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    1. RoadRash 10 yrs ago


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You know ya boy is here.
Callsign: Ghost
Assignment: Working Group THUNDER

Operational History:
101st Airborne, Ft. Campbell, KY
5th Special Forces Group (A), Ft. Campbell, KY
1st Special Forces Group Operational Detachment - Delta, Ft. Bragg, NC
Blackwater PMC - Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia

Age: 44

Sex: Male


Height: 6'2"
Weight: 243 lbs

Gifted(+8): Marksmanship: Long Guns, Marksmanship: Pistols, Melee Weapons
Adept(+6): Hand-to-Hand, Awareness, Military Science (Land), Athletics
Average(+4): SERE, Tactical Driving, Demolitions/EOD, Artillery
Novice(+2): First Aid, Breaking-and-Entering, Crafting, Subterfuge, Navigation

Special Training - HALO/HAHO jump

Violence - ADAPTED
Helplessness -


SAN - 35
Breaking Point - 28

Fluent - Pashto
Semifluent - Urdu
Rudimentary - Farsi

Perfect Predator - His obsession with operational perfection has left his body honed to peak condition, and despite his advancing years he can still hang with the best Active Duty operator, and his sheer experience puts many to shame.

Functional Sociopathy - Ghost’s childhood of abuse and neglect, coupled with his military career, has forged him into a man for whom lying, manipulation, and sudden violence are second nature. This allows him to operate in a world where those traits are necessary, and a nature that would have left him a pariah even in the military has made him an asset to the Program.

Past His Prime - Ghost is nearing his mid-forties, and while his body is still strong, his violent life is beginning to wear on him. He has aches and pains he didn’t have even just a few years ago, and has had to resort to steroid use to maintain muscle mass he found easy to put on as a younger man.

Narcissism - Ghost’s ego is a two-edged sword. While he is supremely confident of his abilities in battle, small setbacks that would simply annoy others can challenge his carefully fostered self-image.

The sound of Bob Marley and the Wailers drifted through the neat suburban house, the connected bluetooth speakers allowing the music to fill the kitchen and dining room including the corner converted to a makeshift office. Kaliah was working from home today as she had her schedule arranged to give her more time with her son especially while on summer break.

She made sure to keep him busy to avoid him getting into trouble, his father taking him on the weekends. Usually.

Kaliah frowned, it was unlike Dave to just not show up. He was terrible at calling or texting but she could always rely on him to show up early Saturday mornings to fetch Mal. And so did the boy relied on his father's regular presence and when Dave never arrived they both were worried. Mal had been silently upset, his sunny nature clouded with disappointment. Perhaps the basketball camp at the University campus would raise his spirits but she knew better.

She checked her phone again. Nothing. Her texts and calls had gone unanswered, anger and fear knotting up inside her. Kaliah knew his family, they were dangerous and likely had long memories of kin blood feuds like their hillbilly ancestors.

Kaliah noted the time and got up, peeling her bare thighs off the vinyl chair. She dressed in brief pink running shorts and a loose off shoulder t-shirt over her sports bra. Her plan was to work out once the depositions were done but in reality she just relished the comfort of not wearing a suit and heels.

She went to the kitchen to take out the Tupperware of jambalaya she made last night, it always seemed to taste better the next day. Kaliah put it into the microwave to reheat, the scent of saffron rice and spice soon filling the kitchen. It was an old family recipe passed down from her mother's people who claimed Creole ancestry from Louisiana.

Dave looked nervously at his phone. He had parked two blocks away and taken a circuitous route, in the hopes of throwing off any potential tail. He wore another of his full-size combat pistols in a shoulder holster beneath a light jacket, and a compact SBR was tucked behind his seat.

He eyed Kaliah's number in his phone, took a breath, and dialed.

As Kaliah poured sugar in a pitcher of iced tea her phone went off, a chiming that made her turn on the balls of her bare feet and leaned over the counter to snatch it up. Her heart jumped and she tapped it, answering breathlessly, "David Daniel MacCready! Where the hell are you?"

"Two blocks away," he said, his voice low. He got out of the truck and pulled a plain brown ball cap low over his eyes and starting towards Kaliah's house. "I'll be there in a minute. Go to your back door, okay?"

"Why are you talking like that, Dave?" she asked but still walked to the back door.

Bella the pitbull mix saw this and jumped up with a jingle of tags and scrabble of claws on linoleum. Wagging her tail, Bella whined and sat at the door but Kaliah ignored her, still talking, "Are you in trouble?"

"I'll tell you when I get there," he said. "See you soon."

He hung up, looked around, and then broke into a light jog. It was a mid-week afternoon and the streets were empty, so after a half-block he cut a hard right between two houses, hopping a low fence in the process. He reached Kaliah's back yard and climbed that fence as well, then approached the back door, fighting down a sudden case of nerves.

Bella barked and wiggled in excitement, jumping up to scratch the door when Dave approached. Kaliah did not wait for him to knock. She yanked open the door, ready to jump on him but the rush of words halted at the sight of his handsome face discolored by old bruises.

The silence was only a split second before she gasped, "Dave! What happened to your face? Where have you been? You never called this weekend, Mal's been-"

She stopped herself and opened the door wider to let him in, pushing the dog with her foot to give him room. "Come on inside, boy, you just....you been fighting? Am I gonna have to give you legal counsel again?"

Dave entered, taking a quick look around the backyard. Once inside he allowed Bella to jump up on him, absently scratching the ruff of her neck.

"I got… I'm caught up in some stuff," he said. "I'm on the right side. It's just… You got a beer? This is gonna take some explainin'."

Kaliah blinked then nodded, her curls bouncing in the ponytail she wore. "Sit down at the table. You hungry? I'm heating up jambalaya, you know the one you always liked."

She grabbed a bottle of Bud, kept for his weekend visits, and gave it to him.

Kaliah turned with a bounce of her ample rump in the running shorts. "So tell me about it," she said as she served two bowls of the spicy rice dish. "What stuff are you into that you can't call me and you stand up your son."

She placed the dishes on the table and sat across from him, giving him the lawyer look, steady and penetrating.

Dave took the beer, staring at the bottle for almost a full minute as he marshaled his thoughts. Then he took a long pull.

"There's… There's some stuff I can't tell ya," he said. "I'm helpin' the Feds. I know, I know. I ain't happy about it. But that body, the one me an' Mal found? Is part of… Somethin' bigger. Mob. Maybe Cartels. They're… they're killin' people. Girls, mostly. Killin' 'em bad, Kaliah."

He shivered and trailed off for a moment. "The cops, they know all about me. They needed someone with my skills. Someone who can hunt, track… A mountain man, you know? So I went with 'em. Not because I trust 'em, but because these bastards hurt some people here. In my mountains. My mountains, where my son plays, you know?" He clenched a fist tightly, his fierce gaze boring a hole in the table.

"I can't have people dyin' when there's somethin' I can do to help. It ain't right. I hate the goddamn Feds, but this is… It's for the greater good."

Kaliah sat quietly, absorbing what he told her. David MacCready working with the Feds had to mean everything he told her was truth, because no other reason would propel him to work with those he distrusted as much as the government. Only the threat to their son. She took a deep breath and leaned over, reaching out, her fingers brushing the clenched fist.

"Dave...you always been a good man," Kaliah said softly, then gently squeezed.

"You're good, even if you drive me crazy. But goddamnit we were worried sick. Mal thought...he was upset. And I was so worried...I thought it was your family come back, your Daddy," Kaliah said, her big dark eyes peering at him. "Is it over, did they catch the men killing those people?"

Dave shook his head. "Not even close," he said quietly. "We got… There was a fight. Gunfight. Buncha thugs. We killed a handful… But there's still plenty of 'em to wade through. I'm only home for a bit. A break. I'm gonna hafta go back, but I had to see Mal. You too."

"A gunfight? You killed...oh lord, Dave, what are these people doing? Bringing a civilian into something like that you could have been killed ..." She trailed off, if there was any civilian more than capable of taking care of himself it was Dave. Her hands moved to her face and then she took a deep breath. "And I know you will go back until the job is done. Damnit...well, are you alright at least? Your face...did you have to fight one of them?"

Dave gave a rueful chuckle. "I uh… Kinda got shot a little bit. Don't tell Mal, it wasn't nothin' serious."

Kaliah slapped her hands on the table, "You got shot?! David MacCready... I swear if you wasn't already bruised up I'd beat your ass myself. Where'd you get shot?"

"Shoulder," he said sheepishly. He scratched at the table with a fingernail. "And a little in the chest. Vest stopped that one, though, so it don't really count."

Kaliah's eyes widened and she stood up, clapping her hands for emphasis, "You got shot in the chest. They was tryna kill yo cracka ass. Goddamn, Dave..."

She glared, her hands now planting themselves on her wide hips. "You tryna do the right thing but I can't have you going and getting killed, it would destroy our son. And I would...well, you know."

"I know," he said. They left it unspoken. They always did. "But this ain't your decision. It's mine. These people are sick. They're evil. And there ain't exactly a lot of people who can do what I do."

He raised his gaze to hers. The old MacCready obstinance blazed in his blue eyes. "I'm goin' back when they call me. I've got no choice."

Kaliah glared back but then shook her head, neither would budge but he was a man with a conscience and morals and it was something she respected about him. Even when it frightened her. "You always got a choice but I know you will go back because it's the right thing to do. It just scares me." she asked, her tone softening. "You still hurting?"

"A bit," he nodded. "Cracked some ribs, and the hole in my arm ain't healed yet, but I'm on the mend." He gave her a sudden, boyish grin. "Concussion gone away, though."

Kaliah shook her head, trying not to respond to his grin, her full lips pressing together to suppress the smile. "Like you'd notice with that thick skull of yours," she said, her hands slipping from her hips.

She looked away, covering her mouth as she caught the emotional response, her voice muffled, "Crazy ass white boy, what am I gonna do with you?"

"Well," he drawled, leaning back in his chair and cocking an eyebrow.. "I reckon we can start with lunch. Then… well, when's Mal comin' home?"

Kaliah tilted her head slightly, her tongue running along the inside of her cheek and she smiled at him. She chuckled, taking a deep breath as strong feelings rolled through her. "You gettin' ideas, Dave MacCready..."

