Pushing her wet clinging hair away from her face, Margaret Chaefer walked backward down the interstate, thumb sticking out toward the passing traffic. She had been standing in the pouring rain for almost two hours and was thoroughly chilled. Why doesn’t anyone ever stop? A car started slowing down as it passed her and pulled off the road about twenty yards in front of her. Finally! She sprinted to the car and opened the passenger door, but she didn’t get in right away.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” a man, in his late thirties to early forties, asked her. “Go ahead and get in.”
“I’m soaked; do you have anything to put on your seat?”
“Don’t worry about it. The seats aren’t leather, so I’m sure they’ll survive. Now get in before you freeze to death.” She obliged, letting out a deep sigh once the door was shut. The man reached over and turned the heater on, and Margaret could feel the warm air on her skin. It felt great on her face, but the air hitting her wet shirt only made things worse. She shivered. “There’s a blanket in the trunk,” the man said after a moment, putting the car in gear and pulling it forward. “You can pull the backseat down and get it.” He paused, frowning slightly. “I would suggest wrapping yourself in it and then taking off your wet clothes so you don’t get pneumonia, but if you’re not comfortable doing that then…”
Margaret leaned over the seat and pulled the seat down. When she was over the seat she could hear music faintly pouring out of the speakers. It was early forties Jazz. She realized after a few seconds of digging in the trunk that she was giving him a great view of her backside, and decided to try and get his mind off it. “What’s the name of this song?” she asked. The music grew a little bit louder as he turned the dial up.
“In the Mood,” he replied. “It’s a Glenn Miller tune. I absolutely love Jazz, but if you’d like to listen to something else—”
“No, Jazz is fine,” she interrupted. She leaned a little bit more over the seat, changed her mind and then climbed over it into the backseat. The blanket was wedged on the left side underneath a large box. She tried to move it, but it was stuck firm. Instead, she worked the blanket side to side, sliding it from underneath the case. It finally slid out, pulling the box towards the side. She stopped, suddenly curious as she peered farther into the trunk. “What kind of rifle is that?”
“A Browning. I’m on my way to Michigan for hunting,” he said. “Did you find that blanket?”
“Yeah,” she said, flipping the seat back up and latching it. “I think I’ll just stay back here and take my clothes off if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” he said. They drove in silence for a few minutes, the only sounds Margaret pulling her wet clothes off and the Jazz—it was a new song, one that she didn’t recognize. She stripped down to her underwear, debating whether or not to remove those as well. They were soaked, but she didn’t know the level of decency she should aim for. She glanced in the rearview mirror, saw that the man wasn’t looking at her and then stripped them off as well. She wrapped the blanket firmly around her and leaned against the door. “Thanks, that’s so much better.”
“You’re very welcome.” He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and slid one out. He offered it to her, and she shook her head. “You’re not allergic, are you?”
“Then do you mind if I smoke?”
“Go ahead, it’s your car.”
“But they’re your lungs.” She smiled, already liking this stranger.
“Both my parents were smokers, so I doubt you could do anything to make them worse.” He shrugged and lit his cigarette, breathing in deeply and letting the smoke out slowly. “I’m Margaret Chaefer,” she said after a few seconds of silence.
“Victor Grey,” he said, pressing the cigarette between his lips and reaching his hand awkwardly over the seat. She took it and shook gently. “Do you do this often?”
“Pardon?” she asked. Victor rolled his window down a couple inches and tapped the ashes outside.
“Hitchhike. Do you make it a habit of waiting in the freezing rain for strangers to pick you up?”
She shook her head. “No, this is my first time.” She paused—considering how much she wanted to say—and then continued, “I was riding with my boyfriend home from a concert, and he admitted that he’d cheated on me. I broke up with him.” She smiled, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I guess I should have waited until we got back home because he kicked me out of his car and told me to walk.”
“I’m sorry,” Victor said. “How long did you go before I picked you up?”
“An hour, maybe more,” she replied. “Do you make it a habit of picking hitchhikers up?”
“Actually this is a first for me too. I was about to drive past, you know because of everything that’s been going on, and then changed my mind. I didn’t think a pretty little girl like you was capable of being a serial murderer.”
Margaret scrunched up her face in confusion. “What do you mean ‘serial murderer?’”
“Oh you, know, the serial hitchhiker. Someone’s been wandering the streets, trying to get rides and then killing those who pick him up.”
“I hadn’t heard anything about that,” Margaret breathed.
