Rubble and the Wreckage
Rodd Clark © 2018
All Rights Reserved
“Tell me your story,” Christian Maxwell began, wetting his lips and leaning in. He stared at the killer across the table and rested his forearms on the notepad before him, watching how those pale eyes were darting from side to side as he surveyed his surroundings. Even with his look of nonchalant detachment, it’s clear he was a man who lived his life on a razor’s edge and nothing escaped his observations.
Gabriel Church looked back at the writer. His eyes implored, practically begging for good and gory details. The man squinted a bit in excitement for that which was to follow, glassy-eyed in anticipation. His expression was wanting. Gabe had seen that look many times before.
Gabe was reminded of that old saying “Better the devil you know.” Although he barely knew this guy, he might as well be making money off his story as anyone else. Just like the first time he thought of telling what happened, the memories came through as something indifferent and emotionless, and with more afterthought than close consideration.
“Ever been out to the Florida Keys?” Gabe asked. When he only received a nod from Maxwell to his question, he continued absently, “For me it was like driving to the Keys, a few miles over the speed limit on that old US Route 1—you know, the one they called the Highway that Goes to Sea—under fleecy clouds with the fresh coastal winds slapping you in your face, under a vast, unending blue on blue…it is rather freeing.” His hands wrapped around the dusty old cover of the book he was holding, more as an effect than something to read.
With a faraway gaze in his eyes, Christian listened to him speaking. He pretended to jot notes down and concentrating more on that distant expression on Church’s face. Christian let the words take him to Florida, where he imagined the wind slapping his hair, the sun beating down as he rode in the passenger seat of Church’s mental trip along Highway 1. It was going to be a good book when he finished it.
He didn’t want to interrupt the man but couldn’t resist. “It didn’t begin in Florida did it? I presumed it happened elsewhere.”
The killer’s posture changed as he replied. He sat up straight in the chair, his eyes narrowed. “If you think you know where it started then why are we sitting around hashing old news?” His voice was steady and cold and dampness grew under Christian’s pits.
“Because no one has ever asked you for your side of it. Usually a serial murderer doesn’t get a chance to explain why he murders. And I”—pointing to his chest—“want to give you that opportunity.”
“Mighty big of you,” Gabe said as he reclined backward in his chair and stared at him in knowing, mocking fashion. It was as if he was acquiescing solely because it represented an interesting way to spend his idle time… He rubbed his rough forefinger across the lip of the wine glass as a carnal abstraction as he watched Maxwell jot his notes, even though they hadn’t even begun his tale. “Shouldn’t you wait till I start to speak before you scribble down all those pretty words?”
Christian looked up and smiled sheepishly. “It’s just mood stuff. You’ll have to get used to that early on—meaning my process.” He put his pen down and folded his hands neatly to hide his notes. “I’m a little fastidious or obsessive at times.”
“No worries. The same has been said of me.”
The bent smile of a killer reappeared and twisted Church’s face into a mocking evil caricature, sending a shiver down Christian’s spine. He smiled back and returned a look that seemed to place them on equal understanding. It was going to be tough yet totally worth it, he thought. At least after the book was complete. And so he picked up a pen and fell headlong into his task and flashed another imploring gaze in the direction of his sexy study subject then waited.
Gabe recognized the untidy anticipation and reluctantly continued, “Actually, it began in Texas, still we need to go back to where the…umm, desires, I guess is the word, first came into clear focus, don’t we? I mean, you want the full picture, don’t you?”
When Christian didn’t even offer a conciliatory word, Gabe continued. “Before Florida, before Seattle, I had been somewhere else… It was a better place for me because it still held some type of promise. Nothing exactly carved into stone…if you’ll pardon the pun.” Church’s head lolled back as if he were about to break into a hearty laugh.
He was a dangerous, sick man. Anyone could see that. His reference to the markers of his varied victims, as well as his nonchalant manner in describing his affinity to murder, was unsettling, even for someone as akin to pathology as he was. In college, Christian Maxwell was known for a dark sense of humor and an uncomfortably quiet nature. It was off-putting to many of his peers. His so-called friends would jokingly offer that it was going to be Christian who would be famous, more for the salvo of bullets that hit other students from his safe vantage in some random clock tower or rooftop.
