By Robert W. Walker
Chapter TWENTY FIVE
After some time passed, and as Marcus felt surer and surer that Cantu was planning some sort of frontal attack, he kept watchful vigilance, going from one side of the house to the other, one window to the other. As he did so, Kat followed him about, and the couple soon began to talk again as she had complimented his scoped Bushmaster Varmint Special as he called it. “Five in the chamber,” she said again, “but I see the size of the rounds’re huge, and you’re right, of course, she’s a real beauty.”
“Damn straight she is. Sure automatic assault rifles’ve become the weapon of choice on the streets these days,” Marcus informed her. “But I like the control of a semi-automatic.”
“Terry was always saying the bad guys’re going automatic.”
“Unfortunately, too true,” he replied, still going about the house from vantage point to vantage point with the high-powered weapon in hand, “Back in November of 2007, an Atlanta man went off his meds, stole a truck, and threatened its owner with an assault rifle. Led police and county deputies on a half-hour chase, firing at them the entire way.”
“Using a high-powered assault rifle—fully automatic, right?” she replied, trying to keep up with his dizzying movement. “Yeah, I read about it. They got the guy, right?”
“His weapon pierced body armor. Six cops were hospitalized, and one died of his wounds.”
“It was like that LA bank robbery shootout I saw on Seconds From Disaster. Cops were out-gunned, out-equipped, right? Terry bitched about that all the time.”
“Some six months later, a man hiding in a patch of woods in Pickneyville –a park actually in Norcross, Gwinnett, County, fired an assault rifle at a sheriff’s cruiser, killing a deputy.”
She nodded successively. “Saw it on the news.”
“And earlier this month, a man stood outside a busy Peachstreet day care center waving an assault rifle and yelling threats to his girlfriend inside.”
Kat imagined the staff locking doors and huddling children in closets.
“High-powered rifles’ve become increasingly visible in the Atlanta area and the nation, thanks in large part to the expiration of a ten-year ban on their sale. Since then, law enforcement fears of the worst case scenario, unfortunately, has come about.”
Marcus went to the rear windows now, peering out, using his night vision. She kept pace, as he continued on his tear against what’d come about on the streets of his city. “As a result, the APD and other police agencies across America have enhanced their own firepower. They’ve begun to carrying assault rifles—semi-automatic.”
“Terry said it’d come to that one day.”
“One day is here. Atlanta patrol officers are kinda sorta equipped with Colt AR-15s, the same weapon U.S. troops carry in battle, only semi-automatic. Even so, bullets from these weapons travel up to 2,700 feet per second and are powerful enough to penetrate body armor.”
“’Lanta, she ain’t what she used be,” Kat said in a half-joking, lilting manner.
“Gotta fight farrr with farrr,” Marcus mimicked some of the locals.
She joined in, adding, “Our town, she ain’t so sleepy no more.”
“And neither is Syracuse, Phoenix, Tacoma, Birmingham, Mobile, Tampa-St. Pete and hundreds other smaller cities.”
“No alternative but to arm the police as heavily as possible,” she said, following him to yet another window. “The bad guys are smarter nowadays and better equipped, including the terrorists.”
“So far, first officers who completed the required sixteen hours of instruction in late January, more than 150—roughly a fifth of the total force have—to a man—ordered the Colts. Surprise!”
“A euphemism? Surprise?” she asked.
“For exceeding department expectations.”
“What did the department expect?”
“You don’t understand, these guns cost between twelve and fifteen hundred bucks, and a cop has to make his own purchase. In departmental terms: use of the Colt AR-15 is optional.”
“Optional, heh? In other words, use it at your own peril, because if you do, you may wind up behind bars. Still, Terry’d’ve been first in line for the gun, had he lived.”
He turned to her, considering her pain, but only said, “The rifles provide a layer of comfort, to be sure…even though not a one’s been fired.”
“Never? A hundred fifty cops carrying them and—”
“None fired beyond the firing range, not a single shot from a cop nationwide. Maybe if and when another LA shootout erupts, they’ll be forced to.”
They’d finally lighted in one spot and settled below the living room windows.
“World’s changed since 9-11, Columbine…Oklahoma bombing…terrorists both homegrown and exotic,” she mused.
