The good people of the Wilderness Church have come to Hawthorn County, Missouri in an Air Stream trailer caravan following their charismatic leader, Father Joshua. They have ceased their wandering and created a closed commune of the faithful at Canaan Camp. There they enjoy an idyllic life sealed away from the corruption of “the world.”
But a serpent has entered Eden.
Bobby Lee Paget is on a murder spree. The manhunt is nationwide, but the people of the camp have no idea who he is or that he has come through the area.
A family of three is dead in Marked Tree, Arkansas. Two more die in the college town of Fayetteville. When more murders occur in Oregon, no one thinks Paget is still in the Ozarks where he abandoned a stolen car—no one but rural deputy, Richard Carter. When unidentified bodies turn up dumped in Hawthorn County, he alone suspects Paget is responsible.
Paget is a master manipulator. If he has his way, he will utterly destroy the “purest woman” in the Canaan Camp, and use her boyfriend to achieve destruction on a scale that will make everyone remember the name of Bobby Lee Paget.
Marked Tree, Arkansas, April 26, 12:30 AM
Headlights played slowly across family portraits on the wall, the fireplace mantel, a deer head, and a stuffed bobcat, finally spotlighting the girl in the chair. The whites of her eyes glistened before the lights died. An afterimage of her burned in Paget’s mind, distracting him momentarily from the task at hand as he pressed himself to the wall beside the door. Muffled middle-aged bickering accompanied approaching footfalls. Raspy curses overlay the metallic scraping of a key.
“Remember your training, men,” whispered Beuler.
The fool stood on the wrong side of the door of course, holding his pistol in an inane two-handed grip. Pitts stood nervously in the kitchen doorway, also out of position and useless. When the door swung back, a man entered suddenly. Paget smashed his pistol into the man’s head, yanked a gaping woman inside, and shouldered the door shut.
“What the hell!” blurted Beuler. “You were only supposed to—”
“I improvised. The son-of-a-bitch is carrying,” spat Paget in disgust as he took the unconscious man’s automatic from its holster. “You should have anticipated that. He’s a gun dealer.”
He propelled the woman roughly. She stumbled, lost a shoe, and fell heavily at his nominal superior’s feet.
“Well, just remember we’re soldiers,” said the Captain lamely as he helped her to her feet.
An hour and we still don’t have the combination, fumed Paget silently.
“You’re brave, Riepe,” whined Beuler. “But this is foolish. Sooner or later you’re going to have to tell us. Make it easy on yourself.”
The overweight gun dealer clamped his mouth shut.
Paget was disgusted. Save for the mouse from the love tap he’d given the old man, Riepe looked like nothing had happened to him—which it hadn’t. Beuler’s soft ineptitude still convinced the pig-headed fool that he could tough it out.
“Let me reason with him,” he said as he shouldered Beuler aside and knelt to capture the man’s eyes. He took the Winstons from the man’s shirt pocket, shook one out, lit up, took a deep drag, and then blew smoke in Riepe’s face. Getting up slowly without saying a word, he dragged over the chair in which the man’s wife was tied. For the first time, a hint of real fear registered in the man’s face.
“Leave her alone, and stick with me if you’re any kind of real men!” he shouted.
Paget took the cigarette from his mouth and examined the glowing end. He slowly, almost gently brushed the woman’s long hair to the side, and then stabbed the cigarette into her exposed neck. She screamed into her gag, bucking in agony and threatening to overturn the chair in her struggle to escape the pain.
“Stop!” yelled her husband.
“That’s not authorized,” spluttered Beuler. “We don’t do that.”
Paget smiled thinly at the gun dealer.
“If you don’t care about your wife, maybe your daughter can convince you to help us out here.”
“Okay! Okay! I’ll give you the combination!” cried Riepe. “I’ll give you anything you want.”
Poplar Bluff, Missouri, 3:00 AM
After transferring the weapons from Riepe’s van into the one they had left hidden in a copse of trees off a nearby gravel road, they took US 67 north in order to get out of state as soon as possible. Knowing that Riepe would report how many of them there were, they would split up and take separate routes back to the compound in Oregon.
Paget got out at the Wal-Mart where the car he had stolen earlier was waiting. He had switched plates taken from another car of the same make and model and of similar color. Unless really unlucky, it would be at least a couple of days before the plates were reported stolen.
“Drive slowly and carefully,” Beuler instructed, as he had done repeatedly since leaving Marked Tree. “Don’t do anything to get noticed—”
“Give it a rest, Beuler. If anybody screws up, it won’t be me.”
“Then I’ll expect you at the compound no later than—”
“I’ll be there when I get there. We’re wasting time,” he said as he rammed shut the door and turned his back on them.
He watched in amusement as the van made a cautious turn onto the four-lane and drove slowly north through the sleeping town.
