Sunday, September 9, 2012

Man Cave, Chapter 6 - the conclusion

- Chapter 6, Epilogue, Author's Note

by
LC Cooper

Copyright LC Cooper, © 2012
Published by LC Cooper at Smashwords

Cover image, "Scary Cave #7," courtesy of http://www.itwouldbescary.com/
Cover Tartan texture © 2012 love textures

Smashwords Edition, License Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

* * * * *

Chapter 6

I really didn't want to listen to Eric's fool ravings and his insane plan. More than once during his rehearsed monologue, I stood up fuming and began to walk away.
"No matter how old it is, Adam, the map doesn't lie. Frankly, we're damn lucky to have found that thing before we headed for the mountains."
"While hatching up your plan, did you take into account the fact that I might prefer to die peacefully in a manner that you and I, and not Sammy, decide? The very last option, in my mind, is to be tortured and die, then become nothing more than stuffed animals in that freak's menagerie."
"Look, I agree this seems suicidal, but some aspects will work in our favor. For instance, it's obvious from the way he carried out his attack on us this morning that he may be very good at setting traps, but he's clueless at making solid and sound impromptu plans. If we slip back into Manton, we'd have the element of surprise."
"So, we saunter in and yell, 'Boo!' and Sammy will drop into the fetal position and give up?"
"Don't be such a smart ass, Adam. I believe there's a way we can sneak into Manton without being detected as long as we stay off of obvious paths and away from the lakefront during daylight hours. Once we find a hiding place, we watch Sammy as he moves through his day. Not suspecting we'd be there, his guard will be down."
"Okay, then, since you're still busted up, how about I slip up behind Sammy and his nasty shotgun, tap him on the shoulder, and boink him with my stone-tipped caveman spear when he turns around. I think the odds are in our favor that he'd die of laughter."
"Adam, lay off the sarcasm and stay with me" Eric sighed, "we set a trap for him." He propped up on an elbow. "Look, you can whine all you want, but our only chance of surviving is to put your tiresome angst into helping me develop a plan to capture Sammy."
"What, like a Burmese tiger trap?" I offered, not quite through with being irritable.
"Obviously, nothing that elaborate – whatever we develop must remain hidden. Manton is Sammy's playground. Any plan we develop can't be detectable because if he finds it, he'll know we're alive and local. He'd be on high-alert and gunning for us."
"I don't understand why you think that we'll be able to capture the guy on his own turf. The way I see things unfolding, is that because you're a mess, physically, we can't set up an actual trap."
"Go on, I'm listening."
"I bet there's a working phone in the registration cabin. Our first hurdle is for me to break into it."
"You're assuming he won't be armed with anything more deadly than a knife. If he's packing heat or has that damned AA-12 on him, he'll turn you into dust before you can say gotcha."
For the next two hours, Eric and I hashed out a high-level strategy for disabling Sammy's operations while returning us home safely. We'd leave the actual capture and cleanup to the professionals, such as the FBI. All it would take is a phone call once we got our hands on a phone that worked in Manton.
"And if we can't?" asked Eric.
"After sketching out this plan, I've had a change of heart. I agree with you that I'd still rather risk it in Manton than starve to death or die of hypothermia or altitude sickness in the mountains. Our plan, at least, gives us a fighting chance."
Eric paused and then added, "We have to keep in mind no one would expect us to be heroes and capture or kill Sammy. What we're really after is a working phone or keys to his truck. Heck, I'd much rather drive off in his truck than try to confine him until the cops arrive."
"Yeah, I agree, but about driving off in his truck … let's just pretend for a moment that we do steal his pickup. He'll hear it start and come out to investigate. When that happens, we'll replay the exact same scenario we already endured. We'll have to negotiate that damned road he covered with tire spikes. Meanwhile, he'll cut us off at the junction. This time, I'll bet he'll be ready and waiting for us with his automatic shotgun."
"It's one thing to find a phone, but we still need a way out of Manton," Eric said while shaking his head in frustration. "I don't believe for a minute that we'll succeed in keeping Sammy locked up. He's probably planned for that scenario and rigged Manton in a way that'll help him escape."
"We'll have to kill him," I bluntly said. I can't believe the words came out of my mouth, as I'm not a violent person.
Eric was also surprised, saying, "Wait a minute, Rambozo. Bumping Sammy off isn't a good solution either. I think we'll have to keep him alive if we're to get out of Manton. With all his traps and weird setups, he's screwy enough to have rigged the town to go up in a fireball if anything happens to him."
"Oh, give me a break. That's a reach."
"Really? Think about all we've lived through …" Eric cut his sentence short and dropped to the dirt, scrambling for cover at the base of a large tree.
I heard the whirring thumps as well and dove into a patch of shrubs. From within my hiding place, I saw the helicopter dart by at treetop level. It was heading toward Manton.
"Either it's carrying supplies or high-priced customers," Eric whispered after the sounds of the rotor blades faded into the distance. "But either way, that helicopter will be our curse or our salvation."
"Do you know how to pilot one?"
"Um, no …" Eric said, obviously losing faith that we'd escape Manton in it.
I added, "It's flying low, meaning the thing is probably loaded down with illegal stuff." I shuddered at the vision of a Metal Storm's 36-barrel gun being carried off the helicopter. The fact that it can fire over a million rounds-per-minute was a bit of morale-killing trivia I wasn't willing to share with Eric.
He knew me well. Eric correctly interpreted the far-off look on my face and said, "Our situation is dire and depressing enough without you speculating about what's on board the helicopter. You figured out Sammy got his hands on an AA-12 shotgun. Please, no more drama. I don't want to know," Eric grumbled as he braced against the tree so he could stand.
Inside, I agreed to suppress further suspicions, but chose to diffuse the tension with a burst of hope. I said, "I wished it was a police helicopter."
"Yeah, me, too, but no such luck."
"It didn't have any identifying insignia or markings, did it?"
"It was painted in camouflage. That's enough to suggest it wasn't here to deliver cases of cookies."
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" I said as I peered up at the sky while I brushed dirt and twigs off of me.
"Do you know how to fly a helicopter, 'cause I sure don't. And if I recall, you haven't been slipping out late at night to get training. You asked me, so …"
"No, but we could ambush the pilot and hijack the thing."
"Sure, if Sammy's out of the picture, but did you happen to think that the pilot must be in on Sammy's plot or some portion of it? If not, do you think for a minute that Sammy would let the guy live?"
"Now that you mention it, the helicopter pilot may be the only other person who knows that Sammy's a murderer."
"I can't believe the pilot would keep his mouth shut, as if there is anyone else as sick as Sammy in this world."
We hadn't heard the helicopter for quite a while, so we continued on our way, threading through the forest and avoiding paths as much as possible. Now, we not only had to watch out for cameras, but also had to make certain we remained under cover to avoid being detected by a helicopter. For all we knew, Sammy bought it as a new toy and was using it to search for us.
An hour later, we heard the distinctive sounds of a helicopter's rotors, but it was further away and hovering out over the lake.
"It must be Sammy, after all," I grunted while pushing through a set of prickly scrub pine trees. "He's combing the lake by air."
"Keep the faith, Adam," Eric countered. "Listen. It's moving away, toward the mountains. It's not returning." He was right. We assumed, then, that Sammy remained supplied via the helicopter, which meant its pilot was aware and involved.
"I'm still not sure about that point," Eric insisted. "Remember how Sammy kept us isolated and believing we were surrounded by vacationing businessmen? Well, if Sammy only gets supplies flown in twice a week, for example, the pilot may be clueless. Sammy chucks the guy a burger and a beer, they yuck it up for an hour or so, and then the guy flies off."
"Maybe so, but don't you think it was strange that he didn't return along the same flight path? He headed back by flying over the lake."
"As if Sammy asked him to report back if he saw anything suspicious."
"Which could be explained away if Sammy told him a couple of locals stole a boat, for example. That's the line he fed us when we asked about all the security."
"Yeah, the security and the dead guys in the gas station must be the main reasons Sammy resupplies via a helicopter. He doesn't need a trucker discovering the dead men or asking questions that might draw cops."
"Man, he's got it all figured out."
"Which is why we cannot assume we'll be able to capture him," Eric concluded. "It's his man cave, after all."
Although the air was cooling off as dusk approached, we were sweating from the humidity. The flies wouldn't leave us alone, which compounded our misery. Then, on top of the lousy direction our conversation took, we realized we were almost out of the dried catfish. We were days, maybe even a week, away from Manton. Although we remained downwind, and thus protected from campfire odors reaching Sammy, a fire's smoke might be visible, which meant we weren't able to cook anything.