The look on Maxwell’s face, as he sat across from Gabe, was pensive as if he was about to interrupt again but questioned the insolence. The killer had nothing but time, and didn’t like breaking his train of thought so early.
“You’re looking like you want to derail the train, my boy. So what’s your affliction, Adelaide? You have some thoughts you wanna share?”
Christian hung his head in shameful anticipation of the words that would follow. His efforts in getting the interview were substantial, and he didn’t want to fuck up before he even got the first few chapters down on paper. He wanted it to linger, to drag out the tale and capture every subtle nuance. He thought the killer might become agitated with schoolboy innocence and enthusiasm.
In truth, Gabe was enjoying the salivating younger man hanging on his every word, like a lover anticipating their next stimulating, wet kisses.
“I’m sorry. I apologize, I do… I just wanted to ask you about the first time you killed?”
Gabe laid the book on the table at his side and crossed his arms. “Patience is a virtue, son. To know the story, we have to go back. Back to before I would gain fame with my exploits.”
Café patrons brushed past their table on a regular basis. Each man and woman who walked by seemed absorbed in their own dreary lives; each one seemed conjoined to a cell phone that was fused to their ear. The killer took a sip of his wine and gestured to the throngs of people around him. “This is why it’s so easy to become a killer,” Gabe offered, waving a hand to indicate the self-absorbed masses at his left and right, “Because no one seems to be concerned with anything but their own mundane lives. None of these assholes have a life that warrants their constant connection to offices and friends. Nothing they have to offer is worthy of their inscrutable attentions. What did Ezra Pound say? ‘Where the dead walked and the living were made of cardboard’?”
Christian looked up from his notes, catching the man staring intently at him.
“What? You think just because I’m a killer I can’t be well-read?” Gabe asked, smiling. Leaning in closer, he rested his wine glass between them, grinning to show he understood that both men shared a common epiphany. He was quickly carving out how they would react to one another: him with nothing but a sardonic grin and Maxwell with a glint of understanding in his eyes.
“The secret to moving so unobtrusively through life without being caught as you commit such horrible crimes is to act like a moron. Just pretend your life is as important as the sacks of shit that surround you. It’s hard to look pomposity directly in the eye. Given any other option, a person will choose to look away just to ignore it.” Turning back to his wine, he said, “It’s all the settling of dust and too many days. You wipe it, and it just gets dirty again. People think their lives mean a good goddamn, but they don’t. If you know this certainty, you can move through the crowds as quietly as a mouse in a barn filled with cats.”
Church’s eyes shone like diamonds as he recalled his life. He was just as happy in telling the tale as Christian was to listen. He drained the last remnants of his wine and handed the empty glass across the table. “To keep talking, I need a drink,” he said with some authority.
Christian took his cue, grabbing the glass and hurrying to the counter. He wouldn’t wait for table service. This was just a high-end café, and a waitress wouldn’t be handy. As he slunk off like a servant to do his bidding, leaving the killer alone at the table, he had forgotten to carry his notepad along. When Christian returned minutes later, he saw his companion scanning his notes, smiling. He was nervous about what Church would say after he had finally written the story out.
“You’ve already outlined some broad brushstrokes of my life,” Church said as he tossed the pad back onto the table and whisked the glass of chardonnay out of Christian’s hand.
“What is your religious stand?” Gabe asked. As Maxwell seemed dumbstruck by the random question, he continued, “Do you believe in God?”
“Err, well, I guess I was raised Protestant, but I haven’t been inside a church since before college. Why do you ask?”
“A faith in God may be an intricate aspect of our time together, one never knows…” Gabe trailed off, distracted by the crash of other ideas racing in his head, waiting impatiently to escape.
“I wasn’t always a killer as you know, and you may want to know what drives the beast before you hear about my first endeavor with murder.”