Wouldn’t it be something if they did catch you? he thought as he buckled up. The boys in the pen would home in on you the first day.
He gave a left-turn signal and waited for the light to turn. He would hit US 60 six miles north of town and take it west through Springfield while the others continued up 67 to St. Louis to catch I-70. It would be a long, boring haul, but at least he wouldn’t have to put up with the toy soldiers any longer. Just before the light changed, the images he had been manipulating in his mind since they first entered the Riepe home flashed into achingly sharp focus. Unable to resist the impulse he turned right instead of left. Twenty minutes later he passed the State Line Café and continued south into Arkansas and the darkness.
Poplar Bluff, 9:00 AM
The room stank of stale smoke and overheating as cheap motels do in the summer. Ratty fifties era furniture looked as if it had neither been cleaned nor repaired since the dump was built. Paget sat on the dingy bedspread and poked through the pile of wallet trash. He frowned at the debit card. He could have sworn it was a Master Card. Trying to use plastic was a loser’s play, and he couldn’t be caught with the photos. Memories would have to serve.
Except for the necklace, he thought, playing it through his fingers to savor the tactile reminder.
Opening the heart-shaped necklace, he saw with disgust that it had some dude’s picture in it instead of hers. He picked up the photo from the old man’s wallet.
“Everyone calls me ‘KC.’” he could hear her say.
He snickered, remembering how she had played up to him. No matter how young or stupid, they all had that instinct, but none of them ever played Bobby Lee—none of them.
“KC. Butch name for a girl,” he muttered.
Since he had her pin number, maybe he’d use the debit card after all.
Dumb play. Just burn everything.
He dug the boy’s photo out of the locket with his knife. Then he scooped it up with all the other crap, placed in an ash tray, and set it afire. After it stopped blazing, he carried it into the bathroom and flushed the ashes and unburned bits. Yawning, he stretched out on the bed, clasped hands behind his head, and closed his eyes. Replaying the highlights, he found them already going stale. The necklace helped some, but not much.
Too sticky to sleep, he rolled to his feet and stripped. The full-sized mirror in the bathroom was dirty, but it gave him a good view of his body. The girl had admired it. They all did.
The shower stream was flaccid because of lime deposits. Errant squirts doused the flyspecked ceiling as a fat roach scampered through the oversized hole where the rusted showerhead emerged from the wall. He didn’t notice the squalor. Bobby Lee Paget’s whole life had been nothing but squalor. Without toweling, he flopped onto the creaky bed. The uneven rattling of the AC bothered him not at all. Soon he drifted into an untroubled sleep.
Marked Tree, Arkansas, April 26, 11:15 AM
Agent Hal Tanner sensed the undercurrent of animosity as he worked his way slowly through the living room. The volume of stolen weapons had brought in ATF. They, in turn, called the Little Rock field office for assistance with the complicated crime scene. The locals had invited neither of them. There were ruffled feathers to soothe, a minor but integral part of his job.
He moved from victim to victim, gradually making sense of the havoc. Empathy was the key. He imagined what it had been like for Riepe, for the wife and mother, and finally for the teenage daughter in the other room. Despite differences in treatment, he leaned toward a single killer, but not a single perpetrator. Already he was beginning to see and hear it the way it went down. The main perp, the killer, had taken his time with the girl. In a way, it was two separate crimes.
Paraphilia, he thought, studying her from the doorway. What you did to her had nothing to do with the rest of it.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s concentrate on the overview.
He sketched each room and made notes as he went through the ransacked house: an empty gun safe, a pile of weapons on the floor, a discarded cash box. He didn’t want to jump to conclusions, but what happened seemed clear.
Robbery and a crime of opportunity? Two stages to it? Let’s see. Three people to control, so there were probably more than two of you.
He looked at each of the victims in turn.
This took a long time.
Forensics would determine if the girl had more than one attacker.
Tanner examined the parents more closely. The man had been beaten, but not severely. A single blow to the left temple left a two-inch blood-clotted abrasion. A split lip had bled onto his shirt. The hole behind the right ear showed the “cross split” and tattooing of a contact wound.
No exit—probably a twenty-two. Execution just to clean things up.
You watch horrified as your wife and daughter are—No. He started with you.
Empathy hit him like possession.
The women knew they would die as soon as you killed him.
He choked off the emotion and tried to envision the entire crime.
So what did the rest of you do? Did you participate? Or did you just sit and watch?
Like her husband, the woman was tied to a ladder-back chair. A pillowcase covered her head. No wounds were visible. The click of the local criminalist’s camera intruded from the adjoining room where the girl lay.
“Are you about through in here?” he called.
“Yes. Please don’t remove the pillowcase from the woman, sir.”
She sounded as if she should still be in high school. A surprise. Tanner might have to reevaluate his assessment of the sheriff.
