Authors: Michael Lister
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Hard-Boiled, #Religious
“If anything happens to her…” Steve said.
His threat didn’t bother me, but his implication did—this was my fault. I was responsible. I shouldn’t have left her. He was right. If anything happened to her, it was on me.
“How could you have left her?” he asked.
I didn’t answer. The circumstances didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that it was her choice, that she knew the manager, that I was nearby and we both had cell phones, that there had been no reason to believe she was in any danger there.
We were racing toward Ralph Reid’s house in Panama City in Steve’s Explorer, siren on, emergency lights flashing. Sister Abigail was back at the abbey calling Kathryn’s cell in between calling her friends who would’ve been most likely to have been at Café on the Dock.
“Whatta you think he wants with her?” he asked. “If he’s trying to use her for leverage, why hasn’t he contacted us? I just can’t see how taking her helps him. You think he’s doing this on his own? Why aren’t you saying anything?”
“Where is she?” Steve asked.
When Reid had opened his door, Steve shoved him back into the house and now had him pinned to the wall of his foyer. His hair was sticking up on one side, one of his cheeks was red, and he acted groggy. He was wearing the same dress shirt and slacks as when I had seen him early in the afternoon, but his tie and shoes were off and his shirt was half untucked and very wrinkled.
“What?” he asked. “Who?”
His house was surprisingly humble––an older ranch with simple furnishing. Obviously the home of a bachelor, there were no signs of feminine sensibility or recent improvements. Though tidy and cleanish looking, there was the unmistakable odor of animal, as if the dwelling were home to pets as well as Reid, but the smell was the only evidence in the foyer.
“Don’t pretend like you were asleep,” Steve said. “It’s too early.”
“I came home after work and fell asleep in my recliner. I’m not pretending any—”
“I will kill you,” Steve said, dropping his right hand to the gun holstered on his hip. “I can do it. And I can get away with it.”
Reid seemed to shrink in on himself, an undeniable fear creeping into his face, his usual confidence replaced by a sad, pathetic vulnerability.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, suddenly wide awake.
“Kathryn,” I said. “Where is she?”
“Why are you asking me? How would I know where—”
His confusion seemed authentic, but he was a professional, practiced liar. Steve relaxed his hold on him slightly, but didn’t let go.
“She’s missing,” I said. “This afternoon when I was with you and Russ, we think the other guy—what’s his name?—”
“—took Kathryn from the marina.”
“Are you sure? I can’t believe—”
“You saying you had nothing to do with it?” Steve asked.
“Of course not. I had no idea. Kathryn’s like a daughter to me. I’d never be involved in anything that—”
“You had us assaulted and robbed,” I said.
“I told you. I just asked them to get the diary,” he said. “I specifically told them not to hurt anyone.”
“This afternoon your guy was pointing a gun at me.”
guy. He works security for the Gulf Coast Company. You were trespassing. If you’ll recall, I intervened on your behalf.”
“Who do they work for if not you?” Steve asked.
“I really don’t know. There’s a lot of restructuring going on. I just asked for their help getting the diary because I knew they could.”
“Why would they want her?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I have no idea.”
“Where would they take her?” Steve asked.
“Do you realize how much property they own?” he asked. “Nearly a million acres. They could be anywhere.”
“What are we going to do?” Steve asked me.
I thought about it. I really had no idea where to start.
“I need to get an APB out,” he said. “Get my guys out of bed. Start a search.”
“Can you call Russ or Cole?” I asked.
Reid shook his head. “I really am just a cog. I don’t know––”
“Wait,” Reid exclaimed. “There’s an old isolated fish camp. I’ve heard them talk about it. They called it Hotel California. I thought they were kidding, but—”
“Why Hotel California?” Steve asked.
“They say people check out, but never leave.”
“Where is it?” I asked.
“I can take you,” he said.
Steve said, “You didn’t think we were leaving you here, did you?”
The fish camp was a small, unremarkable house on a bend in the Chipola River that elevated function over form. Its purpose was practical, not aesthetic. It was at the end of a long dirt road off of an empty county highway, surrounded on three sides by pine woods thick with undergrowth and the river on the other.
