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The Venice Beach parking lot was empty. Along the concrete of the boardwalk, cockroaches scuttled in and out of empty beer bottles. Across the dirty white sand, mellow waves rolled in and out, their repetitive growl unbroken by the cacophony of human voices. It was four am on a Tuesday; even the party-happiest of the city’s young people had long since gone to bed.
The man who called himself Hunter leaned against the door of his ’98 Chevy, face obscured by a Dodgers cap, one hand in his pocket and the other buried in the lining of his jacket. Late middle-aged. Tall and thin, with a flat nose and square jaw, rugged, stubble-faced, curly salt-and-pepper hair sticking out behind his ears.
He’d gotten the call an hour before, jolting him from a tequila dream. He didn’t know how she’d gotten his number. He never knew. He’d tried marketing his services on the deep web, but decided it wasn’t his bag. Too many jokers - 40-year-old trolls playing games from their mom’s basements, or dumb teen-agers who “just wanted to see if you’re for real.” Nope. He preferred the old-fashioned way - ten digits, written on dirty bathroom walls, floated through all the wrong circuits.
He had a bad feeling about this job. Not because he feared a sting - the people he was paid to dispose of were the sort no one missed. Drug dealers, smugglers, losers. No wives, no kids, no elderly parents standing between the money and their trust-fund brats. Just individuals the world was better off without. He had some scruples.
Then he saw the small figure approaching, swallowed up by a green hoodie. She paced gingerly, turning her head one way and then the other. As though their business could be catastrophically interrupted at any moment.
Hunter chuckled. Somebody watched a little too much CSI.
She stopped two feet in front of him. Threw off her hood. Extended her hand.
“Hi! I’m Hayley.”
Hayley. Strawberry-blonde, freckle-faced Hayley, with willowy limbs and a dainty fairy’s nose, big blue eyes that had seen too much. Little purple purse swung jauntily over a slender shoulder. She couldn’t have been a day over sixteen. And her voice. He recognized it, from the phone call, but paired with her innocent, sweet face… it was too much.
She was so young. So helpless.
Laura. She looked like Laura.
“Um, we spoke?” Hayley continued. “On the phone?”
Laura screaming. “Daddy, no!” Then shots.
Hunter walked around to the driver’s side, opened the door, climbed in, and unlocked the passenger door. She hesitated. He beckoned. With a final look over her shoulders, she opened the door and sat down. He closed his door. She did the same. He turned on the car.
“Where are we going?” Hayley asked, a trill in her voice.
Hunter shook his head. “Home. I’m taking you home. Girl like you shouldn’t be walking around alone at this time.”
She fixed him with a defiant stare. “I have money.”
“I don’t doubt it, kid,” he said, putting the car in reverse. “But you don’t want my services. Trust me, you have no idea what you’re doing. Now, where do you live?”
Hayley glared, crossing her arms like a petulant child. “Why do you think you know what I want?”
He smirked at her. “Lemme guess. Your drunken stepdaddy smacked your mommy. Some cheerleader called you a mean name on Facebook.”
“No.” She smiled nastily. “Four men raped and murdered my best friend. I want them dead.”
Hunter slammed the brakes.
He’d heard the story on the news. He’d read about it in the papers, online. Kate Wegener. Beautiful, blonde Kate. Twenty-two years old. A small-town girl who came to LA to be an actress, started snorting coke, and ended up as a stripper in a sleazy club called The Sailor’s Den off Olympic. She’d been found dead in her Venice studio apartment two weeks before, her throat slashed violently. Such a cliche.
Kate had been in trouble with the law before. She’d been arrested two weeks prior to her murder. DUI. Possession of heroin with intent to sell. Her apartment had been raided; ten grams of China White was found stashed under her mattress. Kate had sworn she’d never seen the drugs. The girl was practically bursting with cliches.
The only suspect in Kate’s death was her ex-boyfriend, Ian Fahey. Twenty-six years old; a Bel Air rich kid who’d snorted his trust fund up his nose and now eked out a living working in a warehouse. It was implied that the drugs under Kate’s mattress may have been his. He’d been seen by a neighbor on the morning Kate was murdered, hauling ass down the stairs of her apartment complex.
Hunter disliked Ian Fahey just from the pictures he’d seen. Prom king face, ironically tousled hair, and a cocky smile that screamed “entitled douchebag” - which truly was ironic, because Fahey was too broke to hire a real lawyer. The spoiled brat had been reduced to reliance on the counsel of a weaselly public defender, a Seth Weitz. There’d been pictures of Weitz as well. Young. Lanky. Hipster glasses. Mop of curls.
They talked for hours in the parking lot, facing the sea, as the black sky turned grey, then periwinkle, then technicolor blue. The surfers appeared first, then the old men with metal detectors, then the young joggers with dogs, then finally the daytime crowd - muscled roid-ragers, hustling musicians, tourists out people-watching.
Hayley told Hunter about her sojourn to Los Angeles: one-way ticket on a greyhound bus going anywhere, so long as “anywhere” put miles between her and her abusive foster parents in upstate Washington. She’d slept in a beach bathroom and panhandled on the boardwalk, until she met Kate. Kate took her in, fed her, hooked her up with a fake ID and a job washing dishes at The Sailor’s Den.
She’d loved Kate. Kate was the older sister she’d never had, her protector, her confidante. Then Kate fell for the charms of Ian Fahey. He was a druggie, a loser. He took Kate to parties with his druggie, loser prep-school friends, got her hooked on cocaine. Kate started coming home long after sunrise, red-eyed and twitchy. Then she started coming home in tears. Then, with cuts and bruises she refused to explain.
Then came the night she stumbled home with all of the above - strung out, bawling, beaten and bloody. Her right eye was black and swollen. The strap of her dress was torn. Angry purple bruises formed on her arms and chest.
Hayley sat her down on the couch, brought her water and a blanket, comforted, gently prodded. Finally, Kate broke down and told the truth.
“He hit me,” she sobbed. “He… they… they forced…”
Ian had taken her to yet another party in Pacific Palisades, at the home of an ex-frat brother. It started out fun; there was a band, dancing, lots of Bacardi. But as the night ran long, the rum ran short, and more and more guests exited bathrooms shaking and rubbing their noses, things got darker.
