The Homecoming Job, Part One of Four
From the files of Gary Hart, Monster-slayer
Author’s note: I am experimenting with serialized fiction on Medium. A new part will go up each day for the next three days (November 8–10, 2017). If you enjoy this and want to read more, please clap or respond in some way so I know to keep going. Click here for Part Two.
Chapter One: Whiskey and Cigars
The Zombies were on the tape deck when Gary rolled into town. It seemed appropriate. He buried this place a decade and a half earlier, loading up the trunk and leaving it in his rearview. But the town refused to stay dead.
The main drag was much as he remembered it, generic suburban sprawl. There was just more of it. Over the years, the town crept like a glacier. Stores closed and relocated to new strip malls up the road, leaving the old ones to rot like hollow carcasses.
The last working farm was gone, replaced by a retirement community with its own golf course. There were more houses, more cars, more gas stations, and more traffic lights. In the windows around him, lights came on against autumn’s early sunset, but Gary kept his sunglasses on. He flipped the tape as he waited at a red light, and checked his mirrors. The driver behind him cast no reflection.
Gary opened a fresh water bottle from the case in the back seat and took a long pull. The light changed, and the El Dorado’s engine snarled as he pressed the gas. A plastic rattle came from the empty water bottles in the passenger foot well.
Fifteen years hadn’t been long enough to forget this town. He passed the fast-food taco joint where he’d sweated away a summer over a grill machine, the corner convenience store where he used to buy candy bars and Magic cards, and the grungy department store where his mother bought his clothes. A left turn there, and he’d be in his old neighborhood. Not that it held anything he’d want to visit.
From the day he left, Gary intended never to breathe this air again. A man would do anything for the right price, though, and the IRS had named his. With apologies to Mister Franklin, in Gary’s line of work only one thing was certain.
The offices of Carolus.com were in a small office park recently constructed on the far side of town, one ridge short of Gary’s high school. There was no sign on the building, or on the parking lot marquee, but the lights were on inside and the sign on the door was flipped to “OPEN,” so Gary parked. It was Foghat playing when he cut the engine.
The sky had gone the pale blue of cadaver lips, dusted with stars like shattered glass. It was warm for the season, but a cool breeze met Gary as he stepped out of the car, riffling his hair and carrying the scents of mulch and dry leaves. He was dressed as he always did for work: tactical pants, engineer boots, and shirt, all black. Over them was them the black leather duster that reached to his ankles. He tugged the lapels to smooth the fit before he went inside.
Carolus.com might have been in business one day, for all the use their offices had seen. The magazines in the sitting area were in mint condition, which was more than he could say for the platinum-blonde receptionist. Though her practiced smile was warm enough, the way it wrinkled her face told her story. She hadn’t put enough away for retirement, and she’d be stuck earning her checks until she went to the grave. Gary could sympathize.
“Can I help you?” Her tone suggested she’d mistaken Gary for a baby, or maybe a kitten.
“Gary Hart, for Brendan and Pat.”
“Gary Hart.” She cocked her head like an inquisitive parakeet. “Like — “
“Like the politician,” Gary said. “Yes, I’m aware of the coincidence.”
“No, like the singer.” Her smile expanded until her cheeks met her oversized earrings. “You wear your sunglasses at night.”
Gary folded the glasses into a coat pocket.
“That’s Corey Hart,” he said.
Looking appropriately reproved, the receptionist lifted the phone and held up a finger. Gary stepped back, perusing the walls while he waited. There was nothing to see. A ficus tree, a few chairs that looked fresh from the showroom, the chemical smell of new carpet still overpowering the receptionist’s plate of potpourri. No business was done here. Whatever Carolus.com was into, Gary thought, this office was a front.
“I wonder if you have phone bills,” Gary said when the receptionist put down the phone.
“Oh, how rude of me.” Gary offered his hand. “I’m afraid I didn’t ask your name earlier.”
“Lin — Linda,” she said. She gave him a quick shake, clasping his fingers lightly.
“Linda, Gary Hart. I said I wonder if you keep company phone bills on file. I’d love to take a copy with me when I leave tonight.”
“I — I don’t know…”
“I think it might be very useful,” Gary said. “Business purposes, of course. I’m afraid I can’t say more, you understand. Client confidentiality.”
