It took Odette and I two days to make the trip from Alabama to our new base. We drove up together, but in separate cars; me in my F150, her in an Acura Legend. I’d offered to carpool, but she’d declined, not wanting to leave her sedan behind. Apparently it held some sentimental value to her. As it turned out, it was just as well she’d turned me down, since there wasn’t enough room in the bed of my truck for all of our gear.
Scranton had improved dramatically since the last time I’d visited. It had been a mining town for years and years back when coal was plentiful in the region, only to have gone bust when the mines closed down in the 60’s. For decades, the region had been referred to as the “Armpit of America,” but over the last ten years or so, tourism brought on by the Steamtown National Historic Center and a certain television show had slowly but surely revitalized the town.
It was just about 6:30 PM by the time we made it through Scranton, and I was getting pretty hungry. Unfortunately for me, MHI’s local compound was located several miles west of the city, which translated to another half-hour or more of driving time. My stomach apparently wasn’t too thrilled with this, since it began growling loud enough for me to hear over my truck’s sound system as it blasted AC/DC’s Thunderstruck from my iPod. A billboard by the side of the road suddenly grabbed my attention. It was an advertisement for someplace called Mike’s Diner, which was, according to the sign, only a half-mile down the road. It looked pretty decent, too; the picture on the billboard was of a stereotypical stainless-steel diner from the 1950s. One final growl (actually ‘roar’ was more like it) from my stomach settled the deal. I paused the iPod and reached for the Motorola walkie-talkie I’d stashed in the cup-holder. Just as my fingers brushed against it, the device suddenly squawked and Odette’s voice came through the speaker.
“Hey Steve,” she said, “would you mind if we stopped at this diner up here and got something to eat? I’m starving.”
“Sure,” I said, unable to keep back a laugh.
“Nothing, I was just going to call you and ask the same thing.”
“Oh,” she said with a laugh of her own. I couldn’t help but smile brightly at hearing that sound. “Okay, then, see you in a few minutes. Over and out.”
“See you,” I replied, “Over and out.”
A few minutes later, Mike’s Diner came into view. It looked exactly how it looked on the billboard; a stainless-steel diner reminiscent of the height of the Rock ‘n’ Roll era. And, judging by the number of cars in the well-lit parking lot, the place was apparently quite popular. A good sign. We pulled in and quickly found spaces; Odette right in front of the restaurant, me a row behind her.
We soon discovered that the 50’s theme presented by the diner’s exterior was also present on the inside; vintage movie posters and other memorabilia covered the wall while classic Rock ‘n’ roll tunes drifted lazily from hidden speakers. As I’d expected, the place was jam-packed, which was no surprise considering how good the food looked and smelled. There was a “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign near the entrance and no free tables in sight, so I leaned back against the doorframe and began idly looking at some of the memorabilia hanging over the counter while Odette began tapping her feet and snapping her fingers to the rhythm of Chuck Berry’s guitar.
“Steve?” The surprisingly familiar voice suddenly snapped me back to reality. To my surprise, I spotted Jon and Dominique sitting in a booth with three other people.
“Jon?” I asked in disbelief, “Are you kidding me?”
“Who’s that?” Odette asked, “You know that guy?”
“Yeah,” I replied, “he and I went to high school together.” Then, in a whisper, I added, “He’s the guy that recruited me.”
“You’re kidding.” I shook my head ‘no’ as Jon and Dominique waved the two of us over.
“Here,” Dominique said, “C’mon over and sit down, we’ll squeeze in.” There was some minor grumbling as the five of them pressed themselves even closer together in order to accommodate the two of us, but everyone seemed to go along with it willingly.
“How’d you two know we were here?” Dominique asked.
“We didn’t,” Odette said, “We were just hungry.”
“Well, you definitely came to the right place,” the man sitting next to her said, “Mike’s is the best place to eat in the whole county.” He was short and stocky, with a shock of blonde hair atop his head and a Paul Teutel-style moustache.
“And speak of the devil,” Dominique said as another man, Mike, walked over to the table. Mike was about as tall as I was. He was in his late 60s, but his face was so weathered that he looked at least ten years older. His brown hair, or what was left of it, had gone gray almost everywhere except, ironically, for around his temples.
