. “You call me a thief again and I guess we’ll see.”

“Christ, Scrappy,” Pitt said. “Take it down a notch. I’m not calling you a thief.”

I felt a little bit foolish. I took a deep breath and then I sat down. “Sorry.”

“And I thought I walked in here with a chip on my shoulder,” Pitt said.

I was quiet for a minute and then said, “Me and big guys haven’t gotten along. Sorry.”

“Sure,” Pitt said, and exhaled. “I guess Holly is right about you.”

I tilted my head at him. “Miss Holly said something?”

“She said you were the wrong kind of stupid to be the thief. That it wasn’t how you’d do it.”

“Well,” I said, “I’ll allow that I can be powerful stupid at times.”

“You and me both,” Pitt said. “Thing is, some things have gone missing all over. Food from the commissary, a computer from the locker room, some varmint ammo from Milo’s workshop, a couple of supplies from the infirmary, some sheet metal from the metal shop. There are only three people in the whole place with keys to all of them—Earl, you, and Fred.”

I grunted. “Maybe it isn’t Mister Harbinger.”

“Maybe not,” Pitt agreed.

“Fred isn’t a thief,” I said. “He works slow and he maybe isn’t too bright. But he isn’t the kind.”

Pitt spread his hands. “Sure. I can go with that. It’s not even that much money involved. And I’m not accusing anyone of anything yet. But we have to know what’s going on. You know?”

I subsided a little and said, “Guess you gotta do your job.”

“Yeah,” Pitt said. “Exactly. Which is running numbers and killing monsters and not necessarily in that order. So I’m doing what all good middle management does. I’m sharing the grief. This is your problem now.”


“You’re around. You’re capable. Find out what’s going on. Let me know what you learn.”

I grunted, warily. “I can keep my eyes open, I guess.”

“Good,” Pitt said. He looked at me for a minute and said, “Trainees worked you over pretty good.”

“Had worse,” I said.

He eyed me. “Where?”

“Cash fights.”

“MMA?” he asked.

“Warehouses mostly,” I said.

He snorted. “How’d you end up here?”

“Took the wrong money. Wound up in a cage match with a goddamned zombie.”

Pitt puffed out a breath. “Unarmed?”

I nodded.

“You went bareknuckles with a zombie and won?”

“Well,” I said, squinting. “I cheated. I wasn’t supposed to walk out, but Earl was there. Offered me a job after. Seemed like I’d taken my fight career as far as it was going to go.”

Besides, I hadn’t had anyone to be with or anywhere else to be. I guess Harbinger picks up quite a few strays.

“So now you make minor repairs and clean up messes,” Pitt said.

“Not as exciting,” I said, “but there’s more time to read.” I stood up and asked, “Anything else?”

“Oh. Dorcas said something about rats again.”

I pursed my lips.


“Fred’s on it,” I said.

“Fine,” Pitt said. “Good job surviving today. Find out what’s going on. Try to stay out of trouble for a while.”

“Will do,” I said.

* * *

The next morning, I came out of my quarters, a single-room miniature apartment in the subbasement of the HQ building…and found Don’s dead body.

The trainee had fallen on his side and curled into a fetal position—or at least that’s what I thought he’d done until I got out my flashlight. Once I had, I could see that I’d been right about everything except which way he had curled. His body had bent backward in such mortal agony that it looked like maybe he’d broken his own spine. He was lying in a pool of congealing blood, thick and black and sticky like some kind of terrible pudding.

From the throat down, he looked like sausage fresh from a grinder, covered in so many wounds that it was hard to tell when flesh ended and shredded clothing began. It was eerie to see his handsome, horrified face on top of those injuries, clean and neat except for where a bit of tissue had been stuck to a shaving nick.

The smell was intense. My stomach heaved. But I hunkered on my heels and looked at him, because finding a dead man that you’d quarreled with a few days before seemed to be the sort of situation where you’d want to know as much as possible before going on about your day.

The wounds were fine, fine things, like someone with X-Acto knives for fingers had just gone to town on him.

Or maybe something not very big, with very, very sharp little claws.

I heard a little skittering sound, and my flashlight beam began to quiver.

