Dark Fate – an MHI fanfic

*FIRST AND VERY IMPORTANTLY, THIS IS NOT CANON.  THIS IS COMPLETELY UNSANCTIONED (okay, not completely.  Larry said I could do this for you guys without his ripping my head off) MHI FANFIC.
Good, now that we got that out of the way, why am I doing this?  Both Grant and Fado Negro (Portuguese Monster Hunters) have minuscule parts in Guardian, the MHI book I’m collaborating with Larry Correia on.  However, obviously the Portugal of Monster Hunter is not the real Portugal (Really, no arcane creatures come stumbling out of the undergrowth there.  If there were arcane creatures, the country would be chock-a-block with them, when you take in account the continuous human occupation since… well, forever.)  And this story gives me more of an opportunity to firm the worldbuilding.  (Yes, it would be MUCH easier to do this with a notebook and noting things down, but that’s not how my mind works, d*mn it.)
Okay, that’s the rational excuse.  The real reason is that d*mn Grant Jefferson won’t leave me alone.  (Always had a thing for men from Patrician New England families.  Ask my husband.)  So I’m torturing him in order to redeem him.
Will this ever be a book?  Don’t know.  First Guardian will get delivered.  Then, this being finished, I throw it at Larry.  And then it’s his SOLE DECISION. (Which means, don’t you monkeys hassle him.)  It’s his world and his character.  I’m just grateful he lets me play in it in Guardian and here for your amusement.*

I

There are all sorts of rules on foreign travel when you’re a federal agent.  When you’re my kind of federal agent, working for an agency no government would admit to, battling things far more dangerous than terrorists, and more slippery than communism, there are even more rules for foreign travel.

In the end, they all boil down to “If we want you to go abroad, we’ll send you there.”

Which is why I was several kinds of dead.  My first and most likely cause of death would be that my boss, Agent Franks, would rip my head off and beat me to death with it.  Or, of course, he could get creative about killing me.  And I was sure he could get very creative.

I thought I was prepared for it.  But when I took my phone off airplane mode, as we taxied under the rain in the airport of Sa Carneiro in, of all places, Porto, Portugal, it beeped with a text: Jefferson, where in hell are you?  and I realized my entire body clenched.

My name is Grant Jefferson, and I’m many things, starting with a damn fool, but I’m not a coward.  For many years I made my living fighting werewolves, vampires, zombies, and the eldritch horrors of a million deranged nightmares.  And now I did the same for the feds.

But Franks, technically my partner, actually my boss, was something else.  Something that gave the eldritch horrors nightmares.  When little monsters cried with fear at night, it was because of Franks.

I tried to compose an answer in my head, as we filed out of the plane and out the jetway.  But none of them would work.  Called to Portugal because of monsters was kind of sort of true, but if I told Franks that, he would know I was lying.  If I’d been sent to Portugal because of monster attacks and some cooperation agreement he’d be right here with me.  I briefly considered Going to grandma’s funeral, only Franks would know that I didn’t have a grandma in Portugal.  Lists of my actual relations were all on file in federal archives.  I briefly considered My grandmother turned into a monster in Portugal, but the thing is, even before typing it in, I could hear Franks’ growl in response.  That was one of his most unnerving habits.  The way he growled.  Made worse if you’d ever seen him fight.  He once fought this

The one thing I couldn’t tell him was the simple truth.  I’m in Portugal because Julie Schakleford is in Portugal and might need my help.  Frankly, that didn’t even convince me as a reason. Julie was a grownup, and she was perfectly able to take care of herself.  Plus she was married, and the last thing she wanted was her old boyfriend meddling in her affairs.

More important, from Franks perspective, Julie was part-owner of Monster Hunter International a monster hunting organization that had given the feds headaches for years by hunting monsters and sticking to just the edge of the law.  Monster hunting was no business for civilians.  That’s what Frank would say.  Before or after levitating across the ocean in a wave of fury to beat me to death with his bare hands was the only question.

So I didn’t say anything as I took the escalator, facing a banner saying “Welcome to Portugal” in a dozen languages.  Big tourist area.

Going through passport control was boring but uneventful, which means my bosses hadn’t figured out where I was, yet.  Of course, I wasn’t traveling in my official capacity.  Which meant I felt naked without a protective vest, and without a gun.  I did have a knife set, in my checked luggage.  Which meant I half expected to be asked but about those.  But I wasn’t.  The middle aged lady in passport control just smiled at me and said, “Welcome to Portugal.”  The guy leaning against a wall, scanning the new arrivals as they filed past in the “nothing to declare” line did single me out, to the extent he grunted at me something I could interpret as “Reason for visit?” in English.  But when I blurted “Tourism” he let me through.

Baggage claim was a mess, thronged with people, a babel of what seemed like every language on Earth, and confused to boot.  Part of the confusion came because no one seemed to know what luggage was coming out where. The central board had no carousel numbers.  I decided I’d be methodical, and walked back, reading the signs on every carousel.  I knew mine would be all the way at the back before I got there, though, because I could see a white cowboy hat near it, and that cowboy hat had been on my flight from Denver, about eight seats ahead.

Up close, the guy wearing it was probably in his thirties, with a well trimmed beard, wearing a t-shirt with a picture of the Gipper on a red, white and blue background and under it, in big white letters I ❤ Reagan.  “Denver?” I asked him, because the sign wasn’t on.  “That’s what information told me,” he said.  I was a little shocked he didn’t have a deep Texas accent.  “Oh, look, the carousel is starting.”

It was indeed, and as it lurched into movement, a bunch of people approached, including a family with four little girls ranging from about 6 to one, all chattering at each other in Portuguese, which sounds sort of like Spanish but with a Russian accent.

But as something on the carousel pushed through the curtain of rubber strips at one end, it wasn’t luggage.

They looked like…  Well, they looked sort of like elves, if elves had been sculpted entirely of stone.  And if you’re from the US I don’t mean the sort of tame elves who take welfare and live in trailer parks.  I mean those things the Celts feared and worshiped long before Tolkien made them pretty-pretty celebrities.

Take Tolkien’s elves and squish them down.  Then add about 200 pounds to each of them, mostly slabbed muscle.  Then make their pallor something distinctly greenish and unhealthy, that looks like corpses in the early stages of decomposition.  And make sure their clothes and bodies look… not so much dirty but partway calcified.

Then get a group of about fifty of them on an airport baggage carousel.  Now you have the right idea. And the right idea should make you run for your life.  Except I couldn’t.

Other people did, trampling each other on the way to the doors, not only from our carousel but from every carousel near it.

But I couldn’t, because the creatures had leaped from the moving belt, and were chasing people.  And because, near me, with four little girls standing on a luggage cart, were the Portuguese family I’d noticed before.

One of the brutes made for the, grinning.  I swear its massive, sharp teeth glistened with blood and that it had bits of flesh stuck between them.

I didn’t have anything I could fight with.  No guns.  No knives.  The only thing I had was my carry on and my toiletries.

The creature made to grab one of the little girls, all of which were screaming.  The mother got in the way and was swatted by a massive paw, which sent her careening across the area.  I’d not been noticed, probably because I’d stood still and silent.  Now, as the monster lurched towards the little girl, I grabbed my shoulder bag by the handle.  It was only the allowed 16 lbs, so I had to twirl it with some force, before I could hit the massive skull of the creature and scream, “Pick on someone your own size, ugly.”

It turned and growled at me.  Yeah.  Okay.  He wasn’t half as scary as Franks.  And I’d had time to think.  You know what I had in my hand luggage?  I had several metal tooth picks of the sort that dentists use to determine if you have cavities.  It’s a thing with me.  I like to stay on top of these things.  While ugly was spending time growling, I’d unzipped my bag, and had got the picks, leaving half of my toiletries strewn all over the fake marble floor.  If they were fairies — and I suspected they were the kind identified as “giants” or “trolls” throughout most European legends, which were neither giant nor trolls, who were something quite different — steel should hurt them.

I got to test my theory as the beast came towards me, at a run, and grabbed at my arm, probably intending to spin me around and throw me.  Before he could do so, I’d stuck a pick in his arm, bull matador style.  He made a sound between a growl and a shriek, and a puff of flame, like when oil falls on fire, surged.  He let me go as he tried to pull the pick out of his arm.

