“It was about seven years after the hotel incident,” Stivins said.
“That’s quite a long dry spell,” I said.
“Well, I am not some serial killer on a random rampage. To suggest such would be to cheapen me. Besides, a teenager living under his parents’ watchful eye, as I was, has much more difficulty hiding murderous actions.”
“I think you’d be surprised, Mr. Stivins.”
“However it is, I know my situation. There were times I was tempted, but held back.”
Stivins again looked me over without meeting my eyes. I squirmed in my seat.
“So, you were about to tell me about the next time,” I prompted.
“Yes. Right. The freedom of college. I was living in a University town here in Arkansas. I will keep you guessing as to which. There is not much fun in telling everything, now is there?
“I was dog-sitting for a friend who lived in a small duplex with a tiny, fenced back yard. All the fences around and behind were chain link. It was one of those towns where landlords knew they did not have to do much to keep their units occupied. College students could not resist cheap rent.
“I know this sounds cliché, but it was a rainy evening. Rain so thick I could barely see the duplex behind. I went out to take my friend’s god-forsaken mutt out for a pee. Had to walk it around the yard with a short leash, holding an umbrella. That dog hated rain, but I would be damned before I would let it piss the carpet on my watch.
“I saw something bright moving around the back yard caddy-corner to me. As we neared the back of the fence, I made it out. It was a girl, a rather plump young lady, running about and dancing. Stark naked, soaked, with muddy feet. What’s wrong, my friend?” Stivins asked.
“Nothing.” I quickly composed myself. Just let it go. Let him finish. It’s probably nothing.
“I watched after letting the dog back inside, to make sure I was seeing it right. I was intrigued. I had to know what kind of soul would allow her to be so free. The back yards were divided by a utility easement about 10 feet wide, which got very muddy in wet weather. I went back in to dig some rain boots from my friend’s closet. I patted my front pocket to confirm my knife was ready if needed. It had been so long.”
“The same knife you used when you were a kid?” I asked.
“The very same. I told you, it was a gift I would never forget. I always kept it sharp on my whetstone. Slide it down,” he moved his hand out and downward, sliding it along the table, “then flip it and slide it back up. It’s a delicate art, making a blade sharp enough to pierce human skin with almost imperceptible precision. I always used Smith’s MP4L, four-inch Arkansas stone. Portable and effective, and I must support my home state, right?”
“Your allegiance won’t go unnoticed, I’m sure,” I said. I remembered when my father taught me how to sharpen a knife. He used what I always thought was a piece of marble, with just a few drops of honing oil. It had been a sweet, innocent memory for me until Stivins described it with such evil in his voice.
“I wondered how many killers’ knives the Smith’s had sharpened. I researched the company. Founded in 1886 and still operated out of Hot Springs National Park. How many fragments of dead men have ended up on their whetstones as the killer returned to hone his instrument?”
“This is all fascinating speculation,” I said. “What about the girl in the rain?”
“You do like to stay on task, cub reporter. When I came back outside, the most peculiar thing had happened. The rain had let up quite a bit, and someone else was in the back yard with her, holding an umbrella. The gate to her yard was open, as was the gate directly opposite mine. I could not hear everything they were saying, but I could tell it was a young man trying to stop her. Then, they got louder. The young man said, ‘You’re drunk.’ The girl stopped for a moment and said, ‘I feel so free!’ The man grabbed her arm. ‘That’s because you’re drunk.’ The young man held fast to her arm and pulled her across the yard to the back door. She wrenched her arm free, quite slippery from the rain, I suppose. The young man gave up and stomped back through both gates to what I presume was his own back yard. Before going back in, he turned and called out, ‘Denise, please go inside before you –’”
“Hurt yourself or do something else you’ll regret,” I finished. I trembled as I said it.
“Pardon me?” Stivins asked.
“That’s what the guy said, right?” I asked in turn.
“Precisely. How on earth would you know that?”
“Because it was me,” I said.
Stivins’ mouth again turned up into that tight-lipped grin. His eyebrows raised above his widening eyes.
“Well, Mr. Sindle. Our paths have crossed. What a small world it truly is.”
“Small state, you mean.” I was trying hard not to breathe fast. Rivers of sweat ran down my sides. This is not happening.
“So, you knew that girl?” he asked.
“No, I didn’t.” That was true, but I did not want to tell Stivins anything else. Still, I could not help going over the events in my mind.
My wife and I both were in college. I had just arrived home from my job waiting tables in a Mexican restaurant; as usual, it was her night to close a local grocer’s seafood department. Each of us had a distinct smell when we got home from our jobs. Mine was the more palatable of the two.
When I got out of my car that night, the guys who lived next door asked me to join them and some young ladies for a party. I took off my server’s apron and walked over to say “hello.” There were two guys and three girls. It was obvious fairly early on that the girl named Denise was available and they were trying to fix me up. Being happily married, I did not bark up that tree. I also was not into smoking weed, so when it started raining and they moved the party into their half of the duplex, I entered mine.
Showering was my first order of business. The smell of chimichangas, fajitas, enchiladas, and salsa emanated from my pores. I just wanted to clean up and then maybe read some of the works in my English Literature II course syllabus.
In that particular residence, I was a killer of sorts, as was my wife. Although we kept the place spotless and never left food out, we had a severe mouse problem. After showering, I checked the cabinet under the kitchen sink for our latest kills. We had one. I hated to kill anything, but other solutions just had not worked for us, and the old-fashioned neck-snapper traps seemed like the most humane method. We never found one moving. To help keep from thinking about it, we made it a contest to see whose traps caught the most. I bagged up my latest catch in a Ziploc and walked to the back door to put him in our outside trash can.
I heard giggling coming from the stoners’ yard next door and tried to see who it was through the rain. It was Denise, and she was not wearing a thing. With wreckless abandon she pranced around the back yard, her ample body parts bouncing. I had jokingly used the word “frolic” in the past; that was the first time I had seen it defined in such a visceral way. She fell once and got back up to keep dancing. Denise had seemed like a nice girl, and I knew she would never live to forgive herself if anyone else saw her out there.
I grabbed my umbrella and walked out my back gate, then into the yard where Denise was putting on her show. I tried to convince her to go back in, but she said she never had felt so free. That was when I tried to give her a little nudge. The rest had happened just as Stivins said, but only in the back yard.
After going back inside, I walked out the front and pounded on the stoners’ door. For a full minute, nobody answered. Finally, a girl wrapped in a bedspread opened the door. “Look, Denise is out back, naked in the rain.”
“What?” the hazy-eyed girl answered.
“I said, Denise is out there, naked. She’s dancing and making a fool of herself.”
The girl laughed. “Go Denise. All right!” She turned her head. “Did you guys hear that? Denise must have liked that wine and those two long drags.”
About 20 minutes after that, I went back to the yard to see if they had brought Denise in. She was not there, so I figured she was safely inside. I guessed that the man across the table from me now was going to tell me why it turned out otherwise. That was the last night Denise was seen alive.
I had to hear it from Stivins.
“So, what does the naked girl have to do with your next murder?”
“You must listen to learn,” Stivins said.
“Very good. After your failed effort to escort the young girl to the door… knowing that was you makes me tingle a bit. It is quite thrilling. What do you think it means? You, making a career change later in life and bumping into me shortly after?”
“It means coincidences happen,” I said.
“No, I cannot believe that. Just like I do not believe life burns out like a wick. Our souls were close, Mr. Sindle.”
I just sat there trying not to fidget.
“Oh, all right. On with my story.”