Robert W. Walker’s
Some time had passed when Kat Holley ordered an appetizer. “Haven’t eaten all day…feeling a bit light-headed.”
“Win on an empty stomach.” He nursed his near black beer. Silence thickened like hardening concrete between them until he added, “Look, Doctor, playing marionette in his game could get us both killed.”
“I realize he’s calling the shots right now but—”
“Calling th shots. Sweetheart, this murdering creep is weaseling his way around the corners of your life.”
“Get smart, Detective. He’s playing games with us both.”
“You’ll forgive me, Doc, but all this is a lot to digest in an hour and—” he looked at his watch—“and a half. You’ve had a couple of weeks.” Rydell’s forehead creased with consternation.
“You think it a coincidence this morning?”
“What’re you talking about?”
“That-that little girl you saved, Kim, that she wasn’t helped along?”
“That it’s curious Quinn should leave a weapon of any sort within reach of her?”
“Whoa up there. You saying…you think Cantu had something…orchestrated all that?”
“Down to your taking the stairs two at a time, yes.”
“Nahhh—he’d have had to convince the girl, Kim, to play me.”
“She said a cop sold her to Quinn, remember?”
“He’s impersonating a cop?”
“Not rocket science to pose as an undercover cop these days. You can get all the necessary equipment on eBay.”
“It’s not a far stretch,” he agreed now with a shake of the head.
“Not if he wants to get into your place, bug it while you’re out playing Dick Tracey, whatever.”
“Jeeze, wonder how much he knows about my…my habits.”
“Hence the reason I now carry Terry’s .38 Smith & Wesson.” She flashed the gun. “Get a clue, Detective.”
His hands went up, waving in response to her displaying the gun. “Geeze, lady, put that away!”
She made the gun disappear again.
“Look here,” he continued, “how could Cantu know that I’d give a damn and come—”
“—come running up those stairs? He knows you, has studied you.”
“To what end? Why?”
“To watch you jump. You said it yourself, Mr. Marionette.”
“Put me through my paces.”
“Pretty elaborate too. Having you save a child in the bargain. Make you feel good about yourself long enough to go after him.”
“That’s insane. To come out of hiding for…to…to torment me, you.”
“Come on. You know the type.”
He nodded. “Likes playing God.”
“In psychiatric terms, he’s a sociopath and a pathological liar. He’s gotta be loving it, pushing our most emotion-packed buttons, Detective.”
“Just so hard to swallow all at once.”
“He’s a manipulative bastard. You, me…the ones he’s already killed. That little girl—using her like fish bait. Selling her to a pervert.”
“All so he could get into my place, plant a camera or a bug. In his time with the Marines, he’d been a freakin’—”
“—Electronics wizard, I know. Makes him even more dangerous.”
Marcus drained more beer. “Too much coming at me too furiously to deal with.” He fended off a panic attack, but he still felt like a drunk in a windstorm. “I guess, like it or not, we’re partners.”
“Now you’re making sense.”
“Appears, for whatever satanic reason, that’s the way he wants it.”
“Never underestimate the depth of his evil, Detective.”
He nodded, adding, “You’re preaching to the choir.”
“And there’s no second guessing what’s pumping through his brain.”
“It’ll be a helluva tightrope walk, getting this guy.”
“Alone we’re both vulnerable, but together, we might stand a chance.”
He nodded. “And once we get the upper-hand…”
“Then he’s all mine.”
“I lead the lamb to your slaughterhouse, heh?”
“Lamb, no. Snake, yes. Lead the snake to my scalpel.”
He finished off the last of his third beer. She did likewise with her Chardonnay. “I suggest we find a new base of operations,” she suggested.
“Where do you propose we set up? Where do we go that this creep can’t follow?” Marcus scanned the entire street, turning in his seat to see if anyone anywhere was paying too much attention. If Cantu were watching, he did so from a dark slice of shadow at some distance. Perhaps an alleyway or window. Perhaps using binoculars.
“You feel it, too?” she asked, munching now on cheese sticks and ranch dressing.
“What? What’re you talking about?”
“I see it in your eyes.”
“Like he’s watching our every move from some rat warren.”
“Let’s don’t get paranoid, Doc.”
“Hey, in certain circumstances, paranoia is a gift.”
“And fear keeps you alive, I know.”
“Face it, Detective,” Katrina continued, waving wide eyelashes at him. “You’re a little rusty.”
“Thanks for qualifying with a little rusty.”
“Like riding a bike, isn’t it?”
He shrugged and grumbled. “Just too many sleepless nights.”
“One too many divorces, I suspect.”
“God, you’re like listening to my mother.”
“She never let you get away with any shit, did she?”
“No, she didn’t.”
“Is she, you know, still with us?”
“She passed away going on seven years now, right after Pop. She never got over his dying. They had that rare kind of love between them, unshakable… unbreakable.”
“Did your father go out badly?”
“Multiple sclerosis, long-suffering, but it finally finished him off. Damn disease is absolutely draconian.”
“Sorry, and your mother?”
“Why all these questions?”
“We’ve got to find out what’s causing your black outs.”
“Oh, really? Then you believe me?”
She ignored this. “Determine if it’s genetic in nature. A blood disorder, what? Determine if there’s a way to treat you.”
“No one’s got an answer to that one, Doc.”
“I don’t want you blacking out on me at a crucial moment.”
