Sean Patrick Hazlett has sold forty short stories and a collection to date, and is currently editing an anthology for Baen. He is a Writers of the Future winner.
Bartolo Bonetti arrived at Doctor Jakob Simchowitz’s Spanish style ranch house a day early to case the joint. Two miles from the outskirts of Barstow, the place made Bonetti as nervous as a nun in a strip club. A sense of isolation more oppressive than the desert’s stifling heat corrupted the arid air like chlorine gas on a World War I battlefield.
As he faced the house, Bonetti shrugged. He’d get over this area’s strange vibe. His work had taken him to rougher spots, and he sure as hell had been in plenty of tricky situations. He was a professional.
On a positive note, this was the first contract he’d ever taken that didn’t explicitly involve wetwork. It may have implied it, but until he finished the job, Bonetti couldn’t say one way or the other if he’d have to terminate his target. Only time would tell.
He couldn’t help but worry how exposed and alone he felt out here. This was a place where anything could happen, but no one would ever know.
He leaned the dolly next to the front door. He groaned. He’d had to lug that damn dolly miles across the desert for the job—but when it was done, he’d be swimming in dough. He unlocked the door and entered the dim residence. After placing his duffel bag containing his shotgun, flashlight, and other supplies on the floor, a strange stench overwhelmed him. It was as if someone had mixed the sweet smell of antifreeze with the nauseating odor of rotten eggs.
Covering his mouth with his forearm, Bonetti explored the space. It was empty—except for the one item he needed to satisfy the terms of the contract.
It was cheap. Of that, Bonetti had no doubt. He’d wager that prisoners from Victorville had probably slapped some pine boards together for pennies on the dollar.
He crouched down and opened it, finding nothing inside. He wasn’t surprised. It was supposed to be empty.
He stood back up and once again surveyed the room. No one had lived here for a while. In fact, Bonetti would’ve bet good money that no one had ever lived here.
Checking his watch, Bonetti sighed. His mark wouldn’t arrive for another twelve hours or so. To kill time, he checked and rechecked the rest of the house to make sure there weren’t any weapons his target might use against him.
Two hours later, Bonetti was as bored as a soldier peeling potatoes on kitchen patrol. He’d secured everything, even the matchsticks. By now, his head was aching. He’d drunk a ton of fluids on the way here and had expected to find water in the fridge. But Simchowitz’s house didn’t have one.
It was too late to get any drinks now. Bonetti had parked his Jeep outside the Wal-Mart Supercenter before making the rest of the trek on foot. There was no way Bonetti was leaving to get more supplies. Even if he was a day early, his quarry could arrive at any moment, and Bonetti wasn’t one to take chances.
He headed to the kitchen and turned on the faucet. Light brown water sputtered out. He waited for it to run clear, but it never did. He cupped his hands and took a sip anyway. He immediately spit it out, desperate to get the brackish taste out of his mouth.
Bonetti went outside to get some air. The far horizon was now like a rainbow-colored accordion. Layers of purple blended into red and then orange as dusk began its daily descent into darkness.
As he watched the sun disappear beneath the horizon, he spotted something else—a slight blue glow. Out in the desert, without the light pollution of civilization, the stars shined brighter. So too did this strange blue phenomenon. It also seemed to hum on the edge of Bonetti’s hearing. He’d catch nearly imperceptible snippets of a high-pitched drone that faded into the desert’s background noise before he’d have a chance to make any sense of it.
There was something else about that eerie light. Staring at it seemed to weaken him, to drain his energy. It also darkened his mood, cloaking him in shadow and dread. After he finally turned away from it, his headache had become more intense.
Propelled by exhaustion, Bonetti went back inside and lay on the floor. Outside, crickets whirred and chirped. From years of desert living, Bonetti had long since become familiar with their nocturnal chants. Yet something was off. As he listened more closely, he perceived a peculiar trilling and whistle hum. These unnatural melodies evoked feelings of longing and gloom.
As the night crept on, the familiar yips and yowls of coyotes briefly soothed him. But soon they too made unsettling sounds. He noticed a disquieting cadence of barks—as if the coyotes were calling out to each other in some long-lost canine tongue.
Bonetti was no stranger to fear—an emotion he’d thought he’d long since mastered. Not tonight. Tonight he was terrified.
As he drifted to sleep, the faces of his past victims haunted him: the cheating wife he’d mutilated on behalf of her husband; the child he’d strangled just because she’d witnessed a hit; and the old man he’d executed so a greedy son could inherit a fortune.
