The Christmas Killer
By Gordon Hesse
It was after dark Christmas Eve, 1976. I was traveling north through Southern Georgia, returning to pick up my ’69 Volvo. Two days earlier in Florence, SC, it had thrown a rod—the automotive equivalent of a heart attack. I had hitchhiked down to Melbourne, Florida, borrowed my Dad’s Dodge Dart, and rented a tow bar to bring the car south to Jacksonville. A friend was going to transplant a used engine into my car.
By 10 p.m. I had been on the Interstate for four hours. I took an exit for a truck stop for coffee and to make a phone call.
As I exited the warm truck stop, the wind snapped. I parked near the forlorn glow of the phone booth and called my girlfriend.
We planned to get together as soon as I got back to Florida. We said goodbye and reminded me not to eat all the cookies she had made for my parents and myself.
Snowflakes whirled out of the dark, as I got into my car, put my wallet on the dash so my butt wouldn’t get sore, and headed to the Interstate.
As I descended the ramp, my headlights washed over a uniformed soldier, hunched over against the biting wind. He had no overcoat. Little more than 24-hours earlier I had been hitchhiking in the other direction to get my father’s car. It was cold. He was in our nation’s service. It was Christmas Eve: I had to pick him up.
I pulled up and watched in the rearview as he jogged up to the car. I noticed was the Special Forces patch on his shoulder. As soon as he spoke, I thought I had made a mistake: his words were a garble; I couldn’t make out his name as I shook his hand. Minutes later I was to realize it was an even bigger mistake.
I accelerated and noticed that the road was devoid of travelers.
Only with prodding did my passenger offer he was headed to Fort Bragg—He muttered he wanted to see someone. He was hard to understand. He was drunk.
I surmised from our first exchange that he had made the decision to hitchhike in a cockeyed moment—probably after shots of whiskey when an idea that had been stewing was ready to be served.
“Who are you going to see,” I asked
“I am going to kill a man," he said casuallhy. "He took my woman.”
My heart jolted. My hands felt cold and skeletal on the steering wheel; I had no doubt that he was serious. Abruptly, my passenger became a menace.
I looked at my wallet on the dashboard: He was young, fit looking and well trained to be in the Special Forces. He could probably break me in two before I knew I was being attacked. After that realization, my brain whirled: I’ve got to think -- FAST!
As he warmed from the car heater, he became easier to understand. I realized he had a European accent.
I felt feebleminded but arrived at the notion that maybe if we talked about something else, this developing nightmare might not really be happening. Let's go slow.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Czechoslovakia,” he replied. He volunteered nothing else—perhaps his English was weak.
“How long have you been here?”
“Five years,” he muttered.
“I didn’t know the U.S. Army would let someone from another country join so soon after coming here.”
“I was in Russian Army—they want me to teach Soviet’s tactics.”
“What was your specialty?” I asked, hoping to expand the conversation.
“Improvised explosives,” he said, almost absentmindedly.
This conversation was getting more discouraging at each turn.
“Improvised explosives? Wow…” I said meekly.
My mind wandered to images of the rest of the world on this night. I could almost see them: cozy, with eggnogs in colorful holiday sweaters before a roaring fire and listening to carols. How many parents were wrapping presents for their kids.
My mind came back to my passenger. I thought it best to try to keep him talking, so I gave way to my curiosity.
“…Can you give me an example of the kind of explosives you could improvise?”
He described how to fill a light bulb with gasoline and put it in a ceiling socket.
“….It would explode across ceiling, lighting up curtains and spread to furniture,” he said as a matter of fact.
Clearly, I was dealing with a man capable of taking out human life with household items if he chose to.
The car was silent for minutes. I offered him a cigarette, and we both smoked through the tunnel of darkness. There were few cars or trucks.
Looking for new territory, I asked, “What was your first impression when you came to the U.S.?
“The churches!” he said with astonishment. “You have them everywhere!” It was his first display of emotion. “My family risk our lives to sneak across border for religious freedom—my sister got shot and lost her leg. You have churches and people are free to go to them, but they are empty.”Silently I pondered as the miles blurred by.
“Why do you want to kill this man in North Carolina?”
“I got transferred. She married another soldier after I leave. He bring her back from Korea; now he beats her. He’s sick—she calls and tells me. I’m going to kill him.” There was resolution in his voice.
I stared at the road ahead. My mind wandered, trying to imagine what it must be like for the woman—an Asian stranger with language difficulties in the rural South. Her options for dealing with this man’s violence must seem limited to calling the passenger in my car.
We passed into South Carolina and would reach my car soon.
“You said this man was sick—do you mean ill?” I asked, fluttering for a perch in our rolling cage.
“Yeah, he got some kind of nerve disease.”
I asked him to tell me more. As he described the man’s behaviors, I realized he was describing symptoms of Huntington’s chorea, a disorder that disables muscles of the hands, face and trunk and can lead to dementia. I knew this because I was an investigator. I recently had a case where police had picked up a man in his late 30’s. He had been carrying a large Bowie knife and failed to give good account of himself. The man’s two brothers had died of the genetic disease. It tends to strike when people reach their late 30’s. Woody Guthrie was dying of it when Bob Dylan met him.
“I’m not a doctor,” I said, while trying to sound like one, “You know, if that’s what the man has, it would be pointless to kill him: He’s gonna be incapacitated soon, and he won’t be able to harm anyone then. But you’d be in prison.”
“He’s gonna die soon anyway and then the path to the woman would be clear.”
We rode in silence for 20 minutes and climbed the Florence exit ramp. My Volvo was at the top at the deserted Texaco where I’d left it. We backed up to it and I got the towbar from my trunk.
My passenger helped. We laid on the pavement and fastened the chains and secured the bolts. The metal burned it. Jesus it was cold!
I kept blowing in my hands to keep blood flowing and had difficulty holding the shackles in place.
Out of kindness to me, he insisted on finishing the last part of the hookup. I did the easy part of pointing the flashlight under the suspension as he worked. We were done in five minutes.
It was time to part: he would head to North Carolina and I would return south. It was 2 a.m.
I shook the hitchhiker’s hand and wished him well. He walked away a few steps as I put wrenches back in the trunk and closed it. Out of my Volvo-in-tow, I grabbed the cookie tins I had left behind two days earlier. I put my cookie container in easy reach in the front seat and the one for my parent’s in the back seat where I’d be less tempted to open it. They would be good company for the solo return journey. Rather than continue down the ramp for another ride like I expected, my former passenger stood a few feet away for a few seconds. Then he walked toward me.
“Could I ride back with you?” he asked.
After a moment of disbelief, I wanted to jump for joy.
“Yes! Yes! Of course!” I exclaimed.
All the dread of the night vanished. Joyously we shook hands—we had crossed the threshold between who we were and who we became.
“Let’s get in—I’m freezing.” I said.
. . . .
As the car’s heater thawed us out on the drive back, the miles seemed to melt beneath our wheels. We opened my tin of cookies and shared them. Conversation flowed like a dam had broken. Crumbs spilled everywhere; we laughed. And we talked! It turned into a party! He told me his name was Gabor--and how he hadn’t seen his family in nearly two years. They were getting older and depended upon what he made in the military. We smoked cigarettes with smiles and the tone was one of merriment.
I dropped him off at the gates of Ft. Gordon, just as the sky began to lighten.
Then I had a thought—I reached in the back seat and grabbed the tin of homemade cookies Toni had made for my parents.
I handed it to Gabor with a “Merry Christmas”—it seemed a fitting present.
We gave each other a hearty handshake and parted.
As I pulled away, the thought occurred, it really was a killer Christmas.
© 2017 Gordon Hesse