Saturday, July 6th, 2012
“This’ll go a lot smoother if you stash your pieces,” Carter says, head high and eyes narrowed.
“I hope so,” Jones says as she thumbs her safety back on and holsters her pistol. At her nod, the other Hunters follow suit – Vernon and Patricia share a knowing look and a pointed delay, but they ultimately comply.
“All right,” Carter says with a respectful nod. “You want to talk. So talk.”
Vernon blurts out, “Do you confess to using shape-changing magic and consorting with spirits?”
The moonkin look sidelong at each other and suppress their laughter, as Jones snaps at him, “Can it!”
“So, OK,” Carter says after composing himself. “No stupid questions, right? But I think we all know you could be asking some more productive things right now.”
“No shit,” Jones agrees. “For starters, what exactly are you doing here?”
“We’re cleaning up a mess,” Carter answers. “A big, ugly, bloody mess.”
“That’s a little vague,” Jones says.
“That it is. So how about you tell me how you spotted us? A little quid pro quo, eh?”
Jones straightens her back, looks Carter over as though sizing him up for the first time. “Quid pro quo. I can handle that. But I believe I asked for some specifics up front. So: you tell me what you know, I’ll tell you how I see.”
Carter thinks it over for a moment and finally nods. “Right on. Something got loose in the desert – something bad. It started making a real mess in town, and we got word. So we started tracking it down. Took some damn time, too. I don’t know how long you been following us, but credit where it’s due: we didn’t see you comin’. But if you’ve been behind us, then you must’ve been behind this thing, too. You know what it can do. We finally managed to hunt it down out here, and we put a stop to it. It’s a damn shame what happened to all those folks, but this is a tough old world, if you get my meaning.”
“I do,” Jones says, nodding thoughtfully. “I do, indeed. OK, a deal’s a deal. I have certain, shall we say, implants. Grafts, to be more precise. Messy stuff, not exactly routine procedures, but they make me very dangerous to things that try to play havoc with the laws of nature. But by the same token, they also make me a little more circumspect when it comes to playing the ol’ judge, jury, and so on. For example, I see your big kill there. Are you telling me that that’s what’s behind these past weeks of unpleasantness?”
“That’s exactly what I’m telling you,” the alpha says. “Damn, you’re smarter than you look.” Jones glares at him. Carter smirks and adds, “Hey, you look pretty goddamn sharp to begin with. Don’t forget: you got the drop on us.” He raises an eyebrow and finishes, “I sure won’t.”
“Very well, then,” Jones says. “So is this something you get up to often, then?”
“Hey,” Carter says, wagging a finger. “You just asked a question. It’s my turn.”
Jones thinks back over the exchange. “Ah. My mistake. All right, shoot.”
“You don’t seem to be from around here. Not with those eyes, anyway. You here on a special assignment?”
Jones thinks before measuring her words. She lobbed him a softball by mistake, and he was most likely playing it cool. “Yeah,” she says flatly. Carter nods and slowly smiles, baring his teeth as his shoulders rise and fall in silent laughter. Williamson purses his lips, then raises his hand to his mouth as he looks to the alpha out the corner of his eye.
“Good answer.” Jones is about to repeat her question, but something in his manner unnerves her. “Y’know, that one word speaks volumes. There was a media blackout on this after the first couple nights, so you ain’t no tourist. No, you got friends in hiiigh places. And I bet they wouldn’t like to find out I’m wise to ‘em, would they?” Jones mentally chides herself – but then, this only confirmed a suspicion of his, in all likelihood. It would take Task Force Whiteout, or something remarkably like it, to accomplish such a feat of medicine without making headlines. He might just be rubbing it in – Or, she reflects, He just asked a question out of turn.
“Don’t get greedy now,” Jones says with a smirk. “I do believe I asked about your ‘weekend activities,’ so to speak. Y’know, what you do when you’re not running the gym.” It doesn’t get the reaction she’s hoping for; still, if Carter doesn’t look unnerved, he at least looks impressed. She’s getting back on her game.
“Hey,” he says, spreading his palms toward the Moon, “I am what I am. Yeah, me and my pals here, we got a wilderness club of sorts. Y’know, keep the wild things in the Wild, keep the city folk from trippin’ on shit they can’t see in the dark. You know how it goes.”
“That I do,” Jones nods.
Vernon is developing a marked dislike for the chummy vibe that’s been developing between these two. He and Patricia exchange a few furtive nods, share a few unspoken thoughts; but David and Michelle might as well be taking fucking notes for all their rapt attention.
“So if you went first,” Carter says after a silent moment passes, “then I guess I get to go last. We done here?”