“So,” Mike said in a gravelly voice, “these must be the new recruits.”
“Uh, yeah, that’d be us,” I said.
“Steve, Odette, meet Mike Rendell,” Dominique said with a smile, “Mike, this is Odette Meyers and Steve Andres.”
“Ah, Naga Girl and Vampire Boy,” Mike said, snapping his fingers. Odette and I traded an alarmed glance.
“It’s okay,” Dominique assured us, “Mike’s an ex-Hunter, led the Northeast team for fifteen years. He taught me pretty much everything I know.”
“And did a damn fine job of it, too,” Mike added proudly, “Seeing you’ve lasted this long in the business. So,” he said, turning back to us, “What can I get you kids?”
“Well… Menus, for starters,” Odette said.
“Oh, right,” Mike said, “hang on a sec, I’ll be right back.” He darted off towards the counter. For and old guy, he moved surprisingly fast. Monster hunting must definitely keep people in shape, if it doesn’t kill them first. He returned with menus for the two of us a minute later, then headed back towards the kitchen.
“So,” I said as I started browsing the menu,” what’s good?”
“Mike does a mean chicken fingers,” the blonde guy with the mustache said. “Home-made batter and honey mustard.”
“Sounds yummy,” Odette said. “Thanks, ah…”
“Scott Walker,” he replied, “Call me Scotty.”
“Scotty’s our resident demo expert,” Dominque added.
“I like to make things go boom,” he said with a wicked smile.
“Pleasure to meet you,” Odette said.
“Same here,” I replied.
“And I know we’ve already met, Steve, but I’m Dominique, I’m the Big Boss up here,” she said, shaking Odette’s hand.
“Jonathan Callahan,” Jon said next, “Sharpshooter.”
“Did you really go to high school with Steve?” Odette asked.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Jon confirmed.
“He’s also the guy that turned me into the raving-lunatic gun-nut that I am today,” I added with a grin.
“Has your mother forgiven me for that yet?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” I replied. While Mom had loved Jon dearly, she’d never really liked guns that much, and she’d been less than thrilled as a result when she found out that he was the one who’d sparked my interest in them.
“Anyway,” Dominique said, “This here is Chris Unger.” The man she’d indicated was tall and slim, with a buzz cut so short it was difficult to determine his hair color and muscles that showed even through is long-sleeved shirt. Tattoos poked out from under his collar and shirt cuffs.
“Odette, Steve,” he replied curtly.
“Chris is our heavy-weapons man,” Dominique explained.
“Marine?” I asked, venturing a guess at his previous occupation.
“That’s right,” he nodded, “MOS 0331. That’s machine gunner to you civilians.”
“And I’m Shannon Ibers,” the woman sitting next to me said, “I’m the resident bookworm.”
“She means intel expert,” Jon said, unable to suppress a grin.
“If either of you have any questions about monsters and how to kill them, Shannon’s the woman to turn to,” Dominique said. Shannon was a petite woman, with short red hair, blue-grey eyes, and what I figured to be an ever-present smile.
As the seven of us shook hands across the table, a waiter returned and took our orders; Odette and I both went with the chicken fingers, though she got a Pepsi while went with Coke.
“So Steve,” Scotty said, “I understand you blew off a vampire’s head.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “put two barrels of double-aught buck right down its throat, point-blank.” The reactions I got from that remark were interesting; Odette winced a little, Jon and Dominique just sat there (having already heard the story), Chris nodded approvingly, Shannon raised her eyebrows a little, and Scotty actually giggled.
“Nice,” he said, then turned to Odette, “How ‘bout you? You’d you take out that Naga?” Now it was my turn to wince. Odette still wasn’t comfortable talking about the incident.
“I, ah, I… I beat it with an oar… then… stabbed it to death with the oar shaft once the paddle broke off,” she said slowly, then brushed away a tear. The table was suddenly covered with an uncomfortable silence.
“Well… uh… good job,” Scotty said awkwardly after a few minutes, “Nice going.”
