This is the latest chapter from DEAD ON by well-known author Robert W. Walker…
A half hour later, they had Nora and the children packing to leave the cabin, and Marcus was telling the others, “I want for you all to make your way to the boat and to the airport where you can get to a safe distance. My home, this place, is no longer the high ground we’d hoped.”
“Privately, Kat replied, “I’m with you. We get the kids and Nora to a place of safety, and you and me, we come back to take Cantu out—as a real team this time, not at opposite ends.”
“Kiddo, I’m not going to let what happen to Carl happen to you. I have no intention of further endangering—”
She pretended not to hear. Instead she interrupted him. “What do you suppose happened to Carl? I mean…the rest of him, and whatever did you do with his arm?”
“In the freezer, wrapped in foil. Although Carl was a small man, that arm’s a mighty large piece of evidence.”
“Proving what? That Cantu is back?”
“If he’s ever brought to justice, that arm—”
“The only justice I want to see is that bastard at the end of my scalpel.”
He said no more on the subject.
“Look, Marcus, are you sure it wasn’t the storm somehow picked Carl up and shredded him through a tree out there?”
“A bear maybe?”
“I’d like to believe it was nature or a bear, Kat, really would but a bear’s a messy animal.”
“He’d’ve left signs, you mean?”
“A lotta signs. And as for the storm sucking Carl through tree limbs and ripping off one of his limbs, I’ve scanned all the trees. Nothing.”
“Then where’s Cantu’s leavings? His package of Carl? I know you were looking for it, so?”
“For sure you have me.” He said it with an Irish brogue. “Like that night at O’Dule’s. Dead on.”
“How I hated you then.”
“I got that impression when you pulled a gun.”
“I’m truly sorry about that, Marcus, really.”
“Don’t apologize. You’ve no idea how much you’re coming into my life has revived me. No clue.”
“I know you were unhappy.”
“Try dead inside—understatement queen.”
She massaged his hand in hers.
“So how am I now?” he asked, clasping her hands in his.
“You’re alive and well.”
“And feeling a lot more than I thought I’d ever feel again.”
She smiled at this. “And you’re smiling a lot more these days, despite that a madman is on the loose and preparing to kill us all.”
“Strangely, ironically, in part it’s due to that madman, my feeling something.”
“Sometimes we’ve got to hold onto the only emotions we have left us.”
“But there’s more to my return to life than hating Cantu.”
“Tell me, Marcus. Tell me of your feelings, all of them.”
“How ‘bout I show you?” He pulled her to him and kissed her passionately, and Katrina returned his kiss with even more passion.
“I hope you two are having a good time!” It was Nora standing over them, her kids in tow. “I want out of here. I want my kids out of here.”
“Western Tennessee, sure,” replied Marcus. “We’ll just rev up the boat, get across the lake and back to the plane.”
“Where’s Carl?” asked Danny.
“He ahhh had to go on ahead, sweetie,” Katrina lied.
“I’m hungry,” complained Jennifer.
“Can we go swimming again with Paco before we leave?” asked Danny.
“Right now, let’s find some breakfasts for you and Jennifer, hey scout?” asked Kat, going for the kitchen, armed with the knowledge to keep Nora and her kids away from the freezer unit.
At the same time, Marcus sat up and glanced around at the dire situation they’d gotten themselves into, and he cursed Paco for abandoning them as well. Then he cursed Carl for his stupidity. He wondered now how differently things might’ve gone had he leveled with Tim Grimes the day before. He felt certain that the electricity and the landline was down as a direct interference by a multiple murderer who’d missed the propane line for the gas stove that’d brewed this morning’s coffee. They faced a killer who had not only been up to the house, likely casing every avenue of escape, but a smooth-talking one at that, one who had enticed Carl into his clutches. How? What possessed Carl Schramick to open that door and step into the clutches of the monster? And why hadn’t Cantu kept coming then? He might well have killed them all in the basement room at that point.
The answers eluded Rydell. Perhaps he would never know.
What he did know was that they mustn’t wait for another nightfall with the bloodthirsty Cantu out there roaming about. The man was like the cave-dwelling creature in the epic poem Beowulf, the creature called Grendel—only half human; the other half of Satan’s own DNA. Only this Grendel had technological knowhow and gadgetry at its disposal. Never mind that it could never know love or purity, decency or God. It remained a killing machine, a machine coming for them.
