8 – The Hunters Become the Hunted
Somewhere in the woods,
Addison Beach, Titus Rains, Hisan and Joel Oscreen woke the next morning after a restless slumber – the type of sleep that follows a weekend binger when your chest feels empty and your lungs feel like they are made of the turned cantaloupe from an Edible Arrangements forgotten at the doorstep of a lover lost. Though they didn’t talk, each of them secretly hoped they would be the first to encounter Dasher. The riches and glory that would come once Popov found out about the heroics would be untold. Each one was making calculations for where they would fall in this new regime and the man who captured or killed Duke Dasher would have a potential claim at being the new benevolent leader’s right-hand man.
“I’m sure, like me, you guys didn’t sleep much. Joel, your mouth breathing and sleep apnea was very disturbing,” said Hisan, breaking the awkward silence that sets in between colleagues in the morning.
“Yes, I don’t have my mask, which helps me breathe, and there are no sockets or electricity out here, so it would have been useless anyway,” replied Oscreen sorrowfully.
“Beach, Rains, will you cool it sharpening those blades? We have guns and all the ammo we need. What would you need a machete for?” Hisan said to the two psychopaths sitting on a log sharpening two substantial blades.
Neither replied. Beach simply took his blade and licked it from bottom to top. The rest wondered what would happen if they didn’t find Dasher. Would the maniac known as Addison Beach turn on them? Had the poison that Popov infused in his body corrupted his brain? All extremely reasonable questions, as having your blood and skin replaced with poison would likely pervert the mind in some way. Hisan hoped he wasn’t around when Beach truly started to lose it. The man seemed to grow more unglued by the minute.
“Rains, you take the northern quadrant, Beach you’re south, Oscreen you’re west, I’ll head east,” continued Hisan, pointing to the various parts in the forest with his silenced 9MM.
There was some protest that followed. Everyone was suspicions that Hisan already scouted the forest and knew Dasher was lurking somewhere in the east quadrant, but the men reluctantly agreed. Paranoia had fully set in the group – each man seemed to be a likely candidate for betrayal, but for now, their mission was to find and capture or kill Duke Dasher.
The men split and Hisan walked stoically towards his quadrant while the others ran like hounds on all fours in their respective directions. Each one was hopeful Dasher would be nothing more than a helpless, burned insect by the time they found him, imagining Dasher’s corpse as a burned up mangled mess that Willy Wonka would stuff into a barely edible chocolate bar. He was their golden ticket to fame and fortune in the new communist empire.
Titus Rains began frantically searching the woods, his camouflage intact. This was the advantage Rains held over any adversary. He could see them, but they couldn’t see him. After years of intense interrogation and reprogramming, Rains was a shell of his former self – a war tool crafted by the sick, gnarled hooves of Popov, who had personally put Rains through the painful surgery to make him appear invisible. Popov told Rains he would not understand it now, but he needed to be used as a biblical metaphor at some point in the future to capture a man named Duke Dasher. Even in Rains’ diminished mental capacity, the idea seemed delusional at best but after several more hours of torture, Rains agreed to become the darkness.
Popov selected a very special doctor to perform the surgery – celebrity psychologist, Dr. Bill. Dr. Bill existed in the same realm of peculiarity as Joel Oscreen. They both appeared to be physically deteriorating before your very eyes. Unmistakably human in some ways and in other ways, vacant and fiendish. A cheap imitation of another balding celebrity doctor with a thick southern accent and a non-existent license in psychology. Both of his eyes once slipped from his sockets and into his lap on live television, a white substance with the same consistency as cottage cheese pouring from each eyehole. He coolly placed them back in while the crowd stood and applauded. Some wept; some maintained that it was the second coming of Christ. No one seemed to know or care why two identical-looking unlicensed doctors were distributing ill-informed advice on TV, but they all limply watched the show daily with nothing better to do.
