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THE HUNTING

L.F. BLAKE




The following is a work of fiction. Names, places, and events are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, locales, events, or organizations, is coincidental and beyond the intent of the author.


The Hunting

Copyright 2016 © by L.F. Blake

All rights reserved

Smashwords Edition 2017




___


ONE

___



DEAD OF NIGHT, and the telephone screamed.

The first shrill ring ripped through the darkness of sleep. The second tore it away completely. Eric sat up, shoving back blankets with one hand and reaching for the phone with the other.

“This is Morgan,” he answered tersely, realizing as he spoke that it was the landline he’d grabbed. Against his cheek, the plastic receiver smelled of dust and disuse.

No one ever called the landline. He only kept it around for faxing; all the people who mattered had his cell number. So who would be calling at—he glanced at the nightstand, the alarm clock glowing red—quarter past three in the morning?

Silence on the other end of the line. Then a static sound like a deep breath exhaled slowly.

“Hello?” The hairs on the back of Eric’s neck prickled upright. Almost without thinking about it, he let his hand creep under the pillow to find his knife. “Is anyone there?”

The answer came as a low drawl. “I’ve been thinking about you.”

Eric’s fingers closed reflexively around the knife hilt. His heart gave one hard thud and stilled. “Who is this?”

“You know who.”

No.

Not possible, not after all this time, not now.

Why now?

“Jackson,” he said through clenched teeth.

The other man chuckled darkly. “Did I wake you?”

“Where are you?”

“You’ll find out. I—”

His voice cut off so abruptly, for a moment Eric thought he’d hung up. His heart began to pound again at a furious pace. “Jackson. Jackson.”

“I can’t talk now,” Jackson said quietly. “But I’m waiting for you. Don’t disappoint me this time.”

“Jackson, tell me where you are. Don’t you dare hang—”

“Sweet dreams, babe.”

The line clicked.

“Jackson?”

No answer. Only more silence, and after a few minutes, the obnoxious blare of the off-hook tone.

Mechanically, Eric replaced the receiver. But he couldn’t move, or seem to form a coherent thought. Instead he sat in the center of the bed, holding the knife while his breath came too shallow, and he stared into the darkness of the empty room.




___


TWO

___



There was no point in going back to sleep. Eric didn’t bother trying.

Eventually the freeze on his brain loosened, and he crawled out of bed, dressed in the dark, and padded barefoot out into the kitchen to make coffee.

It had been two years since Jackson Reeves disappeared. Since Eric came home at dawn to find the apartment door open, the photographs and the wine glasses smashed, but not one object missing.

The only thing that had vanished was his lover of nearly a decade.

In the two years since, Eric had scoured every inch of New Berlin for clues to Jackson’s disappearance. For two years, he had crushed himself under the weight of grief, guilt, and loneliness while he brought himself to accept the fact that Jackson was dead.

He would have been better off dead.

There was no time now for more guilt or grief. Now he had to focus on the problem. Which was that Jackson was alive, and in all likelihood that meant he was no longer human.

And Jackson was waiting for him.

Where? And why now, after all this time?

Questions Eric didn’t yet know how to answer.

He was sitting at the kitchen table with his third cup of coffee and his fifth cigarette when the phone rang again. This time it was his cell, vibrating wildly against the coffee mug. He tensed, then relaxed as he recognized the number flashing across the screen.

“This couldn’t wait until dawn?” he answered, throat raw from too much smoke.

“Crime waits on no man, Eric.” Novak’s voice was obnoxiously cheerful for it being half-past four in the morning. “Put your pants on and be in my office in ten. Scratch that. Meet me at the diner. I need some goddamn coffee.”

“Thanks, but my pants are already on.” Eric took a long drag off his cigarette. “You couldn’t call someone else. Sanchez maybe…”

“Hey, I thought you were saving up for retirement. A man of leisure by thirty, wasn’t that the plan?”

“Yeah, well. I thought I might cash in the vacation time I’ve got coming. Go to Ocean City, get a tan.”

“You’re tan enough, and Sanchez is on a job. Forget the vacation, Morgan. This one has your name written all over it.”

Of course it did. He’d had a bad feeling from the moment he saw Novak’s number on his screen.

No. From the moment the landline rang at quarter past three.

He stared blankly at the room around him.

The kitchen shelves were as bare as the table was cluttered, electric bills and cable bills stacked up on top of empty takeout containers. He’d never been good with household maintenance, bills, cleaning. Take your pick. Jackson used to cook. Used to slave over the stove and turn out giant vats of chili. Lasagna gooey with browned mozzarella. Enchiladas so spicy you’d swear you’d crossed the border into Mexico.

He’d always said he liked cooking, and liked keeping the place clean. It didn’t bother him that Eric brought in more cash from a single night’s work than he could earn in six months of bartending. But Eric had always wondered about the inequality of their relationship. He’d spent two years wondering, in fact. If Jackson was alive—if walking away had been his own choice—was that part of the reason?