We stumbled upon a few dead animals every so often, but they were so deteriorated that we passed on without attempting to eat them. In this heat and humidity, getting food poisoning was as real a death sentence as Sammy's threats.
We did, however, manage to sneak up on a family of possums that were mindlessly munching on a carcass. Those became our meals. Pushing past the nausea of eating an animal raw wasn't the drama we thought it'd be. Hunger can overcome many emotions. We learned it can also fuel others.
For example, my first attempt at spearing a feeding possum only succeeded in chasing it away as my spear flew over it. Eric's response was to backhand me upside my head.
"What was that for?" I spat.
"You missed, you idiot!" he hissed. "If we're going to survive, you've got to do your part and kill these damn things!"
"Here you go, Tarzan," I barked, but only because of the pain, and not out of sarcasm. My pride also hurt, I agitatedly waved one of our spears for Eric to take. I knew, and he knew as well, that because of his cracked ribs and limp from the shrapnel wound, he was in no position to hunt. Before Manton, I probably would have made a few sarcastic jabs, but that was then and this was now. I knew he was starving. It had been days since we last ate anything substantial and Eric's distended stomach and ravaged muscles reflected our dire situation. I let the spear drop by my side after understanding he reacted because of the hunger.
"I'm … sorry," he mumbled while letting his head droop. "I didn't realize I was this hungry. Look at me," he sighed as he raised his right arm. It was shaking from our lack of nutrition. Thankfully, drinking water was plentiful, but it filled our stomachs for only so long. This was the first time I paid really good attention to Eric's physique. Eric exhibited the clearest sign of starvation – the distended belly. He used to have a beer gut, so I was desensitized to thinking his paunch could be anything else.
"How are you able to hold up?" Eric croaked. "I'm struggling, and you barely seem to break your stride."
"I began this insanity we're in quite a bit heavier than I am now. I've been living off my fat, I guess." I looked him up and down. How, I wondered, were two desperate and emaciated shells of men going to beat Sammy at his best? Then, I remembered Sammy's badly damaged hand and foot. I brightened at the thought that we might be on a level playing field with the murderous s.o.b.
"I won't miss the next one," I promised as I bounced a spear atop my shoulder. "We're going to make it out of here, Eric. I feel it. Besides, we are the only ones who know what Sammy's doing. The world is depending on us, the Starving Duo." I couldn't believe I was listening to myself spew out a pep talk as I'm usually the depressed one in need of the cheering up. I'm not sure why the roles changed, but it felt good to feel okay about the future. Maybe this was a sign. Maybe this was my turning point – when I realized that my life was worth living and I had a lot to live for back home. No matter how crappy it was, it was infinitely better than what we were now enduring.
After this pause, I continued with, "You're living for your wife and kids, Eric. Stay focused on that fact, and never forget it. I have a feeling we will survive if we remain driven to survive, whatever it takes."
"An odd speech, especially coming from you, Adam, but you're right. Got to suck it up and remain focused on the good things in life."
Cheering up Eric, however, had a negative effect on my mood. Unlike him, what did I have to live for? Haunting memories of being broke and homeless, living in Eric's basement for free, and having no wife or kids who cared dropped me into my reality. Instead of dwelling on these thoughts, as I habitually did, I pushed them away, surprising myself. I glanced at Eric and realized what was driving me on.
Friendship – I was living to keep Eric alive. He was broken and battered, needing me more than I needed him. Yet, I wouldn't think of leaving him behind if doing so somehow meant I would survive this tragedy.
We inspected the remains of a dead animal we found lying half exposed beneath a tree, but the unrecognizable beast was worm ridden. The stench of rotting flesh caused me to gag. Eric hurried past; the fumes were too much for him to bare.
I quickly caught up with Eric, who was spent and leaning, with his eyes closed, against a tree. I imagined he was trying to suppress the hunger that was destroying him. Saving his life was up to me. I had to help him return to his wife and kids. No longer was I the dependent and weaker one in our relationship. I felt out of my element and uneasy.
"I'm gonna drag that carcass into the clearing over there," I stated as I pointed to a bright area within a stand of trees. "You hide here while I wait behind one of the trees. With all the buzzards we've seen flying around in this forest, we shouldn't have to wait long for our dinner."
Sure enough, it seemed like it was only thirty minutes before a very large buzzard gently settled down beside the dead animal. The bird took a quick look around to see if it was safe, and then burrowed its head into the rotting body cavity.
My spear found its mark. Being only five feet away and purposefully downwind from the scene, even my shadow didn't betray my position. The gluttonous bird never saw the end coming. It squawked and flailed its enormous wings mightily, but it remained impaled and unable to fly away. Angrily, it chased after me, but its wings drooped as it hopped toward me, growing ever weaker as its lifeblood drained out both of the spear's wounds. The once-proud hunter fell on its side, pitifully wailing as it futily kicked its talons and fluttered its trembling wingtips.
I hoisted the dying creature up by the spear's base and grabbed the other end just behind the spear tip. Away from the clearing, I dragged the massive beast to where Eric was resting. He didn't have the energy to help, so I set myself to the task of cleaning away enough of the sinew and feathers to strip off sections of meat.
"I'd love to start a fire and roast the rest of the bird," Eric said as he reclined against the base of a tree. He eyed the half that remained of the buzzard and said, "However, a fire this close to Manton would be suicidal."
"Afraid so," I huffed while looking up at the tree tops. "Although the wind still blows away from Manton, the plume of smoke would be a dead giveaway. We could chance it and do what folks do in some countries and just leave the remains on a stone out in the direct sun for a few days. I hear this process works extremely well at drying meats. After all, once all of our catfish was smoked, we cured it on flat rocks that faced the sun."
"I doubt we can afford to remain here for that long," Eric said. "We need to stuff ourselves and then bury the rest so Sammy won't discover it."
I agreed without saying anything. I wasn't very interested in trying the drying technique anyway. What good would it do us if my source was wrong? The ungodly scenario played out in my head where we're about to catch Sammy, but are stopped short by extreme vomiting.
Over the next week, we gobbled down possums, crows, and a couple of foxes as we ambled toward Manton. The added protein restored much of our muscles. Eric's ribs had finally healed to the point that he no longer needed to keep his left arm immobilized within a sling. It took another week, but as the gash on his butt healed, his gate improved. He could keep up with me and no longer needed to stop frequently to rest. It did my heart good to see how well he was recovering.
During our trek to Manton, I often thought about how immature I was when this odyssey began so long ago. We survived – we were survivors and not victims, and I grew from the experience. Selfishness and self-loathing gave way to selflessness and confidence. I no longer cowered – I conquered. Eric's strengths carried me through some dark days, and then, out of necessity, I became the one to rely upon – a position of power that was extremely foreign to me. However, I didn't miss my old self.
At this moment, I was leading us into familiar terrain – the lakeside approach to Manton's docks. From our hiding place within a handful of scrub pines, I grinned when I saw the deep gash left behind in the soil where we beached Sammy's precious Carver Pilothouse yacht.
"Daphne!" Eric gasped, much too loud I thought.
"Shhh! Where? Who the heck are you talking about?" I whispered as I motioned for Eric to lower his voice.
"Sorry," he whispered with a wild look in his eyes.
"What the heck is wrong with you? Why'd you yell out a woman's name anyway?"
"Sammy's yacht was named Daphne."
"Gee, I wish I cared about Sammy's toy, Eric, but …" And then it hit me. "Holy crap, Daphne was the name of the woman I found buried behind the fishing shack."
"Sammy's girlfriend or wife," Eric vacantly said. "That night I sat and listened to Sammy's life story, the night before this nightmare began, he told me that when he first moved into the area, he only had enough money to buy a tiny lakefront place."
"So, he and Daphne lived there until she died," I softly added. "No wonder he went ape-shit when he saw us, through the camera, stomping on his sacred ground."
"With the twisted career he had, losing Daphne may have been the thing that pushed him over the edge."
"So he turned to plastination to prevent losing anyone?" I looked again at the imprint left behind in the rocky soil, seeing it in a different light. "It's a stretch, Eric, but it could explain why the guy is so warped."
"He must really be pissed at us: First, his gal dies, we mess with her grave, and then we destroy the yacht he named after her."
"Glad we could share a tender moment, Eric, but solving Sammy's puzzle gets us nowhere. It's not like, armed with this information, we can march up to Sammy, apologize, have a group hug, and make nice with him. The guy's a freaking serial killer who is desperate to destroy us."
