Robert W. Walker’s
Alone in the basement with his flash, Marcus’s light and his memories commingled in a kind of collage of his childhood. He’d grown up primarily in Atlanta, had gone to Chicago for college, wound up instead in a police academy there and had returned to Atlanta ten years before. But he’d spent many summers right here, and this basement apartment with its own small kitchen and half bath had been his special place. It was a place where he’d always felt safe, secure, in control, warm, dry, comfortable, and happy. A state that had eluded him for most of his adult life. In fact, he could not recall the last time he had felt happiness as he did in those long ago days.
He fought back a tear while the penlight raked over his old baseball bat and glove in one corner. He’d played ball here in the little league with Tim Grimes and Joey Byrd, Huck Snow, and other of the local kids. He now examined a line of model cars and boats he and his dad had built together. Another wall supported a stash of books, school trophies, brick-a-brac and nick-nacks. A giant clock face stared back from another side of the room. Mickey damn Mouse, he cursed with a mental smile.
Alone again he was, but not completely, not here. Weird way to come full circle.
He gave it a lot of thought as he laid his head on the pillow. The house had been empty for several months. The last time he slept here it’d been in one of the upstairs rooms, when he’d come to bury his mother alongside his father. Adjoining plots in nearby Blue Ridge where they had faithfully attended church for some forty odd years. Now in the stone graver’s art, amid flowers, they held hands for eternity.
Lately, Marcus felt the night terrors, the panic attacks, like an anvil on his chest, until the thoughts of suicide came on. Not tonight, not here. For one, he was too exhausted to think any thoughts, logical, illogical, or otherwise. Secondly, he felt something going on inside he hadn’t expected or felt for years—a growing sense of injury, pain, injustice that’d been meted out to him, alongside a renewed sense of purpose. A feeling he’d forgotten.
And something more. A sense that it was not him but the world that’d been waffling and wobbling as if off axis; that everything and everyone around him was seriously off kilter. That things inside him, while unbalanced, were not near so awry as things outside him.
Perhaps it was the difference between his hopes and dreams as a child and what reality had meted out to him. Another feeling had begun rising inside him as well, am old familiar one at that. A friend. A good feeling slowly returning like a comrade who’d been nearby all along, waiting for his return—the feeling of the hunt. A manhunt.
He didn’t know what to make of these forgotten but familiar, smoldering emotions. Emotions fueled not from sadness, grief, and loss, but fueled by nerve endings, excitement, action, and desire. It truly did feel like finding an old and comforting friend, and that friend was himself, the man he’d been before the day Stan was killed. Arrogant, full of himself, capabe, experienced, fierce, cunning, and clever. Qualities he wished to regain. They came now, all these traits, returning home like a parade of lost cats, alongside an abiding angry dog working out of a patient hatred. Get mad now, he told himself. Get fighting mad.
Anger and hatred and getting even. It beat out depression and inactivity by a mile.
Then it struck him. The case. The fact he was working a worthwhile case, one that meant something to him. Something worth living for. Something even worth dying for. And a beautiful woman in the picture—in fact, in his cabin home. A damsel in distress. Maltese Falcon time.
He fell asleep thinking of all the lovely possibilities that existed tonight that hadn’t just this morning when he had awakened to the guilt, the shame, and the grief. What had changed the equation of who he was? It was more than just the girl; it was a magical rediscovery of what he loved to do. It came back to the hunt.
# # #
Rydell awoke to a cool breeze and the smell of pine from a cracked window, the sound of darting birds and squirrels chasing one another as in a Disney cartoon, and another odor stronger than the pine trees—bacon. Breakfast? Sizzling upstairs? A glance at his watch made him groan. It was past eleven.
He rolled out of a bed far too small for him, got to his feet, climbed the stairs barefoot, and followed his nose. As a kid, he’d followed this same routine so many mornings. His curiosity rising even before he rounded the kitchen, he shouted, “Where’d you find bacon?”
“Sausage, bacon, eggs, coffee. Come and get it.”
He stared across at Katrina, watching her prepare their plates and set the coffee pot on the table. “How’d you find all this?” he repeated.
