BULLET OUTLINE for DEAD ON by Robert W. Walker
Retired Atlanta Police Detective Marcus Rydell has been doing PI work since he left the force under a cloud some four years previously. After Rydell decides to put off his suicide to help out a child in distress in the apartment overhead, he discovers that the child in need has already “helped” herself by beating her attacker to death with a claw hammer. He does what he can for the preteen named Kim. While at the scene of the killing, Marcus meets Dr. Katrina “Kat” Holley who talks him into meeting her later for drinks at an Atlanta neighborhood bar and grill called O’Dule’s.
Scene cuts back to Rydell’s darkened room where he is weighing up suicide against seeing Kat Holley again. He decides to put off the inevitable suicide, shower instead, and to meet Dr. Holley for drinks. Rydell revisits on a surface level the incident, which eventually costs him his badge and standing in the APD. He’d blacked out at a crucial moment during what had started out as a routine domestic dispute that’d escalated into a shootout, leaving his partner and two uniformed cops dead around his inert form.
Neither his personal physician, specialists, nor the departmental shrink can diagnose the cause of his “mysterious” blackout. Now, years later, he still blacks out from time to time, losing a minute here, six there, and the cause remains undetermined. This will continue as an ongoing mystery in itself, and the blackouts could get him and anyone around him killed (again).
Cuts to O’Dule’s where he meets she. Dr. Holley is an intern and “too young” for him, Marcus feels. Still, he has his fantasies even at his age—over fifty. Far from being his dream girl, Dr. Holley turns out to be a fraud, as her real name is Mallory, and she is the wife of an officer who’d died in the line of duty during the incident that led to Rydell’s removal from the force. Aside from this, Dr. Mallory, holds a gun on Rydell. He talks her out of killing him and going with her plan B, which is to hire him instead. Hire him to locate, capture, and turn over her husband’s killer.
She wants to take a scalpel to the killer, a fiend named Iden Cantu, who has also slaughtered his own family as well as three cops. After an exhaustive and interesting conversation, the two, PI and intern, strike a bargain which goes against Marcus’s best instincts, as she wants to be with him every step of the way during his investigation.
In the end, they both compromise and Marcus feels he has a case worth living for or dying for. So long as it keeps him from his depression and suicidal tendencies, he’s up for it. They agree that his deceased parents’ woodsy cabin outside the city is the safest place to launch their full-throttle manhunt for Cantu, who has eluded police all these years but who has surfaced. Cantu has sent Mrs. Mallory a series of letters, letters that Marcus is very much interested in examining for clues. He has a heart full of rage and hatred toward this man as does Dr. Mallory. Together they team up for the day when they have justice and closure and revenge.
From here, the team of Rydell and Holley continue to have sparks fly between them. She still holds Rydell partially responsible for her young husband’s death. And as with his superiors, IAD, and peers, Rydell is sick and tired of being the scapegoat. So their arguments will be a major factor as the story continues. As will the mystery of his blackouts and the fear of losing time at a crucial moment.
The brain is wired for this growing fear; it feels inevitable, fated. The scars of his past will determine his future, he keeps telling himself. Finally, the active investigation—far from the sort of gutter case, he’d been working—is in a sense keeping him alive. This is another thread that runs through the story—his depression and suicidal tendencies put off for the excitement and “good” of the chase/case. The question is: does the depression have any connection to his mystery disorder?
It has been established in the first few chapters that both Holley and Rydell have reason to feel paranoid over Cantu’s perhaps watching them and perhaps coming after them. It is a cat and mouse game, but Rydell might be the cat one day, the mouse the next. Dr. Mallory’s letters certainly suggests that Cantu has come out of hiding and is willing to risk everything to taunt and torment her.
For this reason, they go to the safe house, a cabin in the woods—beautiful place once owned by Rydell’s parents. They open up the place and settle in. Kitchen needs stocking, sleeping arrangements need be made, and as there is an upstairs and a down, they “mark” their territory. A large wraparound porch looks out on the forests and the road leading in on one side, a beautiful lake on the other. It’s an idyllic place, one they trust the killer knows nothing about.
Once settled in, Rydell tears into the letters, searching for any fragment of a clue that might give him the upper hand. After reading the letters and listening to the nesting sounds of Holley inside, Rydell is losing the light on the porch when he hears something in the woods, something coming their way. Is it Cantu? Holley had learned so much about Rydell simply by surfing the web. Could Cantu have known their move to this place even before he did? Rydell is unarmed.
