Cass Mallory and Lauren Brennan are on Cassie's Harley, patrolling the town, when a call comes in:
“Jesus,” Cassie grumbled. “You’re as bad as Ross.”
And then her cell phone went off in her pocket.
When she answered it, there was an incoherent shrieking from the other end. She couldn’t tell whose voice it was, at first.
“Slow down! I can’t hear what you’re saying!”
It turned out to be her half sister, Pam, eight years older than her and living with a husband and four kids over in Vernon Valley.
“Cass, you’ve got to help us! There are things appearing on my street!”
Which didn’t narrow the specifics down a great deal, not in a community like this.
“What kind of things?”
“I don’t know! But they’re huge, and floating in the air! And eating people!”
The kind of things that she liked blowing into tiny little bits, in other words. Cassie felt her shoulders rising.
“You at home?”
“Then stay inside. I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.”
It was perfectly apparent what had happened, when they got to the location. Another purple hole had opened at the top of Fryar Street. And some two dozen drifting creatures with enormous heads had come on through.
Cass stared at the whirling rings of teeth, the multiple stinging tails. And figured out these had to be the same kinds of monsters that had gone after Ross yesterday, in 51 Bethany’s backyard. He’d described them to her in close detail, fearing they’d be back.
They looked like they were glowing in the pre-dawn blackness. Not brilliantly, but like night-lights, which made their appearance pretty eerie. And they weren’t charging about, just ambling through the air with no seeming intention.
But then a man stumbled -- half-asleep -- out of his front door about a hundred yards away, wondering what the commotion was. He almost walked into the bulky flank of one of the creatures.
Which noticed him. Turned idly around.
And devoured him.
It was pretty much like watching someone step into the path of an airplane propeller. But with far less splatter, since the guy’s blood was devoured too. The rotating circles of teeth scraped against each other, their pitch getting higher as they consumed the man’s bones.
‘Grinders,’ Cassie thought. And it stuck. She had deliberately parked a distance from them, with the intent of figuring them out before she started acting.
Two patrol cars showed up, their sirens wailing. They both skidded to a halt, taking their sweet time to slow down on the ice. And then the cops came jumping out and starting shooting with their side arms.
Which turned out to have absolutely no effect, the same way that Ross had already told her.
Going to need more than those peashooters, Cassie thought. She yanked the Mossberg from one side of her bike. Then she saw that Lauren had drawn her Walther, which was going to be pretty useless too. So she unclipped the second heavy weapon that she carried around with her -- a Heckler & Koch assault carbine -- and held it up.
“Know how to handle one of these?”
Lauren nodded. “Sure.”
So Cass tossed it across. Lauren caught the weapon, checked it over quickly, and then set it to fire triple-bursts.
Cass snatched a bag of ammunition from the Harley’s pillion box.
They jogged in quickly, side by side.
“We’re going to have to get in close.”
“How do you know that?” Lauren asked her.
“Educated guess.” She’d dealt with stuff like this a lot of times before. Cassie’s jaw was thrust out and her eyes were burning brightly. “Stick with me and do what I do, okay?”
Which was mostly a matter of playing things by ear, and figuring precisely what was what.
The first thing that she did was fire an exploratory shot at an approaching grinder. The saboted slug hit the rings of teeth. And did them no slightest harm. It was simply chewed up, like everything else.
A shock ran through Cass, but she recovered rapidly.
“The front of the head’s no good. We’re gonna have to come in on the sides of these things.”
Cassie darted around, Lauren following. She got within twelve feet of a grinder that was heading westward, and pumped another round into its side.
And at first, she thought that had achieved nothing either. But then the whole purple body shuddered and began to tremble. Cass squinted and fired again, making it her business to hit the same spot. The huge shape exploded, spraying mauve gelatinous goo every which place.
So Lauren did likewise, picking a target and then firing two triple-bursts into its flank. And with the same result.
The rest of the grinders stopped moving for a breathless instant, then began heading in their direction, rather faster than before.
“Well,” Lauren managed to get out, “at least they’ve stopped attacking the civilians.”
Cass was never fond of backing off, but now was the right time. She whirled around, grabbing Lauren’s arm as she did so.
“Where are we going?”
“Somewhere more defensible!”
