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Chapter 5

Over the last week I had become very familiar with the compound. There was the two-story office building/fortress, and several smaller buildings that served as barracks, classrooms, workshops and armories. A few hundred yards away was the hangar, housing one medium plane and one strange-looking helicopter of foreign origin. Behind the asphalt runway, just far enough away so that the noise would not be distracting, were the shooting ranges. Bulldozers had pushed up huge berms of red clay soil to serve as backstops. A razor-wire-topped chain link fence stretched around the entire property, intimidating and sharp wherever it had not been overtaken with kudzu vines.

At that moment I was standing in front of a small group of other recruits on one of the shooting ranges. Ten yards away were five eight-inch steel plates, each one about a yard apart. Snugly tucked into my shoulder was the rubber butt pad of a slicked up Remington 870, pump-action, 12-gauge shotgun. The muzzle was kept at the low ready, and my trigger finger was extended safely along the receiver. I could sense the instructor standing behind me, holding the PACT timer right behind my head.

"Shooter ready?" he asked, voice slightly amplified through my electronic earplugs. The MHI-issued plugs were the most advanced that I had ever used. Totally comfortable, and wired into a communications net, they would block all sounds over a certain decibel level, while normal conversation was perfectly audible, even if slightly directionally distorted. I nodded.

"Stand by," the instructor said mechanically. I waited.

The timer beeped. This was the moment I lived for. In one fluid motion I deactivated the safety and pulled the shotgun into position. Leaning forward with my center of gravity one with the shotgun, I focused on the plates and willed them to be shot. I had no conscious thought of controlling the trigger. Having practiced drills like this thousands of times, the muzzle automatically sought out the plates. With each shot my arm pulled the pump without thought or hesitation. The barrel rose slightly only to settle almost instantly on the next plate. I absorbed and rolled with the heavy recoil of the double-aught buckshot. I knew that each shot had been clean even before the last payload of shot had impacted the steel surface. I lowered the gun as the last two plates fell with a clang.

"Holy shit." The instructor's voice was incredulous as he glanced at the electronic timer. It was designed to pick up the sound of each shot and digitally record it. It was a very handy training device. "One-point-eight-seven seconds. You did a Dozier drill in one-point-eight-seven with a pump shotgun and full power buckshot. That was unbelievable."

I stayed facing downrange. My personal best on this particular drill had been several years earlier in a match at 1.75, but that was with one of my personal guns that I had worked over myself. Contrary to popular myth, a shotgun pattern is not a huge room-clearing boulder of death; at ten yards it is usually smaller than a basketball. The real key is learning how to be one with the recoil. I had been doing stuff like this since I was a little kid.

"It sounded like it was full-auto," one of the other newbies said.

"Fluke," said another voice that I had seriously grown to dislike. "Have him do it again."

"Okay," said the instructor, a former U.S. Navy SEAL turned Monster Hunter named Sam Haven. He was our main weapons and tactics instructor. Sam was a the walrus-mustached man, a burly guy with a penchant for western wear, rodeo belt buckles and Stetson hats. He was also a bad mo-fo, whom I would never on my best day want to mess with. "Load up."

Somebody else pushed the button to activate the pneumatic target system. The five plates reset themselves with a hiss. I decided to show off a little for the crowd. Since the action was open, I quickly plucked a spare round of buckshot from the elastic sidesaddle mounted on the shotgun's receiver. I dropped it into the chamber, and instantly slammed the pump forward. Instinctively my support hand moved to the bandoleer of spare shells strapped across my chest. Grasping four cases, I palmed them under the loading port and rapid fire shoved them in as if my hand itself was a spring-loaded mechanism. Snick, snick, snick, snick. Four shells loaded in under two seconds.

It was a trick used by three-gun competitors. We would often shoot in long field courses involving rifles, pistols and shotguns. The shotgun portions sometimes consisted of twenty or even thirty separate targets. Since we were scored according to our total time, and since shotguns are low capacity weapons of five to nine shots (with some exceptions), the winners were the people who could keep their weapons loaded the fastest. Combine large groups of hyper-competitive type A personality gun people, and I guarantee you will see some amazing and creative ways to do things.

I heard another Newbie say something about a magic trick. Not magic my friend, just the result of practicing until my thumbs were a mass of nerve-deadened scar tissue. I tucked the shotgun back into the correct position, positioned my feet, and squared off against the targets. I indicated my readiness to Sam.

He leaned in close and spoke loud enough that he knew I would pick it up, but quiet enough that the rest of the class would not. His breath smelled of Copenhagen chewing tobacco.

"You're gonna have to show me how you do that loading trick."

I grinned, and answered, "Shooter ready."

Beep. This time I was really in the zone. The five shots came out as a continuous thunder of buckshot pelting steel to the ground. I lowered the smoking muzzle.

Sam paused before saying the time. "One-point-eight-two seconds. Hot damn."

I could not help but gloat a little as I smiled for my nemesis. Grant Jefferson. The smug bastard had only been able to do it in 2.5, which was still pretty respectable, but not even close to as fast as mine. And the best part was that he knew it. He was the one who said my first run had been a fluke. Grant was not used to being bested at anything. I enjoyed watching as he stomped off in frustration. He did not like me, and the feeling was mutual. I handed the shotgun over for the next shooter.

Grant was no Newbie. He was a full-fledged member of MHI, and also one of our instructors, though he was the junior man on Harbinger's team. He had only come out to shoot in the hopes of showing us poor folks how it was done. Grant was totally my opposite. Lean and handsome, witty, charming, a product of the finest schools, and descended from the oldest established (as in super wealthy) New England families. He even had nice hair. He was the type of person everybody liked, and everybody wanted to be liked by.

