oldandnewfirm: (Hogfather / Hourglass)
[personal profile] oldandnewfirm
Fandom: Human Target
Rating: R
Characters/Pairings: Chance (Junior), Guerrero
Summary: Sometimes it's wise not to let your curiosity get the best of you: particularly on Halloween.



For all that Baptiste tried, Junior had never done well with crowds. Less so when the crowds in question were a riot of glitter, polyester, latex and the thousand other things people buttoned, smeared, pinned, laced, and otherwise hid themselves behind on the one night of the year they could get away with doing so without looking completely mad. Bad enough that crowds made for terrible environments if you had to mount a quick defense; adding masked strangers with plenty of places to hide weapons into the mix was just asking for trouble. And anyway he wasn’t up for putting on the charm tonight, no matter how cute the girls were- though he’d been sorely tempted, he couldn’t lie.

So instead of lounging on a bench seat in what would have been the third club of the evening, Junior had made his apologies and left Baptiste in the company of the brunette they’d picked up at their first stop before climbing into his car and headed home. His system hummed with the pleasant warmth of the few beers he’d downed as he pondered what to do with the rest of his evening. Watching TV sounded tempting, though he couldn’t deny a pang of guilt at blowing off Baptiste for something so mundane.

An approaching sign caught his attention: Idlewood Park, next left. Junior pursed his lips. Now, there’s an idea.

The word park in its name was a bit deceptive. Idlewood was a actually a small chunk of the state forest that the township had claimed long before the age of the DNR or Parks and Rec, and as far as anyone could tell it had no intention of turning it over now. He didn’t even know if it would be open this time of night- not that chains or bolted gates would be much of an obstacle for him, but breaking and entering just to take a stroll seemed a bit much.

What the hell, he thought, and he turned off onto the road leading to the park. If it was closed he could always turn around and go home.

Fortunately, the park was still open- or at least whoever was supposed to rope it off at night had failed to arrive yet. He pulled into the empty parking lot, figuring that if someone from the parks department did show up it was better that they were aware of his presence so he didn’t end up locked in or scaring the crap out of them by suddenly emerging from the woods.

He’d only been to Idlewood once before, and then in daytime, so he couldn’t recall which of the marked paths was the shortest. He certainly wasn’t in the mood for a hike this late at night, but after two hours trapped in a sea of sweaty, writhing bodies the cool air felt nice on his skin, and he didn’t mind the idea of taking a few extra minutes to burn off his buzz before heading home. In the end he squinted down each lane until he found a path that from his vantage seemed to terminate near the back of a small power station a mile or so away: certainly a reasonable walk.

There was something strangely soothing about the woods at night- At least when you weren’t crawling through them on your belly trying to avoid the eye of a sniper, or stumbling through them blindly while trying to dodge a small army of Colombian drug runners none-too-thrilled with the Americans who’d just set a few million dollars worth of product ablaze. Maybe it was the relative silence compared to the bustle of day, or the somber quality of the darkness itself. Either way, Junior appreciated the little moments he had to commune with nature- in small doses, anyway.

Something cracked, like a creature snapping twigs in the underbrush.

Junior froze. The sound was intermittent but deliberate, and not too far off. A hundred feet at most. It hadn’t stopped at his approach, which meant whatever or whoever was making it hadn’t heard him yet.

He swiveled his head left and right, straining to see into the shadows cast by the trees. The moonlight streaking through the canopy revealed nothing but bare branches thrusting into the air like desperate hands and the slick carpet of fallen leaves on the forest floor.

There. A glimmer of movement too far in his periphery to be made out clearly. He tensed, then raised his left foot and set it down a little further out and forward with as much trepidation as if he was crossing a mine field. The right foot followed suit, going behind and around instead, and so he now found himself facing the direction from which the movement had come. It took a few seconds, but as his eyes adjusted to this new perspective his attention drew to a gap between some bushes, and through this he began to make out the humped shape of something jerking near the ground.

