It turned out that, in addition to a broken left arm, the vampire had left me with a dislocated collarbone, dislocated shoulder, four cracked ribs, and a badly sprained ankle. I figured most of those were caused either by him swatting me across the parking lot or me landing on the picnic table. As if that wasn’t enough, it turned out that my left arm had already been broken some years before and never been properly diagnosed (something I’d long suspected but could never get confirmed), and the new break had really screwed things up, so they’d had to do surgery on it to repair the damage. Fortunately, the doctors said that I would retain full use of both my arm and hand.
I spent what had to be the second-worst week of my life in that damn hospital bed. I’d hated hospitals before, and that week did nothing to alleviate those feelings. Basically, I spent a week laying in bed, hooked up to all sorts of loudly beeping machines, with needles stuck in both arms, eating really, really bad food, and being “cared” for by rude and apathetic doctors and nurses. Okay, that last one really isn’t fair; two of the nurses were really nice (and one was pretty cute), and it turned out that my surgeon was a gun nut too. Guy even promised to let me shoot his M1 Garand once my arm and shoulders healed up.
Aside from that, though, it was a horrible week. Boring as hell. Sure, some of my friends visited, and my mom did bring my laptop so I could work on my novel (which I’d been writing for, I kid you not, five years at that point), but my friends all had to leave eventually and since I only had one working hand, I couldn’t really write much. To sum it up, when the nurse finally wheeled me out of the hospital, it felt like the happiest day of my life.
Even then, I still had pretty much nothing to do. I had to take a leave of absence from my job, since a technical writer needs to be able to type quickly, and like I said, that’s near impossible to do that with one hand. Given the state of our company, I knew that still having my desk in six weeks would be a long shot. Even though I was the best technical writer they had (something my boss regularly praised me as), I was still pretty low down on the totem pole. Okay, who was I kidding, I was pretty much at the bottom. So, in a nutshell, all I had to do for the better part of two months was sit around my apartment, read, write (or attempt to), and watch movies. That got old pretty quickly.
Fortunately, the police and DA decided that the “incident” had been a clear-cut case of self-defense and declined to file charges against me. They even returned my Kel-Tec and Stoeger once they finished processing them. Not that I could get out to the range much, mind you. Also, the woman the vampire had attacked lived through her ordeal, though she’d be stuck in the hospital for quite a while. I’d no doubt that Willard and Simpkin would pay her a visit soon, if they hand’t already. I just hoped that she didn’t develop a case of acute lead poisoning while they were there.
Anyway, after four weeks, the big cast came off my arm, only to be replaced by a second. Fortunately, this one was a lot smaller; it only went from just behind my fingers to just past my elbow, rather than all the way up my arm. Still didn’t have enough use of the hand to type, though, which sucked.
There was a serious upshot to all this, though; my mother all but moved into my apartment for the first few weeks. No, I’m not a momma’s boy, not by any stretch. Hell, by the time she finally moved out, I think we were just about ready to kill each other. No, the upshot was that for the first time in years, my mother cooked three full meals a day for me, seven days a week. My mother is, in my humble opinion, one of the best cooks on the planet. Three meals a day of her cooking was, for me, almost heaven on earth. Sadly (or fortunately, depending on how your point of view), Mom stopped coming by after the little cast put on, and I was left to fend for myself. And no, before you ask, I didn’t inherit any of her cooking abilities.
The Wednesday after Mom left, I was watching an episode of Top Gear on iTunes when my doorbell rang. I clicked pause, freezing Jeremy Clarkson’s Ford Fiesta midway down the ramp of the Royal Marines’ landing craft, and headed for the door. I hoped it wasn’t more reporters. I’d been chasing them away ever since I got out of the hospital. Reporters and crazy anti-gun types who kept threatening me for “murdering that poor, misunderstood young man.” Yes, someone actually said that to me.
“Who is it?” I called through the door.
“Steve?” a voice on the other side asked, “Steve Andrews?” Somehow, the voice sounded familiar.
“Yeah, what do you want?”
