We never did learn why Willard tried to kill me; he took his motive to the grave. We found out later that he’d been summarily fired by the MCB and was later charged by the Bureau with attempted murder, forgery, filing false reports, tampering with evidence, and a whole host of other things. All this, of course, came after he’d been diagnosed with several personality disorders, many of them violent and all of them severe. He wound up spending the rest of his life locked away in the High-Security Wing of the Appleton Assylum, near MHI’s main compound in Cazador, Alabama.
The final death toll in Philadelphia numbered over 10,000, with five times that number injured. The official story was that a massive riot had broken out after the Phillies lost, but I doubt many people believed it. Only Eagles Fans riot. And the City Council President’s plot ultimately backfired: the city fell even deeper into debt, requiring massive amounts of Federal aid on top of the millions of dollars in disaster relief it had already received. It would take Philadelphia years to recovered, and the fact that roughly 40% of the city’s surviving population moved away within a year only made things harder.
Unfortunately, the city would have to rebuild without the help of Officer Daniel Hampton. The department brass had caught wind of his “use of unauthorized weaponry” during the outbreak (i.e. his Mosin-Nagants) and had promptly fired him. Fortunately, Doug had given him a business card before MHI pulled out of the city, and he’d promptly signed up for the next Newbie course. As luck would have it, I didn’t find out about his carreer change until he walked into my classroom.
That’s right; I was a teacher. For a while, anyway: I was temporarily reassigned to Cazador as an instructor a few days after I was released from the hospital. Officially, I’d been brought in because the Philadelphia Incident (as it later became known) had produced an unusually high number of recruits, so Earl needed all the help he could get running the Newbie course, and I was supposed to be recovering after my ordeal with Robert. The rumor mill said that my little dying-and-coming-back-to-life stunt had really freaked Earl out and he wanted me close by so he could keep an eye on me.
Judging by the weird looks Earl gave me every time he saw me for the first few weeks of the course, I believed the rumor mill.
Dan wasn’t the only surprise student I had during the course: Donald Simpkin also decided to join MHI. It turned out that he’d been suspended for assaulting a senior agent, nevermind the fact that said senior agent was about to murder two civilians. He’d resigned in protest rather than accept the mark on his record, and had joined MHI so he could continue Hunting. He later told me that he’d never really fit in at the MCB and had been thinking about leaving for a while. The incident in the hospital and the subsequent backlash against him only affirmed his decision.
Teaching wasn’t all that bad, but it did have two main drawbacks. First, I was out of the field and not Hunting for four months, and second, I was away from Odette for four months. Words couldn’t describe how much I missed her. We talked via phone and email fairly often, but that didn’t do much to comfort me.
Eventually, the Newbie course ended, bringing over forty new Hunters into our ranks. More importantly, Earl released me from my teaching job and sent me back to Scranton. The drive back up north felt agonizingly long, not helped by the fact that I had to stop for gas pretty often. The Beast’s new rear differential and transmission did wonders to improve fuel economy, but the big engine still gulped down gasoline like my mother drinks coffee, and that’s saying something.
By the time we reached the compound, both me and the team’s newest member were both anxious to get back home. Jon was on guard duty at the front gate. He waved to us as we approached.
“Hey guys!” he said as I pulled up, “Been expecting you!”
“Hey Jon, how’s it going?”
“Not bad, although Dominique’s kind of ticked at you.”
“Me? What’d I do?”
“You started something with The Beast. Now half the team’s got muscle cars.”
“Nope. Scotty bought himself a ’71 Hemi ‘Cuda right after you left, then Chris got a ’69 Dodge Charger about a month later. Even Shannon’s in on it: she bought a ’70 Chevy Nova SS a couple of weeks after Chris got his Charger. The three of them set up a drag strip and a road-race course in the back of the compound and race every weekend.”
“Yep, and Shannon’s itching to have a shot at The Beast.”