In this light, while still looking again at the wrecked beachfront, I hoped the damage we caused cost Sammy millions to repair his precious toy. I mused, "I wonder if Sammy came after us with such a vengeance, and I'm talking about his horrible shotgun, was because he received the bill to repair the yacht." My grin became a sour scowl when my gaze shifted a bit closer to us. There stood the dead fishermen. The flashback to the suited-guy's blasted face made me shiver. I recalled every detail of seeing the ghastly horror through Sammy's binoculars.
My sorrow for them and their families' loss was overwhelming. "Even in death, those guys are not allowed to rest. There is no dignity in what Sammy did to them. What a horrible waste of life." My eyes welled with tears. I stopped to wipe them away. Briefly, I paused because of a blinding flash of fear. What the heck were we doing here? We barely had a game plan for our attack, yet we were almost arrogantly striding onto the monster's home turf. The dead fishermen were a warning sign if not a testament to Sammy's power. Certainly, all the dead men in Manton didn't go willingly.
Eric must have seen the panic on my face because he tapped the back of my arm to distract me. "Don't you think we should move further inland and away from the water? When we were here, Sammy seemed to stay pretty close to the docks."
I greatly appreciated his distracting comment, which helped me force my focus off the dead fishermen. I whispered yes, looked up into the trees for cameras, then changed our course as Eric suggested. That night, we slept beneath a matt of leaves and brush and remained hidden in there until the next evening.
Later that night, we crawled into the lake and, once the water was up to our necks, slowly waded out beyond the rows of nets. Sammy apparently installed them to entangle escapees unfortunate enough to think the boat ramp would guide them to freedom.
I felt a fleshy hand and its fingers brush against my hip and float on by. Knowing what it belonged to, I suppressed the thought, fought off the urge to scream, and made a wider arc away from the netting. We avoided the reflections of floodlights and ripples by dipping below the surface until well past the glow atop the water. Eric and I inched along, careful not to create wakes of our own, finally making it to the northern side of the dock. Beneath it, we slithered between pylons without saying a word. Our fierce determination kept us going and focused until we were well upwind of Manton's rows of guest cabins.
The northern reach of Manton didn't offer an escape route. The map we found near the cove's fishing shack clearly showed that the entire lake was located deep within an ancient volcano's basin. As a result, Manton and the lake were completely surrounded by mountains. Besides, our developing plan didn't factor in wasting time like we did at the southern rim of the lake. We chose this northern location because we knew Sammy would never search for us in this direction. For all he knew, we were plodding through the mountains down south, past where the fishing shack had been. Although certainly unhappy with not capturing us, Eric and I presumed Sammy would be satisfied with thinking we'd die from exposure in the mountains. This was our game now.
Out of the water and onto land, we crawled on our bellies. We kept our slow pace to avoid being detected by motion sensors. Into the forest we slithered, stopping only when we made it to the base of a small hill that we knew overlooked the bulk of Manton.
For days, from our vantage point overlooking the large parking lot near the registration building, we watched Sammy work. I wished we had a high-powered rifle with a sniper's scope. All our waiting and planning would be over.
I grimaced and said a silent prayer after realizing that three cleaner vehicles looked like they were recent arrivals. Where all the others were coated in a dull film of dust, grime, and debris, the trio were almost identically clean. I suspected they arrived together. The trucks' condition gave me hope that their owners might still be alive, but that hope was crushed over the following two nights. We heard nothing – absolutely nothing – not even a scream. Sammy had turned off the soundtracks and lighting, so Manton was eerily and sadly quiet and dark. There was no doubt the men were dead.
Day after day, the soundtracks remained off, and Sammy frequently limped between buildings, particularly in and out of the large warehouse that housed the acetone vats.
"You know something, Eric," I mused while we stared at the starry sky late one night. "Do you remember seeing a show about terrorists using acetone peroxide as suicide bombs?"
"Uh huh – it's very wicked stuff … Oh, I think I see where you're going with this."
"Called the 'mother of Satan' because it's so volatile and highly explosive. Sammy said he uses super-cooled acetone to draw fluids out of his victims."
"So, what if we rigged the depot where he stores the acetone to explode? All it would require is a spark from one of these car batteries. Timing the explosion can be controlled with a car's dashboard clock."
"We could be back here when it explodes. The diversion will draw Sammy away from the parking lot and the registration cabin. By the time Sammy returns, we'll have broken into the registration cabin, removed anything of value, destroyed his computers and control systems, and be long gone in one of the pickups out in the parking lot." This was the first good sleep I'd had in almost two months.
Days became weeks as we remained hidden, but emboldened, we watched and listened to the events that were critical components of Sammy's murderous cycles. We committed them to memory and refined our knowledge each night back in our dug-out hiding place that we affectionately named "the bunker."
When we weren't observing, we gathered muscles and caught catfish from beneath the docks nearest us. These sections of the docks had fallen into disrepair as Sammy never came this way. He kept his attention on the cabin where each victim stayed, the registration cabin, and his vile warehouse. Every once in a while, he'd fish out at the southern end of the docks, near the dead fishermen, but was blissfully unaware we were always within a stone's throw of him. Every night, we waited for Sammy to turn off Manton's floodlights before we'd venture out to explore, fish, or improve our bunker.
Without victims wandering around, Sammy kept Manton low key. The music and sounds of activity remained squelched – powered off. It seemed the quiet and solitude calmed Sammy. Whenever the music and lights blared, he appeared to be very edgy and irritated. Sadly, it was almost a sexual release, a climax of sorts, that grew with energy until Sammy succeeded in murdering his victims. Then, all would be quiet. It was nearly impossible for us to remain hidden during these cycles. Our silence and lack of action meant that someone's husband, father, son, or best friend was murdered. I often prayed to God for forgiveness for not intervening.
One evening, after Sammy shut down Manton for the night, Eric and I crept along the northern base of our hill. We snuck up to the closest car in the parking lot, but passed it by. It, and so many others, had their doors locked. We were after a pickup truck that we saw had its passenger-side door unlocked. Getting to this particular truck required us to pass twice through exposed sections of the parking lot. Over time, we learned that Sammy didn't have any cameras facing the parking lot, so we weren't concerned about that; however, what put us on edge was the possibility of Sammy accidentally discovering us as we crossed those two exposed areas. We never found a camera, but they could be hidden anywhere.
Slinking low along the asphalt that night, we did make it, undetected, to our target truck.
"Quickly, close the door behind me," I instructed Eric.
"No kidding. We've hashed this to death. Get in there and do your job. I'll be just fine doing mine. Don't forget to look for some ammo. I don't think we'll want to take a second chance with this truck. It's too out in the open and near Sammy."
"On my way," I sighed as I took a deep breath and lightly pulled up on the door handle.
The door opened with a slight click, but nothing loud enough to draw attention. As hoped, the cab's interior lights remained off. This pickup had been here so long, its tires were flat, which lead us, correctly, to assume the battery was dead. We weren't sacking this truck for mementos or materials to help improve our hiding place; we spent plenty of time ransacking other vehicles for that purpose. This truck contained a gun rack in its back window. Resting in the rack were two rifles – our trophies. Although not locked, they were wedged tightly in their cradles. I was worried sick that when I wrenched them loose, one or both might crack against the window glass or clang into the metal roof. Either case meant we were dead men. Manton was so quiet at night that such out-of-the-ordinary and percussive noises would bring Sammy running.
I gently rocked and slid the bolt-action rifle back and forth ever so slightly. Sweat dripped onto my nose from my forehead, but I didn't waste time wiping it away. These guns would ensure our survival. I would let nothing I was doing jeopardize our chances of getting out of Manton alive. With a slight jump, the tattered and stuck velvet fabric let go of the stock. I had put too much effort into my last light shove, and the rifle bounded out of the rack. My arms had been below its trajectory, so instead of banging and crashing around, as I had feared, the rifle dropped noiselessly into my outstretched arms. Watching and waiting, Eric saw the rifle break free, slipped open the pickup's door, and reached in for the rifle.
The second weapon wasn't a rifle after all. It was a double-barreled shotgun. Because its barrels didn't fit neatly into a cradle, the barrels rested atop the cradle's arm. This made it very easy for me to remove the gun as I grabbed the gun by its barrels and pumped this impromptu lever up and down until the stock broke free. Eric already had the door open, and he eagerly snatched the shotgun from my hand.
