W.D. Twitchell was having one hell of a week, and it was only Wednesday. Monday had been calm and very Monday-like. But then on Tuesday he’d gotten a call from Dr. Matthews in the valley: They’d finally found the cyobactyl nest. Unfortunately, they’d found it empty.
The next call came from Burt Gummer, reporting that the three remaining cyobactyls were on the move, had been spotted by multiple people, and appeared to be heading straight for Perfection. “We’re ready for them,” the survivalist assured him. “Oh, and I ordered the scientists back to their lab, we don’t want any civilian casualties.”
Twitchell commended himself on his own self-restraint for not pointing out that Nancy and Jodi did, in fact, count as civilians when compared to Gummer, the Reed boys and Tucker. And possibly to Larry Norvel, too, because Malcolm Reed had been training the kid and Malcolm was the kind of spec-ops guy people made unbelievable action movies about. So Norvel pretty much had to be at least a junior badass at this point, whether he came across as one or not.
No more calls came in for a little while, and then Nancy called to let him know that the three cyobactyls were dead and nobody had gotten hurt. He could hear Tyler Reed in the background, something about underestimating how much of a mess a chainsaw would make when used on a flying monster and offering to clean up what he’d tracked in, and Twitchell told her he was on his way and asked if she wanted him to pick up some carpet cleaner for her; she thanked him but said Jodi had some at the store if she ran out. He was about to hang up – had already said goodbye, in fact – when she screamed.
Another cyobactyl had showed up late to the party, apparently. Even over the phone he could hear the distant popping sound that was gunfire, Gummer and Reed were yelling and running and a door was slamming, and then there was a much deeper booming double pop that just had to be one of the big shotguns letting go with both barrels and everything went quiet. Twitchell heard Nancy suck in a breath that almost sounded like a sob. “It’s…I’m pretty sure it’s dead.”
His own heart was racing, she’d scared the hell out of him – for a second he’d thought something had attacked her in her house. He forced himself to sound calm. “You stay right where you are,” he ordered. “If there’s four, there could be five. The fourth one is dead?”
“Malcolm just kicked it in the head.”
“Okay, yeah, it’s dead.” And Malcolm was pissed, obviously. Gummer probably was too. He thought of something. “Hey wait a minute, I thought Gummer was in the shower?”
He heard her try to hold it back…and then a raw little laugh broke free. “He was. He’s wearing a towel, and Tyler’s in his underwear.”
“Pics or it didn’t happen,” he told her. Not that he had any real desire to see Gummer or Reed in their natural state, but getting the picture would distract her. “Everyone’s in one piece, still no casualties?”
“Still no casualties,” she echoed. Twitchell heard a couple of soft clicks – she was taking pictures through the window, good. “Burt’s coming back, do you want to talk to him?”
“Yeah, if he’s coming back.” He heard her door squeak – sand in the hinges was a fact of life in the desert – followed by a heavier exhale than what could have come out of Nancy. “Hey Gummer. Is it four, or should I start a tally?”
“I certainly hope it’s just four,” Gummer told him. “As soon as I can get dressed I’m going back out there to keep watch, though, and Malcolm and Larry are going to check the perimeter while Trip and Tyler clean the weapons in case we have to go another round.”
“Okay. I’m leaving the office now…”
“No, don’t.” In the background, Tyler was echoing that as a bad idea. “It would be dark by the time you hit the valley, Twitchell – and we don’t know if there’s another one of these bastards out there or not. Come out tomorrow morning after it’s light.”
Uh oh. “You think there’s another one.”
“We’re not ruling it out – an hour ago we thought there were only three, after all.” Gummer cleared his throat. “Don’t stop for anything once you hit the valley, all right? Just in case.”
“I won’t stop,” Twitchell promised. “I know my sidearm wouldn’t be any good against one of those things, even if I had aim like you and Malcolm.”
The survivalist snorted. “Even good aim almost wasn’t enough this time – and remind me to see about getting you a better weapon, standard issue’s not much use out here.”
Twitchell had a sudden, ludicrous vision of himself carting around an obscenely huge gun in the back seat of his car, but all he said was, “I’d appreciate that, thanks. I’ll call Chang’s in the morning before I head out, let her know I’m on my way.”
“All right. Gummer out.”
Those last two words almost made Twitchell drop his phone. If Gummer was shaken up enough to forget he wasn’t using the radio…holy crap, it must have been a really bad fight.
