“I’m worried that if I tell you, you might never be the same again.”
This is what Ronnie tells me later on when I press him for information but for now, I’m ten minutes early and starting to get nervous. It is a first date after all, and even at 31 years old I still get nervous on the first rendezvous of any particular courtship. I’m at Buford’s Diner on Route 6 and someone threw a real classic on the jukebox: “The Great Imposter” by the Fleetwoods.
Then I start to get bored as I wait for the ten minutes to pass, and I spot a newspaper from today— June 20th, 1970— in the booth in front of me. I get up for a moment to snatch it then sit back down to peruse it. Idly, but I have nothing better to do.
There’s a story about a man who was shot yesterday somewhat further inland in Texas. The victim is in stable condition and has no connection, as far as the police claim, to the rash of murders plaguing our little corner of eastern Texas here in Cowin County. Another story about a platoon in the Quang Ngai province who accidentally triggered a howitzer round, killing five soldiers. I wet my forefinger and leaf through a couple more pages then light a cigarette.
It’s coming up on 8 o’clock when I spot a few people I inevitably know inside the diner. Artie and Brenda, who live two houses down from herm are having a meal with their kids. Charlie is sitting alone at his table and eating a hamburger deluxe. He looks in better spirits than usual. When he had first come back from the war, he had seemed to have bit of trouble reacclimating, but tonight, he looks fine. A woman can never say for certain why, but I had turned him down last week when he had asked me out on a date. We had dated a little in high school, but it hadn’t worked out. She had been amazed at his propriety though, having accepted the rejection with grace. The poor guy was probably just lonely; he came back a decorated war hero but no one to be happy with or come home to, as his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash a little over a year ago when he was still deployed.
I’m jolted out of my thoughts when I see him give a start and sit bolt upright. A group of hippies is walking into the diner and even though the staff doesn’t look especially pleased, they don’t give them a hard time. But when they pass Charlie’s table he stiffens and watches him intently for a few seconds, probably because of the pungent odor coming off them. I can smell it now as they seat themselves three booths down from me— the skunk-like smell.
But now I can see a cruiser pulling into the lot and adjust my hair. We had arranged to meet here a little after 8 to coincide with his patrol’s end. He walks in, spots me, and starts walking over to my booth, but I can see that he looks paler than usual, and especially so for a Latino. He takes off his Rangers hat when he gets to the booth and seats himself with a tiny smile.
“Officer Montega,” I say sarcastically as he sits. “Do I have a taillight out? Driving left-of-center?”
“Hey, Ellen,” he says, clearly not in a humorous mood.
“Hey,” I say, smiling perkily, “I got us some Cherry Cokes!”
“Perfect,” he says, sweating. His eyes are distant as if he’s thinking hard about something. Then he seems to come back to himself. “Is Eve okay?” he asks, as if it’s greatly important.
“Safe and sound with grandma,” I say. He’s talking about my 10-year-old daughter. But I remember that vacant look in his eyes and I’m staring at his pale, perspiring face. Something occurs to me.
“Hey,” I say, lowering my voice a little, “do you know anything about the girls who’ve been going missing lately?”
He looks at me alertly in the eyes when I ask this as if stunned.
“Can I take your order?” a waitress asks, popping out from my left suddenly enough to make me jump.
“Give us a minute, Susie,” he sighs, then she walks away. Neither of us have opened our menus.
“Do you?” I ask again.
He picks up his glass of Cherry Coke but when he lifts it, instead of sipping it he rolls it across his forehead, the condensation on the exterior of the glass mixing in with the moisture beaded on his brow. He nods and grimaces, then puts the glass down.
“What can you tell me?” I ask. Two girls have been found murdered over the past three weeks, not just in Cowin County but Hasco itself. Our town has a population of seven hundred.
“Nothing!” he says seriously from across the table.
“Why not? I already know about the Rojas girl and the Sampson girl. And let me tell you: you look like you’ve seen a ghost tonight.”
“Wasn’t this supposed to be a date?” he says, smiling a little sadly.
“I thought so,” I say. “Until you came in here lookin’ as pale as mozzarella cheese.”
The hippies, who had only ordered drinks before Ronnie got here, get up to pay their bill without having eaten any food. One of the girls oinks really loudly. He eyeballs them as they pass, still stinking like marijuana.
