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Chapter 4

The next three weeks had passed quickly. The PUFF check had surprisingly enough cleared. And with a bloated bank account, I had packed my bags, sold or given away most of my stuff, broken the lease on my apartment, and driven to the middle of nowhere, following the directions that Julie Shackleford had left me.

Everything that I still owned was stuffed into the back seat and trunk of my rust-brown Chevy Caprice. All I had was a couple duffel bags with clothing, my laptop, a few other supplies, and about a dozen guns. There was no way I was parting with those. It was a good thing that a Caprice's trunk is big enough to suit a Mafia don.

Julie's directions had been printed on a 3x5 card. Her parting instructions had been for me to meet at the location listed at a certain time and date. She had told me that food and lodging would be provided, but she had not given me any other details.

I had driven straight through from Dallas to Alabama, thoughts of the absurdity of what I was doing nagging at me the entire time. welcome to the heart of dixie, the sign on the border had proclaimed. I stopped once in Montgomery to pick up a better map. According to the card's directions the place I was driving to was nothing but an almost blank green spot on the map with only one road and one small dot for a town. Cazador, Alabama.

It took another two hours from Montgomery to arrive in Cazador, but a good half of that was spent driving lost through the forest. The trees were dense and the underbrush was thick and still over the iron-red soil. The country around Cazador consisted of beautiful rolling hills interspersed with many streams and creeks.

The town itself was really more of a village. There were a few small stores, a Baptist church directly across from a Church of Christ, and a scattering of houses. The buildings appeared old and weathered. An old sign near the road read simply Cazador, Alabama, Population 682. A slightly newer sign beneath stated that guided tours of the catfish plant were available from noon until four. I'm sure that was a barrel of fun.

I stopped for overpriced gas, a soda, and to scrape the bugs off of my windows at the only convenience store in town. A few locals made eye contact but nobody spoke to me. I overheard a toothless geezer murmuring to the cashier something about fresh meat. I didn't care to guess if he was talking about me or the lunch menu.

Following the final directions on the card, I had taken a small, barely paved road through some more hills and into even deeper woods. It branched and I kept to the west for another mile. I almost missed the gravel turnoff. My main indication that I had found the home of Monster Hunter International was a small sign painted with the letters mhi and a green smiley face. The smiley face had horns. As my car bounced slowly down the gravel road I took note of the many no trespassing and trespassers will be shot warnings.

Finally I came to an open gate surrounded by high chain link and razor wire. Near the gate, a man sat in a folding chair under the shade of a large umbrella, relaxed and apparently listening to a big battery-powered radio. He waved lazily as I braked and rolled down my window.

He was an interesting-looking fellow, weathered to the point that it was difficult to guess his age, a little shorter than average, with a shaved head, small wire-rimmed glasses over a blunt freckled nose, and a thick red beard that was absurdly long and pointy. The end had even been braided with a few decorative beads. He was wearing a Rush Tom Sawyer T-shirt, cargo shorts, and Birkenstock sandals. He looked kind of like a granola-eating environmentalist type, except for the worn M4 carbine hanging idly from a tactical-sling draped over his shoulder. He was spitting the remains of sunflower seeds into a cup.

"Hi. I'm looking for MHI," I said.

The man adjusted his glasses and looked at me, head tilted at a slightly strange angle as he smiled absently. Suddenly he clicked his tongue and pointed at me.

"Big dude . . . Scar face. You must be that guy Earl found. Threw a werewolf out a window?"

"That would be me." I realized that the boom box was set to a talk radio station, and the subject was something to do with black helicopters and cattle mutilation. "Julie Shackleford offered me a job."

"She does that a lot. We're a little short-handed right now, but that's a long story. Drive straight in, park in front of the biggest building. You're a little early, but a few other Newbies are already here. The Boss said that he would say a few words to you guys, so just hang out."

"Newbie?"

"New hire. Greenies. Monster bait. Organ donors. You know. It's slang."

"Oh, okay . . . I'm Owen Pitt." I stuck my hand out the window.