I had momentum and went some ways before I could stand, and turn around.  And damn it if there weren’t another two critters trying to get at the little girls.  What is it with monsters and innocence?  I get very tired of the cliched obsession.

I started to run towards them, but Reagan-lover was there.  He’d found his own weapons, seemingly having broken apart one of the chairs.  The connectors were plastic and my guess is he’d smashed it over the head of one of the monsters and it had come apart in component parts.  I was glad it had, as I grabbed one of the tubes, and used it to club one of the critters, while Reagan-lover clobbered the other.  The little girl’s father had grabbed a piece of chair, too, and stood behind us, ready to die heroically, if something got near his daughters.

There was an alarm going on overhead, but I didn’t understand it, partly because it was babbled in at least ten languages.  From the few words I got, it might have been something about terrorists.  I could smell fresh blood, and something that was almost like swamp gas and that I imagined was the smell of these creatures.

But I didn’t have time for anything, as a seemingly unending tide of them came out of the hole on the wall at us.

Reagan-lover fell at some point.  I don’t know when.  I didn’t think he was dead, just wounded and probably exhausted.  I wasn’t doing so well myself. I didn’t remember my right arm being bitten, but it was a useless mass of ripped flesh, with white bone protruding.

The mother of the family must have got back because some woman was praying loudly in Portuguese between me and the kids.

And yet the monsters kept coming.  My left arm was getting tired of swinging that iron, tired of the smell of singed flesh when it hit.  And I suspected they were coming back to the battle, because I wasn’t leaving the metal stuck in them.

The floor was slick with blood.  I just wanted to pass out.

This is when the jokers in black cloaks arrived.  Yelling at each other in Portuguese, they surged in.  They looked like kids.  I turned to tell them to get away. The thing I’d been fighting grabbed me.  I screamed, as I flailed with the iron.  The thing dropped me.

I must have fallen on my head.  Next thing I knew, someone was pouring water over me, and someone else was saying, “Why did it have to be a damn tourist?”

As I managed to get one eye open, I realized I was in a stone cell of some sort.  Wait, had I checked to make sure they’d disbanded the inquisition?

II

I cast a jaundiced eye around at the place where I lay.  It had all the charm of a medieval cell, with bare stone walls on which — I swear — I could discern green tendrils of some sort of lichen.  The light that came in through the tiny window high up on the walls was broken by two dark “stripes” that were probably bars.

And in the cell, with me, were two men, both of whom looked eerily familiar.  “Owen Pitt!”I said. “I didn’t know you had a twin.”

At least I think that’s what I said, though it might have come out somewhat distorted.  There was blood in my mouth and something gritty like fragments of my own teeth, and my vision seemed to be swimming in and out like I couldn’t focus.  Frankly, the last thing I needed right then was Owen, or his twin, or both of them.

They had got heads together and were speaking Portuguese too fast for me to follow from my knowledge of Spanish, Latin, and the Rosetta Stone program I’d played on my phone on the plane.

I was soaked through, from someone throwing water on me, felt miserable, hurt in places I didn’t know I could hurt, and to make things worse, my phone was binging with a string of oncoming messages.  It took me a moment to realize the bings were coming from in front of me where the two Pitts were obviously holding it and reading my messages.

Like that I was up, and grabbing for my phone.  “That’s mine.  Give it here.”

This is when I realized the two kids in my cell — it had to be a cell — were not Owen Pitt.  Couldn’t be, because they were both shorter than me.  Also, because as I pulled the phone out of their grasp, they both dropped back like they’d been burned.  Something Pitt would never have done.  He’d have wrestled me for the phone.  Probably slugged me.

One of the kids — Christ, he couldn’t be more than twenty! — looked up at me, “What is Monster Control Bureau?” he asked, in what sounded — I swear — like a Russian accent.

I looked at my phone and registered that there were a bunch of pings from Franks.  Holy Fuck.  It wasn’t just that they’d taken my phone without permission.  It was that I was going to be held responsible for the security breach.  I assessed the likelihood of getting anywhere by telling them that they weren’t supposed to read my texts and decided that — as Earl Harbinger would put it — that dog wouldn’t hunt.  It was their country, their laws, and whoever the hell they were — my only clue was two black cloaks hung on hooks on the wall — they had taken me out of the airport and brought me here when I was utterly powerless.  Hell, for all I knew they were some sort of police, or perhaps — I eyed the black cloaks narrowly — some kind of super hero organization.  What do you mean, super heroes don’t exist?  Yeah.  Neither do monsters.

Instead, I said, as I’d learned to say in the US, if someone got hold of stuff they shouldn’t, “It’s an interactive game.”  I gave them my best, innocent baby blues.  “You know, role playing game?  Played on cell phones.  We play at being monster hunters.”

They got their heads together again, and chatted too quickly for me to catch more than one or two words.  One of the words was definitely “tourist” and I thought a whole phrase was “doesn’t know how close he came.”

I remembered the trolls and wondered if they were going to ask me if they were part of the game.  They didn’t.

One of them handed me my wallet and passport.  “Mr. Jefferson, we’re sorry you were caught in the middle of a terrorist attack on the airport.  We brought you here to receive medical care, and you can change clothes and go to your hotel.  We’ll have some vouchers for you to compensate for your experience.”

I raised my eyebrows at them.  “Medical care?” I looked around at the cell and wondered if their idea of medical care was to throw water over my head.  I wasn’t happy at their looking at my wallet and passport, and I wasn’t sure who the hell they were, so I started with the last, “Who the hell are you?”

“We’re tourist security bureau,” one of them said.  I had a feeling it was an answer on the same order of “it’s an RPG you play by phone.” It had that practiced tone, but none of the officialdom.  “When tourists get in trouble, we help.”

I wanted desperately to ask if the trouble included being overcharged for a meal.  I didn’t.  Look, there are times to be a smart ass and times not to be.  They were blowing smoke, and I didn’t know why, but I had a feeling asking wouldn’t help much.  I still felt beaten-up, as I should have been, by the big troll thing, and I really couldn’t get in a fist fight right now.  My arm hurt and felt hot like when it’s about to get infected, and though someone had tied cloth around it, it didn’t feel right at all.  And my head was swimming.  “Medical care.”

“Ah, through here,” one of the guys said, opening the door.

“This is not a jail?” I asked, as I went into a room that looked much the same as the other, save for the addition of a makeshift hospital bed, a screen, and a bunch of first aid supplies strewn on a table.  The young lady standing there — there was another black cloak hanging from the wall, I noted — was petite and dark, and rather pretty.  From what I’d seen in the country all the men looked like banditos, all the women looked like little dolls.  She smiled at me, “Mr. Jefferson,” she said.  The accent was cute on her.  “I’m a pharmacy student.  Fourth year.  I have already stitched your arm, and I’ll now take care of you.”

Take care of me she did too.  Several interesting things, besides the fact that I was getting care from a pharmacist, not a doctor: The country seemed to have no body modesty when it came to doctoring.  She had me peel down to my skivvies, and no one offered so much as a paper-modesty-gown to make me feel better. Also, she knew her stuff.  She had stitched my arm, and she now removed the makeshift bandage and put another one on.  And they had access to medicines.  I was given an antibiotic shot, pain pills, and a salve to put on my bruises, all in generic bottles with no patient name.

She also told me my teeth were fine, the gums were just a little bruised.

I noticed something while she was taking care of me.  There was a mark, just on the inside of my right arm that looked like someone had given me a shot.  I had a strong suspicion that whatever it was, it was some sort of drug which they’d used to interrogate me.  It explained the woozy feeling.  And I know what we’d have done to someone who showed up at a monster attack scene with the type  of texts on their phone like what Franks was for sure sending me.  We’d probably have shot them.

Then I thought that Portugal was a small country and subsisted largely on touristic revenues.  They couldn’t afford to shoot tourists.  But pump them full of something, interrogate them, and perhaps plant a suggestion it had mostly been a dream?  Surely they could.  It would explain the woozy feeling and the sensation that everything that had happened was long ago and far away.

I grinned at the young lady, as she moved the screen to show me my luggage and told me I could now get dressed, “And go to your hotel.  The police will be in touch with you if they need your deposition.”

“About the terrorist attack?” I asked.

