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It was not too unusual for a strange car to pull up in front of Chang’s on a random weekday morning; nor was it unusual for people to get out of that car and look around. What was unusual this time was the direction the car had come from – it had come from the lab, apparently – and the way the two people in the car had gotten out and how they’d looked around.

Earl Bassett, former long-time resident of Perfection, grinned as he took in the mostly unchanged town. Yeah, the sign on Chang’s store was new – and wasn’t that a hoot, that they’d kept the name – and the garage across the street looked like someone might actually be using it for something, but other than that everything was pretty much the same as the last time he’d seen it. And Earl liked that, liked having a past that stayed put where he could see it, point to it, visit it if he wanted to. He just hadn’t wanted to in quite some time. He ran a hand through his silver-streaked dark hair – which he’d deny to his dying day that he’d been touching up, a little, here and there – and re-settled his sunglasses, wondering if anyone he knew was around for him to visit.

Val McKee, for his part, was trying not to feel like every step he took was painting a target on the ground underneath him. He hadn’t been back to Perfection since the day he and Earl had left in the wake of the first graboid attacks, and the more stories of new monsters had trickled out of the place the more convinced he’d been that he never wanted to set foot in the valley again as long as he lived.

Which, in hindsight, had been a naïve thing to want, considering that his wife was a seismologist who’d started her career studying the connection between localized geological instability and huge subterranean monsters. Rhonda had moved on from that to working with oil companies, helping to prevent – or at least predict – disasters like the one Earl and his geologist-wife Kate had gotten caught up in down in Mexico, so it should have been a given that eventually she was going to need to go back out to Perfection for something related to the research being done there. Which was exactly what had happened, which was why Val was currently standing in a place he’d sworn never to be in again and wondering if the remaining graboid in the valley knew he was there and if they were all going to end up on the roof again.

“Not gonna end up on the roof again, Valentine,” Earl told him with a roughly reassuring slap on the shoulder, apparently reading his mind the way he had years ago when they’d been Perfection’s own ‘handy men’. “The way I understand it, all the buildings have had their foundations reinforced to be graboid-proof. And didn’t your wife help invent the seismo-things they use to tell when the old bastard is in the area?”

Val was relatively sure that Earl wasn’t as calm as he was pretending to be. “Those things are in the store, and we’re outside in the street – which is also where our car is,” he pointed out. “I ain’t gonna pretend I like us bein’ back here.” He raised an eyebrow. “Not to mention, they’ve got worse monsters now than man-eating, ground-tunneling worms.”

Earl grimaced. “I was tryin’ not to think about that – especially not with the women out there in that flimsy little lab they’ve got set up way too damned far from town.”

“Sorry. Ain’t good to not think about it, though, not out here.”

“That’s usually true, but today, so far, we’re monster-free.” The new voice made them both jump. A short, stocky young man had appeared from around the side of the store, what looked like semi-automatic slung casually over his shoulder. But he was smiling. “I just got done patrolling the perimeter of the town, so I should know – I’m Larry, by the way. If you’re worried about El Blanco, though, there’s a monitor in the store that shows exactly where he’s at in the valley at all times. You can get a wrist-seismo in there, too.” He held up his left arm, displaying what looked like a chunky digital watch on his wrist. “It’ll warn you if the big guy’s in the area.” Something shimmery flickered in the air beside his upraised hand, and then that same something knocked his hat off. “Matilda, that wasn’t nice,” he scolded. The something disordered his light brown hair, then darted off in an iridescent blur of motion. He picked up his hat with a sigh, shaking dirt off of it. “Sorry, she wants a snack and me standing here isn’t getting it for her.”

Val swallowed. That just had to have been a mutation, and it had been right there… “I thought you said we were ‘monster-free’ right now. What the hell was that?”

“Matilda,” the young man told him matter-of-factly. “She’s not a monster, she’s…well, she’s sort of an invisible hummingbird-bat, she accidentally imprinted on me when she hatched. She eats fruit and bugs, not meat. I usually share a banana or an orange with her when I get done with morning patrol.” He waved them towards the store. “Pretty much everything there is to see in Perfection is in Jodi’s store, and she has good coffee too – plus, now that we know when people are coming, she usually has cookies or muffins or something hot out of the oven.”

