by Bill DeArmond
It was the kind of quaint Texas town a movie location scout would kill for.
Pleasantdale is a small community situated about twenty miles southeast of Brookville on US 237. It is built, you might say, on two levels. Choate Gorge slices the city in half, separating the business district on the upper plateau from the rural areas on the other side of Sandy Creek. To travel from your house to the shopping district you would have to cross the lone pedestrian bridge that spans the water and climb the 147 steps that wind their way up the embankment.
The air was heavy and warm, as it always is in the early evening just before sunset in late May. The sound of rocking chairs, front-porch gliders, and children banging screen doors reverberated throughout the neighborhood.
Margaret Hobson was stretched out on the couch watching Wheel of Fortune. She was a plain, though not unattractive, woman in her early thirties. She always discounted her looks because of a prominent scar above her right eyebrow that she now rubbed out of habit. Suddenly the show was interrupted by a news bulletin.
“The Upton County Sheriff’s Department reports that they have discovered what is believed to be the body of Alma Reville, age 32, who resided on Vancouver Boulevard. She is apparently the third victim in five days of the so-called ‘Head-Hunter’, so named because of the killer’s penchant for decapitating the victims. The report we have is that there were no signs of forced entry, which could indicate that Jackson knew her murderer. Stay tuned to this station for further updates as they become available.”
Margaret had known Alma Reville practically all her life. She was a member of the “Twisted Sisters”, as their card club affectionately called themselves. Each had an official tag and another more appropriate secret handle. Margaret was the prim and proper Sensitive Sister; although the others referred to her as the Spinster Sister behind her back. Alma was the Cryptic Sister; although she was most often called the gossiping, backstabbing Sis Vicious. Helen Thompson named herself the Wyrd Sister after some cartoon series, but she also reveled in her alternate personality as the Sinister Sister. Judith Marshall, the final member of the quartet, gained a reputation early as the Wicked Sister. They had been together since high school and met every Thursday evening for bridge.
The first two victims had been from nearby Denby. They had also attended LBJ High at about the same time as The Sisters. Margaret remembered seeing them at their fifteenth reunion last year and it had brought back old memories. Still this seemed to be an odd synchronicity.
Margaret was reaching for the phone when it rang. She jumped back as if an electric shock had pulsed through her arm.
“Hello?” she asked, as if something inside the receiver were waiting to reach out for her.
“I guess we’ll have to find a fourth for bridge.”
“Helen? I was just about to call you. You heard what happened to Alma?”
“It was just on the television. Isn’t that just like Alma to go and lose her head over some guy?”
“Helen, what’s the matter with you? How can you be so insensitive?”
“She was always such a twit. Rambling on and on about what a terrible life she had since Carl took off last month. Jeez, if I’d been married to Alma, I would’ve chopped off her head long ago.”
“Helen, you don’t think her husband…”
“Why not? Toni told me a while ago that Alma had hired a detective who had caught her husband with another woman and she was going to take him for every cent he had.”
Antonia Wolff had been victim number two.
“Did Alma know who the other woman was?” Margaret asked with some hesitancy.
“The guy had some photos he was going to give her when she came up with his fee. But I don’t think she got them yet.”
Margaret paused before she dared to ask, “Do you know whom Carl was seeing?”
“I have my suspicions,” Helen said with a hint of conviction.
“Do you think these killings are connected?”
“Wouldn’t surprise me in the least.”
Margaret seemed a bit puzzled. “But why would Carl kill the other two? Toni and what’s the first one’s name?”
“Emma something-or-other. You should know her. We went to school with her.”
The mention of the woman’s name drew the darkness closer.
“What connection could she have?”
“Maybe Emma was the other woman and Toni knew about it so Carl killed both of them. Maybe she was just a practice kill—a red-herring to throw the police off the track.”
“But would Carl really kill anyone over a divorce?” asked Margaret incredulously.
“Where’s your mind today. You know people can be deranged. Especially men. Threaten their manhood and they’ll chop your head off every time.”
“Helen, that’s so callous.”
Ignoring the admonishment, Helen continued, “So what time are you going to pick me up?”
“Pick you up?”
“It’s Friday night, dummy. Are you out to lunch or what? They’ve changed the picture. It’s Scream 7: The Revenge of Alan Smithee.”
“Helen, there’s no way we can go to the movies after what’s just happened. It’s not safe after dark until they catch this maniac.”
