Robert W. Walker’s
Chapter TWENTY FOUR
Marcus believed the smoke rising off the boat he swam toward was coming off the motor, but now he wasn’t so sure. In fact, strangely enough the smoke seemed to be curling up from the keel of the boat. It certainly looked this way as Marcus neared the last twenty odd yards. It reminded him of the murder scene in Atlanta, how the smoke rose off Lawrence’s body.
Could it be that Carl had met the same fate? Rather than left dangling from a tree had Schramick’s body been dumped into the boat and doused with an accelerant? If so, Marcus must brace himself for it; if so, Carl’s empty eye sockets and burned flesh would greet him when he pulled himself over the gunwale.
Had Cantu set the burning body adrift like some mockery of a pagan ritual? With the wind taking the smoke and odor away from Marcus, his nostrils told him nothing. All the same, he could not put it past the madman.
Cantu might well be looking at his struggle now, enjoying it, peering through a pair of binoculars or a high-powered rifle scope just to see his reaction when he should scale the gunwale and climb into the muck of what was left of Carl Schramick.
He finally reached out and took hold of the gunwale, taking a breath. The awkward oar on his back having taken on the weight of a gunny sack full of bricks, Marcus steeled himself for whatever lay on the other side, certain he’d find Carl’s remains, for now he smelled the smoldering flesh. No doubt left now. None at all.
He knew Carl would be difficult to look at, that his limbs would be broken at every juncture—wrists, elbows, shoulders, ankles, knees, hips, and that it’d all be folded inward. Inlaid, so to speak, all forced to the center of the torso, lashed together by rope or tape, all neatly packaged in a fishnet and set ablaze…but a careful blaze, a slow cooking blaze. The victims of this monster, Marcus had deduced, were kept alive to feel the pain of each bone broken, each searing patch of flesh cooking. The victim was in effect packaged alive, trussed like Cantu said in his letters, and then slow-cooked to death from a fire set beneath them until the skin popped and began its own smoldering fire.
That’s what Canu had waiting for him in the boat. Lying in the bottom so he could not see it until he made the effort to see it. Where’s a lake cop when you need one, he thought. “Sick son-of-a-bitch,” he muttered, raking in all his remaining strength, might, and courage. He then pulled his head above the gunwale to see exactly what he had to deal with and how he must manage. One way or another, he meant to have this boat, to get Nora and her kids and Kat out of harm’s way, and to get Carl’s remains back into their hands for a proper burial.
Ready, he told himself. “Now. Go.” He pulled up over the lip of the gunwale, but no amount of preparation could have steeled him for what he found.
He fell back into the water on seeing the body at the bottom of the boat.
Yes every limb had been broken and packaged as he’d imagined, and yes the eyes had been seared out, and every feature exaggerated by fire and excruciating fear and pain. All quite expected, all quite dead and smoldering, but it was not Carl Schramick. It was Tim Grimes.
Grimes naked and roasted like a Thanksgiving turkey too large for any conventional oven, lying broken and battered, bottomless black eye sockets wide against a majestic blue heaven on Blue Lake…Marcus’s lake.
It sent Marcus into a panic and back into the water; he threaded and bobbed on the surface. When he’d let go of the boat, it had pushed off from him as if alive and trying desperately to flee him. He swam anew for it, knowing it was the only way and knowing he must give Cantu his show, wherever the bastard was. Thanks to Paco, the bastard had learned that Tim Grimes and not Carl Schramick had meant something to Marcus. Thus the switch to jolt Marcus like a lightning strike.
When he got to the boat a second time, gasping from fatigue and horror, he did not look into it; he did not climb into it. Rather, he untied the oar that’d become such a burden on his back, and he laid it in over the side. He next splashed water over the side and into the boat, cooling the burning body, and finally he located the rear of the boat. There he worked to detach the useless motor which, from what he saw, had been destroyed by something as strong as a sledge hammer or a lightning bolt. It took a gargantuan effort to remove the motor. When this was finally accomplished, he was pushing and kicking and guiding the boat toward home and shore.
It might take another hour, maybe two to guide the boat this way instead of climbing in and working with the single oar, but he knew he couldn’t possibly pilot the boat with Tim’s remains between his legs, not in the condition he’d been reduced to, and he certainly wasn’t about to abandon Grimes’ body by throwing him to the fish. All this despite his fear for the others back at the house. All this despite his love for Katrina.
