Sunday, May 20, 2012

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He was wearing blue denim slacks, a white t-shirt that had something written across the chest, white running shoes, and a blue and white baseball cap worn backwards on his head. A bulging backpack with a rolled sleeping bag was at his feet. And from the car as they approached him, he seemed to be about twenty-five. This was too young, they found out as they pulled up beside him along the shoulder of the road. They could both see he was closer to thirty-five. The fine lines along his eyes and mouth gave the lie to twenty-five and the boyish backward baseball cap. But his smile as he watched them pull to a stop and roll down the passenger window was youthful and full of good humor.

“Hi,” he said, smiling. “Where ya headed?”

“My husband and I are going into South Dakota to the interstate, then east into Minnesota on I-40.” The woman was wearing tan Bermuda shorts and a white Southwesterny top with a phallic saguaro extending upward for the entire length of the top. She appeared to be somewhere between sixty-five and seventy. The man, wearing a pair of dark glasses that hid his eyes, leaned across from the driver’s side to join this opening conversation. He appeared to be the same age. Both were deeply tanned, apparently from much exposure to a southern sun. “We’d be happy to take you as far as you want to go,” he said. “You have some destination in mind?”

“Nah, not really,” said the young man. “I’m just out to see the country.” He hoisted the backpack and sleeping bag with one hand, opening the rear door with the other. He threw his belongings in and then got in the car. The woman noted that the front of the t-shirt had a small silk-screened picture of James Dean, the actor who had died tragically young in a motorcycle accident, and said, “James Dean—Alive and Well . . .” and the back continued with “and Living in Graceland.”

“We could throw your stuff in the trunk if that’d make it more comfortable for you,” the man said, extending a brown hand awkwardly over the seat. “My name’s Dan, Dan Olsen, and this is my wife Vera.”

“It’s a pleasure,” the young man said, taking the hand and feeling a surprising strength in the handshake. “Just call me Hal.”

Dan turned around and shifted into drive and the car pulled away slowly, Dan watching for traffic behind him. There was little need to look, since the road north from North Platte, Nebraska, had very little traffic, especially on a warm Sunday in mid-June.

“So, you say you’re just out wandering,” the man said without turning. “Seems like a fun thing to do if you have the time and don’t mind having to wait for rides. Are you a student somewhere that you have the summer off to do your sightseeing?”

“Well, yes and no.” The young man addressed himself to the woman, Vera, who had turned and was appraising him with a half smile on her face. “I’m a student, all right, but I’m taking off more than just the summer. I’m involved in a sort of project right now and school can wait.”

“Don’t your parents worry about you, out hitching rides by yourself?” Vera asked. “I know I’d be worried if I was your mom. Seems to me kinda foolish, what with the sort of crazy people you might run into.” She smiled with what he took to be motherly amusement at his foolishness.

If she only knew, he thought, returning her smile. Wouldn’t she just die if she knew he was one of the crazies? What would she do if he now explained to them exactly what his project was, that he was trying to see how many travelers he could kill and bury out in the boondocks with no one the wiser. He was already up to eleven and he still had most of the summer left.

“There’s no one who’s going to worry about me, I’m afraid. Both my parents are already dead and I was an only child. So, no, much as I’d like someone like you, Mrs. Olsen, to be my mother and worry about me, I have no one who cares what I do.”

“Oh, that’s a shame,” she said, clucking in sympathy. “A nice young man like you.” Nodding her head, she looked over at her husband, who smiled and winked at her. “Maybe we should just adopt him, take him under our wing. What do you think, Dan? Should we do that?”

Dan glanced at her and smiled. “That’d be nice, Honey, but I don’t think Hal really wants to take on the responsibility of foster parents. He seems to enjoy what he’s doing without having us to worry about.”

“What school are you going to and what’s this project of yours?” Dan asked.

“I, uh, go to the University of Colorado, in Boulder. I’m a psych major and I’m working on background data for a paper on the reasons why people pick up or don’t pick up hitchhikers. I guess that makes you two part of my data. So, why did you decide to pick me up? Weren’t you at all wary of what I might be? Some kinda loony tunes?”