"Milo Ivan Anderson. Jack of all trades, master of a couple. Call me Milo. If you live long enough I'm the guy that gets to teach you how all of the cool stuff works." He shook my hand and grinned. His beard stretched halfway to his shorts. "See you around."

I parked in the lot that Milo pointed out, locked the doors out of habit, and checked out the surroundings. The MHI property could probably best be described as a compound. The main building appeared to be the only permanent structure, being constructed of heavy red brick and steel. It was an office building, but with narrow windows, obviously thick walls, and iron bars. It looked like it could pass muster as a fortress if the need arose. I wouldn't be surprised if there had been a big pot, full of boiling oil, just out of sight on the wide flat roof. As I entered I realized that the main doors opened into a small room that funneled down to a smaller set of doors. Suspended overhead was what appeared to be a heavy portcullis that could be dropped to seal the secondary doors. Very interesting.

An older lady was seated behind a massive reception desk. She smiled at me as I approached. At least the staff here was friendly. She had to be in her sixties and looked plump and cheerful. She was wearing a matronly purple knit sweater, but the large-frame revolver in her shoulder holster was printing pretty badly through the fabric.

"Hello, dear. You must be here for the orientation," she said.

"Yes. My name's Owen Pitt."

"Oh, I recognize you. You're the one that kicked that werewolf's ass. That was some mighty fine brawling, sonny."

"Uh, thanks, I guess."

"No, thank you. Earl showed us all that video. It was right entertaining. I hate werewolves. Used to hunt the sons a bitches once my own self. Used to could do a fair job in my day, till one of the bastards took my leg. This one here is plastic." She knocked on her plastic leg for effect. It made a hollow noise. "My old one was made out of wood, but it would swell up when it got humid. I reckon it does get mighty wet in these parts. No place at all for a wood leg. Could be worse. Old Leroy had himself a wood eye. Painted it brown, same color as the other. Summer time roll around, damn thing would swell till it would get stuck pointing in one direction. Poor old Leroy. He was a good one. Oh well, sign in here."

My signature was quick and sloppy on the clipboard. As an accountant you have to sign your name a lot. You try to keep a pretty signature when you have to sign it a couple hundred times a day. There were at least twenty names ahead of mine.

"My name's Dorcas. Some kids nowadays snicker at that name. But my ma said that it was a right fine biblical name, and it has suited me for close to seventy years. Any punk kids make fun of my name, I'll put my plastic foot in their ass. Got that, boy?"

"Yes, ma'am." That was my instinctive response to crotchety old ladies. Especially former Monster Hunters strapped with what appeared to be a .44 magnum.

"Good, go down the hall. Double door on the right. That's the cafeteria and meeting hall. Now scat. I got business to conduct."

"Yes, ma'am." I hurried away so Dorcas could continue her game of solitaire on the computer.

As I strolled in the direction the receptionist had indicated, something caught my eye. I paused in front of a wall of small silver plaques. There had to be at least four hundred of them and they took up quite a bit of space. Not all of them had pictures, but all had a name, a birth date, and a death date. The oldest plaques mostly lacked photos, and the birth dates started clear back in the 1850s. It was a wall of remembrance for fallen comrades. There was an inscription in Latin carved into a large polished board at the top of the wall. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

Being an auditor by trade I could not help but notice the curious fact that almost a hundred of the newest memorials shared the same death date: December 15, 1995.

Whatever had happened on that date must have been a black day for the Hunters.

Also strange, there was a span going forward from that day, with no new death dates until a few in the current year. The six-year gap was conspicuous by its absence.

A group was waiting in the cafeteria. There were a few small pockets of conversation, but mostly they had pulled up chairs by themselves and were waiting nervously. Not being one for socializing, I grabbed a metal folding chair and took up residence in the back of the room. The fellow to my right was snoring loudly. To my left was a young Asian man, warily watching the others. He shook my hand and introduced himself as Albert Lee. When I asked him how he had ended up here he muttered something about spiders. Big spiders.

