Refuge

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CHAPTER 16 – Knives of Dagar

MUIR BEACH

THURSDAY

After Nate laid a misleading trail around to the eastern side of the hill, he led Jason to the home of Evelyn and Jim. The three bodies were still where Nate had found them earlier, as they had fallen in their deaths. Jason noticed the cuttings of green satin on the coffee table and the floor beneath where they had scattered matched the one Nate wore loosely about his neck. He led Jason out back where he found Jim’s shovel but surrendered it at Jason’s insistence after picking a spot just beyond the edge of the patio. Jason remained silent while he dug and listened to his guide’s hollow voice describe the horrors of earlier hours.

“When I came in and saw...what I saw, I think I passed out. My entire world had been ripped out of my heart. …I was empty. When I woke up, I might have been real close to taking my own life—but the rage kept coming back. I kept thinking that I couldn’t die and leave the monster that had done this to my Patty and my friends to live on. But, I had no idea who it was. Who could have done such a thing? I didn’t know, then, about Vic and the others.”

He sat with his back against the stonework of a free-standing bar-b-cue a few feet from the deepening hole. The shovel bit into the ground with a scraping sound, the dirt plopped onto a pile next to the work, and the shovel bit again. His head tipped forward and hung there, his gaze locked on the ground between his raised knees.

“Some time later—it was dark—I heard screaming in the distance…high pitched…a woman. And it was bad. I mean, those screams just overflowed with agony; and they went on and on. Most were just screams, but I caught words here and there. She would plead with someone—screaming things like “No!” and “Stop!” and “Please!” over and over—and then she’d go back to just plain screaming. It was more than just someone wailing about the loss of a loved one, or even suffering from burns. Something was being done to someone right then. I had to do something. I found Jim’s old .22 pump rifle and headed downhill in the dark and fog. Near the bottom, I found what Erin was hearing. I couldn’t see that well from where I was with just the light of a single lantern on the ground next to her, but she was tied down at the stakes on the lawn and covered in blood. One of ’em was walking around her while she screamed. Then he turned and hacked at her with what looked like a machete. It didn’t kill her, because her screams got worse. All I could do was put her down. I knew I wouldn’t have a chance for more than one sure shot, so it had to be for her and not the one with the machete, I’m sorry to say. I did take a second shot at the monster, but he had ducked out of the light. I disappeared back uphill without trying a third shot.

“Well, I had seen enough to give me a pretty good idea where to look for the one responsible for Patty and the others. And, rage had pretty much overshadowed grief by then. By the time the sun was up and moved to overhead, all I could think of was payback. I went back down the hill with Jim’s rifle and a pocket full of shells looking for someone to shoot. When I saw Vic leave the house with Erin naked and leashed and head down the beach, I figured that made him a pretty good candidate to be first. I think I planned to just keep going—shootin’ one after another—’til I either ran out of targets or got myself killed. And, not knowing exactly which one it was or even how many there were, with Patty gone, it didn’t make a lot of difference. I went back around through the meadow and along the creek to the lagoon, so they wouldn’t spot me from the house, and I found Vic at the park with Erin. I worked up as close as I could, had him all lined up in my sights with my finger on the trigger and squeezing—and you showed up. You don’t want to know how close I was to shooting you, too. Glad, I didn’t.”

After they buried Evelyn and Jim together, they turned their attention to returning Patty to the home she had made with Nate. After collecting most of the remaining scraps of green satin, Nate set out to carry her the entire way. Less than a quarter of the way there, he relented and allowed Jason to work with him getting her over obstacles, through thick growths of brush partially burned and blackened, and a hundred feet higher.

Erin and Emmie met them at the door, fearful after hearing ricocheting gunshots. Erin had dressed in a pair of Patty’s denims and one of her plaid shirts she found in a closet. A pair of Patty’s hiking shoes had replaced the ones taken from Vic’s body.

Jason tried to head off Erin’s looming questions when she saw Rachel wasn’t with them. “It was a mistake even trying without something to open the locked shed besides Nate’s knife. If we’d had a bolt cutter, or a good screwdriver—”

“But you spoke to her? She’s still in the shed? She’s still alive?”

Jason held the door open for Nate and nodded his answer to Erin. “She sounded scared, but I don’t think they’d done anything to her, yet.”