Yes, this Grendel had scramblers, high-powered rifles, and night-vision goggles. No telling how many hikers and campers had contributed to Cantu’s stash of high tech toys.
The monster was nearby to be sure. Lurking, waiting, coming at anything human in the light—man, woman, child, dog no matter, to drag fresh kill into a black lair and feed on it, but Cantu fed on spreading psychological terror as well.
The day outside the broken window had come in bright, the sky a radiant blue, the forests a deep green to make the mythical gnomes dance amid the verdant life. The juxtaposition of beauty and tranquility and life and death here at Blue Ridge Lake felt surreal. And Marcus’s family home and memories set against the horror of what lay in wait for them filled his mind with wonder at how things had happened in what felt like a hand already dealt him—as if fated. Among the wonders was a question too deep to bring to the surface in any other words than, “Where’s that stupid dog, and where is God when you need Him?” When no answer came, he added, “OK already, I’ll settle for Tim Grimes and the state patrol. Barring that, JT and the National Guard.
Then his cell phone rang. “Damn! It’s working?” Marcus allowed it to ring twice, three times, and then he answered without a word.
“H-Ha-Hel-lppp-owww Mor-morga-morg-gannn,” Came a strange, hoarse voice, which he still recognized as that of Grimes, but Tim sounded in great distress. “You-you there, Morg…arrrgh?”
“Tim? What’s going on?” Grimes sounded awful.
“Lis-sin-ta-me will-will ya?”
“Where’re you calling from?”
“I…not call-ing. Can-tu put me…on, Morg.”
“Cantu? Cantu has you? God, no!”
“Yes got me…got me tied up…” he panted more. “Like a pretzel.”
Marcus feared the worst. “Where? Give me a location.”
“In a dark place…smells like…like a cave, earthy and—“
“That you, Detective Rydell?” asked Iden Cantu on the other end now. “Sorry ‘bout the kids’ step-dad, but you know he wasn’t much of a dad to begin with.”
“You murdering sick son-of-a—” Even as he started, he wondered how Cantu could have formulated any sort of opinion of Deacon Shramick.
“Come on, Morg. You didn’t think much of Carl. He was easy to kill and no skin off, heh? You haven’t missed the asshole. Not so with Stan’s kids and wife, your girlfriend, Mallory, and Timmy fat boy here, heh?”
“Let him go, Cantu. This is between us—you and me alone.”
Grim laughter replied.
“Grimes has nothing to do with any of this.”
“He does now.”
“Why? Why’re you doing this to me?”
“Let’s say I hate cops, Morg! Even small time ones like Timmy.” Grimes screamed in excruciating pain. “Wanted you to hear this, Morg. All your closest friends call you Morg, so I’ll call you Morg, too.”
“I’m going to hunt you down, Cantu, and I’m going to put you under the earth.”
“Bring it on, but then who’s going to protect the children? Nora? Your new sweetheart?” Cantu kept the line open, making Tim Grimes howl in more torturous pain before the line went dead.
“How can the bastard know so much?” Marcus kept asking himself. Had he watched the house that closely? To know so much of what was going on inside? But how? Even if he had night vision goggles and high-powered scopes, how could he know their every move, down to his dislike of Carl, and that Grimes was a personal friend.
It was almost as if he had the place bugged.
He began searching for any electronics in the home that didn’t belong. He tore the phones apart, upturned every table, searched beneath every surface and behind every wall plug and light fixture as well as behind every wall hanging, mirror, and painting. Cursing, he found nothing. If he allowed it, he’d begin to think Iden Cantu some sort of magician or a supernatural being. “Maybe the bastard’s an alien and can read minds.”
Just then he heard a patter of soft-sole shoes on the porch, and he pointed the Spartan shotgun at the sound, his finger pressuring the trigger, only to find Paco in his sights, panting, tongue lolling to one side, out of breath and limping, favoring his right front paw.
Kat had returned at the same time and shouted, “Don’t shoot! It’s Paco, Marcus! Baby, you’ve come home!”
# # #
Kat welcomed Paco into her waiting, open arms, and the dog obliged her, his tail wagging as he wildly licked at her face. “He’s limping,” she said. “What’s happened, Paco?”
“So I noticed,” replied Marcus, taking a deep breath, Cantu’s chilling voice still reverberating in his head along with Tim Grimes’ screams. When had the monster cornered and captured Tim? For how long had he held him in captivity? Since after his visit? Twenty four hours?”
