Fiction

Short Story: A Cruel Season

A Cruel Season

Copyright © Neal Eric Yeomans

The boys found her. They had been fishing earlier in the day and were now walking back into town with their poles settled on their shoulders and their catch in two metal buckets. That was when they saw the body partially obscured under a group of elder trees. At first they were not at all sure just what it was that was laying over there in the tall grass by the side of the road. The boys got closer.

It was lonely out here. Crows were perched on the power lines. No cars came down this country road.

The girl was naked. Her eyes were open. The lips a deep blue. Her ring finger was missing from her right hand. There was a red scarf knotted tightly around her neck, the ends turned up to make a grotesque bow.

The boys stood hypnotized by this strange scene. Then reality established itself again. They dropped their fishing poles and the metal buckets full of pickerel and trout and ran breathlessly down the road to the gas station where they used the payphone to call the police.

It was April 5th, 1969.

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We all knew her. Not surprising on a campus as small as this one. Everyone knows everyone here.

Mary-Ann Jensen. That was her name. The newspapers ran her yearbook photograph from her high school graduation. Black gown. Cap. Big smile. Diploma in hand. She was a nineteen-year-old sophomore and had just been accepted into the nursing program here at Trinity University. Her anxious roommate had reported her missing the night before when she hadn’t returned from her Modern History class by nine-thirty. Mary-Ann’s roommate read tarot cards and smoked grass. She sometimes had these “wild premonitions” that would cause her hands to shake and make her head pound. This roommate got the strange sense that Mary-Ann was in some sort of danger. She had been right about that.

The campus had been on edge even before the Jensen girl’s murder. She had not been the first. We all remembered the others.

It had started with Nancy Hartman two years ago. October of 1967. Halloween. She had been found dumped in a field by a local farmer named Earl W. Johnson. The killing had been messy. A pathologist who examined the body had later determined that Nancy Hartman—age twenty, accounting major—had been stabbed approximately thirty times. She had also been beaten severely on the face with an unknown blunt instrument which resulted in several skull fractures, any number of which would have been fatal. The pathologist also noted that one of the fingers on the girl’s right hand was missing and that a lock of her blond hair had been cut off. The killer was apparently keeping these as a trophy or some kind of bizarre memento.

The police investigated. A file was opened. Several detectives were seen on campus over the next few weeks along with reporters from the local television stations. Classmates and acquaintances were interviewed. A boyfriend questioned. Nothing came of any of this in the end. Friends called Nancy good-natured. She was a lover of puppies and The Beatles. Professors thought of her as a dedicated student. It was unthinkable that someone could have done such a terrible thing to her and get away with it.

No new leads turned up. Any questions of the boyfriend’s guilt were finally put to rest when seminal fluids on the girl’s underwear were determined not to match his blood-type. The investigation dragged on into the Christmas holiday; eventually the case grew colder than the weather and people stopped talking about the murder. Things got back to somewhat normal around here after a while. Soon it was as though Nancy Hartman never existed at all.

The next killing took place thirteen months later. A girl’s nude body was found on a construction site just outside of town. The foreman and his crew made the discovery soon after they arrived for work on a snowy morning in mid-January of 1969. Newspapermen and reporters descended on Trinity with a frenzy. This newest murder created even more of a sensation than the death of Nancy Hartman. No one wanted to believe that it had happened again.

I sat in the Common Room in Wentworth Hall with everyone else and watched the news reports on television that night. Establishing shot of the sorority house where the victim lived. Cut to a photograph of the pretty girl. Caroline Lerner. Nineteen. Music student. She had been criminally molested, stabbed, and strangled with her miniskirt. Grainy black and white images of the crime scene. Police taking statements from the construction workers. A crowd watching from across the street. The sheet-draped body on a stretcher being loaded into the county corner’s van and being driven away. Reporters scrambling for last minute pictures.

The police were just as baffled with this case as they were with the first murder. Caroline Lerner was no different than Nancy Hartman in terms of her social standing with people. She was bright, friendly, and had a job babysitting for a young married couple who lived off campus. Caroline didn’t even have a boyfriend. This investigation soon stalled as well.

Some people did come forward with information they thought might lead somewhere. A graduate student on his way back from visiting his parents in suburban New Jersey said he saw a girl hitchhiking way over on the Hamilton Road, but he couldn’t be sure if it was her or not. He kept driving. One witness claimed that she saw Caroline walking back from the library one night with a young man. When questioned about this individual, the witness said she didn’t get a really good look at him because it was too dark; she said they turned a corner at Ellis Avenue and were soon gone from sight.

The chief detective (dark suit, dazzlingly white hair, weathered face) leading the investigation called a press conference one rainy afternoon a week or so after the murder. I was in the crowd. He said that a definite connection had been made in both the Hartman and Lerner cases—the same method of strangling, the missing fingers and cut hair—and that the investigation was still ongoing. A tip-line had been established so students could report any suspicious persons or activity to the police. Officers (now both state and local) had been assigned to keep a twenty-four hour watch on the school. The possibility that the killer was among us—perhaps the introverted science major or one of those Negro boys—was never far from any of our minds.

