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Estimated reading time — 35 minutes
Publisher’s Note: This story is the third and final part of the 3-part series which began with the story, A Sunset in Texas. The author encourages you to read the first installment in the series to better understand the events of this one. You can find the first part here. Looking for part 2? Click here to read the second installment in the series, Midnight in Texas.
Adam kneeled on the ground to inspect his freshly flattened tire. As he drew closer, he could hear the last bit of air hiss out from around the nail. Swearing under his breath, Adam pulled off his baseball cap and used it to fan himself. Summer days in Texas were famous for their intense heat, and this one proved to be no different. As beads of sweat already began to form on his forehead, he heard the crunch of gravel from behind. Spinning on his heels, he was met with the sight of a beaten and battered pickup truck coming to a stop behind his own vehicle. The brakes emitted out a load squeak before the monstrous machine came to a halt. The door opened on rusty hinges, and a tall, slender man stepped out from the cab.
“Need a hand there,” Gunnar asked as he slicked some stray grey hairs back.
Adam motioned to the deflated front tire before shrugging.
“I have AAA, but thanks for the offer.”
“The mechanic in town is a friend of mine. I could get him out here much quicker than Triple A. Now unless you sprung for Premium, you’re gonna rack up quite a charge since the shop is way more than five miles from here.”
Adam let out a heavy sigh and scratched the back of his head. Glancing down at the tire one more time, he looked back at Gunnar and accepted the circumstances.
“If it’s not too much trouble, then I’d really appreciate it.”
Gunnar gave the man a wide smile before returning to the cab of his truck.
“It’s no trouble at all! Just consider yourself lucky that I travel this road as often as I do.”
Adam pulled his phone from his pocket while Gunnar sifted through the items on the floor of his cab. He unlocked the device and opened the messaging app. A conversation with his wife appeared on the screen, and he began to type away.
“Had a flat tire on the way home. A local stopped to help me out, and I’ll be getting a tow truck soon; keep you updated.”
Adam hit send and slipped the phone back into his pocket. As he turned around to call out for Gunnar, he was met with a tire iron to the face. The thick end made contacted the side of his head, and Adam’s vision suddenly went bright white around the edges. He felt his legs grow weak as his weight seemed to increase tenfold. As he began to see black spots, his body collapsed to the ground. His head pivoted around, causing him to smash his face onto the asphalt of the road’s shoulder. A cloud of dust plumed around Adam before settling on his previously spotless white shirt. Gunnar quickly pulled the phone out of the man’s pocket and brought the tire iron down on the screen. He bashed the device until it was nothing more than a twisted chunk of metal on the asphalt.
“Damn, you hit the ground harder than most,” Gunnar muttered under his breath as he tossed the tire iron back into his truck.
Returning to Adam’s fallen body, Gunnar grabbed him by the ankles and dragged him towards the truck. The tailgate fell open with a loud clang while he took a moment to catch his breath. After discovering Adam was much heavier than he appeared to be, Gunnar wrapped the body with cargo straps and made sure they were fully tightened. Finally, he threw a tarp over his new acquisition and used various tools and boxes to keep it held down securely. Slamming the tailgate shut, Gunnar dusted off his hands on his jeans and returned to the cab. The engine roared to life, and he wasted no time before peeling out of the gravel that lined the side of the road. As he repeated the process of accelerating and switching gears, light from the setting sun filled the cab. Small dust particles floated in the air as Gunnar switched on the AC and turned the radio dial. There were small bursts of static until he finally landed on a clear station. The twang of an acoustic guitar filled his ears as the truck finally reached cruising speed.
“… the color of their hair is not the reason that I stare, but I always was a fool for a blonde…”
Gunnar tapped one hand on top of the steering wheel and whistled along as his vehicle barreled down the small Texas sideroad and towards home. Soon enough, his white farmhouse came into view. Bringing the truck to a slowdown, he turned down his driveway and bumped up and down. With a groan from the brakes, he brought the truck to a stop in front of the main door. He opened the door with a creak and slammed it shut. Throwing down the tailgate, he made quick work of removing the tarp and unfastening the cargo straps. Adam’s eyes were still closed, causing Gunnar to let out a sigh of relief. There had been far too many times where he had removed the tarp to find his victim awake and panicking. Grabbing hold of Adam from under his arms, he heaved the man up and over the tailgate. Much to his surprise, Gunnar felt the body slip from his grasp and plummet to the ground. Adam’s face crashed onto the compacted dirt of the driveway and slid forward as the rest of his body slammed down.
“Son of a bitch,” Gunnar exclaimed before grabbing the man’s ankles and swearing even more under his breath.
As he dragged the body across the yard and up the front steps, Gunnar took notice of the dark crimson streaks that had followed behind them. Looking down, he was surprised to find Adam’s nose bent to the side with blood slowly flowing from the nostrils. With even more aggravation, he rushed inside and grabbed an old towel from the laundry room. He wrapped the face up tightly and finished dragging Adam’s body inside. Gunnar grabbed him under the arms once more, this time making sure he had a firm grip, before heaving his body up onto the kitchen table. The plastic tarp he had placed over it earlier crinkled as the old wood creaked under the force.
“For an average-built guy, you sure were a monumental pain in my ass,” Gunnar hissed at the unconscious body before walking to the sink and washing the blood that he had smeared down one arm.
After a considerable amount of scrubbing, he returned to Adam and placed two fingers on the man’s neck. After a long pause, he still did not feel a pulse. A smile crept across Gunnar’s face as he finished drying off his hands.
“Damn, you can still knock ‘em out in one swing.”
Tossing the rag over the back of a chair, Gunnar slipped on a pair of old gloves. He lifted the towel wrapped around Adam’s face to find that the bleeding had mostly stopped. Unwrapping the man’s head, he discovered a large dark spot swelling under his skin where the tire iron had made contact. Gunnar poked the area with one finger, causing the skin to push in under the pressure. He could feel fragments of skull shifting around underneath the skin from his touch.
