Okay, you writers can see what I am up to. A totally bizarre concept — a man perfect in every particular steps from a painting into the real world. A cop finds him walking on a rural road, and there we go. Right away, I start flooding the page with granular detail to distract the reader from the unbelievable premise. At the same time, I begin to spin a story about the police officer to make him likeable. He has a wife, kids and a dog. I want readers to like and care about him as the story begins to unreel. As an aside, the self-publishing vultures have taken note and, boy, are they trying to get a hook into me. Won’t happen, you guys.
It is late at night and Rex is stretched out with ankles crossed and fingers laced behind his head. The door opens to reveal a bearded man in denim work clothes that have seen a lot of wear.
“Come on in,” Rex says. People pop by his room all the time. The nurses bring him treats from the kitchen.
Rex rises from the bed, accepting this as he accepts everything.
“Evil is near.”
“What is evil?”
“We have no time for that.”
“What should I do?”
The man pulls out a thick roll of cash. “This is called money. This is a hundred dollar bill, the most valuable.” He thumbs past them. “The twenty is five times less valuable. The ten is ten times less and so on. Put it in your jacket pocket and follow me.”
They go downstairs to a side door where a car idles. “You may think you don’t know how to drive, but you know more things than you realize. Go out the gate and turn left.”
“Where do I go?”
“Wherever the car takes you. Quickly, there’s not a minute to lose.”
“Are you coming?”
“You’re on your own for now.”
When Rex looks back in his rearview mirror, the man has been swallowed by the shadows. He reaches the gate and turns left. Sixty seconds later, two hulking black SUVs turn into the grounds.
* * *
The phone rings at the bedside table and Randall answers. “Sarge,” the dispatcher says in a tight voice, “we got a 911 call from Templeton Hall.”
“A woman reported a break-in. I heard screaming and then the line was dead. All units are responding, but I thought you’d want to know.”
“You told the chief and lieutenant?”
He gets there in twenty minutes. The flashing blue lights give the stately hall a festive look. Officer Regis Cantrell approaches, his features frozen in shock.
“Far as we can see, everyone’s dead. Twenty-five or thirty people. Everybody was tortured.” He is swallowing hard. “Excuse me.” He takes two steps away and vomits.
The sergeant walks through the rooms as if in a dream. Bodies are everywhere. Ears and noses have been hacked off and there are genital mutilations. Doctor Ashford’s legs and arms were cut off on the billiard table.
This is all my fault, Randall thinks. He wonders if he should go home and pull the covers over his head. Before it was just an expression, but now it seems an intelligent choice.
“Get everybody outside and put the yellow tape up,” he orders. State and federal investigators would be here by first light. Who knows what evidence has already been ruined.
He hadn’t bothered looking for Rex among the bodies. There would be no need for torture if he had been here. Ashford was probably the first victim to show they meant business.
He tells dispatch to cancel the ambulances rushing to the scene from all over in keeping with the disaster plan drawn up after 9/11. He orders a cruiser to block the front gate and posts officers around the grounds to seal the crime scene. He surrenders command to the Chief Parker and Frudenthaler when they arrive with clothes over their pajamas. The lieutenant lumbers about, making a show of barking orders, but Randall has done all that is needed. Chief Parker, a smaller scale version of the portly Frudenthaler, sends an officer off to bring his best uniform.
“The media will buzz in here like flies to shit,” he says. “And I wouldn’t bet against our showboat governor showing up.” He turns sad hound dog eyes from his shoes to the sergeant. “How many bodies?”
“I make it thirty-three.”
The evening passes and then an interminable gray morning. News copters clatter over Templeton Hall and a fleet of trucks with roaring generators and satellite dishes take up their station at the front gate. The reporters are nearly all beautiful women, future anchors with great hair and terrific figures. A catering outfit arrives and dispenses coffee and sandwiches to the multiplying number of investigators and forensic technicians. The governor helicopters in to tell the beautiful reporters that those responsible will be captured and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. His chopper lifts off, making sandwich wrappers and paper cups fly across the green lawn. Randall eats two polish dogs with fries and indigestion starts. Abigail has reduced fat and salt in the family diet for health reasons. It’s because I’m out of training, he thinks when he battles back the acid reflux. He eats two more later in the day before he departs the crime scene.
“The second string will come in tomorrow or the next day,” a producer tells him. “The old, bald guys work the yarn from then.”
“How long will that be?”
“A week anyhow.”
Nothing like this has ever happened before and everyone is hyper at headquarters. As soon as phones are hung up they ring again. The limping, pie-eyed janitor they call Molasses does his job in double time and looks for more to do. Abigail calls from Wisconsin.
“My God, what happened?”
“Pretty much what you see on TV.”
“It must be hell.”
“I won’t keep you. We love you.”
“Back at you.”
At four o’clock, Randall is called to the chief’s office where two state detectives look at him coldly; a guy in his fifties and a younger one with a wolfish look of ambition. It occurs to the sergeant that reputations stand to be made on this case.
