Torn and Frayed
Rodd Clark © 2018
All Rights Reserved
When the killer Gabriel Lee Church pulled into town, the day was like any other. The traffic was heavy as morning commuters filled the routes and teemed into service roads like ants traveling in long foraging lines. As the vehicles inched forward and jockeyed and broke for entry into those faster lanes, one might’ve assumed there was a chaotic order to it all, a symphony of instruments working in tandem like a reflex arc operating without direction of a maestro. It seemed every car was speeding along at a harried pace to reach their jobs and appointments, but as hectic as it appeared, it never stopped the drivers and passengers from reaching for their cell phones, or tuning radios, or stuffing their faces with fresh, powdery donut treats while sipping their Starbucks coffees.
To his continued frustration, Gabe noticed the one thing drivers rarely used during their morning commute was blinkers, with few acting as if they remembered they even had them. He, on the other hand, always obeyed the rules of the roadway. No point evading police for murder if you were going to allow yourself to be hauled away because of a simple reckless driving charge. His stereo was on like many others, playing tunes from the eighties, which he’d grown to enjoy more than other shit he’d heard today. He didn’t like the rap influence in today’s pop hits. Give me an old James Taylor or Glen Campbell song. Now those were memorable. He didn’t have the radio tuned to any local station either, because he didn’t need to the hear traffic reports since he had nowhere pressing to be, nor anyone requiring an audience with him.
Gabe rarely had second thoughts about his nomadic lifestyle, although he regretted putting the Pacific Northwest in his rearview for more reasons than simply loss of beautiful scenery and the lonely, yet lovely stretches of endless highway. Leaving Seattle was harder than other cities he’d passed through because he had been forced to leave his writer behind. He hated abandoning Christian Maxwell. He’d actually grown quite fond of the man—someone who’d successfully slipped quietly into his life, and as surreptitiously into his bed, once he’d figured the story Chris was supposed to write was never, in fact, going to see the light of day. For all the good he’d found there, Seattle turned up only death and bad memories for him.
Or maybe it was another lie to tell one’s self. Another justification to say he needn’t make apologies, particularly when he knew Chris would be waking up alone in his bed. Clearly the writer wanted a relationship, but he would never understand the ramifications and the danger in that. Gabe never settled for too long anywhere, or with anyone. It seemed he was forever bound to be running from the law, as much as he was his own past.
Gabriel Church possessed a driver’s license, but it’d expired some ten years earlier. If the police stopped him, he’d flash it or one of the many false documents he’d gathered together over the long haul. They were simple guarantees for all the checkpoints and traffic stops he knew he’d have to make it past. But the Glock 9 mm really worried him more. He didn’t use guns very often, but one never knew what challenges lay in the path ahead, and he’d have been foolish not to carry something for every contingency. He acquired the weapon years earlier and carried it in his Dodge, snuggly buried under a corner of the interior’s loose nylon mat which’d come unglued at a spot just under his dashboard.
Amazingly, he’d successfully traveled across the United States many times in long, lazy passes headed nowhere in particular, and he’d never been arrested. He’d managed to talk his way out of every awkward intervention by the police. If they’d known who he was or what he was guilty of, their guns would have been pulled and stances taken in readiness of the kickback. He imagined he’d hear the screams from shaky officers demanding he drop to his knees atop the black asphalt as they withdrew handcuffs from tiny holders strapped to their belts. But Church had never been caught and always smiled back at the officers who ticketed him under his makeshift aliases. He would wave as he’d pull back into traffic and resume his speed, only to toss the crumpled tickets out his window a few miles farther down the highway. They were remnants of another warrant issued on his Joe Dirt personas from Idaho and Wyoming, supposedly traveling on business when they’d found the misfortune of changing lanes without a proper signal.
Gabe left the New Mexico border behind him the night before and was now traveling through San Antonio. Every joint in his body ached because he’d been stuck behind the wheel for over six hours. Leg muscles screamed at him over tiny twinges, alerting him he needed to stop soon and stretch his legs. He saw the fuel meter nearing empty and knew he needed to gas up as well. Just as his legs were begging for relief, his stomach began rumbling to life. Gabe needed to look for the nearest interstate diner. He’d been living on fast food burgers and convenient store burritos for far too long.