Kaliah moved over to him, finding a seat on his thigh as he leaned back in his chair. Her hands gently caressed his handsome bruised face and she gave him a light kiss on the cheek, breathing warmly against him, "His basketball camp is over at five, they're having a pizza party."

He sighed and relaxed, leaning into her hand. "Then let's start with lunch."


Kaliah checked the time on her phone, she still had depositions to finish but Dave held her as he dozed. Whatever he had been through had not slowed down his sex drive and they had spent most of the afternoon in bed. Her hand brushed over his, the contrast between their skin was always fascinating especially the paler parts of him that weren't regularly touched by the sun.

Her thoughts turned over what he had told her. Murders of girls not much older than their child, dangerous men with guns trying to cover their crimes. Dave was a man who would not stand for that on his mountain or if he could help stop it. All the training his devil of a father had given him to make war in the name of hate, Dave was fighting for love, for justice.

Kaliah sighed and smiled at his handsome bruised face now the tension gone while he slept. She kissed his brow before sliding out of his arms to go wash up and finish her work.

Once it was around 5:30 pm, Kaliah sat on the bed, now dressed in jeans and cream colored camisole stretching across her generous chest. Over it she wore a matching cardigan, giving her a more modest air.

She leaned over gently shaking Dave, and she said in a low voice, "I'm heading out to pick up Mal, you gonna get up and dressed."

Dave jerked awake, his hand reaching for a gun that wasn't there. His eyes were wide, wild, a feral ferocity briefly glinting in them before he mastered himself. He sat up in the bed while he took in his surroundings, his brain slowly assimilating the information.


Kaliah startled at his reaction, jerking her hand back. "Dave, it's me. Take it easy, you alright."

She shifted so she faced him, her warm dark eyes full of concern, "Were you havin' a nightmare?"

"Dunno," Dave grunted, looking around. "I uh… I'm sorry. 'Bout all that, I mean."

Kaliah put her hand on his arm, giving him a slight squeeze, "Ain't gotta be sorry, you've had a rough couple of weeks, running around getting in gunfights and tryna be a hero... God, Dave. No wonder you are having nightmares and waking up like you're getting attacked. You got that in you for sure, just take care of yourself."

She leaned in and kissed his cheek, whispering, "You've always been our hero."

When she pulled back, Kahlia said, "Now wash up and get dressed, your son is gonna be so excited to see you. I'm gonna keep it a surprise. I'll be back in about twenty minutes."

Dave nodded, managing to grin at the kiss despite the jumbled state of his head. Being jerked into wakefulness left him feeling sluggish, his thoughts jerking and grinding like an old pickup. He watched Kaliah leave the room and then hauled himself from the bed with a groan.

He followed Kaliah's orders, making the bed and then heading to her bathroom for a shower, taking his gun with him from room to room as he washed, dressed, and started a pot of coffee. Bumping around the house felt comfortable, natural. It wasn't unusual for him to spend the night, and he knew his way around their kitchen as easily as he did his own.

As the coffee pot began to bubble he seated himself at the breakfast bar and took out his burner, checking for messages. Seeing none he pocketed the phone and settled in to wait on his son, a smile growing on his battered face.

The Mercedes pulled up into the driveway and Mal was out the door. He called out to his mom, "Can I play Call of Duty?"

Her answer was inaudible but must have been affirmative as Mal dashed across the yard, basketball under one arm and he yanked the door open. Mal was still in the basketball shorts and shirt, the muscles just now starting to be noticeable in his skinny limbs. Bella barked and jumped around him and he gave her a pat before she skittered across the linoleum to the kitchen where Dave waited.

Mal's eyes widened and he shouted, his voice cracking, "Dad!"

His excitement mingled with anger and he paused inside the entrance way. The disappointment and heartache over his dad forgetting him made him pause. Mal stood looking at Dave, fidgeting with the basketball then bounced it once. "So... you're back."

Dave felt a pang in his chest at the subtle accusation in those words. He stood, masking the hurt, and approached his son.

“Yeah, I had some stuff that...Well...I’ll explain it all, okay? Durin’ dinner.” He hesitated and then held out his arms. “Got a hug for me?”

Mal hesitated, his dark eyes dropping, a mingling of hurt and relief in his expression. The boy dropped the ball, then threw his arms around Dave's neck. "I thought you forgot about me, I thought something happened," he muttered, hugging his Dad with none of the teenage awkwardness. "Mom was scared."

“I’d never forget about you, bubba,” Dave said, squeezing him tightly. “I love you too damn much. But this thing I was doin’, I couldn’t… I couldn’t talk about it, okay? I’m gonna tell you, I already told your mom. But you gotta keep it to yourselves.”

There was relief and affection in the squeeze, the boy gripping his dad tight. The childish fear of abandonment had weighed on him, especially when some of his friends found out and made jokes about Dave going out for dip and not coming back. Mal straightened up, taking a step back to meet his father's eyes. He saw the bruises now, fading but still colorful and the tired circles under the steel gaze.

"Yes, sir," Mal said, his curiosity now intense, "I won't tell anyone, Dad. I swear. What were you doing?"

“Whoever killed that person on our mountain, he killed some other folks too,” Dave said. He’d resolved to keep things short; there was no sense scaring the boy. “I been out East, helpin’ the feds track him down. Normally I wouldn’t have shit to say to a fed, but...These are young women bein’ hurt. I don’t think God would want me turnin’ away from that, you know? Not when I’m the kinda man who can do somethin’ about it.”

Mal swallowed hard, the memory of what had ended up being on the mountain had plagued his dreams, he had picked up a human bone of someone murdered. It was kinda cool but mostly it scared him. He wiped his hand instinctively against his basketball shorts recalling that day. Monsters had prowled his dreams but it was men that killed and no one was more of a man than his Dad. His dad could take the mountain back, with the Feds or not.

"The dead body," he asked, "Did you find who killed her? Did you k...."

He stopped, remembering when Dave had got after him about asking that question. "Did you get in a fight?"

“Just a little,” Dave said lightly. “Wasn’t nothin’ serious.”

He squeezed his son’s shoulder. “I’ll tell ya more at dinner, okay?”

"Yeah, okay," Mal replied, rubbing a hand over his tight curls, "I better shower before Mom yells at me, I'm glad you're back. Maybe we can go camping, I miss it."

He missed his Dad, too. Getting away from the house, his chores, as much as he loved his mother it was nice to have a break and just be with Dave and talk about things she couldn't understand. He fetched up the ball just as Kaliah walked in.

"Gonna take a shower but I'm not hungry, they got us pizza," he announced then tossed the basketball at Dave. "Can we shoot some hoops after dinner?"

Dave caught the ball and nodded. “I think we can manage that. Long as your mama don’t mind me stayin’ a little late?” He looked at Kaliah, quirking an eyebrow.

Kaliah winked at him playfully over Mal's shoulder and said, "You're welcome to stay overnight, no need to drive so far after dark. Not after such a long trip back."

"Cool!" Mal grinned, the same bright handsome smile as his father often wore. "Alright, I'm gonna wash up, I'll be right back."

Kaliah watched the boy rush to the bathroom and then she looked at Dave, "How much are you going to tell him?"

“Just a bit,” Dave said, watching him go. He felt his voice catch and he swallowed hard. “Just enough, you know? He don’t need the details. It’s dark shit.”

Kaliah nodded, moving into the kitchen to start dinner, "He had nightmares when y'all came back. Spent the first three nights sleeping with the light on and his TV, said it helped because he kept seeing and hearing things in the dark."

She glanced over her shoulder as she took out two steaks to allow them to come to room temperature. "He ain't done that since he was a little boy. Remember? Watching scary movies and games when he wasn't supposed to."

Kaliah stepped over to Dave, her hands moving to his shoulders and she massaged him absently as she spoke. "I wish we could keep him protected a little bit longer, that body shook him up. You doing what you're doing, it's admirable but it's still frightening for us to be waiting to see if you come back."

“I know,” he said quietly. He leaned against her hands. “But I gotta. What I told Mal was true. God wouldn’t want me steppin’ away from this. There’s people out there dyin’ because they’re beyond whatever law our government’s made. They’re out there in the dark, where the cops can’t get ‘em. But I can. So I will.”

She kissed the top of his head and hugged him against her chest, "I know you'll fight the good fight, that's something I've known since I met you. One of the reasons I love you, you've always been a good man and the best father. And I know you'll come back to us."

Kaliah slid back and gave him a massage on the back of his neck, "And if you don't, if something happens...they'll have me to answer to."

Dave snorted. “Lord knows I’d rather fight another buncha goons than you.”

She smiled, walking around him to go to the stove, "You right about that."

Kaliah steamed broccoli and whipped up mashed potatoes to go with the steaks she picked up while getting Mal. The boy chattered happily, telling Dave about basketball camp and his latest Call of Duty match.

She set the rare T-bone in front of him with a mound of mashed potatoes beside it. Her own steak was medium, as undercooked as she dared go but an improvement from the time she used to make it well done.

"Then I blasted their camping sniper," Mal said, picking at the broccoli his mother put in front of him since all he had for dinner was pepperoni pizza.

"I don't like that game," Kaliah said, picking up her knife. "Too much violence, guns aren't toys."

It was an old argument that stalemated and she said no more only glancing at Dave as he ate. Mal left it, the less said on the matter the better.

"Hey Dad, when can I go to the cabin?"

“I think in a while,” Dave said, looking up from his steak. He’d let the gun comment go; his recent experiences had only reinforced his views regarding firearms, but he didn’t want a fight. Not now. “Maybe next time I’m home, okay bubba? I wanna run that mountain a bit on my own. Make sure everythin’ is okay.”

Mal sighed but nodded, "Yeah, okay. But when's that gonna be? Before I gotta go back to school? I'm trying out for basketball this year, did Mom tell you?"

Kaliah flickered her gaze to Mal, but let the boy ask his questions.

“She didn’t say you were tryin’ for the team,” Dave said. He latched onto the distraction; he knew Mal wanted to be out on the mountain with him, but he couldn’t do it. Not yet. Not until he was sure it was safe. “What position you goin’ for?”

"Point guard," Mal said, grinning,"I wanna run things on the court, it's kinda like you gotta know where everyone is and where they're gonna be. Plus...well, I ain't that tall."

He smiled sheepishly and took a few bites of broccoli, "I'm only gonna be a freshman so it won't be varsity but you'll come to my games? I mean, if I make it."

