In 1119 A.D., nine crusaders became a militant monastic order charged with protecting pilgrims and caravans traveling on the roads to and from the Holy Land. In time, the Knights Templar would grow in power and, ultimately, be laid low. But a small offshoot of the Templars endure and have returned to the order’s original mission: to defend the roads of the world and guard those who travel on them.
Jimmie Aussapile’s Peterbilt tractor trailer thundered down dark I-70, relentless as an ugly truth. The big rig’s engine was the booming voice of an angry octane god, demanding you lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way. Jimmie navigated the shifting maze of weaving cars. He blew past the shadowed towers of other 18-wheeler cabs, the faces within illuminated by the ghostly green light of instrument panels, speaking their tales to their brethren across the ether of Channel 19. Long-haulers wired on caffeine or meth or song or sweet baby Jesus. Whatever it takes to keep the gears jamming, the cargo flowing, and the rig between the lines.
Jimmie was a tall man, still in decent shape for his age. He had been lanky a long time ago, but now he cultivated a solid beer gut. His hair, what was left of it, was blond and had completely abandoned his head except for the fringes and the long ponytail that fell between his shoulder blades. His bare head was covered by a gray mesh baseball cap that had a hideous character from a cartoon called “Squidbillies” on it. The cap had been a Father’s Day present from his little girl last year and Jimmie wore it whenever he was on a run, for good luck, regardless of how much shit he got for it. His eyes were a fierce green that seemed to glow brighter than the lights from his instruments. He wore a pale scrub of a “road beard,” and he had a lump of chaw in his right cheek. His teeth were yellowed from the habit and a little crooked. He wore a black T-shirt that sported a faded Harley-Davidson logo on its pocket. Over that was an open denim work shirt, and over that was a black Air Force–style crew jacket with a patch of an American flag on the left arm. He wore a wallet on a chain, attached to his worn jeans, and a straight razor was tucked away in one of his steel-toed work boots.
Jimmie scanned the other big trucks on the road, looking for a specific one—a Mack, with a yellow cab and a yellow-and-white trailer, and a specific driver—a man he and the others had been hunting for a long time but had always been one step behind. I-70 was a primary artery through St. Louis, considered to be the nation’s first interstate highway. Traffic was heavy tonight with 18-wheelers trying to keep to their schedule in spite of the bad weather.
Jimmie’s rig was a Peterbilt 379. The cab was white, with a red Jerusalem cross pattern on the hood and the doors. The truck had chrome pipes and a custom grille carrying the mark of the Crusaders’ cross as well. His handle, Paladin, was written on the driver’s-side door, like a signature, in red paint.
The cab swayed rhythmically like a baby’s cradle in time to the hum of the road. An amulet of Hermes, a small clay tablet depicting the Egyptian god Min, a Saint Christopher medallion, a gris-gris dedicated to Legba, Loa of the Crossroads, and dozens of other charms and talismans to gods and saints, patrons and protectors of travelers and roads, swung from the console above Jimmie’s windshield. Aussapile downshifted to avoid a slow-moving car. His gearshift looked like a pistol-grip shotgun partially sheathed in the transmission well. The red Crusaders’ cross was stamped on the pearl handle grip of the shotgun.
The CB radio squawked. A distorted voice called out through the shroud of static, a ghost from the electromagnetic spectrum speaking in the secret language of the road, a code only partly known to laymen and lawmen. Jimmie knew when you were on a long run those voices gave you comfort in the knowledge you were not alone in the wasteland of the Road, not alone driving throughout the heartland of America in the darkest of hours, the only soul awake in the lands of the dreaming dead.
“Breaker, breaker, Paladin, got your ears on? C’mon,” the voice on the CB said. “This is Dallas Star, rolling a bobtail, southbound, headed home. I got nothing for you, brother. I don’t see your lost bulldog. Over.”
Jimmie tapped the mike button for the wireless headset he wore as he steered the 18-wheeler through the freezing rain he had fought since Nashville. Technically, it was spring, but winter wasn’t leaving without a fight. The highway was a black mirror, reflecting the sudden, stabbing planes of crimson brake lights and the baleful lances of high beams—celestial phenomena from some diffused void on the other side of ice-covered asphalt.
“Much obliged, Dallas Star,” Jimmie said into the mike. “Have a good one today and a better one tomorrow; you’re clear. Break 1-9, this is Paladin. Anyone got a 20 on that yellow-and-white bulldog? Headed out of Nashville, running west on I-70? We’re on a clock here, brothers and sisters.
Anybody got anything?”
The man in the yellow Mack truck had tortured, raped, and murdered six women in five states in the past year. He was a long-hauler, and a little over four hours ago he had abducted woman number seven, a “lot lizard,” a truck-stop prostitute, from the Nashville TA truck stop. Her pimp and a few of her friends had seen her get into the yellow truck, and then the truck drove away with the woman screaming for help, struggling to get out of the cab, only to be forced back inside by the driver.