Fear spread throughout Trinity like a cancer. Girls were afraid to go out at night. They hurried to the safety of their big cars as soon as the sun went down; others had boyfriends walk them to their well-lit dorms. All of us speculated wildly on the killer’s identity and where he kept the fingers and locks of hair that he took from his young victims. Despite the unease, life on campus went on as usual. The officers became a familiar sight on the grounds of the university. We tried not to think about the deaths too much or the unknown murderer who might be among us.

Then came the killing of Mary-Ann Jensen about seven weeks later.

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Jeffrey was throwing darts at a magazine cut out of Richard Nixon’s face that hung on the back of the door. “Man, these last few days have been like a bad trip.”

I wasn’t listening to him. I had anatomy homework to finish.

“All the victims had light colored hair,” said the girl sitting on the frayed Oriental rug. “Did you guys know that? I bet the killer has a thing for blonds.”

This was getting stupid. I closed the textbook and pushed my chair back from the desk. The girl on the floor was rolling a joint. She was pale, thin, and went by the name of Rainbow. Her and Jeffrey had been going together for about a month. They had already made plans for the upcoming summer, there was talk of moving into an apartment together before the start of the next semester. Jeffrey had told me on numerous occasions that he thought Rainbow was a “far out chick.”

She had brought a friend over tonight. I looked at her. Jess sat on Jeffrey’s bed reading a dog-eared copy of Valley of the Dolls.

Rainbow lit the joint. Jeffrey came over and sat down next to her on the floor. “I have blond hair,” she said after taking a strong hit. “Maybe I should go to a salon and have it dyed. A lot of girls are doing that now.”

Jeffrey reached under his bed and came out with a bottle of wine like a magician’s magic trick. He looked at her over his glasses. “I like your hair. Don’t worry. I won’t let anything happen to you, baby.”

She passed him the joint and then leaned in close and began to kiss his neck. Jess looked up from Jaqueline Susan. I began to put my papers into my anatomy book.

“Are you guys going to hang around much longer?” asked Rainbow, suddenly remembering that Jess and I were stil in the room. She had undone the top buttons of Jeffrey’s shirt.

Jess rolled her eyes and got off the bed. I got up as well. “Come on. I’ll drive you back.”

She smiled at me.

“Ta-ta guys,” said Jeffrey as the door closed behind us.

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We stopped and got something to eat at this diner up the road from the university. I watched Jess chew her food slowly, take sips from her Coca-Cola. She had a nice face. I told stupid jokes that made her laugh and press her napkin to her mouth. We talked about music we liked, classes we had and professors we couldn’t stand. We talked about the friends who had gone to Vietnam and had come back home in caskets. My plate of fries sat untouched on the counter.

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“Do you want me?”

“Yes.”

We were naked. She was laying on the bed with her hair spread out on the pillow like tendrils. The dorm was empty. Her roommates were out bowling. Jess had lit the candles and a Richie Havens song was coming from the record player. Let the river rock you like a cradle/Climb to the treetops child if you are able…

I began to kiss her bare stomach.

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About a week before final exams, Jeffrey found me amongst the musty stacks in the library.

I looked at him strangely. He ran all the way here and was now panting in front of me, the lenses of his glasses were all foggy. We found a place to talk by the card catalogue. Several students sitting at a table glanced up at us from their textbooks. He went on to tell me that there were all these people outside, something big was going down at this very moment.

I was familiar with Jeffrey’s exaggerations ever since we met as eighteen-year-old freshman. We were no longer roommates. In these last three years, I have learned to take whatever Jeffrey says with a heavy amount of salt. However, he wasn’t exaggerating on this particular afternoon. It seemed like most of the college was standing outside Dunham Hall. Was this some sort of student demonstration, another protest against the ongoing war in Southeast Asia? No. I’ve been to those. This felt different. There was an electricity in the air, a sense of dread that was palpable.

Some hippie handed me a flyer. A girl’s Xeroxed-face smiled up at me. Margaret Elizabeth King. Thirteen years old. Hazel eyes. Blond hair. The words MISSING in bold black print above this girl’s picture. I looked around at the milling crowds, the police officers and reporters. This was for her. All this hullabaloo was for her.

Detective Harlan—there wasn’t anyone on campus who didn’t know his name by this point—walked up to the podium. An exhausted couple (the man in his rumpled banker’s suit and the woman with her beehive-haircut and her red-rimmed eyes behind harlequin glasses) stood beside him on the stone steps of Dunham Hall. I knew right away that these two were the distraught parents of the missing girl. Photographers were getting their pictures for the evening papers. News cameras were rolling. Rainbow and Jess eventually found me and Jeffrey in the crowd. We listened to Detective Harlan speak. Jess held my hand.

This is what we knew for sure: Margaret King, an eighth grader at George Washington Middle School, had been missing for about twenty-four hours now. She had not come home the previous afternoon. Detective Harlan said that Mrs. King (dabbing her eyes with a tissue) had called the parents of some of her daughter’s friends when she didn’t arrive for dinner; no one had seen Margaret since school let out at two o’clock. Later on Mr. King (clutching his wife’s side, head down in shame) had spent the rest of that evening riding around in his station wagon in a futile search for his baby girl. He returned home defeated in the morning.

