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by Barry Wade Simms
Snippets in the local newspaper described men as missing from counties surrounding the Virginia-Tennessee border. No relation between the men or their disappearances was obvious, and not many citizens, if any, seemed to care. The mislaid individuals were grown-ups and male, after all, not women or children, so I took it upon myself to investigate the matters privately.
I woke on a park bench in Mountain City on a Thursday. I rummaged through my tote sack for a fresh shirt. I sniffed each one. They had all been worn several times without being washed and were vinegary. Living the life of a vagabond was never easy, and it was one of my lower points. There was a creek just outside of town where I bathed and washed my fouled threads in the waters. A few saltine crackers and packets of grape jelly were all I had left to nibble on. One of my few friends had given them to me through the drive-thru window at Hardee’s. For me it was a walk-thru since I didn’t have a car.
Later that day, I was patrolling the sidewalk in town. MacMurphy’s T.V. repair shop always had their stack of televisions on, and anyone could see them playing through the frontage window. I stepped into the shop to escape the heat and take in the news at noon. Another man had gone missing near Woolwine, Virginia. They aired a picture of the missing gentleman who was standing next to an above ground swimming pool without his shirt. He was in his mid-fifties like the others, and it appeared from his photograph that he was quite hairy. Pictures of the other missing men confirmed that they too had been gifted with bountiful amounts of body hair. Being that I also wore a natural hair-suit made me take this case very personal.
“What’re you doing back?” A voice within the shop woke me from my internal investigation.
“It’s sweat-hoggy outside, Mac,” I said. “You don’t mind if I dry off in here?”
“Actually, I do mind. I’ll call the po-lice. You hear me?”
“I thought we were pals?”
Mac waggled his finger at my nose. “You scare my customers. I don’t need that. Get a job or something. Clean yourself up.”
“I just bathed,” I said and held up my arms. “Come smell me.”
“Get out of my store, Pyrtle!”
“Mac, I’m working on solving a case. I’ve been having dreams about it too.”
“Not those again. If you want to play dream-psychic, go scam someone else. But not me.”
“I’ll just come out and say it—Mac—I need to borrow your car.”
“Last I heard apes can’t drive a lick,” Mac snorted.
“You’re a funny one today,” I said, trying to butter his ego.
“You need to grow a brain ‘cause yours is missing if you think I’m givin’ you my car.”
“Not give, b-o-r-r-o-w.”
“That’s it!” Mac reached over the counter next to the cash register and grabbed a shillelagh. He kept it under there for protection and smacked it against his palm to show he wasn’t kidding around. “Exit yourself from the premises before I turn this real ugly. I mean it! Don’t come back no more.”
The cowbell hanging on the door bonged on my way out as the door closed behind me. It stood to reason that Mac was just having a bad day. I hiked right out of Mountain City to highway 421 and waited to hitch a ride to Woolwine or as far as the driver would take me.
I had been doing my fair share of sleuthing about Woolwine for a few days. It was unfamiliar territory, but there were enough woodlands to set up a base camp without being caught for trespassing—I hoped.
My supplies were running low, and without any connections, I needed to make contact soon with the latest victim’s family. The man I’d seen on the news, back in Mac’s store, was Howard Barbree, and his only living kin was a nephew, Desmond Reuteger. This information was all easily found in the local papers, and the address of Mr. Reuteger was in a phone book.
My second day in Virginia was spent locating the Reuteger residence that was only a few miles from my campsite. It was a mid-nineteenth century Victorian house that had been turned into a bed and breakfast. It was old and classical. I could almost see ghosts of fallen Civil War soldiers marching across the lawn. Other than the ethereal trespassers, there seemed to be only a couple of boarders staying at the B & B.
A vineyard grew on the yon side of the aged mansion. I stealthily made my way through the woods and to the grove and roamed the pathways between the grapes, hiding among them until a man came forth from the house. He very much resembled Mr. Howard Barbree. It was safe to assume that the gentleman standing near the colonnades was his nephew. This sad soul lit a cigarillo and puffed away and fidgeted as he paced across the porch. He finally managed to rest himself on one of the rocking chairs, attempting to soothe his nerves with the back and forth motion. The ideal moment to approach him never seemed to come about. I memorized his face and knew I wanted to help this man find his uncle. Convincing him to allow me would be a chore all its own.
