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Chapter 3

Physical therapy sucks. Recuperation sucks. And the never-ending itching that comes from under a cast has to possibly be the worst form of torture known to man. The worst, unless you happen to have your parents invade your home in an attempt to comfort you. My folks had flown in when they had been informed of the "incident," and had immediately set about being a huge nuisance.

Before that, however, my hospital stay had dragged on for another week. Apparently, dying, even if only for a minute or two, could be quite a stressful event. The doctors had been impressed that I was even alive. When I had asked one of them approximately how much blood I had lost, he had responded wryly with "most of it."

Treatment had consisted of me trying to move around without tearing anything. Gradually my strength returned until I was able to hobble a few feet on my own and even digest some of the hospital food. Detectives from the Dallas PD had come out to interview me. They did not say anything about supernatural monsters or the FBI agents, and believe me, I did not bring them up either. Instead the cops were under the impression that Mr. Huffman had been some sort of deranged serial killer high on PCP and armed with a 14-inch bowie knife. I was sure that my new friends from the federal government had arranged the crime scene to show whatever story they wanted, and it certainly didn't involve werewolves. The police thanked me for ridding the world of a very bad man, and told me that their investigation showed a clear-cut case of justifiable homicide. There was no indication that I was going to be indicted for anything, and they even arranged to return my .357 once everything was cleared through the prosecutor's office.

The local papers had run stories about my heroic defense against the crazed serial killer Cecil Huffman. In an amusing note the cover story featured both of our employee pictures. I'm sure that most casual readers would conclude that my picture showed the insane murderer, since I was big, young, muscular, swarthy, generally ugly, and beady-eyed. Mr. Huffman looked more like the victim type, a fat, middle-aged, middle manager, with big sad eyes and triple chins. Looks could be deceiving. During my hospital stay I had repeatedly turned away reporters. The last thing I wanted to do was to make up a story, or screw something up and draw the ire of the FBI. I had even turned down a potential guest spot on Oprah. My mom had been royally ticked when she found out about that.

The folks had arrived right before I was discharged. Now, don't get me wrong. I honestly love my family. They are good people. Crazy, but good.

"Damn, boy, you look like shit," was the first thing that my father exclaimed when he saw my face.

My father was an upstanding citizen, a decorated war hero and member of the tight-knit Special Forces community, a man who was respected by his peers. At home, however, he was an emotionally distant and stern man who had a hard time relating to his children. When I was younger I had taken this to mean that he did not approve of us or even really like us much. I had dealt with that by trying to follow in his footsteps. My younger brother had dealt with that kind of thing by dropping out of high school and forming a heavy metal band. While I had become a CPA, my brother's band had landed a record deal and was always surrounded by hot groupies and wild parties. I think I got the shaft in that deal.

Apparently my father was a little ashamed that I had gotten so torn up by a corpulent schmuck, when I myself was young, fit, and—since I had been brought up right—carrying a gun. I imagine that if Huffman had succeeded in eating me, my father would have been more embarrassed that a Pitt had lost a fight, than saddened by my actual demise. The last time my father had been obviously ashamed of me was when the Army recruiters had turned me down because of flat feet and a childhood history of asthma attacks. That had been a tough day for him.

He had brought his sons up to follow in his soldiering footsteps. In fact, the idea for my first name came from the Owen submachine gun that he had used to save his life in the backcountry of Cambodia during a war that never officially existed. He thought the name had a nice ring to it, and the actual gun had come in handy for mowing down communist insurgents after he was trapped deep in enemy territory with nothing but an obsolete Australian weapon older than he was. Believe me, as kids, we had heard all of those stories.

"Oh my baby! My poor poor baby! How did this happen? You poor thing!" was the first thing from my mom. It continued like that for several minutes in a barrage of hugs, kisses, and dampened tissues. Mom was the emotional one in the family. She also showed her love by cooking, which is why I was always the chubby kid growing up. In my house, if you weren't eating, obviously you were not loved. Needless to say, the Pitts tended to be big people.

They had taken me back to my apartment, where to my surprise they promptly settled in for a stay. I tried to assure them that I would be fine, and that I would not need any help. Since I could barely walk and was still covered in bandages I don't think I made a very convincing argument in favor of my independence.

Weeks passed as I gradually healed. My strength was returning, and after a few doctors' visits, I was running out of staples. I had to admit that I loved my mom's cooking, and between the lack of exercise, atrophied muscles, and 3,000-calorie meals I was starting to put on some weight. The trade-off came in the constant questioning. "Why no girlfriend? When are you going to get married? When will you find another job? What are you going to do now?" These were always followed by invitations to move back home where I could find another job and meet a nice girl.

Friends came to visit several times. Mom rented lots of movies for me to watch. I caught up on my reading, and checked the want ads for a new job.

Dad mostly played golf.

This whole time the business card that I had received at the hospital lay discarded in a drawer in my bedroom. I had thought about calling the number, but couldn't bring myself to do so. It was much easier not to think about a world where creatures like Mr. Huffman existed.

