This was just a simple idea based upon a dream I had the other night ... I had no idea how hard this would be to actually write!
"Would you die for me?" The shadowy female hitch-hiker asked me not fifteen seconds after she got into my car.
I don't normally pick up hitch-hikers, even rather lovely young and attractive appearing female ones, but when I saw her walking along the side of the lonely county road, miles from anywhere, hunched over in the cold late autumn rainy drizzle, something other than my head told me to hit the brakes and stop for her. Now, just a few moments later, I was wondering if I had suddenly picked up some sort of deranged serial killer who cruised remote rural roads near midnight on certain dark and moonless Friday nights.
"Ummm ... probably not." I admitted to her. In the murky rainy gloom, without a streetlight for miles, I really couldn't get a very good look at her, but she didn't seem to have a knife or any other sort of weapon in hand that was itching to bisect my throat.
"Well, that's not a 'no', so I guess we can still become friends. I'm just ... visiting here, really not much more than a passing stranger. A death in the family ... murder, actually." Her voice was low and sort of wispy, but I could clearly understand her every word.
"I'm fairly new here myself. Just passing through, really. I'm doing some grunt day labor over at the big grain silo in Bonner's Grove. Not many jobs hereabout, but I needed to make a little more money before going back out on the road. Seeing America, finding myself, getting my shit together ... you know."
"I do actually. I'm still trying to get my shit together also, but it has been a pretty rough year for me. Slow down a bit, my stop is just up around the next curve in the road."
I took that curve but didn't see anything other than fog, mist and drizzling rain. If there was a farmhouse anywhere nearby, I didn't see any lights. Still I pulled my old beat-up truck over to the side so that she could get out.
"Here! I said, suddenly in an unexplained moment of chivalry. "It is nasty wet and cold out there and you must still have a bit of walk to get home. Take my coat; it's warm and it will keep you a bit dry. You can return it to me on Monday at the silo."
"Thanks! I'm not sure I can make it there, but I'll make sure you get it back."
She took the coat and put it on, and as she opened the passenger door to leave me, she bent over and gave me a slight peck on the cheek. Her lips were cold, nearly freezing cold. As cold as a grave doesn't even begin to cover it. I was now glad I had given her the coat!
With that she walked off a bit down the road, just a shadowy figure that was nearly at once out of sight.
"Lady! You never told me your name?" I shouted off to her just as she disappeared out of sight on the other side of an iron fence. Instead of a reply I only heard some faint laughter that was soon lost in the cold wind and rain.
I would have forgotten about this incident all-together, except for a couple of little disturbing facts. First, that the passenger seat and backrest of my truck were bone dry where she had sat. She had been walking in the rain and must have been soaked to the bone ... but there wasn't a single damp spot on the seat or the floorboard that I could find. Not one drop.
The other thing that bothered me was the way I did recover my coat. After waiting nearly a full week for her to show up at my work to return it, I decided the next Thursday evening after work that I would try to find the house where she was staying. It was a little tricky finding the spot where I had dropped her off, and at first I was certain that I'd gone to the wrong place. Gilbreath County Cemetery isn't the usual place to deposit lovely young ladies in the middle of the night. I checked with the farms on all sides of the graveyard, but none of them had a young lady as a guest, or recognized the extremely vague and quite inadequate description I could give of her. I didn't even know her hair color. Discouraged and walking back to my truck, I took a short-cut through the graveyard and soon found my coat. It was carefully hung up over a gravestone where I could easily see it.
The gravestone said simply "Vanessa Lea Miller", along with her birth and death dates. The dates revealed that Vanessa was a young woman barely twenty-three years old. It was a fresh grave too, scarcely four months old. There were no flowers, not even plastic ones. Nothing was left here, except for my coat, to show that anyone had cared for or missed the late Miss Miller.
A chill ran down my back as I picked up my jacket and put it back on. The outside layer was very rain resistant and its inner layers were still quite dry. Still I felt quite cold all of the way back to my small rooming house. I naturally assumed that I had met Vanessa's sister that last Friday night, but something kept bothering me for the rest of that night and the next day, Friday at work.
At work I asked everyone I knew about the 'murder' of Vanessa Miller. Most of the guys had no idea whom or what I was talking about. Others changed the subject on me hard, and moved away from me if I pursued the subject. Around lunchtime, the silo foreman took me aside to find out why I was asking about such an unpleasant (and politically incorrect) matter and urged me, for the sake of my future employment ... and my health, to drop the matter. Completely.