I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him. I thought he was a pompous ass from the moment I had met him, and I felt the primal and instinctual need to beat him up and take his lunch money.

But the real reason that I hated his guts was that he was Julie Shackleford's boyfriend.

Julie and I had only spoken briefly since my arrival at the compound, and that had been mostly a "Hi, how are you" kind of thing. I had been totally swamped with training, and she was always occupied with one piece of business or another. It wasn't like she had ever even given me any sort of indication that she liked me as anything other than as an employee, so I don't know why the thought of her dating a jerk like Grant bothered me so much. As much as I hated to admit it, I had a horrible crush on her.

Sam interrupted my reverie. "Pitt! I want you to tell everybody else how you shoot like that. I've told y'all what I know, and most of you still can't shoot for shit, you damn bunch of worthless derelicts, so let's get a fresh perspective. The pump is not your main weapon, or even your first choice, but there're times when it is the absolute best thing you can have. We have a lot of specialty rounds that won't run through a semi. Every one of you needs to know how to use this thing because one of these days it might save your life." Knowing how to do things because they might someday save your life was the mantra of our experienced Monster Hunters.

The former SEAL spit a mighty wad of tobacco juices into the gravel. That was good. I noticed that most of the time he just swallowed the stuff. That could not be healthy.

"Okay. Um . . ." I looked over the group and thought about what to say. "What I'm seeing from most of you is that you aren't really familiar with your weapons yet. You need to get to the point where your gun is an extension of your body. You don't think about shooting, because if you're thinking then you're going too slow. You just let the shot happen. Shotguns are more of an instinctive weapon than pistols or rifles. Some of you guys need to relax and let it flow."

I pointed at one of the other Newbies, a muscular black man with dreadlocks. "Trip here is a great example. When he uses the pump, it's shoot, dramatic pause, pump, pause, shoot, pause, pump. You're thinking too hard. Thinking takes time. It's just boom and go. Like playing an instrument, you don't think about the notes, you just play." He nodded in understanding. Trip and I had hit it off, and he was currently my bunkmate in the barracks. His real name was John Jermain Jones, and he was at a loss to explain what his folks had been thinking when they had come up with that combination. The nickname that had stuck was Triple J, and after a week, most of us just called him Trip.

Trip had been recruited by MHI after a voodoo priestess had placed a curse on his small Florida town and caused some of the recently deceased to rise from their graves to feast upon the brains of the living. He had solved the zombie problem with judicious use of a pickax. He was a great guy, and so far his only real challenge in training had been his lack of exposure to firearms, though he was coming along really well with the subguns. They just suited his personality more. Considering that a year ago he had been a high school chemistry teacher, he was actually one tough dude.

"Then the other problem I see is that some of you are just kind of recoil sensitive, like Holly." I pointed out the next Newbie. Holly Newcastle was an attractive young woman with bleached blond hair and an amazing boob job. She never told the rest of us how she ended up at MHI, but apparently she had worked as a stripper, or as she preferred, exotic dancer, before being recruited. The rumors were that it had involved a hot lesbian vampire, but I'm pretty sure that that was just wishful thinking by most of the guys in the barracks.

As far as I could tell she had exactly zero experience with any sort of firearms, but she was coming along gradually. She really surprised me when it came to the class portion of our training; she had an amazing ability to soak up knowledge and monster-related trivia. She may have looked like the stereotype, but she was no dumb blond. I had no doubt that whatever she had done to get herself recruited by MHI, she had done very well.

"Holly, the shotgun kicks, but once you master the correct form, you learn to just flow with the recoil and it's no big deal. It's all about proper fit, and how you hold it. If you're doing it right it doesn't hurt at all."

"So what you're saying, Z, is that it's kinda like sex. If it hurts, you must be doing it wrong?" She smiled seductively and winked. I blushed. Everybody else laughed, including Sam the instructor.

"Pretty much." I had a sneaky feeling that Holly wanted me to help her with more forms than just her shotgunning. It's kind of a bummer that for a person with such a dark complexion my cheeks turned red so easily. "Seriously though, fit is very important; we need to find you a stock that's a couple of inches shorter." I hurried along before anybody thought to make a nasty joke about that comment.

I continued my demonstration to the other new recruits. We were an odd collection. Ages ranged from mid-forties all the way down to barely old enough to drink. We had people from all parts of the country and all walks of life. We had everything from an Army Ranger to a taxi driver, from a narcotics cop to a librarian, and we even had a plumber. Take my word for it, you do not want to hear the detailed account of his first monster encounter.

Despite our differences, we all had a few things in common. Every single one of us had come face to face with something from mankind's darkest imagination, and every single one of us was a survivor.

At the beginning of our training we had been informed that not all of us would make it, and they had not been kidding. The experienced instructors made judgment calls as necessary, and many a recruit was sent packing with an extremely generous severance check and an admonition not to talk too freely about what they had learned. Other Newbies quit on their own. Some could not handle the physical stress, others, the mental. There was no real shame in quitting. Anyone was free to leave at any time, and many did. I thought about it a few times myself.

I was too stubborn to admit it to anyone, but every day that I had been here, I had struggled with the idea of what we were doing. I was torn, part of me loved the idea and the challenge, but the part of me that had sought to be normal for so long was having a real hard time adjusting to the fact that I was learning how to kill monsters for fun and profit.

The physical training was difficult, though according to our former Ranger it was a total sissified cakewalk. Personally, my leg was still tender and weak, and the running was killing me. I hate running. I was still walking with a limp, and I had despised running when I was totally healthy. Running is for skinny people.

