A Dark and Stormy Night

I have a dim memory of an old episode from the tv series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” about a storm and some nervous nurses waiting it out. Something about a nurse killer on the loose. In the final scene we find that one of the nurses is the actual killer. She was a big woman and I think she was a man in a wig. Anyway, that errant memory flittered through my mind and left a seed. Storm, nurses, murder afoot. After a wrote it, I had to go with a tongue in cheek title. Hence “it was a dark and stormy night.”

A Dark and Stormy Night

            A dim flicker of light glimmered at the office window. Candace, ‘call me Candy’, Johnson barely noticed as she continued inventory of the med stocks for what seemed the hundredth time that week. A few moments later a soft rumble could be heard in the distance.

            “Storm’s coming in,” Denise Patrick said. Master of the obvious, Candy thought sourly.  “It’s supposed to be a big one,” Denise continued. “I just heard about it on the radio.”

            “Just my luck,” said Candy, slamming a cabinet door.

            “Huh?” asked Denise.

            “Just my luck to draw the late shift in this rustbucket place with a storm brewing. By midnight we’ll have bedpans all down the hallway catching water from the leaky ceiling.”

            “It leaks? That can’t be very safe.” As I said, thought Candy, master of the obvious.

            “No, it’s not. But we’re not St. Joe’s. We’re a poor little clinic run by a poor little hospital in a poor little section of Philly.” Candy decided the only upside of the situation was they had no patients in their care for the late shift. The decidedly downside was that she had to work it with Denise. She wasn’t sure exactly what it was about Denise that rubbed her the wrong way. Pretty much everything. She was a mousy little hausfrau, seemingly afraid of her own shadow. She didn’t appear all that bright and Candy wondered how she ever got through nursing school. Candy, on the other hand, was a plus size blonde, brassy and full of life. She sashayed her way through her daily rounds, flirting with the patients, keeping up a light banter. It kept the men’s spirits up and she didn’t mind the occasional pat on her fanny. God knows some of them had seen horrors she’d never know. A smile and wink for our brave boys cost her so little, she thought. But working the late shift sucked. Especially with a freak storm coming in. But they were stuck until two am when the overnight relief came on.

            There was a bright flash of light through the window. The rumble came quicker this time.

            “It’s moving fast,” Denise offered.

            “Good, maybe it’ll do it’s thing and get the hell out of here fast, too. I hate having to dash out to my car in the pouring rain.” Another flash, shortly followed by a louder rumble.

            “Lordy, I hate storms.” Candy noticed Denise babbled when nervous. “We used to have bad ones back in Kansas. Big storms, and sometimes tornadoes and hail. I just want to crawl into a cellar and hide.”

            “Well, our cellar is over that way,” Candy nodded with her head, as she lifted a load of towels to be sorted.

            “I can’t go down there,” Denise looked at her with fear bright in her eyes. “That used to be the morgue. I don’t dare go down there.”

            “Don’t tell me you’re a nurse and scared of dead people?”

            “I just haven’t had much experience around them. I’ve only been a nurse for a few years.”

            “Well, honey, it’s something you’ll just have to get used to.” Candy figured Miss Mousy’s patients would be dropping like flies from her tepid care. Candy kept her men’s spirits from flagging with her brazen sexuality. She didn’t dial it down, and her men responded. She was a very popular nurse.

            A brilliant flash and crash almost simultaneously made them both jump. It was followed by the rattle of a hard rain hitting the flagstones outside. Over the next few minutes there were multiple flashes and the rumbling never stopped, rolling and echoing through the air and seemingly through their bones. Candy thought it sounded like a bowling alley with the constant rumble of the balls. Maybe I’ll get Hank to take me bowling this weekend. We haven’t done that in ages, she thought with a smile. Hank was back from the Pacific with everything intact. She was so afraid he would return with a loss of limbs or a shell-shocked zombie like she had seen so many times over the past months. Or not return at all. Stop thinking about downers, she told herself. Hank’s home and all is right with the world. The war is over.

            A sudden massive crash shook the entire building. Denise screamed and her pile of towels flew through the air.

            “Wow, that one was right on top of us,” Candy said. Then she silently chided herself. Now who’s stating the obvious?

            Candy felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned but no one was there. Then a cold splash of water hit her nose. She looked up and got hit in the middle of her forehead with another cold splash.

            “Oh, Hell’s Bells. I need a bedpan for this leak. You take the back hallway and check. I’ll finish looking around up here.” Within the next half hour they found fifteen leaks and had bedpans in place collecting the spillage.

            “At the rate the rain’s falling, we’ll have to empty them before the next shift comes in. What a gruesome night. Glad I’m going home and not coming in.”

            Over the next hour the flashing and rumbling would sometimes abate for a few minutes but always came back with renewed vigor. Candy didn’t know if it were multiple storm fronts or the same storm just circling. Either way, they were receiving severe punishment from the elements.

            Another particularly violent crash hit and the lights flickered and then failed altogether. Denise emitted a short shriek.

            “Oh, ain’t this just grand,” Candy said sarcastically. She had several other choice phrases that came to mind but didn’t want to totally offend Denise’s delicate sensibilities. The sudden darkness was total. After a few moments their eyes had adjusted but it was still nearly impossible to see anything.

            “The generator’s supposed to kick on when the power goes out,” Candy complained. “I wonder why it hasn’t tripped yet?”