The next morning Twitchell got up early, skimmed through the report again while eating breakfast with his wife and son, and then called Chang’s. He was initially alarmed when Norvel answered the phone instead of Jodi, but she was apparently doing something in the back and he’d just been near the phone. “Just ignore all the burned dirt in the center of town, okay?” Perfection’s junior badass in training warned him. “We were burning the blood so ants and things wouldn’t eat it and spawn something horrible.”
Twitchell wasn’t sure what to make of that for a second, and then he remembered Tyler talking about the chainsaw making a big mess the day before. “Chainsaw?”
“Chainsaw,” Norvel confirmed. “The rest of us made a mess too, but the chainsaw made one worthy of a slasher movie. Did you get the requisitions Trip sent in with the report last night? Denatured alcohol worked great for burning – and it’s inorganic so Cletus said it was safer – but they used up every drop the garage and the lab had.”
“I’ll grab a couple gallons on my way out,” Twitchell told him. He’d wait until he got out there to see if they needed the environmental cleanup guys to come work their magic on the mess that was left. “No sign of a fifth abomination of nature?”
“No, but Malcolm and I are going back out to look some more.” The store’s bell jangled in the background. “Morning, Malcolm! You want to talk to Twitchell?”
“Since I’m still waiting for the caffeine to kick in, certainly.” Twitchell heard a muffled yawn amid the rustling noise of the phone being passed over. “Good morning, Agent Twitchell. On your way out?”
“Yeah, just as soon as I pick up your requisitions. Late night?”
Malcolm chuckled. “Not because of anything bad – we pulled in all patrols at dusk, for obvious reasons. I was attempting to come up with a barrier of some sort for the town, or at least a better warning system.”
Because the fourth cyobactyl had come out of nowhere while he, Tucker and Norvel were out in the street cleaning up the mess from killing the other three. Just like the one that got Tyler Reed had last year. In spite of himself, Twitchell shuddered. “No luck?”
“Sadly, no. Although Trip did tinker his way into a long-bladed chainsaw with a splash guard while I was brainstorming.” Another chuckle. “It’s a rather alarming-looking thing, but I’m certain Tyler is going to love it.”
No doubt. They were all insane, every single one of them. “All right, I’m leaving now. Anything you guys need me to pick up that isn’t on the forms?”
“We can’t requisition sanity, I’m afraid,” Malcolm told him. He was sounding more awake now. “I’ll have Jodi save you a muffin.”
“I’d appreciate that. You guys be careful.”
Twitchell hung up the phone, shaking his head in response to his wife’s raised eyebrow. “They’re all nuts, every last one of them. Tucker apparently got bored last night and built a monster-killing chainsaw - with a splash guard, because the regular one made too much of a mess.”
She smiled. “He could probably patent it.”
“Probably, but I don’t want to know there’s a market for something like that outside of the valley.” He kissed her cheek. “I should be back for supper, I’ll call if I’m going to be late.”
She kissed him back. “Be careful?”
“Always.” Crap, he was turning into Malcolm Reed – minus the badass parts. His son ran up and hugged him, and he returned it. “Have a good day at school, kiddo. Maybe this weekend we can go do something fun.”
“Can we go to Perfection to see the monsters?”
Twitchell sighed. It was a frequent request. “No.”
“But I want to meet Burt Gummer!”
“They do have the tour,” his wife pointed out.
“Yeah, because people are crazy,” he countered. He got down at eye level with their pouting son. “Toby, I know you want to go out there. I know some of your friends have been out there – and I know they rub your nose in it, too. But kiddo, the very first person who would say I shouldn’t take you out there is Burt Gummer. Because yesterday those flying, man-eating monsters attacked the town and they’re thinking one more may still be out there.” Not getting through. He sighed. “Toby, it’s so bad right now that Gummer told me not to come out there last night in the dark, and not to stop driving for anything once I got to the valley today. He even said he wanted to give me a bigger gun to carry because mine,” he patted the spot on his jacket that was over his shoulder holster, “doesn’t pack enough firepower to stop most of the monsters. It’s just not safe out there, son…and I don’t want you and Mom to get eaten by some stupid monster, okay?”
Toby sniffed, then threw his arms around his father’s neck. “Don’t get eaten?”
Twitchell hugged back. “I won’t – I’ll have Burt Gummer protecting me, remember?”