Weapons and tactics was my favorite segment. Not just because it was what I had done for fun for most of my life anyway, but also because I excelled at it. Many of the Newbies struggled through, while others would never have what it took to work as a well-coordinated team, armed with lethal weapons, operating seamlessly together under intense pressure. That was fine. We had been told early on that not all of us would end up as the tip of the spear, on an actual fighting Hunter team. There was plenty of other work that also needed to be done—research, support, admin, technical stuff, and other jobs—but every employee of MHI was to be proficient enough that they could stand in as an emergency replacement if needed.

Out of our current group I was guessing that about half of us would be assigned to Hunting teams. Not bad considering that we had started with forty recruits and now we were down to only twenty. There were a few I was not sure about, who could probably go either way, and then there were the last few, who personally I was not comfortable with even having loaded weapons anywhere near me. Some people just did not have the proper mindset to ever rise above mere proficiency with a firearm.

The classroom sessions were by far the most educational for all of us, because regardless of what kind of bizarre background somebody might have hailed from, the things we were being taught were guaranteed to be new material.


Earl Harbinger sat with his feet up on the desk. In one hand he held the remote control for the slide show, and the other held a yardstick that he used to point out interesting things. The photos on the slide show were disturbing to say the least.

"There's many kinds of undead. Undead is basically a catchall term for any being that's scientifically dead, yet still animated. They range from your basic zombie, which is nothing more than a flesh-eating corpse, all the way up to your virtually invincible master vampires and pretty much anything you can think of in between. You'll need to know them all—their strengths and especially their weaknesses." Click. This slide showed a large number of chewed-up corpses littering a suburban street. It could have been in any town in the country. Some of the modest ranch-style homes in the background were on fire. "Undead are our bread and butter. In North America alone we average at least one incident involving them a month. Factor in South America and the Caribbean and we probably have a Hunter team working an undead outbreak at any given time. With your basic lower-level undead, the key is a swift response. They multiply like rabbits, and the denser the human population, the more danger there is."

Click. The next slide appeared to have been taken with a cheap disposable camera at a really bad angle. The subject was a woman lunging with filthy hands outstretched toward the unseen photographer. Most of her face was missing, and her lower jaw consisted only of exposed bone, but she did not appear to notice. Her eyes were wide and hungry.

"Zombie. The walking dead. Not very fast. Not very smart. They'll head straight for you, they never stop, they feel no pain, they never tire, and they never quit. Luckily they're about as creative as broccoli. The real danger is their bite, as the guy taking this picture found out. A single bite is infectious and the victim's destined to end up a zombie themselves. The worse the injury, the faster you die, the faster you come back. George Romero was an optimist. Yes, head shots work, but you've got to really damage their brains for a reliable stop." We had learned that oftentimes cultural and entertainment ideas about monsters had some basis in fact.

"Where do they come from?" one of the class asked.

"Voodoo," muttered Trip. The twenty remaining Newbies sat on metal folding chairs behind rickety plastic tables. We were in a small room located in the main building. The air conditioner kept us alive in the freshly arrived Alabama heat.

"That's one possibility, and a good thing to keep in mind. If you can bag the person that animated the dead to begin with, by all means do it. Animating the dead is a serious felony, and the Feds usually pay a good reward for renegade witch doctors or mad scientists. I've got to keep going, though, because we have a lot to cover. All of this information is in your packets, and I'll get to specifics later, today is just the overview. Last thing on zombies, PUFF is usually about $5,000 a head, depending on the severity of the outbreak."

Click. The thing in the picture had obviously once been a person, but was now a hunched and rotting pile of rags and jagged edges and pointed teeth. The creature held what appeared to be a human leg in its mostly skeletal hand. It looked as if its lunch had been rudely interrupted by the flash of the picture. "This is a ghoul. Think of it as a super zombie on crack. Much smarter, much faster, way harder to stop. Luckily they're rare, which is a good thing because the one in this picture soaked up about two hundred rounds before it finally quit kicking. Head shots don't usually work, though they tend to slow them down. Your best bet is to hammer them until you break down their skeletal structure to the point where they just can't fight anymore. Then burn them to be sure. They're usually found around cemeteries, as they're carrion feeders. PUFF for a ghoul runs around 20K."

Click. "This is a wight. Toughest of the zombie family. One of old Europe's least popular exports." This picture took me by surprise. Sure the creature was as nasty as expected, appearing to be a normal man except for his horribly distorted visage, sharp, black teeth and red eyes, but this picture caught my attention because it was an action shot. Julie Shackleford was in the corner of the frame, with a long spear in her hands, keeping the creature at bay while it clawed at her. She was wearing some sort of strange body armor that I did not recognize. Her dark hair had been captured flying wildly around her head like a halo, and there was an intense look of fear and concentration on her face. She was frozen in midmovement, gracefully lunging toward the claws of the undead beast. It was like a cover shot from Sports Illustrated only this time the sport was Mutant Tag and the penalty for losing was painful death.

I studied her face. She was much younger, far too young to be doing what she was doing. Not as gorgeous and distinct then as she would turn out to be, but obviously filled with courage. She was wearing her glasses, but I could still see her brown eyes, and her teeth were a hard white line in her face. My heart knotted at the sight of her in danger, though obviously that incident must have turned out just fine. She was beautiful.

I'm such a sap.

I snapped out of my reverie and tried to pay attention to Harbinger's lesson. I had missed part of what he had said, but I did not dare ask him to repeat it. He was finishing up on the dangers of facing wights.

"Their touch causes immediate paralysis, even through armor. It wears off quickly, but by then it's usually too late. They can be insanely strong. So don't screw around against these without backup and heavy weapons."

