I am very proud to offer my blog followers the very first COMPLETE four chapters of my upcoming horror novel, An Interstate Ghost Story: The Girl on the Highway. I have previously posted most of this material already; but upon seeing that much revision needed to be done, I promptly decided to strike it with the intent to post the FINAL edit of this work of honor of which I am so proud to be be posting this very moment!
For those of you who do not know much about the story, it is about a malevolent ghost who is haunting the highway between Greenville and Montgomery in the fine state of Alabama. Two state troopers — Capt. Stan Winston and Lt. Amanda Heath — have been tasked to determine the reason for this and many other such accidents that had been occurring since the late 1900s. They end up contracting a disgraced celebrity paranormal investigator named Cliff Rodger to head up a paranormal investigation in hopes of stemming the tide of more accidents.
You can view the trailer here.
So, with no further ado, please enjoy the first four chapters as they are most likely to appear when and if you decide to purchase this work of fine fiction:
“What does this asshole think he’s doing?”
Both men in the logging truck checked their closest mirrors to watch the fellow in the black sedan increase speed in the adjacent lane.
“What a prick,” said the logger sitting in the passenger-side seat. “Can’t even wait to pass in the hammer lane…”
The driver huffed in aggravation. Both men were ready to get their haul to International Paper in Prattville, Alabama, so they could head back to the truck yard to clock out and get back home to their families.
Suddenly, a slight drizzle descended from the deepest, darkest clouds, which hastened the discontinuance of day. And on top of that, a fog fell densely upon the freeway.
In the Mercedes-Benz CLS, the head of the Wilson family was very impatient and just wanted to hurry home to Montgomery. They had just finished attending a family social held by his employer, Regency Corporation, in Fort Deposit.
“Why are you passing in the right lane?” his wife inquired as their two children slept in the back seat.
“Don’t worry about it,” Pete Wilson said in an irritated tone. “I’m the one driving. If you don’t like it, tilt your seat back and go to sleep.”
She shook her head in equal irritation while glaring at him. In the back of her mind, she suspected that her husband would someday end up getting all of them killed. She judged the speed of the heavy equipment hauler in front of them and figured that if he continued at the same speed he was currently driving, they should be fine to pass the logging truck. She suddenly realized that a thick patch of fog seemingly appeared out of nowhere, very unusual for that time of day. And then she saw a flash of lightning, quite possibly the start of a bad storm, she figured. She could see no further than the large trucks in both lanes in front of them. But then another vehicle seemingly materialized within the fine mist in front of the truck as they got closer to it. That vehicle, an orange Jeep Wrangler, would also have to be passed. And it seemed to be going slightly faster than the loggers. Now she was concerned.
“Shut up already!” Pete could not stand it when his wife complained and told him how to drive.
Adam Kimble, the college student driving the Jeep, had immersed himself in the sounds of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and was currently enjoying their album, Fever to Tell. He couldn’t decide which he liked more between Karen O’s sassy and sexy voice or Nick Zinner’s raw, industrial guitar riffs. Despite the band’s recent evolution into “classic” status, they had not really caught on too well in the South. Listeners rarely ever heard them, or any other punk or soft-punk bands, on the local rock station, 95.1 the Fox. Fully enjoying the saturation of sound surrounding him, he looked in his rear-view mirror and finally noticed the Mercedes logo on the front of a vehicle that seemed to be accelerating in an effort to pass him. He counted himself lucky to be able to see much of anything through what appeared to be a small cloud that enveloped the highway. The idiot did not even have his lights on!
“Rich prick,” the young man said as he pressed a bit more on the gas pedal. “Wait your damn turn like everyone else.”
At this pace, he would be able to block the impatient bastard in, behind the equipment truck up ahead, in the slow traffic lane. What a prick, he thought to himself, the second one that evening to have that very same thought. From what he recalled, he had plenty of room to gun it – though now he was not completely sure due to the strange weather conditions. The gasoline truck in the same lane ahead of him had been riding with about 25 yards between them, the last time he saw it. He edged up near the corner of the equipment truck just as the Mercedes driver was about to become even with his vehicle. Light flickered from the sky above, allowing him to see inside the vehicle temporarily. The impatient man, traveling with what appeared to be his family, was forced to slow down quite a bit and flipped Adam off. Adam, though only able to barely see the rude hand gesture, just grinned provokingly. He also waved at him, hoping that this impatient dumb ass could see him just as well.
“Why didn’t he just let the asshole pass?” mumbled the heavy equipment rig driver, even though he was alone. Randy Parker was traveling to a work site in Montgomery near Chantilly Parkway. He didn’t much care for the impatient driver in the black car behind him either. But the one in the Jeep didn’t need to egg him on and make things worse…especially on this foggy interstate.
Randy decided he would just maintain his speed. That way, the guy behind him could fall back into the hammer lane and go around him. Ahead of him in his lane was an old Cadillac of some kind.
The driver in the Caddie, an old black woman named Irma, drove carefully as always, keeping a five-car-length distance between her and the motor cycle in front of her. She was just returning back home to Selma after spending the day with her best friend in Greenville. She considered slowing down to accommodate for the fact she could barely see a thing within only a couple car lengths in front of her. Her vision, after all, seemed to be getting worse as she got older. And the weather was not helping at all.
The motor cyclist, a man named Harvey Handler, enjoyed his third ride on his brand new Harley Davidson Road King Classic. He bought the last one available at the dealership in his favorite color too: forest green! He was already hooked on the soothing feeling of the wind beating ceaselessly against his body, though he could certainly do without this foul weather. As he came closer to the gasoline truck in the passing lane, he was very cautious. The last thing he wanted was for the damned thing to come over on him possibly killing him or destroying his new Harley!
In the gasoline tanker, the driver’s hands jittered clammily upon the large steering wheel. This was his first trip as driver for Goodwin Tank Lines, and what a lousy day for it! He was already nervous enough before the fog came down. So this really caused him to stay on his toes even more so than before. Next to him, his trainer grinned knowing that everything was going to be just fine. He never stopped to think that maybe his trainee knew something he didn’t.
Suddenly, he felt his skin crawl and observed the hair on his arms…it was standing on end! There appeared to be static electricity inside the cab. But why was he only just now noticing it?
Despite the awkward conditions, all traffic on I-65 northbound in Alabama seemed to be running as smoothly as possible, while all the people in both those lanes approached exit 158, the Pintlala / Tyson exit. Sundown was already in effect on this unusually cold, fall September evening. Traffic ran just as smoothly on the other side of the interstate.
Annabeth Taylor, a single mother of two children, a boy and girl, headed south on I-65 in her burgundy-colored ford Taurus after having picked them up from her mother’s house in Millbrook. She was speeding in the passing lane to get around the silver Lexus Gx 2020 sports utility vehicle in the slow lane. She was afraid of falling asleep at the wheel as she headed back home to Greenville. Behind her, the driver of a school bus had the same idea. So she pressed on the accelerator pedal.
Ahead of Miss Taylor, another mother named Mandy Speers traveled with her child as well. Her 7-year-old daughter, Haylee, slept soundly, buckled up in the front seat.
“Damn! Someone’s in a big hurry,” stated Thompson Barley, the driver of the Lexus, to his three business associates. They were coming back from a conference in Hoover for Hewlett Packard employees in that particular district. They were trying to make it home to Mobile so that they could enjoy a late dinner and maybe an hour or two with their loved ones before retiring for the evening. At that moment, he thought about the meeting and its only obvious result: wasting their time and gasoline.
“I guess you need to pick up the pace then,” said Gary Falkner in the passenger seat next to him.
The two of them looked at each other with goofy grins. Then Gary turned his body to look behind them. “Dang. Even a school bus is passing you!”
Thompson flipped Gary off. “You’re number one, buddy!”
Lightning flashed yet again in the sky.
Gary commented: “This is so strange.” He waited for Thompson to inquire about it, but he didn’t take the bait. So he went ahead and told him anyway. “The sky has been flickering, yet I have not even heard a single rumble.”
Thompson remained quiet, concentrating on his driving.
The school bus headed back to Greenville High School from a field trip to Birmingham. They had all just visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The teacher, Mrs. Wilbanks, sat wide-eyed, alert, and awake in the front bench seat on the opposite aisle from the driver. Bill James, the driver, was not used to such silence on his bus. If any of the 12 students on board were awake, he heard nothing of them. Mrs. Wilbanks subconsciously grumbled in downright worry, concerned about the weather. But she knew that Bill James – almost a 20-year veteran school driver – could eat this weather for dinner and shit sunshine.
No one within a 200-yard radius of the Pintlala / Tyson overpass had any idea of the devastation about to befall them. They were all wrapped up in this particular moment of their very busy lives…lives which were about to be cut short for almost all of them.
Tyrese Haroldson, the driver of the tanker, watched what appeared at first to be a dark shadow in the fog up ahead about 20 yards. He suspected it could have been a motorcycle. But then he noticed that this object stayed put. Before he knew it, he saw the outline of a woman’s figure standing dazedly and dreamily in his lane directly in front of him! He barely had time to wonder if she was stranded. She wore a thick jacket and a rain hat of the same exact material, a thick and sturdy type of cloth he could not readily recognize. His first and fleeting impression of her had been that she looked very classy.
But his mind immediately shifted into emergency mode as he realized he was going too fast and would surely hit her unless she was quick enough to dart out of the way! But she appeared to be frozen in time, her eyes full of confusion, worry, and horror.
“Holy shit,” he said as he turned the wheel hard clockwise in a knee-jerk response to miss the young lady.
The student driver suddenly witnessed a very strange phenomenon. The sky flashed once again. In that very brief moment, the side of the girl’s face lit up showing a horrific visage! It was as if the light penetrated the girl’s skin. Her skeletal structure lit up like an x-ray through it. He knew this clearly was not normal! He also thought he had heard an unnatural, even guttural, groan picking up with the wind. It seemed as if Mother Nature herself was pissed! Can she possibly be disgusted with everyone on the highway this very moment? This too was very strange and surreal to the young driver. What the hell was going on here?
His level of worry perhaps matched that of Vick Carter, the trainer sitting next to him.
The 30-year trucking veteran saw her too. He was in total shock. Fear shot through his mind. A woman would likely be run over by one of his students. Would it be said that he only sat idle and useless in the passenger-side seat while it all happened? Such a presumption could easily force him into early retirement without pension. The whole cab suddenly quaked intermittently.
Had that been an impact? His student was swerving too fast and too hard into the right lane. He urgently tried to grab the wheel and turn it back the way from which it had come, but it was already too late!
The cyclist could not believe what he was witnessing! The tanker just ahead of him suddenly swerved over on him at an extremely terrifying angle! He slowed down drastically, causing all traffic behind him to do the same.
Everyone in their various different vehicles behind the motor cyclist and the tanker were astounded at what they were seeing as well. The gasoline carrier had apparently jackknifed to the right for some unknown reason. No blinker! No warning whatsoever! Now the entire back metallic cylinder swerved in an almost perfect pivot the opposite way. Those in the rig’s cab still tried unsuccessfully to regain control. But the rear of the truck completed its sideway and upward swerve at an unbelievable angle to the left. The tanker had just arrived at the concrete overpass.
Guard rails normally protected the central columns. But the rear tank on the back of the truck finally dipped back onto them. Its back wheels slammed into the steel, automatically popping the tires. The whole rig’s tank fell over onto its driver’s side, smashing directly against the very columns that were inadequately protected. Naturally, it caused the final spark that would change hundreds of people’s lives forever!
Everyone within half a mile could feel the ground rattle and rumble momentarily as a loud roar erupted from Interstate 65 near the exit. Many at the two nearby gasoline stations could see what looked like a temporary flash of brightness. But those who were facing the accident from within its blast radius saw its full fury and mushroom-like shape! The fire burst through the shiny silver metallic container in an amazing fireball that lifted graciously and gradually up to the heavens as if offering a sacrifice to some pagan god above.
The motor cyclist had just realized what was happening before he saw the bright flash of light to his left that blinded him momentarily. Within the following second, he heard the deafening explosion, so loud and powerful his eardrums popped instantly; and so painful, they throbbed unbearably for the last short-lived seconds of his life! His eyes still adjusting to the sudden burst, he suddenly became aware of the overpowering odor of petroleum gasoline! Next he felt intense, incendiary heat as gas soaked into his clothing and instantly ignited! He could feel his arms and legs catching and tightening just before the brutally brisk, and searing pain overcame him! As he took his last breath, he noted an unforgettable stench that was even more offensive and invasive than that of hair burning. He never realized the source as being his very own skin and muscle tissue. The gasoline did not even mask the offensive smell before his last thought died along with him.
Aboard the bus, Mrs. Wilbanks screamed as she saw the explosion, which awakened every sleepy soul within. The bus was engulfed in flames after the petroleum splashed all over the driver’s side. It suddenly became a mobile oven with living, breathing, and screaming fare within. All aboard felt their exposed skin, barely able to contain the muscles, tendons, and other tissue therein. They stared in shock through all the flames coating the outside of the large vehicle. Mr. James could not even concentrate enough to drive the bus, so he immediately slowed down! All passengers became aware of the same feelings: Their skin sweating…the sweat boiling, instantly creating blisters on the surface. Then the bus exploded, turning the large vehicle into an over-sized yellow paupers’ funeral casket for one driver, one teacher, and 12 high school students! Somehow, the explosion gave the bus an extra burst of additional speed.
The business people in the Lexus encountered the same fate as everyone on the bus, since they were directly next to it when it exploded! Their ride to the grave could not have come with more haste! Where there had been humor before, now existed only the most grim and somber of tragedies; careers cut short, lives ended indiscriminately, and bodies instantly igniting in flames.
Everyone else behind the tanker and the flaming motor cyclist sat in shock as they hesitated to react. The only one who responded quickly was Adam! First, he had witnessed an explosion just ahead of him with a massive plume of fire rising skyward. Then he observed a large, hand-like flame sweeping downward and forward, rollicking gracefully. It reminded him of some persistent, unwanted dancer swaying on what he figured must have been large puddles of gasoline. He became quickly aware of the Caddy being flipped off the ground so suddenly and forcefully that he now could see the roof of it!
By the time the luxury sedan had hit the ground, the elderly driver was already dead having had a massive heart attack as a result of experiencing the explosion. It had been so near and definitely not dear to her.
As for Adam, he quickly reduced his speed by tapping the brake quickly several times. Then he steered hard left. His vehicle headed toward the other side of the interstate. He could only wonder if this would be the last day of his life. The maneuver, in the meantime, actually saved it. The heavy equipment truck jack-knifed hard and fast, directly into his lane. It all happened immediately after he veered off the road!
The sudden jolt caused the equipment on the flat bed to shift aggressively, breaking the chains of restraint that had kept the dangerously-bulky and heavy cargo at bay. Now it all furiously tumbled down into the grassy center of the highway. Adam saw it through the corner of his eye! It looked like large and clumsy yellow metallic dice coming up on him from behind! The clanking and rolling was deafening, making Adam a nervous wreck that wanted to avoid collision by all means necessary.
Mandy suddenly saw what looked like a large bulldozer rolling right into her path from across the central median! It happened so suddenly and unexpectedly! She knew there was not much she could do to avoid the impending collision. Her first and last thought was of her daughter, still asleep in the passenger seat! She quickly undid her own seatbelt and lunged over to her. There, she sprawled her arms over Haylee, protecting her from whatever would come next: The impact! Luckily, but not enough for Mandy, she did not hit the heavy equipment head-on but only clipped it. The vehicle slammed forward hard and to the right of the large tractor. Its passenger-side rear tire lead the way. Her vehicle flipped and rolled several times.
The same thing that had initially happened to the tanker now happened to the flat-bed rig! The trailer swerved to the right. It caused a momentum that could not be pulled into control by the tires. The trailer forced the cab to overturn onto its passenger side. Randy had not been wearing his seatbelt because it made him “feel uncomfortable”. He tumbled hard onto his right ear and his shoulder. Some of his cervical vertebrae were instantly snapped, and the bone in his right upper arm felt as if it had been ripped right out of the socket! One of the pieces of heavy equipment finally caught up to the cab after it skidded through grass, dirt, and shattered pavement. The sharp blade crushed through the nearby door! His leg was immediately severed just below the knee, as if by the knife of some brutal killer! The cut had been so clean that he had not even immediately felt it. But within a few minutes, the pain started to throb intolerably creating an insanity within him until he became incapacitated due to loss of blood. Then within more minutes his fitful rest became final.
Adam now tried to slow down even more. His vehicle went off the median into the southbound traffic lanes! He felt the front of the Jeep bounce back onto pavement. He saw headlights coming immediately to his right! Did his luck finally run out? He almost cleared the lane. A car clipped him on the rear corner of his bumper spinning his vehicle around. The Jeep had finally stopped, facing a flaming SUV that was seemingly flying straight at him. It almost looked just like a relentless torpedo, which had been launched straight from Hell.
Adam quickly gunned the vehicle to his left onto the far shoulder of the road. He found himself observing oncoming traffic just off the far side of the interstate, clearly well enough away from all the danger. Exhausted from all the excitement, he parked and waited for the fog of shock to clear. He was suddenly aware of the feeling of his heart beating through his chest. He exhaled in amazement that he had somehow survived this unbelievable catastrophe.
The car that had clipped Adam had been the one being driven by Miss Taylor. She now tried to regain control of it. She was afraid that there may be another explosion and was torn between speeding up or slowing down. If only she could have known what was next to come. She would not have liked it one bit!
On the other side of the highway, the airbag busted the road rage driver in the face. He finally realized he should have listened to his wife. As a result of not having done so, all their lives were abruptly ended! Just before the final explosion of this family vehicle, they were all crushed into the heavy equipment trailer’s resulting wreckage. From the trunk to the hood, it had helplessly been transformed into what now looked like a deformed accordion.
The explosion resulting from this once highly coveted vehicle now ruptured the closest set of dogging chains on the back trailer of the adjacent log truck. Now logs started to fall from the front part of the trailer. The explosion, combined with the shift of cargo, was enough to capsize the entire rig. As the whole thing rolled down onto its driver’s side, the second dogging chain broke, sending logs rolling toward the opposite side of the interstate. They now rolled directly in front of the Taylors before finally stopping!
Because she had gambled wrong and decided to speed up away from the fiery environment surrounding her, Annabeth now regretted the decision as she hit the logs so hard her vehicle flipped extremely high into the air. The deployed airbag could not even save her. Then her automobile came down on its roof, instantly killing her and her children!
Not many people that evening had need to cross the overpass directly over ground zero. Those who did could see flames licking the top barrier and knew better than to even attempt such a dangerous overtaking. Within minutes, all the steel hardware that kept the structure intact heated to the melting point. This compromise sent the whole concrete erection crashing down hard atop all the wreckage below. All within a half mile could hear the devastation of the massive impact.
When everything was said and done, only two people were left breathing as witnesses who survived a lethal encounter with the legendary spirit of the “Girl on the Highway”.
# # # # #
The Alabama Highway Patrol, known for protecting the lives, property, and constitutional rights of Alabamians since 1936, constantly sacrificed time, money, and sometimes even lives in order to maintain safety and order on the highways and interstates running through Alabama. As a division of the state’s Department of Public Safety, they served as the highway patrol agency and – in reality – state police organization for the whole state. They actually possessed full jurisdiction anywhere and everywhere therein.