The annual Woolwine covered bridge festival was held the following day. It was my hope that my potential client would show up to this celebration. There were refreshment stands and a few trinket and t-shirt sellers set up along the road. Two tractors were offering free wagon rides over Jack’s Creek and Bob White covered bridges.
A Scottish fiddler and his dancing daughter performed on a stage. I sifted through the crowd for almost two hours before I saw him. Desmond Reuteger along with a female companion was taking in the Celtic jig. The woman was crippled and stood with the support of forearm crutches. Her affliction somehow made her more approachable. I squeezed through the crowd, closer to the stage, and stood next to her.
“That’s a beautiful number, isn’t it?”
The young dystrophic woman smiled and nodded her head.
“Hello. Are you this lovely woman’s husband?” I reached around and shook Desmond’s hand. His grip was flaccid and somewhat clammy. “My name’s Pyrtle. I’m visiting from Tennessee.”
Desmond’s hand drooped back to his side. He was a rather large man, but not quite as big as I. A great misery radiated from him, and I was sure it had to do with his uncle.
“I’m actually a private investigator.”
“How’s that?” Desmond said. “Couldn’t hear for the fiddle playin’. It’s loud.”
“Would you and your lady friend mind stepping away from the stage with me so we can talk?”
Desmond distorted his face and glanced at the woman. Why was this strange man bothering them? All they wanted was to enjoy themselves at the festival and forget about their worries and recent loss for a few hours.
“I just need a moment of your time. Please.”
We angled our way through the crowd, the music fading as we stepped away and over to an empty picnic table.
“What’s this about?” The woman asked.
“Ma’am I’m here to help, I assume your husband, locate his uncle. I’ve been investigating his and other men who’ve gone missing in this area.”
“The police are already handling this,” Desmond said. “We have no idea who you are.” He eyed over my threadbare clothes and ratty boots. “Are you homeless?”
“Des!” the wife said.
“I’m sorry,” Des said. “What’s your name again?”
“Right. Pyrtle. I was very close to my uncle. He was more of a father to me than my own father. And I’d do whatever it takes to find him, make sure he’s safe, and bring him home. If you had anything to do with his disappearance, if this is some kind of ransom situation, just back off.”
“You got some gusto, my friend.” I nodded my head to show how impressed I was. “That moist handshake worried me at first, but I believe we’re going to work well together.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s good that you’re suspicious. I understand. It’s good. But I’m not the enemy here. Have you ever heard of psychic dreams? These gifts from heaven sometimes visit my mind when I’m all asnooze, and I see things that happened in the past. Never the present or future, only things that happened without me ever being there.”
“No, but I’ve heard enough of this,” Desmond said. His wife nudged him to settle down.
“That’s quite the blessing you have,” she said. “I have heard about people with similar talents.”
“Yes, but sometimes it’s burdensome. It drives me to where I need to be even if I don’t always want to go. I’m here now. This is where I’m supposed to be. Will you allow me to help find your uncle? I really, really want to.”
The dream churns through the miasma of sleep, freezing me in place by the recollections that are not my own. A black haired Croatian barber sweeps clipped tresses into a pile. He scoots across a red-white terrazzo floor in rhythm to a jukebox tune. He collects the hair, not on a dustpan, but into a ornate wooden box. He and the box glide across the shop to a locked door that he keys open and descends two flights of stairs. The lair is underground and cool with only walls of earth and a floor of clay. He lights the candles inside four sconces mounted onto the shelves that also display other hand-carved wooden boxes like the one he is holding. He places the box next to the others, then turns his attention to a child-size bed in the middle of the room. A patchwork quilt sewn from the skinned backs and chests of men covers the mattress and the form of a child. Each square of the quilt carefully selected from the hairiest victims for its vitality and power to give life. He kneels before the bed and conjures a prayer to his gods over his deceased daughter. A homemade ozone generator hums next to the decomposing girl, cleaning the air of her rotting flesh. The spirit animal of the human quilt and collection of medicine boxes aren’t enough to stir her back to the land of the living. Despair shakes him, and soft wails tremor through his lips.
