By Marco Etheridge
The woman saw her face reflected in a thick pane of security glass smudged with the ghostly imprints of forgotten kisses. Her reflection was serious, nervous, pretty: Margaret Kayner, a young graduate student waiting to meet a monster.Beyond the glass barrier was a worn counter bare of anything except a dirty phone. The back of an empty chair rose from the edge of the counter, and beyond that was a bare room with a sliding door of heavy steel bars set into the far wall. Two uniformed men sat at a table near the door.
A klaxon blared, loud even through the thick glass, and she jumped at the sound. A man in an orange jumpsuit appeared behind the steel bars, dwarfed by the guards at his side. The door slid open and the prisoner shuffled into the room, one guard’s hand under each of his arms. The orange-suited figure was handcuffed, and the cuffs were linked to a belly chain around his narrow waist.
The manacled young man wore a happy, boyish grin. His eyes locked onto Margaret as if nothing else existed; not guards, nor the rattling chains, nor the grim, gray room. She lowered her own eyes and tried to exhale the butterflies fluttering in her stomach.
She raised her head wearing the expression she used for sullen undergraduates. The guards were lowering the prisoner into the chair. As they retreated to the table at the back wall, the young man reached for the phone with his right hand. His left hand followed of necessity. He was still smiling. Margaret took in a long breath, exhaled, then reached for the phone on her side of the glass.
“Good morning Mr. Thomas, or would you prefer Thaddeus?”
His voice came in a rush, a friendly voice compressed by the slight static of the phone.
“Miss Margaret Kayner, University of Idaho, Criminology, pleased to make your acquaintance. You look like a Margaret; nice hair, brown eyes. Your name suits you, not like mine. What the hell my parents were thinking, I have no idea. Breed themselves a white-trash baby and then saddle him with a name like Thaddeus. When you make the damn thing short enough for folks to use, you end up with Thad. You ever throw a bullfrog against a wall? No? Well, I guarantee you, that’s the sound they make when their slimy asses hit the cinderblocks: Thad—Thad—Thad. Yeah, that’s the sound all right.”
Margaret started to speak, but that friendly voice continued to chatter in her ear.
“Just call me Thad; everyone else does. The prison preacher is the only one who calls me Thaddeus. He says the name comes from the bible. He likes to talk about heaven and hell; goes on and on about it. I listen to him, but only because he makes me laugh. That disturbs the old boy, which just makes me laugh more. I tell him that I’ve been to hell; grew up there as a matter of fact. If you think one of Satan’s little bonfires is hot, you should try a double-wide trailer in the middle of an Idaho summer.”
The flood of talk stopped abruptly, and Margaret wedged a question into the monologue.
“You grew up in Idaho, near Hayden, is that right?”
“That is correct, Miss Margaret. You see? Margaret has a nice ring to it, one that suits you. But to answer your question, I grew up in Pleasant Acres, in what they call a mobile home park. It doesn’t sound too bad the first time you hear it, but it’s a lie through and through, like so many other things. First off, there isn’t any park. Imagine a park in your mind and what do you see? You might picture green grass, a few shade trees, maybe some flowers. That isn’t what Pleasant Acres looked like, I can tell you. There were acres all right, but they sure as hell weren’t pleasant.”
Thad leaned back in his chair, the phone in his right. He held his left close to slack the chain of the handcuffs.
“The place was a collection of sagging double-wide trailers stranded on dirty gravel lots. Clumps of scrub-grass pushed up through the gravel. The roads were cheap asphalt that melted in the sun and stuck to the soles of your shoes. If you tracked that asphalt goo into the trailer-house, it was a beating waiting to happen.”
The flood of his words paused, and Margaret scrawled a quick note across a pad of paper.
“You say that was a beating waiting to happen. Was physical violence a part of your upbringing?”
The man behind the glass chuckled.
“I guess that’s one way to sugar-coat it, but a beating is just a beating. Giving it a fancy name makes it a lie, just like calling those tin boxes mobile homes is a lie. There is nothing mobile about a double-wide, except the first time they truck one to a site. After that, they never move again. The damn things just sit there perched on blocks, buckling in the sun. Our kitchen had enough of a slope to carry a toy truck clear down the length of it. That truck wouldn’t stop rolling until it hit the shag carpet in the living room.”
“Would you say that your family was poor?”
Thad gave her a hard look before he answered.
“Is this where you try to establish a causal relationship between poverty, physical abuse, and violent crime? C’mon now, don’t look so surprised. I’ve learned a good bit from the shrinks in here, but I was hoping for better from you.”
