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In Love with a Serial Killer
I Was So in Love ... But I Didn't Know I was on the Road with a Serial Killer.
By Sandy Fawkes
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2007 Sandy Fawkes
All rights reserved.
7 NOVEMBER, ATLANTA, GEORGIA
There can never be a good time to meet a mass killer – not even a drop dead gorgeous one. But a girl – even a nice girl – can't always choose who she gets the hots for.
For the three weeks I had been in America I had remained, through no real fault of my own, boringly celibate. Which is not a state I was particularly accustomed to.
I was, I was frequently told, a strikingly good looking woman, with flaming red hair, a figure my seventeen-year old son's girlfriend openly envied, an ex-husband, a string of lovers, and enough one night stands to have given me the confidence to be my own woman.
I was also alone in the middle of Atlanta, Georgia. And I was thirsty and randy. A dangerous combination.
I had arrived there on the evening of Thursday, 7 November, flying in from Washington where I had spent an interesting, but frustrating day trying to trap a former vice-president into giving me an interview. I had found his hideaway office in Crofton, Maryland with the help of a friendly but teetotal Congressman's secretary. Crofton was a strange little place of newly-built Queen Anne houses, an upper-class Disneyland. The Vice-President's office was marked Pathlite and had no outside door handle. I had knocked and made my polite request to no avail and had then retired to the local restaurant where I had been told he usually lunched.
He must have been dieting that day. The bad luck that had started in Washington stayed at my heels like a faithful dog. I had then been sent to Atlanta on an equally impossible assignment, but I didn't much care; travelling the world was what I loved most of all, particularly at someone else's expense.
My stay in America was a super-jaunt provided by my temporary employer, the National Enquirer, an American weekly paper. In London, where I was a top reporter, it had been treated as a joke, but behind the laughter there was a certain amount of envy, for the offer of a month's try-out had included travel, unlimited expenses and a generous salary.
The economic crisis in Britain had curtailed foreign trips for journalists, particularly to the States, and as, like most reporters, my curiosity was greater than my pride, door-stepping film stars or asking daft questions about flying saucers was a small price to pay in exchange for four weeks in America.
I checked in to the Holiday Inn in downtown Atlanta and was now sitting in my room. Its king-sized bed provided a heartless reminder that I was alone and, furthermore, randy. I wondered what to do with the evening. First I rang the local paper, the Atlanta Constitution, to ask if I could use their cuttings library, half hoping that my arrival in town would inspire some journalist to take me on a tour of his favourite hostelries. No such offer was made, but the use of the library was mine.
I checked my appearance in the mirror. It wasn't worth changing out of the jersey cardigan suit I was wearing, but I tidied up my face and then stood irresolute in the middle of the room. I was dying for a drink, but printed notices scattered on every surface informed the customer that no alcohol could be served in the room. The thought of braving a bar in a strange city was unnerving; it was possible, too, that in the South they would refuse to serve a lone woman.
I sat in the armchair for a while, automatically reading the Gideon Bible that lay open on the table. The language, rich and strong, brought my childhood rushing back. I was an orphan and had been left as an infant in the care of the State. After several years in an orphanage I had been sent to a foster-home. I was a bright child, and had not endeared myself to my foster-parents by being able to read at an earlier age than their own offspring. They had punished me by refusing to allow me to look at any of their own children's books or comics. These were delivered each week and left tantalizingly in the living-room, but I was forbidden to touch them. Not once in the four years I stayed there was this rule waived. Legally, I had to have a room of my own furnished with a Bible, so, lonely and miserable, I had read the adventures of the Old Testament for entertainment and had unwittingly acquired a heritage: a love of language that would later reach out and claim me for its own.
This brief passage to the past gave me strength; anything was better than sitting alone in my room. Remembered pain was just a short cut to self-pity. I gave my feet the command to take me to the bar.
I stood diffidently at the end of the darkened bar in the basement of the hotel, glad to see a jolly, bosomy barmaid coming to take my order. Scotch, water and no ice, I requested, using my grandest British accent so they wouldn't think I was a piece of stray off the street. Cautiously I looked over the top of my glass and appraised my drinking companions. The usual array of vast American men, mountains of flesh covered charmlessly in loud synthetic checks, a sea of open-neck shirts revealing grizzled hairy chests and obstinate necks. I had observed exact replicas of these men in hotel lobbies all across the States. While they clutched that symbol of respectability, the briefcase, their groping eyes and leering smiles treated all women as broads, unless, of course, they were those sainted objects, their wife or their mother.