“Oh, no,” Vera said, shaking her head. “We could see right off you were a nice young man, probably a college student going home for summer break. Now if you’d looked like some of the bums we see along the road, bare-chested and tattooed all over, looking like they’d just come off a drug toot or maybe just been released from prison, well, no, we’d never have stopped for you. And you can put that in your paper and smoke it. Oh, that’s funny,” she said, putting a hand to her mouth. “Sounds like I’m inviting you to have some of that funny weed you young people are so fond of.”

“Well, you can rest assured, I’m not one of the crazies going to do you any harm. But I will put you in my paper.”

The young man relaxed against his backpack and spun his hat around, pulling the visor down over his eyes. “Before I decide about that weighty question you asked, whether or not I should let you two adopt me, I should know more about you, like where you’re from and what you’re doing out here in the middle of nowhere.”

“We’re sorta like you,” Dan said without turning, watching Hal in the rear view mirror. “We’re out traveling, seeing parts of the good old US of A we’ve never seen before. When you get to be our age, you can’t put that sorta thing off or you’ll never get around to it.”

Vera took up where Dan left off. “We’re retired, have been now for just under ten years, and we live in just about the nicest place in the whole wide world, Sun City West, Arizona. But it gets too darned hot there in July and August, so we have a good excuse for roaming around up north.”

“You have kids, grandkids, I’ll bet,” Hal asked.

“Nope,” Vera said, pursing her lips and shaking her head, “no kids, no grandkids. Just one of those things we never got around to doing when we were first married and then we sorta settled into that selfish place where it’s a whole lot easier and cheaper not to have any children. So we never did.”

“Are you visiting relatives in Minnesota, then? Going from one sister or brother to another for the summer? You know what they say about fish and visitors.”

“Oh, no, no, we wouldn’t want to impose on friends or relatives. Lord knows, we don’t encourage anyone to visit us in Sun City West, so we could hardly do the same up here. Isn’t that right, Dan?”

Her husband looked over at her and smiled. “That’s right, Honey. And even if we had any relatives, we wouldn’t ask ‘em to put up with us.”

Hal leaned forward, both hands on his knees. “Let me get this straight, you’re just like me then, no one to worry about you and no one for you to worry about. I guess that makes us fellow orphans in this unfriendly universe.”

“Yep, that’s right,” Dan said, turning to look at him. “We’re just unattended ships that pass in the night.” He laughed to himself. “Hey, I like that . . . unattended ships.”

Vera took out from a large handbag some yarn and what looked like the beginning of a multi-colored afghan and started knitting and humming softly to herself. Hal leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms. He looked out at the countryside passing by the window. Mile after mile of low hills and shallow depressions, an occasional cottonwood near the road or off in the distance, probably shading one of the rare farmhouses in the area. And more and more abundant as they traveled north, flowering yucca plants. This was the area known as the Sand Hills of Nebraska, thousands of square miles of sand left over from some ancient sea and now covered over with wild grasses. There were some farms and ranches on the land, but not many. And not much traffic between North Platte and Valentine, a distance of nearly a hundred miles.

Almost perfect, he thought, smiling inwardly as he observed the land flowing monotonously by. Two old dudes with no one who cares whether they live or die. No one to miss them if they never show up in . . . what did she say? Sun City West? And a two-year-old Lincoln he could get rid of at a chop shop he knew about in Rapid City. And who knew how much cash they’d be carrying. With what he could get for the car and whatever he could find on them, it would be a nice bit to put away in his little nestegg, his stash to take care of him in his old age. But it wasn’t just the money. He knew that now. He discovered early in his “project” he really enjoyed the game—finding just the right victims, pumping them about their lives, luring them off to some secluded spot. And then the knife. He felt a stirring in his loins at the thought of the knife. Of what would be coming very soon. He felt it in his pocket, comforting him with its weight. It was a six-inch switchblade he kept carefully cleaned and oiled, carefully sharpened. And he could pop it open in a flash, before anyone knew what was coming. His specialty was the knife.

Eleven done, and these two would make thirteen. He savored the thought. He’d been so careful, so very careful, about whom he chose and how and where he did it. Most had been singles, most male but some female, two to be exact. Seven single males, two single females, and two couples. The couples were the most dangerous because of the numbers. He had to do the first very quickly, before the other was even aware of what was going on. In both cases, he’d done the man first. Flick of knife, thrust, withdraw, then turn for the woman, do her before she could even think about running away or defending herself. One of the women had pleaded with him, hands up in futile defense, and he’d nearly decided to wait on her, to take his time out there in the wilderness to see what she’d have to say. Or what she’d be willing to do. She was a young one and not bad looking. But he didn’t. He took her with her hands up, slashing her hands away before plunging the knife in below her breast.