“Yet, is right. They’re monsters…absolute monsters.”

They trailed Nate inside where he left them in the kitchen and disappeared into the master bedroom with his burden. By the time Jason finished a sandwich Erin made, washed it down with a beer and rehashed the failed rescue a couple more times, Nate emerged with Patty’s body. He had enshrouded her in lace curtains over layers of bed sheets and bound with golden, satiny ropes from window drapes. In and about the ropes he had woven ribbons of emerald green satin matching the one he still wore. He asked the others to join him in the living room.

The north half of the wall at the western end of the oversized living room and the entire length of the adjoining exterior north wall were quarried granite blocks, like something from a medieval castle. An assortment of swords, knives, pikes, and related items hung there on display. The left half of the west wall was a floor to ceiling, fifteen-foot expanse of glass divided into two-foot square panes in a steel framework. Centered in the glass, French doors opened onto a small balcony protruding several feet out over the cliff, which, itself, overhung the rocks and surf far below. Even before Jason opened the doors at Nate’s silent, nodded request, the sound of the Pacific’s might crashing against the rocks was like distant thunder.

Beyond the glass, brilliant orange and pink swatches of clouds lay across a blue sky so bright it turned to gold where the sun touched water at the world’s edge. Closer in, a thick blanket of fog lay upon the water and folded in upon the coast, washing against the cliffs and up the sides of the coastal hills and through the clefts and canyons between them like giant breakers in slow motion.

Gazing at the sunset, Nate spoke. “From the first days after we settled here, both us newly retired from the postal service and eager to enjoy nature’s best full time, Patty almost always accompanied me on morning strolls down the beach, or over nearby hills, or across the meadow, or whatever appealed to us at the time. Yesterday, though, she had to forego our outing because, as she reminded me, the first weekend of the Renaissance Faire was fast approaching, and our new outfits weren’t finished. My new suede tunic had some unfinished seams, and she had to get started on the bodice for her dress. She had let me decide which to order, an emerald green satin or a dark gold colored fabric that would accent her blond hair too quickly turning to silver. It was no contest when I saw the way the green matched her eyes. On Monday, she received the material for the bodice and was eager to get started on it. And so, yesterday, with my favorite companion occupied at the house of a friend who shared her passion for garments from a time gone by, I walked alone. I walked alone, but she was with me—as she will always be with me.”

Cradling her in his arms as he had done many years ago at the threshold of another house when she was a laughing young bride, he stepped through the doors into sea-fresh air. He rested her for a moment on the railing, leaned over to place a lingering kiss on the lacy shroud, and tipped her into space.

As the bundle dropped through enveloping fog into foaming surf, Nate raised his head to gaze at the horizon a world away. Tears streamed from both eyes.

Jason and Emmie joined him on one side and Erin on the other. After a moment, he drew the scarf from about his neck and raised it draped over one hand where he could gaze upon it as it fluttered in the breeze to make it shimmer in the light of the setting sun.

With Emmie sliding into the embrace of his other arm he said, “Her eyes were like flawless emeralds. They….”

Closing his grip on the fabric, he pointed at the sudden appearance of a huge, solitary bird rising in spume-filled air from out of the fog. After gaining altitude in sweeping spirals, it soared out to sea on slowly beating wings spanning over ten feet.

“Hmm, odd to see an albatross around here. They normally keep far out to sea. Especially a Wandering Albatross like that one. And they tend to be south of the equator. Patty loved them. She thought they’re one of the most majestic birds to ever take flight. Perhaps her spirit…well, perhaps. Good-bye, my darling. Fly far.”

The hours taking Nate and his guests into the night left them in dark depression in the coziness of his home. They had talked in sporadic sketches spaced between periods of silent thoughts, taking turns adding their observations and impressions like bits and pieces of a strange and terrible, patchwork quilt. The resulting picture they looked at was of death and devastation, the end of the world—or at least of the world they knew.

Everyone was tired and hungry, but they would make their beds in a shared space before the hearth in the great room. No one liked the idea of splitting up and going off into separate bedrooms; they weren’t all that sure they wouldn’t be found.

Erin stretched her legs out on the three-cushioned couch facing the hearth with Emmie cuddled against her. Jason sat cross-legged on the floor, his back against the front of the couch near Erin’s feet.

