By Nick Roberts
The smell of roadkill flooded the car through the open windows. Bailey Whitman scrunched her face and waved her hand back and forth.
“PU,” she said as she looked at her boyfriend in the driver’s seat.
Floyd had his cheeks puffed out, over exaggerating as he held his breath. Bailey laughed and poked his face, causing him to inhale and gag.
“Good God,” he chuckled. “That is the nastiest thing I’ve ever smelled.”
“It’s just some good ol’-fashioned West Virginia roadkill,” she teased.
“No, thank you,” he said.
Bailey stuck her hand out of her window and let the passing strands of vegetation smack her palm. They were getting close to her parents’ house. A warm feeling reassured her belly. She hadn’t been home since she left for her freshman year of college last August. Her mom and dad went to their beach condo for Thanksgiving through Christmas, so she had just stayed in her dorm at West Virginia University. Now it was the beginning of spring break, and she was more than happy to spend it back home.
The laid-back break had actually been Floyd’s idea. He was a senior nearing graduation, and they had been dating since December. They met in line at the bookstore and instantly hit it off. On Valentine’s Day, he had asked her what her plans were for spring break. She rattled off some of the popular east coast beaches she had been considering. Floyd, having listened to Bailey talk about how badly she missed home, posed the notion of meeting her parents. The fact that he was willing – let alone interested – in meeting her parents solidified her love for him.
Floyd drove carefully along the narrow mountain road. Rays of sunlight beamed through the leaves of the surrounding trees, speckling his path. The car never breached 40 MPH, anticipating spots where the road would suddenly disappear around a sharp curve. He had never driven this type of West Virginia back road. He tried his best to conceal his jittery nerves. Having grown up in the northern panhandle, which was practically Pennsylvania, he had never been south of his current college location in Morgantown.
Bailey brought her hand back inside the car and turned to her boyfriend, admiring his thin build under his white t-shirt and jeans. He was skinnier than her former high school boyfriend, Zack, a local football phenom who her father adored. She had no fear that Floyd would not win over her parents with his charm and humor. He caught her looking out of the corner of his eye.
“What are you staring at?” he teased.
“Just taking you all in.”
He smiled as his face reddened a bit.
“You’re not so bad your…” he said just as a large truck came barreling around an unseen bend in the road. Floyd jerked the wheel to the right to avoid being hit. The front of the car was inches away from going into the ditch due to his over correction. Bailey screamed and dug her nails into the interior leather, bracing for impact. Floyd swerved back left as soon as the truck was out of the way, narrowly avoiding both obstacles. He slammed on the brakes as soon as he knew they were clear.
They were both breathing heavily.
“Are you okay?” he asked her, turning to get a good look at her.
“Yeah,” she said wide-eyed. “I’m okay. Are you?”
“Fine,” he replied but obviously still a bit in shock. “Sorry about that. I’m not used to driving out here.”
He put the car in drive once he realized how dangerous it was to stay parked in the middle of the road.
“I’ll try not to crash into the next tree I see,” he muttered with a grin as Bailey’s pulse settled.
After a few minutes of silence and decompression, Bailey spoke up.
“So, are you ready to tell me about your secret project yet?”
Floyd rolled his eyes and gave her a look.
“Come on,” she prodded. “What’s so secretive about a Communication major’s final project?”
Floyd didn’t like the way she said the name of his field of study.
“An undeclared freshman wouldn’t understand,” he teased, and she mocked offense.
“I’ve told you why I’m not showing it to you yet,” he quickly reminded her.
“Are you that much of a perfectionist?”
“I’ll show you when it’s finished,” he said. “I promise.”
“Is it still a podcast?” she asked.
He just gave her a quick look and nodded his head.
“And this is Step One in your grand scheme of becoming the next big broadcaster?”
Floyd looked at her again to make sure there was no condescension in her tone. He couldn’t stand when people doubted his dreams. She appeared earnest.
“Step One,” he affirmed with a grin. Ready to change the subject, he said, “How much further to Bennettsville?”
Bennettsville was the name of Bailey’s hometown and where her parents still lived.
“Probably like thirty minutes,” she answered. “Are you nervous?”
“Why would I be nervous?”
“Meeting my parents.”
“Should I be nervous to meet the great Mr. and Mrs. Don and Kathy Whitman?”
“Well,” she began with a chuckle. “Mom will love you no matter what; that’s just who she is. Dad on the other hand will have to experience some of your trademark charm.”
“A bit reserved, is he?” Floyd asked.
“No, not so much reserved. You don’t get to be as successful around here as he is without some sort of personality,” she explained. “He’s just…methodical.”
“‘Methodical?’” he echoed.
“Calculated,” she clarified. “Dad likes to plan everything. And control everything.”
“I guess that’s why he’s great at running a travel agency,” he said.
“Yeah. I mean, even when we would go on vacations I can’t think of a time where he didn’t have a detailed itinerary. He’s super smart like you. That’s why he’ll like you.”
“I hope so,” Floyd replied.
They reached the top of the steep incline and turned slightly to go down the other side of the mountainous terrain. Just before they descended, Floyd caught sight of the open valley to his left and stopped the car. The rolling hills were covered in variously colored trees that all had a golden hue from the sun. He could see miles of West Virginia wilderness.
“Whoa,” was all that he could say.
“It’s so pretty up here,” Bailey confirmed.
“Such a pretty place to have such a dark secret,” he unintentionally said aloud.
Bailey tried to make sense of that statement as Floyd realized that he had just vocalized a private thought. He knew he had to explain.
“I Googled Bennettsville before we left,” he said. “One of the first things I saw was that there were a bunch of unsolved murders like thirty years ago.”