Ian took Kate by the hand, kissed her, and led her to a secluded bedroom, promising a “surprise.” There were three men there. Scary-looking men. Men who leered as though imaging her under them, naked. She turned to escape, and ran right into Ian’s balled fist. Hand over her mouth, he forced her onto the bed. Two of the men grabbed her legs, the third pulled down her dress, unhooked her bra, slid his hand under her panties.
“So I’m square with you?” It was Ian’s voice, from somewhere above her, desperate. “I don’t owe you anything, and you front me fifteen grams?”
They left her crumpled on the floor, naked, blood and fluid mingling in rivulets down her thighs. The men wiped themselves off, zipped up, exited one by one. The last one out - an Eastern European in his thirties - wordlessly tossed Ian a baggie filled with stuffed green balloons.
Ian threw Kate’s dress at her. “Get dressed. And stop crying. You look disgusting.”
Hayley listened to her friend’s story, tears running down her cheeks, hatred burning in her stomach. They’d hurt Kate. Her best friend, her guardian, the one person in the world who’d cared about her.
“I’m going to call the cops,” she’d said.
“NO!” Kate grabbed her arms and held her to the sofa, nails digging in, desperate. “He’d kill us both. They’d send you back to foster care.”
It took another hour, but Kate convinced Hayley not to get the police involved. They fell asleep in each other’s arms. The next morning, Hayley was awoken by Kate’s frantic shaking. Kate grabbed her by the arm and forced her to the closet. She pushed her in and covered her with clothes.
“He’s here,” she whispered frantically. “Stay put. Don’t come out for ANY reason.”
Hayley did what she was told. She stayed put and listened to the voices - many voices, one Kate’s, one Ian Fahey’s. She stayed put when the yelling started. She stayed put when Kate screamed. A voice - one of the guys’ - stammered “no, no, no.” Then Kate screamed again, then gurgled, then there was a thud. Then male screams. A muffled argument. A stampede of feet, out the door and down the stairs.
Hayley opened the closet door. She saw Kate lying in a heap, thick red fluid pooling. She ran to her. Her head hung back, a gaping gash across he neck, throat slashed open like a dark red mouth.
Hayley didn't know how long she sat there, clutching her best friend’s limp, lifeless hand. The neighbors must have called the cops, because they materialized, pounding violently on the door. Hayley fled down the fire escape.
“They’d have sent me back,” she told Hunter. “I… it was my only choice. I’ve been hiding since then.”
Ian Fahey was arrested. He was free now, out on bond. Hayley was under the impression the police thought he’d turn, rat out the dealers he hung out with - the dealers who had raped Kate.
“He’s going to get off,” she said, tears glistening in her eyes. “They don’t give a fuck about Kate. They think she’s just some dumb, worthless whore. Ian’s going to give them what they want. And as soon as the cops get him to turn on the dealers, they’ll cut him a deal. He’s going to go free.”
She stared at Hunter with those eyes. Wild, innocent eyes, leaking tears. Laura had blue eyes. Blue eyes wide open. Screaming “daddy!”
She reached a small, freckled hand into her little purple purse. She pulled out a wad of bills and thrust it at Hunter.
“Count it,” she said.
He did. He didn’t know how she’d gotten that kind of money. He didn’t want to know how she’d gotten that kind of money. Her big blue eyes flashed steely resolve.
“I know all four men,” she said. “They’re regulars at the club. I know where you can find them. I want them all dead. And I want them to suffer.”
Hunter left Hayley in front of a dirty little apartment building off Venice Boulevard. She was crashing there for now, she said, with some friends from work. He stopped at a hole-in-the-wall liquor store for a handle of Jose Cuervo, drove to the beach, found an empty picnic table just mildly covered in bird shit, and pulled out his Macbook and hotspot for a little online research. He liked being there - sand beneath his toes, cloudy skies above, listening to the waves and the seagulls and the volleyball players, tasting salt in his mouth.
He Google’d names. Kate Wegener, Ian Fahey, Hayley. Articles, threads, hashtags. Scumbags, rape culture, death penalty, gun rights. Cliche, cliche.
Then rumors. “I knew a guy who dated a girl that danced with Kate Wegener. She was a fucking coke addict,” wrote MissRavenSweetie24 on Reddit. “I don’t want to blame her, but she was dealing with some nasty-ass people.” I_amthe_pickle0020 chimed in: “my loser roommate used to buy from her, she pushed White H for Mo Taluk.”
Mo Taluk. Mo Taluk. He scrolled down further. No other mention of the name.
He searched for “Kate Wegener” on Facebook. Instagram. Scrolled through pictures of Kate, at the beach, arms around her friends. She was a looker. Long blonde hair. Heart-shaped face. Faint freckles. Small, curvy, big tits. Pretty green eyes.
That was enough snooping. Hunter shut his laptop and put it back in the case. He leaned back and closed his eyes, basking in the late-morning sun.
He’d been an Angeleno for three months - renting a little bungalow near the boardwalk through a dummy loan-out corp and a motivated leasing agent. When duty called, he’d cruise east on the 10 to the seedier pockets of the basin to fulfill the contract quickly and discreetly, then retreat to his seaside sanctuary.
Venice charmed him. Quirky, bohemian, a little bit hipster - something about the town just clicked. He appreciated the warm winters after three years in Denver. Before Denver was New Mexico, before that Detroit, before that…
He drove home, sat on his back porch, and finished off the Cuervo. He didn’t remember stumbling to his couch, dropping the empty bottle amongst the many empty bottles littering his floor, and passing out. He dreamed of Laura.
Ten years ago. Bakersfield. It should have been an easy job. A stooge by the name of Muneca, mid-level distributor for a cocaine outfit. Lately, he’d been unmotivated and unreliable, and there were rumors he’d been seen hanging around the local FBI field office.
His boss wasn’t taking any chances.
Home. Hunter kissed Laura goodnight. Sixteen, beautiful, Daddy’s little girl. Her breathing, slow and rhythmic. Peaceful. He took his bag and quietly slipped out of the house. He didn’t notice the door open as he pulled out of his driveway. He didn’t notice Laura’s Civic tailing him.
Key under the mat, he’d done his homework. Muneca. Passed out on the couch. Hunter, assembling his gun, adjusting the silencer. But Muneca must have gotten the drop, because then he wasn’t asleep, and then Hunter was staring down the barrel of a rifle.