“Wouldn’t miss ‘em,” Dave said seriously. “This business’ll probably be wrapped up by then. If it ain’t, I’ll come to every game I’m in town for. Promise.”

Mal nodded, a smile on his youthful face that he was once again back to his sunny nature, that his Dad was still his Dad and not like the stupid jokes of black kids without a father. He still stung with abandoned son memes thrown his way once he had expressed his anxiety about Dave not returning after the first weekend. It was a roast by friends but the fear of the fourteen year old had only increased as each day passed without word. Now his father was at the dinner table and he was even giving his mom those looks. The long looks he figured both of them still thought Mal didn't understand but it made him happy. It meant more time to hangout with his Dad.

Kaliah was eyeing Dave, hoping he would prove true as he always had. He wasn't the parent that had to pick up the pieces.

"I'm done," Mal announced, the serving of vegetables gone.

"Well if your mother feels like excusin' you, I'll join ya when I'm finished and we'll play some ball," Dave said. He raised an eyebrow at the boy, a reminder to watch his manners.

Kaliah gave Mal a quick nod, "Go on, just put the bowl in the dishwasher."

"Thanks," he replied, doing as he was told before scooping up the basketball to head outside.

Dave watched him go before looking over at Kaliah.

"So uh… I'd love to see him some. But I don't wanna take him back to the mountain for a while. Not yet." He reached up and rubbed the back of his neck. "You… think I could stay here, just a couple days?"

Kaliah hesitated then nodded, "You're always welcome here."

She stood up and collected her plate and Mal's dish, scraping and putting them in the dishwasher. She moved over to where he sat and put a hand on his shoulder, tracing the taut muscle beneath his t-shirt. "You want me to make up the couch or do you want to sleep with me?"

Kaliah's warm dark eyes met his gaze, it wasn't like he never slept over but it had been sometime since he stayed more than just the night. He might need the closeness not just with Mal but her own comfort after hunting killers in the mountains far from home.

"Hell, if the offer is there…" He gave her an open grin. "You know what I'm gonna say."

She laughed, shaking her head with a sway of dark curls. "You know I can't ever say no to that smile. At least when you ain't pissing me off. We'll just need to explain to Mal...you know, so he doesn't get his hopes up about..."

Kaliah rolled her eyes and brushed her hair back, "That it's just temporary, you know how kids are."

Dave sighed. "Yeah. I'll talk to him." He stood and picked up his plate. "I'll pitch in with dishes real quick, then go play some ball. Thanks for all this."

Kaliah waved him off, then took the plate from him, "I got it, go spend time with your son."

She looked at him then leaned up, kissing his cheek and said, "We're always here for you, just like you are for us. Now go."

Dave smiled and gave her hip an affectionate squeeze. Then he headed for the door, a new spring to his step as he went to join his son.


Dave looked up from his basement workbench and rubbed a hand over his face, trying to wipe away the weariness. And the boredom.

His days since the visit with Mal and Kaliah had been spent in his mountains, hiking the trails that only he knew with his behemoth dog and a rifle in his hands. Eventually he became restless and had returned to the house, turning his attention to his impressive arsenal. He'd cleaned every gun in the collection, an activity that usually brought him a measure of peace. Now, however, he found himself unable to focus. His nights were plagued by half- remembered nightmares, his days by a strange blend of boredom and anxiety that he couldn't find a way to quell.

He sighed and slid the bolt carrier group back into the RPD that lay before him, snapping the top cover closed. He stood, studied the weapon for a moment, and then picked up a loaded drum and shoved it into place before hefting the gun and making his way upstairs, detouring to snag a six-pack from the fridge.

He carried both gun and refreshments outside and sat on one of the old porch chairs, leaning the machine gun against the wall within reach and then cracking open one of the beers. After a few moments of restless silence he pulled his burner from his pocket as he had a hundred times over the past week.

"God damn, where are y'all?" He muttered at the empty inbox. He clicked through the contacts, watching the names of his teammates scroll past one by one. He paused when he got to Ava, smiling a little. On impulse he hit the dial key and raised the phone to his ear, his eyes scanning the treeline as it began to ring.

The phone rang barely once before it answered and Ava's gentle, if slightly distracted sounding voice drifted through, “This is Analyst Moore.”

"Hey, sugar," Dave drawled, grinning at the serious timbre of the small voice on the other end of the phone. "Them Feds keepin' you busy?"

“Dave?” Ava asked, her tone surprised as there was a small pause. “Oh! Hi Dave! I didn't even look at my phone when I answered.” She said with a light chuckle. “How have you been?” She asked her voice warming with familiarity for the mountain man.

"Been alright, I s'pose," he said. He paused and took a sip of his beer, frowning. "Ain't sleepin' great, but I guess that's normal. How about you? How's your friend, Mrs. Grier right?"

“Yes and she's good.” She answered, a concerned note in her speech. “I'm sorry you're having trouble sleeping, I have too. Are you having nightmares?”

"Yeah, most nights." He sighed. While it made him feel a little better to know that he wasn't the only one of the gang having a rough time, he hated the idea of Ava having trouble. "You havin' nightmares too then?"

“Uh, sorta.” She said, the soft sound of a chair creaking coming through the phone. “I've always had issues sleeping, off and on since I was a kid, so I'm kinda used to it...Do you want to talk about it? Your nightmares?”

"It's nothin' I can really remember." He shrugged, then smirked at the gesture, remembering she couldn't see him. "I think it's the shootout. The bodies… That… You know. That thing on the mountain…" He trailed off. "Just dark shit. How's your belly healin' up?"

“It's feeling better, it's not as sore.” She answered, the frown clear in her voice. “I'm sorry, I know I said that already, but I really am. I can't imagine what you went through and I wish I could make it better so you can sleep easy.” She said, her soft voice filled with sympathy even though she seemed at a loss of what to say.

Dave chuckled. "I appreciate that. Really." There was a pregnant pause. "I want you to know you can talk to me, too. I'm here for ya anytime you need."

“Thank you Dave.” Ava said, the smile clear in her voice. “My offer still stands too, I'm not good at advice but I'm a good listener.” There was the sound of shifting and a chair creaked as she grew comfortable. “What else have you been up to? Did your son like his present?”

"Heh, yeah, he liked it," Dave said, the smile evident in his voice. "Went and hung out with him and his mama. I'm er… not sure he'd wanna be on the mountain. Not right now, anyway."

“I can imagine.” Ava said her voice growing soft empathetically, but then it perked up again. “But that’s good, you spent time with them, that kind of quality time can help a lot. Is there anything else you like doing when you want to relax? Favorite movie or show or a sport?”

“I don’t actually have a TV,” Dave said. “I’m kinda in the boonies. I’m lucky I get cell service, an’ even that’s kinda hit-or-miss. Usually I’m workin’ on one project or another.” He glanced over at his empty garage and smiled ruefully. “Ain’t been around to get any work though, so I’m lucky the Feds are footin’ my bill right now. I figure one of these times I’ll come back and find a broke down truck on my lawn. That’s usually how it works. My neighbors know I sometimes take off into the mountains for a few days at a time, so they just drop off stuff that needs fixed.”

There was a quiet beat on the other end before Ava spoke, “I’m sorry, my brain got stuck on the idea of not having a TV. How many neighbors do you have? What kind of cars do you end up working on? Like beaters or a few hidden gems from back in the day?”

“I got neighbors all over the mountain, really. And there’s a little town near here, they’re usually who I work for.” A rhythmic clicking drew Dave’s attention and he reached for his gun, looking over to see the large form of Rufus approaching from the end of the patio, his nails clacking against the wood. Rufus was a mammoth of a dog, his mastiff heritage strong, and he walked over and sat beside Dave’s chair, then leaned heavily against his leg in the manner of mastiffs throughout history. Dave smiled and rested a hand on the dog’s large, blocky head, scratching at his ear.

“I get some good stuff sometimes,” he said. “Mostly it’s old pickups and tractors. Got a guy who collects old motorcycles, so I’ve worked on a few cool things for him. My last project was rebuildin’ a ‘56 flatbed Ford for a guy down the mountain.”

“You got to work on a ‘56 Ford?” Ava asked with a gasp and a smile in her voice. “Oh you’re so lucky! I love those trucks! What did you guys do? Were you able to keep the original engine mostly intact?”

“Wait, back up,” Dave said, sitting straighter in his chair. “You know shit about trucks?”

“I do!” Ava laughed, the sound almost musical with it’s jovial lilt. “My grandpa used to be a mechanic and he made sure I would know how to fix my own car.” She said with a chuckle. “And he kind of passed down an appreciation for the engineering behind those engines along with teaching me to turn a wrench.”

Dave laughed in turn, shaking his head and giving Rufus’s neck a good scratch. “I’ll be damned, never figured you for a grease-monkey,” he said. “We saved the engine, mostly it was the carb we were havin’ trouble with. Rebuilt that, and then all new seals and stuff of course. Runs like a dream, now. He did all the cosmetic stuff, but didn’t quite know what to do once he got into the guts.”

“Those old engines can be tricky to get working, glad you were able to keep the original intact.” There was the sound of shifting and then the rapid clicking of fingers on a keyboard. “Have you had the chance to work on an Indian Scout yet? I’m not super big on motorcycles, but I love the Scout, don’t really know why.”

“Guy down the mountain has an old school Scout, he had me get it runnin’ for him when the tranny was shittin’ the bed a few years back,” Dave said. “Never messed with one of the Polaris ones, though. Supposed to be pretty nice.”

“You just have all the fun over there don’t you?” Ava asked with a grin in her voice. “Working on some of my favorite classics out in the boondocks.”

“Yeah, well, gets excitin’ up on the mountain,” Dave said lightly. He drained his beer, grabbed another, and twisted the cap. “You know sugar, you sound like you’re holdin’ up pretty good. I’m glad. I was worryin’ about ya.”

“Oh, thank you, I’m sorry I made you worry.” She said, her voice growing soft again. “I think I’m okay now, thanks to everyone on the team being so great and supportive. Plus,” She cleared her throat as her tone brightened, “I got my payback for those bastards shooting me and my friends.”

“Oh yeah?” He sat up a little straighter. “What kinda payback we talkin’?”

“I can’t really talk about it over the phone, just to be safe.” Ava answered. “But, remember how you said I was a ‘scary gal’ back at the cabin? Basically, that.”

