BETWEEN JUAREZ AND EL PASO
The Drifter Detective Series
We checked on the van in the back of the BigMart parking lot shortly after the second body surfaced near Turkey Creek. Not too far from the first corpse, which had been discovered the previous week. Both victims were female. College students from Valpo. Dark hair. Mini-skirts. Too much makeup. Disappeared after a night of boozing. None of us believed we'd ever harbor a serial killer in little old Lublin, Indiana. That sort of thing just didn't happen around here. We got to discussing the problem at the Pub 900.
Dale Kipple, who lost his legs in Desert Storm, fixed foreign cars at a shop in Merriville, and once ran for mayor as a libertarian, said, "I know everyone on Fifth Street. Not a soul there capable of taking another human life."
His hunting buddy, Jack Houck, a professed vegetarian who owned and ran the deli on Temple Avenue, echoed his friend's sentiment—"I've lived in Lublin my entire life. Ain't ever met anyone so freaky they'd commit murder."
Most of us agreed the university in Valpo had attracted undesirable characters over the years. Their shenanigans usually involved drinking too much and the occasional rape of a student or professor who'd passed out in the street.
Several nights of debate led to the obvious conclusion that the Turkey Creek Killer, as the Free Press had taken to calling him, her, or it, could not be someone local. We were church-going folk. Most of us were Lutheran. A few were Catholics, but we forgave them. Politically, we leaned toward the right, though there were a good number of liberals amongst us who, as predicted, suggested we not rush to judgment.
Dennis Cromwell fell on that side of the fence. He taught something called "gender studies" at Valpo and rumor had it he apologized to his students at the beginning of every semester for having been born with testicles instead of ovaries. We didn't much prefer the kind of talk folks like Dennis produced, but he'd lived here several decades with his chunky wife Ellen and we'd gotten used to hearing him tell us all manner of ways up was down and day was night and so on. You've watched television recently, been to the movies, listened to our snooty president, you know what we're getting at; Dennis said, "Obviously, a very disturbed misogynist has found his way to Lublin. Before we condemn him, let's find out what his father did to him when he was a child."
We suggested Dennis head to the Dollar Store on Madison Avenue and buy an ounce of common sense.
Then a third body snagged Jeff Coe's fishing line. He'd cast under the bridge near the old train station by the creek. Sat in the autumn sun drinking beer and complaining to his buddy Zach Park about some Somalis who'd moved in to the house next to his. Said it was only a matter of time before ISIS convinced his new neighbors to go on some sort of holy rampage. Jeff might have been a little bonkers from his days as a foreman at Werner's dairy farm, but he sure looked humble when he described pulling in the bloated corpse of a Valpo girl named Melissa Larsen. Dark hair, brown eyes. Known at the Pub 900 for playing poker and getting soused every Wednesday night.
"That woman were naked as the day God sent her from her Mama's womb," he told us. "Thought for sure I'd caught a fifty-pounder, something I might be able to sell at the farmer's market on Sunday." He said he struggled, tugging on the line, until he swallowed his pride and asked his buddy Zach to help him. They dragged the girl's tattered body onto the rocks. Zach called the cops and they finished their beer waiting for them to show.
"Going to be a long time," said Jeff, "before I get to sleep without seeing that girl's wide eyes staring at me like I was the one who snuffed her."
We asked about the wound in her throat—"Oh, it was cut all right," he said. "Ripped open like a bag of cereal."
Once the local police were convinced the three murders were the work of the same deranged individual, they contacted the FBI. Enough of us loitered in and around the station to learn bits and pieces: The young women had been violated before and after their throats had been slit. Coroner they brought in from D.C. said the wounds were so jagged and rough, the killer must have used a rusted blade.
Black SUVs with D.C. plates roamed Lublin for three days like predators. The women called them "creepy," said maybe we'd let Big Brother a little too close. Said we should be able to weed out the killer ourselves.
"Take away the students who rent rooms during the school year," said Mrs. Lacy, who ran a group home near the bus depot on Temple Avenue, "and what kind of population we got here?" She pushed up the sleeves on her thick, wool sweater and answered before anyone else could—"Not much, I tell you, that's what we got here. Not much. What's it going to take to figure out who doesn't belong?" She paused, as though we could read her mind. "Not much," she said, "it's not going to take much."