The Alabama Highway Patrol was also the very first organization to use down-sized vehicles for regular patrol duties on the highways. As a matter of fact, the AMC Javelin SST and an AMX, both with V8 engines, became the new pony car vehicle for them in 1971. After a successful trial period, 132 Javelins were ordered, complete with rear spoilers, and enough power under the hood to make speeders think twice about violating speed laws in Alabama.
The last Javelin was finally retired in 1979; and the vehicles have long-since been replaced by various vehicles such as Ford Crown Victoria, Dodge Charger, and Chevy Caprice sedans. Now they mostly used Chevy Tahoe sports utility vehicles, though the older Chargers and Caprices were still used occasionally.
Even though the cars may have changed, the mission had always stayed the same: Keeping citizens safe on the highways and interstates.
When Capt. Stan Winston, the troop commander of Troop G in Montgomery, received the call from the 9-1-1 operators that a multi-car accident happened right at the Pintlala / Tyson exit, he never would have guessed just how bad it all really turned out. He was not the guessing type, but the more the analytical thinking type. He had always been ever since graduating Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island in 1984.
Not one to talk much about his time in the Marine Corps, there was a lot in his military background that he wished he could erase. He served and survived the Persian Gulf War in a unit not many hear too much about. As a result of this experience, he attended post-traumatic stress disorder support groups at the Veteran Affairs Hospital in Montgomery on a weekly basis.
Upon their arrival at the Pintlala / Hope Hull exit underneath the black canopy of night, he and his assistant troop commander, fellow officer Lt. Amanda Heath, got waved through the temporary checkpoint set up by local sheriff deputies who were otherwise directing traffic to a detour via the exit. Traffic had been bumper to bumper almost all the way back to the Selma exit. Both he and Lt. Heath sat quietly as both began to consider that this multi-vehicle accident must have been a lot worse than they had originally imagined if exits were being closed in order to accommodate emergency vehicles and clean-up crews.
As his vehicle was clearing the checkpoint, the commander activated his window so that he could speak to the deputy on duty, a man he had seen around before, but never had the privilege of meeting.
“Just how bad is it?” he asked.
The fellow law officer shook his head gravely. “So far, the body count is at about two dozen, maybe more.”
“How many vehicles?”
The captain looked at the lieutenant and both appeared surprised.
“Damn,” said Winston as he returned his window to the top of his door frame and then looked at his passenger. “Was each vehicle packed, or what?”
“Must have been,” his assistant said.
The deputy went ahead and waved them forward, needing to get back down to business so that he could continue his assistance in diverting the traffic. Strangely enough, as they left all the traffic behind them, the interstate suddenly yawned, quiet and desolate, with not a single vehicle in sight as they resumed their gut-wrenching trip. Never had the stars in the sky ever shone so piercingly as to render the roads in a phantasmal, pale light. The commander suddenly found himself wondering if his assistant felt the same strange feeling as him, that the night air seemed to weigh heavily down upon them as his vehicle continued onward toward what both knew would be a very grim reality.
As he continued on, he couldn’t help but worry about travelers on the highways for which he was responsible. What the hell are we doing wrong or not noticing? he thought as he drifted right, following the curve of the highway. It was bad enough that a serial killer, known fearfully as the Highwayman, was murdering people on a rather unpredictable basis. But the accidents continued to not only go on, but even worsened in intensity. He had been tasked with finding and fixing the problem. But so far, he and Lt. Heath had been unable to determine anything consistent enough to warrant fixing. Now he had to focus all his attention on the current catastrophe and any possible survivors.
“Remember…” He regarded Amanda momentarily and then directed his eyes back to the road. “We are here first and foremost for the accident victims. We need to look for survivors and hopefully rescue them in as expeditious a manner as possible. Secondly, we need to figure out what in the hell exactly happened.”
She looked at him abrasively at having had to be reminded of this.
Stan noticed it and felt the need to justify his statement to her. “Not only do I answer to you guys, but also to the division chief. And now my job is about to get harder again with this death toll added to all the other smaller ones we’ve had this past year.”
Her expression immediately softened, making it obvious that she now understood why he deemed it important to remind her. Stan figured, by observing the look in her eyes, that she probably felt guilty at having judged him. They both knew that they would need to be focused as soon as they got to the overpass. He stopped to think that maybe she welcomed his failure, feeling it would be a good opportunity for her to assume the duties of his position. But he just as quickly realized the thought was totally asinine. She was not that type of person. He didn’t even figure she felt ready enough to assume his level of responsibility. He scolded himself for allowing the hint of insecurity to creep in.
Lt. Amanda Heath served even more loyally and dependably as any troop commander could ever hope. She operated above and beyond his expectations, often taking initiative without any expectations of praise, verbally or monetarily. She operated impressively without having so much as a single college credit in her educational background. Her solid work ethic had long before drawn his attention, making him realize that she and no other rated the opportunity to become his assistant. And since doing so, she continued to make key sacrifices that demonstrated that she could handle additional duties. So he had spent the last four months or so grooming her for duty in public relations.
They eventually saw lights up ahead. Headlights and flashing lights seemed to bombard their vision as they drew closer to all the activity. He finally approached an ambulance and then parked. Across the other side of the interstate, firefighters could be seen extinguishing the flames on various vehicles and on all the ground all around. Two more ambulances were available on the perimeter with a few more on their way from various nearby counties. The fire department had an ambulance and three engines available to assist in the rescue and clean-up efforts.
“Dear God,” he heard Lt. Heath mumble under her breath as she sat in the passenger seat maintaining a ladylike, yet confident posture. He looked over and observed the flickering red lights on her face, which seemed slightly contorted in shock after noticing the outlines of all the wreckage ahead in the near vicinity. Her nose was dainty and her mouth pouty, petite and alluring. Her beautiful face would perhaps attract him had he not been happily married. Single as a woman could come, she always treated him with more respect than he probably rightfully deserved. Thus, she could never consider flirting with him, be it minor or obvious. Though she was currently romantically available, she seemed to be working through a failed relationship with some fellow she had been seeing…a guy living in Birmingham a little more than hour up the interstate. He never bothered asking what happened; had he been a betting man, he would have guessed that she probably broke it off due to her unshakable sense of duty to the troop. The girl was so loyal and devoted that she hardly ever took time out for herself. The only thing he knew that she made time for on a regular basis was her physical fitness, attending a gym a few times a week. But couldn’t that be considered being faithful to the substantial demands of the job? He inwardly commended her strong, self-disciplined character before stepping out of his black 2011 Caprice.
He removed a large Mag-lite from the central console prior to shutting the door. Shining its bright, steady beam down on the ground, he created a path of illumination on a section of interstate that normally was currently devoid of it except for all the various emergency vehicles. Scattered about, he could see firemen and paramedics searching the area for survivors. He finally spotted some wreckage up ahead about 15 yards away. The ambulance driver was the first person he came to. He tapped the glass, and the window came down.
“What the hell are you doing?” Captain Winston couldn’t resist asking. The trooper possessed a zero tolerance for idleness, especially when people’s lives potentially hung in the balance. “Why don’t you get off your lazy ass and make yourself useful, EMT?”
The driver, a young fellow with disheveled sandy blonde hair, blushed as he looked from the captain to the lieutenant. He removed some ear buds connected to his smart phone. Stan humorously thought to himself: Why the hell do they call them smart phones? This guy looks like a total dumbass.
Amanda glared at him accusingly before he finally opened the door and staggered out of the vehicle. She asked him: “How would you feel if one of your family members was out in this wreckage somewhere?”
The kid ignored her question and ran to one of his fellow paramedics who was pushing a wheeled stretcher around.
The first vehicle they came to was the burnt out school bus. A slight breeze blew a whiff of smoldered flesh off a visible charred skeleton into their unsuspecting faces, and they grimaced upon looking at each other.
“What in the hell is that horrid smell?” The lieutenant gagged.
The captain knew it all too well. He remembered walking along the similarly burnt remains of Iraqi insurgents who had been killed by American air raids during the first Persian Gulf War. The smell brought back vivid imagery and other regrettable sensations that he had hoped to forget. Apparently not, he figured. “Congratulations, L.T.,” he said with a scowl. “You’ve smelt your first burning body.” He shined a light into the windows of the bus. Both Stan and Amanda now saw the corpses of the bus occupants. Aghast, Lt. Heath turned away after noticing that glowing orange surface just underneath the burning epidermis of one of the children who was otherwise fully intact. It seemed to be the only active thing she could see inside the bus, which was otherwise desolate. She brought her hand up to her face in an otherwise pathetic attempt to shield it from the horror all around and did not move an inch for the better part of half a minute.
Capt. Winston noticed and asked: “Are you okay, Mandy?”
She didn’t answer, and he noticed her lips were drawn downward and eyes shut as if trying to erase the image from her mind.
“Why don’t you take five and find me when you’re feeling a little more level?”
She waved her hand quickly back and forth as if sweeping the suggestion away. “No. You need me at my best. And I’ll deliver.” She finally reopened her eyes and did not bother to look back into the bus. “I’m okay now.”
They moved forward, and she noticed another paramedic talking to a young man sitting with his legs straddled outside his orange Jeep with the door open. He was sitting on the passenger side with his vehicle facing the direction from which they came.
Amanda told her boss, “I think we have a survivor here. I’m going to go ahead and talk to him if it’s okay with you.”
In spite of what they had originally discussed in the vehicle, he nodded his approval, realizing that she could definitely use a break from the horror they would continue to encounter in this grizzly scene of callous disaster. “Go ahead.”
# # # # #
Adam’s entire back and neck continued to stiffen as he struggled to come to a decision about going to the hospital emergency room with the paramedics. He’d already contacted his parents to tell them about the accident.
“You were involved in that disaster?” his Dad had exclaimed in shock.
“Yes, sir. But I’m okay.”
“I heard everyone had died. Thank God you are okay, son!”
It had been at that time that the paramedic had come back over to him with the intents of abducting him to the nearest E.R. So here he sat pondering whether or not he wanted to be poked and prodded after having been plunked and pounded around in his vehicle.
“You really ought to let us take you to Jackson for preliminary examinations,” the young paramedic explained. “A little bit of extra time right now could possibly help prevent some major pain and trauma that could arise later…pain that could be prevented.”
Does this guy really know what he is talking about? Adam wondered. But his more sensible self knew that the wise course of action would be to take him up on his offer. “Alright, give me about 15 minutes to decide, okay?”
The paramedic nodded before leaving him alone for the requested time.
It was at that time that a very attractive uniformed, if not towering, woman approached him. It did not take a doctor to see that she seemed to be out of her league here. Her face was pale, almost glowing on this dark, surreal stretch of interstate.
“Hello, I’m Lieutenant Amanda Heath with the highway patrol.”
He nodded to her. “I’m Adam Kimble, Ma’am.”
“I hate to trouble you right now, but my boss and I are trying to get an idea as to how all this had happened.” She apparently noticed his obvious discomfort. “Are you okay to answer some questions, or should I catch up with you later on?”
He nodded his permission, knowing that he needed to help the authorities make sense of all the tragedy surrounding him.
“Do you have any idea how this accident occurred?”
His eyes widened in horror as he recalled the explosion. “I have no idea. All I saw was a large explosion ahead of me…that tanker, I guess.” He pointed toward the mess of fire at the nearby overpass.
His interviewer looked in that direction and then turned back to him, very interested in his next words. “I remember a large luxury car being lifted off the ground…directly in front of me! I just wanted to get the hell off the road.”
“So what did you do?”
“I bolted for the center of the highway, that grassy area there.” He pointed to the median between the two death-littered stretches of pavement. “But that did not even prove to be too safe.” He described how the flatbed had overturned sending all sorts of heavy equipment tumbling about. He could see the dismay on the woman’s face as he continued to relay the events he had somehow managed to survive.
“How did your Jeep get damaged?”
“I got clipped as I moved into this lane of oncoming traffic.” He could tell by the look on her face that she did not understand why he went all the way over into oncoming traffic. “I had no choice but to move forward, or I could have been crushed by tractors and stuff.” Now she finally showed a hint of understanding relayed by her softening features.
She fished out a business card from her breast pocket. “If you manage to think of anything else that can help, will you please call me?”
He nodded. Then he realized he had questions of his own. “How many other people survived?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I haven’t seen any others,” she stated. “You should count yourself very lucky. But we just got here and are still assisting in rescue and recovery.”
He nodded. “Okay, ma’am.”
# # # # #
After Amanda had departed toward the kid, Stan stopped to shine the light all around, trying to take in all his surroundings. Then he noticed a vehicle they had missed because it was all the way off the interstate into the grassy roadside. So he backtracked to this vehicle which was a flaming Lexus SUV, he could tell by the carbonized logo upon which his light beam fell. Within the flames he could not see any passengers. Could they have escaped? If so, then where the hell were they? Maybe they were reduced to bones and ashes at the bottom of the vehicle.
He got back on track and passed the bus once more and made it to the next vehicle which was an automobile that had somehow rolled onto its side.
“How in the hell…” he mumbled to himself.
He shone his light toward the partially crushed front end and noticed blood splattered all over the windshield. Upon maneuvering the beam through it, he concluded that it looked as if the driver somehow got flung into the passenger seat and was crushed then and there. The airbag appeared like an awkward and bloody cape shrouded around the person’s body. He couldn’t really tell if this victim was dead or alive, so he tapped the non-business end of the flashlight against the vehicle to see if there was any movement. There was none.
“I found someone over here,” he yelled toward some nearby firemen. “I think the person’s dead though. Bring a crowbar. The car’s on its side and ya gotta go through the windshield to get to the person.”
One of them rushed right over with a paramedic, and they both immediately began the business of extracting the victim. So he continued on.
He went from vehicle to vehicle, looking for those not being tended to already. It took him completely by surprise when he unexpectedly heard his lieutenant’s voice more than 15 minutes later. She yelled: “Over here, Stan! Over here! There’s a child crying!” Amanda stood next to the vehicle Stan had just examined. The two rescue personnel must have already left the area.
He took off in a sprint and got there before the emergency crew. Amanda was already trying to sort through the deployed airbag at the bottom-most part of the vehicle. She coughed, probably because of the chemical powder residue having resulted from its recent deployment.
The girl within the vehicle could be heard clearly, calling for her mother. Amanda told her to remain calm, that everything would be okay.
Stan was astounded at how the rescue personnel could have missed the child. But then he remembered that he had also missed the young passenger as well.
“That must have been the mother they just carried away,” Amanda stated haggardly, still clearing her throat.
The troop commander could tell by the look on his assistant’s face that the woman had not survived. He really wanted to help, but space was limited, and Amanda seemed to be handling everything quite well up to this point. He observed proudly as she released the girl’s seatbelt. “Are you in any sort of pain?” she asked the daughter of the deceased.
“No, but I don’t know where my mommy is. Is she okay?”
“Don’t worry about your mommy right now,” she told the girl as calmly as possible. “We need to get you out of this vehicle, okay. After we do that, we can help you find her. If you start to hurt anywhere at all, let me know. It is very important, okay!”
“Okay,” came the reply from the girl.
So he instead removed his jacket and wrapped it around the little survivor as soon as Amanda carefully slid her out of the vehicle. The paramedics showed up with another stretcher, and they permitted Amanda to carefully rest the girl on it.
Stan nodded at one of the amazed paramedics. They were surprised not only by Amanda’s capability at safely retrieving survivors, but also by her physical height. She stood up a full six foot, two inches towering over both of them. Stan recalled her nickname at the troop: “Amazon”. Despite her size, her figure was very distracting; it was no wonder there were lies currently spreading around the troop. The truth was that most male troopers fantasized about being with her, while all the others tried not to think about it. Some just clearly resented the fact that they were being professionally outdone by a woman.
The 32-year-old officer’s hair was brown with auburn highlights, pulled back in a ponytail that was almost always pinned in a tightly-wound ball to the back of her head. Amber’s lightly-tanned complexion showed that she did not believe in over-doing it when sunbathing. Her amber eyes were enough to make weak men think twice about monogamy. Besides their color, their shape drew almost any man into them. Her lofty, yet well-shaped brows angled upward, as perfectly as any woman could ever hope, in a manner that once made Stan wonder why she was not a world-renowned fashion model.
To him, her beauty served as a major issue when she first joined the Alabama Highway Patrol. He had known her while serving in the same post in Birmingham, long before either of them had ever been promoted into the troop. He had once been concerned that her looks would be compromised if luck ever decided such an unfortunate fate for her. Strangely and inconsistently enough, he never had felt this way toward other female troopers.
Now one of the ambulances finally approached them carefully to avoid the debris, its lights still flashing. When it finally came to a stop, Stan thought he noticed movement in the darkness beyond. He walked closer to investigate. The movement he had seen came from a young woman standing on the other side of the street. She was dressed in a large, heavy coat, which looked unseasonably too warm for the weather they had been having. Her face looked rather delicate and innocent. He yelled out behind him while running toward her. “Another survivor!” He waved his right arm forward as he went along, trying to keep a steady light beam on the ground before him.
The paramedics quickly loaded up the 11-year-old girl into the back of the ambulance and then slowly followed Stan over the charred median to the other side of the interstate. But when he got there, he looked around, and could not find the young woman anywhere. All that he sensed was a slight chill in the air, which helped him to realize that night must have been bringing in some sort of cold front. He went around an overturned automobile, but it seemed as though she had vanished. The same driver he had spoken to before waited eagerly in the driver seat and finally lowered the window to talk to him. “Where is the survivor, Sir?”
The commander did not know what to say. So he shrugged his shoulders before waving them off toward the direction of Montgomery. “Go ahead. Get that girl to the hospital. I mistakenly observed someone that wasn’t there.”
As the ambulance drove away, he hurried back over to Amanda. When he got to her, the first thing he noticed was her back heaving as she held herself up against the vehicle from which the girl and her deceased mother had been removed. His second-in-command cried openly, apparently shaken by the fact the girl would never again see her mother’s loving smile or feel the warmth of her embrace. He felt sorry for the girl as well, but he had been handling these accidents far longer than Amanda had. No matter how much sorrow he felt for the dead and those who survived them, his heart had grown so numb that his eyes eventually became dried-up wells. He went to her and placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder, but the heaving only became more firm and more frequent.
# # # # #
The next morning, Stan sat outside his boss’s office, totally disinterested in the visit. As he waited uncomfortably on the stiff cushion of a sofa that should have been retired at least 10 years earlier, the division chief’s secretary busied herself folding letters that would be sent out to the various departments in the Department of Public Safety network. He guessed the letters gave statistical updates of one version or another. Those were the ones that his troop tended to always receive from this very office.
He found himself impressed at her speed of preparing these mailings. She took several sheets off the top of the stack, folded them all at the same time, set them aside and would take one sheet off the previous folded section of sheets, reinforce the previous collective fold, set it aside, and then move on to the next sheet in the pre-folded stack. And as she finished that pre-folded stack, she would repeat the entire process again. She seemed very organized and efficient.
Next, he looked at the door that would remain closed until after the boss buzzed him in. He simply had to wait for the annoying buzz that more or less indicated that an ass-chewing would most likely be forthcoming.
As he sat there, he could only imagine how ugly it was going to get as soon as he got on the other side. That very closure would possibly seal the demise of his career on the Highway Patrol. He could only hope that his boss would be as lenient with him as he usually could be with his own troopers. But the accident rate continued to increase, and those in the upper levels of government at the downtown Department of Public Safety offices were demanding answers…answers that Stan was expected to provide. Failure to deliver would only make him look all the more incompetent.
