knew she was inside.
Her faded Ford Tempo was
parked in the B lot next to Belk’s department store. The paint job had succumbed to the Carolina
sun and was now a muted shade of red, like the color of her hair. In fact, her hair was the same color as four girls who had
been strangled to death in Wake County
in the last two and a half years. Local reporters had dubbed the killer, “The Scarlet Angelmaker,” and the police
were still on the lookout for him. Six months ago, another body had turned up on a boat dock in Beaufort before the trail
went cold. Like most of the people in Wake County,
law enforcement assumed that The Scarlet Angelmaker had moved on.
In other words, now was
a perfect time to strike.
He kicked the Ford Tempo
with the toe of his wingtip and shook his head. The car was a junker on its last leg with two missing hubs and a busted taillight.
Better get that fixed, Sara Beth, he thought. Wouldn’t want to get
caught on a road at night without a taillight, would you?
Big business had invaded
over the last two decades, infecting the sleepy tobacco town with SUVs, corporate campuses, and Yankees. Although the main thoroughfares were well-lit, most of the side streets were glorified cow paths dotted
with the occasional light from a distant farmhouse or an oncoming vehicle. Following someone was easy in the dark. There were
ditches and dirt roads to hide in aplenty.
Lurking in a department
store on a weeknight, however, required a different set of skills. He had memorized the position of the security guards on
each level. The biggest muscle was stationed on the first floor near high-priced electronics. On the top floor, a single geriatric
guard wandered around in a counterclockwise pattern, covering two feet per minute. Salespeople were too preoccupied with setting
up displays and pushing holiday merchandise to notice the same man in the store night after night.
Tonight was the third
night in a row that he would observe Sara Beth undetected.
A few more customers pushed
their way through the revolving door. Most of the office employees in the big
corporate buildings across Interstate 85 left work at five o’clock. Thanksgiving had come and gone less than a week
ago, and the stores were staying open later to accommodate the County’s buying needs.
In his gray suit and tie,
he blended seamlessly into the congeries of businessmen in overcoats and sport jackets. Speakers piped in Elvis Presley’s
“Blue Christmas” while shoppers admired the oversized evergreen bursting up through the center of the store. Used
to be townspeople ambled along Magnolia Avenue during
the holidays and browsed the windows on nightly family outings, he recollected. Now they left their cars in parking lots and
squeezed in their Christmas shopping between work and traffic jams. Family values were eroding faster than the topsoil in
this Carolina town, as far as he was concerned.
But that was one of the
things about murder. Murder always had a way of bringing a town together. After each of the broadcasts in Wake County, ladies walked arm-in-arm on streets
at night. Men accompanied their women to their cars and called to make sure they arrived safely at their destination. Neighbors
held each other close and looked unkindly on outsiders.
Never lasted, though.
After a few months of tranquility, people always reverted back to their old ways of living. Too busy working. Too busy making
trouble. Too busy to look after one another. And that was when they let their guard down.
People always let their
A pair of middle-aged
ladies pawing over handbags and gabbling about the demands of the season eyed him as he walked past women’s accessories.
“Wonder where he
works,” he heard one of them whisper. “I’d sure like to meet a guy like that.”
“Give it up, Holly,”
her friend giggled. “Don’t you have enough trouble with the man you already got?”
he offered cordially and grinned until they hushed with predictable embarrassment.
His broad shoulders and
towering height frequently attracted second glances from middle-aged women who believed they were still young enough to incite
desire in the hearts of good-looking men. “Cougar bait,” a workout buddy called him. He spent hours benching two
hundred pounds, boxing the speed bag, and logging miles on the treadmill at the local gym.
His hair was thick and brown. Not a strand of it had turned gray in all his forty-one years. And his lean jaw was chiseled
and clean-shaven. Weren’t women always telling him how handsome he looked in his Sunday best?
“Like Gregory Peck,”
Mama had insisted. “A real Atticus Finch.”