"What happened?" I blurted.

"Huh?" he answered.

"In the picture, with this . . . wight."

Harbinger paused. Probably debating whether he should rip me for butting in, or just tell the story. He was notorious amongst the Newbies for not telling the stories behind their adventures, as opposed to Sam or especially Milo who seemed to love it. Finally the internal battle was ended and he decided to share. However, the look he fixed me with let me know that I would be running laps until I puked because of the interruption.

"Outside of Sandusky, Ohio, October of '95. Just before Halloween. Crazy time of year in this business. My team was taking care of a ghoul problem at an old cemetery, when this one surprised us. We didn't expect a wight. It popped out of the ground right in front of our vehicle, crushed the whole front end with its bare hands, and smashed through the window like it was nothing. I was in the passenger seat and it was on me so fast that it was a blur. It hit me and all of my muscles locked right up like I was frozen. Milo was driving. It nailed him too. Julie was in the back seat. She opened up right between us with her pistol, surprised it apparently, because it quit trying to kill me and Milo. The wight jumped on the roof and started peeling it back to get her. She bailed out with that spear." He paused and chewed on his lower lip for a moment.

"Make a note, it was a good thing she didn't just keep using her gun. Firearms will stop a wight eventually, but eventually is the key word. See, the longer an undead like the wight exists, the stronger it becomes. New ones are pretty easy to kill, but this particular son of a bitch dated back to the Civil War. They can take forever to quit, so you work in teams, hold them off you while you pour fire into them. The rest of the team heard the commotion on the radio, and they were coming fast, but not fast enough.

"So anyways, Julie gets out and uses the spear to hold it back. Every time it moved, she would stick it. You can see in the slide that it has a catch past the blade to keep creatures from slipping down the shaft to get you. She kept sticking it and basically played keep away. It couldn't reach her as long as she kept stabbing it, but there was no way that spear was going to put it down. The guy that took the picture was no help. He was just some bozo bystander. Great shot though. Finally the feeling returned to my limbs enough to flop out of the Suburban and I lit him up."

"Lit him up?" somebody else asked.

"Flamethrower. Don't fight high-level undead without one. Once its flesh was on fire it was only a matter of time before it ran out of steam. Julie pinned it to a mausoleum door and held it there until it quit kicking. Took forever. Mean sons o' bitches."

"How old was she?" Holly asked.

Harbinger thought about it for a moment.

"She had just turned eighteen."


"It runs in the family." He returned to the lesson.


Sawing off a human head is harder than it looks. The body tends to flop around every time you hit it, and it makes a really nasty mess. Once goo gets on the handle of your knife, it gets even worse, and the next thing you know, your blade is glancing off of bones that you didn't even know were there. I grunted as I strained the blade against the rubbery flesh.

"Damn it, Pitt, don't saw. This ain't gardening. It's killing. Chop it!" Sam shouted at me. Sam always shouted.

Responding to the order, I raised the heavy knife over my head and brought it down with as much force as possible, this time chopping completely through the tissue and breaking the vertebrae. The cadaver's head rolled off the table and landed on the floor with a damp thud.

"Much better!" the instructor bellowed. "See that, class? Don't screw around with them. There are some things that don't quit until you take their heads off. If you have got to do it, do it quick. Solid whack like you're chopping wood. Don't pussyfoot around. And remember the fresh ones squirt more!"

Our class of remaining Newbies was slowly shaping up into a coherent team of Hunters. Currently we were standing in a small refrigerated room near the hangar, known as the Body Shack. MHI had saved the most disgusting lessons for the last of us. I'm sure that staking and beheading corpses was practical training, but I believed that the main reason we did this was to weed out the trainees who couldn't handle the sheer nastiness of lopping off a human head.

It probably would have been more efficient to do the horrific stuff first, as it really took out anyone with a weak stomach. According to Milo the reason we saved it for this late in the training was that it was hard to get a good supply of medical school leftover bodies. By saving this part until most of the trainees had washed out he had to scrounge up fewer corpses. Milo was a pretty efficient guy.

"Next team. Newcastle and Mead," Sam said to Holly and Chuck, the next people in line, as Milo used a hose to spray down the floor. Several of the other Newbies had lost their lunch on this exercise. Mingled fluids coagulated around the central drain.

Placing the gore-splattered knife on the table, I stumbled away to wash my hands. They were shaking badly and I felt a strong urge to vomit. Trip was already at the sink scrubbing furiously.

"Dude, that sucked," he hissed.

"Next time I stake, you chop," I replied.

"Hey, you called heads. Not my fault."

"At least it wasn't the Gut Crawl."

He frowned at me. "Come on, man, I'm already trying not to barf as it is, don't bring that up."

The Gut Crawl had consisted of a single Newbie wiggling through a long section of pipe filled with cow entrails. Between the dark, the smell, the heat of the pipe and the horrible squishiness of it all, it was probably the worst experience of my life, up to and including actually dying. Supposedly it had been a test of our ability to deal with disturbing surroundings and still keep our wits. Personally I thought it was Harbinger torturing us. Two of our class had quit rather than do it, and when I had been stuck halfway down that dark pipe, covered in slime and feces and intestines, I had envied them. One other trainee had made it halfway down the pipe, only to suffer a panic attack and lock up. All three of them had been given fat severance checks and sent home.

There were only a dozen of us left. Judging by the standards of our instructors, it was no surprise that MHI was currently short-handed. Harbinger had been very up-front about it though. He was a firm believer that the harder we sweated in practice, the less we would bleed when it was for real.

