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Chapter 7

The small boat rolled on the harsh waves, leaving me with a slightly nauseous and uncomfortable feeling. I held onto the guardrail until my knuckles were white, or at least I'm sure they would have been if I could have seen them through my gloves. I had been uncomfortable since the coast had disappeared. The ocean stretched as far as my eye could see. The sun had risen shortly before we launched, and now cast a golden light over the blue surface. I'm sure that if I wasn't mentally preparing myself to go into battle I might have found it a stunning sight. I had never really been out to sea before, other than brief trips on tourist boats off the California coast. I'm sure some of my father's islander ancestors would have scoffed at that.

There were ten of us Hunters on the small boat, the Brilliant Mistake, which Harbinger had hired to transport us to our target. I did not take the name of the boat as a good omen, but once the captain had been given a large wad of cash, he had assured us that the name was in reference to a favorite song and not to any flaw in his boat's design or crew. I still did not like it either way. It was a rusty, old, creaky thing, but it had been available, and even better, the crew didn't look like the type that talked too much.

We had assembled before midnight at the compound, burdened with all manner of equipment and weaponry. Most of us had been loaded into MHI's cargo plane, an old but serviceable former U.S. Mail carrier. It did not look like much, but it got the job done, and it could haul a ton of gear. Then we had flown first to a small airstrip outside of Atlanta, where we had picked up another team of Hunters, before arriving at our final destination, another small airport on the Georgia coast. The rest had taken the slower, but necessary for this mission, helicopter and rendezvoused with us there while Harbinger was securing us a boat. The team leaders had spent the flight memorizing diagrams e-mailed to us from a French shipyard.

In Georgia we had broken into two groups. The larger group boarded the Brilliant Mistake under cover of darkness and the smaller group took the helicopter. The plan was for the airborne unit to fly over our target to scope it out, and then to drop some of the Hunters onto the ship. That unit would secure a rope ladder for the rest of us to climb up, while the helicopter provided covering fire if necessary. Both vehicles would stay nearby in case we needed a quick escape route.

It sounded simple enough. My job was to do exactly what the smart people told me, and carry lots of extra ammunition.

Trip stood beside me at the railing. Unlike yours truly, he did not appear to be feeling seasick at all, but rather seemed to be enjoying himself. He was descended from Jamaican fishermen, so he must have been more in touch with his ancestors' seafaring genes than I was. I had told him about my dream.

"I still have nightmares. I think most of us do," he told me. I knew that some of the zombies that he had been forced to dispatch had been some of his friends and former students. Something like that is bound to weigh heavy on a man's mind. "Something weird was in the air last night."

"But I heard the instructors' meeting about us. I knew about this mission before they came to get us. Explain that."

He shrugged. "You know how it is when you wake up confused. Your brain chemistry's all screwed up. Your unconscious mind just fills in the blanks as needed. We found out about this right after your dream. Seems like the logical thing to me."

"Seems to me that if you want to be logical, you sure did go into the wrong line of work."

He ignored that. "And six master vampires working together? That isn't supposed to happen either."

"Seven," I corrected him. I couldn't forget about the one in the boat, the sharp-faced one that had so enraged and terrified the Old Man.

"Either way. That has never happened. They're too powerful, and too territorial. According to Harbinger there probably aren't that many Masters in the whole world. Besides, how could you tell they were so powerful? All of them look the same." That much was true. From what we had been taught all vampires looked pretty much human, unless you caught them feeding.

"I don't know how I knew. I just did. And there were huge winged monsters, but I didn't get a good look at them. But the other thing, the thing in the boat. That was the scariest. I mean it was the worst thing I've ever seen." I nervously checked my Remington 870 for the twentieth time. It was still there.

"Quit worrying about your dream, man. We've got real stuff to worry about. Let's put our game faces on." He slugged me in the arm, hard. Damn football players.