Nate came out of the kitchen with four steaming mugs on a tray. As he passed them out, he remarked, “We decided to stay with gas cooking when we bought this place. The propane tank’s still better’n half full, so we’re okay there.”

He turned the burning log on the fireplace grate and prodded the poker into the crumbling embers it had not yet shed before laying a fresh log beside it. He settled into a recliner near Jason’s end of the couch and gazed into the fireplace. With a series of crackles and hisses, flames sprouted from the fresh log like the accelerated view of a flower opening.

Emmie had sat up for her mug of cocoa but turned to peer into Erin’s face. After a couple of sips, she reached her hand out to caress Erin’s cheek where the C-shaped scar puckered the skin of her cheek. She asked, “Did Vic do that?”

“Emmie!” Jason scolded after a deep gasp.

Erin’s hand started to move to the scar, but then waved off Jason’s concern. She closed her hand over Emmie’s and gently held it there over the scar. “No, that’s okay. This thing is ancient history. Sometimes it even feels like a badge. And, no, Vic didn’t do it. You see,” she pulled Emmie into a comfortable snuggle, gazed into the fire, and went on. “At one time, I was married. As it turned out, the man I married wasn’t the man I thought he was. Oh, if Rod—big, manly Rod, a two-time Super Bowl MVP—had just taken his drunken rage out on a wall or a table or anything but me… He liked to wear one of his rings when he drank, which was often. Or if he had just removed his ring before bashing me, it may have spared me this souvenir that destroyed a blossoming modeling career, which demands an unblemished, beautiful face. But that was a long time ago.”

Emmie studied the scar for a bit and looked into Erin’s eyes. “But…you are beautiful.”

“And you’re sweet,” Erin answered with a smile and a hug. “After I got away from Rod, I kept going to the gym, but then I was able to gear it toward strength and health rather than appearance. I got some meat on my bones—and strength enough that I was sure I would never again have to submit to a bully. Until Vic, Rod was the last of the bullies in my life; although, he wasn’t the first. They weren’t even all guys. Girls can be terrible bullies, especially as teenagers. It seems I have been putting up with bullies since I was a little girl. I’ve never counted the number I’ve met between middle school and Rod—and now Vic. I just hope he’s the last.”

Emmie turned to peer into Erin’s eyes again for a moment, then turned around and snuggled again.

As tired as they all were, sleep had no appeal. Nate refilled the kettle and topped off everyone’s cups.

“You know, Jason,” he said after settling himself back into his chair. “This hill isn’t all that big. Probably not a lot of houses still standing. Shouldn’t take a determined group long to check each one after the fog burns off in the morning.”

Nodding, Jason said, “How early, do you think?”

“Could be clear enough to find their way around by seven or eight. But, even if it’s still foggy earlier, they’d be able to identify unburned houses as soon as the sun’s up, say five-thirty or so.”

Erin leaned forward. “How are we going to get Rachel out? You two were almost caught—or killed.”

“Are there any more guns around, Nate?” Jason asked. “We need more firepower than an antique .22.”

With tongs from the hearth, Nate scooped up a spark that jumped out of the fireplace and landed near his foot. After he tossed it back into the flames and set the stand-up screen in place, he replied, “I can’t think of any others nearby, none that haven’t burned up. ...No! Wait a minute! Barry Newton—couple of houses over—he used to be a commercial fisherman. He had it on his boat. Complained like hell about how the seals and otters ate more fish that he caught. I could never convince him...well, anyway; it’s a little 30-30. Kept it over his mantel after he sold his boat.”

Jason’s interest was piqued. “Think he’d let us use it? Or, better yet, would he join us?”

“He’d join us in a minute...but he’s dead. Butchered, yesterday, like the others. I found what they left of him down the hill a ways.” Nate’s voice broke and grew soft as thoughts of death swarmed about in his mind. “I don’t think ol’ Barry would mind if I checked his house—if it ain’t burned down. His wife, Wanda, and Patty...they used to bake pies for each other. Wanda died last year.” He blinked a couple of times and wiped the corner of each eye.

“Okay. A 30-30 will be good.” Jason’s eyes squinted slightly as he concentrated on the plan developing in his mind. “We’ll also need a good tree saw...and maybe some rope.”