Holly finished her staking and came over to wash up. She seemed unperturbed by the minor fact that she had just used a hammer to drive a sharpened wooden shaft through what had once been a real live person's rib cage. I had been surprised by our former stripper. Nothing ever seemed to faze her, and she attacked every job with a vengeance. We still had not learned her story, but it was obvious that she well and truly hated the other team, and she was looking forward to exacting some payback. If that required crawling through guts, or chopping off limbs, no problem.

"That wasn't so bad. Chuck got stuck with the head. Poor guy, he brought it on himself though," she said, flashing us with a wicked grin.

"How?" asked Trip, still washing his hands. I had news for him, no amount of water was going to make us feel clean after what we had just done.

"He always goes rock. Never paper or scissors. Dumb ass." She examined the old blood staining her nails. "By the way, I overheard Dorcas talking to Milo. Harbinger's pretty happy with how we're doing. We're going to get the whole weekend off."

"Awesome," I exclaimed. We had been training hard for a solid month. I'd be more than ready for a break this weekend. With the prospect of an actual couple of days off, I suddenly didn't mind so much being covered in gore. "It'll be good to get out of here."

"No kidding," she replied, then turned toward Trip who was adding more soap and giving it another try. "Dude, Trip, you need to hurry up, the rest of us need a turn too."

"Ugh, you have no idea what kind of bacteria is in something like this," he said. "You've got to do a good job sanitizing."

"Weren't you a science teacher?" Holly asked.

"Chemistry, and I subbed band, and I was the assistant football coach. It was a small school." Being his roommate, I knew his story well. Having to cave in some students' heads once they had joined the ranks of the undead really tended to mess up a teaching career.

"I figured with all of the frog dissecting you wouldn't be so damn squeamish. Hey, you have some blood or snot or something in your dreads." As he reached up in disgust, Holly cut in front of him to wash her hands. "Sucker."

With a thwacking noise and a flourish Chuck took his cadaver's head off, and Sam bellowed at us the fact that we did not do too bad for a bunch of derelicts, thus ending another day of training.

* * *

My breath came in ragged gasps. I had long since passed the point where I could control it. The muscles in my legs were on fire, especially where Huffman's talons had pierced me, and my feet and knees ached with each footfall. Blinking away the sweat in my eyes, I pushed on, trying to once again find that point of oblivion where the pain didn't matter. I hate running. All big men hate running. Sure, I could sprint, but you don't see very many three-hundred-pound marathoners for good reason. Only crazy people run for fun.

The last mile of forest trail was the worst. It had the steepest hills and the most rutted path of the whole trek. But I took comfort as I made my way up the red dirt road, as we were almost done for the day. It had started just after dawn, with hours of physical training, tactics, armed and unarmed combat practice, monster class, and now the sun was down and we were limping in from a six-mile run from hell. Finally the trees thinned, and I even managed to smile as we passed the kudzu-covered chain link fence to enter the compound. Most of the Newbies had already arrived and were crashing out on the available benches or stretching on the grass. The good runners like Trip, Lee, and Mead looked almost relaxed and refreshed from the little jaunt. Trip's good natured thumbs-up made me want to beat him to death.

"About time, Pitt," Grant Jefferson shouted. He glanced at his stopwatch in disgust. "Pathetic. Just pathetic." He had led the run and had made most of the rest of us look bad. Of course, some of us came out looking worse than others. One of the other Newbies stumbled off to the side to puke. Grant just smirked. "All right. We're done for now. Stretch out tonight, because we're doing this twice tomorrow." Everyone groaned.

I sat on one of the empty benches and put my head in my hands. I knew that I was supposed to walk around and gradually let my heart rate subside to avoid muscle soreness, but man, I just needed a break. I excelled at everything physical except for this. Gradually my panting turned to normal breathing, and my heart was no longer pounding away. The other Newbies began to wander off toward the barracks for some much-needed sleep. I stayed on the bench to enjoy the cool twilight.

"Hi." A lovely voice spoke from behind me. "Mind if I have a seat?" It was Julie.

"No. Yes. I mean, of course," I stammered, sliding over so she could fit. She dropped down next to me with a smile. She was wearing shorts and looked like she had been working out. I tried not to stare at her well-muscled legs. I was suddenly very self-conscious about my sweat-soaked T-shirt. I bet I stunk.

"So how's everything going?" she asked.

"Fine, I'm doing okay. Except for that." I jerked my thumb toward the cross-country track. "That sucks."

She laughed, hopefully with me, and not at me. "I know it. I hate it too. Not all of us are like Grant." She pointed across the field. A lone figure stood a hundred yards away, throwing punches at invisible foes under the lights of the obstacle course.

Grant Jefferson had stuck around after the Newbies had left. He had stripped off his shirt and was practicing what appeared to be some extremely difficult martial exercises. I hated to admit it, but the man was a near-perfect physical specimen. If monster hunting didn't work out for him, I was sure he could get a gig as an underwear model.

"So . . . how long have you guys been dating?" I asked, trying not to sound jealous. I don't know if I succeeded.

"A couple months," she answered as she looked at me suspiciously. "Why?"

"Oh . . . I don't know. He just seems a little . . ."


I paused, not quite sure how to answer that. "Uh, yeah, I guess. He just doesn't strike me as your type is all."

"And you know my type how?" she asked, studying me carefully. I swallowed, wanting to shout "Me." Thankfully she continued before I had to answer. "Yes, I know Grant comes off a little arrogant, but he really is a great guy. He's smart and ambitious. He was in Harvard Law School when we recruited him."

Figures, I thought to myself. "The CPA exam is way harder than passing the Bar," I muttered.


"Uh . . . nothing."