Mellowing gently over my second drink I listened to them joshing each other with amiable emptiness, heard the Southern greeting 'How yer doin'?', saw that behind the possessive family talk full of references to 'my boy' or 'my girl' lay the endless loneliness of the travelling salesman's life: hustling dollars all day, drinking with strangers all evening.
As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom I noticed the young man. His gaunt good looks made him stand out from the crowd, but it was the fact that he was wearing a tie, one that matched his flowery shirt, that attracted my attention. Smugly, I assumed he must be European, noting at the same time that he was chatting up one of the barmaids. Pity about that, I thought, as the scotch headed straight for my crutch.
While I finished my drink I thought of the phone call I had received earlier from Neil, one of the most consistent and amusing of my lovers; it would be good to see him on my return to London next week.
I felt an odd flutter of discomfort but no surprise when I noticed the young man leave his place at the bar and walk towards me. Years of pulling in pubs and clubs had taught me that, despite being a bit broad in the beam and not exactly a raving beauty, I had a certain magnetism that drew men as if to a pile of iron filings. The flaming red hair helped. On my own territory I could have coped easily, but in these unfamiliar surroundings I was as nervous as a virgin teenager.
'Would you like to dance?' he asked, throwing me off balance even more. Jesus! Shades of the village hall. Even though I had grown up in jazz clubs and spent hours gyrating in discotheques, dancing was still something to do late at night when I had enough alcohol in me to dissolve my inhibitions; screwing came into the same category.
'No, thank you,' I replied. Then catching the quick look of rejection on his face, I rushed on, 'I have only just arrived in town and haven't had a drink all day. I need a couple to wind down then I have to go to work.'
He looked a bit sceptical, but ordered me a drink and parked himself on the vacant stool beside me. I was embarrassed, not wanting the barmaid to think I had come in for a pick-up. I timed my explanation carefully for the moment when the girl delivered the drinks.
'I am a journalist, you see, and I have to go to the local paper for some information for the story I am working on.' I turned to the barmaid, who was smiling with indifferent friendliness. 'Excuse me, do you know where the Atlanta Constitution building is?'
The girl shook her head, then asked some of the other customers if they knew. Most of them were strangers, but one directed me up the hill. By then, I had privately decided on a cab, but noticed with satisfaction that the ploy had worked. I was established as a career woman at work and the young man looked suitably impressed.
'Will you be gone long? Will you come back? Are you staying here?'
I had difficulty catching his words. His voice was deep and soft with an accent I could not place. But my smug assumption had been wrong. He was not European but American. As I leaned forward I noticed that he smelt delicious; my nostrils twitched, so did my interest. I swivelled round on my stool and took a closer look at what the bran tub of life had to offer this time.
Mmm, decidedly lucky dip, he really was very handsome; tall, well over six foot, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped and as slender as a wraith. Facially he was somewhat Lincolnesque – towering forehead, jutting, carved cheek-bones, the nose a trifle beaked but narrow, and beneath the sparse, droopy moustache a well-formed mouth. The strong jawline ended in a firm, dimpled chin. It was a classically handsome face topped by hair the colour of scotch and water. But the skin was flawed, as though he had once had eczema. It was a condition I was familiar with, my eldest daughter had been tortured by it from birth and I thought I recognised in this man the same desperate anxiety to be liked.
I stood up to leave, my high heels making me almost as tall as he, and smiling warmly promised to return in an hour or so. I was not at all sure that I would, but instant sincerity is part of the journalist's stock in trade.
The newspaper library turned out to be disappointing and the local journalists even more so. I visited the editorial floor, which, with its orange and lemon walls and computer systems, was more like a design centre than a newspaper office. The antiseptic cleanliness gave me a sudden nostalgic longing for the Daily Express building at this time of night – the oily smell of ink permeating the stairs; the whole place throbbing from the printing presses; the benches littered with plates bearing the disgusting remnants of canteen food, grey peas and ketchup; exhausted journalists full of alcohol and anxiety. No one offered to show a colleague far from home around the town, so within an hour I found myself alone in the back streets of Atlanta desperately looking for a cab. I was nervous. The streets were full of young blacks, arrogantly stylish in pop pith helmets. I had read enough about 'hate on the streets' not to want to be alone in the wrong part of town.
Safely back at the hotel, I went straight to my room. What to do? Well, there was a brand new city outside and a brand new young man downstairs.
