Chapter 23


TWENTY-THREE

Near the end of my hike, my cheeks were frozen. The slight wind made my eyes tear. My hands were relatively warm in the pea coat's pockets, but my injured ear burned in the freezing temperature. I tilted the flat bottle of Jim Beam up to my lips. The glass was cold, but the warm liquid did its work.

I stopped short of the circle of light cast off by the floods around the house. There were four vehicles parked in front. Two sedans, one with Florida plates. The red Camaro parked next to a white Jeep Cherokee. Lights still blazed in most of the windows. They must've thought they lived too far up the hill to bother with curtains.

I sneaked around back, clinging to the darkness. There was a toolshed. I crouched behind it and surveyed the house from the rear. Construction on a wooden deck, which wrapped around the house, had been brought to a halt. Maybe they were waiting for better weather. The snow wasn't falling any heavier, but it wasn't letting up either.

I light-footed it closer, peeked inside a window.

Two men sat in plush chairs. Looked like a den. One was the short fat one who'd helped knock down the door to my motel room. The other was new. Tennessee Volunteers T-shirt, jeans, house slippers. He had a thick beard and little dark eyes, a dull expression. Basketball game on the television. Beer bottles on the coffee table. I watched a minute. A woman came in, dirty blond, big hips. She talked. The men nodded. She left.

The three original guys plus the new guy and the woman. That was five. So far.

I moved down the length of the house. I watched the kitchen a moment, but it was empty. The dirty blond came in a moment later, started doing something in the fridge. I circled to the side of the house and found a bedroom. It looked pretty neat; the bed was made. I watched a minute, but nobody entered. The living room window. Nobody there.

I started back around the side but heard the front door slam, then a car door. Ignition. Somebody driving away. I looked around the corner of the house and spotted taillights descending the driveway. I looked to see which car was missing from the lineup. The sedan with Florida plates.

I jogged back to the toolshed. I was taking another tug at the Jim Beam when I heard the squealing hinges, looked up to see the back door of the house swinging open. I jumped into the toolshed and pulled the door almost shut, leaving just enough open to watch.

It was the two guys who'd been watching the basketball game. They walked toward the toolshed, buttoning coats. I held my breath, but they stopped half way, turned to face each other. The bearded guy pulled out a pack of cigarettes, offered one to the other.

"It is- no shit- fucking freezing out here."

They talked low but not at a whisper.

"Tom don't let nobody smoke in the house," said Shorty.

Good for Tom.

"Where did Tina go?" Bearded Guy stomped his feet, hunched his shoulders against the cold. Little flakes of snow dotted their heads and shoulders.

"With Big Dave up to Tina's lake cabin. They took the girl."

"What for?"

"She talked it over with Dave. They thought the girl should be away from here what with that fellow around and all."

"What the hell do they know?"

Shorty shrugged. "She's trained for this stuff, not me."

"This is screwed up." He took quick, nervous puffs on the cigarette. "Nobody said nothing about no kidnapping. We was just supposed to steal some books."

"It was a good plan."

"Well, it's screwed up now."

"It's still a good plan. Or would you rather go back to third shift at the factory?"

"I'm just saying it's all screwed up. Nothing like this ever goes right."

"How the hell would you know?"

"Anyone can see it's screwed up." Puff, puff.

"Stop so much worrying, will you? Let Tina worry about it."

"Tina." He said her name like it was a false idol.

"Come on," said Shorty. "I'm freezing my fucking balls off."

They flicked their butts into the snow. I watched them trudge back, go in the house.

I sighed, took a swig of the Jim Beam. If I'd acted immediately I might have caught them before they moved Amber. I still needed to get into the house to find out where this lake cabin was.

And for Danny. Yeah. For Danny, the bloody hand of justice had arrived. In spite of the cold, I unbuttoned my pea coat, gave myself a clear path for the.32 in the shoulder holster. I'd try the back door. Maybe they'd left it open after having a smoke, but just in case, I thought I'd better look through the shed for something to pry with.

I turned, and the crack of light from the toolshed door fell across a pair of wide human eyes looking back at me.

I flinched back up against the wall of the toolshed, fell down, scattered rakes and shovels, a startled cry smothered in my throat. My heart beat through my ear and my hand. The body hung there from a hook on the wall.

I pushed the door open, let a little more light spill in.

Lou Morgan hung there as dead as it was possible to be.

"Aw, New Guy," I whispered to him. "Aw hell."

I fumbled the cap off the pill bottle. Took one and drank it back with whiskey. My hands shook. I said, "Okay, Lou. You're on the list right behind Bob Tate." And Benny and anyone else who hadn't deserved this.

I went through his pockets, but his wallet was gone along with everything else. In the inside pocket of his leather jacket, I found a cellophane-wrapped cigar about six inches long.

I almost tossed it down but unwrapped it and stuck it in my mouth instead. "Okay, Lou?"

Thanks, dude.

I screwed the silencer onto the end of the.32, grabbed a crowbar from the floor of the shed. I put on a fresh pair of latex gloves. Show time. They'd locked the back door, but not terribly well, no chain or bolt. I pried it open, the wood splintering. A little noisy, not bad. Nobody came to investigate. The door opened into a short hall, washer and dryer on the right. Both machines were running. The noise probably helped cover my entrance. I turned left into the kitchen.

Empty. The sound of the television came from the den beyond.

I entered the den. Shorty's back was to me. He leaned over a CD player, was putting a disc in. He didn't hear me come up behind. I tapped him on the shoulder and he turned.