            “I don’t like it.” Candy jumped because Denise’s voice was right at her elbow.

            “I think there’s some candles in the supply cabinet. Let me check.” Candy groped her way to the supply cubbie behind the nurses’ station. Within a few minutes she had a couple of white tapers lit and sitting on the desk.

            Candy had just said, “Well, ain’t this comfy,” when the phone rang.

            “Bellhaven Clinic,” she said automatically into the phone. “Oh, hi, Ray. Yeah. Yah don’t say. Well, the power’s out. No, it didn’t kick on. Where? Crap. He said what? No. No. I said hell no.” She listened for a moment more and slammed down the phone.

            “What?” Denise wanted to know.

            “The main road’s flooded. Ray said our relief might not be here till daylight. We have to stay all night.”

            “But, I don’t want to.”

            Candy glared at her. “You think I do? I would walk out on ‘em, but the road is flooded so I couldn’t get home anyway. Either way you look at it, we’re stuck. By the way, Ray told me how to get the generator on. We just need to push a button on the side.”

            “Oh, good. Where is it?”

            “In the cellar.”

            “Oh.” Denise’s eyes were wide.

            “Oh, for Pete’s sake. Are you that afraid of the cellar? Come on. I’m not going down there by myself.”

            “But there used to be dead people there. There might be spirits.”

            “Oh, for crying out loud. Come on.” She roughly grabbed Denise’s arm in one hand and a candle in the other.

            Once in the cellar they found that other undiscovered leaks had let water in and there were small puddles in various places. They found the generator and, sure enough, there was a big red button on the side. Candy pressed it. Nothing happened. She pressed it again, holding it longer. The generator made a wheezing noise. Then after a few burps it began a soft hum. Looking up toward the door they noticed a soft glow meaning the emergency lighting was working. They hustled up the stairs, ready to leave the dank and disquieting place behind.

            The emergency lighting was just sparse dim lights that did little to enlighten the place and nothing to dispel the gloom. Still, they could see.

            Candy decided it was time for a break. She plopped down in a chair at the nurses’ station and picked up her Hollywood magazine. She ruefully noted it was two months old and she had read every article at least twice. She tossed it aside.

            “Well, I ain’t doing much else tonight. I’ll take my double time pay sitting on my bum. How about you, Toots?” Denise approached the desk looking fearful and browbeaten.

            “Yes. Me too.”

            “That’s the spirit, girl. Show some gumption.”

            Denise picked up the Hollywood magazine and looked at it. After a moment her eyes grew wide.

            “What?” Candy asked.

            “Are they really making a movie about that man who killed those seven co-eds? That was so awful. Why would they make a movie about it? I was almost too scared to go to work for a week after it happened.”

            “Sorry, hon. Blood and sex sells. It’s gotta have one or the other.”

            “But that’s so awful.”

            “Yeah, and it’ll make ‘em a bazillion bucks. People love a good horror story. I think they call ‘em slasher movies. You know, like Hookman or the Midnight Caller or the Scarecrow.”

            “I don’t know about that. All that kind of stuff scares me. Especially the Scarecrow.”

            “Listen,” Candy said loudly. Denise clutched her heart. “The rain. It’s stopped.” They both noted how quiet it was for a moment. There were more flares followed by rumbling, but it was no longer directly over them. It still rolled and echoed, drawing out each rumble. “I think we’ve survived the worst of it,” Candy said with as much enthusiasm as she could gather. She looked at the clock and it was just now two am. She should be getting off right now. The long night loomed.

            They went to the front window and looked out. There were no street lights, but by the occasional flashes of lightning they could see tree limbs scattered about. Some lawn furniture was missing or overturned. The yard crew had their work cut out for them. But the rain had stopped.

            “You don’t really believe all those slasher stories, do you?” Candy asked. “They aren’t real. Just stories people tell to frighten each other or the kids.”

            “Daddy said the Scarecrow is real. He wouldn’t tell me a lie.”

            “Well, maybe. But I think he’s overblown. One kook kills a few people wearing a scary mask and everybody goes crazy. I bet the others are just copycats. Or didn’t even happen. There is no demented serial killer running around killing, killing…”

            “Nurses.”

            “Well, yeah. I don’t believe it.”

            “I wish I was that sure.”

            After a few more minutes of desultory conversation Candy said she had to go to the ladies’ room. She could tell Denise didn’t want to be left alone but she was damned if she’d invite her to the bathroom. The girl needs to grow a spine, she thought. Then she got an idea of a fun prank. After finishing her business, she quietly slipped out of the lavatory and crept to a linen supply closet. She grabbed a pillowcase. Using her scissors she cut two eye holes, and drew some black lines on it with a felt pen. She pulled it over her head, cinching it around her neck with a draw cord. She pulled an abandoned old black great coat from the closet to hide her nursing whites. She crept up the hallway, just out of sight of the nurses’ station. She picked up a bedpan, dumped out the water and tossed the pan into the room. The clanging of the pan startled Denise, eliciting a shriek. Candy jumped into the room using the lowest voice she could muster and said “The Scarecrow has come for you!”

            Denise’s earlier shriek was nothing compared to the scream she now emitted. She ran from the station screeching as if all the demons of hell were after her. Barely able to contain her laughter, Candy pursued her down the hallway. Denise ran into a supply closet and closed the door behind her. Candy thought, what an idiot. Now she’s cornered. I guess I need to teach her how to handle an emergency.

