“By the Hitman”
He knew it was going to hurt, but not like this. Three hours later, sitting on the beach with his bare toes dug into the golden sand, Thomas Bullen reflected on the morning’s events. He wasn’t sure what he had expected from Becky Kendall’s family, but after half a year of traveling up one coast and across the country to the other, at the very least he’d counted on meeting with his son. That had not materialized.
“Fuck,” Bull sighed, feeling the sweat glide down his back and the grainy warmth beneath his feet. The sudden gust of a light southwestern breeze carried the sound of crashing waves, hoots from the nearest trio of surfers riding them, and a dozen other noises, none of which drew his attention away from his memories of the meeting at her door, which would haunt him forever.
Mattie, Becky’s cousin:
He barely recalled setting foot on the ground; the distance from the driveway to the front door had felt like an eternity, but seemed to pass in one giant step. The woman who answered his knock, though much older than he remembered her, remained easily recognizable. She’d recognized him, too.
“Bull,” she’d snapped, looking both wounded and stunned.
“Mattie, please, I need to see my son,” he’d begged, his first words to her. Everything he said after that flowed breathlessly like the one giant step from driveway to front door. “Please, Mattie – I’ve come all this way. Just tell me where he is and let him make his own decisions about me!”
She’d peered furtively behind herself into the house before easing out onto the top step beside him. Bull got a quick glimpse into the place where Becky had come to live following their forbidden summer together twenty years pat. At first, he’d felt hopeful it was Jason that Mattie wanted to spare. Again his hopes were dashed. “I don’t want my husband hearing this, Bull.”
“I don’t care if the whole fuckin’ neighborhood hears, Mattie. I want to see my son, now!”
“You can’t,” she spat.
“He’s not here,” she interjected. “You shouldn’t have come. I told you not to.”
By this point, wounded and angry in ways he’d never known, Bull had to pinch back the caustic sting of tears at the corners of his eyes. “Why are you doing this?” he demanded, his voice lowering to the whisper line.
Mattie shook her head and folded her arms. “I’m not. He’s not here. That’s the truth.”
“Then where is he?”
She remained poised for battle a yard away. “That’s not for me to tell you. Jason’s an adult now. If he wants to contact you, he will. I’ll tell him you were here next time I speak to him. That’s the best I can do.”
The sound of the door closing behind her would echo in his head forever.
Bull wasn’t sure how long he drove around San Diego after that. Neighborhoods and businesses passed by in a blur. At one point, he found himself on Carmel Valley Road, then onto the Pacific Coast Highway. From there, he emerged at Torry Pines, breathing the salty air of the nearby ocean. The lure of Black’s Beach eventually pulled him to the parking lot of a glider port. An arduous hike down to the golden sand at the base of soaring rocky cliffs put him where he now sat.
He’d shucked sneakers and socks, t-shirt and ball cap, and dressed only in shorts and a pair of shades, wallowed in his misery. But at one point some untimed measure of hours later, the sudden explosion of excited voices drew him back to the present. His spell broken, Bull looked up to see the most amazing sight. Far beyond the crashing surf, perched on the horizon, a graceful, massive aircraft carrier passed by on its way out to sea.
A gust of warm air swept across the buzzcut back of Bull’s head. He rose to his feet, and like many of the others who’d alerted him to the carrier’s presence by their enthusiasm, was drawn down to the water by its powerful image at the limits of the horizon. He reached the water’s edge and raised his sunglasses, shielding his eyes from the sun for an unobstructed view of the majestic warship.
“Hola, Connie-!” a deep, manly voice peppered with the barest inflections of a Spanish accent called out closely beside him. Bull turned to his left to see a vision just as impressive standing knee-deep in the water a few yards away. A dark-haired young man – young-twenties, he figured – with the best tan Bull had seen since arriving to California, cradled an expensive-looking surfboard under one arm. “Kick ass, girl!”
Bull quickly scanned the young man from the top of his jet-black cropped haircut down to his smile and the perfect white teeth he flashed, to the smooth, taught ridge of his abs, board shorts, and muscled, hairy legs. He had to be military – a Marine, Bull guessed, probably stationed at Camp Pendleton. “What ship is that?” he asked, trying to sound confident despite the sudden dryness that the sight of the young soldier had unleashed in his mouth.