“He’s the best.”
“He’s the best at that, yeah.” He detached from the hug and stood back up. “Get going, you’re gonna be late for school.” His wife was giving him the eyebrow again, and he rolled his eyes. “Someday we’ll go, I promise. But not while there’s even a chance one of those cyobactyls are still hanging around.”
“Deal,” she agreed, and kissed him again. “Get going yourself, you’ve still got requisitions to pick up before you can hit the highway. I’ll make something reheatable for dinner, just in case you’re late.”
“I am really hoping I’m not going to be late,” he told her. “Being late would mean something bad happened out there. I want to be triumphantly early.”
“I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.”
She bustled their son out the door and he followed more slowly, waving goodbye before getting into his car and heading off to pick up the things Perfection needed. The requisition forms were all computerized and he had access on his phone, and they had a big official warehouse where most of the stuff for the valley was kept – it had been decided early on that Gummer’s ammunition, grenades and other implements of monster destruction should be taken from an assigned stockpile instead of being bought as-needed. Ditto for most of the lab supplies and equipment, so hopefully they’d have a few gallons of denatured alcohol there for him. He always got such weird looks at Walmart when he had to buy stuff for the valley at the last minute.
The warehouse did have everything on the requisition, and they made him take a couple extra gallons of the alcohol just in case, and a few extra respirators and heavy-duty gloves. “One set of those is for you,” the guy on duty informed him. “Tucker tore me a new one last month when we didn’t send out enough gear to go around.”
Twitchell shook his head and signed off on the items he was taking. “I’ve personally never seen that side of him, but you’re not the only person who’s told me it’s there,” he admitted, handing the tablet back. “When you meet him he comes across as this easygoing hayseed country boy; near as I can tell he’s like that most of the time. Until cyobactyls attack the town and he starts killing them with a sledgehammer, that is.” The guy’s eyes widened. “Didn’t get to read the report? Tucker had a hammer, Tyler Reed was using a chainsaw, everyone else had guns. They killed four, but they suspect there might be one more hanging around so today is monster hunting day.”
That made the other man shake his head. “I am so glad I don’t have your job. Okay, we filled up your tank, trunk’s packed, you’re good to go. Unless you want a chainsaw to take with?”
Twitchell laughed. “No, I’ll leave that stuff to Perfection’s action-hero squad. Gummer said he thinks I need a bigger gun, though.”
“I don’t doubt it. Let us know if he gives you one, we’ll register it for you and stock the bullets. Have a safe trip.”
The drive out to the valley was long and dusty and boring, and Twitchell listened to the radio until he crossed through the pass into the valley and left the signal behind. Thankfully he didn’t see anything on the way to Perfection, either, and when he pulled up in front of Chang’s everything looked normal. Except for all of the burned ground, that was: Black patches of charred sand and dirt and gravel stretched all the way from one side of the street to the other, a really clean-looking section on the side of the garage was probably clean for the same reason, and just slightly off-center in the middle of it all was an eight-foot blackened circle. He took a closer look at that, shaking his head, then took some pictures just so he’d have them. “Somehow I don’t think a splash guard would have helped all that much.”
“Probably not, but it’s worth a try.” Gummer had come out of the store, and he saluted Twitchell with the coffee mug he was holding. “You didn’t see anything on your way in, right?”
“Not a thing,” Twitchell assured him. “Skies were clear, road was too. Any more reports come in?”
“Not a one. So far, anyway,” the survivalist qualified. “Roger went back through the reported sightings, and he figured out where the crack was that fourth one fell through – it was between the first and second sightings, he thinks those were two different pairs of cyobactyls. The bad news is, we’re pretty sure the three Rosalita and Harlow saw are the ones that attacked first.”
Dammit. “Which means there could be one more out there somewhere.”
“Which means that last theoretical monster is way too smart, if it exists,” Gummer confirmed. “It is possible, though. The fourth one held back until all the shooting was over, after all.”
“Did the worm come around?”
“No, he stayed away. We checked the data, he was on the other side of the valley. Probably eating sheep, which I’m sure you’ll be hearing about eventually.” He readjusted his worn cap. “No reports have come in this morning, about anything.”
“I wish I could say no news is good news, but out here there’s a fifty-fifty chance that it’s not.”