Christian seized his chair and pulled the legal notepad closer. With a pen in hand, he looked at Gabe: the face of an infamous murderer. Maxwell appeared much like a begging waif; those words “May I have another, sir?” just waiting to fall from hungry lips.
For the next hour, Christian Maxwell wrote furiously as Gabriel Church told his story. The die had been cast in those sixty minutes or so. He was a killer who was regaling his student, all to the creation of a madman and the events of murder. As he spoke, even he saw the transposition from disciple to something more. The look in his eyes was proof—he was breathing in the contagion with every word the killer uttered.
Walking through dreamy memories might be a favored pastime of the old and the weary. For Gabriel Church it was a drain. He pocketed those recollections where they couldn’t be easily found. But now he was sifting through the decay, retrieving them for his obsessive confidant. He enjoyed talking about his life, at least how it ended up during these last few years, and he enjoyed seeing the astonished look on the faces of his audience; however, having to dredge up the past was exhausting. But he understood it was good to begin a story from the beginning. How else might he explain his life, without explaining where he had escaped from? He knew his father was a big part of the equation of what was to become Gabriel Lee Church, so he began with him.
Bennett Church wasn’t a kind man; specifically he wasn’t kind to his children or his wife. His family was forced to receive the brunt of his emotional instability. They accepted their fate with every backhanded swing or disdainful look. The public saw a much different persona in Bennett, and when Gabe arrived at school with occasional blue bruises, black eyes, or tiny scratches, no one could have envisioned just how he got them. “Boys will be boys,” they would say, but the secretive, shameful looks from the Church children should have been ample reason to question what lay before them, exposed, like an open nerve.
“You need to build up your character,” his father would say as he set unreasonable tasks as punishments for the smallest of infractions in his daily routine. When Gabe had been six or seven years old, Bennett found him playing with his tools on the garage floor one Sunday afternoon and lit into him with a vengeance. A man of reason might see that as a potential bonding moment between a father and a son who was obviously emulating the man he admired. A sane man might laugh at the sight of such a small boy playing at the pretense of hero worship or developing strong masculine characteristics. But Bennett didn’t see things the same way most fathers did; instead, he slapped the boy on the back of his neck watching the wrench the boy held go flying from his tiny hand.
Gripping the boy by the nape with a single arm, he yanked him quickly from the concrete floor, pulled the boy’s pants down, and gave him a sound thrashing on his bare bottom. Nevertheless, that wasn’t his only punishment. He forced Gabe to clean the gutters for the remainder of that once lazy Sunday, and the image of that diminutive lad dragging a ladder around that weighed nearly as much as he, and struggling to prop it against the house was saddening to watch. Gabe’s mother had witnessed his punishment from her position at the kitchen window as she was washing dishes. Gabriel glimpsed her eyeing him as he stoically dragged the ladder from spot to spot, pulling gunk and dead and rotting leaves from the trough. His eyes seemed to beckon to her, while instead she chose to look down and focus her attentions on her soap-filled glasses and dirty dinner plates. It was about that time where the boy learned the first of many tragic lessons to come.
Little Gabriel Church may have cried that afternoon; he couldn’t quite remember, but he had stared at a red Popsicle he had pulled from the fridge before he first found himself playing in the garage. He’d forgotten about it because of his whipping and subsequent punishment. He stared at the large red stain as it dissolved into a puddle on the driveway, melting in the oppressive Tennessee humidity. He couldn’t seem to pull his gaze away. It was as if the pooling red had somehow fractured his mind, and he found comfort with that. It may have been but a single moment in time, but it was a moment that would have lasting effects.
Bennett never issued a decree, or commanded any punishment, without watching the outcome. The day of the gutters, he’d pulled out a lawn chair from the garage to observe his son’s progress. But more importantly, to ensure the satisfactory completion of the task. Gabe remembered it well. It had been an aluminum chair with blue nylon webbing; the kind they first sold in the fifties and still sold to this day. Bennett sat drinking a beer and lounging in that familiar old blue lawn chair, and the boy could almost catch a sneer in a corner of each eye. He was too young to understand that look at the time. Yet given his later experiences, he might’ve recognized it later for what it truly was…sadism. There were twisted mechanics in Bennett’s logic. Gabe and his sister, as well as his mother, had been the recipients of that logic, and the ensuing punishments for failure in adhering to Bennett’s strict codes. Not all moments held Bennett’s wrath, some days he was simply quiet and even-tempered. To Gabe, it was like watching a hungry dog that wouldn’t eat… It was only then that you needed to worry.