The women insisted we form our own teams to fan out and investigate. Good thing, too. The FBI made their rounds in a couple of days and announced they were returning to D.C. to run tests and conjecture and do all manner of things unrelated to picking through strangers in Lublin to figure out who was round and who was square.
Most of us found nothing out of place, nothing beyond usual. Frank Gosch and his wife Sue, however, arrived at the pub with the most astonishing news. They'd spent the day scouring the mall and the BigMart on Madison Avenue. After chatting with pretty little Katie Romero, who welcomed folks at the door of the BigMart, they learned a white van with Missouri license plates had been parking overnight in the BigMart lot for almost a month.
"Oh, you better believe Katie's concerned," said Frank. "She even called the police. They interviewed the guy who sleeps in the van and told her the only thing they could do is fine him for loitering." We shook our heads. Lublin cops were notorious for being next to useless when things got serious. They were never around when drunks downtown started bar fights. They always showed up afterward, when the men were finished bashing in each other's brains and had gone back to killing themselves the more civilized way—whiskey and beer. We decided to take a trip to the BigMart and have a chat with the gentleman in the van.
Turned out to be a 120, no windows on the side. Every movie and TV show we'd ever seen about serial killers, vans always played a role. Ron Stork, bus driver for the Lake County School District and Lublin's dead-ringer for Grizzly Adams, rapped on the side of it. "Open up," he said. We knew someone was home—flashing blue lights inside suggested the man had a small television. He poked his head out.
"Yes?" he said with an air as pompous as the president.
"We'd like to talk with you," said Dale Kipple.
The stranger stepped from the van. Couldn't have been more than five-foot two. Balding, wore spectacles. His collared t-shirt and blue jeans looked like they hadn't seen a laundry machine in ages. And he smelled. He smelled bad, like he'd made a career of soiling his drawers and refusing to wash them.
We didn't need too much more. This was our guy.
But Sue Gosch, at the prompt of Dennis Cromwell, proceeded to interrogate him anyway. "We'd like to know who you are and what your business is in Lublin." She folded her arms across her well-endowed chest, adjusting a rainbow of plastic bracelets on her wrists.
He drew his face back, as though he'd gotten a whiff of himself for the first time. "Beg pardon?" You'd have thought he was the Pope and answered to no one other than God.
"Katie Romero says you've been parking here a month," said Sue. "You planning on living here forever, or you going to move on some time?"
The stranger said, "Manager of the BigMart told me I could crash here provided I don't bother nobody."
We were stunned. Lou Papelini ran the BigMart. He hadn't lived in Lublin for too long. He had a thick, black curly head of hair that always made us a little nervous. Surely he must have had better sense than to let a drifter take residence in his lot.
Sue held up her hand. Once her bracelets stopped making noise, she motioned for us to keep quiet. She taught kindergarten at Haggard Elementary, knew how to control a rowdy situation. "Mister," she said, "I think we'd feel a lot better if you'd mosey on to another town."
You'd have thought the stranger was Jesus, the way he took offense to her suggestion. "I beg your pardon," he said again. "Last time I checked, this was a free country."
Oh boy. We looked at each other, we shook our heads, sighed, made clicking sounds with our tongues. Wasn't this the go-to excuse for strangers and weirdoes everywhere? People who didn't fit in always tried that bit, never understanding freedom only belonged to normal folks, like us.
Frank Gosch said, "Look, buddy, we don't want to cast nasty aspersions, but we've had some trouble and we'd like to eighty-six any possible culprits." He nodded his square jaw like one of those tough guy lawyers we always saw on television.
The stranger smirked and got back into his van. Before he slammed the side doors, he said, "Bug me again, I'll sic the cops on you."
That gave us a hardy-har-har. We couldn't get the police to toss him out of town and he thought they'd actually give a darn about his rights? One thing was clear:
The man was creepy. The women used that word over and over to describe him—
"Did you see the clothes he was wearing?"
"He looked just like that serial killer from Chicago, you remember the clown in the ice cream truck?"
"My God, he reminded me of a short, fat, balding Ed Gein!"