“You’re not wrong.” Gummer held the store’s door open for him. “Come on, get some coffee and the muffin Malcolm saved for you, there’s really nothing we can do right now except wait for Malcolm and Larry to call or come back. Is there anything from the report you wanted clarification on?”
“Not off the top of my head, but I can go over it again to look, while we’re waiting.” Twitchell very much doubted anything was missing, though - Tucker and Reed were efficient as hell when it came to the reports, and the reports were the one place where Tucker actually sounded like the genius engineer he was instead of a guy who kills monsters with a sledgehammer. Come to think of it, Tucker was the kind of guy people made unbelievable movies about too, but his would have all been action adventure stories with a romantic subplot.
Some twenty minutes later the store’s radio crackled out Norvel’s voice. “Burt, are you there? Over.”
Gummer had picked up the handset almost before the crackling had stopped. “Larry, did you find something? Over.”
“We found the fifth cyobactyl, Sector 4-B, two clicks off the road north-northwest. It’s dead. Over.”
“Copy that. Are you both all right? Over.”
The voice on the radio became Malcom Reed’s. “We didn’t kill it, we found it. Is Cletus still there? We need to burn this immediately, but I want him to take a look first.” A pause. “This could be very bad. Over.”
To Twitchell’s surprise, Gummer actually went a little pale. “No, I think he’s back at the lab. Did something else kill it, Malcolm? Over.”
“It’s difficult to say.” Another pause. “But something else quite obviously got to it before we did. Over.”
“We’ll go get Cletus and bring him to your location. Twitchell is here and he brought more denatured alcohol, so we’ll bring a jug of it with us. Keep your eyes open until we get there. Over.”
“Always,” was Malcolm’s response. “We’ll see you in Sector 4-B, two clicks off the road north-northwest, Sierra-Oscar-Hostel-4-9-5. Over and out.”
Gummer immediately got back on the radio. “Cletus, this is Burt, I need your location. Malcolm and Larry found the fifth cyobactyl dead, and they wanted you to take a look before we burn it – it’s been partially eaten, not sure by what. Over.”
Crackle. “Burt, this is Casey. Cletus is here at the lab. Over.”
“I’ll be there directly, Casey. Gummer out.” He stood up just as Tucker and Tyler Reed came in the door, both men carrying rifles. “Go get Nancy, Trip,” Gummer ordered. “We’ll take Cletus out there, but I want everyone else to stay here in the store until we come back. If you hear anything out of the ordinary, take shelter in the freezer.”
Tucker was already back out the door, and Twitchell’s eyes widened when he saw Jodi pull a gun out from behind the counter and offer it to Gummer to check. “And everybody’s arming themselves now why?”
“Sierra Oscar Hostel – ‘someone’s out here’ and they may be hostile,” Gummer explained. “If he hadn’t thought they were, he’d have said ‘hotel’ instead.”
Of course Gummer and the boys had their own secret field codes; why hadn’t he expected that? “So you’re saying Malcolm thinks someone else killed the monster…but you just told the lab it had been eaten.”
“Because we’re on an open channel – better safe than sorry.” Gummer saw the look and rolled his eyes. “I’m not being paranoid – at least, not that way,” he defended himself. “But anyone out here messing around with the mutations is pretty much bound to be up to no good.”
“The legitimate ones check in,” Jodi confirmed, making a face. “Not to mention, the only way we wouldn’t have known they were out there is if they detoured around the sensors.”
Meaning whoever it was had gone off-road, or flown in. Or they’d already been there, waiting for who knows what. Crap. “Want me to follow you up to the lab?”
Gummer shook his head. “Better ride in the truck this time. I know your car’s axle can’t handle being off-road on the terrain in 4-B.”
“Unless of course you want a new axle,” Tyler put in. “In which case, follow away.”
Twitchell just smiled and shook his head, following them out to the truck – with a detour to get his own cap out of his car, and one of the jugs of alcohol too. He climbed up into the back and got as comfortable as you could get in the back of Gummer’s truck, and then suddenly there was a gun being held out to him. “This is the same kind Jodi has, and that we started Larry out with,” Gummer told him. “You’re not going to take out a cyobactyl with it, but it should work just fine for discouraging anything else.”
“Yeah, I would stop for that.” Twitchell took the gun and looked it over, checking the safety and familiarizing himself with the firing mechanism, then set it to one side. He kept his hand on it, though. “Thanks. Oh, and the guys at the warehouse think I need a better gun than standard issue too – they said if you pick one out, they’ll do the paperwork for me and stock the ammo.”
