The Headhunter (Shorting the Undead & Other Horrors)

The Headhunter

Shorting the Undead

by Saul Tanpepper

The Headhunter

Shorting the Undead

by Saul Tanpepper
Copyright © 2011 by Saul Tanpepper

All rights reserved.
Published September 1, 2011 by Brinestone Press, San Martin, CA 95046
Cover design Brinestone Press Copyright © 2011

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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Tanpepper, Saul (2011-09-01). The Headhunter

Brinestone Press Kindle Edition
The Headhunter
is a selected title from
Shorting the Undead and Other Horrors: a Menagerie of Macabre Mini-Fiction

(Dec 2011)
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The Headhunter

Promise me, darling. Promise you will not rest.

“Karen,” the hunter cries out. “Oh my Karen. What must I do?”

Take the monster’s head.

†    †    †

When the last splinter
of the day’s harsh sunlight fell from his ceiling and twilight painted the walls crimson in a sweet seduction of darkness, Bill Hawkins unfolded his legs and levered himself off of the ancient couch he used for his bed. His joints ached, though neither from the chill of the approaching winter nor the stiffness of age, nor even from the hardness of the cushions, but from the tension that had parasitized his body since the Uprising, since the time the killings began. The world had died a living death, and now it was the curse of those who remained to relive it each and every night that followed.

Stay in

She haunts his every thought, his beloved wife.

Stay in, or at least go back to the old place where we were once so happy.

He raised his arms, stretching, rotating his head until it no longer creaked like an old pine bending with the wind. The twilight lingered, as if the day were reluctant to go. It would pass soon enough. Night would fall and it was best if he were dressed and gone before the undead began their nightly crawl out of their holes to search the city for hapless victims.

He’d promised Reggie a week ago that he’d hunt with him tonight.

You promised me, too, darling. Remember? Reggie won’t mind.

“I owe him. And, yes, he will mind,” he uttered into the darkness, hoping she would leave him be. Knowing she wouldn’t. “Just one night. I promise.”

She didn’t answer.

It felt like a betrayal. Just like it felt each and every morning he returned without the head of the murderer, the she-beast that had taken his Karen from him forever.

He reached for his pants, so carelessly flung onto the armchair fourteen hours earlier. They were spattered and stiff, smelling strongly of copper and brine and something vaguely sickly-sweet. But it was old blood, dark and coagulated, almost a week old. A week since he’d made his last kill.

He’d planned to wash the clothes, had promised himself this morning he’d do it, but after a meager breakfast of tasteless jerky, he’d practically collapsed onto the sofa in exhaustion. He hadn’t even remembered undressing.

Sleep eluded him. As desperately tired as he was, he could not find peace in sleep. His wakefulness had tormented him for days beyond counting. Even the memory of sleep seemed like nothing more than a dream he’d once had.

As the sun rose and pushed back the shadows, he’d lain, restless and hungry, his joints congealing like old fat and his head thickening as if from some indefinable ague. An eyelid twitch pestered him, on and off, for hours, like a fly buzzing around inside his head. His body was wracked, his soul ruined.

Focus, darling.

His anger roiled, rose to the surface of his consciousness, threatened to erupt from him. But then it would sink away again with little more than a pathetic burp as his mind teetered on the razor’s edge of unconsciousness. Teetered, yet never dropped.

There were moments when he’d wanted to scream out, in anger and frustration or pain. But then fear would take hold of him, fear of being discovered for what he had become. He was ashamed. Ashamed that he had let them take his Karen. Ashamed that he was still here when she was gone. Ashamed of what he’d been reduced to. He was a lonely Headhunter who hunted for revenge. There was nothing more shameful than that.

His guilt clutched at his throat, strangled all but the loneliness from him.
, he held too deep for anything to touch, like a treasured secret, the heart of his very existence. Shame and loneliness. They were why he hunted. Selfish reasons.

There were moments of recklessness when his mouth would open and an anguished groan or shout of desperation threatened to spill out. But then he would clasp his hand over his lips. The consequences, if he let himself cry out, were…. Well, he tried not to think about them.

Not until I am avenged, darling.

A noisy clatter rose from the people on the sunburned sidewalk below him, from the machines, their feckless routines. Like anything made any difference now. The noise drifted up to him in beckoning waves. A scream would certainly be noticed, would draw the wrong sorts to his door. Angry men who killed recklessly and for no other reason than fear of what they did not understand.

When it was nearly noon, he’d gotten up to tug the curtains closed. He was careful not to be seen through the cracked glass. Heat radiated in, clawing at his already parched skin. After so many nights, the light was like acid to his eyes. The flimsy curtains muted the images below him, turned them into phantoms flitting around. For an hour or so he’d stood there, motionless, mesmerized, stoic, watching the shapes of the people who dared venture out while the sun was still up.

Did they really believe they were safe down there?

He considered the question while his stomach rebelled from his miserable breakfast. A memory brushed up against his mind like a tide seducing the shore. He and Karen, at one of the local cafés downtown, laughing, enjoying a ham and cheese panini. A memory from before the Uprising. When life had been…normal. He knew what the memory meant. It meant the monster would soon follow, the monster and memories of its taking Karen.

He tried to think of other things, but images came unbidden, uninvited and yet welcomed: Karen’s happy smile; the sound of her voice; the smell of her skin; the soft, delicious moans of their lovemaking….

And then, just as he’d expected—and yet could never prepare for—there was the face of her attacker, rising up out of the ground like a spectral mist, taking his Karen from him for the thousandth time. He could almost hear her pleading with him as she lay dying. Her voice growing dimmer. The sound of his own footsteps as he’d run off like a coward.

