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Late Spring – 1958

 

“I’m planning to stay with a friend,” the girl said. “It’ll be a bit of a surprise to her. She’s not expecting me for about a week, but I don’t think she’ll mind. She’s between boyfriends at the moment, so I won’t be interrupting anything.”

“And what’s your name, young lady?” the man behind the wheel of the pickup truck said.

“Rena.”

“That’s a pretty name, one you don’t hear every day.”

“Actually, it’s Irene. My little sister had trouble saying my name, so she started calling me Rena, and it stuck.”

“Where does this friend of yours live, Rena?” he said, his eyes fixed on the open stretch of two-lane highway, the midday heat rendering illusionary sheets of water across the baking asphalt.

“Louisville,” she replied.

He glanced at her and said, “You’ll be on the road for a good while, and that sun is hot today. You’d better put a shirt on over that halter-top. Nothing can spoil a good time like a nasty sunburn.”

“That’s what my mother would probably tell me, but whatever she says, I usually do just the opposite,” Rena said. “She drives me crazy sometimes.”

“We’ve got something in common,” he said, tapping the pack of Luckys against the steering wheel. “My ex-wife had a way of getting under my skin like nobody else could. She had to have the last word on everything.” He gingerly pulled a cigarette from the pack with his teeth, took a wooden kitchen match from the cluster stuffed in the ashtray and scratched it with his thumbnail. As he lit the cigarette the sulfur on the matchhead flared with such intensity it seemed the bushy mustache he was sporting might combust like tinder in a parched forest. He took a long drag and started to put the pack back into his pocket, but instead tapped another cigarette halfway out and offered it. “Picked up the habit?”

“No. Most of my friends from high school smoke. I tried a couple here and there, but just don’t seem to have the urge, not yet, anyway.”

He stuffed the pack back into his shirt pocket. “So, like I was saying,” he continued, “Selma, that was my wife’s name, was driving me completely nuts with her nagging. Finally had to give her the heave-ho.” He looked at Rena and laughed. “To make things even worse, she wasn’t the most loyal female on the planet, if you get my drift. There’s only so much a man can take.” Smoke was streaming from his nose and billowing from his mouth as he spoke.

Rena had been listening intently, but was now tuned-in to the man barking on the radio, “. . . pick, shell, and clean . . .” the announcer said, “a full twenty acres of corn in a day, and all in one smooth, single operation. So, stop by the showroom today and see the new model Forty-five combine. The new implement that’ll get you home in time for supper . . . now, back to our regular program.”

“Do you mind if I change the station?” Rena said. She glanced at the man, but before he could answer, she twisted the tuning knob.

 

Paul Anka serenaded them with “You Are My Destiny” as the Chevy pickup sped along Route 1. There was the smell of freshly mown hay in the air and the steady, rhythmic sound of several oil pumps laboring in the distance.

They breezed through the town of Goliath, Illinois, a name somewhat incongruous, considering the business district consisted of a bowling alley, grocery store, three saloons, and the town hall. Moments later, they were traveling through dense woodland that stretched several miles in every direction.

“I can take you another seventy-five miles, then we’ll have to part company,” the man said and flashed a big grin.

“That would be great,” Rena said.

“I need to put a little food in me, though. I get a little light-headed if I don’t eat. Got some sandwiches back there in the cooler. There’s a little nook just around the bend, here. You hungry?” he said as they rounded the curve.

“I could eat. Thank you, sir.”

He made a hard-right turn between two tall pine trees, drove about thirty yards, and backed the truck into a shady spot under a large oak. He stepped from the truck, grabbed the cooler from the truck bed and placed it on the ground beside the driver’s door. He flipped the lid back and said, “What’ll it be, ham and cheese or corned beef on rye?”

 

The man stood beside the pickup. The driver-side door was wide open. He popped the cap off a bottle of beer and sat on the edge of the seat, one foot in the truck, the other on the ground. “Here you go,” he said, reaching across the seat with the beer.

“Oh, I don’t know if I should,” Rena said, “I haven’t—”

“I’m bettin’ this wouldn’t be the first alcohol to touch those lips.” He pushed the bottle toward her. “You don’t have to drink it all, just a little to wet your whistle. You’ve got my authorization. It’ll be our little secret.” She hesitated for a moment, then took the beer and began to sip it. “Atta girl,” he said. He opened one for himself and took a big swig. “What do your folks think about you leaving the nest?”

