CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE

The old man eyed the boy from behind the counter. He'd known him practically since the day he was born; him, and his brothers, too. Always been a good kid, polite and respectful.

"You doin okay, boy?"

"Yeah, sure, Pops." A hint of surprise in his reply.

"Mmm. Ain't in any kinda trouble, are you?"

"Trouble? No...why?"

"A couple men in here this mornin, askin about the place. Said they heard it was for sale, which is bullshit, o'course. Wanted to know who the owner was, where they could get in touch with him."

"Well, that's happened before, right? What did you tell them?"

"That the owner hadn't been around for years, and I hadn't heard it was for sale. Just vacant. They acted disappointed, then let it go. But I figured I'd let you know." The old man looked at him again, sternly. "You sure you ain't in trouble? 'Cause you ain't been up this way for a long time. Now you show up, and then these fellas."

"Don't worry, Pops. No big deal."

"Mmm. Or maybe it's that friend of yours. The one that drinks. Didn't like the looks of him from the start."

"Pops..."

"Okay, okay, none of my business, I know." He paused, added, "Remember how you was always bringin home stray animals? Drove your poor old mama right up the wall..."

"Yeah."

"Remember that Husky you found out in the woods?"

"Kinda..."

"Kinda, hell. Can't forget gettin mauled, can you? Damn thing turned on you so fast...lucky you weren't killed." The old man shook his head. "You was always draggin' in strays, always regrettin it."

"Your point, Pops?"

"You know this guy pretty good, do you? Or just feel sorry for him?"

"He's a friend, Pops. He helped me out. Now it's my turn."

"Okay, boy. Long as you know what you're doin."

Randy picked up the bag of groceries and walked out the door, hurrying his step. He'd left Sam alone too long.


*****

"Can we get a little closer? I can see the cabin but nothing detailed."

"Yeah, we'll move in, but slowly. Make it look like we're just drifting along. We don't want to spook them."

"Think the old man will say anything?"

"Won't matter if he does. We didn't ask about Lindstedt in particular, just wondering about the property. Hell, maybe it isn't even them."

"Well, somebody's at that cabin, so we know the old guy lied to us about that."

The three men sat silently then, trying to look like they were really fishing. They were almost halfway across the lake, but had a clear, if distant, view of the cabin. They'd seen smoke coming from the chimney, otherwise no movement of any kind. The boat, with surreptitious help from Daryl's oar, slipped slowly closer to the shore.

"Heads up. Dust cloud coming."

The men watched as dust rose up from the tree line, heading for the cabin. A few minutes later they saw a battered old Jeep pull up close to the house. A man got out, carrying a bag. They were close enough to see his movements, but couldn't make out any of his features. He seemed to wait for some time, standing just outside the door, before finally going in.

"Think he saw us?"

"I don't think so. I don't think he looked this way at all."

"Okay. I think we should head back. We aren't going to get any closer this way without giving ourselves away."

Kurt and Daryl picked up the oars and casually headed the boat for the opposite shore. They didn't start the motor until the cabin was just a blob on the far shore.

Hannibal's eyes never left it.


*****

Randy hesitated for a moment before entering the cabin. He no longer worried about Sam sneaking away while he was gone. Sam wouldn't leave the cabin for anything. Almost as if he were afraid to leave. Randy had tried on several occasions, thinking some fresh air, a walk around the property, just sitting on the dock, might sober him up a little. But Sam would get that look on his face, full of suspicion and distrust, and not budge.

When he'd left, Sam had been sitting on the couch, bottle in hand, murmuring to himself. That was something new. Up until two days ago, he would sit and drink, never saying anything unless Randy practically forced him. Now, he was still staring off into space, but was mumbling constantly. Randy couldn't make out what he was saying. There seemed to be a rhythm to it, almost as if he were reciting something. He would stop when staggering out to the kitchen for more booze, start up again once he'd made it back to the couch. If Randy got close, or asked what he was saying, Sam would just glare at him. He wouldn't say a word until Randy moved away, and then the mumbling would start again.

Sighing, Randy stepped into the cabin, looking quickly around to find Sam. He liked to know exactly where he was. As usual, Sam was propped against the back of the couch. Something was different, though.