“Oh, shit,” Dave said. There was a note of respect in his voice, as well as a good smattering of humor. “Well, sounds like at least one of us has been doin’ somethin’ useful. All I been doin’ is drinkin’ beer and pettin’ my dog.”

“Petting dogs is always very important.” Ava said, an overly serious note to her voice. A moment later her voice warmed again, “And, you’ve been taking care of yourself. That’s extremely important.”

“Yeah, fair enough, sugar,” Dave chuckled. “I’m doin’ my best at that. You make sure you’re doin’ the same, okay?”

“I will, promise.” She said, the smile clear in her softly spoken manner. “Hey, have you tried melatonin for sleeping before? I have a tea with some in it and it helps me get to sleep, the VA even has my Gramps using it. Might be something that could help you.”

“I’m not even real sure what melatonin is, but I’ll look into it?” Dave said, sounding both amused and perplexed. “I don’t mind some tea now and then. But hey, I’ma let you go, alright sugar? I’ve got some stuf I gotta take care of ‘round here. I’ll see ya real soon.”

“Uuh,” Ava let out a soft huff of a laugh. “Okay Dave, take care. It was nice hearing from you.”

“You too. Take care.” Dave hung up the phone and sighed, setting it on his knee. He leaned down and gave Rufus a vigorous scratch, then cracked open a fresh beer and sat back in his chair, a smile on his face.
>Fayetteville, AR
>Freeman Household

The modest two bedroom house sat on the hill in the neighborhood in what people would call a nice suburb, not affluent nor poor but the home to many mid level professionals or young couples just starting out. A silver Mercedes Benz, a few years old sat in the driveway and on the well trimmed yard was a garden of bright azaleas and zinnias, peppering the front of the cream colored house with spots of magenta, orange and yellow. Along the curb was a basketball hoop, leaning forward from so many boys practicing their dunks. Along the back fence was a sign, ‘Beware of Dog,’ and a half dozen chewed squeak toys strewn over the grass.

Inside, Kaliah Freeman stood at the counter, folding paper bags precisely with labels, ‘lunch, ‘snack’, and ‘dinner’. Each one held a balanced meal of sandwiches, fruit, and small tupperware of her son’s favorite potato salad. Into the cooler they went and she leaned over, peering around the kitchen wall, “Mal! Are you ready? Boy, you better not be on that X Box.”

She shook her head, her dark thick curls falling around her shoulders past elegant cheekbones. His father was coming to get him, another camping trip planned in the Ozark mountains. Kaliah remembered those forests and hills, Dave had taken her there once upon a time when they still lived in a dream of romance and summer nights under the stars. She shook the memory away and took a heavy duty Ziploc bag, dumping the dog food into it and packing it separately.

Her son Malcolm came out of his bedroom, lugging a metal frame backpack and his phone. She gave him a side eye look, “Remember what I told you about the phone.”

His face reddened under golden brown skin, then he shoved the Android into his pocket. “I just wanna take videos of Bella, it’ll be her first time off leash out in the woods.”

Kaliah smiled, her deep brown eyes sparkling with pride despite her warning. Malcolm had been begging her for a dog since he was a boy and for his fourteenth birthday, she finally relented. Bella was a pitbull mix, slated for euthenasia if she was not adopted and her son had fallen in love with the brindle and white dog. She had been shy and unsocialized but Malcolm had spent his own allowance on training classes at the petstore and Bella had blossomed under his attention and affection.

“Alright, just make sure you keep an eye on her, don’t let her wander too far. Those rednecks will shoot dogs just because, especially pits,” Kaliah said, handing him the bagged dog food.

“Rednecks like dad?” Malcolm teased, his smile as charming as his father’s infectious grin. While he looked more like her, with his light brown skin and tousled curls and deep dark eyes his smile was all David.

Kaliah raised her brow and shook her head, then checked her phone, “He should be here any minute, finish packing.”

Dave MacCready steered his battered truck through the suburban streets, expertly piloting the old F250. He hated suburbs; the impersonal, cookie-cutter houses seemed less like homes, more like cages. The people within were desperate, harried, rushing from job to home to bed just to start all over again, taking their two days off a week to seek solace in television and online shopping before dragging themselves back to their daily drudgery. Dave didn't have a TV; he preferred spending his time doing, not sitting, and he was too far into the mountains for cable and satellite to be worth the trouble anyway.

He spotted Kaliah's modest home and broke into a grin, pulling up alongside the curb. His Sig rested on the bench seat beside him and he tucked it into the glovebox, out of sight. Mal knew about it; Dave hid nothing from his son, and the boy knew where the weapon was. Still, Kaliah didn't like them and so out of respect for the mother of his child he put on the show, keeping it stowed when the boy was around.

He'd made other concessions, too. For years he hadn't bothered with a driver's license, insurance, a carry permit; these documents were a scam, the government's way of selling a man rights that should be his by God's design. But again, he'd conceded to Kaliah's wishes. She hadn't wanted their boy picking up his rebel ways, and so he'd submitted himself to the indignity of it and gotten himself licensed.

The old truck rattled to a stop and he pushed open the door, hopping down out of the jacked-up rig and stretching his muscles loose. He was a tall-ish man, a shade under six feet, with a frame packing a good 180 pounds of lean muscle. His build was accentuated by the cut of his Wranglers and the fit of his flannel shirt, the sleeves rolled up to show sun-bronzed skin and a map of small scars, the legacy of a man who spent his life doing manual labor.

He started for the house, feeling his heart kick up a few notches as it always did at the prospect of seeing his boy.

“Mom! Dad’s here!” Malcolm hollered out, looking through the drapes when Bella started to bark and wag her tail madly. If there was anyone she loved more than Mal it was David. The dog barked and spun in circles, seemingly chasing her tail for a mad few seconds until the door was opened.

Malcolm beamed a bright smile, though he was growing taller and broadening he still had the air of boyish joy at the simple things like seeing his dad and the prospect of getting away from his beloved but overbearing mother. They shared that smile, and the boy was probably going to be as tall, if not a little taller than his father once he was grown. He held open the door, motioning at Bella to sit which she did, obediently but for a wiggle in her rump as David entered the house.

Kaliah stepped out, wiping her hands on a dish towel. She was dressed down for the weekend, a pink halter top and blue jeans and designer sandals, showing off her pedicure matching her French tip manicure. She looked Dave over, smiling a little. He was handsome as ever, still strong and fit, a natural muscle that came from work not the gym.

“How was the drive?” she asked, looking past the boy and dog and met David’s eyes.

"It was easy enough," Dave said. He eyed her for a moment, as he always did. He liked to think they still had a spark somewhere beneath the differing opinions, the diverging life goals. She had wanted a career, he had wanted a family. They just weren't meant to be.

He bent and pulled Mal into a hard hug, kissing him on top of the head and taking a moment just to enjoy being close to him. He was getting to the age where he wasn't big on public affection, and while Dave understood he still missed the days when his son could climb into his lap while they sat on the porch. He understood, but he still took his hugs when he could get them.

"You ready to go?" He asked, releasing Mal to give Bella a brisk rubdown, grinning as the dog leaned against him and licked wildly at his hands.

“Yeah, I’ll put my stuff in the truck, Mom packed food,” Malcolm hefted the metal frame old fashioned backpack and slung it over one shoulder then picked up the cooler, his young wiry muscles straining under the weight of ice and Kaliah’s potato salad.

The dog bounced along with him, now trusted to stay at his side and not dash down the street. A miracle every time she witnessed it. Kaliah motioned to David, looking up at him, “He’s been looking forward to this trip and since school starts soon I won’t deny him but you need to talk to your son about his behavior with girls online.”

She crossed her arms under her ample chest and gave him a direct look, “He was exchanging pictures, inappropriate pictures, with a girl from another school. You know it’s a crime if they got caught, they were both underage. Not to mention immoral for both of the kids. He’s at that age now.”

Dave winced, glancing over his shoulder at his son.

"Damn," he muttered. "Well… I'll have a talk with him. We're gonna be in the backwoods, good place to have that kinda talk. Less awkward that way." His voice was a mellow baritone, heavy on the country drawl, a stark contrast to Kaliah's more precise city-talk.

"I'll leave the punishment to you, I know that ain't really my place, but we'll discuss it. See if I can't… I dunno," he shrugged. "Maybe get some sense into him."

Kaliah sighed and shook her head, “Leave the punishment to me, of course. What else am I here for, but to feed him and punish him.”

She turned, her long curls swaying as she walked back into the kitchen and took something out of the refrigerator. “And remember his medicine.”

She handed him the inhaler in a Ziploc bag, “He doesn’t need it too much but if he’s up in elevation or breathing in dust, he might. Don’t let him lose it.”

Kaliah put her hands on her hips, “Bring him back to me in one piece, David. I’ll be home all weekend, prepping for trial, so if you need anything, call me.”

As if she would go anywhere else, it was work even on the days off, that’s what a salary did. Kaliah put her hand on his arm, “Keep him away from any of your family, he’s been asking more questions that I don’t want to answer.”

He took the inhaler without comment, brushing off her jibe about disciplining Mal. At the mention of his family his eyes grew hard, the muscles in his strong jaw clenching.

"My kin don't come around," he said, his voice harsh. His anger wasn't directed at Kaliah, but at his estranged family. "The Old Man knows if he comes near my boy I'll kill him on the spot. Ain't seen him since Mal was born and I pulled that gun on him in the parking garage."

Her warm brown eyes darkened at the memory and she looked at him, “I recall. I don’t think I’ve ever hated and loved so hard at the same time before that moment. Alright, I trust you’ll keep him safe, I always do. I just can’t help but worry, Mal’s getting grown now. At least he thinks he is and I worry.”

Kaliah brushed her hands together, then gestured to him, “Time to get going, I’ll walk you out. Did you eat? I packed some extra sandwiches and such, the ham and swiss. He loves the same damn sandwich you do, must be the white boy in him.”

She grinned as she teased him and put her hand on David’s arm, “Drive safe now.”

"I always do," he said, his grin matching her own. He looked at Mal waiting in the truck. "Oh, uh… I got that permit. For the pistol."

“Good, if you have to keep that damn thing at least you’ll do it legal,” Kaliah said, glancing over at him as they walked out, “One less thing they can try to arrest you for, David. Sometimes you gotta play in their boundaries.”

