Nate had expected the first serial killer. In fact the first thing he’d said to Kelly once their Ford rolled to a stop on the shoulder was, “This is serial killer country. We’re finished.” She made scaredy-cat eyes and drew a finger across her throat. “Finished,” he enunciated. She’d heard his bake before, something to the effect that certain places settled and then maybe recultivated to feel remote–the Wisconsin Northwoods, for example, or parts of Appalachia or, in this case, Tornado Alley–were stuffed silly with the dumped spent corpses that were the nuggets of serial killers’ labor. The type needed space to operate. So each tree in the Northwoods doubled as a headstone, each stalk of corn out here a memorial, and to hike cross-country through such territory was to traipse condemned through the densest kind of cemetery.
I’m Bill Kurtis
by Victor Schultz
Nate had expected the first serial killer. In fact the
first thing he’d said to Kelly once their smoking Ford rolled to a stop on the
shoulder was, “This is serial killer country. We’re finished.” She
made scaredy-cat eyes and drew a finger across her throat. “Finished,”
he enunciated. She’d heard his bake before, something to the effect
that certain places–the Wisconsin Northwoods, for example, or parts of Appalachia or, in this case, Tornado Alley–were stuffed silly with the dumped spent corpses of serial killers’ labor. The type needed space to operate.
So each tree in the Northwoods doubled as a headstone, each stalk of corn out here a memorial, and to hike cross-country through such territory was to traipse condemned through the densest kind of cemetery.
“Do you want me to have a look?” Kelly said. There’d been a gassy whine from under the hood for a minute before the engine cut.
“Just stay here,” Nate said, “and lock the doors if anyone pulls over.” No headlights shone in either direction of the interstate as he got out of the car. A couple minutes later, after scalding his finger on shadowy motor metal and wondering how to shoot off a flare, he reentered. “She’s dead. Call a tow truck.”
And so his vigil for their murderer began. Kelly hung up her cell and told him the tow truck would be there in half an hour or so. Or. So. Orso. Tons could happen during that orso. Nate might have imagined that in 30 minutes they would be fine, sitting talking about getting their dogs out of the kennel when they got back to Chicago, and at 33–at orso– when their kindly tow truck driver got there, they would be going cold and covered in each other’s blood, locked in a final embrace. They’d be easy apples for a Son of Sam. Instead Nate’s scenarios focused on the appearance of the killer. One time the killer affixed red and blue lights to his dashboard and approached Nate’s driver side in the guise of a cop. Another he wore a jumpsuit and presented himself as a well-meaning mechanic just passing by; he kept a gun in his toolbox. Near as Nate could tell they were at the mercy of anyone with a weapon and a will.
Kelly must have seen how much he was perspiring. “Maybe you should stop with the true crime stuff.”
“Maybe you should keep an eye on our flank.”
Nate kept the lights on for comfort, and so any passing motorists wouldn’t think what he usually thought when he saw a dark car apparently abandoned roadside late at night: that someone was dumping a body. The downside of course was the lights were a beacon for passersby pleased to slay the innocent for sport.
Orso finally arrived. No one had driven past, so when the tow truck’s headlights faded in and tracked to Nate’s rearview, he had every confidence that the driver would double as their executioner. The truck eased into position before them. Nate gave Kelly’s hand a quick squeeze, stepped out of the car to face their fate.
“Evening, sir,” the driver said. He wore his cap low but the smile seemed sincere. “Not your night?”
“Thought this piece of shit had one last run in her.” Nate hoped the cuss would somehow make him seem more human.
“There’s a decent mechanic just up in Linville. Two exits on. Fair rates.”
“There any place to stay the night?”
“Lodge up there’s always got rooms. Want me to haul her in?” The man was already appraising the car, crouching down to check the axle.
Kelly chose that moment to join them.
“You need me to put it in neutral or anything?” she asked the driver.
“Ma’am, I need to link us up first.”
Nate watched for any sign of the man’s taking a special interest in Kelly, but the driver’s gaze hadn’t lingered at all when he answered her. This could have meant he didn’t like strawberry blondes or felt it was too risky here in the open, or even wasn’t a murderer at all. Nate took it to mean the driver had stalked them for some time and probably knew his prey.
He tried to remain loose and alert at once, failing at both.
Kelly smiled at him.
Soon the wheel-lift on the back of the tow truck was hauling up their sedan’s front fender. The driver called them over to the open door of his cab.