Jones mulls over the question in her head. Her cover is all but blown, which is bad. But the case is closed, which is good. This pack is something of a loose end – but she can file that in her report and simply say that they seem to be… well, if not on the same side, exactly, then not on opposite sides, either. All in all, not bad for a week’s work.
As for the troll – well, she’s willing to chalk it up to an occupational hazard, as long as headquarters doesn’t mind overlooking something they don’t need to know about. Yeah. That’ll do.
“I think so,” she says at last. “Hopefully, I won’t be in touch.”
“Hopefully,” Carter repeats, tipping his head in salutation.
“Now wait just a fuckin’ minute, here,” Vernon spits. “We got a dozen dead men in that gulch down there – dead men, I might add, with families who are also dead – and you’re just gonna let these dogs walk away?”
Jones says firmly, “Yes, I – ”
“And that poor bastard back there looks half-eaten. Don’t you think that maybe this might have something to do with the other chewed-up guys we found, oh, almost every other night we followed these fuckers?!”
Jones looks Vernon in the eye. She needs to defuse this situation, fast. “Now listen here,” but Vernon cuts her off again.
“No, you listen! We’ve got a body count the size of a sports team, and if you think that letting the dogs we caught at the scene of the crime walk away after your little fireside chat is gonna cut it for the relatives of the deceased come Thanksgiving – to say nothing of the motherfucking police,” and he casts an eye toward David for approval. David’s brow is furrowed in thought, but he nods encouragement to Vernon. “Well, lady – you got another think comin’. I mean, for all we know, these monsters unleashed whatever’s been killing these folks, and they’re just now taking it out to cover their tracks!” The moonkin shift uncomfortably – though there is a kernel of truth to what the Hunter is saying, it amounts to accusing the farmer of putting all the chickens in one coop just for the fox’s convenience. “I don’t know about the rest of you,” with David and Patricia on his side, Michelle will almost certainly follow, “but I think we ought to at least consider the option of shooting us a few man-eating monsters tonight!”
“Motherfucker, do you see a fork and knife anywhere around here,” Carter shouts. “Or do I just look like the type to eat a man raw with my bare-ass hands?” He lifts the backs of his hands next to his face – he is conspicuously bloodless, in light of Vernon’s accusation.
Willy chuckles in the ensuing awkwardness. “Well,” he begins under his breath, but Carter elbows him sharply in the ribs, and he turns away to run a hand through his shaggy blond hair in silence.
“Vernon,” Jones says firmly, “you didn’t see what I saw when I – ”
“Damned right, I didn’t!”
“Well,” Uma says. “I can fix that. Y’know. If you’re the type to fix what’s wrong with a situation.” Vernon stands immobilized, unsure what to make of the offer. “From your little tantrum just now, you seem pretty miffed that decisions are being made without you being in on all the facts. So c’mon. I can show you exactly what she’s talking about.”
Vernon looks to his team: Patricia seems as uncertain as he; David shrugs mildly, as if to say, What’s the harm?; Michelle says, “Go ahead, dude,” to his face. He turns at last to Jones, who raises her eyebrows and tips her head in an unmistakable gesture of Fuckin’ duh.
“All right,” Vernon says, straightening his posture. “I guess I walked right into this. Show me what you’ve got.”
“You’ll have to come down here,” Uma says with a beckoning wave, stepping toward the embankment. Vernon takes a deep breath and makes his way down the steep eight feet as gracefully as he can manage – which is, ultimately, pretty graceful when one considers that he’s on the verge of both voiding his bowels and having an aneurysm. “Now listen,” Uma calls up to the other Hunters, “What I’m about to do is perfectly safe, but possibly very frightening. I promise you this, though: your friend will not be harmed. Are we clear on this?” Nods all around as tension fills the air. “OK – Vernon, is it? Take my hands. Whatever you do, do not let go. Do you understand me?” She offers her hands to him, palms up. He nods slowly, looking her in the eyes and placing his hands in hers. “Now close your eyes.”
At least with his eyes closed, it’s easier for Vernon to ignore the bodies all around. He swallows hard, takes another deep breath, and rolls his head around on his neck. Whatever this is, if it’s a trick, then not even Jones will have an excuse not to fight, and he’ll have some one-on-one time with this… Whatever manner of mutt she is, he thinks to himself. He tries to prepare for whatever’s about to come his way –
– and fails utterly.
Vernon opens his eyes after feeling a funny shift in his gut. He looks around, sees the Moon and the stars above, but somehow… brighter? More vivid? He feels like he may have been drugged.
He looks down and sees hazy blue scorpions crawling everywhere – hundreds, if not thousands of the things, skittering this way and that.
“Holy shit,” Vernon screams, leaping back from the swarming arachnids. “What the fuck did you do to me?!”