No bottle in his hand.

"Sam?" Randy spoke quietly, cautiously.

"My father was an accountant." Monotone, but clear. No slurring.

"What?"

"My father was an accountant. My mother was a secretary. Until they got me. Then she quit and stayed home and was my mother."

"Okaaay..."

Sam was silent. He stared toward Randy for a moment, rheumy eyes not quite focused. Then he turned away, picked up a bottle from the floor, took a deep drink, and resumed his soft intonations.

Randy watched him for a moment, stricken. He stepped into the kitchen, set the bag of groceries on the counter, and stood, dazed. That was it. He'd brought Sam here to keep them safe, to make sure no one would find them, so nothing more would happen to push Sam further into violence. To help Sam deal with reality. But he hadn't been prepared for the extent of Sam's anger toward him. Had been so caught off guard that he'd actually welcomed the drinking, telling himself Sam would pull out of it, that he just had to escape for a while. That it would let them both escape for a while.

Now he knew better.

Quietly, not wanting to alert Sam, he opened the refrigerator and, one by one, pulled out the bottles. He stepped out of the kitchen door with his load and methodically opened them, emptying the contents on the ground. When he had finished with them, he dumped the empties into the garbage. He went back inside, checking to make sure Sam hadn't moved, and then pulled all the bottles from the cupboard. He ransacked the kitchen, making sure he had everything, and stepped outside once more.

When he was finished, he moved around the corner of the cabin to the Jeep. Quickly, he removed the distributor cap and hid it in the rafters of the porch.

He returned to the cabin, into the living room, sat in the chair opposite Sam, and waited.


*****

They drove around the little town on their way to the cabin, not wanting to catch the attention of the old man at the store. Fifteen minutes later they found the entrance to the driveway, if one could call it that. Thick bushes obscured the gravel trail, and the gravel itself precluded any tire tracks. Anyone else looking at it would assume it hadn't been used in years. Only close inspection showed the men where branches had been carefully cut back, allowing just enough room for a vehicle to push through. Kurt maneuvered their own vehicle into a cutback a few yards past the drive, and the men headed down the overgrown trail.

They tramped down a steep hill, which made a slow, stealthy walk difficult. They could see the leaves on the upper branches had started changing color, but the branches directly overhead still formed a dark green tunnel. They finally reached the bottom of the hill, the chill in the air maintained by the woods. They rounded a wide curve and abruptly backed into the trees.

The cabin lay directly in front of them, not more than a hundred feet away. The ground around it was clear, the lake lapping gently against the shore perhaps another hundred feet further.

"Wow. I can see why he'd hang on to this place. It's beautiful." Daryl's head turned slowly as he viewed the clearing.

"Perfect place for recuperating. Quiet, secluded. Friendlies surrounding them. Perfect." Kurt followed Daryl's gaze.

Hannibal was less enthralled. "Uh, guys, did you notice the trip wires coming down here?"

Both heads swiveled suddenly toward him, consternation on their faces.

"Trip wires? Where?"

"Exactly." Hannibal frowned, looking closely at the cabin. "There weren't any. Nothing the entire way down here to stop anyone from coming in unseen. Does that make sense? If it's really Randy and Face that are hiding out here?"

"What, you don't think it's them?"

"Either it's not them, and we've wasted our time up here, or we've missed something, and that could spell disaster. I don't like either possibility."

The three men turned to stare at the cabin, silent. They all wondered if Randy and Face were even now watching them from the curtained windows, waiting.

"Maybe it's just squatters."

"Maybe."

"So what do you want to do, Colonel?"

There was another long silence, Kurt and Daryl waiting somewhat impatiently for the colonel to make his decision.

"Well, they either know we're coming or don't care." He grinned at the other two men. "Why don't you wait here, Daryl, and Kurt, you 'mosey' over to the other side there?"

"And what are you going to do, Colonel Smith?" Kurt smiled wickedly at Daryl, who's own eyes glittered as the colonel's grin infected them both.

"Me? I'm going to go knock on the door and meet the new neighbors."