How many more lives will he be required to take before she will breathe again? For the sake of his daughter he’s prepared to take a thousand.
Desmond’s wife knocked on the bedroom door. I was asleep in one of the rooms at their B & B when she woke me from the dream-window inside the killer’s mind. The dream was one of a few that I had been having recently but more vivid, more real.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought you were already up.”
Her name was Sharla. It had been over a month since I’d first met her at the covered bridge festival. She had me working a few odd jobs plus the grounds keeping to help earn my board, but I didn’t allow it to interfere with investigating the case of Uncle Howard. The stories Sharla and Desmond shared with me fleshed out who the man really was. He enjoyed deep sea fishing off the coast of Virginia Beach and going to NASCAR races in Bristol, Tennessee. He also was a bit of a lush, Desmond’s homemade wine being his favorite, and maybe that was the man’s undoing. Nonetheless, I started thinking of old Howard as my adopted uncle.
Sharla was quite nimble on her crutches when she entered my bedroom holding the food tray. I sat up and patted for her to sit next to me.
“I’ve triangulated an area.” I reached under my pillow and pulled out a crayon and a flattened scroll of paper. I unrolled it to share my past month’s labor of detective work and sorting through my preternatural dreams. “The other missing men live within twenty miles of this area.” I pointed at the triangle and names I had drawn onto the paper.
“This is incredible,” Sharla said. “You’ve been working on this every night?”
“Of course. That’s why I’m here.”
“I honestly didn’t think you were serious about finding Des’ uncle. I thought maybe you were just making up a story about being a detective.”
“I’m the real deal, Mrs. Sharla,” I told her, my shoulders flexing back a bit. “We’re going to bring Uncle Howard home. Even if it’s in a body bag.”
“Oh dear. Don’t say that to Des.”
“I won’t,” I said.
Maybe it would’ve been best to turn over my detective work to the police or even the FBI and just come clean to Desmond and Sharla that I wasn’t a professional sleuth, but I didn’t. Instead I convinced Desmond into going on a patrol with me using his car. We drove to a few of Uncle Howard’s drinking holes, to a pool hall, and even a half dozen sheep farms in the area, asking anyone who would talk if they’d seen or heard anything. But there was little information of interest to help our investigation.
The night before, I had another dream. It wasn’t as clear as the others, but I remembered a red brick market with a tin roof. A barber’s pole was mounted on the wall outside the entrance. Maybe it was only a normal dream and meant nothing, yet I couldn’t seem to shake the vision from my mind. But I kept this to myself because I knew it would upset Desmond, he being a skeptic of my gift.
“Grab some lunch?” Desmond patted his belly.
“A potato sandwich sounds good to me,” I said. “Or maybe some hash browns and soup beans.”
There was something going on with Desmond. The way he had been tapping on the steering wheel during the drive. There was something he needed to get off his chest.
“You know, you’ve been at the B & B for a lot longer than I expected.” He cleared his throat. “I humored Sharla and allowed you to hang around because I think she felt sorry for you. After we have lunch and get back, I think it’s time for you to pack up and move on. Understand?”
“We’re really close now to breaking this thing wide open,” I told him. “I can feel it.”
“Understand?” Des said a little more stern.
We spiraled down a two lane highway called Heckler’s Drop and passed a Dixie Gas billboard on the roadside. The distance proved to be too far. The car started off all asputter, coughed and burped a strange sound from under the hood. Des shifted to neutral and coasted as far as possible but soon rolled to a stop on the two-lane road. We sat for a minute while Des tapped on the steering wheel some more. If he kept practicing like that I thought he might become a professional steering wheel player.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “The road ahead is straight and true. And there’s a market close by.”
We got out and pushed while he steered. The air was muggy, and streams of sweat were running off of us in a jiffy. Nary a vehicle behind or oncoming came through. Des heaved as if he was trying to get away from something, and I thought it was either me or the unshakable pain of Uncle Howard’s disappearance.