Muneca's finger on the trigger. Hunter’s gun at his side.
The scream. Laura’s scream. Right behind him. Then the shot.
Hunter woke up shaking, drenched in cold sweat. Darkness. He rolled over and looked at his phone - 11 at night. Fuck. He vowed to stop drinking during the day.
The phone rang. Hayley.
“You told me you’d think about it,” she said. “You done thinking yet?”
Hunter sighed. Laura’s scream. Behind him. Then the shot.
“Meet me in an hour. Same place as before.”
Little Hayley arrived first this time. He found her sitting on a curb in the empty parking lot, head down, clutching her little purple purse. She’d changed into jeans and a black sweatshirt, with her hair tied back and stuffed under the hood. She recognized the sound of his engine, and stood as he pulled into the nearest spot. They drove north on Highway 1, watching the dark waves crash against the shore, languid perpetual motion.
Finally, Hunter spoke. “For a woman of your generation, you have a very limited online presence. No Facebook? No social networks?”
Hayley laughed. “I’m a runaway. I’m trying to keep a low profile.”
He nodded. They drove in silence, stopped at a red light. The light turned green.
“Listen, kid,” he said. “Do you know how I got into this business?”
She shook her head. Listening.
“I was a working stiff,” he started. “I got out of the army and found a gig selling lawnmowers at Home Depot. I had a beautiful wife named Karen, and a five-year-old daughter named Laura. I was working late one night, doing inventory. Laura was running a fever. Karen plopped her in the car and drove to the only 24-hour drugstore in town for kid’s Tylenol. Grape-flavor, some crap like that.
“They stopped at an intersection, and a drunk bastard in a truck doing seventy blew right through the red light and t-boned the car. Laura’s arm was broken. Karen was killed on impact. They caught the guy about twenty miles down the road, after he’d driven himself into a ditch. They arrested him. They were going to try him for vehicular manslaughter. I got to him first.
“The cops found me next; there was about a minute where I thought I’d never see my daughter again. But someone paid my bail. Another army vet in the same business I’m in now. He felt sorry for me. He helped me flee town with Laura, set us up just north of Bakersfield. I worked for him for ten years.”
“What happened to him?” Hayley asked, enthralled.
Hunter shrugged. “Something happened ten years ago. I quit. I ran again, got out of town, started working for myself. And the amazing thing about working for myself is that I get to pick and choose my clients. No perverts. No wife-killers. And to the extent I can, I help people who deserve it, people who have been wronged.”
He looked her in the eye, smiling a paternal smile.
“I’m going to help you, baby. I want to help you get the justice you deserve.”
Their first target was Jacques Kedren, went by JJ. Twenty-four, white, the youngest son of Charles Kedren, prominent investment banker, deceased. Assumed control of a hefty trust fund on his 21st birthday, dropped out of Yale, bought a coastal mansion, threw parties that could be heard from Long Beach to Santa Barbara. Known to supplement his moderate fortune by dealing heroin to his young, upper-class, party-happy friends.
Hunter and Hayley drove the isolated curves to Kedren’s neighborhood, parked alongside a pitch-black construction site, walked the rest of the way. Bag over his shoulder: pistol, silencer, rope, gloves, tarp. Bag over her shoulder: knives, scalpel, pliers, tourniquets, blow torch.
It was easy. The idiot left his back door unlocked; they found him in bed, naked. He put up a fight - yelling, cursing, biting - but Hayley got to the gun in the closet before he did. They tied him to a chair. They gagged him. Hunter let her choose where they started. Garden shears to the scrotum. Seemed fitting.
At 4 am they finally let him die. They left his bloodied, swollen corpse on his white sofa, reveling in the irony as blood and feces dripped Rorshark designs onto his perfectly-buffed hardwood floor. They snuck out the back door, stuffed their gloves and soiled clothing into a plastic bag, hiked back to the car, threw the bag in the trunk, and were back in Venice before the neighbors took their morning shit.
Hunter turned off his headlights as he crawled through an alley, found the dirty apartment complex, and smiled his farewell as Hayley climbed out. He watched her walk away out the passenger-side window, down a shadowed hallway to the stairs. He looked to his left.
There was a man, standing alongside the building. Hulking. Still. Nothing more than a silhouette in the dim porch light. Watching him.
Watching him? Hunter relit his headlights, trying to illuminate the man’s face. His eyes adjusted. There was no one there. Just a trick of the light.
Just a trick of the light? Or did he hear footsteps tearing into the darkness?
Instinct hit him like a gut punch. He shifted to reverse, punched the gas, and shot out of the alley and onto Venice Boulevard. Then he drove home and slept for twelve hours straight.
Next was Ilya Pushkin, 34, Russian, visa overstayer, low-level heroin dealer who bragged about connections to the Armenian mob. Known for running up a tab in local bars, spearheading a massive fight, waiting until the bouncers were engaged in restoring order, then running out the back door.
They followed him to his favorite dive bar. They waited until he stumbled out the rear exit, eyes glassy and unfocused. Hayley ran to him, took him by the arm as he swayed, led him towards a bulky dumpster. Hunter, hiding behind, delivered one easy blow to the back Pushkin’s head. His legs buckled. He fell, face-down, on the dirty asphalt.
Hunter had specifically looked for a house with a basement. It had taken him awhile -there aren’t a lot of basements in California. But he was glad he’d held out. The basement was well worth it.
He and Hayley dragged Pushkin down the stairs, locked the door, tied their captive to a chair. Taped his mouth shut. While they waited for their new Russian friend to wake up, Hunter found a spare bottle of Cuervo - he had several, half-finished, lying around the basement - and took a long swig. It was going to be an interesting night.
Pushkin awoke two hours later. They watched his serene eyes constrict, focus and, when he was conscious enough to be aware of his condition, bulge and water in fear.
Hayley laughed. Hunter turned on music. Cheerful, upbeat 80’s pop - the same music blasting from bonfires and house parties up and down the coastline. Loud. Loud enough to drown out the sander. And the drill.
Under the grey early-morning sky, Hunter and Hayley took to PCH again, south towards Long Beach. There was a place there Hunter knew, a back alley behind a purported crack house, where several individuals of ill repute had been laid to rest in less than entirety. Ilya Pushkin was - had been - a fairly large guy; it took two Glad bags and Hayley’s old Dora the Explorer backpack to fit all of him. The two had spent the last three hours dividing his blood- and piss-drenched altogether into nice, inconspicuous little packages. They would look a little funny, Hayley had wisely stated, carrying around a two hundred pound lump under a tarp.