He winced from the memory, the pain of the memory. He groaned, low and to himself, doubling over in anguish, letting it run its course through him like some malarial fever. He knew that when it finally passed, he would pine deliriously for its return. Excruciating as it was, the pain somehow made him feel more alive than he had in a long time.

I will find you, he’d promised. And he had, hadn’t he? He’d found her once.

But then she’d been taken away from him again.

So, standing there at the window, he’d renewed his vow to kill the monster—to kill
of them—no matter how long it took. He’d kill them as mercilessly as it had taken the life of his beloved wife.

And then, maybe he’d finally be able to sleep.

He’d torn himself from the window and fallen back onto the couch, where the twitch in his face resumed its tiresome harassment.

With a deep sigh, almost a moan, he slipped each leg into his pants, zipped the zipper, secured the belt. His clumsy fingers, stiffened by the heat and the dryness of the day, stumbled over the clasp until, finally, the thing was done. The darkness had deepened considerably by then. He found his shirt and draped it over his shoulders. The front was stiff as cardboard, as were the collar and one sleeve. He felt his skin drawing away from it in revulsion. Some hunters got used to the gore; he never did.

, the voice persisted.

Tomorrow, he agreed. He’d wash everything tomorrow. The stains wouldn’t come completely out, nor would the stench their blood left behind, but at least he wouldn’t have to feel it against his skin.

He settled once more onto the couch, sinking deeply into it for the springs were old and cheap and had been sorely abused in another lifetime. His hunting boots were similarly stained and just as putrid as the rest of his clothes, though that mattered little to him. They were boots, after all, meant for such abuse. There are many things much worse than blood and vomit to defile them, he thought, as he laced them up.

Finally, he put on his glasses.

Now the night was fully upon the city. The streets below were as silent as the inside of a crypt and just as desolate. Pausing at the door, he reached down and quietly withdrew the machete from the old umbrella stand. He flipped it in his hand and watched, mesmerized for a moment, as the spinning steel glinted in the faint green glow of his apartment’s security system’s digital readout. Reflexively, his hand snatched the handle in mid-air. A soft ringing filled the air from the handle striking his knuckle.

He blinked, frowning, momentarily distracted by the absence of his wedding ring. Where had it gotten to? And then he remembered: he’d lost it one night, several weeks ago. It had slipped off as he finished bagging a head. An especially gruesome kill. The beast had struggled, refused to die. So much gore. The ring had slid off his finger and gotten lost. The ring that had always been too tight before.

It was just another reminder that he wasn’t taking care of himself, wasn’t eating enough. His body was wasting away. In the six months since Karen had been gone from him, he’d lost nearly a third of his weight. His clothes fit him poorly. Only his promise for revenge kept him strong, even as thoughts of death plagued him more and more frequently.

Drowning. He’d heard it was the best way to go. He wondered how it might feel.

Darling, do not think such thoughts.

He straightened up then, shivering, and looked through the peephole in his door. The hallway sloped away in both directions, as if the darkness that grew from either end was too heavy for the world to bear. He watched, but nothing moved in those shadows.

Finally, convinced he was alone, he thumbed in the security code, waited for the timer to set, then slipped out into the waiting night.

†    †    †

A warm October mist had begun to fall by the time Bill reached the old trestle at the edge of the river. The opposite side was where Reggie preferred to hunt. It was far from Bill’s own haunts in the city, the former warehouse district downtown that had, for a while before the Uprising, become
place to shop and eat and be seen. Now it was a wasteland of vacated buildings and empty avenues. Second Street was where Karen had been taken from him, one evening at dusk. So it was there that Bill focused his hunting efforts, always searching for the hideous figure of the she-beast that had attacked them. Always secretly fearing that some other hunter had already gotten to it first.

It wasn’t unlikely. In the six months that had passed since then, the numbers of hunters in the city had swollen considerably. Heads were harder to come by, and he’d heard nothing of that one particular monster for quite some time. Yet he persisted.

Besides, there was something about the river that he disliked. It always made him feel restless.

A week had passed since he’d been out this way, since the last time he and Reggie had teamed up. But even in that short amount of time, the fall rains and unusually warm days had triggered an explosion of new growth along the trails, making them difficult to find in the dim light.

She is still out there. Just keep hunting.

He pushed her back. “Tonight isn’t about you, Karen,” he whispered.

Then what is it about?

“It’s about…”

What? Doing a job?

He wanted to laugh with the bitterness of it.

“Doing God’s work,” he muttered spitefully.

That was how Reggie always put it. Reggie, the exiled preacher-turned Headhunter. After all that had happened, how could he still believe there was a God?

The first time they met, just days after the attack on the East Side, Bill had been sure he’d come to despise Reginald C. Le Grange. Or if not despise, at least resent. Reggie was a study in contradictions, a devoted father and husband, yet an extremely efficient hunter. “Ice flows through his veins,” the other hunters said. Reggie’s thick black skin had turned nearly as pale and translucent as his own was now—evidence of the countless nights he’d spent hunting by the time Bill found him. Hunting! Such a strange habit for a former man of the cloth. And he was an imposing presence too, nothing like the emasculated priests Bill had known in his own childhood growing up, when he’d attended catholic school at St. Christopher’s. Reggie had the heart and compassion of a saint, the warmth of a man untouched by such horror—if any such man still existed. But he also had a killer’s hands and a killer’s mind.

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