Holley steps out to announce she’s made a soufflé of some sort, when he slams her to the ground. She takes exception to this, her face in the porch boards when she sees the source of his fears—a stray black German Shepherd has inched its way to the house to beg scraps. She asks Rydell, “What kind of a private eye are you?” They argue until the dog becomes comfortable around them and licks up the soufflé where it lay in the overturned plate.
Rydell curses the dog. Holley gives it a name—Paco. And Paco takes up residence on the porch. Pooch squatters’ rights.
Aside from the insights we get on Iden Cantu from the letters, Rydell gets all the information ever gathered on the man via computer, thanks to the one holdout friend in the department at the Atlanta PD, an acerbic younger detective who had “studied” under Rydell when Marcus was at the height of his career, solving cases. The kid is now in his late thirties and his name is Jonathan Thomas, “JT” for short. He gets the information to Rydell in quick time, and Marcus downloads it onto his G-5 Mac that Kat has brought to the cabin.
Scenes will shift to Cantu and his doings from time to time. He has plans of his own for Marcus, Dr. Mallory, and some others he feels haven’t suffered enough already. In fact, his diabolical plan has already been put into motion and will make headlines in the morning papers. His master plan is to watch Rydell slowly come apart at the seams as he had after the gun battle that cost him his career. He had allowed the detective who “fainted” to live in order that he live through the disgrace of it all and the torment of living on while everyone with him had died. He had luxuriated in the news that Rydell had to step down from the department.
He had gone into hiding in the Georgia forest. A former Marine, he knows how to survive in any terrain. But he’s lived like a mountain man long enough. Now he is back, and he feels his “calling”—a need to inflict more pain on those listed in the obituary he pulled from his wallet and read daily—the loved ones, those the dead were survived by—like Mallory’s wife. Like the black female cop’s intended. Like Detective Miersky’s family, including the children. The true purpose of his revealing himself through letters to Katrina Holley Mallory—to terrorize her and to challenge Rydell. He’d been bored long enough.
He had not only killed the stockbroker boyfriend of the one cop, but he’d made a spectacle of the body. Authorities would be babbling to one another, baffled, but Rydell and Mallory would know in an instant what was what, the moment they heard it on the tube or read it in the papers.
Scene shifts to a crime scene that involves Detective John Thomas and his partner, Jim Hanrahan. The two are in shock, not an easy emotion to drive hardened, seasoned investigators into. But whoever killed Lawrence T. Milton, an Atlanta stockbroker with no known ties to drugs, gangs, or illegal activity of any sort had trussed his body up like a Christmas turkey.
Limbs had been broken. Legs and arms folded in like matchsticks. Neck broken. Head tucked into the torso with the rest. The entire “package” had been left dangling from a Buckhead area high school flagpole where Milton had once been a star basketball player. His body had been set ablaze with an accelerant as a last act of defilement.
Prior to this, prior to the final indignities done the body, the horror of what Milton had endured, at this point, no one knew. Attached to the tether that held the twirling, charred body was a note. Simple hospital tape held the note firmly in place. It reads in blood: So it begins.
A CSI unit comes in after the detectives. Everyone is disturbed to his and her core at the macabre murder. Someone back of the barrier with a zoom lens gets a photo.
Rydell and Holley see the news reports on an unidentified body dangling from a flagpole “trussed up like a Christmas turkey” as the reporter says. This strikes a note with them as this same description of murder had been in Cantu’s letters.
He asks Mallory if she knows Milton, indicating the news. Together, they piece the facts into place. Slowly, it dawns on them both that Milton’s extreme “makeover” is a message to them. That he is just the first. That Cantu is behind it, and he is coming for them all—all the survivors of the previous attack. Cantu is like a force of nature and must be stopped.
Marcus Rydell now knows that there are other possible victims here. He thinks of Nora Miersky and her children. He hasn’t seen or spoken with her in years. Stan’s death ought to’ve brought them closer together; instead, it had created a rift that had only evolved into a chasm. He has to warn her, and he has to get her and her kids to a safe place before Cantu gets to them. All of this comes out while he is pacing, and Holley is arguing that Milton could be another Milton, and that it could all be just a coincidence.
Rydell had not been a stranger to Milton altogether. He’d contacted Milton as he had all the survivors of the victims of the infamous incident that had been created not by Marcus Rydell but by Iden Cantu. Milton would have none of it, saying, “You cops make mistakes that no absolution from any quarter can help. So leave me be.”
That had been right after the incident. It had had such an effect on Rydell that he decided then and there he’d go to none of the funerals, that his presence would only make things worse. Instead, he sat in dark rooms after that and grew more and more pensive with each passing day, until he’d begun to have thoughts of suicide. Milton had not moved away, had not changed jobs, had not married or changed his lifestyle. He’d be the easiest of them to locate along with Holley.