The light to the hallway was right over my head, but the switch was all the way down the hall, by the stairs up. I turned it out every night because it was easier to sleep without the light spilling under the old door to my room. I’d have to cover twenty feet to get it on, by which point, if Don’s killer was still there, it would have had ample time to get me. Until that time, there would be only dim and indirect light from the staircase, and my handheld light.

I flicked the flashlight beam left and right, trying to paint the entire hallway before I started moving. I caught a flash of movement at the end of the hall—nothing more than a low shadow, vanishing swiftly around the corner that led back to the emergency generator and the storm shelter. I thought I saw maybe a bare tail, a flash of brown fur.

Then nothing.

I held my breath for a few seconds, listening. But there was only silence.

I had just let my breath out again when the door down the hallway opened and Fred emerged from his own apartment, ready to head to breakfast in the mess hall and start the day. I heard his breath catch in his throat, and then go fast as he fumbled for his flashlight and shone it at me.

He let out a high-pitched squeal and bolted.

“God damn it, Fred,” I sighed.

* * *

Mister Pitt didn’t look too happy with me.

It was one thing to face him in business casual clothing in his small and neat office. It was something else to do it when he was dressed in fatigues and body armor with a miniature arsenal strapped to him and that monstrous Frankenstein’s monster of a shotgun called Abomination in his hands.

“Damn it, Scrappy, what did I just say not twenty-four hours ago?” Pitt demanded. “I specifically told you not to do something exactly like this.”

“He didn’t check with me,” I replied.

“What a goddamned mess,” Pitt said.

There was the sudden whup-whup-whup of rotors thundering over the building, and we both looked up. The sound tripled and then quadrupled.

“God damn it,” Pitt muttered. He patted absently at his chest, frowned, and opened a secured drawer in his desk. He took a couple of round, smooth balls of steel painted military olive and with his team’s logo in bright red—a little smiley face with horns. He clipped the grenades to one of the belts strapped across his torso where there was a little room as he spoke: “The timing for this just could not be any worse. Those birds are taking us down to Bayou Sauvage. Every Hunter here.”

“You didn’t check with me either,” I said.

Pitt snorted, as his brow furled, thinking. “Earl has to call this in. We can’t have the staties or the Feds running around this place, so you can expect MCB to show up in a few hours,” he said.

My innards already didn’t feel too good. The mention of the federal government’s Monster Control Bureau didn’t help them feel any better. “What should I do?”

“Do not try to fistfight any of them when they get here,” Pitt replied. “That’s the first thing.”

Pitt’s radio chirped and Earl Harbinger’s voice said, “Pitt, what the hell?”

Mister Pitt made a frustrated sound and clicked the radio’s send button a couple of times in acknowledgement. “Sid. Did you kill him?”

I looked him in the eyes. “No, Mister Pitt.”

Pitt frowned and nodded. “Yeah. Milo says it was maybe the same thing from the workshop. Look, MCB does not give a flying fuck about justice. They just clean up messes. They’ll ask questions, and when they find out you two fought a few days ago…”

He left it hanging. The implication sort of dangled around next to my guts, somewhere way below the rest of me.

“If it was me,” Pitt said earnestly, “I’d want to have something’s body to hand them, all wrapped up in a bow. Makes their paperwork easier. They like that. Find that thing.”

“How am I supposed to do that?” I asked.

Pitt’s radio chirped again. “Pitt! Do you want dead Boy Scouts? Because this is how you get dead Boy Scouts! Move your ass!”

“I’ll hold off telling Earl until we’re in the air,” Pitt said, heading for the door. “Give you as much time as I can. Sorry, Sid. Best I can do.”

And with that, he pounded down the hall at a dead run.

I sat there for a minute, just sort of stunned.

The Monster Control Bureau made people vanish. With most of the organization out on a mission, I was going to be on my own.

I’m not a real smart guy, but at least I know it. I mean, fixing things, sure. That’s easy stuff. But dealing with the courts? Talking my way around federal guys? I was more about fistfights and a beer later.

What the hell was I going to do?

Well. I guess I could start with the scene of the crime. That’s what Spenser or Travis McGee would do. Look for clues.

Sure. That would work.

* * *

They’d already moved the body up to the infirmary for Milo to get a look at it, so what was left was just an ugly leftover biohazard.