“Just need you to sign here, sir. Then you guys can climb in and we’ll be on our way straight off.” He turned and handed Nate a clipboard. Nate gave the document only a cursory glance, definitely no more than a second or two, but long enough that he never saw the tire iron hammering into his skull. Short white, quick pain. Then black.
The only thing surprising to Nate about waking up alone in his own trunk was that he had woken at all. Impressive pain in his head and his hair was a blood-mess that tarred the fuzzy insides of the trunk, but it struck him that the driver’s failure to finish him signaled inexperience. Or maybe just a lucky amateur whom Kelly could outfox or overpower. Kelly. Thinking of her made it hard to breathe.
He spent himself kneeing and punching and shoving the trunk door, but nothing, and he could tell from the angle he was at that the car was still hooked to the tow truck. Silence outside. The tow truck was stopped, or had never started. He didn’t know how long he’d been out.
Nate felt like they didn’t deserve to be numbers. Kelly for sure was more than a number, more than a midseason episode on some true-crime series on TV. He could imagine Bill Kurtis’s face during the coda.
“For American Justice, I’m Bill Kurtis,” said the face. Then roll credits on tow truck murders nationwide and preview the following week’s episode about a beauty queen slain in Oklahoma. Kelly’s eyes seeped into Nate’s brain unbidden, like a hacked feed, not her actual eyes but what they were seeing.
He tried to blink her out but couldn’t. Her eyes made out stars and corn stalks and the tow truck driver’s face above her. The face was close and had bushy eyebrows. It dripped sweat on her. It was the last thing she’d ever see, as the driver sawed into her carotid. This scenario looped with minor variations: she was in the truck cab, or a nearby abandoned farmhouse, or barn instead of the field, a garroting, bludgeoning, shooting instead of throat slitting.
He was suffocating in death scenes, consumed by that alien hovering face, drowning in its sweat, crushed under accumulating carcasses. The slayings were relentless and feverish but somewhere, improbably, was a hint of light, a feeling that if just one of her selves could survive till dawn, she could somehow save them all.
Nate was still stuck in the loop, Kelly killed over and over, when suddenly he felt the car begin to ease back to level ground, heard the trunk pop open. At first he thought it daytime because of the glare, but it was only another truck parked right behind him, engine idling– a huge semitruck whose headlights blinded him and made an inky boogeyman of the figure standing just over him. And then Nate noticed the boogeyman had strawberry blonde hair.
“Can you walk?” Kelly asked him.
“Where is he?”
The semitruck’s headlights showed a rent on Kelly’s cheek, but the sprays of blood on her shirt didn’t look like hers. “The cab of the tow truck,” she said. “Dead.”
Nate flinched, as if the pain were his. “How?”
She shook her head into his shoulder. “I did it.”
“You folks need help?”
A man was climbing down from the driver side of the semitruck but Kelly and Nate’s hug was so fierce he barely turned his head to look at the man.
“Everything OK here?”
“We’ve been attacked, sir. I think we need the police.”
“Was it just one guy? What’s his status?” The burly trucker looked ready to mount a charge should the tow truck’s cab door open.
“Just one. He’s dead.”
“My name’s Trevor. I can radio a cruiser from my cab. You injured, ma’am? We should get an ambulance too.”
“I think Nate might need it more than me.” Her fingers went to Nate’s head as Trevor stepped warily to the tow truck window.
He backed from the window, wide-eyed. “You’re tougher than you look, Nate.”
“Not even close.”
“Let’s get a blanket on you two and make that call.”
Trevor motioned for them to come with him. Kelly refused the arm he proffered, but as she turned to walk the blood on her shirt came clearly into his view for the first time. Trevor stopped for a moment. The expression on his face was conflicted, a sort of queasiness Nate guessed, but the trucker managed not to look too ill. He composed himself and guided them to his rig. They stood by the road while he rummaged around inside the cab. From what Nate could see they were still near where his car had originally broken down.
“Ain’t the first time I’ve seen this, you know.” Trevor leaned from the open doorway to hand a plaid wool blanket down to Nate, who wrapped it around Kelly. “Oh, the details are different, but you roll these roads long enough, you’re bound to see some things’ll keep you up at night.” He got on the CB radio; Nate heard some static and Trevor drawled that they had a 10-33 at the nearest mile marker.
