“Agent One to Agent Five… Agent One to Agent Five… Come in, Five…!”
Wyoming blizzard winds drowned my voice, practically ripping the words away from my mouth before they could reach the walkie-talkie. Icy snowflakes whipped through the broken cabin window, stabbing my chapped face like tiny daggers. I had no idea if Agent Five, Nelson “Deadeye” Corrigan, could hear me, but I had to keep trying. He was our only hope.
“Ray, put that thing down and grab your gun!” Tanya Ruhoff’s alto voice rose above the howling snowstorm. “Here comes another wave!”
Normally, I don’t take orders from Russian spies, but this was a matter of survival. “Corrigan, home in on this signal. We’re in an old ranger cabin, west of Windy Point. Get here fast as you can—or we’re dead.” I thumbed on the walkie’s location control and dropped the unit onto the snowy floor. I barely brought up my shotgun in time.
Our shots took out the two giant shrews leading the pack, but that didn’t slow the three behind them. God only knew how many mangy, rat-like mutations remained hidden in the blowing snow.
Our next volley dispatched two more, but the third slammed up against the cabin’s flimsy door, which broke its hinges and crashed to the dilapidated shelter’s floor. The door took Tanya, who had been sheltering behind it, down as well.
She screamed as the four-inch fangs of a rodent the size of a coonhound bit into the forearm of her heavy parka. “Ray!”
I pulled my Colt and put a bullet through the thing’s blazing red eye. The steaming, foul-smelling corpse slumped to the floor. Tanya and I scrambled to wedge the door crossways in the open portal. It wouldn’t protect us from the storm, but at least it gave us cover to shoot from.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yeah. Thanks.” She examined her torn jacket sleeve. “It didn’t get through the padding.”
She nodded. “I’d feel a lot luckier if we had more ammo.”
My shotgun shells were already gone. “Well, if you hadn’t—”
“Time for recriminations later. Here they come again! Keep shooting!”
I’d been about to point out that we wouldn’t be in this fix if the pretty Soviet agent hadn’t dashed into the wilderness to escape arrest. Of course, when she did that, scant hours ago, neither of us could have imagined being caught in a blizzard, fighting for our lives against ravenous killer rodents…
“I don’t like the look of this.” Agent Five eyed the late November skies warily. “Smells like snow.”
I chuckled. “You can smell snow?”
He gave me one of his patented sneers. “Snipers gotta pay attention to the weather.”
“Well, if the weather gets bad, we’ll hightail it back to Jackson. Until then, we better try to pick up some tracks from whatever’s been killing the local wildlife.”
I unpacked my gear from the back of our rented jeep and Deadeye did the same; his gear included a sniper rifle. We’d parked near a trailhead about thirteen miles north of Jackson, Wyoming, close to a spot ominously dubbed Death Canyon.
The US Science Bureau had sent us because local big game hunters had found mutilated carcasses of deer, moose, and even large bears.
“Takes a lot to kill a grizzly,” Deadeye had noted when we spoke to a local ranger about the problem.
That was why I’d brought a double-barreled shotgun to the trail and Deadeye toted his sniper gear as well as our usual Colt 1911 pistols.
Five checked his sights. “At least this time of the year, it’s not likely to be ants.”
“Not unless they’ve mutated to withstand the ice and cold,” I replied. The thought made me wish we’d brought some M3 “greasers” along, though the submachine guns hadn’t seemed practical in this snow-covered environment.
“Ice ants? Not damn likely.” Five chuckled, then paused. “Ray… Didn’t that ranger say we were the only people supposed to be out in this God-forsaken wilderness.”
He pointed and then trained his scope on a figure slogging through the packed snow near the treeline.
I fished out my binoculars and took a look.
Then I swore. “That looks like Tanya Ruhoff!”
“That’s what I thought, too. What do you suppose that Ruskie’s up to out here?”
“No, good, I’m sure. C’mon. Maybe we can catch her before she spots us.”
Deadeye zeroed in with his sniper rifle. “I could take her down from here.”
“We don’t want her killed, just captured.”
A smile traced my partner’s thin lips. “Don’t you trust me, Ray?”
I put my gloved hand on the gun’s barrel and eased it toward the ground. “Let’s try it my way, first.”
We trudged quickly and stealthily toward Tanya, as the fresh snow Deadeye had predicted started falling hard and fast. But when we got within seventy-five yards of our quarry, she spotted us and bolted into the pine forest.
Deadeye growled. “She’s fast. You shoulda let me shoot her, Ray.”
“Too late, now. Got your walkie?”
He patted the two-way radio at his hip.
“Get back to town. Grab a snow-cat or something that’ll get through this blizzard. I’ll catch her and radio you my position.”
Five gave me a skeptical nod. “You’re the boss.”
He headed for the jeep while I lit out after the woman who’d been playing us—the USSB and me particularly—for fools since the summer.
The spruces and firs crowding the slopes of the Grand Tetons filled the snowy air with the redolent scent of pine as I sprinted across the forested hillside.
The Russian was quick as a whitetail deer, but the crunching snowpack slowed her down, and no way was I gonna let her slip away from me again.
As she reached a decaying old ranger cabin, she slowed and drew a pistol.
I ducked behind a tall fir. “Tanya, don’t make me hurt you!” I called.
A shot rang out.
To my surprise, it wasn’t aimed at me.
Instead, a high-pitched squeal echoed through the snowflake-filled air, and the corpse of a strange shaggy creature tumbled across the icy ground. The thing looked like a long-snouted rat made out of mange and bones, but it was as large as a wolf and had a mouthful of fangs the size of my fingers.
“What in hell?”