Dave grimaced. "One more thing they get to tax me for," he muttered. He reached out and gave her shoulder a soft squeeze. "I'll have the sat phone. I'll have him call once we get there, and again when we've set camp."

She walked out to the truck and leaned on the window where Malcolm was waiting, “You’re gonna leave without giving me a hug?”

“Sorry,” he slipped out of the truck, glancing around to see if any of his buddies were out and then hugged her quickly, grimacing as she tousled his hair and kissed his head.

“I love you, be good,” she told him, “And have fun.”

“Thanks, Mom, love you too,” Malcolm said, then called to Bella to hop up, putting her between himself and his dad.

She waved at them as they pulled out, heading down the street and out of the city, towards the Ozark hills.

>Boone County, AR
>David MacCready residence

Two hours later the Ford came to a clattering halt, this time on a wooded dirt road. Dave opened the door and took a deep breath, savoring the clean mountain air. His house was off the beaten path, back in the trees, the dirt drive unmarked. Unless you knew it was there, it was easy to drive right past it in the dark.

"Grab your stuff," he said. "I'll get the cooler." He leaned over and took his Sig from the glovebox, tucking the holster into his waistband as he climbed from the truck. A quick sweep of the dirt drive showed no tire tracks but his own, the only prints those of himself, his mammoth dog, and a few whitetail deer.

Dave pointed at the tracks as Mal got out of the truck.

"What's that?" He asked, picking up the cooler.

Malcolm tucked his phone away, it was useless out here anyway except as a camera. He smiled at the pines and oaks towering just past the cabin and then climbed out of the truck, clicking his tongue for Bella to follow. She jumped down, immediately sniffing the area around her boy and snuffled the large paw prints, her whip tail wagging.

He looked down where his dad pointed and studied the tracks. Boots with familiar treads, Rufus’ paw prints and the crescent pair that he knew to be a deer. “Bambi’s been through here,” he commented, then gestured with his chin towards the direction away from the driveway. “Going east. And Rufus followed and you had already left. I think it looks like their prints cross yours but it’s hard to tell.”

Malcolm crouched and looked close but the edges were blurred in the sandy soil.

Dave nodded proudly and picked up the cooler, walking around to join Mal.

"Buck or doe?"

Malcolm furrowed his brow, staring at the cloven hoof tracks but nothing manifested itself so he could tell the difference. He shrugged finally then looked up at his dad, "I'm not sure. I forgot I guess."

Dave grinned at him and hiked the cooler up onto his shoulder. He pointed at the track Mal was examining, then traced the trail back about 20 feet. A small cluster of pellets lay in the trail, loosely grouped.

"Doe," he said. He put a hand on Mal's shoulder. "The buck turds clump up. Does leave 'em loose, like rabbit shit. See how it's dark brown, but not slimy? It's a few hours old. Hasn't started to dry up. Gotta look at the whole picture. Everything'll tell you a story." "

His son followed where he pointed and stood over the deer feces and rubbed the back of his neck. "I wonder why they poop different. But that's pretty cool, Dad."

He brightened up, "Hey, do you think I could shoot your gun this weekend? Mom said..."

He stopped himself then tucked his hands in his jacket, "I'm old enough to, don't you think?"

"We can bring one of the rifles," Dave said. "No pistols yet. Get a few years getting used to the rifles first. Less barrel means more accidents if safety ain't second nature."

He put his hand on Mal's shoulder and steered him towards the house, hiding a grin at his son's question. He'd maintained his love of firearms, and was pleased that Mal seemed to be developing an interest of his own.

It was a modest affair, built half a century before and carefully maintained by its various owners over the years. The exterior was wood paneling, the paint faded and peeling but the planks themselves still strong. A carport housed a pair of ATV's and a battered dirt bike, as well as a cherry picker and various automotive equipment, and a small shed held a variety of tools.

"Rufus is out somewhere," Dave said, digging out his keys. He let the door swing open and stepped aside for Mal to enter.

"Can I shoot the AK? Like full auto, brrrrat tatat" he pretended to cradle a rifle, aiming it down at the truck.

Malcolm walked into the familiar old cabin, Bella starting to follow but paused at her training and whined, looking up at Dave, thumping her tail.

"She sleeps on my bed at home, can she come in?" He asked, glancing at his father.

"Go on," Dave said, nodding at the dog. She hurried inside, nails scrabbling at the wood floor.

"We can shoot the WASR," he said, walking the cooler to the small kitchen that stood at the rear of the house, separated from the rustic living room by a breakfast bar littered with bills. "But you gotta promise it'll be our secret." He gave Mal a sideways look, a hint of mischief in his eyes. "That gun ain't exactly legal. I gotta trust you not to go telling your friends about it."

Malcolm grinned his father’s grin, rubbing his hands together at the prospect of doing something he shouldn’t, even with permission. Then he said, “I won’t tell them or Mom, you know how she is. She hates those guns, says they’re nothing but people killers and should be banned.”

He shrugged his angular shoulders, his frame broadening faster than he could fill into it. “You know, because of all the school shootings and stuff.”

His dark eyes flicked to his Dad, uncertain for a moment at the conflict of the issue. “We had active shooter drills last week.”

"Yeah, well, that's something your mom and I never saw eye to eye on," Dave said. "Guns are tools, boy. No different than a knife or a hammer. You can kill a man with your hands, if you want."

“I guess,” Malcolm said, then put his bag against the wall, taking out the dog food his mom insisted on packing and stuck it in the pantry. He was quiet, his brow had the same furrow Dave would get when something troubled him. Finally he said what was on his mind.

“Hey, Dad? You ever have to kill anyone? I mean, I heard about people in the hills and stuff, Mom won’t tell me but I looked up stuff online,” the boy awkwardly tried to explain what his mother refused to talk about, the name MacCready.

“You don’t ask a man that, son,” Dave said, his voice firm. For a moment the friendly country boy was gone, replaced by a hard-eyed man with a face carved from stone. He shook off the memory of cool autumn air, a soft breeze, and a single gunshot that had silenced the birds for miles around. Then he was back, his calloused hand coming to rest gently on Mal’s shoulder. “Come on. Get your shit put away, we’re burnin’ daylight and I’ve got something to show you.”

Malcolm swallowed hard, then nodded “Yes, sir.”

He smiled hesitantly, then called his dog to show her the bedroom and put away his things for the weekend. The boy changed into the Red Wing boots he had got for his birthday, nicely kept and clean but not for long in the Ozark hills and creeks. Malcolm got the leash for Bella, just in case, and shouted, “Ready!”

Mal bounced out of his room, his tight curly hair bouncing as well, he was trying to grow it out but his mother had her limit. Nothing past the collar because of school though his curls tended to grow out rather than down. He flashed a grin, “So what’s up, what’re you gonna show me?”
Dave headed for his own room, disappearing into the closet. A few moments later he returned, dropping a camouflage pack on the ground at Mal’s feet.

“Here,” he said. “Marine Corps issue. Figured it’s time we upgrade you from that old ALICE pack you’re toting around.” He knelt beside the pack, pointing out features as he went. “Top pouch, canteen pouches, belly band, back padding...You can fit every damn thing you need in here. And that smaller pack unhooks from it, so you can just carry that around like a backpack. We’re gonna be really roughing it this round, no four-wheelers. Everything we bring is goin’ on our backs.”

Malcolm blinked at the gift then knelt down, opening up pouches and checking out the padding. "This is what real Marines use? Badass. It looks more comfortable than the metal frame."

He tried out the backpack, "It's too bad we have to have see through bags at school or I'd use the small one. This feels a lot better, so where are we going to if we can't take the four-wheelers."

There was a trace of disappointment in his voice as he loved driving the ATVs around the trails and open clearings. But whatever his Dad had in mind it was probably good, it wasn't homework or chores like his mom would put him through on a beautiful Saturday. It was bad enough she signed him up for summer school.

“Well...That depends how much of a bad ass you are,” Dave said lightly. There was a hint of challenge in his voice, his eyes shining. “I was thinkin’ we could go whole hog this round. No GPS, no wheels...None of that pussy shit. Hell, we don’t even have to take a tent. Build our own shelter, eat what we find… Like I said. If you’re man enough.”

He flashed back, just for a moment, to nights spent in the woods with nothing but a rifle, a pack, and his father’s hard gaze as he dug a hole to sleep in. He clamped down hard on the memory, pushing it away.

“Course I’ll be right there with you,” he said. “You ain’t gonna be out there alone.”

Malcolm drew up straight under the weight of his bag and looked his dad square in the eyes, like he had been taught to do. “I’m ready, I’m not a pussy. Let’s do this, we’ll make Bear Grylls look like a Girl Scout.”

He chuckled, then called to Bella who was eager to go, whomping his legs with her tail as she felt the anticipation of departure.

“Alright then,” Dave said, nodding. He reached out and tousled his son’s hair, pride swelling in him. Seeing his boy so ready to lose himself in the natural world brought him joy like nothing else. He lived for these weekends. “Go get your shit packed. There’s waterproof bags in that pack, for clothes. Oh, shit, and call your mom. I told her I’d have you call when we got here.”

>Boston Mountains, Boone County, AR

Sweat trickled down Malcolm’s back, the stains spreading on his gray t-shirt under the padded straps of his new backpack. They were on a high bald ridge, the sun beating down on them and he could feel perspiration stinging his eyes. Still, he did not complain, a man did not complain about trivial unavoidable inconveniences. That was what his Dad taught him and the boy was still young enough to look at his father like he was Superman. Besides, the view was incredible, the Arkansas valley opening up thick with summer trees and every now and then the glimmer of the river when the sun struck it. The far side of the valley was a plateau and it stretched out in rolling dips until it met the sky.

They started to descend, the exposed shale and sandstone giving way to tangled grass brush thick with blackberry bramble that was weighed down with ripening fruit and long thorns that guarded it. The fresh berries were delicious but they also attracted black bears and wild hogs, dangerous creatures that Malcolm learned to give a wide respectful berth. As the trail narrowed between the trunks of towering oaks and hickory trees they were finally blessed with shade. In the dappled shadows, small creatures dashed from the dogs who ran ahead. Bella enjoying her freedom from the backyard and Rufus, the huge mastiff that spent his days roaming, without collar or fence, was now marking the trees to add to his territory. He belonged both to Dave and himself, returning home when he wished but he never failed to come when the man called.