“The Countdown Killer,” Bailey stated matter-of-factly. “Our local boogeyman. Everyone my age who grew up here knows the story inside and out.”
“What I read was pretty dark stuff. I think it was nine people who were killed?”
Bailey nodded her head and filled him in on the rest of the legend.
“So, there’s this five-mile stretch of road called The Devil’s Road – we actually have to drive it to get to my house,” she said. “One day someone found a dead body on the side of the road, a teenage girl. She was naked…strangled to death. She had the number ten carved ten times on her body.”
“Jesus,” Floyd said.
“Yeah,” Bailey continued. “About a month later, another body appeared. This one was an elderly man – also naked – but he had the number nine carved in him nine times. Sure enough, over the next year, more bodies with numbers counting down kept showing up on The Devil’s Road. Locals nicknamed him The Countdown Killer.”
“I don’t see how more people don’t know about this,” Floyd replied.
“If it had happened in a big city, they would’ve heard. No one’s going to throw a fuss about a few dead hillbillies, no matter how sensational the story,” she said. “The craziest part is that there was never a body with the number one found.”
“Yeah, I noticed that in the article,” he said.
“It’s like his grand plan was never finished. The Countdown Killer either died, left town, or just stopped. It was never solved. Pretty easy to see how he became our generation’s boogeyman,” she said.
Floyd carefully navigated the car around several deep potholes in the road. He surmised that any of them were severe enough to pop a tire. The car bobbed up and down as it endured the unsteady road. The movement rocked Bailey’s already full bladder.
“I’ve really got to pee,” she said.
Not three seconds after her admission did a gas station come into view in a clearing up ahead. The woods dwindled the further down the mountain they descended.
“You’re in luck,” Floyd replied as he directed the vehicle into the empty parking lot, save for one beat-up Ford truck. He noticed a sign that said “Bennettsville” and had an arrow pointing straight ahead. They stopped at the pumps, and Bailey hopped out.
“I’m going to get some gas,” Floyd said to her back.
She gave a wave of acknowledgement as she hurried inside. As soon as she was out of sight, Floyd withdrew a digital voice recorder from his jean pocket and turned it on.
“The road to Bennettsville has been long,” he spoke into the device with a dramatic tone. “After an unforgiving trek through the rugged Appalachian wilderness, we are quickly approaching our destination. Bailey and I stopped on the outskirts of town at a rundown gas station to refuel and recharge before we head to…The Devil’s Road.”
He kept his eye out for Bailey to make sure that she didn’t see him in the act of recording his secret podcast. She just wouldn’t understand. This was beyond the scope of just a school project.
“Side note: Bailey has yet to connect the dots. I am nervous about what’s going to happen. I’ll check back in later,” he said and then shoved the recorder back in his pocket as he saw Bailey appear inside.
Floyd grabbed the gas pump, slid the nozzle into the open tank, and started to fill the car. Bailey walked outside smiling at him.
“Do you need to go?” she asked.
He noticed an elderly salesclerk inside and got an idea for an impromptu interview.
“Yeah,” he replied.
She walked around the car and grabbed the handle out of his hand.
“Go ahead. I’ll finish.”
“Thanks,” he said and headed toward the store’s entrance.
“Welcome,” greeted the clerk. His friendly eyebrows peaked over his bulky glasses, and a faded name tag read, “MELVIN”.
Floyd said, “Howdy, Melvin,” and walked to the restroom. When he came back out the clerk was busy shuffling around cartons of cigarettes. Floyd grabbed a Mountain Dew, pulled the tip of his recorder out of his pocket and turned it on, then walked up to the counter.
“This all for ya?” the old man said.
“Yeah, that’s all,” Floyd replied and dropped two dollars on the counter.
He glanced outside to see if Bailey was paying him any mind. She was scrolling through her phone, oblivious to the outside world. The old man handed him his change.
“Sir,” Floyd began. “I’m a senior at WVU, and I’m doing a research project on the Countdown Killer. Would you care to answer just a few questions to help me out?”
The old man looked like he smelled something sour as his welcoming demeanor dried up.
“The Countdown Killer, eh?” he groaned.
Floyd gave a nod.
“I reckon I can help you out, son,” he said.
“Great,” Floyd began.
“Did you live in this area when the murders occurred?”
“Born and raised.”
“Okay. Could you provide any insight on what it was like to live in a town with an active killer on the loose?”
“It was terrifying,” the old man admitted. “No one knew who to trust. This is a small town. Everyone was lookin’ at each other with suspicion. If you were just a little different or did something just a little odd by society’s standards, people began to whisper.”
Floyd detected some underlying resentment in the man’s tone.
“Did you experience any of this scrutiny, sir?”
The old man reflected on a lifetime of perpetual bachelorhood in a town that just wouldn’t understand why. He was about to open up but decided against it.
“Not me,” he lied.
“Did you ever think you knew who the killer was?”
The old man shook his head.
“I just can’t picture anyone that I know in Bennettsville doin’ a thing like that.”
“Do you think it’s possible that the Countdown Killer is still in Bennettsville? That he just stopped for whatever reason?”
The old man considered the proposal as if it had been something over which he’d lost many nights’ sleep.
“Of course,” he said. “But…I just do my best to block it out, unless I get some random customers who want to drudge up some darkness from the past.”
Floyd felt how pained he was.
“If what I think is true, this project that I’m doing might help you out with that.”
The clerk looked at Floyd with puzzlement. Floyd looked out the window and saw Bailey motioning for him to hurry up.
“Thank you for talking to me,” he said as he carefully clicked off the recorder and left the store.
“What were you two talking about?” Bailey asked as he walked back to the car.
“I asked him about the Devil’s Road – if it was as scary as legend makes it out to be.”