The grinders were closing the distance easily, massing together as they came. The women went along a side street, looking desperately for a place to make a stand. And found it when they reached a house with a massive pair of aged conifers out front, their branches interlacing. The trunks were no more than ten feet apart. So Cass and Lauren got between them.
“What if they chew through the wood?” Lauren pointed out.
She was shaking and her voice was quavering slightly.
“They don’t look particularly smart to me. My guess is, they’re only interested in us.”
The grinders had already caught them up and -- proving Cassie’s point -- began to circle. Which gave both women plenty more exposed flanks to take aim at. Each of them had taken down four more of the creatures in another minute. Lauren couldn’t help but wonder if it was going to be quite this easy.
She took a clip that Cassie handed her, reloaded.
One of the beasts abruptly changed direction, coming straight at her. Lauren emptied half her ammo at its face, with no obvious effect. So she yelled out.
Cassie -- who’d been firing the other way -- took in what was going down. She cursed, then threw herself across, rolling several times till she was underneath the massive purple shape.
A tail came lashing down at her, but missed. Lying on her back, she pounded several rounds up. The grinder exploded, showering her with purple mucus.
When it went across her eyes, it stung. And she writhed around, temporarily blinded. The next thing she felt was Lauren grabbing hold of her by the collar and hauling her back to relative safety.
Cass managed to get her eyelids open again. She could make out more of the creatures coming at them. All of them head first. They appeared to be learning -- slowly -- which might be the safer course of action.
There were a couple of grenades inside the bag she’d brought. But this was too close range. And when she glanced over her shoulder, she could see that some of the grinders behind them were copying the ones out front.
Firing at their mouths was not an option. And how many times could she roll under them before one caught her out?
So maybe do the opposite?
“Stand up straight!” she shouted.
“Stand up straight and very still. And get ready to drop.”
They did that, side-by-side again, their shoulders pressed together. Cass could feel how badly the homicide cop was trembling. But, to give her credit, Lauren refused to panic and was staying put.
The leading grinder was practically on them. Six feet away from their faces. Then four feet. Then three.
Directly behind her, Cass could hear another closing in.
Two feet. The sound of their whirring teeth was blasting through her skull, making the bones there jangle.
The distance halved again. And it was time.
“Drop!” she bellowed.
She and Lauren let their knees buckle and hit the snow.
There was an awful crashing noise above them as the teeth of the grinder out front and the one behind went slamming into each other, unable to stop.
That was followed by an awful, writhing interval during which both of the mouths struggled to consume each other. Then the creatures burst apart, and more thick goo came slopping down. Cass covered her face this time, and so did Lauren.
And then Cass was scrabbling ahead, keeping flat, with Lauren right beside her. They rolled onto their backs again, to see that the grinders were in disarray.
Several more had collided with each other, and not all of them head first. Big, ragged chunks had been bitten out of some of their sides, and those creatures throbbed and spurted for a short while before breaking up.
She and Lauren fired continuously after that, selecting the closest targets, and then getting to their knees and picking on those further out.
And in another two minutes, you couldn’t see the snow around them any longer. The entire surrounding area was a mess of viscid purple.
The street had fallen silent. Cassie wiped enough glop off her chin to manage a weak smile.
“Is that it?” Lauren asked her wearily.
“I think we got all of them,” Cass confirmed.
When the homicide cop nodded back, it was more of a reflex action than a conscious one. The woman’s eyes were wide and sparkling, adrenalin still coursing through her.
Cassie eased herself up to her feet and strolled back to the tree trunks, her sharp gaze still going round.
“Yep,” she remarked. “A job well done.”
Then she heard a crackling above her, followed by a churning noise. It took her startled mind a split instant to work out what was happening.
A final grinder had either retreated, or had simply wandered higher up. And was now on its way down through the branches at her.
By the time she looked up, it was directly above her. She went to lift her shotgun, but there wasn’t time.
A long burst of carbine fire rang out. The grinder jerked and trembled and then flew apart, another solid mass of goop descending on her.
And she would have thanked Lauren again pretty much immediately. The lieutenant had saved her skin -- of that, there was little doubt.
But, Christ almighty, this stuff reeked!Cass went to wipe her face again, then grimaced and gave up.
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Copyright (c) Tony Richards 2012. Cover art copyright (c) Steve Upham 2012.