Those with the mark will adhere to the rules set forth until only the wolves created by God remain. That the branded will obey the one deemed Commander until such a time is reached. These rules are law among those signed members therein and will be subject to punishment deemed necessary by the majority vote of the branded.
Rule 1: None will tolerate the existence of the wolf-blooded.
Under no circumstance is the wolf-blooded to have comfort. Their lives must be agonizing and brief.
Rule 2: None will kill a wolf-blooded until due process and confirmation are made.
Speculation is no substitute for conviction; Rumor is no substitute for truth.
Rule 3: Executions of the wolf-blooded must leave zero traces of evidence.
Acts of charity are best kept anonymous.
The plant hummed with turbines and gears, their cadence muffled by Jake’s foam earbuds. The sound reminded him of flies as he wrote in the catacomb of grease-covered spindles. The processed steel rolls were waist high and had been stacked twelve feet up. Their sides had their ship dates spray painted in white. Steam hissed from the cooling tubs as Jake took inventory of the finished product. It was not his job to do so. He carried his own pad of paper, pocket-sized and frayed. He counted 372 rolls. Had they been aligned properly, Jake could have seen straight through the maze to the sunlit loading dock at the North entrance. Instead he stood in darkness, running the meaningless numbers, waiting for Terry to arrive. He didn’t hear him walk up from behind.
Terry appeared in his usual headgear like an alien bug from a garbage planet. He said nothing when he handed Jake one of his little yellow post-its, the name “Dan Bully” written in blue. Terry shook his head and disappeared into the mist. Jake tucked the note into his overalls and flipped the pad over to reveal another list. This list contained dozens of crossed out names that filled the page to the bottom, he flipped several pages before finding space to write Dan’s name.
Eustace had ignored the contract like so many other members in the past, harboring the secret to its inevitable end with Terry confirming everyone’s suspicion on a tiny slip of paper. The young ones proved bracing to hunt with their superior agility and erratic behavior, lacking the patience of the seasoned killer. Jake relished the challenge, but knew Dan would die long before the change. He would make it quick, for Euwie’s sake. He owed that much to a fellow member of the Finisher Militia.
Jake had been told that he looked at people differently when he knew the truth. It was a look devoid of sorrow, guilt, and anger, as if his brain was being rewired. It was a look he refused to share with Eustace that day and wished he could remain hidden in his labyrinth of steel until Friday, but his responsibility as a lieutenant forced him to venture out and let the others know to prepare.
On his way to the locker room Jake spotted Randal and Floyd building skids near the truck dock. Their nail guns rapped along 2X4s, spitting sparks with each bang. He hollered to get their attention and Floyd let his earbuds dangle about his neck as Jake approached. It would have been difficult to tell them apart had Randal not shaved that morning, a double dose of generic Bohemia. Jake had dubbed them “the clones.”
“Well?” asked Floyd.
Jake gave a nod and Floyd and Randal packed their equipment into toolboxes. The three proceeded into the locker room. The pale lights buzzed overhead as Randal placed his toolbox against the foot of the door and Floyd stacked his on top. The barricade would give them time to discuss arrangements in private. Not everyone at the plant had been privy to such meetings. The men removed their gloves and goggles, their faces pink and sweaty. They all found a seat on the benches and Jake showed them the note.
“This has to be a joke,” said Randal.
“It’s confirmed,” said Jake. “It’s from Terry.”
“Is this why Eustace has been acting so funny?”
“He knows the rules. He knows what happens next.”
“You might want to make room in your truck then,” said Floyd. “We got another one in Midlothian.”
“Terry only gave me one note,” said Jake.
“Well I got this one from him yesterday. Terry handed it to me before his shift ended.”
Jake extended his hand, exposing the branded “F” on his palm. Floyd stuck it on the “F.” It had “Marla Knots” written in black.
Terry only writes in blue, thought Jake.“Midlothian huh?”
“She’s all by herself too. A widow— we don’t even need to bring a full crew.”
Terry only writes in blue, thought Jake.“House or apartment?”
“House—a ranch home. I checked it out last night. There’s a ‘beware of dog’ sign on the fence door, but I didn’t see one.”
“Maybe the sign was about her,” said Randal with a chuckle.
Terry only writes in blue, thought Jake. He rubbed his eyes.
“It’s a real easy job,” said Floyd. “The three of us should handle it tonight. What do you think, Jake?”