The seasoned troop commander did not just sit behind his desk every day twiddling his thumbs. He drove his men and women as hard as his own chief drove him. The troopers who blew off his orders to willfully assist in the seeking of information and answers pertaining to the safety of Troop G’s area of responsibility ended up getting the busy end of a severe ass chewing that he hated to deliver, but was more than willing. Everyone in Troop G was feeling the very same heat that the division chief was feeling.
And there it was.
The secretary nodded at him with a mock look of sympathy in her eyes over the black, horn-rimmed glasses that looked more fitting of a decade preceding a couple dozen prior to the current, or perhaps even that of the Devil’s mistress. He stood up, walked over to the solid oak door that seemingly glared at him more as he neared it, and carefully turned the imposing bronze knob as if he expected it to be searing hot.
As soon as the door closed, it was show time.
“Where the hell are you at on this project, Winston?” His boss referred to his attempts to uncover a reasonable explanation as to how nearly three times as many accidents seemed to be occurring on his highway area of responsibility than the averages of all the other troop commanders. Prior to this, the accidents more or less seemed to be the pink elephant of the Alabama Department of Public Safety. But the pink elephant just took a steamy, gigantic, and smelly shit, causing everyone in the department to be holding their breath until the mess was cleaned up and the air clear.
Before he could answer, Maj. Robert Reamer – as if appropriately named – commenced to verbally reaming his ass.
“Do you realize that 33 motorists and travelers just died under your watch, Captain?”
Stan’s lips started to move, but once again, he was interrupted.
“What do you have to say in your defense?”
Strangely enough, the man paused long enough for him to finally get some words in, but they simply were not there. He finally took a seat on the leather upholstery of one of the two chairs facing the desk of the man who just literally cussed him. Stan figured he should go ahead and answer the questions in the order they were asked. Maybe by doing so, he would find the time to stall for an answer to that last and most difficult question the major had just asked.
“Sir, you know damned well that my team and I have been hard at work revisiting every stretch of that highway’s current road conditions.” He paused, to allow his boss to say something.
His boss simply sat there, apparently shocked that his junior officer just cussed back at him.
So, Stan continued answering the next questions. “I do realize that this is the greatest number of fatalities that we have seen in the past couple of decades.”
His boss’s glare seemed to soften just a little. Stan figured the man was pleasantly surprised to see that he had done his research prior to coming to this meeting.
“Check out these figures…Troop K’s accidents are down 15.4 percent.” He referred to the troop located in Dothan. “Troop I’s accidents…” Now he referred to Mobile. “…are up 14.3 percent…” He went on naming all the other troops in Alabama stating percentages between -23 and +13 percent. Of course, he seemed to relish saving Troop G, his troop, for last: “After last night’s accident, your accidents are up 47 percent, commander. And this is simply unnacceptable!”
“But what more can I really do than I have already done?” He stopped to wonder if he should even mention that he just considered hiring a paranormal investigator to look into the ghost legend of the “Girl on the Highway”. But he knew this would be a very grave mistake given the current circumstances. “I have sent you many, many detailed reports as to my current investigations keeping you in the loop with not just every approach, but also the results from each one.”
His boss was about to say something, but Stan figured that two people could also play the interruption game.
“I’ve even gone so far as to ask you for recommendations as to new approaches that I may have been overlooking,” he said jabbing his index finger down onto the edge of the desk closest to him as a point of emphasis. “And you have sat here silent the whole damned time, not offering me jack.” Now he paused, and his division chief was once again silent.
“So, with all due respect, sir…don’t give me anymore shit over this. I’ve done just as much as anyone else in this department, if not more, to figure out how all these accidents are happening.” His eyes now rigidly addressed his leader. “If you feel that I’m not doing my job, then by all means demote or fire me. But if you think anyone else knows every stretch and feature of this highway as well as me, then you are gravely mistaken. You will set the whole investigation back to where we were in the early 90s.”
The division chief sat back in his seat with a devil-may-care grin beaming over toward his subject. Stan could tell that his boss was making great effort to not lose his temper. Finally, after about 10 seconds…
“I have to give it to you. You sure do have a set on you, Stan.” The division chief finally forced a grin that suddenly seemed to lighten the mood a great deal. Additionally, the use of his first name seemed to be an indicator that Capt. Winston had successfully made his point. But his posture was still as rigid as it had been when the commander of Troop G first walked in. “I will only warn you once though. Don’t ever raise your voice to me again. And most surely do not ever cuss at me. I’ll demote you down back to corporal and have your ass writing speeding tickets once again.”
Realizing that he definitely overstepped his boundaries with the chief, he looked down in shame at his hands, which were clasped in his lap just above his crossed legs.
Both men stared each other down. But Stan could see in Maj. Reamer’s eyes that the senior officer knew that he had done all he could possibly do. He now sensed that the major probably had to answer to his own boss as well. He figured it must have been every bit as uncomfortable as what he was experiencing that very moment.
“My apologies, sir. But I am just on edge as much as you. And if you think I don’t feel the weight of this most recent tragedy greater than ever, you are seriously mistaken. I’ve lost family members and know this heavy hearted feeling just as well as those who have recently received the news of the passing of their friends and loved ones. Hell, my brother died on the highway while I was in the Marines. So if anyone has a personal stake in making this highway safer, it is most certainly me.” He suddenly saw his big brother’s face flash in his mind. He remembered the good times they had together before he went into the Marines. Stan’s eyes seemed to be getting watery, so he waved the forward edge of his right hand over them to keep the tears from becoming obvious.
“I apologize as well.” His boss slowly rested both palms of his hands on the desk before him as if signaling a new truce. “But are you finding any new approaches to this same old problem?”
“As a matter of fact, I am, sir. I am in the process of contracting the services of an independent investigator to see what he can determine.” He figured it was the best thing to withhold the “paranormal” descriptor at this point in time. “I’ve even assigned my assistant to be at his service whenever he needs her.”
The major nodded his approval. “Lt. Heath is an outstanding officer,” the 60-ish man smiled confidently for the first time that Stan had ever noticed in years. “It’s a good thing too. I’ve been doing my best to resist pressure from above to offer you an early retirement.”
Stan smirked. “To be quite honest, sir. I’m more than happy to accept that retirement. And I’ve trained Heath to be every bit as capable as I am. So, aside from the accident investigation, Troop G will not suffer at all if you ever decide to do so.” He really did not want to be forced into retirement. But his situation had thus far seemed completely hopeless. If the axe fell, he and his family would still be okay with his retirement from the state and his personal savings.
Reamer decisively shook his head. “You ain’t getting off that easy, Winston. You are absolutely correct about the setback this investigation would suffer without you at the helm.”
Stan finally relaxed. “I’m glad to see that you agree.”
“But let me ask you some questions that my boss will certainly ask me.” He flipped a page on his notepad up and over to the back, concentrating on the contents of the new page facing him. “Have all roadway hazards not only been reported, but documented into the log I ordered be kept at the dispatch desk?”
“Yes, sir,” Stan answered. “And all road defects have been immediately reported to the Department of Transportation.” The troop commander frowned causing his forehead to crinkle somewhat. “I sometimes feel they drag their feet on some issues. But when they do respond, they do a great job of fixing each defect.” The captain cleared his throat before suggesting: “If you can light some fire under some asses in that neck of the woods, maybe we can close out some of these pending reports that seem to just be festering in logistical limbo.”
“Consider it done, Stan.” The chief nodded his approval before going on to the next question. “Have you gathered and studied all crash data for the last five years, as I suggested?”
“Yes, sir,” the captain answered. “I also enforced key areas based on the last data reports from this past year. My troopers have been working diligently to maintain the safest traffic conditions in these locations. But it seems that once we enforce safety in some of these sections of the interstate, crashes occur in the other areas that had previously been considered as the safest.” Stan shook his head. “What gives?”
His boss shrugged his shoulders, and went on to the next question. “If I was to quiz every man in your troop on their assigned counties of enforcement and where all of the violations are occurring in each, how do you feel your troop would stack up?”
Stan smiled broadly. “Quiz away, major.”
The senior officer returned the smile. “How many speaking engagements did you conduct on the topic of highway safety last year?”
“I actually conducted an average of two per month.” The chief had only required him conduct one.
Reamer nodded again. “Have you taken any additional measures to ensure safety that may have been in your circle of influence or maybe even beyond it?”
He gave one quick nod. “Yes, sir. I have implemented the erection of additional median barriers in certain high-accident areas. Though they have complied with only half of my requests. They say that the funds aren’t available to give me full compliance.” Now he rolled his eyes. “More logistical and financial bullshit excuses.”
The major finally sat up straight behind his desk hunching up on his elbows indicating that the meeting was almost over. He scribbled some notes on his pad and shifted his eyes from it to the time-tested trooper sitting in front of him. His eyes looked at the door of his office as if prompting him to leave. “Do continue to keep me posted as to every aspect of this investigation.”
Capt. Winston stood up and nodded his understanding. “Of course, sir. I’ll use e-mail as I’ve always done.”
Then he headed back out of the office, feeling very glad that his boss was trying his best to be fair about everything. As he left, the secretary looked up at him as if she felt he were to blame for all the death that had just happened on I-65. It didn’t take a Harvard-groomed psychiatrist to realize that this woman was not only an overdone, old fish ready to be filleted, but she was also a stone-cold bitch as well. If anyone needed to retire early from the Alabama Department of Public Safety, he knew it was her.
# # # # #
Amanda drove her maroon-colored 2011 Chevy Caprice Classic up I-65 toward downtown Montgomery. Still wearing her uniform, she decided not to head home to Greenville prior to making the short trip up the interstate. The day had been a hectic one as she had visited with some of the family members of the deceased from the accident the night before. Many had already been notified, so she had been tasked to make contact with those who hadn’t been able to be reached for whatever reasons.
How the hell was I supposed to tell these people that their loved ones died so suddenly in an accident? She failed to come up with that perfect script that just barely hit on the key points. And it seemed she focused more on reacting to the subjects’ reactions. She figured that was the safest way to do it. And she openly wept along with these totally perfect strangers.
Stan had instructed her to contact a whole list of individuals by telephone just before he left for a meeting with the division chief. She asked if he minded whether or not she visited each one in person.
“If you don’t mind, that would really be better,” he had said. “But it would be quicker and a heck of a lot easier to contact them by telephone.”
“I’ll go ahead and call in a couple of our off-duty troopers to come in and help me make house calls,” she had explained in response to his concerns.
“As long as all the family members can be contacted sooner rather than later, I don’t mind how you do it.”
So she managed to visit with four different families that day. One of them had been the aunt of the girl she had rescued from within the crashed vehicle. Even though these relatives had already been made aware of the tragedy, she took it upon herself to follow up on the welfare of the little girl. She eventually did see her, though glaring up at her through angry eyes; this, right after she walked through the doors of her aunt’s house.
“You said you would help me find my mommy. You never told me she was dead!”
When Amanda had approached her, she ran behind her aunt prior to running further and disappearing deeper into the house. Those remaining in the foyer knew that there was nothing that could have been done to save their loved one. Amanda and the other troopers were fortunate that no one – other than the little girl – had directed any fury, or condemnation toward them.
But she still felt badly that the orphan most likely hated her right now. She stopped to remember when she was this girl’s age. She imagined how she would have handled it if the same thing had happened to her mother. She realized she would have been every bit as hateful and unreasonable. But what in the hell should she have told her? “I’m sorry, child, but your mother is dead. And I would just love to take you to her dead body so that I can watch you wail out in tears and misery.”
That day had been the second-worst day in her life as a state trooper. The worst had been when she saved she and her former partner from peril at the hands of two drug dealers. She still had nightmares over that one event that should have actually been a career highlight for her. The traumatic event ironically earned her the Distinguished Service Medal. “If I could go back and erase this event from my background and my memory, I’d gladly give them their damned medal back”, she had once told her mother.
She finally pulled into a metered parking spot on the street outside the restaurant where she would be meeting Troy Dalessandro, her ex-boyfriend. He had called her at the office just before she left and practically begged her to meet him this one last time before dropping the curtains on their relationship. She reluctantly decided to accept the opportunity to make it clear that she no longer trusted him and would never be able to trust him ever again.
She got out of her car and finally walked up to the impressive storefront of “Luminelli’s”, a restaurant that was said to serve the most impressive Italian food in the Montgomery metro area. Black glass featured the name of the eatery in a rather luxurious monotype corsiva font.
She pushed the door open, walked in and waited for a hostess to lead her to wherever her former boyfriend happened to be sitting. The interior provided the most ambient atmosphere ever with black tables, chairs and bench seats. Photographs and paintings within the place featured Italian landscapes and other items that would put even the most pessimistic and least traveled person into a fine Italian mood. The owners certainly did not skimp on decor. But the customers certainly paid the price.
She had good mind to order a full-course meal as revenge for the way he had treated her the last time she had seen him. The restaurant charged exorbitant prices for their menu items. The only thing she had ever had in this place that was worth a damn, in her humble opinion, were the cannolis. But she knew she was better than vengeful. In a strange sort of masochistic way, she sort of felt sorry for Troy. Both of them knew she had been the best thing to ever happen to him. So she figured she would be the bigger person in all of this.
A young woman dressed in an elegant black dress complimented by a pearl necklace finally sauntered up to her through the doorway leading into the dining area. “Will you be dining alone tonight, ma’am?”
Amanda shook her head. “No, I am here to see an acquaintance named Troy.”
She smiled widely indicating without a doubt she knew whom she was talking about. “Oh yes. He’s waiting for you, Amanda.”
Troy must have told her my name. Impressive! She remembered it. Amanda followed her hostess over to a booth where Troy faced her, beaming.
“Hi, doll,” He said in his most charming southern drawl. “Thanks for taking the time to see me tonight. It’s certainly more than I deserve.”
She sat down across from him and nodded in agreement. The woman in the black dress wandered off. “I’m not in the mood to be here, Troy. And I’m not hungry either.”
“Are you still upset?”
She shook her head. “I’m over you.” She sat her purse to the side of the bench and against the wall. “No, it’s the accident from last night.”
“So you are assisting in that?”
She nodded. “I just spent the whole day bearing bad news to the family members of those who died.”
“I heard about that,” he said. “Thirty-three people!”
She really did not want to think about it. “I may stick around to have a quick soda,” she said. “But I’m tired and really just want to go to bed.”
“Hey, I’m game.” Troy perched up in his seat with the same charming grin that caused her to fall for him long ago. “If you recall, I give a great massage.”
“If you ever put your hands on me again, you will draw back two nubs.” She flashed a very cold, callous grin of her own. “When I said we were through, Troy, I meant it. The sooner you get that through your noggin, the better off you will be.”
“How many times do I have to say, ‘I’m sorry’?”
“I don’t give a damn if you say it until I take my last breath. It will not change the fact that you took me for granted.”
“She kissed me,” he said referring to the tart she found him kissing in the night club. She could see he still chose to play it down. The night she had broken things off, she had called his cell phone to let him know she was working late and would not be able to meet him at the club they had agreed upon. He said that he would stick around and only have a few drinks before heading home afterward. But she finished up some filing earlier than she had anticipated and decided to surprise him. But she instead found herself surprised. She remembered walking into the establishment and noticing him talking to another woman. She watched him lead in for the long and lingering kiss that smothered all love she had previously felt for him.
“Keep telling yourself that, Troy, as you lay awake at night missing what we had.” She finally decided that she did not want to be there, grabbed her purse, and rose to her feet. “If you don’t have the decency to be truthful, then I really have better things to do with my time.”
She turned away and walked out of the restaurant. She was home within the next hour.
# # # # #
Cliff Rodger awakened in his motel room at the seedy Fountain Inn feeling as though the fat-lady of the circus had just defecated in his mouth. The accommodations seemed about as appealing as the taste of residoo-doo in one’s mouth as well. But he was at fault for the lingering nastiness for which the motel could not be blamed. However, the seedy rental situation here was by no means clear from any blame. Throughout the night, no less than four cockroaches scurried across his naked upper body as he slept. One of them actually crawled across his lips and had to be swatted off. With all the lumps in the old mattress that wrecked his sleeping posture and renegade springs that poked him in places he would rather not think about, the beds were only slightly more comfortable than the sleeping bag in which he slept as a boy scout many, many years before…and he did not even want to venture a look underneath the fitted sheet in fear of the different stains and God only knows what else he may find! Speaking of stains, it looked like some hemorrhoid-suffering guest may have run out of toilet paper and commended to rubbing his ass down one wall. Or perhaps those were cigarette smoke stains. Cliff was a non-smoker, but he could tell that smokers had been in this room previously. When he had first come in, his eyes started to burn.
As soon as he opened those same eyes, the motel room started spinning and he felt as if his body was turning inside out. He quickly slipped out of bed and sprinted for the bathroom but ungracefully stumbled over one of his dress shoes and almost went face-first onto the floor. However, he landed on one of his knees and his diagonal hand which pushed him up just as his digestive system started to eject the previous night’s spirits-turned-poison! With one final leap, he sprung to the toilet and managed to get 90 percent of his mouth’s putrid cargo within the bowl. The only problem was that not much came out and he knelt there, worshiping the porcelain god, heaving as if he were screaming in tongues, praying some passionate petition of hope that no otherwise normal person could understand. The dry heaves continued for about five minutes with him wondering the whole time why the hell he still continued to drink after mornings like this. He had already relived this morning many times before in the past few months. When he was finished, he felt as sore as if he had been doing more than three hours of abdominal workouts at the gym. And he may as well have been.
He finally rolled over resignedly against the bath tub, once more mentally reminding himself he was a failure as a human being. He slumped down with his head uncomfortably resting against the fiberglass outer side of the tub.
“Dammit,” he said rolling his eyes upward and staring at the bathroom light, which seemed just a tad bit too bright, though not near as bright as the morning sun which would soon rape his senses. “I fricking give up.” He lay there, on the cold bathroom floor, beside a small stream of his own greenish-colored puke, which gave awkward testimony to the start of an awful morning.
Finally, he closed his eyes to the light, and it seemed to help his throbbing head feel a bit more malleable. His mind focused on the day that the otherwise good Lord had given him. He believed in God. But he also knew with no single doubt that God did not believe in him. His life had been a total damned shambles for the last three months after Discovery Communications canceled his show on the Discovery Channel. Ghost Stalkers started off strong a little more than a year before it was shit-canned by pissed off executives. So what, if he was using gimmicks and special effects to fool viewers! It made for memorable entertainment. Straight forward investigations, minus the gimmicks, simply equaled fewer and fewer viewers.
Prior to this, yet after the first half year, viewership dropped as a slew of other paranormal shows reared their ugly heads. So his associate producer, Timothy Pruitt, had told him one day: “Hey, man. Why don’t we beat all the other network paranormal shows at their own game?” It sounded good to him already, so he listened carefully to what his friend, fellow investigator, and associate producer had to say. “Why don’t we take advantage of special effects? Most of our competitors seem to be doing it.”
“We can’t do that now,” Cliff Rodger countered. “If we were going to do make-believe, then we should have started out that way.”
“It sure beats the hell out of losing the production,” Pruitt reminded him.
So he had given it some thought through the filming of the particular episode they had been working on and with which they were almost complete. If they used fishing line, it would be practically invisible in the dark lighting conditions in which they always filmed. So he decided to give Pruitt’s idea a test drive. And it worked! Their show started to rise in the ratings over the next several months. It appeared that they were on the road to victory. However, it eventually ended up being the road to hell.
