Robert W. Walker’s thrilling
Chapter TWENTY ONE
Convinced now that they had no other avenue of escape, Katrina ushered Nora and the children to and through the trap door, finding it exactly where Marcus said it’d be, below his bed. Kat handed them a heavy-duty flash light and gave then instructions. “Do not, under any circumstances come out until Marcus or I come fetch you, understood?”
Nora answered for them all. “Yes, I understand.”
But if something strikes you as horrid, say if you smell smoke, there’s an exit that takes you out and up under the deck, and down to the lake and the boat.”
Nora, shaken, needed no second telling but the children had twenty questions to which Nora responded with a loud, “Shush! Just do as you’re told.”
“Where’s Carl?” asked Jenny.
“He’s ahhh…gone,” her mother replied.
“Gone where?” pressed Jenny.
“F-For help,” added Kat in an attempt to calm the kids. “Now make no noise. Try to get some sleep.” They’d carried pillows and bedclothes with them into the crawl space. “The storm can’t last much longer.”
When Katrina returned to ground level, she found Marcus, shotgun in hand, vigilant, his back against the fireplace stones. She saw that he’d removed the severed forearm and hand that’d literally come at them through the window. The outcries coming from Carl in the distance had ended, and for this much she thanked God, but she wondered where God was in all of this four year horror story that amounted to her life, this four years of hatred and desire for vengeance which had consumed her and had tonight cost another man his life. A man who’d pleaded not to come with them.
When Marcus saw her, he hissed. “Damn it, Kat, I told you to get below and stay below.”
“We’re in this together—just like from the start.”
“And if that maniac should get hold of you? Do to you what he’s done to Milton and Carl? What am I to do then?”
“You sound genuinely concerned about me.”
“God, you can be infuriating when you do that.”
“So completely understate the situation. I am, damn it, bloody well concerned about you, Kat.”
She looked at him with a fresh eye. The rough exterior, the need for a shave and a change of heart, the whole mood swing thing, and despite his being old enough to be her father, she thought, here’s a real man. A man capable of going up against Cantu. She’d been right about him all along. “If any single man can corner and incapacitate Iden Cantu, it’s you, Marcus Rydell. And who has more reason? More invested?”
“Don’t pay me, Kat.”
She curled up alongside of him with the stone fireplace at their backs and held onto him. “I admit…at first, I was playing you, using you, but no longer, Morg, not for a long time.”
Somewhat startled at her nesting into him, Marcus nonetheless freed a bicep to take her gently into the crook of his arm. This as the storm continued, not quite so insanely now, pulling back from its intensity and sound effects, seeming to second guess the idea of destroying the house, and calming in its monstrous power over them as a lion mulling over new options, one being the idea of abating.
Time passed and the winds indeed calmed to a lulling swirl out among the trees, the sound of it far more like air racing against the ears while on a swing than that of a freight train in the wilderness. It had Marcus dozing even with the heavy .30-06 double-barrel across his lap; it had Katrina in REM sleep, occasionally starting, occasionally flinching, waking him anew.
The chirping of birds and the first slivers of light from the forests creeping across the room awoke them at the same time. Marcus’s right arm had no feeling in it along with his buttocks against the stone hearth.
The storm over, the air smelled clean, fresh, vibrant, and wonderful.
“Nora and the kids must be asleep,” she muttered to him.
“And Carl must be dead.”
She didn’t know what to say to this. She momentarily wondered how much sleep Marcus had gotten. “I’ll fix coffee.” Kat uncurled and gained her feet like a feline. She moved with the grace and sensual manner of a cougar.
“Stay away from the windows, Kat.”
“Will do and hey, thanks, Marcus.”
“Holding me all friggin’ night.”
“No problem,” he replied, while violently shaking out his dead arm in an effort to regain feeling. He also quickly gained his feet and began a binocular search from each window and doorway. If indeed it’d been Cantu that Carl had opened the door for and stepped through for, instead of curiosity over some black bear, Cantu had them at a distinct disadvantage. He had them in his sights, while they hadn’t a clue to his whereabouts—exactly Marcus’s worst nightmare.
