“The moment you left the back yard, I dashed out the back gate and across the easement. It was swampy back there, and the borrowed boots were quite tight, but I reached her. I told her I saw her from across the way and that she was driving me crazy. I removed my shirt to show her I was in the spirit. ‘I love it!’ she said. I led her, in a sort of a dance, to my friend’s back yard.”
“Stop,” I said.
“But I am not finished,” Stivins said.
“I prefer not to hear it in detail.” I already thought I was going to be sick, in fact. Hearing him recount a killing that could have been sold as self-defense was one thing, but professional or not, sitting there while he described an abhorable act was not something I could stomach. I had not known Denise, but I had met her. I had tried to get her back inside. Why didn’t I try harder?
“Weak stomach?” Stivins asked.
“Something like that. So you killed her?”
“Yes. And her soul, so innocent and free, became a part of me. I’ve enjoyed a few reckless dances in the rain since then, Mr. Swindle.”
I turned my head. “Guard,” I called. Then to Stivins, “I’ll be going now. I might come back, if you’re still around.” I hope there’s a hell and you fry in it, you son of a bitch.
“I would speak to you again. It has brought back some fond memories,” Stivins said. “And shed light on an interesting twist of fate.”
The guard came over and we headed back toward the door.
“Would it make you feel better if I told you I did not take advantage of her?”
I stopped, but I didn’t turn to face him.
“I was quite aroused, as was she. I am fairly certain I could have had my way with her. But that was not why I brought her into my life. Come back. I will make it worth your while.”
I cursed him under my breath. I was the last person besides Stivins to see Denise alive. Because her body had not been found, Denise had stayed on the missing persons list. If I could just hold out a little longer, Stivins might divulge what he did with Denise’s body.
When a local ice cream shop manager notified the police that Denise had not shown up for several shifts and was not answering her home phone, an investigation started. Her parents told police they had not heard from her. She had ridden to the stoners’ place with one of the girls, so her car still sat in her apartment complex parking lot. Denise lived alone in a one-bedroom and mostly kept to herself. She had no boyfriend.
By the time investigators found out she had friends next door to me, any sign of Stivins’ footprints must have been gone. I do not know whether they questioned Stivins’ friend.
One of the stoner girls named me as the last person who saw Denise. The police had many questions for me, and had no trouble getting a warrant to search our place. They came up with nothing, but my lack of a solid alibi kept me at the top of their list. Lack of motive and plenty of character witnesses helped me, as did my father’s sailing-buddy attorney. Had her body turned up, I’m sure I would have been a murder suspect.
The media outlets caught wind of the story and broadcast it to the entire state.
My wife and I had been married only six months at that time, but she assured me that she trusted me and supported me. Her friends did not see it that way, and many urged her to get as far away from me as possible. She lost a few friends over it. Some of my more recent acquaintances stopped talking to me.
After failing to get a teaching job in public schools, probably because of the negative press I got, I began to question what I wanted to do for a living. For more than 10 years, I bounced from job to job trying to find a career where I could settle, and went back and forth from computers to journalism more than once.
Now, in the same room with me, was Jeff Stivins, the man I had to thank for all of the above. For his victims and for myself, I wanted to bury him. I hadn’t stopped my recorder yet. I walked back to the table and threw one leg over the bench.
“That is the correct choice, Mr. Swindle,” Stivins said.
“I’m here,” I said as I pulled my other leg over and sat.
“That was when it became real for me. The homeless man’s soul had been beaten down and, although it offered me a certain amount of wisdom, there was no awakening. The girl — Denise, I should say, now that we both are on the same page — had a soul that knew no limits. It was a deep well of inspiration. It kept me going for years without feeling a need to gather another.”
“But what did you do with her?” I asked.
“I thought you did not want to hear such things.”
“Not what you did to her.”
“So, you mean to ask where I stashed the body?”
“I figure at least somebody should know, after all you put her through, and after all you said she gave you,” I said. I had no idea what I was doing.
“It was a very respectful placement, Mr. Swindle. May I call you Scott?”
“No,” I said.
“But we have become fast friends here today, yes?”
“I did not do anything like what you might be recalling from books or movies. No hacksaw or sulfuric acid. No wood chipper. She lies whole. A bit thinner now, I suspect, but whole,” Stivins said.
“So, you buried her?” I asked.
“Yes, but only I know where.”
I felt that he wanted to tell me, but not unless I asked. Dammit. I had to play to his ego.
“Was it a place that meant something to you?” I asked.
“It was not of particular import to me, no. It was a beautiful place, however. Thousands of visitors each year. It was the off season, of course. It would not do to tote a body around with families about.”
“A tourist attraction, then. A mountain peak?”
“No, nothing that grand,” he said. “Do you know where they grow the daffodils?”
I knew exactly the place. Only about 20 miles from where he had killed Denise was Wye Mountain. On it, a church group had planted daffodils in a huge, terraced field that sloped down from a winding highway to deep woods. They bloomed every spring, before anything else.
“I’m familiar with it,” I said. “Why there?”
“It is beautiful and innocent, like her soul.”
Stivins said that he had buried her in the woods, not far from the field, so that he could cover his work with leaves.
Does he really believe I’m going to sit on this story? I didn’t see how he could.
“I need to leave. I have a deadline for the stories I’m writing,” I said.
“There is another whose story I have not shared.”
“I know, but I have to go.” I did not want to hear more. I felt sorry for his other victim, but he was just using me at that point. He was showing off, and I had been a captive audience.
That was three years ago. I turned my recording over to the Bursville Police. After some legal wrangling, it was deemed inadmissible, but they kept the recording. Of course, I had copied the files to my computer before turning it over. That was my last journalism job before switching back to computers for what I hope was the last time.
I never saw Stivins again, but last I heard he spends his days and nights on death row. My wife and I have been back to Wye Mountain a few times during visits to central Arkansas. We spend a few quiet moments gazing over the rolling hills of yellow flowers, to the woods where Denise may or may not have been put to rest.
I just accepted a job teaching computer courses at a community college, so in a way I’ve come full circle. I’m doing what I originally intended, and I finally have Jeff Stivins out of my life for good.