All along, Pruitt’s idea had been attractive bait for him to bite on, hook, line, and sinker. After many of the gimmicked episodes had aired on the network, Pruitt decided to reel him in and skin him right before the eyes of the show’s executives! Pruitt went behind Cliff’s back to network executives and reported him for misleading the public, utilizing “cheap, low-down tactics” to boost the ratings. In addition to lying that it was Cliff’s idea, he also told them that he had tried to convince him that this was a bad move. From that very meeting, Cliff’s days were numbered. Losing the production had not been the worst thing about the whole fiasco; the fact that his former fans were all let down and unwilling to forgive him for insulting their intelligence…that was almost the worst thing! And it never made him feel any better that the one who was halfway responsible for all of this – he had thought – was one of his best friends. The worst thing, by far, was the fact that Cliff was the other half of the responsible party, the one who no longer had a show. The network executives shifted their funding from him to Pruitt as a reward for having come forward. And Pruitt started his own spin-off show, Spirit Stalkers, as the final insulting blow to Cliff Rodger. The realization that his former best friend could do him that way kept him awake at night and drunk during much of the day. He blamed himself for having been completely oblivious to the jerk’s duplicity.
He finally made an effort to pull himself up onto the toilet and then to his feet. He stood there awhile to let all the bathroom hardware align visually. Then he carefully shuffled over to the sink, mindful to not step in vomit.
He had a meeting at the troop in Montgomery scheduled to take place in about one hour. The commander invited him to make a pitch for a state contract to conduct a paranormal investigation on the interstate where a major wreck had just occurred only a couple of days before. He saw the accident on Fox News while still in Atlanta only yesterday. It chilled him to the bone to hear that 33 people had died. The troop commander had coincidentally already contacted him about making a bid to investigate just prior to the recent disaster on Interstate-65. He had heard the rumor that a mass of frequent accidents had befallen and continued to befall motorists on that particular stretch of interstate between Greenville and Montgomery. The report revealed that investigation of these accidents fell upon the Alabama Highway Patrol. However, he had already heard about the ghost of a woman haunting the highway. She was better known as the “Girl on the Highway”.
Looking down at the catastrophe all over the floor beneath him, he suddenly realized he did not have time to clean up the mess. Housekeeping would have to do the heavy lifting for this one. Sadly enough, he did not have enough money for a tip yet.
Finally, he squeezed some cinnamon toothpaste onto his toothbrush and quickly began to brush his teeth as well as the remains of acidic puke from all the hard-to-get crevices of his mouth. He also brushed his tongue, careful not to gag himself so as to avoid more dry heaves. When done, his mouth felt and tasted so much better. Now all he had to do was take a five-minute shower, get dressed, and get his sorry ass over to the appointment.
At precisely 9:05 a.m., Cliff walked into the Montgomery troop five-minutes fashionably late. He hoped that the commander wouldn’t be a hard ass in response to his tardiness. When he announced himself, he was asked to wait while the trooper on desk duty disappeared to let Capt. Winston know he had finally arrived. The trooper came back and escorted him to the commander’s office.
Sitting at a desk and observing him as he walked in was one of the most solid-looking men he thought he had ever seen. He admired the man’s uniform that made a very crisp and stern first impression. He also saw the man’s campaign hat behind his desk on a hat stand. The captain wore a navy-blue, long-sleeved shirt complimented by a tie and epaulets that were all French-blue in color. An organizational tie-clasp complimented the tie, worn level with the front buttons. Gold captain bars – two bars joined together – graced both the man’s collars, centered a half-inch from the front-most edges. On his right pocket, his shiny-gold nameplate sat directly above his service-star plate, which contained four stars. On his left pocket’s flap sat a gray bar. As the commander moved, he saw light reflecting off its golden outline and also off a vertical line bisecting it. On the top part of each sleeve was affixed a trooper patch displaying the Alabama Coat of Arms. Though he could not see the man’s pants, he knew they were French-blue as well, having seen the other troopers in their uniforms upon entry into the government facility.
As for the man’s physical traits, he had close-cropped black hair in a military fade with a slightly receding hairline. His tanned face boasted a very healthy complexion as light shone off it from the ceiling giving it a golden, healthy glow. The man who was easily taller than six feet extended a large, muscular hand. Cliff shook it and felt the tightest grip he thought he had ever had the displeasure of feeling.
“Hello, Cliff.” The officer smiled beneath wide-flared nostrils of a distinct, though not unappealing nose. And genuine enthusiasm emanated from his glassy, blue eyes.
“How are you, sir?”
“Just fine,” The captain stated.
“Thank you so kindly, Captain, for considering me for this opportunity.”
“Please, call me Stan.” He smiled even more broadly this time. “I feel as though I already know you from having watched your show so many times.”
Now there’s a sore subject, Cliff thought. “Okay, sir.”
“…and drop the sir, too. I work for a living.” He chuckled slightly so as not to seem rude to his guest.
Cliff grinned politely, if not a bit unsurely.
“Can I be honest with you, Cliff, without hurting your feelings?”
Oh, boy! Here we go! Cliff nodded nervously.
He slid a few pages over to Cliff for him to look over. “You are probably wondering why I’m hiring you to investigate this supposed ghost after you were only a couple or few months ago fired from your show for dishonorable conduct.”
So he did decide to hire him. This was great news to Cliff as he greatly desired the contract, which could either effectively elevate him or sink him. “The thought crossed my mind,” he admitted humbly. “I feel very fortunate.” The paperwork seemed to cover everything about which they had previously discussed with no changes at all.
“I really enjoyed your show after you added the extra kick to it and found it to be much more entertaining than it had originally been,” he said. “I feel a bit sorry for you. I feel as though you have a brilliant and creative mind, but took the easy way out and got burned for it.”
Cliff continued looking over the contract carefully as they discussed his role in investigating the “Girl on the Highway”. He nodded sullenly.
“Did you learn anything from this experience?”
“I learned, first of all, to be careful who I trust.”
The fact of any treachery toward Cliff was not public knowledge. So he wondered to whom he referred.
“Also, it is better to be honorable and fail than to never be honorable at all.”
“Bingo!” Stan snapped his fingers and finished the gesture with a thumb up on his right hand. Then he slid a government-issue ballpoint pen over to Cliff.
They both sat there quiet for a brief and awkward moment as Cliff signed and dated the last page of the contract. And then slid it back over to the trooper captain along with the pen.
“So why are you so trusting of me after my recent lapse of judgment?” Cliff asked while Stan signed the contract.
Stan put the document into a drawer. “I understand that sometimes fear leads people to make reckless decisions. Believe it or not, it’s actually happened to me before too.”
Cliff suddenly realized that the man’s size was not the only powerful trait he had working for him. He also had a good, analytical mind in that steely head of his. He figured that many people would look at this large, intimidating fellow and not have any idea how smart and wise he really was. “Do you believe in ghosts?”
Stan laughed briefly. “Hell no.”
Now Cliff was confused. “Then why use state funds to invest in my services?”
“Partially because I know you probably could use the money,” he answered. “If you tell anyone I said as much, I will deny it, by the way.” He gave a curt smile to his guest. “And I also need to be able to tell my boss that I have done absolutely everything to investigate the hell out of how all these accidents keep occurring. I really have. This is the last thing for me to do. After this doesn’t work…er if it doesn’t work, then I will probably retire early.”
The disgraced celebrity admitted that the commander’s decision to hire him made perfect sense. But it was still his intention to scientifically either substantiate or debunk this local ghost legend. Thus he realized that he needed to get down to the business they were there to discuss. “What did you discover from the wreck a couple of days ago?”
“Thirty-three of the 35 people involved all died.”
Cliff’s eyes widened upon hearing the ratio of dead to living. “Did anyone claim to see the ‘Girl on the Highway’?”
Stan shook his head. “Negative. There was only one adult and one child survivor. The college kid helped us piece together what happened.”
“So what happened exactly?”
“Apparently, something must have run out in front of the gasoline tanker, causing the driver to swerve sharply to the right. It ended up jackknifing, sending the trailing cylinder, full of premium-grade petroleum, right into the central concrete column of the overpass.”
Cliff huffed. “If there was any roadkill, they would have most likely been burned away in the petroleum-fueled fire, huh?”
“Were there any animal bones anywhere near the point of impact?”
“We couldn’t find any.”
“Would the fire have been hot enough to obliterate the bones?”
The trooper commander shook his head. “Apparently not. We could see some charred corpses the next day, after everything cooled down. In some instances, we could see skeletal remains. But one fellow tried removing one, and it was so brittle that it fell apart.”
Cliff thought about it for a moment. What a matter of bad luck that all of this happened exactly where it did! What exactly are the chances of something like that happening? No, he finally concluded. This had to have been done deliberately by an intelligent being or entity.
“I suspect that most likely an animal ran out in front of the truck and startled the driver. Just because there were no bones doesn’t mean it hadn’t been there. Most animals are a lot smaller than humans. And their bones aren’t near as resilient as ours, I wouldn’t think. Besides, the bones could have been scattered far and wide by the explosion.”
“What makes you say so?” Stan’s eyes finally challenged the man who had his livelihood in his hopefully capable hands.
“First of all, what are the chances that something like this could happen at exactly the right spot and just the right time to wreck so many lives and so many vehicles?”
“No kidding, Cliff!” He paused for a moment. “But the chances are far better that something ran out in front of the truck and made it swerve. We examined tire marks all over the whole scene, assigning the right tracks to the right vehicles.”
“I understand,” Cliff stated. “But I would think that these tanker drivers are experienced enough to know better than to turn hard for a critter.” He stopped for a second, imagining such a scenario. “No. For him to have swerved the way he did, there must have been something more important than an animal in his path. Also, I’m still standing by the fact that the chances of something like this happening are very remote. Isn’t it safe to say that no animals could have caused this?”
Stan shrugged his shoulders with an expression on his face that showed at least minimal support for his theory. “The ground was scorched all the way to the entry and exit ramps on that side of the overhead bridge”, Stan divulged.
“Is it possible that some pranksters may have dropped something off the overpass that could have caused the tanker driver to react clumsily enough to cause the bulk of this accident?”
Stan shrugged his shoulders. “If so, they were probably barbecued after the tank exploded. I suppose any of the debris lying around could have been involved in such a prank. But no other human remains were discovered. I suppose its possible such pranksters could have fled quickly enough, though highly doubtful.”
Even though this new angle may have been worth investigating, he figured he needed more information on all the professional drivers who were involved in the carnage. “What do we know about the tanker drivers?”
“The day after the accident, the company’s public relations man revealed that the one driving the rig was a newbie,” Stan said. “The passenger was his instructor and was grading him.”
Cliff smirked. “I guess it is safe to say that he failed.”
Stan grimaced. “Tell me about it…and so did 32 other people who weren’t supposed to be part of the training event.”
This news only served to cloud the investigation even more. Even though a seasoned driver would never have jerked the wheel hard for an animal, maybe an inexperienced one would. “Did either of the survivors see anything that could have caused the accident?”
He shook his head. “The child was asleep when everything took place and slept right through the very wreck that killed her mother.”
Cliff cringed upon hearing about the mother’s death. He read that many children died in this horrific ordeal. It suddenly put all of his problems into perspective. Sure, he’d had a hard time since the cancellation of his show. But at least he did not lose a loved one over it. Yes, he really needed to help stop whatever was causing all of this tragedy be it paranormal or not.
“The adult was a 21-year-old male college student who had been traveling well behind the gas truck,” Stan continued. “All he saw was the vehicle swerving one way and the trailer slamming forward over the safety railing, directly at the overpass.” He paused and then realized he needed to correct himself. “Well he also saw all the other vehicles that reacted badly to what all was going down. But the kid kept his wits about him and managed to evade all trouble and live through the disaster. Mighty damned lucky, if you ask me.”
Cliff nodded in agreement.
“So there was nothing at all strange about this accident, as far as you are concerned, Stan?” He watched the trooper’s features carefully and thought he may have seen some form of concern on the older man’s face. But the captain seemed to dismiss it. Then the officer suddenly seemed to remember something.
“There was one thing strange, now that you mention it.” He saw that Cliff was waiting for him to give him the information. “The college kid, his name is Adam Kimble. He said that the road got foggy and misty, and lightening was visible on the highway.”
“What’s so strange about that?”
“The weather reports and people at a couple of service stations only a stone-throw away from ground zero said it was a perfectly clear evening.”
# # # # #
Why the hell am I applying for this redneck-ass job situation? Beth Daltry, while sitting at the owner’s desk at Deer Me deer processors, suddenly realized just how much desperation could drive her to seek work that she was clearly not even the least bit qualified to do. I’ve never even stepped into a butcher shop or known any butchers. Will I be able to do the work without puking all over myself, the customers, or the dear meat?
Her uncle had mentioned the job opening after having purchased some of the product earlier the previous day. They had actually been eating some of it during their discussion.
“Uncle Wesley, I can’t do that type of work.”
“How do you know? You ever tried?”
She recalled having glared at him. “Now you know I’ve never done anything like that. I worked in fast food. But the meat arrives there at the business frozen already.”
“I talked to the owner. He says he is willing to train any new employees.”
“I bet he wants people who have at least worked as butchers…prob’ly men.”
Her uncle’s surprised expression once again flashed in her mind. “He didn’t say anything about that to me. And if that was a need for the job, I’m pretty darn sure he woulda mentioned it.”
She had originally paused at that moment to think about the people she would be serving. “I’ll be dealing with a buncha rednecks if I get that job.”
“Girl, don’t be ignorant!” He had glared back at her after having heard that remark. “Do I look like a redneck to you?”
She laughed at his question. “Heck yea…chomping away at that there beef stick!”
“It ain’t beef, girl…it’s venison…”
So here she sat, knowing damned well she stood a snowball’s chance in hell of getting the job. The owner didn’t even seem too thrilled to see her when stepping outside to welcome her…a welcome that didn’t seem very warm at all.
He finally reentered the office and took a seat at his desk looking very astutely at her application.
“You’ve never worked with meat before?”
Should I lie? No, whatever response I come up with is not listed on my application. “No, sir. But I did handle frozen patties while working at Bud’s Burgers.”
His face seemed devoid of any interest in that information. “I see.” He sat her application down next to several others on his desk and ticked a quizzical brow upward. “You don’t seem to have any experience working with raw meat,” he said. “So why are you interested in working here?”
She thought carefully about her answer. Because I am frickin’ broke and about to lose my damned ride. “Sir, I am a quick learner and have no doubts that I would be a good worker for you here.”
“Are you squeamish at all?”
She shook her head, but then realized that body language could be deemed as not very professional…so she verbally answered in the negative.
“Do you have a fondness for cute animals that may prevent you from dealing with their carcasses?”
“Tell me specifically why you think you will be a good worker here.”
She stopped to think of a good way to explain herself. Finally: “I’m always very reliable at showing up to work when I am scheduled. I very rarely get sick enough that I cannot come in.” Oh damn! This is food preparation. I probably just cost myself the job admitting that I sometimes come to work sick. She blushed. “Well, I never actually come in if I think I may give my sickness to someone else.”
He suddenly seemed impressed that she had corrected herself. Maybe I do stand a chance at getting this job after all!
“If I call all the bosses you have listed here,” he said, “and I ask them how well you follow instructions, procedures, and policies, what will they tell me?”
Shit, I don’t know! What do I look like? A fortune teller? I’ve never been in any trouble for not obeying what I was told to do. “They will say that I always do what I am supposed to do and staying very focused on it.”
If he liked or didn’t like the question, he did not give it away in facial expressions. I bet the guy is good at cards!
“Any other reasons you think you would be good at working here?”
Damn, dude! Cut me some slack here. “I’m really good with people and happen to know many friends and family members who like deer meat. My uncle, for example. He’s the one who told me that you may be interested to hire me.”
“Who’s your uncle?”
The owner smiled. “Oh yes. Wesley is a regular customer here. He seems to be a very skilled hunter too from what I gather.”
More brownie points? I certainly hope so! “He says this is the best place to get deer meat in the whole South.” She smiled broadly. “So I figure this is the best place to learn how to prepare and sell it.”
He seemed to nod, smiling with great pride. “Indeed it is.” He slid one of his business cards to her, and she looked at his name, having forgotten how he had introduced himself: Milton Petty. Then he sat back in his chair, more relaxed.
“Do you have any questions for me?”
Yea…what will it be like having a black woman working for you, having to deal with a bunch of your redneck customers, many which may even wonder why the hell you hired me in the first damned place? “No, sir. I think I will serve you and your customers well here if you will give me the chance.”
A few minutes later, she was pulling out of his parking area knowing damned well that she would not hear back from him, even despite the few positive vibes she had just gotten from their interview together. This was clearly a job for a white man.
# # # # #
Cliff now found himself at the Juliette Hampton Morgan Memorial Library in downtown Montgomery, combing through one of five books detailing ghost legends. The library had been named after a white civil rights activist who openly criticized the unfair manner in which blacks were treated during her time of living in the city. She constantly wrote letters and was condemned by many white racists who turned their anger toward her, burning a cross in her yard, and other types of cruel retaliation. She eventually took her own life, unable to deal with the open hostilities. Those who knew her personally attested that she was an amazing woman. And it must have been true for the city’s main branch of the library system to be named after her.
Cliff was researching the final book at his table and had thus far managed to find references to the “Girl on the Highway” in three of them. It appeared to be a rather popular ghost legend. And he was quite thankful for this.
After his meeting with Stan, he had quickly gone to breakfast as his hangover once again began to eclipse the investigation. He made a mental note to purchase some Alka-Seltzer, so he would be ready for the next one to come most likely and most regretfully sometime within the next couple of weeks. Alcoholism ran in his family, and it certainly hadn’t bothered to hurdle over him! Hell, if anything, it completely dog-piled him, causing him to buckle under the stress of life and the booze that temporarily numbed it. He had successfully managed to cut back on his drinking after his doctor had told him: “When your liver goes, Cliff, you will go right behind it.” He didn’t need some Nostra-dumbass with a doctoral degree foretelling and justifying his death with the gentility of a jackhammer operator. So this very conversation actually succeeded in making him think twice about drinking. The only problem was that when he thought about it, he often ended up not just doing it but overdoing it. And if one had known better after hearing these words from his temporary physician, one would have figured he must have thought about it a dozen times that evening.
As far as being hired by the state of Alabama to solve this paranormal mystery, Stan had given him a recap of his own investigation of the large accident that was still fresh on the hearts and minds of many Alabamans. He also gave him a state check signed in the amount of $1,000. It had been agreed that he would receive a check for that amount when he reported in and for each week thereafter. Upon solving the case, he would receive $45,000 minus the difference of his total weekly wages to that date. In other words, he would receive a total of $45,000 for fulfilling his contract; this figure was very generous considering that it was slightly more than what most Americans made in one year. He had a deadline of one month to complete the investigation. If he failed to do so, he would be permitted to leave with all the money he had earned thus far. In that case, he would not see any of the promised amount due to his inability to successfully fulfill the obligation. It had been a really great opportunity for him, being that he had previously been trying to find opportunities in an industry where there were few to be found. But with this opportunity also came a great risk. Word would probably get out in the paranormal community that he had stepped up to the challenge of solving this mystery of the “Girl on the Highway”; so if he failed, it would most likely drive the final nail into his otherwise doomed career.
During that meeting, Stan also told him his assistant would be taking point as the highway patrol’s go-to person for him during his investigation. The troop commander told him to come back the same time tomorrow as his assistant had the day off. Cliff agreed to do so.