Of course, Mama had wanted
him to be an attorney or a banker. Something that required white-collar shirts,
a briefcase, and a corner office. Ladies trust a well-dressed man. In the
right suit and tie, a man represents good breeding and security. Appearances could
be deceiving, he thought. Hadn’t he disappointed Mama in the end? Hadn’t
he disappointed nearly every woman he ever met? He fought the gall rising in his throat and took the escalator to housewares
on the top floor. Tonight he had no interest in a middle-aged woman nursing a Harlequin fantasy.
Tonight he had other plans.
His feet were planted
firmly on the third floor. Sara Beth’s floor. He spotted a shock of red hair hovering around a collection of Thomas
Kinkade knock-offs near the window. Sara Beth was admiring a painting of a snow-dusted Victorian house with a horse-drawn
carriage waiting for the merry inhabitants inside. She adjusted the frame on the wall and stepped back to judge her work.
Dante Rosetti could not have painted a fairer damsel, he thought. Auburn
curls cascaded down her back in soft rivulets. Freckles trailed across the bridge of her porcelain nose and rouge-stained
cheeks. Each of her steps revealed the lanky grace of a filly discovering her own gallop.
She was sixteen years
old, and she was lovely.
At first he had become quite irritated when she changed her work schedule. It had taken him nearly a week
of plotting and bargaining to move his shifts around so he could follow her. But that’s
the way young girls are, he reminded himself. Too fickle and rash for their own good. Oh,
he had so much to teach her, he thought. Sara Beth was such a stubborn girl.
She needed to learn.
He surveyed the scene
on the third floor from behind a stack of Oriental rugs. The geriatric security guard was shuffling his way around the far
end of the store while a man in a Burberry coat with a gray bowl cut pointed to the painting above Sara Beth’s head.
A professor, he surmised, or a scientist. The generous paunch and sallow complexion suggested a life lived indoors, surrounded
by books or Bunsen burners.
“Wrap it up, darling”
he told Sara Beth. “And ship it to my family in Franklin.”
“Yes, sir. Right away, sir.” She chirped. He delighted in this Southern eccentricity. Children
raised in the South never failed to address their elders as “sir” and “ma’am.” So unlike the
Yankee children he had encountered. Southerners were bred with gentility and
Qualities that were easy
She struggled to remove
the painting from the wall while her manager took the credit card from the customer and rang up the sale. No doubt he was
pleased with the sizable commission that was sure to fatten his pocketbook.
“Go on and help
her, son,” the manager told a stocking clerk. “Sara Beth needs a hand with that painting.”
A pasty twenty-something
man in a Clash concert T-shirt took the Kinkade knock-off out of Sara Beth’s hands and carried it to the packing table.
His stringy black hair was pulled into a ponytail at the nape of his neck, revealing a diamond stud in his right earlobe.
A six-inch tattoo of a Gibson guitar engulfed in flames stretched from his bicep down to his lower right forearm. Ponytail
had the rangy appearance of a recreational drug user, the man noted. He’d spotted him lurking in the back shelves, eyeing
up the high school girls earning extra money for the holidays. The man winced each time he heard Ponytail’s thick Yankee
accent. Words spilled out of his nose, lacking any proper elocution and the niceties that Southerners had come to expect.
Another washed-up rocker drawn to the more liberal tendencies of towns like Chapel
Hill, he thought. Tolerance only led to lower standards in his experience, which
brought trash too close to perfection.
Trash could be peculiarly
seductive to young girls, the man had observed. Sara Beth was no exception. She clung to the Yankee, whispering, and smiling
at him. She held her hand over his arm as he sealed the package with tape, tossing her hair back, and laughing at some witticism
meant for her ears only. Color flooded her cheeks and her neck. Her eyelids fluttered each time the Yankee touched her hair
or brushed past her to get a better grip on the package.
The Yankee balanced the
painting on its edge with one hand, ostensibly trying to impress her while she giggled and asked him to stop.
Jeremy.” Sara Beth pleaded. “Or we’ll both get in trouble.” She handed the painting to the customer,
assuring him that his purchase would arrive both in time for the holidays and in one piece.
So Jeremy was the Yankee’s
name, the man noted.
