Robert W. Walker’s DEAD ON
The children had abandoned Paco for their mother instead; Nora hugged her little ones to her where they huddled at the center of the living room. Meanwhile, Carl Schramick had found a separate place on the easy chair, looking like a man alone who wanted to ball up in the fetal position. Kat had gone about the house with Paco and Marcus in search of matches, candles, flashlights, and a radio. TV reception had already been knocked out, and they feared the electricity would be next.
The winds whipped about the forest home as if a thousand banshees had descended to find their way in, a crack here, a crevice there, a chimney to rattle down, a pipe to pummel. It sounded for all the world like the cacophony of banshees trying to find the tune. The screaming of screeching metal against enamel heard inside the head created by the drill and suction at the height of a tooth extraction. The storm had picked up dirt, sand, twigs, leaves, branches, and in tornado fashion thrusts it all against them. At times, the howling of nature just beyond the window panes sounded animal-like, as if a gathering of bears were on the lawn. In the end, for Marcus, a veteran of battle, the storm’s howl sounded like the voice of war itself.
“How long can it go on like this?” Kat shouted over the den to Marcus.
“As long as it wants, I suppose. Kinda like a freight train. All you can do is wait for it to pass.”
“You said an hour!” she said it as if he’d broken a promise.
“My mistake. I didn’t count on tornado force winds. This is like Boggie and Bacall in Key Largo.”
“And Edward G. Robinson? You expect him to show up with a rod?”
“Hey, you know the players!”
“Morg, have you ever seen the like this storm here before?”
“Couple of times, yes, but this one’s packing a tornado somewhere out there.”
“Are we safe here?”
They’d gathered up all the light sources and the radio. “Yes, no…do I look like a prophet?”
“You mean we may not be,” she countered, frowning.
Marcus rushed back to the others, Kat following. Paco ran for the basement rooms. “The dog’s smarter than all of us together,” Marcus shouted, pointing at Paco’s sunken tail before it disappeared. “Follow Paco! Everyone, downstairs.”
Nora and the kids needed no second telling, but Carl sat frozen, not budging. Everyone else made for the downstairs and safety.
“Go ahead with the others,” Marcus told Kat. “I’ll see to Carl.”
Katrina hesitated at the top of the stairs, looking back.
“Marcus put a hand out to Carl. “Come with us downstairs, Carl…Deacon.”
He looked up at Marcus. “We’re all going to die here, aren’t we?”
“What? Not on your life.”
“One way or another…if I stay here, I die.”
“That’s nonsense. When the storm clears, tomorrow morning, we’re moving you and your family out, remember?”
“Not if we don’t make it through the night.”
“Carl, you’re awful-liizng,” shouted Kat at the man.
Carl’s forehead scrunched in confusion. “Awful hat?”
“You’re predicting only a dire future when you don’t know.”
“Why not? The circumstances we find ourselves in…this is awful.” The frail man was literally shaking. “God’s wrath is what this is.”
“Sir, where’s your faith?” asked Kat in a genuine tone.
Carl smugly replied, “I am informed by my faith; it is with me at all times, even now, He is with me.”
But not your children and your wife, Marcus thought but did not say.
“You can’t predict your own death this way, Carl,” she continued with what little psychology she could muster. She moved in on him, and she could see with each step closer to Carl, that he incrementally retreated within, cloaking himself in his own determination. “It’s unhealthy, Mr. Schramick…and it can cause you to make faulty decisions and clumsy errors in judgment.”
“Just leave me alone, will you? Both of you!”
“Come down with the rest of us.” Marcus took hold of his arm.
“I’m staying put.” Schramick snatched away.
“I have enough to do living with Nora and her brats; I’m not taking orders from some failed cop turned gumshoe, Mr. Rydell. I know what you do for a living; you take photographs of people fornicating so that you can win divorce settlements. Sorry, but I’ll put my faith in God instead, if you don’t mind.”
“Come on, Kat,” Marcus said, turning away and giving up on the other man.
“Not Nora, not you, not anyone’s telling me what to do.”
Marcus considered turning back, punching his lights out, and carrying him downstairs, but he decided instead to leave the man be. He grabbed Kat instead, entwining her arm in his, forcing her back toward the stairs leading to the basement. “Thought I told you to get downstairs?”
“You did but—” The windows rattled so violently now that they feared an implosion. “You can’t just leave him up here alone. What about knocking him unconscious. Wouldn’t Boggie do that in Key Largo?”