Margaret flustered and laid down her pen.
“I apologize, Thad. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
Thad waved away the apology, and Margaret heard the clink of the chains through the phone.
“Look, I’m not telling you any of this to put wrong ideas in your head. It’s true that a dirt-poor kid growing up in a trailer park might have gotten the short end of the stick. But the other side of that truth is that there were kids that grew up same as me and got the hell out of there. I got out, too. I just picked a different path than they did.”
“Were your parents somewhere along this path? Did they try to help you in any way?”
“Yes, Ma’am, they were right there, happy to help out with kind words. You never will amount to nothing. That was something I heard a lot when I was coming up. I don’t know exactly what my people expected me to amount to. My daddy was a welder when he worked, and that wasn’t often. My mama’s two hobbies were OxyContin and vodka. I was the oldest of three kids. My folks had a pretty good go at beating me into shape before they gave up on the youngsters. You know, maybe there is something to this causal stuff of yours.”
Margaret scribbled in her notebook as his laughter poured through the earpiece of the phone. Then his voice was off again, and the words washed over her.
“When they got tired of beating me, they’d go back to telling me how I wouldn’t amount to anything. A mantra, that’s what those spiritual folks call it; something that is repeated over and over. I read that in one of the books from the prison library. I have plenty of time to read in solitary. Of course, I proved my folks wrong. I amounted to more than they could ever imagine in their darkest dreams, not that either of them had much in the way of imagination.”
“Did you like to read when you were in school?”
“Funny thing is, I did. I liked adventure novels, Jack London, that sort of thing. My daddy, he didn’t read anything if he could avoid it. My mama read the labels on bottles of pills. There wasn’t an ounce of curiosity between them.”
Thad shifted the phone to his left ear and grinned.
“Now these prison head-shrinkers, they’re a different story. They’ve got more curiosity than two barrels of monkeys. I enjoy talking with the psychiatrists; what they call their sessions. It gets me out of solitary, and they are always good for a laugh.”
“Why do the psychiatrists make you laugh? Are they funny?”
“I’m pretty sure they don’t mean to be funny, but people like that amuse me. They are always looking for what they call closure, as if there is some final point where everything is resolved. I guess it makes them feel safer, like a candle in the dark. What the shrinks don’t understand is that lighting a candle in the dark just makes it easier for the hunters to find you.”
“Is that how you see yourself, a hunter?”
Thad pointed one finger at her and nodded his head.
“That is a good question, Miss Margaret. Better than most of the stuff the shrinks come up with.”
Margaret allowed the barest smile.
“Is there an answer to the good question? Are you a hunter, like Bundy or Ridgeway?”
Thad did not answer her question, but she watched his clever smile fade. He ran a forefinger up and down his nose, his eyes hooded. When he raised his eyes again, they were sharp and hard.
“You’re a pretty woman, Miss Margaret, the prettiest thing I’ve seen in a long time. Since you brought me a gift, I should give you something in return. The shrinks like to call it reciprocity. I’m going to answer your question and let you in on a little secret besides. The answering part is easy. A few folks are hunters and the rest are prey. A fella needs to know which one he is. I’m a hunter, true enough, but I don’t like comparisons. I’ll confess my secret to you: I do hate it when the head-docs call me a copy-cat. Don’t get me wrong, I never let on that it bothers me. I never show them anything that I don’t mean to. That’s how I keep control of our little sessions.”
“Thank you for taking me into your confidence, Thad. No one likes to be called a copy-cat.”
Thad cocked his head to one side, his smile almost splitting his face in two.
“I do believe you are trying to get a rise out of me. Good for you, Margaret. Who cares if I stole a few tricks from Ridgeway? He was the master, the real deal, the Green River Killer. Think of it: two decades he was on the loose. Hell, the cops had him pegged as a suspect for years and he still kept on killing. If the cops had given me that much time, just think what I could have done.”
“So, you regret not having more time?”
“Regret is one of those words folks like to toss around, along with remorse. As if either one will bring a dead body back to life. Neither of those words mean anything to me. They only use the word. I regret getting caught, of course. I regret not knowing more about that damned DNA evidence. I didn’t hide the first bodies as well as I should have. That was a mistake. It was those first corpses that led the cops to me. I learned better as I went along, but too late. Tough luck, and here I am on death row with only the guards to entertain me.”
“How are your interactions with the guards?”
