Robert W. Walker’s
“I haven’t agreed to anything,” Rydell assured Katrina Holley-Mallory. Still he’d be intrigued by her and the letters purporting to be from Iden Cantu.
After taking a deep breath and ordering another Guiness, Marcus began examining the letters. He muttered as he looked them over, “Could just be some sick sonofabitch getting his jollies off pretending to be Cantu, you know.”
She didn’t answer this, as if she needn’t bother.
It took some time for him to digest the enormity of this offering. No one wanted Cantu’s dead more than he. Handwriting sample she now slapped down—likely gotten from the case file on her husband—proved a close, close match to the script found in the letters. In fact, knowing as much as he did of handwriting analysis, Marcus determined this was no hoax. The only one taunting Mrs. Mallory was her husband’s killer.
Cantu had indeed come out of hiding. Like an animal testing the waters, he was here in Atlanta, prowling…on the hunt for her?
He could feel the long-suffering widow sizing him up as he read through the tight, forced, angry killer’s script. She had to know that he’d take this bait. She was smart, and the entire set up with the so-called .38 under the table had been to capture his attention and infuse him with some of the old feelings he’d once harbored, the notions of vengeance and retribution, the idea of righting a terrible wrong, and for that matter any feeling whatsoever. He now took a wild hair guess that there’d never been a gun beneath the table. That it’d all been a bluff.
Then he saw the gun, like a snake, slip into her purse.
Damn straight. She did have a .38 pointed at me.
Not likely loaded, however. Maybe on safety as he’d earlier thought. Then again.
He brushed it off for now and turned all his attention to the notes from Iden “Big Head” Cantu, who’d gained his nick name while in the marines as the man’s forehead and shaved cranium, from all his pictures, did look the part of an evil, insane Humpty Dumpty with lunatic eyes. God how he’d dreamed of one chance at cracking open that head, of shutting off the lights to those eyes. Now this. An unlikely series of events, and a highly unlikely partnership with the widow of a man Iden had killed while he, Marcus, lay helpless in Terry Mallory’s blood.
The letters. Concentrate on the damn letters. Determine what they can tell me about the whereabouts of this fiend.
She thought she wanted vengeance. In his head, Marcus Rydell said, Vengeance is mine.
“So when do we start after him?” she asked now, breaking into his thoughts.
“Whoa up there, Doc. No way. When I work a case, I work solo.”
“That way you don’t get anybody else hurt, huh?”
“That’s right. Damn right, and damn you for saying so.”
“I know about your black outs, Marcus.”
This silenced him.
“I know about the mood swings, the depression, everything. Look, should you have one of those black outs at a crucial moment, Cantu will kill you, and I’ll never get what I want.”
“You’ve really gone to school on me, haven’t you? Thought this all through, huh?”
“I think of nothing else, night and day, and as for you, I know what cereal you eat, the brand of toothpaste you use.”
“What precisely do you want in the end, aside from catching Terry’s killer?”
“To see him die an agonizing, slow death.”
“Like me? You made the same statement about me dying a painful death like Terry’s?”
“I’d like to see worse for Cantu. Far worse if I can make it so.”
He regarded her with a new deference. Was she this determined, this cold? “I suppose you wanna see him strapped to an operating table someplace?”
“Preferably a table, but a stout oak tree in an isolated place will do.”
“Where no one can hear the screams?”
“You going to bring the rope, too?””
“If it takes rope.”
“You’ve got a lot of pent up rage, Doc. Doesn’t quite jive with the whole Hippocratic oath thing.”
“Never mind that.”
“Are you even a doctor?” he asked again.
“I had a year left on my residency when I lost Terry. Just taking it slow now, but once this is behind me…ahhh, it’s really none of your business.”
“Then you’re not with Memorial?”
He thought of her act in Quinn’s apartment. She was good, deceptive.
“Why in hell aren’t you working on your medical degree instead of—”
“I don’t have any choice!”
Others glared anew at the noise coming from their table. “Best tone it down,” he suggested.
“I took another year off. Promised Terry ahhh…promised myself I’d give this a year. It’s taken me two months just to find your sorry ass.”
“That’s no way to talk to a man you want to hire.”
“You have no idea the frustration.”
“Which brings me to business. How much’re you willing to pay?”
“Everything I have and in the bargain perhaps, just perhaps you’ll regain some semblance of the man you used to be.”
“I didn’t throw myself away, Doc. Others were all too willing to heave me over the side. My boss, my friends, my wife. And what the hell do you know of the man I used to be?”
“Don’t be a fool. I know everything about you. Everything.”
“Down to your shorts…down to your habit of sucking on your gun instead of your thumb.”
How could she know about that, he wondered. Then he guessed that she was fishing, and that given his blank response, she’d caught her intended game.
“If I take it on,” he said, his hands still rummaging through the intriguing letters, “I have firm rules about how I work.”
“I know that too.”
“Then you know I don’t work with a woman hanging on my arm.”
“I’m not a woman. I’m a determined woman with a lethal goal in mind.”
He reached from the letters to her down-turned hand. “Maybe you should get on with your life.”