The hardest part was not being able to talk to anybody about it.

One night I received a phone call from my brother Mosh. His real name was David, but it had been a long time since anybody other than our parents had called him that. Since I was the only one in the family that he ever spoke with, and that was only on rare occasions, he had not known about the Incident until then. He had called as soon as he had found out. We spoke for a while, him wanting the blow by blow, and me giving him the FBI approved version. Of everyone that I had spoken with, he was the one I was the most tempted to tell the truth to, but I really didn't want the government to kill me, so I refrained.

I had asked how he was doing. His band, Cabbage Point Killing Machine, was doing well and they were going to release their next album, Hold the Pig Steady, in the next month. I made him promise to send me a copy, and VIP passes for when his tour hit Dallas. He told me he would, as long as I managed to not get murdered before then. I gave him my word that I would try.

The night before my parents were scheduled to fly out, my father took me aside for a conversation. He waited until Mom was occupied in the kitchen cooking another four-course meal, then motioned me into the living room.

"Owen, we need to talk."

"Sure, Dad. What's up?" It was not very often that my father wanted to speak with me. He usually just spoke at me, but tonight he seemed rather agitated.

"Look, son, let me just come right out and say it. I know you aren't telling us everything."

"Huh?" This was a surprise. "What do you mean?"

"I've seen your injuries. I've seen knife wounds, hell, I've given knife wounds. Those aren't knife wounds."

He had me there. I didn't know what to say so I just nodded.

"Plus, I know what you did to put yourself through school, and I know that you never told us because you didn't want your mother to worry."

That made me jump. I had had no idea that he knew.

"What do you mean, Dad? I worked in a warehouse."

"Sure you did, for a while, except after that you bounced in a biker bar, and you used to compete in underground fights for money."

"How did you know?"

"Remember crazy Charlie from my office? He had a gambling problem. Old guy would bet on anything. He caught one of your performances one night. Called me the next morning to tell me how he had seen my boy kick the living hell out of some tough customers. So I did a little checking is all . . . Did it pay good?"

Early on in life, I had discovered that I had a remarkable gift for violence, which had been encouraged and cultivated by my father. That, coupled with my physical ability to soak up a beating, had enabled me to make some pretty decent money on more than a few occasions. It didn't have the perks of accounting, but I do have to admit that punching people in the face had its own certain charms.

"Twenty percent of the house if you win. Five if you lose. Very illegal. I did the bar gig for a while. I was the cooler; they actually just let me hang out in the back and do homework until they had a problem." I neglected to mention that we had had problems on an hourly basis and it was the kind of bar where the local paramedics had our address memorized. "I only did that kind of thing long enough to pay for school." That was a shameful lie, but I could never tell my father the truth about why I had quit. "How come you never said anything?" I asked after a time.

He looked a little sheepish for a minute. Confused by emotion he quickly turned up the gruffness. "Not my business, you were an adult."

I believe that was the closest he had ever come to giving me a compliment.

"But anyway, what I'm getting at is I'm guessing you've got experience handling guys with knives." He had no idea. My body had a lot more scars than just the new ones. "I want to know how that asshole managed to wipe the floor with you, break walls, smash furniture, get shot ten times, and still manage to rip you open?"

"Drugs, I guess," was the only response I could think of.

He continued, "I've seen wounds like that before. I saw a guy who'd been mauled by a tiger once. Looked like what happened to you. He got raked up and down, dragged around. The cat toyed with him for a while. Unlike you, he had the muscles on his back eaten right off, right down to the bone like we would eat a fried chicken, and that was 'fore he got flipped over, and cracked open so it could eat the sweet spots out from his guts." I remembered that story, if I recalled correctly. Dad had shared the long gory version as a bedtime story when I was about six.

"I don't know what to tell you, Dad."

He looked me hard in the eyes. He was still a remarkably intimidating man, physically and emotionally. "Look, I know there's some weird stuff out there. I've heard stories from people I trust. I've seen a few things myself back in the day that no rational man can explain." He shook his head vacantly as if he was trying to forget something. "I guess what I'm trying to say is that I know you didn't just tangle with a normal man. If you want to tell me the whole story, I'll listen."

I didn't reply.

He scowled, eventually tired of waiting, and left the room without saying another word, no doubt ashamed of me once again.

They flew out the next day.


I cursed and swore as I hobbled through my apartment, crutch banging randomly into objects as I tried to make my way to the entrance. The doorbell rang again, and this time they held it down, and wouldn't let up. It was a very shrill doorbell.

"Just a minute!" I bellowed as I stumbled around the couch. My leg was getting much better. That had been by far the worst wound, and it was still the most tender, especially when I tried to walk on it. The rest of my injuries were healing nicely, and even my hand cast had finally come off. I promised myself on my long journey across the living room that if the person ringing my doorbell was with the media, I was going to shove my crutch through the reporter's chest cavity and leave the corpse propped up in the hallway as a warning to the others.