She nodded.  So that too was a well-practiced thing.  “Yeah.  They killed the luggage handlers and five passengers.  So if we think you can help the police–”

“Sure,” I said.  This story hung together about as well as a spiderweb in a high wind.  But I didn’t want to cause trouble.  I just wanted to get to my hotel room and lie down.  If before or after securing the weapons I’d sent ahead, I wasn’t even sure.  The thought of a real bed was the most enticing thing just then.

“They said to give you this,” she said and handed me what looked like a book of coupons.  The front one said “Visit the port wine cellars.”  I stuffed them in my pocket without looking.

I was passed along from too-young kid to too-young kid, all of them looking at me suspiciously, and handling me with too-big-a-grin.  At the end of it, I left a large stone building, in a bustling plaza with a fountain with lions in the center of it.

Blinking in the sunlight, on the sidewalk, was the Reagan lover with the cowboy hat.  He was scratching his head, under the hat.  “Now,” he said, looking at me.  “None of that made the slightest bit of sense.  If those were terrorists, where did they come from?  Tolkienonica?”

I shrugged.  “Apparently,” I told him.  “We’re not supposed to ask questions in Mordor.”  And I hoped he didn’t ask me questions.  He was an American citizen.  I wondered if I should watch him in case he’d been bitten and changed.  I didn’t want to shoot the guy.  And people don’t change into Fey. “And why were we in something that looked like a jail?”

He adjusted his hat.  “Oh, that I did find out,” he said.  “It was a jail.  It’s the old medieval jail.  It’s now the college of psychology.”

“What?”

“Yeah, I know.  I think it’s some cockamamie experiment, like Zimbardo back in the US.  Well, I for one am not going to think about it anymore.  I’m going to my hotel.”

Which was a brilliant idea, and I was going to my hotel too.  But as he walked away, I got my phone out of my pocket and looked at the last of Frank’s texts “We can’t get all Americans out of Portugal.  Not yet, though it might come to it.  But they’ve requested the help of the Monster Control Bureau.  This thing is off the charts. So go see how severe it is. You might as well make yourself useful.”

III

The hotel I’d booked, down near the river, in what used to be the medieval part of the city, came highly recommended, and was supposed to be actually a set of mini-apartments, kind of like a more ritzy embassy suites.

The area itself was beautiful.  Narrow streets flanked by house fronts that ended about one inch from the street and that linked to their neighbors on either side.  Only the different colors, and the entire area was painted in bright, primary colors, told you where a house ended and the next one began.  Some of the windows were surrounded by carved stone work that in the States would be locked up in some museum.

But it wasn’t all sculpture and high class.

Part of what I was getting used in the country is that they did just about everything in less space.  It reminded me of when my parents took me to Japan on vacation when I was ten.

Here the lobby of the hotel was appropriately grandiose, furnished with bits and pieces of antique or antique-looking furniture and ornamented with bits and pieces of masonry probably salvaged from the neighborhood during renovations.  From what I’d gathered online this area, though now one of the primary attractions of the region, had once been decayed and scabrous, the haunt of prostitutes, pimps, pickpockets and any other unsavory type of person, whether their occupation started with p or not. There were interesting scraps that looked like parts hacked off Roman columns, and other interesting shards that looked like they might have been medieval and roughly carved.

I noticed particularly part of a woman’s face hanging on the wall.  It was the face of a statue that must be at least as old as Rome, and had once been creamy marble, but which was now stained and blotched with age, with something green growing on the corner of the mouth, giving her smile a wicked twist.  It seemed to me that the carved eye — only one remained, since the salvaged portion was little more than a quarter of the face — followed me up to the registration, as the line wound its slow way forward.

All through this, my phone — a blackberry because Monster Control Bureau was not the most up to date thing in nature — kept trembling with arriving texts.  I ignored them, having decided that I’d savour all the unpleasantness Franks could rain on me all at once instead of piecemeal.

I had no idea at all what was going on in Portugal that Franks wished he could evacuate all American citizens from the country.  And all I could think is that it was a hell of a time for Julie to be here.  And she certainly shouldn’t be here on her own.  I intended to make sure she got through this in one piece, if it was the last thing I did.  It very well might be.

Check in was handed by a sharp-faced young man who looked at me critically from behind his glasses, visibly wondering if I belonged in this high class hotel.  I could only imagine what I looked like, not only having been batted around by the troll things, but having lain who knew how long on the — probably mossy – floor of a medieval cell, and then to boot having had water thrown over my head.  I felt my cheeks color under the man’s dubious appraisal, but fortunately Amex platinum covers a multitude of sins.  Once that came out it was all smiles, and eagerness to accommodate me. American Express, no explanation necessary.

I asked for two keys, mostly because I’d been in Europe before and was on to their little trick of not letting you run the air conditioning or heating unless the key was inserted into the unit.  I had no intention of freezing or baking — I wasn’t sure which one was more likely in June in Portugal, and it could be either, depending on the time of the day — because the room’s systems couldn’t function unless I was in them.

After another short wait for the elevator, and a creaky trip up — the place was modernized but the structure itself was probably eighteenth century — I found myself in a long hallway with marble floors and tasteful imitation-roman frescoes on the wall.  I had to admit that the Europeans did opulence better.  When Americans try it there’s always a chintzy look to it and the sort of Caesar’s palace in Las Vegas feel of “come on, rube.”

I slipped my key into the door.  It opened.  And I started to apologize, feeling vaguely embarrassed but also irritated.  It wasn’t the first time this happened to me, but it only happened to me in Europe.  I had been given an already-occupied room.

She was beautiful and half naked. Olive skinned, almost as tall as myself, with long black hair, and luscious skin.  She seemed to be wrapped in a towel, and as I opened the door she turned to look at me over her shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I–”

That’s all I had time for.  I had an impression of almond-shaped, mysterious-looking eyes, and a red mouth.

And then she was on me.  At first, as she put her arms around me, I thought it was just that the hotel had prostitutes, and she’d got into the room and was waiting for me, after perhaps a discrete call mentioning a platinum amex.

But as she wrapped herself around me, right there at the door, and I tried to step back, it felt not like I was being held by a luscious half naked female, but more by a–

Cobra.

I flung myself sideways.  I couldn’t fully escape her coils, but it was enough that her attempt to tear my throat open was thwarted.  I felt a sharp pain behind my left ear but I didn’t have time to deal with that right then.  I had an up-close-and-personal view of a beautiful girl’s face, her mouth impossibly open, revealing needle-sharp fangs. She looked like the marble piece in the hall.

I lifted my hand, that held my suitcase, and slammed her face with it.

Through my head, like a narration, went the lecture on lamias I’d got while training as a federal agent.  MHI hadn’t bothered with them overly much because Lamias aren’t an American problem.

I remember being bored out of my head while the instructor droned, “Lamias are the Roman version of vampires.  Beautiful women from the waist up, they’re snakes from the waist down.  They hang out in cemeteries, though they’ve also been reported in any place where a lot of Romans died violently.  They often attack tourists visiting Rome.”

Well I wasn’t in Rome, but I didn’t particularly care.  She was still a woman from the waist up and a cobra from the waist down, and if she was only a lamia’s second cousin, I couldn’t care less.

I banged my suitcase over her head hard enough to get her to let go of me, stumbled back and looked around wildly for anything I could use as a stake.  I hadn’t heard any of the lecture see?  Mostly because I was bored and thought that I’d never run into a lamia.  Which just showed you what an idiot I was.

I assumed stakes would work. But there were no stakes in the room.  None.

It slithered towards me, somehow remaining upright, but undulating with the kind of movement that no bipedal ever had.  I tried to get back to the door, but she was in my way. I had a glock and silver ammunition in my checked luggage.  But there was no way, no way in hell I could get to it.

One thing they teach you in monster hunting, both MHI and federal is that there are no such things as dangerous weapons.  There are only dangerous people.  And they’d taught us to be dangerous.

I grabbed the floor lamp, wielded it like a lance.

It hesitated.  I speared it through the chest.  Or more like I lightbulbed-and-poled it through the chest.

Blood poured out of her, soaking the carpet. Damn it, that was going to put a dent on the Amex.  She fell down writhing.  And my phone was ringing continuously.

I got it out of my pocket.  I could barely speak through panting as I said, “Yes, Agent Franks, sir, if you’ll excuse me, I was just killing a Lamia.”

“What?” A feminine voice said from the other side of the connection.

I didn’t say anything.  I flung the phone down. Out the corner of my eye, I’d seen the lamia regenerate, and come towards me.