“Yup, still got it.”
Gunnar began the process by emptying Adam’s pockets. As he removed a pack of gum, his wrist brushed against something under the man’s shirt. Lifting the fabric up, Gunnar was met with the site of a pistol tucked into the waistband of his jeans. He carefully pulled the weapon out and laid it down on the table.
“My oh my, you would’ve been pretty dangerous if I wasn’t successful with that first blow.”
After turning the other front pocket inside out, Gunnar rolled Adam’s body onto one side and reached into the back pocket. The familiar shape of a wallet could be felt on his fingertips. Without hesitation, he pulled it out and examined it in the yellow light of the lamp overhead. It was made of a high-quality leather, leading Gunnar to believe that he stood a good chance of finding a decent amount of cash inside.
“Well, let’s see just how much Mr. Fancy Man carries around.”
As he flipped open the wallet, one of the items inside caused light to harshly reflect off its surface. Gunnar titled the wallet until he could read the lettering embossed on the item’s face. His blood ran cold, and he could feel his limbs begin to tremble as he read the wording on the badge.
Waco Police Department
The wallet slipped from his grasp and fell to the floor. The badge made contact on the hardwood boards, causing a loud thud to echo throughout the kitchen. Gunnar felt his legs begin to weaken, causing him to stumble backwards. He grabbed onto the edge of the sink with a death grip as he attempted to steady his breathing. A ringing began to fill his ears while his vision blurred. He immediately shook away the sensation and bolted for the phone on the opposite wall. Throwing his body against the aged wallpaper, he ripped the handset from its hook. Gunnar used a shaking finger to punch in a number. As the line buzzed with distortion in his ear, he could hear his heartbeat echoing as well. After a few rings, there was a click, and a familiar voice crackled through the ancient speaker.
“Coop…” he spoke with trembling words. “…I think we have a problem…”
In just under half an hour, the familiar rumble of Cooper’s truck could be heard pulling up Gunnar’s driveway. A door opened and slammed shut. This was followed by the sound of footsteps approaching the front door.
“Just stay in the truck,” Cooper called to Andrew as he bolted across the front lawn.
Gunnar was standing in the doorway with his gaze pointed down at the ground. Cooper was shocked to find he had adopted the habit of smoking after quitting nearly twenty years ago. As the smoke escaped his lips with an uneven breath, Gunnar ran a trembling hand through his hair.
For the first time since Cooper had woken up strapped to a chair in Gunnar’s living room nearly two years ago, the man had not greeted him with a bear hug.
“Gunnar, what’s wrong?”
Without wasting any more time, Gunnar motioned for Copper to follow him inside. The two men stepped inside and shut the door behind them. As they stepped into the kitchen, Cooper took in the faint scent of blood floating in the air. He soon caught sight of the bloodied towel still wrapped around this stranger’s face.
“Jesus, I thought you always tried to avoid the face.”
Gunnar took in another long drag from the cigarette and let the smoke slowly trail from his lips. The entire time, he kept his eyes pointed directly at the body.
“I dropped him on the ground while pulling him out the truck. The fucker may have been dead, but that surely didn’t stop his nose from bleeding.”
Cooper walked closer to the table and examined the corpse. As his gaze traveled up the lifeless figure, Gunnar tapped the cigarette. Small bits of glowing ash fell to the floor without any concern as to the cleanliness of his home. Cooper shrugged and scratched the back of his head.
“I don’t get it. Is there something I’m missing?”
Gunnar’s cold grey eyes darted to the wallet that was lying closed on the table. He motioned with the end of his cigarette towards it and did not speak a single word. Cooper looked over at it and slowly extended a hand to pick it up. As he inspected the leather, Gunnar starred at him with a completely blank expression.
“Damn, this guy must’ve been carrying a good amount of cash in something this nice.”
Opening it up, Cooper’s attention was immediately captured by the golden badge reflecting the sickly yellow light from overhead. A lump formed in his throat as Cooper found himself choking on words. After a few soft mumbles, he managed to let the words escape through his lips.
Gunnar sighed and inhaled deeply, causing the last of the cigarette to burn down to the filter. He flicked the butt towards the corpse, causing it to strike and leave a small black spot on Adam’s neck.
“It’s real, isn’t it,” Gunnar asked with a shaking voice.
Cooper tilted it in the light and read over the lettering multiple times.
“It appears so…”
Out of nowhere, Gunnar turned around and kicked his boot into one of the cabinets. The impact caused a loud bang to echo throughout the room and made Cooper drop the wallet on the table. He starred at the black smudge that was left in the wake of this man’s rage.
“God damn it!”
Cooper had never heard Gunnar shout before. For a man that he had come to know as being kind and gentle, the sudden outburst almost scared him.
“Gunnar, you need to get a grip.”
He turned to face Cooper with a mixture of anger and fear plastered on his face.
“Do you not understand that this is the end, Cooper? I killed a cop, for fuck’s sake! It’s not going to be long until I have every officer in the Eastern part of Texas breaking down my door to put a bullet in my he-”
Without warning, Cooper stomped over to Gunnar and grabbed him by the collar. He clenched his fist and gave the older man a good punch to the face. Gunnar’s head quickly pivoted to the side. His lip split open, causing a light trickle of blood to begin oozing from the small laceration. Cooper pulled his gaze back at him and shook him by the shoulders.
“I’ll be damned if you start freaking out on me. You’re the one that taught me to always keep a level head when bad situations arise, and now is hardly the time to show me otherwise.”
Gunnar rubbed his jaw and leaned back against the sink.
“T-thank you, Coop. I’m sorry to lose my better judgment like that…”
Cooper sat on the edge of the table and let out a breath of frustration. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he inhaled and kept his gaze pointed down at the floor.
“Where’s his phone?”
“I crushed it to pieces on the side of the road.”
“What about his car?”
“It should still be sitting abandoned with a flat tire.”
Cooper looked Gunnar dead in the eyes. There was a moment of silence between the two of them before Cooper spoke once more.
