I almost sighed with relief as I passed the road sign that read Cazador, Alabama. Population 686. I’d been driving for the past two days, scared to death that I was going to, for whatever reason, get pulled over by a cop and then be forced to explain the arsenal I had in the bed in the back of the lightly-used F150 which I’d bought with even more of the PUFF money. In addition to the SIG, the Mossberg, and the FAL, I’d also bought a second SIG 220 – this one a Railed Compact model – as a backup piece, as well as a Springfield Armory Mil-Spec M1911A1 and a Fulton Armory-made M1 Garand just for the heck of it. I’d also brought along my SIG P6, Kel-Tec, Stoeger, and Crusader Partisan, so all told, I had nearly a dozen weapons in the back of my truck, along with several thousand rounds of ammunition. Try explaining all that to a cop.
As I drove through the town of Cazador, I thought to myself for the umpteenth time since making the call, what the hell have I gotten myself into? The town was more like a village, and even that was being generous. The place’s main attraction appeared to be – get this – a catfish factory, which you could apparently tour of you so desired. I just rolled my eyes when I saw that sign and kept on driving.
The directions that Harbinger had given me when I’d called months earlier eventually put me on a narrow, barely paved road that twisted through the ever-deepening woods. Thank God my truck had four-wheel drive. Eventually, a thick metal gate appeared in the road ahead of me, bordered on both sides by a very high – I’d wager thirty feet – chain link fence which was topped with coils of very nasty-looking razor wire. There was a small circular sign on the gate with a horned smiley face and the letters MHI in faded green paint. A small shack sat just outside the perimeter, and as I pulled up next to it, a surprisingly young woman emerged from inside it. She was wearing a white tank top that stretched against her obviously-enhanced (though still undeniably attractive) chest and tight fitting jean shorts that showed off the rest of her ample figure. Her long blond hair was pulled back into a braided ponytail, and her eyes were hidden by a pair of aviator sunglasses. What grabbed my attention most, however, wasn’t her body; it was the 7.62mm Galil assault rifle that she casually unslung from her shoulder as she approached my truck.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“Uh, yeah,” I replied, my eyes not leaving her rifle, “Is this, uh, Monster Hunter International?”
“Yeah, that’s us,” she said with a nod. “You’re here for the Newbie course, right?”
“Yeah, uh, I mean yes, ma’am, I am,” I said. She laughed.
“‘Yes, ma’am,’” she said to herself, still chuckling, then to me. “Trust me, I’m no ‘ma’am.’ Name’s Holly. Holly Newcastle.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said courteously, “I’m Steve Andrews.” Her smile abruptly vanished, her still-hidden eyes locking on mine, her hands tightened around the Galil. For a heart-stopping second, I thought she was going to turn me into Swiss cheese.
“You’re the guy from Philadelphia that blew that vampire’s head off with a shotgun.” She said, her voice suddenly tight and icy.
“Uh, yeah,” I slowly replied. “That would be me.” I slowly inched my hand towards the backpack in the passenger seat next to me; Alabama didn’t honor my Pennsylvania CCW Permit, so I’d stowed my SIG in there. But I knew that I’d never even get the zipper open if Miss Holly Newcastle decided to pump me full of lead. Abruptly, she lowered her rifle and extended her hand towards the truck’s open window.
“I hate vampires,” she said, “Good job.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said, hesitantly shaking her hand, “I… I’m guessing you had a run-in with them too, right?”
“Yeah,” she said, “you could say that.” Just as quickly as it had vanished, her smile suddenly reappeared. “Well, anyway, I’ll get the gate open for you. Just keep driving until you reach the main compound, then park in front of the main building. Welcome to MHI.”
“Thanks, Miss Newcastle.” I replied. What the hell have I gotten myself into? She laughed again and headed back into the guard shack. A minute later, the gate was open and I continued my drive into the compound. I reached what I assumed to be the main building a few minutes later, parking just to the right of the entrance. Grabbing the backpack from the passenger seat, I climbed out and headed inside. The building was certainly a foreboding structure, with obviously thick brick and concrete wall and thin slits for windows, all of which were covered with iron bars and… was that a portcullis I spotted as I walked through the double doors. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the building’s small lobby appeared relatively normal – I’d been half- expecting armed guards ready to rock and roll with Ma Deuces. Instead, I found myself in a standard waiting room, with a handful of cheap chairs sitting off to one side and a massive desk on the other, with a seemingly-normal grandmotherly-looking elderly woman sitting behind it. She reminded me a lot of Betty White from The Golden Girls, except, of course, for the big Ruger revolver sitting in front of her on the desk, the chambers of which she was methodically cleaning out with a bore brush. What the hell have I gotten myself into?