This late, this deep in the park, it was probably an animal. A possum, perhaps, or a deer foraging during the blissful hours when both two and four legged predators were at rest. But the longer he stared, the more he realized that the thing between the bushes was all the wrong shape for any animal he could think of- any that lived in the area, anyway. A stray dog was a possibility. But Junior couldn’t hear the telltale huffing and excited grunts of a mutt burrowing into leaves.

What he did hear was the cracking. And something beneath it, maybe. Something wet and familiar in a way that made Junior’s skin prickle, though he couldn’t pin down what it was.

Caution warred with curiosity. Almost absently his palm settled on the rough hilt of his Bowie nestled in its sheath. He’d rather not get into a knife fight on such uneven terrain, but he could if he had to. Which he didn’t, the more rational part of his mind bickered. He could leave as quietly as he’d come, and both he and whatever that thing was lurking in the night could go about their lives in blissful ignorance of the other.

Junior sucked in his bottom lip and chewed it for a moment. Then he grinned.

Nah.

He firmed up his grip on the hilt of his knife began edging forward through the woods towards the rustling bush.

An oak tree stretched over the scene, its trunk broad enough for Junior to use as cover. He pressed himself against it and listened for a hiss of surprise or any sign that his approach hadn’t gone unnoticed.

But nothing happened. Slowly he peeled himself from the trunk. It sat on a hillock a few yards away from the bushes and so offered Junior just enough height to peer around it and see-

It was eating. That’s the wet noise his ears had heard but couldn’t place. And the cracking made sense now. It was the sound of bones both large and fine being wrestled from the tangled innards of a carcass and gnawed clean of the muscle and sinew that had once bound bone to flesh to…to person.

Junior had a high tolerance for gore. You had to, in his line of work. But there was a limit to everything, as the acid taste of dinner bubbling back up his throat confirmed.

He swallowed hard, then balanced against the tree to keep from staggering as a fresh wave of nausea nearly bent him in half. Bile sprayed the back of his teeth, but he didn’t dare spit it out. If he opened his mouth now, there’d be no stopping the rest of it. Instead he sucked in several deep, slow breaths through his nose until his stomach’s churning quieted to an unhappy rumble. He swallowed again, which went a little better than the first time, and willed himself to ignore the sour taste on his tongue.

Something’s wrong.

The knowledge rippled from the tips of his fingers to the soles of his feet, steeling him for action even before he realized exactly what had happened:

The noises had stopped.

He didn’t move. He didn’t breathe. He took a moment to collect himself, then peeped around the tree long enough to confirm that whatever had been…had killed that person was no longer there.

Shit.

The back of his neck began to tingle urgently. If he listened hard, he thought he could hear the moist whisper of something breathing behind him.

He pivoted on his heel and thrust out his opposing foot in a kick that collided with nothing and almost sent him toppling when the traction of the forest floor made him overshoot the follow through. He steadied himself and cast around for the thing in the bushes, but saw no sign of it. It had to be near though. It must have heard him gag before, had certainly heard his fumbling just now.

He turned and promptly bumped his chin on the forehead of a pale, gnarled creature with milky eyes as wide as teacups and a bloodstained mouth with far too many teeth.

Junior smashed the heel of his hand into the blunt stub of its nose. The creature grunted and shook its head, but before it could recover Junior buried his knife hilt-deep in its shoulder.

The creature howled and staggered back with its good hand fluttering in the air as though it couldn’t decide with injury to attend to first. Junior was happy to let it sort that problem out in private.

He tore through the woods at a clip that would’ve impressed any marathon runner. If the thing was pursuing him he couldn’t hear it over the din of his own retreat, but when he finally glanced over his shoulder he saw nothing but the quivering outlines of all the foliage he’d upset in his wake.

He almost winded himself on his car door in his haste to get inside of it; he jammed the key into the ignition and seconds later he whipped screeching onto the main road, leaving only acrid smoke and swirl of debris behind him.

That Junior made it home without wrapping himself around a pole was a small miracle; that he hadn’t been pulled over, a greater one. His nerves sparked with frantic energy that carried him up the stairs, around the corner, and down the hallway to his apartment in a blur of motion that seemed like a dream. His hands twitched so much that he dropped his keys twice before finally managing to work them into the lock.