“I swear, Margaret, you’re afraid of your own shadow. I’m going whether you are or not.”
“Well, is Judy at least going with you?”
“I tried calling her earlier but I only got her machine. You know Miss Hot Pants. I think she’s gone to Wingo to spend the weekend with that Dale guy.”
“I don’t know, Helen. I’d feel funny going out…”
“Margaret, sometimes you can be so self-centered. I’m going with or without you. I saw the director on CNN and he said this Smithee flick is so bad he doesn’t want to be associated with it. This has all the promise of being one of those horrible slasher pies we love. Come on, Margaret. Don’t go weird on me now. You’ve always been my steady rock. The first show starts at eight. Come by about 7:30.”
“I guess I can’t let you go alone. Not with that nut running loose. Somebody has to protect you from yourself.” Margaret cautioned, “You know, if it’s not Jack, it could be anybody.”
“That’s my dependable girl.”
“But I’ll probably live to regret this,” her better Self sighed as she cradled the phone.
* * * * *
Margaret’s house was approximately two blocks from the bridge. Helen lived about three blocks from the top of the cliff on Fremont Street. It was another four blocks to the cinema. It was actually faster to walk those nine blocks than to drive the seven-mile 237-Bypass over the closest viaduct across the creek.
A little after seven o’clock, Margaret Hobson left her house and approached the bridge across the water. The sun had begun to set above the ridge, casting long shadows down into the gorge. When she was halfway across she paused and her heart almost stopped. For a moment she thought she could discern the outline of someone lurking in the darkness on the other side. She felt the sudden urge to turn and run back to the safety of her house. She knew it was foolish to go out on a night like this. It just wasn’t in her character. Squinting deeper into the fading light she realized it was just a curious image cast by the rocks at the foot of the stairs.
“Margaret, you are out of your mind,” she whispered to herself, afraid to utter it aloud lest it attract undue attention.
She took the steps quicker than usual and was a bit out of breath when she got to Helen’s house. Her friend was waiting for her on the porch. She was reading the twelfth rehash of the same plot by “America’s Favorite Gothic Romance Novelist.”
“What’s the matter, Margaret? You look like you’re beside yourself. Somebody chasing you with an ax?”
* * * * *
The flick was as bad as they expected, so neither had been disappointed. It was as wretched as the director’s Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh, but a cut above his Ghost Fever. Neither woman was in a talkative mood as they headed back towards Helen’s house in the now oppressive darkness.
“I don’t think it was an ax,” Helen finally remarked.
“The murder weapon. I don’t think the killer is using an ax. You can’t get a good, clean cut with it. You’d have to hack at the head several times to get it off. I think the police are wrong.”
“Helen, now you’re beginning to freak me out.” After a pause, “What would you use?”
“Something with more heft and cutting surface. Like a saber or samurai sword, like the one my dad gave me. You know, the ‘souvenir’ he took off that Jap he killed?”
“But how would you conceal such a thing?”
“You’re right. I’ll bet the killer gets into the house when the victims are away and has enough time to find a weapon there.”
They walked on in silence, one or both lost in contemplation.
“Do you think some people have a death wish?” asked Margaret.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s like some people are idiots and deliberately put themselves in dangerous situations.”
“Like they’re psyche’s unbalanced… courting danger?”
“More like they’re just deluded about the evil that’s all around them. Like they’re blind to the dark side of things. Of that aspect of themselves even. They don’t see the bizarre lurking below the facade of normalcy.”
“You mean they don’t see a threat until it’s too late to avoid it?”
“Something like that.”
Helen thought about this for a long time but decided it was just idle chatter on Margaret’s part to cover up the awkwardness of the evening.
They neared Helen’s house and the point where they would they take their separate paths.
“Do you think all of this is just a coincidence?” Helen quizzed her friend.
“That we knew the three victims?”
“Yeah, and that we were all at LBJ High together. You don’t think there’s some other connection do you?”
“Like Carl or somebody else we knew in school?”
“Or something someone once did to somebody that hurt them so much that they never got over it. Think about that.”
Margaret didn’t have to. She knew.
They stopped at the gate to Helen’s house.
“Do you want me to go inside with you?” Margaret inquired.
“To see if the Bogeyman is lying in wait? Don’t be daft, Margaret. I don’t have any skeletons in my closet. What about you? You’ve got to cross the gorge alone. You want me to go with you?”