I jumped behind a huge armchair.  I despise the self-healing ones.

 

IV

So, I was trapped in my room with a Lamia.  I’d just done my best to kill her, and she’d self-regenerated.  And I was out of options.

As she moved, startlingly fast towards me, I jumped on top of the bed and to the other side, trying to slow her down.  I ran in ever broader circles, trying to make it out the door, because I had the vague idea that in the hallway I might find something else to kill her with.  Of course, she also might get to attack other people, and of course I’d try to stop her doing so, but clearly I needed more space and greater ability to act.

Panic and tiredness got hold of my mind, and I must have lost it, because I caught myself babbling the most inane crap ever, “Ah ah, what a Lamia story!  Come on, Madam, are you Lamia?  Now I Lamia down to sleep.”  As I spoke, I detached a fire extinguisher from the wall and flung it at her  head.  She ducked, and it hit the wall hard, making a dent in the plaster.  Man, it’s a good thing I’d made a lot of money in my years with MHI, because this bill was going to hurt.

Let’s assume that Lamias were like every other vampire.  It had to be staked through the heart, but it had to be with wood.  I tried to find wood, but I wasn’t sure that either the desk or the bed was wood. They were that kind of painted and antiqued stuff that might be wood, or it might be papier mache or fancy painted plastic, for that matter.  For all I knew it was plaster.  Didn’t anyone think of the needs of tourists who must kill vampires?

I presumed garlic didn’t work — not that I had any — but if it were an Italian vampire, certainly it would like garlic.

I got to the door, and turned to open it and there she was.  Right on me, coils around my lower body, inhumanely beautiful face, next to mine, mouth opening.  “I have lawyers.” I said.  My father had described his third wife much like this lamia, and this must be some memory of hearing him talk when I was five or so.  Predictably it had no effect.  She smiled.  Or it looked like she was going to smile, but her mouth kept opening and opening, till it was round, and surrounded by needle-like teeth.

I squeezed myself against the door so hard that I might be two-dimensional, while with one hand behind me I tried to open the door, and with my other hand, I reached to my left, blindly looking for something to stop her killing me.

And all through it, the coils kept tightening around me, till it felt like she’d break me in two, with the pressure on my waist.  I felt as though lights were going on and off behind my eyes, and I was sure I was hallucinating, because I kept hearing fireworks.

The only thing my hand found was a serpent tail, waving at my head height.

I seized hold of it and pulled on it, while I rolled my head this way and that against the door, trying not to let her bite me.  I could feel her scrabbling at my mind, too, telling me this was the best way and that really, my entire life I’d wanted to be devoured by a woman-serpent thing.  Honestly, if it weren’t for the fact that by the time I was ten my father was on his tenth wife, and that I’d learned to distrust women if not in my cradle shortly after, I would probably have fallen for it.

Instead, I grabbed the serpent tail hard and pulled.  The first pull was easy, and then it seemed to realize it was being pulled and tried to pull the other way.  I pulled with all the strength and despair of someone who is being sliced in half by a supernatural creature.  Sweat fell into my eyes.  It felt like I was going to pass out.  In fact, I probably did, but kept pulling anyway, until I shoved the tail, completely, into the lamia’s own open mouth.

She bit down, perhaps by reflex.  There was a sound like an unending female scream.  As it toppled away from me, I pulled under and away from it, opened the door and got to the hallway.  My legs probably were broken, or at least they felt like I was walking with swords up my thighs, but I didn’t have time for that now.

I had a vague memory of seeing a glass case with “Break only in case of emergency” and a firehose and a fire ax behind it.

The fire ax was needed in these old buildings because the partitions between rooms weren’t wallboard, and if the hallway was in flames, you might have to escape by hacking your way into the next room and the one after that.

I was fairly sure this was an emergency.  I shoved my elbow at the glass as hard as I could, and was almost amazed to see it shatter into the particles that safety glass breaks into.  I felt weak as a kitten and half expected it to do nothing.

When I turned, ax in hand, the Lamia had got its tail out of its mouth and got out of my room.  It made for me.  I swung the ax.  It hit her neck and went in like knife through butter, slicing her head off her shoulders.  I half expected it not to work, but her head fell, right enough.  Blood got all over everything.

I grabbed the head off the floor, and flung it to the end of the hallway.  Regenerate that, bitch. Then I thought I should make it harder for her.

I was axing the tenth portion off the tail when I heard someone behind me, “Sir, Sir, what are you doing?”

I turned around, blood spattered and with a maniacal grin on my face.  “I want to lodge a complaint,” I said.  “Your reception committee was too slithery.”

The person who’d talked was Portuguese and was young, looked like some sort of valet.  He stared at me and looked down at the ax.  I could hear the ax drip blood on the floor and I was not about to let go of the ax, because you never knew precisely what the nice room service guy might really be.

He looked behind me.  “That…” he said.  “That was a lady.”

“Not hardly pal.  Not unless your ladies are half serpent,” I heard myself snarl, and then, not caring what he thought, not caring if he’d just had his world shattered by seeing a legendary monster, not even caring if he thought I was some kind of mass murderer and called the police, I turned on my heel and went back to my room.

If I was going to be arrested, I was, by damn, going to be arrested clean and shaved and feeling like a human being.

I left the ax propped in a corner of the marble-and-tile bathroom, while I washed.  The water was kind of low on pressure, but it was warm and there was a lot of it, and it kept pouring over me, washing away all the red, all down the drain.

Some of the red was probably mine, judging from the places that hurt, particularly that place behind my ear, but I really didn’t care.  The shampoo smelled of wisteria, and so did the soap, which stung on a lot of my skin, but took even more of the red off.

Towels were abundant, white and thick.  I dried myself thoroughly before risking a look in the mirror.

If someone had drawn my portrait right then it would be called a study in blue and purple.  There were bruises forming across my forehead, across my chin, and around my neck.  The wound beside and behind my ear looked like someone had stabbed me with a circle of sharp needles.  It itched.  I got some disinfectant cream from my luggage — of course I always traveled with a first aid kit — and slathered it there, and also on an open gash down my arm and in a place around my waist where it looked like someone had attached a lot of suction cups with nails in the center.  Rusty nails.

All of it stung, which I didn’t remember the cream doing in the past.  I contemplated using band-aids, but it would take like ten of them for my neck, and if I used gauze I would look like a bad remake of The Mummy Wakes.

Instead, shaved, and  dressed.  Putting on a clean shirt felt good, as did the nicely cut suit.  I looked at myself in the mirror again, and looked almost like myself.

There had been no thumps, no one frantically knocking at the door.  As I put my used clothes into the laundry bag, wondering if this hotel performed miracles or if I’d have to buy an off-the-rack suit while in town, I half expected the words, “The police have this room surrounded.”  Instead there was a sound from the hallway that sounded much like a vacuum.

I put my socks and shoes on, in case someone really wanted to arrest me, because I didn’t want to be arrested barefoot, then opened the door.  Someone had taken out of the pieces of cuisinarted lamia, and there were three women in the hallway running carpet cleaners.

I opened my mouth, closed it, closed the door, too, and realized the phone was jumping around atop the marble-top of the dresser producing a sound not unlike a low-level growl.  I didn’t remember tossing the phone on the dresser top, but obviously I had.  It must have been all bloodied at the time, too, because it had left little dropplets and then a trail of blood as it buzzed along the marble.

I grabbed it, answered,  “Hello,” I said.  And thinking of the female voice on the phone before, I added, “who are you?”

The growl from the other end told me all I needed to know.  Whoever the other voice had been, this was Agent Franks, and he was not happy with me.

V

I normally try to keep military discipline, or as close as I can get in my interactions with my superiors, particularly agent Franks.  My granny always said if you’re going to do something it’s worth doing it well, and I always wanted to be the best at everything.

Look, I’m no starry eyed hero.  I’ve seen them come into MHI training, back when I was with them, and you know what starry eyed heroes do?  They either lose heart or they die in horrible ways and often both.  Monster Hunter, while worth doing, should be done rationally, with careful assessment of resources and of the problems one doesn’t need to tackle. And always looking out for number one. The last thing my mother told me when I was seven or eight, and she married that Italian Count and stopped doing visitations was “Darling, obligations are all very well, but you have to look out for number one.” Which I tried to do.