Several drivers, lot lizards, lumpers, and lot attendants had seen the whole thing play out, and word quickly and quietly spread across the radio frequencies to Jimmie, who was running a load of steel up to Illinois. Jimmie sent out a coded message on Channel 23 to make sure he wasn’t stepping on the toes of any of the others. It was a courtesy, but Jimmie was glad when all he got back was “You’re point on this, Paladin; call the play.” Jimmie had seen hardened gearjammers weep like children when they found the desecrated body of victim number three on the blacktop shoulder of I-55 near Sikeston about nine months ago. This son of a bitch had been like a ghost, but now … now Jimmie had him, could feel him close, feel his oily soul somewhere up ahead. He thought of the terror eating at that poor girl right now, and, as always, he thought, What if it was Layla or Peyton in that truck, waiting to die.
He accelerated. Somewhere up ahead was his man, and this was ending tonight.
The sociopath’s thoughts were full of hooks piercing flesh, electricity blistering skin, and sour, stale smells that equated to associations not found in a human lexicon. He was behind the wheel of his own 18-wheeler. He owned it. He owned the whimpering, sobbing piece of trash cuffed and gagged behind him in the cab of his Mack, too. He could hear her trying to talk, trying to pray behind the cloth curtains that separated the driving area from the back of the cab, where he worked and played. Her voice was muffled by the tape over her mouth, but he could hear her sobbing, choking, snot-filled pleas. He thought she was praying to him. His rig was his universe and he was god here, master of life and death.
His birth name was Wayne Ray Rhodes, but that name had meant nothing to him since he read the book. His true name was the Marquis. That was what he called himself in the writhing snake pit of his mind; it was what he made the trash call him as he tortured them. It was the name they had to use as they begged for their lives. He didn’t know what a marquis was. It sounded cool as shit, though, and real badass. Nobody fucked around with someone named “the Marquis.”
Marquis was the name of the fella who wrote the stained, coverless paperback he found on the piss-covered floor of a rest-area bathroom. The name of the book was The 120 Days of Sodom, and while Wayne Ray didn’t understand a lot of the fruity egghead talk in between the fucking, the descriptions of having control over a piece of trash, of degrading her, giving her pain, and being the god who decides her fate … now, that he understood, the way a carrion eater instinctively hungers for death. He had known what he was at sixteen when he tortured his first prostitute, burning her with cigarettes before he blew her head off with his .38.
He had been so inspired by the book that he had converted the sleeping compartment behind his cab into a torture chamber, complete with suspended chain restraints, a surgical table, and a horrific array of torture implements both medieval and modern. It was wired for video and sound, of course, and the Marquis had an extensive collection of recordings of him interrogating the trash, torturing them, and then, of course, disposing of them. In his mind, the Marquis wasn’t murdering or even killing anyone; he was a trash man, and he was disposing of walking garbage. It would have made Jimmie Aussapile physically ill to see just how many DVD recordings, each in a specially labeled jewel case, the Marquis possessed in his rolling dungeon. It was far more than six.
On the filthy bunk on which the Marquis slept, on the semen-, shit-, and blood-covered sheets, dusted with Fritos chip crumbs, a nineteen-year-old girl struggled against the cuffs that pinned her arms behind her back. Like the Marquis, she, too, had a handle, a secret name. They called her Supergirl in the truck-stop parking lots because of the tattoo of the stylized “S” shield she had on her lower back. She had a real name from before. Before she left the foster home, before the hitting and the nightly visits by the thing that forced her to call him Dad. Her name was Marcia, Marcia Hughes.
At first Marcia figured this was going to be another rough trick, another rip-off, when the nasty, squint-eyed old man smacked her and started to drive away. Cuff her, rape her, and push her out of the cab at about ten miles an hour. It happened, usually a few times a month, less if she was lucky. Her worse concern had been that she wouldn’t lose any more teeth in the transaction.
But as the truck bounced onto the on ramp of I-70 a mason jar rolled across the floor. There was something floating in the cloudy fluid inside the jar. It was pale and spongy, with some dark hair, swaying like seaweed in the ocean, sloshing around. Then Marcia saw the harsh, fluorescent light above the steel table in the cab catch the gleam of the clitoral piercing and Marcia knew, she knew. It was the decaying remains of a woman’s mutilated vagina. The fear was screaming, screaming like a fire alarm in her mind. This was no rip-off, this was one of the tricks that went past sickness; this was one of the monsters that rolled in off the highway to the lots, one of the things that gobbled you up and you were never seen again. Marcia screamed, her patchwork soul wanting to flee her body, but the duct tape held it in. She was gone. No one would ever find her, no one would ever know. No one would miss her. No one cared.