He was already moving in that direction, and the two older men fell into step with him. “You know when people are coming?” Earl wanted to know.

Larry nodded. “We’ve got sensors now that let us know when someone is on the road that comes into the valley. It’s cut down a lot on accidental deaths, and it keeps protestors from sneaking in to vandalize things.”

“Heard about those,” the older man said. “I couldn’t believe someone would be stupid enough to insist that the god-damned worms had the right to eat us.”

“Oh, they’re still at it.” They’d stepped up on the boardwalk in front of the store, and Larry held open the door for them. “They don’t live out here and they’ve never had to fight a mutation – or anything else – to keep it from killing someone, so they just don’t understand and they probably never will.”

Val and Earl looked at each other. That was the philosophy of a soldier, which this kid definitely wasn’t. “That sounds like somethin’ Burt Gummer would say,” Val commented.

“Actually, it was my friend Malcolm, but Burt agreed with him,” Larry corrected, stepping into the cooler air of the store behind them. “’Morning Jodi! Anything going on?”

“Nope. Did you see anything?” When he shook his head, she turned her attention to the two men. “Hi, welcome to Perfection! I’ve got some fresh coffee cake…” She did a double take. “Earl?!”

He’d done one too. “Little girl, when did you grow up?!” he demanded. She bounced around the counter and he swept her into a hug. “God. Chang would have been so proud of you, look at this place.” He pulled back. “Val, this here is ol’ Chang’s granddaughter, Jodi. Last time I saw her, she was still in pigtails.” He tugged on one of her braids. “She’s grown up some since then.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Val told her solemnly, nodding. “Your grandpa was somethin’ else.”

Jodi snorted. “He was a money-grubbing old bastard,” she replied, not without affection.

“Yeah, that too,” Earl confirmed, grinning. “He was a good guy, though.” He looked around, taking everything in. “God, this place looks great, Jodi. You like livin’ out here?”

She shrugged. “I make a pretty good living, and the people are nice. We’re just short on eligible men right now.”

Val and Earl looked at Larry, who was peeling a banana at the counter, and Larry laughed at the startled look on Jodi’s face. “No, I’d drive her crazy,” he told them. “I need to find a nice geek girl who likes Star Wars and knows when Towel Day is.” He disposed of the peel and left fifty cents on the counter, heading for the door again. “I’ll be back in,” he told Jodi. “Matilda is waiting for her snack.”

“His invisible bat,” Jodi explained after he’d gone back out. “It imprinted on him…”

“Yeah, he told us,” Earl said. “We couldn’t hardly see the thing, but it knocked his hat off.”

“It’s harmless,” Jodi assured him. “Casey up at the lab has some pictures of it, it’s kind of cute if you like bats and hummingbirds. Burt calls it Larry’s watchdog, when it’s around it‘ll warn him if there’s a bigger monster nearby.”

“Sounds like a useful kind of thing.”

Val actually thought it sounded more like a creepy kind of thing – that, and he didn’t like bats – but he wasn’t going to say so. Still… “You don’t have more things like that flyin’ around, right?”

Jodi shook her head. “Nothing else that flies, so far, except for the cyobactyls.”

“Heard about those.” Val shook his head. “Heard one of ‘em almost ate that mechanic who took over the garage a while back. Reed, wasn’t it, the NASCAR driver?”

“Yeah, right here in town, too.” Earl was nodding that he’d also heard about it. “Big huge nasty things, kind of like somethin’ from Jurassic Park.”

“They do look like that, yeah. Although I didn’t get to see the one that attacked Tyler for very long.” Jodi shrugged. “El Blanco ate that one. But Casey and Roger took pictures of the one that almost got Burt. I started to get copies made to put in here as postcards, but even dead they’re too scary – don’t want to frighten people out of taking the monster tour, Tyler and Malcolm would kill me.”

“Malcolm?”

“Malcolm Reed, Tyler’s cousin.” Jodi had circled back behind the counter, and she took the steam-frosted glass dome off a plate of coffee cake slices and pushed it towards them. “He’s been running the garage and the tour since about a month after Tyler got attacked, although now they usually do the tour together for safety reasons.” She put two cups on the counter and filled them with steaming black coffee. “I’m not figuring either of you for the Grabbuccino type.”