Bennett would turn out to be a case study in psychosis; his son would study the man with an obsessive duality, equally afraid while utterly fascinated. Bennett’s wife and daughter though never saw that keen understanding masking the man’s true nature. They were fortuitously blind where Gabe’s vision seemed more clearly defined. It would take years before Sissy Church found the strength, or courage, to finally leave her husband, and even then only from the sanctuary of her sister’s place in upstate New York. It wasn’t surprising to anyone who knew her though; the scars were plainly visible and the damage too ingrained in hers, and her children’s psyches. An intangible fabric stretched too thin across the loom and borne from years of untold abuses too numerous to count. Sadly for Gabe and his younger sister, they would never truly learn whether there had lasting effects from their upbringing, because they had nothing to compare it against. It was all the normal they’d ever known. Yet for Sissy it was that persist reminder lingering continuous and unanswered through her mind… “What if I’d only left sooner?”
Christian was an educated man. He understood as Church recounted his childhood and the influences that had shaped him. It would never be a single item that made him a killer, and it couldn’t be. There would be too many stimuli and far too many weighty pressures creating a sociopath like Church, but he’d taken notice of how the killer began his tale with the story of his father.
The downtown streets of Seattle began to bustle with evening crowds. The patrons at the Cherry Street Grinder were finishing their coffee and liquors, and the mood transformed from afternoon leisure to the excitement of Seattle nightlife. Church had finished three glasses of wine in the hour or so they sat at a table as Christian scribbled frantically on his notepad, desperate to capture every shade of the man he claimed as his subject. And it was only the beginning. He couldn’t chain the man to a table and hold him prisoner. But there was going to be a great deal he needed to hear before even beginning his draft. Seeing the brooding irritation building in the killer meant he had to keep him entertained without overstepping his role.
“So…when will you be ready to discuss your first murder?” The words fell like stones from his lips. He could see Church was caught off guard—apparently recalling painful memories pissed him off—because when he turned toward his spellbound audience, Christian caught the killer’s expression and another shudder crept down his spine. Someone dropped a utensil somewhere off in the direction of the kitchen, and the sound shattered the indelicate moment. Christian was thankful for the noise, which startled the café dwellers and pulled focus from his question. He caught the lingering scent of freshly ground coffee, and noting the lateness of the day, he had to remember he was in Seattle. Caffeine-swilling, healthy-looking people—the type who thought wearing cargo shorts to a wedding was damned appropriate. But he loved it here. There didn’t seem to be any other city that better suited his relaxed and laid-back attitude. What else could one expect in a town founded by whores and flannel-wearing loggers?
Church had settled back into his chair and crossed his arms again. His light-gray eyes sliced a countenance that Christian could not fathom—it was cold and unreadable. His look could have said a dozen different things, but their emotional void made any understanding a challenge. Watching him, Christian began to see what a powerful hold he might have exercised over more than a few of his many victims. Had he enticed his quarry with his strong features or white smile? Or was it something sinister he wondered; like stalking a wounded gazelle from the shadows he hid inside? There were questions that Christian needed answering, and he only hoped Gabriel Church would allow him another meeting under that great pretense of him writing the life story of a soon-to-be-famous serial killer.
It was as if Church had picked up on the writer’s brooding contemplations and attempted to ease his concerns. “S’all good, little buddy…”
Christian’s thoughts and any explanation for his arbitrary statement trailed off and became absorbed in the sounds of people brushing past in mid-conversation holding coffee cups and wine glasses, like the oblivious sheep they were.
“We can jump ahead if you’re so inclined…but trust the Sherpa, and know we will be traveling back around to the beginning before it’s all said and done.” Church gazed off at some distant horizon and placed a finger on his lips in abstract reflection, as if remembering his first victim was something he had to pull from his memory. And actually he remembered it all too well. Christian sat mesmerized, hanging impatiently for every detail of the story to come.