With the accident overshadowing this assignment as he left the highway patrol troop, he had decided to drive out to the exit where it had occurred prior to going to the library. Apparently, the calamity had been so terrible that parts of the interstate had been closed almost a full day while investigators scoured the entire wreckage area and construction authorities cleared all debris for safe travel once again. He decided to park just off the bottom of the ramp heading up to the road under which the overpass used to run. Now it lay in sections of ruin atop the very interstate over which it had been built. Around him, the grass was still just as scorched as the front of the concrete bridge itself, which he could see a small distance from where he stood. It saddened him to observe the very place where many, many lives – including those of many children – were lost only days before his arrival here.
He then thought about the bus that, he was told, exploded, killing everyone on board. He imagined many children aboard, aflame with flailing arms, screaming as their bodies ignited in the fire that licked hungrily at their various limbs. Poor children! He regretted they would never even attend their high school prom, their own graduation, nor even their college orientation. For one cannot dance with dates, receive diplomas, or feel welcome in new institutions when one was dead. He suddenly felt ashamed at having forgotten consideration for everyone else who died in the entire ordeal as well as their relatives who most certainly received the tragic news. Some of these relatives would surely mourn until the very day they took their own final breaths. A tear rolled down his lower eyelid and stopped in the cradle of it. He removed his sunglasses and wiped it away, feeling the cool breeze from the interstate caressing and instantly drying it.
He had suddenly felt angry. Why would a spirit wish to commit such evil? Some spirits had been known to help people. Some didn’t help, nor hurt people, favoring only to live the remainder of their spiritual existence as selfishly as possible, sometimes only committing pranks that surprised, scared, or even humored the inhabitants in the same places shared by them. But this spirit seemed to be an angry one. What could have happened to make it this way? Was it unjustly murdered? Or was it simply in an auto accident that it wanted others to physically relive until the day it somehow found final rest? Would it ever find final rest?
These were questions he hoped to answer now while at the library.
Suddenly, the kind, helpful, and rather attractive head librarian approached him with two more books she had found.
“Maybe these will help you find the information you are looking for.”
She had already assisted him by opening up the records room for him to study in complete privacy. The records room was a large area featuring a stage to the left, immediately after he walked in. It spanned from side-to-side by 20 feet at a depth of about 12 feet and stood about three feet off the ground. Two sections of chairs faced the stage, each section consisting of six rows of six chairs each. The chairs were silver with blue upholstery and looked quite comfortable in spite of their small size.
Across from the two entrances of double-doors, 15 book cases flaunted hundreds of books, tempting even the least curious book browser to walk the length of them, scanning the contents of each and every shelf. At the far right corner of the room, two bigger book cases towered over anyone who made it that far. These cases were locked and contained much older looking books behind the glass enclosures.
The sections of glass walls near the entrance permitted visitors on the opposite side to see the backs of several 4-foot-high book cases, most of them placed together.
At his table, the librarian lowered the books to him, and he thankfully took them. He looked over the titles and smiled up at her.
“What are you researching anyway?”
She appeared to be maybe 10 years his junior; sported a long, black ponytail, and had the darkest brown eyes in which he could have ever hoped to drown himself! She wore copper rectangular eyeglasses giving her a rather nerdy appearance. But something told him it was all just an elaborate smokescreen. This woman probably drove men absolutely crazy in bed.
“…er a local ghost legend.”
She noticed his eyes just as they had finished looking at the hint of cleavage just above the upper third button of her navy blue rayon blouse. She giggled very quietly to herself, but just enough for him to hear it.
“The ‘Girl on the Highway?'”
How did she ever guess?
“Many people believe,” she continued, “that awful wreck that just happened may have been because of her.”
He nodded in agreement, realizing that having her with him was not conducive to his work at hand, no matter how very a welcome distraction. But he didn’t have the heart to tell her to buzz off. Actually, he thought that maybe he should invite her out for a drink later that evening.
“By the way, that was total crap, the way you were treated by the Discovery Channel.”
Now he blushed, having been reminded of that horrible memory the second time that day and only wishing to never hear of it ever again. Would the general public ever let him live it down?
“I was a huge fan, and still am!” She flirtatiously pressed the back of his hand as if it were an elevator button.
He felt something reaching the top, and it was most certainly not an elevator! He felt ashamed at having gotten aroused by the gentle touch of her velvety fingertips.
“I plan to purchase the series on Blu-ray as soon as it becomes available.”
Cliff had no idea that the Discovery Channel was planning on releasing the series for home entertainment. Maybe he was not as undervalued as he felt. “Thank you, kindly.”
“By the way,” she extended her creamy-toned hand. “My name is Laura.” She smiled revealing the brightest and straightest teeth he had certainly seen since being in Alabama thus long. “I’m one of the librarians here.”
He took her hand and brought it to his lips, kissing it gently, causing her to blush.
“Oh my,” she said. “You are a gentleman.”
It was finally clear to him that she knew nothing about him. He was a wolf in gentleman’s clothing…the kind of wolf her daddy probably warned her about. He was just about to invite her out for a drink when one of the other librarians interrupted them.
“Can I show you something really quickly, Laura.”
Her face still rosy-red from having his lips on her hand, she walked away following the gentleman who may have ruined his chance at having a nice, steamy evening.
He looked back down at the books and rolled his eyes. How dull!
Then he remembered standing where the devastation had occurred.
Dull, but necessary, he corrected himself, suddenly thankful for the assistance he had so far received inside this great knowledge resource for the city and county of Montgomery.
# # # # #
It kept bugging Stan…everything from the jagged and utterly demolished overpass all the way to the girl who disappeared almost before his very eyes.
As far as the latter disturbance, he had often heard that the only time when the mind was open to suggestions and hallucinations was the moment just before falling asleep and just before waking up. At all other times, the mind was very resilient, and his had always been extremely sharp during these peak times of wakefulness.
Then how the hell had he convinced himself that there was another survivor present but unaccounted for? He clearly remembered what the girl looked like. She was dressed in a way that would have made him think she was extremely cold-natured, or maybe even had one of those diseases where the slightest draft could put them into a fit of pneumonia. Yet, he had to admit she donned that winter coat in a manner not altogether different than a fashion model. More importantly, if she was real, she was probably someone’s daughter; and they had likely been worried to death about her that evening.
This caused him to think about his own daughter. How would he have felt if she had been in such a horrific location at that same time of night he and Amanda had been there trying to make sense and good of a terrible situation neither of them would ever forget? He immediately shrugged off the thought of how he would have reacted if he had found her dead in one of those vehicles. This accident definitely made him decide that she would be a late driver in life.
But as for the strange girl who was present there that night, of course she couldn’t have been real? If she had been, then she must have been a ninja, the way she had disappeared!
These thoughts persisted, making him wonder if he needed be concerned. So he left work a tad-bit earlier than usual and drove back to the Pintlala / Tyson exit. He stopped at the three nearest convenience stores and asked around about the girl. At one point, an elderly woman gave him a strange look when he described her. Then she told him that she hadn’t seen anyone matching that description. He gently grabbed the upper part of her arm as she started to walk away.
“Ma’am, if you know anything about that young lady, then you need to tell me.”
Her eyes glared at him and then down to her arm, and he released her. Now she sneered at him. “Maybe I know her, maybe I don’t. But I don’t have to tell you diddly.” She then turned and walked away from him as he stood there still grinning at her choice of words. He spent about 15 minutes at each gas station questioning people who were coming and going. But no one told him anything useful.
As he was getting back onto the interstate, headed toward Montgomery, his mind kept drifting back to the old lady. If she knew anything, why didn’t she tell him?
Just before he got home, he suddenly figured out one possible reason why she wouldn’t give him any information. Perhaps she had also been a victim of the “now you see her, now you don’t” phenomenon. But at least she could blame hers on senility…on what the hell could he blame his tricks of vision?
# # # # #
Adrianna walked along the interstate trying to thumb a ride to the next exit, which she knew was more than a few miles ahead. Very shocked, though not surprised, that her old car overheated, she started her evening trek down the side of the highway. She had been on her way home to Evergreen from spending the last few days off from work with her boyfriend in Atlanta, Georgia and only wanted to get home to enjoy the next episode of Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix.
To make her current dilemma even worse, her cellular phone had died not even an hour before. With her vehicle being an old tan early 90s model Honda Accord, there were no USB hookups available to charge it. And if there had been, she had accidentally left her charge cable at home.
Thus she was totally screwed, having to walk in the dimming light of dusk to the closest exit. From there she would have to ask, maybe even beg, some convenient store manager to permit her to use their phone, so she could call her roommate.
The sound of night disturbingly announced itself to her leaving her feeling somewhere between Wonderland and Sleepy Hollow. She had made this trip every workday for the past two years, and never did even stop to acknowledge that nature continued on even though she watched it pass by through the sophistication and protection afforded by her automobile.
Cars just kept whizzing by, leaving her amazed that no one had even stopped to ask her if she was alright. What a nice world we live in today, she sarcastically thought. But the fleeting pessimism was interrupted by a crackle of leaves in the tree line.
What the hell was that?
She then remembered that a notorious killer was said to stalk this very same stretch of highway. What were the chances that the creep stalked women from within the adjacent woods? Here in Alabama, it wouldn’t be unreasonable at all. Many hunters were born, bred, and taught their skills throughout the entire South. So it stood to reason that the killer could be an avid and accomplished hunter.
Next, she thought she had seen a dark mass shift between some trees just as another vehicle passed by her. She stopped, stood by, and surveyed carefully to see if she could see any movement within that same sector of shrubby area.
Suddenly feeling very concerned and afraid, she crossed her arms and started to bite the nails on her right hand. Is someone out there stalking me?
Strangely enough, right after thinking this, a large truck slowed down, the color being hard to decipher in the darkness. And the driver drove it onto the right-side shoulder of the road about 10 yards ahead of her.
Just as she neared the truck, the driver appeared around that side of its bed and asked her in a shallow Southern accent: “You need a lift, young lady?”
Initially, the guy really intimidated the hell out of her. He stood more than 6-foot high and wore a red, black, and white plaid flannel shirt and some blue jeans with some types of dirt stains on them. He removed his black Winchester cap and politely nodded to her. Upon its removal, she observed wiry, graying black hair and a rather large pot-belly. His face reminded her of some dude she once saw on television doing some commercials for one of the many credit card companies on the market. But she truly believed someone or something may have been tracking her from the trees. So she figured this fellow could be a true blessing to her in perfect time of need.
“My vehicle overheated, so I’m trying to get to the closest gas station to call my roommate.”
He led her around to the passenger-side of his cab and opened the door for her.
After he held it open, she stood there, reluctant to get in once again wondering about the chances of this fellow being the notorious killer. But she had always heard that truckers were often good people who liked helping others along the road whenever possible. And once again, there was the person or thing in the woods. Besides all of this, the man was also old enough to be her father, so she suspected that maybe he was just being fatherly to her. She finally smiled gingerly and climbed up. Her jeans were tight, so she had a bit of trouble getting in.
“Want some help?”
Before she could deny his assistance, she felt his large hands on her hips and his thumbs just under her buttocks. But even more so, she felt his strength as he lifted her up to the cab. She was a little uncomfortable that this older man had already touched her ass. But she was still more comfortable than she would have been after walking a few more miles, terrified out of her skin. So she thanked him as he was closing her door for her.
Shortly afterward, he was climbing into the cab on the other side of his vehicle.
“My name is Adrianna,” she said, holding out her hand. But he concentrated more on getting the truck moving again and must not have heard her nor saw her hand. She was not turned off at all that he did not regard her gesture. After all, he was being kind enough to let her ride with him. She suspected that it was never a great idea to pick up strangers. Because in the state of Alabama, it was very easy for everyday ordinary people to obtain firearms.
She thought about engaging her host in conversation, but she didn’t want to make a nuisance of herself and instead chose to just keep quiet until he got her off at the next exit or spoke to her first. After all, he seemed to be a very attentive driver.
She suddenly became a bit uncomfortable when he passed the next exit!
“Wait,” she said a bit impatiently. “Why didn’t you get off?”
He looked at her and said in a weird tone: “The people at those service stations ain’t too friendly. I’m taking you somewhere where they will be nice enough to let you use their phones.” But she wasn’t buying it and suddenly became extremely anxious and suspicious of him. In her mind, she prayed: Lord, please don’t let this be what I am afraid it is. She suddenly started to think of a plan-B in the event the guy really was some creep who had an interest in harming or killing her.
After saying the silent prayer and thinking about a way to escape, she felt only a little more comfortable. Several minutes later, she looked down at her watch and pressed the light on it: 8:10 p.m. It had only been about 10 minutes, but it felt as though it had been 20.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, they both noticed a woman in the road! And, if her eyes had seen correctly, she was missing her head! The corpse seemed to be pointing right at the driver.
The creepy trucker swerved to miss her, and must have succeeded. As the vehicle had jolted toward the right lane, Adrianna felt something bump her ankle. If the trucker had hit the woman, she heard nor felt any indicator of it. She was promptly aware that it strangely and rapidly felt as cold as winter inside the truck cab. And she felt the goose flesh appearing on both her arms as they were once again crossed before her, but this time in an effort to get and keep warm.
Whatever it was that hit her ankle was now rolling around near her feet. Curious, she looked down just as the truck was passing underneath a street lamp, and she saw a horrified face upon a mussed up head looking up at her. She quickly screamed and lifted her feet off the floorboard of the vehicle. Then she looked down again in total disbelief at what she was actually seeing. A streak of blood had apparently smeared the victim’s chin just above what looked like the fatal cut. The head was especially terrifying with all the hair splayed out and around all over it. It rolled away once more back into the darkness and then back out again. What was really strange was that the lips were moving! How the hell could this be! She couldn’t hear any words, but she could read the lips quite clearly: Get Out!
At the wheel of his forest green Ford Flex, Cliff pulled into the full parking lot of a nightclub called The Buttery Nickel. While leaving his eyes open for a parking spot, he eyed a white Nissan Maxima near the front of the club, backing out. So he cruised right up to the spot and waited so that he could take it. As the car began its forward momentum at an angle now facing his front windshield, he saw two women in the front seat. He immediately thought to himself: It’s awfully early to be leaving now. He looked at his watch to confirm the mental comment…8:34. The woman in the passenger side pointed at him, and the other one joined her in gawking. They then looked at each other and laughed. One of them made the universal “L” symbol with her thumb and index finger, concluding by bringing the thumb up to her forehead. Having just called him a “Loser” in urban sign language, they next both laughed upon noticing his perturbed reaction.
He found himself getting numb to all the ridicule but wasn’t quite there yet.
He glared at them as they went by. “Bitches,” he spat. “Like you haven’t done anything wrong in your lives.” He shook his head. “Damned cum-dumpsters…”
He found his way into the very same club that had been complicit in the willful participation of the wrecking of his morning. Maybe tonight he could leave with his wits about him. As he walked through the front door, he was bombarded with what felt like hundreds of thousands of decibels pumping so loud he could feel his bones vibrating and enough cigarette smoke to clog the lungs of every non-smoker in and out of attendance.
Upon advancing toward the greeter and seeing deeper therein, he observed plenty of eager and energetic souls socializing or swaying in sync to the music. And it was then he instantly reminded himself for the umpteenth time that week that he was old enough to be a father to almost every person in the club, a realization that he could have much less done without. Too bad it isn’t Father’s Day, he cynically opined. The pretty girl in the cashier cage waved him through.
“What, no I.D. check?” he grinned at her, and she ignored him. He couldn’t tell whether or not she was a hater of formerly famous disgraced paranormal investigators. But he really didn’t think so. She didn’t possess the same sneer that he had just seen on the faces of the two hose monsters that had just been parked in the very same spot as his Flex.
Why the hell did he continue to go out to nightclubs? All it served to do was make him think back to the days when he was much younger and just as vibrant or maybe even more so than those in this very club that night. But he had very fond memories of the fun he had with college buddies in midtown Atlanta, back in the days when it seemed almost everyone he met was older than him. Alas, he stepped up to the bar and raised a laterally folded five spot up as if it were a flag of surrender…for he certainly surrendered his morals more often than he cared to admit, these days. Then he resumed the mental conversation he had been enjoying with his conscience only seconds before.
Nowadays, it seemed that he was older than almost everyone he met. Maybe I should start hanging out at nursing homes, he sarcastically suggested to himself. At least I should be able to keep up with those guys.
He suddenly felt guilty about these thoughts. I need to respect my elders…otherwise, I am no different than all these Cliff haters out here.
While waiting for the bartender, he visually took in his surroundings. Flat screen monitors positioned at various corners of the bar featured sports channels, the volume of which was drowned out by the popular music of the evening pulsing so loudly that he could now feel the counter-top vibrating to the beat as he leaned against it. Nearly a dozen neon signs and other brightly-lit attention-getters casted two different auras of glowing colors – some flashing, others hazy and dream-like. The many guests in the bar sported various types of grins on their faces: grins of camaraderie, grins of humor – perhaps at jokes that may have been told or anecdotes that had been shared, grins of inebriation, and grins of lust – the knowledge by couples who just met that they would both end up in a more private setting after enjoying a few drinks or a few visits to the dance floor.
The bartender stepped up to him, interrupting his observation. She seemed to be only about ten years younger. Alas! Someone closer to my generation! She suddenly recognized him and smiled widely. “Hello, Cliff!”
He suddenly studied her mannerisms, which were entirely similar to those fans – the majority of them anyway – who used to stand by him. Unfortunately, there were not very many of them left out there as he ruefully continued to discover. But he figured he would desperately siphon off the enthusiasm of this one. His ego certainly needed it. “Hey, there, doll!” He smiled broadly.
“Welcome to Montgomery, Alabama!” She reached over and patted his hand with her cool, damp one.
“Suddenly feeling welcome for a change.” He frowned.
“Don’t sweat it,” she advised, yelling loudly over the techno-rock song that had just started cranking out from the speakers all over the large dance floor. “We all have our share of bad times.”
“You have me at a disadvantage,” he extended his hand to her.
“Marnie Flynn,” she said, giving him hers. He kissed it politely, the second time he had charmed a woman this way on this same trip and on the same day.
She blushed and leaned over the bar, her face close to his shoulder. He leaned forward, and she spoke into his ear. “Don’t tell anyone, but your drinks are on me.” Her lip gently brushed his earlobe, causing him to wonder if it was accidental clumsiness or purposeful flirtation. Before she drew away, he quickly pecked her on the cheek guessing it may have been the latter. Now she gushed with pride at having had her face kissed by a celebrity!
Cliff continued flirting with her, his eyes and lips smiling in a way all too enticing. He gently squeezed her hand in appreciation for her generosity.
“What do you want to start off with?”
He grinned. “I’ll have a Screwdriver…”
Sure as clockwork, she reached over, grabbed a medium-sized glass and went over to the refrigerator where she reached in and removed a jug of orange juice. He watched her as she prepared his drink. She certainly had a gorgeous body, but he knew that he could never seriously date a bartender. It would either be the death of him or his freedom. One way or another, he would be screwed, and, in the end, it would most certainly not be in the way that he would have preferred. If he didn’t die at the hands of some thug who hit on his woman, he would most certainly have ended up in the slammer for having severely beaten or killed the thug instead. Nothing good would come from such a relationship. But she certainly was lively.
His eyes traced their way from lovely, well-toned legs all the way up to where her skirt protested his visual enjoyment. But it resumed once more as he gazed upon the shape and curves of her alluring backside. As a teenager, he and an old friend used to make jokes about the sounds different people’s rear ends would make if they were alive. He once suggested that an overly skinny woman’s butt would make a squeaky sound, imitating it to their sheer enjoyment. But Marnie’s beautifully sculpted back end could only evoke one sound from within his heart and mind: a yodel of joy! And who says that God is not the greatest artist who ever lived? he somewhat blasphemously thought.