Back to work I went, scrounging around for rifle bullets and shotgun shells. The gun rack's drawer was locked, but this kind of lock was so flimsy that it popped open after I wedged one of my rock fragments between the top edge of the drawer and the surrounding wood. Three boxes of 12-gage shotgun shells and a box of 30/06 bullets were my rewards. I snatched all four, closed the drawer, and grinned as I flipped open the glove compartment. From it, I slid out a beauty of a hefty Swiss army knife, its diamond sharpening stone, and a signal mirror – the kind a camper uses to signal for help when lost or hurt. I took off my shirt, spread it across the driver's seat, and loaded it with the boxes of shells, knife, stone, and mirror. I was wrapping up my bundle when I thought to check beneath the seat. My groping hand pulled out a retractable fishing pole and a tiny box of tackle.
For a moment, I had a flashback to when I still owned a pickup. One Christmas, I got one of those compact pocket fishing poles. Most days after work, then, instead of battling with the other commuters, I'd pull up next to a large pond and fish. There was nothing worth keeping, just the usual brim and catfish, but I preferred to release my catch. I fished that pond for the fun, the thrill, and for how fishing there relaxed me after a stressful day at work. Then, after a brief respite at the pond, it was back into my truck and on to home where I got to endure loads of screaming and fighting.
I snapped back to the present when the scowl of facts crushed my nostalgia. Quickly, then,, I stashed the gear into my bundled-up shirt and slowly pushed the door open with my foot.
"What took you so long?" Eric hissed from his crouched position.
"Wait until you see what else I found. We're now armed to the teeth. We also have a fishing pole so we can do some real fishing. How do the guns look?"
"Pretty good. There's some rust inside the shotgun barrels, but not enough to screw with its performance. The 30/06's bolt is slightly bent. Barrel's in great shape, so it should be fine as well."
"Hopefully, we won't need to riff through any more of these vehicles. I think, before long, Sammy will notice things are missing or messed with," I grunted as I struggled with my awkward bundle. "Can you carry both of the guns? If I try to carry anything else, I'm afraid something will roll out of my arms." Even then, I struggled to keep everything within my shirt during our wandering trek from the parking lot to the neighboring hill, and then to our hiding place in the bushes.
Each night, Eric and I stripped wires, lights, tubing, and batteries from some of the unlocked cars and trucks. Although cooking was still impossible because we lived upwind from Sammy, our location didn't prevent us from digging out a comfortable home inside a berm. The night's haul of the rifle, shotgun, utility knife, and fishing supplies was the greatest find yet. Once inside our shelter, we excitedly talked about the night's treasures and reviewed our plan for the next day.
Eric and I were startled awake by the harsh and jarring sounds of slapping and scraping plastic containers being tossed into the bed of a vehicle. Within our hiding place, we lied still and intently listened.
The helicopter pad was a short walk from the parking lot, yet still very close to the center of Sammy's grisly operation. Not long after being awakened by the crunching plastic sounds coming from the parking lot, from our observation area on the east side of our hill, we heard the familiar "thump, thump, thump" of a helicopter. The noise grew louder, signaling its approach. Eric and I scurried and slid down the hillside, coming to rest within our shelter beneath a growth of bushes, brush, and saplings. Although curious, we weren't stupid enough to peek around the side of the hillside with the hopes of seeing what was being loaded and off-loaded. Admittedly, I was curious to see what the helicopter's pilot looked like. I wondered if the guy was a relative of Sammy's. Didn't matter, though, because I wasn't willing to risk my neck to take a peek.
We patiently waited until the helicopter took off and left the area, following the same flight path as before, which was out over the lake. As the sounds of its rotors faded, Eric and I snuck out from beneath our hiding place and crawled to the top of the hill. From there, we saw the distant dot of the helicopter. This time, though, it was hovering near what we presumed was the cove and our former campsite. Sammy must have convinced the helicopter's pilot to help him search for us as he traveled into and out of Manton. For once, we chuckled. This proved we succeeded in outsmarting Sammy. If the jerk only knew.
It had been a difficult night's sleep, but Eric and I were eager and anxious. With the helicopter gone and Sammy's truck loaded, we knew we were but a few minutes away from the next step in our plan.
Then came the moment we waited so long for. The screen door at the back of the registration cabin slammed closed, and we heard several more plastic containers getting shoved in with the others in the bed of what we assumed and hoped was Sammy's pickup truck. Sure enough, the distinctive roar of Sammy's truck filled the air as the latest cycle of death raged to life. We knew this meant Sammy was heading to another location within Manton where his plastination chemicals were stored.
"Let's go!" I harshly whispered, motivating no one but me – Eric had already sprung out of our hole and was sauntering up the hill. He didn't cower or crawl because Sammy was no longer in our vicinity. We heard his tires squeal as his truck rounded the corner at the distant junction. He was in a hurry to get somewhere, which we believed was his chemical depot, but we didn't care. We had a job to do and we knew we'd have all day to do it.
"What's your hurry?" I asked when I caught up to Eric.
"I'm ready for this shit to be over with and get home."
"Yeah, sure, me too, but we need to remain cautious and stick to our plan. Acting like a couple of cowboys with guns-a-blazing won't work for us."
"I know, I know. Quit lecturing me. We've reviewed our plan thousands of times. It will work and I want it to work now."
I was afraid Eric's anxiousness might undermine us, but it didn't.
As we knew was the case, Sammy was in between victims. He had rushed off to get more acetone for his vats after tidying up the visitor's cabin.
Eric and I ducked beneath the three video cameras monitoring the major pathways in Manton. Arriving outside of cabin #275, I shuddered as Eric shoved his key into the door lock. Although we couldn't believe our luck, we weren't surprised that Sammy didn't bother to change the locking code. Why should he? No one ever returned alive to Manton.
We both flung open the cabin's door and raced around the place, looking for anything unusual or helpful, but as expected, it was still empty. I shuddered again as I pulled the door closed behind me, a flood of horrible memories crammed my brain and jockeyed for my attention. This cabin was the same one we, and all Sammy's victims, stayed in. I wondered how many lost souls wandered that cabin, searching for their way home.
I shook off the sadness and raced to the first of my stations on the nearest docks. Our incredibly sharp Swiss knife sliced through the ignition cables on Sammy's fishing boat, a speed boat, several jet skis and ATVs, and even the riding lawnmower and golf cart. The only vehicle I spared was a worn and sun-bleached-yellow hovercraft that lay covered by a patch of weeds. Near the end of the deteriorating northern arm of the docks, it was obviously not one of Sammy's favorite playthings. I heard hovercraft were temperamental and behaved like an airplane. Based upon its condition, I suspected Sammy didn't waste time learning how to pilot the thing. So, there it sat, a discarded oddity and lawn ornament. I slightly chuckled when I thought about all the bubbas who had cars up on blocks in their yards. Sammy one-upped them with his abandoned hovercraft.
Eric was unsuccessful at gaining entry into the nerve center of Sammy's Manton – the registration cabin. It's screen door opened easily, but the wooden door was dead-bolted shut. Instead of forcing his way in, he proceeded to the next step in our plan.
He forced open the door of a storage shed that was attached to the sinister warehouse – the one where Sammy's victims were transformed into ornaments. From the shed, Eric removed six clean, empty plastic jugs, the same kind we saw Sammy load into the back of his truck, and then proceeded to the parking lot. Eric unraveled the length of rubber tubing from his pants left-front pocket and inserted one end into the gas tank of one of the newest victims' trucks. He slid the other end of the tube into his mouth. Drawing in air from the tube, he felt the rush and dampness approach. He quickly thrust the tube's end into the jug as gasoline began spraying out and into the jug. Within thirty minutes, Eric managed to fill all the jugs from the gas tanks of several vehicles. He stuffed the rubber tubing back into his pocket and dashed toward where I was working.
"I've got enough, I think. Let's get out of here."
I carried four of the plastic jugs while Eric carried the rest as we raced back along the northern dock and to our bunkered shelter.
"Another hour to go until the next phase begins," I breathlessly said as I set the jugs on the ground. "I need to eat something." I munched down several handfuls of nuts from a can we took from a car in the parking lot, removed during one of our late-night raids.
Eric declined my offer when I held the can out to him. "I'm way too nervous to eat. These minutes seem like hours." He crouched down and leaned against a dirt wall. "What if the timer fails? With all the wires you cut on the jet skis, he's gonna know we're here and start tracking us."
"Keep the faith. This has to work," I said, but wasn't sure I was convinced we'd survive. If we had to die, one thing was certain, we were prepared to fight to the death, ensuring Sammy would die with us.