In other words, a mess. I’m good at messes.

I try to think positive.

I got down close to the puddle of drying blood and fluids. The smell wasn’t as bad now, though it wasn’t what I would call pleasant. I didn’t see much. So I went down the hall and turned the light out. I went back with my flashlight and shone it sideways across the surface of the blood.

There were indentations in it. Not big ones, but there was definitely something there, as if something light had skipped across the surface of the drying blood in little hops, leaving small dents in the dried blood without breaking the surface. One, two, three hops, and then gone.

I squinted at the line and went around to the side of the puddle and took a line on the row of jumps. Then I turned the lights back on and followed that line down the hallway.

It ended at a power outlet.

On a hunch, I pulled out my multitool, extended the blade, and flipped at the plastic cover. It came right out of the wall and landed on the floor, leaving an open hole behind it. I picked up the cover. Someone had filled in the outlet holes with plastic and apparently painted fake slots onto it. They’d gone so far as to saw off the bolt that would hold it on, and glued the head of the screw onto the exterior to make it look normal.

“Sid,” I said to myself. “This is a door.”

But a door for what?

I shone my light inside.

Two little jewels glittered red, way back in the hollow space behind the wall, and then vanished.

“Hey!” I said. “You know how much of a pain it is to run new wire to an outlet once the wall is up?”

Only silence answered me.

Rats again. Maybe. But no clue about little buzzsaw monsters. Nothing to hand to MCB, that was for sure.

I was screwed.

My smartphone buzzed. Me and Fred both had one, so that we could get called around the place when we were needed. I took it off my belt and found an anonymous text message on it:


I stared at the phone for a while, bemused.

“Well, Sid,” I muttered. “Why not.”

* * *

My quarters were what a poetic person might call Spartan. I had a bed and a dresser and a small bookshelf. A little table, a small fridge for snacks. And a big bookshelf. And a second big bookshelf. Most of the books were tattered and old and secondhand, but I’d read them all. I didn’t always understand them but I was working on it. Books were good.

I checked carefully and found nothing in the room. Then I got out my phone and carefully texted: OKAY. I AM HERE.

The answer came back quicker than I could have typed it on the tiny screen. My fingers are kind of thick. PLEASE SIT AT THE TABLE, MISTER SID.

I squinted at the phone. I examined the table and chairs but didn’t find a bomb there or anything. So I sat down, warily. I still didn’t know who was texting me or whether they wanted me to wind up like Don.

No sooner had I sat down than there was a rattle from a wall vent and it fell outward onto the floor.


At that, my eyebrows went up. “Well,” I said aloud. “Come in, I guess.”

THANK YOU, MISTER SID, said my phone.

And then the damnedest thing happened.

In a column five across, tight across the space of the vent, came marching out rats. Big rats. A whole damned lot of rats. They didn’t hurry and…and the damned things were carrying shields. Roman-style legionary shields, on their backs. And strapped onto every shield with what looked like fishing line was a scalpel or an X-Acto knife. At least a hundred rats marched out into the middle of the room, formed into a legion square, and at a squeak from a rat in the first row, all stood up on their hind legs and sat there, staring at me.

That was one of the damned creepiest things I ever felt—the attention of a crowd, all concentrated into a space maybe five feet by five in the middle of my floor. Every single little critter there stayed focused on me with an unnerving intensity, not moving, holding still with military discipline.

“Huh,” I said.

Then there was another stir at the vent and four rats came out carrying a smartphone on their shoulders. Behind them marched a white rat in a rough breastplate that had been hammered out from some sheet metal and fastened on with more fishing line. He bore an X-Acto knife marked with a stripe of what might have been red duct tape, and his red eyes were focused on me firmly as he walked forward.

The rats with the smartphone stopped behind the legion and set it up at a forty-five degree angle, holding it on their backs, and the white rat went to the phone, set down his spear, and began tapping quickly on the surface of the phone.


I sat there for a moment. Then I put my chin on my hand and said, “You’re going to have to give me a second here, to adjust.”

Justinian typed his answer and then stood at attention, his paws clasped behind his back. VERY WELL. I AWAIT YOU.

I took a few deep breaths and then said, “All right. I guess. You’re rats. And you can type.”