She came back a short moment later with his drink placing a napkin down for him and carefully resting the glass upon it. “There you go.” He noticed that the glass was filled up halfway. He hesitated upon taking the glass and grinned at her. In response, she asked: “So what do you think of your current situation, Cliff? Is the glass half empty or half full?”
He thought about the question. These days, the proverbial glass was half empty. But he tried not to let it get him down and instead pretended that it was half full. This is after all how he ended up in Montgomery, Alabama.
“Fuck it,” he said. “Either way, I think I need a bigger glass…”
She laughed as he kept a seductive grin on his face. “I got you covered, sweetie.” She reached from underneath the bar and dramatically spun a bigger glass vertically while lowering it down in front of him next to the smaller one. She finally took the smaller glass and emptied the contents into the bigger one. Then she added more of the drink mixture from the original shaker into the tall glass that would be his new drink…now unquestionably full. “You look like a glass full sort of guy, Cliff Rodger!”
“You weren’t here last night,” he said.
She shook her head. “I had the night off.”
“Well it is certainly my pleasure meeting you.” He paused momentarily before adding: “It’s always nice meeting a gorgeous woman who believes in filling a man’s glass to the brim.” He smiled broadly, and she did the same. He thought he could see desire in her eyes. He knew that he most certainly had it in his as well, having not even bothered to conceal it. But did he really want to take her back to his motel? After all, the place was a total turd. And he would probably be coming back to this night club at least a few more times before he headed back to Atlanta. He dismally realized that if he had a one-night stand with anyone at the club, it must not be anyone who worked there.
Most importantly, he needed to remain focused as possible on his investigation. Having a woman fall in love with him, or even him potentially falling in love with her first, would not be in the best interest of his investigation. So if he got involved in any intimate encounters, they would have to be entirely physical, one-night affairs. Besides all of this, his savings account was running lower than he desired, so he would need to buckle down for the time being.
He looked around the club. It seemed to be a good night. The dance floor was full, though not packed. The DJ was rocking the house with Nine Inch Nails’s Closer. Everyone on the dance floor seemed to step and sway in almost perfect rhythm to the music. Cliff always liked Trent Reznor’s music, though he did not approve of the lyrics of many of NIN’s songs. He may not have been the most obedient Christian in the world; and he had more than his fair share of vices. But he still believed in God and appreciated that Jesus died for him on the cross. Perhaps if he would have had more faith, or stronger faith, he never would have fallen into Pruitt’s trap. But his fear of losing the series drew him right in, and – as a result – corporate stiff-collars chewed him up and spit him out. And now, it seemed, most Americans detested him. And the kind few who didn’t continued to serve as a true blessing to him.
But his faith needed to take the backseat to his ego at this particular moment. He scanned the many faces in the club for gorgeous women who could be his temporary bedmate for the evening. Never mind the fact that he knew premarital sex was a sin! Right now, what was good for the ego was certainly good for him.
He saw a group of four young women sitting at a tall table next to the dance floor. He figured he should ask one of them to dance. Let’s see, which one should I ask?
There was a red-head with a neutral look on her face. Screw that! Most red-heads he had known in life possessed the worst temper to match. Next to her was a girl with black hair who had a very perturbed look on her face. To hell with that! If she didn’t want to be there, who the hell was he to think he could change her mind? Across from Red Bull was a truly gorgeous blond who seemed to resemble a more matronly and sober version of Courtney Love. But she seemed to be watching all the men nearby who wore suits or more expensive attire. She had G-O-L-D-D-I-G-G-E-R written all over her. So hell no to her! The brunette who was sitting with them seemed to be more down-to-earth than the rest of them. But if she was so sweet, then why was she sitting next to the likes of them?
“Hi there,” he said to her, as he stepped up to their table.
They all seemed to look at him in savage amusement. But it did not appear that any of them recognized him.
He smiled at the brunette, finally noticing the color of her eyes: green. “You want to dance?”
Out of nowhere, she sneered at him while her friends seemed to roll their eyes. “I don’t think so.”
Even though the words seemed quite subdued, it was the tone that stung like hell. He looked at her friends, rolling his eyes as well. Then he regarded her with snobbish grin. “That’s perfectly alright,” he said. “I’ve gotta go take a shit anyway…” With this, he strolled away. All four women looked at one another in dumbfounded amazement.
# # # # #
Adrianna had fainted while in the truck with the older stranger. The sight of a human head at her feet was horrifying enough, but the fact that the lips had been moving had caused a light-headiness, which overcame her willpower to stay lucid.
Now she slowly regained consciousness in a very dank, dark place. A mixture of terrible odors assaulted her sense of smell in a way that almost made her nauseous. She smelled a sweaty, soured, and a strong coppery scent. She felt as if she was lying on a narrow, hard object of some sort, maybe a bench. The scents around her were simply unnerving and truly offensive. As she opened her eyes, she saw a hint of light ahead and to the right. But her vision was hindered by something between her and the light. She tried to move but couldn’t. She suddenly realized she was tied up with some type of material; maybe burlap; covering her entire body, including her head. She could feel the rough texture of the material hard against her skin. She realized that she was naked after barely moving her hands around enough to confirm it.
A shishking sound, like knives being sharpened, commenced, grating on every last nerve fiber and seemingly testing what little was left of her sanity.
Should she call out? After thinking about it for a couple of minutes, she decided her best move would be to feign continued unconsciousness and run as soon as soon as this sick bastard untied her. Extremely terrified by these very unnerving sensations surrounding her, she realized that her situation did not present a very favorable outlook.
SHISSSHK! SHISSSHK! SHISSSHK!
If he was sharpening knives, then why the hell was he doing so? Was he planning on cutting her up or something?
Would he untie her before he killed her? She continued to think about what all he may possibly do to her.
She wondered if he would rape her. She then realized that if he was going to do so, he would have to undo the binds on her ankles. And what would she do if he did undo them? She then decided she would have to kick him as hard as she could, get to her feet, and run the hell out of there, wherever in God’s name she was!
Now she heard a new sound. Whatever he was doing made a low, sustained hum. And on top of that, she heard the clank of chains, which caused her to shudder, but hopefully not visibly. Where in the hell were they? She could suddenly hear his footsteps nearing her and became aware of her heart beating hard beneath her breast. Now the burlap roughly scraped her skin as she was unveiled from what ended up being a bag. She allowed herself to fall limply back down on the cold surface of what ended up being a steel or metal bench. The coldness sent chills through her spine, reminding her that she was wide awake and not dreaming. It took all the self restraint she could muster to not recoil against the cold metal. She hoped to have kept a straight face in spite of this new shocking sensation to her skin.
Next, she suddenly felt his hands hungrily groping and gently pinching her breasts. The man apparently liked what the coldness did to her. She was so terrified and disgusted and wanted to attempt to flee now; but she stayed true to her previous resolution. A chilling whisper came to her ear, “Oh yes. Your tits will do nicely…” He gave her right breast one final squeeze and gently rolled her nipple between his thumb and index finger, as if he was sculpting clay.
She suddenly heard his belt buckle clinking around and heard his pants drop to the floor.
Her horny host then sucked both her breasts, and hard too!
She wanted to scream. But she lay there and endured the humiliation, knowing that it would soon end when he decided to free her ankles. Now she felt his tongue trickling down to her belly button. She felt his stubble against the front of her thighs and then felt him lifting them. She felt intense pain when he plunged three fingers inside her.
Now she was afraid he was going to rape her with her legs suspended in the air. He could possibly gain access in that manner if he forced her thighs forward toward her breast.
Now he kissed and sucked her calves. Then he sucked on all the toes of her right foot, and licked the inner curve of her left. This man was a sick and kinky bastard! How could she have ever thought of him as a fatherly and kind gentleman!
Now he slid both his hands along her outer thighs, and she felt something stiff poke her left one. Ugg.
Now she was sure that he was going to rape her while she was bound and helpless. But to her surprise she became gravely concerned when cold metal briefly touched her ankle. Could this be the knife he might have been sharpening?
She felt a hard, quick tug on her ankles, then they were free! She allowed them to drop down to the bench with a slap, not wanting to give him any hint that she was now conscious. Her instinct told her to seize this opportunity immediately. But she didn’t have enough information about her surroundings quite yet.
She slowly and discreetly peeked through squinted eyes to see him looking down at her genitalia while sucking his fingers. He was not even looking at her face. She suddenly felt his hands lift her buttocks off the bench, and her legs flailing downward toward the floor. Her back slid down the bench, inching her crotch toward his as he raised her body so he could access her most private parts. Now she felt the same stiff object, now warm, starting to enter her.
Now was the time! She quickly rolled to the left side, attempting to kick him under his chin. But he quickly moved away and dropped her back onto the bench. She pushed herself off but then became aware of something hard slamming into the side of her head. First, she felt a throbbing, unrelenting pain. Then, she saw darkness once more for the second time that evening.
# # # # #
Sometime close to midnight, Cliff had finished his third soda for the evening. He had paced himself the entire time, for once, taking control of his addiction to drinking. Between each long-neck bottle of beer he had consumed, he had ordered a soda.
He considered having a fourth beer, but he knew that he really should get rested up for his meeting in the morning. He looked around for any great reasons to stay. The sound of the music, thumping loudly, vibrating the very stool on which he sat, appealed to him. The neon signs festively lit the various walls of the club, causing what looked almost like brightly-blurred shadows, a diffusion of light amid all the faces touched by it.
At one table, a young couple kissed each other, oblivious to the fact that Cliff and others could have been watching.
Cliff remembered when he was once that young. The world seemed to be a much better place back then. There were not as many financial worries; and not as many people who meant to harm others simply out of spite, greed, or malice.
The dance floor was packed! He had danced with a few women that night. None of them knew or recognized him. These days, it seemed as if he would rather meet people who didn’t know him than those who did. One thing he could not help continue noticing was that most of the crowd was young. He could count, on one hand, the number of people that were within ten years to his age.
His body, these days, constantly reminded him that he was not the spry young man he used to be. He used to enjoy running. After a doctor told him he had a herniated disc, he knew that his days as a runner were numbered. Ten years and two more herniated discs later, his doctor finally told him that he needed to stop running altogether.
Ever since then, he suffered flare-ups in his neck, shoulder and upper arm. When he was as young as most of those sitting, standing, or dancing near him that very moment, he used to be able to cut quite the rug on the dance floor. His body seemed a bit creakier these days, however. And he was becoming stiffer as the years went by. Maybe this was why some younger people call older people stiffs, a term usually reserved for dead people.
He then had a sad, but amusing thought: As babies, we spend nine months trying to get out of a woman’s vagina. Then, as grown men, we spend the rest of our lives trying to get back in. As babies, we are bald and we pee and poop all over ourselves. As elderly people, we are often bald and we pee and poop all over our selves.
…about that fourth beer for the evening…he instead looked at his watch and decided to head back to his roach motel before he tied on another nasty hangover for later that morning. He only half-jokingly wondered if it was true what was said about “not checking out”.
He went back to his motel, got undressed, and slid in beneath the soured, stained sheets. He thought about his investigation and the person he would meet the next day. Would he be a help or a hindrance? For some strange reason, he suspected the person would likely be the latter. After all, Cliff was a grown man; he didn’t need a chaperon. He also decided he would put some cameras out along the highway. Maybe he could get lucky and catch some paranormal activity on film. The small amount of booze coursing through his blood barely soothed the pain in his neck down to a dull throb, making it very possible for him to relax for a change.
It did not take long for him to fall asleep. The three beers had relaxed him all through the night. The last thought before he drifted off to sleep had been pride over the fact that he controlled his drinking instead of letting it control him.
# # # # #
Amanda awakened in the middle of the night, crying and screaming. The dream she had just experienced had been extremely real, all the way down to the smell of molten, stomach-turning death she had experienced for the third time in her career as an Alabama state trooper. The most recent visit to the interstate accident scene had been the second time. Her first time had been on her first official patrol as a state trooper when she encountered some of the Highwayman’s horrific handiwork first hand. But she thankfully managed to shake off that vision before it could haunt her once more.
The charred stench of burnt human flesh now resided in her closet after she hung her uniform there the previous day, immediately after getting home from responding to the carnage on the interstate. She had intended, originally to take it to the cleaners.
Was it this smell that prompted such an awful nightmare? She asked herself. “Damn me for being a creature of habit,” she said, getting out of bed, wiping sweat off her forehead with her right forearm, and then the tears from her eyes with her index fingers. She walked over to the closet, grabbed the uniform, and headed off into the laundry room.
She reluctantly threw both main articles of clothing into the washer. She would have preferred to have it dry cleaned as she normally did. But this smell lingered like some bad memory she could not escape. Then she realized: Oh. It is a bad memory that I cannot escape.
After she started the washer, she decided she would get her uniform steam cleaned and pressed within the next couple of days. She never realized that the smell had embedded itself into her clothing like an unshakable curse and would not come out any time soon, even after weeks of laundering.
She removed a vanilla cappuccino K-cup from the pantry, went to her Keurig coffee maker, and slipped it into the holder, just before starting the brewing process. Within the next five minutes, she was sitting at the dining room table trying to get her thoughts together prior to lying back down to get more rest.
This is real smart of me, drinking coffee before going back to bed. But she subconsciously figured it would be an effective way to exorcise the past week’s demons.
She then remembered the image of Troy Dalessandro’s caved-in face – his dead mouth gaping open, revealing teeth broken off in his gums; his nose completely flattened, blood bubbling out from the flaring slits, which were his nostrils; his lifeless eyes cold and distant, almost rolling completely up into his upper eyelids. She had just lifted his head off the steering wheel of his Chevy Corvette during the recent accident. As she held his head up with his face turned toward hers, his vacant eyes suddenly sprang back to life and focused on her shocked countenance. Troy’s voice boomed, dramatically echoing in her head once again as she remembered his words in this very vivid dream setting she just visited: “Hi, Mandy…I guess I got what I deserved after all…” She remembered seeing one of his teeth fragments tumbling off one of his lips as he uttered these remarkable words.
She knew that Troy did not deserve death. But she had initially felt differently that one evening she had witnessed his betrayal. Did she subconsciously want him to die? Is this why she had the dream?
“I’m not going to be worth a damn this morning,” she mumbled to herself, remembering that Stan wanted her to meet with a particular investigator first thing that morning to discuss a new approach to solving the problem they were having with highway safety.
# # # # #
Adrianna awakened once again. She was still naked, but this time hanging upside down over a rectangular, grill-covered drain. First, she noticed that her hands were tied to whatever object was managing to keep her suspended over the ground. Secondly, her feet felt as though they were asleep and her ankles, like fire. Finally, her vulva was sore and vaginal lips rubbed raw. The son-of-a-bitch had raped her!
Once again, she heard that same low hum from earlier. The side of her head pounded with severe pain as she realized that blood was trickling from her mouth. When she tried to bring her abdomen up and forward, she saw that her ankles were tightly tied to a strange contraption that looked like an upside-down “Y”. The top of this bizarre piece of equipment was a single hook connected to a chain rigged to a winch that kept her suspended from the ceiling. Her ankles were tied to the top of the device, helping her to understand those uncomfortable sensations in her ankles and feet.
From behind her came the same voice she heard in the truck earlier that evening. She heard her captor as he moved around to the side she was facing and activated a button on a box with a chain coming from it. And her body lifted higher off the ground. “I used to pierce the ankles with the points on the gambrel,” he said pointing at the place where her ankles were tied. “But my victims often weighed too much and their ankles would fall apart after several minutes.”
She began breathing heavily, unable to believe what was happening to her. “So I started piercing them behind the legs, close to the knees.” The callous and rough bottom of his hand now smoothly caressed her leg. “But I can’t pierce these legs,” he said. “They are too beautiful.”
“Why are you doing this to me?” she asked desperately.
“You’re my guest for the night,” he said in a tone that sounded as a matter of fact. “I selected you for a special project. And I will be needing those sexy legs of yours.” He then shook his head a little. “…I mean my future wife needs your legs.”
She was shocked and suddenly angry. “What the hell are you talking about you fucking whacko?” Her eyes seemingly spit venom in his face. “You’re going to kill me, you bastard! I’m someone’s daughter and another’s girlfriend, you sick, perverted fuck!” She had stopped yelling to let her words sink in.
But her abductor grabbed a large cutting knife, probably the same one he had been using earlier.
She regretfully realized that nothing she could tell him would stop him from killing her. This killer, most likely the one who was kidnapping and killing women on the highway, did not tick like everyone else. The man was completely insane!
“Go ahead and kill me, asshole! I’ll come back and haunt your sorry ass.” She then started weeping.
He said in a rather gritty tone. “Too late for that, someone already beat you to it.”
He then sank the knife in her lower abdomen and slowly pulled it downward.
Adrianna suddenly felt a sharp, searing pain just above her genitals. Then she was aware of her own blood dripping profusely down to her chin. And the more the pain spread downward toward her neck, the blood gushed more freely. She screamed as her face was completely flooded with the remainder of what was left of her vitality. She began choking as her own vitae seemed to flood her nose and mouth. Her body had been shaking violently when the taker of her life started to cut her open. But the further down he brought the knife, the strength behind the movement finally began to cease.
She saw various innards either slithering down her chin or spilling out only inches away from her face. The last thing she saw before dying on the gambrel was her ruby-red blood swirling down the drain below her. Finally, she took her last breath and moved no more.
Amanda Heath sat in her office sipping her vanilla cappuccino coffee. Even though her job was not the safest in the world, she still managed to take enough time out to be a lady who enjoyed the finer things in life. For example, she preferred the sweeter varieties of coffee. On the rare occasions that she deviated from that, she would always use plenty of creamer and artificial sweetener. Of the different sweeteners, she preferred Truvia, with Splenda coming in at a close second place. But she really hated artificial sugar, which is why she enjoyed her vanilla cappuccino.
She truly felt that people should reward themselves frequently for whatever small victories they won. For her, she succeeded in allaying the fears of her parents. They both wanted her to be successful and were a bit worried while raising her that she would be overcome by the world’s chauvinistic tendencies…her dad especially.
Peter Heath had never been a chauvinistic pig in the workplace, but he had dealt with a few of them in the logging industry. Some of his fellow loggers would make cat calls toward women when they took their breaks, and he did not stand for it. He had always felt that men should be nothing less than gentlemen in the presence of women. He had once gotten into a major fight over this, causing his wife to be concerned that he had fought for the honor of another woman. But after she had heard the story from some of his closest logging buddies, she regretted ever having any doubts about their relationship and even respected and loved him all the more for the stance he had made.
Amanda’s Dad was very proud of her. Not only had she succeeded in a man’s world, but she had even made her mark in a way that could never be disputed. As soon as he had heard that she had become the assistant troop commander, he had thrown a lavish party in his home, inviting not only her other siblings, but many other family and friends.
The assistant troop commander looked at the clock on her wall: 8:53 a.m….only seven more minutes before she would meet the investigator that Stan expected her to assist. He never said from which governmental entity this investigator would come, if not a private contractor altogether. She asked how she got tapped for this duty. And he blatantly ignored the question, instead choosing to head home to be with his family. But she knew why. The problem was that everyone else did too. He was grooming her to take his position as soon as he either got promoted or retired; whichever came first.
It was no wonder that everyone figured the two of them had some sort of affair going on. Their relationship was entirely professional though. After all, he was a happily-married man who seemed more like a father to her than anything else. Perhaps this was the reason that she was the only trooper in the building allowed to have her own office. She knew better than anyone else how she had worked her ass off to get where she was today. She pulled her fair share of patrols along the different highways in her assigned areas of responsibility. She also managed to survive some pretty hairy situations, which would have made many other troopers with whom she worked shit themselves.