~~ * * ~~

Eric and I heard the anger in Sammy as his pickup truck screeched to a stop in front of the registration cabin. Cautiously, we hurried to the eastern edge of the hill where we could observe what was happening while hiding within a patch of bushes. We saw Sammy dart about, as best he could, much more frantically than he normally did before a victim was scheduled to arrive.
We heard him yelling and cursing, but it was muffled because it was being blocked by several buildings. I suddenly had a flashback to the moment when Eric and I left the "victim's cabin," as we called it, and thought it odd that the door's lock didn't click closed and lock. I remembered thinking it odd, but was so stressed that I forgot to check the door. I worried that Sammy saw the door cracked open. What else could be causing Sammy to flip out?
I forgot to look outside to see where the sun was in the sky, so I nearly jumped out of my skin when we heard the explosion. Eric shushed me and nodded his head toward the parking lot.
A loud slam was followed by the sight of Sammy stumbling out the front door of the registration cabin. With his damaged foot, the best he could muster was a plodding gallop to his pickup. I nearly gasped when I realized his added burden was the AA-12 shotgun and five drums he carried in his arms. Flinging open the passenger's-side door, he set the ammo drums in the seat and propped the shotgun against the seat so it stood at the ready from within the foot well. Off his truck screamed as it left behind the stench and smoke of burnt rubber.
"Thank the Lord above, it's almost over," I sighed. My guts felt like jelly from all the stress combined with the reality of what we still had yet to finish.
"Come on," Eric said with a tug of my arm. "Time to get out of here."
We dashed down to our bunker, grabbed the plastic jugs and weapons, and then did our best to sprint through the parking lot. Around the left side of the registration cabin we ran, and continued at a jog along the sidewalk that so many unaware men had followed before us. We looked down at our feet as we passed somber rows of the cabins and bars that served as mausoleums for hundreds of dead men. We no longer cared to duck beneath the cameras; Sammy left for his chemical depot knowing intruders were in Manton. We wove our way through the picnic tables and barbecue grills outside of cabin #275. I snarled and I defiantly gave #275, the "victim's cabin," the middle finger. IF I were my emotional old self, I would have chucked a rock through the window as a juvenile form of a payback. Instead, I proceeded toward the docks.
Eric remained a few yards ahead of me because he was carrying less than I was. It was a good thing it worked out this way because Eric was able to locate the gas tank of the hovercraft moments before I arrived with my load of fuel and munitions. I stood guard with both the shotgun and rifle at the ready while Eric began filling the hovercraft's fuel tank with all the gasoline we siphoned from cars and trucks in the parking lot. Setting the guns down to help move our plan along, I cleared away the weeds and debris on and around the hovercraft, and then took over filling the gas tank while Eric climbed aboard and into its cockpit.
Eric hollered, "All checks out; battery's pretty low, but will recharge; and every control seems responsive. Let's go!"
Instead of jumping aboard and joining Eric in the hovercraft's cockpit, Eric leaped out, per our plan. There was more we had to do. It wasn't guaranteed that our escape attempt would succeed. There were other issues we intended to resolve before departing.
We quickly returned to the registration cabin, but stopped at its back door. Eric held the screen door open while I took aim with the 12-gauge shotgun and blew a hole through the heavy wooden door. Eric reached through the cavity and unlocked the door's deadbolt. I gave the door a shove with my foot and it creaked open. Anticipating trouble, I held the shotgun at my hip while Eric covered me with the rifle.
No alarms sounded, no rabid dogs attacked. The only sign of life was the macabre diorama of the dogs playing cards.
"Those stupid mutts still freak me out," I thought while I moved toward the vault.
"What do you make of this?" Eric muttered from behind me.
I turned and my jaw dropped open at the sight of a fifty-gallon drum brimming with men's wallets. "Why do I smell gas fumes?" I muttered, confused.
"The things are soaked in gasoline. It's as if Sammy knew we were here and had planned to torch the evidence just before he heard the bomb blast."
I lightly gasped, rolled my eyes upward, and tensed.
A soft click from the back door told us we were no longer alone.
"Hello, boys," Sammy growled. He was panting heavily, his speech was slurred, and sweat had soaked his clothes, hair, and forehead. He fell against the doorframe, but held tight to his weapon. I imagined the acetone did more than damage just his left leg and arm.
"Drop the guns and turn around. I want a real good look at the only two men who have ever survived this long. I want to see who managed to …" His eyes widened in disbelief. "Hey, … I recognize you guys! I stopped looking for you months ago! I never found blood at the fishing shack or in my traps, so you had me believing you made it into the mountains." He shook his head and grinned. "So, instead of escaping into the mountains, which as you must have figured out, would have been certain death, you arrogantly march back into my man cave?" He cocked the rifle and pointed it at me. "How dare you!"
Eric and I exchanged puzzled glances as Sammy's anger seemed to fade and a most wicked smile creased his face. "Thanks to you two idiots breeching my defenses, I was getting ready to torch Manton," he sneered, tossing his head at the pile of wallets. "Instead, I conveniently catch my next two statues. And what good news this is - it looks like by the end of this week, I'll have three new additions for my collection. One more tired, old executive called to book cabin #275. You boys remember it, don't you?"
Neither Eric nor I moved or turned to face Sammy. We refused to comply with his demands. This was to be the firefight that we planned. Rehearsals day after day in our bunker made the decision an easy one for us. It was like Eric and I went on autopilot. I felt no fear, having crossed over the proverbial thin red line. I saw it on Eric's face that he was there, too.
Sammy reinforced his demand by shooting into the ceiling above us. We must have scared Sammy with our lack of response or action. We stood like statues, and Sammy didn't seem to know what to make of us.
He stammered, "I-I-I said, 'drop your weapons,'" and then shrieked, "right now!"
I looked to Eric for direction, but that long-dead habit wasn't necessary. I blinked once slowly, drew in a deep breath, and clenched my hands even tighter around the grip and barrels of my shotgun. Eric also refused to turn around or acknowledge Sammy. He was trembling with rage.
"This close," he whispered. "I'm not giving in."
"And I won't let you down," I whispered in reply.
Sammy bellowed, "Perhaps you didn't hear me, boys. I said drop …"
Instead of dropping our guns, Eric and I dropped to the floor and rolled away from the center of the room, just as we'd rehearsed.
Our unexpected defiance caught Sammy by surprise. He emptied his rifle's clip of bullets into the spot where we had stood, which shattered the center section of his registration desk, but completely missed us. We continued to roll until we were behind cover. Cocking our weapons, we now faced Sammy.
Sammy attempted to fire off more rounds, but his clip was empty. Facing our three barrels, Sammy threw the rifle at us as a desperate diversion. Standing in the doorway, he was able to duck out of sight and our hail of bullets missed him. We saw Sammy's silhouette slip past a window to our right and away from his truck. This meant he was preparing for a fight instead of fleeing.
I felt great! No longer the hunted, Eric and I were now the hunters. We didn't have time to gloat, however, because we believed Sammy was getting to a place where he had more weapons stashed.
So, instead of chasing after Sammy and possibly walking into a trap, we unlocked the registration-cabin's front door and bolted out it for the protection of the parking lot. If there was any place within Manton we knew better than Sammy did, it was the parking lot.
