“Believe Me” by Christine Holmstrom

Ahead of me lay nothing but empty highway. It was evening as I walked along the lonely mountain road on the outskirts of Sierra City. Slate gray twilight shadows cloaked the twisting, two-lane asphalt. The day’s heat lingered on the silent pavement as I strolled past a long-closed lumberyard, the battered sign rotating in the breeze like a hanged man. Another mile and I’d reach the dirt lane leading to my rented cabin overlooking Wild Plum Creek.

Behind me, a car approached, tires slapping the pocked pavement. Gravel crunched as the car slowed, pulling onto the shoulder directly behind me. High above a lone scrub jay cackled.

The comforting scent of Jeffrey pine and incense cedar evaporated, replaced by the odor of burnt motor oil and fuel. The only building besides the deserted lumberyard was a small white Victorian house perched on the slope across the road. No lights, curtains drawn, no one home.

Without turning to look, I knew what lurked behind me. A car stopping for no reason by a vacant business, closing in on a lone woman—danger shouting from each slowing rotation of the tires, a flashback to every news story I’d ever read about women who vanished without a trace. This was how it happened—solitary woman, deserted country road, men in a car.

I’d read about those cases at my job at San Quentin prison. Death row inmate Bittaker kidnapped teen girls from quiet streets and deserted parking lots, forced them into his cargo van—nicknamed Murder Mack. Lawrence Bittaker and his crime partner Roy Norris raped and tortured their victims, recording the girls’ screams and pleas for later erotic pleasure. Norris once said he loved seeing the fear on his victim’s face—that made the sex enjoyable.

The car rolled to a stop inches from my feet, spitting bits of rocks at my ankles. Dusk enveloped the empty road like a stage curtain descending with the final act.

Back in the mid-eighties there were no handheld cell phones, no way to call for help.

My chest tightened. I wanted to flee. But where?

I glanced to my left at the little white house on the hill across the road. Empty. But I could pretend like I lived there or had come to visit the occupants. It was my best chance. Forcing myself not to run, not to look back, I crossed the road, slowly ascended the narrow wooden steps toward the porch. After all, how many times had I willed my feet to move steadily across the prison’s upper yard, refusing to let the convicts’ curses and catcalls send me zigzagging across the pavement like a panicked rabbit?

Reaching the home’s railed porch, I turned and gazed at the car below—a boxy 1970s Ford sedan with fading turquoise paint. The man at the wheel had a skull face and spiked white hair, a style not yet in fashion. The passenger door rasped open, the protest of rusting metal audible over the faint buzz of early-evening insects. A man stepped out, his movement zombielike. Instead of a lower right arm, he had a metal hook. As he raised it, the sharp steel shone in the fading light. Holy Mother of God, it was Hookman, out of that scary story we’d heard around campfires as kids—the young couple parked at midnight on Lover’s Lane, hearing a sound at the window, had driven off and found a bloody hook stuck in the passenger door when they’d returned home. Fear oozed out of my armpits, grabbing and twisting my stomach. The slasher was coming to get me. There were no witnesses, no rescuers.

Turning, I reached in my pocket for an imaginary set of keys. I pulled the screen open, acting as if I was about to unlock the front door. What was that sound? Footsteps coming up the stairs? Or was it my heart thumping? Barely able to breathe, I listened for the creak of weight shifting on wooden steps, wondering if I should leap off the elevated porch—a surprising eight feet to the ground—and run through the forest. I’d probably break my leg if I jumped. Even if I made it, could I outrun the guy with the hook? How long could I pretend to be opening the door before the men realized I couldn’t get in the house? Hookman would drag me down the steps, shove me in the car, and…

The hoot of a solitary owl echoed through the pine forest. I imagined a tiny mouse dashing for its burrow, the raptor’s talons ready to strike. I grabbed the front doorknob, trying to force it open. It didn’t move.

A car door groaned open. Was the driver coming too? I thought of the time I’d been beaten up by neighborhood boys, dragged between two houses, brambles piercing my back, dirt in my eyes, fists in my stomach. My legs went weak with the memory.

A metallic clunk caught my attention. I turned my head. The passenger was back in the car, his hook resting on the dash. The grim reaper driver shoved the Ford into gear, and the car moved regretfully down the road, away from town. Grabbing the porch railing, I steadied my shaking arms, calmed my breath.

