Selwyn Robertson hunts ghosts for a cable television show.
Tonight his team chases a rumor into the Missouri backwoods. The rumor of a vampire.
And none of their high-tech toys will save them.
Hunting Monsters, an intense dark urban fantasy novel of vampires, psychics, folk magic and starry wisdom, that will remind you why people across the world fear the dark. A standalone Edge of Humanity novel from Stefon Mears, author of the Spells for Hire and the Cavan Oltblood series.
Stefon Mears is a frequent contributor to Fiction River. If you like your vampires old-school and scary, Hunting Monsters is the book for you. And the only way to read this book at the moment is through this StoryBundle! – Allyson Longueira
"Stefon Mears shows his deep knowledge of magic lore in this spectacular dark fantasy adventure. Mears's fast pacing, fun team of monster hunters, and his trademark humor make for a page turning read."– Reader Review
It was just supposed to be a ghost hunt. Business as usual.
But nothing about that night was usual. Even before it all went to hell.
It was somewhere around nine o'clock when I ground the van to a halt, kicking up little dust and gravel, but more than I expected. Driven through two flash storms, out here in the boondocks of Missouri, and I figured the whole countryside would be sopping wet by the time we finally reached this damned little crossroads.
Guess those storms were more localized than I thought.
Wish the heat was. It was an August night, and apparently in Missouri that meant hot and muggy. Van's air conditioner had worked overtime to keep us comfortable, but it was time to abandon comfort and do what we'd come here to do.
"We're here. Everybody out," I said. "I'll be along in a second."
Todd was the first one out, of course. Good for him. Getting out of my face right now was the smartest thing he ever did, and this was a guy with two advanced college degrees. Doctorates. Parapsychology and Psychology. Got 'em both at the same time, even.
Totally unfair, that. To be smart as Todd, as educated, and still have the all-American good looks and camera presence that he could have lit Hollywood on fire if he'd ever decided to do more than our little television show.
But he was like Page. True believers, out to bring proof to the world. That's why our show was called Seekers. As in, seeking the truth about the paranormal.
Mostly, that meant ghost hunting. Like tonight.
You'd think a guy with so many checks in the plus column would be patient by nature. Maybe calm and collected enough to not spend three hours yelling at the driver for having trouble following a set of scant, handwritten directions, in a part of the country I'd never been to before.
Hell, it wasn't even me Todd was really mad at. Part of the reason I hadn't called him on it.
But that was Todd.
Page followed him right out, no doubt as tired of listening to his bitching as Tangi and I were. She never called Todd on his temper though. Didn't want his fits to interfere with the work.
Page, she was our other on-air talent. Had a Parapsychology doctorate too, but never bothered with any other. Though between the two of them, she was the one with all the patents.
And she even beat Todd on looks. That smooth, dark coffee skin, and swimsuit model build. All to go with a southern belle accent that could make me smile, even while Todd was yelling at me.
Todd and Page's looks were the main reason anyone tuned into our little off-brand cable network show. If we could have gotten them to loosen up on their wardrobe — ditch the suits and show a little more skin — our ratings would have gone through the roof.
Page closed the van door behind her with a soft thump that was as close as she came to slamming any door.
For a moment I could focus on the ticking of the van's engine.
It didn't help. I was too wound up from three hours of getting yelled at through Missouri backroads in a van without all-wheel drive.
Once Page was outside, it was just me and Tangi in the van. We were the behind-the-scenes talent that kept our show clicking. He sat in the passenger seat next to me, as usual.
Tangi was a huge Samoan guy, and this is me calling him huge. I used to play linebacker for U.C.L.A. when I was in film school. But Tangi made me feel downright small. Most of it was muscle too, like me.
Tangi, though, had the kind of deep bass voice that even made Todd's panty-dropping baritone envious.
"You counted to ten yet?" Tangi asked, with the nigh-infinite patience he attributed to regular meditation.
"More like a hundred," I growled. My shoulders and arms were still so tight, I wasn't sure I could pry my fingers off the steering wheel without them immediately leaping for Todd's throat.
Yeah, I'd known all three of my partners since college and yeah, I'd long since gotten used to Todd's yelling fits.
But even I had limits.
"Just breathe, baby," Tangi said. "Just breathe. And save it for the game."
