Being Red: Chapter Eleven

I am in my childhood home again, hiding in the laundry basket, the scent of my parents wrapped around me like a comforting blanket, but everything else is wrong. In this version of my dream, heavy gunfire tears through our home. I want to jump from my hiding place to see if the outcome is the same, to check if my parents have still been murdered, or if this is perhaps their salvation. I fear it’s not, but I am trapped regardless, unable to break free of the spot I sat all those years ago.

At least my hands and arms move upon my direction. I am still powerless, the hamper remaining upright and my younger self hidden within it no matter what I do. When I try to climb out, my hands slip away without grabbing anything at all. I am so focused on my attempted escape that I do not notice the lid of the hamper lift away until a familiar voice asks, “Are you alright?”

I reach for the comforting sound before I’ve fully turned to see Kellan standing over me. I don’t even care if his face is a bloody mess, seemingly covered in evidence of the carnage downstairs, but this time his skin is clean. Tears prick at my eyelids.

“I’ll help you,” he says, reaching for my much smaller hand.

I grasp his fingers. Absolute calm unbefitting of my memory settles over me, and I know Kellan would never do anything to hurt me.

“I know,” I tell him, my voice my own and not the higher-pitched tone of my childhood self. I am also no longer in the hamper but standing before him at my full-grown height. I wrap my arms around him and lean my forehead on his solid chest. He folds me into a protective embrace.

Feet pound up the stairs, shattering our moment of peace. My heart skips in my chest, and I push Kellan towards the window. In my gut, I know he too will die if he does not flee.

“Run,” I tell him, but he won’t go.

“Not without you,” he says, matter-of-fact. He’s not arguing, just stating his truth.

“Please,” I beg, the tears coming in earnest now. Not you too, I think.

Before I can come up with a plan, six men in tactical gear burst into the room, the leader putting a bullet in Kellan’s head without a moment’s pause. Kellan falls forward, landing on the carpet. I go down with him, collapsing to my knees with a violent sob. Blood pools around his head, and it’s all I can see through my tears as the men fan out to surround me.

The ring of my cellphone tears me from my nightmares.

I prop myself up on one elbow and grab my phone from the nightstand. The screen lets me know it is only 4:26 in the morning and already Gregor demands my attention, but in a way, I am grateful. Part of me wonders if this man ever truly sleeps, though, or if he is some sort of demon who never rests.

“Red,” I croak in answer, trying to force my vocal cords to work properly. I feel like I really have been crying and not just sleeping, however un-fitfully, and I do my best to shake off the lingering despair left in the wake of my dream.

“I’m sorry, Red,” Gregor’s voice comes through the speaker, and my chest constricts as my mind goes instantly to Kellan. I am right back in my nightmare and trying to pull myself out enough to devise a plan this time. I don’t know how I thought we could get away with this. We are both so dead. Gregor continues, oblivious to my fear, “Valerie is presumed dead, killed by one of her own kind.”

The words ground me enough that my heartbeat somewhat slows. We’ve held onto our lives thus far, but I have yet to discover exactly how much trouble we are in. It will all depend on if Gregor knows that Kellan killed Valerie or if Kellan did a good job hiding our tracks and was able to shift the blame to someone else. I rub my eyes, swing my legs over the side of the mattress so I am sitting, and prepare to take in the rest of what Gregor called to tell me at this ungodly hour.

“I know you wanted to take your revenge personally,” Gregor says, “but you’ll have to settle for Jasper Hodges instead.”

My relief is so instant and strong I feel almost fatigued. I am glad that we get to keep our heads a while longer and that Kellan was clearly able to spin Valerie’s death in our favor. Now I just want to go back to sleep and rest a bit longer before my next hunt begins. I close my eyes and force myself to ask, “Shit, what happened?”

Gregor’s laugh is dark, “Let’s just say, there wasn’t much left of her when they found her. The team tracked Valerie to a detached garage in the city. We’ve been following Hodges for a while now but were never quite able to pin him down, but it seems he’s been living there. Valerie led us right to him. Perhaps she wanted to meet in hopes he would support her in a joint attack on you. We have no way of knowing now. Whatever was said between them, it didn’t end well. Hodges killed her.” Gregor pauses as if for dramatic effect. “And then he ate her.”

Bile rises in my throat and revulsion pulls the corners of my mouth down in a frown. I can practically hear the glee in Gregor’s voice, and I wonder how I could have missed this side of him all these years. Or rather, ignored it. I don’t know whether to be more disgusted with Hodges or myself, so I settle on both.

“Savage,” I agree, not even trying to match Gregor’s energy this early in the day. Happy not to have to lie, I add, “Hodges deserves what I’ll do to him.”

“Good work, Red,” Gregor says. “You got us a worthy trophy this time. Get some sleep. I’ll have a file for you when you get here in the morning and you can lead a strike to take him down before Hodges realizes he’s been found out and tries to relocate his hideout on us.”

“Yessir,” I say right before the line goes silent.