Okay, so that’s why I’m not with MHI.  And that’s why I use really formal manners in my interactions with supervisors and others with power over me.

But this time, Franks’ voice on the other side shocked me so much that all I said was “Uh.”

He didn’t yell.  Look, I’ve heard him yell, and I wasn’t sure the international cell network could take it.  It would probably fry on contact.  Instead, he said, in the most disconcerting way, as though he were in the middle of a conversation, and I’d just arrived late to it, “So I covered up your folly and saved your ass, but don’t go off half-cocked like this again.”

“Uh?  Agent Franks?”

“I mean this little unscheduled trip of yours.  At any other time it would have got you fired, but the minute I realized where you were and got ready to go retrieve you,” the microsecond before the next work, I had time to think of what Franks retrieving me meant.  It probably did not mean “in one piece.” “I got this fax asking us to send a task force to Portugal, ASAP to help their organization, oh, yeah, Dark Fate.  Stupid name.  But at any rate, I told them I’d sent you.”

This was the longest speech I’d ever even imagined Franks making, and I stared at the phone a while before saying “I see.”  I didn’t see at all. “I’m a task force now?”

He grunted.

“And why did they ask for help, precisely? And why us?”

“They helped us out in Maryland ten years ago.  And anyway, all the other organizations in Europe are busy with Julie Schakleford’s matter.  Also, because of Dark Fate’s peculiar organizational principles, they have… ah… territorial issues with a lot of other organizations, including their own PASS.”

“PASS?”

“Portuguese Agencia de Seguranca Supernatural.”

I added up the acronym in my head without Portuguese and didn’t say anything.

Again, Franks was talking far too much, and if it all didn’t have the flat, weirdly inhuman tone he normally spoke in, unless he was telling you how he’d kill you, I was starting to wonder if I’d got a Fake Franks.

But more importantly, he wasn’t saying much that I really needed to know.

“Peculiar organizational principles?”

“Never mind.  You’ll find out.”

And then he gave me directions to get to the headquarters of this Dark Fate thing.

I walked out of the room, past freshly shampooed carpet where there was not a hint of the lamia’s blood.  Apparently the carpets were made to be really good at not absorbing blood.  I filed it under “little known facts about Europe a tourist might never find out.” and took the stairs down.  Look, if you’ve ever been stuck in an elevator with a blood fiend, like it happened to me back at Harvard, you kind of don’t like elevators. You might take them, sure, but after an encounter with yet another monster in this building, I felt my acquired elevator phobia come back.  From this day forward, I’d take no elevators again.  Not if I could help it.

The elevator phobia was only one way that the blood fiend had changed my life.  It had also changed my career from law to monster hunting. Oh, yeah, and caused me to wear a health-tag on a chain around your neck that says “In case of death, chop off my head.  No, I really mean it, damn it. Look, let’s say it’s my religion.” The print is kind of small, but it was important.  I’d been bit in that elevator and when I died, no matter when, I’d come back as a vampire.

It occurred to me I was in a foreign country, where their monster hunting system was utterly opaque to me, and I might not have someone ready to do what needed to be done when the time came.  I shuddered.  Well.  I’d find this Dark Fate.

I more or less ran down the stairs, past the lobby.  The clerk I’d seen earlier was helping someone with their bags.  He looked pale, and his eyes slid away from me, but he said nothing.  I wondered what they used to keep casual witnesses in line in Portugal.

I was down on the street, before I realized I should have called a taxi.  But you know what, I wasn’t in the mood to brave the clerks and what they might or might not know again.  The directions Franks had given me — he said not to trust the GPS as it was notoriously inaccurate — looked like two or three miles.  I could walk that.

It was true I could walk that, but not easily, not in a town that was all ups and downs.  It started reminding me of San Francisco.  They even had trolley cars.  I considered a trolley car briefly, then realized it was part of an organized tour.  And while the city had buses, it seemed they labeled them according to some arcane system.  I didn’t recognize any of the street names on the front of the bus.

On the way, I read and deleted Franks’ texts.  A couple asked where the hell I was, but most of them just said “Grrrrr.”  I am not even joking.

I walked down into what looked like the center of town: a beautiful, huge plaza surrounded entirely by granite buildings with a certain art deco flavor.  On the bottom floor of one of those buildings was a MacDonald’s with marble tables, marble floor, marble counters, gilded everything and a golden eagle up front. It took me a moment of staring to a) realize it really was a MacDonald’s, and b) hear my stomach grumble.

Yeah, it was a tourist trap, and yeah, I normally don’t dine on fast food, but I hadn’t eaten since the admittedly pretty good food on the plane — they try harder for first class — and I was starving.  I walked off, with a burger and a coke, past the fountain with the statue of the naked girl sitting on it, and turned sharply right into what looked like a little alleyway.  Okay, revise that.  Most of their old streets looked like alleyways to us.  This one was larger, and might have taken two cars, side by side or passing each other, but though there were some cars seemingly parked at random on it, the pavement was white and black stone mosaic, in a pattern that looked vaguely Roman, so I guessed it was SUPPOSED to be a pedestrian street.

Immediately after I turned, there was the doorway of something that looked like maybe a little deli.  Except that it also said it sold lottery tickets, and there were souvenirs for sale all over its shop window: things engraved with Porto and Portugal, and little dolls in costumes I doubted anyone had worn since the eighteenth century.

I walked in.  There was a deli counter to my left, a refrigerated foods case to my right.  After the counter there were three men shining client’s shoes.  I walked past all that to the door at the back, marked Private.

A waiter showed up in front of me.  “Sir?”

He spoke English.  Something I’d noticed while walking was that the touts for various touristy shops along the way were skilled at judging someone’s nationality and called out in many languages.  Mind you, that didn’t mean they understood English.  Which was all very well, since I didn’t understand Portuguese, but I’d memorized the phrase Franks gave me.  “Maia e o lidador.”  I said, in what was probably an atrocious accent.

The man’s eyes widened.  He was very small, only came to about my shoulder, and had only a few hairs on his head, and that kind of tanned, dry skin people get who spend a lot of time outside.  He stared up at me, crossed himself, then nodded.

Opening the door marked private, he got in there, and held it so I got in. On the wall, as Franks had said, facing a non-descript desk covered in bills and paperwork, was an ornate floor to ceiling mirror.  The man locked the door behind us, then went over to the desk, opened the top drawer and reached way in.  Franks had said you’d feel the button on the top.

Then he went to a bookshelf on the corner, and carefully removed the third book from the left on the bottom shelf.  Then he flicked the light switch on and off four times, very fast.

The mirror slid aside.  He jabbered something at me, crossed himself again, and waited while I walked through before sliding the mirror shut behind me.  I had to fight an impulse not to try to open it on this side following Franks’ directions, just to make sure they worked.  Of course they worked.  I was here at their request.  I was the task force.

I found myself in a tight, wood-floored hallway.  It smelled of age, decay and floor wax.

An elevator was right in front of me.  There were no stairs and no doors besides the elevator’s.

6

I might someday be able to overcome my distaste of elevators, but that isn’t going to happen for the elevator I had to take at the back of that Portuguese deli.

Okay, imagine an iron cage, of the sort that was put in as an elevator in the nineteenth century of so; the kind that used to have a uniformed guy just to operate the controls.  Then imagine that the uniformed man was done away with, and instead we had a bunch of obvious gears and stuff in a corner, all of it operated by a push button panel that I swear looked a hundred years old, though it certainly couldn’t be.

It was square.  It had three black buttons on it.  The buttons might at some time have had numbers on them, but they had long since been rubbed away.

Franks had said first floor, so I licked my lips, looked at the instructions, looked at the panel and pressed the middle button.  The panel sparked.

For a while nothing happened, and I was reaching for the metal door to open it, when the whole structure gave a looooooong groan and hobbled.

By which I mean it shook side to side.

I looked up and could see what looked like a much too flimsy chain holding it up, threaded into a really large gear.

Right.  There had to be stairs in this place.  And for that matter, why wasn’t the elevator resting on the floor, here, on the ground floor.  And also–

I reached for the door.

The groan deafened me and then, like an arthritic man, groaning and moaning, the elevator started lurching upstairs.

The sequence went something like this: groan; shudder from side to side; groan; shudder.  Each groan took up about fifteen inches up, which means the first lurch made it impossible for me to get out of there easily.