“Can we remove this pillowcase now?” he asked when she came into the room.
“You haven’t touched anything yet?” she asked.
Tanner smiled. “No. I’ve been waiting for you.”
He and the young deputy exchanged introductions. She gingerly took a corner of the pillowcase and removed it, placing it in an evidence bag. After noting the dark bruising around the eyes, he peeled back the right eyelid to reveal ruptured capillaries in the conjunctiva where the white met the upper lid.
“Petechia,” said the young tech.
A short nylon cord looped around the woman’s neck and draped over her back. An angry looking cigarette burn was on the right side of her neck about two inches from the trachea and just below the ear.
You burned her, but only once?
He stood behind her, trying for the position the perp would have taken had he burned her while she sat in the chair. The positions of the victims and the perpetrator formed a straight line. Maybe he had the order of the deaths wrong.
If you wanted him to watch while you killed her, why cover her face?
It didn’t feel right. He didn’t know how he knew, and could never have explained it, but he knew the man had died before the wife. He examined the burn more closely. What did it tell him? Right handed, just like whoever clubbed Riepe. That really narrowed things down, didn’t it? The burn had begun to scab over. It wasn’t perimortem.
You did this earlier. You wanted him to either tell you where the money was, or how to get the gun safe open.
Staring at the burn again, he wondered if an autopsy could pinpoint how long before death it had occurred. He had a gut feeling that it been quite a while, perhaps hours.
Why the pillowcase? he thought again. Ashamed of what you did? Really?
Unlike her husband, Mrs. Riepe hadn’t been merely executed.
So, you stood behind her, but didn’t want to see her because . . . she was too old? Too much like your own mother? Or just not your preferred victim?
What he found in the bedroom made him sick, but no one watching him would know that. The young deputy tried hard to remain detached, but was having trouble.
“Concentrate on the details,” he advised as he examined the youngest victim.
This was what it was all about for you.
Lengths of window blind cord were still attached to bedposts, but the body lay face up diagonally across the bed, arms at the side, hair splayed carelessly. One leg protruded from the sheet in which she was wrapped, hanging over the edge of the bed, bent at the knee. A blue bathrobe lay on the floor. Its belt was knotted around the victim’s neck. A towel covered the face.
Complete control. You needed to hear the terror in her voice, see it in her face, and feel it in your hands.
Tanner wasn’t reading minds; he’d just seen it before, and he’d interviewed sexual sadists in prison. That’s what they had here, but the locals hardly needed him to tell them that.
He tried to make sense of the position of the body.
You were going to take her with you so you could play some more. But that wasn’t a good idea. So at the last minute you threw her back on the bed.
The towel across her face puzzled him, but only for a moment.
“Sheriff Myers,” he called out. “Sir, could you come in here a minute?”
The man swaggered into the room, jaw clenched in an effort to deny his unease in the presence of the nightmare scene. He pointedly didn’t cast a glance at the bed.
“Was that towel over the victim’s face when your men got here?”
“Logan!” bellowed the sheriff. “Come in here.”
A rail-thin deputy came in. His eyes darted to and quickly away from the body on the bed.
“Was that towel over the girl’s face when you found her?” asked his boss.
“No, sir.” He swallowed with difficulty before continuing. “I did that. It seemed like the decent thing to do.”
“You don’t have the luxury of being decent at a crime scene,” said Tanner. “Did you touch anything else?”
“No. Did I destroy evidence or something?”
“I hope not. However, it could have misled us, couldn’t it, sheriff.”
He had found that the more he used “us” and “we” with the local authorities the less “I” problems he had.
“Covering her face wouldn’t have fit,” said the sheriff.
“No. It’s a sign of remorse. There’s no remorse here. Your perp enjoyed what he did to the women, especially this one.”
“Lot of hate, right?”
“I don’t think he hated them—at least not personally.”
“What do you think this is all about then?”
“What’s really interesting is that we seem to have two different crimes here. We’ve got a planned robbery, and then a prolonged and elaborate sexual homicide.”
“I’ll buy the planned part,” said the sheriff. “They got in without breaking glass or jimmying a door. It looks kind of like your typical burglary. Whoever went through that chest of drawers started at the bottom and left them all out. This could be just a burglary gone bad. Maybe that’s why they left so much stuff.”
“There’s a purpose to everything we see here,” said Tanner, trying to win the sheriff over. “What do you think they were looking for?”
“The electronics are still here. Pistols and shotguns too. They took a bunch of rifles. Your ATF boys are going through Riepe’s records for a list. They were probably after the business cash—maybe jewelry too.”
He looked toward the bed. “I just don’t know why they had to kill her in front of her folks?”
“If it’s any consolation, I think the parents died first.”
“Maybe we’ll catch a break on the fingerprints.”
