The creature, a grendel, turned its pug-nosed face to the sky and sniffed the warm September air. Rachel remained motionless and alert, the beast’s large, grey head framed in her rifle sight. One twitch and she’d blow its face off, but she could wait—for a moment or two anyway.
Where the hell is Hound Dog? No sooner had the thought breezed in and out of her mind than her earpiece blipped and Dog’s voice rasped in her ear.
“Got two of ’em fifteen degrees from the alpha position. Firing in three … two …”
Rachel’s rifle blasted, and the grendel’s head burst like a rotting cantaloupe. The body dropped to the forest floor.
“Got ’im,” she said into her mic. She’d heard the double blast nearby and waited for Hound Dog to report his kills.
“Two down, Frostbite. That’s the nest.”
Rachel no longer cringed at the Frostbite nickname; rather, she embraced it. If they wanted to paint her as a cold bitch, she’d be more than happy to freeze the chuckleheads out. At least they left her alone now, and she’d never have to contend with the frat boy antics other freshly minted protectors put up with.
Her teammates had learned on their first week together two years ago not to mess with Rachel Needham. She smiled, recalling Hound Dog’s screams when he woke to find his pelvic region covered in fire ants. That little etiquette lesson came as retribution for sneaking into her room during the night on her first day as a full-fledged protector and dumping spiders in her bed. Initiation, the guys had called it, implying all newbies must endure it. Well, she had initiation rituals of her own. She promised them she wouldn’t haze them if they left her alone. So far, they all behaved like good boys. At least, ever since the fire ants …
The snap of twigs and rustle of underbrush from the direction of the trees where Rachel’s dead grendel lay brought her out of her musings. Silence no longer a necessity, her other two teammates clomped over to the body.
Code Master, tall and skinny and looking exactly like the nerd he was, squatted next to the corpse. He removed his glasses and wiped sweat and black curls from his forehead. “Yup, it’s dead.”
“You haven’t even touched it,” Foot-Long said.
“Don’t have to. No head, no life.” Code Master smirked and puckered his lips. “Or ya wanna give him mouth-to-mouth?”
“Like I give your mama every night?”
Rachel, having had enough of their juvenile banter, stepped from her makeshift blind in the shrubbery. “Can the chatter, boys. Let’s get this fucker back to HQ.”
The curses rolled off her tongue smoothly now, and Rachel no longer winced, even inwardly, every time she swore. She hated it, but it made her one of the guys—all in the name of career advancement and breaking through a glass ceiling that, in all honesty, wasn’t as thick in the protector game as it was in the regular military or had been on the police force.
The force hadn’t been too bad, and had life remained as it had been before the grendels appeared on the scene twelve years ago, she’d have continued through the ranks. Before she’d turned thirteen years old and the grendels ate her mother, she’d aspired to be a detective. After her mother’s death, revenge drove her. From the moment the protectors were created, she hunted and killed monsters, and she was among the best.
She consoled herself over her lost career with the reminder that detectives couldn’t kill their homicidal prey. Protectors won awards and recognition for doing so. Rachel snagged newcomer of the year her first year in, something her teammates might or might not have resented. She suspected Code Master and Foot-Long—for the subs he ate, not for the length of his dong, so she’d been told—didn’t mind. Hound Dog, on the other hand, had probably added it to his list of grudges against her.
Fine with me. If he ever needed another lesson in manners, she’d provide one.
Rachel scanned the surrounding area, peering into the trees and brush.
She sometimes wished her rivalry with Hound Dog were friendlier. A coworker who helped and supported her efforts while giving her a decent rival to beat would have benefited them both. To their detriment, he undermined her at every turn. However, while Hound Dog behaved like an ass after hours, he was an excellent protector. It wasn’t like him to take so long to appear in their designated after-kill meeting place.
“With his kills.” Code Master’s reply came too smoothly and automatically.
“You saw him or you’re guessing?”
His grey-blue eyes, always piercing, met hers, but only for a moment. He flushed and looked away. “Sorry, boss, I’m assuming.”
“Want I should search for him?” Foot-Long dropped a plastic bag next to the grendel’s body.
“Nice try, grunt, but you’re not getting out of corpse detail. You two bag the body. I’ll find Dog.” Rachel checked her phone to locate Hound Dog on the tracking app and melted into the trees, heading south-west.