Tanya beckoned to me, holding open the door to the ancient cabin. “Ray! C’mon! There are more of them!”
I didn’t entirely trust that she wouldn’t shoot me, but I also didn’t want to stay in the open with more rat-creatures prowling around. Quick as I could, I joined her. “What are those things?”
“Giant shrews,” Tanya replied. “Judging from the tracks.”
“More of your Russian handiwork, I suppose.”
“Ray, I know what you think—but you’re wrong. My people aren’t responsible for any of this. We’re having the same kind of troubles you are… the giant bugs and other monsters. That’s why the Kremlin sent me here: to find out if you Americans are behind it.”
“Which is exactly what you’d say if your bosses in Moscow were behind the whole shebang.”
She rolled her big brown eyes in frustration. “What do I have to do to convince you that we’re on the same side here?”
A strange whistling, squeaking sound wailed outside the cabin now, audible even over the howl of the wind. A shiver ran down my side as another giant shrew emerged from the storm.
Our pistols barked, and the monster fell dead in the snow.
I looked at Tanya, wondering if I could trust her. She leaned in and kissed me.
I pulled back, startled. “What was that for?”
She grinned. “For luck. There’s a lot more of them than us, I’m afraid.”
She was right, because even before the sweet taste of her lips faded, a half dozen more of the ravening, chittering mutants emerged from the storm and charged the cabin.
The report of my Colt nearly shattered my eardrums as the giant shrew bore me to the ground. But my shot blew its brains out, and I rolled out from under the twitching, putrid corpse just in time to see Tanya shove the barrel of her Makarov pistol into the mouth of a shrew trying to bite her face off.
That rodent didn’t live long, but another came at us almost before we could get our door barricade back in place.
“How much ammo do you have, Ray?” She looked worried, as she pumped a shot into the closest mutation.
“Not enough,” I replied, blasting another one. “Two more, I think.”
We looked at each other grimly as the remainder of the pack, at least six, paused uphill to gnaw at the steaming corpses of their felled comrades.
Tanya’s mouth drew into a thin line. “Cannibalism won’t occupy them long.”
“We’ll take ’em hand-to-hand, if we have to.” Judging from how torn up our parkas had become from the fighting so far, I didn’t much like the thought of that. Then…
Two giant rodents fell dead, their heads exploded.
The others looked around, confused, as my walkie-talkie crackled to life.
“Hang on in there,” Five’s voice announced. “I’ll just be another minute.”
Two more shrews went to monster heaven.
Something exploded behind my eyes, and the world spun.
As everything went black, I realized that Tanya had killed me.
“Wake up, Ray… You’re not dead.” Five’s gruff voice brought me back from the abyss.
I sat up quickly and immediately regretted it. I still lay in the snowy cabin, freezing my butt off. A lump the size of a half dollar on the back of my head throbbed. Outside, Deadeye’s commandeered snowcat idled noisily.
“Is she…?” I began.
Deadeye shook his head. “Escaped out the back while I was cleaning up your playmates.”
“She’s tricky, that one.”
I rubbed my aching skull. “You can say that again, but we’ll catch her one day.”
Five’s green eyes twinkled. “You sure about that, Ray?”
“Nope. But at least we got some more monster samples for the Teragons.”
About “Deadly Shrews”
I’ve been a fan of The Killer Shrews since it first had me hiding behind the couch as a child while the giant shrews (dressed up dogs) tried to chew their way through the heroes’ defenses on the isolated island where the mutant rodents were running amok.
Some people say the film is “so bad it’s good,” but they’re wrong; it’s a low-budget SF/horror classic. And the coonhounds in their shaggy, long-tailed costumes, with fanged puppet faces for the close-ups, still give me shivers. They’re fast, they’re deadly, and there’s something about the way they move that’s super creepy. Not to mention their eerie, chirping shrieks.
If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you check it out. Just remember it’s a super-low budget movie from 1959. (It stars James Best, for you Dukes of Hazard fans.) When I was doing novelizations of public domain movies, The Killer Shrews was near the top of my list of films to do next. So, if you weren’t convinced by everything I wrote before, that last sentence should tell you how much I love this flick.
Given all that, it was probably inevitable that I would write an Atomic Tales story about giant shrews.
Like many of my stories, this one started with an image in my head: Agent One holed up in an old mountain cabin, in a blizzard, battling it out with the titular monsters. In my imagination, he had someone else battling alongside him, and it quickly became apparent that person should be his flirty nemesis, Tammy Rubens, a.k.a. Soviet Spy Tanya Ruhoff. Writing the two of them together is always a blast.
And who doesn’t like a monster fight in a snowstorm? We haven’t had one since the yeti battle, way back in episode 5, “Snow Monster.”
Something else that happens in a lot of my AT stories is that the final version often ends up simplified from what I’d originally planned. Hopefully, the tales never feel rushed and none of you ever notice the word count restrictions I’m working under.
I always intended to keep my Atomic Tales short; the original story is Flash Fiction, around 1000 words long. But once my buddy Christopher Mihm agreed to start producing the series in full-cast audio, I put a “hard limit” on my writing of 1500-1700 words per story. Sure, I could write longer episodes, but nobody’s getting paid for this, so there’s only so much I can expect my friends (or Chris) to do in any given month. (Because, though we slip now and again, we’re still trying to put out a new Atomic Tales every month.)
Anyway, in this case what got “compressed out” was more fighting and a longer “the cavalry arrives” scene for Deadeye—who nevertheless gets to show off his marksman skills. Agent Five’s reappearance also means I get to practice my gritty “Man with No Name” voice for when the production goes to audio, and that’s always a treat.