Sam Haven had us gather at the rear of the boat for a briefing, away from the ears of the crew, who I was positive were already really curious what the ten strangers in body armor and carrying guns were doing on their boat. Lucky for us, fifteen thousand dollars in cash for one day of work was considered good enough money to put up with all manner of weirdness. Of course it was half up front, the other half after they picked us up. Since we were the waterborne team, Harbinger had placed our former Navy man in charge. Thus Sam was even louder than normal. He and Milo were on the boat with us, and the rest of their team was in the chopper. One of the Newbies, Chuck Mead, a former Army Ranger, was up there as well. He knew how to rappel and that was a handy skill to have for this mission.

"Listen up, folks. Here's the deal." Sam began to brief us as he methodically unloaded, checked each round and reloaded his rifle. The rear of the boat smelled like fish. "A few hours ago we were contacted by the French corporation that owns the freighter. It was destined for the USA carrying an extremely valuable cargo. The freighter lost contact a week ago in the Atlantic. The last transmissions indicated some sort of supernatural problem."

"What did they say?" asked one of the Hunters out of Atlanta, whom I had not met.

"Unknown. Mostly gibberish. They did say monsters, but they didn't say what kinds. But this was an experienced crew so it is doubtful if they did something stupid." Sam's personal weapon was a very strange choice. It was a Marlin .45-70 lever action carbine. Very slow to reload. Low capacity. Slow rate of fire. But as he had pointed out while boarding, the 450-grain hard-cast bullets he was shooting could go through a buffalo longways. That was no small comfort, just in case the freighter had been taken over by militant evil bison.

"What's the ship's name?" someone asked.

Sam shrugged. "Something French. Hell if I know."

"Why did they contact us? The frogs hate hiring American Hunters." That was from the man named Boone. He was the leader of the other team, and from what I had seen so far, he was a serious professional. According to what I had heard on the trip, he had recently gotten off of active duty with the Army Special Forces in Afghanistan, and had been eager to get back into hunting when the company reopened. Boone was a lean and good-natured guy, and his team was ready to follow his lead into anything. I took that as a good sign. He had a stubby Russian Krinkov slung from his chest, and apparently his team's logo was a mini-lop bunny armed with a switchblade.

"We weren't their first choice. The day after they lost contact a French team was dispatched to intercept. They flew out to the freighter, and their last transmission indicated that they'd landed and were starting to clear the ship. They haven't been heard from since."

"Well, that's great," Boone said.

"Wait, it gets better," Milo Anderson interjected. "Jean Darné was the leader of the French team."

Several of the experienced Hunters began to mutter. Boone swore.

"Who is this Dar Nay guy? And why is that bad?" I asked.

"He was the best that they had. Probably the best team lead in Europe. You know they didn't do anything sloppy. Whatever is on that boat is serious," said one of the experienced Hunters, a South African immigrant named Priest.

"So we're going in hard and fast." Sam worked the lever on his Marlin and chambered a round. "Since we don't know what's on that freighter we're coming ready for anything. Everybody is armed with something that shoots silver, even if it is just your handgun. We have every specialty round for the shotguns that we can think of. Big fifties. RPGs, flamethrowers, thermite, C4, and I even have a chainsaw around here somewhere. The Hind will stay airborne and provide covering fire if we need to bail out."

"Mission parameters?" Boone asked.

"Don't hurt the cargo. Cargo is boxed in the hold. Apparently it's priceless art or some shit. So no bullet holes or fire in the hold. Rest of the ship is open game. If we can save any crew or the French Hunters, do it. Don't sink the ship."

"What's the contract worth?" Boone again.

"Julie negotiated it, so of course it's a good deal. We got a million up front. If the cargo is unharmed then MHI gets another 3.5 mil. The more the cargo is damaged, the less we get. If we sink the ship then we don't get nothing. So let's not sink the ship."