“Uh,” I said. “Sure. That makes sense. You’re the ones who have been thieving, I take it.”


“What emergency?” I asked.


I narrowed my eyes. “You know about that?”


I eyed the rat warily, because it struck me that a couple of hundred intelligent rats with X-Acto knives could do that to poor Don if they had a mind to…and were crazy enough.


“That ain’t hardly comfortin’,” I said. “But I take your point.” I squinted up at the other vent to the room, high up on the wall. “I heard some ammunition went missing, too.”


I mused on that for a moment, studying the other vent. I was careful to stay relaxed in my seat, because it seemed prudent. “Justinian Malleus,” I said. “You are more than a little intimidating.”


“Where the hell did you come from?” I asked.


Justinian cheeped something, and the other rats whipped out their spears and planted their steel butts firmly on the floor in a surprisingly sharp, short shower of impact.

“Well, I don’t much care for the government either,” I said. “Why here?”


Oh, crap. Only someone working in the same circles at the MCB would have information on Harbinger’s operation. And the MCB was on their way.

“Well,” I said. “I guess anything’s possible. But we got to get some things straight, right now.”

ACKNOWLEDGED, Justinian typed.

I got the steps to the door fixed in my head, in case my question set Justinian off. Creatures clever enough to steal weapons and manufacture their own arms might be smart enough to make some kind of zip gun, too, and I didn’t want to be a sitting duck. “Did your people kill the man in the hall last night?”


I leaned forward excitedly. “But you saw it?”


I shuddered. Damn. Poor Don. He was an arrogant ass but he hadn’t deserved to go like that. “Christ almighty. Then it’s smart.”


“Hell, took me weeks to work mine,” I said. I rubbed at my jaw. “Do you know where it is? The beast?”


Well. That made my heart go skippity-skip, let me tell you. This conversation felt pretty unreal in the first place. Adding a spike of adrenaline to it didn’t make me feel any more grounded, you know?

“Why do you think that?” I asked a little numbly.


“And Don just walked into it,” I breathed. “What’s controlling it?”

NOT WHAT. WHO. Justinian squeaked an order, and the rats holding the smartphone wheeled it around to face me, and then group-marched closer until they were near my feet. Justinian came along with them, pacing gravely, the butt of his X-Acto spear thumping on the ground. Once they reached me, the white rat flicked nimbly through several screens and called up the phone’s photo records. I was treated to a view of what I presumed was Don’s erect former penis, accompanied by the text “Hi, Holly!”; a couple of shots of a neatly cored-out bull’s-eye in a target from the range; and then a movie.

Justinian hit play and stood back.

I watched a view from the vent in my room, focused on the trash can next to my bed. The slats in the vent gave me only a partial view, but it was enough to see someone enter the room. They padded quickly to the trash can, and rummaged in it. They came out with a rumpled cloth—the bloodstained handkerchief Miss Holly had given me to clean up my face with.

I sat back slowly, working through the implications.


“Yeah. I reckon it is,” I said.


I felt my jaw harden. “Yeah. And there’s more trouble than that coming.” I explained to him, briefly, about the approach of the MCB.

That shook the discipline of the legion. Rats looked at one another in restless agitation.

Justinian squeaked at them, and a couple of larger centurion rats squeaked themselves and restored order to the ranks.


“We do.”


“I can’t promise you that,” I said. “But if we help each other out of this, and I can’t convince Mister Earl, I’ll leave and figure out a way to make one for you on my own. How’s that?”

Justinian studied me gravely. Then he typed, NONOPTIMAL, BUT ACCEPTABLE.

“Done,” I said. “One last question.”

Justinian nodded.

“Why me?”

Justinian simply pointed at my bookshelves, one at a time. Then, the damned little thing saluted me, putting his fist to his heart.

The rest of the legion followed suit in a chorus of tiny thumps.

I shook my head. A legion of warrior scholar rats. This was the weirdest job I’d ever had. And I’d once gotten paid to beat a zombie to death.

Justinian began typing again. THE THIEF IS—

I waved a hand without reading the rest of the text. “I know who he is. I recognize his boots.”

* * *

I walked into the empty mess hall, shut the door behind me, and said, “What the hell were you thinking, Fred?”