Terry only writes in blue, thought Jake as he walked to Floyd’s toolbox. He undid the bolt latches, flipped the lid, and reached for the nail gun. Terry only writes in blue. He turned around and pecked three bursts along Randal’s neck and spine. The body slumped forward with a gurgle. Terry only writes in blue.
Floyd stood from his seat, but Jake shoved him back onto the bench and pounded nails into his hands and forearms as he tried to shield himself from the onslaught. Each nail ejected with a crack, erupting through to the other side. The locker room blared with both men’s screams. Terry only writes in blue.
“So what do you think, Jake?” asked Floyd again. “You look…everything all right?”
Randal scratched his elbow while Jake sat quiet for a moment.
“If you say it’s confirmed, it’s confirmed,” said Jake. “We’ll go tomorrow so we can focus on Euwie’s situation on Friday.”
“Tonight would be better I think,” said Randal. He shifted in his seat when Jake turned his gaze on him. He looked away and scratched his other elbow.
“Tomorrow would be best,” said Jake. “I’ll see you boys then.”
They left the locker room and the clones punched out for their lunch break. Jake spotted Terry on the dock operating the claw with a control unit that dangled from the rafters. He was in the middle of lifting six tons of unfinished metal from a truck bed. Terry let the giant roll sway in the air as he yanked his bandana down.
“Hey Jake! If you want to stay on this side for a while I could use someone to move these cans! I’m heading out!”
Jake lifted one side of Terry’s headphones and whispered, “We need to talk.”
Terry handed the controls to another dock worker and they stepped into Terry’s office, a shack built in the middle of the loading platform. Terry leaned against the wall and lowered his headphones while Jake sat at the desk. Both men tossed their goggles onto Terry’s desk.
“So when did you want to tell Eustace?” asked Terry.
“Not today. First thing Friday morning.”
“I was thinking we should be awful generous with this one.”
Jake sighed and leaned farther back in his seat. “How generous?”
“I think it makes sense to give him more options.”
“It doesn’t matter what you or I think,” said Jake. “The contract is very clear that Bully’s son has to die. These things get less complicated when the rules are on paper for everyone to see.”
“It’s never simple,” said Terry.
“The hell it isn’t. When I get your notes they become just a name waiting to be crossed out. Simple.”
“It doesn’t always have to be you.”
“No one else can do what I do, Terry. I thank the Lord everyday for knowing precisely what was intended for me. It would be immoral not to share my gift.”
“Not always,” said Terry. “Not every time. Eustace should get to choose who kills Danny and not leave it to some one-sided contest. It keeps bad blood from forming. That kind of thing tears groups apart.”
Jake wondered about what bad blood he may have already cultivated in the plant. Had he wronged the clones at some point, maybe hunted a relative or an old girlfriend? “You saying I’m bad for the group?”
“I didn’t say you were bad, the way you go about sharing your gift is bad, and I think you should exercise some self-control in this situation, considering who’s affected.”
Jake sat forward. “Why are you putting Eustace on a pedestal? Scott and Jordie were better men than him and I solved their problems all the same. Now you want me to ‘exercise self-control?’”
“I wasn’t talking about Euwie,” said Terry. “Danny is Jessup’s Godson. Bet you didn’t know that did you?”
Jake sunk back into his chair and gently rotated back and forth.“No, no I didn’t.”
“Then you can see why it would be a good idea if the boy’s blood was on someone else’s hands. The last thing you need is for the boss to hold a grudge.”
The last thing I need is for this wolf to escape. “What if Eustace says he wants to do it?”
“We let him. We’ll give him some time restrictions, but there’s no rule that says he can’t.”
“How long do we give him?”
“It can’t hurt anyone until the next full moon.”
Jake stood up and shoved the chair into the wall. “That’s bullshit! We’ll have no time to act if he doesn’t go through with it. We need a buffer…give him one week.”
“Calm down. You’re shaking my office,” said Terry. “Is it really going to take us that long to track down a cub? Let’s make it two weeks.”
I could kill Dan Bully in a few hours if I wanted to. “I can live with two weeks.”
“Two weeks. Good. Can I leave now? I should have punched out twenty minutes ago.”
“There’s more,” said Jake. “Does the name ‘Marla Knots’ mean anything to you?”
“Not a thing. Why?”
“Floyd and Randal tried to give me a fake target. It was almost adorable, like watching children try to sneak a puppy into the house. Could this be some of that bad blood you were talking about?”