“No, coffee should be black and not have a cutesy Italian name,” Earl declared. He sat down on a stool and took a sip. “Ah, perfect. So how’s ol’ Burt doing? In hog heaven havin’ all these monsters to hunt?”

“Not so much since the cyobactyls showed up,” Jodi said. “Nobody can figure out where they’re coming from, so we haven’t been able to wipe them out.”

Earl chuckled. “Oh yeah, I bet that’s just drivin’ Burt nuts.”

Jodi shrugged again. “Well, that, and the fact that one of them almost killed Tyler right in front of him, right in the center of town.”

“But he got the one that almost got him, right?”

She shook her head. “Nope, Malcolm did – shot it right through the heart, too, from like a hundred yards away. He’s a really good shot.”

“Are you sure he’s not Burt’s cousin?” Val wanted to know. He remembered what Larry had said. “Or is he Army or somethin’?”

“Or something,” was Jodi’s answer. “We think he had one of those ‘if I tell you I’d have to kill you’ kind of jobs, so even though he slips sometimes he never really comes out and talks about it.”

“I am getting more and more interested in meeting this Malcolm Reed fella,” Earl said. “He sounds like Burt Gummer, The Next Generation.”

Jodi laughed and pushed the plate of sliced coffee cake closer to Val, who hadn’t taken any yet. “You’ll probably get to see him at some point, if you’re going to be in town for the day.” She raised an eyebrow. “Why are you in town, anyway? Everyone said that you said you never wanted to come back.”

“Didn’t,” Val assured her. “But Rhonda needed to come talk to Dr. Casey out at the lab, wasn’t any way I was lettin’ her come out here without me.”

“My wife came with his wife,” Earl explained, swallowing a bite of coffee cake. “They work together a lot. Personally, though,” he winked, “I think Rhonda asked Kate to come out so I’d come hold Valentine’s hand.”

“You didn’t want to come either,” Val reminded him, mentally checking the contents of his wallet before giving in to temptation and taking a piece of cake for himself. “Basically,” he told Jodi, “we’re out here because our women are out here, and because you guys have got mutated monsters runnin’ around wild.”

“Yeah, that too,” Earl agreed easily. He sipped his coffee. “I heard about Miguel…”

“His niece inherited his ranch,” Jodi supplied.

Earl nodded at that. “What about Nancy, she still here?”

“Yes.” The woman herself walked through the store’s screen door, frowning at the two surprised men. “Of course, if you’d bothered to keep in touch you’d have known that.”

“Rhonda and I move around a lot,” Val excused himself. “Now Earl here, he ain’t got no excuse.” He slid off his stool and ambled over to give her a hug. “How’s the sprout?”

“Still in college, hopefully not making me a grandmother,” Nancy told him, returning the hug. Earl had also left his stool, and she hugged him as well. “You guys both look great, being married agrees with you. Are Rhonda and Kate up at the lab?”

“Yep, it’s scientist show-and-tell day,” Earl told her. “Wasn’t any way we were lettin’ ‘em come out here by themselves.”

“I can’t blame you for that,” Nancy said. She followed them back to the counter and took the cup Jodi handed to her. Unlike Earl’s or Val’s, hers had a creamy white top and exuded the scent of spices. “Jodi, have you called Burt yet?”

“He’s due back soon anyway…” Something passed between them, and the two men were surprised to see Jodi fluster slightly, like she’d just remembered something. “Oh, yeah, he might…he might not come back into town. I’ll radio him...” She moved to the radio setup in the corner under the tracking display and picked up the handset. “Burt, I need you to stop by the store on your way back.” Silence, and after a moment Jodi huffed and rolled her eyes. “Over.”

The radio crackled. “Gummer here, is anything the matter? Over.

“We have company – Val and Earl are here, and they wanted to see you. Over.”

There was a short pause. “That is a surprise,” came from the radio. “All right, we’ll be there in approximately ten…” The sound of a gunshot brought both Val and Earl halfway off their seats, but Nancy just shook her head and they both sat back down. “Fifteen minutes, give or take. And we have more jackrabbit mutations. Gummer out.