“Were there any cameras?”
“Cameras,” Gunnar asked with confusion.
“I’m assuming you only targeted him because you had no idea he was in an unmarked patrol car. Almost all of them have hidden cameras, but some are more noticeable than others. Did you happen to see any?”
“If I saw a fucking camera, do you think I would’ve crushed his skull in,” Gunnar asked sarcastically while motioning a bloodied hand towards the corpse.
Cooper glanced over at the motionless body and stared at it. The sound of cicadas chirping outside drifted in through the mesh front door and into the kitchen. As he gathered his thoughts, Gunnar grabbed the small rag hanging from the back of a chair and put it to his lip.
“We need to go back, Gunnar.”
“I said we need to go back,” Cooper repeated with a newfound tone of authority. “If there was a chance you were captured on camera, we need to go pull the SD cards and destroy them.”
Without another word, Cooper jumped to his feet and walked towards the front door. Gunnar did not hesitate to follow closely behind. As the men stepped over the threshold, they were met with the comforting cool of the night air.
“Beautiful night for a shitshow,” Gunnar muttered under his breath as they hopped into Cooper’s truck.
As the vehicle made its way down the abandoned backroad, Cooper explained the situation to Andrew. The teen sat in silence as the details were explained to him. Gunnar would occasionally catch his gaze in the rearview mirror, causing him to feel a small amount of embarrassment for the situation he had created.
“Turn here,” Gunnar said over the road noise.
Cooper cut the wheel and brought the truck onto another seemingly abandoned sideroad.
“It’s going to be about a mile or two up ahead.”
As the vehicle climbed a small hill, Gunnar felt his stomach drop as the blue and white glow of flashing lights could be seen just over the top. Before he had a chance to say anything, Cooper quickly turned around.
“Undo your seatbelt and get down as low on the floor as you can.”
Without any hesitation, Gunnar did as he was told. The man fumbled with the restraint before quickly dropping to the floor below the backseat. Just before they climbed over the hill, Andrew took the jacket by his feet and threw it over the man’s form. As the truck crested over the hilltop, a short line of police cars could be seen both in front of and behind the unmarked vehicle.
“Don’t stare,” Cooper said coldly.
Andrew directed his attention back to the road in front of them. As they approached the small gathering, Cooper signaled and moved into the adjacent lane. He let off the accelerator a little bit to avoid roaring by all the policemen. Passing by, his eyes quickly darted to the side to inspect the car Gunnar had approached just a couple of hours ago. When the truck had moved past all the stopped vehicles, Cooper signaled once more and brought the truck back into its respective lane.
“Did you see anything,” Gunnar asked while keeping his head pressed on the floor.
“I couldn’t make anything out. I didn’t want to stop or slow down too much.”
From behind him, Cooper could hear Gunnar beginning to breathe heavily as the truck continued down the road. The three of them remained silent the rest of the way to Cooper’s home. When they finally pulled into the driveway, Susan rushed out the front door to greet them. Andrew hopped down from the passenger seat and opened the back door. Gunnar sat up from his position on the floor and slowly climbed out of the truck. A glazed look covered his eyes as he stumbled forward. Susan quickly ran over and placed one of his arms around her shoulders. Andrew did the same, and the two of them led Gunnar inside.
“Put on the news and see if anything is being reported yet,” Cooper called from the kitchen as he grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator.
As he placed it within Gunnar’s field of vision, the man instead motioned his head towards the liquor cabinet on the other side of the living room. Cooper nodded and grabbed a bottle of brandy and a glass from the shelves. He handed them to Gunnar, who in turn set the glass on an end table. Pulling the cork from the neck with a soft squeak, he continued to take a decent gulp straight from the bottle. Gunnar did not so much as flinch as he swallowed the dark amber liquid and starred at the television screen.
“…and it looks like the Kingsland area is going to be getting nothing but intense sun the next few days,” the weathergirl said with a chipper tone.
Gunnar took another sip from the bottle as Cooper sat down on the couch next to him. A cheaply animated cloud floated across the screen before the two anchors seated at their desk came back on.
“Before we get to tonight’s main segment, we have a missing person’s report out of Round Rock,” the male anchor said with a serious tone.
Cooper’s blood ran cold as Gunnar slowly lowered the bottle from his lips.
“Shelley Johnson in our Crime Watch Division has more on the story. Shelley?”
The screen went through yet another cheap transition before a petite blonde appeared.
“Thanks, Anderson. Police are asking for the public’s help in what they are now considering to be a missing person’s case.”
A video of the undercover car and the surrounding police vehicles appeared on the television with the word “live” spelled with all capitals in the corner.
“A Round Rock police officer was driving back from a call when he noticed a vehicle on the side of the road. As he stopped to officer assistance, he found it to be abandoned. He became even more concerned when the destroyed remains of a cell phone were found on the shoulder. Running the plates, the officer discovered that the vehicle was, in fact, an undercover car registered to Waco Chief of Police, Adam Blundell.”
A picture of Adam standing in front of an American flag with a large smile across his face appeared on the right half of the screen.
“More deputies soon arrived on the scene. Investigators were able to pull some footage from the hidden camera on both of the front and rear of the vehicle.”
Cooper heard the bottle of brandy crash to the floor and shatter into small fragments. The liquid pooled on the hardwood floor at Gunnar’s feet as small bits of glass scattered across the living room floor.
“Unfortunately, the lense of the rear-facing camera was partially obscured by road grime. However, investigators were able to pull audio and a slightly distorted screenshot from the video. This screenshot contains what they claim is the clearest view of the now-wanted suspect.”
Adam’s portrait was soon replaced by a smudged photo with an audio soundwave below it. As Gunnar’s voice could be heard through some distortion, Cooper starred at the image on the screen. Part of Gunnar’s face could faintly be made out through the smudge that took up a considerable portion of the image.