“You’re about to find out,” she said. “It’s up here on the right.”
A few minutes later, they passed the Bennettsville city limits sign. Less than a mile after that, Floyd turned onto Maple Lane. He was initially confused by the sign, until Bailey reminded him that the Devil’s Road was just a nickname for the real street. Trees multiplied on both sides the further out they drove. There was a steady incline as the pavement wrapped up and around another mountainside. Imposing branches jutted out over the road that could easily damage a taller vehicle. A ditch ran parallel to the road on the right side, while the left was a vertigo-inducing drop to the rocky terrain below. Floyd drove like it was the first time he had ever been behind the wheel.
“This is it,” Bailey said.
“I could see how this could be called the Devil’s Road even if there weren’t multiple murders here,” Floyd said
“Yeah, it’s pretty dangerous. Quite a few wrecks have happened here. Mostly drunk people or people just not paying attention. I remember in high school someone from out of town broke through the guardrail and rolled down the mountain. I was on my way home and had to wait because they had the road blocked off for hours.”
Floyd listened as he carefully navigated the vehicle up the slope.
“I wonder where they found the bodies…” Floyd muttered to himself.
Again, he realized that he was thinking aloud, but Bailey didn’t seem to hear him. If she did, she didn’t acknowledge it. She was too busy texting her mom that they were almost there. After a long couple of miles, the road began to descend and the town of Bennettsville came into view.
“Take the next right,” Bailey said.
Floyd turned onto an unmarked gravel path that ran deep into the woods on the outskirts of town. A quarter of a mile later, the mass of trees disappeared as they abruptly entered a clearing. There was a sprawling yard that ran on for acres. In the center of the lot was a gorgeous three-story brick home. Expertly manicured shrubbery adorned the base of a wraparound porch. The gravel crunched under the wheels as the car came to a stop in front of a three-vehicle standalone garage.
“You grew up here?” Floyd asked.
“Yes, I know,” Bailey replied, always a bit uncomfortable by her family’s wealth, especially in this area.
Floyd noticed the backs of two figures sitting on the porch swing. One was a short, brown-haired female, and the other was a taller man with trimmed grey hair. He assumed them to be Don and Kathy. As soon as Floyd realized that he was looking at Bailey’s father, everything got real for him. His heart felt like it skipped every other beat, and his hands were getting sweaty. Bailey looked at him and noticed his complexion seemed pale.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
Floyd snapped out of it and returned her gaze.
“Yeah,” he said. “I guess I am a bit nervous after all.”
“Don’t be,” she smiled and got out of the car.
Bailey didn’t know that Floyd had been preparing for this moment for half of his life. Ever since he had heard the story of how his aunt, Bethany, was murdered thirty years ago and how her body was found on the Devil’s Road, he was determined to find out who did it. Aunt Bethany had lived Bennettsville but frequently came to visit his family up north. She had been the Countdown Killer’s ninth victim, which meant she had the number two carved twice into her exposed flesh.
Floyd had night terrors throughout his teenage years. He’d wake up in other rooms, sometimes standing up, screaming and attacking invisible intruders. His parents did everything they could think of to help him: therapy, medication, a full social life. None of it abated the obsession insidiously buried in his subconscious. It didn’t help that he became fixated by true crime books, tv shows, and podcasts. He was always in the middle of someone else’s murder investigation.
It wasn’t until his sophomore year at WVU that he experienced a true sense of relief. Floyd had been home visiting his parents, and they told him that they were downsizing and moving south. His mother showed him the boxes of his personal belongings from childhood stacked in the attic. He spent a few hours going through a bunch of old schoolwork, youth sports trophies, and toys. When he was nearly finished, he noticed a large lavender suitcase in the corner. He probably wouldn’t have even noticed it had it not been for the shiny brass handle reflecting the yellow light bulb’s glow.
“What is that?” he had said as he crouched under the low beams and made his way to the treasure, carefully stepping on planks so he didn’t come crashing through the kitchen ceiling.
The suitcase was heavy and completely packed full. Floyd looked it over before he tried to open it. There was an airline luggage tag attached to one of the zippers. He pinched it and flipped it over to read it. “LITTLETON, BETHANY” was printed at the top. Nervousness fluttered in his gut as he realized this was Aunt Bethany’s remaining belongings.
Floyd squatted and popped open the latches. Overstuffed clothes bulged through the new opening. There were silk blouses, some pajamas, and a few dresses – all women’s clothes. Some jewelry and other expensive-looking knick-knacks rolled around once no longer confined by the clothes. A leather bound book was hidden at the bottom. There were no words on the front, only the initials BML. Floyd picked it up and felt the warm leather in his hands. He thumbed through the thick pages and glanced over the handwritten entries. It was obviously Aunt Bethany’s diary.
Curiously, he flipped to the last entry and noticed the date was the same year that she had died. He read the page and then went to the previous one. There were not daily contributions, but she had written in it at least once a week. Reading backwards, he learned much about his aunt’s final month of life, but the one detail that stood out the most was her infatuation with a new man she was seeing: Donald. She first described him as being charming and flirtatious with her even though he was a married man. The next entry detailed their first affair and how Don seemed like two different people at once. Less than a week later, he told her that their affair had been a mistake. Bethany wrote in the diary’s final entry that she thought she was being watched.
Floyd closed the diary and pondered what to do next. No one had obviously even bothered to open the diary before him. He was now the only person with this lead. He considered telling his parents or taking it to the police. Something inside him decided that this was his responsibility; he would be the one to expose the Countdown Killer, and he would document the entire process.
“Floyd,” Bailey said to him from beside his window.
He blinked quickly and took a deep breath before getting out of the car.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked again.