Gummer actually looked relieved by that. “I’ve got a couple that I think might work. We can try them later, see which one feels most comfortable for you.”
Poffenberger was waiting when they got to the lab, and so were Dr. Matthews and Dr. Garrett – both armed. Twitchell huffed. “Am I the only one who didn’t know the secret radio code? I feel left out.”
“We’d just never had a reason to tell you,” Tyler disclaimed; Gummer was already out of the truck and checking guns. “We can fill you in before you head home today. How’s your family?”
Twitchell smiled. “Good. Toby wants to come out here to see monsters and meet Gummer, I keep telling him no. Some of his friends are giving him shit about not having been on the monster tour.”
Tyler snorted. “His friends haven’t been on the monster tour either. When the tourists with younger kids come out, we take them on the Kiddie Trail – lets them see a few notable sites, but its mined with transmitters that keep El Blanco away and someone clears it every other day to make sure nothin’ else has taken up residence. Trip is planning to add some scary stuff to it around Halloween, though, we always get a bunch of families out here then.”
“Perfection’s version of a haunted hayride?” Twitchell guessed, and nodded when Tyler did. “Yeah, that probably will go over really well.”
“Oh, it’s going to go over extremely well.” Poffenberger was being helped up into the back of the truck by Gummer, and he settled in on the seat opposite Twitchell, grinning. “I’m helping him work out some of the chemical-based effects, but you should see what that man can do with a projector and a little bit of smoke. Those kids are going to go home thinking they’ve seen every monster there ever was.”
“It’s going to be safe, don’t worry.” Gummer had settled back into his seat, and the truck jerked back into motion. “In fact, I think putting on a show may be safer than turning them away. If we give them something to see, they’re less likely to go haring off into the desert looking for monsters on their own.”
“Point,” Twitchell allowed. “Write it up for me, I’ll approve it – it sounds like you guys have all your bases covered, and you’ve got Gummer’s approval.” Even a year before he probably wouldn’t have been so easy about it, of course, but he’d learned. Nobody in Perfection was blasé about the lives of the tourists who wandered into the valley, Gummer had even taken to keeping his way-too-long list of victims posted in a glass case in Chang’s store, right by the door so visitors couldn’t help but be confronted by the warning it represented: People who go up against monsters don’t always live to tell the tale.
The first time Twitchell had seen the list, Gummer had been updating it. Which had also been the first time he’d ever seen the survivalist look his age, and the first time he’d realized that Gummer took every single one of those deaths personally.
Thinking of someone looking their age made him consider Poffenberger, who had fifteen years on Gummer and looked every one of them. He gave the old scientist a raised eyebrow. “Are you doin’ okay, Doc? Do you need anything? You never send me any requisitions.”
Poffenberger shrugged. “I usually don’t need anything, honestly. I might move into town pretty soon, though, it’s getting…difficult to live out at my shack.”
Having seen the shack, Twitchell considered that a significant understatement. “Want me to requisition you a trailer? You’re valuable as hell out here, Doc. I’m not supposed to tell you this, but if you tell me you need something I’ve been told to have it delivered the next day with a bow on top and a thank you for asking.”
The older man laughed. “I promise not to take advantage. I won’t need a trailer, though, I’m probably moving in with Nancy. She’s going to have an extra bedroom free soon, and she says she’s gotten used to having someone else there.”
Tyler saw the look on his face in the rear-view mirror and smiled, shaking his head. “Larry’s movin’ over to the store sooner rather than later, we think,” he told the worried agent. “Jodi finally caught a clue yesterday, planted one on him right in front of God and all the dead monsters.”
“Of course, that was after he’d pulled her out of the way of a diving cyobactyl, jumped in front of her and then fired right down the thing’s throat until he ran out of bullets,” Gummer put in. “Which reminds me, I need to check his sidearm if Malcolm hasn’t already – he used the butt to break the thing’s beak, that’s bound to have done some damage.”
Yep, Norvel was officially a member of the local badass club now. “Hell, if he’d done that for me I might have planted one on him,” Twitchell observed. “So you guys think this is the beginning of something and not just a reaction?”
That got him three nods. “Earl noticed it when he was out here a few months ago,” Gummer said. “He told me he thought sometimes people just weren’t disposed to see what was right there in front of them unless someone else pointed it out.”
