By Jake Ristic-Petrovic
A wolf’s head rose up from windswept grass near the base of the mountain, eyes pensive. Calvin Reno had just emerged from his red and white Suburban a little ways uphill, next to an isolated patch of three young spruce trees. In his hands was a Mini-14, a small semi-automatic rifle with just a box magazine to distinguish it from an everyday hunting rifle at a distance. He was a large man in every sense—arms like furry tree trunks, a bulging belly, a broad chest, an enormous head that was hairless above the ears. People called him Cal.
The wolf slunk down below the tops of the grass, observing the action, unwilling to partake. He had recently left his pack, exiled by his father for attempting to mate with his mother. Such was the law of nature—for the good of the species and the family, he had to be cast off and find his own mate, create his own pack, or die. He was a truly beautiful animal, little streaks of white across his snout that tapered to oblivion just over the eyes. In another era, a man like Cal would have perceived him as an omen.
Now, though, Cal didn’t even realize the wolf was a wolf. He figured it was just some stray from the little logging town down the highway. He waited, quiet but not thoughtful, for the Wrangler bumping along out of the woods a hundred yards or so past the wolf. Driving it was Simpson and Gingrich, agents of some arcane bureaucratic institution neither Cal nor the wolf had the context to understand.
The Wrangler came to a halt just uphill and the two agents hopped out. They both had the same body type—average height and build, brown hair, square jaws, looking a little older than they should. One of them carried a briefcase—Cal hadn’t gotten to know them well enough to tell them apart. The agents stopped fifteen or so yards from Cal, eying him with their dark, expressionless gazes.
“You got my million?”
“Yes,” the man with the suitcase said.
“You two wouldn’t happen to be twins, would you?”
“I’m Simpson, that’s Gingrich,” said the one without a briefcase. “Those are our surnames.”
“Well.” Cal swung the rifle so it was held in his right hand with much of its length resting on his shoulder. He took wide steps, raising his feet high to get around the tangles of grass beneath his knees, and went to the barn doors of the Suburban. He pulled open the left door, then the right, letting them swing until their straps caught them.
Inside was the object that had fallen from the sky four days ago. It was small, about the size and shape of a coffin, sleek and metal and totally undamaged. It had official-looking markings along what looked to be the starboard sign, ensigns that would be unrecognizable to even the most hardcore armchair general, but which were definitely domestic in nature. Letters and numbers were also printed along with the markings, but the only one Cal could make heads or tails of were these words—
COMPENSATION, REALITY, OBJECT 019.
Everything else was either shorthand for words that were anyone’s guess or must have been arbitrary designations for requisitions and the like.
“There it is,” Cal said.
“Thank you, Mr. Reno. You’ve done a great service to your country,” said Gingrich.
“This country made me go to ‘Nam with nothing but a plastic rifle and a few malaria pills. It let my wife and her new man take my house, my car, and my dog. It closed the plant and it told me I couldn’t hunt whatever I goddamn feel like.” Cal shook his head. “No, sir, I’m just here for the tax-free cash.”
“Either way.” Gingrich stepped forward and handed Cal the suitcase. Simpson waited for Cal to open it. The wolf, its eyes imperceptibly higher than the tips of the grass blades, perceived something in the air the indignant veteran could not. Treachery, the thirst for blood, the neverending human quest to justify murder, wafted along as tangible to the wolf as dandelion pollen.
It began and was finished in an instant. Cal opened the case, looked up to grin at the two agents, and was struck with a tapered steel punch where the skull met the neck below the ear by Simpson. It went in and ejected the man’s soul from his body far quicker than he could elicit any sound. Had they been in a crowded airport no one would have noticed the action taking place. Cal Reno was allowed to fall to the dirt. Simpson and Gingrich watched his eyes dilate as the last vestiges of conscious thought scattered off into darkness.
The doors to the Suburban were closed, and Gingrich took the wheel while Simpson took Cal’s rifle and the suitcase and headed back to his Wrangler. Both vehicles trundled off in different directions, as they would have had they simply allowed the deal to complete without betrayal.
The wolf waited until the last parts-per-million of car exhaust dissipated, then he cautiously closed the distance between himself and Cal’s body. He sniffed it, seeking out any sign of life that might struggle against what he planned to do. And then…waste not, want not.
The wolf’s head rose up from windswept grass near the base of the mountain, eyes pensive, mouth leaking still-warm blood.