The Side of the Road.
His voice was high pitched and overly friendly, like an excited beagle,
‘Hey buddy, where ya heading?’
I bent to look into the rusty, grey sedan and my eyes took a second to adjust to the interior light. His face was round and flabby with red cheeks as if he had decided at some point to become a jolly fat man and had spent years perfecting the look. I had to decide whether or not to accept his offer of a ride or just punch him in the face and go back to hitch hiking. It had been a quiet night, and the road was starting to sparkle with frost in the moonlight.
‘Tucson,’ I answered, I didn’t wait for a response but tossed my bag on top of a briefcase on the backseat and climbed in.
The car smelled of watermelon flavoured air-freshener and coffee. The radio was turned down low enough that I couldn’t make out what the DJ was saying but loud enough that it was an annoying buzz.
‘The name is Al, by the way,’ he said, ‘ Big Al from Albuquerque. That’s the best way to remember it. Al –buquerque.’
I nodded and pulled the door closed. I knew he would be a talker. He looked at me expectedly. He wanted my name; it would be easy to give it to him or make something up, but I didn’t say anything. Maybe he would get the hint.
‘Comes in handy, in my line of work. When people can remember your name.’ He slipped the car into drive and pulled back out onto the interstate., ‘When people need a new photocopier the first thing they think is I’ll call that guy Al from Albuquerque..’
I reached under the seat and found the lever that let me push it back so that I could stretch out my legs.
‘And then when I’m leaving I always look at them in the eyes and say ‘Al be back.’ You know? Like the Terminator? Al be back. It helps to embed the memory. I learned that on a course. Embedding is important.’
‘Yup,’ I answered and crossed my arms. I had a knife in my back pocket, and Al was very close to having it embedded in his skull.
‘Go ahead and make yourself comfortable. There’s hot coffee there if you want it.
That may have just saved Al’s life. I hadn’t had a cup of coffee in almost six hours, a new personal record. I poured the coffee from a flask into a cardboard cup.
‘Thanks,’ I muttered. And actually meant it.
The coffee was fairly hot and not too bad. I sighed as the hot liquid coursed down my throat and through my veins to my fingertips. The combination of caffeine and heat made me feel alive again. ‘That’s the good stuff right there. Best coffee west of the Rio Grande.’ Al ruined it by speaking.
The only thing to be seen through the windscreen was the road ahead. A cold grey slab running through the barren desert in the dead of night. A photograph of a young woman was clipped to the heater vent and flickered slightly in the warm air. I reached for it and sensed Al stiffen beside me. I touched it but didn’t remove it from the clip.
I hadn’t asked but nodded and leaned back. She looked familiar, but I couldn’t place her. Maybe it was an old photo. Or a newer one. I didn’t want to start a conversation, but the girl in the photo buzzed at the edge of my memories like a horsefly.
Al smiled as if he had finally got the reaction that he wanted,
‘Yes indeed. Married for twenty years. That’s an old photo, though. Taken back in ninety-two down at the beach in Galveston. That’s how I’ll always remember her. My Wilma.’
‘I’ve never been.’
‘Galveston, I’ve never been there.’ I lied.
‘You should go there. It’s a beautiful place. Lovely beaches. Warm too, better than hitchhiking at in the freezing cold. You hitchhike much?’
‘Nah. First time.’ I led again, ‘And last.’ I added for effect.
‘Probably for the best with the Billboard Killer around. Aren’t you afraid.’
‘Never heard of him.’ I could feel the presence of the switchblade in my back pocket. I had been hiking these roads for the last two weeks just hoping to run into this Billboard Killer.
‘It’s been all over the radio for months. TV too probably.’ Al almost bounced with excitement; I wondered how much of that coffee ha had drank himself. I shrugged.
‘He picks up guys like you. Hitchhikers, I mean. Murders them and buries them in a shallow grave beside a billboard. Different billboard every time, of course.’