Why wasn’t Kat Holley dead? Was Cantu saving her and Rydell for last? Unable to sleep, worried, Rydell takes his boat across the lake to the area airport at Blue Ridge where he takes his Cessna back to Atlanta to be on hand for what remained of the crime scene investigation, to hopefully get some information out of JT. He’s not welcomed with open arms by those processing the scene, but he does learn that the dead man is the Lawrence he feared.
While at the scene, he spots a suspicious man, Cantu, in disguise, and he gives chase only to black out and find himself on a stretcher. He has left without telling Katrina, believing he can return before she awakes. He almost makes it but not quite the next morning.
Scene shifts back to the cabin, Holley and the dog. Kat sees things now in the forest she’d never seen before, phantoms not there before. She experiences even more terror when she thinks of how Larry Milton died, and the manner in which he died left no doubt of his suffering, torturous pain. She wondered if he’d given any warnings of a like nature to the black stockbroker, Milton or if it was just to her that he chose to write, and if so, why her and not the others?
Now she hears more sounds in the woods. Each new sound has Paco, her newly acquired dog, alerting, barking. The woods are crawling with sounds now. Her terror is mounting. Then Paco races off the porch and out into the woods after whatever is out there. Rabbits, maybe…maybe squirrels, who knows.
Holley tries to get hold of her fear and paranoia. She goes back inside, toys with her loaded gun and pours a cup of steaming coffee and curses Rydell for having simply left her here all alone. Some shining knight. More like a rusty court jester. Damn him.
She hears Paco’s incessant barking out near the front gate again. She feels exposed on the large open porch. She goes to the window, coffee in one hand, .38 in the other. Under her breath, she dares the bastard Cantu to come near her. But she knows she wants him alive, wounded but alive.
She’d taken lessons now for over a year in how to bring a man down without killing him. The kneecaps. He’d be as helpless as a spineless worm then. He’d still be alive long enough for her to use her scalpel on him, the gold plated one that her father had given her at graduation that day so long ago now.
The last time she’d visited mom and dad at the gravesite, she’d found the first of the letters there on their double headstone, clearly addressed to her, held against the wind by several long strips of blanketing tape, the kind of tape she and every medical professional used every day at the hospital, commonly called Nurse’s tape.
The night before, Rydell wanted to know about how she had received the letters as none had a postmark as none were delivered through the mail. She’d recounted how she’d found each one; each had come to her “hand” delivered.
“You got good reason to be paranoid then,” he’d said.
She stared out at the dog now, trying to determine what lay at Paco’s feet, as he now stood vigilant at the bottom of the porch. He’d obviously caught something, brought it back for her to admire and perhaps make a stew of—inwardly laughing at this notion—and Paco wanted her thanks.
She slipped the gun into the narrow of her back where her jeans held it tight against her spine, and with coffee cooling in her hand, she stepped out onto the porch again. If Cantu is out here, bring it on, she thought. Coming closer to the steps and looking at what the dog dragged in from the bush, she gasped. It was a snake the size of her right arm, dead, half chewed up by Paco who’d obviously not been poisoned by the bites he no doubt suffered.
Then she hears the motorboat engine over the lake, looks up and sees that it’s Rydell. He was about to get a piece of her mind and good.
From her point of view, Rydell left Holley unprotected at the lake, and she’d experienced a period or horrible fear. They argue but he’s too fatigued to keep up. He takes a nap and later tells her the horrid details of what he’d seen. How Milton had died. How he had given chase to Cantu.
He again tells her they must locate Nora Miersky and her children, as they too must be targets of the madman. He convinces her he must go to Nashville to convince Nora and her new husband, Carl Schramick, along with the two kids to return to the cabin here, the only safe place they know of until they can sort things out.
Holley agrees but only if she and Paco can board the Cessna with him, but the dog balks at getting into the boat and runs off. They make the trip to Nashville where Nora’s son is auditioning for a talent search. There they convince the family, including the stepfather, Schramick, to return with them to Blue Ridge Lake.
The scene shifts to Cantu’s point of view. He is also in search of Nora and the kids to do to them what he’s done to Milton. But he fails to find them at their Marietta, Georgia home. While pretending to be a day laborer, as he has killed a man for his truck, Cantu is frustrated in his efforts and is “spotted” in the neighborhood by an early riser walking her dog.
Holley and Marcus arrive in Nashville to locate the traveling Mierskys, but Nora doesn’t want anything to do with Rydell. Holley takes charge, takes the woman aside, gets her to listen. When Nora learns her children’s lives, her own and her husband’s, are at stake, she agrees to Marcus’s plan—that they go back to the large cabin in the woods until they can draw a bead on Cantu and take him out before he can get near her or her children. It takes some doing, and both Holley and Rydell agrue against going to the cops for protection as it wouldn’t be enough.
