"Are you sure about that?" I said, pointing to the flamethrower and then to the acres of grass around us. "Aren't you worried about a brush fire?"
Kramer shook his head and hefted the gun unit. "This baby's been modfied to fire pinpoint flames," he said with a Southern drawl.
We were crouched next to a small gray outbuilding near a house somewhere in the wilds of Croydon, Utah.
Kramer was a Specialist from the Louisiana bowels who battled cotton balls several times a year. He told me he'd spent twelve years as a young man roaming bayou country, eating alligators and wrestling toothless old women. "Strong 'uns," he'd said. "Don't let the skinniness fool ya. Got the strength of an earth mover. They drink loup-garou blood out there, that's why."
I had heard about the deadly cotton ball infestation from CNN and my good friend Cordwainer Duke had suggested I contact Kramer about it. After I did, Kramer invited me to a cotton ball hunt to watch him ply his trade and I jumped on the next flight from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. He met me at the airport, a gaunt-looking man of medium height with a hook-nose and ponytail. He was dressed in a rumpled gray jumpsuit tucked into a battered pair of military jungle boots.
The two of us piled into an old brown Dodge van that had the rear seats taken out and was piled with all manner of equipment cases. An hour drive took us east on Interstate 80 and then north on state route 65 past a land of fenced-in bungalows called Jennifer. Or Hennigan. Or Hefner. Something.
"We're meetin' Bloody Martin Smith in Croydon," Kramer had said as we raced across blank grass landscapes bordered by low hills. "Again."
"Again?" I asked. "You've been here more than once?"
Kramer nodded, swerving to avoid a small pack of jackrabbits that had leaped into the middle of the highway brandishing jackrabbit-sized pitchforks. "Three times this year."
"And all because of cotton balls?" I asked, incredulous.
"Don't be quick to judge none," Kramer said. "They're real nasty and do a lot of damage. You heard of the Dust Bowl, right?"
"Sure," I said. "Back in the Thirties. Out in the Midwest, Great Plains. Caused by severe drought and years of bad farming practices. No crop rotation, cover crops, all that stuff that they were supposed to do. Dried out the topsoil."
"No sir," said Kramer. "That was them cotton balls."
"They won't tell you it was them. But it was. Biggest cover-up I ever saw. Next to what really happened to JFK and Elvis Presley."
"Don't tell me," I said. "They're both in an East Texas rest home."
Kramer chuckled. "I see you know."
"Nevermind that," I said. "How did cotton balls cause the Dust Bowl?"
"They descend in a swarm," said Kramer. "Like Biblical Locusts. Only without the Charlton Heston voice-over. Eat all the vegetation in the area. Then vanish into oblivion. For some reason, they must've mutated or something 'bout twenty, thirty year ago. Now they ravage the wild areas of Utah. They seem drawn to Mormons for some reason. Must be something in the blood."
"In the blood? Do they eat Mormons?"
"Mormons, Cath'lics, Muslims, Protestants, Jews, Greek Orthodox, gay, straight, Black, Eye-talian, you name it. Anybody gets in their way, they mow 'em down. Not actually et you, of course. But they can put a dent into a foot of steel. I've seen it. And if they get into various necessary orifices, then..." His voice trailed off and he shrugged.
"You're dead," he said.
"Sweet Mother of Dingos!" I said.
Kramer nodded. "Nasty way to go, too. Dead, with cotton balls stuffed up your nose, your ears, your mouth, your nether regions." He shuddered.
So did I.
And I needed mental floss.
"But," Kramer went on, "they sure do love them Mormons."
* * *
As we crouched next to the faded gray outbuilding, I said to Kramer, "There was a movie back in the 80s about alien fuzzballs with teeth."
"I seen that," he said, nodding. "Closest they got to telling the story of a cotton ball infestation in Nebraska back in the mid-70s. It all got changed to aliens, of course. Just to throw off the scent, y'see. They added the teeth. And they put it in some hick town in Kansas."
"So where'd they really come from? These balls?"
Kramer shook his head. "Don't know. Never really looked into it, 'cept tracing them back to the Dust Bowl days."
"So how'd you get started in this nasty business?"
"Answered an ad in the Des Moines Register fifteen years ago," Kramer said. "Four hour Learning Annex class followed by certification. Notarized and everything." Then he paused and squinted into the distant hills.
"What--" I began, but he held up a finger then put it to his lips.
Then I heard it. A faint, high-pitched chittering. Like single engine plane. Or a crazed woodchipper.
Kramer pointed into the distance. "Here they come," he said. "Put your flamethrower on and get ready."
I pulled on the twin fuel tanks and tightened the straps, then took up the gun unit. Then I looked in the direction Kramer had pointed.
Along the foothills I spotted a wide blanket of whiteness, like snow. Moving snow. Moving, creeping snow. But more like melted mashmallows that bubbled and pulsed and undulated along the ground. The blanket of whiteness was at least the size of two football fields, maybe more, maybe with trapped players in it.
Kramer reached down to the boombox sitting between us, tapped a button, and Wham!'s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" blared from the speakers.
"They can't stand 80s music," said Kramer, grinning like a lunatic. "Throws 'em into a big tizzy. The frequencies of the songs messes with their equilibrium and internal membrane flow."
I felt the music coursing through my veins, felt the frequencies rushing through my membrane flow, felt it jitterbug into my brain.
Time to rock and roll, by gum.
Come back next week for another entry of The Jericho Files!
Read previous Jericho Files entries here.
Read previous Jericho Files entries here.