Peering through the peephole, all I could see was darkness. The hallway light had burned out again. "Who is it?" I yelled through the door, ready to give the crutch treatment if they said anything about a newspaper or television station. The media were apparently drawn to my story like flies to garbage, probably due to the made-for-TV movie feel of the whole thing. Serial killer thrown from a high building? Sounds like a winner to me.

"Earl Harbinger," came the muffled reply. "We met at the hospital."

I had almost managed to forget about that business card. Almost.

"What do you want?" I shouted.

"I need help with my taxes, what do you think I want?"

I debated opening the door. On one hand I could go back to my normal life, find a job, pretend that the biggest dangers in the world were good old-fashioned bad people, and sleep well at night. On the other hand I could get some answers.

Curiosity won out in the end. I unlocked the two dead bolts and opened the door.

Harbinger had brought a friend.

She was beautiful. In fact she was possibly the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She was tall, with dark black hair, light skin, and big brown eyes. Her face was beautiful, not fake beautiful like a model or an actress, because she was obviously a real person, but rather Helen of Troy, launch-a-thousand-ships kind of good-looking. She wore glasses, and I was a sucker for a girl in corrective eyewear. Since I was ugly it was probably some sort of subconscious reaction in the hope that I might have a chance with a cute girl who couldn't see very well. She was dressed in a conservative business suit, but unlike most women I knew, she made it look good. If I were to guess I would have said that she was in her mid-twenties.

"Mr. Pitt?" she asked. Even her voice was pretty. She was a goddess.

I tried to answer, but no words would come out. Talk, idiot! "Um . . . Hi." Smooth . . . So far so good, keep going, big guy.

"You can, um . . . my name is . . . Owen. My friends call me Z. Because of my middle name. It starts with a Z. Or whatever works for you. Come in. Please!" Well, so much for smooth.

She smiled and held out her hand. "Julie Shackleford, pleased to meet you." Her grip was strong, with surprisingly callused, working hands. Her handshake sent the message that she was no wimp. Had I found the perfect woman?

Her eyes widened when she saw my face. The scar. It was healing nicely, but I knew that it was still grisly. Once the swelling went down I was left with a massive red strip that evenly halved my forehead, split the bridge of my many times broken nose and ended up on my cheek. It was brutal.

She looked away. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to stare." She had a small hint of a Southern accent.

"It's no big deal. Just a scratch. Think of it as Harry Potter on steroids," I said, trying to make her feel comfortable. "Come in, grab a seat. You need anything to drink?"

"No thank you," Julie said. Julie . . . Such a pretty name.

"I'll take a beer," Harbinger growled.

"Sorry, no beer," almost adding that I didn't drink, but not wanting to look like a wuss. The truth was after spending so much time working around drunks, I never touched the stuff.

Harbinger just grunted in disappointment. They both sat down on my thrift store couch. It took me a minute to get my crutch repositioned so that I could move gingerly to a chair. It's hard to impress a pretty girl when you're a big clumsy oaf balancing on a stupid padded aluminum stick. I flopped down and dropped the crutch.

"Feeling better?" Harbinger asked.

"Much. Doctors say I'm healing fast. I got my cast off, and I can start doing upper body exercise again as long as I'm really careful not to push too hard."

"You lift?"

"A little bit," I answered. In truth, before the Incident I had been pushing just over a 400-pound bench press. I didn't look it, but that was the disadvantage of being both tall and stocky. Because of the injuries on my chest and the amount of time off, I knew that it was going to take a while to get up to that weight again.

"Careful you don't hurt yourself. You got banged up good. In fact I've never seen anybody take on a werewolf like that and live. Not without some good silver weapons at least, but tangling hand to hand, that's crazy. You were lucky." He talked about werewolves like it was a common and everyday item of no special interest. Like a normal person would refer to a vacuum cleaner or a toaster.

"Mr. Pitt . . . Sorry . . . Owen," Julie started, "what we're about to say may sound a little weird, but after your recent experience you of all people will understand that we're not crazy. Earl and I represent a company called Monster Hunter International."

"Okay. I'm listening." Julie could tell me that she was from the moons of Jupiter and I would give her my full attention. Less weird than that? Piece of cake.

"MHI is a private organization, and we handle monster-related problems. I guess you could say that we are in fact Monster Hunters."

"Sounds reasonable." I smiled. It didn't sound reasonable at all. It sounded wacky as all get out, but if I told a shrink about my Huffman experience I would be in a padded cell inside of fifteen minutes. So I listened.

"As you now are aware, monsters are very real. They're out there, and are a serious threat to the world. Our company specializes in neutralizing monster threats," she said.

"Good money in that?" I asked jokingly.

Harbinger reached inside his jacket, pulled out a plain envelope and tossed it to me. I caught it.

"What's this?"

"There's a federal bounty paid on undesirable unnaturals. It's called the PUFF," Harbinger stated.


"Perpetual Unearthly Forces Fund," Julie answered. "Teddy Roosevelt started it when he was president. PUFF is a tool for controlling monster populations. It's a big source of income for MHI. We make the rest in contracts set up with various municipalities, organizations, and private individuals with monster problems."