We continued to cover details. There had been thirty crew, a ten-man security detail for the cargo, and a dozen French Hunters. So if we were dealing with an undead infestation we were looking at over fifty potential hostiles, not including whatever started the infection to begin with. The Hunters hazarded guesses about what we could face on the ship, including weird, but not unheard of things like Saughafin, fish-men, or just a plain old giant killer mollusk. As we continued toward our target we tried to iron out details and figure out any potential problems. Luckily for us, radar indicated that the freighter had stopped moving last night, so it must have dropped anchor. At least it would not be steaming toward land any longer, but it also raised the question what exactly had dropped the anchor.

"The freighter was headed for points northward. Two days ago, it turned south and has been paralleling the coast. GPS transponder is still working, so we know right where she is," Sam told us over a spread-out blueprint of the ship. "When we pull alongside, just try not to fall off the ladder. The fall probably won't kill you, but we ain't got time to screw around fishing you out."

Finally we could see the freighter. It was a massive gray construction, with superstructure rising high into the air. It was a beautiful summer morning, but I could not help but feel an ominous shiver when I looked at the otherwise-normal-looking ship. I knew from the briefing that the mammoth ship was just under 600 feet long and displaced over 15,000 tons. Sam had assured us that the ship was not as big as it appeared, since most of the interior was open cargo space, but it was still going to be a beast to search.

Suddenly there was a massive roar as the bulbous helicopter flew low over us and charged the freighter. Wind and salt spray buffeted those of us at the railings. A figure manning a door gun waved at us as they passed. "Show offs!" Milo yelled and waved back.

MHI's helicopter was a surplus MI-24 Hind. Harbinger had picked it up for next to nothing after the collapse of communism. It was possibly the ugliest thing ever designed, but it was considered a flying tank for a reason. Utilitarian in comfort, it was nonetheless reliable and versatile. It was missing its missiles and rocket pods because the Feds would not allow it in the country that way. Instead the pylons had been replaced with storage compartments for gear and extra fuel. It was big enough to carry eight of us, and could carry enough weight and had enough fuel that the entire team could be evacuated on it if necessary, provided we did not mind hanging off of the wing pylons. It was fast, but it lacked maneuverability at low speeds.

In its original communist paint job it had been a strange enough sight that the company had avoided using the Hind during daylight hours over populated areas. A few flights had resulted in calls to the authorities that Red Dawn was happening for real. To combat this, Harbinger had ordered the chopper painted white and red, so now it was usually mistaken for a med-evac or search-and-rescue helicopter instead. They had, however, taken the liberty of painting a huge pair of sharp-toothed jaws around the cockpit. That was a nice touch.

The chopper swept quickly over the freighter, banked hard, and made another pass. It slowed until it was hovering and then lazily rotated over the center of the ship. Sam Haven stood nearby, listening intently into his earpiece. All of us were on the same radio net and could listen along. We had been warned to stay off of the radio unless absolutely necessary, except to check in every five minutes once we were onboard.

Julie Shackleford's voice crackled over the radio. She had been the waving door gunner.

"This is Julie. I see no movement. Deck looks clear. No bodies. No signs of damage. French chopper is still on the pad." We were a small enough group that we just used our names on our secure radio net.

"Chopper One. This is Boat One. Can you see into the bridge? Over." Except for Sam, of course. He did not get to be in charge very often, and was not going to waste his chance to use correct radio jargon.

The Hind gradually changed position until it was directly in front of the superstructure. Julie leaned out the door, secured only by bungee cords clipped to her harness. She mounted her rifle and used the scope to scan the windows.

"Negative, Sam. We have a ghost ship."

"Roger that," the big cowboy radioed back. He nudged Milo in the ribs and gave him a Copenhagen-colored grin. "Did you know my middle name was Roger?"

"Yes, Sam, I know," Milo responded. Great guy, but a little bit of Sam went a long ways.

Harbinger's voice came over the radio next. "Let's do it. Front of the ship is clear. We're going to rope down and set up a perimeter. We'll send down the ladder. Front, left-hand side."

"Chopper One, this is Boat One. It's the prow, damn it. Left is port. The front of the ship is fore and the back is aft. Over," Sam responded in consternation.

"Roger that. Front, left-hand side. Ladder is going to come down near the anchor chain. If nothing comes out to attack us we will throw down a second ladder. Signal us when you're in position," Harbinger radioed back.

