All things considered, the first action Claxton took upon reaching his office was to get on the telephone and call for help. Five minutes and seven operators later he had a desk clerk at the head office of the State Police. The clerk listened to the situation and asked a few questions before patching him through to Rory Platt, the man in charge. Claxton explained a second time what was happening in his county.
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On the other end, Platt scratched something on a notepad and said nothing. Then he scratched another line or two and said he’d see what he could do. Claxton hung up and leaned against the back of his chair. Good Lord, what a mess. He hoped in vain that whoever or whatever was out there killing travelers either got fed up or moved on. Somehow he didn’t put much faith in either.
Shadows were sliding across the ground like a low-flying fog by the time Fred Gillespie—formerly Sergeant Gillespie—set about locking up his diner for the night. His first act in a well-acted routine was locking the doors and flipped the OPEN sign to CLOSED. Next should have been switching off the outside light, but he elected to forgo that one tonight. Having picked up on word of the killer he had surmised that they—or it—would be less likely to come into a lighted area.
After the door he put his chairs up on the tables to make cleaning the floor easier. Eight o’clock was shutting it all down early, but business had been slow today and he didn’t expect a change in the next few hours. Gillespie ran the wet mop over the checkered tile. It was a dull process that seemed to take even longer tonight. He finished and returned the cleaning supplies to their closet.
Outside, the sun was below the horizon. Even so, it was that unsettling time of day when the sky remained a darkening orange and everything between you and the sky was reduced to a black silhouette. He checked the door again to be sure before going upstairs.
In addition to the diner, he also ran the motel built around it. The building was single-story, laid out in an L-shape. He lived above the diner at the bend of the L, meaning he had a better view than everybody else. Another perk was the private water closet. There were six rooms on each arm and all six shared two facilities, one at each end. The setup had made for some interesting midnight confrontations, especially back during Prohibition. One time he’d had a Treasury agent renting a room at one end and a bootlegger at the other.
Business was getting slower, though. The Depression had been going for nearly a decade. Some who would have paid for a room in December of ’29 wouldn’t think of wasting that kind of money in the summer of ’36. Most people who came through Planters were willing to make the sacrifice. Gillespie practically had a monopoly on beds and chow. Good chow, too. Better than what he’d eaten in the Army.
Gillespie had seen two wars and those were enough for him. First in Cuba, then France. Cuba was hot and humid. France was cool and muddy. He hadn’t liked either. Truth be told though, he would have stayed in longer if they hadn’t drummed him out at the end of the Great War. The package wasn’t all that bad; three squares a day, a roof over your head, and steady pay. Better than a lot of people had.
In Gillespie’s case, he saved almost every penny of his monthly pay and sooner or later that all added up, especially over twenty-five years. At the end of his Army career he had enough to stashed away to start up his own diner. The food trade was doing well and piece-by-piece he built the wings of the motel. Then, when he was about to become well off, the stock market nose-dived and took him along for the ride. And that was where he’d gotten stuck.
Within hours of nodding off a rattling downstairs brought Gillespie back. At first he assumed it was dogs digging through the trashcans out back. But no, this wasn’t cans tipping over. This was the door rattling. He threw off the covers and moved to the window.
The combined glow of the moon and the outside light weren’t enough to make out any details. They did show him that someone downstairs was trying to get inside. An unfamiliar car was parked in the lot, a long sleek animal that looked like a racer compared to the usual fare seen here.
Gillespie turned on the light and went downstairs. In the diner, he left the lights off, giving him the ability to see outside and denying the newcomer the chance to see in. Like the passers-by who’d been turning up dead this one was well dressed, though something didn’t quite click. Possibly the hat. He reached behind the counter and found a revolver he kept on hand to deal with any potential customer problems.
He was still watching when the traveler started towards the car. Slowly, Gillespie moved to the glass and slipped the lock. The noise was unmistakable and the visitor stopped and glanced over his shoulder at the source.
“Who’s there?” Gillespie demanded, opening the door a crack.
“Name’s Kurt Slater.”
“Don’t mean nothing to me, boy.”
“Senior Patrolman Kurt Slater.”
“What’s that mean?” Gillespie pushed the door wider.
“I’m State Police. Sent down here on urgent business not too long ago. You know where I could find Sheriff . . . Claxton, is it?”
“Oh, you here about the killer? Come on in. Ike ain’t in the office just now, but I c’n get him at home,” Gillespie switched on the lights for the lower floor. “C’mon in. I’ll set you up with a room for the night.”
Slater walked to his car and retrieved a traveling case and leather scabbard.
“I appreciate it,” he said,” clamping the bag under his arm to get the door. “I hadn’t planned on getting in this late.”