Even though Dr. Bill maintained he did not have a medical degree, Popov had been confident he was the perfect man for the job. The other celebrity doctor would have been far too challenging to kidnap. Popov had sent an undercover operative claiming to be Dr. Bill’s bastard child on The Dr. Bill Show. Dr. Bill had immediate suspicions because he knew he had not fathered any mystery children and the man claiming to be his son was his age if not older, which made the circumstances almost impossible. After realizing the reasonable suspicions by Dr. Bill, the henchman had forcibly kidnapped him instead, making the entire backstory of being his bastard child completely pointless. It was precisely what Popov had envisioned. The type of seamlessly executed stealth missions the Russians were known for. Dr. Bill had injected Swarovski crystals with a homemade mixture of Elmer’s-like glue into the skin of Titus Rains. The reflective properties on a crystal as rare and unblemished as a Swarovski created an illusion in which the person almost disappeared.
Dr. Bill objected to the procedure from both a medical and a basic rudimentary logic perspective. Elmer’s glue did not seem to be the most quality adhesive for what they were attempting to accomplish and Swarovski crystals were generally reserved for uneducated losers going into debt for a marriage that would inevitably fail. However, after several tantrums thrown by Popov, Dr. Bill went ahead with the procedure, which took several hours. Dr. Bill was then driven to rural Ohio and released into a retention pond outside of a Costco. Popov looked at Titus Rains as he lay on the table. He saw the effects of the procedure set in almost immediately.
Rains began disappearing before his eyes. Popov took a hefty pull from the handle of vodka he was drinking and rubbed his eyes as though they were playing tricks on him. The procedure had actually worked and what lay before him was someone who would be an integral tool in killing Duke Dasher and toppling the United States government.
Rains continued to walk through the woods, careful not to disturb any leaves or brush, remaining completely and utterly invisibly. Even if Dasher was injured, he could still be dangerous, and there was nothing more dangerous than a wounded, ex-Special Forces, fundamentalist Christian hell-bent on revenge. Rains wandered throughout the forest until, in the distance, he noticed an anomaly. Blood on the ground. He bent down and smelled the blood, then tasted it. It was undoubtedly human. He looked down at the brush and there appeared to be a steady skid mark all in one direction. Either Dasher had crawled in the direction of the blood flow or a raccoon was throwing up blood after eating the tin of Bush’s baked beans that Rains had bizarrely laced with glass shards and left out as a trap the night before. Rains despised raccoons. Either scenario was a possibility, but he hoped for the former. He slowly followed the path of unnerving blood-colored ivy.
Dasher and Serone sat around the small, wooden kitchen table drinking their coffee after a long night of work. They spent the entire night preparing for what could be their last day on earth. Dasher also made several more desperate attempts to convert Serone to Christianity and, at one point, created a S.W.O.T. analysis board detailing the path to a successful conversion. There was noticeably nothing in the threats or weaknesses portion of the board. Though Serone had tried to focus primarily on the task of saving their lives, Dasher pressed on with several lectures dripping in fire and brimstone propaganda. Serone attempted time and again to maintain a semblance of politeness, but Dasher was becoming downright insufferable. One could only endure being bludgeoned with stale points of view and a barrage of one-upping before they finally broke. Serone somewhat regretted ever letting Dasher into his house. If he had dragged him back out into the woods, would he be in his current situation? Serone knew the men that hunted them were dangerous and he would have to deal with them eventually. He was better off with Dasher than without him.
The two finished off their cups of coffee and for the first time in about eight hours, there was silence. The two mutually understood that whatever shit storm was blowing their way was about to hit. They both went to the positions they agreed upon and waited – waited for whatever was coming their way.
Dasher sat in a tree while Serone crouched under an enormous wooden box they had constructed. A tree branch held up the box with a string tied to it, which Dasher held between his fingers. When any enemy arrived to attack the helpless Serone, Dasher would pull the string that would dislodge the stick and trap the intruder inside the box. Serone pleaded for a different capture tactic, as this particular method left him initially vulnerable and also stranded with whomever the intruder was inside the box. Dasher was known for his persistence though and Serone had trouble arguing with the decades of military experience Dasher had accrued. Maybe he knew something Serone did not. Either that or he was merely sacrificing Serone’s life to save his own. All of this passed through Serone’s head as he sat inside a giant box fully nude. Dasher insisted this was the most essential part of the entire plan – Serone must be fully nude. Dasher radioed down to Serone.