            Denise was crying, trembling and hyperventilating so hard she could hardly hold the door handle. She braced herself to keep the Scarecrow from opening it. Oh lord, I’m so scared, she thought. She looked around to see if there were any type of weapon or protection in the closet but it was too dark. She just trembled and moaned, holding on to the knob as if her life depended on it. She never heard the click as the door was locked from the outside.

            After what felt like hours of kneeling hanging onto the knob, her hands began cramping. She whimpered, not daring to let go. She kept catching herself almost falling asleep, jerking upright each time. Finally she did not catch herself and fell into a fitful exhausted sleep.

***

            Denise jerked awake. At first she was disoriented, finding herself on the floor in a closet. Then the fear grabbed her heart like a vise. The light coming under the door was brighter than the emergency lighting so either the power was back or it was morning. She carefully twisted the doorknob. Or tried to. It refused to move. She realized it was locked and she was trapped inside.

            As she considered her predicament she also had another realization. The monster who had chased her last night was wearing a white skirt and shoes under the black coat. It was Candy all along. She played a mean trick on me, she thought, feeling incredibly foolish. Gathering her courage, she rattled the doorknob. She shook the door, shouting, “Candy, let me out!” She beat on the door and pleaded with Candy to let her out, but no one came. She was kneeling by the door crying when she heard sounds outside. Fear still spiked through her, but she knew she needed to get out. She heard what sounded like people talking. Multiple people was good. That would be safe. She pounded on the door, yelling for help. In a moment she heard the click as the door was unlocked. The bright light of day blinded her as it was opened and unknown arms pulled her up. She fought down the urge to struggle against them.

            “It’s okay. You’re safe now,” said a man’s voice. As her eyes adjusted she could tell he was wearing a policeman’s uniform. “It’s all over now.”

            “I was locked in,” Denise began, not knowing exactly what to say, totally disoriented.

            “That’s okay. Come outside and have some coffee.” That sounded like a wonderful idea so she allowed the officer to lead her outside to an ambulance where there was coffee and some doughnuts.

            Denise looked around. There were a number of official looking cars in the parking lot.

            “Where’s Candy?” she asked.

            “You need to drink your coffee first,” said the policeman.

***

            Inside two detectives were conferring.

            “Well, the MO is the same. Slashed from side to side. She bled out in minutes. The same message written in blood. I don’t know why he didn’t take them both, like over in southside last month. Maybe he didn’t know she was hiding.”

            “She was lucky. Looks like she barely escaped the Scarecrow.”

The Undertaker

You may recognize the beginning of this story. It is a take off on Little Red Corvette from last year. I almost named it Little Black Corvette, but that doesn’t have the same flow. Little Red Corvette was absolutely true. At one point I pondered on what had happened and what might have happened. In this story, I’m imagining one possible scenario. I’m just glad it didn’t work out this way.

The Undertaker

When I was a kid, my best friend was Will. Our dads had been best friends growing up, and since we lived about 200 yards apart it was logical we would be thrown together. I was a year older and we were quite different, but it somehow worked and we were very close throughout our childhood and adolescence. Will dated Tina during most of high school. She dumped him when he was sixteen. I then broke the Number One Bro Rule. I dated her – twice. It was wrong but she was kinda hot and I was kinda 17. If it’s any consolation, she ditched me on our second date and went home with another guy.

Will and I eventually worked around it and stayed friends. After high school he met a nice girl and they got engaged. Early in the engagement she was killed in a car accident. Will was particularly wrecked because his sister had died in an auto accident when we were young. By this time I was off at college. I found out later he had moved in with a woman in a nearby town. I was just hoping he would find himself, or at least a little happiness after all the crap life had handed him.

***

Will apparently found himself. On his 21st birthday he came to visit me in the small city not far away where I had settled. He said his birthday present to himself was to come out of the closet. Then he said, “I’m gay.” I just looked at him as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. My expression probably said, “And…?” This wasn’t exactly a newsflash. I knew he had broken off with his live-in lady friend and he had spoken a number of times about going to ‘the club’ in my city. ‘The club’ was a gay bar. I guess what he was getting at was that although he was living as if he was not in the closet, he was now announcing it to the world. It apparently didn’t go over well. You have to remember this was about 1980.

When I didn’t say anything right away he sarcastically said, “So, aren’t you going to turn against me like everyone else has?”

I wasn’t surprised by the response he was getting. We grew up, and he still lived, in a very rural, very conservative, very Baptist, very southern community. They are kind of like, hate the sin, crucify the sinner types. I had long ago shed many of the bigoted views I was brought up with. I told him, “Will, you’re my friend. I love you. Nothing would make me turn against you. You’re still you.” He looked like he needed it so I hugged him. I detected a couple of sniffles. He said, “It’s a sucky way to find out who your real friends are.”

But Will was one for living out loud, so he proudly carried on in his community, visiting the club in the city on a regular basis. He sometimes stopped by to see me on the way in or out of town.

***

One particular Saturday afternoon about a year after coming out he showed up at my door

and said, “Come to the club with me.” My immediate response was, “Not gonna happen.”

“It’ll be fine. I want you to see this part of my life. I won’t let anybody touch you.”