“Authorities suspect foul play as part of the audio also appears to contain an assault on Chief Blundell. However, we will not play that on the air. This has led Round Rock Police to heavily suspect foul play. A red pickup truck, estimated to be from the early 80s, was also captured on the front-facing camera. However, the vehicle did have any license plate to identify it.”
The image of the soundwave disappeared and was replaced by a screenshot of Gunnar’s pickup truck and another photo of Adam posing with a woman. The two of them were holding a baby wrapped in a light blue blanket.
“Chief Blundell’s wife, Judith, is asking for anyone with knowledge on what could’ve happened to her husband to please come forward.”
The screen cut once more and was now fully taken up with a video of the woman from the previous photograph. Her eyes and the skin around them were raw and red. As she spoke, her voice cracked multiple times.
“P-please, help my precious Adam come home…”
She took a pause and sniffled. Quickly composing herself, she let out a heavy sigh and looked back to the reporter off-camera.
“I don’t want my baby boy growing up without his father…”
As Judith spoke the last few words, the miniscule shred of self-control she had managed to hold on to slipped away. She completely broke down, causing the camera to cut off her heaving sobs.
“We once again ask for the public to assist in identifying this man.”
The blurred photo of Gunnar came back up onto the screen, along with the audio clip of his voice.
“He is wanted by police and is now considered the main suspect in the disappearance of Chief Adam Blundell.”
Cooper slowly turned to find Gunnar’s eyes glued to the screen. As the segment cut to the next story, his gaze remained unblinking and focused.
“Gunnar,” Cooper asked while placing a hand on his shoulder and slightly shaking the man.
“I don’t feel so good…”
Before Cooper could ask him to clarify, Gunnar leaned forward and heaved. Vomit soon spewed from his mouth and into the puddle of brandy still at his feet. His body began to pitch forward, causing Andrew to jump from his chair and help Cooper push Gunnar’s body back. His head titled back, causing his gaze to point directly up at the ceiling. A mumble escaped his lips, but no one in the room was able to make out what it was.
“Is he drunk,” Andrew asked.
“No,” Cooper responded while running to the kitchen and grabbing a bag of frozen peas.
As he placed it over Gunnar’s forehead, he reached down and grabbed hold of the man’s trembling hand.
“He’s just scared…”
“Should we be?”
Andrew’s question left Cooper without an answer. He continued to hold onto Gunnar’s hand while a news story softly played in the background. Gunnar’s eyelids fluttered before his vision blacked out and he slipped into unconsciousness. In what seemed like no time at all, his eyes opened to the harsh rays of the morning sun streaming in through the living room windows. The smell of fresh coffee filled his senses just before his temples began pulsating. Reaching up and grabbing hold of his head, the man let out a pained groan.
“You’re gonna want this.”
Gunnar looked up to find Cooper standing beside the couch. A mug of steaming black coffee was held in his outstretched hand.
“Thanks, Coop,” Gunnar mumbled while taking the mug.
Cooper sat down in a chair across from the couch and let out a heavy sigh.
“This is going to be a hard one to get ourselves out of,” he mumbled while staring up at the ceiling.
Gunnar remained quiet for a moment before taking another large gulp from the mug. The throbbing began to subside as his body slowly started to recover from the night before.
“I’m honestly not sure if we’ll be able to, Coop.”
Gunnar took in a deep breath before finishing off the coffee and resting the mug on the adjacent end table.
“This town has had a few issues in the past that had me worried, but they never really caused me too much alarm. I’d handle them relatively quickly, and life would move on. However, I’ve never had to deal with law enforcement before. This town has been able to keep its secret hidden for decades, but this…”
Gunnar nodded his head towards the muted television. The news cycle was once again playing the clip from the previous night.
“…this has me terrified out of my fucking mind.”
The blurred image of Gunnar’s face appeared on the screen once more. As the news anchor’s lips moved with silence, Cooper retrieved the pot of coffee from the kitchen and refilled both of their mugs.
“I didn’t get much sleep last night, so I’ve been up for a good few hours trying to formulate a plan that could hopefully alleviate all this.”
Gunnar raised an eyebrow and sipped from the mug.
“By all means, let me hear it.”
“Well, the biggest concern I have now is the body lying on your kitchen table. In hindsight, we shouldn’t have left your house without at least putting it in the barn.”
Gunnar scoffed as he watched the image on tv switch to the portrait of Adam.
“Considering how dazed I was last night, I’m surprised a bigger mistake didn’t happen. I gotta thank you for keeping me level-headed.”
Cooper nodded and continued speaking.
“Once you feel that you’ve fully recovered from last night’s… episode, I’m going to take you back home to dispose of his body. Get a fire going as hot as you can and burn him up. I also want you to take any meat from the freezer and throw that in as well.”
“What should I do with the bones?”
Cooper sighed and swirled the coffee around in the bottom of his mug.
“This is going to be the tedious part. I know for a fact that there are bones from numerous other victims that have accumulated over the years. I need you to be extremely thorough in making sure that the farmhouse and barn are completely stripped clean. Once you’ve collected everything, grind them up into a fine powder and spread it across the wheat field in the far corner of the property.”
Gunnar nodded along as Cooper spoke.
“The last thing we’ll need to do is dispose of your truck. Susan is going to pull everything out of it and then drive the thing into that flooded quarry about fifteen miles outside of town. I’ve already arranged for Ronnie to get you a replacement with real license plates and everything. He and his wife will meet Susan at the quarry, and she’ll return to your house with a new truck. While you and Andrew finish disposing of any meat, she’ll be scrubbing your house from top to bottom.”
“What about the townspeople,” Gunnar asked while catching Cooper by surprise.
“I can tell just how much trouble you’ve gone through to come up with this plan to keep me safe, Coop, but I think we need to also consider the possibility of law enforcement questioning the people of this town.”
Cooper ran a hand through his hair and took a large sip of coffee from his mug.
“That’s the last thing I wanted to bring up. I think the greatest threat to keeping all of this under wraps could be our own neighbors. No matter how they may react to my strategy, I think it’s about time we stop this… once and for all… I’m going to call a meeting at the church and try to put an end to all of this.”
