Designated as too extreme for even a black-ops unit, Frank Sanders was forced to retire from the Heartland Security Agency. In the shadows and free of constraints, Sanders has excelled at his retirement activities: hunting and eradicating viral humans infested with parasites that feed on blood and light, endowing their carriers with supernatural abilities. When the government asks him to track down an old friend and colleague, who’s not only been infected with the bizarre virus but has given it to his wife and children, Sanders sets out on his most difficult hunt to date, one that may push him to extremes he’s never known and from which he may never recover.
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Half past noon, and the late spring sun had yet to crawl out from behind the heavy gray comforter above. The banana shrubs in the yard behind me gave off their fragrance just the same. Thank goodness my allergies were under control these days. I took a deep breath as I raised my gloved fist and knocked on the mahogany wood door. The doorbell had had no effect. The TV—deep inside, straightway from the foyer—was too loud. Some dumb sitcom. The retired chief of police was letting his brains rot with that shit. I hoped he still had enough upstairs to recognize what should be done with the gift I’d brought him.
The curtain behind the door’s left decorative window moved aside briefly, long enough for me to see a gray eye and the heavy bags under it blemishing the pale skin. The door was pulled open slowly but all the way. The chubby woman had nothing on her but a faded orange tank top and jean shorts. No weapon. No phone.
“Mrs. Harwood?” I asked. “Ethel Harwood?”
She paused a moment to look me over, gazing slack-jawed at my goggles, the two-days-old stubble on my cheeks and chin, the scars constellating my face, and then straight on down to the jeans and boots before back up to the tactical vest. For this outing, I’d opted for the “stocked” version, the one without the gun and knife holsters; its many pouches obviously concealed more than a wallet and keys.
I was about a head taller than her—so it took a good moment for Ethel to drink me in. If she was a good wife, she was no doubt wondering if I was an ex-con from way back, here to take revenge on the former chief for some wrong. Part of that was right. But she apparently determined I was no threat to her—or maybe just decided she didn’t much care if I was, considering I could do no worse than what had already been done.
“Yes.” Her voice was as weary as her eyes. “You are . . . ?”
“My name is Sanders.” I met her eyes and didn’t blink. “That sound familiar to you at all?”
The woman shook her head tentatively as if this were a pop quiz and she was trying to guess how harsh the penalty might be for a wrong answer.
I continued, “You got a husband . . . by the name of Trent.”
She responded with a slow nod, still trying to guess.
“Is he at home?”
Her nod gained a little speed.
“Ask him to come to the door.” I again ran my eyes over the poor woman. She didn’t even have keys on her person. “And make sure he has his cell with him.”
Keeping me at least partially in view, she yelled over her shoulder, “Trent! Come quick! And bring yer phone!”
I heard footsteps almost immediately. Heavy thumping. The man had put on weight since I’d last seen him. At least twenty pounds by the sound of it. He rushed into the foyer, flustered. By the looks of it, thirty poundsHe thrust himself into the doorframe, edging his wife back a half step. His phone was in his front pocket. A Kel-Tec PMR-30 was in his right hand. He’d lost his physique but not his business sense.
“What’s this all about?” He grunted the words, trying his damnedest not to sound as if he’d just ascended ten flights of steps. “Who the hell’re you?”
“Name’s Frank Sanders.” I kept my eyes on his while giving him a slight but respectful nod. “You and I, we know each other from a ways back. You probably don’t remember. There’s no need to go into it in front of the missus.”
“Sanders . . .” He gave me the head-to-toe lookover—twice. I guessed we were about equal in weight, though much of his two hundred pounds was fat. I sized him up in much less time than it took him to do the same to me; I chalked that up to age. “You didn’t answer my first question, Sanders.” An old, grizzled cop’s voice tried to carry his words. It was barely more intimidating than him. “You’re here because what?”
They both stiffened. I didn’t flinch, not even when Harwood’s grip seemed to tighten on the gun as he raised it by an inch or so. He started to say something. I didn’t care to hear it.
“Ten years ago,” I said, “your five-year-old daughter was kidnapped, violated repeatedly, then murdered. Body left in your front yard, at your previous house, down in Garth.”
The wife went pale, seemed ready to faint. But something—something stronger than her husband, something deep inside her—kept her on her feet.
I continued. “Got a little girl of my own. I know how that must have felt”—I fixed my gaze on the husband’s—“especially when the police couldn’t find the perp who did it.”
The man tensed, looked like he wanted to start forward and start pistol-whipping. His type liked to draw blood before dealing a death blow. But he had eyes enough to see he wasn’t a match for me.
“I’m not the Creator,” I said. “Not even a re-Creator. I can’t bring your daughter back. But I have brought you some gospel”—I hooked my left thumb over my shoulder, gesturing toward The Machine—“I found the bastard who did it. Brought him here to you.”
They both gaped, looking briefly at me and longer at the tricked-out Hummer. The silver-and-black custom-built vehicle was larger and had more cargo space than the civilian version.
“I’m here today to present you with a choice, Harwood. Take that phone out of your pocket and buzz the local cops. Or walk over with me, look the still-breathin’ son of a bitch dead in his eye, and dish out whatever form of justice pleases you all.”
Ethel Harwood shook her head, her lower jaw raising and lowering like a schizo drawbridge. She probably wouldn’t be the decision maker here. But her husband’s face went through its own stuttering expressions.
I tried to be helpful. “I’ve got all sorts of tools in my vehicle. All very useful in a variety of ways. If you don’t want to mess up your property, I know quite a few secluded spots in the vicinity.”