Jodi put the handset back and Nancy shrugged at the two wide-eyed former residents, sipping her Grabbuccino unconcernedly. “He didn’t sound panicked, so it must not be too bad. And Casey and Cletus said we’d probably see more jackrabbit mutations than any other kind of mammal, because they’re so hardy and they breed so fast. The last ones were the iguana bunnies.”

“Those were kind of cute,” Jodi observed. She pulled a three-ring binder out from under the counter, flipping through plastic page protectors until she found the one she wanted; then she pushed the book over to Earl. “There, that’s an iguana bunny.”

Earl looked, and Val looked over his shoulder. And frowned. “It has a lizard tail.”

“Yeah, and they were carnivorous, too. They went extinct pretty quickly, weren’t put together right.”

“The mammal crosses usually aren’t,” Nancy put in. “Thank goodness. Even the cyobactyls are sick, they’re just…lingering.”

Earl flipped pages…and started backwards. “Jesus Christ, it’s a god-damned dinosaur!” Then he grimaced and shot a sidelong look at the unperturbed Nancy. “Pardon my French.”

“Actually, that’s most people’s reaction,” she told him. “And it’s not, really.”

“That’s that Mixmaster shit activating dormant DNA strands,” Val filled in, which did seem to surprise her. “Hey, Rhonda goes on and on about it. She had a fangirl fit in the car all the way up here thinkin’ she might get to meet that Poffenberger guy.” He took another drink of his coffee. “Seem to remember we ran across him once or twice around the valley, way back when. He had a mutt the size of a pony caged up in that shack of his…” He saw the looks. “What?”

Nancy reached across Earl and flipped the pages of the binder. “That was 412,” she told him, tapping the page with her finger. This picture was a sketch, not a photograph. “It was sort of his pet, he smuggled it out of the old government lab when they closed it.”

Earl’s eyes had widened. “Geez, we just thought he had a Rottweiler or something.”

“Or something,” Nancy said. “It’s gone now – it got loose and he couldn’t control it anymore, they had to kill it.”

“Good.” Earl went back to paging through the binder, then closed it up and pushed it away after he got to the last picture – something that looked like the bastard offspring of a crab and a scorpion. “I didn’t need the reminder that I didn’t want to live here ever again, but thanks.”

“It’s not that bad.” Jodi tucked the book away again. “But you were here when it was the worst, so I don’t think anyone could blame you for not wanting to come back.”

“I’m still not sure you’re all not crazy for stayin’,” Earl retorted with a good-natured grin. “But I guess you’re never bored, that’s somethin’.”

The screen door squeaked, and both men turned to see Larry coming back in with a slender, dark-haired man who looked to be in his mid-thirties. “Ah yes, you two definitely would not want to take the mutation tour,” the man observed in a surprisingly British accent. He strode across the wooden floor and held out his hand. “Mr. Bassett, Mr. McKee, I’m Malcolm Reed – currently running the garage and the tour business for my cousin Tyler. It’s a great pleasure to meet you.”

“We keep hearin’ about you,” Earl said, disengaging himself from his coffee to shake hands. “So far it’s all good things.”

Malcolm laughed. “I have tried to be on my best behavior since I got here.” He shook Val’s hand as well. “Your wives are up at the lab, I take it?” When they both nodded, he nodded back. “I know it doesn’t look it, but that’s one of the safest locations on the valley floor – the native soil is very thin there, and the concrete foundation is sunk directly into the bedrock. They also have the same sensors we’re using to monitor the road deployed at a 500 meter radius all ‘round the building, and proximity alarms at 100 meters. Nothing can approach the lab without them knowing about it.”

Val raised an eyebrow. “And once they know about it, what then? That building is flimsy.”

“Not so much as you might think, but they do have a smallish emergency bunker underneath it, also dug into the bedrock and reinforced with concrete, which is guaranteed to protect them from anything short of a strategic missile strike.” He smiled. “Burt designed it.”

“That does not surprise me.” Earl took another drink of coffee. “I wouldn’t have thought the livin’ space behind that garage would be big enough for two people.”