Gunnar sat in silence as he ran over the plan in his head. Cooper waited for him to respond and was taken aback when the room was filled with a light chuckle.
“Do you know how many years… how many painfully long and agonizing years… I’ve waited for all of this to end,” Gunnar said with a laugh as a smile spread over his lips.
“I’ve tried on a few occasions to make all of this stop, but there was always a small handful of people in this town who wouldn’t hear any of it.”
He paused and slowly turned to look at Cooper.
“For a while now, I’ve come to think of you as the one that would take my position in this whole operation once I was unable to do so. But now… you may just be the one who could finally put an end to it.”
Cooper leaned back in his chair and starred outside. The branches of the oak tree on the front lawn trembled slightly in the Texas summer breeze, causing a few leaves to break free and tumble through the air.
“As much as I would love to see that happen, I’m just not sure how well some people are going take the news, Gunnar.”
“Then do what my father did,” Gunnar said with his tone now reverting to one of complete seriousness.
“These people fear you, Coop. From the way I see them act around you, it’s not just a respect for your power. They are legitimately terrified of what you can do. If someone opposes your leadership, then fight back. Whether that means verbally or physically fighting back is completely up to your discretion. I have complete faith that no matter what, you’ll handle the situation better than I’d be able to.”
Cooper smiled and finished off the coffee in his mug.
“You know, Gunnar, my life has changed drastically since I’ve lived here. Not only have I found myself take on a more firm and authoritative deposition, but I have a family. Hell, I never would’ve considered having a wife, let alone a kid, just a little over a year ago. Now, I’d be willing to slaughter anyway to keep them safe.”
“I know you would, Coop. That’s why I’m sure that no matter what happens, you’ll be able to handle it.”
Before Cooper let the emotions overtake him, he stood up and walked to the front door.
“We need to get to work. Right now, time is the most precious thing we have,” Cooper said while slipping on his boots.
Gunnar nodded and walked over to meet him. Cooper called for Susan and Andrew, and all four piled into his truck. Quickly starting the engine, the vehicle sped down the driveway and onto the main road. During the ride back to Gunnar’s house, Cooper made sure everyone had the details of their task fully memorized. Soon enough, the white farmhouse came into view and Cooper let off the accelerator. As the truck rolled to a stop in front of the home, Andrew had already flung open his door. He and Gunnar rushed out and bolted for the front door. The screen door slammed behind them while Susan climbed down from her seat. Cooper rolled down the passenger side window and called to her.
“Ronnie said he’ll be at the quarry in about half an hour, so you don’t have too much time to clean out Gunnar’s truck and get down there. Are you sure you’re comfortable jumping and rolling from a moving car?”
“Don’t you worry about me. Just make sure you keep this town from going under.”
Susan leaned through the window and gave her husband a kiss before passing a hand down his cheek.
“I know how some of these people can be, so promise me that you’ll take care of yourself.”
“I’ll make sure to stop them before they even have a chance to try anything,” Cooper let out with confidence has he patted the firearm strapped in the holster on his belt.
With one final smile, Susan started towards the barn as Gunnar finished backing the truck inside. As Cooper drove off, he watched in the rearview mirror as she shut the barn doors. A small trail of smoke from the fire Andrew had started floated through the air while Gunnar ran back to join him.
“God, I hope this works,” Cooper muttered under his breath.
He turned up the radio to drown out his thoughts and made his way towards the small church in town. When he finally reached the building, he noticed that almost everyone in town had already arrived. The last few people were walking up the old wooden steps and through the doorway. Cooper brought the truck to a halt and killed the engine. Shoving the keys in his pocket, he quickly ran across the grass and bounded up the steps in a single stride. As he ran through the doorway, the heads of everyone sitting in the pews turned to look at him. All the chatter ceased, and an eerie silence hung in the room. Not knowing what else to do, Cooper folded his sunglasses, slid them on the neck of his shirt, and walked towards the front of the room.
“Steven, close the doors and keep a lookout for anyone driving up,” he said without any tone of politeness.
The man he addressed did what he was told and slammed the oak doors shut. Cooper walked up the two steps that led to the altar before turning around to face the crowd. He let out a sigh and sat down on the top step.
“We don’t have time for bullshit, so I need to know something. Am I correct in assuming that everyone here knows what happened yesterday?”
No one in the room spoke. Instead, they all just nodded their heads.
“Good. Now to address any concerns you may have, I can assure you that the matter is being taken care of. As we speak, my son is helping Gunnar dispose of the Chief’s body. Susan is driving Gunnar’s truck into the quarry outside of town. Thanks to Ronnie and his wife for helping us get a new truck and all the necessary registration. I assume everything went smoothly?”
Cooper nodded to a couple sitting in the second row. They returned the gesture with small waves.
“That truck should never see the light of day again,” Ronnie called out.
Cooper breathed a sigh of relief before continuing.
“Once again, I can assure you that the matter is being taken care of in the most efficient and thorough way possible. You all know how meticulous Gunnar is with his work, so I can assure you that after tonight, not a single shred of evidence will be left.”
“If he was so damn meticulous, why’d he even mess up in the first place,” a voice muttered from the back of the church.
Cooper immediately shifted his gaze in the direction of the voice. A few eyes darted to look at a man sitting next to them. He starred at Cooper without any remorse for his statement.
“What was that,” Cooper asked while standing to his feet.
Everyone in the church watched with dread while Cooper slowly stepped in the man’s direction. Stopping in front of the man at the end of the row, he stared down at him with a blank expression.
“Care to repeat yourself, Jack?”
Jack looked away from Cooper’s gaze before speaking.
“If he’s so careful like you say, then he shouldn’t have even messed up in the first place,” he said while starring down at the floor.
Cooper scoffed and turned away. He shook his head from side to side before looking back into the pew.
“You know what… you have some real fucking nerve talking about Gunnar like that.”
Jack sat in silence and refused to look at Cooper. The church was dead silent for a long time before Cooper decided to speak again.