“The guards aren’t worth a thought. They’re as boring as a flock of sheep. They think that they’re tough guys, but I can see the holes in them. They’ve got dark pits eating away their guts, every one of them.”
Thad arched a thumb toward the table behind him.
“The guards are afraid of me, which shows they have a bit of common sense. They’re right to be afraid. I would kill any one of them if I got the chance. It would be something to do. It’s not like the good State of Idaho can execute me more than once. Once a man has a death sentence on his head, he’s about as free as he can get.”
Margaret looked past Thad to the hulking men sitting at the back wall.“
But the guards are all so much bigger than you. Aren’t you afraid of the them?”
Thad grinned and shook his head.
“They try to act tough, maybe threaten to transfer me into the general population. That makes me laugh. There is nothing worse than an idle threat. They think they can scare me, but they are the ones who are afraid. I wouldn’t last a week in general. Someone would shiv me in the yard and that would be that. But then these worthless, frightened rabbits wouldn’t find the last of the bodies. How are they going to get their precious closure if I’m dead? When things get too hot, I give them a name and a body. They run off to dig up the corpse and leave me alone for a bit. Then we start the whole cycle over again.”
“Are there a lot more bodies to give up?”
Thad waved his forefinger in the air.
“Now Margaret, if I tell you everything on the first date, there won’t be anything for later. Ah, but damn me, if I gave a few bodies to the pretty criminology student, that would stick a burr in their ass.”
“Who do you mean?”
“I’m talking about the shrinks, the FBI profilers, the eggheads. They’re like a bunch of cooks standing around a bad pot of stew. They dip in their wooden spoons, taste that awful stew. They figure with enough little spoonfuls, they can discover how that stew went wrong. The formative event, that’s one of their pet phrases. That one always makes me laugh. It’s like asking why darkness is dark.”
“That is what they are trained to look for.”
“That may be so, but what those pathetic fools don’t understand is that I only give them what I want them to have. There are things I’ve never talked about and never will. My mama’s brother is one of them, the sick bastard. Say what you want about me, but I never harmed no children. That’s a damn sight more than I can say for my uncle. He taught me a whole lot, none of which a young boy should know.”
“What did your uncle teach you?”
“My uncle taught me about the cats, the son of a bitch. When he wasn’t teaching me how much I hated being buggered, that is. You might think it’s an easy thing to grab a cat and stuff it in a potato sack. The first time you try it, you’ll think differently. A half-wild cat will tear you to ribbons if you aren’t careful. The trick is to use welder’s gloves; big heavy leather ones. Once you’ve got the shrieking cat in a sack, you can do pretty much whatever you want to them. And you got to remember that cats are curious.”
Margaret’s pen flashed across the notebook as she listened to his words.
“We were talking about regrets. If I was somehow to get out of this cell, I would see to the biggest of my regrets. I would drive straight back to that miserable trailer park. When I got there, I’d kneecap my uncle, one bullet for each knee. Then I’d throw him in that shabby trailer of his, douse it with gasoline, and stand outside while he burned and screamed. It would be just like one of those cats, only a whole lot better. Not that it would matter to anyone. Like I said, they can’t execute me twice. Besides, it’s not like anyone would miss the sorry bastard.”
“Have you told anyone else about this, about being sexually abused?”
“Yeah, I told that preacher, the one who calls me Thaddeus. It was worth it, too. You should have seen the shock on the old boy’s face. Then he got all excited, figured he’d had a chance for another go at me. He started talking about redemption. Regret, remorse, redemption; all words that start with the letter R. That’s funny, don’t you think? Anyway, he tried the idea of redemption out on me, but he gave that up pretty quick. I showed him some things, things that scared the old boy half to death. After that, I don’t believe he wanted another look.”
“I was just having fun with that chaplain. I know there’s no such thing as God, just like there’s no such thing as the Devil. How would any decent god allow me to exist in his perfect world? But that wasn’t the only shot I had for the preacher. I asked that padre what sort of god would allow a fella to be born dirt-poor, funny looking, and then give him a little pecker to boot? He didn’t have an answer for that. While he was pondering that, I added in being stuck with the name Thad, and then saddled and ridden by my worthless uncle. That water was way too deep for our good preacher.”
“Did you enjoy toying with the preacher like that?”
“Time moves slowly in solitary. That is a fact. A bit of fun is a rare thing. You can’t blame me for wanting to enjoy it. Besides, everything I told that preacher was true, even the part about having a little pecker. I sure wasn’t any girl’s idea of a lover boy. But there are ways around everything, and I found them.”