"Go ahead and open it," Harbinger suggested. "The Feds weren't going to tell you about it, but you killed a newly blooded adult werewolf by yourself. That makes you the sole recipient of any bounty for that particular creature. I took the liberty of doing the paperwork for you. I didn't think you would mind."

Inside the envelope was an ordinary-looking check. Sure enough it was from the Department of the Treasury, with PUFF stamped in green ink under their insignia. It was made out to one Owen Zastava Pitt in the amount of $50,000.

I think that the noise I made could best be described as a squeak, only less manly. This could not be real. My job, which I had been fired from so recently, had paid less than that in a year. "You have got to be freaking kidding me!" Fixing Julie with an incredulous look, I did my best to raise a single eyebrow.

"Nope," Julie laughed. She had a beautiful sounding laugh. "That check is totally legit. The bounties change depending on the severity of the monster populations, and the number of human casualties. In this case lycanthrope attacks are at an all-time high, and this particular specimen had already taken a few victims the night before. Now if he had been older, or had eaten more people, then you would be looking at a bigger bounty."

"So you're telling me that the government gives people money for killing werewolves?" I was prepared to take her word for it, but I was definitely going to limp down to the bank and try to deposit this thing as soon as they left.

"Yes, and other types of unnaturals."

"Others? So what else is out there?"

She shrugged. "Lots of things, but I don't want to get too far off of the subject. If you don't agree to our offer then anything I tell you can never be shared with the general public, or the government will arrange for you to have a chainsaw accident or something equally bad, and I'm not kidding about that one bit. They have a strict policy of keeping all of this secret. So before I tell you what else is out there, let me ask you if—"

I cut her off. "Zombies? Are there really zombies?"

"Owen, please, I need to . . ."

"Yes, there are zombies. A whole bunch of different kinds. Slow ones, fast ones. Nasty bastards," Harbinger said.


"Oh yeah. And let me tell you, they ain't the nice charming debonair kind of thing you see on TV, those suckers are meaner than hell. Trust me on this one; pop culture makes them all intellectual and sexy, there ain't nothing sexy about getting your carotid artery ripped out. There're actually a mess of different kinds of undead."

Julie sighed as she gave up on her pitch. I was going to find out what exactly was real, and Harbinger was more than willing to talk. He seemed to be enjoying himself, and also getting a kick out of Julie's discomfort.

"Bigfoot, the Yeti?"

"Yep, but no bounties because they ain't really a problem."


"Goat suckers. They'll tear you up."

"Giant mutant animals?"

"Sure, but the Japanese have cornered that market."

"Sea monsters?"

"Yes, but only bounties on the evil kind."

"Wow, no kidding? Space aliens?"

"No intelligent little green men, if that's what you're thinking of. If those are out there we haven't ever dealt with them."


"We have a strict policy: we only hunt things that have physical bodies. No physical body, no contract, and no way to collect a bounty either. We stick with things that are flesh and blood, or at least bone, exoskeleton, or slime."

We continued on like that for a few minutes, with me thinking of every creature from every horror movie I had ever seen, and Harbinger letting me know if it was real or not. Every answer he gave was in total seriousness. If he was making any of this crazy monster stuff up, I sure would hate to play a game of poker against him.

Finally after asking about the creature from the black lagoon and finding out that that was actually based on a true story, Julie had had enough and jumped in. She elbowed Harbinger in the ribs. "Sorry guys, back to business. Owen, we're looking for new Hunters. Because of the nature of what we do, we can't exactly advertise. Usually we meet people through our business who have monster experience, and who have handled themselves well."

"I did okay, I guess."

Julie laughed again. Harbinger smirked. She pulled a DVD case out of her purse. "Do you mind?" I shook my head and she stood up and put the disk in the player and turned on my TV. "I don't think you've seen this. As far as your former company is concerned, and as far as the Dallas PD knows, this doesn't exist."

"Put it on channel three. There you go."

It was a black and white security video of the fourteenth floor of my former office building. The screen was split into four squares, each with a different view. It was surprising where some of the cameras were pointing, as I had never been aware of any cameras in those locations. There was even one that had a good view of Huffman's office.

"They have hidden cameras all over the place. I guess you folks have a big problem with employee theft," Harbinger stated. I knew I should never have taken those Post-It notes home.

The video started. The digital readout showed the time as 8:05. I thought that I looked silly, as most people do when they watch video of themselves. There was no sound, but it unfolded pretty much exactly as I remembered it. Only this time I was surprised by how fast everything happened. The transformation that had seemed to take forever actually happened rather quickly when seen from a strange angle in clinical detachment. The entire battle had been over in a matter of minutes, yet for me time had dilated down so that each fraction of a second had been an eternity. The creature was not nearly as intimidating on the screen as he had been when his hot breath was straining at my face. The third camera winked into static as my body was put through the ceiling tiles. We combatants would disappear from the cameras for a moment, only to reappear jerkily in another frame a few seconds later. In black and white I was surprised how plain all of our blood appeared on the walls. Finally I watched as I snapped the werewolf's neck and pushed the desk out the window.