“They don’t seem like the plotting kind. What would they do if they got you alone, kill you?”
“Well they’re not taking me to the movies, that’s for sure.”
“It doesn’t make sense, Jake. You’re too valuable. But maybe they’re just following orders from higher up. They do spend a lot of time outside of work with Jessup.
“The timing seems right. They want to get to me before we see Eustace.”
“Talk to Jessup about it then. Get it all out in the open, just not here. We know he has Floyd and Randal, who knows who else. He lifts weights all week at Mega Fitness a couple of blocks south of here. You can probably catch him during your lunch break tomorrow.”
Jake stared into Terry’s eyes, looking for a lie. If he wanted me gone he would have given Ms. Knots to me himself. “I go to the gym, I confront Jessup, and he denies it. What then?”
“You’re not confronting anyone, you confront Jessup and he’ll come for you again, this time with less theatrics. Tell him you feel tension at work and let him know you won’t go after Danny. Simple.”
“They’re going to let the boy get away. You know that, right?”
“Either talk to Jessup or go on your mystery date with the clones, see how that works out for you.”
Jake pulled up to his house in Oak Lawn. His step-daughter Tara sat Indian style at the top of the driveway. Green blotches and swirls of brown and blue filled the bottom right-hand corner of the garage door; her little hands mashed her brush against the giant canvas. She stopped when he towered behind her.
“What are you doing?” asked Jake.
She looked up at him with a frown.“Painting your garage.”
“Did I say you could paint my garage?”
“Where’s your mother?”
Jake pulled her up by her wrist and swatted her on her back. She cried as he led her up the steps into the house. Her mother was on the phone sitting at the kitchen table. He told Tara to get upstairs and clean up. Nicole attempted to rush her conversation, but Jake pulled the phone from her hand and ended the call, dropping it onto the table with a thud.
“That was my mother,” said Nicole.
“I don’t care who it was. Do you know what your daughter was doing?”
“I told her to pick up her toys from the lawn.”
“She was by herself painting my fucking garage!”
“There weren’t that many toys. I thought she would only be a minute.”
“She was by herself! Anyone could have just come by and snatched her up. Meanwhile her mother is just fucking around on her phone!”
“Daddy’s in the hospital.”
“Don’t let it happen again.”
Jake winded his fist back and Nicole flinched. He had never struck her the entire time they’ve been together, but she always flinched. “I don’t need to come home to that.”
After Tara had washed up, they all sat down to a dinner of roasted chicken with biscuits, corn, and mashed potatoes. Jake let the flaps of his overalls fold over his legs like a napkin. He removed his stained shirt and threw it into the laundry room from his seat. Jake took their hands in his and they bowed their heads in grace. He prayed for a fully cooked bird this time until he felt someone watching him. He caught Tara starring at his scars. He looked down at the multicolored road darting from his throat to his waist, the patchwork bled out across his muscular torso filled with ditches and potholes.
“You got enough paint to fill in these spots?” asked Jake. He let go of their hands and they ate in silence. When they finished, Tara slipped out of her chair and left to watch TV in the living room. Jake sat tired and full, staring at what was left of the carcass.
“We’re going to have a lot left over for tomorrow night’s dinner,” said Nicole. Her voice was faint. “You have another double shift?”
“I’ll be coming back late, yeah. I don’t know when.”
“You want me to save any of this for you?”
“Don’t worry about me,” said Jake. He took her hand again and gently ran his thump across her knuckles. “What happened to your dad?”
“He was having chest pains again and mom took him in to get checked out. They want to keep him over night.”
“Want me to drive you over there?”
“No, I got it. But make sure she’s in bed by nine.”
He held her hand up to his lips and kissed it. “I can handle that.”
Later that night, Jake carried Tara to her bed. She woke in his arms and stole another peek at him on their way up the stairs. As he slipped the sheets over her she opened her eyes, her tiny face still frozen with a grimace.
“Did I scare you today?”
“Well you made me mad,” said Jake. “Not as much as your mom though. I forget how young she is sometimes.”
She turned her attention to the window sill. Jake pulled up one of the tiny wooden chairs in her room and sat next to her bed.
“What were you painting?”
“A garden of flowers.”
“Did you and your mom have a garden at your old house?”
“No, I just like painting flowers.”
“They look nice.”
“It’s not done. I don’t have any red for the roses.”
“We’ll get you more, but I don’t want to see you walking around outside by yourself like that again.”