"Damn Army pus-nuts."

"Navy dumb-shit," Boone said as he flipped Sam the bird. The cowboy grinned and spit a huge gob of chew on the deck.

Directions were given to the captain and the Brilliant Mistake motored into position. Orange bumpers were thrown over the side to protect us from the much larger vessel. Luckily for us the ocean was relatively calm, or at least that is what they told me. I was having a hard time standing up without holding onto something. The deck was slick and the steel-gray wall approaching us was intimidating as hell. I was not looking forward to climbing a wet ladder while wearing forty pounds of gear, but it could be a lot worse. The freighter could be moving. The waves could be higher. Sam had told us that before they had a helicopter, they used to board ships by actually climbing up the anchor chain.

"Chopper One, this is Boat One. We will be in position in one minute. Over."

"Roger that. We're heading down."

From the boat we could not see the five Hunters in the Hind as they rappelled to the deck. Gradually our boat bumped its way into position. We waited breathlessly. Nothing could be heard above our own engine, the roar of the chopper beating gravity into submission, and the crashing of waves.

Our only indication of success was when a chain ladder came hurtling toward us, rattling violently as it unrolled down the freighter's hull. Sam lunged forward, grabbed it, and gave it a mighty tug. Nodding in satisfaction, he turned to us and stabbed his finger upward. Milo led the way; he was the best climber of the bunch, since he free climbed mountains for fun. The smaller man grabbed onto the chains and pulled himself up effortlessly. With his long red beard, and bristling with firearms and knives, he reminded me of a pirate. A very mellow pirate, but a pirate nonetheless. Sam went next. Though burly and not as graceful as his predecessor, he had the most experience at this kind of thing, and was still remarkably fast. A second ladder came crashing down, and Boone's team started to clamber up them as well. The Newbies were to go last. Except for Holly Newcastle. She had been given support duty. That meant that she needed to stay on the Brilliant Mistake and send up any of the special gear that ended up being needed that was still on the boat. We would send down a cord and she would tie it to the necessary equipment. She got to stay where it was the safest, and she did not like it one bit. In fact, she had been royally insulted.

"This sucks," she said as I waited my turn at the ladder. I was extremely nervous, but I tried not to let it show.

"It's an important job. Somebody has to do it," I replied. "We don't know what's on this thing, and we can't haul all of this with us. Who knows what might come in handy."

"Blow me, Z," she retorted.

"I'm gonna have to take a rain check on that one. Thanks, though." Conversation was good. Conversation kept me from thinking about what I was going to have to do in about thirty seconds.

"You know what I mean. I should be up there with you guys. I can handle this."

"I know you can. Don't worry. You'll get your chance. Hey, me, Trip and Lee are just guarding the escape route. That isn't very heroic."

"Don't matter. We still get paid!" Trip shouted over the noise. It was his turn. Lee was already halfway up the first ladder. My friend let out a mighty rebel yell—"Yee Haw!"—and started climbing. It was strange to hear a black man shout a Confederate battle cry. Hey, whatever worked.

It was my turn. Lee was almost over the bow. It looked to be at least a twenty-five-foot climb. Dangling from the side of a ship. On a slippery metal ladder. Hanging over the open ocean. Fun. I checked to make sure my 12 gauge was securely slung and that all of the pouches on my load bearing gear were still closed. It was go time.

As I hit the ladder I realized that at that moment I was well and truly beginning my career as a professional Monster Hunter. I was prepared. I had recovered from my previous injuries, and I had been working out harder than I had in years. I was in excellent physical shape. I was scared and nervous, but I was actually looking forward to this. This is it.

