© 2006 by Steven L Campbell.
Fred Shafer eyed an emerald-colored family-type van enter the near-empty K-mart parking lot in Ridgewood. As it parked a few spaces next to his Impala, he leered past the old car’s passenger seat and out an open window. A thirty-something woman bundled in white imitation fur slid from the van’s driver’s seat and dropped onto the black pavement. She wore her dark auburn hair shoulder length and was dressed in black jeans and black pumps. She opened a red umbrella, looked up at the dark, galling sky, and held up a hand as though trying to catch a raindrop. Then she reached far inside the van for a white purse before she hurried across the sparsely lighted lot and entered the store.
Fred began to breathe again. He had strained hard to hear the blip from the door lock gizmo on her keychain. Now he couldn’t believe his good fortune: He’d make it to Florida after all.
He took a long swig of ice coffee from his red thermos, squeezed his large body out from behind the steering wheel, and left the useless car he’d stolen yesterday from that black man in New York.
He licked the chilled air. He hadn’t wanted to return to Ridgewood, but his money had gone quickly and the Impala he’d stolen sucked up the gasoline.
He caressed the last of his savings from home and looked at the van in contempt as he crossed behind it. “Damn women are always driving these gas hogs,” he said. Then he saw the MY CHILD IS AN HONOR STUDENT bumper sticker and added, “Honor this,” as he took his hand from his shirt pocket and raised a middle finger.
He threw the empty thermos into an abandoned grocery cart and opened the van’s hydraulic sliding door. A strange musical sound came from inside when the door pulled from his grasp and opened itself.
The roomy rear interior contained two rows of bench seats. Plastic toys, some children’s books, and a box of loose crayons littered the first seat. A day planner had fallen behind the passenger seat. Fred opened the book. His victim had a name. He wondered if he would say it when he raped her. He usually didn’t know his victims’ names.
He flipped away the planner, climbed inside on all fours, closed the door (which actually closed itself when he pulled at the handle), and hunkered on the floor of the back row seat. When his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw a crumpled bag from McDonalds beneath the seat in front of him. He found cold fries inside and savored their salty taste while he waited.
The van was warm. Great drippings of sweat pooled across his forehead and mixed with the rain there. He undid the top three buttons of his flannel jacket before he wiped his fat face with his sleeves. He was a short, floppy man with red hair that seemed to explode from his head. He had a mocking thick-lipped face that appeared anxious to snicker from behind his pudgy grease-stained fingers always lurking there. And his bulbous brown eyes—not so much looking as unable to relax—were forever in motion.
Finally the dome lights came on and the woman got in. She tossed a couple of plastic bags on the passenger seat and started the van. A pleasant tone reminded her to buckle up. She jabbed at the radio and a tearjerker song from the quadraphonic speakers encircled her and a mostly concealed Fred.
Fred barely heard the click as she fastened her seat belt. Large wipers slapped across a panoramic windshield in tune to the music as he strained to hear. He almost dared to laugh out loud when she put the van in gear, drove onto the nearly deserted main street, and headed east away from downtown Ridgewood.
When he slowly crawled through the darkness and crouched behind her seat, he estimated they had gone about two miles. He took the black Smith & Wesson M&P pistol from the belt holster of his sagging blue jeans and pressed the gun into the back of her neck. She jumped and he heard the sudden intake of air as she gasped. It made him grin.
“Pull over, Karen,” he said. “Pull over, or I’m gonna blow your brains out.”
“Who … who are you?” She was trembling and no longer looking at the road, staring instead into the rearview mirror, trying to see the man behind her. The van was on the wrong side of the two-lane highway.
“Pull over!” Fred shoved the barrel of the pistol against the base of her skull to show her he was serious. She cut the wheel sharply to the right and drove the van hard onto the berm. Fred held tight to her seat and chuckled at the idea of the gun going off and blowing out her brains.
“Damn women,” he muttered. He ordered a shaken Karen to park the van at the roadside and to leave the engine running. When she did, he grabbed her purse and bags from the passenger seat and ordered her into the vacant seat.
She fumbled to undo her seat belt. “Please don’t kill me,” she pleaded. Her stare reflected lightning in the corner of her wet and anxious eyes.
Fred came close to slapping her. No matter how many times he did this it was always the same: Please don’t kill me.
“If you don’t do what I say, I’m gonna do worse than kill you.”
She got unbuckled and Fred pushed her into the passenger seat.
“Buckle up,” he grumbled at her. He pointed the pistol at her and waited until he heard the shoulder harness fasten to the belt. Keeping the gun aimed at her head with his right hand and holding her purse and bag with his left, he climbed into the driver’s seat. It was a difficult maneuver because of his size. This was Karen’s chance to get away, he reasoned, but she remained seated, shaking, and gulping for air.
“Thanks for staying for the ride, Karen,” he said and settled behind the steering wheel. As he adjusted the seat to his liking, she suddenly rattled out several questions in a raspy voice. “Why are you doing this? What do you want? How do you know my name?” She began to bawl.
