Robert W. Walker’s
Nashville was nothing like it’d been the last time Rydell had seen it. In fact, the place had turned into a complete zoo, a musical zoo. Every street appeared to have been named after some country music singer, and finally they found June Carter Parkway and slipped quietly off and onto Merle Haggard Boulevard. Traffic could not be believed, almost rivaling that of a typical day in Atlanta, but here was a much smaller city with a population boom no one could have predicted. “Everybody wants to be the next Billy Ray Cyrus,” Rydell said to Mallory from the driver’s seat of the rental they’d picked up at the small business airport.
“It’s the Elvis effect.”
“American royalty. Everyone growing up today believes in overnight success the way they think Elvis Presley did it.”
“I thought that was the American dream.”
“No one wants to know how many one-night stands a guy like Presley had to work, how many country roads driven down, or how many county hot, humid, stinking county fairs had to be played before he became an overnight sensation.”
“So half the population of Nashville is trying to break into the country music game.” She shrugged. “What’s the harm?”
“Harm is everyone who has half a mind to become a musician and even less talent is sadly in for a rude awakening.”
“That’s fact. Just watch the tryouts on American Idol.”
“So how do we locate the Mierskys?”
“One of the kids is playing at a talent show, something called Nashville Idol.”
“Ahhh…no wonder you’re on your high horse.”
“At any rate, that’s why the family is here.”
“Not a concert, a talent show?”
“All that from Thomas?”
“I trained JT.”
They pulled into a parking garage and found a space on the fourth level. Rydell, ever vigilant of his surroundings, eyeballed all the others in the garage, going to and from the elevators. “You expect to see him here?” she asked, surprised.
“We’ve no idea where he is, but we know he’s after the same prize, those kids.”
“Sends a chill through me to think of that monster getting his hands on kids.”
“Sends chills through me thinking of him getting his hands on me.”
“Guess there’s no such thing as—”
“Being too careful with this maniac? No, there isn’t.”
“Even if he has figured out where the Mierskys are, we’ve got to be ahead of him,” she replied.
“Depends where he was last night, today.”
The elevator doors popped open and a man in a wheelchair being pushed by a younger man came at them without warning. “Outta the way!”
They backed up and stood aside as the elderly gentleman grumbled something about rude people. Rydell heard only scattered words about how you let people off before you jump on a g’damn elevator. Something about the wrinkled old white-haired man covered with blanket recalled Cantu’s disguise the night before in Atlanta, but he realized it was just paranoia at play in his skull.
They rode the elevator down to street level. “You OK?” she asked him.
“Yeah, fine…just thought that guy in the wheelchair…well…could be Cantu in disguise but I’m just being ahhh…”
“Man, you’re more paranoid than I am.”
He stopped her with a cold look. “I saw Lawrence’s body up close. Maybe I shoulda taken you with me. Might’ve done you some good.”
“Hold on. What’s that ‘spose to mean?”
“Means you have no idea what this creature is capable of until you’ve seen his handiwork up close.”
The elevator doors opened on more faces coming on board as they exited. As they left the garage for the street, Kat was now scanning every face for any semblance of Cantu or anything out of the ordinary.
Half a block away, they located the Cornelius School for Country Music. A huge banner proclaimed today as Nashville Idol Day here, open auditions for a day at the Grand Old Opry and possible stardom.
“This must be the place,” she said as they entered.
“Looks like a scam to me,” he muttered.
Inside the sleek glass doors, the huge outer foyer was jammed with people, most of them young and many with hovering parents and grandparents; would-be singers loosening up, dancers bumping and grinding, and instrumentalists in practice, some merely tuning up, others looking as if they might take their banjos and fiddles overhead to smash them on the stone tiled floor. The costumes ran the gamut from decorous to Hollywood Hillbilly and back again, one fellow looking for all the world like Indiana Jones. Every age, race, and size, some absolutely anorexic, some so large as to create wonderment, some looking psychotic. They were all here.
“Stan woulda never stood for his kid being in a freak show like this,” Marcus muttered in her ear over the den.
Rydell quickly found someone in some capacity that might know something about locating someone in this crowd. When he flashed his old police badge, he mumbled, “Atlanta PD. Need to immediately locate a Mrs. Stan Miersky, first name’s Nora.”
The man with the clipboard said, “I got no Mrs. Stan or a Nora Miersky.”
The list was pages long. There appeared to be well over a thousand people awaiting the contest judges. “Look again, closer.”
“Hold on. I got a Danny Miersky on my maybe to return list, but if he’s the kid I think, well sorry if you’re related, but I don’t think the kid’ll make it in show biz. Certainly not with that name, not on stage at the Opry.”