In an iron cage, being pulled up, I realized I was the perfect target for shooters from the bottom floor, or the floor I was going to for that matter.

I resisted the impulse to lay flat on the floor of the elevator.  For one, because I really do try not to look crazier than I am.  For another, because the floor of the elevator was also metal, the kind of metal grates they put over manholes in Manhattan, you know, the kind smoke streams out of?  And through the openings between metal slats, I could see another level, where it seemed to me like people — or perhaps things — were moving around in the darkness.

So instead of lying flat on the elevator floor, I tried to restrain my footprint to… well… my footprint.

I squeezed near the far wall of the elevator, against the bars there, because those at least backed to a solid — okay, plaster and crumbling — but without holes.  And I put my hand in my pocket, where I kept the glock I’d rescued from my luggage.  No, I’m not saying ow I got it into my luggage and through customs with no questions, even though I wasn’t using my official passport to travel.  It’s none of your business.  And besides, I might need to use it again.

But nothing blasting-worth made it into my field of vision.  In fact, nothing happened beyond the creak and lurch, and it seemed like forever between floors, until suddenly it gave a creak-shudder, like a great beat dying and I realized we were level with the time-corroded floorboards of the first floor.

As I reached for the door, the elevator gave a great groan and lurched upward again.  Oh, no way in hell was I going to go up at the mercy of some crazy, ancient contraption.

I grabbed the door — a sort of sliding gate really — shoved it to the side, and jumped out, which was scarier than it should be, because the elevator was too small for the hole, and there was this space I might have fallen down, into the endless darkness beyond.

I managed to land on my feet on floorboards that creaked and groaned as much as the elevator.  But I was very glad I managed to land on my feet, because as I looked up, I was being coolly appraised by a young woman in a black-skirt-suit.

She was much shorter than I.  Must have been all of five foot nothing.  And it looked like she was wearing at least a one-inch heel too, on her impeccable black pumps.

Her hair was dark and curly, her face was olive and pointed, and her dark eyes were profoundly amused.

She looked me up and down, and said “Grant Jefferson?”

I wanted to say “If you’re Fado Negro, I don’t think much of your death elevator.”  Or perhaps “Woman, surely you have stairs somewhere.”

But she looked so amused, as though the elevator were an elaborate prank — and it might very well be — that all I could say was “Yes, Ma’am.”

“Good,” she said.  She extended her hand, and I shook it.  A little, hard, cool hand.  “We’re all waiting for you.  I don’t mind saying we’re in a hell of a pickle, and it’s about time you Americans showed up.”

Dark Fate 7

“I’m Silvia, by the way,” she said as she led me into a largish room.

“Grant,” I said.

The room was of a piece with the elevator and the rest of the building I’d glimpsed: it was probably cutting edge and state of the art back in the 19th century.  Five hundred square feet or so, of open, formless space, some people in the big cities in America would make this into a studio and fall in love with it.  There was inherent charm in the large tri-part elipse-shaped windows with the glass full of bubbles and irregularities, and the wood describing a fleur-de-lis shape amid the glass.  The ceilings were high, and I caught a glimpse of gold in the sculpted edges, and color in the center.

But what interested me most was the room itself, and the people in it.

The one wall with no windows was hung all over with weapons and guitars, mixed, seemingly with no distinction.  I had a flash of a group of MHI charging in to kill monsters carrying guitars and almost laughed.

There was a little kitchenette in a corner, of the sort that probably served the needs of college students or their like, and sofas were strewn irregularly about the room.  In the nearest three men sat and cleaned guns.  There was a confusion of pieces and cloths in front of them on a low, stained pine coffee table.  Behind them, on another sofa, a man and a girl held each other.  They looked like those couples you came across at any in any big city in the Southern parts of Europe, holding each other tight and making everyond who passed them feel uncomfortable.

My eyes flew over them to a woman who was sitting at a round bar-height table, absorbed in what seemed to be a rousing game of solitaire.  But she frowned down at the cards as though her life depended on it.  She was smoking.  So were a group of guys at the far back, sitting on a sofa turned away from me, watching a big screen television in which a soccer match was being shown between teams whose colors I didn’t recognize.

As we came into the room, Silvia pulled a pack of cigarettes from some hidden pocket, offered them to me, and when I refused, lit one. Apparently cancer held no fears.  The smoke was so thick in the room, I coughed, and thought perhaps they’d take a hint.

Instead, they obviously took it as a sign that I wanted their attention.  Everyone looked up.  The nearest man — they all looked thin and tan and dark to me.  Also small — smiled at me, somehow conveying the impression that I was a pupil late for class, “Ah,” he said.  “The G Man.”

I wanted to correct them, but it didn’t seem to matter much, so I just said, as tersely and clearly as I could, not sure of how much English they spoke, “Special Agent Grant Jefferson of the Monster Control Bureau.”

“Yeah,” One of the other men said.  “We know.  They said you’d arrive this morning.  What took you so long?”

This morning I’d still been on the flight, and I had no idea who “they” were.  It had been my experience though, that my superiors could promise all kinds of things.  I said, “There was a minor thing with Red Caps at the airport, and then a thing in my hotel, with a lamia who was waiting for me in my room.”

This actually got me their attention, “In your actual room?” he said.  “They didn’t tell us that.  We were there for the cleanup, of course.  How did you defeat it? Some American super weapon?”

I licked the edge of my mouth, on the inside where a cut had left behind a little bump.  My teeth still felt loose from the battle with the lamia. “A floor lamp, actually.  Portuguese, as far as I know.”

He glared at me, and started to open his mouth, but Silvia let out a cloud of smoke and said, “At any rate, your … bureau? Agent Franks said you were one of the best agents in the field, and that you’d be able to get to the root of the current outbreak and find out what to do to stop the Mother.”

“Outbreak?” I said.  “The Mother?”

One of the three men chuckled.  “Yes, outbreak.  What you think this is normal level of activity?”

But Silvia launched into an explanation more or less at the same time, “We are fighting an outbreak of the mother,” she said.  “All the forces connected with maternity, mother, or femininity are coming up.  We don’t know why.  More importantly, we don’t know how to stop it.”

I tried to figure out what she meant by the mother.  The only thing I could think of, knowing this was a catholic country came flying out of my mouth, “The Virgin Mary?”

There was stunned silence, and someone  — I think the first guy — said something under his breath that definitely didn’t sound like a compliment.

“No, you idiot,” the second man said.  “The Mother.  The principle of … well… of female.  Those statues in pre-history?  That’s her.  Not a goddess or a spirit, but a … force, a feeling that has been worshiped, catered to and feared since humans were humans.  There is something going on that is messing with that feeling on a grand scale, and it is waking up lamias and sirens, defenders of the Earth, enchanted moors, female ghosts, Roman goddesses.  All of them.  It’s been one hell of a week.”

“We’ve lost twenty people,” Silvia said.  “Which is why we asked the Americans for help.  We expected them to send a group? A detachment or something, but they said you’d come and assess it and teach us fighting techniques.”

I understood, suddenly, the air of disappointment and vague hostility around the room.  “I didn’t know anything about it,” I said, in a rush, trying to apologize.  I wonder if this principle of the feminine or whatever it was had something to do with what had happened to Julie.  But I wasn’t going to talk about Julie to them, not when I actually had no idea where she was or what was happening to her, a fact I didn’t like at all.  “I was on a plane to come here for… for personal reasons, and I didn’t know anything about it till my boss texted me after I got to my hotel.”

“Oh,” Silvia said.  “So you’re not prepared? You haven’t dealt with things like this before?”

“I have a lot of experience with monster outbreaks,” I said, wanting to reassure her, and feeling like I was losing ground, somehow.  “I will do my best to try to help you, and if needed, I’ll demand my superiors send more people.”

She stared at me for a while, then said, “Come with me.”

She led me all the way across the room, and I noticed a lot more people I hadn’t seen at first, including a girl sitting on a sofa, a motorcycle helmet beside her, knitting very fast.  She was the only woman wearing jeans and  a t-shirt, the only person not wearing formal black suit or skirt suit complete with white shirt and black tie.  I made a note to ask them about these clothes soon.  I couldn’t imagine less practical outfits to fight monsters in.

We passed a door to the left side which seemed to be laundry room.  One woman was ironing white shirts.