“Really not gonna happen.”

We went around for awhile until he said, “For years I went with you to straight bars. You can do this for me.” I prepared to argue that this was different, but somehow…it wasn’t.

I grudgingly agreed to go.

He said, “I’ll be with you. Nobody’s going to rape you.”

“Really not helping.”

***

Why was I so unwilling to go? Maybe somewhere down in our lizard brainstem is a primeval fear of ‘other’? At this point in my life I knew a few gay people. I guess I was hypocritically okay they were gay as long as I didn’t have to see it or think about it. Not so much removed from the bigotry I was trying to overcome.

So, I put on my big boy pants and went. We arrived about 10:30 as it was just starting to fill. As we walked past some tables a nice-looking gentleman said, “Hey, can I buy you a drink?” He was dressed in a blazer and button-down shirt. A bit old, 35-40, which was ancient to me at 23. I politely declined and quickly caught up with Will.

“You should have accepted the drink,” he said.

“Hell no,” I responded. “He would have thought I was available for negotiations.”

“It’s just a drink.”

“No way. It’s never ‘just a drink’. I’m not selling what he’s looking for.”

“You’re such a prude,” Will laughed.

***

We found a bar with some stools available. I had only sat for a minute when a lumberjack came up beside me. I call him a lumberjack because he looked like the guy on Brawny paper towels, decked out in tight jeans and a flannel shirt. He was nice looking and all muscle, with that little mustache that all gay men seemed to have. He leaned on the bar and smiled at me. I looked to Will in a panic.

“Just ignore him. He’s harmless.” At 6 foot plus and 200 pounds of muscle at the peak of his power he decidedly didn’t look harmless. He decidedly looked like a predator and I decidedly was feeling like prey. He gave me a leer that said I had passed muster and was now on the menu. I studiously refused to make eye contact until he drifted away in search of greener pastures.

“Man, you have been cruised,” Will laughed. Is that what it was?

“Yeah? And I thought you were going to protect me from all this. All you’re doing is enjoying the show.” I was a bit annoyed.

“Hey, you’re doing fine. Can I help it if the guys think you’re hot? Would you rather they

think you’re ugly?”
            “Yes, I mean no, I mean… I don’t know.” I hate hard questions like that. No one wants to

be considered ugly, but I did not come here to find me a man.

            And then I made a connection. Is that the way women feel at bars when we leer at them? We don’t call it leering, just ‘checking them out’, but it’s basically the same thing. I felt so violated while it was happening. Is that what women experience? I whispered a quiet apology to women everywhere.

I had decided I definitely did not want to go the bathroom while at the bar. I would just feel too vulnerable and exposed. What did I expect, an orgy? But a couple of beers settled that. I had to go, no question. So I told Will I’d be right back, and to come rescue me if I wasn’t. I pressed through the crowd toward the men’s room on the other side of the bar. The crowd was fairly thick but there was no excuse for the number of hands I felt on my butt as I made my way through. When did men get so free with their hands? There was also a ladies’ room that did not seem to be used. I hadn’t seen any women. Lesbians are gay. Don’t they go to gay bars, or does it have to be a dyke bar? Or maybe it was for drag queens. I just don’t know any of the politics of being gay.

I steeled myself and went in expecting the worst. What, I don’t know. It was just a fairly ordinary bathroom like in any restaurant or bar. A difference was there were no urinals, only stalls. And no doors on the stalls. I decided not to overanalyze the thought process behind this. I waited in a short line. Most of the patrons seemed to know each other. There was a group of very young guys, probably with fake id’s, clustered around the mirror fixing their hair and makeup and being bitchy. If you’ve ever seen a teen movie with a scene of the mean girls in the school bathroom, this was it. I took care of my business and quickly exited. I endured another grope session making my way back to where I started. No stool and no Will. Oh, crap.

Almost immediately a very handsome young man sidled up to me.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.” Was that his best line? I looked over at him. He was dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt, black leather jacket and had his hair combed back like Fonzie in the old Happy Days tv show.

“That’s because I’ve never been here before,” I answered.

“Oh, just come out of the closet?”

What?! I assume the dim light covered the bright red of my face at this point. Without sputtering too much I explained I was NOT gay and was here with a friend. Even as I said it I realized how lame it sounded. The guy accepted it, but instead of walking away, he stayed and we talked. I guess I blushed even more when he told me it was too bad I wasn’t gay because he thought I was very hot. We were far enough from the dance floor to talk without shouting. His name was John and he was a waiter at a local fancy restaurant. He told me excitedly that he had also just picked up a job as a bartender here at the club. He hoped to make enough money so he could have his own place. He was currently living with an elderly aunt and it was really cramping his social life. I talked some about my work with handicapped children. He gave me the standard line that I must be “so special”. I get that a lot.

After a while he moved on in search of prey. I mean, 99.9% of the men were here for one thing only. Then I ashamedly admitted to myself that when I went out to bars, I was one of that 99.9%. Just looking for a different landscape. I had actually enjoyed talking to John. I like meeting people and this is what I enjoy about social situations. Just talking and getting to know people. It was nice. He was nice.

Will came hustling up.

“Sorry, I had to catch up with someone. I didn’t mean to desert you. I see you were talking to John. What do you think? He’s like the hottest guy here. By the way, my friends think you’re cute. They were disappointed to hear you’re straight.”