Their images swirled like demented clowns on an acid trip through a diabolic circus. A crowd of them emerged from the blue haze on the horizon. They converged on him. Drawing closer, they scowled and raved; shouted and screamed. Closer. They kept coming until they tore him apart.
Bonetti woke shivering in a cold sweat. As he lay in the darkness, a steady rapping attracted his attention. He slowed his breathing to isolate the source of the sound.
The thumping quickened. It came from the attic. He was sure of it. Steadily, it grew louder, crescendoing until it became so intense it shook the house.
He tried to convince himself it was a hallucination, but deep down, he knew it was real. Bonetti froze, paralyzed in fear, before succumbing to exhaustion and oblivion.
Bonetti woke flailing and gasping for air. A coarse rope tightened around his neck.
The primal need for survival sharpened Bonetti’s senses. He forced his fingers between his neck and the rope. Someone tugged from behind. Leveraging his considerable bulk, Bonetti spun to the right, yanking the rope with it. A rail-thin man stumbled over Bonetti. In an instant, Bonetti was on his feet and grabbed his assailant.
He had to admit: this guy had some balls. Not a pound more than a buck fifty, he was no match for Bonetti’s two hundred and fifty pounds of muscle.
Grappling the intruder by the throat, Bonetti slammed him against the wall. Glaring, Bonetti yelled, “Who the fuck are you?”
The tiny man’s legs dangled like a kid at the top of a Ferris wheel. He gurgled and sputtered, refusing to answer. But a response was no longer necessary. Bonetti recognized the man from Simchowitz’s photo: he was the target.
Bonetti choked the bastard until he passed out, then tied him in his own rope and tossed him in the casket. After slamming the lid shut, Bonetti closed the latches.
Now that things had settled down, Bonetti rubbed his neck. He could feel a ligature mark swelling on his skin. His throat was sore. He took a moment to thank God the man hadn’t murdered him in his sleep.
Faint rays of light slipped through the blinds like droplets of water on a dam about to burst.
The house was as still as a morgue—so quiet that Bonetti began to question his sanity. Had the house really shaken last night? Had he actually heard the coyotes talking to each other?
As Bonetti went further down the rabbit hole, he wondered if it was a coincidence that his mark had arrived early and attacked first. What if Simchowitz had also paid the other man to put Bonetti in the box, or even kill him?
These notions gnawed at him as he walked over to the ancient rotary phone hanging on the wall. He pulled out a slip of paper with Simchowitz’s number. Bonetti’s instructions had been to contact his client as soon as he’d secured his target in the casket.
He lifted the receiver and held it to his ear. Bonetti watched impatiently as the dial spun for each number while the phone made a steady, hypnotic whirr.
“Simchowitz here,” the doctor answered in a gravelly voice.
Bonetti said nothing. He waited patiently, hoping Simchowitz would slip and betray his treachery.
After a long pause, Simchowitz said, “Hello? Who is this?”
Bonetti put his hand over his mouth to muffle his voice, then said, “Who do you think it is?”
This time Simchowitz stayed silent.
After a long and uncomfortable lull, Bonetti finally said, “You hired both of us, didn’t you? Why?”
Simchowitz chuckled. “I have my reasons, but they’re none of your goddamn business. If you still want to earn the rest of your fee, listen up. In the kitchen pantry, you’ll find a map on the top shelf. Use it to locate the crater. Take the casket and dump it there, then return to the house. You’ll get your money tomorrow morning.”
“Why the hell do I gotta wait another night?”
“Because I’m traveling on business,” Simchowitz replied. “Look, do you want your money or not?”
Bonetti sighed. “Fine.”
Bonetti waited until after sundown before heading to the crater. He placed the casket on the dolly and pushed it out into the desert night.
As it grew darker, Bonetti observed a slight blue glow near the horizon. He stopped, pulled out his red-lens flashlight and checked his map.
His destination was fewer than two hundred yards ahead. He looked toward the eerie blue light. Whatever its source, he’d get there soon.
He switched off his flashlight, folded up the map, and shoved it in his pocket. He wheeled back the dolly and began pushing it forward.
As he trudged through the sand, he passed sleeping coyotes caked in phosphorescent blue goo. He stopped for a moment to watch them. They were larger than any coyotes he’d ever seen. Their raspy breathing had a strange metallic ring to it—which begged the question: if coyotes were nocturnal, why weren’t they awake?