“You’d best not stay out there. That killer only gets ‘em at come nightfall,” Gillespie reset the lock and pointed Slater through a door that led to the rooms. “You can pick whichever one. Kitchen opens at five if you got a taste for breakfast. Got bacon, eggs. Pancakes sometimes.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Slater said, taking the closest room possible.
“You sleep good, Mr. Slater. Sure hope you can help us out.”
“Same to you.”
Slater was up at 4:30 the next morning and dressed by 4:45. His experience was that it was better to be fifteen minutes too early for breakfast than fifteen minutes too late. To start with, he pulled on his State Police-issue bulletproof vest. The vest had a dual advantage. Aside from the obvious, it contained a half-inch steel plate. The effect lent State Police men a very uniform appearance by smoothing out the fronts of their uniform shirts and jackets. Most police departments didn’t issue vests, so some of their officers resembled a wool-coated potbelly stove. Not the Highway Patrol.
Next was the pressed long-sleeved white shirt with the sharp creases, and the black tie. Ties were another point of pride for the State Police. There had come a point in law-enforcement history—notably the introduction of the motorcar—when officers accustomed to walking a beat no longer had such physical requirements placed upon them. The end result: a surprising number of cops unable to button the top button of their shirts. Therefore, ties became impractical. But not for the Highway Patrol, who prided themselves equally on ability and appearance.
The third item was the jacket. Like the pants, they were a shade of navy. That’s one way you could always tell the State Police. They were the sharp-looking men in blue. The requirements for wearing one were easily as strict as the rest of the uniform. The single row of brass buttons had to be polished, the Highway Patrol shield precisely in place, and the garment completely free of stains. To allow the metal to tarnish was to allow the reputation of the agency tarnished.
Over the jacket was the Sam Browne belt. Like a Patrolman’s shoes, the leather had to be kept thoroughly polished and free of scratches and scuffmarks. Slater wet his thumb with saliva and rubbed over a dulled spot on the finish. The discolored mark vanished under the onslaught.
The uniform hat would be the final addition, thought courtesy dictated it only be worn outdoors. Made of the same material as the pants and jacket, hat had seven points. The instructors told new recruits that there was one point for each deadly sin, which they were all expected to be above committing. Whether or not that was the real reason wasn’t important—that was what regs said.
The last pieces added were the various armaments. On the left hip was the infamous billy club; made from a wood so dense it wouldn’t even float. Also polished to a high sheen, it was the only piece of equipment allowed to be slightly non-uniform in the field of wear. Slater’s had a collection of small indentions where he’d put the stick to good use.
On the right hip was the service revolver. Town and city cops carried .38 Specials with four-inch barrels. The State Police carried Smith & Wesson Model .357s with six-inch barrels. For reasons of practicality, the disparity was easily explained. City cops needed guns to knock the fight out of urban miscreants. State Police needed guns to knock the engine blocks out of getaway cars; something the new magnum cartridge was capable of under the right conditions. The weight of the frame meant it could also double as a club, if need be.
Slater ran an old sock over the metal surfaces of the revolver before putting it in the holster, turning it this way and that under the room’s single light fixture. The balance was perfect, the blued finish flawless. He swung the cylinder out and dropped in six of rounds. Purely as a habit, he spun the cylinder and watched the blur of brass and primers.
The .357 was a hefty piece, but not half as much as the responsibility that came with it. There would be no showboating from a Highway Patrolman. No flashy bluster, no cowboy tricks or twirling guns, nothing that could hurt them in the public eye. In the world of law-enforcement the State Police were something special. And they knew it, too.
Surprisingly—considering the Depression—the old man hadn’t lied about breakfast. There were strips of bacon, slices of cheese, toast, buttermilk, and an assortment of fruit preserves for those so inclined. Slater, having driven for two straight days on little more than bad coffee and two stale ham sandwiches, was most certainly inclined.
He was halfway through a stack of pancakes when another man in a uniform walked in. A constable, he guessed, or something like that. Definitely not Highway Patrol. The man was wearing an old-style leather gun belt with the extra loops for individual bullets, some of which were turning a corroded green. Maybe they didn’t have much in the way of criminal activity here, but that was no excuse in Slater’s opinion.
“Good morning,” the intruder took the seat across from him and called for a coffee. “I take it you’re with the State Police?”
“You take it right. And you are?”
“Isaiah Claxton. Sheriff.”
“Senior Patrolman Kurt Slater.”
“Just a senior patrolman?” Claxton asked, seemingly confused.
“They keep the high-brass for desk work.”
“I see. Enjoying your breakfast?”
“So far,” Slater added more syrup to the pancakes.
“Well, eat up. Our friend got another one last night. We’ll drive out as soon as you finish.”
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