“Agent Raymond, what are you doing here?” Tammy Rubens asked. “Who’s this with you?”
I’d never expected to meet this reporter again, and certainly not on the aspen-covered shores of a placid lake in southwest Utah. She was dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, and had her auburn hair tucked up under a Saint Louis Cardinals ballcap.
“I might ask you the same, Miss Rubens,” I replied. “Devil’s Foot, Utah, is a long way from your newspaper in Denver.”
“I’m on my way back from a short vacation in Las Vegas,” she replied.
“That’s a long drive,” Agent Six noted, extending his hand. “I’m Agent Richard, by the way. Call me ‘Rick.’ You’ll have to excuse my buddy, Ray. He’s not big on social niceties.”
“Ray, eh…?” The reporter jotted something in her notebook. “Pleased to meet you, Rick. You can call me ‘Tammy’—and so can your ‘all business’ friend.”
I fought down a blush. “Roughhouse” Rick Donlevy sure could turn on the charm when he wanted to—especially if it meant needling a fellow U.S. Science Bureau agent.
“I’m surprised you didn’t fly home from Vegas, Tammy,” I said, suspicious.
“I cut my vacation short due to budget,” she replied. “Vegas…! I’m lucky I didn’t lose my car! So, I’m digging up stories on my way home to put the drive back on my expense account. As you two here because of that flying saucer?”
Agent Six and I exchanged a poker-faced glance. “Nope,” I replied.
“We’re looking into local livestock problems,” Six added.
Like whether some dead cattle were related to UFOs or any of the other strange issues the bureau’d been tackling in the Western U.S.
“We’ll be taking water tests, taking to ranchers, the usual,” I elaborated.
Tammy rolled her brown eyes. “My scoop sounds much more exciting. Locals say a flying saucer dived into the lake late Sunday night.”
“Full moon and locals drinking?” Rick suggested.
She shrugged. “Maybe. But did you know this place is called ‘Devil’s Foot Lake’ because it resembles a huge cloven hoofprint?”
“I did not,” I admitted. The hilly shoreline did approximate a horseshoe-like shape.
“And…” the reporter continued, “the original natives thought a sea serpent lived in the lake. They wouldn’t swim there. Monsters… Saucers… Great story, eh?”
“Did you see any flying saucers?” Six asked.
She frowned. “Nope. Camped out last night, but… Just a sky full of stars.” She handed us each a business card. “Well, boys, call me if you find any monsters.”
“Bye,” Six said as Tammy strolled toward her blue Chevy in the unpaved lakeside parking lot nearby. As she got out of earshot, Rick added, “Some view.”
“We’re here looking for what killed three cattle since Sunday,” I reminded him. “Not to ogle pretty girls.”
“Unless they’re Queen Bees,” he joked.
“With that ape thing Agent Four and I encountered, and the giant snake that just put Eight on the injured list—plus the Mansect—the Teragons think we’ve got more to worry about than just giant bugs,” I noted. “C’mon, Rick… The cattle were found near the southwest spur of the lake.”
“Good thing we brought our hiking boots.”
Six and I tromped west through the weeds and bracken along the shore of Devil’s Foot Lake, looking for anything unusual. I grabbed a few samples of lake water for the Teragons as we went.
We spotted a handful of cattle grazing along the way. If not for three steers sucked dry, Devil’s Foot Lake would have been an idyllic place—maybe even a vacation spot if the new interstate highways ever get this far.
Aside from the little town on the eastern “heel” of the lake and a few nearby ranches, civilization had made few inroads here. As we walked, Six and I passed the ruins of several old barns—homestead farming that just didn’t work out. The air smelled of aspens and wild grassland.
“A man could grow to like this place,” Agent Six observed, taking a deep breath as we paused beside the tumble-down remains of an abandoned cabin. The ruins were little more than a picturesque jumble of weathered timbers filling a pit that had once been the home’s basement.
“What do you think trampled this down, Roughhouse?” I asked, indicating nearby spots where the ubiquitous tall grass lay flat. Several of these tracks crossed each other before stretching into the distance, like three-yard-wide game trails.
“Grazing cattle?” he suggested.
“Maybe,” I agreed. Then I paused. “Wait… Listen…”
We stood silent, tense.
“What the hell is that?” Six muttered.
I shook my head. It sounded like something lapping at a puddle of water combined with a low groaning sound.
“Cow…?” Six suggested.
“In distress,” I said. “C’mon!”
We drew our automatics and dashed in the direction of the noise, hurrying through the scattered trees as the tall grass whipped at our waists.
We broke through the brush near the lakeshore and splashed to a stop.
On the swampy ground before us, right at the edge of the lake, lay a full-grown steer flopping like a fish out of water.
“What in…?” Six began.
“Should we try to help it up?” I suggested.
“Ever done that before, Ray?”
“First time for everything,” I said stepping toward the distressed animal. “Just stay away from its horns.”
Six sighed. “You’re the boss.”
As we approached, the steer lurched toward us. We hopped back, instinctively.
“Something’s very wrong here, Ray,” Six muttered, training his gun on the animal. The grass around it had been smashed flat, like the odd trails we’d noticed earlier.
Just then, the steer’s mouth popped open, and a questing black tongue thrust out.
“Get back!” I shouted.
As I spoke, the animal burst open, like a ragdoll coming apart at the seams. Cowhide and rotten-smelling guts flew everywhere, revealing a hideous, black writhing… thing.
“Mother of Mercy…!” Six blurted. “It’s the size of a school bus!”
I fired a couple of shots into the huge, sluglike body and Six did the same, but our bullets had little effect, like sticking toothpicks into Jell-O.
We backed away as the monster surged from the shoreline, but Six tripped and landed on his backside.