In the silence that followed, Margaret sought the right question to keep Thad talking.
“You say you found a way around everything. What were you trying to get around?”
Thad leaned forward on his elbows, bringing his eager face close to the glass. Margaret flinched back and saw Thad smile at her reaction.
“You got no reason to be afraid, not from me anyway. But you need to pay attention. The only good thing my mama taught me was how far people are willing to go to get their fix. Most folks are useless and full of fear. They can’t face the realities of this life, not without a crutch anyway. I saw what the pills and booze did to my mama. One of the reasons I was so good at dealing the dope is that I never touched that poison. I never have and I never will, except for the big death cocktail these good folks are saving for me.”
“So, you began dealing drugs as a way out, a way around things?”
“Dealing dope to weak-minded addicts brought in the money. That changed things. A pocketful of money didn’t turn me into any movie star, but it did get me what I wanted. The pretty girls at my high school never gave me a second look, not without wrinkling up their noses. But once I had the money, I found out that the hookers over in Spokane would take care of me. It doesn’t matter how ugly a fella is if he has a fat roll of cash and a bag of pills. Those hookers love the pills.”
“Isn’t it true that the reason those poor girls are on the streets is because they’re addicts?”
“Everyone sheds their crocodile tears over those poor girls. It’s another example of how fools like to sugar-coat things that are too hard to look at. The truth is that not one of the sanctimonious pricks ever gave a shit about those hookers. Not the cops, not the news people, not even the judge and jury. If they cared about those poor, poor girls, why in the hell did they let them become hookers? Ask yourself that. The only time these fine citizens care about a hooker is when she turns up dead.”
Thad waved a chained hand, as if he were shooing a fly.
“It’s not like anyone really misses those dead whores. The newspapers wrote articles about the grieving families, but that’s because it sells advertising. Death sells, and I was good for business. I think the grief they splashed across the headlines was mostly guilt. Those tear-stained mamas and daddies, they felt guilty because they let their poor girls turn into prostitutes in the first place.”
Margaret failed to hold back the bite of anger in her voice.
“And since no one cared about them they were easy prey, is that right?”
Thad met her eyes and trapped her.
“You’re wasting your anger on them. Truth is, those hookers were broken long before they had the bad luck to climb into my truck. And they were all broken, each and every one of them. Most of them girls weren’t worth the air they were breathing. Other than the ass they had for sale; they weren’t worth the space they took up.”
“Still, I have to admit that a few of them treated me pretty good. I didn’t kill every one of them. The cops are wrong about that part, just like they are still wrong about a lot of what I did. Sometimes, one of those girls would take good care of me, make me feel pretty good. Then I would just give her the money. It gave me an extra kick, dropping her back on the street. She would never know how lucky she was. But I knew.”
Margaret pushed down her anger before asking another question.
“Can you tell me about one of the lucky ones?”
“Sure, I remember one of them girls that I went with maybe three or four times. She got to where she’d break out in a big smile when she saw my truck roll up. That one called me Sugar. It wasn’t until about the fourth time or so she said something stupid. That was a mistake. Her luck ran out that night.”
“How did you kill her, Thad?”
All the anger had drained from her voice.
“The detectives went on and on asking about how I killed those hookers, like they couldn’t get enough of it. They were never satisfied when I told them how simple it was. The shrinks, they care about the why of the thing. The cops care about the how. Both of them are asking the wrong questions.”
“It really was simple. A hooker would climb into my truck. We’d talk business and I would flash the money. After that, things took their course. I’d drive the truck to some back lot, someplace quiet and dark. Once the sex was done with, I’d offer the girl a pill as a tip. They almost always said yes, loving the dope the way they do. When a hooker chews an Oxy, that relaxes her right quick. Then the noose slipped around her neck. That noose was the trick. You try to strangle them with your hands, you can get all clawed up by their fingernails. It’s just like with those cats. You need to know what you’re doing.”
“After you killed one of the prostitutes you had to get rid of their bodies. How did you choose where to bury them?”
“I know it will sound funny, but I never thought much about dumping the bodies. If I had, I would have left them all on the Washington side of the state line. There’s no death penalty in Washington. But there were good patches of woods on the way home, so some of those bodies ended up on the Idaho side. That was a mistake, I admit that now. Because of those Idaho bodies I’ve got a death sentence hanging over my head. If I had been smarter, I’d only be looking at life in prison. Now I’m just a freak in a cage, someone that good folks can look down on.”