“Yay, crown me Miss America,” I said sourly. Then I realized my mood wasn’t Will’s fault, it was mine. I’m unfairly putting my straight values on what he enjoys. These are his stomping grounds, where he’s most at home. We all need a place like that. I’m glad he has it. 

  “Thanks for showing me around. It was nice. But it’s time I headed home.” He didn’t object. I think he was ready to go on the prowl also. So I left.

***

It wasn’t far home. A few blocks from the club I noticed a car following me closely. I mean it was city driving, but he stayed right on my bumper. It’s usually annoying, but late at night with the streets deserted, it’s kinda creepy.

A couple blocks from my last turn, he pulled out of the lane and came up on my right. As I stopped at the red light, he oozed up to a stop beside me on the right in a low, sleek and oh so sexy Corvette. And did I mention it was black? Without the shine, it would be hard to see as it faded into the black of night like it had some science fiction cloaking device on board. I couldn’t help but admire it. The windows were tinted so I couldn’t see the driver. Probably a guy, though. Maybe making up for deficits in other areas I thought enviously. When the light turned green he jackrabbited away. Hey, if my car could do that I probably would, too. I just signaled and moved my old blue Civic into the right lane to make my turn at the next block. As I made my turn I was peripherally aware of the Corvette making a quick right turn a block down the street. My house was the next to last on the block on the right. I blessed my luck that I found curb parking just a few feet from the walkway.

As I was walking toward the steps that led up from the sidewalk, I saw a black Corvette slowly nose up to the next intersection coming from the left. Since I’m the next to last house on the block it was pretty close. How many black Corvettes are running around my neighborhood at nearly 1 am? It had to be the same one. Why had it followed me? My mind raced through about a dozen scenarios, none ending well. There was about a 1% chance it was a gorgeous blonde girl who wanted my body. About a 39% chance it was a perverted serial murderer who also wanted my body, for entirely different reasons. And a 60% chance it was a couple of redneck college students out to roll a queer. Yeah, my money was on that explanation. Had they followed me from the club? It’s not something I generally worry about. I guess you could call it straight boy privilege.

He revved the engine as I reached the steps. The deep throaty sound vibrated in my stomach. He knew I was aware of him. My blood ran cold and I felt panic coming on. I felt exposed. The car was sitting there like a black spider emitting an aura of evil. I don’t know why I got so spooked, but I instinctively knew that this was bad. I pretended not to see the Corvette as he gunned his engine again and I hustled up the walkway and into the house. I quickly got in my apartment, locked the door and leaned against it trying to regulate my breathing. I usually turn on the lights first thing, but a thought stabbed me, ‘Then he’ll know where I live’. So I stood there in the dark, heart racing, hyperventilating and sweating bullets. After a few moments I was able to move so I sidled up to the window and peeped out. Holy Mother of God! The Corvette was sitting directly in front of the house, idling. I’m sure the occupant(s?) was watching the house. To see which lights came on? I was frozen in terror.

            After a small eternity, the car moved on. I sank down on the couch and waited for my breathing and heartbeat to slow down. What was happening here? At the time I didn’t recognize it as a flashback. I didn’t turn on the lights in case he circled the block and came back around. I just waited until I was in my bedroom with the door closed before turning on any lights. Yeah, I was really freaked. I had heard stories from people who had been tailed before, but you don’t know how unnerving and downright terrifying it can be until it happens to you.

I slept little that night. Had I dodged a bullet or was it something totally innocuous? 

***

Will came by the next day to thank me for coming with him to the club before heading out of town. I opened the door to let him into my living room.

“You’re looking real chipper this morning,” I croaked rubbing my bleary eyes.

“Uh, it’s past noon.”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Yeah, you look like shit. You didn’t have that much beer. What happened?”

I told him about the black Corvette. He was silent for a long moment. I could fairly feel the unease radiating off his body.

“Oh, shit! You saw the Undertaker! Oh, crap. I had hoped it was just urban legend. I mean I heard about it but no one I know has seen him. Oh Christ, oh Christ, I’m so sorry. I never would have purposely put you in danger, you know that?”

“Okay, now I’m really spooked. What’s going on?”

“Over the past couple of years about five young guys have disappeared. I don’t really know but one from our club. The others are from other gay clubs locally. Most of them had no family to push the investigation and the police don’t give a damn. Just another fucking faggot to them. They talk about our ‘dangerous lifestyle’. They say there’s no evidence of the missing men being connected and no bodies to indicate foul play. They assume gays are all transients who drift about and these guys just moved on. But at least two of the guys were said to be last seen getting into a black Corvette. I thought it was just people making up stuff. The story is that he follows guys home from the clubs, entices them into his car and then somehow does away with them. No body has ever been found, so we don’t know what happens but the guys are never seen again. We call him the Undertaker because he drives a black car and he disposes of the bodies we figure he’s killing. And as I said, the police aren’t really interested. They say the black Corvette is just exaggeration. But you’ve seen it. Oh, shit man. He followed you home. Oh my god, I’m so, so sorry.”

I was fine with it. For a moment. Then I bolted to the bathroom and threw up in the toilet. A freaking serial killer was after me last night? And he knows where I live! Will followed me, rinsed a washcloth and put it on the back of my neck. I took it and wiped my face. Aw, crap.

