Authors: Heather Hellinger
THREE KILLS IN THREE DAYS. Only one kill left now, and it would all be over.
Jackson left the forest, stepped into the light of the waxing moon.
A gas station stood on the edge of town, the last faded outpost before crumbling sidewalks and rubble gave way to wilderness. To the left of the station was an antiques shop boarded up long ago. To the right, a field of high grass stretched out to meet the woods.
He stopped at the edge of the grass. Yellow light spilled from the station’s windows, but the gravel lot remained dark. Gas pumps loomed unattended in the early hours of the morning. Where the lot met the road, a payphone booth stood silent sentry. Jackson headed toward it, watching the station for signs of life.
Moving was painful. Every step made his joints cry out, bone grinding against bone. Blood dried in a stiff mask across his face.
Each kill was harder than the last. There should have been a satisfaction in doing what he was meant to do so long ago. Instead it exhausted him. He was tired of watching the horror dawn on each face, tired of the lies and the begging as they realized that what he was, what he really wanted from them.
He slipped into the sweltering heat of the booth. His coins clunked down the slot. He dialed the number he still knew by heart, the keys stiff with disuse, punching in reluctantly.
The phone rang once, twice, three times.
From the direction of the field came an angry feline yowl as the line rang a fourth time. Jackson’s jaw tightened. She wasn’t home. She was working, or she was with someone—
Her voice was blurred with sleep, raspier than he remembered. She’d been smoking too much. Still it was the most beautiful thing he’d heard in a long time. He shut his eyes and held onto the sound of her.
“Hello? Who is this?”
“I’ve been thinking about you,” he said.
He waited, slitting his eyes open to keep watch on the dark. The smell of gasoline saturated everything, made his head ache.
“Who is this?”
He smiled at his bloody reflection in the glass. “You know who. Did I wake you?”
she said, and he hated the way his name seemed to escape against her will, exhaled through clenched teeth.
“Where are you?”
“You’ll find out. I—”
Headlights swept the lot. A battered pickup truck pulled up to the pumps, door creaking open to expel a bearded old man who set about filling his tank with gas.
“Jackson, tell me where you are.”
He shifted away from the grimy windows, moving deeper into shadow.
“Goddamn it, answer me.”
“I’m waiting for you,” he said. “Don’t disappoint me this time.”
“Jackson, don’t you dare—”
“Sweet dreams, Katie.”
He heard her cursing as he hung the receiver back on the hook.
For a moment he didn’t move, just stood staring at the phone. There was no turning back now, no more running. Relief settled in his bones.
He waited for the old man to finish pumping his gas and limp into the station to pay. Then he folded back the phone booth door and stepped into the night. He crossed the parking lot and headed into the field once more, toward the woods, to wait for the only woman he’d ever loved.
IT WAS ONLY THREE A.M., but there was no point in trying to go back to sleep. Kate didn’t bother. She got out of bed, dressed in the dark, and went to the kitchen to make coffee.
It had been two years since Jackson Reeves disappeared from this very apartment. Two years since she came home at dawn to find the front door open, the photographs and the wine glasses smashed, but not one thing missing—not one thing except her lover of nearly a decade.
Two years that she had scoured every inch of the city for
; two years of grief and guilt and loneliness while she brought herself to accept the fact that he was dead.
He would have been better off dead.
There was no time for guilt or loneliness now. Now she had to focus on the problem. Jackson was alive, and in all likelihood that meant he was no longer human. He was waiting for her, and she didn’t yet know where, or why.
She was seated at the kitchen table with her third cup of coffee and her fifth cigarette when the phone rang again. This time it was her cell, vibrating wildly against the coffee mug. She tensed, but the number flashing across the screen was familiar, and she punched the answer key.
“This couldn’t wait until dawn?”
“Crime waits on no man.” Eddie’s voice was obnoxiously cheerful for it being half past four in the morning. “On no woman either, for that matter. Meet me at the diner in thirty.”
Kate took a long drag off her cigarette. “I guess you couldn’t call someone else.”
“Hey, I thought you were saving up for retirement. A woman of leisure by thirty, wasn’t that the plan?”
“Yeah, well. I was thinking of maybe taking a vacation. Go to Jersey, get a tan.”
“Forget the tan, Morgan. This one’s for you.”
Of course it was. She’d had a feeling it would be from the minute she recognized Eddie’s number.
She stared blankly at the room around her. Kitchen shelves empty of all but a few cans of soup, junk mail cluttering the counter, and trash can overflowing with takeout containers. She’d never been good at things like shopping or cooking. Jackson was the housekeeper. He cleaned with a wry smile and rags made of ripped up Metallica T-shirts too threadbare to wear any longer. He said he didn’t mind that her job earned more in one week than his bartending gigs brought in all year. He said he liked taking care of the place, and being there when she got home. But she had always wondered.
In the back of her mind she had spent two years wondering—if Jackson was alive, if he had
to leave her, was this part of the reason?
In the end it didn’t matter. Whatever the reason, Jackson had made his choice knowing there would be consequences.
“The town of Porter,” Eddie Carman said, when the waitress had left their table, and they were alone with the smells of bitter coffee and burnt toast. “It’s a backwater shithole in the foothills upstate. But I guess you know that already.”
Kate sipped her coffee with a grimace, and set the cup aside. The diner was a shithole, too. Someday it would finally go out of business, and they’d have to find a seedy new place to meet. She let herself wish for a moment they could go to Starbucks like normal people. But she supposed normal people didn’t meet to discuss the extermination of werewolves.
Eddie was watching her, waiting for an answer he had already read in her file.
She sighed. “Yes, I know Porter. I was born there, for Chrissake.”
“There’ve been three deaths so far. All of them badly mutilated. Severed limbs, disemboweled… you get the picture.”
“Identifiable and identified.” Eddie consulted the manila file in front of him, then slid it toward her. “Adam Greene, Noah Kincaid, Joshua Kutcher. They were all natives.”
She had asked the question idly, but the answer sent a trickle of cold down her spine. She had to school her features into blandness as she glanced over the crime scene photos.
Noah, don’t do this, please—
“We went to school together,” she said. “But I didn’t know them well. They played football. I think my step-brother was friends with them, with Adam and Noah at least.”
“Adam and Noah were the first victims. The third, Kutcher, we think the killer was interrupted. A couple of kids went out to an abandoned farm last night and found him in the barn, still alive and trying to talk. He died before the ambulance got there. Cops found the bodies of the first two when they were setting up the crime scene. Killer just piled up the parts under a tarp and left them to rot.”
“You said Kutcher was trying to talk.” Kate gripped the folder tight. “What did he say?”
Eddie shook his head. “Whatever it was, it didn’t end up in the report.” He finished his coffee and waved for more. “What do you think, Morgan? Ready for a trip down memory lane?”
“I don’t know. What’s the pay like?”
“Twenty on acceptance, twenty on delivery.”
“And if it’s not a wolf, I still keep the first check?”
“Guaranteed. But I’d count on a full payout for this one. Look at the file. That kind of damage, it’s not something a person can do without serious tools and staging. The locals are calling it a cougar attack, getting ready to turn out the dogs.”
Eddie was right. She flipped through the crime scene photos, studying shots of the three dead men. At least, parts of them. Adam, Noah, Josh. She’d wanted them punished, but like this?
She startled when Eddie reached across the table and squeezed her hand.
“Hey, I know this can’t be easy. Too close to home. Literally, right? But there’s nobody better suited for it. We need you, Kate.” He hesitated. “He, uh… he was from Porter, too, wasn’t he?”
He didn’t have to say a name. Kate knew by the tone of his voice who he meant. Eddie had been letting her know for two years that when she was ready to get over Jackson, he was ready to help her.
He was attractive enough. Blonde hair going silver and probably old enough to be her father, but she didn’t mind. He had a strong face and a direct gaze, and he was ten times the hunter she was. He had taught her everything, after all. But she couldn’t see getting involved with someone who was sworn to deny her existence in the event of actual trouble.
Eddie Carman had recruited her to the Division fresh out of police academy. Y
ou’ve got raw talent, Morgan, and you’re aching to do some damage, I can tell. That’s a recipe for disaster for a cop. But the division I work in, it might just keep you alive.
Eddie had trained her, been her sole point of contact for six years, and told her the truth flat out: If things ever went south with local authorities, she was on her own. Edward Carman didn’t exist, and the Division did not know her name.
Kate drew her hand away.
“What do you think?” he asked again, quieter.
It was on the tip of her tongue to say it.
Jackson’s alive. He called me. He said—
But what had he said exactly? Nothing.
She felt sick to her stomach. At least one part of the problem had been solved. Now she knew where Jackson was.
, she thought.
What have you done, Jack?
To Eddie, she said, “I’ll do it.”
THE SKY OVER THE WOODS went slowly dark. Kate watched through the windshield as it happened, as bloody sunset cooled to violet, as the light faded, and took with it the last illusion of safety.
She picked up the manila file resting on the truck’s passenger seat and flipped it open, though she’d memorized the contents hours earlier, before she ever filled up the gas tank of her truck and started north.
Three crime scenes, thee bodies torn limb from limb and left to rot.
Except Joshua Kutcher, who’d still been twitching, though not for long. According to the police report, the kids who discovered him had gone out to the old barn on Thresher Road to be alone. Legend had it the place was haunted by the ghost of the farmer who’d lived there in the eighties. He’d been a drunk, folks said, and always a little off his rocker. When the recession hit, he blew big time. Set fire to the farmhouse while his wife and daughter were sleeping inside, then came out to the barn and hung himself.
By the time Kate was in high school, the place had been abandoned for a decade, the dairy cows sold off and the fields of pasture grown wild, forest encroaching. The younger generation had taken it over, turned it into their sanctuary. A place to smoke and kiss and fuck, and whisper promises to each other that would never be kept. Kate had been there, though for different reasons in the beginning.
She almost felt sorry for these kids, thinking they knew exactly where their night was headed, only to walk in on a fresh murder. It would be enough to put any couple off being alone in the woods.
She closed the folder with a sigh. There were other details—where the victims had last been seen, the fact that each had made large cash withdrawals the day of their disappearance—but none of that mattered to her.
She unlocked the glove compartment and traded the folder for a nine millimeter handgun. The firearm felt deceptively good in her hand, the grip warming to her touch. A normal bullet would stop a man dead, but Kate hadn’t hunted men since she left the academy. Now the bullet head on each cartridge was cast from .925 silver. Stronger than pure silver, but just as lethal.
She slipped the gun into her right ankle holster, checked the blade strapped to her left leg, and stepped down from the truck.
Wind lashed her bare arms and whipped the end of her curling ponytail against her cheek. She smelled the forest across the road, leaves just beginning to turn colors, and the earth damp from rain, full of secret living things. It was a pleasanter scent than what the bar offered as she neared: sour beer, deep fried foods, cigarette smoke. Old, familiar smells that hung in the humid air and threatened to choke you if you breathed too deep.
Gravel crunched under her boots as she crossed the darkening lot and climbed the steps to the bar. A bearded redneck leaned against the porch railing watched her, gave her a brief nod. Kate returned the nod without lowering her gaze as she might have in the old days. She had left Porter a victim, but hell if she’d return as one.
She pulled the door open and stepped into a wall of warm air and blasting sound. The place was packed, just like she remembered. Solomon’s was the only bar in Porter fit for all ages. Families squeezed into green Naugahyde booths, beer for mom and dad and chicken fingers for the kids, while Dolly crooned over the crackling jukebox speakers.
“Bittersweet memories, that’s all I have, and all I’m taking with me…”
Nothing had changed, nothing at all. The after-school teens were still crowded around tables with cokes and baskets of Solomon’s No Joke Firecracker Fries. Laughing, throwing balled napkins at each other, smirking and rolling their eyes.
Kate’s gaze fixed on a boy and girl sitting quietly alone, hunched together, and for a moment she couldn’t breathe. For a moment it was ten years ago, and she was seventeen again, tucked into the back booth with Jackson and begging him to leave.
“Not next year.” Her jaw was clenched so tight it felt like her teeth would break.
I’ve got to get out now.”
“And go where, and do what?” Jackson reasoned. “Nobody’s gonna hire us under eighteen, without a diploma. We’ll be worse off than we are now.”
Anger flashed through her, hot and dark. “
be worse off. Just fucking say it, Jack. You’re worse off because of me, isn’t that what you mean?”
“You know it’s not. Don’t—” He blew a sigh, fixed his ball cap so the bill pointed perfectly straight ahead. “Look, it’s only three months to graduation. We’ve got to stay that long, at least.”
He hadn’t understood. Kate hadn’t known how to make him understand. Not until she put herself in the hospital two weeks before graduation with her veins opened from wrist to elbow.
She never went back to school. The day the hospital released her, Jackson arrived before her family did. He loaded her into his rusted Chevy and they left Porter without looking back.
She studied on her own, in motel rooms and in the back of the Chevy. She got her GED within a few months. Jackson was too busy paying motel bills to try.
A waitress breezed past on her way to another table, called out for her to take a seat anywhere. The back booth was empty, so Kate slid in, ran her hands along the underside of the table and found the initials scarred into the wood where no one would see. JR + KM. She ran a finger through the grooves and thought about the last time she’d seen Jackson, how she’d never suspected it would be the last time.
The mid-morning sun was slanting golden across the bed, and the warmth felt good against the winter chill. The heat was off in the whole building. It was off more days than it was on this year. Jackson had bought a couple of space heaters so they didn’t have to wear parkas inside, but at the moment neither one of them wanted to leave bed long enough to turn them on.
Instead Kate pulled the blankets up so that they were entirely cocooned. She wound herself around Jackson, legs hooked around his waist, feet pressed to the backs of his thighs. He shivered and mumbled something only half intelligible, something about cold feet.
“Silly.” She moved her lips against his shoulder. “You’re supposed to warm them up.”
“If I don’t freeze first,” he said, but his arms were around her, locking her tight against him.
Their skin made its own heat, pushing the cold away. Kate nestled deeper into Jackson, carded her fingers through his hair. The blanket made it too dark to see more than blurred shadows, but she imagined she could feel the blackness of it, the soft coal locks that had grown just long enough to brush the tips of his ears.
“Someday...” she mused. “Maybe in a few years… I’ll retire, and we’ll empty the savings account, and buy an island in the tropics.”
“Baby, you know islands run like a couple million, right?”
“A hotel,” she amended. “We’ll buy a beachfront hotel on an island. I’ll manage everything. Except, you can work the bar, make those little umbrella drinks, and be my handyman when things need fixed.”
“Handyman—I’ll show you a handyman.”
She squealed in feigned outrage when he rolled her, trapping her body against the mattress, trapping her mouth with his. She rubbed her thigh against his hip and kissed him back as long as she dared before pushing him away.
Jackson lifted his head with a groan. “You don’t really have to leave yet, do you?”
She rubbed the back of his neck apologetically. “It’s a full moon tonight, and I’ve got a long drive up to Beacon.”
“Shit. You’ve got the weirdest job.” He sat up, throwing the blankets off and exposing them all at once to the cold.
Kate laughed, but her teeth chattered, and she dove for the closet. One good thing about winter—bulky clothing made it easier to hide weapons. She hopped into a pair of loose pants and considered a sweater that didn’t quite match.
Jackson was quiet behind her—too quiet. She knew the instant his eyes fell on the scar.