“You know, if you’re going to insult my good friend behind his back, then the least you could do is look me in the fucking eyes,” Cooper screamed while bending down to Jack’s ear.
The man tensed up as Cooper’s booming voice left a soft ringing in his ear. Cooper turned away and began walking down the center aisle.
“Sometimes I wonder if you people fully appreciate just how much Gunnar has done for this town. As much as he’s wanted to stop this, you still persist.”
“If he wanted to stop, then he should’ve told us,” another voice called out.
Cooper turned to face where the comment had come from. A look of bewilderment spread across his face.
“Don’t give me that bullshit! Almost every time he told one of you no, he was met with the threat that you would just go kill someone yourself. Now, some of you respected his demands, and I greatly appreciate that, but others pressured him into doing it. He was terrified that someone in this town would go behind his back and just try to do it themselves. I think it’s pretty damn safe to assume that the vast majority of you wouldn’t be able to pull off what Gunnar does, let alone with the same attention to detail.”
Cooper starred down everyone in the room. Not a single person spoke while his eyes passed over all of them.
“You took advantage of something Gunnar did for special occasions and began asking for it on a regular basis. He’s exhausted himself to the point where I’m surprised it took him this long to make a mistake. Hell, this wasn’t even really his fault! Gunnar had no way of knowing that who he was going to kill yesterday was the Chief of Police. This is the first mistake he’s made during the decades of this whole operation, and some of you are ready to crucify him for it…”
Cooper shook his head and rubbed his eyes.
“Gunnar told me not too long ago that he believed I was the perfect person to take over this operation when he felt the time came. Now, I don’t even want it. It’s gotten to the point where the meat is more of an addiction than a delicacy. That’s why starting today, no one is going to be killed for this town’s consumption again.”
Chatter erupted throughout the room. Insults were hurled at Cooper as he sat back down on the steps of the altar. As some people bolted upright from their seats to curse and point at him, he sat in silence and looked over the crowd. When the group showed no signs of calming down any time soon, Cooper sighed and quickly pulled the pistol from his waist. A shot cracked through the air as the bullet tore through the ceiling. The talking immediately stopped, and all eyes darted to stare at Cooper.
“I swear to God that if one more person interrupts me, I won’t hesitate to clobber their head with this,” he said while rattling the gun in his hand.
Standing up, Cooper began slowly walking down the aisle and looking over all the faces starring at him with fear.
“Now as I was saying, it’s time we put an end to all this. With all the advancements in technology that’ve been made since Gunnar’s father started this entire ordeal, it’s miracle that an incident like this didn’t happen sooner. For the longest time, my biggest fear was that a dashcam or something similar would catch Gunnar. But now… I think the greatest risk comes from people in this room.”
Despite the direct insult at the crowd, everyone remained silent. Although some members of the group were staring at Cooper with boiling anger, they managed to keep from speaking.
“I’m surprised it took Gunnar killing a Chief of Police for me to realize that it’s some members of the town he loves and helps that are the biggest threat. The fact that some of you are so stubborn and oblivious to the risks of this operation makes me terrified.”
Cooper reached the front of the church once more and turned to face all of them.
“It’s one thing to cover up a mistake Gunnar makes, but it’s exponentially more difficult for me to keep track of everyone. I know some of you are overly confident in your ability to kill another human being, but I can assure you that it’s not worth doing what Gunnar does to test that ability. All it takes is a single mistake to bring all the officers in Texas swarming onto this town.”
As he looked over all the faces locked on him, Cooper remembered the advice Gunnar had given him.
“I’m not asking you; I’m telling you, that neither Gunnar nor I will be slaughtering another human being for this town. This isn’t about your personal desires; this is about the safety of everyone. I don’t want my son, or any of your kids for that matter, growing up in an orphanage because their parents are rotting away in some prison for the rest of their lives. If anyone has a problem with that, then speak up.”
The room remained silent as Cooper scanned the faces starring at him. Just as he was preparing to stand up and leave, someone scoffed from further back in the room. His eyes darted to find Jack rolling his eyes and lightly shaking his head.
“You know what, I fucking tried being reasonable,” Cooper yelled while jumping to his feet and walking down the aisle with footsteps that thundered and shook the floor.
Frozen in fear, Jack gawked at Cooper as he came in front of him and grabbed the man by his hair. Cooper ripped Jack from his seat and sent him crashing to the floor. The man yelled out as he was dragged towards the front of the church. As he was pulled kicking and screaming to the front steps, everyone else sat in stunned silence. Cooper stopped at the first step and brought Jack’s face crashing down onto the wood. There was a sickening crunch as the man’s nose collapsed and blood began to pour from one of the nostrils.
“I came here expecting us to have a conversation like mature adults, and this is what I’m met with,” Cooper asked with a booming voice while lifting Jack up and showing his face to the entire assembly.
Small drops of blood were thrown through the air as Cooper twirled Jack around to show off to the crowd. The man coughed violently, causing even more blood to begin dribbling from the corner of his mouth.
“I will not be met with resistance! If any of you much as think about going behind my back, I will not hesitate to exterminate you like the vermin you are!”
Cooper once again pulled the pistol from his waist and jammed the barrel into Jack’s mouth. He sobbed and found himself choking on the firearm.
“Keep your fucking mouth open,” Cooper hissed before slamming Jack’s jaw down onto the bottom step.
As his teeth dug into the wood, Jack began crying. He felt the sole of Cooper’s boot press into the back of his skull. A voice whispered in his ear with the most sadistic tone he had ever heard in his life.
“Someone needed to be made an example of…”
Before Jack could even contemplate a response, Cooper lifted his foot and brought it crashing down on the back of his skull. A load crack echoed throughout the church as Jack’s jaw shattered and bent down against his neck. Cooper brought his boot back once more and stomped even harder on the man’s skull. He repeated the process a couple of more times until he felt the bone collapse under his foot. The head tilted back to an unnatural angle as Jack’s spinal cord snapped, and his body went limp. With his chest heaving from deep breaths, Cooper bent down and grabbed hold of the now-bloodied clumps of hair. Lifting Jack’s body up, he twirled it around to face the crowd. Some looked away while others starred in complete shock at the tongue and jaw hanging down against the neck. One of Jack’s eyes lulled down in the socket while the other bulged out.