Save it for the game. An old joke, and one I didn't think Tangi knew about. Must have been saving it for a special occasion.
Any time I had a temper flare up in college, coach told me to save it for the game. The rest of the team picked up on it.
I heard that phrase a lot in college. But only around my teammates.
To hear those words come out of Tangi, eight years out of U.C.L.A., was unexpected enough that I snorted a laugh.
Then Tangi started his infectious chuckle, and soon I was leaning my forehead on the steering wheel, laughing despite myself.
"Can we get this started tonight?" Todd called from somewhere out of eyeshot.
I stopped laughing. Started again on the deep breaths through my nose.
"Safe for you to come out?" Tangi asked, side-eyeing me.
He held up an offering. The Twinkie of Peace.
"Depends," I said, looking from the Twinkie to Tangi and back. "If Todd says one more wrong word to me before he apologizes, I'm going to go Joshua Tree on his ass."
Joshua Tree state park. The last time Todd had yelled at me for that long. I'd let him yell himself out, and everyone thought things were cool.
He then said one more wrong thing and I dropped him like a quarterback who hadn't even known the blitz was coming.
Lucky for Todd that Tangi was there to separate us before things got out of hand. Kept the pretty boy's nose unbroken.
Right now, in the van, Tangi played peacemaker again. Waved the Twinkie at me.
"That from you or Todd?" I asked, narrowing my eyes.
"It's from Page. She doesn't want to be here all night, and she doesn't want to have to do reshoots if you give Todd a bloody nose or a busted lip."
"Fine," I said, mollified that Page was that thoughtful.
Page and I had never ever tried to date. I'd never asked her. At first, because she had a boyfriend when the four of us met, junior year.
Then, well, I just never figured Page could be interested in me, so I never bothered asking.
Despite what some guys will tell you, being friends with a beautiful girl — just friends, I mean — can be just like being friends with anyone else. Even if you find you still enjoy that sight and sound of her.
I mean, we were friends. I wasn't suddenly blind and deaf.
So I accepted the Twinkie, and downed it in the traditional one bite.
Tangi nodded. Clapped me on the back, then went to get his cameras and lights.
I swallowed the treat down, the unsnapped my seat belt and hopped out of the van.
Might as well have been a steam bath out here. The moment I was out of the van, wet heat just enveloped me. Glued my tan polo shirt and slacks to me in nothing flat.
How the dirt beneath my Puma's wasn't mud didn't click with me. I mean, yeah, it wasn't exactly dusty, but it wasn't all that soft either. Must have been baked solid during the day or something.
I forced myself not to look at Todd. Not yet.
I looked up at the vast sea of stars overhead. Way more than I was used to back in California, and one of the few nice things about being this far outside anything like a city.
Amazing. Great distraction, too. Gave me something to focus on for a few breaths and ease some of the tension out of my muscles. And a chance to ignore the hushed voice of Page, quietly talking to Todd somewhere nearby.
A little stretching helped too.
Then I saw the side of the van without the distraction of loading it with gear.
Our Seekers logo — a stylized S, holding a magnifying glass — had been hastily applied to the side of the white van via vinyl signage. Clearly done at the last minute. Probably because some network jerk decided not to give us our usual rough-and-tumble SUV as part of the whole pissing contest.
Didn't do great things for my mood.
I wanted to blame Todd for the pissing contest, but honestly it was as much Page as Todd making it happen.
Didn't make me any happier that they got us sent out into the boondocks of Missouri, chasing a ghost that no one even wrote about on the internet.
I mean honestly. How big a haunting could it be, if no one local was bragging about it online?
Just one more thing to grumble about as I slammed the van door shut behind me.
I had to admit, though, the place had a good look for a haunted crossroads. Two narrow strips of rocky, uneven dirt, intersecting near a wooden sign so old I had no prayer of reading what places it was pointing to.
If those places even existed anymore.
I had no doubt Tangi could get some great, atmospheric shots to go with the few we'd picked up earlier of the flash storms.
Rain and lightning always set a great mood for our show, even if they made shooting hell.
The air here at the crossroads smelled thick with the kind of vegetation I never saw growing up in the wild suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area. Couldn't even begin to pick it apart.