“You thought right, it’s not. I live in the garage, my cousin lives at the bunker on the hill; it’s more convenient all the way around, since he does the valley-wide patrols with Burt while Larry and I take the foot patrols around town. It’s also safer for him than staying down here would be, he’s still got some limits on his mobility thanks to that cyobactyl attacking him.”

Val raised an eyebrow. “I’m surprised he stayed at all.”

Malcolm shrugged. “He likes it here. I wasn’t sure, when I first arrived, but I must admit it’s grown on me as well – although that’s probably because neither of us are much used to the quiet life.”

Earl chuckled. “You’ll want it someday, believe me. This,” he waved his hand, “is a young guy’s game. Someday you’ll get tired of killin’ monsters.”

“Of course,” the other man agreed with a roguish grin, “but by that time I expect to have already killed most of them.” The sound of a heavy engine rumbled outside the building. “Ah, there’s Burt. Hopefully he’s brought us one of the new jackrabbit mutations to look at, I was rather disappointed that I missed the iguana bunnies.”

He and Larry went to the door, and Val leaned over to Earl. “See, that’s why they like it here – they’re all insane.”

“Only on certain days,” Larry called over his shoulder; Malcolm was already outside. “We’re normal the rest of the time, ask Nancy.”

Both men looked at Nancy, who was snickering into her coffee. “They’re as normal as people who fight mutated monsters for a living are ever going to get,” she told them. Someone – it sounded like Malcolm – swore loudly at something outside, and this time she was on her feet at the same time Val and Earl were. Jodi beat them to the door; she drew back with a disgusted face and waved the three of them back. “Um, no, don’t…don’t go out there. You don’t want to see that, really.” She went back to the door and opened it a crack, holding the camera in her hand out. “Larry, will you…”

“No!”

“I don’t think we need to immortalize…this one,” a familiar voice agreed. “If you want a picture, you can get one from Casey later, Jodi.”

Jodi scowled out the door. “You ‘re all wimps.”

“I don’t see you out there givin’ that thing a close-up,” another male voice said. A man with longish golden brown hair, older than Larry but younger than Malcolm, stuck his head in the door, moving Jodi and her camera back at the same time. “Nancy, don’t come out here until we’ve made this go away – it was already ugly, but we made it messy, too.” He smiled at the two visitors. “Sorry, guys, not in any danger or anything – it’s dead as a doornail. It just looks…well, you don’t want to see it, let me put it that way. I may be sleepin’ with the lights on tonight, myself.”

He ducked back out. “That was Tyler,” Nancy told them. Jodi sulked back over to the counter. The door opened all the way up this time, and the owner of the familiar voice strode in. “Val, Earl,” Burt said in greeting. “You should probably stay in here until they get that taken care of – its appearance is rather disturbing.” He rolled his eyes at the inquisitive looks. “Jackrabbit and goat.”

Jodi scowled at him. “And all those legs came from?”

Burt sighed. “A lot of things have multiple legs out here…”

She planted her hands on her hips. “Burt, that was a goatbunny spider, and it had horns. It looked like something that had been kicked out of hell for being too evil.” She shook the camera. “And none of you would take a picture!”

“You can get a picture from Casey, I’m sure she and Roger will have better ones. Posed, even, and without all the bullet holes,” he soothed. She flounced off to get him coffee, and he leaned against the counter. “So you two came in with the wives?”

“Yeah, they’re up at the lab Malcolm tells us is not as flimsy as it looks,” Earl replied. He grinned. “You’re lookin’ pretty good, Gummer.”

Burt shrugged. “Not like I can afford to get out of shape out here.” He raised an eyebrow. “You two are looking pretty good yourselves, I’m guessing married life agrees with you.”

“That it does.”

Outside the truck started up again, and Tyler limped back into the store, plopping down on a stool at the end of the counter near where Burt was standing and taking the cup of coffee Jodi handed him with a nod of thanks. “Malcolm and Larry are takin’ the hellbunny up to the lab,” he told Burt, shaking his head when the older man winced. “Wasn’t Larry this time, Malcolm called it that. Have to admit it’s a pretty good description.”