I didn't disagree. I kept my trap shut the remainder of the workday, collected my paycheck, cashed it, got showered and changed for a little night on the town, and ended up as usual at Frankie's Ice House. I like Frankie's. The place is an unapologetic dive that serves one purpose only, to provide the local guys with a quiet place to drink — cheaply. You can get pretty much hammered at Frankie's for about twenty dollars or less, but I was after the complete treatment tonight and stayed until at least one o'clock in the morning, when my table had too many empty beer bottles on it to fit any more fresh ones.
The subject of Vanessa, and her apparent mysterious relative, was not discussed once all evening. Frankie's patrons don't hold much to making casual, let alone controversial conversation. Much for the same reason that the jukebox in the corner isn't even plugged in. Silence is the tonic that makes the drink flow smoothest at Frankie's.
I really shouldn't have driven home, but the late night wet and cold sobered me up fast. I kept telling myself it would be safe to drive home ... that I wouldn't see her ever again.
No one was more surprised than me to see my shadowy and mysterious lady once again walking that same stretch of lonely road in the early hours of the morning, but now she stopped and apparently was waiting for me.
I knew when I was screwed, so once again I pulled over for her.
"Would you die for me?" The pale but pretty hitch-hiker asked me once again just moments after she got into my car. She ought to have been soaked to her skin from the cold rain, but I grasped her hand and like the rest of her it was bone dry.
"Darling, I would sustain any matter of bodily harm defending your virtue and protecting your honor, but I'm not quite ready for the grave just yet."
"Fair enough," she replied with something of a twinkle in her dark eyes as she leaned over to peck me on the cheek again. Her touch was once again bitterly cold, and her lips nearly sucked all of the warmth from my body. Despite my teeth now chattering and with my blood running in near frozen channels through my body, I was now dead sober and I looked upon her with a combination of fear and unabashed curiosity. I could almost see her eyes, still in shadows. Were they grey or a lovely pale blue that was lost under the cover of her wet bedraggled hair that would undoubtedly feel all too dry to my touch?
I had so many questions for her, but I feared the answers even more. The memory of old Cub Scout campfire ghost stories of the perils of phantom hitchhikers was once again fixed in my mind. I wanted to hold her and kiss her but I was terrified at the thought of what would happen even more.
"Drop you off at the same place?"
"If you please."
We drove in silence for over five minutes until I could see her corner coming up in the distance.
"I tried to find out a bit about you ... your sister at my work, but no one will listen to me. Some of the men were just plain scared of making any trouble; others were frightened at what would happen if some important people in the town and at the county seat found out that some questions were being asked. No one would help me or lift a finger to get involved ... and now I'm scared and frightened too."
"You should be," she said with a slight smile as I stopped in front of the graveyard for her late night visitation.
"What can I do?" I earnestly begged her. The dread on my face was obvious and plain to see.
"Be a dear and loan me your coat again for the night. You just won't believe how cold I've been lately. You'll know where you can find it again when you need it.
I gave her my jacket once again and before she got out of the car she gave me a little kiss on my lips. It burned and froze me both at once. It was exquisite and yet it was soul crushing. I think it was supposed to make me feel brave ... and it sort of did. I could feel her touch lingering on me, like a tiny anchor now roped onto my soul to protect it, hopefully, under the rough and dangerous seas that I was sure were now coming.
"Be brave." She said with a small but penetrating voice that cut through my fear and the outside wind and rain like a crisp new windshield wiper upon wet glass. "You promised me your physical pain to protect my honor and I'm going to hold you to your oath. You are going to know true fear and undoubtedly real bodily pain, but if you're the kind of man I hope you are, then I know you will persevere. I'm so counting on you ... There is no one else who can or will listen to me."
In a moment she was gone, out of sight and probably over the fence once more inside the cemetery. Just as I had expected, her seat was dry and didn't leave the slightest trace of her, and I was left alone once more shivering with the cold and my fear of my now very uncertain future.
To discover the truth of Vanessa's murder, I was going to have to ask a lot more questions to a lot more people, and much more firmly. Many of them weren't going to like the subject matter and a select few of them would undoubtedly soon begin to make my life a living hell.
I wasn't long left in suspense. I also found my jacket Saturday morning right on top of Vanessa's grave mound as if she had been lying right there on top of it before sinking into the rain sodden ground.