“Let this be a lesson to all of you,” Cooper yelled. “If I hear even the smallest rumor that someone is about to go behind my back, I will make sure that you leave this Earth with the most immense pain and suffering that I can manage!”
Cooper threw Jack’s body forward, causing it to slide a short distance across the floor and leave a dark crimson smear across the floor. As blood began to pool around Jack’s deformed head, those sitting in the nearest pews scooted away. The liquid reflected the spectrum of colored light pouring into the room through the stained-glass windows behind Cooper.
“This town has once again reached a turning point in its history. One path leads to a bright future where we can all trust one another. The other leads to deception, more death, and the possibility of law enforcement raining down upon your homes like a plague. The latter can be avoided if you simply do as I say and never deceive me. Do I have any more oppositions?”
Cooper glanced over everyone to find them all nodding their heads at him. A smile pulled at the corners of his lips.
“Good. Now, someone fetch me a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, rags, and a few trash bags. I need assistance cleaning up this mess.”
Multiple people bolted from their seats. A few went into the back of the church, while the owner of the pharmacy ran to his truck to retrieve the needed chemicals. Cooper sat back down on the top step. Using the back his hand, he wiped the small drops of his blood from his face and stared down at Jack’s body. Ronnie soon appeared by his side with his head shaking.
“It’s a real shame the guy had to go,” Ronnie let out as two women appeared from behind the alter with trash bags.
“Yeah, well he was pretty arrogant,” Cooper let out with a hint of amusement. “I never really liked the poor son of a bitch.”
Cooper spent the next few hours supervising the cleanup and speaking with various members of the town. Some showed their appreciation by explaining how they had also felt uneasy and wanted the practice to end years ago. Others seemed slightly upset about never having human meat again but were respectful to Cooper and promised that they would assist in keeping the secret buried.
As the last spot of blood was lifted from the floorboards, Cooper tied up the bag and carried it out to his truck. He slid the cover over the bed and slammed the tailgate closed. The last few cars parked in front of the church pulled away. Cooper climbed into the cab and brought the engine roaring to life. He removed the sunglasses from the neck of his shirt and flipped them open. Placing the lenses over his eyes, he realized there were small flecks of blood on the polarized acrylic. He quickly brushed them on his shirt before pulling his truck out onto the road. Making sure not to speed, Cooper took the familiar route to Gunnar’s farmhouse. As he pulled down the gravel driveway, he was surprised to find smoke still floating in the air from behind the house. He brought the vehicle to a stop and killed the engine.
“Y’all almost done,” Cooper yelled while slamming the door.
“We’re about halfway there,” Andrew’s voice called from around the corner.
As Cooper walked over the tall grass, he caught sight of the smoldering pile sitting in the backyard. Andrew turned to face his father and revealed the large amount of blood splattered across his apron.
“Glad to see I’m not the only one who had a little mishap,” he joked while motioning towards Cooper’s shirt.
“Yeah, well someone needed to be dealt with before I could leave,” Cooper said.
The back door creaked open and Gunnar came down the steps. He carried a large chunk of flesh in a plastic container. Bringing it to the fire, he dumped the contents into the inferno.
“Jesus, Coop, I wasn’t expecting things to get that heated,” Gunnar said as the skin on what he had just discarded began to sizzle and pop.
“Jack Anderson doubted my authority, so I had to put him in his place.”
Gunnar smiled and wiped the blood from his hands on an old rag. With a chuckle, he tossed the blood-soaked cloth into the fire.
“I knew that if someone questioned your authority, you wouldn’t even hesitate to put up a fight.”
Cooper scratched the back of his neck and looked back at his truck.
“About that… I did a little bit more than fight back. I know the two of you have enough work dealing with Adam as it is, but there’s just a little bit more we need to take care of. I’d be more than happy to give a helping hand as well.”
“Just back your truck up and we’ll take care of it,” Gunnar said while tying the strings of his apron around his back once more.
“You’re lucky that your son has gotten good at this, or else I’d be more worried.”
Cooper looked over at Andrew and smiled.
“As proud as I am, I hope you don’t feel upset about having this newfound skill and never being to use it after today.”
Andrew smiled at his father as he let one of the trash bags hit the ground with a thud.
“Like you said earlier, dad, this is all for the better. Change may not always be pleasant, but it’s what lies ahead that makes all the discomfort worth it.”
Cooper’s cellphone rang just as Andrew finished speaking. He quickly pulled the device from his pocket and swiped the screen to answer.
“Cooper,” a voice panted out from the other end.
“Mike? I thought I recognized that voice. Is everything alright?”
“A caravan of Texas State Trooper vehicles is headed in your direction.”
Cooper’s limbs went numb as the sentence echoed in his head. His lips moved to speak, but he found himself unable to speak.
“Did you hear me?”
Cooper shook his head and stumbled over his words.
“Y-yeah, I heard you… Jesus Christ, how the hell did they find out?”
Andrew and Gunnar both stopped working. They starred at Cooper with bewilderment as the fire continued to pop and snap behind them. Gunnar stepped closer with a look of worry slowly growing on his face.
“A couple of them came by Ronnie’s shop to ask if he recognized the photo of Gunnar’s truck that’s been circulating on the news. He keeps a small collection of photos of customers behind the desk and noticed the one of Gunnar standing in front of his truck. He had no choice but to hand it over when they asked to see it.”
Cooper ran a hand through his hair and grabbed a tuft out of frustration. His breathing was continuing to quicken while he struggled to grasp the reality of the situation.