As we neared it, Steve cut his lights. The car I had seen Russ and Cole get into in downtown Bridgeport earlier in the day, a champagne-colored Ford Taurus, was parked in front of the house.
“Listen to me,” Reid whispered from the backseat, “don’t hesitate. These men are dangerous. I’m not sure why they’re doing this, but it’s not on my orders. It probably doesn’t have anything to do with the company either. Maybe one of these sociopaths has become obsessed with Kathryn.”
As Steve brought the Explorer to a stop, we both turned and looked at Reid in disbelief.
“What?” he said. “I’m just saying. Be careful. Do what you’ve got to do to get Kathryn back.”
Steve looked at me. “This bastard’s already trying to distance himself and the company from the two dead men in the house.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Steve said. “One more word from you and I’m gonna shoot you.”
With Reid cuffed in Steve’s backseat, the two of us slowly moved toward the house. As we had agreed, when we reached it I split off to take the back.
“Hey,” he whispered. “Don’t shoot me when we bust through the doors.”
“Ditto,” I said.
Though brittle, the weeds were high and made a swishing sound as I walked through them. The only light in the house seemed to be coming from the center, perhaps in the main room, the windows I was ducking beneath on the side dark.
When I reached the back of the house, I could see strips of light on the wooden slats of the porch. They were coming from the partially opened blinds of the sliding glass doors, which meant I would be able to see inside before breaking in.
Easing over to the side of the door, I leaned against the wall and risked peeking in. Though it shouldn’t have, what I saw shocked me. I should have been prepared for anything, but I wasn’t prepared for this.
I tried the handle of the glass door, but it was locked.
Jumping off the porch and running around to the front of the house, I tried to catch Steve before he broke in.
“STEVE,” I yelled as I neared the front corner of the house. “IT’S ME. DON’T SHOOT.”
“What the hell are you doing?” he asked when I reached him.
“Trying not to get shot,” I said.
Before he could finish, I stepped around him and opened the door. He spun around, crouching in the doorway, gun drawn, in a shooter’s stance.
His eyes grew wide and his gun came down a little when he saw what I had.
The large rustic living room had very little furniture, a couch and a chair on one wall, a recliner on another, and nothing in the middle of the floor—except the two dead bodies of Russ and Cole.
Each man was laying on his back, the old rug beneath him soaked with his blood. Both men’s guns were on the floor next to them. Cole’s hand was still on his.
“What the hell?” Steve said. “Where is Kathryn?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “but she’s not here.”
When I had looked in the back door, I could see that the house had only one great room and a small bathroom in the corner. The side windows I thought belonged to darkened rooms were actually just taped up so no light could escape. From the back door, I could see into the little bathroom in the front corner. It was empty. The two men were the only people in the house.
“She may never have been here,” I said.
“You think they shot each other?” he asked.
“I think that’s what we’re supposed to think,” I said, “but this thing’s as staged as an amateur play––and about as well.”
“What if we’re wrong?” Steve asked.
We were standing in the front yard of the house watching as FDLE processed the crime scene, Reid still locked in the back of Steve’s Explorer. It was late. We were tired.
“What if it’s not him?” he said, nodding toward Reid.
“He led us straight here.”
Beneath the huge halogen shop lights that lit up the entire area, the crime scene techs were processing the Taurus as well as scouring the yard. They wore protective coverings over their clothes and shoes to prevent contaminating the crime scene any more than absolutely necessary.
“I didn’t mean this,” he said. “He’s definitely involved in this. I mean Kathryn. What if they didn’t take her? If Reid or his boys didn’t kill Tammy, then maybe whoever did has Kathryn.”
From the backseat of Steve’s vehicle, Reid was motioning and yelling, but none of us gave any indication we saw or heard him.
“I’ve got to be here,” he said. “And when we’re done, I’m gonna go at Reid hard, but I’d feel a lot better if you were following up the other leads. There’s nothing you can do here anyway. Divide and conquer. Go back to the abbey and break some balls, rattle some cages. The longer it goes, the less chance we have of finding Kathryn alive.”