The Marquis’s truck passed the I-70/I-44 interchange, headed south. On the left, the Gateway Arch rose, illuminated, out of the icy mist, a monument to America’s expansion; the never-ending hunger to move farther out, the drive to move faster, and to move with unfettered freedom. The American dream was a race. The Mack truck’s passage did not go unnoticed.
“Break 2-3, Paladin, Paladin, you got your ears on?” Jimmie’s CB crackled. The voice held a distinctive New York accent. “Handle’s Mr. Majestyk. I’m northbound on 70, just past the I-44 exchange, and I just had eyes on your yellow-and-white bulldog. He’s headed southbound on 70, coming up on the 251C exit. You copy me?”
Jimmie stomped the accelerator pedal, a wolf grin spreading on his face. “Hot damn!” he said, and clicked the mike open on the radio. “10-4, Mr. M! I owe you big. Thank you kindly.”
“Just go get that stronzo, Paladin. I’ll be 10-10, give me a shout-out if you need any help. The wheel turns, brother.…”
Jimmie’s truck skidded as he threaded between the traffic. The ice was starting to make the highway a lot more dangerous to traverse at the speeds he was moving. “Breaker 2-3, this is Paladin. Is there anyone out there in a position to get that truck off the road, c’mon?”
Blue lights strobed in Jimmie’s side mirror. A Missouri state-police cruiser had slid up behind him. “Aw, damn it!” Jimmie said. He switched the CB channel over to 19, the one used by most trucker drivers and monitored by the police. “Break 1-9 to that bubble-gum machine riding my tail, I got a real good reason I’m speeding, Officer. I…”
“Boy, you got any idea how fast you going?” The trooper’s voice came in clear over the CB speakers in Jimmie’s cab and over his headset. “You doing in excess of twenty-three miles per hour, now aren’t you, son?”
Jimmie’s eyes widened and the smile returned. “Yes, sir, I reckon I am, Officer,” he said, and switched back over to Channel 23. “Break to that county mountie back there. You one of us? C’mon?”
“Go get him,” the trooper replied. “I’ll clear the road for you if you slide on into the back door here. I’ll put out a BOLO on his truck right now. Once you land him, I’ll get you all the backup you need. Over.” Jimmie could almost hear the grin in the trooper’s voice. “Oh, and consider this a warning about that speeding, Paladin,” the trooper said. “You slow your ass down, coming through my jurisdiction, cowboy. The wheel turns.”
Jimmie laughed. Damn if the wheel didn’t turn.
The state trooper’s siren howled and the cruiser sped from behind Jimmie’s rig to in front of it, going well over a hundred miles an hour. Cars and truck began to clear the lane for the trooper, and Jimmie accelerated to follow his escort, yanking the cord for his air horn and letting loose with a rebel yell.
The Marquis slowed to a near-crawl. “What is this shit,” he muttered. Traffic had thickened. Ahead, there looked to be some kind of road work going on. There had been no signs or notifications on the digital message boards that dotted the highway. A crew of orange-vest- and hard-hat-wearing Missouri Department of Transportation workers with flashlights were directing traffic to move slowly through the choke point, marked with crimson road flares and a flashing yellow arrow sign. They looked thrilled to be out in the freezing rain. Cars and trucks honked as they jockeyed to merge from three lanes down to one. A portable digital road sign built into a trailer announced, ALL MULTI-AXLE VEHICLES MUST DETOUR TO EXIT 209A GRATIOT STREET. FOLLOW SIGNS TO DETOUR ROUTE.
The Marquis’s truck slowly merged into the single open lane and began to descend the exit ramp. One of the highway crew, a foreman, unclipped a handheld CB radio that was tuned to Channel 23 and spoke into it. “Paladin, this is Roadway Rembrandt. Your bulldog is off the highway and getting detoured right to where you said you wanted him. The wheel turns.”
Almost a thousand miles away, outside Washington, DC, in the suburbs of the nexus of federal power, FBI Special Agent Cecil Dann was asleep in his recliner for the third time this week. A stack of case files sat next to the chair, beside his dinner plate and the remains of the meal his wife, Jenna, asleep upstairs, had left in the fridge for him. The Danns’ dog, a coal-black pug named Oscar, eagerly finished off Dann’s dinner. The flat-screen television droned on, showing the John Wayne version of True Grit. Oscar didn’t seem very interested as he gnawed on the steak bone. Agent Dann even less so as he snored. Dann’s cell phone rang; the ringtone was the theme to Dragnet. He sputtered and opened his eyes, sitting up, and spilling the files he had fallen asleep reading.
“Wha…” he muttered, wiping drool from the side of his mouth. The phone rang again. “That’s not even my ringtone.”
