Whoever had put this gig together had money, Kelly thought. The others were drinking champagne on the private jet, when they were used to rougher exits, with a suitcase full of missile guidance chips and a buyer waiting for them when they landed. First class tickets and new identities waiting to take them to a non-extradition country.
Kelly watched the other guys empty the well stocked bar, as high on adrenaline and success as they were on champagne, bourbon and vodka. She didn’t touch alcohol, too many memories of what it did to her mother. She was rotting from the inside out in an apartment full of sick, malnourished cats and Kelly’s childhood kept her sober.The other guys ribbed her for it, but she shrugged it off in favour of the cautious little voice at the back of her mind. Connor stared at her with a bleak fascination before she turned away and looked back out of the window.
Black clouds were gathering in a mob ahead of her, flashes of lightning where they jostled and bumped into one another, restless and starving for release. Flight made Kelly nervous and the storm shot steroids into her anxieties. She felt a large hand land on her shoulder.
‘What’s up with you?’ Tony said.
Tony Rocky Horror. 300lbs of attitude, half black, half Samoan like The Rock but without his charm and consideration for other people’s property. He was the guy who brought Kelly in on this job, especially when he knew there would be a security system to consider alongside the people on the site, which had been Tony’s job along with Connor and Van Sciver, to keep them under control. Mo was the driver who had picked them up and outrran the police, and he had fallen asleep in his seat, calm as a Hindu cow.
‘The storm looks like it means business.’ she said.
Tony peered past her and grinned as he shook his head.
‘I’ll go check with the pilot. If he’s not worried, we don’t need to be.’ he said.
Kelly had watched him kill people without a change in expression, but with those he considered his peers, like her, he was affable and gentle. It was that or admit how she was frightened of him, even now.
She thanked him and watched him walk to the cockpit door and knock with a hand the size of a bowling ball. He had to stoop onboard but he accepted the trials of being big in a small world. The door opened and he exchanged a few words with the pilot before he closed the door and smiled.
‘OK, so guys, it’s going to get a little rough in here but -‘
The explosion made the plane lurch to the side as Tony flew and cracked his head on the back of a seat. Kelly was strapped in as she turned and shouted to the others. Through the window on the other side, she saw the glow of flames and a snake of black smoke spewing into the night sky.
Oxygen masks came down. Kelly put it on, taking deep, panic breaths. Connor and Van Sciver, were clinging onto their seats, shouting as they tried to buckle in. The lights went out and Kelly breathed in oxygen, sat in the dark as the plane shook like a toy in a dog’s mouth.
She squeezed her eyes shut and thought of her mother.
She came around to find she was still strapped into her seat.
The seat, however, was not part of the plane. It had been wedged between two thick branches of a tree, some ten feet above the ground. Kelly’s feet were blazing with cold, and she raised her feet to see her boots had fallen off. Kelly tried to move, and was rewarded with a sick bolus of pain across her chest. The air was bitter and she unbuckled her seatbelt, looking at the thick drifts of snow underneath and deciding everything on the simple question she lived by:
Move or die.
She fell into the snowdrift, tucking her knees into her chest and falling onto her side into the drift with a soft thump. The pain in her chest flared up and made her cry out but the pain was a motivation to get up.
The air was thick with the smell of fuel and burning metal, and Kelly followed the source of the smell. She had thick socks on, but each step drenched her socks and she knew hypothermia would finish off what the plane crash did not.
Her dad had taught her few things before he died, one of them was the three basics of survival and to get them in the right order.
Shelter, water, food.
She added footwear to her list, as the cold stabbed into the soles of her feet with each step. Kelly wept and kept moving.
The mid-section of the plane had taken out a few trees in its descent, like a giant metal femur torn from the sky and thrown to the ground. Kelly wondered if she was losing her mind when a shot rang out, blasting into the trunk of a tree to her left. She fell forwards, putting her hands over her head.
‘It’s me, you stupid fuck.’ she said.
Van Sciver staggered forwards, the pistol turned to one side as he clutched at his forehead. Kelly saw the blood dripping between his fingers and the dazed expression in his eyes as he looked around.
‘Van, it’s Kelly. Stop fucking shooting at me.’ she said.
Van Sciver lurched around and staggered off into the woods without acknowledging her. Kelly got up and moved closer to the main section of the plane.
Tony had been broken apart by the impact, one half joined to the other by the pink spaghetti of his intestines. She put her hand over her mouth as she looked into his sightless eyes. He died with his boots on, so she took them, tucking her jeans inside and lacing them up as much as her cold hands allowed. They kept slipping off and she saw Mo, still strapped into his seat and sagging forwards, and muttered a prayer for his small frame. She found the guns in a duffel bag, tucked under Mo’s seat and unzipped them.
She picked out the shotgun, found two boxes of shells and emptied them into her pockets. She glanced at Mo’s feet and an idea came to her.
Like Goldilocks, his boots fitted just right and she even stole his socks, putting them on and taking her own off.
