Ten years ago
Moonlight dripped on the rusted blue ’79 Chevy Impala angled at the end of a dirt-packed rural road. Yards ahead a footpath twisted, slithered and vanished into scrawny woodlands. A coyote howled.
Robbie had never been here before but his father, Harvey Lee Smith, had grown up near this property. He’d often talked about it, swearing he could conjure each rock, bump and tree on the field now awash in springtime bluebonnets.
Harvey said the bluebonnets always calmed his racing thoughts and chased away his demons. But imagining the sea of delicate purple flowers did little to ease Robbie’s dread.
Setting the brake, Harvey leaned over the steering wheel and stared at the trail that snaked toward the beloved blossoms. “I bet you money that my baby girl would love to see the blossoms. Yes, sir, she would love it.”
“She’s not a baby, Harvey,” Robbie said. “She’s twenty-two. A year younger than me.”
His smile ebbing, a forlorn shadow darkened the older man’s features. “No, I reckon she’s not a baby, Robbie. She’s graduated. Earned her bachelor’s and going to get her PhD. Smart kid. A chip off the old block.”
Jealousy stinging, Robbie regarded Harvey. “You should go see her. Tell her you’re proud.”
Harvey shook his head, staring at his smooth hands gripping the steering wheel. “Thought about it. Thought about it a lot. But like I said before, it’s not a good idea.”
“She might like to know you’re out there thinking of her.” Robbie understood he was digging into an old hurt his father carried in his heart. But he didn’t care. He was tired of feeling less when compared to the girl Harvey idealized.
Scowling, his father jerked the door handle up and pushed his shoulder into it. The door groaned open. “Come on, boy. The night won’t last forever.”
Harvey slammed the door hard and moved to the back of the Impala.
Robbie smoothed sweaty palms over his jeans and stared into the rearview mirror, watching Harvey insert a key into the trunk lock.
Robbie’s stomach somersaulted and again he hoped his fear didn’t upend his stomach. He did not want to be here. Opening his door, he lumbered out of the car and braced against the cool night air. He hovered by the car door.
Key still in hand, Harvey glanced up toward the bright moon as if savoring how the stars popped more in the Hill Country away from the bright lights of Austin. He inhaled, appreciating the cool, soft, spring air. “Lord, but I’ve missed coming up this way.”
Robbie shoved trembling hands into the pockets of his jeans. “Why don’t you come back here more often?” Shaking his head, Harvey twisted the key and the lock released. “Last time I was here, it didn’t go well, so I stayed away. I can see now that this trip was a mistake.”
“Wasn’t this place your family home?”
“Naw. Just a place I liked visiting.” The trunk lid rose, cutting off Robbie’s view. “Come on, boy. We got work to do.” Harvey’s voice, darkly polite, had him tensing.
Anxiety rising, Robbie walked toward the back of the car and peered in the trunk. He stifled a wince as he looked at the woman who lay gagged and trussed up like a pig ready for the spit.
She stared up at him with mascara-smudged eyes, bloodshot from crying, her pleas muffled by the gag.
Tucking the keys in his jacket pocket, Harvey delighted in the way she writhed and whimpered. “Picked a fine one this time, didn’t I, boy?”
Robbie rattled the change in his pockets. “She’s skinny.”
“Could stand to gain a pound or two, but she’s strong and pretty. Given time, bet she’d grow into a stunning woman.” Harvey trailed a hand along her leg and when she jerked away he smiled. “Beauty’s skin deep, boy. Remember that. What you want in a woman is spirit. Couldn’t coax this one in the car with a fifty-dollar bill like the others. No, sir, this one is leery by nature. Not swayed by pretty words. Careful, cautious. Best kind in my book.”
For this one, Harvey had created an intricate backstory, stolen a late-model Volvo wagon with a baby seat in the back and dressed in khakis and a baby blue button-down shirt. “The kind of shirt a safe guy wore,” he’d said.
In the end, she’d fallen for Harvey’s hoax, wrongly assuming that the outward physical cues reflected the inner man’s true intent.
When she’d gotten into his car and realized her mistake, Harvey said she’d fought, landing a hard blow to his face. The pain had snapped his temper, and he’d backhanded her hard across the mouth. Her blood had splattered the windshield. He’d knocked her out cold.
As they’d planned, Harvey drove the Volvo to the empty parking lot where Robbie waited with the Impala. As Harvey tied up the girl and loaded her in the trunk, Robbie had stayed in the car as he’d been told, but it had taken every ounce of control to stay put. He’d wanted to run. Wanted to hide.
