By Kelly Meding
(continued from part 1)
Stone turned her attention to Jesse, as though he would offer her an alternative reply. They got along well, often joking with each other as freely as he and Ash did. Stone may have seen in him an ally in the conversation. To his credit, Jesse remained silent, arms folded across his broad chest. Unable to play father off mother, Stone returned to glaring at Ash.
“So this is what we do now?” Stone’s voice fluctuated unsteadily between a furious snarl and a dejected whine. “Burn down a city block and hope no one gets hurt or homeless in the process?”
Ash put everything she had into her bellowed reply: “No!” Her target flinched, but Ash didn’t relent. “No, what we do is protect this city’s innocents from the Dregs. Not just from being attacked by them, but from finding out they exist at all. It’s Boot Camp 101, Stone, you know all of this. And we do it by cleaning up our messes. It might be fun for you to carve up a goblin like he’s going into a stir fry, but someone still has to make it all disappear. No one else can see this!” She waved her hand over the gore that was growing more odorous as it congealed, increasing the nauseating stink of seawater permeating the small room.
The goblins were only strewn around the living room–a small favor. They could start the blaze there and hope the fire department was dispatched before it spread backward into the grimy, peeling-tiled kitchen, upstairs to the sagging-floored bedrooms, or to one of the equally decrepit homes on each side.
Evangeline broke the stare-off first, letting her gaze drop to the floor. Tension still kept her body rigid, but it was no longer the stance of a cornered predator. Rather, she stood stiff, thrumming with…shame? Regret? She fought a silent battle with herself, and Ash could only imagine the internal dialogue–and she imagined it was as laced with profanity as the girl’s daily speech.
“I lost control,” Stone said to the mess on the floor. “I knew I was losing it, and I should have reigned it in, but it….”
“But it what?” Jesse asked after she struggled with her words for several seconds. His tone was gentle, curious, undemanding.
She looked up, but it was Ash’s eyes she stared into as she answered: “But it felt good to lose it like that. To punish them.”
“That’s not our job,” Ash said. She was stunned and pleased by the open admission. Maybe the blond hellcat could be saved, after all. “We deliver justice to Dregs, and when our own bloodlust gets in the way of doing our job, when punishment becomes more than a task to accomplish, we start losing ourselves. If we lose ourselves to the darkest side of this job, we become no better than the monsters we execute.” She paused, allowing the words time to sink in. It was a speech their team Handler would have been proud of, she thought. “Understand?”
“I understand, I just–” Stone cleared her throat–“I just don’t think about that when I’m killing. It’s like all the shit I learned about just flies out of my brain, and all I want to do is hurt them.”
Stone blinked. “Because they’re Dregs. Goblins are nothing but mindless–”
“Not that. I know why we hunt and execute Dregs. But why do you want to hurt them? You, Stone?”
Every Hunter had a story, and most followed a familiar pattern–unloving household growing up, abused by a parent or guardian, runaway, juvenile corrections, and a choice that came down to Boot Camp or adult jail. Ash never asked for another Hunter’s story. Sometimes it came up in conversation, over the course of working with them on the Triad. She knew Jesse’s because he got very, very chatty after six shots of tequila. He never asked for quid pro quo; she wasn’t certain she’d have told him the truth or the lie.
After all, the lie–a father who was a professional martial artist and a free-spirited mother who married a Korean man against her family’s wishes, both dead in a tragic car accident when Ash was only twelve–was so much more interesting.
What little Ash knew about Stone came from their Handler, Wyatt Truman. He knew Stone’s full story–it was his job to know. She would not have been assigned to their Triad if the trainers at Boot Camp hadn’t thought her a good fit with Jesse and Ash. Trial and error had long ago taught them to compliment existing team members with Rookies. Ash had been around long enough to have seen a dozen Rookies killed within six months of leaving Boot Camp because they just didn’t mesh with their partners. Temperament was important.
Stone could mesh if Ash and Jesse made the effort. It wasn’t Stone’s fault that their partner, Cole Randall, had been captured and incinerated two months ago, perpetrators unknown.
“I did four years in juvenile detention,” Stone said after a pregnant pause. “Asshole in charge had his favorites for punishment and I made his shit list my first month. Every time I kill a Dreg, I’m getting back for all the times I got hit and couldn’t stop it. I gotta kill them first, because I won’t let anyone hurt me like that again.”
Ash nodded, understanding. Jesse had stepped a little deeper into the room, and his biceps flexed, as if constantly stopping from unfolding themselves and wrapping Stone into a bear hug. He reigned in the desire to comfort and protect, and Ash gave him a grateful smile.
“We’re Hunters, Stone,” Ash said. “We serve warrants and do what we’re told. This is a job, not a means to revenge, no matter how much we all would like it to be. If you can’t control yourself, you’re of no use to this Triad. Vengeance leads to carelessness, which leads to one of us getting killed.”
“Fuck.” If an expletive could stand in for “I’m sorry,” then it was the acknowledging apology Ash hoped for. She’d gotten through.
Jesse disappeared into the attached kitchen. Bottles rattled, a cupboard door slammed, then he was back with an ancient bottle of paint stripper. He poured it over the pile of body parts until empty, then wiped the bottle on his pants before dropping it into the mess. Wily and fierce fighters, goblins still had fragile bodies that decomposed quickly. The fire should turn their remains to useless ash, but they couldn’t risk leaving fingerprints on the melted plastic bottle.
Ash fished a lighter out of her jeans pocket, fingertips brushing the nearly empty package of cigarettes. Only one smoked in three days–soon the pack would be nothing more than a security blanket, but she imagined the lighter would always stay nearby. Cole had given it to her last year for Christmas. It was a silver Zippo with an image of her favorite katana engraved on one side, and one of the few items in her life to which she attached sentimental value.
But before she could flip open the lighter and start the fire, her cell phone rang. She checked the display: Truman. Frowning, she flipped it open. “Bedford.”
“Situation resolved?” Wyatt Truman asked. The barked question told her this wasn’t a “how did it go?” kind of call. He just wanted to know if the goblins were dead.
“Yes, targets are neutralized.” She would give a full report later.
“Good, I have a new assignment for you.” He rattled off the address and the few details he had on their target. Ash repeated it word-for-word, committing it to memory and for her partners’ benefits. It sounded relatively straightforward.
“Got it,” Ash said when he finished. “I’ll call you when the job is complete.”
“Eyes wide open.”
Read Part 3 of The Hoarder.