“Did you steal me?”
“We learned in Sunday school that taking something that isn’t yours is stealing. Billy said that I wasn’t yours, does that mean you stole me?”
“I don’t know who Billy is, but that’s not how it works. You belong to your mom just like my two boys belong to me. When I married your mother you became ours.”
“Did you have two boys because you don’t like girls?”
“I like girls just fine. In fact, when I was a lot younger, I had a daughter.”
Tara’s eyes grew at the idea. “What was her name? What was she like?”
“Her name was Sammy. Wasn’t much younger than you… soft blond hair with green eyes like her mother.”
“Where is she?”
“Well, once upon a time, when I lived in St. Louis, I had a wife named Grace and a daughter named Sammy. One night, a big bad wolf came into our home and swallowed them whole. I chased after him through the forest for hours. When morning came, I finally found him.”
“What did you do?”
“ I slit his belly open hoping to free them.”
“Did you free them?”
“No, Tara. I was too late.”
“Were you sad?”
“Still am. If she were alive today she’d probably have a daughter around your age, but the Lord had other plans for me. I married a new wife and had two boys.”
“Ronnie and Luke.”
“That’s right. And for a time, we were happy. But one day the boys’ mother started thinking it was okay for big bad wolves to eat women and children. Does that make any sense to you?”
Tara shook her head.
“You’re a smart girl, Tara.”
“Not stupid— evil. Did they teach you evil yet in Sunday school?”
“She’s evil, along with all the big bad wolves.”
“Will they go away?” asked Tara.
“I’m working on it. Get some sleep. If your mom asks, tell her you went to bed at nine.”
Jake pulled up alongside a familiar car in the gym parking lot. The vanity plate read “METLMAN” across a Texas flag and Jake had no doubt who it belonged to. Jake approached the glass doors of the gym and noticed that the neon “open” sign had been unplugged. He shook the door handles but they wouldn’t budge. He placed his hands around his eyes like binoculars to get a better view inside. There was the faintest sound of a party.
Before he could complete his scan a portly old man banged his hand on the glass. He wore a gray shirt with “Mega Fitness” imprinted on it. He yelled at Jake in Spanish.
“Hemos cerrado! Esto es propiedad privada. Ir a otra parte!”
“Is Mr. Murral inside? His car is out here.”
“No open! No me oyes?” The old man lost interest and walked away.
“I just want to talk to him.”Jake began slapping the glass with his hand to get the old man’s attention. It worked.
“Mano? My hand?”
“Si, tu mano.” The old man placed his hand flat against the glass. Jake did the same. The old man circled the “F” with his finger. “Si, puede ingresar ahora,”said the old man with a nod and he unlocked the door.
Mariachi music and clapping clamored from a TV behind the counter. The sound echoed throughout the cavernous two-story gym. The second floor balconies were visible from the entrance and had been cleared of all equipment; only the adjustable mounts for the plasma screens were left behind, dangling beheaded and limp. The machines that did remain were gathered downstairs on an island of condensed rubber mats. Jake saw something move beyond the thickets of pulleys and weight stacks.
“Is he here alone?” asked Jake.
“Siempre,”mumbled the old man as he returned to his game show.
Jake followed the rattling of weight plates punctuated by grunts, maneuvering past the ruptured bench cushions wrapped liberally in duct tape. He discovered Jessup bench pressing in the center of the still machinery. His chest eclipsed the bottom of his face as he lifted; every vein and tendon in his arms took root in the bar. Jake sat on a nearby bench and waited for Jessup to finish his set, the bar bending with incalculable weight on each side.
Jessup breathed heavy after he sat upright. The blood returned to the rest of his torso as his eyes squinted in disbelief. “I didn’t know you worked out here too, Mr. Reto,” said Jessup with coy grin.
“I haven’t lifted in years,” said Jake. “Your spotter doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job.”
“Spotters are for pussies, Jake.” Jessup leaned forward to pick up his water bottle and shot a stream into his mouth. “Get ‘er in while you can. This’ll all be gone soon enough. Guessin’ you’re here to talk business. Let me get rid of ol’ Rocko.” Jessup sat up straighter and called out to the old man. “i Viejo, dejar las llaves en el mostrador y espere afuera para tu auto!” The music stopped and Rocko left.
“Floyd and Randal told me about Ms. Knots. They want to take care of it tonight.”