“One of the selling points for the Colt was an April incident last year involving JT. A round from an SKS assault rifle grazed his head as he chased gunmen wanted in a series of drive-by shootings, one fatal.”
“My God, I didn’t know.”
“The bullet, fired from a speeding car, sailed through the windshield, grazed John, then pierced the Plexiglas prisoner barrier behind his head…blew out the rear window.”
“That’s close! What’d he do?”
“He rammed his car into theirs. Used it battering ram fashion.”
“Against an assault rifle?”
“On the street, you improvise.”
“God, imagine if a rookie cop had pulled the shooter’s car to the curb to talk about a broken tail light or a wrong turn.”
“The beat cop couldn’t get near these guns. That weapon has a range of 300 yards. Up till now, we ordinary cops’ve been using a weapon with an effective range of twenty-five yards.”
“So assault rifles even the field?”
“Atlanta brass finally figured it out, heh?” she asked, slurring her words a bit. She’d been sipping at her third glass of wine. “Too late for Terry.”
“They only approved use of the Colt AR-15 June 2007.”
“Figures. Had he had one when he faced Cantu—”
“Cantu came up on Terry and the others from behind with an automatic, a flanking maneuver none of us could’ve foreseen.” He explained in detail how Cantu had set them all up that day.
“I can just see the guidelines for guys like Terry,” she said. “A rifle may be used only when an officer is confronted with a high-risk situation.”
“Which is a matter of judgment.”
“Such as to overcome suspects with superior firepower.”
“As in an active shooter situation,” he replied. “I see you know the lingo.”
“Terry taught me well. And I read that your confronting Cantu that day was a barricaded subject situation, which meant you all could have used far more firepower than you went in with.”
“No one knew the situation until too late. It was labeled a BS situation after the fact for official reports and PR.”
“BS—barricaded situation after the fact? Bastards never told me that.”
“So any heavy artillery we did have—”
“—was in your trunks.” She held back tears.
“That’s about it, yeah. Unless it’s a stakeout, a perimeter operation, a felony-vehicle stop—”
“And it’s still true only now the heavy artillery in the trunk is heavier.”
Marcus frowned and nodded. “’Fraid so. Kept in a hard case in the trunk.
“Unless and until—”
“—one of these situations arise. The rifles can’t even be yanked out for show, ahhh…intimidation purposes.”
“Terry talked about how they could be modified to allow automatic fire, but that it was against the law.”
“Still is, even for cops, so officers who own ’em, they have to bring ‘em in for annual inspection by the departmental armorer. Usually do it same time they qualify in the shooting range each year.”
“The rifle’s .223 caliber bullets are like a .22-caliber on steroids,” said Marcus in his training officer voice. “They’re called soft point rounds—and”
“Meaning they expand quickly on impact.”
He stared at her, impressed. “It’ll stop after penetrating eleven inches.”
“Terry said that’s one reason some officials don’t want the good guys using assault rifles.”
“Right, these bullets travel at such a velocity that they pose a threat to bystanders. They can easily sail right through an intended target to strike anything or anyone back of him.”
“Same rifle and munitions used by the DC sniper, I know.”
He took hold of her hand. “You know, I really am sorry you lost Terry.”
Outside in the darkness, the sound of a wounded animal rose, fell, rose again and again. “What’s that?”
They quieted. In the distance, they heard the sound of barking. Paco.
Marcus listened at the receiver he’d Jerry-rigged. The sound of breaking twigs, crackling fire, and the human screams filtered through in a mechanical tone.
“What is that?” she repeated as Nora and the children joined them, asking the same question.
“Sounds a lot like the cries we heard last night during the storm, only amplified, thanks to the bug.”
“Carl? You think it’s Carl?” shouted Nora.
Marcus worried about responding to this in front of the children, but Nora remained insistent. Finally, he said, “I have no doubt.”
The horrid cries welling up from the surrounding black forest could be heard coming from outside and now inside, thanks to the receiver. “Turn it off!” cried Nora and Marcus did so. Still the wailing continued outside.
“My God, it’s him,” continued Nora, wringing her hands. “It’s my Carl!” Nora tore through the room, going for the door, prepared to race out into the night after the sound of the obviously hurt, wounded man. Marcus caught her as she ripped open the door and an arrow struck the door panel inches from her eye. Marcus instantly recognized the modern steel-tipped aluminum arrow as the sort that Tim Grimes liked to hunt with; Grimes would’ve been carrying his high-powered bow, state-of-the-art, in the trunk of his cruiser. He was the kind of hunter who switched from scoped rifles to scoped bows.