More people gradually arrived. To pass the time I studied the others. I caught a few of them studying me back. The group was about eighty percent male, and I would guess that the average age was probably just under thirty. Most of the Newbies looked relatively fit, though surprisingly there were a few people I would call gravitationally challenged. The group was a good demographic cross section of America, with the biggest numbers being Caucasian, but also some Hispanics, Asians, Blacks, and a couple of people like me of indeterminate race. Don't bother to ask. My ancestors really got around.

Finally when I counted about forty others in the room, I heard a voice bellow for everybody to quiet down and take a seat. Earl Harbinger paced back and forth at the front of the cafeteria. He was wearing the same leather bomber jacket, and he had the same intense presence, as when I had first met him. Several other individuals entered and took seats behind him. I recognized Milo from the gate, and there was Julie Shackleford. She smiled when she saw me. My heart skipped a beat.

"Hello. My name is Earl Harbinger. Many of you know me already. I'm the Director of Operations here at MHI. Welcome to our new Hunter orientation. Let's get one thing straight right off the bat. We hunt monsters. That's what we do. Every one of you has had the experience to realize that there is a lot more out there than you've been led to believe. In the coming days I would just ask for one thing. Keep your mind flexible. Don't get caught up in what you're sure is real, because if you can't believe in them, you can't fight them."

Harbinger stopped speaking just as an older gentleman limped into the room. He was tall and gaunt. A black patch covered his obviously empty left eye socket, and the skin on that side of his face looked as if it had been badly burned at some point in the distant past. He had a stainless steel hook instead of a right hand. His hair was thick and white, and had been neatly combed. He wore an obviously expensive, dark Italian suit. He walked slowly, one foot slightly dragging.

"Ladies and gentlemen. Let me introduce Raymond Shackleford, President and CEO of Monster Hunter International." Harbinger quickly sat down. Most of us started to clap politely.

The senior Shackleford shushed us and waved his hook in our general direction. "Enough of that nonsense. I ain't no politician." He paused, folded his arms behind his back almost as if he was at parade rest and proudly addressed the room. He had the air of an old Southern gentleman. The boom of his voice did not fit his frail appearance.

"Welcome to Monster Hunter International. My name is Raymond Shackleford the Third. You can call me sir, Mr. Shackleford, or Boss. Today you are going to get a little history lesson, so pay attention." He cleared his throat loudly. "My grandfather founded this company in 1895. Raymond Shackleford the First, but around these parts everybody knew him as Bubba. Bubba Shackleford was born and raised in this very valley, here in the heart of Keene County. One winter the good folk of Keene County started to disappear: sadly, some of them even came back, only they were not quite human any more. My grandfather formed a group of concerned citizens, best could be described as an angry mob, and took care of the problem. The fault lay with what we now know to be a vampire. Grandpa Shackleford lynched the creature twice, and when it wouldn't die they finally, in frustration, burned it at the stake. One by one my grandfather's men found every newly created vampire, and destroyed each in turn, until finally the county and Cazador township was made safe."

The old man coughed, then pulled a white handkerchief from his suit coat and wiped his nose. It was plain to see that he was not in good shape, but it was obvious that he still maintained an amazingly strong will and presence. I had met a few people like that before, mostly at Veterans' Day functions. They were the kind of men that even my father saluted.

"Word spread across the state, and then across the South. Bubba's reputation grew. Turns out that there were many other towns that had their own supernatural problems. Grandpa was offered what was for the time princely sums of money to travel and dispatch other monsters. As time passed he assembled a group of strong men to assist him. They learned from their mistakes and they improved their methods. In December of 1895 they formed Bubba Shackleford's Professional Monster Killers. It has a certain ring to it, doesn't it?" he asked rhetorically.

"A contemporary of my grandfather was one Theodore Roosevelt. As luck would have it, Teddy, being an adventurous sort, had had a few monster encounters of his own—once as the New York City police commissioner, and then again in Cuba during the Spanish American war. When Teddy became President he was hell bent on the creation of some means to keep the forces of evil in check. Thus the Perpetual Unearthly Forces Fund was begun, or as we like to call it, PUFF. This was intended as a bounty system to award entrepreneurial brave men who would aid the nation by destroying dangerous monsters. My grandfather was the first person awarded a PUFF bounty.