He saw me, eyes big. His mouth fell open, sucked breath for a shout. I stuck the silencer down his throat, and his lips closed over it reflexively. I pulled the trigger. Poot. A miniature volcano of blood, hair, flesh, and bone erupted from the back of his skull. His eyes rolled back, and he slid off the gun barrel with a wet pop as he slumped to the floor.

I looked at what he'd put in the CD player. Johnny Cash. Why not? I pushed it in, hit play. Turned it way up. Picked up the television remote and hit mute. I understood in some disconnected way that the pain medication was mixing badly with the whiskey. I tried to remember how many pills I'd had in the last few hours. At least two.

I heard bizarre, demented laughter. It was me.

I took out the nearly empty Jim Beam flask, held it awkwardly in my bad hand.

The bassline for "I Walk the Line" began, and a woman appeared in the kitchen door. Not the dirty blond, thinner, young and pretty with a heart-shaped face. She saw me, her hand going to the surprised O of her mouth like she'd just let a little girly burp.

Poot.

A little yelp and she pitched forward, kissing carpet.

I took a hit of Jim, fumbled the bottle to the carpet and bent quickly to pick it up before it all spilled out. At the same moment, a shotgun spoke thunder behind me. Somebody had come around through the other hall. The pellets blasted over my head, shredding plaster on the far wall. I spun a small arc, firing quickly to catch my attacker.

Poot. Poot. Poot. Poot.

I'd caught him with the middle two bullets halfway through his attempt to pump another shell into the shotgun chamber. He staggered into the wall, slid down dead into a sitting position. The bearded guy. I heard a scream. People shouting orders back and forth.

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.

I picked up Shorty's dead body, kicked him ahead of me in front of the opening to the hall where Bearded Guy had come from. The hall became a hail of gunfire. I wasn't there. I was legging it fast around through the other hall.

In the living room, the ex-military looking guy was thumbing fresh rounds into his revolver, he saw me-

I keep my eyes wide open all the time.

┬ĘC butter-fingered the bullets. We both watched them fall in breathtaking, slow motion. They bounced off the carpet. His eyes came back up, met mine.

Poot. Poot.

He fell.

Because you're mine, I walk the line.

Outside, a car started.

I exploded out the front door, dropped the.32 in the snow. The Jeep escaped at a dangerous speed down the steep driveway. I drew the Minelli cannon, fired until it was empty.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.

Each shot was accompanied by a spectacular gout of flame. The Jeep's left taillight shattered and went out. The back window disintegrated. I caught the back, right tire just as the Jeep was going into a tight curve. It rolled on its side, sliding down the snowy slope and off the path, snapping saplings, until it smacked into the trunk of a large pine with a sickening metallic crunch.

I watched for a few seconds, but nobody got out of the Jeep.

Going through the rest of the house took only a minute, but they were all dead or gone. On the way back out I grabbed the.32 out of the snow, reloaded the clip.

I skipped down to the truck. The bitter cold, I now found exhilarating.

At the wreck, I went to one knee and looked in the Jeep. Two people hung upside down. The man in the passenger side was new to me, but it hardly mattered. I could tell by the angle of his neck, the way his head was jammed up against the windshield that he was all done.

The dirty blond dangled from the driver's seat, blood dripping from her nose and one ear.

"Help me," she said weakly.

"Who's that?" I pointed at the dead man in the passenger's seat.

"Tom."

"Good."

"Help." Her voice was a sad, tiny croak.

"I want the girl."

"Tina."

"I know. Where?"

"The lake cabin."

"I know. Where?"

"Up the mountain."

"I thought this was up the mountain."

"More."

"Tell me how."

"Left out of the driveway. Stone Lake. There's a few cabins. People build. It's the only finished cabin. Closest to the dock."

"What road?"

"Stone Lake Trail."

"Okay." I leaned into the can of the Jeep, reached passed her and pushed in the cigarette lighter.

She pawed at me with desperate, feeble hands. "Please."

The lighter popped. I used it to light Lou's cigar, puffed a big blue-gray cloud which twisted away on the dark wind.

"Who are you?" she asked.

"I am the angel of death and mercy. There used to be an angel for each, but now we're the same."

Poot.

A dreadful, slow drowsiness replaced the twisted euphoria of the pills.

I trudged back up to the house, tossed the cigar into the snow.

In the kitchen, I splashed water into my face, drank big gulps from the faucet. I went in their bathroom, took a long leak in the toilet.

I slugged it down the mountain, the snow halfway up my shin. The cold seeped into my bones now, the bottom of my pants wet. I was numb and tired. I looked up, noticed the snow had stopped.

I climbed into the Silverado, cranked it, turned the heat up all the way.

I turned around and drove slowly over the mountain road. Maybe ten minutes into the drive I passed a sign. It was dark, and I went by too fast to read it, but it might have said Stone Lake Trail.

I turned the wheel, and the truck came around sluggishly. There wasn't any traffic, so I crept upon the sign at 5 mph. Stone Lake Trail.

I made the turn. The road was dirt, a steep climb, even steeper than Tom and Tina's driveway, but the truck didn't have any trouble. I flipped it into four-wheel drive just to make certain.

My eyelids were lead. My mouth lolled open. Breath came roughly, heavily. I pulled the truck over, set the emergency brake. I needed the thermos; maybe there was coffee left although it might not be so warm.

It was down behind the passenger seat. I bent down for it. Reached... down.

Down.

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