“I’ve got a pretty good axe, but my saw is just a small one for cutting up firewood. Will they do?”

“I doubt it. The axe would be too loud, and the saw too small. We’ll have to check other houses. Now, can we get out of Muir Beach without having to go back down past Vince’s place?”

“Well, yeah…road goes up over the crest back over that way,” he indicated a northeasterly direction with a tilt of his head, “and right into the highway.”

“Got plenty of gas in your car?”

“It’s full—or pretty near. It’s small, just a little two-door Honda, but I reckon we could all fit. You workin’ up a plan?”

“Well, I’ve been thinking about that bridge you led us under on the way up here. If we could…”

Nate and Erin eagerly listened to Jason’s plan. Erin’s arm enclosed Emmie as she sat up and scooted around to join them. After he laid it out, each one had ideas to improve it or point out weaknesses in the plan.

Nate suggested, “If we had the car waiting out by the inn, it’d be a lot quicker and we wouldn’t have to stumble down and back up the hill in the dark.”

Jason responded, “Yeah, I considered that. But if we’re discovered early and are already in a running battle when we get to the tree,” with a nod, he indicated Erin and Emmie, “they’d be closer to the action than I’d like.”

Erin asked, “So, why don’t you drop the tree before freeing Rachel? Then you could come straight up to the car without taking that long detour.”

Nate responded, “It’s not real close to their house, but it might be close enough. It’ll make some noise, and, at that time of night, it could be enough to alert them. I’m pretty sure they’ll have at least one awake and on guard.”

With the plan discussed, understood, modified, and agreed upon, they all felt better. Even if they really weren’t sure they’d be able to pull it off, they had something to try. Some hours had yet to pass before it was time to go, though, so they settled back and tried to relax even if they couldn’t sleep.

After Nate refreshed their coffee, again, he stood for several minutes just gazing at his north wall. Turning back to the others, he said, “I’ve got some things for each of you. Why don’t you come on over here?”

He stepped up to the wall, but the others held back and stared in open admiration for a bit before moving forward for a better look. Jason had noticed the display earlier when they were otherwise occupied, but only as a whole.

The weapons all appeared to be of a type used in Europe from medieval times up through the Renaissance, and although a few had the pitted blades and time-worn handles of truly ancient pieces, most appeared brand new.

As Nate removed one of the daggers from its mounting along with its scabbard, Jason remarked, “Quite a collection.”

Nate took a slow half-step back from the wall, turned and faced his guests. With a wistful smile, he said, “I’ve been picking them up here and there for a number of years. Patty and I... we belonged to a local group that helps put on a Renaissance fair every year.”

Jason shook his head and said, “Afraid I’m not familiar with that. Emmie and I have only been in California a few months.”

“And John and I just came out from the east coast for a vacation,” Erin said. Then, after a moment’s pause, she added, “We just got here a couple of days ago.”

With the melancholy drawing the lines of his face into a soft frown, Nate said, “Well, it was just a place where old fools like me would get together. Come to think of it, though, there were probably as many young fools in it as old ones. Anyway, we would put on costumes and pretend we were back in the days when knights were bold and pure of heart and the evils of the world could be conquered with a good sword.”

Jason picked up on a note of irony in Nate’s words, sensing the story behind the collection was, or had been, of some importance to their host.

Nate went on, “There were pavilions for wares and food booths and beer halls and displays. We held plays and gave performances of dance and singing from days of old...Patty had a way with songs of the Celts. And,” he turned to gesture back to his wall, “we held tournaments. We had archery and quarterstaff and sword use, even jousting. A man with a good sword arm could be very popular. It was a lot of fun.”

Nate ran his fingertips down the length of a beautiful sword mounted with its scabbard on purple velvet that complemented the velvet of the grip, also wrapped with an evenly spaced heavy, gold wire. The pommel was a massive gold ball with fine carvings, as was the heavy, straight cross piece of the hilt. Gold-filled, scrolled etchings covered the top half of the gleaming blade. “Remember Charlemagne?” he asked lightly, “His Empire was the basis for the first Holy Roman Emperor in the West. He carried the original of this sword back in the eighth century. Up for as long as they still crowned kings and emperors in France, it was used in coronations. The real one, I mean. It didn’t have all this gold on the blade until Napoleon decided it wasn’t grand enough for him.”