She noticed something was off in his eyes.
“Baily cakes!” her father said as he walked down the porch steps.
Bailey turned around and smiled as her father strolled across the front yard with his hands in his slacks.
“Daddy!” she exclaimed and jumped on him.
Don caught her with ease and gave her a big hug. Kathy caught up to them and rubbed her daughter’s back.
“Hi, Mom,” Bailey said with tears in her eyes.
Floyd stood about ten yards away, awkwardly observing the family embrace. Kathy made eye contact with him and then nudged Bailey.
“Want to introduce us to your friend, honey?” she said.
Don released her, and she dropped back to the ground.
“Of course,” Bailey began. “Mom, Dad, this is my boyfriend, Floyd Hooper.”
Floyd stepped forward and extended his hand with a smile. Kathy grabbed it first.
“It’s so nice to meet you, Floyd. Call me Kathy,” she said.
“Sorry,” Bailey said. “Floyd, this is my father, Don.”
Floyd looked at the man who was well over six feet tall. Don held out his hand and, for a split second, Floyd hesitated. Don saw it, and Floyd saw that he saw it. Floyd grabbed Don’s hand and gripped it forcefully.
“Strong grip, young man,” he said and smiled with only the bottom half of his face.
Floyd stared into Don’s dark eyes and nervously withdrew his hand.
“Nice to meet you, sir,” he said.
“Please, call me Don,” he said. “You two come on inside.”
The house was even more impressive once they walked through the front door. Don carried their bags as they followed him into the open living room. A decorative chandelier hung from the ceiling two stories high, and a wooden staircase wrapped up the wall and spiraled to the second floor. Floyd glanced at the leather furniture huddled around a massive stone fireplace.
“Follow me upstairs, and I’ll show you where you’ll be sleeping,” Don said.
“I know where my room is, Dad,” Bailey laughed.
“Not you, honey,” Don replied.
Before Bailey could piece it together, Don reached the top of the staircase and turned into the first room on the left.
“This is one of the guest bedrooms,” he said as he placed Floyd’s suitcase on the ground in front of the bed.
Bailey just nodded her head and smiled. She should’ve known this was coming. There was no way her father would allow her to share a bed with a boyfriend under his roof.
“Looks great,” Floyd said. “Thank you, Don.”
Don gave that half-face smile again as he walked past Floyd back to his wife. Kathy came to life as soon as her husband put his arm around her.
“Let’s give you the rest of the tour,” she said with a genuine smile.
Just as the sun started to retreat behind the western hill beyond their property, Kathy emerged from the kitchen wearing a floral apron and carrying a steaming ham adorned with pineapples and glaze. Don sat at the head of the table with Bailey to his left and Floyd beside her. Kathy placed the main course in front of them and took her seat on the other side of Don.
The dining room was just as impressive as the living room. It was dimly lit by smaller chandeliers and two candles on the table. Floyd studied the oil paintings on the wall, looking for anything that would alert him of some sinister underlying intent. He spotted the bar and the countless bottles of liquors he’d never encountered in college. Kathy walked beside each person and filled their plate with slices of ham.
“This looks fantastic, Kathy,” Floyd said.
“Why thank you, Floyd,” she smiled.
“Yeah, Mom. It looks great,” Bailey seconded.
Don smiled and took a sip of wine.
“Indeed,” he said.
Floyd grabbed his fork and knife and began cutting. He pierced a thick piece of meat and just before he brought it to his mouth he stopped, realizing no one else had started to eat. Don was staring at him. “
How about we say the blessing?” Don said.
Floyd felt his face redden and was grateful to be in a dark room.
“Sure,” he said. “Sorry.”
Don waved it off and reached out to his wife and daughter who took his hand in theirs. Bailey grabbed Floyd’s hand and motioned for him to reach across the table and take Kathy’s. He awkwardly leaned over the food and extended his hand for Kathy.
“Oh, okay,” she said as she completed the circle.
“Heavenly Father,” Don began. “We thank you for this food and for the blessings of family. We thank you for bringing Bailey home safely and for our new friend, Floyd.”
Bailey squeezed Floyd’s hand. Floyd peaked through one eye at the other three with their eyes closed and heads bowed. He’d never seen Bailey pray before. Don continued thanking God, but Floyd tuned him out. Why would God let a monster like you take away Aunt Bethany? he thought.
The three of them said, “Amen,” and Floyd looked back down and said, “Amen.” Everyone released hands and picked up their silverware. For a minute, there were only clanks and cuts, chewing and sipping as they enjoyed their meals.
“So, Floyd,” Don said between bites. “Bailey tells us you’re a senior?”
“What’s your area of study?” Kathy asked.
“Interesting,” she replied.
“What do you plan to do with a degree in Communications?” Don asked.
Floyd cringed at the tone, and Bailey didn’t have to look at him to know he was bothered by it.
“He wants to go into broadcasting, Daddy,” Bailey said.
Don nodded his head as he listened to her. He took a big drink of wine and looked at Floyd.
“What type of broadcasting, Floyd?” he pried.
“Well, right now I’m interested in true crime.”
Floyd studied Don’s reaction. He thought he detected a slight twitch in the corner of his mouth, almost like the beginnings of a smile, but he couldn’t be sure in this low light.
“True crime, you say?” Don said. “Kathy eats that stuff up.”
Kathy hurried to swallow her food.
“Oh, Don. You make me sound so morbid,” she said as she took a drink of wine. “I do like my serial killer documentaries though.”
If she only knew, Floyd thought and then realized, Wait, DOES she know? He decided to prod even further.
“Really?” he began. “I figured people from this town would be sensitive to that kind of subject matter.”
“Why is that?” Don asked.