“Serone, can you hear me?” Dasher asked through the static of the walkie-talkie.
“I can hear you. Dasher, are you sure this is going to work?” Serone asked nervously.
“Believe me Serone, you put the bait out, an animal is going to take it. They can’t help themselves because, unfortunately, they don’t interpret remorse and sinning the same way we do,” Dasher said longingly.
He wished every creature experienced the same agonizing shame humans did.
Serone sat in silence for several seconds, contemplating dying in this giant box by the hands of a total lunatic. The quiet was disrupted when he saw a slight rustle in the bushes ahead. The bush had definitely moved, but there was nothing there. How could this be? Maybe it was the wind. Maybe it was Serone’s mind playing tricks on him. Then it happened again. This time it was closer.
“Dasher, do you see anything up there?” whispered Serone. No response from Dasher.
“Dasher, do you read me?” Serone whispered again, this time more frantically.
Still no response from Dasher. He had gone completely dark. Just as Serone decided to bolt from the giant box trap Dasher had constructed, something appeared in front of him. It was screaming at the top of its lungs and was covered in some sort of sticky substance. A fan was then initiated in front of a patch of dandelions, which stuck to the sticky mess in front of him, revealing the outline shape of a man. Dasher jumped down from the trees chuckling.
“You really taught me something Serone,” Dasher said playfully.
Serone stood in complete shock, confused as to what was going on. The man was now doubled over on the ground. His face and skin appeared to be melting and dripping through the weeds on the forest floor. Smoke was emanating from the bursting skin bubbles.
“You taught me about using nature to do your bidding, Serone. I used your same healing technique to maim this mercenary. The tree sap covering his skin counteracted his invisibility,” Dasher continued, patting Serone on the shoulder.
“Dasher, I’m not sure you…” started Serone.
“Believe me, Serone. I understood exactly what you meant when we were talking about spirituality and meditation, so I took your healing techniques and applied them to warfare. Now this man’s skin is melting off of his body and being picked apart by those insects!” interrupted Dasher.
The two could barely hear each other talk over the deafening screams of the man lying on the ground. It was a truly disgusting sight, even for Dasher, who had seen a lot in his lifetime. He looked on at the pathetic loser writhing around and gave it a quick kick to the stomach in an attempt to shut him up. Serone could not take his eyes off the man, how could someone be in this much pain and more importantly, why was he melting?
“I knew something was up when I was taken by surprise back at my house. Someone had snuck in on me, so I knew that some type of camouflage was at play,” Dasher explained, taking advantage of the brief break in screaming. “I then microwaved around 20 gallons of tree sap and set up a tripwire that would dump the smoldering hot sap on whoever walked under it. The dandelions served merely as humiliation, which is an important part when dealing with any enemy,” Dasher continued as he flicked the tripwire he had created.
Serone wished Dasher had explained some of the plans to him before making him crawl under that enormous box nude, especially given that he walked the path that Dasher had chosen to suspend the box of liquid hot tree sap above, but he was relieved to be alive. Dasher bent down to the body that seized uncontrollably before him.
“Why are you trying to kill me!” Dasher demanded, booting the corpse in the head and knocking it clean off its body. The head rolled twenty feet into the distance. Serone could not believe his eyes; he instantly puked, but gave Dasher a bashful thumbs up when Dasher glanced back at him. The burning sap had caused severe deterioration of skin and bone, making the head fly off the neck like candles on a birthday cake.
“Dead men tell no tales. Go fetch that head if you will,” Dasher said to Serone. Serone wandered begrudgingly into the woods to retrieve the head. He had no idea what Dasher had planned, but given what had already occurred, he assumed it to be some type of very particular biblical-themed revenge.