Dann’s hair was salt-and-pepper, and it made him look more like a college professor than a federal agent. He had played CIAA baseball through school, had almost gone on to the major leagues before the FBI recruited him straight out of North Carolina A&T. He still had the build and the gait of a pitcher. Dann was the assistant special agent in charge of a division of the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program called the Highway Serial Killings Initiative. It was a program established by the FBI back in 2009 to track unsolved murders that occurred near interstate highways and to look for the patterns that might indicate the signature of a serial murderer. There was a map of the United States on Dann’s office wall. Each red dot on the map was an unsolved murder on or near the highways. The map bled red—over five hundred cases reported, with more coming in every day. The rough estimate was that, at any given time, HSKI had about two hundred suspects committing serial murder across the roadways, a nightmarish circuit of pain, loss, and death. HSKI had cleared twenty-five cases during its first year in business, but, as the stack of files Dann brought home with him every night indicated, the FBI was bailing water with a teaspoon.
Dann blinked and looked down at the screen of his ringing smartphone. Where the number of the incoming call should be there was a line of text instead: “Answer it Cecil.”
He answered the call with a swipe of his finger. “How the hell do you do that?” he said into the phone. “Do you have any idea what time it is you’re calling? Because I don’t, but it’s late, I know that!”
“Listen carefully, Agent Dann. The I-70 Torturer is a long-haul truck driver named Wayne Ray Rhodes.” The voice was automated, the kind you got when you received a spam phone call. “You have just received an email with DMV and GPS information on Rhodes’s truck, a mug shot of Rhodes when he was arrested for assaulting a prostitute in 2010 in Illinois, and a link to his information in your suspect database.”
Dann shook his head, “Our database? Really? I don’t suppose you gift-wrapped him for us, too, did you?”
“Rhodes should be in the custody of the Missouri State Police shortly in St. Louis,” the stilted electronic voice continued. “Jimmie Aussapile is pursuing him as we speak.”
“Aussapile,” Dann said. “Again. Busy fella.” Dann climbed out of his recliner and knocked over his tower of files in the process. Oscar the dog, his meal disturbed, scampered away. Dann looked around for his shoes. Quietly, Jenna descended the stairs, pulling on a robe over her nightgown. She mouthed the word “Work?” to him, and Dunn nodded as he continued to look for his shoes while quickly trying to jot down notes on a pad of paper.
“Listen, I don’t know who you people are,” Dann said to the voice on the phone, “where you get your information or how the hell you do what you do, but you are interfering with multiple federal, state, and local investigations, and you can’t just keep doing this.…”
Dann looked down at the floor, covered with his scattered files. Black-and-white crime-scene photos looked back at him. Women, girls, torn to shreds and worse, so much worse; many still had no names, so many unavenged. He tried to gather them up so that his wife wouldn’t have to see.
“But thank you,” he said, “for this one.”
“Your shoes are under the coffee table,” the automated voice said before it hung up. Dann looked at the screen of his phone. It now said, “The wheel turns.” Beneath the words was a stylized circle with a central hub and three equidistant spokes radiating out from it. After a moment, the symbol and the words disappeared and were replaced by Dann’s FBI seal wallpaper and the military time on the East Coast: 0145. Dann quickly began to dial the phone as he retrieved his shoes from under the table.
“This is Assistant Special Agent in Charge Dann,” he said. “I need you to get me someone in the St. Louis field office right now, and scramble me a tactical team and a jet. I want wheels up in an hour or less. Thank you.”
“Cecil,” Jenna said, placing her hand on her husband’s shoulder, “what was all that about?”
“Apparently,” Dann said, wresting his shoe away from Oscar’s teeth, “Triple A has some kind of black-ops division.”
The Marquis’s truck growled like a junkyard dog as it glided past the industrial wasteland of South Wharf Street. His headlights caught the frozen rain as it continued to spill from a dark and merciless sky. A single, swaying yellow caution light blinked as it was buffeted in the wind and the rain, no audience to heed its mute warning. Crumbling concrete walls on either side of the street were smeared in vibrant, tangled graffiti, the secret language of the city’s soul. Above the painted walls, the gravel lots, and the chain-link fences were the silent black conveyor-belt towers of the rock quarry that covered several city blocks in every direction. The detour signs had led him here, and now the Marquis thought perhaps it was fate. This was the perfect place to pull over into a deep shadow, wait out the storm, and play with his newest toy. As he slowed to find a good spot, he didn’t notice someone else already using the shadows.
Francisco Pena sat behind the wheel of his taxicab in the darkness, watching as the yellow-and- white semi rumbled by. The vibrations of the big truck made the Saint Fiacre medallion on Frank’s rearview mirror sway slightly. Frank had driven a hack for fourteen years in St. Louis and owned his own cab for most of that time. When the call came in tonight about the killer on the road, he knew he had to do all he could to help stop this man, the way once, many years ago, the others had helped him, saved him. He raised his microphone to his lips and keyed the mike.
“He just passed me,” Frank said. He’s in position. The wheel turns.”
