Read Night Chill Online

Authors: Jeff Gunhus

Night Chill (10 page)

 

TWENTY-FOUR

 

Perched in a tree stand, the man adjusted his scope to focus on the figure on the deck. The target was agitated about something, holding pieces of paper up in the air. The man knew the little girl was Sarah Tremont. The records he’d copied at Midland Hospital said the older sister Becky had been treated for a broken arm. The 3X9 Bushnell scope clearly showed the girl on the deck did not have a cast.

The target picked up the girl and went inside. The man did not have interior surveillance so he climbed out on the thick branch below him and wrenched the tree stand away from the main trunk. Moving slowly in case anyone was looking out of the house windows in his direction, he climbed down the tree until he was ten feet from the ground. He threw the tree stand and his black duffel bag into a thick bush that absorbed the equipment with minimum noise. A soft push off the trunk and the man dropped from the tree, rolling on impact and ending in a crouched position.

The man shook his head. Too much noise. He was getting sloppy.

He grabbed his things from the bush and started the trek back to his car. The hike gave him time to consider his next move. He had so little information to go on. Nothing more than instinct. But time meant everything right now and if he was going to make a difference he had to move quickly.

The visit from Max Dahl had been a surprise. He’d have to do some research to find out how close he and Jack Tremont were. The man didn’t have audio but the conversation had looked tense at times as he followed it through the scope.

Then there was the little girl, Sarah. He was angry at himself for not watching her at all while the men spoke. Tremont’s reaction when he returned to the deck made him wonder what was on those papers. If he had only paid attention, then he might have known for sure instead of trying to make decisions with inadequate information.

Just like old times
, he thought. His entire career had been one situation after another that demanded he make life and death decisions with limited knowledge. He was trained not to think of it as guessing, but rather as interpreting ground truth. The same training taught him the semantics of his profession. He didn’t kill men, but eliminated his targets. He never hurt innocent bystanders; he incurred collateral damage. But the wordplay never changed the reality of the missions he was ordered to carry out. Death was still death, no matter what label it wore.

He thought he would be glad to be done with the military, but in some ways he longed for it. A world of absolutes. Clear objectives. Orders that came without the need for interpretation or the inconvenience of exercising moral judgment. Now everything seemed grey and the confidence he usually felt on a mission was gone, replaced with almost paralyzing uncertainty. The superstitions he ran away from his entire life were coming back. The walls of denial, painstakingly built up since childhood, were crashing down around him. He faced a new enemy and it was one he did not understand, one he did not want to believe existed. All he knew was that this new enemy created in him an emotion he thought he had killed off long ago.

Fear.

Enough fear to catch him up for a lifetime.

The more he learned about his enemy the more he wondered if he was up to the task. He did not fear death, that emotion had long been torn from him, but he feared failure. He worried that his enemy was too powerful for him, too smart, had too many advantages. He worried that revenge was clouding his judgment.

Despite all this, the man was committed to going through with his mission. He had gathered enough intelligence.  It was time to act. And time to decide if killing Jack Tremont was part of his solution.

 

TWENTY-FIVE

 

Lauren and Jack sat side by side at the kitchen table, the sheets of construction paper spread out in front of them. The number 320 screamed off the sheets, written in multiple sizes and styles. Sarah also sat at the table, wrapping a lock of hair around her little finger, her eyes wide, waiting for her parents to speak.

“Sarah, honey.” Lauren said softly. “These numbers look really great.”

Sarah smiled at the compliment. The way her folks were acting she thought she was in trouble for something. She reached out to pick up one of the sheets of paper. Lauren came out of her chair and blocked her daughter’s hand, “No! Don’t touch it.” Jack gripped his wife’s arm and eased her back in her chair.

“I’m sorry, Mommy. What did I do?”

“Nothing sweetie.” Lauren motioned for Sarah to come sit on her lap. Sarah slid off her chair and walked over to nestle into her mother’s arms. Lauren rocked her back and forth. “I’m sorry I snapped at you sweetie. Do you forgive me?” Sarah nodded.

“Sarah, where did you learn how to write your numbers so well?” Jack said.

