By Robert W. Walker
Rydell’s dropping in on crime scenes was nothing new, so showing up at this particular one surprised no one and angered everyone, or so it seemed. Everyone still had him responsible for what’d happened while he was unconscious. Peer pressure was not a matter simply for a high school population; it was at work in any social organization much like the witch-hunt mentality bubbling just beneath any social group. For this reason, JT had to at least appear to dislike Marcus.
Marcus hadn’t been coming around of late, however, and he could sense that it was to JT’s disappointment that he showed up anew. For a long time, Marcus had habitually made the effort to put in an appearance at the most brutal crime scenes just to tick others off, and frankly because he missed the adrenaline rush of the first twenty-four hours of a homicide investigation. As a result, he’d been showing up as a private citizen and spectator at many a scene until his latest bout with depression had kept him away.
He had initially acted as if it were a social occasion, just on hand to say hello to a few men he still admired and respected, among them Detective Jack Thomas, someone he trusted. It had been an hour and fifteen minutes since Marcus had spoken to JT on the phone, and the younger man assumed he’d just climbed from bed, dressed, and caught a cab from his place to here. As he’d arrived in a cab, JT also asked, “Car in the shop, Morg?”
As he had actually rested well at the cabin and wore the clothes of a vacationing tourist, JT also did a double take, telling him, “You look well.”
Marcus looked back at the waiting cab. “Yeah, mechanics’ve been stiffing me all week,” he lied, believing the less JT knew at the moment, the more he might wrangle information from him.
“That old Jeep of yours, I’ll bet it’s the PCV valve or that butterfly gizmo on the carburetor?”
“Mechanics look like they’re fourteen…twinkies.” To them a ‘carburetor’ measures the amount of carbs in your system.”
“Oh, yeah…19.95 on the tube. So, Marcus, why’re you bothering with this case?”
“Going to lay it out for you, my friend.” Marcus put a conspiratorial arm on JT’s shoulder and walked him a few feet from the others.
“Like you did in the Crandle case?” JT shook off the arm.
“Crandle would’ve been a helluva scandal for the department if it hadn’t been handled, and I handled it, and you know it, JT.”
“And you a poet if you could do more than rhyme.”
“A scandal for the entire force, had it not been for me. He’d have sung a helluva song.”
“But for me—the only guy left who will even speak to you—you send me on a wild goose chase.”
“At the time, I had no way of knowin’—”
“Hey, hey, hey! Easy.”
“ You deliberately sent me chasing a red herring.”
“Damn it, son…kiddo, Crandle had to believe I was dirty, had to believe I had you in my pocket, too, and that I could send you off in that direction, away from his operation. Anything short of that, he’d have cut my throat along with Tommy DeYampert’s.”
“You got your own damn snitch killed this time, Morg.”
“No, he got himself killed. Whataya do now with your snitch dead?” said JT. “Look, all the same, you might’ve trusted informed me up front.”
“It went down too fast. No time!”
“ There’s such a thing as trust and fair play and—”
“Sometimes Rupplestillskin can only be skinned by one man, partner. Besides, who got the collar, the citation?”
“I’m not your partner.”
“Look, JT, I need to know if you’ve ID tonight’s vic. Have you?”
Stewy Harriman, JT’s partner, had also been sent off in that wrong direction the last time that JT had trusted Marcus. He came rushing toward them now. “Get this bastard outta here, JT, or I’m personally talkin’ to Brunner.”
“Pa-Personally?” asked Marcus. “Personally?”
“Shut up. Morg. Take it easy, Stewy.”
Marcus added, “Hey, I don’t get it. You guys got the collar on Crandle, regardless of the fact you did shit nothing to deserve it, and they say I’m a disgrace to the uniform!”
“You are a disgrace to yourself, Rydell, and one day someone’s going to take you down.”
“You wanna try now, Stewy? Shit for brains.”
JT stood between the two, trying to keep them from getting within striking distance.
“Whataya want here, Morg?” demanded Stewy.
“I only wanna know if the dead guy is a gang banger or a legit citizen, and if so his identity is all, and I’m gone, kaput.”
Harriman calmed and stormed back toward the inner circle of the crime scene, grumbling the entire way. The ME’s CSI Atlanta team worked assiduously about the twirling “package” of human flesh which had been left in place for the tedious analysis not just of the body but the geography around it, including the flagpole and the ropes. Some sick bastard had left a body in a condition no one had ever worked with before. By orders of the ME, everyone was to take all the time necessary and then some.