When she spotted him propped against a tree smoking a joint, her first instinct was to tear a strip off his hide. When she registered his shaking hands and sheet-white face, she hoisted her rifle to ready and crept up beside him.
She spoke in a whisper. “What’s the word, Dog?”
“A body, boss.”
“Yeah. Two bodies. Why aren’t they bagged?”
“No.” He shook his head. “In the nest.”
The grendels’ nest. Grendels nested in groups of three or four, not always as families. Scientists specializing in grendel research, such as her younger brother, Jeff, reported that the creatures formed seemingly random groups. They nested together for safety and security, the way hunter-gatherers and cave dwellers had once done, Rachel supposed, but she’d never heard of grendels dragging a body back to their nests.
It must be bad if Hound Dog, a veteran hunter, became apoplectic at the sight of it.
She tilted her head, indicating the joint. “You’re on duty, Protector.”
“Sorry.” He took a final drag and ground it out in the dirt. “It—” He breathed deep, gulping air as if he couldn’t get enough.
“Okay. You puke?” It would matter, so she had to ask.
He shook his head. “Came close.”
Relieved he had it together enough to keep his lunch down, she said, “Want me to bag it?”
Hound Dog shook his head again. “My job. Gimme a minute.” His voice broke as he said, “A girl, boss. Just a girl.”
“Christ, Dog. This will rain hot coals from hell on us.” She crouched next to him and touched his shoulder. “Point me to the nest. I need to secure the scene and take evidence before we bag her. Finish here and then join me.”
“Why?” The colour had returned to his cheeks, and his voice sounded stronger. Good. In a moment, he’d be back to his cocky self.
“You’re assuming the creatures killed her. They probably did, but never assume.”
“You just want to play cop.” Irritation laced his voice.
“I’ll always be a cop. That’s why I’m team leader and you’re not.” She couldn’t help needling him. Hound Dog’s obvious resentment always brought out the nasty in her. He’d wanted the team leader job, but he didn’t have the policing experience she did. It ticked one more box on his grudge list.
He waved toward what she assumed was the nest, and after reminding him he had two grendel bodies to bag, she slipped through the trees.
The girl was petite but older than Rachel had expected. The corpse lay beside the nest rather than in it—precision wasn’t one of Dog’s skills—and oddly, she appeared unmolested.
Since when do these creatures leave food unsampled?
Never, to Rachel’s knowledge, yet here lay a body without a mark on it sitting at grendel-nest ground zero.
Drag marks indicated it had been in the nest, but they’d yanked it out and dumped it nearby. Why? This bugged her more than if she’d found the girl mangled inside the nest. The girl should be in pieces and should never have been in the nest at all. The throat and thighs, usually one of the first areas on the body these things chowed down on, remained intact.
“What happened?” she murmured. “What the hell happened?”
Uneasy, she studied the area first. The only footprints in evidence, aside from the grendels’, were hers and Hound Dog’s. All seemed quiet, but as her ears attuned to her surroundings, she picked up bird chatter in the trees. Behind her, plastic crackled, leaves rustled, and twigs snapped as Hound Dog bagged the two bodies.
Most groups nested well away from each other, so she didn’t expect to encounter other monsters, but she never let her guard down anyway. The grendels wouldn’t have read the manuals—they could do whatever the hell they wanted. She didn’t trust them to remain consistent.
Rachel accessed the camera function on her cell phone and took pictures of the body, the nest, and the surrounding area. When she had enough photos of the scene, she pulled on a pair of latex gloves and squatted next to the body.
Rigor mortis had set in but hadn’t completed, which meant the girl had been dead less than thirty-six hours. Rachel saw no obvious marks—no bullet wounds, stab marks, blood, or marks on the throat. After checking the eyes for petechial hemorrhages, she ruled out asphyxiation. The skin held a greenish tinge, a normal occurrence after death.
She rose. They’d have to comb the area for any evidence to show this was a body dump, cart the body back to the base, and then pass it along to the police. All protectors were trained in forensics to spare those not trained to hunt grendels from the risks of poking around in grendel territory.
After gathering evidence and taking photos, they’d need to get this body and that of the grendels out of the forest, but they had a Humvee for that, parked about a kilometre back. No roads, not even crappy dirt roads, led to their current location. The team had hiked in from where they’d left the vehicle.
She got to work.