Malcolm could hear the distinct tapping of a woodpecker and squinted up to see if he could find and identify it. As he walked, peering up at the taller trees, his foot caught a root and he stumbled forward.

“Shit!” he exclaimed, wincing when his hands scraped the ground.

He pushed himself up with some difficulty, the heavy pack threatening to tip him forward. Malcolm swiped his hands against his jeans, checking the abrasions. It was not deep but should be cleaned. His mother would have fussed over doing it right away but the boy shrugged it off, not wanting to cause his Dad to have to wait on him.

He bent to brush his knees when he saw it. The ivory colored knob of some type of leg bone poking up from the leaf litter of last autumn. Malcolm brushed it away and picked up the bone, it was long and dense, probably a femur. His skin prickled looking at it and his mind jumped to the possibilities.

It was probably a deer. Or a bear. His dad would know.

“Hey, Dad! Look what I found!”

Dave heard the boy go down and slowed, throwing a glance over his shoulder. He resisted the urge to run to him, to pull him to his feet and make sure he was okay. Instead he hiked up his pack and adjusted the hang of the WASR10 rifle that dangled from a sling over his shoulder. His son had been dying to shoot the AK for months, so he had finally relented, bringing out the rifle and a couple of magazines. One rode in the weapon, the others were stowed in Dave’s pack. He’d also exchanged his compact Sig for something a little more woods-worthy, a hefty Ruger GP100 chambered in the venerable .357 magnum. It was more suited to putting down angry woodland creatures than the 9mm, and if he fell on his ass, slid down a muddy hill, and found himself face-to-balls with a pissed off black bear it would still fire reliably.

“What’d ya find?” He called.

Malcolm held up the bone, it was picked clean but for a few bits of tendon dried to gristle where the hinge like joint for a knee on a bipedal would go. There was no mistake for anyone that had taken time to study skeletal anatomy of both humans and animals. No other creature was built like that.

“It’s got some teeth marks,” he commented, still looking at it and then at his Dad. “Kinda big for a deer but...what do you think?”

Dave frowned at the sight of the bone. As he walked to his son he felt the hair on his arms stand up, a chill running through him.

“Put that down, son,” he said. “That’s…” He shook his head and lowered his voice, not wanting to frighten Mal. “That’s human, son. Go on and put it down.”

Malcolm looked at the bone in his hand and dropped it like it had burned him. “Jesus...what’s it doing out here?”

He rubbed his hand once again against his pants then gave a panicky thought to his skinned palm and touching some dead guy’s leg bone. Malcolm edged away from it, both sickened and curious. What if there were other parts around, right where they were standing? The boy looked down at his feet and around but saw nothing in the weeds.

“What do we do with it?” he asked, looking back over at his dad.

Dave walked over and put a heavy hand on top of the boy’s head, pushing back so that Mal was forced to look up at him.

“Hey,” he said. His voice was gentle, his eyes holding his son’s gaze. “It’s alright. He must’ve got lost. We’re in the Bostons, it’s rough country. That happens, okay?” He patted Mal on the cheek.

“Get your map out,” he said. “You been keeping track of where we are? I want you to mark us on the map. That way we can call this in once we make camp. Let the Rangers know we found him.”

Malcolm looked up at his Dad, then nodded. "Yeah, that's probably what happened. Poor guy though."

He dropped his gaze, glancing at the bone in the grass. He shuddered and wiped his hand again against his jeans but did as he was told. The map was in a waterproof bag despite it being laminated, it never hurt to take extra care of a life saving tool. Malcolm wondered briefly if the dead guy had lost his map or ran out of water. Or maybe a black bear or cougar got him.

The boy glanced up, his thoughts broken by what his dad said. He frowned, "Rangers? But aren't they like forest cops. Feds even."

Dave grimaced, not just at the truth in the boy's words, but because he'd said them at all. He couldn't stand cops, hated the Feds; it felt different coming from his son.

"Yeah, they're cops," he said slowly. "But… You know, this guy probably had a family. Got people out there somewhere wonderin' where he went. If he got hurt, ran out on them… They deserve to know what happened, right? We can at least do that for 'em."

Malcolm considered his words, then shrugged, "I guess you're right, at least he's been dead a while so they can't blame you for it. You know?"

He opened the map, then looked back up at his dad. "And you're right, he probably had somebody missing him. It's sad...I mean he was probably all alone up here."

Malcolm turned his attention back to the map trying to figure out where exactly along the ridge they had come down as it branched into three trails. He furrowed his brow, had they passed the other forks or just continued on the main path. There had been a large boulder just past the highest point and... Malcolm sighed and scratched his arm.

"I can't remember which path had the boulder," he admitted, them looked over at the bone resting in the grass. “I think we went down the middle then veered right, away from the edge. Into the woods, I’m just not sure how far.”

Dave leaned over and studied the map a moment, then tapped their location with his fingertip.

“We’re about here,” he said. “I’ll show you how I worked it out later tonight, okay?” He looked down at the bone.

“That’s why I teach you this shit, you know. Nature’s a hard bitch. Killed more people than anything else in our history. If that guy’d known just a little bit more, he might’ve gotten home okay. That’s why you gotta pay attention to what I teach you.” Dave gave Mal a little punch on the shoulder and grinned at him. “You’re doin’ good though. You got our area within a few miles, enough for a rescue party if you were in trouble.”

Malcolm watched his father’s face when he spoke, paying rapt attention. Despite the teasing he took for camping and fishing, being called ‘country’ and such, he enjoyed every moment because it was with his dad. He could not really remember a time when his parents lived together, they separated when he was still a toddler. These times were special and he only wanted his father’s approval. Besides, who knew when the zombie apocalypse might happen and Malcom damn sure would be ready.

“Yes, sir,” he said, nodding at the map and sighed, looking at the bone. “He’s probably been out a long time, I found it under last years leaves and it’s pretty dry.”

“Yeah, looks a little chewed on, but that’s normal.” Dave pointed out the small marks on the bone, divots where tiny teeth had worried at the meat and sinew. “Somethin’ big, like a cat or a bear, it would’ve broken bone. Crunched it up. These are scavenger marks. Like on that deer last year, remember?”

Malcolm stood up, folding the map over and nodded, “I remember, probably like raccoons or coyotes or vultures.”

The boy stood quiet for a moment then turned to look up at Dave, “Can we go now?”

“Yeah, we can go.” He put a hand on his son’s shoulder and steered him away from the bone, back down the trail. The dogs had stopped up ahead, Bella sniffing at trees, Rufus waiting with his gaze trained on Dave. The big mutt did as he wished whenever Dave turned him loose, but when they were together he took his directions from the man, courtesy of years spent building trust and the handful of schutzhund training manuals in Dave’s basement. He sat patiently as man and boy approached, only ranging ahead again after Dave had released him.

“This gonna bother you?” Dave asked after a few minutes. He eyed his son sidelong, gauging his reaction. “Finding a body, that’s not a small thing. Kind of freaky, right?”

Malcolm walked along, just to the side of his father and shrugged, “I dunno, maybe. But I’ll be okay, it’s just kinda freaky, yeah. Like I feel bad for the guy, I wonder who he was. It must suck to be scattered around, he’s dead so I guess he doesn’t know but still. Maybe he’s in heaven.”

Bella ran ahead, the bright white markings against her dark brindle coat like beacons in the shadows of the thick summer woods. She sniffed here and there, digging at the leaf litter and then running back to Rufus to fuss around with him but he did not return her invitation to play. The boy watched her with a smile, taking his mind off the bone and whistled to her, watching as she bounded back, pink tongue lolling out of the powerful jaws. He pet the pitbull mutt as she licked his hands, wanting the comfort of the dog close even if his dad was near.

They made it another hundred yards before Dave slowed, putting a hand on Mal’s shoulder to stop him. Rufus stood further down the trail. The tan beast’s body was rigid, his shoulders squared and his floppy ears perked up. There was a wariness to his stance that Dave had long since learned to trust. A predator would have set off a barrage of harsh warning barks; this was something else.

“Slow down boy,” Dave said, pulling Mal a little behind him. He sniffed the air and caught it; beneath the scent of pine was a sickly sweet, cloying stench. It raised the hairs on the back of his neck.

“Somethin’s dead up ahead, smell that?” Dave said, relaxing a little. Animals died all the time. On his own Rufus would’ve probably gone to see if there was a meal worth scavenging, but his training had him waiting on his master. Dave patted Mal on the shoulder. “C’mon, let’s go take a look. Might be something cool. It’s big, if I can smell it from here.”

It stunk, whatever it was. Malcolm scrunched his nose, it was like the time a raccoon died under their porch but stronger, especially as they got closer. He tagged along behind Dave, keeping Bella at his heel. “It really stinks,” he commented as the wind shifted and blew lightly on his face.

“It does.” They moved up the trail and when they reached Rufus Dave stopped. Warning bells started to ring at the back of his mind. Rufus was massive; Kaliah had called him a monster on more than one occasion. Part mastiff, part shepherd, part something else, his head reached Dave’s hips and his chest was big enough around that Mal could just barely encircle it. He was every bit of 150 pounds, and at four years old he was an uncut male in his prime. He was trembling.

The mammoth dog patrolled his chosen territory zealously, guarding it against all comers, and it had been years since Dave had seen signs of bear, cougar, or coyote around his little homestead. For something to scare a dog like Rufus…

Dave stepped in front of Mal, unslinging his AK. He rested a hand on Rufus’s head for a moment, giving the dog’s ears a scratch. Rufus whined.

“Mal, stay here,” he said. “I’ll be right back, okay? Rufus, pass auf.” Rufus moved obediently to Mal’s side, a low rumble in his chest serving as both a warning to whatever was bothering him and acknowledgement of his duty to protect Mal.

“Dad?” he asked tentatively when Dave made him stay put. He peered into the distance but the low light through the trees cut down visibility. The dogs sat on either side of him and Bella pressing against his leg, shuffling nervously as she felt the tension in the boy.

“Just stay put,” Dave said. He gave the boy a reassuring smile and then lied to his face. “Probably just a bear putting a scare into Rufus. Probably eatin’ whatever’s rotten. I’ll take a look and shoo it off, it’ll be fine.”

He winked at his son and then stepped into the trees, quietly pushing the safety lever down into automatic and racking the bolt as gently as he could. He left the weapon live and pushed deeper.