Fred was seated at the table nearest the kitchen. All the chairs were up on the table. He was supposed to be waxing the floors, but the machine was sitting to one side of the room, unplugged. A stack of donuts left over from breakfast was sitting in front of him and he was chewing on one of them thoughtfully.

“Fucking Thucydides Beauregard,” Fred said. “The high and mighty. You know I had it pretty good around here until you showed up.”

“The hell are you talking about?” I asked.

I would have preferred to charge him, knock him down, and start rabbit-punching him. But I needed to kill a little time—and the doorway to the mess hall was the place that would give me the most lead time if some little claw critter came skittering up to tear me apart.

“You and your kissassery,” Fred spat. “Rushing everywhere. Getting everything done just right. Crossing all your fucking i’s and dotting all your t’s.”

“God. I know I’m not a damned genius, Fred, but you are just a dumbass.”

That got to him. Fred slammed his fists down on the table and scattered donuts everywhere. “You’re just trying to make me look like an idiot!”

“I’m not trying,” I said. “Fred, that’s how you work a damned job. You get into it and you do it right. You work hard, and you do better.”

“Oh, bullshit!” Fred seethed. “You just want to be my boss!”

“So you call up a goddamned demon?” I demanded. “How petty can you get?”

“I didn’t have to call it up,” Fred spat. He rummaged in his coverall pocket and came out with a small leather-bound book. “See there? Ray Shackleford wrote it himself. Some kind of journal. He opened that big damned door to the Outside all those years ago—but what no one realizes is that it’s got a big-ass crack underneath it. And sometimes little things get through. Little things that you can make do things for you if you know how.” He shook the book. “It’s all in here.”

I rolled my eyes. “Jesus, Fred. What could possibly go wrong with that plan?”

“I’ve cleaned up shit my whole damned life!” Fred screamed. His face was red and he was breathing hard. “My job is shit now, but I’m not letting you fuck it up for me, Sid! You got lucky in the shop! And that idiot jock got in the way last night! But now you’re a goddamned dead man!”

And, from somewhere above, there was a brassy, chilling shriek.

My belly turned to jelly. Oh, hell. The little monster was coming.

“I said the words and drew the star and it’s your blood it wants!” Fred screamed. “You’re a dead man, Beauregard!”

And from a ceiling vent the tiny terror exploded. It sailed down onto a tabletop and slammed its claws and its tail down at the same time, stopping it cold. It opened its overlarge jaws, still stained with Don’s blood, and shrieked again.

“Now!” I shouted.

There was the sudden sound of a high-pitched whistle being blown—and four ground vents in a square around the mess hall slammed down and disgorged precisely fifty rats apiece. Justinian’s Legion rushed forward, screaming high-pitched war cries.

Fred looked around, his eyes wide, and stumbled back from the table. He pointed at me and shouted something in a panicked, high-pitched voice—and the tiny terror on the table whirled toward me and flung itself forward, bounding down from the table and rushing across the floor.

I whipped a wrench and a claw hammer out of my tool belt and held my breath, trying to track the thing. It was coming like a fastball. I forced myself to wait for a fraction of a second and then swung the wrench—and connected. The critter let out a shriek of nine parts fury to one part pain, and even so it clawed the wrench out of my hand with terrible ferocity as it went. It flew to one side, hit a chair and knocked it from the table, and tumbled down beneath the table with a squall.

The Legion rushed forward, circling the thing and coming to their feet, shields raised, suddenly presenting a bristling fence of scalpel-sharp…scalpels. And X-Acto knives. The critter whirled around, bigger than any three rats but outnumbered and, kept from leaping by the table overhead, let out another scream.

“What the fuck!” screamed Fred. “What the fuck is that?”

“Rattus ex machina,” I snarled. “Give me the book, Fred.”

“Fucking rats,” Fred snarled, drawing a petite revolver from his pocket.

Well. I could have run. But that would have left Justinian and his people alone against a demon summoner, as pathetic as he was, and a monster. They had shown up to fight for me, so I couldn’t do less.

I charged a man with a gun.