Their eyes met over this, both thinking about that moment when he’d checked out while Terry and the others were murdered. Finally, he said, “And I thought you cared.”
“I do. I care about my own safety and aims.”
“Very altruistic of you, Doctor.”
“Now that we understand one another, we need to make a plan of operation, determine a base of operations. Any ideas?”
“Not one damn clue. How ‘bout you?”
“Your mother’s place.”
This froze him. “The mountain cabin at Blue Lake?”
“Is there another?”
She watched his face scrunch into a questioning glare. The questioning look turned to understanding as he said, “You knew my parents were dead when you asked.”
She gritted her teeth. “I do good research.”
“Yeah, I can see that.”
“Look, few people know of your parents, and fewer still know of the getaway. I just stumbled on it in an obscure trade magazine your dad wrote a piece for, buried in his bio.”
“So you think Cantu knows nothing about it?”
“It may be the only piece of information that Cantu hasn’t got.”
“How do you know that?” he asked, his eyes still darting about.
“I don’t. Not for sure. But the place has an alarm system.”
“Had an alarm system, but how in hell could you know that?”
“An elderly woman, alone in the woods on a lake with boat traffic, a lake that spills into a river?”
“All right, all right, First Alert but that was when they used the place.”
“We ought to pick up a dog then, plant him outside the place,” she suggested as if she had an animal in mind.
“No-way! No freakin’ pets. I’d rather tie tin cans around the perimeter.”
“Look, a dog can act as a safeguard in a place like that while we get our ducks in a row.”
“No ducks, no dogs.”
“Be reasonable. If not a dog, then we’ll have to install an alarm system, or reactivate the old one. Get with the program.”
“Get with the program?” He wallowed in silence for a moment, grimacing. “A few minutes ago the program was blow a hole through my stomach.”
“Don’t be difficult!”
“Me?” He actually laughed out loud, feeling the effects of the last pint.
“Some trouble, I’d say, yes.”
She’s damn cute still. Too cute to be planning to murder a murderer, he thought but said, “I’d say we could toast to it, but nahhh…on the chance he might be watching. Don’t want him to think we are getting on.”
“Together, I am confident, we can corner Cantu. Keep your eye on the goal here.”
He still felt uneasy, finding himself in this conspiracy. “I don’t like screwing with a long-standing code, Doctor, and this…if I agreed to any of this…”
“Never conspire to commit murder, especially murder for hire.”
“Get over yourself. Damn it, you’ve been conspiring to murder yourself for how long?”
“That’s different,” he challenged.”
“It’s a conspiracy of one. Harm’s no one but me.”
“Only if you don’t talk to yourself,” she countered. “Your other self.”
He started to reply in anger but stopped himself, saying instead, “Look, I’m going to make out like we’re still on opposite sides of the fence here, create a real scene.”
“Because he’s watching?”
“Because he may be watching, and if so then—”
“—Then he knows we’re conspiring his death.” She smiled at this turn of phrase, pleased, it appeared, with its melodic charm. “Call it justifiable homicide.”
“Pick that up from Court TV? Nancy Grace?”
They sat looking across the table and into one another’s eyes, still sizing one another up. “All right,” she said in a whiskey voice, whispering, “do we have a go here or not, partner?”
“Get back to your apartment and be safe about it.” He dropped a few bills on the table. “Gather up any necessities you might need in the woods, and meet me at my garage space below the building, clear?”
“Clear but what’s the space number?”
“Come on! You know every detail of my life. What’s another number?”
“I forgot. Forty-four?” she guessed.
“How in the world?” Hands raised, voice raised, firing up, stoking the bogus fire within, Marcus shouted in his ugliest tone, “Listen and get this clear, you bitch! I want you to leave me alone—for good, forever!”
“You’re an open book, you old dinosaur!” She played along too well, he thought.
He leaned across the table and whispered, “All right, I’m going for the jugular.”
“Do that! Go right ahead! Be my guest!” she shouted anew.
He erupted with, “If I’m so transparent, then go to hell!” He stood, pushing over his chair, staggering for effect. “A-A-And I never wanna see your face again, understood? Stay the hell away!”
“You stay away from me!” Kat shot back, watching the handsome, elderly detective stalk off like a mad bull. She thought him a good actor but imagined a part of him was not acting. She also thought that he’d finished with the scene, but from a short half-block away, he started up again. “I got no use for you, lady!” He sneered the last word. “Got nothing for you! Nothing left!”
He was the picture of a broken man. Like the aged Hollywood star on his last leg whether drunk or sober. Come to think of it, he recalled to Katrina’s mind the ruggedly handsome if aged William Holden in the crude, violent, wonderful film The Wild Bunch.
She understood, however, that both Katrina Holley Mallory and Marcus Lucas Rydell had been cast in their new role as co-conspirators to murder or be murdered by a lunatic casting director named Iden Cantu.
But Kat believed herself to be cunning and intelligent as well, and she firmly believed that the actors in this deadly play could adlib their lines, cut the strings, act on their own, and eventually kill the creator of this nightmare.
She certainly felt that she and Marcus were perfectly suited to the roles fate and Cantu had meted out, as neither feared death and in fact welcomed it. She certainly had had enough practice for the role. Marcus too, for that matter.
Practice for the role, she mused, four years of depression is practice enough for any woman contemplating murder.