“Yeah, she’s convinced that she can take you in the road-race.”
“Yeah, right. When pigs fly.”
“Maybe, maybe not. She’s running a Hotchkis Suspension setup like yours. Anyway, you can unload your stuff and your passenger at the main building.”
“Not the house?”
“Nope. After the thing with the Harpies, Earl got on Dominique’s case about ditching the houses and moving the team back into the suites. She finally agreed to it a few weeks after you left for Alabama.”
“Damn, I liked my house.”
“Yeah, I liked mine too, but you know, whatever.”
“Yeah, whatever. I’ll catch you later, man.”
The familiar drive back into the compound went by real quick, and as I pulled up in front of the main building, I saw another welcome face waiting for me. No sooner had I pulled The Beast to a stop than my passenger bolted from the car and raced towards her.
“Hondo!” Odette said right before the big Rottweiler crashed into her, nearly knocking her down. “Yes, I missed you too, boy,” she said as he mercilessly attacked her hands and face with his tongue. “Hey, stop that! Hondo!”
“Hondo, get down!” I called as I climbed out of the car, “Heel!” Hondo reluctantly broke off his assault and returned to my side. “Sorry about that.”
“No, it’s okay,” Odette said, “I missed him too. How are you doing?”
“Not too bad. It’s definitely good to be back, though. How’ve you been?”
“I’m doing all right.” An awkward silence suddenly fell over us. “Ah… what that think Hondo’s wearing?”
“Oh, that. It’s based on a K9 Storm Riot Protection vest. Scotty made it for him after we had that run-in with the Hell Cat.”
“I heard about that. Is Hondo okay?”
“Yeah, but by the Grace of God. You should’ve seen the Hell Cat. Hondo tore him up real good, impressed Earl enough to dub Hondo an official Hunter.”
“Yeah.” We both knew first-hand just how difficult it is to impress Earl Harbinger. That awkward silence returned again.
“Can I give you a hand with your stuff?”
“Thanks, but I got it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I don’t have all that much stuff.” I only had a duffel bag and a suitcase. And, of course, Hondo’s stuff and my guns, but those I could get later.
The elevator ride up to the second floor was uncomfortably silent, as was the walk down to my room. It wasn’t until we finally reached the end of the hallway that Odette broke the ice again.
“We never did get to talk much about the museum.”
“No, I don’t think we did,” I said, “Why’d you do it?”
“You agreed to become Robert’s queen, to partake of his blood. You knew what that meant; eternal damnation and all that, but you agreed anyway. Why?”
“He… he was beating you to a pulp,” Odette replied after a moment’s hesitation. “He was going to kill you. I…”
“I was dead anyway,” I said, “Even without the crossbow, I was bleeding out.”
“My father’s a doctor, remember? He always says that so long as there’s life, there’s hope. I knew that MHI was coming in force, and I knew that if I could get him to stop,… hurting you, they’d get you out. I… I couldn’t let him kill you. What about you? Why did you do it? You knew you couldn’t beat him, but you fought him anyway, and then you shot yourself with that crossbow. Why?”
“Two reasons. First, the crossbow was because I’m not worth that kind of sacrifice. Second, I fought because I meant what I said. I love you more than anything on this Earth.” Odette looked as though she’d just been struck by lightning.
“Odette,” I said quickly, “I know I’m not the perfect guy, and I’ve treated you like crap sometimes, and nothing I say or do will ever make up for it, and I know it’s so soon after losing Robert but I…”
She cut me off by pulling me into her arms and kissing me.
“I love you too, Stephen.”
Whatever else I’d meant to say suddenly evaporated from my mind. I was suddenly gripped by an insane impulse. It was crazy, I knew I’d be crazy to try it. But what the hell. I dropped down on my knee and pulled the ring from my pocket. Odette’s hands flew over her mouth, her eyes went wide with disbelief.
“Odette Meyers, will you…”
“Yes!” O my God! Yes!”