The Marquis slowed as he scanned the desolate street for the perfect spot where he could have some time with his newest acquisition. The darkness of the road ahead was pierced as high-beam headlights suddenly snapped on. Another semi straddled both lanes about a hundred yards ahead, idling in the icy rain and mist. Condensation trailed from its twin-towered exhaust pipes, like smoke from the curled lips of a crouching dragon. The Marquis lurched to a stop, his own engine idling now.
“What the fuck is this?” he snarled. As if to answer, his CB suddenly hissed with static. A voice broke the stale, evil silence of the Marquis’s cab.
“Break 1-9 to that bulldog up ahead of me, you got your ears on son? C’mon?”
The Marquis picked up his mike and clicked it on, one of his eyes bugging out in anger, the other squinted up like Popeye. “10-4. You got the Marquis here.” Wayne Ray pronounced his handle as “Mar-qiss.” “That fancy poor-boy rig you’re driving there is blocking the road, asshole.”
“Handle’s Paladin,” the voice replied. “Now don’t you be a-cussin’ on this here channel, Hoss. That’s against the law.…”
Off in the distance, the Marquis heard them—sirens. Distant, but a chorus of them, growing slowly louder, closer.
“See,” the voice on the CB said. “That’s the FCC coming to get you right now. Nobody likes a potty mouth. Best pack it in, Marquis.”
A cold sweat covered the nape of the Marquis’s neck, a terrible awareness of what was happening to him. He glanced back at the trash lying on his bunk. Her wet eyes held a glimmer of hope. The Marquis had to fight the urge to vomit. He revved his engine, and the whole truck shook.
“Get out of my way, Paladin,” he said.
“They know, Wayne Ray,” Jimmie said into the mike, revving his own engine now. “They know what you did to those girls, and they’re coming for you.”
“Let me go, or I’ll kill the whore,” the Marquis said, sweating and blinking. “Move!”
“You’ll kill her anyway,” Jimmie said, “and quick is a damn sight more merciful than what you had planned for her. If you let the girl live, that will show them you can have compassion. It will help you, Wayne Ray, and right now you need all the help you can get.”
“Fuck compassion,” the Marquis screamed, spittle flying from his blued lips. He jammed the accelerator and shifted the large gearshift with a silver skull as the knob. The Mack lurched forward, accelerating. “And fuck you!”
Jimmie slammed his boot and the accelerator to the floor and jerked the shotgun gearshift as the Peterbilt blasted toward the charging Mack truck. “C’mon, you sick bastard,” Jimmie said as the two trucks headed straight for each other. “Bring it!” Jimmie punched a button on the console above his head, and the cab was filled with staccato metal guitar—Metallica’s “No Remorse.”
Many large corporate fleet trucks came equipped with speed governors to keep them moving at a respectable but less legally actionable speed. Pretty much any semi could pull a full trailer load up an eight-degree incline at a hundred and twenty-five miles per hour. Independents like Jimmie and the Marquis liked to tinker with their engines, giving them thirteen- or eighteen-speed transmissions and making them capable of greater speeds, much greater speeds.
Both trucks were hurtling like rockets toward each other on the dark, icy road. Their speedometers creeping higher and higher … seventy mph … eighty mph … eighty-five … ninety … Less than ten yards separated them now.
Jimmie was sweating. His eyes locked on the windshield, on the brilliant lights and the massive grille that now encompassed his universe. His hand was steady on the wheel. This was it. He had faced this before—over there in Khafji, on the Road, when the cannibal sages of Metropolis-Utopia had almost gobbled him up, and the time with Ale and the others when they rode into the deep darkness to save Ale’s old lady and her baby son. Jimmie knew the shape of death, the dry taste of dust and the bittersweet wine on her lips. The crazy sumbitch would blink, he’d swerve … hold … hold …
Saving Ale’s baby. Jimmie suddenly flashed to his wife—to Layla, and the baby in her belly, his baby. Layla was home right now, waiting for him. Waiting with Peyton, his fourteen-year-old little girl. Their brights blinded both men as the trucks came closer and closer.
Who would keep them safe from things in this world like the Marquis, and worse? And Jimmie Aussapile knew there were things so much worse than the sick little madman barreling down on him. Who’d keep them safe? His family was waiting for him.
Jimmie’s courage shivered. He began to jerk the large steering wheel to turn and try to avoid the crash. But the blinding lights of the Marquis’s Mack suddenly swerved to the left. The maniac had turned, and the two cabs rushed past each other, like passing freight trains. Jimmie’s driver’s-side mirror exploded as the trucks passed, and sparks flew off the Marquis’s trailer as they narrowly averted a crash. Jimmie downshifted and clutched the wheel tight as he applied the hissing air brakes. The wheels of the truck squealed in defiance. If he hit a patch of ice right now, he was dead.