“Howaaa…how’s that coffee coming?” he asked just to hear her voice, to know she was safe in the kitchen. Suppose the monster had slipped in while they slumbered? Suppose he was here, now, on the inside? The what ifs began to bombard him in a sudden panic attack…fear of losing Kat in a blinding instant, a moment like the one which had Carl’s arm coming through the bloody window. He vowed not to be taken by surprise, and certainly not taken alive.
He saw nothing from this angle through the binocular lens. He fretted at the shadow creature he felt now coming up behind him while his entire focus had been through the looking glass. His chest heaving, feeling a loss of breath, Marcus passed out and slumped to the floor below the picture window broken by Carl’s body part the night before.
A black out in which he could get no air into his lungs had put him under.
# # #
When Katrina entered the room, she saw Marcus, unconscious below the broken glass, shotgun on one side of him, binoculars the other. For a horrid second, she assumed the worst, that he’d been shot and killed by Cantu. She almost dropped the two coffee cups and the pot she’d brought in but righted the tray and placed it on the table before rushing to Marcus. Even before she got to him, she saw his labored breathing. He was alive and fighting for air.
She knelt and took his pulse. Erratic and racing, out of control. She saw that his eyes had rolled back in their sockets, leaving nothing but the whites. She lightly slapped at his cheeks, repeatedly calling out his name. “Marcus! You can’t do this!” She feared he’d had a heart attack if not a stroke. It appeared so. Seeing him like this, she could believe that he had indeed blacked out that day during the firefight with Iden Cantu. She thought of how many people had ridiculed Marcus over this; how many times she herself had cursed him for his cowardice or his failure covered by a lie, but now this. This was no cowardice, no failure, and certainly no lie.
“I have a lot to apologize for,” she said over him. “Marcus…I’m here. Marcus.” She wondered if his condition might be related to moments of extreme stress. And if so, why hadn’t the police shrinks and all the doctors found a workable diagnosis and treatment for Marcus?
He was after all in his late fifties. Maybe the Atlanta Police Department was more at fault in the Cantu matter than Marcus ever was. Had they seen to his regular checkups? Had anyone any notion of why he blacked out then, and why now?
He started coming to, an animal noise breaking from his diaphragm—asking what sounded like a question here, a plea for help there, followed by a look of confusion and fear. The sounds he made were pitiable like those of an animal caught in a trap. He wanted to know “Whar am-I? Whar hahp-pin? Yuyu awl right?”
Even in this state, he was worrying about her. “Don’t try to talk, Marcus. Easy, sit…no, no!” She realized it sounded as if she were speaking to Paco, who’d remained missing all night.
He struggled to push himself up, wishing to stand.
“No, I said easy. Marcus, you can’t do that!”
As if battling her, he tried to get up. “Hell you say….”
She forced him down and realized just how weak he was at the moment. “You’re going to listen to me this time. No sudden movements! I’m the doctor here.”
“Whhh-at’s wrrrong w-with me then, smarty pants. Yuyu know…you-you do resemble Ida Lapino somewhat.”
“And you’re either blind or having a stroke. Just settle down and quit groping your doctor. And breathe in deeply. Never met a man who breathed as shallowly as you. Breathe deeply, I tell you. Get some oxygen to the brain. I’m calling for an ambulance.”
She tried to call 9-1-1 local for help, but her cell continued to get a No Service message. She tried the landline, know somehow that it was a waste of time. Still dead, not even a ring tone.
When she turned, she found Marcus had crawled to the couch and had somehow gotten himself aboard the sofa, lying now on his back, arms across his head. “Feelin’ much better now. I’ll be aww’right.”
“You just lost four or five minutes, Marcus. That’s not good. Whatever it is, it’s damn serious and needs attention.”
“It’s happened before. No big—”
“—deal, I know. How often since the day Terry was killed?” she asked. “How often?”
“Are you sayin’ that you maybe believe me now…I mean about that day?”
“I do now, seeing you like this, yes.”
“ That’s a first.”
“I believe what I see, and I see a man with a problem.”
This touched a raw nerve in him, like pushing the macho button, and he automatically tried to get up again.