Detective Harlan thanked all of us for coming out to help. Time was critical. The situation dire; no doubt this girl’s disappearance was connected to the recent string of murders. We were going to bring this child home to her family.

The crowd was split up into groups and assigned an officer. Kids used the campus all the time as a short cut to get into town. We were going to comb a 5-mile radius expanding out from the university. Harlan would be in constant contact with the officers through walkie-talkies. We were told to stick together. Mrs. King had given an old jacket of her daughter’s to the police. The hunting dogs had the girls scent and their barking carried across the quadrangle.

Jeffrey, myself, and the girls joined this small group of theater majors standing over by the Revolutionary War memorial. There were three of them. A gangly kid called Lewis with the reddest hair that I had ever seen. A girl who resembled Cass Elliot. A guy named Deke. He had all of us hold hands and close our eyes and try to “feel Margaret’s aura.” The policeman assigned to our ragtag group was Officer Larry McBride. He was small, severely myopic, and carried a bullhorn. Jess told me that she was constantly reminded of Jerry Lewis when she looked at him.

The search party fanned out slowly. Dark clouds were massing in the sky. A storm was coming.

We must have been going at this for nearly an hour. Our relentless searching had led us over the small footbridge that spanned the brackish Moran River (not far from where Mary-Ann Jenson’s body had been found by those two boys), through open fields and eventually into densely wooded areas. Jess and I were now walking a dirt trail. Jeffrey and Rainbow and the others had gone on ahead with Officer McBride (who was nursing a swollen forehead after walking straight into a tree branch). We heard Margaret’s name being called, chilly echoes in the evening air. The dogs were barking.

“What do you think it feels like to kill someone?” asked Jess.

I looked at her in the fading sunlight. The question had caught me by surprise. “It must be like finishing a race or something, like exhausted and excited all at the same time.”

Jess began to rub her bare shoulders. A sudden unease had come over her. “Do you really think that the man who has been doing all of this is really on campus?”

I put my arm around her. “Yes. I do. I think he’s probably out here with all of us this very minute trying to find this lost girl. I’m sure he’s right under everybody’s nose.”

Jess moved in close to me. She was scared.

Then came the sharp sounds of an officer’s tin whistle. The dogs were going crazy. A discovery had been made in these woods.

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The old house looked like it came off the set of a Vincent Price horror movie. Dark. Weather beaten. Abandoned long ago. Weeds grew alongside the foundation. The roof had fallen in and all the windows were broken. This was a house from your dreams, a little child’s nightmare.

Jess and I approached this eerie place. Officer McBride was talking frantically to Detective Harlan via the walkie-talkie. The girl who I had begun to think of as Cass Elliot sat on a fallen log, hand to her open mouth. Deke stumbled from the house and vomited. It was obvious from all of their reactions just what had been found inside that house. Others emerged from the periphery of the woods. They had heard McBride’s whistle.

Jess threw her arms around me and told me not to let go of her. Then she wept.

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The semester is over.

I have everything packed in cardboard boxes. The Rambler is full. I’ll miss this place. I’ve been living here—in my Grummama’s house—all semester long. She died several years back and left all of this to my old man. Since it was not far from the campus, I had asked my parents one night over dinner if I could live in the place during the school year. I told them it would the first step in my road to independence. They laughed and agreed to let me stay, provided I kept any parties I might have to a minimum and keep up on the cleaning. There would be no issues there. I’m a fastidious housekeeper.

There is a newspaper and a small leather case on my desk right now. The paper is several days old and the headline reads FUNERAL FOR SLAIN GIRL HELD TODAY. The funeral of Margaret Elizabeth King had been a large, sad affair. The parents received kisses and hugs from the tearful mourners. A bunch of the girl’s friends placed flowers and stuffed animals on her casket. I went to the service and sat in the back. I needed to be there.

June sunshine now fills this room with a warm brightness. Dust moats drift in the air. The sounds of kids outside on their bicycles. I open up the leather case and look at my collection.

Several locks of braided hair bunched neatly together. I touched them lightly. Next to these coiled reminders were the fingers. Thin. Hard. Painted with nail varnish. Wilting like flowers. I wonder if I pack the fingers in ice if they will keep longer. They might not be able to last much longer in this box, my most treasured item. This box will sit in the passenger seat on my journey back home.

I’m leaving tomorrow. Jess called earlier this morning and wants to go out for one more night. We’re going to a movie. I got tickets to a re-release of Hello, Dolly! I always enjoy a good musical.

Speak of the Devil. I think I hear her now actually. The doorbell is ringing downstairs. I look at myself in the full length mirror. Freshly shaven. A nice plaid shirt. Dark Levi pants and polished shoes. Keeping up appearances is very important. I shut my leather box and go downstairs to answer the door.


Want more from this author?

Discover Neal Eric Yeomans’ debut:

Houses and Backyards: A Collection of Stories

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