“Uh, hi,” I said as I slowly as I approached her desk, “My name’s Steve Andrews, I’m here for the, uh, Newbie Training Course.”
“Hmph?” she grunted, obviously upset that I’d interrupted her. She studied my face for a moment before speaking. “Oh, you’re the young feller who put the shotgun down the vampire’s throat. Don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone takin’ a vamp out that way before. That was some clever thinkin’ ya did back there.”
“Uh, thank you, Miss…”
“My name’s Dorcas,” she replied.
“Dorcas?” I thought I’d heard her wrong
“Think that’s funny, do ya boy?” she asked, an angry light entering her eyes.
“Uh, no, no ma’am,” I stammered, “Not at all.”
“I’ll have ya know that my ma said it’s a right Biblical name, an’ if y’all makin’ fun of it, I’ll stick my plastic foot up your ass so far ya’ll choke on it. Clear?” she said, tapping her right leg for emphasis. It made a hollow thunk when struck.
“Uh, yeah, sure, no problem Miss Dorcas,” I stammered quickly.
“Good,” Dorcas replied, seemingly satisfied. “Anywho, you’re still mite early, but you can head back to the cafeteria. That’s where the rest of the Newbies are. Now git, I got work to do,” she barked, turning back to cleaning her Ruger.
“Thank you, Miss Dorcas, pleasure meeting you,” I said, then scampered down the hallway next to her desk before she could either yell at me again or get that big revolver loaded. What the hell have I gotten myself into?
I found the cafeteria easy enough; it was behind a set of big double doors. The wall to one side of the doors was lined with dozens of small silver plaques. Some of the plaques had pictures, all had a name, date of birth, and date of death. Fallen Hunters, I realized quickly. The dates stretched all the way back to the 1890s, with the biggest number falling around December, 1995. Surprisingly, there was a break of a few years after that date, then a bunch of new ones in the early 2000’s. At the top of the wall, I spotted a big sign that read Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. “The Glory of the World is Fleeting,” if I remembered my Tolstoy correctly. God, how I’d hated that book.
There were a surprising number of people in the cafeteria. They seemed to run the gambit age-wise between just out of school, like me, all the way up to the forties or fifties. Pretty much every race and ethnicity on the books was represented. A handful of people had clustered into groups and were chatting, but most were sitting by themselves. Since I’m not normally the social type, I took the latter option; finding a chair near the back of the room and pulling a well-worn paperback from my backpack. I’d already read the book at least a half-dozen times, but it was still just as good as when I’d first bought it. Besides, it didn’t look like the orientation, or whatever it was, was going to start for a while. Before long, I was completely absorbed in the book.
“Excuse me?” A woman’s voice suddenly pulled me to reality. “Is someone sitting here?” I glanced away from my book and had my breath literally taken away because there was an angel standing over me.
She was about my age, maybe a year or so younger. Her eyes were the color of perfectly-cut emeralds, her hair unable to quite decide if it should make her a blonde or a brunette. The lines of her face were fine, chiseled, yet at the same time soft, smooth. Her curves were nowhere near as pronounced as Holly Newcastle’s, hers were more subtle, gentle, yet still absolutely beautiful.
“Uh, yeah, no, ah, yeah, you are,” I stammered, “That is, uh, if you want to.” I mentally slapped myself; I could shoot straighter than most cops, take down three men at once with my bare hands (and had done so several times in both the Taekwondo and Krav Maga classes), and I’d finally taught myself to drive stick shift, but I still couldn’t talk to a girl! Despite me completely mangling of my answer, she smiled at me as she sat down. Even her smile caused my heart to skip a beat. I smiled back, then quickly put my nose back in my novel before I said anything else stupid.
“What are you reading?” she asked after a minute.
“Ah, it’s an action thriller novel. Dead Six, it’s written by Larry Correia and Mike Kupari. Great book. I’ve actually read it already, so you can borrow it if you want.”
“Thanks,” she said, her smile morphing into a slight grimace, “but no thanks. Doesn’t sound like my cup of tea.”
“You sure?” I asked, “It’s no problem if you do.”
“Yeah, thanks, I’m sure.”
“Okay.” I went back to the book for a little bit, then closed it and stuck it back in my backpack. We both stared awkwardly at the walls and ceiling for a minute.
“So…” I said at last, “Where are you from?”
“Chicago,” she replied, “River North is the name of the neighborhood. I actually grew up right across the street from the original Pizzeria Uno.”
“That’s cool,” I said, “You must really like deep-dish, then.”
