That morning I left a note on his windshield. That evening I sat in my Nissan Sentra, sweating and swatting mosquitoes while I watched him back his old, Ford van precariously close to the river. A moment later, he set the parking brake, killed the engine, climbed from the driver’s side and hurried to the back of the van. He gave only a cursory glance around to make sure that no one was watching and then reached inside. He was a short, squat man, broad shouldered and burly, and I could imagine his grunts and sweat as he dragged the girl’s body from the van and wrestled it down the sharp slope to the Mississippi river.
His name was Harry Renfrow, and I owed him my sanity. I’d been suffocating beneath the weight of my life when I’d begun to follow his work in the Commercial Appeal nine murders so far, all of them women between eighteen and twenty three. The paper mentioned sexual assault and mutilations. I kept a scrapbook and journal. Flipping through those pages, speculating about his manner and motive made it possible to forget that I was thirty-four, balding, likely to spend the rest of my life spewing lectures on American History to lifeless high-school kids, that after twelve years of marriage my wife and I were still without children, that I spent most of my nights alone while my wife was with her lover.
Now, parked on the edge of a dead cotton field, I listened to crickets chirp and waited. Finally, he came scurrying up the bank, wiped his face and hands with a rag and climbed behind the wheel. A few minutes later, his headlights cut through the dark, and the sound of the van’s motor faded as he headed back to the main highway.
The riverbank was slick, and I picked my steps carefully, shining my flashlight, watching for snakes. For a moment, I was certain that I was going to be disappointed, that he’d weighted the body and sunk it. Then I spotted her. She was young, honey blonde, nude. He’d positioned her in the exposed roots of a white birch tree, her head turned to look over her shoulder, her arms and legs splayed as if in an invitation for the dark water to take her. There was a bullet wound in her forehead, a velvet sash tied around her neck, a crucifix hanging between her small, white breasts, a skimpy pair of black, lace panties stuffed into her mouth.
Despite his slovenly appearance, Harry Renfrow was an artist and like all artists, he transformed his subject. Maybe she’d been a chronic liar or a drug addict or a prostitute. It didn’t matter. The papers would turn her into the girl next door, the perfect daughter, everyone’s friend. Every sin she had committed would be washed away, and eventually even those who’d known the truth about her would replace their memories with sound bites from the local news.
Mosquitoes swarmed my face and neck, and bullfrogs croaked along the water’s edge. In the distance, an outboard motor putted along. I bent beside the girl and gently removed the panties from her mouth. I stuffed them in my pocket and hurried up the bank, my heart racing, my hand constantly reaching to touch my souvenir.
I was awake when my wife came home after midnight and rushed to take a shower. Lori worked as a legal secretary, and she was sleeping with her boss, a forty something attorney with thick gray hair, a smooth tan, and a new Mercedes. Before I found Harry Renfrow, I’d been despondent, wondering if she told her boss that she loved him, wondering if they laughed at me when they cuddled in a hotel room bed. On the few occasions we tried to make love, I lost my erection at the thought of her on all fours, head thrown back, eyes glazed and hungry for another man. Each morning, I looked into the mirror and realized that I was a day older, a step closer to death. I could barely teach my classes. The sight of a girl tossing hair from her eyes or a glimpse of a short skirt brushing a thigh would bring a sense of loss and bitterness that left my hands balled into fists, my head aching. But Harry Renfrow had changed all that.
Now, I listened to Lori moving in the bathroom, drying off, brushing her teeth, and I thought of the panties I’d stashed in a lock box in our basement. They were black lace with a Victoria Secret label, skimpy, meant to tantalize. After I’d come home, I’d spent a half an hour with them, and I could still feel the lace on my fingertips and smell the hint of cinnamon perfume that lingered upon them.
Lori slipped into bed and rolled onto her side. I pressed myself against her hips, touched the nape of her neck, heard her sigh of exasperation.
“Still awake,” she said.
There was a pause and then she rolled onto her back and lifted her nightgown. I closed my eyes and imagined the girl on the riverbank while Lori lay still and waited for me to finish. Her body was as motionless and stiff as a corpse.
Harry Renfrow lived in a small weatherboard house on a street of rental homes, a neighborhood with toys littering front yards and rusting basketball goals mounted on garage walls. Years ago, Harry and his brother had owned an auto body shop a couple of miles south of here, but the brother had died and the business had gone under. Now Harry eked out a living as a handyman, but he still owned the garage, and still did his real work there.