Harvey, however, was enjoying himself. He’d taken care to wake her up. He’d wanted her awake, aware of the danger. She’d jerked and pulled at her bindings, but his knots were sure. Smiling, Harvey had rubbed the tender spot on his jaw before slamming the trunk closed.
For most of the drive up from Austin, Harvey didn’t notice her kicks and screams. He talked about the weather, the diner that served the best pancakes, even his upcoming teaching assignment. Just another day for Harvey.
But each thump and shriek had raked across Robbie’s nerves, and when he couldn’t stand it anymore, he’d turned on the radio, tuning to a country-western station.
Now as Harvey watched her twist against her bindings, he smiled. “Glad to see the ride didn’t drain all the fight out of you, girl. Nothing worse than a broken spirit.”
Dark eyes narrowed, and he knew this one would go to the grave fighting.
“Robbie,” he said, clapping his hands together, “time to get this show on the road.”
Harvey grabbed the girl by the midsection, hauled her out of the trunk like a sack of potatoes and hefted her over his shoulder. She smelled of sweat, urine and the faintest hint of department store perfume. She struggled and tried to ram her knees into his belly, but the bindings kept her immobile and easy to handle.
Robbie scanned the darkened road they’d just traveled.
“Harvey, I don’t want to do this. I’m not ready. Let me stay in the car.”
“Come on, son, we been talking about this for weeks. You’re twenty-three. Man enough. We’ve put this day off long enough.”
Fear weighed down Robbie’s feet. “I know I said I wanted to do this, but I don’t think I can. Not yet.”
“Don’t be silly, boy. Like riding a bike. Once you get the hang of it, it’s as easy as pie.”
With the girl on his shoulder Harvey followed the familiar path into the woods. It had been twenty-plus years since he’d been here, but Harvey didn’t miss a jutting root, rock or bend on the trail. These were his woods. His home.
Robbie trailed after him. A couple of times he stumbled, muttered under his breath, but he kept moving. Harvey had been his father for ten years. And Robbie would have matched Harvey against any father. Harvey had taken him away from a crack-addicted mother, seen that he was educated, well fed and clothed. He was a perfect father except for the fact that Harvey liked to kill women. Not all the time, but every so often. Robbie had never questioned or feared his father’s obsession, and had assumed he’d one day follow. But now, faced with this second chance to kill, his courage faltered.
When they arrived at the clearing Harvey paused to look at the bluebonnets. “Best time of year to be here,” he said more to himself. “Sights like this make a man glad he’s alive.”
Robbie folded his arms over his chest. His fingertips rubbed his lean biceps, a self-soothing gesture.
“No reason to fret, boy. I know you’re nervous, but once we’re done tonight, you’ll be glad you saw it through.” The woman moaned and her stomach contracted against Harvey’s shoulder. “Better not barf, girl. It’ll come up your throat and the gag will send it right back. You’ll be lucky if you don’t choke to death.”
She tensed as if struggling with her own bile and then relaxed back against him, moaning fear and failure.
Harvey smacked her on the bottom and she jumped. “I think our girl here has finally figured out that there isn’t much she can do. We’re running the show now, aren’t we, Robbie?”
She was gonna die.
No matter what.
“Yeah, I guess.”
Carefully, Robbie worked his way through the field of bluebonnets that gently grazed his ankles. At the far edge of the field, he spotted the hole Harvey had dug a couple of days ago and covered with a tarp.
“Boy, go on and pull the tarp off.”
Praying he’d not fail his father, he pulled off the tarp and carefully folded it into a neat square. Setting it aside he peered into the hole. Six feet long, three feet deep and two feet wide. Harvey had said it had taken a few hours to dig, and he’d complained the task had irritated the pinched nerve in his back.
Grabbing the woman’s bound hands, Harvey hauled her off his shoulders and dropped her on the ground beside the hole. An unladylike grunt whooshed from her.
The bindings kept her back arched and on her side. She looked up at Robbie, eyes silently pleading.
Harvey pulled a knife from his pocket and flicked it open. Steel glinted in moonlight. She flinched, fear igniting and burning through the pitiful plea dulling her gaze. She tried to wriggle away, but the ropes kept her immobile.
He cut through the bindings that kept her back arched but did not cut the ropes that still held her hands and feet secure. Groaning, she slowly stretched out her body, whimpering as if her muscles and bones protested.