Fred shot at me, screaming. I’m not much of a gun guy, but I know that screaming while you shoot isn’t good. He got off three shots as I came toward him. I flung my hammer at him. It whirled through the air and forced him to duck. The handle bounced off his shoulder and he wasted a second screaming, “Ow!” That bought me a few more steps before the next shot, and something hot ripped across my left arm and it went numb. Then I slammed into Fred, lifted him off his feet, God was he heavy, and slammed him into the wall behind him.

The gun didn’t fly out of his hand like it always does in movies. He started to bring it to bear on me, and I had to reach across his body with my right arm and grab his wrist. He didn’t panic or keep pulling the trigger until it was empty, like they always do in movies.

I’m pretty strong for a guy my size, but Fred was bigger and heavier, if not exactly stronger—and he had two functioning arms. He slammed his left fist against my head a few times, but he didn’t know how to punch right—starting with the fact that you don’t punch a guy in the skull if you can avoid it. It took him until the third hit to figure that out, when he started wailing and cursing in pain.

I slammed my head against his chin. He responded by latching onto my ear with his teeth and biting hard.

Let me tell you, that hurts. Even by my standards.

We spun around a few times as I tried to keep the gun pointed away from me. Fred finally bit through and ripped some meat away from me. I screamed, lifted my foot, and stomped hard on the inside of Fred’s knee.

Fred screamed, and we fell.

The gun went off as we hit the ground, and this time, Fred did drop it. It went skittering away.

I started slamming my skull against Fred’s. That’s not a great idea, but I wasn’t giving it everything. I wanted to scare him with the ferocity of it, force him to try to get away. I screamed as hard as I could as I did it, and managed to spatter blood from my mangled ear into one of his eyes.

Fred did one of the only smart things I’d ever seen him do—he got his weight on top of me, despite the attack. He pinned my good arm down with his left forearm, and started punching the left side of my neck with his right hand.

Necks aren’t built to take that kind of thing for long. A couple of hits later, I felt like I’d been kicked in the groin across my whole damned body. I managed to get my shoulder up and to turn a little, and I shrugged the next couple off, but I was failing.

And then there was a trilling, tiny shriek, and Justinian Malleus flung himself forward, leaping up Fred’s planted arm, his X-Acto spear held in both hands, and drove it with all the force of his charge into Fred’s neck.

That got him off of me. Fred rolled away screaming, clawing the X-Acto knife out of his neck, and batting the white rat away. Justinian flew off and slammed into a table leg, spinning several feet further, then laying still.


Hate it.


The big guy.


The little guy.

My vision went red and I kicked Fred’s legs out from under him. He fell. I rolled into a mount as he hit his back, and started slamming punches down at him with my good arm—and I know how to hit. I crushed his nose flat and pounded his head right through his uplifted arms. The hits didn’t hurt him—but the way his head kept hitting the floor beneath him every time a punch came down would scramble his brains pretty quick. My hand took too many hits and went half numb, so I shifted to slamming my elbow onto him until he stopped moving.

Another shriek made me look up to see the critter slamming its way out of the encircling knot of the Legion, bleeding black blood from a dozen fine wounds. It scattered the last few rat legionaries out of the way and rushed toward me across the open floor.

Right into the field of fire of the Legion’s artillery teams.

Three teams of two rats were in position. One rat held a piece of steel pipe on one shoulder, aiming it, while the second rat drew back a nail, an improvised firing pin, that had been fixed to layers of twisted rubber bands. An officer rat with them squeaked, and the miniature gunmen opened fire at the critter.

The little zip guns barked, twenty-twos maybe, and one of them scored a hit on the critter’s hindquarters. It spun the thing partway around, and it let out an unholy squall as it did, its rear legs suddenly going limp. It rolled across the floor, snapping its jaws in such mindless rage that it bit off its own tongue and sprayed the air around its jaws with a black spray of blood.

I looked around wildly and spotted my claw hammer a few feet away. I seized it in my numbed fingers, whirled around through a hellish pain in my left arm, and brought the thing down on the critter, hard.

There was a crunching, wet, splattery sound.

Then the rat legionaries caught up to it and went to town with their spears.

* * *

Pitt was good to his word. He didn’t tell Earl about what had happened until they were done blowing up an infestation of mirelurks in Lousiana. As a result, the teams and MCB arrived at about the same time.