I realized I was breathing hard.

Julie quietly shut the TV off and carefully placed the DVD back in its case.

"You just did okay, huh? Looks to me like you put up an amazing fight. You could have given up a bunch of times. You would be surprised. Most people faced with something out of their nightmares will just freeze up. Their brains can't begin to process what they're seeing, and by then it's too late, and next thing you know something from the great beyond is flossing with their spine. Hunters don't freeze. Hunters fight."

"Listen, I'm just a normal guy. I'm an accountant even. It doesn't get any more normal than that!" I exclaimed in defense of my average life.

Julie pulled a manila file folder out of her purse.

"What's that?" I asked.

"Your secret file from the Department of Homeland Security."

"If the government didn't want it stolen, they shouldn't just leave it out where any master hacker can break in and get it," Harbinger explained patiently.

"Owen Zastava Pitt, age 24. Born in Merced, California . . . Zastava?" Julie asked.

"My mom's family is mostly mixed Czech and Serb. It's an old family name. Like the place that made those little cars," I answered.

"Little cars?" she asked.

"You know, the Yugo."

"Oh." She continued, "Black belt in two martial arts. You wrestled in high school and took the state championship heavyweight division two years in a row. Homeland Security has you flagged because you're considered a militant right-wing gun nut. You became involved in competitive shooting at eight years old, and have a master rating in International Practical Shooting. You've placed in the top five in several different national level three-gun tactical competitions. You were ranked as one of the top young shooters in the country, though you've slipped over the last few years."

"Working too many hours, hard to keep up the practice routine." My father had been more drill instructor than dad, trying to prepare us for some kind of future apocalypse that existed in his paranoid imagination. I could hit targets at a quarter mile with a rifle before I could ride a bike. When normal kids went to summer camp and made crafts out of beads and twigs, my brother and I had gone on miniature death marches with giant rucksacks. Other children got sports, I got hand-to-hand combat training. I suppose showing up in a government database shouldn't have been too shocking.

"You tried to join the Army but were turned down due to some minor health problems. DHS also notes that you've participated in illegal pit fighting and in illegal sports gambling organizations."

I cringed, it not being something I was real proud of now.

"It says here that you earned a bachelor's and a master's degree in six years total, top of your class, passed the CPA exam the first time. National Honor Society," Julie continued.

After coming within a couple heartbeats of ending another fighter's life, I had devoted myself to being as boring as possible, no more pushing the limits, nothing but normal. And what was more normal than an accountant?

"You speak five languages fluently, mostly because of your extremely varied family background, and know enough to get by in several others. Your psychological profile says that you're a pathological overachiever with severe overcompensating tendencies as a result of your relationship with your father, and the fact that you were always the picked-on fat kid while growing up."

"Does it actually say 'fat kid'?" I asked in total bewilderment.

"Actually it says it in some sort of psychological mumbo-jumbo about body image and self-esteem, but I'm just paraphrasing."

"I wasn't fat. I was big-boned." I leaned back in my chair and rubbed my temples. I was amazed that all of this was from some government database. Chalk up a few more points for my antiauthoritarian side.

"Look, Owen, you're not a normal person; none of us are normal, either. MHI is a family business, my family. My great-great-granddad founded the company, five generations of Hunters. You haven't seen weird until you've met my family, so don't feel bad." Julie patted my knee. She touched me! I perked right up.

"We're not looking for normal people. Normal people scream and run and get eaten. You have to be a little different to do the kind of stuff that we do. I mean, heck, looking at your shooting scores, I've been shooting pistols since I was a little kid, and your classifications blow mine away. Your National Match rifle scores are equal to mine, and I'm the team sharpshooter."

As Julie said this I realized that I had in fact met the woman of my dreams. Attractive, smart, and a shooter? Wow.

"I don't know. I don't have any experience with this kind of thing. Aren't you better off with soldiers or Marines or Navy SEALs and stuff like that? My gosh, I'm an office dweeb."

Harbinger answered this time. "We have all of those, and we also have former truck drivers, school teachers, farmers, doctors, a priest and a stripper, and pretty much anything else you can think of. It comes down to finding people who don't have a problem coping with weirdness. The best Hunters are people whose minds are . . . flexible."

"Well . . . the pay seems good," I said as I held up the check.

"Keep in mind that was for you on a solo bounty. When you work with a team you share bounties with the team, and the company. However, people who try monster hunting as individuals usually get real dead, real quick. Working with backup is the only way to stay alive. But with the amount of business that we do, the pay's good," Harbinger said.

"How good?"

Harbinger shrugged. "We have a real problem with our experienced people retiring and buying small countries."

"I'm guessing it's dangerous?"

Julie shrugged. "I won't lie to you. It's super dangerous. Our job is to go head to head with the forces of evil. We lose a lot of people, but with well trained groups that work together as a team, we do better than any other group of Hunters, and that includes the Feds."

I sat silently in thought. My visitors didn't say anything for a moment. Finally Julie tried one last thing.