I parked across the street from his house, made sure that there was no sign of movement, and then hurried to his driveway. Yesterday, I’d left a note that said, “I know who you are and would love to meet you. A fan.” Harry barely glanced at the note, shook his head, and then ripped it to pieces. I had to be more exact, had to make him see that I was serious. My plan had been to leave the panties along with the note, but I couldn’t bring myself to part with them so I wrote, “I admire your work and would be honored to meet you. If you doubt my sincerity, don’t. I took the pair of black, lace panties you stuffed in the girl’s mouth last night.” Now, I wedged the note beneath his windshield wipers and then hurried back to my car, glancing over my shoulder to see if he was watching. I had a proposition to make, but not yet, not until he understood both how much I knew about him and how much he had to lose. I started my engine and drove to Willie’s Market to wait.
I checked my watch. A quarter after eight. Harry Renfrow’s routine rarely varied. By eight thirty, he would stop at the store for a large, black coffee and a pack of Dolly Madison chocolate doughnuts.
Finding Harry had either been a fluke or a machination of destiny. A few weeks ago when Lori was out, I decided to cruise through the four block area along the river that everyone called the strip-- a neighborhood of blue collar bars, warehouses, strip clubs, tattoo and massage parlors. I circled a half dozen times watching thin, nervous girls in short skirts and clinging halters walk the avenues. A few were obviously hooking. They stood at the edge of the street, pouting and preening for each passing driver. Locked in the warm, anonymity of my car, I imagined pulling to the curb and inviting them inside. I pretended to be him, imagined where I would take them, what I would do when we were alone, and I felt alive, powerful, in control. Then a blue Econoline van stopped in front of a vacant lot between a liquor store and an abandoned warehouse.
Something about the squat, powerful man who stepped from the van and waited for a redheaded girl of nineteen walking towards him caught my attention. The man approached her but she shook her head. He gestured to the van, and the girl shook her head again, seemed anxious to be on her way. He shrugged and she started walking. Then he took a quick glance to make sure no one was watching and hit her hard in the back of the head. The redheaded girl stumbled forward. He clamped his hand over her mouth, wrestled her towards the van, hit her twice more, and then pitched her inside. I followed, my heart racing, telling myself that this couldn’t be him, that there was no way I could be that lucky. Twenty minutes later, he pulled the van behind a low, block building with a faded and rusted metal sign that announced this had once been Renfrow’s Auto Repair Shop. Legion Drive was a street of weeded lots and abandoned buildings on the south side of the old L&M tracks, an industrial area that no one seemed to come to anymore, a place where a woman could be bound and left, and no one would hear her screaming. He marched the redhead girl into the building at gunpoint. An hour later, he came out, padlocked the garage, and drove away. I followed him again. He stopped at Willie’s Market, bought two quarts of Miller and a pack of Parliament cigarettes and then headed home. By the next afternoon, I knew that his name was Harry Renfrow. Five days later, when the redheaded girl’s body turned up in a local landfill, I was certain I had found the man who would transform my life.
Now, I watched an old drunk lurch from the store, pull a Bush tallboy from a paper bag and drain the can in three deep swallows. The old man pitched the empty at a garbage can and stumbled from the sidewalk nearly stepping in front of Harry Renfrow’s van as he pulled into the space beside me. Harry honked his horn, glared both at me and the old drunk, and then rushed inside the store. I counted to thirty and followed him.
The smell of chicken fat and hamburger grease was overpowering, and my stomach churned as I lingered by the gum and mint aisle, picking up packs of Juicy Fruit and Cinnamon Bursts and putting them back down again. Harry filled a cup with coffee, grabbed his pack of chocolate doughnuts and went to the register. Picking up a roll of Certs, I stepped in line behind him.
Sour, beer sweat rose from his skin and his breathing was labored. He was fatter than he’d appeared from a distance, and it looked as if he hadn’t changed clothes in a week. There were mustard and coffee stains on his shirt, dried mud on his pants. His balding head was deeply tanned and speckled with sunspots.
“Harry Renfrow, isn’t it?” I said as he took his change and turned towards the door.