She did a mental inventory:
Tony and Mo were dead. Van Sciver had wandered off, armed and disorientated which left Connor.
Connor did not speak to her, he stared at her and practiced smiling in her direction. He had dispensed violence with impunity, recommended by Van Sciver and Tony as someone who would handle the nasty stuff. She decided not to follow Van Sciver, and turned around, wondered where the rest of the plane was.
She wondered where she was.
Tony knew the flight plan but hadn’t shared it with anyone. Kelly looked at Mo and Tony, envied them for a quick death and got moving in the opposite direction.
The snow made each step a punishment, having to lift her leg to take a step put undue stress on her hips and thighs but she needed to keep moving. The weight of the shotgun gained as she went on, but she felt comfortable knowing she was armed out here.
Wherever she was.
Time staggered past her, drunk on tragedy as she trudged through the snow, swearing to herself and guided by a will to live which kept her moving forwards.
The shot, when it came, made her cry out and fall backwards.
‘Connor?’ she said.
A drum roll of shots rang out, studding the trees with bullets and Kelly realised Connor had picked out the MP-5, a military grade submachine gun which he cradled like a lover.
‘Connor, stop fucking shooting, it’s Kelly.’ she said.
She heard the muted thump of footsteps as she got to her feet and put the butt of the shotgun to her shoulder and racked the slide.
‘There’s no mileage in this, we need to work together.’ she said.
‘I’ve been watching you, Kelly. You were so warm to everyone but me.’ he said.
His voice carried, precise and clean like a sniper’s bullet across the forest.
‘You fucking idiot, we’re going to die out here.’ she said.
Kelly started to speak when a howl ripped through the night air. It was a vibrating, lustful call of hunger and longing.
‘Yes we are, Kelly, but I have unfinished business with you before that happens.’ Connor said.
She told herself it was concussion, or post traumatic stress but her father had told her a story about a frog and a scorpion. Some men acted on their impulses to the point it would destroy them.
The howl sliced through the night again, closer and louder this time. Kelly ducked behind a tree, gritting her teeth at the sharp pain in her chest and kept the shotgun to arms. There was no sense in shouting to him now and the cold was slowing them both down. It was when you stopped feeling the cold that you needed to worry.
Connor fired again, a series of controlled bursts but Kelly thought they were being fired in a different direction. She peered around the tree, straining her eyes to see the faint outline of Connor.
She darted to her left, moving to keep alive as she heard Connor laughing with a deranged glee, shouting expletives as he fired around him.
Kelly heard the thick, muted rumbling of something big moving close by. She looked up, saw flurries of snow fall from the higher branches. She stopped as a thick, terrifying roar shook the air with its mass and emotion. An expression of inexorable hunger, unrestrained and stripped of nuance.
Connor bellowed and fired a sustained burst from his gun before his shouts turned to screams.
Wet, tearing sounds and the snap of bones being broken, driven by a bass line of pneumatic, loud snuffling. Connor’s screams faded to heaves and then silence. The feeding sounds continued as Kelly caught the metallic scent of fresh blood.
There were more shots. Kelly could hear how they were spaced out, considered as though whoever was firing was calculating range and distance. The rumbling of motion travelled to her and she kept moving, slow and struggling to stay warm as she saw where Connor’s open midsection steamed in the cold, night air.
The scent of blood was in every breath she took but the cold leached her senses with each step in the opposite direction.
Kelly staggered into the night, hoping to find a place to make shelter.
Some time passed. She was disorientated, frightened and reduced to a twitching nerve, electric with the desire to live. Her vision blurred and her limbs resisted her will when she was not focused on movement.
A scream from behind her made her turn and look over her shoulder. She could not imagine what took down Connor and Van Sciver, but then most of her experiences with nature had been via television and trips to the zoo. She looked ahead and saw a warm light, spilling between the trees so she headed towards it.
She fell forwards, the shotgun slipped from her grasp as she landed on her face. Something in her chest shifted as she rolled onto her back, saw the small log cabin and wept with relief.
The hot blast of breath on her neck made her cry out as she looked up.
Its eyes were as large as saucers, pupils dilated as its square blunt maw dripped with fresh blood. Kelly screamed as it stamped a massive paw on her chest and it stared at her with curiosity before it padded past her into the open door of the cabin.
Kelly thought it had to be two hundred pounds at least, she had dated a guy who bred pitbulls, and he had shown her photos of the world record holder, which was 179 pounds of muscle and fury but whatever this was, made it look like a teacup dog. She rolled over and tried to get up, but the pain in her chest grew strong enough to make it difficult.
There was a shape in the doorway and a man strode out, swathed in a large furred parka as he came over and stared at her.
‘Where you hurt?’ he said.
His voice was deep and rough but as she looked at him, Kelly saw a kindness there.
‘Some big fucking dog wandered into your house. I think it killed -‘ she said.
As he bent down to help her, Kelly saw black flowers of unconsciousness bloom in her vision until they blotted out everything.