Slowly, Bonetti stepped away from the slumbering animals, careful not to wake them. He continued on toward the shimmering pit.
Minutes later, Bonetti stood upon the ledge of a massive crater as wide as a football field and about half as deep. Blue ooze illuminated the roughhewn basin below like lava. Near the crater’s center, Bonetti spotted a wrecked tractor trailer.
He turned away from the pit. A glint of moonlight reflected off an object about twenty feet behind him. It was a torn and ragged shard of metal as big as a mailbox. Pulling out his flashlight, he shined it on the piece. A warning, stenciled on its warped and broken skin read: “Danger: Mutagenic Compounds.”
When the man inside the casket started kicking and screaming, Bonetti nearly leapt from his skin. His heartbeat quickened. A burst of adrenaline coursed through his veins.
“Shut the fuck up,” Bonetti said, giving the casket a swift kick.
“Please. Don’t do this,” the man pleaded. “I have a wife and kids.”
As a hitman, the “wife and kids” plea no longer troubled him; it just made him want to kill a man even more.
Bonetti kicked the casket again. “You were gonna do the same to me.” Then he heaved it into the crater. The man’s shriek faded as the casket tumbled and slowly sank into the luminescent blue sludge.
Disturbed, Bonetti turned and walked back to the house. Upon his arrival, he called Simchowitz.
“The deed is done,” Bonetti reported.
“Excellent,” replied Simchowitz. “Just make sure you’re still in the house tomorrow morning. Otherwise, I’m not paying you a dime.”
Now Bonetti was pissed. “You know what? Fuck you,” he said with venom. “I haven’t put the casket in the crater yet,” Bonetti lied, “because I have too many questions about what’s going on out there.”
The line went silent for so long that Bonetti almost hung up. Then Simchowitz said, “Fine. Ask me your damn questions.”
“What the hell is that blue shit? Where did it come from?”
“While working at a San Francisco biotech startup, I became concerned about a compound the company had been developing for a classified military project. After the company laid me off, I took matters into my own hands. A few days ago, I arranged for a hijacking of a semi bound for China Lake Naval Weapons Station.”
“Why?” said Bonetti.
“I suspected the military had weaponized the compound.”
Simchowitz laughed. “What do you think? My crew stole the semi. Inside it, they found a five-hundred-pound bomb. They stowed the truck behind a property I’d rented under an assumed name—the house you’re in now.”
A shiver rippled down Bonetti’s spine. “Jesus,” he said. “Why haven’t I heard about any of this on the news?”
“You think the Pentagon wants anyone to know it lost a bioweapon?”
“Is that the truck in the crater?” said Bonetti.
“What the hell happened to it?”
“The compound was unstable, Mr. Bonetti. There was an accident. It produced the crater where you were supposed to dump your target.”
“Or where my target was supposed to dump me,” Bonetti fumed.
Simchowitz hissed. “Do your job or I’ll hire someone else. Good day.” He hung up.
Knowing more about his current situation, as fucked up as it was, had a peculiar calming effect on Bonetti. All he needed was to stay one more night in this nuthouse, and he’d earn a cool million.
“We who flee the sun are now awake,” an androgynous voice whispered.
Groggy, Bonetti rubbed his eyes. When he opened them, he saw a hairy, blue camel spider, six-inches long, resting on his chest. Its beady eyes stared intently into his.
The scene was so surreal that it overwhelmed his instinct to bolt.
“We who flee the sun are now awake,” the voice echoed.
Bonetti lay paralyzed, uncertain what to do. Maybe he was hallucinating, he thought, in an attempt to calm himself. Yet he could clearly feel the camel spider’s weight on his chest.
“We who flee the sun are now awake,” the voice said. This time Bonetti was certain it was directly piped into his head.
This was definitely real.
He panicked and flung the camel spider across the room. A fraction of a second after he scrambled to his feet, the arachnid zipped back toward him. He stomped on it with his bare foot, leaving behind a gelatinous mush.
A low whistle hum reverberated from the ceiling. It rapidly crescendoed. The house quaked. Glowing blue cracks fissured in the ceiling.
Wiping the camel spider’s guts on the rug, Bonetti threw on his clothes. He grabbed his duffel bag and pulled out his shotgun. Then he rushed outside into the cold.