“Hold on! Stay!” she ordered and his eyes widened on seeing that she meant it. “Now answer my question.”
“Yes, ma’am…I mean, Doctor.”
“So how often, Morg. Tell me.”
“Maybe every other month, sometimes skips…goes three, four months without an attack.”
“Loss of breath is pretty obvious.”
“His chin on his chest, he still managed to nod. “Yeah, can’t get any air in; it’s like when a carburetor chokes down, but it happens faster than a 57 Chevy sputtering out.”
“Sounds like any number of problems.”
“So I’ve been told…by experts who can’t find it or fix it but damn sure send a bill as if they did.”
“So you get another opinion! You stubborn—”
“I have! No one seems to be able to diagnose the thing.”
“What, ER doctors?”
“Trust me, I’ve been to specialists. Nothing. A lot of suppositions, a lot of ‘if these symptoms persists, perhaps you should see a doctor,” he joked. “No kidding…they advise I admit myself and submit to a battery of tests –that sorta thing.”
“Well did you admit yourself, submit to tests?”
“I did. They ran every kind of test you can imagine. Ran me up a humongous medical bill too, and for what? I still have no answer.”
She ticked off a list of possible causes of his blackouts. “Heart attack.”
“Ruled out. Heart is as sound as a newly wound clock.”
“Not a chance. Been MRI’d up the ying-yang.”
“So they also ruled out blood clots in the lungs and heart?”
“And head, yes!”
“Got all your faculties immediately back, I can see that.”
“How about some of that coffee.”
“You feel up to swallowing?”
“I’m fine, fine.”
She reluctantly poured him a fresh cup. “Talking clear, thinking clear—all good signs.. What about MS?”
He’d pulled up to an elbow and began sipping the hot coffee but almost dropped it at the mention of MS. “MS what about MS?”
“Any of your doctors ever suggest that perhaps—a”
“Hey, it’s no longer the death sentence it once was.”
“I don’t have freakin’ MS? Whataya sayin’?”
“Anyone ever suggest you might have MS?” she persisted.
“There was this one guy in an ER once…sharp doctor, really, guy name of O’Hara, but I thought he was way off base. MS…me? Muscular sclerosis? Don’t you get that in the muscles?”
“Not Muscular, Multiple…Multiple sclerosis, but yeah it affects the muscles, and your heart is the largest muscle in the body, Morg. And without it, the lungs are just a pair of deflated sacks.”
“MS can start in the heart? Can cause blackouts?”
“Yes, it can start there. Shows up as a breathing problem.”
“Looking like a stroke.”
“Or simulating the after effects of a heart attack, yes.”
“Maybe I shoulda listened more closely to this guy O’Hara.”
“And now me.”
“Yeah, and as soon as we get out of here safely back to civilization, I’ll do something about it.”
“If you don’t, I’ll kick your butt.”
He smiled up at her. “I do believe you care.”
“I do, Marcus…I do.” She leaned in closer and said, “I am so sorry that I was among those who blamed you for—”
“Forget about it. Water under the bridge.”
She placed a soothing hand on his cheek, put his coffee aside, and she kissed him. Marcus returned the kiss. She pulled back, her eyes watery with tears held in check. “Will you be all right, do you think?”
“Shouldn’t have another blackout for a few weeks, maybe a month, so relax,” he lied.
“Have they increased in frequency?”
“Since the first.”
“You could say so, yes.”
“Ever have two occur close in time?”
“Once or twice, yeah.”
“How close in time to one another?”
“Couple of days, but the second one’s like an aftershock to the first, a ripple by comparison.”
“I’ll have to watch over you.”
“Rather angelic of you, Doctor.”
“Just until we can get expert help, someone who specializes in MS.”
“Mayo Clinic time, heh?”
They hugged and she said in his ear, “Frankly, I think we have to watch one another’s backs a great deal closer.”
“Just how close?” he coyly said. “Did you say watch or wash?”
“I suggest both, at least until we get clear of here.”
“And hopefully after.” He held her firm and kissed her again.
She pulled back from his embrace in order to study his features, working to determine the level of his sincerity with that last remark. “I like what I see in those steely gray eyes, Detective.”