The old Ford pickup pulls into the lot in front of the motel, engine running hot after two days straight driving. Arkansas plates tell anyone who cares to look another sucker’s found his way to the Rotten Apple. Before the engine goes silent, the rats begin sniffing the air, eager for a fix, or a few bucks, or the simple fun to be had in sticking a stranger who wanders into the wrong territory.
The door opens and he steps out. The rats all freeze. The dust and dirt and Arkansas plates all promised one thing, but he ain’t here to deliver. Sure, he’s dressed in denim and checkered flannel, like you’d expect. Sure, he looks a bit old, a bit grizzled, a bit country. But his eyes...
He’s tall, maybe 6’3” or so. Lean, lanky. For all he looks a bit old and grizzled, he also looks fit. Not fit for a man his age fit, but fit. The faded denim and checkered flannel don’t hide the lean strength. The dark hair, cut short, severe, like that old drill sergeant in every movie you’ve ever seen. And his eyes. Those eyes...
You’d expect cowboy boots. Most days you’d be right. But he ain’t here to line dance, or walk the back forty. The Marine Corps Issue Combat Boots waited in a closet for near twenty years, taken out once every six months or so for a polish. But now they’re ready to work again. He’s ready to work again, back to what he always did best. They can see it. He’s ready. Whatever the rats might want to dish, he’s ready from the soles of those boots all the way up to his eyes. Those eyes...
If this were a movie, someone’d be stupid enough to approach a man like this while the audience laughs voyeuristically at the fate of an extra with one line. If this were a movie, there’d be a need to show the hero a bit by way of violent exposition. But this ain’t a movie, and he ain’t a hero. Hell, this ain’t no place for heroes. More importantly, something the movies never seem to remember or care about, the rats... Rats have finely honed instincts. Instinct which helps them seek out their prey. Instincts which warn them when something bigger and badder is near. The rats see the man, and they see a fellow predator; no, a super predator, one for whom rats are prey. They can see it in his eyes. Those eyes...
It ain’t the blue. They’re actually pretty nice for lookin’ at, most days. It ain’t the squint, hard and closed off against the garish neon glare of the motel sign. It’s death, plain and simple. Death in his calloused hands, and in the way he carries himself, the way he moves. But especially his eyes.
He ain’t a hero.
This man brought death with him.
Karl drops the case and the old duffel on the bed, looking around at the decrepit motel room. Torn, faded wallpaper, stained carpet, stained sheets; hell, stained everything. He shrugs. He’s slept in worse. At least this place has walls and a roof.
It’s been a long drive, but Karl can’t rest yet. He sits up on the bed and opens the case, removing his Bravo. He examines every inch, every piece, checking to make sure everything is in order, same as he’s done a thousand times. Ten Thousand. Twenty, maybe more. Once, sometimes twice a day since he was old enough to pick one up. The difference between life and death is in the smallest sign of wear, the least imperfection, no matter what a man is hunting.
As he examines his weapon, he thinks. He goes over what he knows, and what he figures from that, planning his approach. When he’s done, he reaches into his duffel and removes the box holding his old Colt. The venerable model 1911A, semi auto, sidearm of choice among Marines for decades. The Corps switched over to M9s years ago, but Karl kept his old Colt. He examines it as thoroughly as the rifle, then places it under his pillow. The rats ain’t likely to bother him. But Karl ain’t a betting man.
Karl sets the case to the side of the bed, and lays down. He closes his eyes, and thinks of Katie. Part of him worries, but most of him knows worry don’t help none. He’ll need to be fresh when it’s time to hunt.
“It ain’t like that, Katie.”
Karl’s voice is soft. He rarely speaks louder than he has to, and he rarely has to speak loud. But there’s a pleading to his voice as he looks at his daughter.
Kathryn “Katie” Hathaway glares up at the man she’s called father for nearly seventeen years. She trembles, eyes burning, rage barely contained. In spite of the anger, she’s grown into quite the beauty, like her Ma. But now she looks at him with... betrayal in her eyes. Karl can’t blame her.
“Isn’t like that, daddy?!” Katie shouts up at him. She’s barely five-foot-four, a foot shorter than her daddy. It just means the rage is that much more compressed. “Isn’t like that? You killed my mom!”
“Dammit, girl!” Karl’s voice rises, not quite to a yell. Then he sighs and throws up his hands. Godd**n FOI, he thinks to himself. And why weren’t that bit classified anyhow? He looks down at Katie, at a loss for words. Karl closes his eyes and takes a breath before continuing.
“If you read that, then you read the rest. Your momma... they knew she was my guide. They told her, she didn’t kill me, they’d kill you. Hell, if I’d known when she pulled the knife, I might’ve let her. But then she was lyin’ there, an’ I asked her why, an’ she told me about you.”
Karl closes his eyes again. Seventeen years since that night and it was still fresh in his mind. Willie Caine, best spotter he’d ever served with, bleedin’ out - tactical miscalculation on her part, going for Willie first; Karl taking a blade in the gut, shredding his intestines; and his guide, laying there, gasping her last, shot through the heart. Karl never missed. Never.
“I asked her why, an’ she told me it was to keep you safe. So I did the only thing left to do, Katie. I promised her you’d be safe.”
“I wish she’d killed you!” Katie’s voice has turned cold, and she turns and walks away, slamming her bedroom door. Karl sighs, and sits heavily.
“Me too,” he says softly to the empty living room.
Karl’s eyes snap open, instantly alert. He sighs. Another painful memory, the day he lost his daughter. She never forgave him; Karl was never sure she should. He killed a lot of people. Never felt bad about any of ‘em. ‘Cept that one.
Karl glances at the clock. It’s time. He sits up.
Katie moved out the moment she turned eighteen, changed her name, back to her Vietnamese name, Khanh Phuong. Karl still paid for her college, sent money, made sure she had everything she needed. Katie accepted it, like he owed her, but that’s about it. They’d spoken a few times, but it was never the same, and Karl never knew how to make it right. Twenty five years and it still feels like another knife in the gut.
Karl heads to the sink to splash cold water on his face.
Twenty five years. But none of that matters now.
Katie’s in trouble.
It’s time to hunt.