Uma’s hands tighten around Vernon’s, but his reaction is too swift and violent – he slips free. In the grip of panic, his only thought is to get away, and he instinctively scrambles for the high ground on all fours. But as he turns and stumbles back toward his party, another sensation overcomes him: that of bleeding.
He looks at his hands on instinct, falling to his elbows in the dirt. His hands are not red, as he would have expected, but emanating a weak and fading blue light. The feeling of losing blood is now registering over his whole body.
Then he feels the scorpions. Crawling, pinching, stinging, the arachnids swarm over him. The sense of time dilation finally catches up to him as he breathes in to scream.
What feels like an eternity is in reality barely two seconds as Uma stares in dumb horror. But she swiftly collects herself and springs into action.
“You stupid fuck-wit,” she shouts, burning a tiny bit of her soul to transform in the blink of an eye. Here on the Inside, where the meaning of clothing is more important than its physical characteristics, her outfit easily and instantly accommodates her new shape in a way it could not on the Outside.
Vernon hears a primal roar from behind, and instinctively huddles against this new threat in what seems a never-ending parade of horrors.
But after an interminable second passes, he notices that the scorpions are gone. The feeling of falling apart from everywhere at once continues unabated. He’s starting to feel woozy – hazy – his vision isn’t going dark, so much as blurring away. Without leaving his little ball shape, he shouts into the night,
“What did you do to me, you fucking bitch?!”
A snarl is followed by a rough hand grabbing the back of his neck and lifting him bodily into the air. As Vernon goes limp, he finds himself staring into what he imagines a werewolf would look like on a bad acid trip: the right half of her body glows a radiant white, while the left seems a mass of smoking shadow. The beast growls in his face,
“Call me that again. I swear it will be the last thing you say as long as you live.”
After a moment frozen in fear, Vernon is suddenly overcome by yet another sensation: that of being replenished. He feels a wave of relief wash over him, like the hangover cure you wish like Hell you could find on a Sunday morning. The beast lowers him to the ground, her massive paw still fast around the base of his neck.
“Now take my hand,” she says in a strong and powerful voice that is paradoxically calm (and, Vernon notes with gratitude, utterly devoid of malice). He places his right hand into her outstretched shadowy paw, then his left into her shining white paw after she releases her grip on his neck. Over the space of a few seconds, the beast seems to melt or fade into the shape of the woman from just moments ago. “I told you not to let go,” she says patiently. “Did I not?”
“Yeah. Yeah, you did,” Vernon says with a sigh, feeling… not “shamed” per se, but perhaps “deflated.” The strange calm from her phantasmal infusion still permeates his being.
“Now come,” she says, leading him with one hand through the aftermath of the Wild battle. “This is the beast that is responsible for our troubles,” she says, gesturing with her free hand at what remains of the giant scorpion: a fading husk, seeming to melt and boil into the darkness, but still conveying a clear sense of the size and power it possessed in life. “With its venom, it poisoned the hearts of the men you see around you, and manipulated their bodies like puppets on a string. It led them out into the desert, after forcing them to slay their own families, where it slowly built the small army you see behind you.”
Vernon gazes placidly at the scene. The smaller scorpion spirits, he clearly sees now, are fleeing in terror from the shattered husks of the men they once possessed. Their numbers, though still considerable, are slowly dwindling with time as they flow up and down the dry wash. He notices with calm interest that a weak and trembling water spirit, no larger than his shoe, is trying to make its way through without drawing attention from the smaller but more numerous scorpions.
“Here, watch,” Uma says, kneeling and reaching out to the ghostly liquid. Faint blue light passes from her hand to the spirit, which grows slowly but surely. After nearly doubling in size, Uma pulls back, and the invigorated puddle begins aggressively pursuing the scorpions it had recently been dodging. As it consumes them, it continues to grow. “If this spirit grows strong enough, its need to flow in a river may be able to call the rain, through bonds of kinship and the will to be made whole. Do you understand?”
Vernon nods his head, then shakes it a moment later, then says, “Maybe. I don’t know. It makes a kind of sense.” The clarity he felt scant moments ago is beginning to fade, confusion rushing in once more to fill the void.
“Then that is something,” Uma says with a sigh of contentment. “Keeping you here is taxing. We’ll return now. Close your eyes.” He does so, and feels the same shift as he did before, but in reverse – like his stomach, grown used to being turned inside-out, is revolting anew at being turned back aright.
The two groups of five part ways. Vernon is still somewhat dazed from the afterglow until he goes to bed, but he wakes with a sudden start at dawn the following morning. A single thought dominates his mind: Damn them, it’s God’s job to make the rain!