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at the Hands of a Stranger
By Lee Butcher
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Lee Butcher
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOn New Year's Day, 2008, the killer watched a young woman with shoulder-length blond hair as he waited for a chance to strike. It was a cold day on Blood Mountain in Georgia's Vogel State Park; the temperature was just above freezing, in the crisp afternoon light. The woman was accompanied by a mixed-breed black dog, which seemed to be part Labrador retriever. His own dog was a red Irish setter named Dandy, and the canine had not had a bath or brushing in a long time.
The killer had come to Blood Mountain two or three days before—he had lost track of time—because it was a good place to hunt women. He considered himself to be a professional soldier who was always on combat maneuvers; he used his training and keen powers of observation to scrutinize his surroundings in detail. He was always on high alert. The woman's unleashed dog was of no concern to him, because he had been attacked by canines many times in the past. Usually, it was the other way around: He attacked dogs when he disapproved of their behavior. The dogs didn't have a chance against him. Sometimes pepper spray would be enough to chase a dog off; but if one was determined, he always had his butcher knife, bayonet, and a collapsible police-style baton, which snapped into a yard-long club that could crush bone.
"It's easy to kill a dog," he would say, even to strangers. He boasted that for a man with his fighting skills, it was also easy to kill a human being.
Blood Mountain, about ninety miles northwest of Atlanta, was an ideal setting for the killer. It rises 4,458 feet into the air and is thick with trees and hiking trails so narrow that in some parts two hikers can't walk side by side. There were still smudges of gold, brown, and red on the poplar, birch, oak, and maple trees—although the height of the color season had passed and most of the deciduous leaves were on the ground. During the peak of autumn, Blood Mountain trails were thick with hikers who wanted to walk among this splendid beauty.
With the colorful foliage almost gone, there were fewer hikers than usual, but that suited the killer's purpose. The less populated the trails, the better his chances were of not being seen by someone who could identify him later. He wasn't famous yet, except in his own mind, but it seemed to him that he attracted attention like the Lone Ranger, who wore a skintight outfit, a fancy two-gun holster rig, and rode a palomino. That was all staging and show business designed to draw attention so that when people asked, "Who was that masked man?" everyone knew that it was the Lone Ranger. None of that shit for him. Once he drew attention to himself, and his picture was published in a newspaper, he was done for; and he had already been "screwed, blued, and tattooed" by society in every way imaginable.
People invariably remembered him because of his brightly colored, expensive hiking clothes, a weird demeanor, scary appearance, and general attitude of menace.
"I'm the fucking Lone Ranger," he sometimes told people to describe the attention he generated.
The killer was Gary Michael Hilton, a former paratrooper and career criminal, who had been hiking and running for years along the Appalachian Trail and in remote mountain forests of the Northwest region of the United States. Except for a two-year enlistment as a U.S. Army paratrooper, Hilton had been a drifter most of his life. He had chosen to become homeless about fourteen years earlier. At five feet ten inches tall and 160 pounds, Hilton was lean and strong, with whipcord muscles connecting tendons like steel cable beneath his weathered brown skin.
Although only a fringe of gray hair formed a horseshoe on his head, he was tougher than a pine knot and could run through the mountains for hours and walk all day and all night toting a seventy-pound backpack. No one had better mess with him, and people seldom did because he looked mean. A former roommate had described Hilton as being "a sociopath with a mean streak." He was insulted at first, but then he realized it was true—and he liked it. He was mean and he knew it. The unkempt gray goatee on Hilton's face and lack of all but one jagged, brown front tooth accented his menacing appearance: when he smiled, there was only a black hole with the jagged tooth between his lips. Hilton had pulled most of his teeth out with a pair of pliers rather than get dental care. It was something else he bragged about. Hilton was also a sociopath—and he knew that, too. This self-awareness made him superior to other people who were also mean and sociopathic, but were unable to recognize it in themselves.
He had told an acquaintance that he had no conscience and felt sorry for people who did, because having one made life too complicated.