Safe. I was safe. For the time being. But stored in my brain were so many memories: stories of missing children, kidnapped women, bodies buried in shallow graves, crime scene photos… When I was six or seven, I’d seen a reward notice posted at the Big Bear Lake grocery store. “Missing: Eight-year-old boy…” The family had been hiking in the forest, the child dawdling, perhaps a few steps behind his parents. They’d rounded a bend in the trail. Then the boy was gone. No answer to his parents’ frantic calls, no sign of a struggle or fall. How could he disappear without a trace? Ever since, even as a grown-up, I worried that a bogeyman would snatch me, make me vanish. That I’d be killed like so many victims I’d read about while working at the prison.

I couldn’t forget a condemned man we all called Monster, given that moniker because of his gigantism. With his oversized jaw, heavy bones, large hands and feet, he resembled a Hollywood screen version of Frankenstein. Some time back, I’d slipped into an interview with Monster arranged by the prison higher-ups to “gain insight” into the man’s crimes. I was eager to get the real story. We prison guards never asked inmates about their crimes. One of the many unwritten rules of prison life. Death row inmates definitely didn’t discuss their cases. It took decades to slog through the judicial appeals process that could result in a conviction being overturned. No condemned man was willing to compromise his chance at freedom by admitting that he actually committed a capital offense. Except for Monster.

He’d grown up poor in rural Mexico, half starved, shunned because of his looks, frequently imprisoned by his grandmother in a locked room. Once the family immigrated to the US, things improved financially. But Monster remained an outcast, started hanging out with the local gangs. He ended up in prison for armed robbery, got more time for beating his cellmate half to death. What he told us during the interview remained inked in my brain like an ugly tattoo.

“I nearly killed my cellie; I knew I’d kill someone for sure if I got out,” he’d said. “I asked them to keep me, to not let me out.”

The administrator conducting the interview nodded. “Obviously, there were no provisions for extending your sentence. Tell us what happened once you were released.”

They let him out? What kind of system was this that wouldn’t protect likely victims? In prison an aggressor would be tossed in the hole, made max custody, kept under the watchful eye of armed officers while in the exercise yard. He’d be separated from likely targets. But once a professed killer like Monster hit the streets, it was game on.

Leaning forward in his chair, so his shackles wouldn’t dig into his back, Monster recounted the murders. “I had my gate money and wanted to have some fun before I went to my mom’s house. I hitchhiked towards Riverside. This guy picked me up, but he started acting weird. I thought he was making a pass at me. So I killed him and stuffed his body in the trunk. I left the car in a parking lot near a motel. Then I saw this woman, a whore…” His voice trailed off for a moment.

“Well, I wanted to…you know…get laid. We got a room at the motel and had sex. After we finished, I saw blood coming out of her, you know…her privates. I thought she had given me a disease. So I strangled her.” Monster’s voice was flat, devoid of emotion. “I left her body there and took a bus towards Diamond Bar, where my mom lives.”

Monster’s mom welcomed him back home, unaware of the two murders. He told his family nothing about the crimes or his worries that he would keep killing. On the morning of August 7, 1980, Monster was alone at home with his nineteen-year-old stepsister, Teresa, a college sophomore with a ready laugh and playful sense of humor.

Like a slow student stumbling through a primary reader, Monster continued.

“Teresita said she was going to the store. I asked her to get me some shampoo. When she came back, I saw she’d bought some girlie conditioner and chips and other stuff, but no shampoo. I asked her, ‘Where’s the shampoo?’ and she looked kinda surprised, like she forgot. Then she started to tease me.” He paused. “I think she said I was a greaser, that it didn’t matter about the shampoo anyway. She was laughing. I got mad. I grabbed her—she stopped smiling. I strangled her. She stopped moving and I let her slip to the floor.”

“What were you feeling?” a female counselor asked. “You loved her, didn’t you?”

“Yeah.” Monster’s shoulders slumped. “After I killed Teresita, I remember looking down at her body lying there on the kitchen floor. She was so pretty. She was sweet. But she shouldn’t have teased me. Shouldn’t have made me mad.”

I left the interview wondering what made a man a killer. It had to be more than an abusive childhood or a physical deformity. Poor Monster, so simple and so damn dangerous. He knew he’d kill, had warned prison staff. Had anyone believed him? And why hadn’t he told his family about the two murders? How come there wasn’t a way to stop a man who said he’d kill once he got out of prison?