Tanner looked the scene over. There wouldn’t be fingerprints or seminal fluid either.
“How can a man do something like this?” asked the sheriff.
An experienced homicide cop would never ask, but experience came slowly in rural areas.
“So what kind of help can I expect, Agent Tanner?”
Tanner ignored the overt skepticism. “I’ll work up a tentative profile of your killer. I should have something by tomorrow.”
“The way I figure it is that they got the guns and money and then decided to kill the witnesses,” said the sheriff. “Then they decided to rape the girl while they were at it.”
The young criminalist had come back in and was taking close-ups of the girl’s ligature marks.
“He killed her like that,” said Tanner, nodding toward the bed, “because he likes doing it that way. He’s done it before.”
“They were all killed different,” mused the sheriff. “Hey. Maybe there were three of them, and each one of them killing in his own way.”
“I don’t think there’s more than one killer, Sheriff. It occurs, but not often. Accomplices usually say that they didn’t want it to happen.”
Tanner tried to imagine how it came together. “You found the Riepe van down the road, so maybe the other one, or ones, went on with the guns while the killer stayed behind and did this.”
“Two crimes, two motives?”
“I think so.” Tanner closed the pad containing his notes and sketches. “I’ll need copies of the crime scene photos, plus anything you can get me on the victims, and a preliminary coroner’s report. I’ll try to get into this guy’s head and tell you what kind of person you need to look for.”
Near Turnbough Camp, Hawthorn County, Missouri, 8:15 PM
Deputy Richard Carter ran the back roads of Hawthorn County on night patrol, unaware of the manhunt one hundred and seventy-five miles to the southeast. He was not doing real police work, nor did he expect to. Things had happened to him. That’s what his wife never tired of telling him. However, things hadn’t just happened to him; he had caused things to happen. He had done things—things a pardon could neither absolve nor expunge.
He came to Route D and turned off toward one of the county’s many named places. The old lumber camps, railroad stops, and post offices had evaporated, leaving nothing behind but names quickly losing their significance. Once, he had mistaken them for real towns rather than place names that had only survived as useful landmarks. He turned on the radio briefly to catch the news and weather from the NPR station at Arkansas State University.
“. . . in the northeast Arkansas town of Marked Tree. They were killed in what local authorities term a ‘firearms theft.’ The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is assisting the investigation,” intoned the announcer.
Quick news bits followed along with a summary weather forecast. He was curious about the arms theft, but listening to civilian radio was against department procedure. Carter had no idea that he would be involved in the manhunt in less than a week.
Poplar Bluff, Missouri
The two thousand tempted him to score, but that wasn’t smart in a strange town. Opting for safer stimulation, he found a run-down place called the “Blue Moon,” where he wolfed down a greasy steak sandwich and allowed himself two beers. Scanning the room, he saw mostly overweight, shabby women trolling the gloom, the one exception being a girl in jeans and cowboy boots who kept making eye contact until her redneck escort finally noticed. She was trying to involve him in a fight, which would have been just fine—under different circumstances.
He called it a bust at 11:45 and hit the door. Twenty minutes later, he hit the US 60 ramp north of Poplar Bluff and headed west through the sparsely settled eastern edge of the Ozark Plateau, holding his speed right at the legal limit. It was vanilla driving, but he didn’t want to attract the attention of a bored patrolman. Traffic was light, mostly semis like his old man used to drive.
Thin wisps of devil fog threaded across the highway whenever it dipped into valleys. He tooled along, his mind less on his driving than on the gun dealer’s daughter and the woman at the bar. As he topped a hill, a brownish-gray blur hit the periphery of his vision a split-second before a hard thump sent the Contour fishtailing onto the gravelly shoulder. Spinning to the right, it slid with a sickening screech of metal, and came to a sudden stop at forty-five degrees with the passenger side wedged hard against the rock face of a road cut. Its remaining unbroken headlight angled skyward, illuminating steaming clouds of coolant.
Once the air bag deflated, he grabbed the door handle to keep from sliding down and unbuckled himself. Now that he had time to think, he realized that he had hit a deer. He braced his foot on the console and forced the door open. He managed to extricate himself just as headlights lit the tops of the pine trees on the rocky bluff to his left. Not until his feet hit the loose gravel of the shoulder did it register that he would be in deep trouble if the approaching vehicle were a patrol car.
As it slowed, Paget slipped the butterfly knife from his pocket and flicked it open. The car closed in without the appearance of flashing lights, and crunched to a stop on the eastbound shoulder.
The window came down. “Are you hurt?”
He couldn’t see her face, but she sounded young.
“No, I . . . I don’t think so,” he said, affecting a shaky voice as he closed the knife and put it back in his pocket. “But I’ve got a . . . kind of a weak heart, and I feel kind of . . . funny, you know.”