“Uh, it’s me, Jon. Jon Callahan. I don’t know if you remember me…”
“Wait, Jon? Is that really you?” I said, and looked through the peephole. He had a beard now, and his hair was longer than I remembered, but it was definitely the guy I’d gone to high school with. “Holy crap, man!” I exclaimed, “Hang on a second, I’ll let you in.” I fumbled with the deadbolt for a second before finally getting it unlocked and then pulled the door open. With the exception of the beard and now-scraggily hair, Jonathan Callahan looked exactly like I remembered him; big and bearish, he was at least six-foot-five and two-hundred-seventy pounds. He was wearing the same type of clothes I remembered him wearing in high school; cargo pants, T-shirt, and field jacket, though they weren’t the urban camo pattern that had been his trademark years ago, and a pair of rimless glasses.
“Jeez, man!” I exclaimed, “It’s great to see you! Come on in!”
“Thanks, Steve,” he said, ducking slightly under the doorframe.
“My God, it’s been, what? Six, seven years now?”
“Something like that,” Jon agreed with a nod, then he turned and looked back through the door. Following his gaze, I noticed for the first time that he wasn’t alone. His companion was an attractive African-American woman, about five-foot-seven, maybe in her early 40s, wearing slacks and a sport coat.
“Oh, right, Steve, this is Dominique Turner,” Jon said.
“Ms. Turner,” I said, extending my hand to her, “Very nice to meet you.”
“Likewise,” she replied, taking my hand and shaking it firmly. I was surprised, both by the strength of her grip and the worn calluses that I felt on her hands.
“Uh, please come in, have a seat,” I said, gesturing towards my garage-sale sofa, easy chair, and coffee table. “Can I get you anything to drink? Water? Coke? Sprite?”
“Bourbon, if you have it,” Turner replied.
“Sorry,” I said, “No alcohol in the house. Bothers my stomach.” That was true, but it wasn’t the real reason I didn’t keep any booze lying around.
“Oh, okay,” she said, “I’ll have a Coke then.”
“Okay,” I said, “You like Sprite, right Jon?”
“Ice?” They both nodded. “Okay, back in a minute,” I headed into the apartment’s small kitchen, returning a few minutes later with a glass each of Coca-Cola and Sprite.
“So, Jon,” I asked as the three of us sat down, me on the love seat and the two of them on the sofa, “where the hell have you been all these years? You just dropped completely off the radar a year after graduation.”
“It’s kind of a long story,” Jon said, “And I’m really sorry, Steve, but I’m not here for a social visit. We’re here for business.”
“Business? What do you mean ‘business’?”
“It’s about the incident you had at the library a few weeks ago,” Turner explained.
“What about it?” I said slowly.
“We know it wasn’t really a serial killer from Chicago like the papers say,” she continued. “We know it was a vampire you killed, not some addict.”
“No,” I said, “the guy was high on PCP. I know he tried to tear that woman’s throat out…”
“Let me guess,” she interrupted, “Two Feds in cheap suits visited you in the hospital, threatened to blow your brains out if you told anyone anything other than the official story they cooked up? Their names were Willard and Simpkin, right?”
“You know them?” I blurted out, then caught myself. Too late. I’d let it slip. I was toast.
“Yeah,” Jon said, “Simpkin’s okay, but Willard’s a real pain in the ass.”
“He’s a real prick,” Turner agreed.
“Yeah,” I said slowly, “So… you guys know about the vampire.” Jon nodded. “So what do you want with me?” Jon looked over at Ms. Turner.
“Mister Andrews…” she started.
“Steve,” I said, “If you’re friends with Jon, you can call me Steve.”
“Steve, then,” she said with a slight grin. “Steve, we work for a company called Monster Hunter International. MHI is the premier monster hunting corporation in the world. We’re for-profit, totally privately-funded and we handle monster problems all over the globe.”
“Wait, I’m sorry,” I said, “Monster Hunter International? You mean you guys…”
“Hunt monsters?” Jon finished, “Yeah, that’s pretty much it. That’s what we do.”
“Jon, you’re a… a monster hunter?” I asked, not quite believing it. He nodded. “Since when?”
“Remember I dropped off the radar the year after we got out of high school? Well, I was visiting my dad out in California. We were out in the desert east of Pasadena when we were attacked by a Chupacabra.”
“Chupacabra?” I asked. I’d never really gotten into fantasy books, so I knew pretty much jack squat about monsters.
