Despite Jim Gaither’s disgust with himself, the hooker’s comment and his proclivity toward arousal had him quite at the ready. Nevertheless, he paid her and told her to leave, and then somehow resisted the urge to gratify himself.
Emotionally and sexually spent, he curled up on the bed and lay there repeating, “Frank’s dead,” starting with a whimper and then building to a wailing crescendo before sudden silence. He calmed down enough to fall into a light sleep.
He awoke to the sound of a television commercial. “So come on down to Gwatney Chevrolet today!”
Nine o’clock? What idiot sets the TV alarm for nine o’clock at night?
He yanked his clothes on and checked out of the motel, his belt still unbuckled and his shirt untucked. He was going to the most romantic spot he knew — Pinnacle Mountain. A formidable peak in the Oauchita Mountain range, it rose up in plain view from miles around. Less than 20 miles from the city, it provided urbanites a place to hike and see nature.
Or, if you were a hopeless romantic bordering on sexual deviance, a great place to slink away at night with a whore and have sex on top of the world.
Jim had taken a prostitute out there once at night, after the park’s normal hours of operation. She had patiently hiked up the summit trail with him, and then breathlessly straddled him as he watched over the moonlit Arkansas River and Lake Maumelle. Before that, he had asked his wife for such an outing, but what he thought was a romantic gesture was met with a laugh.
Why had she found that funny? Didn’t she know it was more fun to have sex outdoors, and in a place you weren’t supposed to be even with your clothes on?
That was the thing about whores. As long as you were paying, they knew not to laugh at you.
Tonight, he had a different purpose. His malevolence toward himself growing, Jim drove his Toyota Camry west to Pinnacle Mountain State Park. He left the car on the side of the road so he could enter the park on foot, undetected. There had been too many serious falls, some fatal and most by drunken teenagers, for the state not to monitor the park closely after dark.
The hiking was easygoing at first, just a series of switchbacks that turned the steep ascent into several smaller and more gradual slopes.
Nobody can help me. I had a chance to save him. I lied. I’m worthless to my wife and kids.
He stopped at the point where the trees gave way to sheer rock, and only a few feet of stone separated him from a 400-foot fall. A light breeze tugged at his combed-over hair. He sat and considered what he was doing. Maybe my lawyers will keep me out of jail, and then I can clean up my act. He laughed out loud. The sound dropped down the steep face of the mountain, lost in the valley below.
He stood and leaned down to put his hands on the rock, and began a slow bear crawl up the bare face of the mountain.
“Wall, what are you doing?” Wendy asked.
He sat poring over every document related to the case. “I’m making sure I didn’t miss anything,” he said.
“Wall, you’ve looked over all that a dozen times. Hell, I’ve looked over it, and you know I’m better at finding things than you. We need some time to be us, Wall. You haven’t seen the boys once since this case started.”
He jutted out his bottom lip and let out a sigh that lifted his bangs off his forehead. “This case is killing me. I know Stivins had something to do with it, and I’m not sure Gaither has told the truth yet.”
“Isn’t Leigh-Leigh getting you a warrant to search Stivins?”
“How is she looking these days?”
“That’s too bad. You know Wall, that reminds me.”
“Almost every woman you introduced me to in our college days, you either dated her, wanted to date her, or dated her roommate.”
Wall laughed. “But look who I chose.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t be so flattered. You didn’t seem to have discriminating taste.”
Wendy was wrong. He never could find the words to express it, but he knew the night he met her that she was more right for him than all those other women. She was so far above them that they did not stand a chance. None of those women made him want to stop seeing other people. They couldn’t keep him interested enough in their conversation to stay awake all night just talking.
She knew all that, though, so instead of repeating those thoughts aloud, he said, “They didn’t have an ass like yours.”
Wall’s mobile phone rang.
“This is Davies,” he answered.
“You got your warrant for Stivins, Detective.”
“Thanks, Leigh.” He put the phone back in its holster.
“What did she say?” Wendy asked.
“I got my search warrant.”
“And, let me guess. You’re going to go over there now.”
“Sorry, babe. A guy like that could disappear real quick if he wanted to.”
Jeff Stivins reached down and pulled up his left pant leg to look at his shin. The gash was healing remarkably quickly, and was much less perceptible than the day he stabbed Shaeffer. Feisty man, but too old for it to matter.
He sat alone at Dixie Cafe, a place that he positively detested. He blamed the homeless man’s soul for his occasional craving for southern fare. The chicken fried steak, although admittedly tasty, at once satisfied and repulsed him.
Before he killed Denise, the first victim he chose, he had never taken sugar in his coffee or his tea. Now, he sweetened both. He got almost giddy any time he ate at a restaurant that served sweet tea. It was strange to him that, as he aged, the souls he took did not.
The servers looked at him like he was an alien when he requested the tea without ice. There were some things that did not die with his dear mother, including the British tradition of hot tea. Iced tea was an American invention, and decidedly unrefined. Still, he could not quash Denise’s soul’s taste for sugar.
In the face of a true threat in Wallace Davies and his team of investigators, Stivins reflected back on how he had come to that point.
He decided early on that it was not schizophrenia. He did not assume other personalities independent of one another. Rather, the souls contributed to his sensibility. They only expressed their raw emotions and desires, not any cognitive processes. Like any other human, however, he could not always separate the two. He found out that souls rage and souls weep. Sometimes they swayed with the wind.
One constant through all this was his method. He killed with a lockback Buck Folding Hunter knife given to him by a babysitter’s boyfriend. Through all the years he had kept it sharp with a whetstone, just the way his father had taught him. The first time he used it on a person, he fended off a transient who attacked his brother.
The knife was quiet and personal. He could feel the body shudder at not only the pain, but the realization that death was imminent.
After discovering his power and being almost overwhelmed, he resisted killing again until the night he saw a plump college girl dancing naked in the rain. He knew he must capture her soul to experience such unbridled joy and perhaps counteract the negative effect of the insane transient. In fact, he had enjoyed luring her and taking her last breath, and wanted to experience it again. Only the risk of getting caught kept him from killing.
Until he met Frank Shaeffer.
Stivins liked to listen. It helped him assess the soul and find out if it was worth taking. He had honed his interview skills on many co-workers and perfect strangers, and developed a disarming personality that allowed people to open up to him. Many of them felt close to him and respected that he never sounded condescending.
Shaeffer had worked as a toolmaker for 25 years, the last 10 at Timex. He had served only one month as a Marine in Vietnam before getting captured. The average citizen could only imagine the hardships he had endured in the following three months. He did not like to talk about that very much, even to someone as inviting as Stivins.
Lately, he had been troubled by his wife’s suggestion that they sell their house and live on the road. He had supported buying an RV and taking road trips, but selling the home where they brought up their children? Unfathomable. He confided in Stivins that he did not want to throw away the chance to walk through the house and immediately become immersed in memories so real he could almost touch them. They had built a family, something that is forged, not made according to a blueprint.
A family. A wartime imprisonment. Stivins, who never would have those things himself, wanted to take them from Shaeffer. His soul was an irresistible enhancement that Stivins felt he needed to regain balance.
Sitting there, drinking his syrupy after-dinner coffee and breathing air so thick with grease he could taste it, Stivins knew he had to do something about that scrape on his leg. It was the only sign of his guilt.
(continue to Part 10)