Addison Beach heard the scream instantly. His ears perked up, as did something else. The sick bastard had always been aroused by the prospect of slaughter. If he wasn’t mistaken, it was the scream of his colleague Titus Rains. Most men would have been disappointed that an ally was maimed beyond comprehension, or what sounded like it anyway, but this just meant one less person to steal his glory when he presented Dasher’s corpse to Popov.
His relationship had been rather precarious with Popov given the fact that the man had filled his body with poison and routinely beat the living shit out of him for all the years he was stuck in that cage. However, his new powers were unlike anything he could have imagined. When Popov said he would be the most elite killer this world has ever seen, Beach had jumped at the opportunity. He was a man who had plateaued in many ways; his life had grown boring after retiring from the Green Berets. Maybe it was the poison that was killing thousands of brain cells every minute, but Beach felt fortunate to have been kidnapped by Popov. He never could have achieved this level of power without the help from a sadistic lunatic willing to push the boundaries of medicine in order to create the perfect killing machine. The drawback was, of course, being completely and utterly alone at all times and virtually every piece of food he ate tasted like dehydrated dog shit. He also had a severe case of erectile dysfunction, routine anal fissures, moderate to severe plaque psoriasis, and regularly battled with mesothelioma for which he was seeking a settlement. Outside of those very extreme and sad ailments that made daily existence insufferable at best, his life was nearly perfect.
The poison had also put him in a perpetual state of hallucination in which he was frequently unable to determine reality versus fantasy. This, in some ways, made him an even more unstoppable soldier, as he was utterly fearless and deranged, only obsessed with poisoning as many people as possible. Popov had sent him on countless missions prior to this one, where he had repeatedly proved his willingness to the cause.
His final mission had been a visit to his parent’s house. Beach recognized the house as Popov pulled up in his leased, cherry red, Chrysler Sebring convertible.
“I can tell you recognize this place,” Popov had said, slurring horribly. His voice sent a shiver up Beach’s spine, not because he recognized the house, but because he had just driven with a man who was clearly blackout drunk.
“This is my parent’s house. Say, do you think I could drive home?” Beach had responded, still fearing for his life with Popov behind the wheel. Popov belched and blew into Beach’s face it smelled oddly like the tapioca pudding served at a nursing home.
“You know what you have to do to prove yourself to the cause. Your parents are the last remaining thing from your past, and they must be destroyed for you to reach your perfect form, my child,” Popov said, throwing in an enormous lip of chewing tobacco, swallowing a substantial amount and immediately spitting up on Beach’s jeans.
Beach had listened carefully; at this point in his life, the poison hadn’t consumed his brain the way it had presently. He understood that to achieve his perfect form, he had to burn down virtually everything from his past. He unbuckled his seat belt and made the slow walk to his house. He contemplated what being a part of Popov’s elite team of assassins truly meant.
He opened the door and called in. “Mum? Dad?” No response. He called again. He walked up the old familiar stairs perhaps for the last time.
“Addison, what in God’s name is going on down there?” his dad asked angrily. “Who is that drunk in that piece of shit convertible that knocked over all of our damn trash cans!?”
“That drunk is my new father,” Addison said under his breath.
“New father or not, you better tell him to pick up those trash cans or I swear I’m lodging a formal complaint with the condo association a get your ass evicted, so help me, God!” replied Beach’s dad.
Addison had gone back downstairs silently. He poured three glasses of wine and stuck his poisoned finger in the glistening Sutter Home, then brought them back upstairs.
“A toast,” Addison suggested.
“It’s four in the damn morning Addison. You really think I want a glass of three- week old Sutter Home? Are you nuts?” his dad replied.
The romance of the murder deflated like a convenient store balloon. Addison had given up on the pageantry of death by convenient store wine and merely grabbed the shoulders of his poor mum and dad. They collapsed instantly, overcome by poison, and a new Addison Beach was born.
In the south quadrant of a forest in rural Montana, Beach shook his head furiously, momentarily casting the memory out of his mind. He sprinted in the direction of his colleague’s screams, eager to murder Dasher much like he had killed his parents and prove to Popov that he was the most elite killer in the world.