“Because of the Countdown Killer,” Floyd said.
Bailey glared at him.
“Can we possibly not talk about this at dinner?” she said.
Don ignored her.
“So, you’ve heard of our bloody history here?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s pretty unbelievable how they never caught the guy,” Floyd started. “Someone so sick, yet so clever.”
Don nodded his head, but Floyd spoke before he could say anything.
“Did you all live here when the Countdown Killer was active?” he asked.
“I was in college,” Kathy spoke up. “But Don lived here. We actually met at WVU, and he was two grades ahead of me. Very much like you two.”
“I was getting my business off the ground when all that was going on,” Don said.
“It was a scary time,” Kathy said.
“No scarier than today’s society,” Don said, piercing his meat. He looked at Floyd and took a bite and said with a full mouth, “There will always be monsters out there.”
“Unless we catch them,” Floyd said.
“That’s right,” Kathy agreed.
“Speaking of bad guys,” Don began. “Bailey, are you still carrying that stun gun I gave you?”
“Yes, Dad,” she said without enthusiasm.
Don smiled and looked at Floyd.
“I insisted that she pack a pistol, but she refused to carry on campus. We compromised on the stun gun,” Don explained. “You can still do a lot of damage with one of those.”
“I agree with you, Don,” Floyd said. “I think it’s best to stay prepared for monsters.”
Don smiled and finished his wine.
“God bless the second amendment,” he said.
Kathy had a light bulb go off in her head while she was chewing. She swallowed and said, “Bailey, you should take Floyd on a walk of the grounds. Show him the trail.”
“That sounds nice,” Floyd said.
“You’ll like it,” Bailey smiled. She was apparently full or had lost her appetite during the dinner conversation because her plate was still a little less than halfway full. “I’m ready when you are.”
“Ok, then,” Floyd said getting up.
“You two have fun,” Don said.
“The food was delicious,” Floyd said. “Thanks again, Kathy.”
“My pleasure,” she replied.
The two of them took their plates into the kitchen. Bailey grabbed a flashlight from one of the cabinets, and they headed toward the back door.
“He seems very nice,” Kathy said at the dinner table.
“You think?” Don said. “Seems a bit off to me – like he’s hiding something.”
“Oh, stop it, Don. You’re skeptical of all of Bailey’s boyfriends in the beginning.”
Don smiled in agreement.
The path began fifty yards from the back door. The woods lined the clearing and continued straight up the massive mound of a hill. A dirt path ran beneath two tall trees and snaked its way into the dark forest. Floyd and Bailey approached it with Bailey and her flashlight leading the way.
“Here it is,” she said.
“Where does it go?” Floyd asked.
“Come here, and I’ll show you.”
The two of them walked about ten yards into the woods and the path forked in opposite directions.
“All roads lead back here,” she said.
“It’s a big circle?”
“Yeah,” she answered. “Let’s go left.”
“How long is it?”
“About a mile. Maybe a little more.”
Bailey stopped when her flashlight revealed a piece of a fallen tree branch laying across the path. She bent down and picked it up. It was around four feet long, straight and sturdy. She handed it to Floyd.
“Here’s your walking stick,” she smiled as she handed it to him.
Floyd fumbled the stick, and the tip of it hit his thigh and the recorder in his pocket. A muffled recording of Floyd’s last entry began to play. Bailey instantly recognized Floyd’s voice and knew that it was his secret project. Floyd scrambled to turn it off, but Bailey heard Floyd and the gas station attendant discussing the Countdown Killer before he could pause it. He finally hit stop and slowly made eye contact with his girlfriend.
“What was that?” she asked.
“You’re doing a podcast about the Countdown Killer?”
“Yeah. I didn’t want to tell you because I didn’t know how you would react.”
She looked confused by the deception.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “Why…”
“Because my aunt was the Countdown Killer’s ninth victim,” he blurted.
The silent woods seemed even more so as Bailey processed Floyd’s admission.
“What?” was all that she could say.
He knew he had to elaborate.
“Listen,” he began and took a step closer to her. “My aunt, Bethany, was killed here. Her body was found on the Devil’s Road with the number two carved in her.”
Bailey was shocked.
“I heard stories about the Countdown Killer my whole life. I even had to go to therapy for it. I grew up hours away from here, but I was still terrified. My therapist suggested facing my fear, so I started to research what really happened. I started listening to true crime podcasts; they made me feel like I wasn’t the only person who’d gone through something like this. A couple of years ago, I decided to make my own podcast about the Countdown Killer. It was just a crazy, cosmic coincidence that I met and fell in love with someone actually from Bennettsville.”
Bailey’s mind was overloaded. After a moment, she settled on a question.
“Is this why you wanted to come here?”
“No,” Floyd answered, shaking his head.
“Did you even care about meeting my parents?” she asked.
“Of course,” he said and held her gently by the arms. “I love you. I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you, and I’m glad that it’s finally out.”
Bailey’s gut told her that she was being used, but she did her best to ignore it. She looked at Floyd’s eyes and wanted to believe him. Floyd took the recorder out of his pocket.
“Look, I won’t touch this thing the rest of the time we’re here,” he lied. “All I care about is having a good time with your family.”
Saying that pained him, but he didn’t let it show. If what he believed was true, he was going to completely upend her entire life. She would hate him, and he knew it, but it had to be done. Maybe she would understand, eventually.
“Please,” he began. “Just show me the rest of the path. Can we just forget about this?”
Bailey looked at his smile and kind eyes and chose to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Okay,” she said.