We shoved along for a good fifteen minutes. In less than half a mile, we made it to the turn off. The asphalt was broken and uneven down into the lot. It was an antiquarian building that had probably been around since the 1940s. Half of it was a diner/gas station, and the other half a barbershop. We pushed the car next to the gas pumps.
“I hope to high heaven we can get a wrecker or mechanic out here,” Des said. “I’ll go in and make a call, and we might as well grab a bite while we wait.”
“That’s a good idea all right,” I said. “You go on ahead. I’m going stop in over there first.”
“The barber shop?”
“Just a hunch. Could be someone there I can interview.”
Des dismissed me with a wave of his hand and headed toward the diner. I ambled to the barbershop. A jukebox was playing a bluegrass song inside, and a white haired man was resting on one of the barber’s chairs getting his straggly tresses cut.
“Hot out there?” The barber said. He combed his client’s hair through his fingers and snipped the long bits to make them even with the rest. He never once looked up to see me.
“It’s quite the steamy one today.”
“Have a seat and cool off. I’ll get you taken care of after I finish with Mr. Snodderly.”
So I waited and watched the old man’s white hair fall to the floor like snowflakes. After the barber put the finishing touches on the trim he brushed up some soap into a dish and lathered the old man’s cheeks. He sharpened the edges of a straight razor and went to work shaving the codger’s whiskers.
“Haven’t seen you in town before,” the barber said. “You’re not from around here are you?”
“That’s a good guess all right,” I said. “No sir I come from a pretty good distance south. But I move around a lot.”
“Yeah? Where do you originate?”
“Mostly recently, Mountain City.”
“That right. What brings you up here?”
“Just trying to help a friend. You fellows been keeping tabs on the men who’ve gone missing in this area?”
The barber stopped and wiped soap and freshly cut beard stubble onto a towel. For the first time since I had entered the shop he raised his head and looked at my face.
“Don’t reckon I have,” the barber said. “Has it been in the news?”
“I’ve read about it,” Mr. Snodderly piped in. “I’ve seen it on the T.V. too. It sounds to me like aliens got a hold of ‘em. Beamed ‘em up, I say.” The old codger stifled a laugh while the barber scraped the razor around his Adam’s apple.
“It’s nothing to make light of, sir,” I said. “These men have people who love them.”
“I doubt that,” Mr. Snodderly said. “I’d guess half of ‘em laid sot drunk and were wife beaters.”
“These men were reported missing,” I said. “If their families didn’t care, they wouldn’t have gone to the police and filed anything.”
I stood from my seat and approached Mr. Snodderly and the barber. I pulled Uncle Howard’s picture from my pocket and showed it to them.
The two men took turns looking at the photograph. The barber’s deep brown eyes inspected it very briefly before he turned the picture over to Mr. Snodderly.
“Can’t say I do,” the old man said.
“What about you?” I asked the barber. “Since you seem to know everyone around this town.”
“How much is he worth?”
“What do you mean?”
“The man in that picture,” the barber said. “Do you consider him to be of great value to you? Is he a relative? Or are you just looking for trouble?”
The barber paused to sharpen the razorblade on the leather strop. At that moment I was glad I wasn’t the one getting a shave on that barber’s chair. I took the photograph from the old man and placed it back into my pocket.
“Sorry for interrupting you, gentleman,” I said and left the shop. On my way down the sidewalk I spotted Desmond waving me toward the diner.
“Hurry up,” he said. “Foods already on the table.”
I followed him inside and to our booth. He had ordered a bowl of soup beans and a pone of cornbread for me. The meal was so thoughtful I hated to ruin it with the news I needed to share with him, so I didn’t. But after desert, when his appetite couldn’t be spoiled, I would let him know that I thought I had found the man responsible for his uncle’s disappearance.
Several weeks had passed since the incident at the barbershop. I convinced Desmond to let me stay at the B & B a little longer while I continued to work the case. Sharla wanted me to turn my findings over to the police, and at that point I was inclined to do so, but Desmond had become a changed man. He had developed an obsession with the work I’d done and collecting more evidence before we involved the law. Perhaps my own enthusiasm and deft detective skills had swayed his way of thinking.