At the end of the room from the entrance door was another door that led to a room just as vast.  This room was full of beds.  Hospital beds.  They were all occupied and there were machines that beeped and urped and ticked around each bed.  There was a curtain halfway up the room, and on the other side, through the opening, I could glimpse more beds and more people laid up, only those appeared to be women.

“These are our casualties of the battle with the goddess,” she said.  “The ones who lived. The Hunters, that is.  The bystanders are treated at the psychology college and given some hypnosis so they’re not sure of what they saw.  But I don’t know how long we can hold that off, either.  We had an outbreak during a soccer match at the city stadium last week.  A guardian dragon appeared and started munching players and spectactors.  We got there barely in time, and thank all the saints, people think it was a soccer riot.  Then there was the thing at the airport.  We just keep getting public outbreaks and we’re down to a third of our normal force.”

On a nearby bed, a dark, thin man, wearing a helmet made of bandages was either asleep or dead.  His arm, hanging down, was also full of bandages, and a drip of blood fell off the tip of his right hand.

“I see,” I said.  “And I see how I might not be adequate.  But I really promise to do my best, and to call help if you need it.  I take it you’re a governmental monster control unit?”

“Not quite,” she said.  “King Manuel–”

At that moment the girl with the motorcycle helmet came up behind us, very fast.  We turned to face her.  “Silvia,” she said, as if I weren’t there.  “There have been fire works.  Two flares of smoke.  From Matosinhos.  I’m afraid it’s another siren.”

Dark Fate 8

Silvia, the dark, curly haired Portuguese hunter who had been giving me the tour, turned and said something.  I didn’t know the word, though it sounded like a latinized version of “stupor.”  I wondered if it was some kind of incantation.  It had the tone of a swearword, but the meaning didn’t fit.

She grabbed my arm, “Come on.  I’ll tell you the story as we go.  We are needed, and you’re going to get a sense of what monster hunting is like around here.  And of what we’ve been facing.  And we get to see how you fight.”  She gave me a smile.  I just want to say it wasn’t entirely pleasant.  People always seem to underestimate my fighting abilities, partly, I think, because I’m too handsome, but surely with bruises all over my face I didn’t look that handsome anymore?

No, an internal voice said.  It looks like you get beat up a lot!

She’d pulled me back into the big main room.  People were grabbing weapons and guitars from the wall, and I wanted to say that I’d take a flute, though there was none in sight,just to mess with them.  Seriously, what kind of monster hunt called for guitars, of all things?  Were they going to scare the monster away with their singing?

But I had no time to say anything, because Silvia was also grabbing stuff off the wall, and turned to me and said, “what do you shoot?”

I stopped myself just short of saying “monsters” because the meaning penetrated.  “I have a Glock,” I said.

She snorted.  What in hell?

“Not a little pistol,” she said.  “You’re going to need a real gun.”  She handed me this thing that looked like a world war II rifle had a baby with a machine gun.  “You have no idea what sirens can do if you think that you can take them on with anything short of automatic fire.”

“But…”  I looked at the gun.  I still didn’t know what it was.  Did they make their guns in backyard forges?  “Aren’t sirens just really seductive creatures that steal your soul in the… in the act?”

“Stupid,” she said.  “Not that kind.”  Then she frowned.  Around us the other people were packing up weapons and slinging guitar cases, and leaving.  I could hear the elevator shriek out in the hall.  “Now I think about it, she said, our sirens might be different.  Portugal has always been a seafaring country, and we attract different kinds of sea monsters.  You know the sirens who tried to sink Ulysses?”

I had a vague memory from my high school classes, so I nodded.  She said, “Yeah, these would be sort of like that, except their singing not only can control humans, but it can command all the people that drowned in the sea in that area.  And old ships.”  She shuddered.  “You need a high rate of fire.”

“You mean it’s a zombie sea-apocalypse?”

She said.  “It’s revenants, mostly, not really zombies, but it’s… They can make skeletons that no longer have flesh take flesh of anything around.  Oh, yeah.”  She had already grabbed a gun similar to mine, but now she grabbed a bright, plastic water gun.  “Holy water helps.  At least against the Catholic dead.  It can overcome the command of the sirens.”

“Silvia, are you coming or not?” A guy who hadn’t gone with the others was standing by the door scowling at us. He had a phone to his ear.  “The van has to leave. Anibal says that if we don’t come they’ll go without us.”

“You go,” she said.  “I’ll take my car, so I can brief the American task force.”  I’d got what he said, even though he was speaking in Portuguese, but she answered him in English, and I tried to tell myself there wasn’t dripping sarcasm in the words “American task force.”

Unfortunately I understood what the guy muttered, as he walked away.  Something about how I was supposed to help and not be a baby needing babysitting.  My face burned with a blush.  Silvia turned to me.  “Now, do you need anything else?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.  I heard the groaning of the elevator outside, indicating that the guy was going down, leaving me alone with Silvia.  Which wouldn’t be so bad, if I didn’t have the impression she was mocking me.  “I don’t play guitar.”

There was an expression of confusion, but then she laughed.  “Yeah, this is why I need to brief you.”  She put a black cloak over her shoulders, hiding the weapon slung at her shoulder, and then made a mmmm sound, looking me over.  Not like she was appreciating me, more like she was trying to figure out something.  She sighed, ducked into the room where I’d seen the woman ironing shirts, and came back with a black cloak.  I was still holding the rifle-machine gun- thing and hadn’t done anything with it.  Silvia took it as if I were a toddler, and slug it over my shoulder on its strap, then put the cloak on me.  It was shorter on me than on the rest of the guys, but as she tied it around my neck, I realized that it did indeed hide my weapon.

“What kind of gun is that?” I asked.  “I’ve never seen–”

“It’s an FBP,” she said, and to my blank look, “You mean you never heard of FBPs in America?  It’s only one of the best submachine guns ever built.  Never mind.  I’ll tell you in the car.”

She walked out into the elevator, waited till I was in — I tried not to show I was shaking — closed the door.  Then she looked upwards and shouted, “Tareco, take us down.”

We started moving much more steadily than I had when I was in the elevator by myself.  I looked up, and could see the same panorama of chain, cobwebs and rust as before, but now in the middle of it, there was a very large, blue, clawed hand, pulling at the chain.

“Tareco?” I said, my voice faltering.

“There’s nothing to worry about.  He’s harmless.  We only let him out when the soccer club wins, because people then think he’s a balloon.”

“WHAT?”

“Oh, he’s a dragon,” she said.  She fished for a packet of cigarettes from her jacket pocket, lit a cigarette and took a puff.  “We captured him some years ago.  Well, in my grandmother’s time.  But really, he’s harmless.  He was holed up in a cave, scared of everyone.  So we took him in.  He’s okay.  Like a big, giant cat.  Hence, Tareco.”

“Oh,” I said.  Monster hunter also had monsters working for them, but a dragon seemed like a large risk to be taking.

“He’s our first level of security.  If you’d been unauthorized, he’d have burned you to a crisp when you left the elevator.”

Harmless my butt.  Anything that can make you crispy and might think you’re good with ketchup isn’t harmless.  I kept a very careful eye on the creature up there, and if I’d had the slightest notion if there were any special tricks to firing this FBP thing, I’d have shot it, just on principle.

But the elevator ride was much smoother, and no one made any comments as we exited via the tunnel, the office and the deli.

Her car was a Renaut so tiny that I sat with my knees almost at my chest, even though she put it back as much as possible.  Well, not their fault I was out sized even in America.

She drove like monster hunters tend to drive: when you risk your life ten times a day it doesn’t seem worth it to drive like a grandmother.

Only here everyone drove like that.  I’d driven in Italy once, and thought it was crazy.  Now I longed for the restraint and careful respect for human life the Italians had shown.

We drove against the traffic in what I was sure was a one-way street, plunged down an alley where I was sure there wouldn’t be enough room between two rows of parked cars, but through which Silvia seemed to maneuver us, unscathed, with minor movements of the wheel.

As we emerged into a crowded city street that I was sure was designed for two lanes but supported six at the moment, Silvia relaxed, turned to me and said, “Now, some History.  It all started with King D. Manuel.”