Some of the trees looked like oaks. Couldn't identify the others, or even hazard a guess what any of the plants were.
Well, apart from the thick wild grass, I mean.
Maybe that was what I was smelling. Whatever it was, it hit Tangi's allergies all wrong, and the big man started sneezing even before he had his rig set up.
And when a guy as big as Tangi sneezes, you can't miss it. Like the fifteen-inch gun on a battleship going off.
We all blessed him with one voice, then I turned and started my usual checks, beginning with the batteries, continuing on into the disc space for our audio, then separating the mics.
I wasn't thrilled with our chances of getting great sound out here. No real breeze, which was something — wind could play hell on mics — but with all the crickets, frogs, cicadas and such, it was louder than a New York street out here.
That was a problem for later. If we needed to find a studio for a bunch of dub work, it would serve the network right.
As I was getting the sound equipment organized, I could hear footsteps crunching closer.
Weren't heavy enough to be Tangi, and no way Page was going to approach until Todd and I hashed things out.
Had to be Todd then.
I didn't look up. Just kept on with setup.
Todd cleared his throat.
I ignored him.
"Come on, Sel," Todd said, cajoling, like I was one of his conquests. "It wasn't you I was mad at."
Battery packs all looked good. Mics were fine. Mixer was handling power and phantom power just fine. Be better if I could handle the boom for this, but we'd have to work with a rig. Page already said she wanted me on white noise detail.
"Look at me, Sel," Todd said. "Please?"
That was a word worth turning around for.
Todd stood there, suffering more in his neat black silk suit, than I was in my cotton. That pleased me. His hundred-dollar haircut was already bent out of shape by the humidity.
I should have spoken next. After all, I'd accepted the Twinkie of Peace. But I was still on edge, and we both knew it.
"I'm sorry, Sel," Todd said, and I could see it even more in his blue eyes than I could hear in his voice. "It wasn't you. These damned dirt roads, maybe, but not you. You did the best you could, and I know it."
I was with him up until the "best you could" crack.
I could feel the frown take shape.
Todd's hands came up.
"Sorry!" he said again. "Really, Sel. I'm sorry. It's just…" He shook his head. "We shouldn't be here. We should be in a studio with Mr. Xerxes, either confirming his amazing claims or debunking him."
Mr. Xerxes. The source of the pissing contest. Guy was a psychic, claimed he could do remote viewing. Claimed he could read Zener cards right ninety-eight times out of a hundred, no matter who was looking at them. Even if they were in a sealed envelope until after he read them.
Didn't even have to be in the same building, from what he claimed.
Todd and Page had been all hot and bothered to get Mr. Xerxes into the studio. Went to the mat with the brass over it.
The brass said psychics were lousy television. Claimed our viewers wanted us out in the field. Bringing them Americana and hunting ghosts.
I thought the viewers just wanted to gawk at Todd and Page, but some of them probably wanted to see the sights and hear the histories.
But Todd was still talking.
"I'm sorry I took it out on you," Todd said. "You don't deserve that."
I nodded. "Thanks, Todd."
Todd flashed me the smile they put on half our posters.
"Now go get set up, I need to record some atmosphere before we get started."
I did, too, but mostly I wanted him out of my face. I'd forgive him, all right. I always did. But right then, I needed time to cool off.
And in this heat, that was no easy feat.
Maybe twenty minutes later, Tangi had the lights and cameras set up. I had the sound squared away, and we were ready to roll.
Anytime now, the ghost of some old blues musician was supposed to show up at this tiny little excuse for a crossroads, and play his guitar. Word we'd gotten was that he did this every night, waiting for the devil to come give him back his soul.
And if he showed up, we'd be here to record it.
That was Page's assessment of the situation, after about three hours of waiting.
It was just after midnight. Not much cooler yet, and still just as noisy with the wildlife.
No strains of blues guitar, though, and I'd checked all the mics and everything we'd picked up. Even the white noise mic. Did it every half-hour or so, just in case there was something we couldn't hear with the naked ear.
Nothing so far.
Tangi wasn't having any better with the cameras. Not even the ones Page had designed, based off the old Kirlian photography approach.
Another night when the ghosts were failing to show.