At first we watched the old man, Mr. Snodderly, and followed him around Woolwine. But it became clear soon enough that he wasn’t our person of interest.
Desmond had gained access to a few different vehicles so we could move about more covertly. The barbershop, and that tonsorial artist who ran it, was under constant surveillance. We discovered that his name was Butler Green, but I just called him the barber. He was a transplant from Sampson County, North Carolina and had been living in Virginia for the past nine years. His clientele was loyal and seemingly never went to the other two parlors for their hairdressing needs. There was enough evidence gained from a few loose lips that painted a peculiar picture of the man. He had a daughter who was homeschooled, but no one ever saw her. There was no wife. And he was also devoted to his privacy.
We left the B & B and Sharla, as always, made me promise to keep her husband safe. The Chevy Nova was in line to take us on our patrol. It was late evening. Des parked in front of the diner, and we waited for the barber to close and lock up for the night. We didn’t always but that time we decided to tail him and hoped he led us somewhere we weren’t supposed to go.
It was an hour later than his normal closing, but he finally came out and walked to his truck. The other times we’d tailed him led to his favorite tavern. Maybe it was his hunting ground where he picked up men. Maybe it was where he met Uncle Howard.
The barber drove through town and headed north to a place he’d never taken us before. It wasn’t in the direction of where he lived, for we had already scouted that place earlier several times already. The population in this area wasn’t dense to begin with, and we traveled deeper into rural farmland. The barber’s brake lights lit as he slowed, turning his truck down a private drive. A dirt road ran parallel to the way our suspect took. Desmond pulled in and shut the Nova off.
“Let’s give him a couple of minutes,” I said, “then we go on foot.”
The sun had already set. We decided not to take a flashlight because it might give away our location, so we allowed our eyes to adjust to the shine of the moon. We walked along the dirt road and were hemmed in by two fence lines on each side. There was a field and a farm to our right and a row of trees to our left that blocked any type of view, especially at night. The dirt road came to a dead end, and we made a move to cross over the fence to our left and continued along the way the barber took.
It was a good half-mile walk into a place of pure isolation and gloom before we found what we’d been searching for. It was a dilapidated shoebox of a house that sprouted like lichen from the valley floor.
“What is that unholy smell?” Desmond crept ahead, and I tried to hold him back without success. He only made it a few feet to the house when he seemed to disappear from sight. He simply fell straight down into the earth. I cautiously hurried to the spot I last saw him. He raised an arm from out of the hole, but it wasn’t his. The limb had been severed at the shoulder. Then a leg came out of the hole followed by another one and finally a head, the partially decomposed head of Uncle Howard.
I helped Desmond up, but he fell back to his knees and bellowed a manly cry. A keen sense crawled up my spine that we had to leave. Before I could get Desmond to his feet again, a loud pop of air sounded from behind us. Desmond flinched and started to paw at his back. A white feathery dart was sticking between his shoulder blades.
Mayhap it was my final moments of life. I scrambled around to eye the threat and was greeted by the butt of a tranquilizer gun to my skull.
I coughed myself awake among the dead. My friend Desmond was hanging by his feet, naked from the ceiling, a lake of blood pooled onto the floor beneath him. The flesh from his back and chest had been expertly filleted from his body. The slabs of meat dangled like mud flaps on a clothesline that was stretched from wall to wall.
The room was overshadowed with a death-musk, a smell that might ruin the rest of my life, a smell that I would never forget. My face pressed against the floor, a carpet pattern imprinted upon my cheek. A pump knot had grown just above my ear bone, a gory mat of hair plastered to my scalp. There was no moving my feet or hands. They had been twined together to thwart my escape.
My brain felt gooey, bruised from the blow to my skull. I saw only in triplicate causing me to vomit. It mixed with the blood by my head. I wormed around on the floor fighting the ties on my wrists and ankles, using the fluids around me to slick the bindings. One wrist almost dislocated against the strain, but my hand finally popped free, and I managed to untie the rest. My captor would be very upset if he were to see me now. I pushed up to my elbows and knees and then wobbled up to my feet.
