Back | Next


In primus, I quit.

Ray III had called. Happy Face was inbound. It was two days after Mardi Gras and I was finally going to get some reinforcements. I told them I’d be in the office and the door was open.

I was in Trevor’s office behind the desk, pushing all the paperwork involved in a Class Four event, when Earl walked in with a really closed expression. Sometimes you gotta do another contract even when you know the shit was probably going to hit the fan. Right? MCB’s Special Response Team was in town. How bad could it be?

I was the only survivor of Team Hoodoo. Every other member had died on Fat Tuesday, along with all the regular field agents of MCB, New Orleans, and most of the Sheriff’s Special Investigations Unit. That’s how bad.

Team Happy Face, Earl’s team, heavy hitters for Monster Hunter International, the MHI elite, our designated SWAT, had been chasing down a pishtaco in Peru while the rest of my team had their skulls cracked and their brains sucked out. When New Orleans was already out of control and it was Mardi Gras, they’d taken a contract out of the country and left us hanging. Earl should have known. He should have been there.

I’d told Agent Myers, regarding the incident that caused him to leave MHI, “Sometimes, shit happens in this business. Get over it.”

Those words burned now. Shit had happened. Generally, I got over it. I’d blown my best friend’s head off to save him a long, lingering, death. New Orleans had seen a bunch of Hunters come and go, most of them dead. I was at the point of not bothering to learn their names.

But Fat Tuesday had been a bit much. I was done. With some help, a lot of help really, I’d handled all the arrangements. Remi, my “gentleman’s gentleman,” had handled shipping the urns of the recently deceased to their families—those that had them. Trevor’s and Fred’s were sitting up on a shelf in the team shack. Madam Courtney had arranged the funeral procession. Most of the time I’d been writing reports and filling out PUFF paperwork.

Then there was the government. The Monster Control Bureau agents I’d worked with for a year were dead. We’d fought together, worked together, partied together in a way that was unique for both MHI and MCB. I understood why they did what they did. I didn’t like it. They didn’t like it. Nobody liked it. It was brutal and awful…and it was necessary. New Orleans was the test case for when the First Reason no longer worked.

I’d had one meeting with the incoming MCB replacements. That hadn’t gone well.

* * *

I’d had to go back to the site of the incident. Most of the bodies had been cleared up thanks to the efforts of the Louisiana National Guard, but we were still finding the fluorescent mantis shrimp when they started to smell. Most of the waterfront in the French Quarter was closed off. Tourists were still in town and trying to find out what was happening.

I was talking to a National Guard lieutenant, thanking him for ensuring Shelbye’s gear got returned, when Captain Rivette walked up with a couple of MCB agents.

Rivette was the head of the NOLA Sheriff’s Special Investigations Unit, SIU. Heavy-set, balding blond hair, fifties, watery blue eyes. He spent as much time in his office as possible and never, personally, got anywhere near hoodoo if he could avoid it.

“Iron Hand. This is Special Agent Phillip Campbell and Agent Jack Robinson from MCB. Special Agent Campbell, Agent Oliver Chadwick Gardenier.”

“Call me Chad,” I said, holding out my hand. It was covered in some shrimp goo.

“Mr. Gardenier.” Campbell was medium height, black hair, sharp eyes, real slick. He looked at the hand then back up but didn’t extend his. “Quite a mess you made here. This is going to be hell to cover up.”

“Okay.” I dropped my hand. “You want to play it that way, that’s fine. We kept a Class Four from turning into a Class Five when it hit the parade live on national television. But if you want to blame the heroes instead of, you know, whoever raised these things, you can feel free. Dealt with that sort of shit from MCB most of my career. Also seen your kind come and go from New Orleans when you fucking crack.”

“I am not going to crack, as you say,” Campbell snarled. “I also am not going to allow the sort of unprofessional behavior that Castro considered normal. Be clear on that. We are going to shut down supernatural outbreaks in this town. New Orleans is going to be brought to heel. And so are you.”

“Good luck on that,” I said, nodding. “Be glad to see it. The town brought to heel. Especially given that I’ve already had to bury a bunch of my people and still have more to take care of. Cutting down on our casualty rate would be nice. Like to know how you’re going to do that in this town, but if you do, more power to you.”