The stench of decay nearly overpowered him. Bonetti blundered in the darkness, blind fear dictating his direction. A hundred feet out, he stopped. A thin blue line of glowing coyotes blocked his path.
They stood there like statues, watching, waiting. Then, out of the darkness, the man Bonetti had discarded yesterday emerged from behind the silent sentinels. His skin shone like a blue beacon.
“You,” the man said without moving his lips. “You did this to me.”
Bonetti pumped his shotgun, aimed it, and fired, shattering the man’s skull in a riot of bone fragments, blood, and bits of brain. With half his head blown off, the man shuffled forward. While his voice had been silenced, a chorus of other harsher voices replaced it.
“You,” they said, laying bare Bonetti’s guilt but betraying nothing of their intent.
Bonetti dashed back inside the house. He fumbled with the deadbolt. The ceiling continued to tremble.
Bonetti peered through the blinds. His maimed victim continued to shamble forward. Something slithered from the man’s mutilated face.
Bonetti backed away from the window toward the opposite wall. He gripped his shotgun tightly and loaded another round. Pumping the weapon, he took a deep breath.
“You’ve been through tougher shit before,” he said aloud. “You’ll get through this.”
The knob rattled. Knocking and scratching followed.
Bonetti waited patiently, aiming his shotgun at the door.
It smashed open. The blue thing that entered looked like one man crawling out of another’s ruin.
Rattled, Bonetti fired his shotgun before aiming, spraying the ceiling with buckshot. Camel spiders fell from the holes, one after another, until hundreds were swarming across the floor.
In Bonetti’s mind, they shouted with one voice, “We who fear the sun fear not the two-legged giant. Join us. Join us. JOIN US.”
Doctor Jakob Simchowitz arrived at the house at noon, wearing a chemical suit replete with an oxygen tank and rebreather. He carried the M-4 his crew had snatched in the semi trailer raid, as well as a Glock 45—just to be sure.
The front door swayed slightly on its hinges. He raised his rifle and approached the house.
By now both men would’ve been exposed to the mutagen. If his previous experiments on the hijackers were any indication, he was confident neither man had survived the transformation.
He kicked open the door, then crept inside.
Simchowitz was surprised to find bits of ceiling mired in blue goo. He couldn’t possibly imagine what had happened here.
As he scanned the blue detritus, he nearly lost control of his bowels when he saw Bonetti sitting against the wall in the room’s far right corner, glaring.
Contrary to all Simchowitz’s expectations, the light-blue skinned Bonetti was still very much alive.
“You know,” Bonetti said without uttering a sound, “one million dollars ain’t gonna be enough. Not for this shit. I’m gonna need a hell of a lot more.”
“How…how much?” Simchowitz found himself saying as he cowered in fear. He’d never expected he’d have to pay anybody anything.
Bonetti stood up. It was only then that Simchowitz realized what a brute the man was. At least six-four, Bonetti rippled with corded muscle. “I’m gonna need more than money, doc.”
Simchowitz pointed his rifle at Bonetti’s chest. “Don’t move one inch farther or…”
“Or what? You gonna shoot me?”
Bonetti advanced on the doctor. In seconds, he’d be able to reach out and crush Simchowitz’s throat.
“Not one more inch!” Simchowitz warned.
Still Bonetti drew closer. Simchowitz panicked and fired. The force of the bullets flung Bonetti into the wall. Simchowitz stepped forward and unloaded an entire magazine into the brute, who now lay slumped against the wall. Then, as a precaution, Simchowitz emptied his Glock into Bonetti’s skull.
Simchowitz was hyperventilating. He’d never been so close to death. The adrenaline surging through his veins felt both terrifying and invigorating.
After catching his breath, he turned toward the door, only to come face to face with two more blue men identical to Bonetti. Behind the Bonettis, stood three others—perfect blue copies of Ivan Gordunov, the other man Simchowitz had hired.
One of the Bonettis placed his warm hand on Simchowitz’s shoulder and smiled. “What’s up, doc?”
He grabbed Simchowitz and tore off the doctor’s mask. Simchowitz shrieked. One of the Gordunovs stepped forward, dangling a blue camel spider from its abdomen.
“Bon appétit,” the wounded Bonetti by the wall said, projecting his thoughts into Simchowitz’s mind.
“No. Noooooo!” Simchowitz screamed, half a second before the camel spider crawled down his throat.
Copyright © 2019 by Sean Patrick Hazlett