“Reptile, ‘bout three feet tall, weighs around a hundred-fifty pounds,” he explained, “Goat suckers; they attack animals and completely drain their blood. Vicious little bastards, especially if they get a taste of human blood; then they won’t drink anything else. Anyway, one of ‘em attacked my Dad and me.”
“Dear God, is your dad okay?” I’d only met the man once, at our high-school graduation, but he seemed like a real nice guy.
“Oh, yeah,” Joe said. We were heading back from my dad’s range when the thing jumped our car. We had a bunch of guns and ammo in the back seat. Turned the bugger into Swiss cheese.” Somehow, this didn’t surprise me; Jon was one of the few people I knew who was a bigger gun nut than me (and that’s saying something), and his entire family was the same way.
“Anyway, the Feds visited us the next day, told us to keep our mouths shut or else. A month later, some people from MHI came to us and offered us a job. We both jumped on it.”
“And you’ve been running around killing monsters for the last six years or so?”
“Pretty much,” Jon said.
“So… what do you want with me?” I asked. Jon and Ms. Turner looked at each other.
“I thought you said he was quick,” Turner said. Jon just shrugged.
“You want me to work for MHI?” I asked, the lightbulb finally clicking on.
“Yeah, pretty much,” Jon said.
“Ah… wow,” I said, slouching back into the love seat. “Look, ah, Miss Turner…”
“Dominique,” she said, “Every time someone calls me Miss Turner, I have to stop myself from looking around for my mother.”
“Sorry, Dominique,” I said quickly, “Look, ah, guys, I appreciate your offer, but I really don’t think I’m cut out to be a monster hunter. I mean, well, look at me.” It was true; I was five-foot-eleven and had weighed one-hundred-twenty pounds since, well, forever. I was, in a word, the stereotypical skinny white guy.
“I don’t think so, Steve,” Dominique continued, “I think you’re just the kind of person we need.”
“I doubt it,” I insisted. “I tried to enlist right out of high school, and was turned down by every single branch. Hell, I was even turned down by the Coast Guard!”
“That won’t be an issue,” Dominique replied. “We’re not looking for the toughest, biggest, baddest mofos out there. What we’re looking for, Steve, are flexible minds.”
“Flexible minds?” I asked.
“Flexible minds,” she repeated. “You were confronted by a creature that is literally something out of mankind’s worst nightmare. Most people, when they see something like that, either freeze up and get killed or have a complete mental breakdown. They usually get killed too. But you, you didn’t freeze. You reacted. You fought back.”
“And got my ass kicked,” I pointed out, indicating my cast.
“That’s not a surprise,” Dominique said, “What is a surprise is that you were able to single-handedly kill a vampire, which is probably the toughest undead creature there is. Which reminds me, this is yours.” She reached into her jacket pocket, pulled out an unmarked envelope, and handed it to me.
“Uh, thank you,” I said, hesitantly accepting the envelope. It was sealed, and I struggled to get it open for a minute. Stupid hand in a stupid cast.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, “let me get that.” She took the envelope back, then reached into her pocket and pulled out a folding pocketknife, flicked it open, and slit the side of the envelope open in one smooth motion. As her coat flashed open, I was surprised to see a pistol, which I immediately recognized as a Heckler & Koch HK45, in a holster on her right hip. A quick glance revealed that Jon too had a pistol on his hip too, which I was thoroughly unsurprised to see was a 1911. He’d been obsessed with John Moses Browning’s design for as long as I could remember. The fact that his boss was carrying an H&K was probably driving him nuts.
“Thanks,” I said, pulling out the contents of the envelope. It was, I was surprised to find, a check. Even more surprising, it was from the United States Government – something called PUFF, whatever that was – and it was worth…
“Five Hundred Thousand Dollars?!?” I stammered. “Wha… Wha… Wha…”
“Woah there, Steve,” Jon said. “Breathe, just breathe,”
“That’s your PUFF Bounty,” Dominique explained. “Perpetual Unearthly Forces Fund, set up by Teddy Roosevelt back in 1902. Basically, it’s a fund that the government uses to pay people who kill monsters.”
“Five hundred thousand dollars,” I repeated, still in a daze.
“Yeah, but that’s just because it was relatively young, only a few months, near as we can tell,” Joe explained. “Half a million’s actually about as low as it gets for a vamp. If it had been older, drank more blood, it could have been worth millions.”