I stumbled around the room and finally to the kitchen where I found the sink. It was deep enough to place my head under the faucet. Cold water poured over my wound, washing gobs of blood down the drain and taking a piece of my soul with it. The water was sharp and slicing, barely tolerable. I bandaged myself with a roll of paper towels, wrapping them around my head ham-handedly. For all I knew, my tormenter was watching me from some dark place outside through the kitchen window. But all I saw was my reflection staring back at me from the glass like some kind of battlefield casualty.
I tried returning to the den, but the house was nothing more than a black maze inside what was left of my head. Everything was an effort, even my next breath. What did he do to me?
The smell of early decay and final bowel release was a sure leader to the right direction. Desmond was still bound, of course he was, and hanging obscenely from the ceiling. He was dead real good. The killer made certain of that, but I didn’t know why he left me alive. I took a steak knife from the kitchen and cut my friend down. I couldn’t keep him from plopping into the pool of his own blood. It was a soppy mess. Please forgive me.
I hefted the body up and rested his skinless chest onto my shoulder. We left the house together and entered the darkness outside. The night bugs were eager to talk and slowed their speech for no one.
I bumbled down the porch steps and through a front lawn with grass grown as high as my knees. I slowly remembered where we parked the Nova and began the laborious march in that direction. We only made ten or so yards before I needed a rest. I dropped Desmond from my shoulder, the moon shining on his empty face.
“Sorry I got you into this,” I said. “Can you forgive me?” His half-opened eyes stared back at me. “I guess we can talk about it later.”
I lifted the body back onto my shoulder and continued the search for the car in the moonlight. My legs managed to carry us up and over a barbed wire fence, through night-cloaked fields and by a herd of cattle. There was almost no thinkable way to make things right for my friend. My thoughts were encumbered with a bruise from the inside. My life seemed full of moments of enchantment that aided the needy yet was also filled with sadness and miscues. I had never killed anyone, but if I could find the man who did this to us, well, we’ll just have to wait and see.
The car was gone. It had been taken. I stumbled through the fields until I wandered upon a horse paddock. My dead friend and I first entered through a gate. I unloaded Desmond, gently laying his body onto the ground. “Wait here,” I told him.
A barn stood like a shadowy sentinel a few feet away. I went in and was greeted by six stallions inside their stalls. One whinnied a hello. Several empty feed sacks were piled into a corner further inside. I collected as many as needed and returned to Desmond’s temporary resting place. I cut the burlap sacks down the sides with the steak knife I had taken from the murder house and spread them out flat for a makeshift death shroud. I placed Desmond onto them and rolled and rolled until I was satisfied he was well tucked and used pieces of twine to tie the ends. There he was like some type of demented Appalachian gag-gift. I hefted the package and carried it into the barn for safekeeping.
“Get outta here!” A flashlight shone into my eyes. The owner of the barn, who I didn’t know was anywhere nearby, came closer and focused the light directly onto my bruised face, then Desmond’s concealed body.
“What’s this you’ve dragged into my barn?”
“Don’t touch it,” I said a little too harsh. “I’m sorry. I need you to call the police. I found the one who’s responsible for the missing men.”
“It’s been in the news. The missing men! Tell them to come to your neighbor’s.” I pointed across the way from whence I came and also gave him the address of the barbershop. “This is very important.”
“Who do you think you’re giving orders to? I got a mind to wrap this shovel around your neck, boy.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I really need your help.”
“You wait here, right here and no funny business.” The farmer strutted back toward his house like a bantam rooster. I could only hope he would do what I asked and call the police.
But there was no time to wait. I opened one of the stall-gates after he left and ushered out a stallion. I grabbed some equine gear—saddle and bridle—and dressed the horse. I hastened to resume the pursuit of the barber.
I straddled the steed and found his gait easy, yet the rhythm brought on another bout of nausea. My stomach emptied onto the darkened earth along the way. My face fell onto the stallion’s mane, and my arms tumbled forward and danced around his neck. He guided us away from the barn and to the road that led back to the murder house, seeing what I saw in my mind’s eye.
It went against all reason to return to that malevolent place, but we went anyway and still no one living was there. The house remained quiet. I drove the horse onward, past that den of death to around back and beyond. More open fields but these were without fences and seemed to lead to nowhere.