The accuracy of Tim’s bow was so fine that Marcus knew in an instant that had Cantu meant to put the arrow through Nora’s right eye instead of the door, he most certainly could have. No, it was just another scare tactic; just another way to watch the mice in his maze scatter—just another belly laugh for Iden Cantu.
Marcus slammed the door shut just as a second and a third arrow rattled the wood frame. He and Nora fell to the floor together with her kids and Katrina rushing to join them. All five now huddled below the door, which took another jolting thud from yet another arrow.
# # #
“It’s time you guys got out and down to the boat,” Marcus said in as calm a manner as he can muster. “I’ll keep him occupied here, now. So get everyone into camouflage and out through the cellar, and Kat, bring me my equipment laid out on the bed.
Outside Carl began begging for help from the house in a near unintelligible voice. “Pull-lee-ease…Stry-stryd-well, Norrr-ah, helllp me…help me…help.”
From the very tone of the plea, Marcus imagined a number of Carl’s bones had already been broken, and he imagined the pain the other man had already endured. If Tim’s body was any measure of what Cantu was capable of, Marcus knew that the monster had no intention of allowing any sort of rescue of Carl, and in fact, he feared that Carl might this moment be hanging from a tree, Cantu preparing to light the match that would ignite a fire below his victim.
He scanned the darkness in every direction with his night-vision binoculars. But he could see nothing untoward despite the continued distress cries of the doomed man.
“For-For G-G-God’s-sake!” Schramick screamed out. “Paaa-lll-ease helllp!”
Kat returned with his two-way and his high-powered, scoped Remington Scorpion, just in case five rounds wasn’t enough. Marcus stubbornly declined for the Bushmaster Varmint Killer he’d brought with him earlier. She recalled how earlier Marcus had strapped the night-vision goggles and had stuffed his pockets with the flare gun and flares. He looked like a Martian now with the night-vision wear as he repeated his search of the darkness.
From Marcus’s point of view, the forests had become a fairyland in green light, looking like a surreal screen saver. As he scanned, he saw Cantu pouring gasoline on a small bonfire he meant to set below the dangling form of a thing with Carl’s face. It was the same as with Grimes’s body, but Carl remained alive. Just barely but alive. He’d been trussed up into a bundle, encased in a net, dangled from a tree limb. The now familiar package.
Marcus quickly pulled up the Bushmaster and fired through the window, his shot sure as Cantu leapt, screaming into the bush. “I got him.”
“Are you certain?”
“The shot made contact. That much is certain.”
Kat remained skeptical. “He could still be alive. Likely wearing Kevlar, too.”
“Or better than Kevlar. We’ll know soon enough. Now get the others out the back. Do it, Kat, now! It’s our best chance even if he’s only wounded.”
Carl continued begging and pleading for his life where he dangled. Kat raced to gather the others and to make the escape work. Marcus remained vigilant, his eyes through the night vision wear never leaving the spot where he’d last seen Cantu.
No movement. No return fire.
Maybe he’d gotten lucky; perhaps the single shot from the lightweight Bushmaster had done its job. A quick glance at his watch told him the children and the ladies must by now be below the deck and exiting at the lake and finding the boat. He’d placed the boat at such an angle that Katrina could steer them away from any stumbling upon Grimes’ remains in the shallows the other side of the dock.
Soon they’d be making the lake crossing. Soon he’d be alone with the devil save for what remained of Carl, out there hanging, twirling below that tree limb.
Marcus threw open the door, now with four steel-tipped arrows jutting from it, and he dove for the dirt at the base of the stairs, dog-peddled with his rifle in hand and located a dark corner below the porch from which to fire a second shot when and if need be. He worked the flare gun out of the pocket of his camouflage suit, cocked it, placed his hand out from below the porch and fired it straight into the heavens.
The flare rose burning rocket-like and reached a crescendo and began falling to earth, lighting up the entire scene around Carl, and the area where Marcus had last seen Cantu.
No sign of Cantu.
Not a sound.