In the near distance, Marcus read the words declaring the name of the school back of the flagpole: Peachtree High.
Does everything in this city have to be named after a pitted fruit, Marcus wondered as he scanned the crowd for any sign of Cantu. In his ear, JT said, “Soon as I know something about the victim, I’ll give you a ring. You needn’t’ve come all the way down here.”
“You don’t know the half of it, JT.”
“Morg, you’re such a pain in the ass, you mean?”
“I’m here until you give me a name.”
# # #
In the crowd, Iden Cantu moved. Slithered here, sidled up there, easing in and around but not in a nervous or anxious manner. Rather he moved like a pickpocket amid the crowd, unseen. And yet he saw everything.
He’d gotten the desired result by killing and displaying Milton’s body in the fashion he’d chosen. He knew that Rydell couldn’t stay away; that’d he’d come running the moment news got out. Acting the part of a stringer with a camera, he’d sold the footage he’d shot to a news crew that’d gotten here too late to get the kind of exacting close ups he’d put on film using Milton’s own cell phone. Some of the shots would be too intense for viewers of any age, but they didn’t know that when they slipped him the five hundred dollars for the phone, no questions asked, no forms to fill out.
Back at the apartment where Rydell was supposed to be, Cantu had soon realized that both Rydell and the Mallory woman had fled; that they’d gotten by him. The last he’d seen of Rydell, the man had exited the garage in his Cherokee and calmly drove off. He hadn’t thought much of it until he discovered hours later that Rydell wasn’t coming back.
Cantu had figured too late that the light left on in Mallory’s apartment was only meant as a signal of her being inside, just to throw him off—as in a campfire left burning. When he’d been unable to find her moving about the apartment from his perch on a nearby building, he’d gone into Stydwell’s building, picked her lock, gotten inside and found only a few scraps of her clothing left. She’d been in the jeep with Rydell all along, and the two of them had escaped his vigilance.
As a result, Lawrence T. Milton’s scheduled death was moved up to tonight.
Cantu had been watching the excited gestures of the cops and the PI moments before, and now he watched Rydell searching the crowd for any sign that Iden Cantu lurked here so as to enjoy the effects of his skills.
Cantu had plans for Rydell. Wanted him to be the last in the little line of Indians he wished to eliminate in the same manner as Milton here. So he mustn’t be recognized or seen as someone overly curious or appearing anxious in the crowd.
To this end, although disguised, he eased back of people.
The wind had lifted and eddied to carry the stench of charred flesh over the crowd in a wafting, choking manner that caused many onlookers to back off as well, leaving Cantu more exposed. Thanks to the disguise, however, he felt confident that Rydell could not possibly recognize him. He’d come dressed as a homeless down and out. His teeth altered. Eyes sunken beneath thick brows, reading glasses, a battered hat and coat, wrinkled shirt, pants with rents, shoes of a clown. His features as masked were those of the Geico Insurance cave man in the TV ads.
Cantu wanted Rydell to suffer, and he felt well on his way to that end.
The why of it? Cantu did not fully understand it or himself or why it was so important to him; why it’d become a fixation for him. He really truly had no reason to want to destroy this man any further than he had. It’d been a diabolic plan set in motion years before, when he decided to let Detective Rydell live where he’d fallen, sprawled and crumpled among the dead in something akin to an epileptic fit. Cantu could not say why he had fixated on it this way, but there it was. He wanted to screw with the detective for as long as it lasted.
Rydell, like the other cops that night four years ago, had just been doing his job. Only something of a supernatural nature happened to Rydell, going to this knees as he did before any gunfire erupted. His partner grabbing him, perhaps thinking it a heart attack, or that Rydell’d been shot via a gun with silencer—only to hear the crack of the bullet that opened up his own head.
Rydell’s partner fell over him, dead and bleeding out.
The two uniformed cops crouched and opened fire—a barrage of it that literally tore the door to shreds. But Iden Cantu was smarter and faster than the cops. He’d already cut a hole through two walls in the semi-abandoned building where he’d wound up after his wife had sent him packing. This portal had allowed Cantu not only escape but advantage. The last door he pushed out of opened on the backs of the kneeling uniformed cops. Taking them out, including the woman, was like shooting ducks in a gallery.
Done with ease.
Two shots, one to each head. Blankenship got it the back of the head; never knew what hit her. Mallory had turned, fired one round, missed and took the last shot to the forehead.