The handsome surfer tipped his gaze in Bull’s direction and quickly sized him up, too. “That’s Connie,” he said. “America’s flagship, the U.S.S. Constellation, dude. You not from around here?”
“Naw,” Bull answered. He shuffled closer and extended a big bear paw of a hand. “From a long way off. Thomas Bullen.”
The young Marine hesitated a moment before accepting, but when he did, his grip was just as impressive. “You here for the race?”
“Race?” Bull asked.
“Yeah. The Mud Run, over at Lake George. I assumed you was military.”
“You assumed right,” Bull said. “Army, but on leave.”
The young man’s bone-cracking grip on Bull’s hand persisted. “Oscar De La Santos,” the young surf jock replied. Bull had been correct in gleaning something of an accent in the other man’s voice. It was sexy and charming, and for a second at least, it removed the specter of that morning’s confrontation with Mattie.
They turned back to see the U.S.S. Constellation’s charge across the ocean.
“I love that ship,” the young surfer sighed in his cool voice. “Nothing like seeing it chug past Point Loma on its way to Asia.”
“Yeah, impressive,” Bull sighed. More than the feel of sand or salt water beneath his toes, the wind through his hair or the sun on his back, the sound of the young surfer’s voice pulled him away from the abyss he’d fallen into that morning. “What’s this Mud Run all about?”
Oscar flashed his four-alarm grin again. Perfect white teeth glinted in the sun under the surfer’s unshaved mouth and dark brown eyes. “Annual thing Pendleton puts on. Real ugly ten-K race through mud flats, over obstacles. It’s messy, but real fun. Great place to pick up bitches – and meet some cool dudes, too.”
Bull sighed a swear under his breath and shook his head. “Shit, I could use some of that right now. Haven’t had a whole hell of a lot of fun since I got to San Diego.”
More enthusiasm climbed into Oscar’s voice. “Dude, then you should sign up! A bunch of the guys from my unit gonna run the race – and no offense, but we plan on winning!”
“Oh yeah?” Bull said, flashing a cocky grin of his own back Oscar’s way. “We’ll see.”
“We’ll see nothin’,” the young Marine proclaimed. Both men puffed out their chests.
A challenge, Bull thought. I like it.
The surf jock passed on some quick info before walking away, board under his right arm. Bull studied Oscar’s retreat, his tight, military-toughened square butt in his loose blue board shorts, the dark black fur running the length of his muscled legs beaded with water. He was sexy in ways Bull had never experienced.
“Yeah,” the Sergeant growled beneath his breath. “I think this challenge is just what I need:”
It wasn’t hard to find the Mud Run, even on Oscar’s sparse directions. Flyers covered much of the area around Pendleton, while banners, crowds, and traffic led the way to the starting point on the muddy shores of Lake George. Even more telling were the postings at intervals: Warning! These grounds patrolled by military working teams.
Clad in his camouflage pants, old Army boots, and one of the few tight-fitting black T-shirts he’d brought that bore the name of his unit, Bull approached the sign-in tent. Concession stands selling everything from hot dogs to ice cream and the drumming sound of live music from a band close to the starting line added to his rising excitement. Nothing, however, rivaled the pure raw energy of the hundreds – maybe thousands – of pumped, buff Armed Service types clustered at the starting line. Bull made his way through the tight-packed crowd toward the red banner, hoping to find the dark-haired surf jock to make this bet official.
Most of the mud runners were grouped into teams of military units, but among the sea of bodies, he recognized everything from police and firefighters to every branch of the armed forces represented among them. A trio of Marines had painted their faces a stark white with skull-like black circles around the eyes. Several guys from a local S.W.A.T. team stood dressed in full uniform, sans only their firearms. Representing the zanier side of the event, an Airforce team from Hawaii stood jogging in place clad in grass skirts over their combat greens.
Raw testosterone was clearly in abundance. This was a macho thing, something not lost on the few women dressed in sports bras and fatigues who seemed to soak up as much attention from the men as the race itself.
But as charged and impressed as he was by the undercurrent, he’d come here really just for one reason – to see Oscar De La Santos. Finding him proved impossible in the sea of buzzcuts and ripped bodies, so Bull took his position with the rest of the solitary stragglers who’d come to run the six miles through mud and heat.
Bull readied with the crowd in anticipation.
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