The tang of wood smoke tainted the summer night air. A campfire flickered more than a couple hundred yards away. I couldn’t afford to alert anyone with the horse’s heavy footfalls, so I slid off the saddle and tethered him to a tree.
I moved stealth-like to a copse of cedars and used them for partial cover. Just forty yards away the fire and an oil lantern shined on the misdeeds of the barber. Swallowed inside that gloomy wilderness was a human hide stretched onto a skinning frame. It was the type of work that can only be done in the open during the cloak of night. No doubt a pot of brains from one of the victims boiled on the flame that would tan and preserve the human pelt.
Creek water trickled just beyond where the barber was doing his work. The flesh he so delicately prepared could’ve just as easily been my own.
There was nothing but open field and hip-high fescue between us. Night was my ally and the fact that he thought I was still bound and helpless back at the house where he had left me. I made a move from the trees and semi-circled around through the grasses to get closer without being noticed. When I could get no closer on foot, I crawled on hands and knees to get near enough to attempt a takedown. But what did I know of killing? Naught. And what did Butler Green, the barber, know of killing? Everything. I waited until his back was turned, and he resumed scraping the hide with his knife before I rose and covered the final twenty feet that separated me from getting my man. The grass wisped across my thighs and my boots thudded against the earth. I leapt over the fire, and the barber caught me in the arm with his knife. We wrestled and both fell down an embankment, me landing on top of him. His collarbone broke under my weight, but he managed to throw me off and loped into the creek. He stood frozen midway across the water. His shoulder dipped to one side in agony. He turned at the waist like a devolved thing and eyed his pursuer.
I followed him into the waters. He tried to get to the other side. His feet slipped on the slimy creek stones, and he went under. I hurried to the spot. When he attempted to surface I pushed him down into the deep and watched his face just beneath the wavelets and bubbles of air that escaped his mouth.
I pulled him up just short of drowning and dragged him out of the water and up the bank to the fire where all his tools and kit laid about. I found some twine and bound him about the legs and wrists, not unlike the way he had done to me.
“You were the one,” he said. “You were the one I needed to bring her back.”
I stuffed a piece of cloth inside his mouth and double bound it closed. I considered tearing down the skinning frame before I left but decided to leave it to preserve evidence. I dragged the barber across the fields without much resistance except for his whimpers from the broken collarbone.
The stallion was waiting when we got that far. I loaded the barber onto the horse and we rode. When we were almost back to the murder house, there were two police cars waiting.
“Over here,” I yelled as I rode closer to them. I pushed the barber off the horse and let him flop down. The officers drew their weapons and ordered me to the ground. “It’s okay,” I said, “I got him.” They came closer, their pistols aimed at my head. Another shot a Taser into my chest and shocked me off the horse, then cuffed my hands behind my back.
Sharla didn’t hold a grudge against me for the death of her husband, nor were any charges brought against me. It did take months of untangling the case of Butler Green and my involvement in taking him down before I was free and clear. The press dubbed him The Depilator. I just called him the barber. His reasons for killing were maybe less selfish than just for the thrill but no less heinous. How does one resurrect his dead daughter from the hairy skins of middle-aged men? I guess only the barber could answer that.
I returned to Mountain City and MacMurphy’s store just in time for the holidays. Mac let me sleep in the backroom of his shop because I was regionally famous. He thought my presence there might help sell some televisions for Christmas. Most days he made me stand in the storefront and greet customers. I told the story of how I investigated and solved the infamous case of a serial killer. Oh, was that you? Some of them asked. Inside my own heart I didn’t want anyone to know the part I had played. I didn’t want the spotlight, but I did what I must to have a place to stay out of those cold winter days and nights.
I was regretful for my role in making Sharla Reuteger a widow. The thoughts that soothed were the ones about the families who were given resolution. They knew their loved ones met a savage end, but at least they knew. I tried everyday to just think about that. And the dreams, the otherworldly reveries of other people’s pasts continued to haunt the space between my ears. What they told me or where they would lead was as mysterious as their origin.