“True.” Burt returned his attention to Val and Earl. “This is likely to cut your visit short, boys. Casey and Roger will have to go chase down the rest of the…hellbunnies. Cletus will stay at the lab…”

Val snorted. “Rhonda will stay at the lab if he does.” He cocked his head. “You let the other two drive your truck?”

Burt shrugged. “I’ve gotten used to letting other people drive her. Tyler drives most of the time now when we’re on patrol.”

“Burt’s a better shot with the big rifle,” Tyler put in, not seeming any more bothered by the admission than Burt had been. “Not to mention, I’m still not back to 100% yet.”

“I’d say you’re damned lucky you came back at all,” Earl observed. He noticed that the comment made Burt wince again and filed the reaction away for later consideration. “Your cousin said you were livin’ up at the bunker now, because it’s safer.” He winked at Burt. “Got the walls reinforced, did you?”

“And built a perimeter wall underground so I can safely park the truck,” Burt told him. “We’re completely graboid proof now. And for things that aren’t underground, I can send a jolt through the fence strong enough to fry anything that touches it.”

Val raised a skeptical eyebrow. “What about the ones that fly?”

Tyler chuckled. “Big guns. Malcolm even made a mount for the grenade launcher on Burt’s truck, he’s handy that way.” He saw the look. “He was a weapons engineer, got sucked into ‘special operations.’ Don’t ask him, he can’t talk about it – they burned him but good.”

“Well that sucks.” Earl shook his head. “No one’ll come after him out here, though.”

“Only if they want to risk becoming graboid-bait,” Burt confirmed. “I straightened that little shit Melvin out that way a while back, stranded him on a residual boulder out on the flats with El Blanco to keep him company.” He snorted into his coffee. “He was trying to take over the valley, some kind of real estate scam. He’d forgotten that El Blanco has government protection, he’s the only one of his kind thanks to being sterile and an albino.”

“He can be a damned handy little worm to have around, too,” Tyler added. “He tends to try to eat the other monsters, saves us some trouble.”

Burt had glanced up at the graboid-tracking monitor, so Earl did too. The little round dot he assumed represented the worm was wiggling a little in place, and then it started  meandering off towards the northeast. In spite of himself, he shuddered. “Well, at least he’s good for somethin’. Did he eat Melvin?”

“Sadly, no.” Burt waved a hand in the general direction of Bixby. “Melvin showed up later after he’d bought up some cheap land outside the valley and tried to put up a housing edition there. They had some water problems, though…”

Tyler choked on his coffee. “I’ll say they did.”

“…and once word got around, he wasn’t able to develop the rest of the land they way he wanted to. He went bankrupt, I’m not sure who owns the land now.” Burt shrugged. “Last I heard, he was in Vegas.”

Val snorted. “Good place for him, keep all the slime together in one spot.”

“Valentine, be nice,” Earl scolded. “Just because you didn’t like it when you lived there…” He noticed that Tyler was chuckling into his coffee, though. “You’re not too fond of the city either?”

Tyler shrugged, smiling. “Once you get away from all the bullshit it’s fine – but gettin’ away from the bullshit ain’t easy.” He nodded at Val. “I’ve got to agree with you, though, I think Melvin probably settled right into the middle of it like a pig in mud.”

“That comparison probably ain’t fair to the pig,” Val told him, which made the younger man laugh. “Have to admit, I’m kind of sorry the kid didn’t do better, though – he was a little shit before, but after the graboids killed his dad and all I kind of thought he might grow up and straighten out.”

Burt was the one who shrugged this time. “I’m not sure Melvin ever realized he needed to,” he said. “You have to realize there’s a problem before you can fix it…” He trailed off, head going up, eyes going distant; Tyler had done the same thing. “That’s the truck.”

“Comin’ back fast,” Tyler agreed, putting down his coffee. “But the hellbunny was dead as a doornail, so it has to be somethin’ else…”

“Jodi, get your gun out, just in case,” Burt ordered. “The rest of you stay inside until we give the all-clear.” He and Tyler rushed to the door, and now everyone could hear the sound of the truck roaring up the road. Jodi had pulled a little semi-automatic out from underneath the counter and Val was demanding to know if Burt had given it to her and if she actually knew how to fire it…and so Earl was the one who saw what was going on at the door. Burt was holding Tyler’s arm, as though he wanted to keep him from going out, and there was a whole conversation that didn’t need words going on between the two of them.