He chained and bolted the door behind him, made it halfway through the room, then spun on his heel and proceeded to check the locks on the balcony doors. He did the same in his bedroom and the guest room, making sure that every blind was drawn and the windows secure before he strode to the bathroom, flipped up the toilet seat, and heaved everything he’d eaten for the last several hours into the bowl.

When his throat could bring up nothing but sour air he slumped against the opposite wall and shuddered.

“What the hell was that?”

He started to rake his fingers over his scalp, then stopped when he noticed the smears of blood that had cooled just shy of flaking on his wrist and sleeve.

“Great,” He muttered. “And this is my favorite jacket, too.”

He stood, then turned on the cold water tap in the sink and thrust his hands beneath the spray. For the first time since returning he was able to take in his appearance in the medicine cabinet mirror: his face and neck were ruddy from the effort of his flight, and from the countless fine scratches he’d collected while running through the branches and barbs. His poor jacket wasn’t in much better condition, either. Man was not meant to go adventuring in four hundred dollar designer leather.

Once his hands were clean Junior splashed some water on his face and scrubbed it dry with a towel, then wandered out of the bathroom. After one more anxious circuit of the apartment he went to his room, stripped off his clothes, and flopped into bed.

The clock on the nightstand informed him it was eleven thirty-two in bleary green numerals. Junior had been tired when he left the party, but he couldn’t even fathom going to sleep now. Not when his imagination was conjuring outlines of ravenous man-creatures lurking outside his window. Or worse, hideous figures scaling the building with too-large fingers, gliding through the balcony door glass like it was made of air, and tip-toeing across the carpet to his room to lean over his bed and press bared lips to his collarbone until he could feel the impression of dozens of teeth as honed and deadly as any bladeā€¦

The cheerful tune of his cell phone ringing nearly sent him thrashing to the floor.

It took him a moment to remember where he’d put the damn thing, but finally he scrambled to the edge of the bed, grabbed his jacket, and fished it out of the inner pocket.

“Hello?” He said.

“Hey dude.” Guerrero sounded surprised, and a little stuffy. “You’re asleep? I thought you’d be out partying.”

“Um.”

Junior glanced at the clock, which against all odds now read three fifteen.

“Yeah,” He said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “I was. I was showing Baptiste some places in town, but I got tired and he found some people, so I left.”

Guerrero snorted. “What are you, ninety? ”

“Hah hah.” Said Junior flatly. “Look, what do you need?”

“Geez, touchy. Didn’t realize you got grumpy without a nap, Junior.”

“It’s not that.” Junior snapped. Then, catching himself, “Something…something happened on the way back home.”

“The kind of something that would require the services of one such as myself?”

“No, no, nothing like that. I’d have called you. And the old man would kick my ass. Working for free and all.”

“Point. So, what’s up?”

“This…”

He shook his head.

“Look,” Junior said, “You’re not going to believe me.”

“Okay dude, when you open a story with that line you’ve got to tell it.”

“No, I’m serious- you’re not going to believe me. It’s crazy. Hell, I think I sound crazy and I was there!”

“Spill Junior.” There was an undercurrent of real command in that statement that two years of working with the man had taught him it was best not to ignore.

“Okay.” Junior said. “I was at the park. You know Idlewood, up by Sentry Road? Yeah, there. I was feeling a little restless after the party, so I figured I’d go for a walk to cool down a bit before I headed home. I was on the path when I heard this weird crunching noise.”

He swallowed. “Look, I know I shoul’ve left it alone, but I was buzzed, and stupid, and I figured it was probably just some weird animal or some teenagers going at it, I don’t know. I just figured what the hell. I walked over. I hid behind a tree at first, to see if it heard me. It didn’t. So then I looked around and there was…”

“What?” Guerrero prodded.

“Blood.” Said Junior, letting out a shaky breath. “A lot of blood.”

And the memory of it was rushing back now, sending his stomach flipping all over again even though there was nothing left to purge.