A big, ugly MCB agent stood at the end of my infirmary bed in a big cheap suit, scowling, while another one took my statement. I scowled back at the ugly one and answered in a calm voice. I told them about Fred and the critter. Fred and the thing’s body had already been taken into custody. I did not tell them about Justinian or his people, because fuck the government.

I’d had a rough day.

Once I was done, the big guy walked up next to the bed and poked my bandaged gunshot wound. I tried not to wince, but clenched my teeth.

“Thirty-two wound,” noted the ugly guy. “Pussy.”

“Don’t you got anything better to do?” I asked him.

“The other pissant janitor,” said the ugly guy, “says there were rats.”

“It’s rural Alabama and we don’t keep cats,” I said. “Duh.”

“Says there was an army of them,” said the ugly guy.

“That guy’s a fuckwit,” I said.

The big ugly guy leaned down, getting too close to my face. “You’re lying.”

You know. Any other day, maybe I would have taken a swing at the guy. I mean, it’s kind of my thing.

But maybe I didn’t have anything to prove to the jerk.

“Can’t really hear you,” I said and closed my eyes. “I’m down to one ear. Shock and blood loss. Whatever, fuck off.”

The MCB Agent, Franks or Hanks or something, made a sound in his chest that sounded like the kind of growl you’d hear from a patch of deep shade somewhere in Africa.

“There a problem here?” asked a new voice from the door.

I opened my eyes. Mister Earl had arrived. Mister Pitt loomed large behind him, splattered in enough sticky gore that I started laughing. It came out sort of jerky and unsteady, and really sounded more like I might have been choking.

Agent Franks held up the little leather-bound book and stared hard at Harbinger. “Fucking Raymond Shackleford’s journal.”

“One of them.” Harbinger stepped forward. He was a man of middle years, not of remarkable size, but balanced and quick-looking. He wore jeans and a leather bomber jacket, and there wasn’t a speck of grime or blood on him. “He had a couple dozen. What, you never found at least five of them, right? Now you’ve got one less to worry about.”

Franks growled again.

“Some idiot stumbled onto it in one of the subbasements,” Earl said. “You’re lucky it was a damned barely literate janitor.” Earl nodded toward me. “My man needs rest. You get his statement?”

Franks said nothing.

“Then I guess I’ll see you later.”

Franks stared at Mister Earl for a moment, and I thought that something might be about to happen. Then Franks grunted at the other agent and lumbered out. He smacked his shoulder against Pitt’s and knocked him aside like a large child. Then he was gone.

Pitt stared after him and muttered, “Slimed you. Take that. Prick.”

Earl waited until Franks had been gone a while and then eyed me. “Talk. Everything.”

I told him.

“Rats,” Harbinger muttered. “Goddamned rats, now.”

Pitt’s shoulders were quivering.

“They won’t cost much and they can earn their keep,” I said. “They just need some startup.”

“Earn their keep? Doing what?” Mister Earl growled.

“Taking care of small problems,” I said. “That thing that killed your trainee? According to that book, one of them comes through every year or two. Mostly they just wander off—but Justinian’s people can shut them down at the source. It’s in a crack in the foundation, by the way. You’d have to dig up the whole place to get to it. I figure if they save one trainee every ten years, you’re coming out at a big profit.”

“For the love of all that’s…” Mister Earl looked like he’d had a long day and wanted to take it out on someone. He whirled on Pitt and said, “This is on you. You do it.”

Pitt blinked. “Do what?”

“Whatever,” Mister Earl growled. “You put this guy on the job. This is your fault. Deal with it.”

And with that he stalked out.

Pitt looked at me and sighed.

“Justinian has a badly broken leg,” I said. “Some of his people got cut up pretty good. They need a vet.”

“The rat…needs a vet,” Pitt said.

“Rats. About twenty.”

“Oh, for crying out loud.”

I squinted up at him from my hospital bed. “We gonna have a problem now, Pitt?”

Pitt threw up his hands, turned to leave, and said, “For crying out loud.”

I sort of hazed out for a few minutes. Then Miss Holly showed up. She was still in her battle gear and looked great. Then I saw that she was carrying a tray of food and she looked even better.

“Hail the conquering hero,” she said and put the tray down on my lap. “Hey, how come Owen is looking for a vet?”

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