“Yeah, well he’s apparently killed about five people. Here, let me see if I can find it…” He reached down to the floor and started pushing papers aside. A minute or so later he pulled out a rolled up newspaper and handed it back to Margaret. “There, I think it’s the front page article.”
She opened the paper up and tried to read it. It was too dark, so all she could make out was the header ‘Killer still loose in James County’ and the under header ‘Police still don’t have a positive ID on the so-called Hitchhiking Serial Murderer but are confident that it will only be a matter of time before he is caught.’
“Can you turn the light on so I can read the story?” she asked.
“I think I need to leave them off, the rain’s starting to pick up. Did you see what the header said? That pretty much sums everything up. He’s killed four people for sure, and one has gone missing. No one knows who the guy is.” Victor took another long drag on his cigarette. “I hope you aren’t offended that I picked you up. I realize that my first statement might seem a little chauvinistic.”
“Not at all…as long as you aren’t expecting…”
“Oh certainly not. I didn’t pick you up only because you’re a pretty little girl.”
“Where did he kill them?” Margaret asked, trying to change the subject.
“I-40,” Victor replied. “They pick him up, trying to be good honest citizens, and then he kills them. Police find the car and bodies, but no trace of the murderer. They haven’t even found fingerprints yet. Personally I think the guy is just invisible to their eyes.”
“That’s probably one of the reasons people kept passing me without even a honk.”
“Yeah, my sentiments exactly—”
Suddenly a red flash split across the car, cutting off his words. It was followed a split second later by a bang. Holy God, someone just shot a gun at us…time froze as the bullet entered the car, and Margaret could see shards of glass from the passenger window explode inward as the bullet tore into the car. It was followed by another shower, this one blood, as the bullet entered Victor’s shoulder. He screamed, letting go of the wheel and grabbing his shoulder. The car spun to the right, heading toward a line of trees. It hit one, head on, and Margaret felt herself get thrown into the seat in front of her. She blacked out.
When she came to—moments later—she heard “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” coming out of the speakers, and she couldn’t remember what happened. She pulled herself over the seat and saw Victor leaning against the steering wheel, blood running down his arm and face. He was whimpering, almost chanting, and crying. God, he needs an ambulance…or a miracle. But from the looks of things he wouldn’t get either.
Everything came back in a flash, and Margaret realized she was in danger. Whoever shot Victor was still out there, getting ready to kill her. She began crying, terrified and without the slightest idea what to do. “Victor, wake up,” she said, but he didn’t reply, just kept mumbling. “Victor!”
Then she began hearing footsteps nearing the car, crunching on the gravel. “Wake up,” she screamed. Nothing. She threw open the door and jumped out, unaware that she was still naked. She sprinted away, toward the woods, and heard the person—whoever it was—start chasing her. She disappeared into the trees and started veering around them, imagining that whoever was chasing her would shoot her at any moment. But there was no shot, and she continued running.
“Wait!” a voice yelled after her, but she didn’t stop. After only minutes she realized she was alone in the forest. The person chasing her must have turned back.
Margaret slowed down, feeling the adrenaline wear off and leaving her weak. Her skin was growing cold again as the water ran down her naked body, and she knew that she had to get out of the rain soon if she was going to survive. But where could she go? She didn’t even know where she was. It’ll seem ironic that I escape the killer into the forest only to die of hypothermia.
Suddenly, she stumbled into a clearing, only a hundred paces wide, with a large wooden house in the center. A dirt driveway exited to the left of the house and disappeared into another section of the woodlands. There were no lights on inside, and it seemed unused, but at the moment Margaret could care less. She took off again, running to the front door and hoping she would find people inside. She knocked, listened, waited, knocked again, but there was nothing. The house was empty; abandoned. She tried the doorknob, but it was locked. Great, just what I need, an old abandoned house that’s locked.
A loud gunshot went off somewhere behind her—she couldn’t tell how far back—making her scream. She stumbled forward and the door swung inward, opening into a large foyer. Apparently someone had jimmied it open (no doubt high school students looking for a nice hangout for privacy) years before and broken the doorjamb. She didn’t waste any time going into the empty building and getting out of the freezing rain.
Officer Lou Saris approached the car slowly, apprehensively, with his rifle held protectively in front of him. He wasn’t sure if Steve’s shot had hit the man or not, and didn’t want to take any chances. Frankly, he was terrified, way out of his element, and he wanted nothing more than to be home with his wife and son.