When I walked into the bar for the second time that Thursday night it no longer seemed alien; drink had done its job and the atmosphere was noisier and welcoming. I was relieved to see the young man still waiting, standing at the far end of the counter talking to an older man. He ordered me a drink – even remembered no ice – and I began to relax.
'That trip was a total wash-out,' I informed them. 'I'm supposed to try and interview a local man who has just gone bankrupt to the tune of fifteen million dollars – some spending spree – but the paper has nothing on it; he must be a friend of the proprietor.'
'You from London?' said the older man.
'Yep,' I said, feeling more cheerful now I had the attention of two men, 'over here for four weeks to try to learn something about your country. All I've learned is that there is a hell of a lot to learn.'
My gaze was directed at the older man but my concentration was elsewhere. To my astonishment the young man had slipped his arm around my waist before I had even touched my drink. Fucking hell, I thought, I've got a right hick here. This will not do. Using animated conversation and a nervous shifting from one foot to another, I deftly dislodged his hand. A cool look and he got the message, his hand stayed by his side.
But I followed him to the tiny dance-floor when he asked me. He was a spectacular dancer and I understood why he had been so anxious to get to the floor. His feet were fast, speeding with light from the buckles of his patent shoes. People stopped dancing to watch him, cleared the floor. When the music finished, a black man asked him where he had learned to dance like that. The compliment obviously thrilled him.
It was nearly midnight when I realised I was ravenous. I had hardly eaten all day. The hotel kitchens were shut but the older man recommended a Polynesian restaurant a couple of blocks away. The young man insisted that he drive me there and as we walked to the parking lot in the cool night air I began to feel at ease with myself. There was nothing I liked more than an adventure, a day or an evening taking off of its own volition. I had long ago ceased to care about tomorrow, today was always today, whatever date it was given. Many years ago an old man, a friend of my ex-husband's, had told me with a twinkle in his eye, 'Remorse is better than regret.' It had been my maxim ever since.
He led me to a sleek white car. As I slid along the comfortable seat, I sniffed the newness of the interior and thought good-looking, good manners and rich. He may have to do.
The restaurant was dark, half-deserted and decorated with plastic palms. It is doubtful whether the natives would have recognised the odd mixture of noodles, fruit and chicken, but the lady behind the open cooker had a broad happy face, like a Gauguin painting and a plastic flower behind her ear. We settled in happily and drank steadily.
'Are you from around here?' I asked, realising I knew nothing about my companion beyond the fact that he danced well and owned a smart car.
'No, I'm from New Mexico. My father owns a small chain of restaurants out there and I am his business manager. He is being sued for damages in the courts here tomorrow by a local woman, so I figured I'd drive across and keep an eye on things. The case is tomorrow afternoon.'
Oh Lord, a businessman. I groaned inwardly. Business was a closed book to me. Safer to stick to geography.
'Do you know, I don't even know where New Mexico is. How long has it taken to drive here?'
He drew her a little map to explain. 'I've been on the road about nine days. I stayed in Macon, near here, for a couple of days, seeing friends. But Texas is the big one. It takes three days to cross it. I never thought I would come to the end. But America is a great country. I know, because I have driven through almost every state. I never fly if I can drive. I like to see God's great creation.'
'Doesn't it get boring, driving hour after hour?' Boredom was high on my list of situations to avoid and discourses on God were right at the top of it. I could see that an earnest monologue on the magnificence of nature was inevitable unless I turned the conversation immediately. Hopefully I asked him which cities he had visited and out tumbled a stream of romantic names, New Orleans, Dallas, Houston, St Louis, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, states and towns all jumbled up. I looked at my companion with new respect.
'And I am on my way to Miami now,' he finished. 'That's funny, I'm going to West Palm Beach tomorrow,' I replied.
'You should let me drive you there. It only takes a day and you could see something of the country. You never see anything flying over it all the time.'
It was worth considering. Apart from the apricot-leaved maple trees glimpsed from the train on my way to Yale University in Connecticut, I had seen nothing outside the cities, nothing of the America that is ignored by the media. To see it all with an American who was not journalist, politician or lawyer might give me the insight I desired.
There was a sudden burst of laughter from the next table. Looking up I saw that the man sitting next to me had broken his chopsticks in cheerful resignation. His hands had been built for shovels, not for the delicate transference of titbits from a bowl to his mouth. This was the America that had been missing from my journey, the real America with all its strength, vigour, ignorance, greed and hope.
Excerpted from In Love with a Serial Killer by Sandy Fawkes. Copyright © 2007 Sandy Fawkes. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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