Not that it mattered now. Whatever the reason, Jackson should have known there would be consequences.

___


“The town of Porter,” Novak said, when the waitress had left their booth, and they were alone with the smells of bitter coffee and burnt toast. “It’s a backwater shithole in the foothills upstate, about two hours out of the city. But I guess you know that already.”

Eric took a swallow of coffee and set the rest aside with a grimace. Speaking of shitholes, the diner was one, too. Someday the health department would come around and finally put the place out of business, and the employees of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Paranormal Division, would have to find a new roach-infested establishment in which to get their caffeine fix.

He let himself wish for a moment that they could go to Starbucks like normal New Berliners. He supposed normal people didn’t meet to plot the extermination of rogue werewolves. Though in New Berlin you never knew.

Eric could scarcely remember being a normal person. He gazed out the dirty window at the street outside, the first wave of work commuters trickling through the pinkening dawn. A man in a business suit was taking animatedly on his cell phone. In another life, Eric might have been a businessman.

No. He pulled the thought back. In another life he might have worked forty hours a week at a fast food joint just to make ends meet. Being scouted by the Division had been the one lucky break in his life.

Except that it had, in its own way, lost him the thing he valued most.

The silent weight of Novak’s gaze was tiresome. Eric sighed and turned back with the answer Novak had already read in his file years ago.

“Yes, I know Porter. I was born there. I lived there until I was almost eighteen.” He shifted a little, impatient. “Are you going to tell me what exactly happened or not?”

Novak nodded, as if he’d gotten what he’d been waiting for. “Three deaths reported as of this morning. All three mutilated. Severed limbs, disembowelment… you get the picture.”

“Were the remains identifiable?” Eric wondered distantly if it was anyone he used to know. The possibility didn’t concern him. There was no one he cared about in Porter anymore.

“Identifiable and identified.” Novak consulted the manila file in front of them and then slid it toward Eric. “Noah Kincaid, Charles Green, Joshua Kutcher. All natives, born and bred.”

Noah.

Charlie.

Josh.

Cold recognition ran down Eric’s spine. Those were not random names. Not random victims. Not even for one heartbeat could he pretend they were.

Not to himself at least.

“Any of them ring a bell?” Novak asked. “I was hoping you might be able to add a little intell here.”

Eric schooled his features into a blandness he couldn’t begin to feel as he glanced over the crime scene photos. “We went to school together, but I didn’t know any of them well. Charlie and Noah were on the football team with my step-brother.”

Please stop, please, I swear to god I’ll do anything you—

“Green and Kincaid, those two were the first victims. Killed a week ago and found last night when the killer took out Kutcher. Killer almost ripped him in half. A couple of kids found him, interrupted the kill is my guess, because they found him still alive—barely.”

Eric’s fingers clenched on the edge of the evidence folder. “Did he manage to tell them anything about what attacked him?”

“Nah. Poor bastard only had a couple of minutes left before he gave up the ghost, so to speak.” Novak gulped the rest of his coffee and flagged the waitress for another cup. “What do you think, Morgan? Ready for a trip down memory lane?”

“I don’t know. How’s the money?”

“Twenty on acceptance, twenty on kill.”

It wasn’t the best pay Eric had ever been promised, and he’d be lucky if the government let him keep half after all the requisite deductions and taxes. Still, even twenty grand would make a nice drop in his retirement bucket.

“What if the killer’s not a wolf?” he stalled. “I still keep the signing payment?”

Novak grinned, showing a wolfish number of teeth himself. “Guaranteed, as always. But I’d count on a full payout. Look at the file. Look at the damage to the bodies. Not the kind of thing a human unsub can manage without serious tools and staging. The locals are calling it a cougar attack and getting ready to turn the dogs out.”

Eric flipped through the file again, this time scrutinizing each photo. Novak was right. If those men hadn’t been torn apart by a wolf, then seven years of working for the Division had taught him nothing.

The faces—what remained of them—stared back at him. Noah, Charlie, and Josh. He’d wanted them dead, but like this?

There was just one face missing.

He twitched when Novak reached across the table to brush his hand.

“Hey. I know this can’t be easy. Too close to home. Literally, right? But there’s nobody who can do this job better than you. You know the town, you know the people. We need you, Eric.” Novak hesitated. “He, uh… he was from Porter, too, wasn’t he?”

Novak didn’t have to say a name. Eric could tell by the tone of his voice who he meant. Novak had been letting him know for months now that when he was ready to get over Jackson, he was ready to help.

Novak was attractive enough. Tall, blonde, and ruggedly handsome with a jaded attitude that hadn’t yet crossed over into bitter. Eric had to admire, even envy, his skills as an investigator and a hunter. The man had taught him everything he knew. But aside from getting involved with a coworker, especially his superior, Eric knew Novak would always be forced to put the safety and secrecy of the Paranormal Division above him. Even if Eric’s life was on the line.