Hunter agreed. He thought, in his own way, Ilya Pushkin agreed as well. Thanks to the tourniquets, he was still lucid enough to struggle after Hunter hacked off his left leg. The seizures didn’t start until the right arm. Into the dumpster it all went.
The next day, the news started on Jacques Kedren. Some poor little maid of dubious legal status had found him, fermenting in his own fluids. No leads, said the blonde newscaster. The internet knew better. Kedren was a known heroin transporter, under the employ of Mo Taluk. Two of his people in less than two months - Mo Taluk was gonna be pissed. Mo Taluk was a fan of bloody street justice.
Mo Taluk. Again with Mo Taluk. Hunter thought about the man he’d seen outside Hayley’s apartment - the man who might have been there. Had the man simply been a figment of his imagination?
After Ilya Pushkin was Angel Arrelano. Mexican mafia. Owned a little mechanic shop off Olympic that sold auto parts - or at least that’s what he told the feds. Dead serious. Vicious. Suspected, but never charged, in the murders of several young dealers from the valley getting a little close to mob territory. He was going to be the toughest. He was smart enough not to wander off alone and get drunk, and he was armed.
They did it at his shop. Hayley pulled up with Hunter’s car, told Arrelano it was making “weird noises,” was girly and cute and confused, called her dad, slipped a blue pill in his Gatorade while he peered under her hood. When Arrelano got lightheaded Hunter played kind passerby: helped him sit down, found him water, told him he was going to call 911. Hayley pulled the car out, parked it around the block.
They closed down the shop early. Somewhere between the drill and dousing body parts in various liquids and setting them aflame, Arrelano spat out the rag they’d tied around his mouth.
“Who the… what the fuck?” he screamed. “I ain’t dealing. Tell Mo Taluk I ain’t dealing! I was straight with him! I ain’t on his turf!”
Hayley, with a tire iron. Arrelano’s mouth gaped, uneven, jaw forced off its hinges. He moaned. Hunter turned on the radio, some Mariachi station, to drown it all out.
They left him there, arm lodged in a chain, blood splattered all over his garage. No use dumping the body; he had enough enemies to keep the two of them well in the clear. Some business contact would find him and assume the mob higher-ups or the Crips or Venice 13 did him in.
It was in the news two days later. His body was found. By his ten-year-old son, who rode his bike to the shop after school.
Hayley fell silent after Arrelano. Hunter took a couple days off, alternated between Jose Cuervo in his backyard and long strolls along the boardwalk. He wandered to Santa Monica and spent an afternoon on the pier, watching tourists take selfies against the ferris wheel while their kids waited in line for mediocre, overpriced carnival rides, balloons dangling from sticky hands.
Later he made his way to the shadier edge of town, found a dive bar with a live country band and a welcome absence of loud tourists and tipsy sorority girls. He sat down at the bar, ordered a Heineken, zoned out. A squeak. Someone sitting.
“Hey, bud.” The man on the stool right next to him was trying to get his attention.
Hunter looked up, annoyed. There were plenty of empty stools - this clown plopping himself within elbow distance was ridiculous.
“Hey,” Hunter said, and looked away.
“I’ve seen ya somewhere,” the man persisted. “Ya live around here?”
Hunter frowned at him, sized him up. The stranger was a big guy. Bald, muscular, wearing dress pants with a casual, stained brown sweatshirt. In his thirties? The bald head made it hard to put an age on him. He was light-skinned Mexican, or maybe Middle Eastern. Comically flat nose, untamed eyebrows. Big, goofy smile.
“Not trying to bother you, man,” he said jovially. “Just makin’ conversation.”
Hunter nodded. “I’m from Bakersfield. Passing through.”
“Bakersfield. I got a cousin out there,” the man said. He paused. “As a Venetian, I gotta let you know it’s actually a nice town, most of the time. I’m sure you think it’s a fucking war zone.”
Hunter shrugged. He didn’t like this man; something about his eyes. Deep-set, dark, close together. Dishonest eyes, betraying the farcical nature of his friendliness.
“It’s batshit,” the man continued, “three fucking brutal murders. The mechanic, the rich kid out in the Palisades, and the stripper. Crazy, what the fuck could they have in common, huh? I mean, if it was three hot chicks, I’d say it’s a pervert.”
He laughed. Hunter didn’t.
“I know, I know, it’s a shit thing to say. Seriously, though. Whoever kills like that, they’ve got an audience. Fucker might as well put up a billboard.”
He yawned, peeling his lips back, exposing yellow teeth. The effect was grotesque. A wolfish grin on the face of a possum. Hunter pulled a ten out of his pocket, threw it on the bar, and got up. The stranger watched him, nodded.
“Be careful out there, bud,” he said, saluting playfully with two fingers.
Hunter took the streets home. It was dark, and the pleasant Cuervo buzz of the afternoon had rubbed down to a gnawing headache, a pre-hangover. He wasn’t as young as he used to be.
He was on edge. He looked over his shoulders, kept his hand wrapped around the knife in his jacket, and - more than once - reminded himself that he had nothing to fear. He was the violent killer. He was the one who struck fear in the hearts of others.
The man in the bar, though. He wasn’t right. Sitting that close to him, striking up a conversation with a stranger about the violent deaths of three of his neighbors - all while grinning that comical, lupine smile. “They’ve got an audience.” What the fuck did he even mean by that?
He thought all the way back to Venice. He made it to his front door. As he turned to shut the door, he saw a blue truck in the street.
Driving by his house. A little too slow.
He stepped out, ran towards the street. The truck had followed him. Had it been following him since Santa Monica? There’d been other cars, he wouldn’t have noticed. The truck accelerated, squealed away. Hunter only saw the silhouette of the driver - a large figure, alone.
He locked his doors, shut his windows, kept his pistol within arm’s reach. You die how you live.
Fresh bottle of Jose Cuervo at his elbow, he pulled up his Tor account. Searched for anything regarding the name Mo Taluk. Mo Taluk, Mo Taluk. The same name, again and again. Kate Wegener ran with him. Jacques Kedren was his transporter. He and Angel Arrelano had some sort of an arrangement. The heroin under Kate’s mattress. The cops, assuming Ian Fahey would turn. He hadn’t turned. Why? He was scared of someone. More scared of them than a life sentence.