Sarah looked at her dad and then over at the papers on the table. She cocked her head to the side as if realizing for the first time that it was strange that the numbers looked so much better than anything she had ever done before. They looked like an adult did them. She turned back to her dad and shrugged.

Lauren leaned her back so she could see her face. “Why did you choose those numbers? Are those just the ones you know?”

Sarah looked down at her hands and mumbled, “I dunno.”

Jack knew that was Sarah’s line whenever she was nervous, but he wondered if that wasn’t the truth this time. “Sweetie, you’re not in trouble. We’re really proud of you.”

Sarah shrugged and burrowed deeper into her mom’s arms. Lauren and Jack made eye contact, each searching the other for ideas. Neither of them knew where to go next. They sat in silence, staring at the pages sitting on the table. The faint sound of a sitcom laugh track filtered down from Becky’s room upstairs.

Jack looked around the room. The area where they sat was what the realtor had called the great-great room. Jack thought the label a bit pompous, but he had to agree with her. It was a massive space with ceilings two stories high, one side covered with layered river rock and another all windows designed perfectly to take advantage of the forest view. The room was his favorite. He loved the openness, the giant fireplace, the illusion of being outdoors. It had always been the most comfortable room in the house for him. Now he felt different. Now he felt exposed.

Bam. Bam. Bam
.

Jack jumped at the sound. Lauren let out a small cry as the knocking on the front door crashed through the house. Jack laughed at their reactions, “Wow, I guess we’re a little strung out, huh?”

“Are you expecting someone?”

“No. You?” Lauren shook her head. Jack noticed Sarah watching them. He leaned down toward her and said, “Probably Uncle Max, huh? He’s always getting lost.” He rubbed the top of her head, messing up her hair until she smiled. He walked toward the door trying to show more confidence than he felt. “You guys wait here. I’ll see who it is.”

 

TWENTY-SIX

 

Jack gave a low whistle and Buddy fell in behind him as he walked to the door. As he got closer he noticed the door wasn’t locked. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time they’d bothered.

Buddy started to whine, his tail dropping between his legs.

“What’s wrong?” Jack asked, rubbing Buddy’s head.

He looked up and suddenly he noticed a person standing with his back to the door just off the entryway. Even in the gathering late afternoon shadows, Jack could tell it was a man’s frame, well over six feet; lean but broad shouldered. The man’s hair was pulled back and tied into a pony tail. Jack opened the door and the man turned around and stepped toward him.

“I think we need to talk,” the man said.

Jack studied the man’s face. A dark complexion betrayed any sign of age and provided only ambiguous hints at the man’s ethnicity. He had dark eyes that were focused and intelligent, darting back and forth in constant surveillance. He had a wide, irregular nose, as if it had been broken and left to mend on its own. White scar tissue wrapped its way up from the man’s throat over his jaw line until it disappeared into his hair. Jack had hoped that it would be a door-to-door salesman. But something about the look of the man told him it wasn’t the case. 

“Listen, whatever this is about, you’ve caught me at a bad time. Could you…”

“Nate Huckley’s coming after your daughter.”

Jack stiffened. “What did you say?”

“I said Nate Huckley’s coming after your daughter. And he’s not working alone. I think we should talk.”

Jack stepped out of the house and closed the door behind him. A couple of days ago he would have told the man to get the hell off his property. But too many strange things had happened, all of them about Sarah. “What do you know?”

“I know you’re involved in something you don’t understand. I know Huckley tried to take your daughter away from you at that rest area. I know if he’d succeeded that she’d be dead right now. I know that if he wanted her that badly then there must have been a good reason. Once the rest of them figure out what that reason was, then they’ll be after her too. How’s that for starters?”

“Rest of them? What do you mean?”

“Huckley isn’t alone. He stumbled across your little girl but believe me his friends are taking notice of the risk he took. They’re trying to understand right now what he found. They have their suspicions, but once they know for sure they’ll stop at nothing until they get her.”

“This is crazy. Who are you? How are you involved in all this?”

“I’ve told you more than you knew. Now I need a few answers from you.”

“Like what?”

 “What did your little girl write on those pages? Is Huckley trying to contact her?”