“No, then I’d worry about you going back home alone. Besides, I’ve got to stop at the Jiffy Mart. I’ll be okay.”
“Margaret, promise you’ll call me the moment you get home.”
“You trust too much. That could be your downfall.”
“Take care, my faithful friend.”
She watched as Helen bounded up the stairs and into the house. She noticed that Helen didn’t have to unlock the door.
“I’ve told her a hundred times not to leave her door unlocked,” Margaret mused with an ironic smile on her face.
* * * * *
Later she entered the Jiffy Mart to stock up on the staples she’d need to get through the weekend: milk, apples, bread and cheese. When the checkout girl stared at her, Margaret reached up and concealed her scar.
Leaving the store she passed the remaining few houses, now brightly lit against the evils of the night. Soon she arrived at the top of the steps leading down to the bridge.
“Across three streets and I’m home-free.”
For years, residents of Pleasantdale had complained about the lighting at Choate Gorge. There was but a single streetlight at the top of the stairs and one on either end of the walkway.
Margaret stared down into the dimly lit ravine, trying to discern if anything malevolent might be lying in wait. When she was fairly certain her path was clear, she began the slow descent. To give herself something to occupy her mind, she began to count each step as she alighted upon it. She paused at the first landing and something deep in her subconscious thought it detected the faintest echo. Her conceit shook off the feeling and assured her, “One-fourth of the way home.”
She resumed her plunge into the murky, black pit. After a few more steps she stumbled and nearly tumbled over the railing. Catching herself and her bag of groceries, she was now certain she had heard a scraping sound from above, as if someone had shuffled their feet to a stop.
Margaret turned back to look at the head of the footpath. Was it her imagination or did she see the slightest movement of something in the shadows?
She proceeded forward a few more paces and stopped.
“There it is again!”
Another step—another echo, just a fraction of a second later.
“Someone’s following me! Someone… or something… is right behind me.”
She took the last several steps in frantic leaps until she hit the base of the incline. This time the echo failed to pause but continued to plummet towards Margaret.
“Don’t turn around and look,” her psyche cautioned. “If you do, you’ll be frozen and unable to run.”
She hit the edge of the bridge in full stride. She picked up her gait but still her pursuer kept pace.
“This can’t be!” she almost screamed. “It’s like a scene from a bad movie.”
Her feet thundered across the wooden planks of the overpass, the echo still following… closer now… too close.
She bounded up the incline, leaving behind a trail of apples any psycho could follow, and hurried down Maple Street.
“Just one more block,” her Ego urged her on.
She wanted to scream for someone to help but she needed all her strength to continue running.
“The keys… oh… the keys!”
As she rounded the bend of her own lane, she began awkwardly fumbling in her purse, but she couldn’t find them.
She threw herself onto the porch, tore open the door, tumbled inside with her remaining purchases splayed out on the floor. It registered on her that something wasn’t quite right about this, but she was too concerned about locking the door against the terror outside to raise this thought to consciousness.
Margaret paused momentarily with her back to the door and sighed, trying to catch her breath and stop her heart from pounding so heavily. Slowly, cautiously, she crept through the darkened living room to the curtains and peered out into the yard. From the corner of her eye she thought she saw a Shadow pass around the side of her house, but it made no sound.
“Why, there’s no one there at all,” her Self reassured her. “It was just the sound of my own footsteps resounding in the ravine that frightened me.” Had she bothered to consult her Unconscious it would have told her that her fears were the product of a guilty mind.
She reentered the darkened living room, located the remote, and flicked on the television—a familiar noise to scare away the demons. She caught the news bulletin in the middle:
“…who was decapitated just like the previous four victims. An ornamental sword was found near the body. A neighbor had been awakened by a scream coming from the house and alerted the Pleasantdale Police Department. This appears to be the second such murder today. To repeat, the body of a woman has just been found, less than thirty minutes ago, in her home on Fremont Street. Authorities are withholding the name of the victim until the next of kin can be notified. We have a crew at the scene and will bring you a live update on our ten o’clock newscast.”
A tear rolled down the cheek of Margaret Hobson for yet another of her lost friends.
Behind her in the room she heard a familiar voice call her name.
She turned around and approached a shape dimly illuminated in the mirror by the flickering television image.
Quietly the scarred specter of Maggie Hobson emerged slowly from the reflection.
“Poor Helen,” her Ego sighed.
“Just Judith left,” whispered her Shadow.