“There’s a general store, quaint little place, bottom of the mountain.”
“Buck’s Gun Shop and Groceries, you mean?”
“Look, this is a small, tiny community around here. Zipping up and down these roads is going to draw attention. You are going to draw attention. We’re supposed to be hiding out here, getting our ducks in a row, remember?”
She sighed and shook her head as she served up the eggs and meats. “Look, we gotta eat.”
“And by the way, who cracked my window?”
“It was awfully ahhh…close in there.”
“What’s the idea coming into my room uninvited?”
“What’s the big deal?”
“You’d be damned upset if it were the other way round.”
“If I hadn’t awakened you, Dee-tec-tive, we’d get absolutely nothing done today, and you did say you wanted to examine the letters in more detail, didn’t you?”
“Yes, you did.”
Rydell swilled his coffee and ate heartily of breakfast. “And ahhh…thanks for breakfast.”
“Did I just hear a thank you?”
“Yes, but you should’ve sent me for the supplies.”
“You were dead to the world.”
“Not at all.” He then muttered, “Haven’t felt this ahhh…alive in a long time.”
“That’s good.” She studied him for a moment as if to assess this. “A real positive step.”
“Look, Doc, just stay close to the house from here out, OK?”
“All right already! Sheeze.”
“So now that you can actually see the lake and the house, whataya think of paradise.”
“Paradise? Is that what you call it? Frankly, it’s isolated as hell, but just as beautiful.”
“My parents named the house.”
“Really? What name?”
“Come on, out with it. I’ll be the judge.”
“After some crazy fantasy novel they both loved and read together.”
“Get out of town, no way! They read to each other?”
“Think I’ve heard of it. So sweet of them to name the place after something they shared.”
“Yeah, well, they were kinda corny that way, but you hatta love ’em all the same.” He’d taken up residence at the breakfast bar, sitting on a stool.
She smiled across at him. “Beneath all the layers of cop, you’re pretty nice for an only son.”
“Technically speaking, I wasn’t exactly an only child.”
“What?” His eyes widened. “You didn’t see on Wikipedia that my brother Michael died at birth several years before I came along?”
She clasped a hand over her mouth even as she said, “No…I didn’t know.”
“Never met him,” he hollowly joked. “He’s buried alongside my parents.”
This silenced Katrina Mallory. She stopped eating as well. Finally, she repeated, “I’m sorry.”
His William Holden frown said no need for her to be sorry. “What about those letters?” He changed the subject. “I’d like to examine them by the light o’day.”
“All safely tucked away in my medical bag.”
“What medical bag?”
“Tucked away in my suitcase.”
“No wonder the thing’s so heavy,” he said as she departed for the letters. He then shouted after, “I’ll be out on the porch! Catch some air.”
Marcus then refilled his coffee cup and walked to the rear of the cabin home where he stepped out through the sliding glass doors and onto the deck that literally hung out over Blue Ridge Lake. It deserved the name, especially on a bright summer morning like today. White, milky clouds lazily reflected off the azure surface looking to Marcus like a blue skating rink. In the distance in every direction blue-green mountains stood sentinel over the water like giants with a purpose. Sprinkled throughout were the dogwoods in bloom, the flowering trees looking like lacey snow that floated in place as in a painting. Snow and lace in the distances all round Avalon.
# # #
Rydell spent the day on a deck chair pouring over the letters for anything whatsoever that might help him pinpoint where Iden Cantu’s hole might be. Each letter had his prints all over the package—envelope and pages. His handwriting looked like the scrawl of a child, his grammar non-existent, his foul language the mark of his intellect. “We’re dealing with an idiot here, except for his skills in the art of hunting, cornering, and killing big game.”
Katrina, sipping at tea, stood at the rail, looking out over the ice-blue lake. “So he’s…that is, you’re saying Cantu’s no mastermind super villain, but he’s dangerous as hell? Is that it?”
The late afternoon enjoyed a wonderful breeze coming off the lake. Earlier in the day, Katrina had kept herself amused by taking the small motorboat out onto the lake while he studied in detail every letter. A couple of times, he looked up to see her careening by on that boat. He feared she’d break her neck, but he simply returned attention to the letters.