“I can’t tell you,” he says, lighting a cigarette. “I signed a non-disclosure agreement.”
“Ronnie,” I say, making an offended face and reaching across the table to put my hand over his. “I’m not a news anchor; I work at Super Goods.” It’s kind of painful for me to admit— going from prom queen to grocer in so little time. I haven’t even seen my own husband in five or maybe six years now. “Who am I gonna tell? I just have a little girl, and I know these have been older girls, but I’m a citizen of this town and it’s my right to know what the hell’s going on! Isn’t it?”
“I’m worried that if I tell you, you might never be the same again.” He taps his temple with one finger. “Upstairs. Understand?” He stubs out his cigarette.
The door to the diner rings and Bucky Simmons walks in, looking as haggard as usual. No one in Hasco likes him, because a lingering smell of decay follows him, and he always hangs dead wildlife from the front side of his lean-to on the outskirts of town. He’s also been busted once for petty larceny. I notice Charlie is gone already but he must have just eaten his supper quickly.
“Not tonight, Simmons!” Ronnie calls out right when he spots him. Bucky gives an animalistic grumble and leaves the diner in a huff.
“Y’all ready?” the waitress— Susie— asks.
“We’ll let you know,” Ronnie says irritably.
“I can handle it,” I say once the waitress shuffles away, trying to keep any uncertainty out of my voice. My primary motivation is my child’s safety, and sometimes a mother has to do what a mother has to do. “Tell me. Please.”
“The Rojas girl that was found on the 1st,” he says with a heavy sigh. “Angel Rojas. She was the hippie type from Arizona with a Caucasian female, hitchhiking along the Southwest. That’s what we’ve learned since then.” I nod. “…The Caucasian escaped, but the Rojas girl was taken. That’s how we know where the Hell the two of ‘em even come from, hitchin’ into town. Luckily, the one who escaped gave us a description of a vehicle and a suspect, even though we didn’t get a license plate number. It’s a male with dark brown hair and blue eyes. He tried to lure them in saying he had pot and something else. ‘Some good 45s’ is what the girl said— record. She escaped the vehicle when the driver incapacitated Rojas with a hammer. The van sped off when the other girl started runnin’ down the highway screamin’. It was around 1a.m., so there wasn’t enough traffic to get the plate number.” He grimaces as if he himself had failed and missed an opportunity.
“Jesus,” I breathe.
“We haven’t seen the girl since. Well-” It seems like he’s about to say something, but then stops himself abruptly. “Let me tell you the whole thing properly.
“What was it— a week ago?”
“Six days,” I say, knowing what he’s talking about.
“Seems like forever,” he says, that vacant look once again clouding over his eyes. “Anyway, that’s when the younger McHugh girl was taken.”
“Yeah,” I say. I know the family well and had even spent time on the phone trying to console Jesse, the girl’s mother, even though she had proven to be inconsolable. “I know they never found her either. Any leads?”
“Well…” he says again, hesitating. “Hold on. She was taken around the same time of night right on the outskirts of town. Not a runaway from out-of-state but a resident from right here in Hasco. Maybe not the most upstanding young lady, but still. We didn’t know if the two cases were related or coincidences for the past week. The Rojas girl was clearly abducted, but McHugh just up and vanished. There wasn’t even a witness to this one.” He gives her a meaningful look. “Until tonight. Well, last night.”
“Another girl was taken, again without witnesses,” he says, then lights another cigarette. I follow suit. “Last night, roughly the same time. Now we’re noticing a pattern, right?”
“So, we start combing town all day today lookin’ out for any signs of this vehicle. Another officer hits paydirt at this little rural farm on Rutland Lane…” He starts rubbing circles into his temples now. “The abandoned lot out past Nancy’s stead?”
“I know,” I say breathlessly. “Did you get the guy?”
“No,” he says. “He was using that as his…slaughterhouse.” He frowns more deeply than I’ve ever seen a man frown and stares at his lap for a full fifteen or twenty seconds. “I’m just gonna say it how it was. This guy must have a different address and uses this place for his sick…” He can’t even finish his sentence.
“A slaughterhouse?” I ask, my stomach freezing over.