By the lunch whistle on Monday, I was flat out of a job -- fired by the silo foreman 'for my own good'. Several other helpful former coworkers urged me to get my ass out of the county - fast. The sooner the better. I just couldn't do that ... I'd made a promise that I intended to keep, even though I was sure that it was going to cost me dear.
I spent Tuesday in the County Records office where the clerks and I played a complicated and tiresome game of 'keep-away'. I wanted the see the autopsy and court records for Vanessa's case and they claimed they didn't have anything on her at all, blaming instead the county coroner. I knew better; I'd met the coroner on Monday evening and he swore to me that the county sheriff had interrupted him before the autopsy had been barely started, taking away all of his preliminary notes and telling him that the case was already closed.
What little I did learn convinced me beyond a doubt that Vanessa had been murdered alright. Allegedly she had been found floating one morning in a small stock pond behind Eli Granger's house. The words 'accident' and 'mishap' had been used a lot by the sheriff's men and by the county judge who indecently ruled her case shut and closed a mere three hours after the discovery of her nude floating body. The coroner knew otherwise; normal drowning victims don't show signs of a recent severe beating or have loud and quite distinct finger strangulation marks around their neck.
Vanessa had been murdered, and the evidence instantly pointed to her sometime boyfriend, Ralph Granger, Eli's son. Remember that name, Granger. It shows up a lot at every level of the local county government. A Granger was County Sheriff, a Granger was Chief County Clerk, another was the County Judge, and so forth. You get the idea. Rural southern nepotism at it's finest. The Grangers had run Gilbreath County for nearly fifty years and took their dime or quarter upon every single dollar that was earned inside the county line. Most of the regular folks were getting more than a bit upset about this and were pretty much itching for some change, but the Granger family kept enough goons in deputy uniforms to keep the piece ... and drive off the troublemakers.
By Wednesday evening, I was certified as county troublemaker #1. The word had gotten around fast that I was asking embarrassing questions about young Ralph's stormy relationship with Vanessa. Some of her co-workers were beginning to open up to me and I was starting to hear some rather interesting stories about Ralph usual courtship rituals with young women like Vanessa that included drugging, forcible seduction, outright rape, and boatloads of physical and psychological abuse afterwards to keep their women in line.
As a side industry, he and his friends were involved deeply in a side operation of methamphetamine manufacturing and trafficking. Since I didn't have a job anymore, I was using a bar table at Frankie's to meet my reluctant witnesses. The quiet somberness suited the mood and the grimness of their stories. I was not getting a lot of different pieces of the puzzle, and it was a dark and unhappy one.
Not long after sharing drinks with a nice young gal who was a former co-worker of Vanessa's, two rather impolite sheriff's deputies came bursting into Frankie's and quickly grabbed me and hauled me right out of there, with my boots scraping a furrow behind me through the decades old layers of peanut shells that covered the floor two inches deep in some spots. My captors didn't even have any questions for me, other than my name. Once I'd identified myself they just commenced to beat the total crap out of me. Once I was satisfactorily bloodied enough to be booked, I was admitted to the presence of his august immenseness, the County Judge, who seemed to be holding a special night court session just for me. In less than five minutes, I was declared guilty of being a vagrant, since I no longer held a job, and fined for the full amount of money that they found in my wallet and for good measure then sentenced to a week in jail. Luckily, I don't keep my savings in my wallet, I've got a little hidden hidey spot in my truck where I keep my important stuff.
Life on the road can sometimes be a little hazardous.
To be honest, this wasn't exactly my first time in jail, but this was the first time that I'd actually been more or less innocent. I'd been wild as a kid, hanging out with gangs of kids older and mostly braver than me. I had nothing to do with crimes involving the use of a gun, but just about anything else was fair game, especially petty theft. I did drive a getaway car once for a couple of casual friends who shot and nearly killed a convenience store clerk, a kid just barely older than me. I hadn't known that my friends were armed or I wouldn't have agreed to help them.
I knew that some sort of line had been crossed and I didn't like it and I never worked a job with those guys again, but I still kept and spent the $225 that was my share of the loot. Two weeks later I got caught trying to jack a car and my minor crime spree on the streets was all over. The judge offered me five years of hard time up at State Prison, or four years in Army Infantry as a front line grunt. I took the Army, and it was the best decision of my life. The service was the family that I'd never really had before and I pretty quickly got my shit straightened out and became a model soldier. I spent my time on the DMZ in Korea and then did a tour in the Big Sandbox before getting out to start to make an entirely new life for myself. I'm still not quite an angel, but I've tried pretty hard to stay on the right side of the law ever since. Since I'd left the service six months ago I've worked and travelled through seven states, looking for someplace that I could call home, but nothing has seemed quite right to me yet.