“Where’s Danny then, now?”
“I’ll just call him on the PA system, but can’t guarantee he’s even in the building. Last I saw, he was, you know, in tears.”
“Get his name out over the PA.”
“ Have him and his mother come to the front of the line.”
The organizer did as told, and soon a large woman, pushing one boy with a violin and holding a younger girl in tow came bustling toward the giant wooden doors that led to the stage. A small man stood with them, bland of eye and balding.
Nora Miersky recognized Rydell as soon as their eyes locked. “Nora. Looking well,” he said.
“What the hell’re you doing here?”
“We’ve got to talk. It’s urgent.”
The woman returned a dumbfounded stare. “Can’t you see I’m busy here? And how did you find us?”
“I’m still a detective, and I can see you’ve got your hands full, but this is extremely important.”
“So’s my kid.”
“Glad to hear it, but Nora.”
“My kid’s been called back. They’re giving him a second chance, so if you don’t mind.”
Rydell caught the emphasis on second chance. “No, sorry. I had them page you. Like I said—”
“Of course, you had them page Danny?” Nora Miersky’s forehead was suddenly dimpled with railroad tacks.
“I did. Look, Nora. It’s about the safety of your kids and you.”
Nora’s thin, small male companion, who’d followed in the rear, piped up. “What’s this all about, Nora? Who are these people?”
“I’ll handle it, Carl.”
“Who’s he?” asked Rydell.
“Danny’s and Jenny’s stepfather.”
Poor excuse for Stan’s replacement, Rydell thought on first impression. “Glad to hear you’ve moved on.”
“Move on or stagnate. Not much choice. What is it you want, Marcus? And whataya mean barging in like this?”
Katrina blurted out, “Iden Cantu is back, and he’s hunting people who have one thing in common, Mrs. Miersky.”
Nora gasped. “Cantu’s surfaced again?”
“And who are you?” asked the stepfather.
“Terry Mallory’s wife.”
“Mallory died with Stan, Carl.” Nora’s eyes flashed on Marcus as she said this. “Just a kid, but an honorable cop from all I saw.”
“That’s right,” added Kat. “I lost my husband to Cantu, and now he’s back. Back for us.”
“Back for us? For who? Who’s this us?” asked Nora.
“You, your kids, me, Lawrence Milton, who was murdered yesterday in Atlanta.”
She glared at Rydell. “Are you saying that Danny and Jenny are in this maniac’s sights?”
“I’m sorry, Nora, but yes. Yes, they are. It’s why we’re here. To warn you and take your family to a safe house.”
She lost strength in her legs and her small husband struggled to keep her afoot long enough to find a chair. Both children began crying and pleading for her to be all right. Katrina instinctively held the quaking woman.
“Are you saying,” Nora began, her breast heaving with her gasps, “that this fiend is here in Nashville, stalking us?”
“We don’t know precisely where he is, Nora,” said Rydell. “Only that he has targeted us all, myself included, anyone who survived loved ones the day of the shooting. It’s a mission with him. And he’s shown up in Atlanta where he’s already killed Milton.”
“We believe he’s still in Atlanta,” added Kat. “Isn’t that right, Morg?”
Marcus hadn’t told Kat about the blackout he’d experienced while chasing a man he believed to be Cantu the other night. “He’s definitely in the greater Atlanta area, Nora, and that means Marietta as well.”
“But if you two could find us here, so could he.”
The stepfather stood by her nervously twitching. “This is a horrible turn of events. We’d thought that maniac dead, eaten up by hunger—the elements—disease.”
“You can’t remain here,” said Rydell.
“And you can’t go home to Atlanta.”
“Marietta,” she corrected Katrina. “We live in Marietta.”
“All the same, you can’t go there, Nora,” warned Marcus. “He’s sure to know where you live.”
“Is that right?” Nora continued to fight for air.
“We must assume so, yes.”
“Then why’re you handling it? Why aren’t the Atlanta police handling this? Why aren’t they here with an escort?”
“They’re slow off the mark, Nora. Stan would tell you the same. Come away with us.”
“Where do we go then?”
“We’re staying in the woods north of Atlanta,” Marcus said.
“Your family home at Blue Ridge?” she asked.
“ You’ll all be safe there until we can all figure out something better.”
“How Stan loved that place, the lake, and….”
“It’s big enough for all of us.”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s been safe for us for the past few days,” said Katrina, feeling ambivalent about the idea of their being on hand when and if Cantu arrived to take his medicine, but on the flight here, Marcus had said it’d only be for a short time, just until they could place the Mierskys somewhere safer still as he’d put it.