Any further conversation was abruptly cut off as the waiter suddenly appeared with our food, which the seven of us immediately attacked with the enthusiasm of a pack of starving animals, which for Odette and I wasn’t too far from reality. And I quickly found that Scotty was right, Mike did make the best chicken fingers I’d ever tasted.
“So, Dominique,” Odette asked after a few minutes, “How come you all are out here? Steve and I figured you’d be at the compound, or whatever.”
“Normally we would, but we just got back from fishing a luska out of Lake Erie, and shockingly nobody got eaten in the process, so we figured we’d come out here to celebrate.”
“Damn, a luska?” I asked. I remembered those things from Harbinger’s lectures; cross between a giant squid and a Great White Shark, big, smart, mean, and always hungry. Odette apparently remembered them too; her eyes went wide and her jaw fell slack at Dominique’s remark.
“And no one got hurt?” she asked.
“We got lucky,” Chris said.
“Yeah,” Scotty said, “Lucky that I brought that satchel charge.”
“Try lucky we didn’t all get blown to kingdom come,” Chris retorted.
“Wait, wait, a satchel charge?” I asked, “Scotty, you gotta tell me what happened!”
“Well, see, Jon had hooked it with our harpoon gun, and we were reeling it, but then the thing stopped fighting the winch and charged the boat. So while everyone else started freaking out, I went real quick below deck and grabbed the satchel…”
“Aw, hell,” Chris interrupted.
“Hey, come on, it was a good idea!” Scotty protested.
“Not you, Walker,” Chris said, “them.” He pointed out the window at the pair of riced-up Hondas that had just pulled into the lot. Even inside the diner, we could hear and feel the thumping of their subwoofers. The two cars pulled into parking spaces near the edge of the lot, and a moment later four young gangsta-wannabes climbed out of each. Most of us just rolled our eyes and went back to our food, but Chris kept looking out the window, watching them like a hawk. “Hey, Andrews, isn’t that your truck?” he asked a few seconds later.
“Huh?” I glanced out the window to see the hoodlums gathered around my truck, peering inside the cab and bed cover. Then one of them tried to open the locked tailgate.
“Oh, hell no!” I exclaimed as I slid out of the booth, “I’ll be right back. Touch my fries and die.” I heard Dominique shout something to Mike, but I wasn’t really paying attention; by that time I was already halfway out the door.
“Hey, you!” I shouted the instant my feet hit the asphalt, “Get away from my truck!” The hoods all stopped what they were doing and looked over at me. One took a step forward after a second.
“This your truck, man?” he asked.
“Hell, yeah, it’s mine!” I shouted back, “Now get the hell away from it!”
“Where them keys at?” he asked.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“I said where the fuck are them keys!” He pulled up his oversized sweatshirt to reveal a small automatic – it looked like a Raven or a Bryco – shoved into his waistband. I instantly swept my jacket out of the way and grabbed my SIG 220 Compact.
“DON’T YOU MOVE!” I screamed at him as my pistol cleared leather. I had it leveled at his chest a second later. “DON’T ANY OF YOU MOVE!” I shouted at his homeboys.
“All of you, get your hands over your head and move out from behind the truck!” I heard Dominque shout, “Do it now!” I risked a quick glance over my shoulder to see the rest of the group –team – fanning out behind me, pistols drawn. It was, I noted absently, an impressive display of firepower; Dominique had her HK45, Jon had his 1911, Odette had the Smith & Wesson 457 she’d taken to carrying concealed, Shannon had a Springfield XD, Chris had a 1911 of his own, and Scotty had… wait, was that an old Smith & Wesson Schofield revolver?