“What am I gonna do?” I asked. “I can’t go to the police. What’ll I tell them? That I saw a spooky car?”

“It’s going to be okay. I doubt he’ll come back. Just keep your eyes open and don’t go out at night for a few days. That’s all you can do. That’s been my life. That’s all gayboys’ lives. Always trying to keep an eye on my back. You also got plenty of housemates to watch you.”

“I’ll be fine,” I mumbled.

***

I don’t think I slept more than a few minutes any night that week. I was a wreck at work. People asked about it. I just said some guys kept me up too late. As the next weekend approached I was nearly functioning normally. Then I got the call on Saturday.

“Curtis, it’s Will. You gotta help me. It’s the Undertaker. I think he got John.”

“John? From the club? Oh shit! Are you sure?”

“Not really. He left the bar Friday night and his aunt said he never came home. He wasn’t with anyone when he left the bar. We know the Undertaker’s been in this area. It’s all my fault. If I’d told him about what happened to you he never would have gotten in a stranger’s car.”

“Calm down, Will. It’s not your fault. John’s an adult. He should know better. And we don’t know that’s what happened.”

“But what if it is?”

“And you said the cops aren’t interested?”

“Even if they were, John hasn’t been missing long enough. By the time they come in, it may be too late. We got an ace in the hole, though, but we need your help.”

“If I can help John you know I will.”

“Remember the lumberjack as you called him that you saw at the bar last week? The one that cruised you?”

“How could I forget,” I deadpanned.

“Well, by day he is Officer Joseph Teem, one of Raleigh’s finest.”

“A cop?”

“Yep, one of our ‘brave boys in blue’. Anyway, he has a little group of officers, they call themselves the Gay Strike Force. Totally unofficial and off the record. They are mostly gay and take a special interest in fighting gay bashing and other crimes against minorities in general. A good bit of their investigating is under the radar. As I said, the brass really don’t give a damn about us. But the brass is willing to look the other way on some things. You are the only eyewitness we have of the Undertaker. I need you to talk to Joe.”

“But I didn’t see anything. Just a car. And I was so freaked I don’t hardly remember anything.”

“Please, Curtis. John’s life may depend on it. Joe says every little bit of information helps.”

“Well, okay, but like I said, I don’t think I know anything that will help.”

“Great. Joe says he has time after lunch. We can come by and he can ask you some questions.”

***

What did I just agree to, I wondered. I remembered Joe as very big and very intimidating. I was inviting him to come in and interrogate me. The word interrogate is intimidating enough. Will he want to shine a light in my eyes or break out the rubber baton? No, that’s just foolish. Isn’t it?

By the time Will knocked on my door I had come up with about ten reasons why John was late getting home, none of which involved the Undertaker. One look at Will’s face told me those scenarios didn’t matter. He was truly worried and hurting. I owed him whatever help I could give.

“Curtis, you remember Joe.”

The big man beside Will stuck out his hand. “Officer Joe Teem, Foxborough PD.”

I shook it. “Pleased to meet you,” I said with what I’m sure was a lot of uncertainty in my voice. He still looked like the Brawny paper towel guy, in a uniform. The man was still big and intimidating. And the dress blue uniform just made him more so – both big and intimidating. I bet crooks hated to see him coming.

“Sorry if I shook you up a little the other night, Mr. Bass. Will’s explained how you came to be in the club. I apologize if I made you feel uncomfortable,” the sincerity in his voice helped put me more at ease. I guessed he was good at playing ‘Good Cop’.

“Oh, it’s okay. And call me Curtis. I just wasn’t sure what to expect.”

“Culture shock. Yeah, I understand, Curtis. Anyway, can we sit and talk about what you know?”

He asked me to tell him what I remembered all the way through once without stopping. I couldn’t do it. Remembering made my gorge rise and my heart race several times. He just softly asked me to stop, breathe deeply and continue when I felt ready. I don’t know if that is what they taught him in the police academy but it sure beat the bright light and rubber baton. He was so much gentler than I had imagined he could be. A calming presence.

Then, he asked me to tell it again, but he stopped me after nearly every sentence for clarification.

“The key is the car. Can’t you tell me anything else about it?” he asked.

“It was a black ‘Vette. What else can I say?”

“No bumper stickers, scratches or dents? Nothing? How about the license plate? North Carolina or vanity tag?”

“Nothing. Can’t you just run the make of the car? I’m pretty sure it was new, like only a couple years old at most. It’s a pretty high-end car. How many could there be?”

“You’d be surprised. Several thousand. We’ve checked.”

“Yeah, but wouldn’t it be registered locally, like in Raleigh or at least Wake County?”

“Probably not. A good predator doesn’t take victims in his own back yard. He probably lives not far, because he needs to be familiar with the area, but he’s hit Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, all in the Triangle. He could be anywhere in central North Carolina. Or Virginia for that matter. If he’s from outside North Carolina we may never catch him. Did you see the license plate at all?”

“No. He was behind me on the way home from the club. Then he was idling in front of my house. Again, I couldn’t see anything.”

“You said you saw him come up to the intersection ahead when you got to your house. Maybe you saw his front plate then?” Officer Teem was really reaching.

Suddenly something clicked. I had a memory that I had totally forgotten in the frantic craziness of that night.