Harwood rattled the contents of his cluttered head till he found his words. “Wh-who are you? I mean, what—”
“A ghost of the government.” I smiled, tried to reassure them. I’m sure they were very familiar with the tired joke about the government showing up on their doorstep with an offer to help. Probably not that familiar with poetic idioms though. And honestly, I wasn’t that good at them—so I unfolded. “Once a Fed, but I got fed up with non-results. Know what I mean? One result of my current activities is over there now in my vehicle. Shall I escort you over?” I backed up two steps and turned my shoulder about ninety degrees, accentuating the invite. Harwood looked at his wife; it was only a few seconds, but I could tell a whole conversation passed between them during that brief exchange. They stepped out onto the porch almost simultaneously.
I turned fully then and walked, not waiting to see who pulled the door closed behind them. Also didn’t bother to see how closely they followed me. I could hear their breathing and—my training kicking in—even their heartbeats. The drumming seemed to increase with every third tentative step. I paused, turned to look at them only when I reached the back of the vehicle.
“Are you ready?” I asked.
They exchanged looks again, briefer this time. Ethel looked at me and nodded.
“Don’t worry”—I unlocked the door—“He’s trussed up like a wild boar. He can’t do anything to anyone. Not anymore.”
I didn’t know if Harwood heard me. He had his gun at the ready. And frankly, I wouldn’t have minded if he’d plugged the bastard as soon as he saw him. At this point, I was a quick-and-ready expert at cleaning all manners of body parts and waste out of my vehicle. But he hesitated. I kept my breathing even, unobtrusive, opening the door to let them get a good, focused look at Elroy, a skinny, goateed freak with jaundiced skin who—on his chest, stomach, and upper arms—had graphic tattoos of young children being brutalized. He sat on a tarp, clothed only in an adult diaper, his hands tied behind his back, legs extended and bound in front, neck manacled and chained to a hook on the roof. He was forced to face in the direction of the victim’s parents, the secondary victims; but his wide, darting eyes couldn’t hold their gaze. His whole body shook in the biting, arctic winds only he felt. Despite the fact he was tightly gagged, his mouth unceasingly mumbled what some might call poetry. He’d a gash on his forehead that had mostly scabbed over, a small token of my initial interrogation; his behavior, though, was nothing but a result of the drugs he was on. Street name was Jelly Raptures. Dangerous designer drugs designed specifically for kids. Yeah—this was the world I lived in. The world I hunted in.
Neither of the wizened pair said a word. After ten years of grieving, what could they possibly say? I took a deep breath, opened my mouth to encourage them—but then Ethel let forth, unleashing furious word-gusts that would’ve impressed a Texas tornado. A seemingly unending swirl of threats, profanity, invective, swears upon God and the saints’ graves . . . Even my ears started to burn after the first two or so minutes. When she almost seemed ready to collapse, and Trent—to his credit—grabbed and held her tight, I met eyes with both of them. “Well? What’s the play going to be today?”
Their lips parted, but they said nothing. Trent shook his head slowly before fixing a steady gaze on me. “Just how do you and I know each other?”
“Garth PD. About twenty years ago. I was on the force for about a minute. And then there was an excessive force incident. Or two. I disappeared. The rest, Chief, is classified.”
He gave me a good look—up and down like before—then shook his head again. “I don’t remember you.” Figured a bit of the man’s mind was gone. Police work and losing a kid could do that.
“You had a lot of trouble-bodies on the force back then. I didn’t stand out.”
“Well, you do now . . .”
“I’ve come a long way since the old days.”
“You . . .” He glanced at his wife. “You said, earlier, you said, we were to take out, dish out whatever type of justice would please me . . . us.”
“Well, ‘us’ includes our little Jessica. The sweetest . . . gentlest . . .” His eyes went glossy. “The gentlest soul . . . I’ve ever kn—” He choked it back, tried to at least. “Well, Mr. Sanders, I . . . I . . .” He heaved a few times before sighing, feeling the burden of it all—history, progeny, profession, sworn duties, implied duties, honor, justice . . . I gave the man his respect, lowered my eyes to the pavement, didn’t rush him. “I appreciate what you’ve done,” he said eventually. “But it’s not for us to do this man any harm.”
I met his eyes again, then his wife’s. The sobbing made her head shudder, but she clearly nodded in agreement. I nodded at both of them in turn.
“Wise decision, sir—for your peace of mind.” I cast my eyes toward the well-manicured yard, then the house, a Georgian colonial. “You’ve really built yourself something here. You’re doing well in quiet retirement. I reckon it’s best not to jeopardize it.” I looked at the miscreant, got a little less graceful. “As for Shakes, here . . . Well, if you’ve ever had trouble sleeping at night on account of what’s been done, from this day forward you can rest easy that this once-human thing got what was coming to him.” I closed the door, making it a little easier on them, underlining their spoken decision. “I’ll make sure he’s good and taken care of.”
I strolled to the driver’s side door, opened it, paused for a minute. I heard their heartbeats, their rate of breathing. I looked over my shoulder. Husband and wife were clutching each other’s hands. Trent gazed at the gravel near the back left tire. Ethel at the tinted back window, her face tense, lips pursed, as if she’d been scrounging for any curses left unhurled and was on the verge of releasing them. They wanted this over, behind them. But out of sight did not necessarily mean out of mind.
I cleared my throat. “If you’d, uh, like pictures or any other sort of souvenirs for your grief, text me before next Friday evening. I left a card with my private, secure number in your mailbox.”
They said nothing as I got in and started the engine.
I pulled out of the drive, began to round a corner. In the rearview, I saw Ethel rush toward the box.