The sudden and quite unexpected appearance of a pistol, quickly followed by a half-dozen more, appeared to have done the trick; the smug grins on the gangbangers’ faces abruptly vanished and they scurried back to their ricers, cursing the whole way. As they piled into the cars, one of them turned back and pointed, his face completely covered in fear. It took me a long second to realize something strange; he hadn’t pointed at me. In fact, he hadn’t pointed anywhere near the Team, he’d pointed… up? Yeah, he’d pointed up above and behind us. But why would he do that? I turned around, looked up towards the roof of the diner, and quickly spotted what he’d seen. It was a group of…
“WIGHTS!” I heard myself scream as the dozen creatures leapt as one from the roof towards us. Everyone else looked up and began firing skyward an instant later. One of the wights landed directly in front of me, and I raised the pistol towards its head and began to squeeze the trigger, I realized I’d fucked up big-time; I hadn’t thought to load the thing with the silver PowR Balls. Not that I could do anything about that now. I stroked the trigger three times at near-contact distance, and the back of its head was suddenly splattered all over the front of the diner. The thing dropped like a rock; I guess the Winchester PDX1s I’d gone with worked just fine. Then the thing started dragging itself towards me. I jumped backwards, barely managing to stay out of its reach as I dumped the rest of the magazine into its head. Its skull disappeared in an explosion of black gore and it finally lay still.
“Backgrounds!” I heard Chris shout, “Watch your backgrounds!” Honestly, friendly fire was the last thing on my mind as I yanked a fresh magazine from my belt and immediately dumped it into the chest and head of another charging wight. The thing staggered back as hunks of its chest, legs, and head were ripped away by .45 caliber hollowpoints, but it didn’t go down. I was in trouble now; I only had one magazine left and the wight, though I’d managed to slow it down, was still coming.
“I need more ammo!” I shouted to no one in particular as I reloaded.
“Didn’t you bring anything heavy with you?” Scotty shouted back. I looked over to see him standing next to a Subaru Outback wagon. The hatch was open, and he was blasting away at a pair of wights with a shotgun that he must have gotten from the back. Of course! The truck!
“Cover me!” I shouted as I sprinted across the parking lot to my F150, desperately fishing the keys from my pocket. I got them out as I skidded to a halt next to the rear of the truck. I had the tailgate open a second later, desperately reaching for one of my gun cases. I found one after a heart-stopping moment and wrenched it free from the rest of my junk. I slid it onto the tailgate and popped it open. It was the one with my FAL. I grabbed the weapon out, slammed an oversized 30-round magazine into the receiver, yanked the charging handle back and let it fly forward, then turned back towards the fight.
Just in time to find the wight I’d just blasted right on top of me. In a panic, I braced the big rifle against my hip and started firing as fast as I could pull the trigger. The heavy thirty-caliber bullets ripped into – and through – it’s flesh, turning the hapless wight into undead hamburger. The bolt finally locked back on an empty magazine, and the wight – or rather, what was left of it – finally dropped to the pavement with a wet THUD. I quickly grabbed another three 30-rounders from the case, locking one into my rifle and shoving the other two into the pockets of my cargo pants as I looked around for more targets. Most everyone was standing next to their personal vehicles firing heavy weapons now. I saw Chris with what looked like an old M60 pouring fire into a pair of wights, Dominique with some sort of shortened G3 rifle, Scotty alternating between feeding rounds into his shotgun and shooting his Schofields (he had a pair now) at any wight that got too close to him. Jon had a big SR-25 sniper rifle laying the top of his Chevy truck at the edge of the lot, blowing the heads off of any of the undead unlucky enough to land in his crosshairs, while Odette was crouched behind the rear quarter panel of her Acura, shoving a fresh magazine into her UMP45 submachine gun…
…totally unaware of the wight that had somehow made it through the kill zone and was slowly rounding the front of the sedan. I immediately raised my rifle, but couldn’t get a shot; Odette was directly between me and the wight. Shit! I did the only thing I could do; I lowered the rifle and started running towards her.
“ODETTE!” I screamed at her, “WIGHT ON YOUR THREE O’CLOCK!” Odette turned to look, only she turned the wrong way; she looked right at me. “NO!” I screamed, “BEHIND YOU! BEHIND YOU!” She turned and saw the wight just as it lunged around the car at her. She instinctively raised her UMP at it but never got a shot off, because at that precise instant I reached her position and forcefully shouldered her out of the way. I snapped my FAL up and fired just as the wight cocked back its fist and swung a hard right into my ribs.
The next instant, the wight was gone from sight and I was flying through the air. I had just enough time to think what the hell just happened? before my head slammed into something hard and stars exploded behind my eyes.