“For one thing, no more out of control response. No more use of explosives when something less obvious can do. And no—let me repeat, no—use of light antitank weapons! I cannot believe you weren’t charged for that in the first place!”

“Yeah.” I shook my head. “Not going to listen to you on that one. Especially given how many we’ve lost even with ‘out of control response.’ And before you bow up and explain all the hell and damnation you can bring down on my head, be aware that I’m better friends with the people who pay your salary than you are. And if it takes taking a trip to DC to explain why you have to use a LAW on something two stories tall that regenerates, I’ll take that trip. Or a Barrett on a giant, regenerating superfrog. Or C4. Or claymores, ’cause I’m tired of burying people, you useless fuck!”

That initial exchange would determine the future course of my working relationship with Special Agent Campbell. It didn’t go well.

“You use language like that with me again and I’ll have you charged!”

“Then fucking charge me, Boy Scout.” I walked away. “This is your problem not mine.”

* * *

So that’s why when Earl Harbinger walked in, I just stood up and waved at the desk.

“All yours,” I said. “I quit.”

“Chad,” Ray Shackleford had followed Earl into the office.

“Don’t.” I walked around the desk and to the door. Ray was blocking it. “If you don’t mind?”

“Let him go,” Earl said. “It’s okay. Where you going? We’re going to have to send you the check.”

“I’ve still got the house. Send it there. Now if you’ll excuse me?”

As I walked by the team room, Milo was there. Milo Anderson was one of my best friends. Probably my best living friend.

“Chad…” Milo looked pained.

“Nice knowing you, Milo.” I walked out.

Remi had already made the arrangements. I had two weeks scheduled at a Sandals Resort in Jamaica. I’d asked Points, Cheryl Collins, if she wanted to go. I knew it was a mistake. She’d take it as a sign I wanted to expand and improve on the relationship. I didn’t really care.

I have a really firm belief, reinforced by Ash Wednesday when I’d cremated all my brothers- and sisters-in-arms, that nobody in this business should have close attachments. No kids. No spouses. Not even serious relationships. I was to the point of not even wanting to have friends. Because about the time I got to liking somebody, they up and died.

Plenty of people disagreed. Susan Shackleford, Ray IV’s wife, was not only beautiful but a fairly serious breeder with three kids so far. The fact that a little later on she died in her thirties, still beautiful, and leaving behind those three kids and her grieving husband sort of makes my case.

I’d met Points, so called for “points all her own, sitting way up high,” not long after I’d gotten to New Orleans. She was a waitress and aerobics instructor by actual profession but “professional cheerleader” by avocation. Brunette, slender, brown eyes, great legs and very nice chest. Incredible ass. We’d been an off-again, on-again thing ever since. But I’d always been real clear about not having any serious relationship. And when she hadn’t believed me I’d slept with her best friend to make the point.

Was that a nice thing to do? No. Was it better than leaving behind a grieving widow and orphans? Yes, in my opinion.

So I’d always kept it light. I was good in bed; she generally had a good time. I was even up for the occasional shoulder to cry on and the one time she’d gotten into a really bad relationship with a seriously fucked-up stalker, I’d convinced him he needed to find someone else to stalk.

Dangling upside down in a tree with a bunch of shamblers under you all night will do that.

But she was going to see going away for two weeks as an upgrade in the relationship. I knew that. What I wasn’t sure, at that point, was if it was or not. Because I really had quit. And if I wasn’t a Monster Hunter anymore, things like real relationships were a possibility.

Two weeks at Sandals sort of cured me of a lot of illusions.

First of all, any idea how boring a place like that is?

There are any number of fun activities at a Sandals Resort! Just ask their promoters!

1. Sit on a beach getting sun! Ever woken up on a beach, sunburned, screaming about giant spiders? People look at you funny.

2. Go swimming! Ever fought a luska? I hadn’t but I’d heard about them. Every time I looked at the water, I wanted to have my guns with me. People look at you funny when you go swimming with an Uzi on your back. Not that I had my Uzi. I didn’t have any weapons except a little pocket knife. It was terrifying. For three years I’d been heavily armed at all times.

The time I killed a loup-garou while out jogging had convinced me that the real reason for the Second Amendment was the Founding Fathers knew damned well there was supernatural and wanted their citizenry prepared. I’m surprised it didn’t read “For the purposes of a well regulated militia, the right to keep and bear arms, especially loaded with silver, shall not be infringed.”