“Is that how you see yourself, as a freak?”
Thad smiled; his eyes bright.
“Freak isn’t the right word. I’m the guy that bites the heads off of chickens; the geek act at the seedy carnival. When they see me as a sideshow attraction, it creates a safety barrier, a layer of insulation. But if I can sneak them past the barrier, things can get really interesting.”
“I’m sorry Thad, I’m not following you. What gets interesting?”
“There was this professor that used to come visit me, sat right there where you’re sitting. He was an eager fella, a professor of sociology from the university over in Seattle. I took this eager young scholar on a sightseeing tour. He followed along like a little puppy, making notes and whatnot. I’m pretty sure he believed he was earning my trust. That’s a phrase those academic types like to use.”
Thad paused, looked through the glass. He was not smiling.
Margaret nodded for him to continue.
“Before he knew what was happening, my new professor had blundered past his safety line. He was scribbling, trying to take down everything I was telling him about the blackness. Then he saw some of that shadow in himself. You could see it come over his face. I’ve seen it before, believe me. I showed him that there is no difference between thought and deed. All of his finely crafted social rules, law and order, good and evil; they all abandoned him.”
“Margaret, I want you to think of a man at the edge of a cliff. He is standing on the brink of a huge drop-off like the Grand Canyon. If you get too close to the edge, you cannot help yourself. You have to look down. There’s no choice involved; you have to look. When you look too close, you get dizzy. When you get dizzy, you fall in.”
Thad leaned back in his chair, the smile returning to his face. He waited for Margaret to speak.
“What happened to the professor?”
“I don’t know, it’s been some time since he paid me a visit. He’s one of those frail people, the kind that tend to do themselves harm. He didn’t have the hard, beautiful edge that you do. That young fella saw the pit of darkness he carries around inside himself, just like me, just like all of us. All I had to do was lead him up to the edge so he could see it. He looked into that void and saw a piece of himself. What he saw must have rattled him something awful. He couldn’t gather up his papers fast enough. His hands were shaking like a dog shitting peach pits. I laughed out loud over that one. I couldn’t help myself.”
“You said I had a hard edge. You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me.”
There was no doubt now of the anger in Margaret’s voice.
“You have more hunter in you than prey. You should be thankful for that. It’s a dangerous world out there. Look behind me, the big guard on the left. Do you see him?”
Without meaning to, Margaret looked past Thad’s hungry smile. She saw a big man perched on the edge of his chair. The guard scowled at his wristwatch, then raised his head in her direction. Her eyes darted back to Thad’s.
“In a few minutes, those guards are going to take me back to my cell. I’ll be smiling the whole way back. I smile and the guards hate it, so I keep smiling. It will be the same as always, me shuffling along in chains with one of those big fools on either side of me. The one on the left, he’s new to Death Row. He needs to show everyone how tough he is, which is his way of hiding his fear. It isn’t toughness that keeps him alive, only luck. Maybe tonight, or maybe tomorrow, the new guard will lean in a little too close. The chain between my waist and hands will swing around his neck. It will be fun to see how fast his luck can run out. What do you think, Margaret?”
Before she could answer, a rough voice filled the room.
The guards stalked to either side of Thad’s chair, dwarfing him like adults standing over a wayward child. Thad’s eyes were on her as she rose and began gathering up her notebook and files. It was only sheer force of will that stilled her trembling hands.
They hoisted Thaddeus Thomas from the chair, and his face hovered near the top of the smudged glass. Before the guards swung him away, Thad gave Margaret a broad grin and a wink. Then he was gone, the back of his orange jumpsuit receding across the grim room. Margaret watched him go, the folders clutched tightly to her chest.
(Bio: Marco Etheridge lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His short fiction has been featured in many reviews and journals in Canada, the UK, and the USA. Notable recent credits include: Underwood Magazine, Prime Number Magazine, Smokey Blue Literary & Arts, Coffin Bell, In Parentheses, The Thieving Magpie, Ligeia Magazine, The First Line, The Yard: Crime Blog, Dream Noir, The Opiate Magazine, Cobalt Press, Literally Stories, and Blue Moon Review, amongst many others. His non-fiction work has been featured at Jonah Magazine, The Metaworker, and Route 7. Marco’s third novel, “Breaking the Bundles,” is available at fine online booksellers.
His author website is: https://www.marcoetheridgefiction.com/
His Facebook author page is: https://www.facebook.com/SerialZtheNovel/