"Look, I'm going to tell you the truth. We have the most insane job in the world, many of us die young, and sometimes in really horrible ways. But this is the best job there is. It's never boring, and you get to do something really worthwhile. We're the pros, the go-to people when all hell's broken loose. When the situation is totally hosed, we're the ones they call. We do the job that nobody else can do, and we do it good." She said this with deep and sincere emotion. Julie obviously had a passion for her work.

I absently rubbed my facial scar. A random thought popped into my mind and I instantly muttered it under my breath.

"What was that?" asked Julie.

"A calling. Is hard, but is good."

"What does that mean?"

"I don't know, just something an old man said to me once. Short straw." I thought about the strange dream that I had had in the hospital. Had it happened while I was technically dead?


"Never mind." I had to admit, I was interested in what they had been telling me, and I was a real chump when it came to a pretty girl, especially one who was smart, and into guns, to boot.

This was crazy. I had spent the last few years trying to be average just for once, until my boss had tried to have me for dinner and life had pulled the rug out from under me. The smart thing to do would be to push this whole incident to the back of my mind, and forget it ever happened.

But I did need a job, and Owen Z. Pitt, Monster Hunter, had a certain ring to it.

Ah, what the hell.

"Tell you what, Mr. Harbinger, Ms. Shackleford. I'm going to go down to the bank and try to deposit this check. If it's real, and I don't get arrested for trying to pass a make-believe check, I'm going to believe everything that you said. I'm in, on two conditions."

They waited for my terms. I paused as I screwed up my courage.

"If at any time I think this job is totally insane, I'm out of there. No questions, no ifs, ands, or buts. Don't think I'm kidding either. I've been shafted already, and I'm not going to do that again. You screw with me in any way, shape, or form and you can color me gone."

"We wouldn't have it any other way," Julie said. "And what else?"

"You, uh . . . need to have dinner with me tonight," I stammered, surprising myself with my own courage. There you go, Casanova. I had no idea why I had said that, it had just kind of popped out.

Julie looked momentarily taken aback. I could not tell from her reaction if she was flattered or insulted by my lame attempt to ask her out. Earl rolled his eyes.

"I guess you ain't talking about me," he said.

"No, I . . . uh . . . well, I just thought, you know . . ." It wasn't exactly poetry.

She did not respond immediately. I think I took her by surprise. I knew that surprise was good in war, but it wasn't necessarily what I was going for here. I have never been very good with women. Actually, that's an understatement. I turn into a bumbling incompetent oaf around them.

"Was that a lame attempt to ask me out?" she queried. "It's usually considered bad form to do that in what is basically a job interview."

"Well, I just wanted to . . . maybe ask some questions. About, you know—"

Earl cut me off. "There's some more business that I need to conduct anyway. I've got to go. Julie can fill you in on the rest of the details." He stood up. "You kids have fun."

"Earl, wait a second, what about . . ." Julie started to stand. My heart lurched. Had I offended her?

"Julie, you know what I'm talking about. You know what tonight is. Stick around. Fill Owen in on the details of our operation." He adjusted his bomber jacket.

She slowly slid back down the couch. Way to go, Earl! I thought happily. Harbinger made as if to leave. I tried to grab my crutch so I could stand to see him out.

"Not necessary," he said as he shook my hand. "I look forward to working with you."

"Me too," I responded before wincing at the amazing strength in the man's fingers as he easily crushed my much larger hand. He was far stronger than he appeared. I tried not to visibly show how much pain he was inflicting. He bent down and spoke low enough in my ear that Julie couldn't hear.

"That took guts, but be a gentleman with her, or I'll be displeased," he whispered. I had no doubt that his displeasure would somehow involve me becoming seriously injured.

I nodded. He let go, grinned evilly and patted me on the back, before swiftly leaving.

Julie Shackleford sat on my bargain basement furniture in my rundown apartment in a bad part of town and examined me quizzically. I had no idea what she was thinking. It was an awkward moment.

Finally she broke the silence.

"Want to order pizza?"


"So you know all about me because of that file," I said after swallowing a blob of cheese and pineapple. Delivery had been relatively swift, the pizza was good, and surprisingly enough Julie seemed to be enjoying our conversation. After the first few awkward minutes she had warmed up to my attempt at flirting, and was at least tolerating me. Her smile was contagious, and I felt better than I had in weeks. The sun was starting to set, and long orange shadows were cast through my barred apartment windows.

"Scary, isn't it? How much they keep track of people," she said, trying to be polite and not talk with her mouth full, and failing miserably. "You should see what mine says. If you read it you would probably be scared to be around me. They think I'm totally nuts."

"Oh, I don't know about that," I replied, going for another slice, trying not to lean forward on my bad leg too much. "You don't seem nuts to me, except for the whole good versus evil zombie werewolf thing at least."

She noticed my predicament and helpfully shoved the box closer on my little coffee table. My furniture was sparse and mostly cheap junk, but at least the place was clean, even if it was only because my mom had visited recently.