Seeing the familiar red roof of a Howard Johnson’s in the distance, he maneuvered his pickup to the far right and looked for the nearest exit off I-151. What do you get the man who has everything? Certainly his answer was fried clams. But then he realized the time of day. Too early for fried clams, so he chose instead to have a cup of coffee and a thick slab of chicken-fried steak. When he walked inside, the smell of food on the grill hit his nostrils, and he salivated. He’d forgotten how long it’d been since he’d had a good meal that hadn’t been served through a window.
As he waited near the entrance, a tiny waitress came bounding from the kitchen, stopping in her tracks when she spotted Gabe. Her mouth dropped open as she sized him top to bottom. Seeing an attractive man with no wife or babies in his arms must have given her some hope, he figured. Hope that the tip he left her was in direct relation to the number of flirtatious efforts she expended to receive it.
“Only one, darlin’?” she asked as she rushed up with another table’s meal teetering on her tray.
“Sure,” he said, nodding politely as she ushered him to what he’d assumed was one of her prized tables in the rear of the restaurant.
“Be right back, hon,” she said, passing busboys in the aisles. By the time she came back, she was already carrying a carafe of coffee with a single glass of ice water. Gabe mentioned with a grin how he didn’t really need a menu, and she leaned in just enough to allow her perfume to filter in.
“I only want chicken fried steak with whatever sides you think I deserve,” he said with a grin. His charm with the ladies came easy for him, and because it did, he’d gotten laid more in his lifetime than the typical male could boast too. And since he’d met Christian, he was no longer married to the notion of a single gender in the sack.
Christian Maxwell was the first man he ever fucked, but the experience felt natural in hindsight. It felt genuine in a way that should’ve surprised him more, though it didn’t; the bucking sweaty pleasure and explosive release of seed. Ever since he left Seattle, he’d been afforded the time to think how nice it could’ve been to have him reclining in the passenger seat beside him. If only for the company and long conversations they could’ve had.
“Right away darlin’,” she said as she slipped back toward the kitchen.
Gabe watched her walk away and saw how his waitress, Alethea, pointed him out to nearby female staffers by the area where the coffee makers sat. He winked and heard faint girlish laughter issuing from behind the counter as each one surveyed him. He knew his eyes and his physique attracted women. He wasn’t metrosexual and cultivated, so he wasn’t always sure why others found him so sexually attractive. Gabe wore faded flannel and dusty work boots in lieu of the polished, esthetic sensibilities of a man obsessed with his own image.
Tracing a finger along the rim of his cup, he was pulled back to another time. He’d been sitting at the Cherry Street Grinder in Seattle when he’d met Christian formally for the first time. They’d discussed his origin story and the murders he’d committed. It’d come as a quite a surprise for him anyone would want to place his life on paper, but Christian Maxwell was surely the exception to most rules, Gabe suspected.
He’d offered to write Gabe’s story from beginning to the present, in an unadulterated fashion. He agreed not to alert the police, or to inform the authorities in any way. Not before the killer could slip out of town like being given a five-minute head start before the race ensued. Maxwell’s initial condition was that Gabe remained silent and never alluded to any crimes he might have committed from any point when the two men became introduced. Like some carefully crafted legal wrangling that didn’t seem to insulate anyone from being charged as an accessory by Gabe’s perception. Their arrangement was an oddity from the jump, but it worked, however tenuously. At least until his biographer began to develop strong feelings for him during their interviews.
It seemed simple enough. A writer who wants to make a name for himself by interrogating a serial killer—trying to learn the breaking point or isolate an unknown defect, as if he possessed some mental acuity others did not. The first time Gabe sat across from Christian he’d seen the writer’s nervousness. He’d witnessed the unsure way he began scribbling notes on a legal pad, like an employer learning basic facts about a potential employee in some twisted interview process. Gabe enjoyed making others squirm and fidget while in his company. It proved the power he maintained over others and defined who he was. Particularly in the presence of other males, where he fully exercised his dominion and proved he was greater in all aspects.