His face was sallow beneath its tan and his lips twitched, but his eyes were cold, black and hard, the eyes of an alligator suddenly alert to the splashing of possible prey. “I don’t think I know you,” he said.
I caught up with him just as he reached his van. “Mr. Renfrow,” I said. “I’m sure it’s you.”
“I didn’t say it wasn’t. I said I don’t think I know you.”
“I’ve admired your work for a long time.”
“My work,” he repeated.
“You used to repair cars, right? Paint jobs and such.”
He wiped sweat from his forehead and nodded, relaxing a little. “That was a lifetime ago, Bub.”
“You own the garage over on Legion Drive,” I said. “You still work there from time to time.”
His eyes took on the hard alligator’s stare, but his mouth seemed to be made of putty. “You’re either drunk or crazy.”
“We need to talk,” I said. “I’m a fan of yours.”
His eyes glittered “I ain’t got anything to say to you.” He opened his van door, climbed behind the wheel and then glared at me. “You want to watch yourself, Bub. Poking around where you don’t belong can be dangerous business.”
“I don’t mean any harm,” I said. “I’ll be in touch again. I‘ve got a proposition for you.”
He slammed the door hard and jammed his key in the ignition. Then he backed from the parking spot, glanced at me in the rearview mirror, and pulled from the lot, squealing tires and gunning his engine.
On my way home, I went to McDonald’s for breakfast and ordered two Egg McMuffins to celebrate. Things were going as planned. I wanted Renfrow to sweat a little so that when I approached him he’d be relieved I hadn’t gone to the police and would be willing to listen.
I finished my breakfast, bought a cup of coffee for the road, made small talk with the thin, glasses wearing girl behind the counter. Sherry Colson. I’d had her in Honor’s History two years before, and I listened to her complaints about working a fast food job in summer. While she talked, I imagined her bound and naked, a gag in her mouth, her eyes terrified, her skin beaded with sweat and goose pimples. My hands grew sweaty and my erection poked at my Levis.
“What kind of underwear do you have on?”
For a second I wasn’t sure if I’d spoken aloud or merely thought it. Then I looked at Sherry’s puzzled expression and widening eyes.
“Mr. Whitaker,” she said, blushing. “What did you say?”
“Nothing,” I said. “ I’m sorry.”
I rushed outside, warning myself to be careful. I couldn’t let the fantasy take control, couldn’t afford to be anything but cautious. Angry and a little frightened, I sat behind the wheel of my car and leaned forward to put the key in the ignition. Then I smelled body odor and beer. A thick forearm wrapped around my throat and my eyes exploded with pinpoints of light.
I awoke bound to a hardback chair and saw that I was in a kitchen. Empty Milwaukee’s Best cans and plates streaked with congealed eggs were piled on the table. The house stank of grease and cat urine. I swallowed hard and focused on Harry Renfrow sitting at the table, a can of beer in one hand, a .22 revolver in the other. My arms were numb and my back throbbed, but I was grateful for the pain. It helped clear my head a little.
“I don’t mean you any harm,” I said, my voice thick and slurred as if I’d been drinking.
“How did you find me, Bub? How many of them do you got with you?”
“There’s no one else,” I said. “I was cruising the strip and saw you take the redhead, Lisa Griffith, so I followed you.”
“Three quarters of the cops in the state are looking for me, and you just happened to be passing by at the wrong time? “
I licked my lips. “That’s why it must be fate, my destiny.”
He wiped his forehead on his sleeve, took a long swallow of beer and belched. Then he mumbled something under his breath. I told myself to be calm, stick to the plan.
“I’ve been watching you,” I said. “I’ve got photographs.”
His head jerked up, and his eyes narrowed. “What kind of photographs?”
“Interesting ones. I’ve got you on film picking up your last two victims and dumping the bodies.”
“You lie,” he said.
“They’re in a safe deposit box and I’ve left careful instructions with my lawyer. If anything happens to me in the next year, if I go missing or have an odd car crash or turn up floating in the river, the photographs go to the police.”
He mumbled to himself and stared at me with red rimmed ferret’s eyes, his breathing harsh and ragged. Of course it wasn’t true, and of course he didn’t’ believe it, but we both knew he couldn’t take the chance that I might not be bluffing.
“What do you want from me?”