“Not really, actually,” she admitted with an embarrassed smile.
“Yeah, me neither,” I said, “I’m from just west of Philadelphia.”
“Rocky,” she said, suddenly excited, “I love that movie!”
“I, ah, I’ve actually never seen any of them,” I said.
“What? You’re from Philly and you’ve never seen Rocky? You like Geno’s Cheesesteaks, right?”
“Actually, I prefer Pat’s but yeah, I love cheesesteaks.” We lapsed back into silence for a second. “I take it you’re here for the Newbie class too?”
“Uh huh,” she nodded.
“How’d you wind up here?”
“A big guy named Owen showed up on my doorstep and offered me a job,” she said.
“Yeah, but didn’t you have a run-in with a monster first or something?” I asked. She nodded slowly. “What kind?”
“What’s a Naga? Sorry, I know pretty much jack squat about monsters.”
“It’s… it’s like a big, flesh-eating mermaid with big poisonous spines.” I grimaced.
“Sounds nasty. What happened?”
“I… I’d rather not…” she said, her voice suddenly cracking. It was only then that I noticed the tears welling up in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I shouldn’t have asked.”
“You didn’t know,” she said, wiping her eyes with her shirtsleeve. “It’s okay. Ah, how about you? What did you run into?”
“Vampire,” I said.
“Ah, you didn’t… get bitten, did you?” She said. I noticed she was trying to slowly scoot her chair away from me.
“No, no, don’t worry,” I said, “I blew its head off with a shotgun before it could get me.” She didn’t need to know it had beaten me to a bloody pulp first.
“That’s good…” she said, then suddenly trailed off. “Was this like six months ago?”
“Something like that,” I said.
“At a library, outside Philly?” I nodded. “I think I saw something about that on the news. But, they said it was a serial killer, not a vampire.”
“That’s the official story,” I admitted.
“The one the Government told you to tell or else they’d kill you?” she asked.
“Yeah.” She nodded in understanding. That awkward silence descended on is again.
“My name’s Steve, by the way,” I said after another moment, “Steve Andrews.”
“Nice to meet you, Steve,” she said, giving me that beautiful smile again, “I’m Odette. Odette Meyers.”
“Odette,” I repeated. Dear God, even her name was beautiful.
“I know, it’s a stupid name,” she said.
“No it’s not!” I protested, “It’s a beautiful name!” No sooner had the words left my mouth than she gave me a look of absolute surprise, and I mentally kicked myself again.
“My parents got it from a ballet, for Pete’s sake.”
“Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake,” I answered automatically. Her look of surprise changed to one of skeptical disbelief. “I loved that story when I was a kid,” I said quickly, “My parents bought me a VHS tape of a Japanese Anime version of it, and I watched it so much that I wore the tape out.”
“You’re weird,” she said after a minute, “Has anyone ever told you that?” That beautiful smile was back again.
“Yeah,” I said with a smile of my own, “I’ve heard that a few times.”
Any further conversation was cut off as the cafeteria suddenly grew quiet. Odette and I looked over towards the far end of the room as a group of people walked onto the elevated stage set up over there. There were six of them. I recognized Holly Newcastle immediately. Standing next to her was an African American man with his hair pulled back into dreadlocks. On his right was a man with sandy blond hair and a cigarette hanging unlit in the corner of his mouth. Next to him was a big bear of a man – bigger even than Jon – who Odette identified as the Owen who’d recruited her. Next to Owen was a younger, highly attractive woman wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a 1911 on her right hip. Next to her was a bigger man, bald, with a long red beard. He too wore glasses, though his were wire-rimmed.
As the final whips of noise vanished, the sandy-haired man approached the podium at the front of the stage.
“First of all,” he said, “thank you all for coming, and welcome to Monster Hunter International. For those of you who have not met me, my name is Earl Harbinger. I’m Director of Operations here at MHI. Each and every one of you was contacted and offered a job here, either by myself or by another Hunter, after you survived an encounter with a monster of some kind. Some of you, I’m sure, are wondering why we’d ever pick someone like you. You don’t think you’re all that tough, or brave, or strong, or whatever. Well, let me tell you, the mere fact that you survived your encounter is exceptional. You lot, however, are either even more brave or even more stupid than most survivors; I personally invited about twice as many people as are here today, and several more survivors were invited by other Hunters.