I had been the last one up the ladder because I was the heaviest, probably the strongest too, but I had to pull a lot more weight than the others. There is a reason you don't see very many big, muscle-bound guys as mountain climbers. The ladder was as bad as I feared, and it was difficult to get my big boots on top of the narrow rungs without twisting them. A sudden wave crashed against the freighter and splashed cold salt water on my face. I spat it out and kept going. By the time I was halfway up I could feel the muscles in my biceps and calves burning. I passed a small porthole, but it had been blacked out from the inside. I focused on the gray painted hull inches from my face and pulled myself up as fast as I could. Radio banter had started above me as the teams moved into position. They were waiting for me and I wasn't going to let them down.

A huge painted letter A gradually appeared as I made my way up the hull. I froze, blinked hard, gasped, and had to catch myself as I almost fell off the ladder into the waiting ocean below. Stenciled in black block letters directly in front of my face was the name of the ship.


"Holy shit!" I exclaimed.


I had not been able to see it from the angle of our approach, and when we had been directly under the letters, I had been too preoccupied to notice. It was the same name that had been printed on the little boat of evil in my dream.

Trying not to panic, I keyed my mike. "This is Pitt. I need to talk to Harbinger, right now!"

"Pitt. What's wrong?" crackled the response in my ear.

"We have to get off this ship, fast."

"Why? Say again."

"There are seven Master vampires onboard, some giant flying monsters, and a super-evil armored thing. Or at least there were. I think they might have gone ashore last night."

"How do you know that?" said an amused voice. Grant Jefferson.

"I dreamed it last night. I saw them." I knew that everyone was listening to me.

Somebody laughed at me over the radio net.

"He's panicking on the ladder. Big dummy. Told you guys. Pitt, go sit in the boat," Grant ordered.

"Grant, you stupid son of a bitch, shut up and listen. I saw the name of the ship in my dream. The monsters came ashore in a lifeboat with the name Antoine-Henri painted on it."

The radio net was silent. I hung from the ladder. Twenty feet below, Holly stared up at me incredulously. Five feet above, the Hunters were assembled and either scoffing at me, or hopefully, pondering what I had to say. The stenciled letters on the ghost ship taunted me.

Finally Harbinger's voice came back on. "Pitt, get your ass up here."

I climbed the rest of the way as fast as I could, clambered over the railing and slipped and sprawled onto the gray-painted deck. I leapt to my feet and looked for Harbinger. The Hunters had spread out, using whatever cover was available, and had secured the front of the ship. The Hind roared overhead, tearing at us with wind.

"What's going on?" Harbinger asked. He held a Tommy gun in his hands and there was murder in his eyes. He angrily glared at the chopper and made a whirling motion with his finger. Julie was still in the door, she gave him a thumbs-up, shouted something at the pilot and the chopper backed off enough that we could converse.

"I had a dream last night. I saw you guys talking about this mission. You were picking which Newbies to go. Then I saw a lifeboat land on a little beach by a swamp; the boat had the name Antoine-Henri on it. There were seven Master vampires on board, and some sort of dark evil cloaked thing that was wearing armor. They were taking orders from it. Then it saw us and some winged demon-looking things attacked. I woke up after that."

The Director of Operations studied me carefully. I could not tell what he was thinking. Several of the other Hunters were glancing nervously our way. This episode was costing them valuable daylight. Finally he keyed his neck mike.

"Julie, do another pass around the ship. Check for missing lifeboats."

"Got it, Earl," crackled in my ear. The Hind took off in a burst of speed, nose suddenly down as it headed toward the rear of the freighter. He kept watching me. I readied my 870 and studied the deck. We had thirteen Hunters armed to the teeth, and Julie with a sniper rifle overhead. I did not feel safe at all. Sam and Grant detached themselves from the perimeter and trotted over to join us.

"What the hell is going on?" Grant demanded. His black armor was still polished bright, and somehow not dirtied from the rappel down. His personal weapon was an extremely expensive, customized, suppressed Knights SR25 .308 carbine. "We don't have time for this nonsense, Harbinger. Send him back to the boat. Pitt can't handle it and he's freaking out."

"Shut up, Grant," I snapped.

Harbinger held up his hand, cutting us both off. Julie had come back on the radio.

"I don't think there were any lifeboats mounted. Looks like they have inflatable rafts for that." Her voice was distorted with static.