Floyd took her hand, and they started to walk. He knew that most of what he told her was true. He wished he could tell her that he only approached her because he already knew who she was. After doing research on the information he pulled from Aunt Bethany’s diary, he identified his suspect as Don Whitman, the only travel agent named Don in the area. He discovered Don’s family and was ecstatic when he learned that Don’s daughter attended the same school that he did. He found her on social media and tracked her down at the bookstore one day. Even so, he was okay with his current relationship because he quickly developed real feelings for her. He squeezed her cool hand, content with his own justification.
An hour later, Don and Kathy were drinking their nightcaps in the living room while watching some game show on TV. The back door squeaked open, and Kathy’s heavy eyelids were suddenly wide awake.
“They’re back,” Don said.
Bailey and Floyd walked into the living room, both smiling as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
“How was your hike?” Kathy asked.
“Good,” Bailey replied.
“That’s good,” she said and started to stand up from the couch. “I’m getting a bit tired. I think I’m going to head to the bedroom.”
“Okay, Mom,” Bailey said.
“I’m glad you all are here,” she said as she hugged Bailey.
“Me too,” she replied.
“Have a good night, Kathy,” Floyd said.
“Thank you, Floyd. You as well.”
Don took a sip of his whiskey.
“I’ll be up shortly, honey,” he said as Kathy disappeared upstairs.
Bailey was exhausted from the trip and the walk.
“I think I might follow her up there,” she said. “I’m worn down.”
“I’ll walk you up,” Floyd said.
“Okay,” she replied. “Goodnight, Daddy.”
“Goodnight, sweetheart. I’ll see you in the morning,” he said.
Floyd followed Bailey up the staircase and down the hallway to her room.
“Are you going to sleep too?” she asked.
He hugged her and gave her a kiss on the forehead.
“In just a little bit,” he said. “I’m going to go hang with your dad for a minute.”
Bailey looked up at him.
“Really?” she asked.
“Yeah. I’ll let him fully vet me.”
Bailey smiled and kissed him goodnight. Floyd shut her door and walked to his room a few doors down. He picked up his bag and unzipped it. The pistol was at the bottom hidden in one of his hoodies. The metal weapon was heavy in his hand. He had only recently fired a gun. Once he bought this one, he went to the shooting range in Morgantown and got familiar with it. After that, he loaded it and hid it in his bag for this moment. He gave the gun one more look and then tucked it in the back of his pants.
Don was still watching TV when Floyd came back downstairs.
“There he is,” Don said with a smile.
Floyd could tell he was inebriated and knew that that was to his advantage.
“Here I am,” Floyd replied.
“Not tired, are you?” Don asked.
Don stood up from his recliner, and the cushion conformed back to its default shape.
“I was just about to head to my study for a cigar,” he said as he walked over to Floyd. He put his hand on his shoulder. “I’d love for you to join me.”
Floyd returned his gaze, unaffected.
“Sure, Don,” he said.
“Great. It’s this way,” Don said as he walked across the living room.
Floyd followed closely. He carefully slid his hand in his pocket and pulled out the recorder only enough to see the record button. He turned it on and let it drop back down. Don walked down a long hallway that ran the length of the side of the house. There was a large wooden door at the end of the corridor on the left.
“Here we are,” Don said as he turned the knob and pushed it open.
He flicked on an overhead light that illuminated the room. Floyd looked around, impressed by his surroundings. The walls and ceiling were a dark wood that gave the room an earthy feel. The wall directly in front of him had another stone fireplace with two bookshelves on either side. Above it was a mounted buck’s head, its antlers casting shadows that crept up the wall like snakes. There were two leather seats by the fireplace and a table with an ashtray between them.
Floyd looked to his right at Don’s desk. There was a stack of papers, a container of writing utensils, a letter opener, and a coaster. Covering almost the entire wall behind the desk was a detailed world map.
“Come on in,” Don said as he strolled over to a humidor that Floyd had assumed was a mini-fridge at first.
Don opened the devices door and withdrew a cedar box of cigars. He lifted the lid and smelled the Cuban delicacies inside. He moaned and selected the one he wanted to smoke this evening. He looked back at Floyd.
“Care to indulge?”
Floyd detested tobacco and let his revulsion briefly show.
“No, thanks,” he said.
“Good boy,” Don replied and slid the box back in the humidor. “Would you mind stepping in here and shutting the door behind you?”
“Oh, yeah,” Floyd said as he closed the door.
“Have a seat,” Don instructed.
Floyd could feel his nerves starting to get the best of him. His heart thumped in his chest as he realized the moment of confrontation was drawing near. He took a deep breath and thought of his aunt.
“No, thanks,” he said with firm defiance.
If his response alarmed Don, he didn’t show it. Don didn’t look up from prepping his cigar. He grabbed the guillotine cigar cutter from on top of the humidor and sliced off the end of this smoke. He put the chopped end in his mouth and pulled a torch lighter from his pocket. The powerful flame heated the tip of the cigar as he rotated it, puffing it to a workable burn. Once satisfied, he withdrew the stick from his mouth and finally looked up at Floyd who was still standing by the door.
“No?” Don said.
“No, Don,” Floyd began. “I think I better just keep my distance from here on out.”
Don puffed the cigar and tilted his head slightly.
“Why is that?”
Floyd knew there was no going back now. In addition to the gun in his pants, he had one other secret item that he brought for this moment. Don watched the skinny kid pull some rolled-up book from his hoodie pocket. Floyd held it out so Don could clearly see the cover of the leather diary.“
Do you see those initials?” he asked. “It says BML. This diary belonged to Bethany Littleton.”
Don remained expressionless.
“Does that name mean anything to you?” Floyd asked.
Don took a puff of his cigar and then rested it on the frisbee-sized ash tray. He looked back up at Floyd, and Floyd watched Don smile the first genuine smile of the evening. He had the same face, but there was more animation to it now.