I glance behind me to see if our conversation woke Hayden, but he is still fast asleep, breathing hard through his mouth but not quite snoring.

Satisfied I won’t be caught, I send Kellan a quick text with just two words: Jasper Hodges.

In reply, he simply sends a thumbs up emoji, and I know everything is playing out as he intended, the sneaky bastard. I delete the texts and replace my phone on the nightstand, determined to get a few more hours of sleep before I must track down a madman, for who else would eat another of his own kind?

***

When I wake a second time, I’m still not ready to greet the day, but I roll out of bed anyway. I ignore Hayden doing the same on the opposite side of the mattress. We don’t speak as we shower and dress, or even when I make a chocolate banana protein shake, pour it into two tumblers, and shove one into his undeserving fingers. We leave the house without a word and get into our separate vehicles. I blast the radio all the way to the compound in an attempt to fill my head with anything besides thoughts of every man in my life. Success is relative, and I am pleased that I somehow arrive before Hayden, beating him to the conference room where the file and our briefing await. The win feels petty and so good all at once, and I grin my triumph to the plain walls like I’m still in grade school.

I open the file. Inside there are many pictures of Jasper Hodges, yet until yesterday there was no viable evidence of where he might be staying or working. There is no indication that he has a consistent job, or rather any job at all, and I wonder what he does on a daily basis. He’s probably charming like the average serial killer, but honestly, I am happy not knowing what a man who eats his own kind does for a living. Just thinking about it makes me cringe.

Hayden and Henley enter the conference room together. I nod and offer half a smile to Henley, still committed to ignoring her brother. He’s doing the same, so it’s not awkward at all as I continue to rifle through the file and every piece of information we currently have on Hodges. Casey strolls in hot on Glenn’s heels carrying a box of doughnuts, and the atmosphere lightens.

“Morning!” Casey says, spinning the box of doughnuts on his palm before sliding it onto the table with a flourish.

None of us can help smiling, his energy infectious, except for Hayden who apparently has a heart of ice. Casey cracks the lid and chooses a maple bar. He takes a huge bite before nudging the box towards the rest of us and tosses me a warm parcel wrapped in brown paper.

“Bacon, egg, and cheese croissant,” Casey explains, and I grin my thanks, glad I am already done looking through the photos of Valerie included with the report.

“How come the rest of us don’t get to order special?” Glenn asks with mock offense.

“Cuz you’re not the boss lady,” Casey replies as if it’s obvious.

Glenn elbows Casey out of the way good-naturedly and grabs two frosted doughnuts, one with chocolate and the other with rainbow sprinkles. When everyone but Hayden is munching on something delicious, I swallow a savory bite of my sandwich and begin.

“Our target is Jasper Hodges. Please be diligent, we are dealing with a man-eater, and I want every member of my team to come home in one piece,” I explain, filling them in on everything I now know.

Glenn, usually one to let someone else do the talking, has a gleam in his eye when he asks, “How are we going to approach this one? He seems like a slippery son of a bitch.”

“Yep,” I confirm. With a wink, I add, “This one is for you and me, Weasel.”

I have an overwhelming desire to bench Hayden and leave him off this mission entirely, yet I have no choice but to include him. There is no way around it with Henley still recovering. I need the extra body to plug escape routes, so as much as I hate what I am about to say, I press on.

“We will approach this differently than our last few stings. Henley, you’ll sit this one out since you’re still not cleared for duty. Glenn’s with me, and we’ll focus on taking down the target. Casey and Hayden, you’ll be in charge of blocking off potential escape routes as well as keeping Hodges from fleeing if he somehow manages to slip by Glenn and me.” I give them the final details before wrapping up my instructions with a final note meant only for Casey and Hayden, “Before we get close, I need you to stay in your vehicles at a distance. Otherwise your presence and scents could attract undue attention. Once Glenn and I are in position, I’ll give you the signal. Hopefully, you won’t even have to get out.”

Henley appears disappointed but resigned. Glenn wears an expression like he is a smaller version of Casey, all energy and excitement. And Hayden looks like someone took a shit on his boots, not that I care. Ignoring our feelings, we gear up like the professionals we are. With Henley’s help, we are ready to move out in a little over an hour. Glenn and I are dressed inconspicuously in typical street clothes, but underneath we’re armed to the teeth.

When we we split up to take up our positions, I expect the usual chatter in my ear, but Hayden maintains his silence, so I keep mine. As Glenn and I board the city bus and take seats near the middle, I run through our plan in my mind. It’s quite simple.

We will disembark at the transit center a few blocks from the rundown neighborhood where our scouts placed Hodges and then close the final distance on foot. Once we reach Hodge’s garage, Casey will pull up to block off the primary exit, the door which opens outward to give access to the driveway and street beyond, by backing his truck up against it. At the same time, Glenn and I will break in through the man door in the backyard. Glenn will go for Hodge’s feet, and I’ll go for his head. If he manages to open and escape under the overhead door, which is unlikely because it is the older manual style, then Casey can hop out and give chase while Hayden waits a couple blocks away to intercept him. Easy in theory, I suppose.