Maybe if it’d been Carl Schramick’s body in the boat he’d’ve reacted differently, but it wasn’t Schramick. It was poor pathetic Georgia homebody Tim. And it had been Tim’s cries of pain and torture they’d heard in the storm the night before.
It was a long, difficult task fighting the inertia required to move the boat in the direction he wished. And it was a long way back, pushing the small but heavy boat ahead of him. It gave him time to think. He wondered if at any moment he might expect a bullet to rip through him from a high-powered rifle. Or if the fiend would put multiple holes in the boat. The bastard was well on his way to accomplishing his sick aims.
When nothing of the sort came, he realized that Cantu was a “man of his word” in one sense; he’d vowed that Marcus would be his last victim, that Marcus would witness the details of the deaths of all those around him first.
The devil’s in the details took on a whole new meaning.
He thought of the children, of Nora, of Kat.
And he wondered about Carl.
Where the hell is Carl now? Is he yet alive? Was that Carl’s arm that’d come through the window after all? Could Nora have been mistaken? Could Cantu have replaced Carl’s ring on Tim’s finger? No….not on your life. The flesh differential was too great. It had to’ve been Carl’s body part the night of the storm. Another look at Tim’s defiled remains showed two arms intact.
He continued pushing the boat…kick, push, kick, push. Guiding, pushing, kicking.
More time to think.
Carl either ran out on his family or was enticed to open that door and step into Iden Cantu’s game, an end game for them all.
Kick, push, kick, push, kick, push.
In his mind’s eye, he again saw the bloated, exaggerated features of Tim Grimes lying atop the spine of the boat. Horrible. But in that instant when Marcus had lifted up over the gunwale, he’d seen something else. Something missing. Something beyond the soft flesh of the eyes. Tim’s uniform.
No sign of it. He’d been stripped.
Lawrence Milton hadn’t been stripped. He’d been set aflame fully clothed.
He imagined the lunatic Cantu putting the uniform to insidious use. Of course, he could pass himself off as a cop; all it took was a military bearing, a straight spine, and a loud mouth.
Kick, push, kick, push, kick, push.
As he swam, he imagined Carl Schramick cowering alone in that room when Iden Cantu came knocking at the door, dressed in Tim’s uniform. He imagined Cantu peering in at the windows, making sure that whoever answered his knock must see his uniform, the uniform of the Blue Ridge Sheriff’s Office. Tim’s gear and Tim’s outfit. Baggy perhaps, soaked to be sure, but badge and hat set straight. It’d be all that the Deacon would need to see to tear open the door and greet a cold blooded killer.
Little wonder Carl opened the door and welcomed the devil in.
Kick, push, kick harder, push harder, kick push, pray you get back before the devil arrives at the door again. Kick…come on…push…kick.
An early darkness settled over the lake, and it’d taken hours of exertion for Marcus to be within twenty feet of his dock and the safety of the house. Nightfall was descending fast now, and he knew it’d be suicide to attempt a lake crossing in the boat now that they’d told Cantu the when and where of it. He’d be waiting for the attempt at a night crossing.
As always, Cantu remained ten steps ahead of them.
Kat stood at the end of the dock in full view and danger. He waved and shouted for her to get back inside; for one thing, he didn’t want her to see Grimes, and he didn’t want her shot to death either. Kat had her Glock in hand, and she was shouting encouragements for him to keep coming, while Marcus was feeling his age. He wondered how he could possibly stand once he got to shore much less find a way to cover and protect Tim Grimes from any further ravages or indignities.
When Marcus finally felt the boat bump the dock, sending a shock wave through his arms, he waded out of the shallow area here where Nora’s children and Paco had splashed only the day before. “K-Kee…keep No-ra…kids back, Kat,” he gasped, “a-and for God’s sake don’t l-look into the boat.”
“It’s t-too late for me.” She shivered and tears flowed. “That evil bastard’s killed your friend. No wonder you couldn’t get into the boat. Been watching from the windows.”
He continued trying to get his breath “Tie the-the boat to other side of dock.”.
“Are you all right? It’s a miracle you’ve got this far.”