The stench grew as he walked. It raised gooseflesh on his arms, and a moment later his heart began to pound. The woods were silent. No birds. No bugs. How could there not be any bugs? Something this rancid, the woods should sound like a buzzsaw. He should have been chewing flies with every breath, but the trees were silent, the air still, the forest around him dead except for that damned stink.

He reached the first of the heads ten feet in. It was a hog, skinned but not cleaned, the flesh rotten. The tip of a stake was buried in the meat of what used to be its neck, so the empty sockets stared up at the sky, and the blood that had run down onto the stake was black. He could see another head off to his right, this one a goat judging by the horns, then a third further on, then a fourth. Four heads, all rotted, pigs and goats both, forming what looked like the curve of a circle.

The trees within the circle were sparse, each of them dead and dry, their bare branches revealing the rest of the circle on the far side. The ground was littered with a thick coating of brown leaves, despite the summer season. His unease grew, but something within pulled him onwards, and with a muttered prayer he stepped into the circle. In the center was a single large stone, flat topped, rectangular, about three feet tall. It was a little longer than a man, a flat, matte black. Bones were piled around the base, crusted with old blood, bits of flesh still clinging to them where it hadn’t rotted off and fallen to the forest floor in rancid clumps.

Dave walked on, eyes on the stone. He could hear nothing but the pounding of his heart, and he felt his stomach turn. He neared the stone with weak knees; the air around him felt wrong, and he tightened his grip on his rifle. As he drew closer he saw the body. A human corpse, fresher than the staked heads but not by much. It was nude, female judging by the build, but it had bloated and then burst, its ruptured gut shrinking back down to collapse against its spine. He drew closer still. Then a thunderous bark pulled him back to himself.

Rufus barked again and Dave backpedaled, reeling away from the stone and heading for his son. He crashed through the trees, snapping the safety back on the rifle as he went, and when he stumbled onto the trail he grabbed Mal hard by the shoulder as Rufus barked a third time, the big dog snarling and curling his lips back from his teeth. Bella began to bark as well and Dave gave Mal’s shoulder a squeeze.

“Let’s go, we’re going,” Dave said. He was pale, shaking, his grey-blue eyes combing the trees around them. “Go.”

Malcolm stared wide eyed as his dad came rushing back out, his mouth hung open slightly at his expression. Fear jolted through him once Rufus had raised his hackles and started barking insistently and looking into his father's eyes he felt it again.

"Dad?" His voice rose and cracked when he saw Dave’s expression. "Dad what's wrong?"

Dave ignored his question, half guiding and half shoving him back down the trail. As the monstrous scene fell further behind them Dave’s mood changed, the fear vanishing to be replaced by anger; anger that somebody had so defiled his mountain, fury that something was endangering his his neighbors. A righteous rage that his son might be at risk. His eyes still scanned the woodline to either side of the narrow trail, but now there was murder in them, not terror. If something, anything, presented itself, he was ready to send it straight to hell to keep his boy safe.

“Just keep walking,” Dave said firmly. “We’re goin’ home. I’ll explain in a bit, just keep your eyes open and keep movin’. Okay?”

Malcolm nodded and said nothing, walking quickly, glancing at the heavy brush and tangles of blackberries. Bella stuck close, her tail now pressed to her hindquarters as they left the area of the rancid smell.

They walked for several minutes, Mal glancing over his shoulder at his Dad and the hard expression on his face and the readiness in which he cradled the rifle. Once the smell receded he found himself starting to relax. It was too bad they had to go home, he had wanted to try his hand at making a shelter.

“Dad, do we have to go back, maybe we just go around that spot,” Malcolm suggested, hitching up his pack as they started back up towards the ridge.

Dave glanced at his son, thinking for a moment. “We gotta go back,” he said finally. “Look, back there...I found another body. This one’s fresher. And it wasn’t an animal that got ‘em, you understand? We’re gonna tell the law, and let them sort it out. But I ain’t gonna be the man who has his boy sleepin’ in the boonies with somebody like that on the loose. Okay?”

He gave him an uneasy grin. “Your mom would kill me if she found out, and we don’t want that, right?”

Malcolm’s face registered shock and he looked around himself as if expecting the boogy man to jump out of the bushes. “You mean he got killed, like murdered? Jesus...yeah, we better go.”

He glanced at his Dad, “I guess cops are better than some killer running around.”

“Yeah, it was real bad son,” Dave nodded. “We’ll just hump it back home, alright? Tell you what, we can camp out by the house, okay? Call it a training run. We’ll build our shelter just a mile in. Got the creek there for water, it’ll be good practice for later on. That sound okay?”

His son nodded, the dark curls bobbing along and he gave his dad a bright grin, trying to be upbeat about the situation that was rather frightening. At least he knew his Dad could use that rifle and would, he had no doubt. He would blast any weirdo murderer that might come around. “Yeah, that sounds good. Maybe I could do some shooting?”

The man laughed and put a hand on Mal’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze before taking up the rifle again. “Yeah, we can shoot.” He thought for a moment. “Keep it quiet from your mother, and I’ll let you keep a shotgun in the shelter. Just in case. Our secret though, okay?”

Mal leaned into his Dad briefly then walked along, “A shottie? Yes! I swear I never tell her about the guns, you know how she is. She wouldn’t even buy me a super soaker.”

“She just worries,” Dave said. “Now step it out. We’ve got about nine miles to go, and about half that’s gonna be uphill.”

>Two Weeks Later
>David MacCready residence, Boone County AR

1900 was not the usual time Robert Kopelmann liked to do these things. People were sometimes more receptive during the day and he always tried to warm up his “assistant”, a term of probably unprofessional endearment he had for those he’d had to interrogate in the past like a magician and a stranger from the crowd. He found the people he was supposed to recruit were no different. He looked behind himself at the two men that were sent with him. The Program’s Office of Security employed nothing but former JSOC, and mostly DEVGRU at that, which meant that David MacCready was going to open his door and see a lot of things he absolutely did not like.

Robert himself, a veteran spook, dressed in the finest not-spook slacks and polo that would not confirm nor deny to anyone he was DoD, and JSOC at that. David’s own life story in a Manila folder, everything every Federal Agency had on David and his family, as well as pictures of Black Slabs in everywhere they had been previously found and dealt with, from Pakistan to Pennsylvania. And two burly, silent towers of meat and beard flanking him. A bunch of strangers framed by the darkening sky. Robert sighed, pushing up his wire-frame glasses, this may just be the day he gets his 9mm retirement plan. Even so, Robert put on his best friendly grin and rapped his knuckles on the door, skin crawling with the moment it cracked open and let a blast of .00 buckshot through his face.

A moment passed, then another, before the locks on the door clacked and it swung in about two inches. Dave eyed the strangers on his porch in silence, sizing them up, taking in their clothing, the way they held themselves. He let the door open another few inches before bracing it with his foot. Inside, he held the barrel of his Ruger flush against the door. He’d rather have the capacity of the Sig, but the door was solid-core and the .357 would carry more punch if he had to fire through it.

“Y’all are feds,” he said. It wasn’t a question. His blue eyes tracked across the three men before settling on the man in the glasses.

“This is about that body.” Again, not a question. He was silent for a moment. “I’m gonna let the hammer down on my gun, so don’t shoot me. Then I’ll let you inside. Just you. The jackboots can wait on the porch.” He glanced at the larger of the two bodyguards. “My dog’s around. Big tan fella. He won’t bother you, but if you shoot him you’re gonna get a gunfight instead of...Whatever you’re here for.”

At the mention of letting the hammer down on a gun that was ready to kill him a moment before, Robert’s grin ticked up, “No gunfights today. My…” Friends was the wrong word, they hadn’t even spoken to each other on the ride here, “Associates can stay outside. My name’s Bob. Just Bob.”

He maintained his composure even though to him, he was only speaking to a dark crack in the door pointing a wheelgun at his brow. “You may let me in whenever you’d like.” Sooner than later, Robert left unsaid.

Dave watched him for a beat, then lowered the hammer on the Ruger with a click. He let the door swing open and backed away a few steps, keeping the gun in his off-hand.

“Dave,” he said. “Just Dave. Though I figure you know the rest of it.” He nodded his head at the folder in Bob’s hand, then gestured to a battered leather sofa in his small living room. There was no television; instead the sofa, a beat up love-seat, and a single large recliner all faced a coffee table, the arrangement one designed for conversation rather than digital entertainment.

“Take a seat. Close the door on your way in, the A/C is workin’ overtime this year as it is. I’d offer you a beer, but I don’t know if the visit’s gonna be a pleasant one yet.” He gave Bob a small grin, then walked over and dropped into the chair, resting his gun on a small side table, the muzzle away from his guest but still in reach.

Robert stepped through the threshold, readily closing the door on the two big mood dampers outside. He took a seat closer to David, rather than across. Putting yourself front to front with someone put up an instant air of offense and defense. Opposing sides. Hopefully David didn’t mind, but either way, Robert reached under his shirt and pulled free his IWB holster holding his Glock, and set it on the same side table next to the larger Ruger. “I’m only here to ask you a few questions about the incident two weeks ago, Dave. I’m hoping we can be out of each other’s hair as soon as possible and I’m sure you’re hoping the same.” Robert cleared his throat, placing the folder on the table and looked to David, “First things first, can you tell me everything about the scene? Omit nothing.”

Dave martialed his thoughts, his eyes on the far wall. When he finally spoke he did so slowly, picking the scene apart in his mind to be sure he’d relayed them as accurately as possible. He described the old bone, the heads on the stakes, the lack of bugs and the fallen leaves. The details grew more vague as he described the stone and its cadaverous occupant, the details having mercifully faded over the last couple of weeks.

“It just felt wrong,” he said as he reached the end of the story. “The whole thing, it was too quiet. The air seemed dead, you know? Had my skin crawling. But I felt like...Like I had to get a closer look at it all.”

Robert nodded along, lips pursed as he watched David’s face while he described the scene. “And the Slab, it was black?”

He reached into his folder and produced a stack of photos. One clearly from a crime scene in the Pacific Northwest, one from the Afghan mountains and another one taken from an aerial view somewhere in the FATA in Pakistan. “Like these?”

Dave took the photos, looking them over with a frown of concentration. While he didn’t get the same sense of impending doom that he had from the slab in the mountains, he still suppressed a shudder.