One after another piled over Rydell, pinning him under their combined weight. Even if he were conscious, he could not have gotten to his gun, moved, or fired. Cantu had stood over the pile of bleeding flesh, staring into Rydell’s rolled back eyes, thinking him a dead man from heart attack, but then Marcus began gasping for air. He was in fact alive amid all the death. Something in Cantu liked the picture the way it was, liked the notion of letting this man live with what’d happened. Killing him outright at that moment felt like one brush stroke too many. Felt like it would destroy all the artistry to that point.
Rydell thrashed about. Cantu leaned in and put the muzzle to the back of his head. He’d put him out of his misery, came the thought. Then followed: What happens to this guy if he lives? Think of what this’ll do to him. Talk about longsuffering.
He pulled back. Sirens rang in the distance, coming closer. He backed off and rushed for the fire escape and the roof.
It was by no means pity nor generosity but a simple curious thought that had kept Stydwell alive.
What happens if I let him live? How’s that gonna play out for him and for me? At that instant, a sweet power had filled his mind. Sure, I hold his life in my hands, and sure I can snuff him here and now, but suppose…just suppose I don’t. What then happens? How’s it gonna make me feel to kill him? Nothing of feeling left inside. Not in me…not after killing my kids, my wife. But what do I feel if I give this stranger to me life instead of death? To allow him to live? Now that’s god stuff, man.
Kinda like keepin’ it open for a sequel, he thought now, watching the man he had ‘allowed’ to live—his very own creation in a sense—pace back and forth and try to push other cops around, now as a private eye. Cantu erupted in a coarse laughter at the thought of how he had manipulated Rydell all these years. It’d had him contemplating too the many other lives his actions that day had touched upon and altered. He had changed the fate of everyone associated with the cops he’d killed, and none more so than the cop he’d allowed to live. And now this.
He’d manipulated the big man to come out of hiding.
He moved deeper into the city shadows.
Power was the real meaning behind the letters to Mallory. A way to get reacquainted with the entire ‘old gang’ that he’d watched now for so long from afar. He’d learned all about Mallory, about Milton, and about Mrs. Miersky and what all of them had or had not done with their lives since he’d shattered their picture-perfect worlds.
Iden Cantu felt a great ball of satisfaction well up from his gut on manipulating the supposed intelligent Detective Rydell. Like a puppet on a string to use a cliché, he thought now.
He wanted to watch as his creation, his puppet, came completely apart at the seams. Why he could not say. The strangest of human mystery was the heart, and so often there was no clue, no resolution, only confusion in the end. To question the human heart one might as well question God himself…if a body believed in a god, any god. God with a capital G or a lowercase g—anything. He’d lost all hope of having a god, so now he played one.
Understanding himself was not in the cards. The steroids, the cocaine, the uppers and downers he’d been on when he’d killed the family didn’t explain it, and he would not accept drugs as a viable reason for his actions of the past, and here he was now, clean of drugs but addicted to this feeling of control and power he could wield over those he terrified. An undeniable high.
A man just did things; a man might kill for no good reason. Not everything had to make sense in a senseless, chaotic world.
Cantu found a park bench across from the crime scene and declared it his by virtue of his unkempt look and the stench he’d applied liberally to himself. This stench, coupled with his appearance ought to keep people from getting too near or wanting to get too near. He had first eased back of the crowd when he saw uniformed police going about asking if anyone had seen anything unusual in the schoolyard tonight.
Four years earlier, Cantu had gone into hiding in the Georgia forests, following the Appalachian Trail which he’d known since childhood. This escape came directly after the gun battle that had cost Rydell his job and his dignity. In the thick ancient forests, Iden had no equal; no man or dog could best him in the dense woods a few hours outside Atlanta.
Venturing back to the big city had been no easy decision, but there was a great pull to do so. A tractor beam. The allure of screwing with Rydell, of once again letting him live so as to watch others die around him. Do it again—this time with civilians, women, and children. Perhaps even a dog or two if they got in the way. Call it an experiment from on high, from Rydell’s new god, Cantu.
He might even allow Rydell to live after…to live on with the compounded guilt. Maybe to the point where the poor bastard could indeed pull the trigger on himself instead of merely toying with the idea. Imagine it, he’d told himself many times over, if I could drive someone to take his own life. Now that’s godlike and sweet, his fevered brain informed him.
This tormenting of another man had not been entirely of Iden Cantu’s choosing. In a way, Marcus Rydell brought it on himself. Asked for it. After all, it’d been the detective who’d chosen that moment in time to faint out. Rydell had, in a sense, chosen Cantu as his god, and not the other way around.