“She was really somethin’ in her prime.” He wiped his face with a towel and draped it over the bar.
“I think they were planning something else for me.”
“What makes you say that?”
Jake knew better than to talk about the ink. The whole idea sounded crazy in his head. “If it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll sit this one out.”
Jessup bit his lip in an attempt to keep from laughing. “All they had to do was bring you to the house. I knew they’d fuck it up. They can’t even make skids right. They always come out crooked and wobbly.” Jessup shook his hands when he said wobbly and spilled from his bottle.
“Fuck what up?”
“Did you know that I used to be quite the mogul here in Bridgeview?” Jessup counted his properties with each finger. “I used to own the finishing plant, apartment complexes, houses, and this gym! As you can plainly see, it was worth every penny!” Jessup spread his arms wide before taking another drink.
Jake’s suspicion of the “water” had all but been confirmed. “Wait. You sold the plant!?”
“They’re crumblin’, Jake! Everything I own been goin’ to shit. I’ve been sellin’ equipment to keep my head above water, the plant comes under new management in winter, and my apartments have been vacant for months. When it’s all said n’ done, I’ll be owin’ the bank ’til I die.”
“I’m sorry things aren’t working out, but when the fuck were you planning on telling us!?”
Jessup laughed so hard he cried. Jake suspected booze in Jessup’s bottle. Did I walk in on a suicide?
“You know what I’ve learned?” asked Jessup. “They were all distractions—soul killing and absolutely meaningless. They took me away from the only thing I’ve ever been proud of.”
“I’ll ask you again,” said Jake. “What did Floyd and Randal fuck up?”
“The Finisher Militia can be my legacy. When every wolf is dead, people will remember the Finisher Militia as the catalyst of change. But for that day to come, I needed to set someone straight.”
“What the hell are talking about?”
“Of course you don’t know! You never listen! I’ve been telling you for months now how reckless you’ve become, how your behavior risks everyone’s cover. I don’t like to be ignored, Mr. Reto, so I let my actions speak.” He turned and hurled his empty bottle onto the second floor. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you risk my legacy, my place in history! That house in Midlothian has been empty for years. I use it for matters such as this. In the Army, a bad soldier got broken. The cellar houses an 8X9 square foot cell. We were going to make use of it for a couple weeks or whatever it took—enough to break any man.”
“ I’d still come after Danny. You can’t protect him.”
Jessup laughed and licked his lips. “I’ve seen him twice in his entire sorry existence. Bully’s boy will die, don’t you fret.”
“Then why throw me in the hole?”
“When you marked the contract, you became more than my employee. You became a part of somethin’ holy—somethin’ that devours hell. There were days when I thought you would spare no one, but that time has passed. You can’t just execute whoever shows up on one of Terry’s little notes. It has to come at my order, my call. I decide who you kill. And I’ve decided that you will not kill Dan Bully. I’m taking back control of my men. I am your commander after all.” Jessup stood up from the bench and looked down on Jake with a grin.
Jake met him eye to eye. The acrid stench of Vodka burned his nose. “You’re out of your fucking mind! After all I’ve done for the militia, you’d torture me just to make a point!?”
“Torture was a compromise. I know what my men think of you. You murdered their flesh and blood and yet they still follow you. What kind of man invokes such madness? I wanted to show them that no matter how dangerous a weapon you are, you are still my weapon. But I’ve grown tired of you. I’m sick of the air that fills your lungs and the blood pumping in your veins. It is only out of gratitude for your service that I offer this ultimatum: go back to where you came from, never to be seen again by another living member of the Finishers or I’ll come for your wife and child in the night, leaving you to live as the man who lost yet another family, and when you can barley muster the strength to face the world, my men will return and pull you apart by the seams of your ugly, wretched body. You have until I finish my next set to give your answer.”
Jessup returned to his workout, the hulking weight lifted just barely from the rack. Jake watched as the bar glided up and down from Jessup’s chest to the air. Each movement grew slower as his chest and neck strained to continue. His face burned red and trembled during the last reps, growling in an inhuman trance. Jake thought of Nicole and Tara and the garden on his garage, of Terry and the claw, of Eustace and the clones, of the nail guns and the darkness, but most of all he thought of the ink.
Terry only writes in blue.
Jake came home early that day. The afternoon sun bathed Tara’s garden and he figured it should help it grow. Jake ran his finger across the front of his overalls and coated his finger tips with Jessup’s blood and painted roses on his garage.