Twitchell nodded back, filing that away as something he’d need to bring paperwork out for later. And as a conversation he’d need to have with Norvel later in private, because the guy was a millionaire and Nevada’s common law statute was pretty minimal, so if he didn’t want Chang inheriting everything on the off chance he failed a pop-badass test he was going to need to do some extra paperwork that said so.
He’d worry about that later, though. He craned his neck, looking for the jeep and hoping he wouldn’t see anything else. He was sure Gummer was hoping that just as hard as he was, and probably the rest of them too. It went without saying that anything capable of taking out a cyobactyl was more than a match for a human.
Even if it was another human.
Nothing was moving on the desert floor, and finally the Jeep came into view; Malcolm was standing in the back, and Norvel was sitting on the hood. The mound of dead cyobactyl was some fifteen feet away, and once the truck got close enough Twitchell could see that what looked like a good chunk of the thing’s abdomen was missing.
A rectangular chunk. He thought Poffenberger was going to jump right over the side of the truck. “Son of a fucking bitch,” the old man swore. He started the process of climbing down, barely even seeming to notice Gummer helping him, and then he was in front of the dead monster and everyone else was hurrying to catch up.
Up close, the cyobactyl was way too big. Twitchell took a few pictures from a few different angles, privately deciding that he needed to show the ones that didn’t include the hole to his wife so she’d better understand why the monster tour had been on the no-go list all this time. He usually didn’t take the details of his job home with him – partly because he wasn’t really supposed to – but in this case he thought he needed to make an exception. “So someone would have done this why? Tissue samples, what?”
“This is way too big for a sample,” Poffenberger said. “A chunk that big would be enough samples for a hundred researchers, and since it’s known that this was a relatively unsuccessful mutation nobody is going to feel the need to buy that much.” He responded to the look without apparently needing to see it. “Yes, there is a black market for mutation samples. We’ve clamped down on it as much as we can from the lab end – legitimate researchers know they can request samples just by filling out some paperwork, but they don’t know that Casey and Roger and I are the ones deciding who gets to study what, along with a few other scientists we use for reference-checks. Jodi heads off ‘bug collectors’ when they show up at the store, and the boys stop them from sampling anything while they’re on the tour.”
Twitchell sighed. “Doesn’t stop them from scraping a grill when someone from the valley goes into Bixby, though. What can they do with them?”
“Oh, not much. Feed them to something else to see what happens is what I’d think most of them try – poor man’s genetic recombinant experimentation– but the ratio for success on that is even lower than when it occurs naturally in the valley. They can’t reverse-engineer Mixmaster, they can’t create new monsters…basically they’re just fucking around and hoping they’ll get lucky.”
Crap. “And the chances of them getting lucky?”
“Small enough not to be worrisome,” the scientist told him. He’d pulled a collapsible metal probe – which had probably been a car antenna in a previous life – out of the knapsack he’d brought with him and was examining the edges of the hole. “That’s interesting, this tissue looks almost like it’s been frozen. So maybe the hole is so neat because the tissue was frozen first…”
“It must have been frozen over the wound caused by whatever killed the creature,” Malcolm said. “Because there’s no entry or exit wound from a projectile weapon, and no signs of physical trauma which could have killed it.” Twitchell saw Poffenberger’s eyes widen, and Gummer’s too. “Unless the tissue was removed in order to remove the evidence?”
“Possibly.” Gummer was nodding. “If you don’t want anyone to trace your bullet, dig it out and take it with you.”
“And if you don’t want to get messy, bring along somethin’ to make the job clean and easy,” Tyler added. “So, who has access to stuff like that?”
“Someone with money,” Twitchell told him. “A piece of equipment like that can’t be cheap.”
“No, it wouldn’t be,” Gummer agreed. “I think I know what kind of professional might have the money and the motive, though. We may be looking at the work of a big-game hunter.”
Poffenberger straightened. “But why would one of those leave the trophy behind?”
“Because he doesn’t dare get caught with it,” Twitchell supplied grimly. “Unauthorized possession of a mutation is a federal offense, whether it’s dead or not.”
“So he must have taken pictures instead,” Malcolm mused. “It’s a private collection, no doubt.”