Dark Fate 9

“So, King Don Manuel,” Sylvia said.  She took a blind corner, while turned to look (and talk) to me.  I noted that she stayed completely on target, in the right lane, and wondered if she was using some type of precognition.  “Manuel the first, that is, though there’s some dispute on whether the second should count.  Anyway, King Manuel who reigned from 1495 to 1521.  He was known as the fortunate.  Most people assume it was because in his reign all the work done on the discoveries started paying dividends, and it did in the form of gold and silver and spices from all the far flung parts of the empire.

In fact we had documents that lead us to believe he was the target of Ifrit attacks, started by a curse from the remaining Moors in Portugal.  He was stupid enough to not know if it was a Moorish or a Jewish curse, but never mind that.  The thing is that he took a lot of that gold from the discoveries and started prize money for those who killed monsters.  We call it POT.”

“Pricipesco Honorario e Tesouro. The H is silent.  Anyway, it started out paying to anyone who killed a monster, but this was the middle ages, or just out of, and sometimes it was really hard to verify that the things killed were actually monsters.  So it sort of fell by the way side, particularly as people believed less and less in monsters.  And the kings didn’t believe in Monsters at all, and the funds that were left to them to administer just never got disbursed.

King Alphonse VI who ascended in 1656, though, and he was known to like Fado, which at the time was mostly played in the parts of Portugal inhabited by converted Moors.  Well, apparently the Ifrit was not dead, and a king of Portugal was much like another king of Portugal.  So, one night, while the king was listening to a Fado ensemble called Fado Negro, that is Dark Fado or Fate which is the other meaning of Fado, he was attacked by the Ifrit.  Fortunately for him, the members of the group were alert and capable, and killed the monster.  They were rewarded from POT and also given a royal commission to fight monsters.

“Since then the group has gone through several rearrangements.  In the eighteenth century it became a Student Fado group, hence the clothes we wear.  Baron Forrester– Never mind.  Anyway, we are now a student Fado group, and legally and ostensibly that is all we are: but it’s easy to carry weapons in our traveling vans, easy to hide them under the cloaks, and no one really looks too closely at a group of student singers out in the middle of the night, doing who knows what?  So, that’s who we are, and why we use both instruments and weapons.  There are several different groups, really, from the different colleges, and the college of Psychology part of Dark Fate is used by  the Portuguese government to hide monster outbreaks.”

“All right,” I said.  “By hereditary you mean Monster Hunting runs in families?”

“Yes,” she said.  She’d turned again, and the car was suddenly full of the smell of the ocean, but the smell of an ocean completely full of dead fish.  She didn’t seem to notice, and just told me.  “Like my parents.  They were monster hunters when they were students.  It’s a profession that fits the young well, but people tend to retire once they graduate, or shortly after.  Shortly after only if Dark Fate is very short-handed.  My dad was the one who organized the party that killed the avatar of Dagon causing the sonic booms in the beach at Madalena in the early eighties.”

I made a sound as though this were very impressive, though of course I had no idea what she was talking about.  I imagined that the incident had made it into the lore of monster hunters in this small Atlantic country, but America tended to have so many of its own outbreaks, that we rarely studied those elsewhere.  However, I said, “An ancient god, uh?  Do you get those here a lot?” After all the area had been colonized since forever, and mostly what Portugal was built on was Portugal.  And each tribe, and each invader had brought another layer of beliefs.

“You have no idea,” she said.  “Though the worst ones are the false saints.”

“False saints?”

“So, when the country became Catholic, if the church couldn’t discourage the worship of a particular god, they Christianized it, i.e., they made it into a Christian saint.  This is why the celebrations of St. John, at the time of the solestice are so …. fraught.  They tap into older, not even fully coherent superstitions and always cause a lot of outbreaks.”

“I see,” I said.  And realized that, out of nowhere, a fog had enveloped the car and that in the midst of the fog, a vast, dark shape loomed.  “What is that?”

She looked, screamed, twisted the wheel, hit the brakes, and opened her door.

“Jump, jump, jump,” she said.

I jumped sideways.  I couldn’t see if she had jumped also.  The car continued on a direct course into a wall ahead.  I noted that the plaque above the door read “armador”.

“Merda,” Silvia said.

“What?”

“Shit,” she translated helpfully. The car hit with a bang and everything shook, and I didn’t know where she was but she must be nearby.

“I know what it means,” I shouted back somewhat agrieved.  “I want to know why you’re swearing.”

“The undertaker,” she shouted.

She did it just in time for me to see the front of the “Armador” shop explode outward.  Out of it, lumbering, came zombies.

“Ah, shit,” I said.  I hate zombies. They’re nasty, smelly, and are guaranteed to destroy whatever suit you’re wearing when you fight them.

I got the gun Silvia had given me.  It looked like a 9mm, and it was honestly, a simple grease gun, and I didn’t expect much from it.  It felt light and like a tinker toy in my hands, but it was what I had and by damn I was going to use it.  I stitched a line of shots into the two nearest zombies.  There seemed to be a dozen or so of them, and one must have been midway being worked on, because his guts were trailing behind him.  I hit that one first across the neck, not explecting much.

Well, the damn thing exploded, all over the place, sending guts and embalmer fluid elsewhere.  I sighted the second zombie, let it fly, the same happened.  Meanwhile Silvia was shooting also, with the same effects.

“Why are they exploding?” I asked.

“Blessed bullets,” She said.  “Father Frodo blesses our ammunition just in case.”

She could not have said Father Frodo, and I was not going to touch that one with a ten foot pole.  The idea of Tolkien characters in holy orders made my head ache.

I tried to get all the zombies, but in the haze of their exploding fellows, it was almost impossible to see the ones lumbering up behind.  When the submachine gun clicked on empty, there were still four zombies left.

Silvia gave a scream, like the zombies personally offended her, I saw her charging towards the zombies, guitar in hand.  I wondered if she was crazy.

But I had no time to wonder, because a zombie jumped me.  It went from lumbering horror to jumping like a lion, and landed full weight on me.  This zombie had been a heavy, middle aged man.  Either that or he had been stuffed with lead, prior to burial.

He took hold of my neck, with cold fingers, in a vise-like grip, and brought his mouth down to bite me.  His mouth, when he opened it, was stuffed with cotton.  But the teeth were still sharp enough.  His eyes glowed red, and he stank.

It was all so fast, I felt my vision dim, and struggled for air.  Fortunately my body is way smarter than my brain, even when it gets full oxygen.  My hand, holding the submachine gun, rose of its own accord, and landed a blow sideways on the zombie’s head.

It snapped sideways, lolling on its shoulder, and it allowed me to get up.  But it was by no means dead, and as I stood, holding the submachine gun, ready to wack it again, it coiled for a leap.

And Silvia appeared behind it.  She did something I couldn’t see, and the loling head fell off and rolled, while the body fell.

“What?” I said.

“Guitar string.  Good heavens, man, don’t you know better than to let a revenant get a jump on you?”

“Uh… a what?”

“Revenant.”

“Is that what you call zombies?”

She looked at me as though I were mentally slow.  “No,” she said.  “We call zombies, zombies.  We call revenants to creatures that are also called from dead bodies, but who have the full range of movement of a live human being.”  She looked around.  I hadn’t realized how fast the whole battle had happened, except that we were in this narrow street between two and three story portuguese houses, the kind that have no front garden, but have the front wall flush with the street.

We’d fired machine guns, and shouted, and there was a car crash.  How come no one had heard.  I suspected something magical.  And then, above us, shutters opened with a bang.  A white-haired head peeked out, and I wished I had ammo for the machine gun.  But what came out was a creaky, high pitched yell.

“What did he say?”

Silvia giggled, “Go play elsewhere and take the woman with you, you bunch of libertines!”

“Bunch?”

“I don’t think he can see too well.”

Silvia yelled something back, I wasn’t sure what.  There was a sort of growl back and the shutter closed with a bang.

“Let’s see if Miss Priss still runs,” she said.

“Miss what?”

“My car.”

Weirdly, it did.  I wondered if it too had been blessed.  I mean the front was a mess, the windshield was mostly blown out, but she backed it out of the shop, and started off down the street.

“That was interesting,” she said.  “I don’t think I’ve ever got attacked on the way to an outbreak yet.”

“That wasn’t the outbreak?” I asked.

“Oh, nowhere near.”

She seemed very cheerful about it.  I had a feeling things were about to become interesting.  This is when my phone buzzed, with an incoming text.

It was from Franks, and it read “Grrrrr.”