My spirits sank. Grant laughed at me. Harbinger frowned. Sam spit a glob of chew overboard. I suddenly felt very stupid. Maybe it had just been some weird fluke coincidence of my subconscious.

Not a chance.

"You saw me. In your meeting last night. You at least sensed me somehow. I thought something, and it surprised you. I was in the corner of the conference room," I told Harbinger desperately. "Then I was gone, and that's when the monsters landed. When the big one touched the ground, that's when everybody got that weird feeling."

As I have said before, Harbinger was not a man that I would want to play poker with. He did not normally display his emotions, but right now they were as easy to read as the name on the side of this cursed ship. His jaw dropped open, and his eyes widened. That had shocked him.

"How in the hell—"

He was interrupted midsentence as Julie came back on the radio.

"Earl. I take back what I said. Looks like they had a motor launch or something. There is a pulley system rigged near the end of the ship. Looks like it was used to lower or haul something out of the water. It's empty and the cables are dragging in the water, I repeat it is empty and the cables are in the water. There was a boat of some kind, but it is gone."

"Thanks, Julie. Keep your eyes peeled," he responded, took his hand away, thought better of it, and then keyed his mike again. "Boone, get over here. We need to have a little meeting."

Sam clutched his .45-70 warily. "No way, Earl. Seven Masters? That don't sound right. They don't work together. At least they never have."

"Are you guys crazy? The Newbie is full of it. He needs—"

"Grant. Get back on the perimeter," Harbinger stated flatly.

"But I—"

"Go," the Director snapped. Grant angrily complied.

Boone joined us with a worried look. Harbinger gave him a quick rundown. Julie had told me that Harbinger was much older than he looked, but right now he appeared to have aged a decade right in front of us. Boone looked at all of us as if we were crazy.

"So are you supposed to be like a psychic or something?"

"Not that I know of. I'm an accountant."

"We've seen weirder things, Boone," stated Harbinger. "Remember, flexible minds."

"No shit. But this is weird even for us," Boone replied. Then turning towards me, he asked, "All right, big guy, how did you know they were Masters?"

"I don't know. I could just tell. But they worked together, like a military unit."

"Come on, Earl. That's impossible. If vamps worked together, they could have taken over the world by now. It's been twenty years since there was a confirmed report of a Master."

"Closer to thirty. I know. I'm the one that killed it," Harbinger answered. "But Pitt is right on one thing. Something surprised me last night. I couldn't see anything, but there was something in the conference room with us. How else could he have known that?"

The four of us jumped when the radio sprang to life.

"This is Priest. You lot aren't going to believe this, but I've got signs of life. Somebody must have heard us arrive."

"What?" Boone responded.

"Listen, I'm going to put my mike on it. I'm getting this through a duct."

Every Hunter on the ship strained to hear. It was a series of seemingly random clicks, repeated over and over. I did not immediately recognize it. Sam picked it up first.

"Morse code," he translated. "SOS . . . T R A P P E D space E N G I N E R O O M space D A R N E space SOS."

"Priest, send a message back," Harbinger ordered.

"No can do, chief. Don't know Morse code."

"On it, Earl," Sam responded and hurried off in that direction.

Harbinger got back on the radio. "Okay, folks. Mission parameters have changed. This is now a rescue." He released the mike. "Boone, gather your men. Let's clear this ship!"

"Won't be the first time Americans have saved the French," the Special Forces vet shouted over his shoulder as he ran to rejoin his team.

I waited for my boss to address me. I could not tell what he was thinking.


"Yes, sir?"

"Cut the 'sir' crap. Can you think of anything else from that dream of yours that might help?"

"Not really. If the dream is right, then the really bad dudes have disembarked. So do you believe me then?"

He did not answer my question directly. Instead he got back on the radio.

"Holly, send up every stake we have. We need to kill us some vampires."

"So is that a yes?" I asked again.

"Come on . . . We're burning daylight. Nobody's ever killed a Master in the dark."


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