“I haven’t heard that name in years,” he said.
Floyd’s heart sank.
“How did you come to acquire Bethany’s diary, Floyd?”
“She…she was my aunt.”
“Ahh,” Don began as he leaned against the front of his desk and folded his arms. “She was murdered wasn’t she, Floyd?”
“By the Countdown Killer,” Floyd confirmed. “Your name is in this diary, Don. You were having an affair with her, and then she ended up naked and carved on the Devil’s Road. What do you have to say to that?”
Don let his eyes drift up from his feet and connect with Floyd’s. He smiled again.
“Wasn’t it Nietzsche who said, ‘Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster?’” Don asked.
Floyd didn’t know what to make of that. Don could see that he needed to clarify.
“You found your aunt’s diary with my name in it, and you assume that I’m the Countdown Killer. Then, you apparently did some research on me and found my daughter at your school. It’s obvious that you used Bailey to get close to me. Am I right, Floyd?”
“Yeah,” Floyd said. “That’s right.”
“So, I’m asking, have you become a monster?”
Floyd felt real guilt for the first time as he honestly looked at himself and his actions. He had a terrifying feeling that maybe he had been wrong about Don after all.
“No,” Floyd finally said after shaking away the recently sowed doubt. “I’m not a monster, but you are. You are the Countdown Killer.”
Floyd withdrew his gun and pointed it at Don.
“Tell me it’s not true,” he said.
Don wasn’t fazed by the weapon. He let out a deep sigh.
“I just realized that I’m not the only person in the world who knows that now,” he mused.
Even though Floyd knew it in his gut all along, hearing the admission from the killer’s mouth nearly made his legs give out from under him. His eyes started to water with grief and rage.
“Why?” he began. “Why did you kill those nine people? What were you trying to do?”
Don reached for his cigar, and Floyd stepped forward with the gun extended.
“Don’t move,” Floyd warned.
“I’m just getting my cigar, Floyd. If you want to hear my admission, it’ll come out a lot smoother this way.”
Don didn’t wait for Floyd’s approval. He picked up the cigar from the ash tray and took a few puffs.
“If you think that I’m only responsible for nine deaths, then you’re grossly uninformed,” he admitted.
Floyd listened carefully as he knew his recording device was doing the same.
“What happened on the Devil’s Road isn’t unique,” Don began. “There are unsolved murders all over the world. Owning an international travel agency has its benefits, you know.”
“Are you saying that you’ve killed more people than just the ones on the Devil’s Road?” Floyd interrupted.
“I’m a manufacturer of evil, son,” he answered with a stare that burned deep into Floyd’s soul. “The Countdown Killer, the West Coast Prowler, the Everglades Butcher, all the other sensationalized, catchy names they came up with…there have been so many over the years, and those are just in the states. You see, these are all boogeymen that will live on long after I’m gone. I learned early on in life that it’s far easier to leave a lasting legacy with evil than it is with good.”
Floyd could hardly process what Don was explaining.
“Why didn’t you finish?” he finally asked. “Why wasn’t there a final body?”
Don smiled and took another puff. He placed the cigar back into the ashtray and stood up from the desk.
“Well, Floyd, that’s where you come in.”
Floyd gripped the gun and kept it pointed at Don’s head.
“What do you mean?” he asked. “
The Countdown Killer was in my backyard. I did it to see if I could get away with it. But I always knew that the likelihood of being suspected of those crimes was exponentially increased due to living in this town. I had to leave one spot open in case anyone ever suspected me. It was a vacancy to tie up any loose ends.”
Floyd could fill the moisture in his palm as he tried to keep his extended arm steady.
“I have to admit, though. I never imagined they’d be nice enough to bring the incriminating evidence to my house,” he said, referring to the diary.
Don took two steps toward Floyd. Floyd had no intention of shooting anyone; he thought just having a gun would be enough to get a confession and keep Don in check until he called the police. He realized now that he had no choice. He aimed between Don’s eyes and squeezed the trigger.
“Oops,” Don said. “It looks like someone got in your bag while you were on a walk.”
Floyd’s eyes opened wide. He was about to scream, but Don hit him in the temple with Bailey’s stun gun. Floyd’s body spasmed as he lost all control of his motor functions and fell to the floor with a thud. Don knew they were far enough away from the women upstairs that the sound would go unnoticed. He grabbed the letter opener from his desk and puts his knee on Floyd’s sternum.
Floyd felt a tightness around his scalp and saw that Don was holding his head by the hair. He watched Don pull his arm back and plunge the shiny blade into his throat so hard that the tip of the letter opener scraped his spine. Don withdrew the blade. Floyd tried to breathe but just gargled and coughed. Don stabbed his throat two more times for good measure. Blood coated the blade and his knuckles and was beginning to pool on the hardwood floor. He watched as crimson bubbles formed atop the holes in Floyd’s throat, and then the boy went slack.
Don wiped the letter opener on Floyd’s shirt and pushed himself off of his chest. Something poked out of Floyd’s pants pocket. He bent down and grabbed the small device and noticed a little red RECORD light. He hit the pause button and rewound one minute. The conversation that he and Floyd just had was playing through the tiny speaker. He skipped all the way back to the beginning of the recording and pressed play.
It was still dark by the time Melvin Gibbons was driving in to work. He liked to get to the gas station no later than 5AM, so he could get the coffee pot full and the cash register ready for the day. Melvin always enjoyed the drive through downtown Bennettsville. Mostly everyone in the town was still asleep or at home getting having breakfast before work. The one part of the commute that irked him on a subconscious level was traveling the Devil’s Road.
