Huntress by Tarale Wolffe
Her body was littered with scars from old hunts, a living tapestry of near-misses and fights. She allowed them to show wherever she went. To hide them meant she was ashamed; that her job, and the consequences there-in, was something to keep hidden. She had never thought that way, mainly – she admitted whenever the subject passed her thoughts – because of her mentor.
Anabelle was retired now, but in the years she’d been her mentor, April had learned pride in her job. Others could snub their noses at her upon glimpsing the patterns etched into her flesh, but she was secure in the knowledge that she wasn’t evil or cruel. She wasn’t even violent, unless there was no other option. What she did was necessary. For the safety of everyone else, she would always risk herself. Someone had to, and it might as well be someone with the talent and brains to do it right, and the compassion to do it quickly.
However, as secure as she was, the silence that greeted her wherever she went always gave her pause. She felt eyes trace every scar, judgement seeping into their expressions before they turned away. Each of them seemed to feel the worst thing they could do was ignore her very presence, making her as invisible, as unimportant, as a translucent ghost unable to make himself heard.
She preferred those to the preachers, the ones who tried to convince her, her job was wrong. That mercy should be shown to all, and who refused to listen when the answer was anything but what they wanted to hear. They were the ones who thought she should be taking care of her male, not ‘neglecting’ him for days at a time for her work.
She withheld a sigh as she saw one of them heading toward her, a determined glint in her eye. The set of her jaw told April this one wouldn’t be easily dismissed. Keeping her attention away, she ordered a drink – rum and coke – praying she was wrong. Perhaps the woman saw something else that offended her. Perhaps – it was possible – the woman always looked like that, walked like that, and would pass April by without comment.
Her prayers, hopes, went unanswered. The bartender had just placed her drink in front of her when a figure inserted itself firmly at her side. April spared a glance upward, using years of practice to keep her expression calm and unconcerned, and then returned it to her glass to take a drink, essentially dismissing the woman as unimportant.
“How dare you prance in here, showing off those … things,” the woman snarled, causing April pause – wondering if she referred to the scars she proudly wore, or the gun holstered to her side.
Another glance upward, and April could easily imagine hackles rising, like a wolf bitch’s protecting her young. As long as she didn’t decide to use those claws she called nails, though, April could keep a level head.
“There’s no restrictions saying I can’t,” April said, raising her glass to her lips. She spent a precious moment savoring the dulled burn that slid down her throat.
“You’re a corrupting influence,” the woman spat. “It’s bad enough you hunt people down and kill them, but to have the gall to come in here and show it off-”
“They’re violent reprobates,” April interrupted, hoping to cut the woman off before she got up to speed. “All with several violent crimes to their name, and I only kill the ones who won’t come quietly.”
“It’s government approved murder!”
“Most of them have earned death. Whether it’s by me or the chair is irrelevant.”
“You’re no better than they are,” the woman practically shrieked, one manicured nail pointed at April in accusation. “You should be given the chair, not those poor men.”
April just raised an eyebrow, silently sending her condolences to any male who had to live with her. It couldn’t be an easy life.
“I can see you have strong feelings about this, ma’am,” April responded, hoping she didn’t sound as bored as she felt. Judging from the look of fury growing on the woman’s face, she wasn’t succeeding, “however, complaining to me will do nothing. If you would prefer to allow these violent men to fun free, I suggest you contact your congresswoman. With enough support, she-”
April was cut off as a loud slap rang through the room. Pain blossomed across her cheek. She stared at the bar, knowing by the abrupt silence that they had everyone’s attention. Not wanting to miss anything, they’d given up even their pretense of unconcern. April worked her jaw. The woman had a decent amount of strength to her arm.
“Karen,” the bartender warned, “you-”
“Don’t patronize me, Hunter,” the woman snarled, again, ignoring any attempts to calm her. “I know the truth. You, and those like you, revel in hunting down men whose only crime is living free!”
April gently placed her glass back on the bar and rose, slowly unfolding herself from the stool until she stood. The space between the bar stools was such that she and the woman – Karen, if she’d heard right – were practically pressed together. She was mildly pleased that she had several inches on the woman, and she used them to her advantage. Something caused the woman’s eyes to widen, fear seeping in to slowly replace the anger.
Probably my eyes, April thought absently. Anabelle had once said she had the coldest eyes of any hunter potential she’d ever trained. She slid her arm between their bodies to touch her left shoulder. Karen shuddered at the contact, jerking backward to avoid it. Unfortunately for her, the stools were bolted to the floor, trapping her before the seemingly angry hunter.
“This-” April began, fingering one particularly nasty scar on her bicep. She kept her voice calm and cool – chilled – even as the memory of its acquisition came to her. The wound had almost caused her the loss of the arm. It was only through clever doctors and continuous therapy that she had use of the arm, and if she ever stopped, the arm could still seize up, becoming stiff and sore. “-was given to me after a male had pledge to come quietly. I approached him to restrain him, as is required when he pulled out a knife. I got this by throwing my arm in front of my chest so he got it instead of my heart.”