Back at the homestead on the lake, the “team” assesses the new set of circumstances. Now they have the lives of children in their hands. Rydell even takes the kids out on the lake for fishing, takes them swimming. He is enjoying life again for the first time in years.
Some paragraphs here devoted to how the children revitalize Marcus and his interest in life, in possibilities of future interests and life with someone; he begins to focus outward rather than inward.
Cantu already has his plan in place; in fact, his plan was to have all his victims huddle together at the former home of Mr. and Mrs. Rydell, and he has been privy to every move Rydell has made thanks to the microphone he’d implanted in Big, his black shepherd dog.
The mic’s not perfect, having to work from inside the dog’s skin and beneath all that fur, but it’s good enough to learn what Cantu needs in order to mount a full frontal attack. He has an uncanny ability to know what “the enemy” is doing and precisely what they are planning, and this explains it.
What he knows comes clear as the story progresses, but it has all to do with Paco, the “damn” dog. Later…much later…too late in fact, Dr. Kat Holley notices a scar on Paco’s shoulder. On closer examination, she sees the sutures. On closer examination, she sees no reason for the sutures, no scar or swelling, just the recent sutures.
“Open up the sutures, now!” orders Rydell.
“What’re you thinking?”
“That bastard lunatic after us has known our every move since we’ve gotten here or soon after. The dog is bugged.”
The final scenes are a “war” and read like a B-horror film as the killer isolates those holed up at the cabin on the lake. Little things at first are no more. Phones are blocked. Electric lines are cut.Cars sabotaged. Boats are cut adrift. Paco aka Big (Cantu’s name for his dog) is being used on both sides now. Ultimately, Paco has to make a choice and he “fails” Cantu.
Mr. Schramick is picked off by Cantu who comes posing as a local cop, using the uniform of a friend of Rydell’s who’d made an earlier visit to the lake home, asking questions. Rydell has come to feel trapped with a dog, children, and women on his hands while he must face a psycho with the skills of a Rambo.
Holley gets Nora and the children across the lake, but she returns to be in on the kill. She still wants to slice him up. Earlier, as Rydell armed himself, she had taken a modern day, state of the art, hunting bow, and now she joins in on the hunt, using the bow and arrows.
Now it turns into a real manhunt. They’ve left the cabin for this hunt, but they know Cantu is more dangerous out here in the wilds than he is anywhere else. He has the distinct advantage. Through a series of encounters and near misses, Rydell and Holley confront Cantu, whose evil knows no boundaries.
When the final confrontation happens, it is a thing of beauty to see Cantu slip up, be made incapacitated as Holley saves Marcus from certain death, putting two successive arrows through Cantu’s knees—making good her plan to shatter his kneecaps, and to capture the beast alive. She wants to give him a taste of his own medicine.
Kat Holley wants to make good on her desire to torture him to death, but Rydell convinces her that if she went ahead with it, she’d never be the same afterwards, that it would change her and not for the better, that she’d end up sitting in a dark room still controlled by this bastard as she pulled a trigger against herself.
After arguments and revelations of an emotion nature, Rydell convinces her that they should take Cantu into the authorities and see that he be placed in an asylum for the criminally insane for the rest of his life, else given the death penalty.
She puts one more arrow into Cantu’s crotch before she is totally convinced. At this time JT and other cops from Atlanta and the area converge on them, ending this part of the story.
The final scene has Rydell alone now out at the lake house, staring out at the lake at dusk. Nora, her children and Kat Mallory have all returned to their normal, busy lives while he has no life to return to. He studies the marvelously beautiful purple sky, his gun pointed to his head, preparing to check out as is his habit nowadays as boredom has set in.
He puts force on the trigger when he hears someone in distress out on the lake. Screams are wafting across the lake from the deck of a large pleasure craft getting closer and closer. He puts aside his suicide, shoves his gun into the small of his back, and rushes down to his small boat and begins rowing for the larger boat intent on setting things aright.
He imagines his suicide can wait until morning, and he thinks about calling Kat—just to check in on her. Perhaps call Nora after that, chat with the kids. Perhaps call Beverly then in Ohio, chat with his own kids. Then he sees the lake cops closing in on the disturbance on the boat.
He returns to his drink and his chair on the deck where he falls asleep. He is awakened to the sound of a car pulling into the gravel driveway and the barking of a dog. It’s Paco and Holley. She’s kept her promise after all of returning once she finished her residency. They embrace with him hiding the gun.