“My first kill came when I was quite young. My temper was worse back then, and I stumbled around without focus or direction. I have gained a maturity and wisdom to the things I do now, but the first time had been rash and unplanned. I would say it ended badly, but every foal that’d ever fallen from its mama’s womb had to struggle to stand. I guess I wasn’t any different.”
“I was twenty-one and feeling smug and certain back then. I’d been drinking a lot in those days, and my inexperience always led me down the wrong paths. I’d been headed to Fresno. A friend told me about a guy who was hiring, and I needed work. But the drive cross-country didn’t really do me much good. It took longer than it should, and I became distracted along the way. Originally I had told my well-meaning friend I’d meet up with him in Fresno—he was gonna put in a good word for me with the owner. It was some shitty dispatch job at a freight company, but like I said, I was only twenty-one and didn’t have a lot of appreciable skills…unlike now.”
Church quickly grabbed his crotch, surprising Christian. “Ya see, I had a twenty-one-year-old cock and a love of beer. Who’d ever thought I would’ve made it across the country for some fucked up interview before I found trouble…and trouble I did find.”
As Christian scrawled notes, the speed of his writing almost made the words indecipherable. The excitement had prickled the hairs on the back of his neck, and he mentally tried to race ahead during Church’s tale, anticipating the outcome.
“I had stumbled into a bar at some midpoint in my journey. I was in some rundown city just out of Dallas. The drive left me tired and parched, and that shit hole was the first place I came to. I think my intention was to get a motel room, have a bite and shower, and rest up for another long day on the road, but that didn’t work out as planned.”
The younger man looked up from his writing. It dawned on him, at that moment, how deep and resonant the killer’s voice was. He had an unmistakable timbre, which seemed pleasing to his ear, and even though the words were flat and without range, he never had that drone of a long-blowing horn. All in all, it was a pleasant sound. Church seemed to choose his words carefully, like he was practicing them in his mind before they escaped his tongue.
“I never made the motel, rather, choosing to stop in for a cold one at some rustic pool bar, and when I did I spied a group of men playing poker at one of the tables in the back. Musta been a regular game, ’cause they all seemed to know each other pretty well. Now, I’m not a great card player, and I don’t know why, but I asked to join in, and they all agreed. Too heartily, I see that now, but I guess I had money in my pocket I was itchin’ to lose, or it was the cold Budweiser hitting me fast, or that old familiar devil crooking his finger at me, imploring me to sit and play.”
“And so you stayed,” Christian offered as some lame crest to his story, and to illustrate just how enthralled he was.
“Yeah, I stayed, then after a few rounds of cards and beers one of them saw I was winning…and that by God was just sheer luck! ’Cause like I said, I wasn’t good at cards. Then this asshole starts suggesting I was cheating. Looking back, I’m sure none of the guys at the table really thought I was cheating. I suppose it was just backslapping bullshit by drunk fuckers who were used to ribbing each other too much. Still, I was a stranger at their table and being cocky and twenty-one didn’t take too kindly to the accusation. There were words, harsher I suppose than they shoulda been. Then I decided it was time to head out, but only after I raked in my winnings and pocketed the cash. Dammit, I didn’t cheat anyone! I was just a lucky son of a bitch.”
Church looked down at his empty glass and then up at Christian. There was a clear understanding that on the next lull in the conversation the writer was expected to scurry his ass up to the bar for more drinks. Gabe’s look seemed to say “I’m not your sister, and I don’t give it up for free!”
“Of course, I didn’t do the wise thing and drive my beat-up Chevelle to the nearest motor lodge, leaving the distasteful incident behind. No. I sat outside the bar and waited for two more hours, just watching the door. When the big man who’d sullied my character walked out and got into his pickup and then drove down the highway—presumably headed home—he had someone following him.” Church leaned closer to Christian and whispered so others might not hear his story.