“PUFF bounties are MHI’s main source of funding,” Dominique explained. “Of course, since value the bounty is for the individual monster, that means each one is split up between everyone in the company. The team that kills said monster gets the biggest share.”
“It sounds kinda lousy, I know, but believe me, your first paycheck will still probably be more than you make in a year,” Jon said.
“Five hundred thousand dollars,” I repeated, still not believing my (literal) good fortune.
“Hey, Steve, you okay?” Jon asked. He waved his hand in front of my face, and I flinched.
“Did you hear what we just said?” he asked.
“Yeah, uh, Teddy Roosevelt set up a fund to kill monsters, you guys split the bounties up in your company, you make a lot of money…?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” he said.
“And you want me to join up with your company?” I asked.
“We do,” Dominique said with a firm nod.
“Uh… okay… assuming I say yes, I take it there’s a training program of some sort? I mean, I know I killed the vampire and all, but I really just got lucky last time.”
“Oh there is,” Jon said, “Don’t worry about that.” Something in his voice, the way he said that, made me a little nervous.
“Okay… uh… would I need to bring my own guns?”
“You can bring your own if you want, but we’ve got a pretty decent armory of our own,” Dominique said.
“Yeah,” Jon said absently, his eyes suddenly getting a far-away, dreamy look. Dominique just rolled her eyes.
“You guys have any specific weapons or calibers that you require?” I asked.
“Forty-five ACP for handguns and subguns, three-oh-eight Winchester for rifles, and twelve-gauge for shotguns,” Jon said, snapping out of his daydream. “Aside from that, it’s pretty much up to you.”
“Why not two-two-three Remington?” I asked. “Nothing against those rounds, but I’ve already got an AR-15.” It was a Crusader Arms Partisan that I really hadn’t been able to afford but had bought anyway. I loved that rifle.
“Because the company that makes our special ammunition only makes rounds in forty-five and three-oh-eight,” Dominique explained, “though we’re in talks with them to start producing other calibers. Hopefully they’ll have a two-twenty-three round cooked up for us by the end of the year.”
“What do you mean by ‘special ammunition’?”
“You know the Cor-Bon Pow’RBall, right?” Jon asked. I nodded. It’s“The rounds we use are basically like those, only instead of a polymer ball in the hollowpoint, ours has a silver one.”
“For werewolves, right?” I asked.
“Actually, a lot of undead creatures don’t like silver very much,” Dominique explained, “Don’t ask me why; truth is that no one really knows.”
“Okay,” I said, nodding only because I really didn’t know what else to do.
“So, are you interested?” Dominique asked. I didn’t answer. I couldn’t, at least not honestly. The truth was, part of me really did want to take their offer, but at the same time, the rational part of my brain was screaming that it was crazy, that even if it was true, I was almost guaranteed to get myself killed if I said yes.
“Okay, look,” Joe said after a minute. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card. “Think it over. When you’re healed up, if you want to give it a shot, give this number a call. Ask for Earl Harbinger, tell him who you are, and tell him we talked to you. All right?”
“Okay, I said, taking the card and pocketing it.
“Thanks,” he said, “And now I’m afraid that we gotta get going.” The three of us rose up, and Joe and I shook hands.
“Great seeing you again, Jon,” I said.
“Yeah, same here,” he replied.
Ms. Tur- ah, sorry, Dominique,” I said, shaking her hand too, “Again, nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too, Steve.” I ushered them both out the door, locked the deadbolt, then went back to the love seat, sat down, and looked at the business card. There was a picture of a green smiley face with horns on the front, along with the words “Monster Hunter International. Got Monster Problems? Call the Professionals. Established 1895,” as well as a phone number. I sat there, staring at that card, for what must’ve been hours.
I took the check to the bank that afternoon. To my complete and utter shock, it cleared with no problem. Which was good; three days later my boss called and said that the company wouldn’t be able to take me back once my leave of absence ended. So I spent the next few days just eating, sleeping, staring at the card, and thinking. Stay here, try and find a new job, go on with my life as it was, or go out and kill monsters a living, and probably not make it to my next birthday? The more I thought about my choice, the more I realized that I really didn’t have much choice at all.