What about me? I had to report my near-kidnapping that evening. Save other women from abduction and rape. There was no phone in my creek-side cabin. The owners weren’t nearby. The town closed down by sunset, so I’d have to wait until tomorrow.

I drove into Sierra City the next morning, spotted a highway patrol cruiser.

What should I say? That I was nearly kidnapped? The cop would probably think I was some overwrought bimbo, a hysterical woman on her period. But I had to try, alert him to the danger.

“Officer. Hello.”

He looked up from his logbook.

“Hi, I need to report something suspicious that happened to me last night.”

With one thick finger, the cop pushed his Ray-Ban sunglasses back past his crew cut hairline. The smell of Old Spice and hair grease drifted from the cruiser.

“I was wondering if you’ve had any recent reports of missing women.” I described the vehicle and the two men, how they’d stopped when they’d sighted a lone woman on foot. But I hadn’t been able to get the license plate number. Too dark and the angle was wrong.

The officer fiddled with his pen like he was anxious to get back to his paperwork.

Maybe if I told him that I worked in law enforcement—well, corrections—perhaps that would give me some credibility. Not much—most street cops regarded prison guards as unworthy of respect as the flabby security guards who patrol grocery store parking lots. But I had to make him understand. Provide a description of the two men.

“Sir, I work at San Quentin, death row, and the MO of those men last night reminds me of some of the condemned prisoners’ methods.” Swabbing at the sweat on my forehead, I held my breath, visualizing the man with the hook arm, the sharp metal slashing the air as he exited the car.

A grin spread across the officer’s broad face. “Oh, those guys were probably from the VA home up in Loyalton; there’s a few amputees there.”

This wasn’t about amputees. I was lucky that I hadn’t ended up dead in a ditch somewhere. All this cop could focus on was the fucking prosthetic. I wanted to grab the portly, complacent SOB by his starched uniform collar and scream, “Don’t you get it? I work with rapists and murderers; I’ve read their files, I’ve seen the victim photos—the trussed bodies, the vacant eyes. These guys weren’t stopping to scope out the scenery. They were there to grab me. I was just lucky.”

“Officer, I believe those men intended to kidnap me.” I leaned into the car, making sure to catch the officer’s eyes. “They’re dangerous.”

He raised his eyebrows. “I’ve seen two or three of those fellows from the VA with hook hands. They’re harmless. I wouldn’t worry about it.” The officer turned back to his logbook, tapping his pen against the clipboard.

I trudged toward my car, my feelings stuck like a burning lump in my throat. How many women had Mr. Grim Reaper and Hookman already raped and perhaps killed? How many more victims would there be before they were caught? If they were caught.

Nicole Brown Simpson repeatedly told other people, including the cops, “He’s going to kill me.” Maybe some of them believed her, but what could they do? There are photos of Nicole’s battered face after one of her famous husband’s assaults—violence that was pretty much excused by responding officers as a “domestic argument.” After all, OJ was a celebrity. The cops weren’t about to arrest The Juice. Besides, they couldn’t arrest him just because she claimed he’d kill her. She had to be dead.

I thought about driving the twenty miles to the sheriff’s station in Downieville, trying to find someone to listen. But my boyfriend was coming up—on his way already. I wanted to get back to the cabin and bathe before he arrived. Shit, why bother to keep reporting the incident? I didn’t have enough hard facts, nothing solid to support my story. Who would listen? Who would believe me?

Remembering Monster’s warning, his three victims, I kicked at a roadside rock, heard the hollow ring as it struck a rusting metal signpost.

Despite the noonday Sierra heat warming my back, I felt December cold. Behind me the cruiser engine turned over. I felt the rumbling tires shooting up bits of asphalt as the CHP officer drove past me, the sun mirroring off the cruiser’s black metal before it vanished into the shimmering daylight.

 

 

Christine Holmstrom’s work has been published in Bernie Siegel’s book, Faith, Hope, and Healing. Several of her essays and nonfiction stories have been published or are forthcoming in Gulf Stream, The Gravel, The Penmen Review, Jet Fuel Review, Switchback, Stonecoast Review, Summerset Review, Two Cities Review, and others. After surviving riots, an armed escape and a death threat while working at San Quentin prison, she finally had the good sense to retire. Christine is now working on a memoir about her prison years.

 

"Underneath" by Dawrlin Mejia

“Underneath” by Dawrlin Mejia