“Ho yee of lit-tle faith.” He sat on a rock beside the wharf while she secured the boat. After a long wait to regain his strength, Marcus waded over, and with Kat’s help, toppled the boat so that Grimes’s body, like bundled cargo, emptied out into the shallows.
“What’re you doing?” she asked.
“Going to weigh Tim down with rocks, hope his body stays put until we can get help out here, unless you have a better place to put him. Say carry him past the kids and put him in the freezer with Carl’s arm.” He hadn’t meant to sound so harsh but there was no easy way to say this. “Look, obviously, Cantu waylaid Tim on his way back to Blue Ridge.”
“And so…so the yokels in his department have to know he and his cruiser are missing, and—”
“—and right, so they gotta come looking.”
“Right, since we were his last stop, they’ll come straight here, so where the hell are they?”
“People move a lot slower around here; always have.”
“That’s not funny.”
“They might assume Tim took the day off and just forgot to call in the way they work around here. Trust me. We can’t count on anyone but ourselves.”
“Are you saying we have to spend another night here?”
“We try to take the boat across, we’re sitting ducks, Kat. We informed him we’d be going by night, remember?”
She nodded. “Real smart.”
“At the time, it seemed a good idea as you recall.”
“I knew you’d ask.”
She’d begun to help him plant rocks on the square of flesh that had been Grimes. Soon the body was held in place by rocks atop and around it. It lay in two feet of water looking for all the world like some bizarre archeological find. By day, it might be visible from the windows. “Help me back to the house,” he asked and leaned on her. “I need rest for the moment, and I mean to arm myself and go hunting.”
“Like Tim wanted, but I’ll be hunting Iden Cantu.
# # #
Only those who have been there know the complete serious darkness of a Georgia forests on a moonless, starless night; it seemed residual storm clouds had double-backed on the area. They now swirled in a back eddy, angry and fierce, but they remained to the east and in the heavens. In fact, tonight developed into a complete contrast to the raging rain storm of the night before. In less than an hour, the trees stood silent, not a single leaf rustling. No wind existed. Only stillness and blackness.
Marcus had rested for an hour, but it’d been a wakeful resting; he remained troubled and guilty at having stepped into Cantu’s trap, and at having led the others here. His regrets included Tim Grimes and Carl Schramick. Where Schramick might be and in what condition he could only imagine, but his imagination did not have Carl alive—unless Cantu thought he could barter with Carl’s one-armed life.
Rising from the bed in the second floor room that Kat had been using, Marcus made his way to a huge walk-in closet and began pulling down boxes and blankets and various items from many Christmases. Hearing the ruckus, Kat came into the room, asking if he were OK.
“What’re you searching for?”
“Got it.” He threw a military duffle bag onto the bed, dust flying. He unzipped and tore open the stuffed bag and began pulling forth its contents—army fatigues, camouflage gear, night-vision goggles, canteen, two-way wireless radios. “From my days as a marine.”
He laughed loud. “Try another war.”
“Now you’re talking jungle warfare. I thought you knew everything about me?”
“I saw that you were an ex-marine, but I didn’t pursue it. Look, you got an extra set of camouflage in there?”
“Sweetheart, I need to know Nora and her kids are…have someone looking over them while I’m out. I mean to create a diversion of sorts, and when you see it, you’ll know to rush them down to the boat, get ‘em into the boat, and get across the lake for help. Dave Montclair at the airport can get help up here.” He tossed one of the wireless radios at her and she handily caught it. “We can stay in contact with these.”
“Suppose Cantu doesn’t fall for your diversion?”
“He’ll have to when I locate his vehicle—likely Tim Grimes’ cruiser—see if the radio’s operational. Maybe blow the damn car up.”
“So you want me to watch for a fireball. Get the kids and Nora out through the underside of the deck, and across the lake.”
“First house you come to raise hell.”
“With a raging forest fire, I’m sure we’ll get someone’s attention.”
“That’s my thinking.”
“But you’re not going to wait for help are you?”
“I mean to hunt this bastard down and put him down. And I want you and the others at a safe distance, so I can do that without…without worry.”
“Still think of me as a liability, Marcus?”
“Didn’t say that.”
“Like Paco, a liability. By the way—”
“Don’t tell me, Paco came back?”
“Back yes, and now gone again.”
“Bolted again for the woods after alerting.”
