Fiction Friday: Of Predators and Prey: The Hunters Hunted II Anthology

Vampire: The Masquerade

This week we look at Lest Monsters We Become by Jess Hartley, from Of Predators and Prey: The Hunters Hunted II Anthology.

The Campfire was blazing by the time we drove past. Whoever named the place couldn’t have anticipated how ironic it would sound, when the country bar burned to the ground.

“Keep driving,” I ordered. “Don’t slow down, don’t look at the fire, and for the love of God, no matter what happens, do not stop this car.”

I swapped out the shotgun I’d been clenching in my fists for the camera I kept tucked in the glove box, and took a series of photos as we sped past the inferno. Most wouldn’t come out — I didn’t dare use flash, lest I tip us off as something other than disinterested passersby — but hopefully the flames themselves would provide enough illumination to glean something useful later on. Information is power. That was something Antoine had taught me, a long time ago. No weapons can protect you if you don’t know what’s coming.

And those folks at The Campfire? My guess was none of them had any idea what was coming for them.

Mercifully, from what I could see, the parking lot, and thus the bar, had been lightly populated. Only a few cars — some of them burning as brightly as the building — paid testament to the now dead (or worse) victims of this pack’s latest raid.

A graffti-covered van confrmed my suspicions as to the group’s identity. They changed out vehicles like some folks changed socks, but always customized their current choice with the markings of their pack. Sometimes it was done in red spray paint, other times, in blood — The Unbroken were flexible like that. Self-centered, violent, inhuman monsters — but flexible.

“Where are we going?” Jake had followed my orders, piloting us past the fire, but now that the ruined bar was in the rear-view, and a four-way stop crossroad up ahead of us, he didn’t know what to do. We’d only been partners for a month or so, but I’d seen this over and over. Jake was great at carrying through a plan, but when life threw him a curve ball, as it often did in the field, he tended to freeze up.

It was going to get him killed one of these days. I didn’t intend to die beside him because of it.

That was one of the drawbacks of working with a partner: You were limited by their weaknesses, hobbled by their handicaps. Chinks in their armor became holes in yours. And when dealing with vampires, any flaw can be a fatal one.

I much preferred working alone. But desperate times require desperate measures, and I hadn’t been this desperate in a long, long while. When my path crossed with Jake’s, we recognized something in each other — a look, perhaps, or a bit of vocal inflection. Hunting left scars on the soul as well as the skin, and sometimes you can just tell when someone bears the same burden you do. So, in hopes that a change in process would change my luck, I took him under my proverbial wing.

On a good night, he was a decent driver, and an extra set of eyes. On a bad night? Well, it hadn’t come to that, but in a pinch, the old adage about not having to outrun the bear, only your buddy? That applied just as well to vampires. And Jake wasn’t that fast.

I thought for a moment before answering him. “Left. There’s an old water tower down that direction. It should be tall enough to see which way they head out when they leave the fire, and let us figure out where they’re going from here.” Without argument, Jake took the left turn.

I didn’t wait for him to stop the car before I leapt out at the base of the tower. Time was running short for me, and if we didn’t get them tonight — well, I wasn’t sure I’d get another chance. I didn’t like those odds. Not in the slightest.

I was halfway up the ladder before Jake could turn off the engine. The nightcold rungs were barely above freezing, but I climbed fast. My fingers didn’t have a chance to go numb before I reached the top of the ladder and hauled myself out onto the maintenance walkway that circled the tank.

Although the sirens were too far away to hear, I could see the whole thing playing out from my perch. In the farthest distance, the lights of town sparkled innocent white. Nearer to me, beyond the city limit, the light faded, houses grew few and far between, and street lights quickly disappeared. The Campfire, far enough from town to avoid city liquor taxes and urban noise complaints, blazed orange-red against a backdrop of rural darkness.

Panting and shaking, Jake finally hauled himself up the ladder to the walkway, clutching the railing as he made his way over to my side.