She rolled on her back, her small breasts jutting toward him, and stared up at him with the knowing of a person who called the streets home.
Robbie knelt and removed her gag. Gingerly, he smoothed his hand over her hair. “Scream if you want. No one will hear.”
Pent-up fear and rage roared out of her in a loud, piercing howl.
Robbie flinched as he watched her holler until finally she stopped, exhausted.
She moistened dried lips. “Why are you doing this? I don’t know you.”
“No begging or pleading from this one,” Harvey said. “I picked a damn good one for you, boy.”
The girl kept her gaze on Robbie, triggering an odd twisting in his gut that wasn’t all bad.
“Not too bad, is it, boy?” Harvey stared at him closely.
“Why do you do this, Harvey? It doesn’t make sense,” Robbie said.
“No, I don’t suppose it does. Just an unexplainable need that I stopped questioning a long time ago.” He winked and clapped his hands. “Time for the grand finale.”
Shadows sharpened the edge of the woman’s cheekbones. “You don’t have to do this. Let me go. I won’t tell a soul.”
“You’re wasting your breath, girl.” Harvey tsked as he reached under her armpits and dragged her toward the hole. “I already know you’re not going to tell.”
Tossing a panicked gaze toward the hole, her body tensed as she tried to dig her heels into the hard dirt. “Please, let me go.”
“Robbie, get the shovel. It’s lying on the ground over there.”
Frowning, Robbie did as he was told and held out the shovel to Harvey.
Harvey shook his head. “We said you’d do it this time. I’m not going to help. Time to make you into the man I know you can be.”
Robbie shoved out a breath. The idea of disappointing his father ripped at him. He’d do anything for Harvey. Anything. But this. “Not tonight, Harvey.”
Harvey stared at the boy, as if trying to understand his fear. “First time I put a woman in the ground, it scared the daylights out of me. Hell, I almost backed out. I was sure I’d get caught. But I didn’t get caught. Neither will you.”
Robbie shook his head, slowly opened his fingers and let the shovel drop. “I can’t.”
Harvey kept his voice calm. “Robbie, no need to test my patience. I gave you a pass last time. Let’s get on with this.”
“Robbie,” the girl said. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Now, that’s enough out of you, girl.” Harvey jerked the girl’s upper body and settled her entire body in the hole. She lay flat on her back, the moonlight glistening on pale bruised skin.
“Please, let me go!” She sat up.
Harvey pushed her down hard. “Pick up the shovel, boy.”
“You don’t have to do this, Robbie.” The girl struggled to sit up again.
“Get up again, and I’ll hit you with the shovel.” Harvey didn’t raise his voice, but his words carried more weight than a madman’s rant. He shoved her back with his booted foot.
Gritting her teeth, she ignored him, screamed and again tried to sit up. Without muttering a word, Harvey picked up the shovel and hit her across the side of the head. The blow was enough to send her back, stunned, but not enough to knock her out.
Robbie winced and took a step back.
Harvey dug the shovel’s blade into soft dirt. “See what you made me do, boy? If you’d taken care of business then she’d not be half conscious.” He shoveled dirt on her midsection. The hard thump sent a lungful of air whooshing from her. He hefted more dirt. “Get over here, boy.”
Robbie took another step back. “No.”
“Don’t disappoint me, boy.”
“I’m sorry, Harvey.” His hands shook. “I know I said I could, but I can’t. Not now.”
Harvey cocked his head. “I don’t think I’m hearing you correctly.”
Tears welled in the boy’s eyes. “I can’t do this now.”
“Time for waiting is over, boy.” He held out the shovel.
“Now or never. You a man or not?”
Robbie shook his head no.
“You gonna fail me again?”
Harvey was silent for long, tense seconds and then calmly said, “You don’t follow through tonight, then we are done.”
Robbie flinched. “Harvey, I can try again.”
“If you don’t take care of business now, I don’t ever want to see you again.”
Tears welled in Robbie’s eyes as he stepped back. He loved his father. The man who’d saved him from a miserable life. But he couldn’t do this now.
Harvey tossed more dirt on the girl. She screamed loud and clear. He tossed dirt on her face. She struggled to clear her eyes, as he ladled more and more dirt on her. She blinked, tried to turn her head, but she was trapped.
Robbie hesitated, stole one more peek at her pale flesh. Lord help him, but he couldn’t do it.
Tears spilling, he turned and ran.