“It was eating someone. It had opened them up like, like a pig or something, and it was just tearing them apart. I don’t know what it was, some kind of human…thing. I didn’t get a good look at it, even when it attacked me-”

“It attacked you?”

“Yeah. Oh, yeah- it heard me, and it came after me. I managed to stab it before I got away.”

“Did it chase you?”

“No. Not that I saw, anyway. I mean, who knows? What if it can turn invisible? What if it can fly?”

Silence buzzed through the line.

“You don’t believe me.” Junior said after a while. Indignant anger sloshed into the crannies of his brain left hollow by the ebbing of adrenaline. But he couldn’t blame Guerrero, not really. Hell, if Guerrero had come to him with a story like that, he’d probably have laughed in his face.

“I believe you saw something.” Guerrero said carefully. “Because seriously dude, you sound tweaked. I mean, ‘on your knees staring down the barrel of a gun’ tweaked. But are you sure it was real?”

“What? Of course it was real, I was-”

“No, dude, I mean, how do you know it wasn’t a skit or something? It’s Halloween after all. For all you know it was just some dick in a mask who decided to screw around with joggers.”

“At nine o’ clock at night, in a forest?”

“Didn’t say the guy was bright.”

“Look, I’ve seen enough dead bodies to know when they’re real and when they aren’t. Trust me, it was real.”

“I’m not doubting you, dude. I’m just saying, let’s consider all the possibilities before you blame the wolf man.”

“It wasn’t a wolf. It was a…thing. This awful, shriveled little thing. It had huge eyes like a fish and this weird little nose, and its breath-!”

“Okay, okay.” Said Guerrero. “I get it. Look, I’ll tell you what: would it make you feel better if we checked?”

“What?”

“Well you remember what path you were on, right?”

“Yeah…”

“So we go to the woods, have a look around, see if we can find any sign of the thing. If not, well, that doesn’t really prove anything one way or the other, but if we do manage to grab it I’m pretty sure I know some lab types who’d be interested in buying. I wonder if we should take it dead or alive? Hm. Maybe I should grab some rope…”

“Guerrero.”

“I’m serious, dude. Let’s go, right now.”

“Right now?”

“Right now. Why not? No one’s gonna be there this time of night. If we do find a body we can take a peek and be long gone before the power walkers show up and start screeching about it to the news.”

Taking a peek at any bodies theoretical or otherwise was low on Junior’s to-do list for the rest of the evening- well, morning at this point. On the other hand, Guerrero’s willingness to humor him was an unexpected kindness, and though Junior wasn’t keen to go back to the forest, he did want to find some evidence of what had happened, if only to prove he wasn’t going mad.

“All right.” He said. “Meet you there?”

“In about half an hour? I’m wrapping something up here.”

In the background, Junior could hear the splash of something large and heavy hitting water.

“Sure. See you then.”

Even Guerrero’s gentle banter and the comforting weight of Junior’s Walther strapped to his thigh couldn’t dull the edge of Junior’s nerves as they left their cars in a secluded patch of the park and headed towards the main junction between the paths. The moon had vanished behind cloud cover, transforming the trees into looming giants, every low branch into a grasping claw, and lending the various and sundry noises of the night a sinister edge. To Junior, it felt like the world was watching them. Guerrero on the other hand seemed almost chipper, even in spite of the swollen nose he’d apparently earned during the course of his business in town.

“This way.” Junior said, leading Guerrero down the path he’d taken before. They’d foregone flashlights in the interest of camouflage, though they both had one in case the situation changed and required it. For now they plodded through the darkness, pausing every so often as Junior took a moment to identify a landmark or investigate the leaf cover before continuing.

Then, suddenly, the oak tree was before them, the bushes just beyond. Junior held up a hand for Guerrero to stop, then gestured to the massive tree.

“There,” He whispered. “I was hiding there when I saw it. It was sitting right behind the bushes.”

“All right.” Said Guerrero. “Let’s go.”

A protest shot to Junior’s tongue and stuck there. He was an assassin for God’s sake. Bad enough that his mentor had pitied him enough to go all the way out here; there was no way Junior was going to embarrass himself further by whining like a kid.