Jack was confused for a moment but then felt a surge of heat rush to his face as he realized the implications of what the man had said. The man had been spying on them. Watching from the woods. He didn’t care what the man knew, the invasion was too much. Who knew how long the man had watched his family from the trees. For all he knew, the man was with Huckley. Jack took a step forward and jabbed a finger at the man’s chest

 “You get the hell out of here, understand? If I catch you spying on my family again, I’ll come after you. I swear to God.”

The man wrinkled his brow as if amused by Jack’s attempt to look threatening. He pointed at Jack’s finger still waving at him. “You’ll want to put that away. I’m not here to cause trouble. I came because I think we might be on the same side in this mess.”

Buddy, fidgeting uncomfortably next to his master, snarled when the man pointed. Jack reached down without taking his eyes off the man and took hold of the dog’s collar. “Like I said, I think it’s time you leave.”

The man looked down at the snarling dog and back to Jack. Finally, he shrugged. He reached into his jacket pocket.

“Hey, hey,” Jack called out, almost releasing his grip on Buddy.

The man pulled out a small piece of paper and a pen. Jack steadied his breath. The man wrote something on the paper and held it out for Jack to take.

“When something else happens, and something will happen, you’ll want to talk. Name’s Joseph Lonetree. That’s my number. ”

Jack took the paper and stuffed it in his pocket without looking at it. He nodded toward the driveway. The man smiled, turned and headed back to his car. Jack watched until he made sure the car was far up the driveway. He walked back inside and told Buddy to stay on guard by the front door. One phrase from the exchange kept repeating in his head as he walked back to the kitchen.
When something else happens, and something will happen, you’ll want to talk.
He had a bad feeling that the mysterious Mr. Lonetree was going to be right.  And worse, he felt powerless to stop it.

 

TWENTY-SEVEN

 

The girls resisted sleep as long as possible. Jack and Lauren tried to stick to their normal routine but found themselves as distracted as their kids. Lauren was still unsettled by Jack’s reaction to their late night visitor. He had returned from the entry way with a concerned look and, without saying anything, started to go through the house and check that every window and door was locked. Not many of them were. Then he pulled closed the few curtains they had, muttering to himself how easy it was for someone to see into the house. Lauren resisted the temptation to ask who had been at the door. By Jack’s reaction it was no one he wanted to talk about in front of Sarah.

Becky came downstairs to see what was going on. She sat at the table and looked over the sheets of construction paper with Sarah’s writing on them and then at her dad rushing around the house. Something was going on. She called out for Buddy and the dog happily jogged into the room and sat by Becky to get his ears rubbed. Seeing this, Jack strode over and kneeled next to his daughter.

“Becky, Buddy needs to stay by the front door for a while, all right?”

She nodded and gave the dog one last pat on the head. Jack whistled and walked back to the front door. Buddy followed with his head held low to the ground, as if ashamed he had left his post so easily. He retook his spot next to the door and peered out of the window, his ears cocked upright to pick up the slightest sound. Jack leaned down and scratched the back of the big dog’s neck. “You’re in charge here Buddy. You see as much as a rabbit hop across the driveway, you let me know.”

Buddy turned his head just long enough to land a wet tongue on his master’s hand, as if to assure him that he understood, and then turned back to resume his vigil at the front window. “That’s my good boy,” Jack said.

When he returned, only Lauren was at the table.

“Where are the girls?”

“Upstairs, brushing their teeth. Scared because their dad’s been running around, locking up the house. Tell me what happened.”

Jack sat down with her and recounted his conversation with Lonetree. He noticed her glance up at the windows when he told her about the man spying on them from the woods.

“If he saw her writing, then he was watching her while she was alone. You were in the front on the house with Max. He could have…”

“I know. I know.”

“What’s all this about Huckley wanting Sarah. About other people coming after her? It’s crazy.”

“It’s completely crazy. But isn’t that how these things happen? Sane people don’t kidnap little kids, right?” Jack got up and crossed over to the kitchen.