“Carl, I’m not sure we have a choice,” began Nora.
“But we’ve sunk every dime into getting Danny into this competition,” Carl protested.
“There’ll be other opportunities,” she assured Danny, hugging him to her.
Not if this monster gets hold of you, thought Rydell, rubbing a soreness from his neck. “I hate to be blunt, but for now, I really want you to come with us to the airport. Crowd like this.” He indicated the crush of people here.
Kat added, “He could be staring at us right this moment.”
Marcus calmly said to Nora and Carl, “I don’t want this bastard getting hold of the children.”
“You’ll watch your language in front of the kids,” said Carl.
“What’re you, a preacher?”
“A deacon at First Baptist of Marietta.”
Nora, ignoring this exchange, stood on shaky legs. Stan had been the love of her life. This could not be easy for her. “I want to be armed then, to…to protect my kids.”
“We’ve got a small arsenal at the cabin,” replied Katrina.
“This is awful, Carl…just awful,” she addressed her husband. “And…and I’m going to need to count on you like never before.”
The stepfather introduced himself now to Marcus, ignoring Katrina. He said, “Deacon Carl Schramick, sell drywall.” Carl shook hands with Marcus and when Katrina put her hand out, he also shook it, his gaze lingering over Kat, his handshake a limp fish. “I think for now, we’d best do what they say, Nora. For now that is.”
“Done then,” Marcus firmly replied thinking Carl might be more of an albatross than the kids and Nora together. “Need gather up your things and be out at—”
“Now? Before I get my second chance?” complained ten-year-old Danny still confused at having heard his name on the PA, still game to go before the judges a second time. Nora took him aside and explained. The others watched the boy’s face turn to the picture of disappointment, tears welling up.
“Children,” said Carl, eyes rolling. “Danny, do like your mom says.”
“They hear and understand more than we give ’em credit for,” said Kat, but the Deacon either didn’t hear her or didn’t want to hear her.
Rydell put out a hand to the heavyset Nora to help her from the crouching position she’d taken with Dannry. She refused his hand, and Marcus’s tone turned to that of a drill sergeant. “Get back to your hotel room, pack, and take a cab to the Nashville Business Airport east of the city. We’ll meet you there. My plane seats exactly six.”
“Not me, Mr. Rydell,” said Carl. “I’ll drive the car back to Marietta, got work on Monday, a major contractor. Date’s been set for months.”
“Listen, Carl is it?” asked Rydell, taking the frail looking man aside. “You have any idea what this guy will do to you if he finds you alone at home?”
“Technically, I’m not one of his targets, now am I? I mean, I didn’t lose anyone four years ago. He’s not interested in me.”
Nora glared at the deacon who continued on, saying, “Besides, I can take care of myself. I own several hunting rifles and a .22.”
“I’m sure that’s what they’ll put on your tombstone, too,” countered Kat, losing patience with this man.
“Carl,” Marcus continued to reason with the smaller man. “ This guy Cantu is everything you’ve heard and worse. He is beyond your worst nightmare.”
“Think Jeffrey Dahmer, Freddie Kruger and Charlie Manson rolled into one,” added Kat.
“OK, it’s OK,” Nora said, “Carl’s coming.”
“I can speak for myself, dear.”
“Sir,” said Marcus. “ This psycho will torture you until you tell him where your wife and children are hiding out, and then he will set what’s left of you on fire.”
“Are you trying to frighten me?” Carl Schramick puffed out his thin chest.
“I hope so.”
“Carl, we’re leaving the van parked at the airport, and we’re following Marcus’s advice to the letter, understood?” Nora had been leaning in to see what Rydell had to say to her new husband. Her tone left nothing further to say.
Carl relented. “All right, all right if you all are so determined.”
“It’s all hopefully temporary, Carl, Mr. Schramick,” added Katrina, attempting to soothe things over. “Just until we can figure out our best options.”
Little Danny had concluded his crying jag and hung on his mother’s leg, his violin set aside. Jenny, slightly taller but just as thin, was older by a year. She sat with her head in her hands, looking bored and tired.
“We’ll see you at the airport. Don’t delay,” said Marcus.
Once out of earshot of the Mierskys, Kat said to Marcus, “How do you like the Deacon?”
“Just what I need,” muttered Marcus as they found the parking garage. “Not enough I’m saddled with a dog and a dame; now I have to deal with a widow, kids, and a weasel.”
“You think he just wanted to distance himself?” she asked.
“Sounded that way to me.”
“Hey, Marcus, just look on it as a growth experience.”
“Gray hairs are growing fast.”