"We hit it off when he arrived here. Grant's traveled the world. He's sophisticated, cultured, educated. He's done a lot of really interesting things. So he's kind of . . . confident. That comes off as cocky sometimes."

Comes off as an ass. I bit my tongue. I knew the truth. I bet he drowned sacks of puppies for fun. In the distance Grant had dropped down and started doing pushups.

"Well, good for you guys . . . I've got to get some sleep." I stood up to leave.

"Goodnight, Owen."

"Yeah, 'night, Julie." I wandered off. It figured that I had finally met the perfect woman, only to find out she wasn't interested in me. I kicked over the garbage can outside the barracks. Screw it. I was tired.


"What're you doing?" Trip asked me as he entered our tiny barracks room. The windows were open and loud insects chirped and whistled in the darkness outside.

"I don't know," I answered honestly. I was sitting on my bunk, suitcase open on the floor in front of me. My right hand ached from the impact it had taken an hour earlier. "Thinking about packing, I guess."

"You didn't strike me as a quitter," he said simply. "That was an accident with Green. You didn't mean to hurt him. Milo says he'll be out of the hospital in a week. It's just his collar bone and a concussion."

"I only hit him once."

We had been practicing going hands-on. Never a good choice against a monster, but a necessary skill to have nonetheless. They had paired me up with Green, a muscle-bound former narc. It had gotten kind of competitive.

"Stuff happens," Trip shrugged. "Don't be a baby about it."

"Sam said I wasn't being aggressive enough."

"He probably shouldn't have said that to somebody who beat up a werewolf." Trip sat on his bed. "When Green wakes up, he'll be cool. It was an accident."

I shook my head. "No. It wasn't. I got angry. I didn't hold back. Look, man, this is why I should probably go. When I get mad, when I lose control, people get hurt."

"You make it sound like you're the Hulk," he laughed. "You're training to be a Monster Hunter. We're supposed to hurt things. Come on, dude, what's the deal?"

Trip had become a good friend over the last few weeks of training, and I could tell that he did honestly want to help. I stared down at the open suitcase. "You know I used to fight for money, right?" I continued, not looking up. "A few years ago, I had a big one. My last one. Lots of cash on the table. The other guy was supposed to be a real badass. Supposedly he had killed a couple of people in prison. There were no rules, and it wasn't supposed to stop until one of us couldn't fight anymore. Last man standing got paid."

"Why would you do that?" he asked, sincerely perplexed. Trip was a good man, and the idea of inflicting violence on another human being for no good reason was truly foreign to him.

I sighed. "You've got to understand. My whole life, my father tried to prepare me for something. All he did was push. He had some sort of fucked-up vision of the future, and he wanted me to be ready for it. I guess I just needed to prove that I was as tough as he thought I was."

"So what happened?"

"The other fighter really was a bad dude. Meanest I had ever dealt with. I couldn't take him. He just wouldn't quit. Then, something happened . . . Something snapped, broke loose. No pain, just focus. Like when Huffman tried to eat me. Next thing I knew, I had blood up to my armpits and I was kneeling on this guy while I hit him until my knuckles broke."

Trip looked shocked. "You killed him?"

"Almost, and I would have, but the promoters pulled me off. They managed to stitch his skull back together, but he lost an eye, and I've heard he's still all messed up. . . . I would've killed him. And right then, I wanted to kill him, and for what? How stupid is that?"

"Pretty stupid."

We sat in silence for a while, Trip not really knowing what to say. I knew from our talks that he was a devoutly religious man and was probably trying to think of how to politely tell me that I was surely going to hell. Finally I spoke. "You know why I became an accountant?"

"Pays better than teaching."

"I picked the most straight-laced, stereotypically boring thing that I could think of. My entire life I'd been taught to be a killer, but after that night, I just wanted to get as far away from it as I could."

"But you still carried a gun everyday?"

"I didn't go looking for trouble, didn't mean I wasn't ready for trouble to look for me," I answered.

"Beats hitting zombies with a pickax . . ." he muttered.

"And now here I am. In this place, where all the things I've spent the last few years trying to distance myself from are not only encouraged, they're mandatory. And it seems like I might actually be pretty good at this. But I'm worried . . ."

"That you'll hurt somebody who don't need hurting?"

"Yeah, something like that." I clenched my scarred-up fists. My hand throbbed from where I had slugged Green. It had only been a brief instant, a flash of anger, but that was all it took.

Trip thought about it for a few long seconds, absently chewing on his lower lip, then stood. "The way I see it, we're here to do good. I don't know about you, but I came here to stop monsters from hurting folks. The Lord's given you a gift, a weird one, but still a gift, and the fact that you're worried about misusing it means that you're not a bad guy. So put that suitcase away, man up, and let's get to class before Harbinger realizes we're late. He kind of scares me." He thumped me on the shoulder, and walked out the door.

I waited a moment, listening to the angry buzz of the insects crashing against the window screen. Then I pushed the suitcase back under my bunk and went back to work.


I thought I understood discomfort and heat. I had lived in Texas for a few years, and I had grown up in the San Joaquin Valley of California. One was miserably hot and windy, and other was muggy from all of the open-air irrigation. But summer in the Heart of Dixie was a whole new type of evil. So hot that you couldn't think, and so wet you could almost drink the air. Summer had come to Alabama.

So of course this was the day when we were issued our body armor. It was heavy, and though well designed to be comfortable and breathable, during summers in Alabama a pair of shorts and a tank top were considered warm clothing. I was sweating profusely, not that that said much, considering that men of my bulk usually started sweating at room temperature, but this was particularly bad. Thankfully the armor came equipped with a CamelBak water bladder and drinking tube. As their ad so eloquently stated: Hydrate or Die.