She snatched her hand away.
“Wouldn’t Terry want that?” he persisted. “Move to Tacoma, Boise, or—”
“Don’t pretend to know what Terry would want.”
“He can’t have wanted you on this manhunt business.”
“Like I said, I’m determined.”
“You realize, we could both be thrown in jail for conspiracy to commit murder?”
“Is it murder to put down a rabid dog?”
“Yeah, it is if that rabid dog happens to be an American citizen.”
“Legal bull swallop!”
“You kill him, he becomes the victim, so now he’s got victim’s rights.”
“I don’t care!”
“And you have effectively swapped places with Cantu. He is in your victim’s shoes, you are a killer, and the system will treat you as such.”
“I can’t believe you’re talking legal technical—”
“Ever hear of the American Civil Liberties Union? The AF of L-CIO, the US Constitution, anything on the Bill of Rights, the Magna Carta and Mr. Rodgers’s Neighborhood coda come at all to mind, Doctor?”
“I’m willing to take the risk of offending Mr. Rodgers and anyone else on your list.”
“You really think this is what Terry would want for you?” he repeated.
“Get one thing straight, Detective, you don’t have the right to question me or to speak Terry’s name, understood?”
“Why? Is it sacred?”
She looked as if he’d slapped her.
Marcus pushed on. “You think I’m using his name like-like in vain? Like they say using God’s name or Jesus’s name in vain?”
“Take it as one of my commandments. Humor me.”
“Commandments were initially deep stuff. I personally have always believed that the commandment about taking the Lord’s name in vain had a lot more to do with using it to justify harming others, going to war, and that sort of evil than mere thoughtless speech habits. Using his name for evil ends, now that’s truly in vain and in villainy.”
“I’m not here for a sermon, Detective.”
“No, you’re here for protection and a hired assassin.”
“I want the mark taken alive, not assassinated.”
“The mark?” He frowned at her use of the term. “Want him alive? So you can carve him up in the best tradition of medical surgery?”
“Call it what you will.”
“First do no harm,” he muttered. “Look, this maniac’s not some Joe Blow off the street and off his nut; he’s a trained assassin—a sniper, one with the best training money and the military can provide.”
“So…so what! He’s still human.”
“Barely. His training makes him deadly, and you can get yourself killed unless you go for the jugular—a clean kill.”
“You’ll be paid well. Just capture him, restrain him is all I ask.”
He leaned in over the table toward her. “Do you hear what I’m saying?”
“ You can then walk away, fully paid, and I’ll do the rest.”
“You don’t get it. Cantu’s more fox than human, and if he is captured, it’s part of his game-plan to get close enough to tear out your throat.” He hoped this image might dissuade her.
“I know he’s dangerous and cunning. I get that.”
“I’m not sure you do.”
A long silence prevailed between them.
He shook his head.
Knowing nothing else he could say to dissuade her, Marcus again began examining the letters.
# # #
The music of a live Irish band that’d begun to play inside now spilled out into the street. The foot-stomping Irish rock music, so like Cajun in many respects, was at odds with their conspiratorial conversation. “You don’t get to make the decisions in this partnership, Rydell.” Again with the glare. “When you go after Iden Cantu, I’m beside you, every step of the way.”
“I don’t work that way,” he reiterated.
“You do now.”
“All right, I can’t work that way!”
“You can now.”
God but she’s annoying and ballsy like a Kate Hepburn, like a bull terrier. God but it feels good to have a reason to be annoyed. And it was true. Marcus felt alive. Excited about the prospect of tracking the mad dog they spoke of, cornering him, and squaring off against Cantu, and putting him down. Whatever had happened in the past, whatever was going to happen in the future surrounding this maniac, Marcus meant to stop the fevered brain of this creature pretending to be human. This monster-sicko now writing letters to Terry Mallory’s widow. Sick love letters.
The ghosts and scars of Marcus’s past demanded it, and fate had taken him in hand, and fate had a beautiful face indeed, one full of rage, yes, but also full of life. Young Dr. Mallory and her letters might well be the key to Marcus Rydell’s sticking around this old world a little longer.
“Do we or do we not have a deal?” she asked.
# # #
The night wore on in tatters and shreds as dry lightning and rolling thunder acted as counterpoint to a thousand questions playing out in Marcus’s head, while he and Terry Mallory’s wife continued to drink and talk over the Irish rock band, the speakers carrying their music as far as a block away. Anyone looking at Rydell and Dr. Mallory at this juncture who didn’t take them for a father-daughter reunion, might mistake them for a couple. On a stretch of the imagination highway, he thought. Two people out to enjoy the evening and one another anyone might guess. Anyone save one, the one who might well be watching from a distance—Iden Cantu.
“The notes aren’t dated.” He tried to arrange them without luck. “Show me the sequence. Which came first, second, and so on.”
“Then we’re a partnership?” she asked.
“ Show me the order.”
“Are we agreed then?”
He bit his lower lip over clenched teeth. “I’m in. Now show me.”
“Until you got hold of them, they were in order.”
She began organizing them. “This one’s the most recent, this the first, second.” Between them lay the bundle of six letters and torn envelopes.