Behind him, Jimmie heard a crash that sounded like a bomb blast, a heavy jarring boom; and he knew, even without his mirror, that the Marquis had jackknifed his rig—sliding sideways, with his trailer going one way and the cab the other. Jimmie’s truck groaned to a stop with a final hiss of the brakes. He shifted the gears and shut off the engine. The sirens were louder now and closer, a screaming flock of banshees coming for retribution and judgment. Jimmie found the hidden catch on the gearshift and slid the fully functional sawed-off shotgun free of the transmission well one-handed, as he struggled out of the cab and into the cold night.
The Marquis’s truck was partway through one of the graffiti-covered barrier walls; the cab and the trailer were on their sides in the shape of a massive “L.” The overturned trailer blocked both sides of Wharf Street. Jimmie spat out tobacco juice, pumped a round into the 12-gauge’s chamber, and ran as quickly as his age, weight, and the slick road would allow toward the overturned cab. The sirens were very close now, blocks away. He saw a dark form drop off the top of the capsized cab and grunt in pain as he hit the frozen asphalt. It was Wayne Ray Rhodes. The gangly killer got to his feet and ran toward the now smashed chain-link fence, sliding through it and disappearing inside the quarry. Frank Pena, the gypsy cabbie, appeared around the side of the wrecked cab. The sirens were here now, all around them. State police and St. Louis PD cruisers were swarming both ends of the street.
“I smell gas,” Frank shouted. “It could start burning any second!”
Jimmie had reached the shredded fence and was struggling to get his gut through the narrow passage. “Get the girl out,” he said to Frank. “Make sure she’s okay. Tell the cops where he went and that I’m back there, too!”
“Be careful, Paladin!” Frank shouted to the trucker over the sirens and the police radios.
Jimmie disappeared into the darkness. It was hard to hear anything above the sirens and his own labored breathing. The chaw in his cheek was like a ball of sour acid now, and for the millionth time he swore he was going to give the shit up. He slowed and looked around the narrow path between lines of conveyor belts, pulverizers, and storage sheds. He clicked on his heavy, baton-like Maglite flashlight and held it away from his body as he scanned.
There were dunes here. Massive mountains of sand and gravel. The backhoes and huge dump trucks were dark slumbering guardians as Jimmie moved as quietly as he could among the hills. There was the loud crack of a gunshot and the sound of something sizzling the air near him before it crashed into a conveyor ramp. Jimmie swung the light around and saw the Marquis, near the top of one of the ice-covered hills of cinder. The killer fired at Jimmie again with his snub-nosed revolver and, Jimmie dived to the ground, dropping the flashlight, and quickly belly-crawled for cover behind a backhoe. Getting shot at—he hadn’t done this shit in a spell. He still heard his old DI screaming at him to keep his fat ass down and out of the barbed wire. That was a million lifetimes, and at least eighty pounds, ago. Jimmie grunted as he crouched behind the massive front tires of the tractor and fired off two rounds in the direction of the Marquis. He couldn’t see Wayne Ray, but he heard a satisfying crunch he assumed was the killer tumbling down the other side of the cinder pile, either hit or fell trying to avoid the gunfire. Jimmie was cool with either one.
Jimmie hustled, running, popping the hot cartridges out of the shotgun’s breech, and fumbling to slide two more shells into the gun. He moved to the far side of the sand pile as the quarry’s lights snapped on. Sweeping floodlights illuminated the machinery and the work roads between them. Jimmie was a silhouette against the halogen suns. He ran faster and snapped the breech shut on the gun. He rounded the sand dune and saw the back side of the cinder hill. Wayne Ray was getting to his feet, gun still in his hand. He saw Jimmie at the same time Jimmie spotted him. He squinted and fired from a kneeling position, cussing as he did. In his mind, Jimmie heard his dad’s voice: “You charge a gun, son, and back off a knife.…”
“Stay the hell back!” the Marquis bellowed. “I got a gun!”
“Shit,” Jimmie said, adding a few extra syllables to the word, as he ran full steam toward the killer and fired off a blast of the shotgun as he ran, the gun bouncing. The air around the Marquis was full of hot, angry bees. Wayne Ray flinched as several pellets stung his cheek and arm. Jimmie was on him, and the two men leveled their guns at each other from spitting distance. Jimmie was panting, his breath silver smoke in the cold, wet air. The Marquis was shaking more from fear than cold.
“I’m not going to fucking prison,” Wayne Ray said, cocking the revolver.
“Should have thought about that before you butchered all those women, Wayne Ray,” Jimmie said. “Whatever they do to you in there won’t be a tenth of what you did to those poor souls.”
“Shit!” The Marquis said. “I was jist killing whores. It ain’t like they’re some damned endangered fucking species!”
Jimmie took a deep breath. “Come on, now,” he said to the killer, “drop the gun and let’s walk on out. They’ll buy you a big old cheeseburger and fries while your crazy ass confesses.” Wayne Ray didn’t move. One of his eyes kept scrunching up, as if it had a will of its own. His gun hand was trembling.