“This-” she spoke over the woman, hand moving to her collarbone, where a white splattered scar marred her tanned skin. The woman’s gray eyes latched onto it. “-is where a gun shot me when a male didn’t want to come quietly.”
“Allowed guns?” April finished softly. “Despite our efforts, there are ways, if they’re determined enough. My job is to bring in, or bring down, the violent and the dangerous. It’s not because I enjoy it, or because I want to terrify innocent men.” Aprils hand returned to her side, palm resting on the butt of her gun. “I do it so people like you can safely walk the streets, and your men can live their lives as safely as you allow it. Now, if you’re quite done?”
One look upward at April’s expression, and the woman nodded. Without a word, she slid from between the hunter and the stool. April watched her go, then slipped a hand into her pocket, pulling out a folded photograph. If she had their attention, she might as well use it.
“I’m looking for Joseph McKinley,” she said, holding up the picture, though only those closest to her could see it. Several patrons stiffened, including the outraged woman who’d accosted her. “He’s wanted for three counts of murder – two women, one man – and 15 counts of violent behavior.”
Gasps and hushed whispers met her statement. April allowed them, for a moment. Karen looked outraged, but kept her tongue.
“He was last seen heading this direction. If you see him, do not approach. Contact your local law enforcement, who will relay the information to me. Joseph is armed, and very dangerous. This is what my job is, and I will continue to do it, regardless of your opinions.”
With that, she returned the picture to her pocket and sat to nurse her drink. The point hadn’t been to show everyone Joseph – the news had already done that for the two weeks April had been chasing him. Even if it hadn’t, this was a relatively small town, so anyone new would stand out. Their fear of Joseph would override their fear and hesitation of having her in town. Ideally, it would make navigating the town easier. At the least, it would keep the self-righteous preacher types from being too much of a nuisance.
Whispers spread out behind her, each patron trying to keep their words a secret from the hunter in the midst. April let it flow past her. Their words had no bearing on who she was, or what she had to do. Everyone understood how dangerous men who gave into their violent natures were.
It was because of it that every attempt to help them was made from early in their lives. After a certain point, however, they couldn’t be left to roam, especially when the women in their lives had proven insufficient to the task of controlling them. A man was allowed up to eight instances of violent behavior every ten years - depending on the instance - which meant they were allowed to get angry and throw things, or break something without getting into trouble until it went over their allowance. Breaking the limit had them sent to counseling and anger management. Their female partner was sent to counseling as well, though for different reasons. Occasionally, it was discovered that the female had been a negative effect on her husband, or son. In that case, the male was removed from the abusive situation, and the female was sent to prison for several years.
The more violent outbursts, such as physically harming someone was illegal, for both genders. Anyone caught doing so spent a year in jail. More than three instances, and they spent a minimum of five years in prison. A proven murder was an automatic death sentence. A man who’d shown they will kill could not be trusted. History had shown that too many times.
Of course, April reflected as a louder voice caught her attention, there are those who believe no male should even hold a job because of the possible ‘temptations.’
Karen was probably one of those who believed the only safe place for a male was taking care of the home, and letting the woman worry about the important things. With her thoughts on the angry woman, April turned in her seat, easily finding Karen’s red hair as she marched toward the door. April frowned - taking note of the determined stride; the set of her shoulders; the stiff way she held her head. The way she looked nowhere but the door.
Like she’s trying to avoid catching someone’s attention. Though ‘someone’ was probably April specifically. If that was the case, Karen had done exactly the wrong thing. April watched her exit, then placed a five next to her half full glass before following the redhead out.
She blinked rapidly, raising one hand to shield her gaze from the sun as the door swung shut behind her. When her vision was mostly back, she glanced around, and just managed to catch sight of Karen before she vanished around the corner. The one trait she’d learned to trust above all else, was her instinct. Often, it latched onto some small quirk or irregularity that her brain hadn’t quite figured out. Just then, her instincts were screaming louder than a fire truck on the way to a fire. She silently followed.
April trailed the woman several blocks with no clue as to where she was going. The farther they got from the bar, the more relaxed Karen became. She never even glanced behind her; never felt April’s eyes as she was silently stalked; never felt so much as a twinge of self-preservation. This was a woman any predator would take with no regret.
Others on the street saw her. Men and women alike scurried out of her way as soon as possible, but their flurry never caught Karen’s attention. That was due - partially, at least - to the distance April kept between them, but also, she suspected, to the woman’s arrogant belief in her own invulnerability.
On the outskirts of town, almost two miles from the bar, Karen approached an abandoned home. Grass and weeds stretched upward, reaching far past the gate’s height. Two trees in the side yard stood proud, but unkempt. The house was no better. One window that she could see was broken, and no one had cared enough to fix the jagged edges that still hung around the hole. This was not a place for a well-kept woman like Karen to come. Unless it held sentimental value, she had no reason to be there. Judging from the way she approached it, it wasn’t that, that brought her here.