A very familiar conversation, to Earl – he’d had it with his wife more than once. Burt glanced over then, saw him looking and sort of froze. Earl just grinned and winked at him, nodding, and the other man relaxed in a way that gave away how tense he’d actually been since he’d come into the store. Burt nodded back, even smiled a little himself, and squeezed Tyler’s arm. A worried blue gaze flicked over to Earl – who raised his coffee cup, still grinning – and then the younger man smiled and relaxed too. “We’ve got this, don’t worry,” he told the room at large. “If it was somethin’ really bad, Malcolm would have radioed –he for damn sure wouldn’t have brought it back to town without warnin’ us.”

And then the truck pulled up in a spray of gravel outside, and Burt was back out the door with Tyler right behind him. They could hear him demanding to know what was going on, and then he let out a startled exclamation that was echoed by Tyler. Malcolm could be heard explaining something, and then Larry popped in. “Jodi, we need a box or something, and some rags or an old towel – Malcolm says he’s not sacrificing his favorite shirt.” He grinned at her startled look. “Turns out the dead hellbunny was pregnant, so now we have a live baby hellbunny to go with it.”

The door swung open, and the other three men walked in. Malcolm was carrying his blue flannel overshirt wrapped around something, and the something was squirming. “Box?” he asked Jodi. “I am not carrying this creature in my hands all the way out to the lab.”

Nancy had stood up but was keeping her distance. “Is that…”

“Safe? So far, yes. It’s not very mobile, just wiggly. And not nearly as unpleasant to look at as the mangled remains of its mother.” Jodi hurried over with a cut-down box and some rags, which Larry took from her and held while Malcolm put the newborn creature in it. A little ear raised up, then another…and then they both went back down and the Englishman smiled. “It can’t stand up yet, you see. So you’re safe to come closer and have a look.”

Earl noticed that Nancy didn’t hesitate to do just that and neither did Jodi, so he smacked Val on the shoulder to get him moving and then ambled over himself to look over Jodi’s shoulder. What he saw was a surprise. It was roundish and had short, birth-wet fur, and two tiny rabbit ears. It also had eight little half-furred legs which it was trying very hard to stand up on and not having much luck, and every time it slipped back down its little pink nose wrinkled up and its little mouth opened and closed in frustration. None of its four little eyes were open yet. Jodi was already using her camera to film the little creature. “This one can go on a postcard,” she was insisting happily. “It’s so cute! Nancy, you  have to make a toy, you just have to.”

Nancy – who was still sipping her coffee – looked the creature over, nodding. “I could attach clay legs to a soft-sculpture body. I’ll look at the pictures later, see if I can make a pattern.”

“You are so much cuter than Mommy,” Jodi cooed. She almost reached into the box to touch it, but Larry caught her wrist. “What? It’s a baby, you both said so!”

“It’s also hungry and we don’t know what it eats,” Larry told her. “It was trying to gum Malcolm’s finger through his gloves – and you’re not wearing gloves.”

“We need to get it to the lab so they can attempt to feed it,” Malcolm added, tucking one of the rags in the box over the top of the creature with a still-gloved hand. “I just didn’t think Larry or I should try to hold it in our hands all the way up to the lab, there’s no telling how fast it will get over being newly born. And we thought it might be a good idea to switch to the Jeep and give you back the truck, because if it’s lambing season for the hellbunnies then we’re going to need everyone out there tracking them all down.”

Burt considered that and then nodded. “True – not to mention, once there are offspring involved the adults might be a lot more aggressive. Follow us up to the lab in the Jeep, we’ll make a plan of attack once we know a little more about these things. I don’t want to go back out there with incomplete information.”

The creature in the box squeaked, and Jodi beamed at Nancy, who sighed. “Yes, I can put a squeak in it too.” She made a face. “The adults are really ugly?”

“Really really ugly,” Tyler told her sympathetically. “They’ll make a good addition to the monster figurines, though – people who like horror stuff will probably snap them up.”