The woman he had decided to hunt today was Meredith Emerson, a twenty-four-year-old graduate of the University of Georgia, who was employed in an executive-training position by an Atlanta company that sold shipping boxes in bulk. An avid hiker and outdoorswoman, Emerson started to walk up a "feeder" trail with her dog frolicking around her, but she almost immediately met another couple coming from the other direction with their dog on a leash. They stopped and Hilton watched as they took turns petting the dogs and chatting. People with dogs were the easiest targets, he believed, because they were more likely to be approachable. All you had to do was start talking about what a good-looking dog they had—blah, blah, blah—and they became instant buddies. This was something he had learned during the forty years that he had been on perpetual combat control.
Hilton's money supply had dwindled to forty dollars. He figured he had to spend at least thirty dollars to put gasoline in his filthy, dilapidated 1996 Chevrolet Astro van. The vehicle, which he called home, had been running on fumes. He was hungry, and he needed more money; that was why he had driven to Blood Mountain. Although it was against park rules to camp in the parking lot, Hilton had managed to get away with it for the past two or three nights by unloading his equipment after sundown and long before sunrise. At these times it was too late or too early for anyone to be at the park. It was another carefully thought-out tactical maneuver, and he enjoyed his clever deceit.
The van was dented and rusty, muddy, filled with empty food cans, rotten fruit peelings and cores, and cargo bags filled with camping gear. The back door was held on with bungee cords, because the hinges were broken. It attracted as much attention as Hilton did. The camper was careful to move the van to a new spot every day and park in the space that was in an out-of-the-way spot, to lessen the chances of the van being noticed by others walking to the Blood Mountain hiking area.
Although Hilton had been homeless for the past decade, he still needed money to eat and buy incidentals. Any kind of work, of course, was beneath his status as a perpetual soldier and professional criminal, and he wouldn't be caught dead in some of the cheap, inadequate hiking gear that others wore. He wore the best microfiber clothing that was available, and that was one of the reasons people noticed him. Anyone seeing him today, he knew, would remember the bright yellow jacket, with the black stripes and patches on the elbows, and the black backpack that he carried, and they would wonder how such a dirty, strange, unkempt man could afford such expensive clothing. It was seldom that anyone asked about the clothing; but if they did, Hilton told them that he had a marketing arrangement with the manufacturers. Or he would freak them out with a glare and say, "Because I'm Microfiber Man." He never revealed how he really got the clothing. The hiking clothes and gear were the best money could buy, and the clothing drew attention to him, but that was the risk he had to take for being a professional.
Hilton also had an edge over others because of his intelligence and awareness that life was filled with nothing but meaningless activity. Among all men, he knew that life was a shifting, meaningless charade to keep people so busy that they wouldn't have to think about the inevitability of their impending deaths. Hilton was terrified of his own death, and his earliest memory was of looking at his hand when he was a four-year-old boy and realizing that one day it would be nothing but a skeleton.
The two hikers who chatted with Emerson started to go their separate way from her. She sat on the ground at the intersection of the Byron Herbert Reece Trail and the Appalachian Trail in order to rest and eat some trail mix. She gave her dog a drink of water and some treats. Hilton saw the departing couple glance at him as he went to the same path the girl had chosen. Ordinarily, he would have abandoned the mission because, when he went out to kill, he didn't want anyone to remember having seen him in the area. He would be screwed. However, he was desperate, so he ignored the warnings that told him to abandon the mission and just go for a hike with his dog and have fun. Hilton told himself he should be patient and wait for more suitable prey, but he needed food and money. He had to kill someone.
Hilton believed he had found prey the day before yesterday on Blood Mountain when he spotted a young woman hiking toward the summit. He passed a group of hikers about thirty yards behind her. Hilton closed the gap between them and started up a conversation with her about the dog trotting beside her. They rounded a bend, and the people behind them were out of sight. This could be his chance.
"Are you hiking alone?" he had asked.
"No. That group behind me is my family."
Hilton had grunted in anger, got off the trail, and walked into the woods and stayed there until it was dark enough to sneak back to his van in the parking lot and make camp. He had come up empty. So here he was again today, still hunting.
Blood Mountain was one of the best places Hilton knew to hunt because it was one of the most popular daytime hikes in Georgia. There were a lot of potential targets. People came to the roughly 24,000-acre Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area to hike, watch birds, hunt, fish, camp, ride horses, or canoe on the scenic Amicalola and Etowah Rivers. It was only about sixty miles from the Atlanta urban area. Conversely, Blood Mountain's popularity was also bad news for Hilton because it increased the danger of being seen. Even the most efficient professional couldn't anticipate every Tom, Dick, and Harry who might pop out of the woods onto the trail.