“Shut up.” Fred took a cell phone from her purse and tossed it out the window. It clattered onto pavement and splashed as it landed in a large puddle. He kissed the wet air before he rolled up the window.
“I have money.”
“Look, lady, if you wanna live you’ll shut up.” He threw the purse and bag at her and pulled the van back onto the road. They hadn’t gone far when she began to gag.
“I’m gonna throw up,” she said, her voice shaky as she clutched her purse and bag close to her throat.
“Forget about it.”
She began to hiccup.
“If you’re gonna hurl, then you’ll have do it inside. I ain’t stopping.”
“Please pull over.”
“Hurl in your lap.” He chuckled, and then scowled because of his sudden outburst. He had to compose himself and remain serious. He had plenty of time to laugh when his crime was over.
Suddenly her window was down and she was vomiting out the side of the van. The wind swept most of it back inside and onto her coat.
“Yum, tasty,” Fred chuckled in spite of himself. “Always better the second time around.”
“Screw you,” she muttered under her breath.
Fred stopped laughing. “Roll that window back up or I’m gonna shoot you where you sit. Now! And turn off that damn music! Stuff makes a person insane.” The pistol cracked to life as he fired a .40 caliber slug into the van’s roof. The moment was thunderous and disquieting, and Karen leaped to obey his orders. While she did so, Fred attacked the automatic door lock on the door panel and locked the two of them inside. He checked the gas gauge and saw that the tank was almost full. He smiled big yellow dentures that appeared sinister and green from the dashboard’s electronic lights. “You get comfy and enjoy the ride.”
Her question came on a whisper: “Where are you taking me?”
His mocking smile widened. “You just enjoy the ride,” he repeated.
She sunk further into her seat. He picked his fat nose and drove deep into the woods south of Ridgewood. After the rape, he planned to drive all night and be in Virginia by morning, long before those roly-poly Ridgewood donut eaters or the PA patrol boys started their searches for a missing van. By then, she would be dead like the others, her body deep in some mountain woods in northern Maryland.
That was the plan and it made him almost giddy. He struggled to remain focused as he spotted a man, tall and lean, standing in the middle of the road.
Fred pulled to the left to pass. The man stepped in front of him. Fred yanked the wheel to the right. The van swayed and the man again stepped in front of the van. With no time to react, Fred plowed through him. Karen screamed. A plume of red lights shot into the night air, but no sickening thump of running over a body rocked the van. Fred searched in the mirrors for any sign of a body behind them. There was none.
Fred ordered Karen quiet as he puzzled over what he had seen. Then, ahead, a man identical to the first one stepped in front of the van.
“Another one?” Fred punched the gas pedal and plowed into the man. Again, there was no collision. Just the hiss of red lights and the swish of rain striking against the van. Karen began to bawl again, this time hysterically.
“Shut the hell up,” Fred growled as he again searched the darkness in the rearview mirrors.
As the van crested a hill, another man identical to the last two stepped onto the road and into the van’s path.
“Son’bitch,” Fred shouted. “Somebody’s let the loonies out.”
When he speeded into the man, the van’s engine stalled. Fred threw the gearshift into neutral and tried to restart the van. The engine squawked in protest and refused to start. Dismayed, he coasted the van to a turnaround at the bottom of the hill. There he pressed the pistol against Karen’s skull as the mysterious man approached her door.
Fred shouted, “I have a gun.”
The dome light popped on and the van’s alarm sounded when Karen’s locked door opened. Fred shivered and squeezed the trigger. The pistol jammed and Karen struggled from her restraint. She fell freely into the man’s long arms. A deep, male voice clanged like bell chimes. “There’s a house a quarter-mile up the road, Karen. Call the police.” Then the man released her.
She stumbled away and Norman Gentry turned to face Fred and the Smith & Wesson. Fred’s eyes widened when he looked Norman’s thin, gray face and whiskered chin.
The alarm stilled and the inside returned to grayness. Norman’s deep voice clanged again like bell chimes, this time from Karen’s seat. “Where are you going, Fred? On another joyride to Virginia? Or are you going on to Florida like last year? Biscayne Bay wasn’t it?”
Fred shrank in his seat and continued to stare at the man who bore the striking exactness of every picture he had ever seen of President Abraham Lincoln.
Norman’s voice chimed louder. “Everyone knows Abraham Lincoln is dead.”
Fred coughed and felt bile rise from his stomach. He looked at Norman’s faded army coat and the old army cap stuck with several fishing flies. “Who are you, mister? What d’you want?”
Norman was silent for a moment. The whites of his eyes glowed crimson as he stared at Fred. Fred’s large body shrank some more until the pistol in his hand grew heavy. Then Norman said, “Where did you get the gun, Fred?”
Fred’s throat tightened. He gurgled. “It’s mine.”
“That’s a policeman’s weapon, Fred. It was stolen five years ago from the Ridgewood Police Department.”