“I didn’t tell them,” she said and cringed.

“That’s not good. It’ll be like you fell off the face of the earth,” he said.

“You’re probably right. Maybe I’ll send them a postcard after I find a job and get settled in.” She took another swallow of beer. “Hey, this is my favorite,” she said and reached for the volume control on the radio.

For the next few minutes, they drank their beer and the man watched as Rena did a sit-down version of the jitterbug.

 

Rena was swatting at a couple of bees circling the nearly empty bottle she had clamped between her thighs.

A gentle breeze was blowing, and Dean Martin was crooning a love song, something about Napoli and the moon looking like a big pizza.

The man was slumped back, his head resting on the edge of the seatback. He guzzled the last few ounces of his beer and dropped the empty bottle into the cooler beside the truck. He continued to stare at the roof and said, “I know why you’re wearing that halter-top, young lady.”

Rena stopped swatting at the bees and looked at the man. “What did you say?” she said. She was feeling a bit dizzy from the alcohol and thought she had misheard his remark.

“You’re like all the rest, out to get the boys all revved up, show them who’s in charge.” He sprang up in the seat, turning, yelling directly at her. “You think I’m stupid? You think I didn’t know what you were doing, gyrating around on that seat like a bitch in heat?”

“Please!” She was trembling, her voice loud, yet hollow. “You’re scaring me, mister.”

“Shut up!” He backhanded her across the mouth.

Her head collided with the window column, and blood spurted from her lower lip.

Dean continued to sing.

She was momentarily frozen, her eyes fixed on the man lurking over her. His face was flushed, his eyes full of rage. She hadn’t realized what a large man he was until that exact moment.

Instinctively, she drew her leg back and kicked at him, the heel of her bare foot slamming into his chest, driving him backward toward the open driver’s door. She clutched the door handle and gave a tug. The door didn’t budge. She grabbed the handle with both hands, shooting sharp glances over her shoulder as she tugged frantically.

“Door doesn’t open from the inside,” he said in a monotone. “Little adjustment I made.” He was standing just outside the driver’s door, now. He bent down and pulled a towel from under the seat, reached between the folds and retrieved a hypodermic syringe. “A little surprise for you, young lady.”

She screamed when she saw the needle, then grabbed the sill and threw her head and shoulders through the partially open passenger-side window. The man lunged across the seat, planting his knee against the back of her legs, pinning her there with the weight of his body. He jammed the needle through the cotton material of her shorts, into her right buttock.

Within seconds her head was swirling. She lay there on the seat paralyzed, her senses blunted. Before she lost consciousness, she heard the truck’s engine start, and from somewhere high above, the shrill alarming cry of a raptor.

 

The man drove along the overgrown road that wound through the dense woods and stopped at a spot about a half-mile from where they had eaten lunch. He knew these woods well. He had trudged through this forest numerous times; there were a lot of good hiding places.

He carried the girl a short distance to a narrow clearing bordered by a tall, thick patch of ivy. He placed her on the ground and unfurled the blanket. Her hands and feet were bound and there was a strip of tape across her mouth.

For nearly a full minute he stood motionless, simply gazing at her. Finally, she began to stir. When she opened her eyes, he could see the look of fear in them. A feeling of power and control surged through his veins, a feeling he had experienced before—a feeling he relished.

Amid her muffled screams, he pulled the bone-handled hunting knife from the leather sheath on his belt, slid the gleaming steel blade between her skin and the fabric of the halter, and cut it away.

 

The killer dropped the spade and a bag of lime beside Rena’s naked, lifeless body and took a long drink of warm beer. He tilted his head back and stood there stoically looking up at the sky, a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth and trickles of sweat tracing the deep crevices in his brow. What a beautiful day, he thought.

He heard a shrill cry. Cupping his hand beside his eyes, he searched the sky, spotting the red-tailed hawk circling high overhead. He watched for a while as the bird hovered, its shrill, irritating call piercing the midday calm.

He took one last drag on his cigarette, picked up the shovel and began to dig—the shadow of the raptor crisscrossing the site as he worked.

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