She had accomplished quite a bit working for the Alabama Highway Patrol, and all of this with only a high school diploma. There were troopers with higher educational qualifications who looked up to and respected her. And she felt truly honored and blessed to have their loyalty and trust.
She took a longer sip on her coffee and continued thinking about her 15 years with the Alabama Highway Patrol. The caffeine didn’t seem to be working, and neither did the sugar. She continued to feel as drug out as she had when she begrudgingly forced herself out of bed at 5 a.m. Now her intercom suddenly buzzed, awaking her from her dazed stupor; and she picked up the line. “Yes?”
“We’re ready for you…” It was Stan.
Once again, she looked at the clock: 8:54 a.m. Dammit, why can’t I have just six more minutes to get my mojo working?
She got up from her desk, slid the chair back in, and headed over to Stan’s office. She reluctantly decided to leave her cappuccino behind.
After she stepped into his office, she noticed the back of a gentleman with brown hair cut in a short style. He didn’t appear overly muscular, based on the dress shirt he was wearing; though he did look somewhat athletic. She had almost thought he was military. But from what she knew about military grooming standards, she realized his hair was slightly out of regulation. Besides, why would a military investigator be tasked to assist them?
At that moment, the man turned and smiled at her.
Initially, she felt a tingle from deep within when she noticed the investigator’s stunning green eyes. But then she finally recognized him as none other than Cliff Rodger.
The smile that had been forming on her face quickly retreated. Without a single word, she walked out of the office.
“Amanda,” Stan called to her back as she had just stepped out. Within seconds he was talking to her in her office.
“What in the hell is the matter with you?” He couldn’t believe her rudeness, as he’d never seen her act this way before.
“I’m not falling for this joke, Stan.” She grinned at him, though she really didn’t find it funny at all.
“This is no joke, Amanda.” He looked at her quite seriously.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” she clarified. “And neither do you! So what the hell is the deal with this fiasco?”
“Amanda, we have tried just about everything we know to do,” he explained. “I’ve contacted every Highway Patrol Chief in the United States to ask them how they would investigate this. And they were all kind enough to give me suggestions. And I have followed every single one of them…” He paused. “…except this.”
“But paranormal investigation!” Her eyes pleaded with his. As she spoke, her hands waved to and fro quite aggressively. Attempting to understand this turned out to be one of the most difficult things she had ever done before. “And Cliff Rodger of all people!”
Stan knew what was coming next.
“He’s a fraud, Stan…a major failure…”
Stan interrupted her. “He’s wanting a fair chance to prove himself once again in his community of expertise.”
“But this is the highest profile investigation that we have ever had to conduct,” she said. “Do you really want to risk it all on a washed up investigator who cheated his own loyal viewers?”
Stan tapped his index finger on the desk for emphasis. “I think it is the wisest thing for us to do,” he said. “I’ve already done a very thorough interview with him, and he has everything to gain by assisting us.”
“But we have everything to lose, Stan.”
“Or maybe just everything to gain,” he said in a corrective tone. He saw that she was about to continue arguing with him, and he quickly brought his index finger to his mouth in a gesture to shush her. “This is not up for debate, Amanda. I’m giving you a direct order to help him with his investigation. I want him to have full access to everything he needs. If he asks you to fetch him a cup of coffee, I expect you to ask him how he takes it.”
He saw the resigned look on her sullen face. Next his eyes pleaded with her.
“I really need this, Amanda. I need to be able to tell my boss that we have done absolutely everything we can do in order to determine the source of all these accidents.”
With this, he got up and gestured for her to follow him back to his office. And she did so, pacing angrily the whole way. For him, she would do her best to sit there and pretend the failed celebrity was of some sort of value to their investigation. But she knew that he was nothing other than a snake oil salesman, even if an incredibly handsome one.
They finally walked back into Stan’s office, and Cliff’s face lit up as they reentered. He got to his feet and offered Amanda his hand. “I’m Cliff. I’m looking forward to working with you guys.”
Reluctantly, she took it and shook it, going to extra trouble to grip his fingers as hard as she could. She delighted when she saw his face attempt to hide the discomfort he felt. And she grinned widely. “Hello, Cliff. It’s so good to see you again.”
His face looked confused.
Stan explained: “We used to watch your show in the break room.”
Amanda reiterated two of his words: “….used to.” She glared at Cliff.
Stan’s eyes scolded her for it. “…before it went off the air,” Stan pretended to correct. “Amanda is actually one of your biggest fans,” he clearly lied, and not to Amanda’s amusement.
Amanda’s eyes scolded him back. Asshole, she thought. Then she looked at Cliff who, she suspected, may have just been lustfully eyeballing her legs. Was he just checking me out, the ole dog? When his eyes came back up to meet hers she forced a curt smile that he promptly returned. She found herself flattered in spite of the irritation dominating her feelings about working with this washed-up ghost geek.
“She will be available at all times to you in order to assist with your investigation,” Stan said. “If you need anything, just let her know.”
Anything, as long as it doesn’t involve my body, heart, or soul.
Stan continued: “I’m going to be trying to track down the files of the survivors that you just asked me about…”
To which files could he be referring?
“…but in the meantime, the both of you can go ahead and pursue whatever investigation you feel you can before I gather them all up. If there are any other aspects that you care to check out, go ahead and pursue them.” Then he regarded Amanda. “If anyone closes a door in your face or refuses to give you any access, do everything in your power to convince them of the sheer importance of our investigation.”
“And what if they still don’t cooperate?” Amanda asked.
“Then call me,” Stan replied. “If they still don’t cooperate after I take charge, then I will contact the major.” Stan finally regarded both of them for the last time. “Okay. Any questions?”
“Yes,” Cliff said. “Can I go ahead and get a list of all the women who have died on the interstate since 1980?”
Stan smiled. “Of course.” He looked at Amanda. “Amanda, you know where that information is located. Go ahead and pull it for him, please.”
She glared at him.
Stan grabbed his Marine Corps coffee mug from his I Love Me display located just behind him and his desk. On the top shelf of a long bookcase, he had framed awards on display. These awards had been received while working as a state trooper in Alabama from 1994 all the way to the present time. The shelf below that had his various Marine Corps awards. An elaborate wood carving with an eagle, globe, and anchor – the famous Marine Corps emblem – on the left side of his name sat on the surface of his desk facing them. Most people had name plates, she thought. But larger than life macho fellows had name monuments. Stan then got up with his cup and started for the door.
“You guys feel free to start whenever you want,” he said. “Keep me in the loop, Amanda.” He patted her shoulder as he passed her on the way out of his office.
Now the two of them sat there silently, wondering who the first to speak or leave was going to be.
Cliff broke the silence: “You’re not really a fan of mine, are you?” His face stared at hers suspiciously.
You want to go there, dip-wad? “Oh, how could you tell?” she said sarcastically. “Hell no, I’m not your fan.”
He blushed. “I don’t really have that many fans left, Amanda.”
“You don’t get to call me Amanda,” she said, each word laced with acid. “You can call me ‘Lieutenant Heath’.”
Cliff cocked his head to the side as an indicator that he thought she was being a little rash. “Well, you can call me Cliff.” Then he apparently tried to clear the air with a humble smile. “Everyone else these days tends to call me loser, cheater, or wimp.” He frowned.
“What do you expect?” Her eyes crucified him where he sat. “I actually used to believe in ghosts and believe in you, Cliff. At one time, I really was your fan. But how much of your investigation footage was all bullshit?” She was about to say something else, but he broke in.
“Actually, the first part of the season consisted of actual investigation footage,” he said. “It wasn’t until around the middle that we started using special effects.”
She glared at him. “Special effects,” she spat. “Is that what you call it, Cliff? I’ll tell you what I call it. I call it a lack of integrity. I call it cheating…and deceiving the very people who kept your show on the air. I also call it a lack of respect for your viewers. Did you think we were stupid and would never find you out?” She gave him a chance to answer her, but he didn’t. “How do you think I feel about being at your beck and call while you waste much of Alabama’s tax money on fictional mumbo jumbo?”
Cliff shrugged his shoulders and slumped shamefully in his chair.
Strangely enough, Amanda took delight not only in having called him to the carpet, but also his depressed reaction. She had obviously shut him up. Now she took one last look over him before planning to be the first to leave.
Had she never had known him or about him, she automatically would have been attracted to him. She’d always felt he was extremely handsome and charismatic; he was also incredibly witty. She once actually had a rather erotic dream about him when she was still his fan. It had left her fantasizing about him until she finally was exhausted enough to fall back asleep about an hour or so afterward. But he would only hear about this over her dead body; and probably not even then as she would make sure to take that secret to the grave with her.
The strangest thing about meeting him was that she had always thought he was taller on the show. But she’d remembered movies like the “Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” where regular sized people were often made to appear short on film. He was no dwarf by any means; but sitting next to her, he may as well have been.
He was a little bit darker than her, and always had been for as long as she could remember. He had been proved to be just as dark on the inside as he was on the outside. She could tell that losing the show had done quite a number on him.
“You can chase shadows all you want, Cliff. But I plan to spend my time and our taxpayer dollars doing something realistic that will actually pay off. I really hate that I have to interrupt real work to assist you in hocus pocus. I feel like a cheerleader on one team being forced to cheer for another.” Her eyes spat at him. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
He finally looked at her peacefully. “Rah, rah, rah?”
She was taken by surprise by his response. Oh my God, what a silly response…but I must not crack a smile…I do not want to give him the impression that I find that comment at all amusing. She sneered at him instead.
He sat back and faced his palms open toward her. “Aman….er, Lieutenant Heath, I am so sorry for letting you and the rest of America down by making a very foolish and shameful decision.”
She could see that he was quite serious. Is he about to cry?
“The truth is,” he continued, “that I was terrified when I saw that our ratings were declining. I put in so much, not just for the show, but also all my equipment and other expenses.” Now he shook his head in utter embarrassment. “I made a mistake, and I am truly sorry…and not just for what it has done to me, but to you and others like you who used to give half a damn about me and my show.”
Maybe I can cut him a little slack, she considered. She softened her gaze realizing that a celebrity just apologized to her after baring his soul. This left her feeling very surreal. She did not know what to think. “Okay, we can start at the main branch of the Montgomery Library after I grab those files for you. It’s located downtown.”
Cliff smiled. “I know. I’ve already been there.”
# # # # #
Did Cliff just detect a hint of jealousy from Laura directed toward Amanda?
The two of them had just entered the main entrance after having crossed from the parking lot underneath the large overhang of the building, supported by two large brick columns on the very end, and four more pairs moving in toward the building. On the way in, they passed two concrete benches. Cliff noticed Amanda glancing to the left of the main entrance at another entrance leading into a large area with plenty of bookshelves of the fiction area, judging by the décor all around it. All of this was visible through the entire outer wall, which was comprised of various paned glass sections.
After having left the Montgomery troop a countless number of minutes earlier, Cliff couldn’t help but wonder if this was really happening. Was he really going to be working with a tall, gorgeous blond trooper for the next week or longer? Walking behind her, he lustfully looked over everything from her ankles all the way up to the duo-toned ponytail that swung back and forth with every step she took.
She didn’t seem the way he would have expected a female law-enforcement officer to be. She didn’t walk or look masculine in any way, shape, or form. Even her uniform was cut in a way that really turned him on, much different than that of Capt. Winston. The whole thing flattered her figure, making him afraid he would be daydreaming during the whole trip instead of focusing on his case. The uniform was the exact same as her boss’s, except for a couple minor details: The commendation bar on her left pocket was blue, instead of gray; and she had two stars on her service star plate. Even despite the close-fitting slacks she wore, which sported a gold stripe down the most sexy curves of her lower body, her legs were extremely enticing as well, giving him primal longings where he really did not need them at that moment. Prior to meeting her, he had been under the impression that most women in law enforcement were butch. Now he hung his head in shame at such a thought.
Initially, he had no idea that Capt. Winston’s assistant would turn out to be a woman. Woman, get out of my head, and into my bed! He suddenly realized just how chauvinistic this thought had been. She was the troop commander’s assistant, for crying out loud! So that must have meant that she was a damned good trooper…or that maybe they were sleeping together? Being that Cliff was a voting man, he chose to cast a ballot for the previous possible reason.
Now they were on their way to the Reference Section where Cliff figured they would find a large table to conduct research together. Before they found one available, Cliff tried to deflate his ego quite a bit. Laura had just directed them to a large, spiral staircase.
“Did that woman just glare at me?” Amanda asked, cocking her head toward the direction where they had just spoken to her, at the checkout counter near the main entrance.
Cliff attempted fruitlessly to suppress his grin.
They got to the staircase and started heading up into the spiral. Metallic bars on the outside of it allowed them to see the areas around the stairs, both upward and downward. The whole environment reminded him of a cage. And he was really disappointed that it wasn’t. He would never mind being caged up with such a hot and sexy woman like Amanda. I would just love to play perch to her bird, he thought, a big grin forming on his face.
This time, she noticed. “What are you smiling for?”
“Oh nothing,” he said. “This staircase reminds me of a cage.”
“…and that is funny, why?”
He could tell she was still pissed with Laura.
And she verified it for him: “Why the hell are they so damned rude here?”
Cliff shrugged his shoulders, feigning a dumbfounded expression. “Beats me. This is your town, remember?” He hoped that his amazed expression made it under her obviously very finely-tuned radar. For the second time that morning, the beautiful trooper had noticed things that anyone else might not have. First, while at the troop, he suspected that she may have caught him checking out the stunning shape of her calves and ankles. The sexy inner bend of her leg had alluringly commanded his interest when they had first met; and when he looked up at her face right afterward, he had blushed realizing that there could not have been any way that she could not have noticed him enjoying her gorgeous lower body. Now had she just noticed my flattery toward Laura’s dirty look only a mere moment ago?
Cliff really wanted to get to know Amanda in perhaps the same way that Laura obviously wanted to know him. Never mind the fact that the Amazon-like trooper could probably take him and break him over her knee. All he knew was that she would look absolutely stunning doing it! Hell, my back will heal! Bring it on, honey!
“If you are referring to the librarian who you say glared at you,” he grinned, “she flirted with me yesterday when I came in.”
Amanda rolled her eyes. “Well, she is more than welcome by me to pursue you in any way she wants.” Her eyes finally locked onto his. “I am truly uninterested.”
Wonderful, the woman of my dreams just made it clear to me that they are now all wasted on her. Why don’t she just make up her mind as to whether she likes me or not?
He finally realized that it probably would never have worked out anyway. For one thing, she was taller than him by at least three inches; and another, she would probably insist on being on top all the time if his dreams ever did come to fruition.
“Yea,” Cliff conceded. “You probably prefer women anyway.”
Her face showed that she was shocked by the comment. Upon seeing her reaction, he gave her a curt, yet very cool smile.
He realized he’d better change the subject. “Yesterday, I discovered more information about the legend of the ‘Girl on the Highway’.” He took a seat at the table and waited for her to comment.
But she was still stewing in anger at what he had just said.
Should he have not said anything after she was suddenly so rude to him? Did he just overstep his bounds as her guest? After giving it some quick thought, he finally decided that he was perfectly in the right to say what he had. After all, she had been rude to him first. He really needed to show her that two people could play that same game, and some even dirtier than others.
She finally spoke in a very irritated tone: “You can go ahead and chase Casper all you want.”
He could not believe that she just raised her nose in the air the way that snobby people normally do. He found it adorable. It strangely enough made him want to go to her, pull her back to him and kiss her, the way they used to do in the movies back in the 1930s and 1940s.
“…but I am going to look for some factual data that may realistically support our case.”
Cliff suddenly wondered why he had just sat down. He hadn’t even gathered any research materials yet. “Well enjoy yourself,” he said, uninterested in what she would be doing. She left him sitting there. He did not get up until she disappeared behind some bookshelves. Then he decisively went and retrieved the same books that had proved useful the day before.
# # # # #
Amanda’s ego had just sustained a deep impact, but she would make sure Cliff would never see just how bad it was affecting her.
Who the hell did he think he was, coming to Alabama after failing in his own chosen industry; and then having the gall to insult people who were succeeding in theirs?
First of all, what was that bitch’s problem? Does she really have a thing for failed paranormal investigators, or is Cliff just trying to have a little fun in an opportunistic effort to get a mere rise out of me? Then she remembered how a grin had formed after she had brought up the blatant rudeness. Okay, maybe the nerdy whore really does like him. But I have no interest in the foolish failure of a celebrity.
It suddenly occurred to her that she was dwelling on this a bit more than she should have been.
Oh, Shit. Do I care more for him than I realize? Why is all of this bothering me more than it really should?
She immediately convinced herself of her great dislike, disdain, and disregard for her imposing guest; and then looked for a sheet of paper onto which she could formulate her own research plan.
Amanda found a scrap slip of paper onto which she could make a list of reasonable environmental explanations. These would explain how this series of accidents could possibly be occurring. She listed: road conditions, weather, wildlife, and other types of animals.
Another thought about Cliff rudely broke in on her, the same way he had been thrown into her life that very moment: Was I too rude in my comment about her being able to have him so much as I am concerned? She considered his apologetic openness back at the troop. She blushed. Damn, I guess that really was a hostile and mean thing to say. So why the hell did she say it? Oh shit. Maybe I care more for Cliff’s feelings than I care to admit. The fact that thoughts of him once again pulled her away from her research offered definite proof of this.
Dammit! I need to set my priorities better.
With this, she got back down to task.
After considering all she had done thus far, she then decided to make a list of driver-related conditions: people driving drunk, falling asleep behind the wheel, being distracted by other riders or things in the car with them; for example, eating food and texting on cellular phones while driving.
Do I really look butch?
The thought seemed to have flown out from left field and smacked her hard, right in the forehead! But why was she feeling it in her heart?
Dammit, why am I allowing him to get to me this way! I clearly cannot stand the guy. Then she once again questioned this statement after considering all the evidence of how distracting thoughts of him were becoming.
But she managed once more to force him away from the forefront. Finally, she made a list of possible vehicular causes: tire blowouts, brake failure, vehicle combustion…then she paused, trying to think of other mechanical things that could cause bad accidents.
After having planned what she felt was a good research strategy, she went to work trying to find various books that would give any sort of helpful information on those various subjects. After retrieving several books, she took them to a different table than the one occupied by Cliff. Somehow, she managed to keep Cliff and his obvious and secret agendas out of her mind…at least for the moment.
# # # # #
The library Reference Section consisted of three different subsections: Non-Fiction, Computer Lab, and the Micrographics. Cliff took his books and the list that Amanda printed out for him to Micrographics where he found three desks, side by side, with their backs positioned against three other desks positioned inversely. The entire left side of the room consisted of cataloging drawers for microfilm and microfiche, all dating back to the year 1952. Between these drawers and the desks was a large island counter that contained a series of long drawers and vertical files, all positioned in no specific type of layout. Along the back wall were microfilm and microfiche machines. He was told that only one of them, the Microfilm Scan Pro 3000, was still in use. He figured the other machines must be equipment of a time almost forgotten.
Judging by the books on his desk at that moment, the appearances of the ghost did not begin to occur until around 1985. So he went to the microfilm catalog and grabbed the first three rolls that covered January 1985 onward. And he would continue to go through them at a rate of three-per-visit to the catalog. He did not think anyone would need to peruse any of these rolls, but he still wanted to operate considerately toward other library visitors.