Junior slid his gun from its holster and followed Guerrero across the forest floor. They passed the tree trunk; the bushes themselves were about two yards away. Guerrero stopped at the edge of them, his own gun out, then he sighed and motioned for Junior to come closer.

He did.

There was nothing there.

No bones. No blood. Not even a scrap of fabric that could’ve come from the victim’s clothing. It didn’t look like anything had been here, further less a corpse and a man-eating creature.

“You sure it was here, dude?” Guerrero asked.

“Yes!” Junior said, trying not to sound desperate. He wasn’t going crazy. The thing had attacked him; there’d been blood on his hands!

“I’m not seeing anything.” Guerrero said. He was kneeling on the ground now, prodding at the leaves.

“Maybe it moved the body somewhere else.”

Guerrero raised an eyebrow. “And power washed the leaves after it was done?”

“It was here.”

Guerrero sighed, and stood.

“Look, Junior, it’s Halloween. You said yourself you were buzzed. Maybe you were strolling along and you saw, I don’t know, a dead deer or something getting gnawed on by a dog and you thought-”

“It wasn’t a dog. It wasn’t a deer. I know what I saw, and I’m going to prove it!”

“Really?” Guerrero said. “How?”

“I don’t know, I just will.”

Guerrero shook his head and moved to pat Junior on the back.

“Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. I think it’s time we headed back.”

“I’m not crazy!” Junior said, throwing his hands in the air and inadvertently knocking Guerrero’s away. Guerrero hissed and backed away, clutching at his shoulder.

“What’s wrong?” Junior asked, furrowing his brow.

“Nothing.” Said Guerrero through gritted teeth. “I got winged by a bullet a couple days ago, no big deal. Come on, let’s go.”

Junior frowned.

“Hey,” He said. “Why’d you call me earlier?”

“What?”

“Why’d you call me? You never call me unless it has something to do with work.”

“Oh. Well, it did. I needed to ask Baptiste something and couldn’t get a hold of him; I knew you mentioned you two were heading out tonight, so-”

“But why not leave a message? There was no way of guaranteeing I’d be with him the whole night. And anyway, if it were that important you’d have called Joubert. Baptiste might ignore a call from you, but not from the old man.”

“Hey man, what’s your problem all of a sudden? Why all the questions?”

“How did you hurt your arm?”

“I told you, the guy in town-”

“How did you really hurt your arm?” Junior said. He could feel sweat beading on the back of his neck. “Why’d you agree to bring me out here? It was awfully nice of you. A little too nice, I’d say.”

“If you knew that,” Said Guerrero, straightening, “Then why agree to come? That’s pretty dumb, don’t you think? I thought I taught you better than that Junior.”

Junior opened his mouth to answer, which was about as far as he got before Guerrero lunged and slammed him into the bush.

Guerrero grabbed his hand and snapped it backwards, not enough to break bone but enough to make Junior yelp and drop his gun, which Guerrero flung away. Junior fought to shake free of the bush, managing to get enough of a foothold to roll to the ground and dodge what would’ve been a crushing kick to his ribcage.

“Guerrero,” Junior began. Then he stopped.

The creature standing over him was roughly Guerrero’s build and height, though the sweatshirt and jeans Guerrero had been wearing sat a little too big on its frame. And now that Junior stared at him properly he realized that its large eyes had the same washed-out hue of his friend’s. But the similarities ended there. As Junior gawked the creature-that-was-Guerrero kicked off its shoes and unzipped the sweatshirt, letting it slide off of its narrow arms to the ground.

“I like you and all, kid,” Guerrero said. His voice now had a rough, phlegmy quality to it, like he was spitting the words out over a mouthful of pebbles. “But sometimes you’re too smart for your own good. You’ve gotta learn when to leave well enough alone, you know?”

It took Junior several seconds to gather a coherent series of words, and even then all that emerged was:

“What are you?”

“A ghoul. And no, that’s not a type of ghost. We’re more like zombies.”

“So you’re dead?”

“Nope. I’m as alive as you are…for now.”

