Friday, April 19, 2013

Tooth and Claw: Tail of the Scorpion, part two

Prologue, Tail of the Scorpion, part one

Saturday, July 6th, 2012

                Vernon Christopher leans against an electric ATV past the Winslow city limits, gazing out into the desert for any sign of activity.  The dogs had just run out a couple of minutes ago, as the Sun was setting; the Hunters had learned that wherever this criminal force had struck, they were soon to follow.  So the Hunters had set up two watch points just outside of town, on little hills where they could survey most of the surroundings through binoculars.  Vernon would have liked a tighter perimeter, but Patricia only had the two ATVs, and waiting for two others to catch up on foot from even a few short miles away would force them to choose between letting the trail grow cold and stringing themselves out.
                Patricia opens up the compartment beneath the vehicle’s seat to double-check their supplies:  extra magazines, bottles of water, a first aid kit, and a small bag of tools.  Vernon doesn’t turn around, but can hear her rummaging; he knows there’s no point, the kits were checked and double-checked before they headed out, but he understands that she’s restless and needs something to do.  Fine.  It would be nice if her “something to do” involved keeping a lookout, though.  David and Michelle would only be a few minutes, anyway.  It wasn’t the end of the world.
                A couple of yards away, Jones is stretching.  Vernon watches her idly out of the corner of his eye – there’s a quad stretch, yeah.  Hamstrings, yeah.  Then she seems to tie herself up into a little knot and pull herself tight; Vernon has no idea what that stretch does, though he supposes you’d have to be pretty limber to do it at all.  Elbows over the head, sure.  Arms straight across your chest, pretty standard.  But then she stretches one arm out, wraps the other one around it, and pulls the first arm back.  Vernon turns to look more closely – oh, she’s torquing out her own wrist.  He’ll have to ask her about some of those, it would be pretty handy to be able to just roll with it if someone tried to put you in a joint lock.
                David and Michelle are in earshot, now; Vernon can hear the thick treads of the tires churning the desert dust, and the quiet droning hum of the electric motor beneath.  He checks his knife in its sheathe (good) and brushes his arm against his pistol in its shoulder holster as he unfolds his arms (good).  He tucks the binoculars on their neck strap into his half-open windbreaker, and zips it up to just below his collarbone.  Patricia closes the compartment and mounts the ATV; Vernon climbs on behind her.
                “OK,” Jones says, rising to her feet.  “Let me stay a couple hundred yards ahead of you guys.  If anything crazy happens, I want to run into it first.”  Patricia nods.  “If anything comes up behind me, I want you guys to radio ahead.  And whatever happens when we run into these guys, just follow my lead.”  Patricia nods again, and Vernon has to stop himself from rolling his eyes.  Hunters weren’t cops, there wasn’t any chain of command besides what any group established for itself; whatever covert organization Jones belonged to, Vernon was damned sure that he didn’t answer to it; he wasn’t even certain that Jones had the power to actually arrest anyone.  She had managed to pull rank at a couple of the crime scenes with her forged DHS credentials, but Vernon was able to get those all on his own.  When the FBI had shown up earlier in the week, though, she was able to make a call that wound up with the lead agent getting a swift text message to let her have her way with things.  That had been genuinely impressive to Vernon, but fiascos like Abu Ghraib tempered his growing respect for her:  too many cooks spoils the broth, and when too many spooks are able to get by on three letters – OGA, “other governmental agency” – that usually signals a coming clusterfuck.
                “So you’re just gonna run the whole way,” Vernon says more than asks.  “They could be over a mile away by now, those dogs are quick.”
                “I’m pretty quick, myself,” Jones replies, taking a swig from her water bottle and donning a baggy sweatshirt to conceal her shoulder holster.
                “Yeah, but we don’t know how far we have to go,” Vernon says.  “What if they’re headed halfway to Barringer Crater?”  It was a realistic guess – the dogs had been running due West, and the Crater had been the site of more than a couple showdowns in Vernon’s time.  “You run fuckin’ marathons in your free time or something?”
                “Not marathons,” Jones says, “But yeah.  Cardio’s important.  What are you gonna do if you’re being chased down by a pack of werewolves?”
                Vernon’s head tilts in non-committal assent.  “I figure if I’m ever in that situation, that’s the day the good Lord calls me home to him.”
                “Well, that’s the difference between you and me,” Jones says flatly.  “I’ve got too much to do down here.”  Before Vernon can reply, she points over his shoulder at David and Michelle approaching.  “Wait for them to catch up to you, then follow me.”  She takes off at a dead sprint.