“Do you have like medication or something?”
“No, but I think . . .” He put his hand to his chest and slumped to a sitting position. “I think need to get to a doctor.”
“Oh my God!” said the woman, as she jerked the door open.
Sandals clapped on the pavement as she ran across the highway. When she knelt, he got a glimpse of her face. She wasn’t bad.
“Careful, I’d hate to see you ruin that pretty dress,” he said weakly.
“Don’t worry about it. Let’s get you to the hospital.”
“Maybe I’ll be okay until an ambulance gets here,” he said with a grimace. “Did you call 911?”
“I don’t have a cell phone,” she said apologetically. “Can you stand?”
He winced as she helped him to his feet. Leaning heavily against her, Paget felt the heat of her body as she guided him to the car.
“You’ll have to get in the back,” she said. “My baby’s up front.”
A brat! he thought with disgust. Like I need that.
Paget let her help him in, but grabbed her wrist when she tried to fasten his seat belt. “No. I don’t think I can stand the pressure.”
After she pulled onto the road, she glanced into the rear view, but didn’t see him. “Are you okay back there?”
“I think so,” he said, sliding his hands appreciatively over the Thunderbird’s leather upholstery.
“By the way,” she said. “I’m Cathy Hansen.”
“I’m John Kruger,” he said from directly behind her. “Don’t speed.”
She assumed that he had slid behind her so that he could lean against the door. “I’ll risk a ticket. We’ve got—”
Cathy caught her breath in surprise as he took her by the hair. She wrestled with the incredible reality. There was a knife at her throat!
“Slow down!” He jerked her head back for emphasis. “You got that?”
Stunned, she couldn’t respond.
“I said, You got that?”
“Yes,” she gasped.
She briefly considered flooring the car and ramming it into the pines lining the highway, but couldn’t risk it with Billy in the car.
“Good. Now let’s go home, Cathy.”
Paget needed her calm and controllable. “That car was stolen,” he said. “I just need a place to stay until I can find a way out of here.”
“You can have my car,” she said quickly. “Just let us out and I won’t say anything.”
“Right. A patrolman comes along—you tell him which way I went, and it’s all over. I’m not going back to prison. Just do what you’re told, and nothing will happen to you . . . or your baby.”
The threat to Billy frightened her beyond thinking.
“Will your husband be home when we get there?” The pressure of the blade increased. “Tell me the truth now.”
“I’ll know if you’re lying,” he murmured, now comfortable with the situation.
“I’m not married—I mean . . . not anymore.”
“So will the guy you’re shacking up with be home?”
“I live alone.”
“Well good. Maybe I’ll just stay with you and the kid a day or two. You got a job?”
“No,” she lied.
Marked Tree, Arkansas, April 27, 9:00 AM
PROFILE OF UNSUB
KILLER OF THE RIEPE FAMILY
MARKED TREE, AR
The perp is a white male, aged twenty-five to thirty-five.
He has a criminal record stretching back to his juvenile years involving voyeurism, burglary, and/or arson. He has served jail time, possibly for sexual assault, and/or burglary. The crime is atypical of his usual MO in that the motive was primarily robbery, and in that he worked with another/other person(s).
He is unmarried, divorced, or separated. If he has a consensual relationship presently, it is a stormy one, probably abusive.
He probably abuses drugs and/or alcohol.
He is either a high school or college dropout, with at least normal intelligence.
If he was in the armed services, he will not have served a full enlistment, but will have been discharged either dishonorably or with a face-saving general discharge.
He may be unemployed, but has worked manual labor jobs, like construction, where the work force is transient, and the worksite moves. He has a record of absenteeism and bad debts.
He may have deformed genitals, suffer from impotence, or be a stutterer. To compensate, he may engage in bodybuilding or martial arts.
He belongs to an extremist paramilitary group, but is neither a long-time nor devoted member.
He might own an older model muscle car or macho-image pickup truck.
“You got a crystal ball?” It was a less profane judgment than Tanner anticipated.
“It’s an educated guess, Sheriff. However, I’ve been doing this for a long time.”
“What am I supposed to do with it?”
“Narrow your search and take it seriously if you question anyone who fits the profile.”
“Okay. Why couldn’t he be black?”
Northeast Arkansas was delta country, southern both historically and culturally. Tanner chose his words carefully.
“This kind of killer doesn’t usually cross racial lines.”
That had been changing lately, but he had a gut feeling about this one. The killer was Caucasian.
“So we’re looking for a psycho,” mumbled the sheriff. “But you don’t have anything in here about a mental asylum or anything.”
Like many people, Myers saw mental illness in mayhem. Tanner decided to use words that would resonate in the “Bible Belt.”