“Hold on. It did have a front plate. When it stopped at the intersection it was directly under a streetlight.” Officer Teem was immediately at attention. Will sat up, too. “I barely noticed the plate. Yeah, it was a North Carolina plate. And I remember it started with JPL. I noticed it without thinking because I used to be a NASA and sy-fy geek. To us JPL is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It’s just one of those things that register in your brain without you even thinking about it. I didn’t remember until you just said that about the intersection.”

“That’s wonderful, Curtis,” Officer Teem said. “Any help with the numbers?”

I closed my eyes and tried to remember. I got nothing. “I think the first number had curves. It wasn’t a 1 or 7. That’s all I can give you.”

“This is incredible evidence. The number of black Corvettes with a license plate starting JPL has to be a very small number. I’ll make sure our guys run this at once.”

Officer Teem excused himself to go out to his cop car. Will immediately grabbed me in a bear hug.

“I knew you would come up with something, Curtis. You’re the best.”

***

What happened next was like something out of a Patterson thriller. Joe told Will and he shared the details with me later. There turned out to be three black Corvettes registered in North Carolina with a plate starting with JPL. The owner of one had been out of the country for several weeks. Surveillance revealed his car was locked up in a garage, unused.

Of the other two, one had a Durham address. The other was in Clayton. Joe favored the Clayton one because Durham was part of his hunting ground, while Clayton was safely removed yet close enough for easy access. However, since the Durham vehicle had an open parking violation, they used that as an excuse for a friendly visit from the police. He and Detective George Rizzo, also on the strike force, took a trip up to Durham to see a Homer Jensen, 43, occupation not listed. It turned out Jensen was home. He answered the door after several attempts at knocking by the detective. Jensen was on the short side at about 5’4” and a little pudgy. His arms showed some muscle development so Joe figured he must lift weights. He had thin hair across the top of his slightly too large head. Joe said he immediately got a very weird vibe from the guy. He said he’d been a policeman long enough to know not to discount his take on people’s vibes. It seemed to be a special gift he had. Detective Rizzo glibly worked them into the front room of the house. Jensen seemed unhappy with this, but apparently didn’t want to arouse suspicion. Too late for that. While Rizzo talked with Jensen, Joe used his special cop senses to survey the place from where he stood. First off, Jensen was as squirrelly as they come. Joe could tell the man was definitely hiding something. As Jensen was doing his best to escort them back out the door Joe thought he heard a soft thud and what may have been a moan. He really wasn’t sure if he heard it, or just wanted to hear something. He decided to go with it.

“Did you hear that?” he asked Detective Rizzo. Rizzo’s eyes said no but he answered in the affirmative.

“Mind if we take a look around, Mr. Jensen?” Rizzo asked moving past the man deeper into the house.

“Hey, I mind very much. You can’t come in here without a warrant.”

“I heard someone moaning,” Joe told him, stretching the truth.

“That’s probable cause, Mr. Jensen. We have to investigate,” said Rizzo. As Rizzo reached to open the door to another part of the house, Jensen lunged at him with a dagger-shaped letter opener he had grabbed from a desk. He plunged it into Rizzo’s back just under his right shoulder blade. As Rizzo cried out, Jensen yanked the blade out and turned to attack Joe. Joe had already pulled out his taser and gave Jensen a good jolt. As Jensen lay on the floor quivering yet paralyzed, Joe flipped him over on his stomach and cuffed him. He turned to Rizzo who was struggling to get his jacket off.

“I just bought this freaking blazer. Dammit!” Joe ripped Rizzo’s shirt open in the back to get a better look at the wound.

“It’s bleeding pretty badly,” he said. Looking around he noticed a dish towel.

“God only knows what germs are on this, but I guess it’s better than bleeding to death,” he told Rizzo as he pressed it against the wound.

“I’m good,” Rizzo groaned, holding on to a table to maintain an upright stance. “We need to search this house.” He took a step and crumpled to the floor.

“Aw, shit,” said Joe. He sat Rizzo up and began unbuckling the man’s belt.

“I always thought you were hot for me Joe, but is now a good time?” Rizzo managed to chuckle.

“Shut up while I save your life,” Joe groused. Once the belt was free, he looped it around Rizzo’s chest and used it to hold the towel in place over the wound. “You should probably lie on your stomach while I call for backup.” He got very little assistance from Rizzo as he lifted him up and laid him stomach down on the sofa he had been leaning against.

“This is Officer Joe Teem. I need assistance at 4306 Rosewood. Officer down. I repeat, officer down. Suspect in custody,” he spoke into his communication unit.

“I’ll be okay, Joe,” Rizzo gasped. “Go take a look around. Someone may need help.”

“I’m on it.”

Joe drew his weapon, not knowing what to expect. He pushed open the door Rizzo had tried to open earlier. It revealed an ordinary dining room, table and chairs, a hutch with china. He slowly prowled around the rest of the house. It seemed ordinary in every way. A middle-aged bachelor’s pad. Why was Jensen so dodgy, then? Standing in the kitchen he stopped and listened. Nothing.