                Vernon looks back to see the other quad at about a hundred yards or so, and gunning it.  So much for staying a couple hundred yards back, he thinks.  As the other pair of Hunters draw within spitting distance, Patricia starts the ATV.  Vernon wraps his arms around her waist, and they’re off.
                He looks ahead to see Jones running in the distance.  Huh.  She’s actually off to a good start.  He glances over Patricia’s shoulder to look at the speedometer:  15mph.  After several seconds at that pace, Vernon sees that the spook’s figure is beginning to shrink.
                “Pick it up a bit,” he says to Patricia.  She nods and smoothly rotates the throttle.  At 20mph, Jones is still losing them.  They gun it up to 35, careful to leave her at least her requested football field, then seem to find her speed somewhere between 25 and 30mph.
                Vernon frowns.  Another one of those damned augmentations, I bet.  This was Olympic sprinter speed, not marathon speed, and Vernon estimates that she’s kept it up for somewhere between a mile and two.  After noticing her hand, he started keeping an eye out, and sure enough, the wretch had more than a few other parts wired into her:  she kept looking at things that Vernon couldn’t see, which would lead her to details at crime scenes that the others chalked up to a keen detective’s instinct.  But Vernon knew better.  She also seemed to have a knack for spotting the supernatural at work – one particularly bad night, there had been murders at four separate households in as many hours.  They stopped as quickly as they started, all between six and ten; at midnight, Jones said she needed a drink, so the party had obliged.  But she seemed to spot a demon riding a guy like he was carrying a banner around.  A “troll,” she’d called him – Vernon would have called him “Goliath” – “That guy, holy shit, troll for sure,” were her exact words (she’d had a few).  Vernon was happy to chalk it up to drunken ramblings, but when she started tailing him, things went to Hell in fairly short order:  he wound up cornering them (one guy, cornering the five of them, which was a first for Vernon) in an alley, and they had a fight on their hands.  Then there was the other thing:  not only did the guy slam Jones into a wall, only for her to shrug it off; he tore apart a discarded pallet and caught her in the shoulder with a couple of nails in it, and the wounds were completely closed up the next day.
                Vernon was starting to seriously consider the possibility that this was beyond “augmented human,” and into the territory of “demon conscripted into human service.”  He was getting sick of this woman and her tricks – no matter how useful she was to this particular investigation, she was too corrupted by far to be any kind of trustworthy.  How long would it be before she stabbed them in the back?  He wouldn’t put it past her to ditch them just to save her own skin; Hell, what if her superiors decided that Vernon and his crew knew too much?
                That, at least, wasn’t a great concern to Vernon.  Supernatural goings-on were the stuff of tabloids, and likely to be the only sympathetic ear a Hunter could find if he ever tried to go to the press.  Even if he managed to find some kind of convincing proof (which would be damned hard to come by, given the nature of the forces he was up against), an after-the-fact cover-up would probably be easier to manage than comprehensive prevention.  It was a simple matter of resource allocation:  if an organization like Kelly’s was able to keep tabs on every Tom, Dick, and Harry who’d had a brush with demons, or even a quarter of them, they’d most likely be better off ingratiating the local Hunters rather than intimidating them into silence or eliminating them.
                That was the answer, Vernon supposed.  In the final analysis, corrupt organizations would be best served to take a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” approach.  This made it all the more important for Vernon to keep an eye on his own behavior, and make sure that he didn’t sink to Jones’ level, no matter how helpful or convincing she seemed.
                Vernon’s train of thought was derailed more than once by the terrain.  The ATVs, to their credit, had marvelous suspension.  Still, they’d had to lean back to avoid rolling forward any time they entered a little gulch, then lean forward to avoid falling ass-over-teakettle coming up the other side.  The spook was still outpacing them, but they’d managed to keep her in sight under the bright stars as darkness settled in.  Near a wide dry wash, Jones had stopped and removed her sweatshirt.  Her pistol was drawn by the time the others had caught up to her.
                “They haven’t come up the other side,” she says as they shut off the ATVs and ready their own weapons.  “Things have just settled down, but I don’t know what we’re going to see down there.  Just don’t make any sudden moves.”  The Hunters nod, almost in unison, then Jones turns and approaches the edge of the erstwhile riverbank.  She takes aim and shouts, “Freeze!”
                Vernon steps up beside her to take in the scene:  almost a dozen men are laid out in a mess stretching off to the right, the remains of a half-devoured corpse beyond them.  The broken bodies aside, it’s a scene he’s become all-too-familiar with while chasing the dogs over the past week.  He has no idea who she’s shouting at, though; he can see no signs of life.