He stopped about a dozen paces from the car and pulled a walky-talky off of his belt. “You there, Steve?” he asked, depressing the button. He waited a few seconds and then heard a crackle.
“Yeah, I’m here. I think I nailed the bastard. I’m on my way to you,” Steve’s voice said, tinny over the rain. Steve had climbed into one of the trees, waiting for the car to come speeding past, and had shot at Victor Grey. They received a call about twenty minutes earlier of a woman picked up by the hitchhiker and had wasted no time intercepting.
“Well you better hurry up, man. I don’t want to do this alone. Just jump out of the tree for all I care and get the hell over—”
A loud scream came from the car in front of him—a woman’s voice—but if she said anything specific he couldn’t make the words out. The back door of the car flew open and a young girl—early twenties maybe—ran out into the cold rain, completely naked. Lou let out half a dozen unprofessional curses and then sprinted to the car. Steve had been telling the truth; the murderer was leaning against the steering wheel, blood dripping down his face and covering his shirt.
“He’s down,” Lou shouted into the radio. Satisfied that the killer wasn’t moving anytime soon, Lou took off after the girl as she entered the trees. He yelled for her to stop several times, but in the rain and wind he doubted she could hear him. He didn’t think she would have listened anyway. She seemed terrified beyond thought, running on fear alone. There was no way Lou was going to catch her.
He stopped about two dozen feet into the woods, panting—it was quite a few years since his track star days—and cursing. After he got the criminal into custody he would have to spend half the damn night searching for the girl, he already knew it. And then the paperwork… He started walking back to the demolished car, trying to catch his breath. Women, he thought with a sigh, unable to keep their emotions under control long enough to—
The rest of the thought melted out of his mind. There was a faint beeping coming from ahead, and the driver’s side door was open. But how was that possible? The murderer was unconscious and leaning against the steering wheel…
Lou felt his heart begin pounding in his chest and wanted to get away. This was way too much for him; he was used to working on paperwork and occasionally directing traffic. He wanted to be anywhere except here. I should leave… Instead he approached the wreck, nervously clutching his shotgun. The overhead light was on as well, and the beeping continued making sure everyone nearby understood in no uncertain terms that the driver was missing. Lou would never know it, but the hunting rifle in the trunk was missing as well.
He got close enough to see into the car, making sure his eyes weren’t betraying him. Sitting on the rear seat of the car was a newspaper (dated two days previous) with a picture of an empty car on the curb of a highway, surrounded by police and paramedics. Lou had read the article when it was released, and remembered what the first paragraph said well:
So-called Hitchhiker Hunter Victor Grey is still at large in Madison County. He was recently in James County, where he picked up and killed three hitchhikers before moving to Madison and killing his fourth victim. Experts say he is exhuming traditional signs of a maniac and will soon be in police custody.
Standing there beside the empty car Lou made the greatest—and last—mistake of his career. Since the car was empty he assumed that the killer had left and let his guard down. He heard the sound of footsteps crunching on gravel a few seconds too late, and didn’t even get a chance to turn and face the man before the gun went off. His head exploded from the large caliber rifle at such close distance, but Lou’s torso continued standing there. He would never know how he was killed.
Slowly, as if denying the inevitable, Lou’s body slipped to the ground.
Victor smiled, holding the gun against his body like a child. He had lost a decent amount of blood, but the wound was superficial and glancing. He was sure he would be okay after he got some fluids in him and some rest, but neither of those things seemed necessary at the moment. He had other business to attend to.
With a grin that no sane person could form Victor loped off into the forest, following Margaret and humming to himself.
Steve Filaman came upon the body of his partner somewhere around two minutes later, and his first thought was about how calmly he was taking things. He had never watched a partner die, and in this case it was also his closest friend, and yet he didn’t feel anything. At the funeral he would cry and this event would be one of the catalysts that would lead him to drinking, but for now everything seemed surreal. Maybe he had fallen out of his tree and went unconscious, and none of this was real. That hope didn’t stand up against the falling rain, crunching gravel, or stench of blood when he approached the body.
“I’m sorry, man,” Steve said, unaware that he was making the same mistake his partner had made. The killer could have been three feet behind him and Steve never would have noticed. Luckily for him, Victor was gone into the forest searching for his prey and unconcerned with a grieving cop and dead partner.