“What are you doing?” Lauren said

Jack grabbed the cordless phone. “I’m going to call our friend Sheriff Janney and tell him about this guy.” He punched in the number for information and had the operator connect him to the Allegheny County sheriff’s office. “Then tomorrow I think it’s a good idea if you take the kids away for a few days. Just until I can figure out what the hell is going on around here.” Before Lauren could object, an annoyed woman with a smoker’s hack answered the phone, “Sheriff’s office.”

“Hi there. This is Jack Tremont out on Forest Drive. I just had a suspicious man come to my house and threaten my family. Can I make a report or something? Have someone check it out?”

“That was Freemont you say?”

“No, Tremont. Jack Tremont, out on Forest Drive in Prescott City.”

“Was the trespasser a relative of yours?” the woman asked in a bored voice, obviously unimpressed. Jack figured by the question that the sheriff’s office fielded a lot of domestic disturbance calls.

“No. I don’t know the man. He gave me his name though. Joseph Lonetree.”

“All right. Hold please.”

The line clicked. Music piped through the phone, a country station playing old time Johnny Cash. A half a song later, the line clicked and the music disappeared.

“Deputy Sorenson here. You want to report a suspicious person?”

Jack’s throat went dry. He recognized the voice. It was the deputy Janney brought with him to the hospital room. Jack cursed himself for not realizing there was a chance he would answer the phone. “Yeah, someone showed up at my door tonight. He let it slip that he’d been watching the house during the day. And he threatened my family.”

“Just a sec.” There was a rustling of paper. The deputy came back on the line and asked in a bored voice, “Name?”

He cleared his throat. “Jack Tremont.” As he expected, there was a long silence on the other line.

“Mr. Tremont,” the deputy said. “This is Deputy Sorenson. I met you yesterday at Midland hospital.”

“Yes, I recognized your voice.”

“Sir, I’d like to apologize if I was rude to you at the hospital. My nerves were a little frayed. I’m sorry for my lack of professionalism.”

Jack was stunned by the young man’s change of attitude. Maybe Janney had straightened the kid out.  He felt himself relax. “Don’t worry about it. It was a long night for everyone.”

“Thank you, sir. Now, please tell me about the intruder you’d like to report.”

After Jack went through the details, Deputy Sorenson read back the report to check it for accuracy. “Is there anything else you’d like to add?” the deputy asked.

“Yeah, he told me to contact him if anything else happened?”

“What did he mean by anything else?”

Jack did a quick calculus about whether to tell the deputy about Sarah’s number writing. It took him about two seconds to realize the story would sound crazy to anyone who hadn’t seen it in person. It seemed crazy to him and he had been there. “I don’t know what he meant,” Jack lied. “The whole thing was strange.”

“Did he tell you how to contact him?”

“Yeah, he gave me a phone number. He said it was a cell phone.”

“I’ll need that number.”

Jack dug through his pocket to find the piece of paper the man gave him. He pulled it out and started to read off the numbers. Halfway through, he felt a sense of dread, like he was making a huge mistake giving the number away. Lonetree was the only person so far who believed his story about Huckley. He might have known more about the night at the rest area. Somehow he felt like he was betraying a possible ally. Before he could think it through, he reacted to his gut feeling and scrambled the last four digits of the phone number. The deputy repeated the number to make sure he had it right. With a deep breath, Jack passed on the opportunity to correct him.

“All right, I think I have everything I need. Is there anything else you want to add?”

 “Not that I can think of. Do you have any idea who this man is?”

“No sir. I’ll check the computer but the description and the name don’t ring any bells. I’ll let you know if anything turns up. And I’ll send a deputy by to check out the road out by your house.”

“Thanks. I’d appreciate that,” Jack said.

“No problem. I wouldn’t worry too much about this Mr. Tremont. Usually these things are one time deals. Drifters, you know.”

“I hope so. Thanks for your help.”

“No problem. Once again Mr. Tremont, sorry about last night in the hospital. It was very unprofessional.”

Jack smiled. “Forgotten. Really, don’t worry about it.”

The deputy promised to have a patrol car drive by shortly, said goodnight and hung up the phone. Jack was glad he had called in but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d missed an opportunity to get more information out of Lonetree. He fingered the piece of paper with the phone number and considered making the call. He hesitated, then stuck the paper back into his jeans pocket. Maybe later, once Lauren and the kids were out of town.