Milo Anderson paced back and forth in front of the assembled Newbies. Today he was wearing a Violent Femmes T-shirt and his red beard had been braided into two separate forks, both seemingly long enough to rappel from. Occasionally he would stop before a Newbie, examine them critically, and then pause long enough to adjust some strap or buckle. He was the creator of the suit, as well as many of the other devices the Hunting teams used.

Grant Jefferson watched us smugly in our discomfort. He was wearing his armor, which had been tailored to suit him better. Holly had said that he was dashingly handsome, and even she, being so very jaded and cynical about men because of her background, found him very charismatic and charming. She told me that it was easy to see why Grant and Julie had hooked up. He was young, smart, good-looking, knew how to talk to people, and everybody loved him. I still wanted to kick his ass.

On Grant's shoulder was a patch with the green smiley face with horns that was the unofficial company logo, which only Harbinger's personal team wore. We had been told that the other teams made up their own logos. The only other team logo that I had seen here at the compound had been a fire-breathing warthog that Dorcas had engraved onto her plastic leg. Grant wore the smiley face with pride—apparently it was a real honor to end up on Harbinger's team. I had learned that he had only been a Hunter since the business had reopened, but he had shown so much potential in training that he had been picked to fill a void on what was considered the best team.

"You will learn to live in these suits for days at a time. This suit will save your life. This suit will become like a second skin to you." Grant was lecturing us, gesturing at his own gear. Milo stopped in front of me with a scowl and adjusted the webbing around my torso. Apparently Milo had never had to make a suit for somebody as big as I am, and it had been a bit of a challenge to come up with Kevlar sheets for a sixty-two-inch chest.

"Psst . . . Milo," I whispered. "Since these are supposed to be like second skins, where's yours?"

"Screw that. It's hot," he answered.

And he invented the darn thing. Testify brother, I thought.

"One time this suit saved my life. You can see right here where I was clawed by a golem. See, right there on the abdomen. Surely this would have been a mortal blow, but I was able to shrug it off and stay in the fight. I dispatched the monster and was able to rush to the aid of my team and save them from certain death," Grant told us, lifting up the front of his armor so we could all see his sculpted abs. The man must do crunches in his sleep to look like that. Grant had been talking forever, and unlike the other instructors, did not have a drop of humility in his soul. I was about ten minutes from a heat stroke, and we were stuck suffering in the sun while our teacher blathered.

Milo rolled his eyes and went back to adjusting straps. "Some golem. It was three feet tall," he muttered under his breath so it was barely audible to just me, "ass."

The armor was a modular system that could be configured by the user depending on what kind of threat we were going to face. A thick layer of stab-proof Kevlar covered the vital organs. Though not much heavier than regular thick clothing, the sleeves and pant legs had the same fibers sewn into the fabric. There was a neck guard that could be raised to resemble a turtle neck to protect against bites. Most of the threats we would face would involve teeth or claws, so unlike regular body armor, ours was designed for that rather than for bullet resistance. Milo informed us that the torso was rated the same as a traditional level IIIA bulletproof vest, able to stop most pistol rounds. There were pouches on the front and back designed to hold ceramic plates that could stop rifle rounds if the threat warranted it, and if the user didn't mind the extra weight. The system incorporated load-bearing gear and pouches for magazines, weapons, tools, medical kits, or whatever other useful things the Hunter might need.

There were two different types of gloves that came with the suit. One was a basic shooting glove that offered a small amount of protection, but still allowed good dexterity. And the other was a heavy armored gauntlet for when you needed maximum protection and just had to wade in and crush some heads. The heavy units could be attached to the end of the sleeves. There were also two types of helmets. The first was simply a modified hockey helmet, good basically to keep you from banging yourself in the skull when blundering around in the dark. The second, an armored monstrosity that looked kind of like a motorcycle helmet with a full visor and face shield, could be attached to the neck guard. With the heavy gloves and big helmet, a suited Monster Hunter could become a chew toy for a pile of zombies and come out gnawed on, but unbitten. Unfortunately for me, Milo did not have a helmet that would fit my enormous head so he had special-ordered one. Hopefully nothing would try to eat me before then.

The armor had lots of extras designed just for the people in our peculiar business. A CO2 cartridge was carried in the shoulder harness. In case of emergency it could be activated and the harness would inflate. Handy if you got dumped into deep water, because it was difficult to swim while strapped with piles of gear. My understanding was that Sam, our former SEAL, had insisted on that device. Each suit also had a GPS unit for navigation, which occasionally came in handy to locate a Hunter's body when the bad guys won.

The armor could be ordered in whatever color you wanted, as long as it was black, olive drab, or coyote brown. There was not a lot of use for festive colors in monster hunting, nor were there a lot of suppliers of heavyweight military strength Cordura in any other colors. I had gone with brown. Grant had gone with black. He probably thought it made him look tough. I thought he looked kind of like a silly version of Darth Vader. I took comfort in the fact that he had to be cooking in the sun right about now, though the bastard did not even give me the satisfaction of looking uncomfortable.

"Pay attention," Grant snapped at me. Milo rolled his eyes again. I snickered. Grant stormed toward us like a bulldog.

"Pitt. I don't like your attitude."

"Trust me, Grant. It's mutual," I snapped back.

"What did you say?" He poked me in the chest with his trigger finger. I couldn't feel a thing through the armor, but that did not change the fact that I did not like getting poked. It was hot, I was tired, and frankly in no mood to put up with any nonsense. Milo wisely moved aside.

"I said it's mutual. Meaning I don't like your attitude either."

"I'm trying to teach you Newbies how to stay alive."