Steve radioed the situation into the precinct, still feeling as though he was in a dream. Less than an hour before they had been joking about the new Trainee Amanda and her new sports bra, and now he was alone near his friend’s body. The order came for him to wait, to not engage Victor, and that backup was on the way; yet Steve already knew that wasn’t a possibility. He didn’t feel pain yet, but there was an abundance of anger welling up inside him, and he realized this time he would not sit back and wait. He would not let Victor get away with this one.
It is too damn bad my aim wasn’t a little better and I’d taken care of the bastard earlier. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with any of this. It was one thing to read about the deaths in newspapers (or even to see pictures of it first hand; Victor Grey had done some pretty horrible things to the bodies of the women he killed—a fact that wasn’t being released to the public) but it was different to experience it firsthand. Lou had been his partner for six years, and Steve wasn’t going to let his death be in vain.
He would find the killer, and he would do worse to Victor than the pervert did to his partner—or to the poor girls he molested and mutilated. But…where should he start looking? He had no idea where Victor had run off to. Just where the hell did he go?
Steve’s question was answered a moment later when heard a loud scream from his right, distant and barely audible. It was enough, however, to set Steve off. He sprinted into the forest, dropping his rifle—it would only slow him down—and drawing his revolver.
Margaret hid underneath the stairs—she had found a way into the cubby—wrapped in a ball and trying not to cry. The house smelled old, and she could feel cobwebs dangling all around her head. The only thing that kept her from screaming was the realization that the man who had shot Victor had probably followed her to the house and would come in at any moment, searching for her. Any minute now he would enter the house searching for her, and he would come right to her little cubby, open the door, and shoot her…
She could hear the squeaking hinges as the front door opened.
Footsteps, walking across the floor, coming toward her hiding place…and then moving away. She could hear him walking around the house, opening various doors and searching. Already her mind had drawn up a mental image of the killer: a dirty scruffy looking man, scrawny and with a long gray beard. In his mind he was looking at her with dull eyes accustomed to the sight of death, and he says in a deep and scratching voice—
“Come out, come out, wherever you are!” the voice outside her hiding place said, then followed it with a round of laughter. Except…that wasn’t the voice she had been expecting at all…that was…
She started reaching for the door, ready to rush out and throw her arms around him. Her desire for any sort of friendly contact nearly overwhelmed her better judgment, and she only managed to stop herself with her hand less than an inch from the handle. Come out, come out? Maybe his injury had resulted in blood loss and he was delirious; she had no way of knowing exactly what was going on, and the fact that she was still naked didn’t help. No, she decided that waiting until she had more information was the best option for her, and even if Victor needed medical help she would be better off bringing the help to him instead of going to him first.
She never got a chance to find out if her theory was correct. When she leaned back against the board it snapped. Not in half, not even enough to break the wood all the way, but enough to make a loud noise. The footsteps stopped moving, then started coming toward the cubby.
“Are ya in there?” Victor asked, glee filling his voice. Margaret tried to scrunch up against the wall as much as she could, praying he would walk past. He didn’t, and a moment later the door flew open, letting moonlight enter her private sanctum. At first, all she could see was his silhouette, but her vision quickly shifted to normal.
“Found ya!” he exclaimed, stepping toward her. “Boy, this is gonna be such fun, huh?”
Margaret slipped sideways, trying to stay outside his reach, and her hand came into contact with a spherical object. She didn’t know what it was, and nor did she care. She picked it up and flung it at Victor. It wasn’t a solid hit by any means, and from her angle she couldn’t get much power, but her accuracy was infallible. It hit him directly on the shoulder, right where the bullet had entered. Victor howled in rage and pain, stumbling back, and Margaret ran past him. He managed to swing the butt of the gun down and her hit in the shoulder, making her scream, but then she was free. Her shoulder exploded in a burst of agony, but she didn’t notice. She rounded the corner and started sprinting up the stairs. After a few moments Victor started following her, the mirth gone from his eyes, replaced by pure and uncontrollable rage.
Steve approached the house, listening for any sounds from within. There was nothing. The door was ajar, and he stopped a few paces inside to look around. He thought he heard footsteps coming from upstairs but couldn’t be sure. He crossed the foyer and glanced into the kitchen. It was empty, as was the living room and dining room. He went back into the main entrance and was surprised to notice that the storage cubby underneath it was open. He went over to it and saw a baseball—old and worn with half the stitches missing—lying beside the door. It was wet with a few drops of blood.
There was another sound, this one clearer, from above his head. It was the sound of something scraping across a hardwood floor. He stood up, checked his revolver, and started up the rounding stairway.