When he walked out into the great room, Lauren was gone. Upstairs to tuck the girls in he assumed. He was by himself, the large vacant windows staring down at him, the trees outside casting shadows into the room. He noticed little noises throughout the house. The hum of the refrigerator. The click of the furnace turning on. He guessed they were the same noises that rattled through the house every night, but now they took on new meaning. Every creak of a floorboard was a foot being put down as someone crept up the stairs. Every draft caused by a window being opened by a kidnapper. The openness of the great room gave him chills. He wondered when he’d be able to sit in the room again and think of it as a great view rather than a transparent cage for intruders to spy on his family. He wondered if maybe Lonetree was watching him at that moment, suspended high over the ground in a tall pine. He flipped the bird to the wall of windows and trudged off to the hallway closet.

After rummaging through two years accumulation of coats, gloves, backpacks, and shoes, he found what he was looking for. He pulled out the Louisville Slugger aluminum baseball bat and shoved everything else back deep into the closet. He gripped the bat with both hands and took a few slow motion swings wondering how much damage a full swing would do to a human body. He didn’t want to kill anyone, just stop them in their tracks. A long, painful recovery time would be good too. He used to tip of the bat to push the closet door shut.

As it closed, it revealed a body in the hallway, right behind where the door had been.

Jack gasped and raised the bat to his shoulder.

“Jesus, Jack. It’s just me,” Lauren said.

“God, you scared me. What are you doing creeping around?”

“I wasn’t creeping around. I just came down to see what you were doing.” She nodded to the bat. “Is that the secret weapon?”

Jack shrugged. “Can’t hurt.”

“Come on. The kids are all tucked in. Let’s try to get some sleep.”

“I’m a little wired for sleep.”

“Yeah, me too. I just want to be upstairs. Close to the girls, you know?”

Jack put his arm around her and kissed her forehead. “Did they go down all right? I thought maybe we’d have them sleep with us tonight.”

“If they asked I would have let them, but they were O.K. staying in their own rooms. They’re on the second floor and their windows are locked. I figured if they’re not freaked out, let it alone.”

“Fair enough.” They walked into the family room. “Now that we’re alone, what do you think about the numbers Sarah wrote?”

“There’s got to be a simple explanation. Maybe she heard the room number at the hospital.”

“But the way she wrote them. She’s not capable of that.”

“I don’t know. The stress of the accident…”

“Made her smarter? C’mon Lauren. Something weird is going on here.”

“O.K. So what do you think?”

Jack rubbed his chin with the palm of his hand. He knew he had to be careful. After his scene at the hospital he noticed Lauren watching him closely, almost clinically. “I’m not sure. But something unusual is going on. And it’s not just from the stress of the crash. I think it’s more than that. There’s something I haven’t told you about that night. Something about Sarah. When Huckley was outside, trying to get into the Jeep, I looked in the back seat and saw Sarah talking. I couldn’t hear her so I told her to speak up. But she kept talking to the window. Finally, she stopped and said she wasn’t talking to me. She was talking to the bad man outside. It was what she told us about today.”

“She was scared. She’s a little girl. It was just her way of telling us what she was scared of. You can’t take it literally.”

“You weren’t there. She was having a conversation. Answering questions. Shaking her head yes and no to questions I couldn’t hear.”

“Maybe she could hear him through the window?”

“No way. With the rain and thunder, Huckley could have been screaming right at the window and she couldn’t have heard it. It was like she heard a voice that Becky and I couldn’t hear.”

“You think she heard voices in her head? Like she’s some kind of psychic? Give me a break.”

“I don’t know what it is, but something is happening, something very strange. I haven’t told you everything about Albert James either.” He made her sit down at the table and went through everything Albert James said, both before he went into the bar and as he lay dying in his arms.

When he was done, the color was drained out of Lauren’s face.

“Why didn’t you tell me any of this before?”

“Because it sounds nuts. I can’t explain how Albert James knew someone was after Sarah. I can’t explain how Sarah was talking to Huckley that night. I didn’t say anything because there is no explanation for it.”

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