3. Go shopping. Cheryl certainly loved that aspect. I was so full of PUFF money I could probably support her shopping habits for some time. But not indefinitely.

4. Party all night long! There was dancing! Calypso bands! Let your hair down! That I sort of got into. Drink enough you can sort of forget black shadows in a cemetery tearing you apart while zombies closed in. Or fluorescent mantis shrimp flying through the air to crack your skull open. Spiders bigger than a mammoth. But they always came back when you were dealing with the hangover.

5. Screwing. They don’t specifically mention that in the brochure but it’s implied. Did a lot of that. But no matter how hard I screwed, I could not get the image of fluorescent shrimp pouring up the side of a bell tower to take out Shelbye.

6. Talking. Again, not specifically mentioned in the brochure. It was, however, the last point that made it clear Points and I weren’t suited for anything longer than, say, a few hours now and again. We had exactly nothing to talk about.

Look, I am, God help me, an intellectual. I may have hated that fact growing up and fought against it but it is nonetheless true. I have a doctorate from Oxford in linguistics. I wrote the first definitive work on North American Yeti (Sasquatch, Bigfoot). I wrote the dictionary and linguistics text on their language. I wrote the dictionary and linguistics text on North American Gnoll as well as an analysis of their social structure here versus that of Europe and England. Ditto Swamp-Ape, Florida and Louisiana tribes, and Laurentian yeti. I do third-order polynomials in my head.

Assuming I was going to quit and get a real job—what is a real job?—and settle down behind a white picket fence, it would have to be with someone I could carry on an adult conversation. That wasn’t Points.

There were other guys there. From time to time we’d all cluster up to get away from our airhead girlfriends, fiancées, wives (some of them were on honeymoons) to have guy conversations.

I can talk about football. It’s not my favorite topic but I sort of keep up when I can. Hell, I’ve got fifty-yard-line season tickets for every Saints game. Not that I used them personally. Who had time? I traded them for favors. I can talk about stocks and bonds. Commodities is something of a specialty when I have the time to focus. I can talk about portfolios; I have one and keep up with it. I can definitely talk about girls and screwing the couple of times we went out deep sea fishing. I’ve got a million stories along those lines though I had to sort of dance around the subject of trailer park elf girls. I can play poker. Hell, I could be a professional poker player. It’s a matter of being able to do the odds in your head and knowing when to fold.

The problem I kept running into was…Let me do this properly.

“Hey, Tom,” Keith said. “This is Chad.”

Keith Brown was one of those guys that instantly knows everyone and does all the introductions. He worked in Corporate Relations, which he’d had to explain to me. Basically, it was schmoozing bigwigs from other corporations to smooth out deals. Corporation A, his, wants to get Corporation B to go in on buying a big piece of property. Could be another company, could be real estate, whatever. Keith’s job was to know everything possible about the likes and dislikes of Corporation B’s movers and shakers and make sure they had a good time while the negotiations were going on. Something like that.

He could simply not get out of mode at Sandals. So he instantly introduced himself and in three minutes knew everything about you. Well, except me. I was sort of an enigma on some stuff.

“Tom,” I said, shaking “Tom’s” hand.

“Tom’s a broker with Morgan Stanley in the City. Chad is a former Marine and…” Keith paused and frowned.

“I do classified security work. As in violence security, not ‘securities.’ Mostly associated with federal and local governments. Some corporate.”

I’ve got a hooking scar on the left side of my face courtesy of a loup-garou. My nose has a cut through it, right on the bone, from a shotgun pellet. The side of my neck is stitched like Frankenstein from another pellet that’s still lodged against my esophagus. You wear shorts and short-sleeved shirts at Sandals. Mine was a Team Hoodoo polo. I’d had to have it made, they weren’t issue. Embroidered MHI on the chest with a shrunken head. So all the scars on my arms and legs were exposed. Between the bombing and my job, I’m a baby-faced, blond, short, muscular Frankenstein.

“Looks like you’ve seen a lot of action,” Tom said, shaking my hand back. He was a pretty big guy, iron pumper, crusher grip.

I crushed back harder. He winced. I had much the smaller hands and they sort of look fine. They’re not. He probably should have noticed the Popeye forearms.

“Beirut bombing among others,” I said, finally letting him go.