The sound stopped almost immediately; the only sounds in the room were Steve’s breath and the light creaks of the wooden stairs as he made his slow way to the top. All he could hear was the pitter patter of rain drops on the roof and windows. If there was one thing he could be sure of, it was that the rain wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. The stairs ended at a short hallway with two doors on each side and one at the end. He approached the first door on the right—a bedroom—and glanced inside. It was empty, barren of furniture as well as human life. The door on the left was in similar disorder.
The next door he approached was a bathroom lacking plumbing. There was a hole in the floor where the toilet was supposed to go, as well as a few pipes for water, but no fixtures. Whoever had lived in the place previously had stripped it bare when they moved out. He turned away, ready to check the next room, and then saw a movement out of the corner of his eye. His finger flicked with practiced precision, releasing the safety on his revolver, and he started swinging it around. Victor was quicker, and with careful aim he thrust the back end of his rifle forward, smacking the revolver from Steve’s grip. Steve’s finger caught the trigger and the hallway lit up in a flash as one of the shots discharged.
Victor stepped back, spinning his gun to bring it to bear. It was difficult in the small hallway—otherwise he would have shot the cop in the back instead of disarming him—and for a number of seconds it seemed that Steve couldn’t fight back. Then, Steve shook off his paralysis and dove forward, grabbing the gun and trying to wrench it out of Victor’s grasp.
Victor spun it down, hitting the barrel hard against Steve’s leg. He collapsed to the ground and Victor stepped in close to him, thrusting the butt against his neck. Steve cried out in agony as his windpipe was closed off and fell back against the wall. Victor pursued him, keeping it firmly against the officer’s trachea.
Steve started seeing spots dance in front of his eyes and acted out of desperation, swinging a hand against the gun to push it away. The bolt handle caught against his neck, ripping off a sizable chunk of skin, but at least he could breathe. Steve stepped forward and head butted Victor, breaking the killer’s nose. But Victor reacted quickly, grabbing a hold of the officer’s shirt and falling to the floor. Steve couldn’t stop his momentum and fell past him off balance. He went headlong down the stairs, tripping and tumbling to the bottom. He broke two of his ribs, his right arm, and three spots in his left leg, falling into unconsciousness at the bottom of the stairs.
Victor stood up off the ground, wiping the blood out of his eyes. He reached for his nose, but his hand hit nothing but air. It was flat against the side of his face, broken beyond repair. That didn’t bother Victor much at that moment, all that mattered was killing the cop, finding Margaret, finishing his business and then finding a nice hole to crawl into for a while.
He picked his rifle up and checked the rounds. Plenty. Satisfied he strode to the lip of the stairs and looked down. The cop was unmoving, sprawled halfway on the stairs in an awkward position. Victor was fairly sure that the cop was either dead or would die sometime within the next few hours. Always better safe than sorry, and it would be worth one bullet to make sure the cop never bothered him again.
He raised the gun to his shoulder—it didn’t hurt much once the adrenaline was pumping through it, but it would hurt soon—and sighted down the barrel. It was strange trying to do it with his nose pressed up against his cheek, but after a few tries he got the barrel where he wanted it. His finger edged towards the trigger…
A gunshot filled the air, and for a wild moment Victor thought that he had fired. Maybe his finger had brushed the trigger. He started turning, and for a horrible second Margaret was certain he would see her. The gun trembled in her hands and then fell to the floor. Victor almost managed to turn around and make eye contact with her. The rifle fell from his grasp to the hardwood floor below, followed soon by Victor.
Margaret found a walky-talky on the police officer at the bottom of the stairs and started flipping through the channels. Finally, she heard a voice reply to her message. She informed the dispatch that a cop was unconscious at the bottom of the stairs and that Victor Grey was dead. Once the cop had assured her that help was on the way she left the house and ran back to the road, too scared to stay in the building any longer. She found the police car—as well as the body of Lou saris—parked a dozen feet behind the crashed car and slid into the driver’s side. Luckily Lou hadn’t remembered to lock the door after leaving. Less than twenty minutes later the roadside was bustling with dozens of other police cars and ambulances.
They began overwhelming her with questions, and a little while later took her and officer Steve Filaman—who the surgeons thought had a small chance of surviving—to the hospital. The police chief, after hearing all versions of the events and examining the evidence, only found a puddle of blood at the top of the stairs where Margaret had left the revolver.
The body was nowhere to be found.