Frankly, they'd never shown up yet. Not in my opinion, anyway. Page and Todd, though, they interpreted some of our "findings" differently. Every week they found elements or moments to gush at our viewers over.
This week, I'd already been figuring they'd have to stretch pretty hard for anything they could call "evidence."
Still, I never expected Page to erupt like that.
Yeah, I know. It was only one word. But for Page, that was an explosion. Page swore the way most people paid taxes — infrequently, and only under duress.
That one word from Page had me wide awake and hustling to where she stood in the middle of the crossroads. Me and everybody else.
Todd had been wandering up and down the dirt roads a bit, hoping to find some sign on the ghost-seeker that Page designed. Looked kind of like a handheld oscilloscope, with waves in green, red and amber.
Something to do with reading tiny electromagnetic fluctuations.
He'd had no better results than the rest of us, or he'd've said something.
But the moment Page let fly a curse word, all three of the rest of us snapped to her.
"This is a snipe hunt," Page said, and she started pacing. "The brass probably made the whole thing up. Punishment for fighting them about Mr. Xerxes."
"We should give it more time," Todd said, voice careful. He knew he'd already pissed one of us off tonight. "It's only just midnight. If we—"
"No," Page said, and her tone brooked no debate. Page could get this determined look in her eye. Gave her a kind of laser focus that had nothing to do with look, and everything to do with…
Charisma. That was the only word I had for it. But when Page had that look in her eye, none of us wanted to go against her.
And I have to admit, we put that look on camera as often as we could. Especially for a commercial cut. No way anyone was turning away from the sight of a determined Page.
"What then?" Tangi said, his deep voice lacking anything like challenge. I never knew how he did that.
"I have a better solution." Page smiled.
"The brass said we had to come back from this with a show," Todd said, and he was trying to sound as neutral as Tangi, but he couldn't pull it off either.
"And we will," Page said.
She had all our attention. She knew it. She still made us wait a moment. Leaned in a little. Spoke softly, as though someone might overhear, even though I doubted there was another soul — living or dead — for miles.
"Remember when we were buying gas?"
"Sure," I said without thinking. "It was the only break I got from Todd's yelling."
That got a snicker out of Tangi, but it died under the intensity of Page's eyes.
Hadn't been much of a gas station. Single pump, with not much more than a shed to keep the rain off the attendant, and provide a theoretically lockable place for the snacks and drinks they sold.
"I spent some time talking to the cashier," she said.
Todd nodded. Standard procedure for us, whenever we were nearing a site. If the local was male, Page spoke to him. If female, Todd handled it.
Flirt a little, praise a little, listen a lot. People loved to talk about themselves, and show how much they knew about their local history. Especially when someone attractive asked the questions.
We must have filled at least a quarter of every episode with stories we picked up this way.
"What did he tell you about the ghostly bluesman?" I asked, using the term we'd been given with the directions.
"Never heard of it," she said, but dismissively. Like that wasn't the important part.
Then she continued, and we all saw why.
"He told me about a little cemetery out here." Page leaned forward a little more. "Said it has a vampire."
All three of us repeated that word.
Me, with surprise.
Tangi, with hopeful disbelief.
Todd, with scorn.
"Come on," Todd said a moment later. "The evidence of actual physical vampires is so scant—"
"Which do you want to come back with," Page said. "Clips of nothing and barely enough local lore to fill one segment, let alone a whole show?"
She smiled wider. The smile I thought we should have put on all our posters.
"Or a decrepit cemetery that's supposed to house a vampire?"
"Vampire," I said, not missing a beat.
"Vampire," Tangi agreed. "Make great television."
"I don't know," Todd said. "Think about our reputations."
"We're supposed to pursue all kinds of paranormal phenomena," Page said, "but we're just known for ghosts right now. Like a thousand other shows. But if we give the public one good show about a site that even might be a vampire?"
"She's right, Todd," I said.
Todd rubbed his chin. Worked his lips around.
"All right," he said, "but we do this by the book. Pure science. None of this superstitious mumbo jumbo."
"Please," Page said, sounding more offended than she looked. She had a getting-away-with-something glint in her eye. "It'll even give us an excuse to break out the vampire hunting equipment. And you know that'll get us viewers, plus draw attention to the science of what we're doing."
That put a smile on Todd's face.