“Good, Cantu still thinks Paco’s his. Likely thinks the command to attack simply failed to trigger.”
He shrugged on a Kevlar vest, then the camouflage shirt. “Unless Cantu’s in the habit of talking to himself, not sure we’re going to get anything back.”
“Maybe we can determine if Carl’s alive if we can pick up anything on that jerry-rigged phone of ours,” she suggested.
“Or perhaps we can learn he’s dead.”
She gave him a grim look. “I’m sorry about your friend Grimes.”
“He handed her one of the two walkie-talkies and said, “I’ve set the two-way frequency, but with Cantu, we’ve got to be careful. Use it only if necessary, and not until you’re off the lake and safe, understood?”
“I don’t like the idea of leaving you, Marcus.”
“There’s no other way, Kat. Just do it.”
She saw that there were enough fatigues and camouflage gear to throw over the children, for Nora and for her. “One of your shirts alone will cover Danny, and this’ll do for Jen,” she began but then dropped everything on the bed and grabbed onto Marcus, holding him close. “I’m not sure why…you exasperate me…but Marcus, I’ve come to care deeply for you.”
He stopped what he was doing to gauge the emotion in her eyes.
She continued, swallowing hard. “Marcus Rydell, if you get yourself killed out there, I’ll…I’ll never forgive you.”
“I have a few advantages that both Tim and Carl didn’t have,” he said.
“That, yes, but I’m also prepared to shoot myself before I’ll fall into Cantu’s control. I’d rather die than suffer what he has in mind for us all. In fact, with me dead, his fun is over, his game at an end, and he knows it.”
“Bull! He’ll just rearrange the game pieces and hunt us all down one by one, and you know it. You can’t predict every move he makes on those damnable letters.”
She recalled the awful sight of Grimes’ body folded like some sick, fleshy origami.”
“I don’t want to lose you, Marcus,” she repeated.
“I don’t want to lose you.”
He had pulled several high-powered rifles from below the bed along with a Cobra, state-of-the-art, scoped hunting bow. He stood before the weaponry lying now on the bed, trying to decide which weapon was best for the moment. He lifted a Bushmaster “Varmint Special”, a high-powered, scoped rifle with the deadly accuracy of anything at a sniper’s disposal.
Meanwhile, Kat had lifted a beautifully fashioned, scoped, high-powered hunting bow, marveling at its craftsmanship and heft. It could hold multiple arrows; in fact he had its own magazine and could fire six arrows in rapid succession. “Wow, now this is way cool.”
“What? Oh, the Cobra. Was my father’s. Man, how he loved hunting with a bow. Made him feel that little corner of Indian blood in him, I think.”
“Hey if Sitting Bull’d had one of these at the Little Big Horn, things might’ve gone differently.”
“Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse won at the Little Big Horn.”
“Was he good at it?”
“What? Who? Sitting Bull, good at sitting? I suppose so.” Marcus was distracted, still deciding on what goes and what stays in the way of armament.
“Was your dad good with this thing?” she held the huge modern bow up.
Marcus took a moment to gaze at it completely. “The best.”
“You ever use it?”
“Not my style, no.”
“Archery is my passion,” she smugly said.
“Really? You know how to handle something this complicated?” He indicated the bow.
“Yeah, a custom made one for my size and weight.”
“Dad had a maybe a hundred twenty pounds on you.”
“”I can ratchet it down.”
“When all this is over, I’ll be happy to show you how to use it,” he promised and she flinched at the condescension in his voice.
“Marcus, I know about draw, that there’s a specific weight per pound of draw.”
“The bow’s fine for whitetails and other big game but—”
“My current arrows, fully rigged, weigh 391 grains, and my draw weight is 65 pounds, and there’s no reason I can’t recalibrate your dad’s bow to accommodate—”
“Your talking Greek to me.” He did not know the lingo. “OK, even so, it’d take time to recalibrate, time right now we don’t have. Besides, you’re getting on that boat and outta here.”
“I’ve used longbows, re-curves, long bows, wood arrows and steel, and modern bows like this beauty.” She held it up high. “I know all about momentum and kinetic energy. I’ve shot a Hoyt MT set at 70 lbs. and 28 inches. I can get this Cobra within those perimeters in maybe fifteen, twenty minutes tops.”
“That’s fine, if you’re hunting white-tailed deer,” he repeated. “When’s a white-tail ever fired back at you?”