Hunter searched and searched. Mo Taluk, various aliases thought to be Mo Taluk, slithering under rocks across the Dark Web. He’d popped up just shy of a decade before, ran a solid street hustle in Southern California, then established himself as the Dope Brahmin of Onionland.
His product was China White heroin in little green balloons; potent, uncut, the junkies went crazy for it. He’d mail it out via USPS with dummy return addresses, made ungodly money, then vanished as soon as Silk Road dealers started getting busted.
But he wasn’t gone for good. His little green balloons had been popping up in Los Angeles. He ran a simple operation, they theorized: mostly through proxies, who communicated with Taluk online, who’d never met him. Mo’s boys and girls. Young pretty people, peddling green balloons to other young pretty people. As for Mo Taluk himself, he was a specter. He was tall with blonde hair, middle-aged and chubby, Arab, Black, Chinese, everywhere and nowhere.
Hunter met Hayley alongside the empty beach that night. It was unusually quiet; everyone had taken the party inland, though it wasn’t even ten. People were scared, he realized. Even the homeless shrunk and cowered in their makeshift dwellings. It should have made him feel powerful. He didn’t.
In her sunflower-print sundress, Hayley looked tiny. Hunter could see her protruding collarbone, skeletal legs. She was losing weight. It hit him, then, just how young she was. How impressionable. The torture, the marble-like corpse eyes - she’d seemed unfazed by it all, but Hunter began to imagine the security had been all his, superimposed on her. She was changing. It was getting to her.
“Sweetheart,” he said kindly, “what’s done is done. If you don’t want to do anymore, I understand. I’ll give you your money back. All of it.”
She turned to him, ice in her wide blue eyes.
“I’m not giving up. You killed Karen’s murderer, I thought you’d understand.”
He nodded. She had him there. Then he thought about the man in the bar, the bald goon with the psychotic eyes. The man in the truck, who followed him home.
“Have you ever heard the name Mo Taluk?” he asked Hayley.
She frowned. “Yeah. Arellano said something about him.”
“I looked him up online, he’s some sort of heroin dealer or importer.”
Hayley crinkled up her face, thinking. Eyes widened. Tears forming.
“Ian Fahey was dealing for someone,” she said, with an air of something forgotten and then remembered. “Some guy. Arab-sounding name. Maybe that was him.”
Hunter thought of something. “You said, after Kate was raped, Pushkin threw Fahey a baggie full of green balloons?”
Hayley nodded. “I think she said green.”
“That’s Mo Taluk’s trademark. Green balloons full of China White heroin. Fuck - how about the heroin found under Kate’s mattress? Was that in green balloons, too?”
“I don’t know!” Hayley stopped walking, tears welling in her eyes. “I don’t know anything about heroin. Why are you even asking me all this? Are you gonna say Kate deserved it? That she was just a druggie loser and she deserved to die?”
Poor kid, she really was starting to come unglued. Hunter tried to imagine what she was thinking, what she was feeling. Her best friend. Dead, in a pool of her own blood. Sitting there, holding Kate’s hand, too scared and devastated to move. Couldn’t call the police. Couldn’t risk getting sent back to her violent foster parents. So damaged. So alone.
“I’m just getting worried, kid,” he said gently. “If they were all associated with a dangerous drug dealer, then what we’re doing - it’s going to get his attention. And we don’t know what he’s capable of.”
Hayley shook her head, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I’ll leave after this. I’ll leave town. I don’t care. I just want them dead. You get it, right?”
They walked back to Hunter’s car in silence. Hayley didn’t speak all the way back to her apartment complex. She said goodbye sadly, distantly, disappointed.
That night, Hunter dreamed of Laura.
Muneca. His finger on the trigger. Hunter’s gun at his side.
The scream. Laura’s scream. “Daddy, no!”
Muneca hesitated. He must have seen her; she saved her father’s life. It gave Hunter time. Lightening-quick, he raised his silenced gun. Three shots. Pop, pop, pop.
Muneca fell. Laura screaming. Hunter turned to her, finger on his lips.
Her eyes. Those blue eyes, eyes wide with horror. Unimaginable pain. She ran.
He found her in her room. Sitting on her bed, shivering. Shock. She looked at him. Blue eyes pleading.
“Daddy, do you kill people?”
He told her the truth. The truth she’d suspected for years. He’d always told her he was a salesman, and she bought it. But she hadn’t, not really. She just pretended. Because acknowledging the truth made it real.
She cried. Unrestrained, childlike sobs. Hunter had never seen her cry like that. Not when her mother died. And he realized she was experiencing a complete other type of loss, one infinitely more painful.
She stayed around for another week. He’d hear her crying at night. She threw out all of her things. “Covered in blood. It’s all covered in blood.”
Then she was gone. Civic abandoned at a train station. No note. No kiss goodbye. For ten years, nothing.
He woke up with tears running down his cheeks. He called Hayley. He promised her everything. If Mo Taluk wanted him dead, he’d go down a good guy, the hero who hunts the monsters. The sort of man Laura would be proud of.
They grabbed Ian Fahey out of his car, parked down an alleyway by the beach. They did it quick: Hunter’s silenced gun to his ear, ordering him to drive.
“Please, man,” Fahey pleaded. “You don’t want to do this.”
“Say another word,” Hunter sneered, “and I splatter you all over your interior.”
Fahey complied. As soon as he pulled into Hunter’s garage, Hayley smacked him on the back of his head with a flashlight. He slumped over the wheel. They dragged him to the basement and tied him up.
It was getting to be a routine: Hunter would secure the zip ties, gag the bastard, and find himself a semi-full bottle off Cuervo. Hayley would set her little purple purse on Hunter’s tool bench, then meticulously glove up, tie back her hair, put on a plastic gown, and calmly unpack the tool kit: each knife and scalpel and pair of pliers.
Hunter would take a first swig of tequila before pulling the power tools out of their cases: drill, hand saw, sander. Usually, by the time they had all their toys organized, their victim had woken up.