“I could shoot you,” Wayne Ray said. “Kill you and then kill myself. Couldn’t miss your fucking gut from here.”
“You talk too damn much to do that,” Jimmie said. “Now put that gun down and walk out with me, or, I swear to God, I’ll empty enough shot into your fucking kneecap that you’ll be begging me to kill you, and at this range I might end up taking your fucking pecker off with it. Last chance.”
“It ain’t fair,” Wayne Ray said. “I was jist doing what everyone else does—killin’ whores.”
“It truly is an unfair world, Wayne Ray,” Jimmie said. “Cowboy the fuck up. You did this—now face it like a man.”
Jimmie lowered the shotgun slightly to aim at the killer’s knee. The Marquis gently lay the revolver on the cold ground.
“Think they’ll make a movie about me?” Wayne Ray asked, putting his hands on his head.
“Yeah,” Jimmie said, sighing. “They probably will.”
The girl was alive. She broke her collarbone in the crash, but she was crying tears of joy and thanking Jesus a whole lot as the paramedics wheeled her on a gurney to an ambulance and sped her off to the hospital. She never saw Jimmie, but he saw her, and it made him smile. Someone handed him a paper cup of really bad coffee, and he nursed it and checked his watch. He was late, really late. His cell phone had been blowing up from the dispatcher. He turned it off. Most of the cops, paramedics, and others on the scene just tried very hard to ignore him. Jimmie knew the routine. He needed to get going, but there was someone he had to talk with first. He just hoped that afterward he wasn’t going to jail.
A few hours after Wayne Ray Rhodes had been put in the back of a police car and sped away, a tall black man with salt-and-pepper hair, dressed in an oxford shirt, slacks, and an FBI windbreaker, walked up to Jimmie. He nodded in the direction of the overturned Mack truck. It was still surrounded by cops, state troopers, forensic technicians, and, now, federal agents.
“Another low-profile operation,” Agent Dann said. “Very subtle.”
“We git ’er done, Cecil,” Jimmie said, spitting some tobacco juice, from the new nest of chaw in his cheek, into the empty paper coffee cup. “Damn sight more than I can say for you fellas.”
“And who, exactly, is ‘we,’ Aussapile?” Dann asked. “How do you people do what you do?”
“Rhodes is a solo,” Jimmie said. “He’s not part of the Finders or the Zodiac Lodge or one of the other serial-killer packs. Lone mad dog—no one was pointing him or giving him aid and comfort. He’s got enough Polaroids and videos in there to clear pert near fifty cases for you, though. Thought you’d want to know.”
“How the hell do you know about the…” Dann sputtered, but then collected himself. “The official bureau policy on those so-called child-abduction cults and serial-killer clubs is that they do not exist and don’t use the highways as their private hunting grounds. It’s all urban myth.”
“Well,” Jimmie said, “that’s a comfort coming from the folks who said the same thing about the Mafia.”
“Who are you people?” Dann asked.
“We’re urban myths, too,” Jimmie said. “I got a load of iron to get to Chicago. Am I free to go now?”
“What if I bust your ass until I get some real answers?” Dann said.
“The same thing that happened the first time we met and you tried that shit,” Jimmie said. “Can I go?”
Dann nodded. “You saved her—that girl. Go. But I’m not giving up on this, on whoever you people are.”
Jimmie climbed into the truck, groaning with the effort. His back and knee were acting up again in this cold. “And that is exactly why we contacted you tonight. Keep up the good work, Cecil. Thanks for coming out so quick, and for trusting us.”
Jimmie’s rig pulled away from the federal agent and headed back toward the interstate and his dwindling deadline.
“I never said I trusted you,” Dann said to the retreating brake lights.
Jimmie got back on the highway, taking I-55 across the powerful, lazy Mississippi River into Illinois and onto I-64 headed for Chicago. With a little luck and a decent tailwind, he might not be too late. That was good, because this was his third load with this company, and the last two had been late because of business like tonight. He doubted they would contract him for a fourth one if he screwed this job up. With the baby on the way, and Layla not working at Walmart right now, they needed the money pretty bad.
The road drifted beneath him, white bullet lines flashing by, acceleration making them an endless thread. Green road signs with white lettering announced his progress, as did his GPS. He was making good time now, humming with the rhythm of the road. He switched the CD player back on and clicked to change the disc. “Far from Home,” by Five Finger Death Punch, kept him company. Jimmie sighed. He was ready to go home for a spell. He missed his wife, missed his family. After tonight, he felt that he deserved a little break, a little peace. He needed home.
That was when he saw her. He slowed instinctively, even though part of his mind was screaming to ignore her, pass on by. The deadline, peace and quiet. Home. So far from home.