And then the cleanup. He carried in his backpack a folding entrenching tool he’d gotten from an army-navy store in Colorado. It was small enough to carry but efficient enough to let him dig a shallow grave. He always looked for soil that wouldn’t require hard digging, and a location that wouldn’t be affected by wind or rain or flash floods. No sense in having bodies exposed and discovered for some law enforcement agency to try to determine their identities, and then backtrack to determine when they’d died and who might have done it. No, he was very careful. He stripped them of all clothes and jewelry, then buried the clothes and jewelry somewhere distant enough from the bodies that it would be unlikely anyone would ever find both burial sites. He made a point of never taking any of the jewelry for fear it could come back to haunt him. He always made sure his victims had no one who would report them missing. No missing persons report, no body, no crime. And he was always careful with the cars. He drove well within the speed limits, obeying all the laws until he could find a chop shop or a fence willing to buy it from him, no questions asked. Wasn’t hard to find one of those, and he never used the same one more than twice, and he always made sure he wore something to disguise himself. That, too, was easy.

He sighed, his eyes closed, as he thought through all his past successes and planned this one. He wasn’t sure how he’d get them off the road, but he’d think of something before they got to Valentine.

He didn’t have long to wait. It was given to him.

“Oh, look, Dan Honey, see that patch of yucca up there?” She was pointing across him to his left, a hundred yards off the road. “They look really healthy, and I’d just love to dig one up to take home with us. And there’s a dirt road right here. Oh, let’s go up there. We can stretch and get a little of this Nebraska fresh air.”

“I guess,” Dan said with a shrug. “Whattaya think, Hal? You willing to stop for a stretch, or maybe even an off-road potty stop?”

“Yeah, that sounds good to me,” Hal responded, feeling a growing excitement at the thought of the impending conclusion to this segment of his project.

They pulled off the asphalt and onto a two-track dirt road that meandered through the low hills to the west. The hills here had eroded in places to reveal the sand beneath the grass cover, perfect, Hal thought, for easy digging.

They came abreast of the patch of yucca plants that Vera had spotted from the road. “Dan Honey, these aren’t anywhere near as good as I thought they were. I don’t want any of these. But look up there, there’s even more and maybe we can find a good one.” She was pointing to more yucca plants further up the path and around one of the sandy mounds. Dan drove slowly to the west and around the low hill. When he parked the car, Hal turned and looked through the rear window. The main road was completely out of sight. He couldn’t have asked them to drive to a better spot.

Dan and Vera got out of the car, Vera clutching her yarn bag, and walked among the yuccas, trying to find one that was good enough to dig up and take home with them. Hal opened the back door and got out. The day was nearly windless, the sky filled with puffy white clouds that slowly passed overhead. He heard the familiar song of a nearby meadowlark. Everything was perfect. He put his hand in his pocket and felt the comfort of the knife handle. He wanted it right there for that perfect moment . . . this perfect moment. Vera had separated from Dan and was wandering to the right. “Here’s one, Honey. I think this one should be just about right.” Dan looked over at Vera, then back to Hal as the young man approached him.

He smiled at Hal and said, “She’s really something, isn’t she?” Dan was smiling quizzically as Hal drew near.

“Yes, she’s really something all right,” Hal said as he took the knife from his pocket. Just as he was about to snap it open to make the upward thrust, he heard the whisper of something in the air, then felt the backward tug of something around his neck, and then a sharp pain that encompassed his neck and entire head, and then a sort of red haze just before he fell without a sound.

“Well, Dan Honey,” Vera said, straddling the young man’s body, “that makes seventeen. We’ll have to celebrate tonight when we get to Minneapolis, maybe after a nice dinner have them bring us a cake with seventeen candles.” Using the young man’s t-shirt, Vera carefully wiped the blood from the wire, leaving a thin red line across James Dean’s pouting expression. She then flipped the wire into two tight spirals near the handles and bound the weapon with a heavy rubberband, then replaced it in her knitting bag. While she was doing this, her husband opened the trunk and removed several tools.

His specialty was the pick and shovel.

Hers was the garrote.