It only took a minute or so before he guessed Christian was queer. He didn’t need to see the absence of a ring on his finger to confirm what he already knew. He sensed it. Even over coffee with a complete stranger, he knew his companion was a homosexual although everything seemed copacetic and exceedingly professional during their first encounter. He survived alone and on his wits for too long not to have recognized it. As a survivor, Church utilized every skill at his command and most of those came in his ability to read others. He learned quickly how to expose someone’s weakness to his advantage, though with the writer that was hardly a gift. Christian seemed unable to hide his weaknesses and spilled them on the floor at Gabriel’s feet from the very first moment they met.
Gabriel enjoyed watching others. He tried to understand their makeup and the lack of similarities to his own life. It became a game for him, of tearing down the mechanism and reassembling it so he would be able to understand its clockwork precision and it fascinated him.
At the time, seeing the beads of perspiration beginning on the writer’s brow, he guessed it hadn’t come from the writer being in the company of a killer; in so much as he was trying to disguise his own brewing attraction. But Gabe had seen it before—a typical reaction from women, and even a few men he’d come across in his many travels through backwoods towns and tiny hamlets.
Christian’s voice cracked ever so slightly as he opened their conversation with the edict: “Tell me your story.” Gabe knew it hadn’t been the first question the writer wanted an answer for, and this was his way of sidestepping the obvious. Gabe expected the first questions hanging on his lips should have been: “Who was your very first victim, and why did you choose to murder them?” How can someone sit in a crowded café, killer mere feet away, and not ask the obvious questions? But this was the game, and Gabe had been intent on allowing the writer his eccentricities. After all, he’d agreed to be interviewed.
That had been the hardest part of his relationship with Christian. Trying to explain why Church murdered in the first place. He wasn’t a writer himself and lacked the words to describe the dark motivations behind his actions. No matter how he tried, the writer always looked back with glassy-eyed wonderment and disbelief. He’d seen Christian’s jaw muscle tighten and twitch as he fumbled over his words, desperately trying to bring the writer around to his way of thinking. He’d said it was his calling. That every victim hadn’t been a random isolated attack and that God had chosen each murder, not him, with the exception of his first and his last.
What he understood best, was when others believe you’re crazy it’s easy to accept their reality than to merely shrug it off. But Christian had been the first, and more importantly, the only living individual where his perceptions mattered. And more than anything, Gabe needed to understand why. He was driven to making the writer understand him and his actions; the pull of the radiance, the cold stillness of seeing a white-lighter suddenly revealed before his very eyes. He didn’t want Chris to fall into the same trap though; he wasn’t going to allow him to breathe in the contamination and become the same kind of killer that he was. And in his gut, Church knew he wasn’t crazier than anyone else. It’s God who’s off the beam for making me the sole proprietor of His mission to cleanse a dirty world and free the righteous.
Their next discussion came in a hotel suite, which Maxwell rented for privacy. The underlying purpose was supposedly so Gabriel Church might feel more comfortable telling his tale or hashing out his childhood isolated from prying eyes and the occasional conversant ear. No one else needed to hear details of his serial killer’s rampage across several states or those people he murdered in them. But it also had another effect when it pitted the two men in luxurious surroundings alone and in close proximity. Their house of cards was guaranteed to fall as long as Church was as charming and irresistible as he’d been at the café.
The relationship Gabriel Church and Christian Maxwell shared was based on a period that overshadowed any real emotional bond. If the situation had been normal, Christian might’ve learned how Gabriel used gallows humor far too frequently, or he had a cruel streak buried under his handsome exterior. As much as they thought they cared for each other, neither looked closely enough at the reasons and the whys regarding the draw each one felt for the other. Gabriel was a serial killer running on an uneasy apprehension of arrest, and he’d never allowed himself to get close to anyone, particularly a stranger like Maxwell. But paramount to that, he was a man who hadn’t had a friend in more years than he could count. They’d somehow formed a connection, and the result had been greater than Gabriel ever thought he’d achieve. Their friendship had turned sexual, but it had more to do with the evolution of simple human contact and a desire to have something neither man could have guessed would become their future.
The allure which bound them was based on something bent and unconventional. This distinction outshone all else and was the only thing that might’ve remained standing. A Romeo and Juliet tragedy in the making: two souls who’d shared a single foxhole, yet neither saw clearly enough in those earlier days.