“People, I am going to be flat-out honest with you here; Monster Hunting is probably the most dangerous job in the entire world. You all saw the wall of plaques out in the hallway. Each one of those plaques represents a fallen Hunter. I’m not even going to tell you the mortality rate for first year hunters; I don’t want all of you to get up and walk out on me. What we do is dangerous, yes, but it is absolutely necessary. In many cases, we’re the only thing standing between the rest of humanity and the forces of Darkness.” That last comment garnered a few sarcastic chuckles and “yeah, rights,” from some of the other Newbies. Harbinger quickly silenced them with a menacing, predatory glare.
“Now, some of you here have backgrounds in either law enforcement or the military. Most of you don’t. That doesn’t matter. You’ll all undergo the same training program. You’ll all learn the same information, same tactics, , same everything. Listen to every word your instructors say, and read every single piece of information you’re given. Your life, and the lives of your future teammates, will depend on that.
“Some of you will either wash out or be kicked out. Some of you will quit. No, before anyone says anything, I guarantee that some of you will walk out. If you choose to do so, that’s fine. Talk to me, or talk to Dorcas. We’ll compensate you for your time here and send you on your way. Those of you who do complete your training will be assigned to a Hunter Team. These teams respond to monster outbreaks and other crises as they develop. Others will be assigned to support said teams, gathering intel on the threat or interfacing with local law enforcement, which can be even more difficult that killing Monsters. Trust me on that.” The rest of the people up on stage with him started chuckling when he said that last part, prompting a few hesitant laughs from the assembled Newbies.
“Are there any questions?” Harbinger asked once the laughter died down. The room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. “No?” he asked. No one spoke up. “Good,” he said, “Let’s get started.”
For the next four months, I did nothing but train to fight and kill all manner of undead creatures. Some parts of training, like the classroom sessions, were boring; some were hard as hell, like cross-country runs and obstacle courses that were so sadistic I imagined would cause Navy SEALs to break down and cry; some were downright fun, that was mainly weapons and combat training; and some just made everyone want to puke, like learning how to stake and decapitate a dead body, and the Gut Crawl. Trust me, you don’t want to know what that involved.
My months of preparation beforehand proved to have been invaluable; without them, I would have washed out faster than you could say “werewolf.” As it was, Harbinger and his instructors still kicked my ass. The only downside to it all was that I’d gotten myself skilled enough that I tested out of some of the basic classes, mainly combat training, and got put into the advanced courses and, as a result, barely saw Odette outside of the classroom.
By the time it was all said and done, of the 60 or so Newbies that started the training program, exactly twenty of us finished, and almost four months to the day after we first entered, Odette and I stood with the rest of the newly minted Hunters, decked out in our newly-issued Hunter Armor. The armor, which was made up of Kevlar, Nomex, and plastic and ceramic plates, was available in several different “tactical” colors. Most of the new Hunters had opted to get theirs in straight black, but both Odette and I had gone against the grain; she’d picked Olive Drab for her armor, while I’d opted for Flat Dark Earth, since that matched the furniture on both my Crusader Partisan and my FAL. Hey, I’m a gun nut, what do you want?
“Congratulations,” Earl Harbinger said, once again standing in front of the podium, “You are all Hunters now. I’m not going to give you some bullshit about how you’re all part of some “brotherhood,” now or some shit like that. I will say, however, that Monster Hunting is more than just a job; it’s a calling, and it takes a special type of person to answer that call. Now, here are your assignments for Hunter Teams.” He pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket, opened it, and began to read off a list. “Boone’s team, Atlanta, Georgia; George Fulton, Nia Gonzalez, and Larry Phelps. Haven’s team, Boulder, Colorado; Rita Whitmore…”
As Harbinger read on, I leaned over to whisper in Odette’s ear. “Congratulations. You made it.”
“Thanks,” she said, “Congratulations to you too. Where do you suppose they’ll put us?”
“No idea. You got anywhere in particular you’d like to go?”
“Not really,” she admitted, “You?”
“Well, I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about it,” I admitted. At that moment, I heard Harbinger call my name.
“Turner’s team, Scranton, Pennsylvania; Steve Andrews and Odette Meyers.” I couldn’t beat down my smile upon hearing that.
“Looks like we’re working together,” Odette remarked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“And we didn’t get put somewhere in the middle of nowhere, like Alaska,” she continued, “That’s good.”
“Yeah,” I said again. Truth be told, I wouldn’t mind being assigned to Nowhere, Alaska for the rest of my life if it meant I’d be close to Odette. Which was weird; I’d never felt that way about anyone before.
“So,” Harbinger said after he’d read off the last name of the list, “That’s all for the assignments. You’ll leave for your new assignments first thing in the morning. Until then, get some rest. You’ve all earned it. Again, congratulations, and welcome to Monster Hunter International.”