Melvin was not a superstitious man, nor did he scare easily, but he was alive when those bodies were being discovered on this road. He wasn’t scared that someone was going to attack him in the dark just before the sun came up, and he definitely wasn’t worried about wrecking his car; he could drive this road with his eyes closed. No, what bothered him was the possibility that he – being the first person to drive the road in the early morning – may encounter a new crime scene.
Melvin turned onto the Devil’s Road and drove while sipping his coffee. He navigated the twists and turns with ease, barely rocking the hot liquid in his thermos. Just as he rounded one of the last curves, two red brake lights appeared on the side of the road. He slowed down and angled the front of his car so that his headlights were shining on the idle vehicle. The car had obviously run off the road and slammed into an unforgiving tree. Smoke was rolling out from under the hood. Melvin crept a little closer and noticed the flickering amber lights inside the car. He realized that this wreck must’ve just recently happened, and there could be a person inside who needed help.
Melvin stopped near the car and exited his vehicle. He hurried across the road and approached the smoldering vehicle from the rear. The driver’s silhouette was slumped over to the right. He walked to the driver’s window and peered inside. There were flames chewing their way up the interior of the car, smoke everywhere, and the stench of deployed airbags.
“Holy shit,” he muttered, recognizing Floyd as the young man who had stopped in his store the day before.
Floyd’s eyes were fixed and lifeless, his jaw hanging open. His forehead was badly cut, presumably from the wreck. Blood ran down his face and pooled at the neck. Melvin fought the urge to retch up his breakfast when he saw the hollowed-out throat and dangling strands of flesh. He looked at the broken windshield and figured that one of those shards must’ve serrated the poor boy’s neck. Out of sheer instinct, Melvin reached through the open window and shook Floyd’s shoulder.
“Hey!” he shouted, fully knowing that Floyd was beyond dead.
Floyd’s head dropped face first into the airbag, and Melvin noticed an odd marking on the back of the boy’s neck. Before he could examine any further, the smell of gasoline invaded his nostrils. He looked at the fire continuing to engulf the car and realized that he had to get out of there. As he backed away from the car, he stepped in a pool of fuel that he knew wasn’t there just a few moments ago.
Melvin turned around and did his best attempt at running. He jerked open his car door and put it in reverse. The explosion lit up the night and echoed off the mountain, scaring Melvin so badly that he almost backed into the guardrail. The fireball floated up into the sky and disappeared into swirls of black smoke.
Melvin sat in shock and watched the blazing inferno that used to be Floyd’s car. He couldn’t believe what was happening. His heart beat furiously inside his chest. He knew what he had to do but was too paralyzed with fear. His brain told him to get his phone out of his pocket and call the sheriff. Finally, he broke his stare from the carnage and reached into his pocket. He was going to call the sheriff and let them sort this out. What he was not going to do was tell them what he knew he didn’t see. He knew his mind must’ve been playing tricks on him. It was still dark after all, and he was in shock. There could be no possible way that the number one had been carved in the back of that boy’s neck. None at all.
Bailey woke up and walked down to Floyd’s empty room. She stared at the bed that hadn’t been slept in. She squinted in confusion when she noticed that his bag was gone too. She quickly descended the stairs and entered the kitchen. Kathy sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, reading the newspaper. She looked up at Bailey with concern.
“Where’s Floyd?” Bailey asked.
Kathy let out a deep, sad sigh and said, “Your father needs to talk to you on the back porch, honey.”
Her panic doubled in size as she breezed past her mom and through the back door. Don sat on a rocking chair on the back patio. He was smoking his morning cigar and drinking coffee. Floyd’s voice recorder stood on the table beside the ash tray.
“What’s going on, Daddy? Where’s Floyd?”
“Sit down, Bailey,” he instructed.
Bailey complied and eagerly awaited an explanation.
“Your boyfriend was working on some kind of project about the Countdown Killer. After you went to bed, I overheard him in his room speaking into this thing like he was some kind of radio host.”
“Dad, I know all about his project. He told me last night.”
“Yes. Now, where is he?”
“Did he tell you that he was using you, Bailey?”
“What are you talking about?”
Don hit the play button, and Floyd began to speak. Floyd described that he had just met Bailey at the bookstore and that she seemed like she could be easily manipulated. Bailey’s jaw dropped in disbelief. Don paused the recording.
“He was a sick kid,” Don said. “Earlier in that recording he says that he did a search on students at WVU to find out who was from Bennettsville. He got your information from social media and staged meeting you. He used you for his project. He just needed someone from our town.”Bailey felt a tear run down her cheek. Don leaned forward.
“Don’t cry over that son of a bitch,” he instructed. “I kicked his ass out of the house last night. His little project will never see the light of day either.”
Don grabbed the voice recorder and chucked it into the pond beside the porch.
“Where did he go?” Bailey asked.
“I didn’t ask. Do you really care?”
Bailey wiped the tears from her eyes.
“I guess not. I feel so stupid,” she said as she shook her head.
Don stood up and walked behind his daughter. He placed his hands on her shoulders and gently squeezed.
“Don’t feel stupid, sweetheart. There’s nothing wrong with only seeing the good in people. That’s a good thing. You just have to keep your guard up a little bit. There are lots of sickos in the world.”
Bailey placed her hand on top of her father’s and looked up at him.
“Thank you, Daddy,” she said.
(Bio: Nick Roberts is a lifelong resident of St. Albans, West Virginia and a graduate of Marshall University. His short works have been published in The Blue Mountain Review, The Fiction Pool, Haunted MTL, The Indiana Horror Review, and various anthologies. His debut novel, Anathema, was published in January 2020, and his second novel, Pandemonium, will be released in 2022 by Crystal Lake Publishing. )Follow him at: