The Hunter and the Hunted
He let the gun lay in the passenger seat because this whole part of the state seemed deserted. Not a car for miles. Just darkness and trees. Occasionally, some redneck in a gas guzzler would speed past him, shifting into overdrive and showing off the old V8, but those assholes weren't going to call the cops for him having a gun out in the open. They got off on that kind of thing. Gave them a reason to invoke the one amendment they knew. Second Amendment, buddy. Second to none. The gun lay in the passenger seat, in fact, even as the mahogany Buick rolled to a stop. He'd turned off the main road onto some winding monster of a road. Even idling along, the tires kicked gravel against the undercarriage. He had cut the lights a good ways back. Gaging darkness with his deteriorating sight was no day in the park, but he managed. The shack was just ahead of him now, wasn’t it? Just a little bit longer to go. Throwing the transmission into park, he waited. He didn’t bother with trying to hide. Not now. Jasper would show, or he would not. By this point, he had to know someone was on him. Fielding had tracked the son-of-a-bitch down here from Atlanta, checking in on every podunk-ass bar and gun store along the way, gaining ground slowly until he thought he'd finally caught up. Now, he thought he might have sneaked up on the object of this little quest. Or his tip could have been mistaken. Couldn't be. He didn't want to think about it that way, but it could be the truth. Fielding had proven himself to be a pro but he was not, last he was aware, infallible. Not by a long stretch. He had been wrong before, though not like this, not when tracking. His contacts were dependable, for the most part. Then again, they were drunks, thieves, killers. Degenerates. Lowlifes. But the information was usually good. Ahead of his car stood the shack. It had been a hideout for others, the locals had said. Probably would be a hideout for somebody after Jasper. Right now, though, he would not guess there was anybody home. It was dark as dark gets. There were no lights even flickering inside. Nothing. Just cold, black absence of light. He sighed, grabbing the pistol. It was an acceptable night. Too dark for his taste, but he could abide that. Without a breeze, he thought he could just about chew the air. Humidity was a bitch down here. Fielding held the pistol close. Cocked, with a round waiting in the chamber, safety off. It was not a dire situation. Yet. But it was early. He walked along the path of old sweetgum trees, seeming to bristle at his arrival, toward the slowly rusting, one-story building ahead of him. Moonlight was scarce, nonexistent, and there was no reflection in the water. It was dead. He wished he could see more, but it comforted him somehow that he could not. And even though he wanted to speak, to call out for somebody to meet him, he did not. Jasper was crazy, but he would rather hide in freedom than fire unnecessarily, revealing his position. A drunk farmer, or otherwise rigidly territorial Southerner, would probably not hold that same idea. He would be dead. Jasper would run free. Nothing solved there. The door did not hang loosely on the hinges. No, it stood firmly ajar, as if another had popped open the lock and slid right by without closing it after himself. Strange, Fielding thought. Jasper was always careful. Not like him to leave something unfinished. So far he’d successfully managed to deter a dozen guys, easy. It was just the guy’s nature to not want to be found. This time he’d fucked up. The boss wanted him brought back. Alive, if he could help it. Something involving the big man’s wifey and a wager she placed with Jasper got him in some trouble. Even though no one mentioned it aloud, Fielding suspected money was not the object of the bet. Boss was rich; lost money would not get him red in the face. But this had. If you can’t bring him back alive, the boss had said, shrugging his shoulders. If you can’t bring him back alive, then I’ll have to understand. But I don’t want it that way. Understand? He squeezed through the open door, careful not to disturb its position. It was not his first rodeo, though he had to be more conscious of his moves in the dark these days. The spare tire around his midsection had become more evident with each passing year. For it not to be responsible for his downfall, he’d had to watch it. Closely. The light switch just inside the door was no help. Damned thing didn’t work. He flipped it several times. Just to be sure. Creeping along the edge of the wall, Fielding realized it wasn’t a single room at all but a long corridor partitioned by several miniature walls. Sheetrock walls. He didn’t like it. Wasn’t much to like in a dark room in Georgia during the summer. Except the heat, if one were inclined to enjoy that, and only because there was so much of it. Heat and mosquitoes, that was all. There were slurp-slurp-slurp sounds coming from the far side, like when characters in old cartoons ate hard candy. Only, not exactly. It sounded bad, repulsive. Fielding’s stomach lurched and settled unpleasantly. He couldn’t be sure of the building's use. Maybe a meth factory. But what about the walls? A football field-sized building, with walls every ten feet or so. What could it be? Whatever, it didn’t clear up any answers to Jasper's location. Jasper was squatting, living on what people would give him. But that’s the way he was. A parasite. The cartoon lollipop sound gained volume as he approached, moving ever closer building's other end. Which, he could now see, had two or three windows but no door. He’d have to walk all the way back to get out. But so would Jasper, he thought. He’s not getting by me, that’s right. The closer he got, the sound became sicker. And so did Fielding. Fucking ulcer. But he pressed on. He imagined it to be some kind of ill-running machine, an appliance of some sort. People liked to put old crap in buildings. Fielding assumed this to be no different. Old redneck hunter wanted a plasterboard maze with a malfunctioning washing machine as the main attraction, that was his business. Something glimmered outside, but he paid no attention at first. The windows did not interest him. The sound did. It intrigued him. Was it a trap? Could Jasper know he was coming? Fielding doubted that, but he kept his guard nonetheless. Pausing at the final wall, listening to the sound on the other side. Sloop-sloop-sloop. It was uneven now, probably had been all along. One thing at a time, he thought. One thing at a time. He suddenly wished for a decent flashlight. He would have bought one at the Family Dollar in town, but it was too late for that. Time for the final moment had come. Hopefully. Holding the gun by his head, he let the moment pass and then whirled into the back doorway. Eyes searching, frantically darting. Heart beating a hole in his chest. Hands breaking out in cold wetness. The scene was a blur. Something moved to his right and down, so he fired. But he did not go crazy with it. Two expertly placed shots echoed, and then all was silent. The sloop was gone. He held his breath, so the sound of his wheezy, in-and-out breathing was nonexistent. A shape lay at his feet. He hesitated and then knelt down. Keeping the gun handy. It, whatever it was, did not move. He felt good about that. Thinking of the boss's request, he was not ecstatic. The boss wanted Jasper alive. But he could manage. Once his eyes adjusted, he was relieved and startled to find that it was not Jasper. It was Francis McBrayer. Frank. Or what remained. Fielding could tell by the scar on the right side of his face. It was the one place left unaffected. He had been dismembered. Chunks of gore lay strewn messily about. Bit of flesh here. Half a leg there. Even in the impermeable blackness, he could see a dark trail leading to the building's corner. The sloosh-sloosh-sloosh had been Frank's attempt at dragging his half-body out. Obviously, he'd come short. He realized, then, he'd been holding his breath. When he finally took in breath, he smelled it. That smell. That mixture of the sweet and the raw. You never get used to it. Obviously, Fielding’s guns had not caused Frank’s horrendous condition. Sure, he'd put two in the chest, but it looked like a goddamn grenade had gone off next to him. The slurping sound, he surmised, was half-Francis trying to drag himself. But what had done such a thing to him? Jasper? Certainly not. The two of them were tight from way back when. The urge to scream was surpassed only by the memory of the twinkling light from outside. Fielding gripped the pistol and walked, kneeling, to the main window. It was no time to slack off. He had work to do. Looking over the edge of the sill, he noticed it was not a twinkling light at all. And not very bright, either. He almost laughed at the absurdity. It was his interior light. He'd left his damned door wide open. If it had been a snake. . . Moving around each barrier, he began to relax. A little. This wasn't a total loss. Sure, he had missed Jasper, but finding Frank meant he was on the trail. The train was still on the tracks. Maybe Frank didn’t want to run anymore and Jasper clipped him. Right on the spot. Hacked him up, too. Jasper could be a sick fucking guy. The pistol went back in his pants, same as always. Barrel was a little warm, but wasn’t everything else? Damn Georgia weather. But, reaching the door handle, listening to the persistent ding-ding-ding of the door alarm, he gasped. A foot protruded limply under the door. The shoe belonging to it lay askew in the gravel. This time, it was Jasper he found. And something had gotten to him, too. He hadn't died yet, but he was well on his way. The car's overhead light illuminated his face. Fielding sure wished it hadn’t. Blood was caked on what remained of Jasper’s face. He was missing parts, like Leroy Brown and the jigsaw puzzle. And like Frank. Goddamn. The pistol propped on the car’s window – Fielding had managed to overlook it until just now – let out three rounds, one right after another, in an explosion of sight and sound. They were quick, the shots, and Fielding was thankful all three caught him. That bleeding to death nonsense was no fun, he'd heard. He fell grunting and frothing to the ground, holding his sternum and abdomen. The gun was a no-no. Couldn’t reach it if he tried. So he just lay there bleeding, hoping shock would settle in any minute. If he was going to die, he didn’t want it to be long, protracted. No need for that. He'd been gracious enough to others in that respect. He only wished he could be given the same respect. But the shock didn’t come. So he screamed. It hurt a damn sight worse than anything he'd ever experienced. Jasper panted but held his peace. He was busy trying to close the car door and having no luck. “Don’t,” Jasper managed after a while, on the brink of the other side. “Quiet,” he said. Fielding held himself still, trying to catch all of Jasper’s whispery last words, but he couldn’t. The pain was too great. “I'm dying.” Jasper continued, managing a spiteful laugh, “You didn’t do it, bastard.” Who did, he wanted to ask. Hell, it didn't matter at this point. Instead, he fought the agony and reached for the gun. He had to put an end to this. It hurt like hell, but he strove for the butt, just inches from his fingers. With a few curses, he grasped it and emptied the clip in the car, not knowing if he hit him or not. If not, oh well. There was another clip to be had. Somewhere in his slacks. He only needed one round for himself. It was his concentration on ending Jasper’s life that caused Fielding to miss the wolf at first. Or what could best be described as a wolf. Had he noticed, it would have made no difference. He was dead either way. He wished he had a camera. It was the goddamndest thing he'd ever laid his eyes on. The creature was the size of one and a half great danes, a coarse, matted coat concealing its true size. The rest of it was just as intimidating. Eyes clear and focused, nearly glowing. To Fielding, the wolfish creature looked like a movie monster. Something Universal would have cooked up in the 1930s. Not in the sense that it was queer-looking - and it certainly was that - but because it didn't look real. Not really. It was big and burly and comically vicious. Fielding almost expected to see a zipper running up its side. It moved gracefully away from him, splitting the difference between Fielding and the car. First circling it and then stopping. Staring at Fielding. Panting ever so slightly, its voluminous tongue wagging up and down, dripping with saliva. The sedan's engine turned over. Fielding saw Jasper's arm dangling from the window. There was blood dripping from it. The car backed away, idling, and somewhere along the way Jasper himself tumbled out of the open door onto the gravel drive. The car kept going, disappearing into the darkness and making a soft thud somewhere against an old tree. Jasper found his knees and tried to crawl, falling more often than not, before finally collapsing. “Take him,” Fielding pleaded, holding up hands dripping with blood. Because of the pain, he could say no more. But he wanted to. He wanted to tell the thing, “Eat him first!” Not that it would have helped. He knew that. That became excruciatingly clear. Much in the same way that he himself had eased up after finding Frank’s dead body, the animal was taking its time. It pranced over and stood above Fielding, the putrid smell of a hundred bodies emanating from its jowls. He leaned his head back, giving the beast his throat. But it would not take it, instead nudging its muzzle underneath the shirt to get a taste. Pain surged as the creature licked, lapping blood with the gentleness of a mother cleaning the litter. Fielding almost laughed. The sound the beast's probing licks was similar to the sound Frank made trying to cross the floor. "Might as well," he said, reaching for the clip in his pocket, not really knowing what he meant.