I didn't scream as the moving nest of burning snakes reached out toward me. I just kept firing, trying to find its heart or brain, or something. I kept firing as it blotted out the sunlight, and I thought, I wonder if I'll die from venom, fire, or just be crushed. I was weirdly calm as a hand yanked me to my feet and Bernardo was rushing us both backward out of reach of the snapping snake mouths. We got the big tree that the limb had fallen from between us and the beast, and then we put our shoulders together, snugged our AR-15s against our shoulders, and started shooting the burning beast.
Edward and Olaf joined us. Olaf put his shoulder beside mine and he joined Bernardo and me shooting into the creature. Edward stayed on the outside and used the flamethrower again. I felt the backwash of heat from it, and the next thing we knew, the big tree that had slowed it down and helped give Bernardo time to find a safe shooting distance started to burn. I had to step wide to Edward's right to make sure that my bullets weren't in danger of hitting him. Bernardo was safe on his side. The three of us kept shooting into the center mass of it, as Edward sent another sheet of flame whooshing toward it. We had to back up from the tree as it started raining burning debris down on us like the house had. Fuck flamethrowers.
The creature turned away from us and started trying to move past Bernardo, since he was on the end of our defense and farthest away from the flamethrower. Behind me were trees and plants that would burn if it made the tree line, but beyond that was the Gulf of Mexico, and I remembered what Rankin had said, that it could swim away and heal.
I aimed at one of the heads nestled tight to the center of the body and pulled the trigger. The flames hid most of the damage from me, but the beast staggered. Something about the heads clustered in the middle hurt it more. I yelled, "Shoot the heads in the center!" I wasn't sure Olaf or Bernardo would hear me over the whooshing of flames, gunfire, and the beast's screams, but then one of the heads seemed to partially explode. Bernardo had heard me. I emptied my AR into the creature and yelled, "Reloading!"
Olaf and Bernardo took a step forward and fired faster into the creature, while I popped out the empty magazine, got one of the extras to slip in place, and did one last hit to make sure it seated right. And then I moved back up with them and we fired shoulder to shoulder again, or as close as we could get with the height difference.
Olaf yelled, "Reloading!" He stepped back to get his new magazine and I stepped forward to fire into the heads. The smell of burning flesh and hair burned my throat and eyes. The wind had changed, and the smoke was blowing toward us now. Crap!
Bernardo yelled, "Reloading!" and we covered for him.
Edward kept hitting it with fire, and it was hurt, but it didn't die. I knew he was out of fuel to burn it with when he stepped up on the other side of Olaf with his AR to his shoulder and started shooting with us. There was movement behind us, and it was the other police; reinforcements had arrived. They cursed and yelled about what the fuck was that, but they put their shoulders to ours and started shooting it. They'd have done the same thing if it had been a bunch of bank robbers shooting at us.
Two mags later and I was out of ammo for the AR. I switched to the shotgun. It rocked a little more than the AR, and pieces of monster fell away where it hit.
Olaf yelled, "Empty!" and had to step back from the line, because he'd actually run through all his ammo in all his guns. Edward, Bernardo, and I closed the gap where he'd been standing and fired into the still-burning, smoking, screaming creature. The cops had formed a line on either side of us like some sort of impromptu firing squad.
I pulled the trigger and came up empty. I felt for more ammo, but there wasn't any more for the Mossberg. I dropped it and pulled the Browning, knowing I didn't have the stopping power I needed, not for this monster. I used it anyway, until I was empty again. "I'm out!" I yelled and stepped back from the line; Edward was the last of us standing with the police when the monster stumbled and then slowly collapsed to the ground. It was still burning and they were still shooting into it, but it had stopped bellowing.
Edward hesitated, lowering his rifle. The rest of the police kept shooting until they ran out of ammo, too. We shot it long after it had stopped moving, or screaming. Normally, I might have encouraged people to conserve their ammo, but I didn't know how to be certain that it was well and truly dead. It had three heads and seemed mostly made of tentacles. I had no idea where its heart might be, or if those were all really heads, or if there was only one real head and the others were sort of decoys, like the tip of a lizard's tail that looks like a worm to predators so they won't attack the lizard's head. The creature smoldering on the ground by the still-burning shed was so alien that we couldn't even decide when it died, or if it had.
I don't think I was the only one flashing back to all those old monster movies from my childhood where the big monster was never really dead; it only seemed dead until the next movie. The fire department got there, alerted by the smoke, but they were just as puzzled by what to do as we were. The only thing we all agreed on was that we weren't going to try to save it.
THE LOCAL AUTHORITIES have the monster carcass, and several museums and zoos have sent experts down to look at it. So far no one knows what it is, but they also can't prove that it was ever human.
Edward using his crime-busting superpowers to save one of Donna's oldest and dearest friends made her take another look at her views about his job. She decided that being jealous of his work and especially his closeness with me was just another way of repackaging her old jealousy issue about our "affair." She owned it, she apologized to all of us, and when Denny got out of the hospital with a clean bill of health, the wedding went forward, with plans for serious couples therapy. Donna and Edward both want to make this work badly enough to work at it, which is more than I can say for most of the couples I know.
The hotel and all the rest o
f the wedding business agreed to Nathaniel's request that they delay everything until Denny and Peter could be with us. There were no extra charges and they felt badly that a relative had caused so much harm.
I was standing beside Edward when he looked down that flower-petal-strewn beach at his bride-to-be. His face showed everything that you could ever want to see on your groom's face. The love, the faith, the hope--all of it was there in Edward, the most cynical person I'd ever met. In Donna he'd found all the naive, impossible things that he'd wanted when he was younger, before he became Edward. For that look on his face, it was all worth it. I didn't have to understand it. I didn't have to be in love with Donna. I just had to stand there and see that my best friend adored her above all other women on the fucking planet, and that was good enough for me. The second-best face at the altar was Peter's. He damn near glowed with happiness as he watched his mother walk up the aisle and take Edward's arm. I don't know if Donna would have kicked Dixie out of the wedding or not, because Dixie took the choice out of her hands. She went home early, too ashamed of what she'd done to Peter to face everyone. I'd like to think that she would be getting therapy, too, but I'm not holding my breath.
Since I didn't have a warrant of execution for Rankin, the shooting had to be reviewed, but Tyburn backed me up and it was eventually declared a clean shoot. He's pretty sure that the "us" Rankin kept talking about was his extended family, but we have no proof. Rankin chose to die rather than betray them, and the ones who showed up to slaughter the women were absorbed into the monster we killed. The murderers are all dead. Cleo might have seen jail, or even been executed for real, but we'd violated her civil rights so badly, it gave her a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Nathaniel, Micah, and I talked about what Rankin told me. Nathaniel took it better than we did. Rankin isn't the first person to see the films that his abuser made of him as a child and then seek him out. He'd never told either of us that. Strangely, he had told Jean-Claude, as owner of Guilty Pleasures.