Kat asked him to bring her medical bag from a nearby corner. Marcus had smirked the limp; nonetheless, he handed her the bag. Given the pain and horror that Tim must be facing at this moment, he could hardly focus his attention on a dog’s injury. Then he noticed how the dog had chewed a small bald spot into the fur around his left haunch, and that the dog, like gnawing at a tick, tore at the spot from moment to moment.
“Dog’s as nervous as the rest of us,” he commented as she tended toPaco’s paw.
“Is there any wonder, what with Carl out there screaming all night?” She probed with tweezers at the small cut. “I think he’s picked up some glass here,” she said.
“Only glass is from that broken window. Must’ve picked it up when Carl’s arm came crashin’ through.”
“No…this is granular glass…looks like from a car window.”
Marcus imagined a scenario in which Cantu attacked Tim while the big man was trapped behind the wheel, hardly capable of fast movement. “When you’re finished with the paw, Doctor, I’d like to interrogate the witness.”
She laughed, thinking the joke cute. “You do that, Joe Friday.”
“Whatever would you know of Joe Friday?” he asked.
“I get TV Land. See it in rerun along with Streets of San Francisco.”
“Ahhh…Carl Malden and Kirk Douglas’s son.”
“Who’s Kirk Douglas?” she teased.
“Vincent Van Gogh—the movie?”
She talked to the dog instead. “ You just take it easy, boy. We’ll rustle you up some grub. Thirsty no doubt.”
“So tell me, Paco,” he said in his toughest Joe Friday voice, “what happened to your hind end?”
Paco’s eyes appeared soulful, enough so that Marcus might believe in reincarnation. Still the dog wasn’t about to speak. Paco instead sat then laid and next reached full around to his left haunch to again bite furiously at some unseen annoyance—fleas no doubt. He kept up this concern with his backside until Kat returned with her hands full with water bowl and table scraps.”
“Leftovers again,” Marcus complained on behalf of the dog.
She laid it all out for a grateful Paco, whose paw was now wrapped in gauze and blanketing tape, the tape only reinforcing Marcus’s fear for Grimes. While the dog ate and drank, he pointed out the area around the right haunch that’d been losing out to Paco’s insistent attention for some time now. “You notice that before?” he asked.
“No…but I saw him teething and tearing at it the other day. Thought nothing of it. Looks like he’s developed a fixation on it. Dogs’ll do that.”
“Not psychotic like cats at all, are they?” he joked.
These woods’re probably teeming with ticks. Probably a tick sucking away at the poor animal’s blood. I’ll have a look.” She used a magnifying glass to thoroughly search the affected spot, which turned up a small but infected area the size of a quarter.
“What is it. Has he picked up a tick?” he asked, watching her deft hands and eyes examine Paco further. She put a penlight in her mouth and sprayed the hairy haunch with light, her eyes going wide.
“What is it, Kat?”
“Take a look at this. Something not right here—stitches.”
He’d been keeping one eye out for anything unusual outdoors, going from window to window like a bride waiting for a groom, but he now joined her and leaned in to see what was under her light. “Damn it all to hell!” he erupted, causing the feeding dog to growl.
“What is it, Morg?”
“Well look at it! You tell me! Cantu’s made a fool of us all.” His anger had overflowed to the point he kicked a chair across the room, startling Paco who barred his teeth at Mogan. Marcus turned on a battery-operated radio to loud. The music of Bob Segar singing Give me that old time religion filled the room.”
“Take it easy, Marcus!” she shouted, “You’ll bring on another…fainting spell, and you’re upsetting Paco.”
“Lock the dog in the a closet, Kat.”
“What? Turn that damn rock-a-billy music down so I can hearrrr you!” She exaggeratedly placed a hand to one ear.
“Lock Paco up for now.”
“He’s working for the enemy.”
“Paco, an enemy combatant?”
“He’s bugged and possibly controlled.”
On hearing the noise and Paco’s barking, Nora and the children came rushing into the room. Marcus shouted for Nora to get the children back as Paco, hunkered into a position that threatened Marcus. The German Shepherd, teeth barred, gums showing, slavering remnants of food, coiled, ready to spring now, ready to leap at Marcus’s throat. The dog’s eyes had gone wide and insane with ferocity. Marcus whipped out his Glock. which had been nestled in the small of the back just as Nora herded the screaming children from the mad, slavering dog.