“Yup,” he said, handing them back. “Pretty much like that. Corpse was rotten, but hadn’t been eaten on. I don’t know how familiar you are with the woods, but that...It doesn’t happen. Something dies, it gets eaten, every time. I’ve got a dog the size of a Harley and I still have to lock down my garbage to keep the raccoons out of it. Body shouldn’t have been there more than a few hours before somethin’ came for a bite.”

Robert nodded along. “These Slabs are considered a grave threat, David. I’m glad you made us aware of this one. I understand you have a son?”

There was a slight tightening around Dave’s eyes, a clenching of his hands that he was quick to mask.

“Yeah, I do,” he said. “What about him? He didn’t see shit, and I didn’t tell him the whole story. He’s got nothin’ to do with this.”

“And I’m glad he doesn’t. David, I’m not making a threat. I knew he was with you when you found the Slab.” Robert held a hand up to quell any aggression from mentioning his son, “But there’s a lot of other fathers who can’t say the same. The real reason I’m here, David, is because I was given a choice.”

“Since I’ve already made my decision by coming here and talking to you tonight, I’m going to give you a choice.” Robert opened the Manila folder to show David a profile of his own life rendered into the margins of a Top Secret dossier, “A man like you is a valuable thing. You’re not beholden to big organizations that would rather retain you than loan you to a section of the government nobody knows exists.”

“I belong to a long line of men and women who keep things like that Slab and whoever the fuck put it there away from our sons, our daughters, our families. Our fellow man.” Robert shook his head, “I’m not going to tell you that you owe the world a thing. I’m not asking you to keep the world safe. But you have a choice to make, David.”

“Either you forget about this and you keep spending your weekends with your son and always looking over your shoulder in these woods…” Robert slowly got up from his seat, going over to the door and whispering at one of the operators at the door. He returned with a briefcase, popping it open to reveal a very good amount of money, “And have enough money to put your son through college without debt after. You could do that. Or you could make sure your son lives in a world where you don’t have to worry about Black Slabs or whatever put them there coming for him before he even graduates High School.”

Robert leaned over, holding David’s gaze while he pulled a flip phone from his pocket. He placed it on the table in front of David and stood. “I’ll leave you the money. If anything, it’s the least I can do for you making me aware of that thing in the mountains so I can go out and put it down.” Robert gestured to the phone. “I’ll leave you the phone too. Just in case you ever have a feeling like you might want to go hunting too. I’ll see you around, David.”

Robert pushed up his glasses, replaced his holster and turned for the door.

“Stop,” Dave said as Robert walked away. He stared at the money for a moment. “I ain’t sayin’ I’ll do this...But...You said you’re gonna go out and take care of this Slab. Whoever put it there.”

He looked up at Robert. His eyes were hard, chips of ice set in his rugged face. “These are my mountains. Nobody’s gonna do that kinda shit around here, not as long as I can stop ‘em. I figure you already know everything about me, so you’ll know I’ve got half a ton of Tannerite down in my basement, and the riggings for a blasting cap or two. Setup like that, I could level a house. Or two. You willin’ to let me in on this? You let me help handle the shit here, and I’ll come with you wherever you need me next. But we clean up my backyard first.”

Robert turned to David, and looked him over. He loved when things were easy and went his way. Robert rolled his jaw and nodded, turning back for the door with a suppressed grin like he’d just secured a deal for damn good racehorse, “Hurry up and get dressed.”
Name: David “Dave” MacCready

Age: 35

Sex: Male

Appearance: Dave is at the shorter end of tall, standing around 5’11”, and his frame carries about 180 lbs of lean muscle, an athleticism born of years spent hiking his beloved Ozark mountains with a pack on his back and, often, a gun in his hands. He has blue eyes, brown hair, and his forearms and roughly calloused hands have a network of small scars earned through hard manual labor.

Family, Friends, Aquaintances:

- Ex-girlfriend, occasional casual lover. The mother of his child. The two are still friends.

- Dave’s 14-year-old son.

- His grandfather, the man who got him out of the Compound and away from his lunatic father.

- Dave's dog. Part mastiff, part shepherd, part Ford, he's 150 pounds of mountain-wandering beast, and serves double duty as both Dave's companion and part of his home defense system.

Likes: Nature/the outdoors, guns, Copenhagen

Dislikes: Racists, cops, the federal government

Big Joe - Dave’s father is a monster. He abused his sons physically and mentally, doing his best to shape them into killers for his imagined revolution. As he once told his wife within earshot of the boys: “Woman, I’m not raising sons. I’m raising soldiers!”

Fatherhood - Mal is Dave’s entire world, and he does everything he can to do right by his son. He has nightmares about a twisted version of his childhood, in which he’s the one in the uniform, forcing his son to undergo the same hellish training his father once forced on him.

Skeleton in the Closet - Dave killed a man once. Just once. It happened while Kaliah was pregnant. One of Big Joe’s hoodlums stumbled across Dave during hunting season, and started in on him about the rumors he was dating an “undesirable”. Hot words became threats, and Dave gunned him down and left him in the woods, fearing for the safety of his family. Since then, Dave has lived with the silent fear that he’d be found out, that he’d be sent away to never see his son again, or worse; that Big Joe himself might come looking for revenge.

Gifted(+8): SERE, Demolitions/EOD, Marksmanship: Rifle, Navigate
Adept(+6): Subterfuge (Woodland), Awareness, Marksmanship: Pistol, Athletics
Average(+4): Military Science: Land, Crafting (survival-based), Melee Weapons
Novice(+2): Hand-to-Hand, First Aid, Engine Mechanics, Breaking-and-Entering, Craft (Gunsmith)

Special Training - Drive (ATV/Dirt Bike)
Black Markets: Weapons


SAN - 40
Breaking point - 32



Booklearnin’ - Dave was homeschooled on the compound, only learning what his father deemed appropriate. He never went to school after leaving, and never bothered with a GED. While he’s a reasonably intelligent man, reading isn’t is strong suit, and he has no formal education to speak of.

Bum Knees - Years of lugging a pack through the Ozarks have taken their toll. Though he can push through the pain with the best of them, Dave gets a good twinge in his knees after a few hours on the move, and running only exacerbates the problem. The fact that his stubborn pride won’t let him wear a brace doesn’t help.

Off-Duty Clothing/Equipment:
Clothing: Jeans and T-shirts, flannels for if it gets chilly, and a pair of sturdy hiking boots. A brown Carhart when it’s cold, a black wool watchcap when it’s really cold.
Weapons: A Sig P320 Subcompact 9mm with Tru-Glo sights and an Olight PL-1 Mini Valkyrie and two spare magazines (worn IWB appendix), Benchmade Infidel OTF, Buck 119 Brahma when acceptable.
Tools: Leatherman MUT EOD multitool, Streamlight Pro-Tac 2L-X flashlight, a can of Cope Long-Cut

Operational Clothing/Equipment:
Clothing: Camouflage fatigues suited to his environment, tactical boots/gloves, plate carrier w/ side SAPI’s.
Weapons: Arsenal SLR-106 chambered in 5.56mm, w/ Streamlight HL-X, Trijicon MRO Patrol and flip-up 3X magnifier; Sig P226 w/ threaded barrel, Tru-Glo sights, and Surefire X300 light. Benchmade Infidel OTF, Camillus CQB1 fixed-blade, fragmentation/flash bang grenades as issued. Inclement weather gear as necessary.
Equipment/Tools: His EOD gear. Whatever explosives he brought along for the mission, as well as his multitool, an electrical kit, tape, and other accoutrements. An IFAK with a couple of spare tourniquets. Basic survival gear (i.e. fire starter, his Buck knife, a small camp hatchet, thermal blanket, etc.)
I'll get a post in this evening and head the posse that way.
I'm doing some stuff-and-things right now, but later on I'll probably put out a short post just to get introductions going between Bill and Kingfisher's characters. I won't have them leave until you're ready for 'em, @Jbcool
That's cool.

I'm going to wait to post for a while, let others decide if they're coming along or not. If I do get a few short ones in, it'll be for conversational purposes. Rest assured, the Pain Train will not leave the station until all are aboard.
The old cowboy nodded, the events of the previous day still fresh in his memory.

“Few rustlers. Nothing we ain’t used to dealin’ with, but…” He sighed. “The Lyons boy was runnin’ with them. Tried to draw on us. Had to put the poor kid down, damn it all. ‘Scuse the language, miss.”

When she mentioned Indians he grimaced. That would be an ugly business. The locals wouldn’t take kindly to a raid on white settlers, and they’d certainly want to call up a posse to deal with it. Hopefully they’d be able to get the cavalry garrison at Fort McIntosh to handle the actual retaliation. Bill didn’t relish the idea of dealing with a war party if he didn’t have to. Though no coward in any sense of the word, killing was something he did only when he had to. It was better to leave that to the boys who were paid to do it.

“Probably the Apache gettin’ riled up over somethin’. The bas...Snakes do it every now and again. I’ll round some folk up, see what’s what at the site. Maybe they just scalped ‘em and left ‘em behind.”

He thought for a moment, then glanced over at Benny.

“I’ll leave Benny here for you, Miss Coleman. He can help you with the boy, and I’d feel better knowin’ there’s a man with a gun around. If the Apache really have gone on the warpath, it can’t hurt to have some shooters around.”

Bill settled his hat on his head.

“I’ll be goin’ now, miss. Try to round some fellas up. I’ll come by and check up on you and the boy when it’s all done, let you know how things turned out.”

He turned and headed back to the street, slapping Benny on the shoulder as he did so.

“Take care of Miss Coleman.”

Walking back out into the road, he looked around at some of the people who were still gathered.

“Alright folks. Sounds like the boy’s family was hit by injuns. Apache most likely, maybe Comanche. I’m hopin’ to get some men together to go out and go see what happened. Any able-bodied men who’d be willin’ to volunteer, I’d appreciate it. Need men who can shoot and ride, and provide their own guns and horses.”

He glanced over at the well-dressed couple he'd seen earlier, nodding at the man with the coat around his waist.

"You're welcome to come along, if you can handle a gun."

Announcement made, crossed back into the saloon.

“Vasquez. Castillo. Vamanos. Formin’ up a posse. Sounds like some folk got themselves attack by injuns outside town. You can play cards later.”

The vaqueros tossed their cards on the table and hurried to join Bill, Vasquez quietly remarking, “We were losing anyway.”
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