Now, finding the law here to be on the wrong side of truth and justice was a bit of a surprise to me.
I managed to survive my week in prison, but I was astonished that my ribs and teeth all survived the stay intact, albeit extremely loosened. I was beaten, semi-starved and humiliated in nearly every way possible, but I kept focused and grit my teeth and endured. 'Pain is just weakness leaving the body, ' one of my old Army physical training instructors had told me. Quite true. They were not yet willing to kill me, so their abuse and pain was just making my will that much stronger than theirs. I would survive ... and someday soon they would pay.
When my week was up my things were returned to me and I was given clear and extremely precise instructions to leave the county and never return. I did leave the county, but just for two days. I caught up on my sleep and tried (utterly in vain) to interest any of the other surrounding county newspapers or sheriff's officers in my story.
Some folks had some sympathy for me, and one neighboring sheriff actually bought me dinner while listening to my story, but the end result was the same. The Grangers were too powerful to go directly against, especially with petty claims. They would need something big - big enough to bring in the Fed's like a major civil rights investigation, or even the DEA, to handle the rumors of major methamphetamine distribution in that county. They wanted the Grangers' gone as much as anyone, but first there needed to be some sort of solid proof to get an investigation kickstarted.
'Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." I heard this repeatedly from nearly everyone I spoke with. They weren't unwilling or disinterested ... but they needed something firm that they could hold onto and use to bring in the Fed boys running to their assistance.
Somehow, for Vanessa's sake, I had to find something tangible and real.
Late Friday evening I turned the truck around and drove back into Gilbreath County. I intended to go to Frankie's to quietly have a few beers while my brain tried to think of a clever plan. Instead I soon found myself driving past the ice house and travelling down that gloomy rural country road that lead to Vanessa's cemetery. I began willing myself to not look towards the roadside, hoping that I would miss her in the dark cold and rain. Funny, it seems that it had rained nearly every day I'd been here. I was also beginning to think that I'd never see the sun or ever become warm again inside. Surely she wouldn't be waiting for me to come again tonight?
When I saw Vanessa's ghostly figure waiting for me on the side of the road I knew I was well and truly trapped with no possible escape. I needed to make an iron-clad case for the Feds to investigate so that Vanessa could have justice ... I never guessed that it would be my own case.
"Would you die for me?" Vanessa asked me as she reached to give me a ghostly welcoming hug, her body feeling as firm and material as yours or mine. Her touch still froze me, draining my will and my fear of my all-to certain future.
"Y ... yes, I will, but I don't know what to do or how to save you ... or myself." I told her, giving myself up completely to her cause and need for justice.
"Don't be too afraid. It's the only way. I'll tell you what to do and then everything will be all settled. There will be some discomfort, some sadness, but in the end everything will be better, and then we can be together ... in peace and happiness this time. Trust me."
I did. She told me what I must do and how I must act. Her kisses were like burning hoarfrost that devoured my soul and made me weak but yet brave in her arms. I was still terribly afraid ... but her anchor on my soul now gave me the strength and courage to act and speak on her behalf and go where she could not.
It would all be alright in the end ... I was sure of it now.
She was once more wearing my jacket when she seemingly melted away right into my arms, but leaving me this time a single long strand of her hair left in my fingers. I expected it to melt away in my hand at the first break of daylight, but it remained in my hands. It was a lovely honey-brown color and I wished I could have seen it and caressed her hair in life.
I never saw my jacket again.
My final campaign began in the wee hours of Monday morning. Using my hidden savings I had printed up a thousand handbills of my Manifesto, "Ralph Granger — Murderer of Vanessa Miller!" and I had put copies up on telephone poles, in mailboxes and on car windshields all over the county. I even put up a few larger signs on the county square and in front of the larger businesses in the county, including Ralph's office building.
The signs would get taken down fast, but it would take a while to find and remove them all and in the meantime the word would spread. The accusation would have been publicly made and not easily refuted.
I tried to stay out of sight and keep a low profile until the last of my flyers were distributed and the business day at Ralph's office was well underway. I wanted a full house for my one big speech ... it was quite unlikely that I'd get a similar opportunity and I wanted to make the most of it.