“Listen to me,” he says frantically, then gulps. “The place was abandoned except for the blood and everything else.” It’s spilling out of him now. “Two of the girls’ corpses were found; they’re excavating the entire property now to see if sign of the Rojas girl turns up. There were tapes found. 8-millimeter tapes.”
“Stop,” I say. His one hand is over his eyes like he’s trying to hide the fact that he’s weeping. This is a lot of information for me to absorb too. I cover his free hand with my own like I did earlier. “You okay?” He nods.
“Ahem. The first canister was labeled ‘9/1/70’.” He can’t make eye contact. “It shows the Rojas girl being killed.” I wince. “So, eh…He has…her arms either bound or cuffed behind her, with a noose and long rope around her neck that’s attached to a pulley. He lifts her off the ground a few times so that she can’t breathe, then puts her down again just long enough to take a few breaths. Then he leaves her hanging for about a minute and a half before he let’s go of the rope. And she doesn’t move again. He’s not in the camera lens’ frame but seemed to position it beforehand to film the murder from a…good angle, I guess. Now, he picks up the camera from behind and walks over to the side of the room this took place in; from what we know now, it was the small barn on the property. And he does something strange…”
He’s staring out the window at absolutely nothing.
“What?” I urge him.
He frowns. “He goes over to the side of the barn, and there’s a record player set up.”
“…A record player?” To say the least, I’m not following.
But there’s no stopping him. “And he’s playing a little record on it— about the size of a single. And the rest of the video is him just filming the record until it stops spinning, maybe another twenty seconds. Then, when it’s over, he gets real close to it so you can barely read the label, and spins it around a little so it’s right-side up. We had our video experts go over it and they confirmed what we saw: it was ‘Angel Baby’ by Rosie and the Originals.”
I frown over at him, completely captivated. “What does that m-?”
“The second one is just like the first one: labeled ‘9/13/70’ on a strip of masking tape over the canister. It’s about twenty-five seconds shorter. In this one, it’s Diana McHugh, but this time he has her handcuffed by the wrists and hanging from something fastened to the ceiling— most likely a hook or the same pulley as the last video. She can only remain upright by standing but it looks like, from what I saw, this had been going on before the video started because she’s weak in the knees. When she falls over, the weight of her body causes excruciating pain to her wrists— that much is plain by her facial expressions. Then, when forced to stand, her knees give out, putting the strain back on her wrists. Back and forth— not just murder but torture. That’s our…working theory. Then, at the time of the video when she’s standing and upright, he uses a kitchen knife to stab her twenty-three times in the…most vital areas of the upper body. Always out of view. And he delivers all of the stabs very quickly.
“Once he finishes and she’s motionless, he picks up the camera from behind again. Walks over to the record player, deliberately films what single it is when it stops. ‘Diana’ by Paul Anka.”
I gasp and then cover my mouth.
“The girl taken last night was likely from Brower County; she was a known prostitute and addicted to Quaaludes. That’s probably the only reason she was able to last…” He stops and clears his throat twice forcefully. “Name of Peggy Sue Ballard.”
“You’re kiddin’ me,” is all I manage.
“Anyway…the girl was eighteen years old and six months pregnant— it was clear just from watchin’ the film, the third one. This one starts with the suspect holdin’ the camera rather than puttin’ it in position. It’s close enough so that I’ll never forget the look on her face. He puts what I can see is a Colt .45 inside her and starts pulling it in and out-”
“Oh my-” I say and dry heave.
“-goes on for about two minutes then he pulls the trigger.” He’s speaking in monotone and rapidly, with nary a pause between words. “The injury is immediately visible and fatal. The mother and fetus both died from the gunshot. She was the second one found. McHugh was left in the downstairs bathroom tub and the Rojas girl’s remains are still missing. They’re excavatin’ the whole damn scene right now as we’re talkin’. This girl was found the following afternoon with her entrails all around the barn and…everything else. We had to-”
“Stop,” I say quickly. “I’ve heard enough.”
“-unit just for cleanup. And don’t you know? In the film, he goes over to the record player after he does this and films the record.”
“And it was ‘Peggy Sue’ by Buddy Holly and the Crickets,” I say, shading my eyes at the forehead and feeling queasy.
Ronnie tells me he has to get back to the crime scene— that he had just taken an hour’s break for lunch— and I walk out to the lot with him feeling dazed and numb.