“He’s adamant and he’s a man,” Marcus mimicked Bogart’s voice. “Not anything either of us can say or do is going to get him off his ass.”
“Give me one more chance to reason with him.”
“Because I can.”
“Reason with him? Persuaded him? Show him a little cleavage, you mean. I’ve seen the way he’s been googling you.”
“You mean ogling, don’t you? And if it takes that.” She wrangled free of Marcus and returned to kneel beside Carl Schramick, utilizing her only remaining arguments, and seeing that he was tempted immediately from the widened irises focused in on her cleavage. Marcus had called it. “We all of us, Carl, me included, we want you with us downstairs. Won’t you come? For me?”
Marcus felt a huge need for a cigarette as he listened to her plea.
“Please, just leave me be!” he shouted, spit dribbling onto her. Kat retreated like a cat, done with him.
Returning to Marcus, she said, “You’re right. He’s beyond help.”
“You think so?” He guided her back to the stairs.
“Gone into some sort of altered state.”
“Must be a real zombie state if you couldn’t convince him,” suggested Marcus when suddenly, the front door sounded as if it would be ripped from its hinges. “Come on downstairs, Kat! Now!” he again ordered. “When things start shattering around him, the Deacon and God will join us, I assure you.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“They’ll come a-running.”
“You think so, huh? Mr. Weatherman who predicted an hour-long downpour.”
“All I know is I’ve seen his kind before. Even interrogated a few.”
“I didn’t take you for the sort who lumped people into categories, Morg.”
“Kat, if I have one bias it’s toward assholes and idiots…and maybe the rich.”
“I’ll remember that when I win the lottery.”
“Don’t be naïve, Kat. The Deacon in the other room has one thing on his little mind, and it’s an asshole’s thought.”
“What? You read minds now?”
“All right mock me, but also mark my word.”
“All right, what’s he thinking then?” she challenged him.
“To save himself at all costs.”
“Doesn’t believe in women and children first?”
“Believes in number one first?”
“Before the kids?”
“Yes, the kids, the wife, the dog, you, and me.”
She looked back at the forlorn man and could not find scorn for him so much as pity. “God, how lonely.”
“Download that for me sometime, will you Kat? So I can learn to be more understanding and sympathetic to the pathetic. But for now, I want you down loaded into the basement. Now!”
She did as instructed with him on her heels just as a bookcase began to rain down books, several of which followed them down the stairwell. One book was War of the Worlds, another Jykell & Hyde, but the third one was E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. Marcus lifted it off the bottom stair and handed it to Kat. “Here, read it to the kids. It’ll keep your mind and theirs off the storm.”
“Your mother read to you during storms?”
“Matter of fact, yes. Now do it.”
“Will you quit with the tone.”
“The boss tone. You’d get more cooperation if you’d ask…nicely.”
“Sorry but my nerves are pretty well shot. Not a time for niceties.”
Paco left the children and Nora to join them at the foot of the stairs, where he cowered at each thunderclap, coiling around Marcus’s leg as if he’d chosen his hero. “Don’t even think about it, dog,” muttered Marcus. Then to Kat he added, “Would you please read the story to the kids?”
“Kind of a warped story, really,” said the girl, Jenny, coming toward them, having seen the book.
“Whataya mean warped?” replied Marcus. “It’s a classic.”
“Warped?” Kat repeated.
“It’s about an obsession!” she began, her arms and hands waving. “Think about it. A spider has a flat out, full-blown fixation on a pig, watching and worrying over him all the time like he was her child or something, kinda stalking Wilbur. Willing to die for him.”
“Yeah, it’s about sacrifice and love,” countered Marcus. “A rare thing in the real world, unconditional love.”
Little Jenny smirked. “In the real world, the pig’d get an injunction against the spider.”
Marcus laughed loudly in reply.
“They’re just friends, Jenny,” Kat answered. “It’s about pure friendship. Platonic ahhh….”
Danny piped in, asking from the arms of his mother, “Is Play Tonic like a drink? I’m thirsty.”
Jenny frowned and shook her head. “The entire story is just weird. The spider does all of it knowing they’re way too far apart—species wise, I mean—to ever have like a normal life together.” Jenny hesitated. “Sorry, but that…that’s sick.”