“It’s simple really,” I said. “I want you to kill my wife.”
He untied me, paced the room, his eyes glimmering, his face beaded with sweat. “Say it again.”
I straightened my back, accepted a lukewarm can of Milwaukee’s Best. “What part?”
“The part I like,” he said. “Tell me what I do. How I wash away their sins.”
I repeated what I had said. Whatever lives his victims had lived, their petty sins, their selfishness, their lies and indiscretions were washed clean. Their bodies became a work of art, and their memories lived on pristine, perfect.
“That’s what I do, huh?” He cackled, slapped the table and sent empty cans tumbling into the floor. “I thought I was just having fun.” He tipped his beer in my direction “That’s what you want me to do to your wife? Make her perfect.”
He leered at me. “What do you want me to do to her? Exactly.”
I thought of a title of a book I’d had to read in my senior year of college. “Do with her what you will,” I said.
“Show me a picture.”
I fumbled through my wallet, found a portrait we’d taken a couple of Christmases ago. He picked up the picture, cocked his head to the side as if to see it from another angle, pursed his lips.
“How old is she?” he asked.
“Thirty-three next Thursday,” I said and then rushed on, feeling as if I were trying to hype a car to a reluctant buyer. “Everyone says she looks ten years younger.”
“Too old,” he said. “The oldest girl I’ve taken has been maybe twenty two.”
“Twenty-three and a couple of months,” I said. “Shelly LaFarge.”
“A brunette, right?”
“Yes,” I said. “What about Lori?”
“Pretty name. But not my type.” He drank the dregs of his beer, pitched the can at his overfilled trash and didn’t seem to notice the avalanche that spilled onto the floor. “How’s her body?”
“She works out four days a week, runs a couple of miles every morning, burns extra calories screwing her boss.”
He laughed, his mouth spread wide to reveal yellow, spit-slicked teeth. “A cheating bitch, huh. I’ve had my share.” He squeezed his crotch, tongued his fever blister. “Do with her what I will, huh? Give me a couple of days before you call the cops to report her missing.”
“It would seem odd,” I said. “But they won’t really look for her anyway. She’s older than your other victims, doesn’t fit the profile. After they ask a few questions, find out she’s been sleeping with her boss, they’ll assume she took off on me.”
“Until her body turns up.”
“Until her body turns up,” I agreed
He opened us two more beers. “When do you want to do it? The sooner the better for me,” he said. “Lately, I’ve been really hungry.”
“Sunday,” I said. “She plays racquetball at Windsor Health and Fitness every Sunday night, eight until nine or nine thirty.”
He lifted his beer, gave me a kicked dog’s sniveling leer. “Sunday.”
By Monday evening, I knew I had to break our agreement. Renfrow had fulfilled his promise. Last night, Lori had left for her weekly racquetball match and never returned. I went to the police this morning, told them that my wife hadn’t come home. A fat, gum chewing detective barely listened to my story, asked mundane questions about our finances and our marital relations, and seemed about as interested in Lori’s disappearance as I was in advanced Trigonometry. Later in the afternoon, a lean, wolf-faced detective stopped by the house. Lori’s car had been towed from the fitness club’s lot. He seemed to have a lot of interest in her disappearance, but lost it after I gave him permission to check our bank records. Lori had withdrawn two thousand dollars on Saturday morning. He had no way of knowing that she’d done it after a long, Friday night argument or that I had spent three hours explaining that I’d lost the money in a pickup poker game the previous weekend and had to cover my bets. The detective sighed over the withdrawal, ran his hands through his salt and pepper hair, lit a cigarette, and asked softly if Lori and I had been having marital problems.
Everything had gone according to plan. But, I couldn’t rest, couldn’t read, couldn’t even numb my mind by watching an extra inning Red’s game on television. I couldn’t stop thinking of Lori in the block building, tied, gagged, scared, perhaps bleeding. What was he doing to her? What had he done to all of them before he killed them? Harry and I had an agreement. He would take care of Lori and I would stay away from him. Ninety days after her funeral, I’d mail the imaginary photographs and the imaginary negatives to him, and we’d be finished. But I’d moved from fan to aficionado, and I wanted to see what he was doing to my wife.