Christian had all the “tells” of someone who was distrustful of Gabe from the beginning. It may have been his bent smile and the shadow of a killer underneath such an attractive façade, or possibly just the blossom of the writer’s sexuality and the heat generating between them. Theirs had been a strange relationship, more parasitical than not. Chris wanted to learn everything possible about the mind of a serial murderer, and Gabe hungrily fed off the man’s undeniable devotion. Even before they’d fucked the first time, Gabe felt the odd stirrings in his jeans. He’d disregarded the titillation at the time, and later he wrote it off as some type of control, knowing that whatever he had the writer wanted in spades. Christian’s eyes had told the truth, his crystal gaze lapping up the image of the man across the room. In some twisted satisfaction, Gabe likened the writer to a puppy, trying desperately to please a stern owner and the clearly visible desire to lick at the stubble on his cheeks.
As cars pulled up and parked outside the plate glass diner front, it broke apart Church’s dreamlike trance. About the same time, the pretty waitress who had taken a shine for him showed up with his chicken fried steak and a fresh pot of coffee. She gently touched his shoulders as she leaned in to refill his cup, and he felt electricity course through his body. With the smell of her perfume wafting to his nose, he knew he’d be able to have her. He even considered it. She wasn’t bad-looking, and she was clearly signaling interest. He’d grin at her with his crooked half smile and ply the twinkle that closed so many deals before. He’d promise he’d stop by after her shift. Then he’d take her to an inexpensive motel along the interstate and fuck her hard for hours. But it would be nothing more than a simple distraction for him, despite the urgent release his body was telling him he needed.
Gabe locked up, recoiling as he looked closely at the waitress. There was something about her, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on, but it reminded him of the woman who’d been a catalyst for his latest flight—Shea Baltimore.
Shea was innocent and kind and was never supposed to be one of his victims; she didn’t fit the pattern or his calling. But he’d made a single mistake when he allowed himself to be taken in by the moment. He’d slept with her, though only once, and because of that error, she’d learned he wasn’t who he claimed to be. She then knew all too quickly everything about his criminal past and suddenly she’d become a real threat to his survival. This was when his instincts kicked in with their usual vengeance.
The aftereffect became the final, broken straw in the deterioration of his relationship with Christian. With the dead girl lying in her apartment, Church was forced back onto the blacktop and racing out of town right ahead of the police. Part of him wanted the writer to come along with him, but he knew that part of the dream was impractical. So he hardly glanced backward when he made haste outta the city, leaving Chris behind and wondering on his lover’s fate, as well as his own involvement in Shea’s murder.
This time he looked at the waitress without the twinkle and the heavily laden seduction he usually employed. As she walked back toward the kitchen, he stood staring out the window at the flow of cars on the highway, wondering how much he’d changed lately to have given up so easily.
In the weeks since pulling out of Washington, he’d had no human contact. Driving aimlessly, he’d crisscrossed interstates and rural roads in a pattern to keep others off his scent. It had been a blur of small towns and cheap motels. Gabe never allowed himself to get close to anyone in those weeks, stealing when possible, Hustling pool for cash and staying in one cheap dive after another; all to put the city of Seattle behind him and try hard to forget the writer who’d inadvertently changed his life in ways he’d hadn’t imagined.
Gabe shoved forkfuls of steak and gravy into his mouth. Strange, how in all my travels across this United States, this is the first through San Antonio that I can remember. So after his meal, he jumped back into his truck and hit the streets to survey his surroundings. It became an instinctual pattern, to drive into a town and immediately begin exploring like an archeologist at a dig site. It was more than intellectual curiosity though; he was appraising every route out of the city, every possible escape and proper hiding spot. Gabriel was always working the angles, trying to ensure his own survival and freedom. It’d become second nature by then and born from a hobo existence and his desire to remain secreted beneath the shadows and away from prying eyes of the stalwart authorities, or even a deputy who just luckily stumbled onto him in one catastrophic turn of events.
Under the azure sky, he weaved through traffic, driving close to the world-famous canals and trendy shops overflowing with overweight tourists with screaming kids clutching souvenirs like security blankets. In a different life, he’d told himself, but after an hour behind the wheel, he decided he needed to find a hole to crawl into for the remainder of his stay. He pointed his Dodge in the direction of the interstate and the lines of inexpensive motels he’d noticed on his initial drive into town.