At which point, we would talk about Tom’s job. Because…classified.

Or I’m pigging out on shrimp.

“You really seem to like the shrimp, Chad!” Keith would say.

“Just trying to get the little bastards back,” I said, popping another one in my face.

Yeah. Only Points got that and she sort of flinched. She knew outside of New Orleans you didn’t talk about hoodoo. She hadn’t been there, thank God. She’d been uptown partying with some linemen from the New Orleans Saints. But she knew what had happened. It wasn’t like you could keep a secret in New Orleans.

Do I pick up a finance degree, put on a suit and go get a job in the City? I’m one of those guys who with a couple week’s study could pass any Bar you’d care to name. I’ve got beaucoup contacts. I could get any job I’d want to do. Be a Monster Hunter lobbyist in DC and run with the big dogs?

I missed killing monsters.

There is a feeling you get. There are no words to express the real meaning of victory. English lacks the verbs and adjectives for the emotions. There is no cool deal, no great win in court, no power play that would ever equal standing on the carcass of some powerful dead thing you’d just defeated.

What are the joys of a man? A strong sword in the hand. Check. A field of victory. Check.

To see the bodies of his enemies slain. Oh, yeah.

I was ragingly pissed off at MHI. I felt like they’d left us to hang.

But it was like I told Myers when he was getting all billy-bad cop. Shit happens in this business. Getting pissy ’cause something went wrong meant you needed to go find another line of work. Go live behind a picket fence and think that will protect you from the things that go bump in the night.

There’s a saying, don’t remember who said it: I have loved the stars too fondly to ever fear the night. I have loved the night too fondly to ever fear the stars. And the night I loved the most fondly was the night where bad things were creeping through it and I was the thin line between light and darkness, between life and death, where I was the baddest motherfucker in that dark valley.

I was a Monster Hunter. I was a stone killer who missed the rush like a heroin addict misses horse. Once an addict, always an addict. I could get a job in the City. I could pretend it wasn’t real.

But I would always be an addict. It was all I would ever be, could ever be. Maybe, someday, I’d retire. Maybe, someday, I’d find some young thing who wasn’t a steel-bellied airhead and settle down. Buy a castle, stock it with heavy weapons and raise some seriously fucked-up kids who were just as stone killers and would probably rebel by becoming monster advocates.

Someday. But not today.

* * *

Remi met us at the airport. I dropped Points at her apartment with the promise I’d call her. Which I did. A couple of weeks later.

Then I had Remi drive to the office.

“Hey, Milo,” I said, walking past the team room again.

“Chad?” Milo said, getting up. He was in armor and on call.

I just waved and walked to the office. Earl was in there, smoking like a chimney, clearly furious about the paperwork.

“I refuse to be the team lead,” I said without preamble.

“Got it.” Earl didn’t really show any reaction. “Franklin’s already taken over as team lead so no problem. Milo, leave us alone. And close the door…Sit down, Hand.”

“I’m just a Hunter. All I’m ever going to be.”

“I wasn’t going to ask you to be team lead anyway. Shut up and sit down.” Earl opened a drawer and pulled out a bottle. He poured some for me into a coffee cup and shoved it toward me. “Drink and listen.”

I’d drink. Don’t know if I’d listen.

“I’m going to say this once. I know you’re mad. You feel abandoned. Only we all thought things were getting back to normal, or as normal as this town can get. You had a full team, and the Feds’ best elite strike force camped next door. Yes, if I’d known what would happen, I would’ve been here. Only I’ve got a few hundred other Hunters scattered across the world to worry about, and sorry, I ain’t got a magic crystal ball predicting the future to tell me which ones are in the most danger. You want to hold a grudge, fine. Just don’t let it get in the way of your job. So either get over it, or get the fuck out.”


“When can you be back on?”

“Tomorrow,” I said. “I’ve got to get my gear back in operation.”

“See you tomorrow at nine,” Earl said, nodding.

“Just in time for the full moon. When are you leaving?”

“I’ll be in town but unavailable.”

“I still say we put a radio tranq collar on you and it would work. Let you out of your cage to handle shambler hordes. Tranq you when you’re done. Reload it. Put you back in the cage. Lather, rinse, repeat.”

“Because I know why you’re pissed, I’ll let you say that once,” Earl said.

“You don’t realize how serious I am. I already made the collar.”

Back | Next