“Jeezus, ya could’ve waited for me.” He wrapped his arms around his chest, sticking his hands into his armpits to warm them.

I shrugged in answer. If Jake was going to survive, he was going to have to get faster and stronger. But no amount of me telling him that would bring about the change. I’d gotten it from Antoine, but I couldn’t give it to Jake. He’d find his own way to catch up… or die trying.

As we watched, emergency lights approached from town, blinking blue and red as they sped toward the burning building. A single set of white headlights showed the leech pack fleeing the scene in the opposite direction. They turned off before the crossroad, heading for a dark place that moonlight showed to be a largish copse of trees in the middle of otherwise flat farmland.

I pointed, just in case he hadn’t followed the pack’s progression. “There.”

Jake squinted, and shook his head, unable to pick the lights out from that distance.

“Trust me. They turned off on that secondary road.” I checked my watch. “Sunrise isn’t that far away. They’ll stop there to sleep away the day.”

“Will the cops follow them?”

I shook my head. “They got out before the cops got a bead on them, and they don’t leave behind witnesses. They’ll have killed almost everyone.”

“Almost?”

“Yeah.” I answered while watching the van’s red tail lights make for the forest. “If they follow their normal modus operandi, they’ve got some of the folks from the bar in the van. Five probably. One for each of them.”

“Hostages?”

I shook my head. Sometimes I forgot that not everyone had the experience with vampires that I had. It takes time, and that’s one thing that new hunters rarely get enough of.

“Food… And troops to cover their trail. They’ll feed on them, then turn them and bury them somewhere along the way. If the cops do happen to follow up on anything more than a cursory investigation, they’ll find the pit, and possibly a bloodsucker or two. Either the police will put them down, thinking they’re high on bath salts, or they’ll tear the cops to bits. Either way, it’s usually enough to delay any further follow up, at least long enough for them to get away.”

Jake nodded, as if he understood, but he really didn’t. He’d come into this life almost by accident, when the restaurant he worked at got taken over by one of the snooty vamps. One night he saw something he shouldn’t — the new owner taking a dinner break on one of the staff members. When the boss went after him to make sure he didn’t break the Masquerade, Jake defended himself with a bottle of cooking sherry. Luckily for him (if not for the vamp), the boss jumped him in the kitchen — discreet, but also home to the grill. And, while the glass didn’t hurt the leech, the fire sure did. Instead of a dead body and murder charge, Jake ended up staring at a pile of ash, and a new hunter was born.

Well, he thought of himself as a hunter, at least. So far he’d mostly just been lucky. He’d taken out a couple of weak leeches, catching them during the day, or by using some mail-order anarchy recipes to sabotage their cars with do-it-yourself bombs. Good tactics for a fledgling or a loner. One-on-one, most folks don’t stand a chance against a vamp with their blood-borne speed, strength, and resilience. Add in the broad range of mind- and emotion-controlling powers, shape-shifting, and God only knows what else they’re capable of, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster if you try to fight fair. Guerilla tactics were pretty much a hunter’s best bet, and he’d taken to them like a duck to water.

But, he didn’t really know what it was like at the heart of the situation — not yet, at least. He’d been dealing with stuff from a distance, and it wasn’t something you really got until you’d been through the worst of the aftermath yourself.

Like everything else they touched, the carnage and destruction vampires left behind was worse than anything living people inflicted on each other. Mortal minds just don’t want to imagine the depths of depravity that leeches were capable of.

That’s what made their “Masquerade” — hiding behind a thin mask of humanity, while carrying out their monstrous acts in the shadows — even possible. Even when directly confronted with them, we still didn’t want to believe. That’s why the bar fire would be labeled arson, or a horrible accident, by the media. People want to believe there was nothing out there hunting them. They insist on believing it.

They are wrong.

Read more about Jake and his partner in Of Predators and Prey: The Hunters Hunted II Anthology, now available in ebook and print from DriveThruFiction!