“Hey, I hunted Elk with Terry!”
“I don’t care if you’ve hunted Cape Buffalo, this is a cunning, evil adversary who will be hunting you as you are hunting him. I want you on the boat with the others, Kat. No arguments and no bow hunting.”
But Kat was thinking how heavy his father’s arrows were, the tips like razor blades for deep penetration, which meant he hunted large game with this bow. She was thinking about the momentum factor. She saw that with this bow and these arrows, she’d have no problem bringing down a man—even a man firing back at her.
She grasped the bow anew and held it up to her eyes, studying the beautiful black thermoplastic pistol grip, its finger groove and serrated back made for a firm hold.
She admired the sharp edge of a burr in the jaws of the bow. It had a caliper release—a Tru-Fire Hurricane Buckle. It appeared like new, sleek and shiny, and there was no wear on the loop or the bow itself.
“You look like Sheena of the Jungle or maybe Xena, Warrior Queen with that thing in your hands,” he joked.
“I’m a good shot with the right equipment, Marcus. Don’t you believe me?”
Marcus frowned at her fascination with the bow as he tugged at the strangulation hold a set of night-vision goggles had on his throat. The goggles swayed from his neck as he began stashing flares and a flare gun in his baggy fatigue pockets. Finally, he snatched up the high-powered rifle. The Bushmaster was a fine high-powered weapon.
“Suppose you black out?” she challenged him. “Then what? He has you and us at his mercy. Look, I can fire a weapon.”
He looked from her to the bow. “You know how much weight is on that bow?”
“I can crank it down. Then I could cover you from another angle.”
He thought about the possibility of going into another blackout with Iden Cantu in his sights. It’d be a repeat of the disgraceful moment when he lost his best friend, Stan, except this time Stan’s children and Nora along with Kat would be left in the breach.
They shared a knowing look. She said, “You’ve no choice, Marcus. I’m coming with you.”
They argued all the way down the stairs and to the living room.
“You’re too precious to me, Kat. I won’t risk you.”
“And the alternative should he get the upper hand?” she argued, pacing like a lioness. “What then?”
“I couldn’t live with myself if I let those kids, Nora, and you fall into his hands.”
She fell silent, seething. She had carried the bow and arrow down the stairs with her, and now she flung them across the room.
“Look, this Bushmaster will take him out and end this madness.” He found a safe position at the window. Staring out from time to time, using the night-vision, he searched for any sign of Cantu. The Bushmaster felt wonderful in his hands. He knew its power. He’d always loved this rifle.
Kat watched him with it; he held it as if it were a woman, she thought. At the same moment, Marcus caught her staring and looking like a jealous lover. He smiled across at her and said, “It’s a five .56mm or .223 Rem. Gas Operated Semi-Automatic with five rounds in the chamber.”
“Only five bullets in the chamber?”
“She’ll take M16 rounds,” he replied, shoving them in. “That’s fire-power.”
“But with only five shots—”
“It’s all I’ll need, and I can always reload.”
“I’d feel better if you had an automatic.”
“This baby only weighs eight pounds.”
“Only five bullets in the chamber?” she repeated.
“She’ll do just fine!”
Kat nodded. “I can see it—errr she is quite…cute. Don’t yell.”
“Best grade chrome-moly vanadium steel, and she’s got seven-fifty inches at the sight base to improve heat dissipation and decrease barrel whip.”
“I would’ve thought you’d like a little whip.”
He lit with a brief smile at the innuendo, pretended to ignore her, and added, “Barrel design is for optimum accuracy. Stabilizes bullets up to 75 grains.”
“You want a little privacy?”
“Chrome lined bore and chamber…reduces friction, increases velocity, and aids in chambering and ejection.”
“Ejection or ejaculation?” she continued to tease. “God, you sound like Terry whenever he’d clean his guns.”
“Hey, this baby is laser bore-sighted at the factory. Manganese phosphate finish.”
“I have no idea what that means.”
“Means it’s protected against corrosion and rust, and the manganese finish produces the gray-black military surface color.”
“Cool color,” she agreed.
“Bushmaster uses no paint whatsoever.”
“Good to know she’s not a painted woman.”
“All per the latest military design specifications,” he triumphantly finished as though he’d won an argument or a prize.