Once Katrina had tired of watching her hired private eye sitting on his behind with those damnable letters, she announced, “It’s been long enough, Marcus! Get some shoes on, comb your hair, change your shirt, whatever you do, but we’re breaking out of here. I’m going stir crazy.”
“What? You’ve already got cabin fever?”
She’d been studying area maps, and she now insisted, “You just do as told. You’re coming with me.”
“To where?” he asked.
“You’ll see when we get there.”
A boat on the lake sped by at a high rate of speed, a flashing light indicating that it was a police patrol boat. “They go up and down here, checking on stranded boaters and drunks on the water mostly,” he commented.
She insisted he get dressed and come with her. He shrugged and did as told. Soon they were going for the car. “Give me your keys,” she said. “I’m driving.”
“But you don’t know the area.”
“I know where I’m going.”
He reluctantly turned his keys over to her, and soon they were in the town of Blue Ridge. “What’re we doing here?” he asked.
“Never mind.” This is when she turned into a cemetery. “I suspect it’s time you visited,” she quietly said.
He looked out on the expanse of burial sites. “Not even sure I remember where they are.”
“Been that long, has it?” she chastised.
“Don’t get up here too often.” Then he said, “Stop the car.”
She came to a halt before a pair of large headstones and a smaller one with a cherub atop it, the names reading in capital letters” MICHAEL T. RYDELL, DENISE S. RYDELL and PATRIC RYDELL, each with date of birth, death, and the dash between the dates, except for Michael who had no dash, no date other than birth inscribed.
Katrina said nothing, nor did Marcus as he climbed from the car and walked out to the trio of graves. He spent only ten or eleven minutes there while she discreetly scanned the entire cemetery with a pair of binoculars. She reasoned that if Cantu knew of Blue Ridge, he’d come to the cemetery in search of anything inscribed with the name Rydell, and that perhaps he’d leave Marcus a ‘love’ letter. She also considered the idea that the creep could be here now amid the gravestones, watching them. But she found no evidence of Cantu’s ever having been here.
Marcus was soon back in the car and saying, “Time to go now.”
She nodded, turned the key, and slowly wound around the drive paths to find the way out and back onto a real road. Not a mile off, they located the Blue Ridge Grill, a local seafood and steak restaurant and B&B. They ate a full meal at the diner while enduring the stare only locals can manage, and they were soon on their way back to the house.
The meal and the trip back was characterized by a thick silence punctuated now and again by sighing and shakes of the head. “Are you all right?” she asked when they pulled into the gravel driveway.
“Darkness coming on,” was his only reply.
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Yeah…I’m good,” he conceded.
“Were you always so tight-lipped?”
He failed to answer. She didn’t push it. Instead, she went inside, mixed them both drinks, and then she perched on a deck swing, trying it out, swaying as the breeze lifted her hair.
He leaned in against the deck railing, looking out over the lake before it should disappear out there again. With his back to her, he said, “Thanks, Katrina.”
“Kickin’ my ass.”
“Sometimes we can learn a lot from the dead, especially about ourselves.”
“And peace, maybe?” he half-joked.
“You see why I hate Cantu as much today as four years ago? The one thing I had left to me of Terry that wasn’t a joke was his tombstone, and that bastard intruded even there. I ahhh…half-expected you’d find evidence that he’d been at the grave site.”
“Hold on. That’s not logical. If he were going to leave me a message, it’d be on Stan’s gravesite back in Atlanta. I mean…logically speaking.”
“Stan’s wife might get one if she visits the grave,” countered Kat.
“Is that why you took me to the cemetery? To see if he’d left me a little something there?”
“Initially, but I also suspected it’d do you good.”
“It did me good,” he admitted. “But there’s something more isn’t there?”
“Something more?” Her eyelashes fluttered like a pair of pinned butterflies.
“You think…believe…or know that he knows about Blue Ridge Lake, the house…and you’ve thought so all along, haven’t you?”
“I don’t know that for a fact, no.”
“I half hoped he’d find us here, I confess. You know what I want.”
“So the real reason behind our cemetery visit was to determine if he’d left any tracks out there.”