Loudspeakers planted throughout the property crackled to life. "You two are dead, you hear me!" screeched Sammy. "You've ruined everything. I had it all – money, my own town, and all the friends I ever wanted. But no, you two had to go and ruin my fun. Tell you what, when I catch you, I'm not going to bother plastinating you. Instead, I'm going to dissect you alive. Bit by bit, piece by piece, I'll remove fingers, toes, and ears first while you watch each other die. Oh, what fun we'll have." The loudspeaker cracked as Sammy paused and then screamed so loud his voice distorted. "I knew someone was here. I could feel it. Then, I found your timing device at my chemical depot, you idiots. Look how easy it was to smoke you out. I moved your stupid device and placed a jug of acetone peroxide next to it. It harmlessly exploded outside of my depot while the rest of my acetone remained unharmed. What a stupid idea you had! You two are no match for me, see? You're finally mine." He chuckled before finishing with, "You're on my turf … my man cave! I am the king here. Now, be prepared to die."
We weren't as na├»ve and lost as Sammy thought, during our long weeks spent observing and tracking Sammy's movements outside, we discovered where his studio was, from where he broadcasted the haunting soundtracks of now-dead men having fun. The studio seemed designed to maintain a low profile. A non-descript room, about the size of a janitor's  closet, was located next to the pool hall, the one Eric and I burst into so many months before. We noticed Sammy stepped into the tiny room just before the soundtracks came alive or fell silent. Because Sammy continued screaming at us through his loudspeakers, we knew he was still transmitting from within his studio. This meant he wasn't on the loose; instead, his isolation in the studio meant we had at least a good five minutes before Sammy would be able to return to the registration cabin.
"He's definitely in there," Eric said. "Toss me your shotgun. I have an idea."
"We don't have time to chase him down …"
"I won't. Come on, give me the shotgun. I'm tired of listening to the loudmouth."
I handed Eric the shotgun and a handful of shells. He dashed off for the registration cabin. Understanding his objective, I continued with our plan, but also deviated.
After taking no more than four steps through the registration-cabin's landscaping, I brushed against a stiff branch poking out of a shrub. I felt a hot sting on the back of my neck before I heard the "thwack!" of the arrow embedding into the tree beside me. My neck was bleeding, but not gushing. I wiped it clean and grinned. Luck was on our side. The tables had been turned and now Sammy was the one on the run. I hoped he felt very afraid being the one hunted.
To avoid another arrow, I backtracked out of the shrubbery and stayed on the sidewalk and pavement as I kept walking toward my target.
Two loud cracks startled me, but I realized the sounds came from Eric firing into the registration cabin. Sammy's screaming still emanated from the loudspeakers, but it crackled and dropped out. Two more shots from the shotgun and Sammy's grating threats fell silent.
"Oh no!" I spat in response to the series of metallic clanks I heard off to the right. Swiveling my head to follow the sound, I saw row after row of tire-shredding spikes leap up into their deadly positions. I realized Sammy installed the spikes to do this in the event power was lost or disabled within Manton. The spikes would still effectively stop an escapee's vehicle … including ours. The only happiness I felt was from knowing that the spikes also prevented Sammy from following us on the road. But that fact was of little consolation.
Remembering Sammy's trick of cutting across the adjacent field, I was relieved to see that it, too, was studded with barriers. Sammy must have installed the rows of razor wire to spring up in the field if someone tried to escape across it. Sammy's design, then, backfired on him because the barricades completed Sammy's inability to use the terrain to his advantage.
Eric had joined me by this time. Breathless but happy, he didn't seem fazed by the appearance of the deadly obstacles. He said, "Sammy will see the raised spikes and wire, so he'll probably make a run for the boats and jet skis. Are you ready to get out of here?"
"Almost," I said while reloading the shotgun after Eric returned it to me. "I have some unfinished business to tend to." Feeling confident for the first time in months, I told Eric to head to the hovercraft. It felt good to believe I was in control of my destiny – that it was no longer in the hands of a serial killer, my ex-wife, or even my best friend.
"I appreciate your offer, Adam, but we're in this together. At this point, I'm sticking close to you."
Upon arriving outside of Sammy's pickup, while Eric covered me, I shot out the passenger window, not bothering to try the door first. A bit of revenge, I thought. I handed Eric my shotgun, and after yanking open the truck's door, I was excited to find all five of the drums of ammo were still in the passenger's seat. I grabbed the AA-12 shotgun, surprised at how light it felt considering its design and capabilities. I slid three of the ammo drums over my left arm, one over my right, and connected the last one to the AA-12. As a parting gesture, with my old two-barrel shotgun, I blew out all four of the tires on Sammy's truck just in case he had an off-road way for fleeing Manton.
I ran over to where Eric was standing. Once clear, he emptied a clip of the 30/06's bullets into the engine block of Sammy's truck. "Wow, that felt good," he said with a smug grin.
As we turned to run for the docks, I said, "One thing you and I hadn't considered is what happens if we're all three trapped within Manton."
"If all continues to go well …" Eric whirled and ducked as he fired off a shot from the 30/06. "Sammy's ahead of us somewhere. I heard the sound of his foot drag through gravel."
I realized where the sound came from. "He's heading for the docks and the boats. He's trapped now."
"Yeah, but so are we," Eric whispered.
We trotted to a stand of trees outside the "victim's cabin" - #275. Sneaking into the shrubbery surrounding the base of the trees, we watched Sammy as he shuffled from one jet ski to the next, unable to start any of them. He slipped into both of his boats and received the same silent response.
"Give up yet, Sammy?" I yelled, but did so after cupping my mouth and turning my head to the right. The trick worked because Sammy startled, yanked a pistol out of his belt, and emptied its clip into the victim cabin's door and its window.
Sammy flailed backwards and dropped into the water when Eric's bullet found its mark.
"And thus ends the life of the cruelest …"
The familiar "whomp, whomp, whomp" of Sammy's supply helicopter interrupted Eric's moment of glory. We dove for cover as machine-gun fire blistered and ricocheted off the gravel around us. Skimming the treetops, we hadn't heard the helicopter's arrival until it was nearly upon us. It shot past, but quickly rotated on its axis and came at us for another pass. We remained hidden behind trees and steadied our nerves for another burst of machine-gun bullets. I raised the AA-12 to my shoulder, ready for the firefight. I waited, but the helicopter stayed out of range.
Strangely, instead of coming at us, the helicopter suddenly dropped to the lake's surface, coming to rest on its two pontoons. The pilot fired off several more rounds in our direction, providing cover while Sammy pulled himself into the back of the helicopter.
"We can't let them get away," I growled as I brought the AA-12 to life. However, having never fired the weapon, my first of the five drums emptied itself harmlessly into the water twenty feet before the helicopter. Seeing that we were so powerfully armed, though, must have put the fear of God into the helicopter's occupants. Within seconds, the chopper shot into the sky and headed for the southern range of the mountains.
It took longer than hoped, but we did manage to get the hovercraft started. With everything else damaged or destroyed, we kept our fingers crossed that the tired-looking hovercraft could get us home  … well, at least to safety far away from Manton. Knowing the lake's approach to the mountains was impassable, we headed for the road – following an all-too-familiar path.
"Won't the road spikes shred the hovercraft's shroud?" I asked, worried that we might still be trapped.
"Nope," Eric confidently replied, "the beauty of a hovercraft is that it floats above small barriers and obstacles. The spikes in the road won't affect us."
Eric was right. Because we rode on a cushion of air, we floated over the series of tire spikes without making contact with any of them. The way Eric behaved at its controls, the hovercraft seemed very easy to pilot, a chore I left in Eric's very capable hands. While he deftly maneuvered us around the stands of trees meant to slow vehicles, I scanned the skies and roadside for any sign of Sammy and his accomplices. Eric and I were afraid Sammy escaped. We were elated, however, that we put a stop to his killing. We were heading home. Life never felt so good.