Ian Fahey didn't disappoint. His eyes snapped open as Hunter was plugging in his blow torch; rested on his steel-toed boots, the pistol stuffed in his waistband, his Megadeath t-shirt, his shit-eating grin. Fahey’s jaw slackened, eyes widening in fear. But he wasn't looking at Hunter anymore; rather, Hayley. She noticed.
“You’re scared of me, sweetie?” she taunted him. “Good instincts. You should be.”
Hunter had to give it to the kid, he had stamina. It took Fahey nearly four hours to pass out from the pain. They took a break then, sat on Hunter’s tool bench. Hunter took a couple long, thirsty gulps from the handle he’d been nursing, felt the sour burn in the back of his throat.
They planned for the inevitable disposal of the body and their respective departures from town. Hayley was going to return to the Pacific Northwest; she still had friends there, places she could stay, people who could help her find work.
“How ‘bout you?” she asked. “You gonna go and play knight in shining armor for some other girl somewhere else?”
Hunter smiled at her. “Mexico, maybe. Lay out on the beach until this all blows over.”
She looked up to him expectantly, blue kid’s eyes wide and hopeful. “You know,” she said, “there’s scum in Washington, too.”
He chuckled. “So, you’re getting attached, huh? Want me to come with you?”
“Well,” she said, “we obviously work really well together. And I was thinking, maybe, you might need a partner. A protege.”
“Honey, I work alone.”
He said it like a prayer, repeated so many times it loses all meaning. And his lone wolf creed, he realized in that moment, had lost meaning. Because suddenly, a young, smart female partner who revered him as her avenging hero sounded like an asset rather than a liability.
“I’d be good to have around,” she said, as though reading his thoughts. “I’m a white chick who looks like a kid. Who’d suspect me?”
He laughed. “You are a kid, Hayley.”
She nudged him. Ian Fahey was moving, his one eye that wasn’t swollen shut fluttered.
Hunter hopped off the table and picked up the drill, pressed the trigger, heard the motor rev, made sure Fahey’s first waking moments would serve as a grim preview of what was to come. What they’d done already was impressive. Fahey was bruised and bleeding, bare chest punctured with holes, shallow cuts, blistering burns, cracked ribs, arm snapped, three fingers violently amputated.
Fahey’s head snapped forward. Strange, his sudden movement made Hunter dizzy. His head spun. Grey dots clustered in front of his eyes. He steadied himself with one hand and closed his eyes until the fit passed.
When he opened them, Fahey was spitting out his gag. Little bastard. He must have been chewing on it while they thought he was unconscious. He looked at Hunter, one good eye insolent.
“You’re a bitch,” he stuttered. “Do you always play with little girls?”
“Shut up!” Hayley screamed shrilly, defensively. “Or I’ll kill you!”
Fahey ignored her. He focused on Hunter. “Does she let you fuck her? It’s cool, man. If that’s what you’re into, I can’t exactly stop you.”
The blood pounded in Hunter’s head. His heart raced. Another spell of dizziness. Nausea. Anger. Pure anger. Stumbling, fighting back the redness blurring his vision, he pointed his still-whirring drill and lunged.
“He’s trying to piss you off!” Hayley’s voice echoed, somewhere above, as he drove the drill into Fahey’s chest.
A flash of movement, arms, a hand on Hunter’s hands. Then Fahey was clutching the drill, then he was jerking it backwards, then a swift movement, Hayley’s scream, pain. And then Hunter was crumpled on the ground, a throbbing pain over his left eye where Fahey had violently hit him with the butt of the drill, watching as his victim used the tip to loosen the knots that bound his legs to the legs of the chair.
Fahey stood. He looked down at Hunter, who turned over onto all fours, dizzy, uncoordinated, weak, limbs like jelly.
Fuck. Little fucking bastard. He’d worked his hands out of the zip tie. He baited his captor. So Hunter would attack him. So he could grab Hunter’s weapon out of his…
POP! A shot. Fahey stumbled.
Hunter forced himself to my knees. Hayley. Holding a pistol.
POP! She shot again. She’d missed.
Fahey leaned over Hunter. Close. He raised his hand to stop him. His hand was too heavy. Nausea. He lurched. Fahey grabbed something. Hunter’s pistol.
A gasp. Hayley.
Hunter forced himself to his knees. Forced himself to see straight. He saw Hayley, lying in a heap on the floor, a bloody hole in her chest.
Hayley. No. No.
Feet. Footsteps. Fahey, running, up the stairs.
Hunter stood. He stumbled. Too heavy. He saw her again, skinny limbs splayed like a rag doll’s, eyes closed, strawberry blonde hair falling over her freckled cheeks. No.
Anger, pure anger. He ran. He forced himself up the stairs. Fahey was gone. Outside. He had to go outside. He had to breathe. He couldn’t breathe.
How? The man… the bald man. Mo Taluk. He’d followed him. He’d been in his house, poisoned him. Too tired, too weak. Hunter couldn’t think. He gulped down air. Not enough, not enough. The smell of something sweet.
He couldn’t feel his legs. A crash, as his dead weight landed on top of a discarded bottle of Cuervo. The cold wood of his living room floor. The stench of his breath, sweet, bitter, mingling with pungent seaweed. Salt. White-gold sun.
Blocks away, in his tiny office, Seth Weitz browsed the news on his phone. The police had recovered another body. An Ilya Pushkin this time - some low-level pusher - had found his crooked way to a filthy Long Beach dumpster, in pieces. His head and penis were stuffed in a Dora the Explorer backpack. Fuck. That was messed up.
Footsteps, outside the office. Then pounding at his door.
Weitz stood and moved to unlock the door, then indulged his paranoia.
“It’s me, Seth! It’s Ian! Open the fucking door!”
He unlocked the door. Ian Fahey barreled through, shoved Weitz out of the way, slammed the door shut, locked it with much more force than was necessary. A thud, as something black and shiny fell on the carpet.
Weitz blinked. He digested the sight of the trembling figure in front of him in fragments. Fahey. His face messed up, eye swollen shut, bloody nose, cut lip, bruises. Blood in his hair. Huge, dirty jacket wrapped around him, one arm zipped inside the jacket. Sweating. Panting. Terrified.
“Take it!” Fahey snapped. “I… take the fucking gun! Don’t open the fucking door to anyone!”
Weitz bent over, picked up the gun with two fingers like a dead fish, placed it on his desk. Fahey slid down, propped up against the wall. He swayed. Steadied himself with his one visible arm.