“Maybe not that private.” Norvel’s eyes had narrowed. “Most people back up their photos to the cloud now. And if they don’t have their privacy settings configured right…” He pulled out his phone. “Somebody pose, like a trophy hunter would. I can run a reverse image search and see if anyone’s shared a similar picture. We’ll get a few different pictures so I can account for variations.”
“I did already check the ground for footprints,” Malcolm said when Gummer started to head that way. “I could tell someone had been there, but the ground is too hard for an impression. And there wasn’t any physical evidence left that I could find, not even fibers.”
Twitchell resisted the urge to sigh. Of course they were doing DIY forensic stuff too, why not? He was probably lucky they hadn’t all started carrying homemade badges with a picture of the worm on them. “So that’s a ‘no’ on ‘do I need to call a team out’, gotcha,” he said. “But yeah, reverse image search is a good idea. And if you can find a match, I can use our system to track them down.”
He could let the agency’s tech guys run the image search too, of course, but if Norvel wanted to do it Twitchell wasn’t going to tell him not to. Gummer posed for the picture, and then he and Tyler both posed, and after Poffenberger had taken a bunch of samples and more pictures of his own it was time to set the dead monster on fire. They dug a little fire-break around it and then poured on the alcohol, and if they’d only had some marshmallows…well, nobody would have tried to toast them because they would have ended up tasting like dead monster. Gummer and Tyler stayed with the burning monster to make sure the fire wasn’t going to spread, and everyone else went back to Perfection in Malcolm’s jeep.
They dropped off Poffenberger and his samples at the lab first, and then headed back into town. Tucker was lounging on a chair in front of Chang’s when they pulled in, looking for all the world like some yokel having an afternoon siesta – he even had the hat. Which he pushed back when he saw who it was, then stood up and stretched. “Nobody’s come through,” he announced. “Sensors haven’t recorded anyone but you guys out there, either…but I did notice somethin’ interesting that I think might explain why.”
Twitchell was surprised to see Malcolm stop dead in his tracks. “No…”
“Yep.” Tucker held open the door for everyone, and Twitchell noticed that he managed to get a hug in for his husband on the way through. “There’s a hole in our sensor net. It’s a funny shape, though, so either there’s a geologic formation there that the sensors don’t like…”
“Which our geo-map says there isn’t,” Jodi chimed in from the counter.
“…or someone made it to give themselves an invisible road into and out of the area.” The aforementioned map was laid out on the counter, and the engineer traced a snake-like path with his finger. “Right down through here, see? And here is where that last cyobactyl was found.”
Malcolm was nodding. “They shot from the path,” he said. “Only left it to gather the evidence and possibly take a trophy photo, and then back up the path they went.” He tapped the map further up. “This is a main internal road in the valley, the ranchers use it on a daily basis so we don’t pay much attention to sensor hits in that area.”
“But you do on the main road,” Twitchell clarified, and everyone nodded. “So…are you saying this person is still here?”
“Possibly,” Nancy said. “There are a few abandoned places out that way. And nobody would have thought anything about a vehicle going out and then coming back in.”
“Which means they circumvented the count by merging themselves into it.” Malcolm was clearly frustrated. “Dammit, they used our security system to camouflage themselves!”
“You can’t check everyone in the valley,” Twitchell told him. “The ranchers would never stand for it. I mean, I’m sure there are at least a few of them who sneak off to fool around…”
“There are three,” Malcolm told him; from his spot in front of Jodi’s laptop, Norvel snickered. “One rancher who heads off to Bixby for fun and games every Thursday, one rancher’s wife – not the same one – doing the same on Saturday, and one young man who is letting his parents think he’s sneaking off to sow wild oats when what he’s actually doing is attending night classes. I’ve given that one a few pointers to keep him from getting caught; I’m holding my information on the other two until the next time we have a mutation situation and they refuse to help.”
“The lady in question hates Burt,” Tucker put in. “So she kicks up a fuss if her husband agrees to help out. We’ll nip that in the bud the next time it happens, unless she wants him to know that baby she just had most likely isn’t his.”
Twitchell didn’t touch that; he was there to deal with monsters, not soap-opera level drama. Nor did he really care that they were planning to blackmail one of the other residents, because if that was who he thought it was then he’d be more than happy to see her flounce right out of the valley and not come back – and her husband probably would be too, poor bastard. “I don’t need to know,” he said. “Not unless she becomes a problem, anyway, then I’ll need to know. Do you think anyone out that way might have seen the ‘new person’ and thought it was just someone who moved into the abandoned place?”