“Sit down, Sergeant,” says Parker. He peers at Randall over heavy tortoise-shell half-moon glasses.
“We’d like to ask a few questions,” says the older detective. He is fat and balding with a broad, blunt nose with broken capillaries.
“What did you say your name is?” Randall asks, covering a belch. The indigestion is back.
“Ferguson. This is Napier.”
“Okay, what do you want to know?”
“What can you tell us about the person you dropped off at the sanitarium?” asks Napier. He is thin with slicked-back hair that shows lots of scalp.
“Not much.” The sergeant describes seeing Rex on the road at twilight and determining that he was an amnesia victim. “I took him to Templeton Hall.”
“Why there and not headquarters?” Ferguson asks. “Or call in and get an okay to go straight to the hospital.”
“It was closer.”
“But it’s private.”
“They didn’t have a problem.”
“When was this?” Napier asks too casually.
“A couple of days ago.”
“But Frudenthaler said you didn’t report it until yesterday,” Chief Parker says.
“I got busy.”
“You do everything by the book I’m told,” Ferguson says. “Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.”
Randall is silent.
“But not this time, it seems.”
“Did you know this person before?” asks Napier. Randall guesses his is the theory driving this line of questioning.
“No.” Randall notices a small tape recorder on the chief’s desk. “Is that running?”
“Do you have a problem?” Napier asks.
“Aren’t you supposed to tell me?”
Parker adjusts his half glasses. “This is an internal investigation.”
“At this point anyway,” Ferguson notes. “You suppose this amnesia victim had anything to do with what happened?”
“That’s my guess.”
“What’s the connection?”
“That’s the question.”
“Got an answer?” Napier asks, studying his nails in a parody of nonchalance. “See, there’s no evidence about who did it that we can see. No fingerprints, no tire tracks, no nothing. It’s like somebody who know what he’s doing made sure no evidence was left. That doctor kept a log. That’s how we found out you were a day late.”
“It doesn’t look good,” Parker rumbles, turning his chair with a squeak to look out the window.
“He wrote my name in his log?” Randall asks. He wonders who else saw it.
“It was on the doctor’s desk,” Napier says. “Smeared with blood. What else can you tell about the guy with amnesia?”
“He’s some kind of athlete. Makes three pointers all day long. You might check with the NBA. Or he might be a piano player.”
“That’s quite a spread,” Ferguson says.
“He’s quite a guy.”
“You liked him?” Napier asks.
“Everybody did except the PE guy. Rex – that’s the name they gave him – showed him up on the basketball court. He got mad about it.”
“That would be the black guy,” Ferguson said. “He’ll never get mad again. It would be nice to have a picture of the guy you picked up. Isn’t that SOP?”
“Half of our guys forget,” the chief admits.
Randall lets that be the answer. “He’s six-one, a hundred and ninety,” Randall says. “Dark hair, dark eyes. Good looking.”
Randall is excused after a few more questions and then called back in forty-five minutes later as the detectives depart without looking at him.
“I’m going to suspend you with pay until this is cleared up,” Parker blusters.
“Is that what those guys said?”
“It’s a question of appearances. Don’t talk to anyone from the press by the way—and that’s an order.”
“I wouldn’t bank on this case getting solved if that’s how they think.”
“TV’s already calling it the Marin County Massacre. That’s all people will remember about my time as chief.” Parker looks off to ponder this latest confirmation of life’s unfairness. “Give your gun and badge to Frudenthaler pending resolution of this matter.”
“This is my mine. The Smith & Wesson is in my locker.” He pulls the locker key from the ring and drops it on the desk.
“Your wife can pick you up?”
“She’s in Oregon with the kids.”
“Frudenthaler will drive you home. Stick around in case the state people have more questions. I gave them your phone numbers.”
Randall walks into the silence that falls in the outer office where eyes avert his. “Sorry this had to happen,” Frudenthaler says as he drives. “If only the proper procedures had been followed.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You of all people.”
“Drop me off at the trailhead sign up there.”
“We’re miles from your place.”
“That’s a shortcut over the ridge. I’d like some fresh air.”
The trail dates back to the WPA era and is gradually returning to nature due to budget cuts. Randall pushes his cap back on his head, loosens his tie and unbuttons his jacket as he climbs. He sees white-tailed deer, a raccoon, innumerable fat squirrels and chipmunks. The old crocks at the bait shop say they are storing up fat for a hard winter on the way. It is easy to imagine what they’ll say tomorrow.
“Looks like Randall is in deep shit.”
“Figure he had anything to do with it?”
“Nothin surprises me anymore.”
The news people would be met with hostile silence when they turned up. Much as they liked to chew the fat, the bait shop crowd doesn’t take to strangers.
The wind sighs dismally through the pines. He detours around a washed-out section of trail and hears something in the trees. He loosens the nine millimeter in its holster.