"They think everybody in this line of work is certifiable. They even think that about their own guys that Hunt."

"Like the two that visited me in the hospital?" I asked.

"Myers and Franks? Myers isn't so bad. Believe it or not, he worked for us before the government recruited him, but that was a long time ago. He had a bit of a falling out. Franks on the other hand is a jerk. I'm surprised he didn't kill you just to be on the safe side. We have to deal with the Feds once in a while. They watch us like hawks. They're actually in a special unit in the Justice Department, the Monster Control Bureau, that deals with problems like you."

"Problems like me, gee thanks. Anyway, I don't want to talk about those guys." I really did not. I wanted to talk about her. "Like I was saying, you've seen my file, so you have the advantage. Tell me about you."

"Well, first off, I'm in a relationship if that's what you want to know," she replied mischievously. "I'm just here as a professional courtesy."


"Really, I wasn't trying to say anything like that," I responded quickly.

"Owen, you may be a great accountant, and one heck of a shooter, but you're a horrible liar."

She leaned back on the couch and put her feet up on the coffee table next to the pizza box. I noticed that she was wearing heavy-duty boots that did not really match her conservative suit. As she made herself comfortable and her jacket fell open revealing her fitted shirt, I realized two things: a) She had a great body, and b) she was carrying a gun in a leather pancake holster on her right hip.

Not able to comment on a) in a polite manner, I instead remarked on b).

"What are you carrying?"

"This?" She reached around, drew the gun, dropped the magazine, racked the slide and expertly caught the ejected round in her off hand. She then passed it over to me with the action open while she rattled off the stats only another gun nut would appreciate. "Commander-sized 1911, Baer slide and frame, match barrel. Heinie night sights. Thin Alumagrips. Bobtail conversion to the frame. All Greider tool steel parts. Trigger and action job. It's a good shooter. I've carried this one for a year now."

I examined her gun. It was a gorgeous piece of work. The slide was so smooth it felt like it was on rollers. It was obviously used hard, but well cared for.

"Mind if I try the trigger? I'm a 1911 guy myself."

"Go for it," she said with a grin. She was proud of her gun.

The break was clean and light with no detectable creep. It was a very good trigger job.

"Who did the work?" I asked. It was obviously a high quality custom build. Being a serious competitor on a limited budget I did my own gunsmithing. My stuff tended to be ugly but functional. This specimen was obviously functional but it was so well fitted that it was almost a work of art.

"I did most of it myself," Julie said with obvious pride.

"Will you marry me?" I blurted.

She laughed, and it was such a pretty laugh. I reluctantly handed her gun back. She reinserted the magazine, chambered a round, and then took the mag out to top it off with the extracted round she still had in her hand. She paused for a second and then tossed it to me. Reflexively I snatched it out of the air.

Examining the cartridge, I noticed it was a strange design. The case was normal brass, but the bullet itself was different. It was shaped like an ordinary .45 bullet, except that it appeared to be a standard jacketed hollowpoint, with a shiny metallic ball filling the cavity. The two pieces appeared to be sealed together into a solid projectile.

"What's this?

"Contrary to the Lone Ranger, silver bullets really suck compared to good old-fashioned lead. Silver's too hard, and it doesn't fully engage the rifling. It's lighter than lead, so you get really lightweight projectiles with lousy accuracy. It's pretty useless except for one thing: it's the only thing that will kill some of the stuff we face."

"Why is that, anyway?" I asked.

"Nobody knows for sure, but we have some theories. Most popular is it is a violent reaction of evil creatures to the thirty pieces of silver that Judas was paid. The Vatican's Hunter team says that it is because silver is a pure metal that represents goodness, while lead is a base metal of the earth. You get other weird ideas from Wiccans and mystics, but even science is stumped why silver works so much better on bona fide evil creatures. All we know is that it does. Lycanthropes can't regenerate, and even vampires feel pain from silver."

"Looks like a Corbon Pow'r Ball." That was a type of regular defensive ammunition that I had used a few times before. It used a ball stuck in a hollow cavity designed to squish back to force expansion of the bullet on impact, thereby increasing the severity of the wound.

"Good call. That's who we stole the idea from. The ball in front is pure silver. It penetrates well, and as the silver is forced back it expands the traditional lead slug around it. Usually the silver fragments off after a few inches and leaves a separate wound cavity. Best of both worlds. Still works like a regular bullet, shoots like a regular bullet, but enough silver to do a number on evil. We have them made for us specifically. They cost a fortune, so we only make them in .45 for pistols and subguns, and .308 for rifles. When we need lots of silver up close and fast, we use a modified silver double-aught buckshot."

"Now you're talking my language." I held up the bullet. "So I guess that's what the Feds were going to shoot me with if I had been infected."

"Nope, they use a sintered metal. Silver powder encased in a polymer matrix. Neat stuff, but the company that makes it only sells to the government." She caught the bullet when I tossed it back. She loaded it back in the magazine, inserted that back into her 1911 and reholstered without looking.

"You really know your stuff."