They all looked at each other, and Nancy shook her head. “No,” she said. “Someone would have said something.”
“They would have,” Jodi agreed. “Gossip aside, we’ve had enough problems with strangers that someone saying they didn’t want anyone to know they were here would have the whole valley talking.”
“Unless they thought that person had authority to tell them not to talk?” Tucker said slowly, giving Twitchell a thoughtful look. “You know, people around here are used to government agents showin’ up…not like most’ve ‘em would know the difference between real ID and fake ID.”
Malcolm grimaced. “That could definitely be a possibility, yes.”
“Yes, it could.” Maybe he should have badges made for all of them – with a picture of the worm prominently featured, that was a given. Technically the sheriff in Bixby was over Perfection too, but Twitchell knew that the guy never set foot in the valley if he could help it and got all his reports from Gummer…it was something to think about. Later, anyway. “And impersonating a federal agent is a federal offense.”
“So if you can’t get her for possession, you’ve still got that.” Norvel smiled when everyone turned to stare at him, turning the laptop around. “Yep. Found her.”
It was a dead ringer for the pictures they’d just taken with the dead monster, except instead of Gummer the posing hunter was a thirtyish woman with dark hair and light blue or gray eyes. “I don’t suppose there’s a name on that account, is there?”
“She’s using a fake name,” Norvel told him. “But she’s using it in a private group, and she’s not the only one there posing with dead monsters.” He tapped, then tapped again, and although a blocking screen almost immediately appeared declaring the site to be members-only and private and requesting a login, there had been just enough time for them to be able to see the name of the site: The Monster Hunters Club.
Twitchell got home in time for dinner that night, but he wouldn’t have called it triumphantly early – disappointingly early, maybe. They’d gone up the hidden path through the sensors and found the supposedly abandoned homestead the hunter had been using. And it had still abandoned, albeit really recently occupied, so now the search was on from his office to track down the hunter they had a picture of while Gummer and the boys tried to find the route that person had used to get in and out of the valley. They were planning to mine it with sensors, and Gummer was hoping they could catch someone in the act of coming in and setting up camp. Twitchell was already mentally working on the requisition for badges he’d be putting in the next day, he had a feeling they were going to need them.
He waited until after his son was officially in bed and definitely asleep to talk to his wife, showing her the pictures he’d taken. “That was, hopefully, the last cyobactyl,” he said. “Three of them attacked the town yesterday afternoon, then a fourth one came in for an encore while they were cleaning up the mess, and this one was found today. We still don’t know who killed it, they found it dead out in the middle of nowhere.”
She shivered. “It looks like one of Toby’s dinosaurs. With bat wings.”
“It was part bat. And part coyote, and part roadrunner too, and there was some lizard in there somewhere. In short, it was a really big, really dangerous meat-eating mess.”
“One of the ranchers killed it?”
“Probably.” He knew one of them hadn’t, of course, but he couldn’t say that. Sharing classified information with your spouse was a departmental no-no, for obvious reasons. So he only shared anecdotes about the residents of Perfection and details anyone could get online. Technically the photo was now in the latter category, because photos of this same cyobactyl had been found online – on a private site, yeah, but he was willing to push the line a little bit to make her understand why he kept denying their son’s fondest wish. “This is why I kept saying no. Until today, these things were at large and actively hunting. They’ve been attacking sheep and cattle, and one of them damn near killed Tyler Reed last year when it attacked him.” He pulled her a little closer, kissed her hair. “I get to see the aftermath of all of Perfection’s monster attacks, you know. Luckily this one didn’t have any human casualties, but most of them start with at least one.”
She snuggled into him with a sigh. “I know. And I’m sorry, I didn’t realize just how big and dangerous those things were. You didn’t tell me.”
“I didn’t want to scare you for no reason,” Twitchell told her. “They’re gone now, though, so things are a little safer in the valley for the time being. We’ll go out someday, I promise. We’ll surprise Toby with a trip out there some weekend, we’ll go on the tour and everything.”
He wasn’t going to tell her about the Kiddie Trail, of course – that information was classified. But he was going to make damn sure that was the only tour his family went on. It was one of the perks of being Perfection’s assigned government overseer.
That, and having Burt Gummer personally pick him out just the right gun to use.