Iden made the mistake of looking up when he heard someone in the crowd tell one of the uniformed cops that maybe the old man on the bench saw something. Cantu made the mistake of making eye contact. The boy-faced police officer approached abruptly, coming straight for Cantu.
Fight or flight? Flee or lie all the way through it. Play the part or carve the turkey?
It might go either way.
Lie…play it out.
The interrogation began on the way to him as the cop shouted, “Hey, old-timer, you live around here?”
“It’s my bench.”
“How long you been here?”
“Three maybe four months.”
“No, I mean tonight…tonight.”
“Couple hours, maybe.”
“You didn’t see nothing?”
“Is that a question or a statement of fact.”
“Don’t go getting’ smart with me, pops. Just answer the question.”
“Didn’t, that’s right.”
“Didn’t see nothing or didn’t like get smart with me?”
“If you don’t stop playin’ games,” replied the cop in a threatening tone, notebook in hand. “Now did you see anything unusual happening in the schoolyard across the street?”
“We suspect couple hours ago.”
“I don’t own a watch.”
“Did you see anything, old man?”
“Saw a cop taking a leak while his partner was vomitin’ but other than that, hah, naw…didn’t see nothing.”
“You don’t talk like you’re from around here.”
“You mean I sound good for a bum?”
“Let’s say better’n most…bums, yeah. But you smell ‘bout the same. Why don’t you get a job instead of going around like you got leprosy or something.”
“How’d’ya know I don’t have leprosy, Chief?”
“OK, you saw nothing. Won’t waste any more of your precious time.” As he moved off the cop muttered, “Coot.”
Arrogance getting the better of Cantu, he shouted at the cop’s back, “No law in Georgia ‘gainst sittin’ and cogitatin’ is there?”
The young cop turned and with a red face shouted back, “There is a Fulton County law against loiterin’ and—“
“Trashin, we know.”
“My boys and me.” Having a little fun, Cantu grabbed his crotch and then bugged out his eyes at the cop. “Here’s what we think-a-Fulton County.” Cantu’s brashness worked like a charm.
Frowning, ignoring the insulting gestures of the homeless guy, the officer simply walked off, shaking his head.
Cantu thought how easily it’d be to have snapped the cop’s pencil neck like a dry twig if he’d chosen to drag him into the dark. Too bad there were so many people about; the curious sheep, how much he hated them all.
He had not only killed Blankenship’s stockbroker boyfriend, but he’d made a spectacle of the body. Authorities, dummies that they were, would be babbling and scratching their heads and asses like so many baboons over this one. Baffled is what the headlines would call the cops, a direct result of his night’s work.
“But Rydell will know,” he assured himself. Rydell will figure it out, and he and Doctor Mallory can stew in their own fears, knowing he was coming for them. But not before he got his hands on Miersky’s wife and children. Then Mallory would follow. After that, he’d return to that exquisite state of godliness he experienced in the mountains that’d been created eons ago for him as his fortress. And once it was over? Would he be at an impasse, a quandary as to what to do with Rydell in the end, after all the others were dead and lying about Rydell—again?
Whether tis nobler to kill a man outright or to destroy his spirit and watch him do it to himself, that is the question. To kill or to control the kill.
After all, the true purpose of writing those letters to Dr. Katrina Mallory was to terrorize her and to challenge Marcus Rydell.
Been tooooo lonely too long. He dredged up a line from Elvis.
Alone with my drawbridge,an island of one. The thought sounded absolutely familiar and yet poetic. “Maybe I got a poem in me…maybe a song,” he told himself in a voice that sounded like gravel on a washboard.
He found and melted into a dark corner away from the park, away from those who’d asked him questions. A safe and distant perch, but not too distant. He must keep tabs on Rydell who would surely lead him back to Mallory and perhaps the whereabouts of the Mierskys who seemed to have vanished.
But anyone can be found. Just go up on the net. He created a poem on the spot to fit his flitting thoughts:
Go a-floatin’ through the sky…
over the moat and the drawbridge,
and the troll I…beneath the bridge,
as my needful needs won’t be denied.
One day to meet muther
on the other side…
W-Where I’ll strangle her further
Till she’s good and died.
But he knew that he could never kill muther. She was the one person on earth he could not kill. That tough of woman would die a natural death and never repent and be laid to rest and no one would ever know or care what she’d done to him.
He slapped on the last lines in the imagined poem:
In the life hereafter as well,
See you, Muther,
be it in heaven or be it hell.