“It didn’t take much. It had been barren out there on those no-name rural roads. Running his truck off the road was just good driving on my part. Didn’t give a shit what it mighta done to my car, I was too pissed to care. I tried one of those pit maneuvers the cops are so proud of. His truck barreled off the road and into a tree line, upending nearly a quarter mile of barbwire fence. I’m about as good at driving as I was at cards, just lucky, thoroughly lucky that night, but he was probably three sheets to the wind by then anyway. His head must’ve hit the steering wheel ’cause when I came up behind him, he seemed dazed. I slammed my own car into park and ran to his driver’s side door and flung it open.
He was a big man, outweighed me real good. But he was either too drunk or too dazed to comprehend what was happening. I pulled him to the ground and kicked him square in the head. My boots had steel toes, and the blood splattered, like when we used to shoot up watermelons when I was a kid. I had already grabbed my hunting knife from the glove box and drove it all the way to the hilt, right there into the side of that fat fucker’s neck. If the kick hadn’t done it, the blade did. He wallowed like a sick cat in the grass and weeds on that dark, deserted stretch of road. Eventually he bled out, but not before he received a few choice kicks to the stomach and even one in his nuts.”
Christian stopped writing long enough to look up. “Looking back now, after all that’s gone down, do you regret killing him?”
“Regret’s a powerful word, and I can’t regret it because I hadn’t any feelings either way at the time. I was just being stupid and rash. I mean I should’ve gotten caught on that one kill alone. As it stood, I didn’t. And once I yanked the knife outta that guy’s neck, I sped away contented to leave that shit-stain of a town behind. And I didn’t stop until I was almost to Arizona. Fortunately for me, the county police were too stupid or lax to ever try and hunt me down. In fact, until now, no one else had even heard of that part of my tale.”
Church smiled through sickly grin, as if they were somehow linked by some furtive secret of clandestine lovers who met under the cover of night. Christian only returned his stare unaffected, yet silently wondered about all the things that must be going through the other man’s mind. He had become connected to a murder in some backwoods town in East Texas—one that might be recorded in some dusty banker’s box, sitting forgotten on a metal rack and slapped with a big label, the words “cold case files” stamped on the side.
He felt an odd sensation sitting across the table from someone who freely admitted to murder, knowing that single homicide would start a chain of events that would remain miraculously unbroken by his arrest or conviction. It was equally strange carrying the knowledge that Church and he were the only living souls who knew what truly happened that night, and how that ill-fated poker player had actually died.
Christian would, at the first opportunity, research unsolved stabbings in cities near Dallas during those years when Church could have been in the vicinity. But he failed to reason what he would do if he found a case fitting Gabriel’s details. Would he inform the police? There hadn’t ever been anything more than a gentleman’s understanding between the two men that Christian would record the life story of Gabriel Lee Church. The killer had not asked for his complicity in any crimes, nor had he ever asked for his silence.
This should have alarmed him, because there were always questions hovering in the ether between them: What was his endgame? Why did he want his story told? Did he have some nefarious plan for his biographer? And why had he granted him such unfettered access into his very personal horror movie?
Outside the Cherry Street Grinder, the typical mist of rain began to splatter on the sidewalks and windows. One thing Christian enjoyed about the city was how often it rained. Still, very few true-residents actually carried umbrellas. As one might’ve expected. It was a signature trait of the born and bred native to show a level of unconcern with the climate. For most it was simply an overnight guest who’d outstayed the welcome, yet sadly was showing no sign or desire of wanting to vacate anytime soon. Those with northwest blood in their veins just understood; that Seattle and rain just went hand-in-hand together, like the old lovers they were. It also made it easier to differentiate between the locals and the tourists. You merely looked for the umbrellas or an unnecessary abundance of outer winter wear.
Still, Christian couldn’t help but wonder if after meeting this killer it wouldn’t be his body turning up in some rain-soaked back alley downtown. As he headed away from the café, he smiled through his darkly twisted thoughts, a reminder that he had yet to begin his novel. Who knew, police might find his remains before the book could gain a voice and its direction, long before an editor’s red-pen notes could be scrawled amid the margins.