Marcus taunted him. “I know you’re hit and bleeding, you bastard of hell!”
“No response until Paco began barking and frolicking around the killing flames now working their way up to Schramick whose chorus of pain returned with a heart-wrenching finale.”
Marcus hoped for the best but feared the worst. Feared that Cantu had somehow learned of their secret exit and was at this moment taking Nora, the children, and Kat into his possession when suddenly the fire below Carl ignited large, flames licking at the parcel he’d become.
Had Cantu thrown a lighter or a match on it, or had sparks from the falling flare set off the gas fumes? It killed him inside to think that he had added to the fire now consuming what was left of Schramick.
He kept a vigilant eye out for Cantu even as he wanted to make a dash for Carl, to salvage what he could of the man. As he weighed his options, the fire beneath Carl took on more life, building as if Carl’s screams had become the accelerant.
“Where are you, you psycho bastard,” muttered Marcus to himself, knowing he must do something and do it now if he meant to do anything whatsoever for Schramick. He made his move, lifting from his position and rushing for the cover of a nearby tree when an arrow thudded into Marcus’s left arm, the force knocking him to the ground as if hit by a car. He heard Cantu’s sick laughter the moment his arrow had hit its mark, and through the excruciating pain, he realized had Cantu wished, he could’ve ended it with one strike. Still playing games, still toying with Marcus.
Marcus threw himself against the tree he’d earlier sought, his arm bleeding profusely, the arrow like a part of him now. At the same time, the fire beneath Carl had set Schramick into a screaming jag, the horror of it floating out over the lake, no doubt heard by Kat, Nora, and the kids. But at least, by now, they were halfway across the lake.
Marcus, sweat chilling his body, fearing he might pass out, took firm hold of the arrow tip that’d gone through his left arm. With firm determination and teeth clenched, he first inched it out until he had a fistful of shaft. Taking a deep breath, he quickly located his Bowie knife and not without pain notched the feather section and broke it off. His head reeling from the torment of it all, he now snatched the shaft and pulled the offensive thing all the way through and out of him. He knew he could not take another shot like that and remain conscious.
Meanwhile, Carl’s wrapped body, taped and folded in on itself, twirled furiously now with the wind of fire beneath it. Marcus couldn’t possibly get at him without being killed, and in fact, even if he completely ignored Cantu as an impediment, Marcus knew that he couldn’t get to Carl in time.
The screams sounded like those rising from hell.
Marcus dropped to one knee, aimed at Carl but the body kept twirling. He wanted a single shot to put him out of any further suffering, a shot through the heart or head. But now the package had Carl’s back to him and it quit twirling. Another arrow struck the tree at Marcus’s eye level, sending splinters into his face. He ignored Cantu’s toying with him, kept steady, decoded where on the back the man’s head and heart would be and with two rapid shots, he got at least one of these as Carl’s ungodly screams instantly stopped.
Marcus pulled back behind the tree to the thud of another arrow the other side of it. Again came Cantu’s laughter. Cantu then shouted across the chasm between them as Carl’s body caught entirely aflame, “Made you do it, Rydell! Made you kill an innocent man!”
Marcus wheeled and took aim, but the other man was a ghost, gone into the night, leaving the burning carcass dangling like so much garbage.
Marcus knew he must somehow keep Cantu engaged, his attention away from the lake. He knew he could not allow him the peace of thinking the others were no longer in the house; no longer in the wicked lunatic’s trap.
To this end, Marcus made his way out and down the driveway. He knew of a couple of turn-ins off the road in the direction that Cantu’d come from. Perhaps Grimes’ cruiser—now Cantu’s escape vehicle—might be found there. One flare to the interior and it would erupt in a ball of flame.
As he made his way, he sadly watched the bonfire that Cantu had made of Schramick. The fire flared over with a burst of gasoline. Final ghost screams erupted from Carl Shramick inside Marcus’s skull, and slowly…ever so slowly, the fire burned itself out, leaving a smoldering square package of the dangling body. And slowly, ever so slowly, Carl’s screams inside Marcus ended as well, but he knew he’d never completely rid himself of Schramick’s and Tim’s cries.
Cantu had practiced this method of torture and murder so often now that he had it down to a black art. Marcus must end the life of this crazed zealot for death, this devotee of Satan, and he must do it now.