“Don’t shoot him, Marcus! Please, hold off!” pleaded Kat.
“No choice, Kat. He’s trained to go for the jugular. He could kill me in a matter of seconds.”
“Paco couldn’t do that!”
“It’s an implant, a computer chip—just beneath the stitches.”
She rifled through her bag for anything that might diffuse the wired dog. “We need a damn tranquilizer dart, but I don’t carry tranquilizer darts. But if we could muzzle him!”
“He’d tear you up if you tried, Kat. He’s got claws as well as teeth.”
“He only has the use of one paw. I can do this!”
“No, back off!” He chambered a round.
“You can’t just kill him!” She rolled out the blanketing tape and straddled the dog, who wasn’t having any of it as Marcus shouted, “Kat, outta the way!” She felt the claws rip into her as she worked furiously to wind and wrap and twist and bind the dog’s snout in the manner of rendering an alligator harmless, and next she grabbed and wrapped the second forepaw. Kat’s mad attempt to save the dog made Marcus toss aside the gun and jump in, using his weight to help control the wild ripping hind claws now that snout and front claws had been rendered helpless.
It’d taken great sacrifice and Kat’s face, neck, hands, and arms bled from multiple rents, tears, and bites. She was successful in saving Paco’s life, but the result had her faint and reeling. With the dog subdued and tragically fighting to fulfill its mission but unable to, Marcus realized the chip had to come out now, else the dog’s mind would go along with any allegiance that Paco might owe them.
He tended to Kat first, getting her to lie still on the floor, placing a pillow beneath her head. He grabbed what he needed from the bag and poured peroxide over her wounds and wrapped the worst of the lot as she kept saying, “Get that damn chip outta Paco. Never mind me. I’m all right, Morg. Please.”
He found a sedative and suture cutters. He cut a hole in the blanketing tape around the dog’s muzzle and forced a couple of the pills down its throat, hearing Paco gulp twice. He doused the area around the bug and sutures using alcoholic wipes and immediately cut away the four sutures that’d already begun to burrow into the skin. This made the dog yelp under the muzzle, but Marcus did not slow his pace. With each snip, the wound opened further, the lip of the original cut beginning to smile back. Now came the hard part.
“How is it going, Marcus?” she asked, unable to see from her position. She pushed up on elbows to his telling her to stay down.
He now had to probe the wound for the chip, and the only hopeful thought was that the thing had to be fairly close to the surface in order to operate at optimum capacity. This ought to make it findable with the instrument he’d located in Kat’s bag, small forceps. By this time, Kat was alongside him, saying, “Allow me.”
“Are you sure?”
Her right hand took the forceps from him, blood dripping yet from it and matting in the dog’s hair. “I’ve got it.” And she did. In a blink, the chip came out in the bite of the clamp. It looked like a tiny robotic insect, fat bodied with multiple legs and feelers.
It proved the size of a lithium battery.
Their eyes met across the small object.
They remained silent.
He wanted to kill Paco.
She shivered, attempting to recall every word that’d passed between and among them all while Paco lay nearby, sharing it all with Cantu.
She almost dropped the bug into the dog’s water bowl, thinking it would end its effectiveness immediately and that this is what Marcus wanted. He instead slapped her hand away from the bowl, sending the device skittering across the wooden floor. From somewhere deeper in the house, he heard the children crying, no doubt still terrified of the beast that Paco had become of him.
“What’d you do that for?” she asked, staring across to where the transmitter-receiver now spun like a top, a bug on its back, unable to right itself.
He whispered as Bob Seger now sang of finding love in the back of a car. “I want that thing to work in reverse. This dog’s going to work for our side now.”
With Paco sedated now, she whispered back as she tended to the infected area where they’d removed the chip, “I won’t let you, Marcus.”
He stared back.
“Don’t you think he’s been through enough manipulation already?”
“Haven’t we all?” he protested. Marcus stood and went to the bug. He lifted it and went in search for the fine tools of his trade, those of the private eye. As a former marine himself, he knew just how valuable both the bug and the dog had become.
“I won’t let you turn the dog into a murder weapon, Marcus!”
But he’d closed a door between them so that neither he nor the fiend listening in on them might hear. “’Bout time Paco earned his keep.”