After admiring the sword of Charlemagne for a few moments, Jason turned to read the plaque beneath the next one over. It was another broadsword, but at the same time sleek and elegant. The grip was plain black leather, molded to a gentle taper to accommodate the shape of a clasping hand. The pommel was a thick disk with detailed engravings of lions and griffins set inside double rings of additional details. The straight, heavy cross guard was similarly engraved. “Excalibur,” he read out loud. “As in King Arthur? Camelot? Knights of the Round Table and all that?”

“Why, yes, as a matter of fact.” Nate indicated the next displays with his hand with actual enthusiasm. “And here is the sword of Sir Lancelot. Then we have the Lionheart Sword of King Richard, and next to that is Ivanhoe’s.”

Jason moved over to allow Emmie and Erin to come closer.

“All in fun.” Nate said with a slow turn in which he took in his entire collection, and melancholy returned like a cloud over his head. “But still taken a bit seriously.” He half turned back and handed the knife in his hand to Jason, “But, here, Jason. This is what I asked all of you over here for. I think this one would do for you. It’s got a good edge, and it’s well made. It’s just a sword-hilted dagger with no legendary name attached, and a bit more user-friendly than a sword.”

Jason accepted in his hands a knife with a heavy, thirteen-inch, double-edged blade below a leather covered grip capped with a steel disk pommel and cross guard, all suggestive of a medieval sword hilt.

To Emmie’s surprise, Nate handed her a long, stiletto-looking knife. A molded brass grip and cross guard topped a narrow, double-edged dirk blade over eight inches long.

“It’s a Landsknecht’s dagger,” Nate said. “The handle is on the small side, good size for you. Careful of the edges, now; they’re sharp.”

When she looked up at her father for permission to take possession of the lethal looking weapon, his only response was a solemn nod.

When Nate turned back to remove the next item from the wall, Jason and Erin exchanged glances with raised eyebrows. Nate turned back and took a step toward Erin. Holding it with both hands as though it were made of fragile glass and even a hastily expelled breath might destroy it, he presented a knife to her.

Emmie and Jason both ignored the beautiful works of weaponry in their hands for the moment while they gazed at what Erin held.

The grip was a single piece of ivory, finely carved with shallow, delicate etchings of a complex, almost random pattern. The gold pommel and heavy, downward drooping cross guard with a large ruby-looking stone gleaming at the center bore deeply detailed sculptures of scaled dragon’s heads, tails, and clawed feet. The double-edged blade, an inch wide at the base, was nearly nine inches long. Intricate engravings of dragons inlayed with gold dressed the blade gracefully tapering to a point.

“It’s beautiful!” Erin gasped. “It’s so beautiful!”

Nate’s smile was soft and appeared to be shadowed by sweet memories. “It’s a Viking dagger, carried last by a shieldmaiden of most graceful beauty. Her name was Helga, also known outside the Renaissance world as Patricia Remington—my Patty.”

Erin gasped and handed it back to him. “Oh, no, Nate, I couldn’t.”

Without taking it from her, he smiled, slowly nodded his head, and said, “Yes, you can. She carried it well and with honor, but she has no further need of it where she is now. As I held her love, I knew her heart, and I tell you this: Knowing the sort of enemies you have met and others, perhaps yet to face, she would give it to you in a heartbeat.”

“Thank you,” was all she could manage. While she held the dagger out for Jason and Emmie to get a better look, Nate returned to the wall.

Speaking over his shoulder as he took down another weapon, he said, “And I will take with me the blade of Dagar the Viking. That’s me. I was Dagar to her Helga. Patty and I had complementary roles. We were Vikings living in exile in England. I was a Viking warrior who had fled the land of my fathers with her after killing the son of a powerful prince. He wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer from Helga when she tried to resist his advances. I became a trainer of arms in the army of a great English duke. Helga was soon the flower of the duchess’s court. All this had happened in our imagined youth, of course. In our later years, we both moved up in ranking. She was still a member of the duchess’s court, but more in the role of its matron. As Master at Arms, I was given the task of educating the young duke, and anyone else that cared to learn, in the art of weaponry.”