“Ronnie just called me and wanted me to warn you. You’ve probably got about ten minutes before they get there. I’m sorry, Cooper…”
“It… I-it’s fine, Mike. You don’t need to apologize. We tried our best…”
Without another word, Cooper ended the call and dropped the phone back in his pocket. His eyes stared down at the ground while the world around him seemed to spin. As he slowly lifted his head to look at Gunnar, he could already feel tears forming in the corners of his eyes. Without warning, he turned around and slammed his fist against the house’s siding.
He slammed again, causing Susan to run out the back door and down the steps. She ran over to Cooper and placed her hands on his shoulders. She turned to look at Andrew and Gunnar for an explanation, but her son’s expression explained the entire situation.
“So… what ended up giving me away,” Gunnar asked.
“The photo of you and the truck hanging behind Ronnie’s desk,” Cooper let out with a sniffle.
Gunnar smiled and looked out in the direction of the quarry. The wind picked up, causing the smoke from the fire to billow behind him.
“I forgot about that damned thing. Ol’ Ronnie took that the day he sold that truck to me. Had I known it’d be my undoing, I would’ve denied him taking it all those years ago. Any idea how much time I got until they’re here?”
“Ten minutes at most…”
Gunnar paused and looked down at the trash bags that littered the ground around the fire. After the three men stood in silence, he looked up to the sky. Pink and orange streaks of clouds scattered the dark blue sky as the sun began to sink lower. Another breeze blew across the property and he inhaled deeply.
“You smell that, Coop? One of my favorite things about living out here is being able to smell the scent of the crops carried on the breeze. It really puts my mind at ease.”
Cooper found himself awestruck at just how calm Gunnar was behaving.
“W-what… what the hell are you talking about?! Do you not understand that a small army of police are on their way here to arrest you?”
“No, Coop. I’m completely aware. I’m just taking a minute to appreciate the last few moments I have on this Earth…”
Cooper looked over to his son. Andrew was staring at Gunnar with trembling lips and tears streaming down his streaks.
“It really is the damnedest thing, Coop. I was scared out of my mind last night about getting caught. What upset me the most wasn’t the thought of going to jail or being executed. I was most worried about how you would be able to handle my absence.”
Gunnar turned to look at Andrew and then Susan.
“I don’t have a single doubt in my mind that you’re fully capable to keep this town safe. If you fight for it even half as much as you do for your family, then I have no worries for its future.”
Cooper sobbed and quickly wiped the tears from his eyes with the back of a sleeve.
“Gunnar… You… you can’t let them get you. We can find somewhere else for you to live… we ca-”
Gunnar held up a hand and signaled for Cooper to stop.
“As much as I appreciate you wanting to help me, Coop, I’ve come to accept that my time on this Earth is over. If I leave, then they’ll interrogate the town. Eventually, someone will snap, and our history will be brought into the light for all the world to gawk at. My chances of surviving a shoot-out are also extremely slim, so I don’t see the use. It’s time for me to take this secret to the grave. After all, I think you and I can both agree that prison isn’t exactly the place for me.”
He stepped forward and pulled a knife from his pocket. Gunnar pulled Cooper’s hand from his side and placed the blade in his palm.
“I still remember telling you about how I would threaten my victims with this very knife. It was the night that you woke up strapped to the chair in my living room.”
Gunnar patted the knife before Cooper wrapped his fingers around it and sighed heavily.
“I never would’ve thought earlier that day just how that evening would play out. Had I known that you would end up being the person I ended up trusting to run this town in my absence, I would’ve put your unconscious body in the passenger seat instead of the truck bed.
Cooper laughed and gave up the fight of holding back tears. They ran down his face and left streaks through the blood-splatter that had partially dried on his skin. Without warning, he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Gunnar. As he whaled, Gunnar patted Cooper on the back and returned the embrace.
“I know it hurts, Coop, and it’s going to hurt for a long time. There’s no shortcut around the grieving process. All I can really say is to not let it cloud your judgment.”
Cooper pulled away and looked Gunnar dead in the eyes. He sniffled and found the man smiling at him. Despite the severity of the situation, Cooper smiled back and extended his hand. Gunnar grabbed it and shook.
“Thank you, Gunnar… for… for everything that’ve you done. I couldn’t imagine a better life than the one you helped me lead.”
“Keep your head up high, Coop.”
Gunnar turned to Andrew and embraced him.
“Listen to your old man, Andrew. No matter what you may think at times, he always knows what’s best.”
“I will, Uncle Gunnar,” Andrew barely managed to choke out.
He then turned to Susan who ran up and gave the man a kiss on the cheek and a hug.
“Keep up the good work with this one, Susan. I know you’ll continue to keep him in line.”
She smiled and turned to her husband. Cooper returned the gesture to her before Gunnar began walking to the backdoor.
“Y’all best be getting a move-on. Those officers can’t be too far away by now. I don’t want you seen leaving this property.”
With a final wave, Gunnar vanished into the house. The screen door slammed behind him, and footsteps could be heard going to the living room. Cooper, Susan and Andrew quickly went to the truck. The doors creaked open as everyone hurried to pile inside. Before Cooper started the engine, he heard the familiar crackle of static from Gunnar’s radio. They sat in the cab and he stared forward over the property. A cool breeze entered through the open windows, bringing with it the smell of crops. Various memories of visiting Gunnar filled his mind as Cooper watched tree branches sway in the wind with the orange sun glowing behind them. Wrapping his fingers around the keys to crank the ignition, Cooper paused when a gunshot rang out.
He immediately stopped. Slowly looking up into the rearview mirror, Cooper caught a quick glance of a small blood splatter on the old curtains of the living room windows. He shut his eyes and looked back down at the steering wheel. He let out a deep breath before pushing in the clutch and turning the keys. The truck roared to life and Cooper shifted into gear. He sped down the driveway with everyone in complete silence. Pulling out onto the main road, Cooper slowly looked back into the rearview mirror. He watched with hot tears cascading down his face as the white farmhouse slowly vanished from view. Looking back to the faded road, Cooper remained silent as the truck sped off into the Texas sunset.