"Since those early days this company has led the way in the fight against evil. After taking big jobs in Mexico for Standard Oil and in the Caribbean for United Fruit, the name was changed from Bubba Shackleford's Professional Monster Killers to something considered a bit more respectable: Monster Hunter International. Grandpa's company grew in stature and wealth, and he was even offered a position of some authority with the government's newly created Monster Control Bureau. He turned it down because he hated the government and had vowed never to work for any Yankees." There was some laughter at that.

"Eventually my grandfather died doing what he loved. His son, my father, took over the company at that time. He, too, was struck down. When I was old enough, I became the head of this company, and I have seen it change from a small operation into the premier monster hunting organization in the world."

He suddenly coughed again, this time with much greater intensity, a deep racking hack that sounded painful and wet. He covered his mouth with his hook, and Julie quickly stepped to her grandfather's side to offer assistance. He gently waved her away and, looking very concerned, she returned to her seat.

He continued as if nothing had happened. "For over a hundred years, this company has fought the good fight, the noble fight. We have always fought in secret because the powers that be don't want the sheep to be scared. We are the sheepdogs, and there are wolves out there, as all of you know firsthand. But things have changed. We have entered dark times indeed. For a brief time the fools in power, who should have known better, declared our business illegal. They caved in to monsters' rights groups, and the bureaucrats who assured them that federal agencies could handle the problem. There was an executive order. We were shut down, our assets confiscated, and any of us who opened our mouths were threatened with jail time. The damn nanny state couldn't handle the idea of private citizens taking care of their business." He was becoming visibly agitated. That explained the gap in the memorial plaques, but not what happened on December 15th.

"Ha! Ignorant bastards just had to have their fingers in everything. Monster attacks went up three thousand percent in the six years PUFF was shut down. The government has long had a policy to keep the truth secret. That is why so many of you here today were paid visits by agents and threatened with physical harm if you talked too much. But with incidents going through the roof, they were not going to be able to keep the lid on for much longer. Even with the full cooperation of the media, word was starting to spread. Not all of those crazy folks on that Internet thing are as crazy as you might think." He grinned widely, obviously amused at that thought. "Once enough voters were getting eaten, Congress had had enough and pressured the next President to reinstate PUFF and revoke the executive order that had banned professional monster hunting.

"So now we have restarted operations, and are trying to move past our dark days. Unfortunately we are short handed, and the monster problem is out of control. We are spread thin, with only small teams of experienced Hunters scattered around the country trying to put out fires. On the bright side, with so many attacks, it certainly makes finding and recruiting brave people like y'all much easier." He gestured at us with his hook.

"Thank you for coming. I look forward to working with each of you who make it through our training process. It will be hard. Earl here is gonna be a mean one, but it's for your own good. I must be going now."

We all stood and clapped as he shuffled out of the room. Judging by the man's injuries and attitude, I was willing to bet that he was a student of the lead-from-the-front school of management. His savaged appearance was sobering though, and I'm sure it made a few of the other Newbies question wanting to try monster hunting as a career.

Harbinger stood and addressed us again. "Every single person in this room was contacted after they survived some sort of monster encounter. Trust me, just surviving means that each one of you is statistically significant. We personally invited about double the number of people that you see here. Most of those decided not to come. That either makes you braver, or maybe stupider than the others." There were a few chuckles from the crowd.

"I ain't joking, people. I'm going to be flat-out honest here. I'm sure you all saw that wall outside. The one with all of the pretty silver things on it? Each one of those represents a fallen Monster Hunter. There is just over a hundred years of history on that wall. What we do is dangerous, sometimes stupidly dangerous, but it is necessary, more necessary than you might even realize for reasons that you'll come to understand with time. The only way that we win is if we work together as a team and be every bit as tough and ruthless and clever as the things we're chasing.