Shortly after, Trevor climbed out of the cab to stand with them, waiting. “You two might be luckier than you think,” he said. “Usually, something like this happens, they don’t find a trace of anyone.” He scanned the road both ways. No police lights yet. No lights at all. “You done good, miss.” He patted Kelly gently on the shoulder. Then tomahawked her head into the side door of his truck.
Nate could give credit to their first attacker, who had simply been too quick at a critical moment, but as Trevor’s weight flattened Nate on the roadside, as his hands began wringing the oxygen from Nate’s windpipe, some small part of Nate blamed himself for this one. It had been slow in developing, a crude scheme, and he now felt Trevor even looked the part of a veteran serial killer– maw and rage and not a lot else. That they’d just been assaulted by a predator seemed a poor excuse to Nate for failing to see the second one. He hoped it would go fast for Kelly. As the night faded around him he tried to imagine some way she might beat death once again.
He failed to see this too.
Nate coughed himself awake and knew immediately that this time he wasn’t in his own trunk. It was level with the ground for one thing, squared off and much smaller. He couldn’t even move his arms to pound futilely against the metal interior. He offered one meek and agonizing head butt before Trevor’s eyes popped into his mindthe feed again. The nausea that hit him at that moment could have either been from the concussion or the sickening image he saw of Kelly before him. She wore glasses, was gagged tightly, her head resting on a soiled leather seat. The glasses were impossible– she’d had LASIK the year before and hadn’t even brought them on the trip. Her shoulders were bare, her neck purple. In this iteration he saw through Trevor’s eyes as he wrapped her body in plastic and heaved her from a bridge, remembering to poke holes in the wrap so she would sit longer on the riverbed.
Then the cycle began again and he saw Trevor hide her remains in a decrepit silo. Trevor disposed of her in a strip mall dumpster. He left her in the old quarry. He dropped her down a mineshaft, down a well, down a roster of graves Nate had seen on TV or read about, places manmade that now seemed as if they’d always been more fit for the secreting of bodies than for industry.
Strange thing: every time Trevor dumped her, no matter how deeply he buried her, no matter how much he bundled her up, he always found something missing afterward. Once, with soggy socks and frantic searching, it was his boots. Another time it was his entire truck, the empty highway stretching in both directions as he returned. Finally, Trevor lost his eyes themselves, and Nate saw through the man’s eyes as each one blinked out in burgundy, first the left, then the right.
The clink of metal next to Nate’s ear didn’t snap him from his trance and neither did Kelly’s opening the door of the semitruck’s underbody trunk and lifting him out. He awoke to see her standing before him with a monstrously bruised face, corn to the horizon, predawn on her shoulder.
Immediately the two were hugs and sobs, all reflex, and Nate lost track of whatever question he’d been trying to splutter out. Huddled in the shadow of the truck’s trailer, she apologized for getting blood on him.
“It’s from his head,” she said, as she bowed her own.
After a silence Nate started toward the tow truck. “My phone– I’ll get the police.”
“I already radioed for help.” Kelly was hoarse. “Don’t go back in there.”
He took her up again in a hug of the should-be-dead and maneuvered her in a loving shuffle to the semitruck’s passenger side. He draped his gray sweater on her, its color matched the steel of the trailer. “It will keep you warm,” he said. Murmuring something about rest he persuaded her to sit with her legs bunched against her chest to reduce exposure.
“Stop babying,” she said, reeking of blood. Her shelled stare wobbled him.
The first responder to Kelly’s broadcast was no state trooper, but a bespectacled Good Samaritan. He approached, rounded the corner of the trailer and initially gaped at the couple, but after a second went back to his car for a first-aid kit, saying something about help from harm. He started toward them with arms wide and lulling tones that blended with the thrum of his still-idling engine. Nate and Kelly looked quickly at each other, and this time they didn’t miss their chance: they made a break for the cornfield.
They ran free and hard, the morning dew firing off their soles until, as they approached the first rows of corn Nate managed to glance over his shoulder.
As Kelly blazed past him into the corn he slowed to a stop, staring.
In the distance, the Good Samaritan had begun to lope after them, and as Nate looked in awe past the man to the man’s vehicle– a white van parked alongside the road—he saw another white van parked behind that one as well. And another one parked behind that, and another white van parked behind that one as well, and another beyond that, and a countless number of white vans parked beyond that, each with the lone figure of a driver shadowed in the windshield, waiting his turn. A cavalcade of killers Nate knew must stretch all the way to the ocean. And seen through the eyes of space, Nate knew they must look like the Great Wall of China; like a trace smile lining the earth’s cheek.