It was a shame, because aside from that small detail, he trusted Novak. You had to trust a man to let him lure you out of the police academy with promises of secret divisions, saving the word, and getting filthy rich.

You’ve got raw talent, Morgan, and you’re aching to do some damage. Novak’s words still echoed in his head. I can smell it on you. For a cop? That’s a recipe for disaster. You know it, and your instructors know it. That’s why they’ll never pass you. But the sector I work in, all that anger of yours just might keep you alive.

A sector, Novak had gone on to explain, that monitored unusual crime activity. Particularly gruesome crimes that sometimes looked as if they couldn’t have been committed by a human. And sometimes they hadn’t.

It had all been like an episode of the X-Files, only Eric hadn’t known at first whether he was meant to play Moulder or Scully. Not until he came face-to-face with his first extra-human, and realized there was no place in this new world for either.

One look at a werewolf standing in full moonlight, and Eric had known he was looking at a monster. The broken body of the teenage girl at the creature’s feet—at its paws—told him that. With Novak whispering instructions in his ear, Eric had lifted his M40 rifle, focused the scope, and shot a handcast silver bullet straight into the monster’s heart.

The first of many kills, and not once had Eric hesitated to squeeze the trigger, to push the knife home.

He drew his hand back.

“What do you think?” Novak asked again.

It was on the tip of Eric’s tongue to tell him the truth.

Jackson’s alive. He called me. He said—

But what had Jackson said exactly? Nothing.

Eric’s gut twisted. At least one question had been answered. Now he knew where Jackson was.

To Novak, he said, “I’ll do it.”




___


THREE

___



The sky over the woods went slowly dark. Eric watched through the windshield as it happened, as bloody sunset cooled to violet, and the light faded and took away the last illusion of safety.

The crime scene folder rested on the passenger set of the car. He’d memorized the contents hours ago at the kitchen table of his apartment in New Berlin. The contents of that folder had sifted through his brain as he filled the tank of his Division-issued silver Dodge Ram and headed north.

Still a sick fascination made him pick up the file again and flip once more through the glossy photo spreads.

One crime scene. Three bodies torn limb from limb and left to rot.

Except Joshua Kutcher, who hadn’t had time to rot. Had that been an accident, an interruption in the killer’s plan? Or was it the plan?

According to the police report, the kids who’d found Kutcher had gone out to the abandoned barn at Thresher Farm to be alone. Local legend said the place was haunted by the ghost of old man Thresher himself, who’d been a little off his rocker even when he was alive. Town drunk and town asshole. When the recession hit in the eighties he blew his gasket. Set fire to the house while his wife and daughters were sleeping inside, then marched out to the barn and hung himself. A distant cousin inherited the place, sold off the dairy cows, but never bothered to come out and do a damn thing to the land.

By the time Eric was in high school, the place had already been abandoned for over a decade. Fields of pasture had grown wild, and the forest encroached on all sides. The bravest of his classmates, those who either didn’t believe in ghosts or secretly thrilled at the thought of them, had turned the farm into a sanctuary. A place to drink and smoke and sometimes shoot up. A place to kiss and suck and fuck and whisper promises that would never be kept.

It had been Eric’s sanctuary, too. But in a different sort of way.

There were additional details in the file. Family members of the deceased, places of employment, financial statuses. None of that interested Eric now. A hunter began each job with a single fact, and Eric had found that fact almost without looking.

The Pines Bar and Grill, off route 402. The last place each victim had been seen alive.

The wolf had made The Pines his hunting ground.

Eric unlocked the glove compartment and traded the case file for a nine millimeter handgun. A normal bullet from this firearm would stop a man dead, but he hadn’t contemplated hunting men since he dropped out of the police academy. Now the bullet head of each cartridge in his clip was cast from .925 silver. Stronger than fine silver, and every bit as lethal as his prey.

He slipped the gun into his right ankle holster. With a quick check to make sure the silver blade strapped to his left calf was also secure, Eric tugged the cuffs of his jeans down over the tops of his boots and pushed the truck door open.

He stood, stretched out the kinks of a two hour drive, and inspected his surroundings. The sprawling grill with its sagging wooden porch, the big gravel lot, the woods standing darkly across the road. The air carried the scent of autumn trees and burning wood smoke, smells that faded as the wind shifted and began to blow from behind the grill. Sour beer, deep fried foods, cigarette smoke. An old, familiar miasma that hung in the air and threatened to choke you if you breathed too deep. All the smells of home.

Gravel crunched under Eric’s heels as he crossed the lot. A bearded redneck leaned against the porch railing, smoking, studying his approach. He kept watch like a wolf guarding its territory, but looked away when Eric held his gaze.

Not the right kind of wolf.


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