“You’re welcome to join us up at the lab,” Burt told Val and Earl. “We won’t be doing any hunting for a while yet, Casey and Roger and Cletus will have to figure out what we’re dealing with first. Or you can stay in town and visit, the…hellbunnies aren’t anywhere near here and it’s a pretty quiet day otherwise.”

“We’ll finish up our coffee and then come up there to see what’s goin’ on,” Earl told him. “Yell if you need us sooner.”

“Hopefully we won’t have to.” Burt circled back to the counter and grabbed his coffee and Tyler’s. “Testing new mutations can take hours, even days. So don’t hurry on our account, you probably won’t be missing anything.”

“Yeah, we know how testing goes, definitely,” came from Val. “We can always break out the cards – but I gotta warn you, Earl’s wife’s a shark.”

Earl beamed. “She is, she really, really is – she even foxes me sometimes.” He ambled back to the counter and reclaimed his coffee. “We’ll be seein’ you later.”

Val, surprisingly, trailed the other four men to the door. “I want to see the mama,” he called back over his shoulder. He stepped out, and then a few seconds later swore loudly. “Jesus Christ!”

“Told you it was ugly,” Tyler’s voice came back, sounding amused. “Now you get to sleep with the lights on tonight too.”

“Oh hell, after bein’ out here I’d have done that anyway – and I’m runnin’ the car through a car wash after we leave to make sure nothin’ hitched a ride out with us. Here, let me give you a hand strappin’ that tarp back down, you’ll have every buzzard in the valley followin’ you…”

Earl started to take another drink of his coffee, but stopped when he saw the look Nancy was giving him. He shrugged, grinning. “You guys said we looked good; ol’ Burt’s lookin’ pretty good himself. He’s happy?”

“They both are,” she told him, relaxing into a smile herself. Jodi looked relieved too. “I wasn’t sure if you’d have a problem with it or not.”

“Nancy, you know me better than that,” Earl told her, serious but not offended. “I may joke around about it sometimes, but I ain’t never had a problem with people who don’t make problems for me. Who else knows?”

“Pretty much everyone in the valley, and Agent Twitchell, our ‘assigned government overseer’, as Malcolm and Burt call him.” Nancy pulled the plate of coffee cake over and helped herself; Jodi had pulled out a laptop and was moving the video she’d taken into it from her camera. “Some people in Bixby, mainly at the hospital.”

Earl winced. “Yeah, I’m sure the last thing on Burt’s mind right about then was makin’ sure his closet door was shut. Heather know?”

“I doubt it – I’m sure we’d have heard by now if she did.”

Val had come back in just in time to hear that. “Heather?” he asked. When she nodded, he snorted. “Yeah, that probably wouldn’t go over too well at all – Tyler’s younger and prettier than her.” Nancy almost snorted coffee out her nose, and he snickered. “Not like I haven’t been in Burt’s basement before, Nancy – if they’re both sleepin’ in there, it’s in the same bed.” He ambled over to the bathroom to wash his hands, then came back out and returned to his coffee. “The mama looked like it had been really ugly before they shot it four or five times,” he told Earl. “And it was about as big as a medium-sized dog, only with waaay too many legs.” 

Earl looked at him for a minute, and then he grinned. “You were makin’ sure you could kill one, weren’t you?”

“Yeah.” Val was unapologetic. “Can’t take out a graboid with a car. Now I know we can take out a hellbunny with one, though. Or with a regular rifle as long as we hit it in the right place – although scattershot or Jodi’s little semi there would probably do better.”

“Yeah, take the legs out from under it with one spray,” Earl agreed. “Always better not to have to aim too close.”

Nancy raised an eyebrow. “I thought you two were just visiting and didn’t want to deal with any mutations?”

Earl chuckled, shaking his head. “We are and we don’t, but we aren’t neither of us stupid,” he told her. “Got two rifles and two handguns in the trunk of the car, extra ammo, and a few concussion grenades just in case – gotta be thinkin’ ahead if you don’t want to end up as monster-chow. Boy scouts don’t got nothin’ on people from Perfection when it comes to knowin’ you always need to be prepared.” He winked at her. “Including for findin’ out that Burt Gummer’s got himself a boyfriend.”