Linda’s face reddened. Her eyes flitted across her desk, as if the proper response might come from among her collection of plastic trolls. Perhaps it was written on a sticky note. “I… I’d have to ask — “
A voice boomed behind Gary. “That won’t be necessary.” Linda swooned with relief. When Gary turned, a beefy man in a boxy pinstriped suit was bearing down on him. He looked like someone dressed up a gorilla and taught it to walk upright and smile.
“Gary Hart. Holy shit, man. Holy shit.”
In one choreographed move, the man seized Gary’s right hand, squeezing like a vice and pulling him in for a one-armed hug and a slap on the back, then pushing him back. The grip on his hand did not let up.
“Hey Pat,” Gary said. “Looking good.”
“You too, man. Jesus.” Pat finally released Gary’s hand as he looked to Linda. “This guy, look at him. You know how far back we go? I played kickball with this guy.”
Linda offered a weak smile. “Oh wow,” she said.
Pat beckoned Gary to follow him. “Come on back, Brendan’s dying to see you. Lisa, you can head home. Lock the door, we’ll do the rest.”
Linda nodded. Gary followed Pat, who looked back with a smirk.
“Gotta tell you, buddy, you cost me some money. I bet Brendan you wouldn’t show.”
If Pat Meyer was a gorilla, Brendan Thompson was a giraffe. His neck stretched from the collar of his polo shirt as if his head were trying to escape his body, bulging slightly where his chin should have been and meeting directly with his fleshy lips. Like Pat, Brendan looked just as he had in high school, except for the gray hair and the soft fat that sagged from his jaw. He met Gary with an enthusiastic smile and an outstretched hand.
Their office was more like a lounge, festooned with bar mirrors and sports banners and furnished with black vinyl armchairs. A small refrigerator in the corner was packed solid with cans of light beer, and a tray of liquor bottles rested on top. Brendan and Pat had already poured glasses of whiskey, which waited on the glass coffee table beside three cigars waiting to be cut. Gary accepted a cigar, but passed on the whiskey. Instead he sipped from a bottle of water he’d brought from the car.
When Pat and Brendan questioned him, Gary shrugged. “The human body’s seventy percent water.”
“That’s probably why you look so good,” Pat said. “Jesus, doesn’t he look good, Bren?” He bounced with an energy that suggested substances besides tobacco and whiskey. “How much weight did you lose, big man?”
Brendan laughed. “You been doing Crossfit or something? I remember people used to oink at you.”
Gary remembered, too. The annual fitness test, six laps around the school’s cinder track with his belly swinging, his tits bouncing at his face. They’d oink each time they lapped him, and now and then someone would slap his ass. A few of the more inventive boys ran backward ahead of him. “Soo-wee, pig,” they called. “Soo-WEE!”
Gary sipped his water. “Or something,” he said. “I didn’t come to rehash old times. Angela said — “
“Hold on, hold on.” Pat settled back and puffed on his cigar. “No one’s seen or heard from you since graduation, man. You gotta tell us a little bit at least. You joined the army, right? Did you go to Iraq?”
“No way,” said Brendan. “He went to seminary. You’re like, a priest now, right? Probably some weird religion.”
Gary told them, in Hungarian, three ways they could fuck themselves. The two squinted.
Brendan leaned toward Pat. “Was that Latin?”
Gary took a long puff on his own cigar. It was sweet and subtle. At least the two had good taste in smoke. “I was in Bosnia for a while. It wasn’t a military deployment, though, just travel. Spent a lot of time kicking around the Balkans. And actually yes, I am a priest, Brendan. Hungarian Reformed. I don’t know how weird that is.”
“I knew it. That’s another fifty, man.” He raised his glass toward Gary. “Crazy, man. Crazy. Everybody else is getting fucking married, having fucking kids.”
Pat coughed and ashed his cigar. “You have kids?”
“None I’ve met.”
“Fucking keep it that way,” Pat said.
The two clinked glasses, but Brendan cast a sideways look at Gary. “I mean, I love my kids, and my wife. You know. It’s just so much responsibility. You have no time for yourself.”
“You though, man,” said Pat. “You got no strings. Just bouncing around Europe or wherever you please. Shit, I remember you as a total loser. Now look at you. Probably have ten bitches waiting for you, all in different cities, all hotter than any of our wives.”