It wasn't long before we approached the derelict gas station with its three plastinated workers. For a moment, I hesitated, but pent-up frustration got the best of me. I emptied the second drum of AA-12 ammo into the station, setting it ablaze. Onward we pressed. The further we got from Manton, the better we felt. Eric and I grinned and patted each other on the back. Who knew that just a few months ago, we were facing certain death, never imagining we'd make it this far.
The hovercraft's ride was smooth and surprisingly quiet. The breeze racing through the windows felt good. It was the closest thing to air-conditioning we had felt in months. Again, we were all smiles and cheers as we approached the only road-worthy gap within the entire mountain range.
"See?" Eric said with a grin, "even if the approach to the mountains was mined by Sammy, we're floating above them."
"Amazing," I sighed with admiration. "Homeward Bound," I began to sing.
Up sprang the helicopter from its hiding place ahead of us in a rise in the road. Sammy never intended for us to get away. This was his last-ditch stand.
Machineguns rattled from both sides of the helicopter. Tracers marched along the road toward us. In response, Eric rotated the hovercraft 180-degrees and opened the throttle. Lightweight and extremely maneuverable, we bobbed, weaved, and zipped along at sixty miles per hour, but this speed was no match for the prowling helicopter. Bullets tattered the hovercraft's skirt, compromising its effectiveness. Eric wrestled with the craft's controls to maintain our height, speed, and course. Other rounds punctured one of the gas tanks; a slight stream of fuel sprayed into the air behind us.
"They're herding us back to Manton," Eric yelled above the din.
I, too, realized what was happening. With two machineguns firing, they could have easily disabled our hovercraft. Sammy wasn't going to be satisfied with destroying us in a fireball. Apparently, he had other designs in mind for our end. I sank in despair as I mulled over Sammy's threats he had screamed through the loudspeakers.
Eric interrupted my fearful thoughts with, "We have no choice but to return to Manton. I thought we'd be able to make a run for the mountains, but we now don't have enough fuel to make it."
"No," I growled, "we've taken enough of his shit." To keep the helicopter at bay, and thus keep us out of range of the machineguns, I pointed the AA-12 automatic shotgun out the window and at the helicopter, but this action was only buying us time.
My action didn't end in a stalemate, however. It was obvious that we were being herded back to Manton. Our hearts sank as our expressions darkened. Only death awaited us in Manton. In order to save the AA-12's ammo for our final firefight with Sammy, I also shoved my double-barrel shotgun out the same window. I pulled only the trigger on the manual shotgun, peppering the helicopter's undercarriage as it passed to our left, just before letting go with another volley of gunfire.
The ruse worked; apparently, they believed I had fired the AA-12 at them. It was enough of a diversion to force the helicopter to swerve away from the road, which caused it to clip the tops of some trees. Unstable, the pilot was no longer able to control the helicopter's sway. Further bursts from the machine guns missed us with each attempt.
The hovercraft had been hit several times, and many more bullets shredded the skirt that was keeping us upright and airborne.
As the helicopter wobbled overhead on its desperate mission to safely land in Manton, I pointed the AA-12 at its underbelly and let fly an entire drum of ammo. I was pleased to see its pontoons and the rest of its undercarriage disappear in a cloud of shards of metal and debris. Still, although mortally wounded, the helicopter managed to claw its way back into the sky and out of our range. Although still very visible, it soon put enough distance between us to be out of range of our weapons.
Eric and I discussed turning around and making a run for the mountain pass, but we were painfully aware that we no longer had enough fuel to make it even to the base of the mountains. Once again, we would be faced with surviving weeks of exposure in the mountains and to the possibilities of starvation, hypothermia, and altitude sickness. As we kept our eyes on the dying helicopter, we agreed that no matter what, we had to stop Sammy's plan once and for all. We stayed on course for Manton.
The helicopter had slowed considerably, to the point where we were almost beneath it again. It was spewing thick, billowing smoke, and the rotors were no longer keeping a constant rhythm.
"What the heck was that?" I asked, pointing ahead at the large blob falling from the helicopter.
"I'm guessing the helicopter can't land, so one of the guys aboard it chose to leap to his death instead of dying when the helicopter crashes."
"Sammy," I hissed, "It must be Sammy." The figure hit surprisingly softly and bounced once before disappearing from our site. "He landed on top of that damned warehouse!" I exclaimed as we made the left turn leading toward the registration cabin.
The helicopter clawed at the air above the warehouse. We saw its pilot fighting with the yoke as the chopper thrashed and flailed to survive. Its struggle reminded me of the hopelessness Sammy's victims must have felt as they struggled from within an acetone vat.
"A fitting end," I spat, unable to take my eyes off the dying bird.
Eric and I watched as another figure appeared at the helicopter's open doorway just before the main rotor threw a blade. Shuddering and aflame, the helicopter flipped onto a side, dumping the crouched person back into its flaming innards. We saw the nose pitch down, catching the nearest corner of the warehouse. Over the hill it cart-wheeled. A thunderous explosion proceeded a pillar of flames, which rocketed into the sky.
"They must have been carrying more acetone ..." Eric said, awestruck.
"There's why it's called 'Mother of Satan.' Too bad we didn't get to see Sammy's chemical depot come to the same end," I added as Eric cut the hovercraft's engine. "Time to put an end to this insanity," I said while clipping the fourth and final drum onto the AA-12.
Eric popped the hatch, and we  scrambled out of the hovercraft. A bit slower because Eric carried both the 30/06 and our double-barrel, I raced ahead with the AA-12.
Whoever landed up on the warehouse's roof hadn't come down yet. I knew this because we had a clear view of the warehouse during our approach. There had been no movement.
Although straddling a hefty weapon and lugging its spare magazine, I strode up the warehouse's exterior ladder to the roof. My first foot touched down as Eric began his ascent. Whether he joined me or not, I cautiously crept forward, determined to put an end to the horror of Manton. Unsure if the prone body was playing possum, I crouched and continued my approach.
"Unngh …" the male voice rasped as an arm flopped once from left to right. I glanced along the roof, looking for weapons. I wasn't confident the guy was truly incapacitated. After seeing the two crushed sections of roof, the path where he bounced before settling, I was surprised the guy was still alive. His determination was my clue.
"Get up!" I barked.
"Screw you," Sammy croaked in reply.
"It's over, Sammy."
"Only for you," he hissed before rolling onto his belly and pushing up to stand. Although bloodied and broken, Sammy began his slow march toward me, pistol drawn. His shot missed me, but almost got Eric as he cleared the roof's edge.
"The world's had enough of you, Sammy." And with that, I let loose with a spray of the AA-12's shotgun pellets, which arched around and in front of Sammy.
He was terrified, but even though shocked, he cackled menacingly and spat, "You missed! You pathetic …"
He stopped talking, distracted because his footing was giving away. The roof around him was buckling and swaying. Still, this wasn't enough to stop Sammy. He again continued toward me.
I calmly tossed aside the empty drum and clicked on the last remaining magazine of AA-12 ammo. "I said it was over, Sammy, and I meant it." Again, I carved more of the roof away in-between where Sammy and I stood.
The roof could take no further abuse. With a mighty crack, it gave up. The astonished look on Sammy's face told me he still couldn't believe it was over … really over. Screaming unintelligibly, he dropped through the roof of the ghoulish warehouse. A mighty splash was followed by the sounds of angry hissing, futile thrashing, and Sammy's death-throe cursing.
 I let the AA-12 clatter to the rooftop, so I could buffer my ears from the horror of Sammy's agonizing screams. I imagined the excruciatingly painful death he must have been enduring of having all the fluids ripped out of his body by the super-cooled acetone.
"May God have mercy on your soul," I sighed.