Jeremy could present unnecessary
He would need to be watched.
“Meet me in five
minutes.” Jeremy told her when the customer was gone. “You know where I’ll be.” He played air guitar
until Sara Beth smiled, and then he punched out for the day.
The Yankee made no attempt
to converse with the other customers on his way out the door. Not so much as a “Drive safe” or a “Come again.” Northerners were too brusque and harried, he reckoned. If a man had to do something,
then he had to do it right. And right and quick were not always interchangeable. That was one of the lessons he needed to
teach Sara Beth. Some things were better at a slower pace.
Some things needed savoring.
Sara Beth asked her manager
for permission to take a break so she could meet up with her companion.
The man watched Sara Beth
take the service stairs to the parking lot below. The fire escape that ran along the west side of the building was sturdy
enough to bear a man’s weight without creaking. He slipped his shoes off to avoid making any noise and stocking-footed
his way to the second floor.
From where he was hovering,
he could see Sara Beth in a ski jacket and eavesdrop on their conversation below. Much to Sara Beth’s pleasure, her
friend was holding a cigarette and making smoke rings with his breath. She tightened a blue wool scarf around her neck and
clapped her hands together.
The Yankee asked, handing Sara Beth the cigarette. She snatched the butt and
took to it without hesitation. A nasty habit for a lady, he thought, wondering how many cigarettes had already marred her
perfect lungs. He imagined Sara Beth with brown teeth, oozing ulcers on her gums and lips, and a rank odor emanating from
her mouth. His stomach convulsed, and he clasped his hand to his mouth. Each inhalation was an assault on his property. Not
his angel, he swore. Not his Sara Beth. This would be the last cigarette that she would ever smoke.
He would make sure of
She handed the Yankee
back his smoke and reached up to feel his shoulders. A familiar gesture, the man noted, his heart quickening.
cold, Jeremy?” She asked. “I don’t know how you can keep warm without a coat. I’m freezing.”
The Yankee wrapped his
arms around Sara Beth, and she rested her head against his chest. He closed his eyes and whispered something in the girl’s
ear that made her titter and punch his shoulder. The man shuddered with disgust.
“I know how to warm
you up,” the Yankee announced, coiling a lock of her red hair around his fingers. “My band’s got a late
gig in Kiawah tonight. You could watch us play.” He stroked her face with the back of his hand. “I can pick you
up from work, if you want.”
Sara Beth’s eyes widened.
“Sure. We could
dance all night and wake up on the beach.” He pressed his lips against her forehead. “Take a sunrise swim.”
to get Mandy to cover for me.” Sara Beth held his face between her hands. “But I’d love to see you play.”
He pressed every inch
of his body against hers and slipped his tongue in her mouth, his hands working their way up the back of her coat.
A fresh burst of rage
coursed through the man’s veins as he loosened the collar of his shirt. Kiawah was a five hour drive away from here.
A golfing resort and the longtime playground for Southern aristocracy and Northerners with too much money and a hankering
for hospitality. The town was ten degrees warmer than Wake County this time of year and ten times wealthier anytime of the
year. This unexpected excursion could destroy everything. Nobody was gonna take away this angel from him. Not tonight. Not ever. She belonged to him.
Dead or alive.
Easy now, he reminded himself. There was still time for him to get the job done. Nothing was off schedule yet.
Perhaps he could use this twist to his advantage. But the Yankee would have to be taken care of. And soon.
Sara Beth’s shift
ended at a quarter past seven, and—true to his word—Jeremy was waiting for her outside the department store in
a rusty Camaro. Sara Beth climbed in the passenger seat and sped off into the night.
Only one thing left to
do, the man decided. Follow them down the back roads and corner them when they least expect it.
He kept pace with the
car on I-95 past the exit for Benson and Fayetteville. Then the Camaro turned down the Savannah highway towards swamp country.
Nothing for miles but bait shops and gators. Cicadas made more noise than people in these parts. Fewer cars traveled this
road than the coastal highway near Beaufort.
It was the perfect place
to dump a body—or two.