It was a quarter until ten when I killed my headlights and coasted to a stop beside the garage. A single florescent light burned in the back. I opened my trunk, took out a tire tool for protection and walked through ankle high grass to the rear of the building. Ignoring the beetles and night crawlers that wriggled under my fingers, I pulled a couple of concrete blocks from the muck beside the garage and lugged them around to the window.
Lori was tied to a wooden bench, naked and spread-eagled, her body gray beneath florescent lights. Shirtless and round shouldered, Renfrow squatted over a hot plate in the corner, stirring something in a dinted metal pan. Then he emptied the pot onto a Styrofoam plate, said something to Lori. I spotted an empty can of Franco American ravioli sitting on a tool shelf next to Harry’s .22 revolver. He hunkered beside Lori, spooned a bite for her, but she closed her lips. He tried force, poking the food into her mouth, but she spat and ravioli, and tomato sauce sprinkled his arms. He set the plate on the floor, changed his mind, and picked it up again. Then he smashed the entire plate into her face, grinding it into her nose and mouth, smearing what was left across her chest and stomach.
She screamed and tossed her head from side to side. Harry laughed, licked his lips, and squeezed one of her breasts. Then he unbuckled his belt.
I shut my eyes and opened them a moment later to the sight of Renfrow’s fevered hunching. He thrust savagely into Lori, his weight crushing her against the bench, his legs pulled up, his hairy shoulders rounded so I thought of a black bear shimmying a fallen tree. I didn’t want to watch, but I couldn’t stop myself. One thought echoed in my head-- that’s my wife he’s hunching. Then I saw something that balled my hands into fists and turned my pulse into a jackhammer. Harry lowered his head and Lori threw hers back, still screaming. I was certain that I’d seen that look on her face before, certain that it was pleasure and not fear or revulsion that caused her screams. You cheating, lying bitch, I thought, and bit my lip so hard that blood dribbled down my chin.
I considered smashing the window, thought better and then tried the paint-flecked back door. It didn’t have a dead bolt and with one quick kick, the lock broke and the door rocked back on its hinges. I gripped the tire tool tightly in my hand and waited.
He stumbled towards me, Chinos at his ankles, his face red and sweaty, and I looked down past his pathetic erection to his dingy, gray, feces smeared underwear. It should have been comic, but my revulsion was like vomit lodged in the back of my throat. This disgusting, unclean thing had not only raped my wife but had also tricked me into believing he was capable of offering a transformation.
“You?” he asked, reaching for his pants. “What the hell are you doing here?”
I swung the tire tool then. The first blow sent fire from my wrist to my elbow and sent him reeling backwards. Then I swung again. When I finally dropped the tire tool, my shoulder throbbed and Renfrow’s dead, hopeless eyes stared at a water stain on the ceiling. I wiped my lips on the back of my hand and stepped towards my wife’s screaming.
“Oh God,” she said. “Oh God, Danny, oh thank God you found me” She sobbed and then licked snot from her lip. “He hurt me.”
I walked wooden legged across the room and took the .22 revolver from the tool shelf mounted to the wall.
“How did you find me?” Lori babbled. “I just came out of the club and he grabbed me.” She sobbed once more and thrust against the ropes. “Oh God, Danny. I’m sorry.”
I picked up the .22 and turned towards her. “Me, too,” I said.
The sound was louder than I had expected, and my ears rang and my head throbbed. This was a mess but it could work out if I was careful and thought it through. I’d have to make the right cuts on Lori’s body, have to make sure I put her in a place where she’d soon be discovered. I’d weight Renfrow’s corpse, sink him in the river. By the time he was discovered he’d be unimportant, a victim of a robbery perhaps or an argument turned violent. It could work.
Of course, there would have to be others. If things ended now, if my wife were the last victim, there would be questions. Two, maybe three more and then I’d be done with it. I thought of Sherry Colson behind the register at McDonald’s. Plain white briefs, sweat stained gray bikinis, a wild orange thong, or delicate lace panties? I’d find out soon enough.
I took a last look at Harry Renfrow’s body and smiled. Perhaps I’d been unfair to him. Maybe he’d been capable of transforming my life after all. Whistling, I searched the garage, found a short-bladed knife on a desk in the rat filled room that had once been an office. Lori had always loved sunsets, I remembered. Then I hunched over her torso and went to work, my hands certain and sure, ready to add my own artistic flourish.