* * * * *

Epilogue

"What's in the box, Rolf?" asked the balding man, sporting the stereotypical labcoat. The crunch and crackle of packaging material being pulled out and away drowned out his question, but he patiently waited until the delivery driver was finished.
"There you go, Dr. Taube. Another one for your displays, eh?" Not caring about paying attention to the reply, Rolf thrust his clipboard toward the scientist and lightly shook it. The pen rattled from within its holder, also demanding attention.
Dr. Taube glanced at the fluttering sheet of paper and the noisy pen. He turned his back to Rolf and ambled toward the six-foot-tall package. "I'm not signing for this. You do it. I do not recall ordering anything of late." He stopped and planted his hands on his hips and mumbled, "And I certainly wouldn't have purchased anything for our display that was this hideous. It'll scare …" His voice trailed off as thoughts of new press releases filled his head.
"On second thought …" Without looking at Rolf, Dr. Taube impatiently waved his hand and snapped his fingers for the deliveryman to bring him the clipboard. "Why, yes, I do remember now," he said with a grin as he scratched his signature across the line.
"Enjoy," Rolf bitterly grumbled while turning away from the ghastly sight. He rolled up the mass of packing wrap and styrofoam, tossed the wad onto his hand-truck, and hustled toward his idling van. He didn't like delivering to this warehouse. The place gave him the creeps, and more than one nightmare. He cringed and mumbled, "And this will probably bring on one tonight."
Dr. Taube watched in amusement at Rolf's frantic departure. Turning away from the departing truck, he slid his glasses out of the breast pocket of his lab coat, whipped the earpieces open and over his ears in one fluid movement, and then breathily whispered, "My, oh my, you devilish thing, what did you do that caused you to come to me in such a condition?"
The man didn't answer – he couldn't. His severed head sat upright atop the open palm of his outstretched right hand. The skin beneath his upturned eyeballs was pulled down and away, adding a hideous finish to his open-mouthed scowl. The upper lip, protruded up and out, exposed his teeth and gums as if frozen during his last primal scream.
Dr. Taube's gaze followed up the right arm to the shoulders. "Amateurs," he sniffed, making note to have an assistant clean up the jagged saw marks where the neck used to be.
"You must have really pissed someone off," he chuckled as his attention shifted to the object held by the outstretched left hand. "Not sure if each country's censors will approve, but as long as we pretend this is art …"
Dr. Taube moved in closer to study the object. Standing upright in the left hand was the man's fully-erected penis. At its base, atop the open palm, lay his two testicles.
"Vicious," Dr. Taube smirked, "deliciously vicious. Someone definitely did not like you."
He turned back to the preserved head. Its condition was much better than the rest of the pieces in the doctor's collection. He flicked an earlobe with a fingertip, and it wobbled supplely in reply. "I haven't seen this plastination technique since … since …" His eyes widened, and then narrowed as his lips broke into a thin grin.
"Ah, now I remember why you seemed so familiar to me. Well, well, Sammy, my boy," chuckled Dr. Taube, "is this really you? I certainly had my concerns with your peculiarities, but never believed it would come to this." Dr. Taube scraped a folding chair into place behind him and sat down. He reached for the coffee cup atop his desk and enjoyed a slurp of the hot brew, never taking his eyes off of Sammy's grotesque posture. Dr. Taube drew in a deep breath, and then let it out slowly, saying, "Mr. Sammy Faulkner, what goes around comes around, doesn't it?"
He leaned back in the chair to absorb the entire effect of Sammy's posed corpse. Dr. Taube nodded his head in approval. "I do think, with a little cleaning and touching up, you'll be the star in next year's round of plastination tours."
Dr. Taube sinisterly chuckled as he flipped on the switch that lit up the entire warehouse, and then swept his arm out across and in front of him. There stood row after row of posed plastinated corpses. "Welcome home, Sammy. Welcome to my man cave."

###


Author's Note
Thank you for purchasing and reading Man Cave. I hope you enjoyed this story of adventure, hope, revenge, and rebirth.
Man Cave was a lot of fun to write, but the research took months – a lot longer than anticipated. Writing in first-person is challenging enough, but I designed this story to be told by a man. No doubt you caught my caveman jabs, but incorporating a guy's feel for the plot proved more challenging than I thought it would be.
You'll see, below, that I enjoy enriching the reading experience with details and links that help explain my thought processes. I added the links within this note for your reference and enjoyment, but do not endorse the sites or any material found within, or referenced by, the sites and their links.

Scary Research:
After arriving at the place in the woods where Eric and Adam are hiding, Sammy softens the area up with a firestorm of shotgun blasts. This scene prompted me to track down the most insidious shotgun on the face of the Earth. Enter the fully-automatic, multi-projectile AA-12. Experience it for yourself within the AA-12's video clip on YouTube. Pray you're never on the receiving end of this hellish weapon.
Later on, Adam notes Sammy's fondness for cutting-edge weaponry, and when the helicopter first passes overhead, Adam mentions Metal Storm's 1,000,000 round-per-minute weapon. Yes, I said, one million projectiles per minute! I can't believe the scary, scary stuff men keep inventing. Although I do think women will inherit the Earth, by the time men are done with our planet, there'll be nothing left worth inheriting.

Musical inspirations:
In the movie version of Man Cave, Paul Simon's "Obvious Child" would be great background music for the opening credits and prologue of initial scenes of Adam and Eric returning from a camping trip. Then, this scene would fade to match the beginning of the book.
Early in the story, Adam recounts the events leading to the detonations of both his and Eric's families. Parts of this passage were inspired by David Lee Roth's "Damn Good." During their reflective times while on the run from Sammy, I also thought this song provided an appropriate backdrop. Along with this melancholy tune, I pictured Sammy preparing batches of chemicals and packaging supplies to track Eric and Adam. Phillip Phillips' "Home," adds a perverse soundtrack to these scenes.
Sammy's preparations, though, can't be seen in this book since it was written from Adam's point-of-view, so you'll have to wait for the movie version! J
In the scene near the cove, when Adam hoists the injured Eric onto his shoulder, and then stares at the destruction left behind by Sammy, several times over, I listened to Diane Arkenstone's "The Secret Garden." I absorbed a sad angle from the song and applied the emotion to the scene as I described it.
Adam's epiphany that it was time to get on with living and let go of all the hurt was inspired by John Mayer's song, "Shadow Days." Just before Adam's epiphany, Eric's similar reality-check occurs when the photos of his family are shredded by shrapnel. As he stares into the remnants of the tattered, blood soaked photos, I could hear Jason Mraz's "I Won't Give Up" and Poco's "Call It Love" softly playing.
While writing the scene of Eric and Adam's attempted escape in the hovercraft, I played the pounding live version of Phil Collins' "Take Me Home," with its haunting anthem, through my headphones. It seemed a perfect summary and conclusion to all they endured.
Character Development:
It helps when I'm writing a plot's outline if I already have a vision of my character's general behaviors and some quirks. To do this, I can usually draw from personalities, real and imaginary, to create a plausible set of characters. What also helps is that I often imagine who might play my characters in the movie versions of my novels.
I believe that a scruffy and bearded Rutger Hauer would be perfect in the role of Sammy Faulkner. Obviously, my movie would have an enormous budget because I'd want Kevin Costner in the role of Eric, while Gary Sinise would be perfect as Adam.
One unique peculiarity that differentiated Man Cave from my other novels is that I never created last names for my two main characters, Eric and Adam. I put a lot of thought into it, Sammy's last name (Faulkner) easily came to mind, but try as I might, Eric and Adam drew blanks. Even Tanner, one of Eric's other fishing buddies, had a last name (Ives). Last names for Eric and Adam didn't add to the story, so I was comfortable not having them.

I wish to thank my family, friends, and readers who provided support during the evolution of this novel.
Please visit my author's page within Smashwords.com. There, you can learn more about me:

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