“I wish you would retire,” he said, in that low, deep voice that could make her shiver with anticipation, or clench her jaw and reconsider the wisdom of long-term relationships.
“I will,” she returned lightly, pulling on a sports bra.
“You could do it now. We’d find another way to get money. Other people get by with normal jobs.”
“Hmm, and I bet that’s so much fun.” Absently, she touched the scar that ran down her left shoulder. It had faded to white after a year, but she could still feel the raised line of it easily enough. The werewolf’s claws had sliced through muscle like it was butter, right down to the bone. For a while, the doctors had said she would never regain full use of her arm. They’d underestimated her.
Kate yanked on a black sweatshirt to match her pants. She couldn’t tell Jackson the real truth, and that irritated her. That she loved her job. That the hunt made her feel alive, and more powerful than she had ever felt in her life. That most of all, she loved the kill. The explosion of pure violence as every inch of her body and mind became a weapon.
Jackson didn’t understand violence. He was everything that was gentle and good, everything she had once—and still—needed. If hunting monsters satisfied one part of her damaged psyche, then Jackson satisfied every other part.
Guilt made her climb back onto the bed. She crawled into his lap and wrapped both arms around his neck, buried her nose in his hair. “It’s an easy job. All the recon’s done. I just have to go up there and wait for this guy to show, and put a bullet in his heart when he does. That’s all.”
Jackson sighed, warm breath stirring the hairs on the nape of her neck. “Just… be careful anyway.”
“I will be. I promise.” She leaned back, gave him a long look from beneath her lashes. “Wait up?”
“Don’t I always?” He gave her a swat and moved her off his lap. “Fine, go now. Protect the world from evil. Come home and get naked for me.”
“If you make lasagna,” she called, jumping clear of the bed before he could catch her again. “Lasagna first, then sex.”
His laugh followed her out the door.
So she had gone. She’d left him, left him alone, and the wolves had come for him.
“Hey, hon, sorry about the wait.”
Kate startled, blinked up at the waitress who’d suddenly materialized at her side, and was glad not to have given into her first impulse, which was to draw her knife. Focus, she needed to focus on the present, and stop falling into daydreams.
The waitress pulled a pencil from her hair and gave Kate a harried smiled. “Can I get you something to drink?”
Kate never drank on the job, not even a beer. What she did was difficult enough without impaired judgment. A single moment’s hesitation could get her killed, or worse.
But this didn’t feel like a job. It felt like hell.
“Scotch, neat,” she said. “Well liquor’s fine.”
“Gotcha. You want to hear tonight’s specials? I can tell you right now, the blue cheese burger’s worth dying for.”
Kate returned a smile that she hoped betrayed none of her tension. Friendly and forgettable was the aim now. “Just the drink, thanks.”
There was something vaguely familiar about the other woman. Kate wondered if they’d gone to school together. The waitress didn’t seem to recognize her, but she doubted anyone would. The Kate Morgan who’d gone to Porter High was wide-eyed and fresh-faced, the kind of girl who jumped at her own shadow and apologized to the girls who stuck out their high heels to trip her in the halls. Not likely anyone would see her in the woman she’d become. She hardened a lot since she left Porter. She’d hardened a lot more since Jackson left her. And that was all for the best.
Most jobs, most towns, she’d be booking herself into a motel now, settling in for a stay. She would have gotten to know the locals, listened to gossip about the murders. What kind of people had the victims been, who were their friends and colleagues, their lovers? Did they beat their children, or spoil them rotten?
Eddie had told her in the beginning, what had once been a man would always think in part like a man. Men did not kill indiscriminately. There was a pattern, a mold that each victim fit, even if the killer didn’t know it himself. Understand the victims, and you understood the killer.
But that was another town. This place, Kate knew like she knew every scar on her body. She knew the dead men, what kind of men they’d been, and what kind of man—or woman—wanted them dead. She knew the killer.
Her scotch arrived. Kate took a long swallow, and leaned back to wait for Jackson.