He removed the roll from the first box and placed it on the left-side spindle of the machine, a box-like structure with a glass plate positioned between two front-facing spindles accompanied by enough rollers to make it all work flawlessly. Next to it stood a tall monitor that looked as if someone improperly positioned it. A sign on the machine requested that he obtain assistance from a librarian to load it. After doing so, he began to scan the obituaries and any other articles that would shed light on how each girl on his list had died. His list was exhaustive! To scale it down, he chose to look into the deaths of only the ones who died during the colder months of the year. Most of the reports he had researched mentioned a ghost wearing a large, thick jacket of some sort. So he was hoping he could somehow find mention on microfilm of girls who died wearing jackets. He knew it was a stretch, but it was all he had to go on. He knew it would be like looking for a true fan in a paranormal convention. But just about every investigation he ever performed started out this way. Very few were conveniently laid out for him from the word “go”.
The other descriptions of the girl were not only inconsistent, but downright disturbing. He noted those few accounts that described a totally different image: “horrific face, full of pain and misery”, “gaping mouth, surprisingly large for the rest of the face”, and “insanely angry look on face”. He even found one account where an individual claimed to have encountered “a rotting corpse appearing out of nowhere perched on the hood of my vehicle, clinging to the sides of the windshield, and then disappearing just as quickly after I swerved out of control, completely startled by what I had seen!”
He also noted the dates of each event into his steno pad, the first being in 1985 and the last being approximately five years previous to the current day. He noted a reminder to see if any other writers were in the process of writing or publishing a soon-to-be future book or other work based on the subject. He figured that maybe he could work with such an individual to share notes and other information.
At twenty minutes before noon — after he had only managed to research about a quarter of the names on his list, he decided to look for Amanda. She was at a table well away from the one he had previously occupied. He took a seat next to her.
“Was my table not good enough for you?” He grinned in an effort to lighten the chemistry between them.
She ignored the comment and continued writing her own notes.
“I understand that you aren’t that crazy about me,” he said. “But whether or not we like it, we have been thrown together for a common purpose…one that I feel is very honorable and is more important than you, me, and our petty little differences.”
She finally looked above her notes, though not directly at him, however in his general direction.
“You were rude to me after I apologized,” he continued. “So I was rude back to you. But I’m not here to play childish games. I’m here to help you and your boss save lives, whether or not you believe in the methods I use to do so. So why don’t you cut me some slack here?”
Her stunning eyes regarded him. And he finally realized they reminded him of quicksand. Not only were they almost the same exact color, but once he found himself trapped in their gaze, he knew that he would gladly drown in it. For one strange, awkward moment, those heavenly eyes did not judge him.
She finally resigned herself to him. “Fair enough, Cliff.” She stopped to choose her next words very wisely. “I will avoid being rude to you from this point forward. But I also need you to do the same for me.”
I’m not the one who started this adolescent bullshit, he thought, but chose not to say. “I agree, that is good by me as well.”
For the first time since they met earlier that morning, she smiled. “Okay, what have you found out?”
Cliff showed her his notes, allowing her to flip through them. As she did so, he studied her face and hair. He felt her large eyes and gentle face gave him a whimsical first impression. He swore that her lips were the most dazzling he’d ever seen. Her hair, he had just noticed on the way over to the library, was brown with reddish highlights. It looked soft despite the coloring, if she used any at all. He wondered if brown was her natural color; he knew of one sure way to tell. But he was quite certain he’d never be able to perform that particular type of investigation. Get your mind out of the gutter, Cliff. Be a gentleman!
He was tempted to ask her if she had ever been a model, but he knew that would create an awkward feeling between them. And it would also quite possibly tip her to the fact that he was having romantic inclinations toward her.
Yes, I have an intense crush on this gorgeous, would-be siren, he admitted to himself. I need to back the hell away before my feelings and ego both get hurt even more than they already are. And the best way for me to do it is to get back to business.
“I’ve noticed articles talking about a serial killer, the Highwayman, who leaves bodies along the interstate in horrific bundles in the middle of lanes.”
He thought he had noticed an uncomfortable look on her face as she sat forward, heaving her breast inward while rolling her shoulders in that same direction. He was no psychologist and knew nothing about body language. So he did not know what that meant. But she sat still in this position for a few seconds and then sat back in her chair.
She blinked and then nodded. “Yes, it seems that he kills in threes.”
“I thought I noticed a strange pattern.”
“There is a local legend about a ghost causing accidents on the highway,” she suddenly realized, apparent by glint of excitement and realization in her eyes. “This is why you are here, I assume.”
Cliff nodded a bit reluctantly.
“Do you think the Highwayman may somehow be involved in the death of the girl whose ghost you’re apparently after?”
Cliff shrugged his shoulders. “Who the hell knows?” He figured it would not be a bad idea to research the Highwayman. But his plate was clearly too full right now, and he needed to stay on target with what he knew for sure was heading in the right direction. If anything ever was to come up pointing toward the notorious killer, that would be the time to pursue it.
Amanda finished looking over his notes and sat his pad down in front of him. “This is actually quite impressive, Cliff.” She appeared to have caught herself getting ready to touch his forearm in a friendly manner, but she suddenly and awkwardly stopped herself.
Cliff thought about calling her on it. But he really wanted to get along with her. So he decided to let it go. Besides, she had just paid him a compliment. His mind gravitated once more toward the investigation at hand. “It sure would be helpful if I knew what all these women were wearing when they died.”
“We can check with the coroners at each of the applicable counties where the various dead girls and women were admitted.”
He thought that would be quite helpful and nodded. “Yea. Let’s do that this afternoon, if you do not mind.”
“I still do not believe in ghosts,” she said. “But I really respect the objective manner in which you are pursuing your leads.”
“So what have you come up with?”
She gestured at the pile of books sitting in front of her. “A bunch of boring reading that I am going to have to order to go.”
If it had not been for the fact that he would spend the evening reading his own homework, he most certainly would have considered trying to get together with her. But then again, their relationship had been rocky up to this point, so it would most likely be a bad idea. Cliff smiled at her. “I really hope that you can find something that will break this case wide open.”
She leaned in toward him and only slightly above a whisper said: “Liar.”
They both laughed. Cliff smiled again. “Well, I really would if it wasn’t for the fact that my career really needs a lift at the moment.”
“All you have to do is stay true to the science,” Amanda said with softening eyes. “…if it really is a science and not a sham.”
He nodded. “It is a true science indeed.”
“Maybe you can demonstrate some of your equipment for me and show me how it all works.”
“It would be my honor.”
# # # # #
Adam lay awake in his bed, having just awakened due to the sharp pain shooting down his left arm.
Immediately after the accident, emergency personnel had treated him very cautiously, knowing that he could have had some kind of back trauma from the horrible ordeal he had just fortunately survived. At the Jackson Hospital emergency room in Montgomery, they determined that his spinal cord had swollen as a result of the impact from having been clipped during the accident. Now, he experienced what felt like a severe stiffness in his neck, back, and chest. He finally realized the sensations were not an arm problem, but more of a neck problem. They explained to him that pain radiated through the nerves from his neck all the way down his arms. The sharpness stopped just above his elbow, but he felt a strange tingling in his fingertips. X-rays had indicated no injury to his spine other than the swelling. They informed him that he was extremely lucky to be alive. The doctor in the ER ordered him prescription-strength Motrin, and sent him on his way.
His Jeep had been towed to the garage of his choice for a fee paid by his father and was currently still receiving body work and repairs to his wheel and steering column that resulted from the impact. So now he lay in the bedroom of his apartment, looking up at the ceiling with tears in his eyes.
Why was I spared? This fact continued to haunt him and even kept him up at night, along with the pain of his injury. It seemed so strange that only he and a little girl were the only ones who survived that accident. News footage revealed that her mother gave her life, shielding her from the impact, to ensure she would be safe from any potential harm. He cried when he heard the report.
Then he thought about the ordeal on a more complete scale. Why did this happen in the first place? The incident shook his faith to the very foundation. How could God let something so horrible happen? When he asked his father this very question, his father reminded him: “It is not our job to question God. God has His own plan, and we need to trust Him fully in all He does.”
This really wasn’t a good enough answer for him.
Maybe I should just be thankful to Him that I lived through this.
Just as this thought went through his mind, he heard a rapping on his door. He rolled his eyes and threw his body forward in an effort to use the momentum to get him into a sitting position, where he then slung his legs over the side before getting to his feet. His apartment was cluttered with clothing and different types of shoes on the floor, requiring him to be careful where he stepped. Out of the bedroom, into the hall, through the dining room, and to the front door…all the while, ignoring the stabbing sharpness from his shoulder down to his elbow. He looked through the peek hole and saw his Mom and Dad standing there.
He opened the door. His Mom was first in. She hugged him. “How are you feeling, Adam?”
He was slow to answer. “Hurt…confused.”
“Hang in there, kiddo…” His Dad closed the door and then followed them into the living room. After sitting on his son’s sofa and looking around at all the messiness around him, he told him: “We have a loaner vehicle for you to drive while your car is being repaired in the shop.”
His eyes looked surprised.
“You can borrow my car,” his mother said. His mom drove a champagne-colored 2010 Ford Taurus. “Your Dad doesn’t mind taking me to work and picking me up in the meantime.”
He took her hand and squeezed it lovingly. “Thanks, Mom. But you don’t have to.”
“Yes, I do. How will you go to school?”
He frowned. “I really don’t feel like going.”
His mother looked at his father, who curtly ticked his head in the direction of the door. She got up and left the two of them alone.
“Son,” his father began. “I know you are in a bit of pain right now…”
“It’s not just the pain,” Adam interrupted. “I feel guilty.” His father looked deeply into his son’s grieving brown eyes, which now turned glassy. “All those people died, and I lived.”
His Dad nodded reassuringly. “I know. We talked about this yesterday, and I agree. It makes no sense.”
Now Adam cried, and his Dad pulled him close.
“Son, I really believe that God has a plan for you,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but it is something important.”
“But why did he let all those people die?”
His father released him, and he turned toward him as much as he could. “God is the only one who knows that, and it isn’t our place to question.”
Adam slammed his palm down angrily upon the surface of his coffee table. “Dammit, I do question it. It just doesn’t seem fair that me and that little girl are the only ones who lived.” He now looked into his Dad’s hazel-colored eyes. “I’m not sure I can believe in a God that would let something so evil happen.”
Mr. Kimble shook his head. “Son. Don’t do this. Don’t question your faith.” He wiped a tear away from his son’s face. “Remember how Lucifer told God that he could break Job’s faith?”
Adam slowly remembered the story. He also remembered that even Job questioned God’s motivations.
“Sure,” his Dad said. “Job had his reservations about God’s plans. But in the end, he trusted God and was blessed for it.”
Adam used his right upper forearm to wipe away the remaining tears. “I’m not sure I’m that strong.”
Mr. Kimble smiled. “Of course you are. I know I didn’t raise a quitter.”
It was then that Adam Kimble realized his Dad’s smile was contagious; but instead of being a sickness, it was more like a cure. He smiled back.
“And this is why you know you need to get your butt back in class.”
Dad is right, he suddenly realized.
“Now tomorrow night, I expect you to call me and your Mom to let us know that you went back, and everything went as great as usual.”
Adam got up, and his father followed suit. “Sure thing, Dad. Now that I have Mom’s car, I guess I do not have any excuses to not go.”
“That’s right,” his Dad said before opening the door and stepping out. “If you need anything else, you call us.”
“Yes, sir.” He was glad for his Dad’s talk and their visit altogether. He knew he had the greatest parents any college kid could ever ask for.
# # # # #
Cliff and Amanda found themselves at the Office of the Coroner located in downtown Montgomery. Initially, the coroner was a very polite, though boorish, plump little man named Henley Yarborough. His office seemed to be an “organized mess”, according to him, with stacks of boxes containing God knows what, a book shelf covered in dust as if it hadn’t been gone through in the past five years, faded posters of anatomical diagrams that Cliff did not really care to interpret, and a cluttered desk full of paper stacks, various black- and white-colored binders, and a paper plate containing a halfway-eaten piece of chocolate cake that he hoped was not as old as everything else in the office.
“So how exactly may I be of service to you, officer?” he said to Amanda.
“I’m Lieutenant Heath of the Alabama Highway Patrol,” she said before gesturing toward Cliff. “And this is Cliff…”
The coroner interrupted, rolling his eyes…”yes…Cliff Rodger…I know. He is a disgrace to science and television.”
Amanda ignored his rudeness and continued on. “He is here to investigate all of the accidents that have been occurring on the highway. We are examining the paranormal angle.” She shook her head ever so slightly, making her pretense of support known to the medical professional.
The coroner looked stonily at Cliff. “Isn’t it your way to make things up as you go?”
Cliff hanged his head in shame before casting a glare to the obnoxious little bastard.
“Why don’t you just dress the lieutenant here up in white clothing and have her standing by the interstate at night and roll your film?”
Cliff found himself suddenly aggravated with both of them. “First of all, film is rarely ever used anymore.” He rolled his eyes. “And I could use the utmost professionalism from the both of you at this time. What Amanda hasn’t told you is that I am supposed to receive the full support of every government official with whom I come into contact.” Then he looked at Amanda. “And if she doesn’t behave herself, I can report back to her boss, the Montgomery troop commander.”
Now Amanda blushed and the coroner remained indifferent.
“It must be nice to be able to pull rank for a change after having lost Ghost Stalkers.”
“Everything Cliff just said was correct,” Amanda added in open surrender. “So we appreciate whatever information you can provide for us.”
“So what can I do for you, young lady?” For the rest of the interview, Yarborough ignored Cliff as if he was not even in the office with them.
“We were wondering if you keep an inventory on all the deceased coming through here.”
“Oh, most certainly.”
“Just how far back do your records go?”
“We keep 50 years of data on all corpses who have come through this building.”
“Would it be possible for us to view the records of all women who were brought in since the mid-80s or so?”
Cliff did not appreciate her slip of attitude earlier. But he did appreciate the fact that she seemed to be representing him well that moment, asking all the right questions, many of which he would have asked as well.
Moments later, they were headed back to her car carrying a couple of small stacks of records that Cliff would later go through in his hotel room. “I thought we agreed we would try to get along,” he said to her.
“I’m sorry,” she said genuinely. “I guess I allowed him to be a bad influence on me.”
“Lieutenant, I really want to be able to get along and respect you. But if this happens again, I’m not sure I will be able to.”
They finally got to her car and she looked him in the eyes. “It won’t, Cliff. And I am sincerely sorry that I allowed it to just now.”
He studied her eyes and face for anything that lent authenticity to her words. Her expression seemed sincere enough. And her eyes no longer contained venom. Maybe he could count on her to keep her word.
# # # # #
Beth’s first day ended up being better than she figured it would be. Milton only required her to spend it watching him perform all steps of the process of preparing deer meat.
She had been shocked upon receiving his call for her to come in for a second interview. During this interview, he had explained to her that he chose her over a couple of others who had deer processing experience, because he liked what he sensed in her work ethic. He asked if she was willing to work at his plant for minimum wage, and she immediately accepted. Then he invited her to start immediately if she wanted. And she did.
Her work day started off by him letting her know the types of services he provided to his customers.
“I skin deer, gut them, and even go further to providing a finished product if they want.”
“Do you ever sell one deer to several different customers?” she asked.
Milton shook his head. “No. It is illegal to sell parts of the same deer to different customers. We are also not allowed to package our product for sell in various retail locations.”
From that point forward, he started his normal routine and encouraged her to observe and ask questions as necessary. She watched him load up the smokers for the first hour or so. Then she watched him receive deer from a few customers. “The customers come in at various times throughout the business day,” he explained. “And we, of course, have to stop whatever we are doing and take care of them.”
As soon as the deer was received from the first customers, Milton boxed up some completed deer orders and made space for them in the freezers. Beth had noticed a sliding freezer door with a strange-looking padlock on it. “So what is in there?”
He placed his last box down on a holding counter and acknowledged her sincerely. “This is where I keep additional food products that I mix in with my deer meat. The temperature in this meat locker is so strictly controlled that I am the only one who holds the key to it at any given time.” She paused to think about what he had just told her. And he continued: “I don’t need you or anyone else going in and out of that freezer. In the end, it is not good for the meat. That’s why I am the only one with the key.”
She stared at the padlock wondering why it looked so strange. It was as if the body of the lock came up high, concealing more than 50 percent of the shackle. It reminded her of an uncircumcised penis…ugly, but still capable of unlocking one hell of an orgasm.
He moved on, so she left the door, the padlock, and the thought of penises behind.
After he finished with his box orders, he grabbed one of the deer from one of the unlocked lockers and began the cutting process. Beth found herself fascinated and managed to not get queasy during the observation. It was about a quarter before 1 p.m. when he finished cutting his meat. So he told her to take a half-hour lunch break. And she had been happy to do so.
Now Beth stood over the deep sink in the cutting area, scrubbing the various different pieces of equipment that had previously been soaking in only a few inches of soapy water. As she sat one of the key components of the meat grinder, the auger knife, aside on the recently cleaned counter top next to her, Milton and another customer came in. She overheard him say to Milton: “Man, your product is the best. Believe it or not it tastes every bit as addictive as human meat.”
Her head turned on swivel to face this stranger as she could not believe what he had just said. Her eyes met those of the tall, older visitor. His eyes seemed piercing as they locked on to hers and held her gaze. Milton finally realized that the two of them had been staring each other down.
“Oh, Robert, please meet my new assistant, Beth.”
The shock on her face had not completely gone away when she stuck her timid hand into that of this strange man. Certainly he is joking! He really has never eaten human meat. And if so, why the hell would he be bragging about it?
“Pleased to meet you, dear child…” He had a strange accent…as if he was from somewhere in England perhaps.
They shook hands, and Beth brought hers back down before her rather quickly, not even realizing how rudely it had appeared. Milton noticed and explained to her. “Robert, here, has spent time with a family in Papua, New Guinea, where he actually ate human meat. It was socially acceptable in that country, believe it or not.”
“Do…do you still eat human meat?” Her lower lip had trembled upon starting to ask the question.
His eyes looked away momentarily as he chuckled and then retrained themselves back on hers. “Oh, heavens no! Human meat is rarely consumed anywhere anymore. It is most certainly against the law in most, if not all, countries.”
Beth exhaled. Great! At least the guy seems to be somewhat normal now. Or could he be lying about no longer eating it? He did, after all, describe it as “addictive”.
Both men headed in the direction of Milton’s office. And Beth continued to clean the processing equipment remaining in her sink.
A few minutes later, after she had scrubbed a plate holder, for the grinder, and placed it on the counter with the other equipment she bent down to remove the stopper from the drain. Bubbles no longer coated the water as they had when she first loaded the components into the sink. Now she could see bits of raw meat residue and a layer of grease in its stead. Suddenly she noticed a foul odor, like one smells when she is walking alongside the road and comes upon a roadkill. Then, a horrible apparition appeared in the reflection of the water, cast from directly behind her, also looking down into the sink! All she could initially make out, before practically jumping out of her skin, was what appeared to be dark, rotting flesh partially covering the upper part of what was left of a face…the very deathly mess she was smelling that moment! Prior to jumping away from the sink, she had noticed the woman’s jawbone sticking out from what appeared to be decaying muscular matter!
Now she stood there; scared, shivering, in a temporary sort of shock, and…alone. It had all been a hallucination.
Then why the hell does this feel so real?
An Interstate Ghost Story: The Girl on the Highway
Coming Fall 2016!
Keep your eyes here for all updates!