‘Of course,’ I muttered. I wondered if there was any way to shut this guy up.
‘You’re probably thinking that the cops should just stake out all billboards and wait for him to show up. But this guys too smart for that. He spreads his victims throughout three states. Forty counties. He’s a smart one alright.’
Yes, one victim a month for the first three months then two and now three already this month and it was only half way through the month. He was escalating, he had a taste for it now. It wasn’t unusual for serial killers, and it was the reason that most of them got caught. Escalate to the point of madness. Like blowing up an evil balloon; you can only inflate it so much before it explodes.
‘The radio says he’s escalating.’
‘What are you some kind of serial killer fan? ‘ I said.
‘No. I hate those guys. If I ever got my hands on one I would…’ He stopped and looked away, into the darkness.
I was impressed; Al looked like he meant it. There was a brief flicker of madness in his eyes. I recognised it from some of the guys back home. Bad men. Hell, I probably had that look in my own eyes sometimes.
He composed himself and looked at me; the madness had been replaced by tears.
‘Wilma was killed by a serial killer.’
‘He set off from Albuquerque one day heading west to see her parents, but no one ever saw her again. We found her car in the desert a week later.’
‘Maybe she ran off.’
He touched the brake slightly as if considering pulling over. Maybe he was going to kick me out the car. Maybe that would be for the best.
‘No, she would never do that. It was a serial killer.’
‘Or, maybe just a regular killer.’
He looked over at the black briefcase sitting on the back seat.
‘See that. That’s my evidence. Years of work. There’s a serial killer out there. Nobody even knows he exists.’
I was starting to think that Al from Albuquerque had a little crazy in him when the car engine stuttered and stalled. Al guided the car over onto the side of the road as it ground to a halt with one last death rattle.
‘Dagnammit. Stupid car. I don’t believe. Again.’
‘Again? You mean this heap does this a lot?’
Al pushed open the door and wheezed as he squeezed himself out.,
‘No. Well, you know, now and again. She covers a lot of miles, and she’s no spring chicken.’
‘No, she’s a rusty old heap of a car.’ I kicked the door open and grabbed my bag on the way out. I started walking down the road. Hopefully, the sun would be up soon, and I could catch some poor soul heading for work.
‘Where are you going buddy?’
‘Nowhere in that heap. Thanks for the coffee’ I said over my shoulder.
The dark road stretched out before me, and I saw a reflection of dawn in purple clouds to the east. A heavy weight knocked me from my feet, and I rolled over to see Al looming over me. He held a baseball bat in his hands, pulled back like he was ready for a home run.
‘You crazy bastard.’ I reached back for my switchblade.
‘Was it you?’ He asked.
‘Did you kill Wilma?’
‘No dude. It wasn’t me.’
‘That’s what they all say.’ He swung wildly.
He missed, and I rolled to the side. I jumped to my feet and stepped back as he swung again. I drew the blade and stepped in, pushing the knife deep into his stomach. He gasped. I stabbed him again and again until my hand was slippery with blood and the knife handle slid in my grip. The sight and smell of the blood made me dizzy; that was unusual.
He grabbed my blood covered shirt, ‘It was you. You killed her.’
‘Not sure, dude, it’s possible, she did look familiar but, there’s been so many.’
He smiled up at me, ‘I finally got you. I knew that I would.’
I tried to pull his hand away but felt weak. I broke free and staggered away. Blood was bubbled from his mouth. Was he laughing? He really was crazy. How did a stupid, fat slob like that manage to take out so many people with just a baseball bat? I felt a pain burn in my stomach and before I could stop myself, I vomited onto the sand. What the hell?
I staggered over to him.
‘What did you do? What did you do to me?’
I dropped to my knees and held my stomach against them pain. I rolled onto the ground.
I watched as the sun slid over the horizon, I could feel the heat on my face, and my nose was filled with the sour smell of bile and coffee.