“How were they delivered?”
“Left where he knew I’d be.”
“And the first drop, where?”
“Jesus, on the grave?” He imagined the shock she must have endured opening that letter standing over Terry’s grave.
“Left it on his headstone.”
“Just lying on his headstone?” He didn’t know what to say, and he feared any kind words would be hurled back at him.
“Taped…it was taped to the stone with blanketing tape to combat the wind.”
“Sort used in any hospital. Wants me to know he knows where I work, too, I suspect.”
“And the last letter? Where’d you find it?”
“In my mailbox, again no postage.”
“Mailbox? Not in our apartment building?”
“Yes, afraid so.”
“Then he knows where you live and work—and by extension where I live and work.”
“Yes, it’s why we’re talking; the only reason we’re talking.”
“How long? For how long has he been watching me?”
“First letter showed up just over a week ago, but he’d already found you.”
“How do you know that?”
“It’s in the letters. He’s proud of it. His letters led me to your building.”
“How long?” he persisted.
“Maybe a couple of weeks. Not sure to the day.”
“He’s been shadowing you, and you’ve been shadowing me, and he’s been shadowing you—but you don’t know how long?”
“Afraid I don’t know the answer to that.”
“Nice of you to let me know, Doctor.” Marcus zeroed in on the first and last letter, carefully reading while Mrs. Mallory said something about having wanted to approach him sooner. But Rydell put up a massive hand, gesturing for silence as he studied each threatening communiqué in order now, skimming each.
After several more swallows of beer and ten minutes, he said, “These letters are the work of a ranting animal, filled with foul language and an even fouler imagination.”
Giving it straight back to him, she muttered, “So tell me something I don’t already know.”
In the letters, Cantu detailed and outlined how he meant to torture Katrina to death after raping her. He went into a paroxysm of detail in fact about how he meant to break every bone in her body and make a Thanksgiving turkey of her body, hang her alive yet over an open fire in the Georgia brush and literally cook her and eat portions of her flesh to “become one with mine enemies” as he put it. The cold tone and matter-of-factness of it all stood at serious odds with the four-letter words spewing forth. The reading left Marcus internally shaken.
“This guy’s a full-blown lunatic, Doc, and you really ought to’ve handed these over to the detectives investigating the case.”
“Do my civic duty and get myself killed, heh?”
“Whatever’s happened in the past with your husband’s case, you should really have turned these over to—”
“Bullshit and you know it. They’ve decided it’s unsolvable; let it go so cold it hurts to touch it.”
“They’re still very much working the case, Doctor. Hell, three cops were killed.”
She grimaced and then sipped at her wine. “I’ve repeatedly and exhaustively pushed them on where they’re at with the case. I’ve gotten nothing from them.”
“That’s hard to believe; I mean these are fallen comrades, fellow cops.”
“Look at how they’ve treated you. Moreover, look at yourself,” she countered. “Time has a way of brush stroking out memories.”
He dropped his gaze. “I’m not an Atlanta cop anymore, or haven’t you noticed.”
“A real cop and a creep partner of his compared the case to drilling a well in Dubrovnik, Russia; said when you hit solid rock, it’s a dead end. Said it was time to hire a private dick, and then he offered his services.”
“Said it just like that, did he?”
“Did everything but expose himself.”
“While volunteering for the job. I get it.” Marcus shook his head in a show of disgust. “Did you pull a gun on him?”
“No, reserved that for you.”
“You don’t want just any private eye.”
“Exactly. I want someone who—”
“—has as much to lose or gain as you?”
“—has a vested interest.”
He held up his beer in a toast. Look, I’m sorry for the way the cops’ve treated you.”
“I don’t want your sympathy, Rydell. Besides, you can’t apologize for the whole lot of ’em, and I’ve danced around with those clowns long enough. They’re like the rest of Atlanta. They’ve put it all behind them.”
He nodded. “The old balm. Out of sight, out of mind.”
“They’ve all moved on, and they don’t wanna be reminded.”
“Blight on the city and the department. All that crapola you know, image, PR, politics.”
“So you haven’t been totally out to lunch after all?”
He gave her a grim smile. After a moment’s silence between them, lightening streaking overhead, and the smell of rain imminent, his clenched fists opened to become palms. “I know those guys downtown, ‘specially the politicians and the brass. They want to believe Cantu’s fallen off the face of the earth.”
“Or drowned in the sea,” she countered.
“Maybe burned to death in a fiery crash?”
“Froze to death in the freakin’ Arctic.”
“In the arms of Santa Clause ’imself.”
This made her laugh but all too bitterly and briefly. “ The authorities are useless!”
“But the letters could open up leads you can’t know of, if you chose to share them with the guys still on the case. Guys like Thomas Keevers.”
“The letters led me to you.”
“Cantu left me alive for his own perverse reasons. Sure would like to know what those reasons were.”
“He led me to you.”
“Precisely what he wanted, no doubt.”
“What, that I lead him to you or to us?”
“I doubt it matters either way to him whether he kills us separately or together, but he’s come back, obviously, because he is drawn to the hunt and the kill.”