"Many of you will wash out of training, or get kicked out if you ain't up to snuff. That's fine, so don't get hurt feelings. This job is not for everybody. There ain't no shame in quitting. If at any time you decide that you want to quit, no problem. Talk to Dorcas, we'll write you out a check for your time and there are no hard feelings. Keep in mind, however, that if you talk about us in public, the nice men from the Monster Control Bureau, that most of you have already met, will probably kill you." Harbinger moved like a predator, eyeing the group with unnerving intensity.

"Your teachers will consist of experienced Hunters. Listen to them carefully. Read everything that you're given. Your life, or the lives of your teammates, may depend on your skill or knowledge." Harbinger pointed at the small knot of people sitting behind him. "We're not normally teachers. The folks sitting behind me are actually my personal team. I trust each of them with my life, and any of them would trust me with theirs. If any one of them decides that any one of you does not have what it takes to be a Hunter, then you're gone. That is all. Don't screw around with us. We're much better killers than we are babysitters." I knew Julie, and I had met Milo briefly, but I had no clue who the others were. One instructor had a giant mustache, looked like a cross between a cowboy and a truck driver, and reminded me of Kenny's dad from South Park.

"Some of you are here because you're tough, some are smart, some are warriors, some are not, it doesn't matter. Everybody will go through the same training. We recruited many of you because of your brains, and though you will probably never need to be on an actual hunting mission, you will still be trained to the same standards in weapons, tactics, and other skills. You need to understand the people you are supporting as good as you understand yourself. Those of you we recruited because you're fighters, you will need to learn every single bit of monster-related information that the smart folks learn. For those of you who think you are both smart and tough, don't get cocky because you will probably be the first one to get eaten." A few people started to snicker at that, but most of us realized that it was not meant to be funny. I was feeling rather sober and slightly intimidated.

"Training will last until we decide that you're good enough. After that you will be assigned to your duties. Some of you will be assigned to Hunter teams. We have teams stationed all around the country. Those teams respond to crises as they develop. Other people will work in direct support of the teams. We will go into greater details about how this entire thing works as training progresses. Every employee will be paid bimonthly according to your position. Any PUFF your personal team earns will be shared by the whole company, with your team getting the largest percentage. Think of it as profit sharing. That means that if your team wins a huge bounty you don't get to keep it all. Be careful not to bitch too much about that, however, because the next week it will probably be some other team that wins the big one and not you. Don't worry, though, the lowest paid employee we have probably made more than most of you did in the last year. Our business is monsters, and business is booming." He showed a lot of teeth when he smiled. It almost reminded me of when Mr. Huffman was about to eat me.

"Any questions?"

It was quiet. I was positive that there were many questions, but everyone was afraid to ask. I debated for a moment, but once again, curiosity got the better of me and I hesitantly raised my hand.

"Pitt." Harbinger pointed at me.

"What happened on December 15th, 1995?"

The instructors looked at each other uneasily. The pause was unnaturally long, and I realized from the creaking of folding chairs and the rustle of forty separate adjustments that the whole room was looking at me.

"How did you know something happened on that day?" asked one of the instructors in an accusatory tone. He was a handsome man, and was dressed more stylishly than the others. I immediately didn't like him.

"Lots of plaques with that date. Beginning of the big gap," I answered.

"Are you a detective or a reporter or something . . ."

Harbinger held up his hand and the other instructor shut up.

"Worse, he's an accountant." Harbinger nodded in my direction. "Very astute of you, Pitt. I'll answer your question, but not today. Most of you in this room are not going to make it through training. Those folks get to walk away from this place and never look back. They don't need to know. Trust me, they don't want to know. For those of you who make it, I'll tell you the story personally, because I was there, and it affects every single Hunter. It was the straw that broke the camel's back and got us shut down. It was the one hundred year anniversary of the founding of the company, and it was one hell of a Christmas party."

The room was quiet.

"Any more questions?"

No one else said a word.

"Okay, everybody grab your crap and follow me. I'll show you where you sleep, and then we get started. We have work to do."


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