“John!” he shouted. “It’s the police. Are you here?” He listened again. Then he heard it. A small thump. It seemed to be coming from the pantry. The pantry was a large walk in affair. He’d glanced in it already. This time he turned on the light and went all the way into the pantry. At the back, easily overlooked was a small door. He tried it but it was locked. He could hear more irregular thumps from the other side. He looked around and saw a key hanging on a hook beside the door. It slid into the hole easily. Teem pushed the door open. The room on the other side was dark but the thumping and moaning increased. He felt along the wall to his right and flipped the light switch. An uncovered overhead bulb flashed on. He was so unprepared for the sight that he gasped as soon as it registered. The room was small with some kind of metal table in the center. A person was strapped down on the table, apparently nude with a sheet thrown across his lower body. He was gagged and apparently trying to yell through it. By violently wrenching his body he was able to make the table jump and cause the thumps. Joe rushed to the table. The man shied away, a look of pure terror in his eyes.

“Oh my god, John,” Joe murmured. Though the body was covered with bruises and welts, the face was untouched. He immediately recognized John Clark, a man he knew from the club. The man who was reported missing. The man continued to struggle, and only intensified as Joe went to touch him. He was so terrified he didn’t recognize Joe.

“Shh, shh John. It’s me, Joe. You’re going to be alright. We’ve found you. You’re safe. You’re safe.” Some part of that seemed to get through and John’s thrashing about ceased. Joe unhooked the buckle that held the gag in place and pulled the wadded cloth from John’s mouth, tossing it aside. John began breathing quickly through his mouth. Joe could see that he was beginning to hyperventilate.

“Slow, John. Breathe slowly.” He caressed John’s face to calm him. Once John’s breath seemed less ragged he quickly released all the other buckles of the straps holding him on the table.

“Can you sit up? Here, let me help you.” He put his arm under John’s shoulders and heaved him up into a sitting position. He pulled the man’s legs toward him so they could dangle off the side to provide a more comfortable position. He kept his arm around John’s shoulders to give him support. John held on to the edge of the sheet, clutching it against his chest as if cold.

“You’re here? You’re really here. Oh, thank god. I’ve been so afraid. Oh god, oh god. Thank you, Joe.” He started crying, so Joe moved in front of him and took him into an embrace. John released the sheet and grabbed Joe like a lifeline and began sobbing into his shoulder. By the time he could release John, they heard sirens in the distance. John looked around the room and focused on an upright freezer in the corner.

“What?” asked Joe following his gaze. “What’s in the freezer?”

“Don’t open it. You don’t want to know.” That was definitely not the thing to say to a policeman. Joe walked over to the freezer. He pulled the door open and a cloud of freezing mist rolled out. As the mist dissipated he got a better look at what was in the freezer.

“Oh my god!” he cried as he saw over a dozen heads of men, each neatly bagged, staring at him. He suddenly recognized one as Brian, a guy he’d once picked up at the club. He raced over to the sink in the corner and threw up. Immediately there was the noise of people around them as the room quickly filled with police officers. Joe straightened and staggered back to the living room and collapsed in an overstuffed chair. Rizzo had already been taken out to an ambulance. Try as he may he couldn’t stop the tears. All he wanted to do was rip Jensen into little pieces. And then curl up into a ball and die.

No one knows why Jensen did it. He refuses to tell where the bodies ended up. The DA is not too concerned. They’ve identified all nineteen of the victims and Jensen will be locked up for life. Case closed. John says Jensen made comments about “filthy faggots” but also sexually abused him as well as the torture. One of the shrinks said something about “repression” and “homo-erotic denial”. I think he’s just a garden variety nutcase.

***

“There’s still part of this I don’t understand,” Will began.

            “There’s a lot I don’t understand. Like how does anyone get this crazy and nobody notices?”

            “Well, there is that. But I’m talking about another aspect. Look. A girl will not get in a car with a stranger at night, no matter what the circumstances, unless she’s a hooker. A straight guy probably wouldn’t either. He’d figure any guy offering him a ride must be gay and straight men seem to be terrified that someone may think they’re gay. Y’all are wound up so tight.”

            “Thanks.”

            “But gay guys obviously would. I’m embarrassed to say that if I had been in your situation, I probably would have sat down on that stone wall and waited to see what he wanted. I guess that’s what he was counting on. Guys that didn’t get any hoping they still might have a chance to get off. But he was a toad. Who would get in a car with someone who looked like him?”

            “Maybe he offered them money,” I said.

            “I may sound shallow, but it would take a whole lotta money for me to get naked with someone as butt ugly as our Mr. Jensen.”

            “Well, ask Joe. I’m sure that was one of the questions they asked John.”

            “I guess I will, because it really has been bothering me. As successful as he was he must have had some powerful bait.”

***

Over time, the terror, and it was terror, I had experienced faded. I still think Corvettes are the sexiest car around, but no matter how long I live, the sight of a black Corvette will send a little frisson of fear up my spine.

On the whole I think I learned some pretty valuable lessons from this. First, and most obvious, don’t get in a car with a stranger. Duh. Second, I felt totally violated by Joe when he checked me out at the bar. I felt like a piece of meat being evaluated. Never mind that I apparently passed inspection, no one should be made to feel that way. I told him it was okay, but it’s not. I’m sure I’ve put any number of women in that position in my time and am resolved to do better. Third, I think I may have experienced in a small way the fear all gay people live with every day. That any moment violence may overtake you for no reason. That society has determined that it is open season on you, go out at your own risk. That is no way for people to have to live. I need to do better there, also.

            And my fourth lesson? All good boys should be home by eleven on Saturday night.