“Aaah!” he screamed as the thing’s blunt front end sliced through his shirt, almost latching onto his side. “Sucker’s got teeth!”
“It’s a leech, I think,” I said as the rest of the abomination lumbered out of the brackish water that had concealed its bulk. “Run!”
We ran, and the leech slunk after us, twenty yards of glistening black death. The creature couldn’t undulate as fast as we could run—not in a sprint, anyway—but it seemed to have no intention of giving up the hunt.
“You okay?” I asked as we fled.
He checked his side, and his hand came away red with blood. “Not really.”
“Just don’t pass out, okay?”
“I’ll try not to,” he replied, glancing at our slug-like pursuer. Clearly, leaving the waterside didn’t concern it. “Is that what got those cattle?”
“It better be, or we’re in even bigger trouble than I think!” The significance of the strange trails became clear now: the leech flattened them while foraging inland.
“What now?” Six asked, looking pale and desperate.
“Head for that last ruined cabin,” I called. “I have a plan.”
“It better be good!”
Fortunately, the wreckage wasn’t far.
When we got there, Six was panting and clutching his side. The monster continued to follow, relentlessly trampling the dry grass as it came. We didn’t have much time.
“Give me your shirt,” I commanded. “Then get to the other side of the ruins and find the longest, pointiest timbers you can.”
Six quickly stripped off his bloody shirt and retreated as ordered.
The cabin had collapsed in the middle, making it look like a pile of enormous pick-up-sticks, about ten yards across. I tottered my way through the wreck, trying not to fall in, smearing gore from Rick’s shirt to mark my path as I went.
I dropped the blood-stained garment in the middle of the heap, and—after a few precarious missteps—I reached the far side, just as the leech followed the bloody trail to the ruins.
When I rejoined Six, he handed me a weathered fence rail as thick as my arm, keeping a similar piece of lumber for himself.
“What now?” he asked as the monster lumbered into the pile of jagged, broken timbers. A smarter creature never would have gone in, but its bloodlust drove the leech forward.
“Now we stab the devil out of it, pin it in the ruins, and then set the sucker afire. We’ll hit it from both sides.”
“And don’t let it get you!”
“That last is my first priority,” Six said grimly. “Let’s do this!”
With ear-splitting savage yells, we charged.
The nearly mindless creature had stopped in the center of the ruins, trying to consume Rick’s blood-stained shirt.
Six stabbed the leech just behind what passed for its head, pinning that end amid the wreckage. I did the same with its rear.
The worm-like monster wailed a terrible whistling, hissing sound and thrashed violently as we fetched more pointed timbers and kept stabbing.
Soon, we had its entire length pinned out like a dissection specimen. Writhe as it might, the leech couldn’t get away.
We piled dry grass for tinder around the desiccated wooden heap and set the whole damn thing ablaze.
The leech smelled like burning liver—hold the onions.
“Best damn bonfire I ever built,” Six remarked, still looking pale and sweaty.
I nodded, out of breath from our efforts. “You earned your nickname today, Roughhouse.”
“But, Ray…” he mused, worried, “…What if there are more of those things?”
“Well, in that case, old chum, I think it’s time to call in the marines.”
About “Devil in the Lake”
I’ve always loved giant leeches. Who doesn’t? Well, at least in film, if not in reality. In real life, leeches are strange slimy creatures that look like cut-up pieces of liver but can suck blood from you. Having dealt with a few of them, I can definitively say: “Ewwww!”
But on film, I love ’em! I’ve got a Blu-ray of Attack of the Giant Leeches, and I think it deserves a full-blown restoration. Don’t you?
Okay, maybe you don’t, but I hope you’ve enjoyed this shudder-filled tale of a giant leech terrorizing the countryside and, more importantly, our agents.
I’ve talked a bit about “in-between” stories in this series recently, and I hope it’s clear that I’m not talking about “fill-ins” or “padding” or anything like that. When I say “in-between” what I’m talking about is the stories that help me get from one landmark in my head to another in the series as a whole.
Sometimes those landmarks have been clear in my imagination since right after the first tale. (The next story in the series is one of those.) Other times, I develop those vital milestones as I work on the rest of the series. They’re tales that contain key story points that I need in order to make some future story, or the end of the entire collected book, work.
In a normal novel, I’d plot all those benchmarks out in advance. But part of the thrill (and danger) of writing a serialized story like this is filling in the pieces as I go. It’s not “excavating” a story as Stephen King talks about: just digging in and revealing new pieces until you find the story and the ending. It’s more of a cross between doing that and my usual tightly outlined plot.
Hopefully, in the end, when you read all of Atomic Tales: Strange Invaders as one long book, you really won’t notice any difference.
Anyway, for this in-between tale I wanted to do a lake monster—because I love lake monsters—and I also wanted to keep enough of our bureau members in play that readers don’t say “Who’s that?!” when one of the agents pops up again later. A return of our reporter character also seemed in order, because what fun is it to run a clandestine government anti-monster program if there’s no peril of your secrets being uncovered?
(I’m sure my agents would say that it would be much easier if they didn’t have to worry about the public discovering the bugs and spurring a nationwide panic.)
This story changed quite a bit from the first draft, mostly condensing things to make it all move faster. Since my friend Christopher R. Mihm is doing audio readings of the series, I don’t want to overburden him and his crew by making any stories too long. Hopefully, for you, the readers (and listeners), they all seem “just right.”
Now that we’ve seen various kinds of strange, enormous creatures and odd mutants in addition to a plethora of giant insects, you may be wondering: “What next?”
Next is a tale I’ve wanted to write since the idea of turning “A Sci-Ant-ific Problem” into a series of stories first hatched…
“Attack of the 50-Foot Femme Fatale!”