She failed to answer.
He recalled her desire to slice and dice Cantu while strapped to a tree. She was hunting Cantu, baiting him?
The sun dipped below the mountains. Nightfall came on here like a cloak dropped over the world.
She continued to swing, the mechanism holding her screeching softly with rust and age. He continued to watch her sway.
“Idiot, heh?” she began.
“You think Iden Cantu is some sort of sub-standard, comic book bad guy. You said as much, didn’t you?”
“That’s not exactly what I said, but it’s close enough.”
“Like you advised me, Marcus, don’t underestimate him.”
“What I was driving at is well . . . in police circles, there’s an old maxim.”
She stilled the porch swing, and he found a wicker ottoman and kicked off his shoes. He propped his feet on a wicker table.
“Crime makes you stupid. And a steady diet of it makes you a blathering idiot.”
“Then how has this blathering idiot managed to evade authorities for so long?”
“I give him that; he knows where the holes are—the roach.”
“He knows Georgia for sure; to evade capture from you superior types for so many years.”
“Give him that.”
“What’s our next move?” she asked.
“Patience and a beer?”
“A beer? You wanna beer from the fridge?”
“Sure, thanks, and hey, praise be to God you had the foresight to pick up two six-packs from Buck’s down at Bear Claw junction.”
# # #
Marcus took his beer out on the deck under lights; he’d gone back to the letters. In fact, for the past fifteen minutes, his eyes never left the last of the letters. The others had been neatly consigned to the large manila envelope she’d kept them in. Katrina sat nearby, also sipping at a beer when Marcus broke the silence. “Tell me, how’d it make you feel getting the first of these ahhh nasty little communiqués?”
Some of the letters were mere notes; others ran to several pages, still others ran on and on to six and seven pages. Most of the content gibberish, a tirade against the authorities, rules, customs, traditions, civilization and society in general and the APD, and often he took the treatment of veterans in America on as a pet subject, sounding off like Rambo in the movies if Rambo could talk more than an utterance—but it also came off as nutty and as strung out as something Charles Manson might write. “Most of his crapola here is nonsense,” he finally said, putting aside the final letter.
“So what do you make of his whereabouts? Anything? Anything at all?”
“He’s holed up in some cave in Atlanta for sure.”
“But where in Atlanta?”
“Creep chose to get these to you personally to demonstrate that he can.”
“Can get close anytime he wants, I know. Tell me something I don’t know.”
He pulled his legs up and sat bolt upright, slapping a small pad on which he’d kept notes. “His handwriting is psychotic.”
“You mean he is psychotic.”
“OK, sorry Miss Grammarian, but it all means the same, runs to the same end. The man reveals himself in his choices, down to each word, each wrong apostrophe and every four-letter word. Misspells fornicate, which is forgivable, but you’d think he could spell mother right.”
“ How’s he spell it?” She hadn’t noticed this.
“M-u-t-h-e-r, replacing the o for u. Subliminally, he hates mommy dearest.”
“That’s no big stretch. Probably didn’t get enough attention as a kid. Sucking hind tit. You think he has family someplace in Georgia? A brother or a sister we could grab, hold over him?”
“Now you’re considering abducting and kidnapping?”
‘If he’s got siblings, he’s likely killed ‘em all, but if Mu-ther is alive?”
“We don’t know that she is and even if we did—”
“How can we find out? Use her against him? And if she is dead, use that against the bastard, the way he desecrated Terry’s resting place?”
“You want to vandalize graves now? Kat, listen to yourself. If you’re not careful, you’re going to turn into the monster you—we are hunting.”
“What then do you suggest, Marcus?”
“I suggest that we don’t forget who we are and why we’re in this.”
She sat seething, saying no more.
He approached her. “Look, the sheer level of our combined balled up hatred and anger toward him is on a par with his depth of hatred toward women in general, and you in particular, as evidenced by the language of rage right here.” He stabbed the last letter with his index finger. “Our anger’s a good thing along with our hatred, but it can consume a person.”
“OK…gotcha. How do we get close then to mommy dearest?”
“God, you’re not listening to me. We’re not doing any abduction, no kidnapping, Doc.”