                Jones Kelly feels the tension course up her spine as she nears a wide dry wash.  Good, that means she’s getting close.  She slows her pace, doffs the sweatshirt, and draws her pistol.  Coming up to the edge at an easy trot, she hears the pair of ATVs rolling up behind her, and looks beyond the veil to see a full pack of moonkin savaging a monstrous spectral scorpion.
                Well, she thinks, That’s unexpected.  She backs off a couple paces, until she can no longer see any sign of the ensuing feast.  The vehicles slow to an easy stop within arm’s reach of her.
                “They haven’t come up the other side,” she says as vehicles are turned off.  “Things have just settled down, but I don’t know what we’re going to see down there.  Just don’t make any sudden moves.”  The four Hunters, pistols drawn and cocked, nod their assent.
                Jones steps back toward the dry wash, and sees something new as she approaches the edge:  at the bottom of the embankment, a dozen emaciated corpses lay broken and bloody, pocked with what appear to be numerous erupted boils as well as some clearly more fatal wounds.  The veil hides the strangest part from all eyes but her own – hundreds of regular-sized spectral scorpions are skittering to and fro, emerging from the dead men’s ragged wounds, fleeing their predatory superiors.
                Jones raises her pistol and thumbs off the safety as the ghostly beasts howl silently (to her ears) at the Moon.  “Freeze,” she shouts, taking aim at the biggest one, glowing a fierce white in his grotesque transformation.  The five of them snap out of their primal revelry to look at her.  “All right, you five know I can see you – and I assure you, I can shoot you.”  The beasts snarl in silence, baring their fangs and flexing their massive claws.  Jones hastens to add, “But it doesn’t need to come to that.  You’ve got some explaining to do, though.  So let’s all just simmer down a bit, and have ourselves a chat.”
                Four of them tilt their heads slightly to the big one, doubtless the alpha, without taking their eyes off of Jones.  He relaxes his posture with a restrained snorting motion, and his shape slowly shrinks to man-sized proportions as he loses his glow.  Jones sees what looks like a misty, holographic projection of Samuel Carter.

                “Hunt’s over,” Carter says to his pack.  “And it went damn well, if you ask me.  Let’s not push our luck.  Lady wants to talk?  We’ll talk.  I bet she could tell us a thing or two, as well.”  The others shift back to their human forms, then follow Carter to the Outside.

                Vernon stares, wide-eyed but unflinching, as four men and a woman materialize before his very eyes.  Standing beyond the carnage, they look like they’ve spent a few hours at the gym, but otherwise no worse for wear.  He recognizes Samuel Carter, William Williamson, and Uma Stoneburner – the very old Indian-looking guy and the young dude with the new beard are strangers to him.
                His suspicions about Jones are all but confirmed, as well:  she’s not in this to vanquish evil, she just wants to collar the ones who make a big scene.  It’s not about cleansing society, for her type; it’s about keeping up the mere appearance of the status quo for the masses who don’t know that a war’s on.
                He weighs his options very carefully.  Patricia is one of the faithful, but the other two almost certainly buy into the spook’s jurisdictional clap-trap.  If it came down to it, Vernon would be seen as disobeying a direct order from a superior if he were to draw first blood, regardless of the reality that this traitor’s unconvicted pragmatism robbed her of any legitimate authority.  Best case scenario:  Vernon and Patricia against two of their former compatriots and the freak – then the dogs mop up and call it a night.  Worst case scenario:  the eight of them overwhelm Vernon and Patricia, and form some pact to keep the city running smoothly by day even as it rots at night.
                Discretion is the better part of valor, here.  Vernon must endure this indignity for the present, then take stock after the spook skips town to see if he can undo the damage and maybe find a way forward through this mess.  That’s his most productive course of action.
                So help me, God.

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