“This is evil, Sheriff, not insanity. He knows exactly what he’s doing. I doubt that this is his first murder. I can almost guarantee that he’s attempted rape, beaten a woman, or threatened to kill one. You might check for an initial sex crime back about ten years. That’s about the time he probably started.”
Tanner was still feeling for the right tone.
“All I’m giving you is an estimation of the type of man you’re looking for. Some of that profile is dead on. Some of it is probably off. I’m here to help you whenever you need me. If you find something that you want my analysis on, just let me know.”
“I’ll do whatever I have to,” said the sheriff. “I want this guy.”
Van Buren, MO, April 27, 12:10 PM
Brent Halliday saw something wedged between the driver’s seat and the carpet where it curved up to the door. Using his pen, he flicked it out of the crack and onto the floorboard in the back. Careful to touch only the edges, he held it close to read the name.
“Son-of-a-gun,” he said to himself as he hurried up the steps, hoping to catch the sheriff before he left for lunch.
“I know who our car thief is,” he said before he was half way through the door. “It’s like on the radio. You know: ‘He was arrested a short time later.’”
The sheriff looked at his new deputy sourly. “What are you talking about?”
He dropped the credit card on the blotter of the sheriff’s desk. “That’s our guy. Let’s put out an APB.”
The sheriff read the name and stiffened.
“No, Brent. I know where to find this guy,” he said as he picked up the phone. “He’s laying on a slab down in Arkansas.”
Elsinore, MO, April 30, 7:05 AM
Paget fumed, as the voice of the bubblehead blonde on local TV echoed in his brain.
“Unconfirmed reports suggest that a terrorist or paramilitary group may be responsible.”
The woman was cooperating, and no curious friends or family had called, but he couldn’t stay much longer. He’d leave immediately if he could think of a place to go. Oregon was out the question now.
He rapped the bathroom door impatiently. “Ain’t you about through?”
“I’m just drying Billy, now,” came the muffled reply. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
“Hurry,” he said, going back down the hall.
Paget stared at a morning show with the sound muted. He was conflicted, which was new to him. The way she treated the kid bothered him. Every time he was about to do her, she started her “mommy thing,” and the urge just evaporated.
Best I get rid of her for you before she starts in, Billy. Probably best if you don’t even remember her.
A picture appeared on the screen, and he stood in disbelief. It was a mug shot of the skinny kid he had been five years earlier, before he had bulked up. He scrambled to find the remote.
“. . . are looking for this man in connection with a brutal triple homicide in Marked Tree, Arkansas. He is Robert Lee Paget, wanted on an outstanding warrant for burglary and parole violation. A stolen car with property taken from the scene of the murders in Marked Tree, Arkansas was found wrecked and abandoned on highway sixty near Elsinore in rural Carter County on Tuesday morning. Paget comes from the northwestern Arkansas town of Fayetteville. It is believed that he is still in the area, and a manhunt is currently underway. Paget is described as thin, six feet tall, and weighing one hundred and sixty-five pounds. He has dark-brown eyes, brown longish hair, a mustache, and ruddy complexion. Authorities warn that he is armed and should be considered extremely dangerous. Anyone with information concerning the crime or the whereabouts of Paget should call the toll-free number you see at the bottom of your screen.”
“What stolen property?” he said as he patted his pocket to make sure he still had the necklace.
He had burned all the cards and photos before leaving the motel.
The credit card!
It must have gotten left in the car. Now they had his fingerprints. He paced the floor, thinking furiously. Arkansas had the death penalty, and the gun robbery would bring in the feds. Going to another state wouldn’t solve the problem.
I wonder if they’ll put roadblocks up.
In his whole life, nothing had ever been his fault, and it was no different now. He blamed the militia for his predicament. He did, however, reserve for himself a token censure for his bad judgment.
“Why the hell did I let those lunatics get me into this?” he muttered.
The unfairness of it burned like an ulcer in his gut.
I can’t get away with even one little mistake!
He felt like breaking things, trashing the place, burning it down, beating the hell out of the woman. Of course she would give them an updated description of him if he let her live.
That ain’t going to happen! You’d already be dead except for the kid.
He clicked the TV off and went down the hall. “Come on out of there!” he yelled, rapping on the bathroom door. “What the hell’s keeping you in there?”
“We’re finished,” said Cathy.
She came out with Billy wrapped in a bath towel. She dabbed at him nervously, pretending to dry him as she tried to keep her abductor from knowing that she had overheard the news bulletin.
“You want me to fix breakfast?” she asked.
He took her chin and forced her to look at him while he searched for a telltale sly smile.
“Put the kid down and get over to the chair,” he said.
Her hands trembled as she placed Billy in the bassinet. “Did I do something to make you mad?” she asked, trying to reassure him that she didn’t know about the murders.
“Shut up,” he commanded as he roughly pulled her arms behind her.