Fred choked back a denial.
“It belongs to a missing police officer, Fred. Her name is Rita Malloy. Remember her?”
Fred tried to speak. He shook his head instead, his eyes searching the darkness at his left for an escape route. He saw none.
Norman squinted hard at him. “Were you going to shoot me with Rita’s gun, Fred?”
Fred shook his head again and managed to utter a whispery uh-uh through the phlegm collecting in the back of his throat.
“Who were you going to shoot, Fred?”
Fred choked out an answer. “I-I … nobody.”
“Are you sure?” Norman laughed and bell chimes tolled in Fred’s ears. A cold hand closed around Fred’s and effortlessly took away the gun. Norman’s eyes sparkled in rapid and brilliant flashes of pointed light dancing red and yellow, back and forth.
“Isn’t that why you kidnapped Karen White tonight? Weren’t you planning to rape and kill her like the other women, Fred?”
Fred’s voice became small and girlish as he denied it.
“But you were. I know you were. Let me show you how you were going to do it, Fred.”
The rainy windshield cleared and lit up with fractured moonlight streaming past bare tree branches overhead. The rain and road were gone. They were inside woods Fred didn’t recognize. In front of them, they looked upon a van identical to the one they sat in. The driver’s door of that van opened and Fred watched himself stumble out of it, then hurry to the passenger door and pull Karen White out.
Norman said, “You know those pictures of lonely clowns and homeless puppies and starving children, Fred? That’s how she looks right now. Just like the others. Just like Rita when she begged you for her life.”
Fred tried to close his eyes, tried to look away, but he no longer controlled his eyes. He watched his other self do what he had planned to do later, out of Pennsylvania. It was brutal and bloody.
“Stop,” he said.
“Are you going to vomit?” Norman grinned. “Hurl in your lap, Fred. I ain’t stopping.”
In the windshield, the other Fred finished the rape. He collapsed on Karen’s body and rested. Then he rolled away. Her body looked lifeless next to his. His great stomach heaved as he caught his breath. Then he sat up, wheezed, pushed himself to his knees, wheezed some more, and stood and staggered toward the van while zipping his pants. That’s when Karen’s left arm moved. Her fingers wrapped around some dark object. She rolled on her left side and fired five rounds from Fred’s pistol until the other Fred fell to his knees, wheezed deep and hard, and then fell backwards and stopped breathing. The windshield went dark.
“She would have killed you there, Fred. But I’m not going to let that happen.”
Fred turned and cast a bewildered gaze at Norman’s glowing red eyes. “You’re not?”
Fred whispered, afraid he would sound intrusive if he spoke out loud. “What are you gonna do?” Then he cowered while he waited for an answer, terrified he had offended the thing sitting next to him, terrified the devil Lucifer himself had come to take what little sanity he had left.
Norman’s eyes sparkled in another flashing array of red. His gaze never left Fred’s as he pulled from his right pocket a sheet of paper folded in half. He placed the paper on the dashboard, opened the door, and assaulted Fred’s eyes with the dome light and his ears with the car alarm. The rain pushed inside past Norman’s body as he stepped out.
“Someone wants to see you.”
Red lights danced outside the door. Then a young woman wearing a black sweatshirt with Ridgewood Police lettered across the front got in. Sadness edged her pale green eyes framed by ragged hair that had once been short and strawberry blonde. The ghost’s papery voice hissed at him although her pallid face remained calm. “Remember me, Fred? Remember when you kidnapped me that night in my driveway five years ago as I was going to work.”
Fred shook his head in denial as his memory deceived him into remembering the lust he’d felt upon seeing pretty Rita Malloy at the K-Mart store. Only, he hadn’t known she was a police officer. Not until he had actually paid attention to her shirt after she became his prisoner.
The edges of Rita’s eyes burned red. “I never made it to the station. You raped me, Fred, at knifepoint. Stabbed me in the stomach when you were through. But I didn’t die. So you shot me with my weapon when I tried to escape. Left me for the wild dogs and coyotes. The remains of my body have never been found.”
Fred shook his head harder as the memory haunted him. “No. Not true.”
“Then where did you get my gun, Fred?”
Fred looked at the pistol pointed at him. He closed his eyes.
“You took my money,” Rita said, “went to Atlantic City, didn’t you? Won nine hundred and seventy-five dollars. Dismantled my car down there and scattered away the parts, piece by piece.”
Fred covered his ears.
Rita aimed her pistol at his forehead. Fred saw it in his mind.
He was certain Rita’s pistol would not jam now.
Thirty minutes later, when the Pennsylvania State Police officers found Fred Shafer’s body in the driver’s seat of Karen White’s van, they were certain his death had been a suicide. Rita Malloy’s government-issued pistol was in his right hand, his index finger on the trigger. On the dashboard, the police found a sketched map on yellowed paper showing them the location of Rita’s body.
At the bottom of the page, the map contained an elegant scrawl.
Abe, it said; nothing more.