"Thanks. I love my job . . . I really shouldn't have another piece, but this stuff is great," she said as she went for another slice of pizza. "I think you'll fit right in at MHI. It really is a great thing that we do, and we're a good company to work for."

"So about this 'relationship'?" I used my fingers to make quotation marks. Julie rolled her eyes at me behind her glasses.

"You don't quit, do you?"

"Isn't that why you guys want to hire me?"

"Tenacity good. Stalking bad."

"Okay, agreed, stalking bad. Especially when the stalkee is packing heat. So are you and Earl an item?"

Julie snorted and started to choke on her pizza. I couldn't tell if she was trying to laugh or not die. So I didn't know if I should be in on the joke, or try to perform the Heimlich maneuver.

"Earl? You've got to be kidding me. No. Oh no. Hell no. We're related. This is a family business. Why would you even think that? Earl's much older than me."

"He doesn't look that old."

"Let's just say that the man has aged well. Earl has been like a dad to me. He pretty much raised me and my brothers." There was an audible trace of her Southern accent when she said that.


She thought about it for a moment, as if debating whether she should tell me or not, finally she shook her head in the negative.

"Never mind. It doesn't matter." It was obvious it did matter, but it was a sensitive topic and none of my business. On that subject she seemed to be wound tight as a spring. "Just know that Earl is probably the greatest Hunter alive. If he tells you something, listen."

"So is your boyfriend a Hunter too?"

"Yes he is, and if you ask me any more personal questions, I'm going to beat you to death with your own crutch." She was only half joking, and in my current physical condition, she could probably do it without elevating her heartbeat.

We finished the pizza as the afternoon slowly turned into evening. Julie gradually filled in the gaps in my knowledge about her company, though she was tight-lipped and uncomfortable talking about herself. I did learn more about this interesting woman as she talked about her work, because it was so obviously a big part of her. Julie had worked in this field since she was a child, and seemed to know it very well. As the daylight fled, she started to glance nervously toward the window. I did not ask why.

She was a veritable encyclopedia of monster-related knowledge, and she even let slip the fact that she had earned a degree in ancient history and a master's in archeology because it pertained so much to her life's work.

When I had asked why those particular fields, she explained that the battle did not start recently, and she left it at that. The open window kept drawing her attention. It was dark outside. Finally I could not help but ask, "So why are you so distracted? What're you looking for?"

Julie sighed, and brushed back her long dark hair, looking relieved. She yawned, stretched, and stood, adjusted her jacket and prepared to leave. She patted her gun to make sure it was properly holstered. "I've got to be going."

"Why?" I asked, puzzled by the sudden change.

"You don't realize what tonight is, do you?" she asked.

"Thursday?" I answered helpfully as I grabbed my crutch and pulled myself out of my chair.

"I wonder if we stole the right file, because for a genius you're not real fast on the uptake."

I shrugged. I had no idea. She grabbed my arm and helped me stand up. Julie looked me in the eye, and I could see my reflection in her thick glasses. Her brown eyes were beautiful.

"It's been one month since you were attacked. The test came back negative, but they're not always right."

She guided me as I hobbled over to the window. The full moon hung low and bright above the Dallas skyline. I realized now why she had stayed. Other than my still sore leg and healing muscles, I felt fine. I wasn't spouting any hair, at least not any more than my normal prodigious amount.

"So it was a test?"

"Nothing personal. We just had to make sure."

"Oh." I could not think of anything to say. She had been prepared to kill me all along.

We silently watched the sky. I realized that she was still holding my arm, standing close, and I could feel the warm, soft pressure of her body against mine. There together, in the light of the moon, just the slight tenseness of her hands on the muscles of my arm, I could feel her breath on my ear. It was a good moment. I wished that it could last forever. Unfortunately she was only holding me to help keep my pathetic crippled ass from falling down.

Once she was sure that I was stable on my crutch she let go. She reached into her purse, produced a card and handed it over. The card had a set of directions, a very basic map, and a picture of a green happy face with horns.

"We're putting together a training class. It's going to be brutally hard, because we only hire the best. Once you have had a chance to think about it, if you're still interested, be at the location on that card in three weeks." I put the card in my pocket.

"I'll be there," I promised.

"Good. Welcome to MHI." She shook my hand in a professional manner.


"I'll let myself out," Julie said. She started to walk away, leaving me to watch the moon.

Julie Shackleford made it a few steps, and then surprised me by turning around and coming back. I felt her full lips brush softly against my cheek in a brief kiss. Luckily the crutch was well grounded or I might have fallen headfirst out the window in shock.

"You're a sweet guy, Owen. Thanks for the nice dinner. See you in a few weeks." Then she glided away.

At least I waited for the confirmation of my front door closing before grinning like an idiot. It had been a good day after all. I had gotten some of my questions answered. I had found a new job, one that at least sounded interesting, even if it was a bit of a career change on the insane side. I had, in theory at least, a check for $50,000 in my pocket. And best of all, a pretty girl had kissed me on the cheek. Yes, it had been a great day indeed.

I pulled the card and examined it. I was going to Alabama.


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