With a flourish, Nate slid the twelve-inch, double-edged blade of a fifteenth century dagger into the sheath he had just attached to his belt. “It was all make-believe, of course, but we did make the life styles and the times we emulated as authentic as possible. I’m afraid some of our family and friends thought the whole thing was pretty silly.

Oh, well, it all happened long ago and far away, as they say. Anyway, these knives aren’t just expensive wall decorations, although, they were rather expensive. They’re all made of good, modern-day, sword quality, stainless steel.” To make room for the dagger, he moved the sheathed knife already on his belt around to the other side. Then he drew that knife and held it out for the others to see, a six-inch blade with a dark, textured grip with just the hint of a hand-guard molded into the flared lower end of the handle. “This is my everyday knife. It’s pretty good for most things, and I’m used to it. It’s a SEAL knife.”

“Euww! A seal knife?” Emmie had a look of disgust on her face. “Do you kill seals?”

A soft smile softened his face as he answered. “No, sweetheart, it’s not for killing seals. It’s a knife used by SEALs. That’s SEALs as in Navy S-E-A-L—special forces. Some of their knives are like this.”

“Oh.” Emmie’s short response carried a full measure of relief.

Nate then handed out the sheaths for the daggers he had given them. “These blades may come in handy down the line. Besides, I just can’t bring myself to abandon all of them. I’d like to take the swords, too, but that wouldn’t be very practical. Too limited in their uses. Not all that easy to carry around, either. But the knives, now, are another matter. Always been a firm believer in the value of good knife—one of the most versatile weapons—and tools—ever created.”

Nate eyed each of his guests and the gifts each held. In a voice and manner evoking a grizzled arms master instructing recruits in medieval weaponry, he said, “Ye hold in yer hands masterful works of art, formed of modern materials and methods but in recalled shapes and patterns developed and proven in ages past. But they are only half of the equation. They are merely pretty tools. Coupled with the arm of a prepared warrior and wielded in the crucible of battle with an instinct, a willingness, a desire, even—conscious or otherwise—to draw the blood of an adversary, only then may they become weapons.” After a short pause, he added, “I’m glad you like them.”

Erin gripped her Viking Dagger in both hands held over her heart. Her eyes glistened with moisture as she said, “Nate, it’s beautiful, and I’ll take good care of it, I promise.”

“I know you will, hon, but I gave it to you to use. Just remember; it is a weapon, not just some fragile museum piece. Don’t focus on keeping it safe and hesitate to put it to use if a need arises. Helga...Patty, understood that a knife was a weapon first, a tool second, and something pretty last of all. You should understand it, too. All of you. I didn’t give those to you to be safeguarded.”

“Okay, I promise,” said Erin.

“Me too.” Emmie drew her dagger from its sheath a couple of times, listening to the hiss of steel against brass dressed leather, then held it out to admire again. “But it is awfully pretty.”

Jason said, simply, “Thank you, Nate.”

An hour later, Nate came back with his friend’s rifle, a Winchester 94 carbine, lever action 30-30, and a handful of cartridges, enough to fill the tube magazine plus one in the breech and three more for back-up.

“I also found the keys to Barry’s car. It’s full of gas and a good bit bigger than mine. It’s old, but it runs pretty good.”

“How old?” Jason asked. “If we get into a chase, I don’t want something that won’t move.”

“Not sure. From the sixties or seventies. It’s an old Dodge Polis or Polar or something like that. He picked it up when the CHP sold it off after updating their fleet. He babied like a child.”

Jason broke into a slow grin. “You mean a Polara? Oh, yeah! If he took good care of it, that thing is a road rocket.”

The two men checked two more vacated homes for a timber saw with no luck, although, Jason did find two fifty-foot coils of nylon rope stashed under a pile of burlap bags. Then at the third house, a cedar shingled bungalow perched atop a steep rise, they roused a weathered, old gentleman who walked slowly with two canes. He had stayed in his house during the fire and its bloody aftermath only because of arthritic knees.

He led the younger men out to his storeroom. Hanging from a vinyl-coated hook in the corner of the room was a double-handled, well-oiled eight-foot long band of toothed steel that he swore could drop any tree on the California coast except for maybe one of the redwood giants.

By the time they had scrounged up the necessary items for Jason’s plan, and after more rehashing, coffee, and more rehashing the plan, it was after 3:00 AM.

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