Ralph, a rather nervous and seedy looking individual in his late twenties who appeared to be heavily partaking of his own methamphetamine products, was the nominal manager of a regional telemarketing call center in the county seat. Frankly, even this was probably beyond his limited managerial capabilities, but in this nepotistic county there was always some mostly harmless place to put the idiot sons and nephews to give them some sort of useful work. Allegedly, he and some old school buddies were also brewing up meth and after smoking up all that they could, they then tried to distribute the rest. Only family connections were keeping him out of jail. Not even his drug fueled rampages and his impulsive murder of Vanessa had been enough embarrassment for his dad and his uncles to quietly dispose of their troublesome kin.
After today, it was now going to be much too late. I got out of my truck and gave it a last caress goodbye. It had been good to me, driving me across seven different states in the last seven months and I hoped its next owner would treat it well. Where I was going soon, I would be unlikely to ever need it again.
Ralph's call center was a large former factory building not far from the center of town that had been converted into a large open cubicle work area, hosting at least two hundred employees to handle the phone calls. At a glance I could tell that it was really sucky work, especially for young ladies forced to work under Ralph's roving and exploitative eyes. Most of the phone workers were women, local girls and housewives that desperately needed the extra income ... even at the risk of falling prey to the sexual interest of Ralph or his even cruder friends. The aura of fear, hopelessness and misery was palpable everywhere inside.
I smiled at the girls and cleared my throat. It was a big noisy room but I was sure that even the poor gals in the furthest corner would be able to hear me. I wouldn't have long at all; already I could see Ralph in his corner glass office looking at me in panic and starting to dial a number on his telephone. They would be coming for me soon, much too soon ... but I would have time to tell Vanessa's story, and in front of a lot of witnesses. Not all of which could be frightened into permanent silence after this was all over.
"Ralph! Come out of your office so that you can defend yourself. I will not harm you in any way, but I do wish to speak to you, to accuse you before these witnesses of the willful murder of Vanessa Miller. Why did you kill her Ralph? Because you had date-rape drugged her in the first place to bring her into your bed? Because she repeatedly fought to avoid your unwanted advances and the loathsome touch of your hands upon her? You've violated dozens, maybe over a hundred young women Ralph, but once you found Vanessa you swore that you'd keep her and make her yours. You kept her against her will, Ralph. Here under your sharp eyes while at work and then locked into your bedroom at night where you made her submit to you. Say this isn't so, Ralph?"
Ralph said nothing to me, but jabbered some more into his telephone, apparently in a near complete panic. The rest of my audience was giving me their complete attention and several young (and not-so young) ladies were nodding in agreement with every word I said.
"You got her pregnant Ralph, the thing that she feared and dreaded the most, being forced to bear your child, the permanent reminder of your abuse and rape. She wanted to terminate it, to escape from you, to run away to some place far away where she could excise every single trace and memory of you — but you wouldn't let her go. In your drug-fueled anger at her disobedience, you kicked down the bathroom door where she was then having a bout of morning sickness nausea and you beat her in a fury of rage until, at length in your insane fury, you drowned her with her head inside the toilet bowl until she was dead and oh so cold to the touch. You murdered her Ralph, and then unable to take even the slightest responsibility for your crime you then dumped her body into the pond behind the house to be found later. Isn't that so, Ralph?"
Ralph still made no reply. Now he was cowering under his desk with his hands pressed over his ears so that he could blot out my stinging words. I just spoke up louder, right outside his locked glass office door so that he could hear every single word. My time was almost up and the sheriff's deputies would be here any moment to haul me away.
"Your father helped you cover up the crime and called in the rest of the family to make sure that no one paid the slightest bit of attention to yet one more grave in the county cemetery. Poor Vanessa went into that cold, cold ground quickly that first night, away from friendly eyes or anyone who might show have the slightest interest in her demise. Even now, the Grangers will hold together, lying their old tired lies and frightening or beating anyone who dares utter a word of the real truth, like me. They think they can still protect you, but they can't ... not from her. By telling her story I've released her - she's now free and loosened from her deep cold prison. When you leave here today you will see her. When you look into the mirror you will see her lurking behind you. When you lock yourself into your bedroom tonight she will be there inside with you as well. You cannot escape her ever again, her blue eyes will look into yours and you will hear her cries of 'J'accuse!' You can never escape what you have done, but you can choose to confess your crimes here and now ... or else you can take them to your grave, when Vanessa comes to you for her revenge. What shall it be Ralph?"