She sat meekly as he tied her up, but tried to position her wrists so that there was a little space between them. Although clearly distracted, he cinched her tightly. Without a word, he snatched up her purse and dumped the contents onto the couch. He took her money and then tossed her wallet aside. Grabbing the keys, he left without a glance back.
Paget backtracked to Poplar Bluff. The questions he wanted to ask would attract less attention in the town of twenty thousand than in tiny Elsinore. On the way, he watched for cops stopping westbound cars on the highway. If they were, he would take back roads around the stop and hole up with the woman a few more days until the roads were clear. He made it there without spotting a single patrol car. At the Huddle House just off the highway, he grabbed a stool beside a UPS driver. Professional haulers knew the road conditions.
While peeling a packet of creamer for his coffee, he asked casually, “Run into any roadblocks?”
“Not today. They took them down already.”
“Yeah. They never run them for long.”
He maintained the conversation by asking a few questions about baseball. He didn’t give a damn about sports, but figured that if he got the guy talking about that kind of crap, he would forget that he was curious about what the cops were doing.
Despite the pain, Cathy managed to slide her right hand upward. The bath oil with which she had doused her hands and wrists before leaving the bathroom had helped at first. Now the cord was stuck just above the knuckles at the base of her fingers. Dogs caught in a fence will chew their own legs off to escape. She wasn’t driven by such a basic survival instinct, but by a mother’s desperation. Even if she lost her hand she had to get loose. She twisted and pulled until her hands were slick with blood. Biting back the nausea, she struggled to free herself and save her baby. The man had killed three people. He would think nothing of killing Billy! She had known he would rape her as soon as she saw his eyes in the rearview mirror that night. Why he hadn’t yet was a mystery, but it was coming, and then he would kill her. Even if he only killed her, Billy could die of dehydration or starve before anyone came to see about them.
Cathy squeezed her eyes shut and gritted her teeth as the nylon cord sawed through skin and dug into her knuckles. Summoning will she didn’t know she possessed, she pulled harder and twisted frantically, but the cord only cut deeper. She tried to concentrate on Billy instead of the pain. She pictured him laughing, taking his first step, saying “Momma” for the first time. The pain mounted as she wriggled and tugged.
Unbelievably, the hand slid free!
“Aahhh!” she gasped in relief mingled with searing pain.
Pulse throbbed in the injured hand and pinpricks of light swirled in her vision as she descended toward blackout, just like when she had fallen from the top of a pyramid formation and hit her head against another cheerleader’s knee during homecoming two years ago. To stave it off, she tried to relax and breathe deeply. The feeling slowly ebbed, but left her wobbly.
The sound of car tires on gravel brought an adrenaline rush of terror. She bent frantically to free her feet with her left hand. The right one had gone numb and fingers wouldn’t work. The car pulled away.
“Mail carrier,” she mumbled.
Chancing a glance at her injured hand, she saw gleaming white gristle and oozing dark blood.
“I’ll live,” she said as she stood unsteadily, fighting her rising gorge.
Picking up Billy, she went through the kitchen to the back porch. She stood there uncertainly a moment. A life vest hanging near the screen door gave her an idea.
“That’s what we’ll do, Billy,” she said as she put him down and slipped it on.
“Wait here. Mommy will be right back,” she told him.
She ran back to the living room, took the phone from its stand, and placed it on a chair near the front door. Then she opened the front door and left it ajar, hoping to make him think that she had gone to the highway and flagged down a car. She decided not to do that for fear that he would come back and find them on the road. Instead, she went out the back. As she was about to lock the door behind her, she saw the cooler and decided to take it along. Making her way through the brush behind the house, she went down to Cane Creek.
“I should have called 911, Billy,” she muttered.
The baby smiled at her voice, and that gave her the courage to believe that everything was going to be all right. The creek was shallow but frigid. Momentarily, she worried that Billy would catch a cold if he got wet, but they had no choice. She waded downstream with Billy in one arm and towing the cooler for half a mile until she came to Kenner’s Hole, a deep, slow-moving pool. There she placed Billy in the lidless cooler and floated with the current.
“You’re doing great, Little Man,” she said to him. “Mommy done good too.”
Using the bad English as a sort of joke to herself made her feel good. In less than a mile they would come to the Hankins’ house. They were going to be all right. They were going to live.
“Mommy done good,” she repeated.
Paget kept glancing fearfully at the rearview, expecting the flashing lights at any moment.
“I should have killed her to begin with,” he screamed, pounding the wheel in impotent rage. “It’s what I get for trusting one of them.”
Glancing down, he saw that he was going eighty. He backed off to sixty, but it seemed that he was crawling. He couldn’t risk being pulled over for speeding, but he had to put distance between him and his pursuers. By now, she had given his description to them, and they would be looking for her car.