He lunged again, but this time Junior was ready. He flipped out of the way and swung his foot up, catching Guerrero in the stomach and sending him skittering to the ground. Junior cast around for his gun but couldn’t even find a glimmer that might give away its position. He didn’t have long to look, either, because Guerrero had recovered and was once again on his feet. He’d landed on his bad shoulder, Junior realized, because the bandages around it were flushing with blood once more. Guerrero cradled the wound; it felt like he was glaring at him, though with those giant lidless eyes it was impossible to tell.

“Look,” Said Junior, holding up his hands. “I don’t want to fight you.”

“If only those survival instincts had kicked in three minutes ago.”

“I won’t tell anyone about what you are, I promise.”

“Wish I could believe that, kid, but I know you. All that anxiety would swell up like one big bubble and you’d spill the beans to someone.”

“To who? Who would believe me?”

“There are some that might, and some that would. Hell, they don’t even have to believe I’m a monster- being a people eater is enough to creep most folks right the fuck out. Once a rumor like that starts spreading, my client list is going to get a lot shorter. There goes easy money and easy meals.”

“You mean you eat the bodies?

Guerrero shrugged. “Sometimes. They’re gonna get eaten anyway; I figure if I’m the one doing all the work of hidin’ em, I get first dibs. Benefits of being a freelancer and all.”

Junior stared at him in horror.

“What? It’s what we do. Anyway, in a few more minutes you won’t have to worry about it.”

Guerrero swung a kick at him that Junior barely dodged. Within a breath Guerrero was upon him with an elbow to his shoulder blades and a knee that caught him in the hollow of his throat. Junior wheezed and stumbled then kept going as his heel slipped from under him on the dew-slick leaves. His body kept going, tumbling over and over down the side of a gully he hadn’t seen in the darkness. He dropped onto a fallen tree limb and felt the air leave his lungs in a rush before he finally rolled into brambles and came to a painful halt.

He groaned and rolled onto his side, willing himself to breath through it all. His nostrils flared, taking in the bitter, earthen smell of rot and a sharper, coppery odor that sent klaxons blazing in his head.

So that’s what he did with the leaves, Junior thought. He shuddered and threw himself forward and up to snatch at the exposed roots of the oak tree and drag himself out of the bush.

He didn’t make it far, however, before Guerrero landed next to him and pinned him to the ground with a knee to his chest. He caught Junior’s flailing fist easily in his good arm.

“Sorry kid.” Guerrero said. And he did sound sorry, in spite of everything. Somehow, Junior didn’t find it comforting.

Junior’s free hand had landed once more in the brambles when he fell. But as he tried to maneuver it free his palm slapped against something hard and cold caught in the vines. Junior swallowed back the hysterical laugh that threatened to burst from his mouth when he recognized the smooth outline of his Walther.

Guerrero bared his mouth full of innumerable teeth and lurched for Junior’s throat at the same instant Junior snarled and whipped the gun free from the bush.

A shot echoed into the night. There was a cry of pain and surprise cut short; then, nothing.

Some minutes later a lone, bloody figure emerged from the woods, stumbling towards the partially hidden cars. The figure slumped against one for a moment, then finally managed to open the door, climb in, and drive away.

Date: 2010-11-17 05:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] bane-6.livejournal.com
Fun! And gruesome. Perfect for Halloween! And I have to ask, is being a ghoul contagious by bite or anything that Chance might have to worry about later?

Date: 2010-11-17 10:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] oldandnewfirm.livejournal.com
Ghoul-dom isn't contagious based on what I've read about them, though that would be an interesting twist.

Does it really come off that Chance was the survivor? I'd meant to make it ambiguous, but someone else mentioned that the ending should've been left up to the reader's imagination, so I guess I wasn't successful. I think I'll go back and remove the line about the pained cry; maybe that's what's throwing it off.

Date: 2010-11-17 10:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] bane-6.livejournal.com
It is pretty ambiguous. I think it was the part about slumping that made me think it was Chance. Since Guerrero was prepared to eat him and all and I kinda imagine that even injured, there wouldn't be much slumping. I dunno. That's just me.

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