Kelly awoke under blankets and when she breathed, there was a comforting tension which eased the pain. She looked down and saw fitted bandages across her midsection. Sitting up, she saw him stood in the doorway with a mug of hot coffee.
‘Glad you’re awake.’ he said.
Kelly had on a thick sweater and jogging pants, with grey woollen socks on her feet. She had been passed out and he had dressed her. She fought the rising concern as he stepped into the room.
‘What did you do to me?’ she said.
He shook his head.
‘Got those wet clothes off you, bandaged you up. Figured sleep would do the rest.’
Kelly sat up and took a deep breath.
‘Where’s the dog?’ she said.
He chuckled and shook his head.
‘Ain’t no dog, ma’am.’
Kelly tried to stand up but a wave of fatigue overwhelmed her and pushed her back onto the bed.
‘What do you mean?’ she said.
He stayed in the doorway, watching her over the rim of his mug. His beard was dark and full and his head been buzzed down to shadow on his scalp.
‘It’s why I live out here alone. I got something which makes me dangerous to some people.’ he said.
‘You were the fucking thing I saw, you killed two of the guys I was with.’ she said.
His expression remained fixed as he stared at her.
‘They weren’t friends of yours. I could smell it on them. I always do.’ he said.
He asked what had happened and Kelly started to spit out her cover story but he frowned and shook his head.
‘Don’t lie to me. You all had some serious hardware on your person.’ he said.
Kelly flinched and recoiled from his gaze.
‘Doesn’t mean you had to kill them.’ she said.
He smiled, showing white, even teeth as he leaned against the doorway.
‘They shot first.’ he said.
‘Then why didn’t you kill me?’ she said.
He shrugged his shoulders.
‘I can smell things about a person. If they’re sick, or eating the wrong foods but I can smell intention on a person.’ he said.
‘How did I smell?’
He stared at her without smiling.
‘Good. You do bad things for money, but you don’t like it.’ he said.
She nodded and looked away as her exhaustion ebbed into a kind of relief.
‘I don’t even know where we are.’ she said.
‘You’re safe. Later on, I can drive you to the nearest town. Do you have money?’ he said.
She wanted to tell him there was a hefty chunk of 8 million dollars waiting for her, but she decided against it.
‘So what happens to you when you change?’ she said.
He came into the room and sat on the edge of the bed.
‘It’s like breathing after holding it in for a long time. I know I’m dangerous, so I live out here, mind my own and go out into the woods as the need comes. Hunting season makes it tough, but otherwise I come and go as I please.’
‘You turn into a big fucking wolf and eat people.’ she said.
He chuckled and shook his head again.
‘You had a shotgun on your person and those guys shot first. I could smell the badness on them, and shit one of them was shooting at you too, wasn’t he?’
She sighed and looked away.
‘I know. Look, I’d appreciate a ride to town later, and we can pretend this never happened, ok?’ she said.
He scratched his beard and looked at her.
‘Where will you go?’ he said.
She did not know. The guidance chips were in the wreckage, and her turning up on her own would raise questions she needed to avoid.
‘Away. There’s plenty of places a girl like me can disappear to.’ she said.
He stood up and pointed to his mug.
‘There’s a fresh pot and I’ve got soup simmering if you’re hungry?’ he said.
Kelly had not thought about food for hours but the question fired her stomach into a rich, bubbling call for food.
‘What sort of soup?’ she said.
He chuckled and rolled his eyes.
‘Venison.’ he said.
He helped her from the bed, handling her with the firm care a vet would handle a foal as he helped her to the small table and sat her down. He poured coffee, added liberal doses of cream and sugar, then ladled the soup into two bowls and took out a fresh loaf of bread from the oven along with a solid block of butter.
They ate in companionable silence before she sat back, groaning with pleasure at the meal.
‘Glad you enjoyed it.’ he said.
She studied him, surprised at how comfortable she felt, sat here with a man who had torn two people apart, a man who was more than he seemed.
‘I did, thank you. I didn’t get your name.’ she said.
John. John Morton.
The pain was easing off and she felt relaxed as she sat there. If she went back to Los Angeles without the chips, there would be questions asked, let alone the police attention. She had never felt at home anywhere, but the idea of a place being closed off hurt more than her injuries.
She had been around dangerous men all her life, but here with John, it felt different.
‘Kelly Harrison.’ she said.
He smiled at her, told her to eat as he sat back in his chair and picked up his mug of coffee.
‘John?’ she said.
He put his mug down and smiled at her.
‘Can I think about that ride? I’m still in quite a bit of pain, and I need to figure out what to do next.’ she said.
He grinned and rolled his eyes.
‘Sure, I’ve got a sleeping bag I can use. Take the bed for another night or two, and we’ll see how it goes, shall we?’ he said.
Kelly’s eyes welled up with tears. A monster’s kindness was disarming, and despite what he turned into outside, here in a companionable silence, he was just a man again. She smiled at him and nodded.
‘Yeah, a night or two would be lovely.’ she said.