“What the fuck, Ian? Where the fuck did you get the gun?”
Weitz didn’t get to pick and choose his clients, but Ian Fahey had been a particularly annoying one. He had difficulty imagining a universe in which Fahey could possibly be a murderer - and the cops knew it. They had no weapon; he had no motive; they’d held him on $10,000 bail, for fuck’s sake.
It was information they wanted, and they were playing cute games until Fahey coughed it up. Probably information about the people he used to buy drugs from, before he’d gone cold turkey and joined Narcotics Anonymous. But the idiot wouldn’t talk. He lied, he missed meetings, and Weitz had long since run out of patience for his bullshit.
“Fuck that,” Weitz seethed. “I’m calling 911.”
“Don’t!” Fahey cried. “Just… don’t. Not yet.”
“Fine. Start talking.”
Fahey beckoned. Weitz knelt down, facing his client.
“I haven’t been entirely honest with you,” Fahey said weakly.
“Yeah, no shit.”
“About Kate,” Fahey continued. “I… she called me, the day she died. I was working graveyard. She just kept calling, and calling, and calling. I thought she was high. Finally, I picked up.”
“She was scared, because she’d ratted out her supplier to save her own ass,” Weitz continued sarcastically. “You went over after your shift ended, you knocked and there was no answer, you opened the door with the spare key you’d never given back to her, and you found her dead. I’ve been hearing it for two fucking weeks straight. Cut to the good part.”
“That wasn’t everything” Fahey said. He looked Weitz dead in the eye, pleading. “I… I went over. I did find her dead. But… but I saw who killed her.”
Weitz was overcome with exasperated fury. “And NOW you fucking tell me? Who was the guy?”
Fahey pulled back, into himself. Weitz calmed down. He listened.
“It wasn’t a guy,” Fahey said. “It was a woman - a girl. Really young. Kate was… lying there. And there was this girl bending over her. Reddish hair, freckles, looked like a girl scout. She had a bloody boxcutter knife in her hand. And then she stood up and pulled a gun out of her little purple purse. She pointed it at me, told me to sit down and shut up. I… I ran. I called the cops.”
Weitz nodded, open-mouthed. “Man, you’ve gotta tell…”
“I told the cops what I saw,” Fahey interrupted. “I don’t think they believed me. Then, the next day, there was an envelope on my doorstep. It was… pictures. Pictures of my little sisters, on cheap printer paper. Pictures of them in front of my grandma’s house. And a typed note. ‘It would be so easy.’”
Fahey swayed. He closed his eye. There was something seriously wrong with him. Weitz was scared; this was way beyond his skill set.
“Ian, what happened to you?”
Spurned on by some resilience Weitz hadn’t thought him capable of, Fahey forced himself to coherence.
“I told the cops I’d lied. That there was no girl. Then they arrested me. But the girl… she’s real. She’s fucking dangerous. She goes by Hayley. She… she’s running with this thug now, looks like a country singer. I know where he lives.”
Fahey slackened, his head tilted to one side. Weitz clutched him by his shoulders. He opened his eyes abruptly, hissed in pain. Then Weitz saw the blood leaking onto his carpet.
It was a perfect day in suburban Ventura. A playful sea breeze rustled fallen leaves across the thick blades of grass leading to what could’ve been a fairy’s house. Lush bushes sprouting multicolored roses surrounded the lawn, curling picturesquely around the white picket fence. A cobblestone path lead from the gate to the doorway of a low-roofed yellow cottage with a red door.
By the rose bushes lining the fence knelt a willowy adolescent with dark brown hair and bright blue eyes, wearing a sundress that drew attention to her knobby joints and nonexistent breasts, and to the square white bandage over her left clavicle. In her dainty hands she clasped a pair of sharp gardening shears
Snip! Snip! Snip!
The shears slipped, nicked her thumb. A line of blood, then a rivulet running down her hand. Cursing under her breath, she dropped the shears and strode through her red door.
She stopped in the kitchen, turned on the faucet, held her injured hand under water. She glanced behind her, at the antique wooden dining table, stacked with wax papered bricks of snow-white powder. Fuck. It was going to be a pain in the ass, weighing it out with a bleeding, stinging thumb.
On her kitchen counter were two boxes of Lucky Charms, a gallon of spoiling milk, a six-pack of warm Bud Light, a plastic bag of bruised avocados, and two party-sized packs of green balloons. She smiled. Viv must have gone shopping.
Clutching her thumb, she made her way down the wood-floored hallway to her bathroom. She peeked into the master bedroom. Viv and Arthur were passed out on top of each other, breathing deeply, matching needles on their nightstand. She shook her head. Just how she left them.
They were useful, the middle-aged junkie couple. She fed them, they ran her errands. Twice a year, they made for great “parents” when she drove to Southern Mexico for “family vacation” at the “timeshare”. And when the time came to run for the hills, she was sure they’d be perfect patsies.
They were her favorites. Out of her long line of used and discarded henchmen, she was sure she liked Viv and Arthur best.
As she wrapped her injury in the bathroom, she looked in the mirror, studying the effect of brown hair on her freckles, blue eyes, elfin nose. She wasn't quite in love with it yet - it was too dark, too gothic for her pale Irish skin. The reddish blonde dye she’d used last had been much more flattering. But she had to be careful. She was always careful. People in her business got cocky, thought they were invincible, showed off. That’s how they got caught.
Leaving the bathroom, she entered the smaller bedroom, flopped on the bed, pulled her Macbook off her desk, closed her Tor account. A couple hours binge-watching Adult Swim would do her good. She could recap, go over her game plan. Organize her thoughts. Massage the little clods of guilt like clay, mold them into a tangible form.
She’d been lucky. Ian Fahey was dead. Bleeding, armed with the moron hit man’s gun, he’d stumbled to his lawyer’s office a few blocks away, and the lawyer called the paramedics. He’d lived through emergency surgery to staunch the internal bleeding, but died early the next morning from an infection.
Fuck. She’d thought she was screwed when he got loose. He ran off, and she couldn’t exactly chase him down the streets, so she’d had to improvise. Make sure the moron hit man was dead. Do a quick clean of everything she’d touched, a quick sweep of the floor to catch any stray reddish-blonde hair. Ball up her plastic gown and gloves, stuff it all in her purse. Press her pistol in the hit man’s hand, leave it at his feet. Then get the fuck out of dodge.