He reaches the ridge line and stops to listen, but whatever it was is gone. The sun is slipping below the horizon and the light goes away like someone is turns a dimmer switch. His stomach groans and creaks like timbers on an old sailing ship. The Polish dogs might not have been such a good idea. Abigail had brought home a trunk load of Lean Cuisine frozen dinners before she left, but you were hungry an hour later; sooner if it was Chinese. He’d microwave two of them, which she would point out totally defeats the purpose. But she’s not here so the question is moot as the lawyers say. An owl hoots to signal the official start of night and it is nearly dark when he reaches the cut off to his house.
Something is wrong.
Bub’s ESP always knows when he is near; either that or he has the keenest ears in dogdom. He should be barking like crazy. But there is only silence. Even the wind has died.
Randall stops in the trees short of the clearing where the house sits silent and dark. Hitching trouser legs up, he squats to observe. Those killers got nothing out of the staff, but they might think maybe the cop knows something. A small light shows in the kitchen window. The refrigerator door has been opened – someone else is hungry.
People had seen a couple of SUVs. How many does that mean – six men, eight? Even with darkness and surprise, the odds are stacked against him. His old pickup is parked next to the house, but the engine takes a while to warm up. Randall stands with effort—maybe Lean Cuisine is a better idea than he thought—and moves back the way he came. The wind has picked up again and a racing moon plays hide and seek. The Kleinschmidt house—he’s a plumbing contractor and she’s a school teacher—is a quarter mile away. Randall was asked to keep an eye on it through winter. He finds the key under a planter box too heavy for a burglar to bother with on the chance that’s the hiding place.
The Kleinschmidts are return-to-nature types who use a compost toilet, so there is no electricity or other evidence of progress. He wouldn’t chance the light from even one of their dim oil lanterns. He feels his way up stairs to the bedroom and brings down the spread from the bed. He sits in an easy chair and wraps himself in it, gun in lap. Hopefully, he will hear any footstep on the porch .
Randall comes awake from a light doze, aware someone is in the room. The wind is still at work, but the moon gave up the ghost and it is utterly dark. He is hyper alert, heart beginning to hammer.
“I’m not here to harm you,” a kind male voice says calmingly. “Put your gun down.”
“Where are you?”
“Put it on the table. Please.”
“How did you get in?” Randall stalls, hoping to locate the man and get off a shot.
“The key under a planter box.” The reassuring voice seems to come from everywhere.
“How did you know it was there?”
“It wasn’t very imaginative.”
“But it’s heavy. You had to know.”
“Please, the gun.”
“What happens if I don’t?”
“I leave. No harm, no foul.”
Randall can’t see him anyhow, so he finds the table with his hand and lays the gun down. “Okay.”
“How’d you know I was here?”
The question is ignored. “You helped a man.”
“You’re not with them, right? I’d be dead already.”
“No, I’m not with them. They left an hour ago.”
“So what’s this about?”
“He’s in danger.”
“That’s pretty obvious.”
“Would you help him?”
“I’m suspended and might be looking for a new job because I helped him. You think I’d make the same mistake twice?”
“He needs help.”
“What’d he do to piss off these people, steal a truckload of high-grade smack?”
“I can’t give you any details,” the voice said. “But it’s impossible to understate his importance.”
“Make sure the door shuts on your way out. That wind is cold.”
“I understand. Someone you don’t know is asking for help and not telling you why.”
“I couldn’t put it better myself.”
“Did you notice anything different about him?”
“A lot of things,” Randall said. “He had amnesia to start with, couldn’t remember a thing.”
“Is that all?” the voice prompts.
It is a deep voice like an old-time radio announcer, and has—how to put it?—a kind of weighty authority. Randall’s racing heart slows and his breathing is getting normal.
“Wouldn’t you say he was perfect, Sergeant?”
“Perfect?” Randall scoffed. “Nobody’s…” Purity was the word that had popped into his head at the time. But wasn’t perfect better?
“What if I told you the future of mankind is connected to that man?”
“You didn’t go to all this trouble to make me laugh.”
“I’m very serious.”
Randall laughs. “Okay, are we done?”
A matches flares and an oil lamp begins to glow. showing a bearded man in work clothes. His face is as kind as his voice. There is gray at his temples and beard; a fiftyish man, Randall judges. He settles back in the chair that Oscar Kleinschmidt made with hand tools. Randall thinks it’s like a torture device from the Middle Ages to punish sacrilege or apostasy, but this man doesn’t seem to mind.
“I’ll pay you for your help,” he says. “Shall we say a thousand dollars a day?”
The sergeant wonders if this is a dream.
“Ten days in advance.” The bearded man reaches inside his shirt and pulls out a fat leather wallet. “Here and now.”
“Whoa, hold on a minute.” This has gone from strange to seriously bizarre. “What do you want—a bodyguard? One isn’t going to do it. That’s an army of stone cold butchers.”
“You are one and they are many, but help can come in different ways. His whereabouts are hidden to me, but perhaps your police methods can find him.”
“Look, whatever you know about this you’d better tell me.”
He looks as if briefly tempted, but shakes his head. “There might be a time, but not now.” He gives Randall a keen look. “Nothing you have ever done in your life is as important.”