“Well what plans do you have, Dee-tec-tive?”
“Will you please stop saying detective like that?”
“Then stop calling me Doc if you’re going to make it sound like a curse, OK?”
“I wasn’t aware…hey, look, I just want you to listen to reason.”
“Reason?” She leapt from the chair at him. “We’re already plotting murder together, so what’s a little abduction?”
“Conspiracy to murder carries fifteen to twenty-five, add on another ten for kidnapping. If we’re successful in killing Cantu but caught in the act, the sentence will be life if not execution, see? Get it now? This isn’t some movie script; this is the penal code.”
“Not if we can show self defense.”
“Kinda sorta impossible to prove if you torture the prick to death!” They moved about one another like torch dancers now, and for the moment he appeared to have won the battle.
She pouted, placed her arms across her chest, regained the swing, and kicked out hard to set it in motion. He watched her sputter silently, fuming beneath that lovely pair of eyes so set on revenge. “Look,” she began, “if we do this right…play our cards right…no one’s ever going to know.”
“Aside from us and mommy, you mean?”
“You’re a cop.”
“Once upon a time, remember.”
“You know how to dispose of evidence, bodies.”
“Is that what I’m here for? To clean up after?”
“Damn it, Marcus, the legal system need never be bothered by any of this.”
“All right, maybe kidnapping the monster’s mudder is a wonderful idea, gain some leverage of him, twist the knife in his back for a change, but are you then willing to kill the old lady, too? Muther? ‘Cause you’d have to to keep her quiet.”
“It does bring in a whole other element we don’t need,” she conceded. “I suppose you’re right.”
“I usually am.” He inwardly smiled at her saying, ‘I suppose you’re right’ rather than simply saying, ‘You’re right’.
“You are cocksure of yourself, aren’t you?” she sputtered.
“Generally someone expert and experienced in a field can be that, yes.”
“Step aside for genius, heh?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
She frowned. “A little humility wouldn’t hurt, Marcus.”
“Humility?” He laughed derisively at the word. “That’ll get you killed fast. Humility goes by the boards ’longside naiveté first year as a rookie.”
She changed the subject. “You hungry?” she asked, changing the subject. Getting toward eleven and you really didn’t eat much at dinner.”
“I’ve had a beer since.”
“Are you hungry,” she persisted.
“I’m OK for now. I’ll rummage around for a sandwich later.”
He’d earlier put the porch lights and deck lights on a timer, and now with darkness complete, the deck formed a small cocoon of light against the black emptiness beyond the reach of light. A skittering animal noise in the brush started up like a chorus, the first sounds startling Katrina.
“Hey, it’s just the nocturnals again. What Dracula called the Children of the Night,” he reacted. “Take it easy, kiddo.”
“Sorry. Didn’t realize how ahhh . . . jumpy I am.”
“Actually, you really oughta hold onto that jumpiness; in fact, embrace it. Could keep you alive through this.”
“Gift of Fear – yeah, read it.”
“Everyone should, especially women.”
“Waiting for the sequel.”
“Hey, it’s non-fiction; you’re not going to get a sequel.”
“Oh, I dunno, maybe the author gets enough fan mail then—“
The sound of a single twig snapping off in the woods not only silenced them with its decidedly different pitch, but it had also silenced every other sound in the surrounding dark void that the pine forests had become.
“Hit the lights, now!” he ordered in a hoarse whisper.
She rushed just inside the ornate screen door and slapped the switch to the off position. “Who’s nervous now?” she said to herself.
Outside, the inky midnight darkness gobbled up the deck the moment the lights went dead. There were no lights on inside the cabin as neither had been inside for hours. They were surrounded in black night when he joined her just inside.
“You think he’s found us, don’t you?” she asked.
“I dunno. Could be a deer, a bear. Lotta black bears out here.”
She shakily added, “Could be a man just as surely as a bear.”
“Whatever it was or is…it has some weight and heft.”
“Don’t hear it now. You?”
“Not a thing.” In fact, to his way of thinking, everything got too quiet, too quickly. There was indeed a large animal of some sort prowling about out here; he only hoped it wasn’t human.