Brendan looked half apologetic, half curious to hear Gary’s reply. Gary blew out a cloud of smoke.
“Fellas, there’s a reason I didn’t keep in touch. I’m not your friend. I hate this fucking town and everyone in it. I’m not here so you can reflect on your glory days. I’m here because Angela said you’d pay, and as it happens right now I need to get paid worse than I need to avoid you and all this bullshit.”
Pat worked his jaw, and his fingers squeezed his glass so tight Gary thought he was about to need stitches. Instead he threw back the last of his whiskey. “And what if we tell you to fuck off, Gary Pig Boy? You think you’re impressive with this tough-guy act? Think you’re hot shit because you lost some weight? Look at you, dressed up like you walked out of the Matrix. Why the fuck do we even need you?”
“Stop, Pat.” Brendan stared at his hands. His voice was quiet. “We do need him. We’re in trouble.”
“Most of my clients are,” said Gary.
Slowly, Brendan twirled a fingertip around the rim of his glass. “What did Angela tell you?”
“She told me you’re in trouble. My kind of trouble.”
Pat huffed. “This is bullshit.” He leaned toward Gary. “What exactly is your kind of trouble?”
“You tell me.”
Pat slapped the arm of his chair. Gary’s face was placid, but inside he was relishing the display.
Brendan drew a photograph from the inside pocket of his sport coat. He pursed his lips as he studied it, glancing at Gary as if mulling a poker bet. Slowly, he laid it on the table. Three men posed in front of a brick building, smiling and sharing cigars that might have come from the same box as the one Gary held. He recognized all three. Two were presently in the room, and the third was another high school classmate.
“That’s Jake Trenk,” Brendan said. “You might remember him. He’s my brother-in-law, and our business partner. He owns a third of Carolus.com. This photo is from three weeks ago, right after we closed on a warehouse on the other side of town. A few days after, Jake disappeared. He was working late on renovations, alone. My sister said he called, said he’d heard something weird. That was the last anyone heard from him.”
“So you filed a missing persons report,” Gary said. “What did the police find?”
Brendan and Pat exchanged a glance. They hadn’t filed a report. Just like Gary figured.
“That’s the thing,” Brendan said. “A couple days later, we found him.”
“You might say he found us,” said Pat. “He and his new friends.”
Gary took a drink. “His wife must be relieved.” But of course they hadn’t told his wife. The etiquette was so unclear about telling a woman her husband was one of the flesh-eating undead. The owners of Carolus.com didn’t want the police involved, though Gary hadn’t yet decided why, so they spent ten days dicking around and trying to solve the problem themselves before calling in a professional.
Brendan finished his whiskey. It went down hard. His cigar had burned half to ash and gone out, waiting untouched on the edge of the ashtray. “Do you want to go to the warehouse? Tonight?”
“It’s better if we don’t go at night,” Gary said. “Tomorrow, I think.”
He glanced at Pat, who had emptied and refilled his glass for the third time. He wore the pink flush and the fifty-yard stare of a man barreling his way from buzzed into solidly hammered, and there was still a slow burn behind his eyes. A bully was a bully, at age seventeen or thirty-two, and in bully math Gary’s gaining status meant Pat was losing his. Humans were basic animals, and though he may not know it consciously, Pat Meyer’s primate brain was contemplating whether it was too late to knock Gary back down where he belonged. All Pat knew was the new Gary Hart rubbed him the wrong way.
“Tomorrow,” Pat said. He swirled his glass. “So tonight, Gary, how about we drink on it?”
“Raincheck,” Gary said, and finished his water. He snapped the duster jacket straight as he stood. “I’ve got another call tonight. I’ll meet you two at your warehouse, ten AM. Wear old clothes, something you can move in freely and don’t mind throwing away. Long sleeves, long pant legs. Shoes you can toss. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“You want directions?” Brendan started to pull a pen from his jacket.
“I have the address,” Gary said. “But you can give me directions to the pisser before I go.”
It was full dark when Gary left Carolus.com. The El Dorado gave a satisfying growl when he started her up, and Foghat ripped back to life as if no time had passed. Gary left a little rubber in the parking lot to mark his passing. As he fishtailed onto the highway, he slipped on the sunglasses. He felt like himself again.