He took the same trail that Emerson did and noticed with satisfaction that her dog was a female. It was unleashed, as was his male dog. As he followed the woman, they encountered a few hikers coming back down the mountain. Hilton realized that he should have hidden in a blind off the trail and waited for someone to come along. It was too late for that now, so he lagged several feet behind the woman and began to talk about her dog. The dog's name was Ella, the girl said, but didn't offer her own name. That was a mistake in his opinion, because he believed that if she feared abduction, she should do everything she could to make herself seem more human. She ought to try and make him like her, personalize her, to be more than an object, so she might elicit feelings of sympathy from her abductor.
But she was not a professional like him. After a while the girl told him she wanted to hike alone and he dropped back, but he kept talking to her. He asked her what kind of music she liked as he tagged along, going deeper into the woods. She took a branch off the main trail and walked onto a path wide enough for only one person at a time. The killer continued tailing her and continued to talk; he was garrulous or stone-cold silent by nature, and it didn't matter to him if she answered or not.
He dropped back farther and she was soon out of sight as she headed toward the summit. There were no other trails she could take to get back. He knew he would meet her once more when she came back down. She would be tired from the hike and he would be relatively fresh. Not that he needed to be. He could whip almost anybody's ass because he was one hell of a stud, but he was glad he had found a petite woman. A man would be more likely to put up a fight, and then you never knew what might happen. He wanted it to be nice and easy.
Hilton got off the narrow trail and hid in the deep woods, where he could still see her, but he would be out of her line of vision when she returned. About an hour later, Emerson and her dog came into view. Now that she was on the way back to the parking lot, the woman seemed to feel more at ease. Emerson walked happily along, half jogging, and talking to her dog. Hilton burst out of the woods with his bayonet drawn and blocked her way.
"Give me your credit cards and PIN number," he snarled, "and I won't hurt you."
Hilton approached her, threatening with the bayonet, hurrying, because he thought that Emerson would try to run. Instead, she faced him in a defensive stance and started to fight. She wrested the bayonet from his hand and it tumbled down a ravine into a pile of leaves.
The bayonet had sliced her palm and the webbing between her thumb and forefinger and blood flowed. In spite of this, Emerson continued to face Hilton in a defensive position. He was afraid he had picked the wrong target. This woman was not weak. Having lost the bayonet, Hilton pulled out his favorite weapon, the collapsible baton, and snapped it out to full length. He was an expert with the baton and was proud of how well he could use it. He had beaten men much larger than himself senseless. He swung at her, but the woman dodged and the baton missed. Her hand slammed into his face and the baton flew out of his grasp and fell down the ravine with the bayonet. Hilton could not believe how fast she was and how well she could fight.
She's kicking my ass! he thought in disbelief. This woman is kicking my ass.
"I've got a gun!" he yelled. "Stop fighting or I'll shoot."
The woman screamed and continued to fight, kicking and flailing. He slammed a fist to the side of her head and she hit him back. They were grappling when they slipped and went tumbling down a steep ravine on the opposite side of the trail, where the bayonet and baton had tumbled. Hilton hoped she wouldn't break away and run, because he knew most women could run faster than he. The woman fought so hard and long that Hilton almost gave up. He had another large knife in a sheath strapped to his leg, but he couldn't get to it. The woman feinted, and then hit him from the other side. When he grabbed her around the body and pinned her arms, she became limp and he thought he was in control. And then he found himself being thrown into the air and landing hard on the ground.
After he got to his feet, he managed to hit her in the face several times with his right fist. It felt like he had broken several of his fingers. But the woman kept fighting, until he found a heavy limb on the ground and smashed it against her face. The woman went limp and the killer felt a thrill of triumph because he finally had subdued her.
Emerson groaned and ceased to struggle. Hilton held her down for a few minutes and continued talking. He assured her that he had no intention of hurting her. All he wanted was her identification, ATM bank card, and PIN code. And then he heard hikers on the main trail and squatted down, partly behind a tree, to hide from them. They passed without saying anything, and Hilton hoped they had not seen him. If they had, perhaps they thought he was having a bowel movement.
Excerpted from at the Hands of a Stranger by Lee Butcher Copyright © 2012 by Lee Butcher. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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