I ducked beneath the crime scene tape and stepped into the cabin Father Thomas and Tammy had used, its wet copper smell filling my nostrils, its reverberating vibes of violence echoing through me.
The room, like the night, was dark and cold and felt disjointed and dangerous. A howling wind haunted the woods, whistling through the trees, whipping around the old buildings of St. Ann’s, whining like someone in pain. Nearby, a shutter banged against a building––slowly, incessantly, like a dreaded knock of someone delivering bad news or the weak heartbeat of a dying man.
I searched the cabin to make sure I was alone, my flashlight beam creeping eerily across the horrific images of blood splatter and bed restraints, of crimson smears on sheets and blackened drip trails on the floor, of arterial spray on the wall and ceiling, and a deep red handprint on the door jam.
There was no one in the cabin, but it didn’t feel like I was alone.
A few minutes before, I had searched Kathryn’s cabin and found the tape. It was difficult enough to find that it didn’t surprise me that Steve’s officers had missed it when they conducted their search, but it wasn’t so difficult that it alleviated my concerns about their incompetence.
After they had processed the scene, Steve had the techs leave everything in place—including the video camera. It had the residue of fingerprint dust on it, but was otherwise ready to roll, and as I powered it up and opened the tape transport, I realized anyone looking would know the camera had been used after it had been processed.
Gently dropping the tape into the transport, I closed the door and began to rewind it. As it rewound, I looked around the room again, wondering if I were about to see a sex tape, an exorcism, or something else.
Finding it difficult to concentrate on anything but the fact that Kathryn was missing and my responsibility in it, I willed myself to think about the case and what it had brought up in me. Over and over I had been asked and had been wondering what I believed. Did I believe in the devil? Did I believe in possession, in exorcism?
The truth was, I wasn’t sure what I believed. There could be something beyond human evil, something in the supernatural realm. I believed in transcendent good, why not transcendent evil? I just didn’t know. I believed in God, in grace, in love—in good more than evil, but I did believe in evil. I had seen it, experienced it, fought it. Ultimately, evil seemed no match for love, seemed more inconsequential than anything else when compared to God, to grace, to love.
Finally, the whir of the tape stopped.
Was Tammy possessed? Maybe she was. Maybe she had been the victim of early, systematic sexual and/or physical abuse, a heavy drug user. Maybe she had a dissociative disorder. Maybe she had been made to feel vulnerable by abuse or drugs and wasn’t really completely present in her own mind and body. Maybe she really was what some people would refer to as possessed, but that doesn’t mean it means exactly what they think it means. Maybe like most things it’s far more mysterious than we realize, and giving it literal limits, definitions, causes, cures was to diminish it, to reduce it, to dismiss it in ways those who believed in literal possession never meant to do.
I’d know soon enough, I thought, as I pushed the Play button.
When the tape started playing, the small pop-out screen filled with Tammy strapped to the bed, her naked body shivering slightly. Almost immediately, Father Thomas approached her from the other side of the bed in a black cassock holding the Catholic ritual book and a bottle of holy water. Even when he walked into the frame, part of him was still cropped off.
I glanced over my shoulder and looked at the room again. There was a lot of the room that couldn’t be seen on the tape because it was zoomed in so tight on the bed.
Looking back at the screen, I watched as Father Thomas began the rite.
For a long while, nothing eventful happened. Father Thomas knelt beside the bed and began to pray the Lord’s Prayer, Tammy watching peacefully, though not offering to join him.
The first abnormal reaction Tammy had was when Father Thomas withdrew a small crucifix from his pocket and held it up toward her. Recoiling from it, her face contorted into something serpentine and she hissed at him, her breath suddenly visible as if the temperature in the room had dropped drastically.
Caught off guard, Father Thomas backed up, before he realized what he was doing and stopped. Crossing himself, he held the crucifix even closer to Tammy and said, “The Lord rebuke you.”