Media reports said “The
Scarlet Angelmaker” fit the profile of an “opportunity killer.” A traveling salesman or contractor who blended
into a town and found a target that was lonely or gullible. Probably had a bad history with a redhead or two and wanted some
kind of revenge. The man in the gray suit straightened his tie and ran a hand through his thick brown hair. A lot of psychobabble hooey, he thought. They didn’t have
a damn clue who they were looking for or where to start looking.
Jeremy and Sara Beth turned
into a desolate rest area and parked the car. The man watched Sara Beth hop out of the Camaro and fluff her hair.
“Be right back,”
she called. Jeremy leaned against the Camaro for a moment and lit another cigarette while Sara Beth pranced towards the ladies’
The man parked his Bronco
close to the restrooms and checked his pockets to make sure everything was ready.
Jeremy was out of sight
by now, and the man hadn’t seen anybody enter or exit the ladies’ room in several minutes. Sara Beth was by herself,
and she was vulnerable, he concluded. So easy to snatch and to kill.
His pulse piqued at the
He nudged open the rotting
green door that led to the ladies’ washroom. Mold and bleach hung in the air. A neon light flickered above the bathroom
mirror, illuminating rust-covered sinks and abandoned spiderwebs.
From the corner of his
eye, the man caught a clear view of his prey, and he stepped closer. With each passing second, his darkest visions came to
life before his eyes. He watched the scarlet tendrils and the blue wool scarf above Sara Beth’s head, his breath growing
ragged with anticipation.
He commanded. “Stop, or I’ll shoot!”
Jeremy wrapped the scarf
around Sara Beth’s neck and squeezed. Sheriff Buckley fired a single slug
into his arm, and Jeremy fell with a thud.
Beth asked, choking the word out as she rubbed her throat.
honey. I been tailing you for some time. I know all about you and this Yankee. You can thank me later for saving your life.”
Sheriff Buckley slapped
a pair of handcuffs around the suspect’s wrists and pulled him up. Truth be told, the Sheriff had a nagging suspicion
that the “Angelmaker” was a Northerner all along.
she sassed, recovering from her near-death experience. “I swear, I am so
tired of you following me around and getting your nose into my business! Just because you’re a Sheriff doesn’t
mean you can do whatever you want when it comes to your own daughter. Maybe you were right this time, but what about that
time you scared Preston, my first boyfriend, half to death in the movie theatre? He never even talks to me anymore after you
read him his rights and—”
“Sara Beth Buckley,
you best march into that Bronco and park it.”
He’d dragged the
suspect out of the women’s washroom during his daughter’s tirade and phoned in the arrest. “And you can
start praying that I let you outta the house before you’re old enough to retire.” Sara Beth stormed away from
her father in tears.
“You shot my arm!”
the Yankee interjected.
Sheriff Buckley said. “I was wondering where that bullet went.” He pushed
the Yankee facedown on the ground and jammed a heel into his tailbone.
sue your ass. Do you hear me? ”
how I can’t, son. And it’s ‘sir’ around these parts.” The Sheriff knelt down and pressed his
gun against the Yankee’s neck. “Except for when you address me, boy.
When you address me, you say ‘Sheriff, sir.’ So instead of hollerin’, ‘I’m gonna sue your ass,’ you say ‘Sheriff, sir, I’m gonna sue your ass, Sheriff, sir.’ Now
I’d like to hear you try.”
This time the suspect
kept his mouth shut and winced in pain. The wailing sirens in the distance and the look of Sara Beth stewing in the front
seat of the Bronco told Sheriff Buckley that he was in for a long night. At least he could cross “One Serial Killer”
and “A hot-tempered daughter” off his Christmas list..
Sheriff Buckley shook
his head and bummed a Pall Mall from the suspect’s back pocket.
Damn Yankees, he thought.
Over the years, Marty Keller has worked as
an attorney, a high school English teacher, and a shoe clerk. Her mystery stories have appeared in Writers’
Journal Magazine, The Storyteller, and
Darkest Before the Dawn.