“You’re Stan’s kid all right,” said Marcus, flashing a look at Nora, whose eyes returned a look of pride in her precocious girl. Marcus recalled many lost arguments with Stan on topics ranging from the terror threat to the Lincoln assassination plot.
“All right, make it War of the Worlds then,” said Marcus, capitulating.
“Now that’s believable,” replied the girl, her tone dripping with sarcasm. Make it Jykell & Hyde. Now there’s a story about real human nature and the science sure beats alien invasion. I’ll read it to Danny.”
“Jykell & Hyde in a storm,” muttered Marcus.
“Why not? Frankenstein was written during a storm. Mary Shelley?”
Marcus gave up any chance of besting this girl on literature. He instead caught Nora’s reaction again, a broad smile. “How’re you holding up, Nora?”
“Where’s Carl?” she asked.
Marcus exchanged a look with Kat before saying, “He’s chosen to remain upstairs.”
“On that easy chair near the window?” Nora set her jaw firm. “I’m going to drag his skinny behind down here.” She started up but Marcus stopped her.
“Go easy on the guy,” suggested Kat.
“You stay out of this!”
“He’s been thrown into a difficult situation, Nora,” persisted Kat.
“You just stay away from him. I’m not blind!”
She laughed a hollow laugh. “Difficult. The weasel doesn’t have a clue what difficult means, not yet.”
“Nora! Nora!” Marcus uselessly pursued her back up the stairs. Together, they stared at the empty sofa chair, and the door standing open in the wind, blasting back and forth like an angry live thing—the arm of Thor in control. Wind-driven rainwater had made a slick of the wood flooring at the entryway. On the surface, it looked as if Carl had bolted out the front door.
“Where…where is he?” Nora rushed the door.
“No, get back, Nora!” Marcus grabbed her, holding her from racing out into the storm.
“He-He-He’s run aw-aw-off; left us,” she muttered amid tears.
“We don’t know that for a fact.”
“It’s obvious, Marcus. It’s all he’s wanted since we arrived.”
“I knew he was worried but this?” he asked.
Katrina had come up behind them. “Where’s Carl?”
Paco followed, the dog bolting for the open door and tearing out into the storm.
“Paco!” shouted Kat. “Come back!”
“And you!” Nora said in condemnation of Kat. “More concerned for that mutt than for my Carl, but all the time sashaying about!”
Meanwhile, Marcus had examined the door. “Neither jimmied nor blown open,” he informed them. “Carl unlocked it from the inside for some reason or some one.”
“Either that or he simply bolted, leaving us.” Nora looked from Marcus to Katrina. “He was angry and he…he intended to leave. Took the first chance that he got, didn’t he?” From the look on Nora’s face, Marcus could tell she’d rather this be true than that Carl had opened the door for Iden Cantu.
“Stay away from the windows. For all we know, Cantu’s tracked us down, thanks to Carl.”
“Thanks to Carl? This is in no way Carl’s fault!” A Georgia wife all her life, Nora still defended her man.
“He shouldn’t’ve made that call to Marietta, Nora. It still worries me.”
“But Carl would know not to open the door to Cantu. He’s seen his pictures.”
“If Cantu came knocking at the door, you can bet he did so in sort of disguise.”
“Cantu…disguise? You really…” she halted to gasp for air… “think Cantu has hold of my-my Carl?” Nora’s managed to squeaked out the last words before her knees buckled.
They helped her to the sofa. Around them the howling winds continued when a gnarled, bloody forearm and attached hand, looking as if grasping for life, slammed through one window.
The horror of it caused Nora to faint outright and for Kat to scream. Marcus wanted to scream. The ring on the left-hand appendage was Carl’s wedding band.
Katrina’s delayed response was to rip out her Glock from her shoulder holster beneath her jacket, while Marcus had a closer look at the arm. Nora, coming to, dizzy and gasping like a fish out of water, covered her eyes and openly cried for Carl, repeating his name until Marcus heard it replaced with the name Stan.
Marcus ushered them from the room, saying, “No doubt left now. Cantu’s found us; he’s out there.” Schramick’s left arm and hand were still warm—the skin, hair follicles, cellular tissue and veins still on the clock awaiting further orders from on high.
In the midst of the howling winds, a new sound filtered into the house: the terrible cries coming from out in the storm, coming from what was left of Carl Schramick. The sound meant that Carl would not die soon, not until after much suffering; suffering they too would be made to endure. Iden Cantu had arrived.