His luck held all the way to Mountain View, but the two hours it took to get there was as far as he thought he should push it. He pulled to the back of the lot at a McDonald’s and sat with the motor running. For the last fifty miles, he had been fantasizing about what he would do to the woman the next time they met. He pushed those pleasant thoughts aside to think about what he was going to do now. He needed another car and a place to leave the one he came in, a place where it wouldn’t be noticed too soon. Wherever he left it in Mountain View, it couldn’t remain unnoticed for long—but a day was all he needed.
Cathy’s smile flashed into his mind, mocking him. He saw himself landing a fist in her gut, throwing her to the ground, and sitting astraddle of her, while he choked the life out of her.
“Put it on hold, Bobby Lee,” he told himself. “You got more important problems.”
Just across a strip of concrete framed turf, lay a pocket mall, a cluster of shops hanging to the skirt of a Wal-Mart. A scattering of cars sat at the various businesses, and several were parked in a loose knot at the edge of the lot nearest the McDonald’s. It was either a carpool drop area, or where the manager of the restaurant told his employees to park to save space for customers. Stealing one in daylight wasn’t an option with the restaurant so near, and it wouldn’t exactly take a genius to figure out who took it if he left the one he was in nearby.
Paget stared at the motley of old and new cars and decided to take it one step at a time. He backed out, drove over, and parked. He pocketed the keys in case he changed his mind. On his way back to the restaurant, an old woman came out, walking slowly, head down to watch her footing. When he saw her heading for a house car near the edge of the lot, he first scanned the area to see if anyone was watching, and then angled to intercept her. Balancing a carryout tray with two large drinks, and burdened with a purse big enough to carry a small watermelon, she didn’t notice as he quickly closed the distance.
The old man is probably in the john. I’ll knock the old bag in the head and drag her inside, and then take care of him when he gets here.
He was within two steps of her when a thumping bass, loud enough to make his chest vibrate, heralded the arrival of a convertible full of teenage boys. As his lousy luck would have it, they parked only two empty slots from the house car. They jumped out, horsing around as raucously as a flock of crows. Cursing the punks under his breath, he walked past just as a shaky old man came through the door, shuffling toward him.
“That close,” he said through clenched teeth.
Blaring rap lyrics mocked his simmering frustration.
White boys listening to that stuff!
It made him sick.
He altered course again and went across to the Wal-Mart where he bought disposable razors, shaving cream, and a pair of scissors. At a nearby service station, he locked himself in the bathroom where he stayed for fifteen minutes, ignoring several knocks. He emerged clean-shaven. He threw the shaving stuff into a dumpster on his way to the mall barbershop. While the barber gave him a short cut, he studied his face in the mirror, deciding that it now bore little resemblance to the five-year-old mug shot they had shown on TV. He considered dying his hair and eyebrows, but that required a humiliating trip to a beauty parlor where some bitch would probably think he was queer. Worse, they’d remember him.
Paget walked back across to the restaurant feeling distinctly more in control of things. Something would turn up. It always did if you paid attention. He sat at a booth by the window and munched his food while watching the lot with a predator’s patience. His ride would present itself. It didn’t matter where he went so long as he put distance between himself and the car.
He came from Fayetteville so they’d be looking for him there. Maybe he should backtrack to the east. The two thousand in his pocket opened options.
I’ll find a place to crash for a few days. Then get me some new wheels.
Gradually, he became aware of the conversation in the booth behind him, something about religion and farming.
Amish or Mennonites idiots, he decided contemptuously. Stop using machines and you get to heaven! Let me tell you how it is, boys. Take advantage of everything and everyone you can. You see something you want? Just take it.
Evidently, a couple of them were feeding a line of bull to a poor slob who didn’t have the nerve to escape. Paget was stuck too. Leaving would take him away from the window.
He heard “Father Joshua,” and “prophet,” and the term “Canaan.” He tried to block it out, and mostly succeeded until something they said caught his attention.
“No one’s allowed past the outer camp. We keep the world out of Canaan because the Devil pretty well controls things out here,” said one of the missionaries, or whatever they were.
“He’s a ravening lion seeking to devour whom he will,” said his teammate.
“So what if I don’t want to stay?” asked the kid.
“You’re free to leave whenever you want.”
“How about my friends and family? Can I see them?”
“No one comes in except potential members, and then only to the outer camp.”
“How about phoning?”
“We don’t use phones. Leaving the world behind is not just a figure of speech. You have to completely forsake it to join the Wilderness Church.”
When their potential mark continued to waver, his recruiters gave up. Paget followed the three of them outside and watched with narrowed eyes until they parted.
“Hey!” he called out. “Wait a minute.”
When the two recruiters stopped and turned, he caught up with them.
Copyright© AR Simmons. All rights reserved.