It was a shame. She’d liked that gun. But she had to give the little fucker credit - Fahey had gotten the better of her, if only for a minute, if only because she’d never been a great shot. She could appreciate a worthy opponent. They were few and far between.
She didn’t feel guilty about Ilya Pushkin. He’d have done the same to her in a second if he’d had the brains - he was a loser, an alcoholic, a degenerate. She’d have put up with his selling ghetto smack in her territory, but he’d been threatening her dealers, driving down her rates.
Angel Arrelano? Maybe half a clod of guilt, but the blame lay squarely on him. She’d sent Arthur to his shop, played nice, made sure he knew she’d tolerate his moving product through Venice so long as he didn’t deal west of the 405. She’d stuck to her end of the deal. And not a month later, her customers were showing up with little baggies of beaner black tar turds.
She wished she felt guilty about killing JJ. Jacques. But, fuck it, she was pissed. The half-wit had been a little wangsta punk when she met him, pushing ditch weed to his prep-school buddies. She paid him a ridiculous amount of money to be her glorified delivery boy - driving packages of product to the pretty, middle-class boys and girls she met online and paid to deal, collecting cash.
And how had he repaid her for all this? One arrest, and he was looking to negotiate with the cops, offering to lead them to his supplier. Amateur. If he’d have come to her, she’d have helped him. But no. He wanted to turn informant. As though she didn’t employ her own informants within the police department.
As for killing Kate, she felt a little guilty. Poor girl. Maybe she could have been spared. She’d never met Kate in person until that day. She’d tailed her from work at that skeezy tittie joint. Knocked on her door. “Um, miss, I live next door and I locked myself out. Can I use your phone and call my mom?” Waited until Kate turned her back. Pulled her boxcutter knife.
But, in the end, Kate asked for it. She was a cokehead. She was unreliable. She hadn’t told Kate to fly down PCH, blow and alcohol practically spilling out of her. She hadn’t told Kate to get caught, or to rat out JJ as her supplier. Kate had to go. As an example, if nothing else.
Ian? Yeah, it was an unfortunate accident. When she’d killed Kate, she hadn’t planned for witnesses. She’d done her homework. Kate lived alone and had been dumped by Ian a month before, there was no reason for her ex-boyfriend to be popping in to visit. Threatening his acne-faced kid sisters would have kept him quiet for awhile. But she needed more than “awhile.”
Men were easy. That’s what her pretty older sister had always said. Recurring pediatric cancer had taken any chance of her being a seductress, stunted her growth, turned her into a permanent adolescent with an elfin face and a flat chest. But looking childlike had its advantages.
Kate was one thing - a small girl, easy to take out. As for Ian, an adult man, she’d have needed help dragging him around. Viv and Arthur wouldn’t do, they were hopeless when faced with real responsibility. So, she’d thought, why not kill a few birds with one stone? She could hire a professional to take out not only Ian Fahey, but also her turncoat transporter and noxious competitors.
The torture was the cherry on top. Her competition - the Mexicans, the Crips, Venice 13 - they needed a firm message. The West Side belongs to Mo Taluk. Play by his rules, or end up in pieces.
Stupid. How everyone assumed Mo Taluk was a man.
The hit man she’d found had been perfect. Ruthless enough to be effective, dumb enough to stay blissfully ignorant. He’d gone by Hunter, for godsakes. He bought her innocent teen-aged girl act hook, line, and sinker. He never wondered why she was aware JJ never locked his back door. (How many times had she lectured him about being more careful?) He never questioned how she picked the dark alley Ilya Pushkin had stumbled into, or knew what time of day Angel Arrelano would be alone in his shop.
He didn’t figure out that she’d watched them for weeks. He didn’t ask where she got the money, hadn’t bothered to check out the strip club where she supposedly “worked.” All she’d had to do to get him was play cute and hurt. And all she’d had to do to get rid of him was mix a couple spoonfuls of cyanide with his crappy tequila while he was taking a leak. When he was dead, she’d gathered strands of his hair and a toenail clipping, snuck into Kate Wegener’s apartment, and left it all under the couch.
He was the murderer, the cops decided. He’d killed the four men, and Kate, then dropped dead of a heart attack. The police had no idea she even existed.
It was offensive, she knew. Yes, women are raped and murdered every day, and turning rape and murder into an opportunistic fairy tale made her a part of the problem. But she was just a player, she didn’t invent the game. Men were hypocrites. Beat up a teenaged girl for being “mouthy”? You’re a fucking hero. Keep women in their place, juvenilize their opinions, disregard their legitimate frustrations as “that time of the month.” But a cute blonde gets raped? Round up the posse with pitchforks!
God’s law? Biblical morality, the whole good-girls-go-to-heaven thing? Bullshit. God doesn’t give a fuck. She’d learned that lesson young. God took her childhood. God dropped a tumor in her stomach and mutant cells in her veins. God left her curled up on the bathroom floor, puke in her hair, mouth sores stinging, praying for oblivion, under the care of people who kept their professional distance, compartmentalized her, locked her in a nice little mental box as soon as they clocked out, because it’s damn hard to love something that’s about to be dead.
God took and took and took. He hadn’t taken her, though not by lack of trying. And in the end, He hadn’t saved her, Doctor Vaczek had. Doctor Vaczek and her experimental treatment. Then she’d been busted, lost her license, fled to Mexico, bought a tract of land, and made a second career out of mixing the most potent, smoothest China White heroin the junkies had ever snorted.
Her loyalty was to Doctor Vaczek. She owed nothing to God.
She yawned, leaned back, closed her eyes. It was a good partnership - she and her childhood oncologist. The doctor made the smack, she sold it. They split the profits. They’d been a team since she’d ran away from her family in Ohio, a few weeks north of her eighteenth birthday, a few months north of ten years before. She was a twenty-eight year old woman who looked like a kid. She was good to have around.
She looked in her mirror, again. Maybe the brown dye wasn’t so bad. She’d have to think of a name to go with it. Mo Taluk was more of a stage name, a doing-business-as. Hayley was cute, it had gone well with the strawberry blonde. Now she needed a new one.Laura, maybe? Yeah. She liked the sound of Laura.
Written by NickyXX