He drove past her. She was pale, almost washed out in the glare of his lights. She looked about fifteen, maybe younger, and was dressed in a dirty white lace sundress. A jean jacket, too big for her and covered with buttons declaring the logos of various bands, was her only protection from the cold and the rain. She wore simple leather flats over dirty feet. Her straight brown hair fell to her shoulders but didn’t appear to be wet in the freezing drizzle; none of her looked wet, but she shivered all the same. Her face pleaded with him silently in his headlights.
“Damn … it,” Jimmie muttered and slowed down more. He pulled over to the shoulder of the highway about fifty yards past her, putting on his emergency blinkers. He shut off the music.
His passenger-cab door clicked open almost immediately, far too quickly for the girl to have even sprinted up to meet him from where she had been standing. The hitchhiker climbed into the cab. She seemed to bring some of the bone-aching cold from outside with her. The cab suddenly got very cold, and Jimmy could see his breath swirl before him. He looked at the girl’s emotionless face. He knew what she was going to say before the words formed on her pale, almost blue, lips.
“I’m trying to get home,” she said. “Can you please give me a ride home?”
Jimmie knew what she was. He felt his blood freezing in his veins just looking at her. He wanted to run, to scream and jump out of the cab—a natural reaction, a survival instinct as old as the little lizard brain part of his mind. He thought how this little girl had been close to Peyton’s age when she … He took the instinctual fear below, locked it back up in its antediluvian vault. He nodded slowly to the girl.
“Sure, darling,’” he said softly. “I’ll get you home. Do you remember your address?”
She gave it to him. It was in Granite City, Illinois. In his head he calculated the detour. Not that far, but any delay could cost him the contract. They drove in silence, the girl staring straight ahead.
“What’s your name?” Jimmie finally asked as the silence and the cold settled in the cab.
“Karen,” she said. “Karen Collie.”
“Nice to meet you,” Jimmie said. “Jimmie Aussapile.”
“I know,” Karen said. “You have a reputation.” Jimmie felt as if someone had stepped on his grave.
They drove in silence. Occasionally, the GPS would announce a course correction in a pleasant voice, but otherwise the cab was as still and cold as a tomb. They made their way back onto I-55, and eventually they came off the ramp in Granite City. It was a small industrial town, full of steel mills and small neat rows of working-class houses in blue-collar neighborhoods. Jimmie’s rig glided down the empty street and came to a stop in front of a small, neatly trimmed lawn and a modest but well-kept whitewashed house. The mailbox in front had a wooden carving of a robin on it, and the name on the side of the box was Collie.
Jimmie had done this many times before, and it was always terrifying, always sad. He turned to the passenger seat. “Well,” he said. “You’re home now, darlin’.”
The pale hitchhiker, dressed in white, looked at him with wide, sad eyes. For the first time since she entered the cab, he saw emotion cross her features. It was fear.
“It ate my friends,” she said. “Gobbled them up—Mark, Steph, Aaron, Kristie—ate their souls.… It didn’t get me.… I was lucky.” She pulled back her hair and showed Jimmie her neck. A looping dark scar extended from behind her ear across her carotid. “I didn’t give it a chance to eat the bright part. I escaped.”
Jimmie had never had this happen before. “What … what are you talking about, Karen?”
“Sometimes your dreams are haunted houses,” Karen said. “I dreamed this. Please stop it, Jimmie.” Her voice was almost fading out, like a cold, dying breeze. “It’s hunting now … growing stronger … an fiach fiái…” She fought for each audible word. “You can’t escape it once you’ve seen it. It will devour everyone if you don’t stop it. It’s using him to get out. He’s … terrible. He’s like … crib death, like terminal cancer with a will. He’s been killing for it for so long … feeding it for so long.”
The pale little girl looked at Jimmie and her eyes were wet, but no tears came. “Is this a dream? When you die do you live in your dreams? Please, Jimmie the Trucker…” She wiped her eyes and tried to smile at Jimmie. It was a sweet smile, but the sadness remained like a shadow. “Please. Tell my parents I love them … and that I’m okay now. I’m okay.”
In the span of a single blink, the hitchhiker was gone, vanished. Jimmie rubbed his face. He looked at the little white house, its windows all dark, but the porch light burning, still burning, for Karen. Jimmie climbed out of the truck and made his way, groaning a little, to the front door. He rang the bell. He only had to ring once; the lights in the living room snapped on quickly. The door opened. A man and a woman in hastily donned robes looked at him with eyes that were weary, weary from years of sleepless nights, years of jumping every time the phone or the doorbell rang. Years of guilt and fear, and unanswered questions had gnawed at their guts, their hearts. The couple looked old, older than they should.
“Mr. and Mrs. Collie,” Jimmie began, taking off his baseball cap and holding it tight in his hands, “My name is James Aussapile, and I’m here about your daughter, Karen.…”
Copyright © 2016 by Rod Belcher