April hung back, listening as the gate was opened, and thankful there was no squeak as it opened. At the door, Karen made her glad she’d stayed under cover. For the first time, Karen glanced around her, checking for any watchers.
Too late, April thought, eyes narrowing. I already know something’s in there. Unfortunately, she was beginning to have a worrying suspicion she knew what it was.
Satisfied that nothing watched her, Karen entered the house. April waited to the count of five before following. She carefully made her way through the gate and up to the door, making sure no noise gave away her presence. Safely on the porch, she put her ear to the door. Dimly, she heard voices, but they were neither clear nor loud enough to be on just the other side. So, with great care, she twisted the knob and entered the house. Not wanting a stray wind to betray her presence, she took the time to close it before slinking after the voices.
“Running’s no good. She’ll just follow.” The voice was male, that much was obvious, but it was too soft for April to get much else from it.
“She already knows you're here. If you don’t run she’ll catch you,” Karen; that was definitely Karen, though there was less anger now. More worry.
“She can’t know. Nobody saw me enter the town, and I avoided all the cameras. The only way she’d know was if you told her.” The voice was sharper, just enough for April’s eyes to widen. Joseph McKinley. And Karen was helping him.
“Watch your tone, Joseph,” Karen warned.
“I’m sorry, Karen,” was the belated reply, the tone was milder, more submissive, and rang false with every word. “I’m just … afraid. If I’m found before they find the real killer, she’ll …”
“I know. I won’t let that happen. I said I’d protect you, and I meant it.”
“That was a long time ago, Karen.”
“But still you came.”
“I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go,” his tone was almost apologetic, but it was enough to fool Karen.
Enough, April thought, drawing her gun and stepping into the door frame. The surprise of her appearance froze the both of them long enough that she could aim.
“Joseph McKinley, you are under arrest. If you come quietly, you will be granted a fair trial with-”
“No!” Karen shrieked, stepping between April and Joseph. “Joseph didn’t do anything. While you’ve been chasing him, the real killer is getting away!”
“Step aside,” April told her, not taking her eyes off Joseph, who looked anything but afraid. He looked angry. “If he is innocent, his lawyer will be given the chance to prove it.”
Which he wouldn’t be able to do, because there was video evidence showing McKinley killing at least one of the victims. She’d seen it herself.
“Everyone knows those are rigged!”
Before April could reply, Joseph’s hidden arm moved in a manner she was well familiar will. She could either shoot through Karen to get Joseph, potentially killing them both, or she could move. She dived to the right, hoping to get an angle that put Karen at as little risk as possible. April landed on her side, gun still pointed in their general direction, which made her vision bounce from the jarring.
Joseph pivoted, raising his arm. She watched just long enough to catch a glint in his hand and fired. Karen screamed. Joseph remained standing a moment longer before his legs collapsed under him. His friend, or old girlfriend (it didn’t matter which it was), fell to her knees beside him frantically putting pressure over the wound on his chest, but it was no use. As April rose, gun still in hand, she saw no light in Joseph’s eyes.
“You monster,” Karen sobbed.
April snorted. A quick glance proved what she’d already know. Joseph had a gun. “Innocent or not, it’s still illegal for any male to carry a gun.”
Karen glared at her through tear-glossed eyes.
“What’s your name, Karen?”
“What does it matter?”
April just stared at her until Karen sagged.
She nodded. “Karen Carter, you are under arrest for aiding and abetting a known fugitive. Will you come quietly?”
“Will you kill me too if I don’t?” she snapped.
Again, April just stared. Finally, Karen nodded.
It took less than a week to get Karen to the capitol and into official custody. The locals had wanted Karen turned over to them, but the laws were very clear. Murderers and their accomplices were treated the same. Whether she wanted to believe it or not, Joseph had killed three people. Hiding him made her an accomplice. It was her lawyer’s job to prove her own ignorance.
She sat through the expected congratulations, a grim expression pulling her lips down, until she was finally released. There was only one place she wanted to be after that: home.
Another car waited for her, and a small smile managed to break through her gloom. The house door opened as April was getting out. Daniel, her perfect husband, waited for her, a look of concern drawing in his eyebrows.
April’s smile widened. Reaching up, she smoothed out the crease. “Careful, you’ll get wrinkles.”
“I heard you caught McKinley.”
“Mm-hmm,” she answered. “And no new injuries.”
The tension bled out of him. “Is he …?”
“Yes,” she answered softly. Daniel’s only response was to hug her. She let him, relaxing into his hold. The act was as much for him as it was for her. He needed to know she was okay.
This was why she did it. This was why she hunted down the male’s whose violent tendencies persisted. As long as she did her job, Daniel, and those like him, were safe to live their lives. Without her, without the hunters, women would be too nervous of backsliding to even let the men leave their homes. They’d be locked up for their own good, kept from any influence that might corrupt them. In time, their men would come to resent them, causing the exact opposite of what was best.
As long as she did her job, the non-violent men were safe, and that was the entire reason they’d been created. The safety and protection of all.