"Then teach. All I'm hearing is stories about how great you are. I came here to learn how to kill stuff, not to join your fan club."

He stabbed me again. "I'm a pro. You need to shut your stupid Newbie mouth. You think you know so much. I saw that video. You got lucky with that werewolf, and now you think you're hot shit."

"You had best take that hand off of me," I said. The rest of the class was gradually spreading out around us. The group could sense trouble brewing and were ready for some entertainment. Apparently I was not the only one in a foul mood.

"Or what?" And he poked harder. It was really kind of a useless gesture considering the armor could stop a battle-ax. With years of experience bouncing rowdy people from bars, I had a good sense of when somebody was itching for trouble, and Grant was itching bad.

"I'll take it off and feed it to you." I smiled at him and winked. That really seemed to anger him. Grant's movie star face turned bright red. He was as tall as I was, but not nearly as big or as strong. I had no doubt that I could beat him mercilessly.

"I could have you kicked out of here like that." He took his hand away long enough to snap his fingers, then he went back to poking me.

"For what?" asked Milo, arms folded, studying the other instructor. Milo was by far the senior in experience, and in the amount of respect he received from the trainees. That was easy though, Milo Anderson was a likable guy. Grant on the other hand . . . 

"Insubordination," Grant hissed. "One word to the Boss about your attitude and you're gone."

"If I'm going to get kicked out, believe me, I'm going to have some fun doing it." I felt my body tense as the adrenaline began to flow. If Grant wanted a piece of me, I was prepared to give that preppie piece of trash what he wanted.

"Grant." Milo spoke quietly. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. You're picking a fight with somebody who outweighs you by a hundred pounds of muscle. Insubordination my butt. You say anything to the Boss and my side of the story will be that you were trying to commit suicide by accountant."

"I could take him," the junior instructor stated coldly. "He isn't as tough as everybody thinks."

"Grant, I could kick your ass. Pitt would make you his bitch."

That took the wind out of Grant's sails. I could see the realization dawn in his blue eyes, the realization that I could probably turn him into pulp. I just kept smiling, still prepared to mess up his pretty face and give him the opportunity to digest some of his perfectly white teeth. He had already pushed too far, though. He could not back off now without looking bad. He leaned in close and whispered in my ear.

"Stay away from Julie, you son of a bitch. I've seen you looking at her." I was surprised. So that was what this was all about. I had barely even seen her since training had started.

"Bite me," I replied.

"Enough!" Milo shouted. "Class is over. It's too hot and everybody's tempers are short. You've been working hard. Go grab some lunch."

Grant stepped back and glared at the little man. Milo met his gaze evenly. I think that my nemesis quickly realized that the other instructor had just given him a window of opportunity to back out of his potential beating and not look like a wimp in front of the others. Grant Jefferson may have been a prick, but he was no dummy.

"Fine. Class dismissed," Grant sneered. "I'll be seeing you around, Pitt." He spun on his polished boots and haughtily strode away.

"Looking forward to it," I rumbled under my breath as the group began to disperse. Milo shouted for all of us to turn our suits in to his workshop for adjustments before we left the compound for our weekend off. There were some relieved sighs as the Newbies unceremoniously began to remove their armor. I stomped away to avoid speaking to anybody.

Not that it did me much good. One person followed me. Trip patted me on my armored shoulder to get my attention. "Have I ever told you how much I respect your professionalism and restraint?"

"Some people just need a good beating."

"I agree. The man's a jerk. But last night I talked you out of quitting, so I don't want to see you get fired today," Trip said as we started toward the cafeteria, new suits creaking. Hopefully they would break in and soften up. My friend continued speaking as if I was one of his former ignorant teenage students. "You know why he hates you, right?"

I had spoken about my infatuation with Julie Shackleford to Trip. He was my roommate after all. "I suppose I do."

"Well, then, you would be wrong."


"You think it's because of the girl. Grant probably thinks it's because of the girl too. That's because you're both idiots."

"Gee thanks, Trip." We continued walking slowly, talking quietly so the others wouldn't hear our conversation. "Well, if it isn't because of her, what's his problem?"

"You're his problem. I've seen this before. Grant is the golden boy. He came in here last year and tore stuff up. He's the best at everything. Even the big dogs took him under their wing. I bet he has won at everything he's ever tried. You come along, and you're naturally better than him at some things, so immediately he doesn't like you. It is all about pride, my friend, and Grant is stuffed so full of it it's a wonder he doesn't burst."

"Okay, I can see that."

"And you do keep staring at his woman like a slobbering moron."

"Slobbering?" That hurt.

"And you're a smart ass who can't help but show him up every chance that you get."

"Fair enough."

"And you can't handle losing just as bad as him. You're both torn up with pride and, like the Bible says, pride is the sin that will drag you down faster than anything else."

"Where does it say that?"

"Luke chapter . . . something or other. Well, that's what my mom said about it anyway."

"Thanks, Pastor Jones. I'll be sure to keep my pride and my slobbering in check from now on." I laughed. He was not that much older than I was, but somewhere along the line Trip had gained a lot more wisdom than I had.

"That's Father Reverend Elder Jones to you . . . heathen. Now let's get some lunch. We got the whole weekend off, and we're going to need our energy. I've got an auntie who lives in Wetumpka, up past Montgomery, and we're gonna have us a party. Have you ever had chitlins? Bona fide Southern delicacy."

"Can't say that I have. What the hell's a chitlin?" The way he said it, I didn't know if chitlins were a delicacy or a form of torture. Probably could go either way, depending on your perspective.

"Then you're going to have yourself one hell of a weekend, Z."


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