Like hers, his breath came out in tiny puffs of mist, and even in the dim room his skin looked impossibly pale, his wispy hair impossibly white.
Tammy then said something in a language I didn’t recognize and the crucifix flew out of his hand and into the far corner opposite us. I glanced over to see that it was still sticking into the wall.
I paused the camera and walked over to take a better look at the cross. As I neared it, I heard a serpentine hiss from behind me and a little girl whisper, “Leave now before it’s too late.” The crucifix then shot out of the wall and would have hit me in the face had I not whipped my head around at the exact moment I did. As it was, it still grazed my ear before it landed on the floor and slid until it came to rest upside down against the opposite wall.
Walking back over to the camera, I could hear the tormented moan of someone in severe agony, but choosing to ignore it as well as all the questions ricocheting off the walls of my mind, I took the tape off pause and began watching again.
Tammy’s free hand had shot out and seized Father Thomas by the neck. Her grip must’ve been extremely powerful. No matter what he tried, he couldn’t break free. Soon, he was turning blue, gasping for breath, still unable to get loose. Releasing her hand from his, he reached down, grabbed the holy water and drenched her with it.
She let go of his throat and he fell back, sucking in air as he did.
Writhing in pain, her skin began to split open, blood pouring from her wounds, steam rising from her skin, a litany of shrill screams and profanities spewing from her mouth.
Father Thomas slapped Tammy hard across the face.
As if a feral animal, Tammy’s free hand clawed at Father Thomas, scraping skin from his face before he could back out of her reach.
Spreading her legs even further apart, Tammy put her free hand inside herself and said, “Come back. I like it rough.” She then clinched her fist and began to hit herself.
Father Thomas grabbed her arm and attempted to restrain it, but she swatted him across the room. He hit the wall next to the door and fell to the floor in a crumpled heap.
For a long moment, Father Thomas didn’t move, but when the bed began to bang around, he slowly looked up.
And then I saw something that changed everything. With Father Thomas still on the floor, the shadow of a person crossed over part of Tammy and the bed.
I stopped the tape and rewound it.
Replaying the section, and seeing the shadow again, I said aloud, “Someone else was in the room.”
“I was,” a demented little boy hissed behind me.
I turned, but there was no one there, and I regretted it the moment I did.
Reminding myself to ignore the voice and concentrate on what I was doing, I turned back around toward the camera. No matter what the voice was—real or imagined, in my mind or in the room—I knew the best thing to do was give it no place.
Had someone come in during the exorcism? Was it a person? Steve was the first to leave the table after Tammy. Why wouldn’t Father Thomas have mentioned that someone else was in the room?
Maybe he didn’t know. He was across the room and had yet to look in this direction. He seemed very shaken up. Maybe he’d never seen the person.
I restarted the tape, but there wasn’t much left to see. In less than a minute, the tape was stopped, which only confirmed someone else was there, because Father Thomas was still across the room on the floor.
I stumbled outside the cabin and stood in the cold darkness.
I shook my head and confessed to God and the wondrous, mysterious universe she had given birth to, “I’m an arrogant and ignorant man. Quick to speak, slow to learn. I’ve spoken of things I don’t understand. ‘I place my hand over my mouth.’”
The last part was a line from the book of Job. I didn’t literally cover my mouth.
I wasn’t sure what I had just witnessed was demonic, but I had never before experienced anything like it, and I was tempted to try to figure it out, to use deductive reasoning and investigative techniques to solve the mystery, but quickly decided not to, not to apply logic to something so illogical, not to try to figure it out, not to investigate, not to respond in the same tired ways I always did.
Some mysteries can be solved. Others cannot. When it comes to the truly great mysteries of existence, what we deal with is not vague unknowns, but specific unknowables.
I realized how dismissive I had been. Being so sure I could figure it out if I just put my mind to it. Trusting too much rationality and deductive reasoning.
I had to talk to Father Thomas, even if it meant waking him up. There were things I had to say, things that wouldn’t wait. There were also things I needed to ask him, such as what happened after the camera was turned off, why it was turned off, and who had done it.