We invited Sergeant Alphonse Booker to the pub the following night. He was a local boy. Played football for Gary South the year they came within three games of state. We thought we could trust him. We said, "Sergeant, you got to escort that stranger right out of town."
"Unless Lou Papelini tells me otherwise," he said, "the man is welcome to park his van and sleep there. He's broken no law."
The women chimed in, said he looked creepy and they just knew he was the Turkey Creek Killer.
"You see anything in his van to make you think so?"
We hadn't done a spectacular job of investigating. Most of us felt no need. The stranger was clearly a weirdo. Only weirdoes committed murder. Hell, any television show about criminals would confirm that.
The sergeant told us not to get involved. "You let the authorities take care of this from here on." We asked just what they were doing to fix the problem. He said, "We're waiting on Uncle Sam to get back with the lab results."
We rolled our eyes at that one. Surely the sergeant knew better than to trust the government! He said nabbing serial killers fell under federal jurisdiction. Then he said, "You all don't pay me enough to mount a serious investigation anyway."
He was shown the door at that point. We decided to head on back over to Madison Avenue and give the stranger in the van another look. We needed to find some good evidence. When we got to his spot near the rear of the BigMart parking lot, his windshield flashed blue and white again. We banged on the side doors until he showed his arrogant face. Dan Gruber, football coach at Haggard High, weighed no less than three-hundred and fifty, hands the size of baseball mitts, dragged him out and held him against the van by his throat. The rest of us jumped inside and went through the garbage he'd collected. There were no benches, just blankets and trash bags. His tiny television, a black and white number from the last century, sat on the hump between the front seats. He had no antenna. He was watching static. Creepy. We found a paper sack from a grocery store we'd never heard of filled with plastic knives, forks, and spoons. Inside half a pack of styrofoam plates, he'd wedged a steak knife.
A real steak knife.
Some of us argued—"Remember, the coroner said it was rusty."
The rest of us got them to go along—"It's a knife, ain't it?"
We pointed out tiny, red stains on the jagged teeth of the blade.
"Could be catsup," said one wise guy.
We glared at him until he caved.
We shoved the knife in the stranger's face.
"Yeah?" He spoke in snotty tones we'd have expected from a teenager.
"Looks like a murder weapon to me," said Carl Gooseberg, the near-sighted owner of the shooting range in Hammond.
The stranger chuckled. Only a creepy, weirdo psychopath would laugh when confronted with that kind of evidence.
"We're taking you downtown," said Dan. "Cops won't come and get you, we'll bring you to them." He bunched the stranger's dirty t-shirt around his fist.
The stranger dropped to the ground, refused to go.
"Going to need some help," said Dan.
So we grabbed the stranger wherever we could and dragged him across the concrete. He screamed for his life, claimed he was being abducted. Funny how you let relativism fester long enough, evil will call itself a victim.
He made himself heavy as a sack of wet concrete. We lost our grips and had to pull him with more force, smacking his head against the pavement, over and over, until we noticed he'd stopped making noise, stopped moving, stopped resisting.
"Hey," Dan said to him.
We dropped him, offered him the chance to escape, to prove to us he was still alive. His creepy brown eyes stared at us in the cold, blue moonlight. His mouth had twisted and wouldn't untwist. Dale Kipple leaned in close, put his ear near his chest.
"Friends," he said, "he found the best way to escape justice."
We agreed to leave him there. Let the lazy police see if they could figure out what had happened to him. We told the women we'd spotted the murder weapon and that's all they needed to know. Hell, they'd assumed the man guilty long before we did.
Lublin's finest wrote off the stranger's death as a heart attack. Who knew? Who cared? Just days after he died, we met a girl from Valpo at Pub 900 on college night. Her name was Sadie. She had long, gorgeous black hair, wore glitter on her face like a pop star. We watched her drink six mugs of beer. We liked her. We really, really liked her. We waited for her in the alley behind the bar. She stepped outside around one in the morning to toss her cookies near a green dumpster. She was alone. We loved that. We put our hands around her mouth and carried her into the darkness.
Copyright © 2016 Alec Cizak.
Alec Cizak is a writer and filmmaker from Indianapolis. His short fiction has appeared in several journals and anthologies. His novella Down on the Street will be published by ABC Group Documentation in early 2017.