We had arrived in separate cars anyway and the mood is much too somber to consider a first-date kiss, so I just wish him goodbye and good night before he drives off.
On the way home, I stop off at the Mobil for gas before heading to my grandmother’s. When I pull out, there’s an old song on the radio— “Hushabye” by the Mystics— and its eerie quality together with the story Ronnie had told me leaves me so unnerved that I have to change the station, my hand shaking. My eyes are darting all around for any slight semblance of a white van as I go.
When I get to my mother’s, all the lights are on inside, and everything looks so safe. I can’t wait to get up to the top bedroom and tousle little Eve’s hair, flaxen in color and just a shade or two lighter than my own blonde.
I see my mother’s body when I get inside, stabbed all over her body and something stuffed into her mouth. There’s blood pooling on the hardwood and when I see this, it’s as if I had let out one mighty exhalation, and now I can’t breathe.
In almost stop-motion, I amble up the staircase to her bedroom, still unable to scream or even breathe. I have to see her.
Reeling down the corridor, I throw open her bedroom door and for a moment my eyes must want to see what they want to see because she’s there in the fetal position.
But she’s not. It’s just her blanket.
And a note on looseleaf paper right on her pillow.
“I never wanted you anyway! – Charlie”
I finally gasp in my first breath and open my mouth to scream.
On Rutland Lane, outside the cordoned off area of the abandoned farm, Ellen is restrained by Ronnie as she sobs and screams, but she cannot be heard.
The radio broadcast from KSET drowns her out, even though it’s uncannily quiet. DJ Skip isn’t playing any funny sound effects or making any prank phone calls tonight. His voice is unscored as he makes his announcement to eastern Texas.
“Tonight, police discovered the corpses of three missing girls in Cowin County. CCPD issued a statement that this is the work of a serial killer who is still at large. He is described as a white male, age unknown, height ranging from likely 5’10-6’1, brown-haired, and blue-eyed. He was seen driving a white Chevrolet van, license plate also unknown. He is being referred to as the Golden Oldies Killer.” His bassy voice falters for a moment, and when he speaks again, his voice is audibly strained by emotion. “Tonight, the CCPD also received news that 9-year-old Evelyn Haley of Hasco has also been abducted, and the man responsible for the murders is also responsible for her kidnapping. Everybody, please…keep your eyes peeled for any sign of that poor, poor girl. My job is to play songs, and even though tonight I don’t feel like doin’ it at all, it’s what I’m gonna have to do. This is one dedicated to you, Evelyn!”
He places a needle atop a record spinning in his studio, and the Elegants start singing just as a search team for Hasco searches the perimeter of the farm, but all in vain.
“Where are you, little star?” comes the voice of the lead singer.
“Where are you?” the backup singers harmonize in mutual curiosity.
I got a day’s head-start on the cops so by the time they’re searching for Me, not only am I in another vehicle, but I’m also not even in Texas anymore. They have no way of knowing that I own two video cameras, and I had even left behind one of the two to make them think they have all of the evidence. It was something I had to sacrifice to leave My mark. I still have the film canisters of the killings from the camera filming at an alternate angle, and I don’t plan on filling them in on any more of My crimes. And they will only worsen in brutality.
Ol’ Charlie’s headin’ south, I think as I drive, the girl still incapacitated and concealed inside My car’s trunk. Charlie is indeed crossing the border as we speak, but only physically. The Monster is in the man’s head again, and I have no intention of leaving this time.
I head to a pre-arranged part of northern Mexico; I’ve practiced this route before. People from this country pay Me even better money for My videos than Americans and would probably make a big offer on the girl, if My plans were to sell her. This is not the case.
And once the car is parked in driveway of the small home out here, the Monster grabs the girl from the backseat and rushes inside, feeling the need to feed.
She’s still in the nightgown she was wearing when I took her for now.
I lift the needle off the record player and place it on the outer rim of the disc. Then, I position the camera against the far wall and when I tell her it starts filming, for some reason she smiles in confusion even amidst her crying from her place on the mattress on the floor. It’s beautiful.
This makes Me angry. I’m slathered from head to toe in something foul, naked except for the black vinyl butcher’s apron I’m wearing. I pinch her face by both cheeks and then slap it too hard with My free hand.
We’re gonna rock, we’re gonna rock around the clock tonight!
Credit: Sean Killigrew
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