The town line was two miles down the road, and that’s where Gary headed. As in many suburban towns, the next one over was a shithole, condemned to neglect by virtue of its marginally closer proximity to the city. It was where the locals sent “those people,” the ones who couldn’t afford four bedrooms and an in-ground pool, who worked second-shift jobs for minimum wage, whose children wouldn’t fit in at Gary’s high school. That was where the drugs were sold, they told themselves, and it was where all their kids went when they were looking for trouble.
It didn’t take much looking. The hookers smiled and cooed as Gary rumbled past, and at a red light a dealer leaned in his window and offered “smoke, coke, perks, oxy, or you name it he could get it.” Gary waved the guy away. He circled the block and turned down the hill. There was a playground at the next intersection, a chain link fence surrounding the concrete plaza and its bare metal equipment, and that was where Gary spotted the kid.
He leaned against the fence, smoking a cigarette he was maybe old enough to buy, dressed in a long black trench coat and boots that looked three sizes too big. His hair was bleached silver and glued up in tall spikes. He was skinny, and angry red pimples stood out against his pale skin. The kid held eye contact as Gary rolled past. Gary turned the corner and idled, pumping the gas once for that extra snarl.
The kid came up on the passenger side.
“Nice car.” He stroked a finger along the chrome window trim. “Cherry.”
“Thanks,” said Gary. The kid didn’t lean over, so Gary was left talking to his torso. “How old are you?”
The kid bent down then, a cocky smile on his face. “How old do you want me to be, man?”
“Get in,” said Gary.
The kid dropped onto the seat and tugged the door shut, throwing one booted foot up onto the dash. He didn’t ask for money up front, but kept smiling as Gary pulled out. That smile said the kid was getting the best of this deal no matter what. Gary figured he probably did, most of the time.
There was a school a couple blocks down, a city-style school with a twenty-foot fence around its empty parking lot. Gary turned in, killing the lights on the El Dorado and rolling into a space hidden behind a wing of the building. Dirty yellow light spilled from a sodium lamp, illuminating half the kid’s face as he leaned in. Gary heard the hiss, and caught a quick glimpse of the fangs. The kid was still smiling.
Gary’s knuckles were silver, not brass, and they lived in the left pocket of the duster jacket. It had to be the left because Gary was right-handed, and people expected a punch from the right. The knuckles wouldn’t kill the kid, but they’d soften him up about as much as brass would a normal person. Some blood hit the passenger window, and Gary thought he might have broken a fang.
The kid’s growl was part angry, part shocked. Gary didn’t give him time to figure things out. He grabbed the kid by his coat and tugged him across the car. Pressing that fanged mouth onto the steering wheel with one hand, Gary used the other to lash the kid’s hands behind his back.
“If you don’t struggle, I won’t hit you again,” Gary said. “In a minute you’re going in the trunk. There’s a lot of garlic in there, so you aren’t going to like it much. You and I are going to have a talk a little later. Keep quiet and don’t put up a fight, and you’ll have a chance to file your complaints.”
The kid snarled and twisted in Gary’s grip. Gary popped him again, in the back of the head, gentler because he didn’t want to go through the kid’s skull.
“Kid, if you don’t know who I am already, you’re about to. I’ve got crucifixes, stakes, a jar full of cemetery earth, and I can pray in about six different languages. As far as you’re concerned, my name is don’t fuck with me and maybe I won’t tie you to that fence and leave you until sunrise.”
The kid went still, but he turned his head so Gary could see one glassy yellow eye. His words were muffled by the steering wheel still between his fangs. “You have no idea what you’re beginning, Hunter.”
“I’m sure you’ll explain it to me.” Gary fished the heavy bulb of elephant garlic from his right pocket and crammed it between the kid’s lips. The kid’s eyes bulged, cheeks fluttering as his tongue worked to push out the papery bulb.
Gary almost felt bad for him. He couldn’t know exactly what the kid was experiencing, but he thought it might be a lot like having a dirty gym sock shoved in his mouth, and that was a feeling he remembered well.
Author’s note: I am experimenting with serialized fiction on Medium. A new part will go up each day for the next three days (November 8–10, 2017). If you enjoy this and want to read more, please clap or respond in some way so I know to keep going.
Cadillac El Dorado image from PxHere.com.