About halfway to the garage, however, I can’t shake the feeling that something feels off. I’d like to blame the strange silence and tension amongst my own team members, specifically that between Hayden and me, but I can’t help believing it is something more. Like when Valerie’s eyes were on me before I was aware of her presence. Glenn feels it too because he is shifty. The movement is subtle, but I know him well enough to notice.

I grab Glenn’s hand and say, “Honey, I don’t think the house we’re trying to view is down this street. Maybe the realtor gave us the wrong address?”

“I think he must have,” he agrees with a nod, his eyes sliding to meet mine beneath the visor of his navy ball cap.

In my earpiece, Casey asks, “Are you two made?”

“Maybe we should check out the house another time,” I say to let him know we are not entirely sure but don’t want to chance it and spook Hodges. “We’ll know when the time is right.”

“If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,” Glenn agrees as we stroll back down the street to the transit center where we wait to catch the next bus that will take us back to where we parked several miles away.

“Aborting,” Casey and Hayden confirm in near unison.

“We’ll have another opportunity,” I reiterate. “It’ll still be there tomorrow.”

At least I hope Hodges is in the same spot tomorrow. Regardless if he detected us or not, I worry he will move soon anyhow. Who literally eats someone in their home and sticks around to possibly be caught with the evidence? I suppose the worst has already happened, since he has in fact been discovered to have eaten someone where he seems to be at the very least squatting, so what’s a few more days? We don’t have much choice since we can’t risk going after him now. After potentially being found out, though, we will have to come back in a matter of 12 to 24 hours to catch him before he vacates.

It’s frustrating, but not all hits are created equal. Killing isn’t meant to be easy. The difficulty is a testament to the strength and resilience of living creatures and their sheer will to survive.

Back at the compound, we temporarily shelve our plan, and I release everyone to go home for the day. Against my better judgement and despite the fact that we still aren’t speaking beyond what is necessary to accomplish our work, I drive home knowing that is where Hayden is headed as well. I grumble and regret my decision all the way there since Hayden stormed from the conference room where the team met to debrief, even after I made him a smoothie this morning and allowed him to participate in the mission. Having my olive branches go completely ignored and blatantly unappreciated makes me want to stop trying and expect him to do all the work from now on.

Being in the house and sharing the same space with him without interaction is awkward, so I leave him on the couch watching TV. Once I am out the door, I text Kellan.

Meet me at the gas station on 7th?

I start walking there before I have his answer. A few blocks from my destination, my phone dings. I already know he will agree to meet me, but I check to confirm anyway, more as an estimate of when he might get there.

When I reach the gas station, I go inside and grab a bag of Haribo raspberry candies, the ones with the little round red and nearly-black balls stuck to the clear chewy centers, and a bottle of coconut water. I go back outside to start eating my snack while I wait. I don’t have to stand there long before Kellan’s white truck pulls up. He leans across the center console to throw open the door for me, and I slide in. He pulls out of the small parking lot and drives, I don’t even care where. I wordlessly offer him some of my candy, and Kellan throws me an assessing glance but accepts a handful, tossing both colors in his mouth at the same time.

If I were in a better mood, I’d comment on it and pester him about how he’s eating them ‘wrong’ but I can’t muster up the will at the moment.

“What’s wrong, Dearg?” After a moment of silence I refuse to fill, he says, “And don’t say ‘nothing.’ You texted me, remember.”

“We failed our mission today. We had Hodges in our sights, but I felt like we were being watched and we were worried we would spook him, he’d run, and we’d lose our chance and any hope of finding him again,” I say. And I don’t know what makes me add, “Plus Hayden and I aren’t talking.”

I am happy Kellan passes up the chance to make fun of me, perhaps sensing his jokes would not be well-received, but when are they ever? His eyes remain on the road, and his face remains serious.

“Hodges is a sick bastard,” Kellan says. “Just stand your ground and be persistent. He’s difficult to track because he’s erratic and unpredictable, not because he is careful and flighty. You won’t scare him off. If anything, you’ll just make him want you more.”

For a moment we just ride in silence, and I listen to the road noise.

“Thanks,” I reply. I don’t say for what, but I mean more than just the insights and advice.

“And you should make up if not speaking with Hayden is upsetting you,” Kellan suggests. I don’t like the sound of the name on his lips, and I stiffen. “Just talk to him. I’m sure he’ll come around. It’s not worth being mad at you, Dearg.”

My silence is answer enough, so he leaves it at that.

The thing is, I know he is right on some level, but I almost don’t want to follow his advice and make up with Hayden. I’d never admit it aloud, but I don’t think I care to work things out. I no longer know what is between Hayden and I, and I am not sure our relationship is meant to withstand the test of time. Due to lack of healthy communication, it is already failing on enough levels that I know if I had a counselor, she would be asking me to question myself and my motives for staying with him.

Plus, I just might have my eye on someone else.

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