John Eric Ellison, Wind Cave
Publisher: Amazon Publishing
Narrator: Colin Porter
Date: May 12, 2019
Length: 314 pp.
ISBN: 1098583825; 978-1098583828
Waves of summer heat rippled over the vanishing point where the two lanes of a hot Eastern Oregon highway met at the skyline. Sagebrush and juniper trees dotted the landscape as far as could be seen, and a dirty white pickup truck rumbled over a shimmering rise in the road.
Luke Burma squinted through his thin dark glasses at the road ahead as sunrays stabbed through his cracked and dusty windshield. The side windows were rolled down although the passage of air did little to cool the cab or the driver. Luke wiped sweat and long stringy black hair from off his reddened forehead and neck with a blue handkerchief and then tucked it above the visor. He cursed to himself over the busted air-conditioning and the cost of a good mechanic these days.
The heat seemed to worsen the pungent odors around him. Underneath the smell of gas fumes, his black tank top tee-shirt was soaked with sour sweat down his hairy chest and beer belly. A two-day growth of black facial hair retained the odor of cheeseburgers and cola.
Burma’s entire life took a turn to the road a year before when his wife of eight years left him for another man. Their marital problems began when Lois, his now ex-wife decided that she wanted to push him around. She scolded him every chance she could for not being the man she’d hoped he’d turn out to be. That was five years into their marriage. He suspected an extramarital affair and accused her of it, but couldn’t prove it because he lacked hard evidence. She laughed at him for being weak and paranoid. Since that time, he found himself cultivating a rage that eventually drove him to slap her during one of her many bitching tirades. Luke was a quiet man and usually kept to himself. This sudden change shocked her, although the animal fury in his eyes stunned her even more.
As part of finalizing their divorce, they broke from the Catholic Church. Lois immediately hooked up with a man that Luke knew little about but suspected her of knowing for some time. The only thing he knew for sure was that this guy had money and plenty of it.
After that, Luke fell into a deep depression that prevented him from holding a job. He sold almost everything he owned, gave most everything else away, and then stowed what little he had left into the back of his crew truck. Now, he carried all of his possessions directly behind his driver’s seat. This included a few essential and non-essential items and his most prized possessions---his carpentry tools. He believed he could survive just fine traveling from town to town between small to large carpentry jobs.
His truck had two bucket seats rather than one single. He made this alteration himself a few years back when he could afford things like that. Now he was glad he did it for two reasons. One, he liked to keep an eye on his stuff. Two, he had a rifle tucked behind the driver’s seat that he could make a more easy grab for if he needed too. He was forced to pull it out a time or two, and during those occasions, if he would have needed to reach over one single full seat, he would have been dead. Life on the road can certainly kill you.
Luke no longer cultivated friends, and he remained the quiet type, with a persistent distance in his eyes. He did love music though and warmed when he heard anything by the king, Elvis. Today, he was listening to an Elvis marathon on K-GIRL, KGRL, out of Bend, Oregon.
Not only was the sun hot, but it also seemed excessively bright, even through his sunglasses. He had to squint. Filmy clouds were attempting to form, but for now, he’d have to put up with the glare that reflected off the hood and then straight into his face. He blinked away a brief illusion of someone standing in the road in front of him. Cursing, he slammed on the breaks. It was no illusion. There was some jackass standing right in the middle of the asphalt.
“You gotta be kidding me,” Luke growled, opened his door, and jumped out to confront the idiot. He left the truck running.
“Hey, numbnuts! Do you want to get yourself killed? Get off my road, or I’ll run you down like a jackrabbit!”
The man in front of him registered no emotion when he replied, “Your road, huh?”
“Yeah, my road! Now get off of it---pronto!”
Still unconcerned, the man replied in an even tone, “How about a lift? My rides broke down. I left it hidden off the road a ways back.”
Luke was utterly stunned by this guy’s inability to grasp the situation.
“What the . . . No! I’m not giving you a ride . . .”
Then he paused, shook his head, thought about it a moment, and mumbled to himself, “Maybe he’s a moron or just plain sunstroke stupid.”
Luke studied him for an uncomfortable moment and then spoke reluctantly. “Yeah, all right. What the hell. Get in.”
He waved the man over to the passenger side door, and said, “Here, I’ll have to open it for you. It’s jammed.”
Luke grabbed the door handle of the passenger-side rear door and pulled while kicking the doorframe up by the lock. Three tries awarded him with results, and the door opened. He stood aside as the man threw his small backpack and oddly shaped bedroll behind the passenger seat. Luke shut the door as the man climbed into the front passenger seat. He walked around and settled behind the wheel.
Luke turned for one last look at his passenger before pulling out onto the road. There was something detached about this guy, as though he wasn’t there at all. He barely paid Luke any notice, although he did quietly thank Luke for the lift. His blond hair was short and neat. The face was clean-shaven though rough with acne scars. His eyes, well, they were a strange amber color. He was as tall as Luke, about 6 feet or so, although more sturdily built. He wore brown work boots, worn jeans, and a faded black denim shirt untucked and unbuttoned with the sleeves rolled up. He was deeply tanned, and about the time Luke noticed that detail, he also wondered why the guy wore no sunglasses on a day like today, so he mentioned it.
“You’ll want your sunglasses. I’ve got a nasty glare off the hood of this thing.”
Luke reached behind the seat to grab the man’s pack for him, in case he had dark glasses in one of its pockets. The man reacted immediately. He grabbed Luke’s arm.
“Don’t touch that . . .” He smiled grimly and added, “Please.”
Luke scowled but said nothing. He waited as a small red sports car honked and passed on the left, then pulled onto the road and accelerated. He glanced at his rearview mirror and noticed telltale bursts of blue smoke from the tail end of his truck, revealing carburetor problems. The corner of Luke’s mouth twitched in aggravation. One more thing to go wrong with what he told his ex was his pride and joy. He remembered a conversation he had with her several years ago. Yes, sir, Lois. This truck is one of the finest made in these here United States. That was then. Now, he thought, what a pile of junk.
After a few minutes on the road, Luke turned to his strange passenger and said, “You’re not too friendly, are you?”
The man stared back at him for an uncomfortable moment, then returned his eyes to the road and replied, “Neither are you.”
Luke responded with a wry chuckle and asked, “You gonna tell me where you’re going? I suppose you want off in La Pine to call a tow truck?”
There was a long uncomfortable pause before a reply.
“No. I’ll get it later, and I’ll fix it myself. It’s off the road far enough that no one will bother it.”
“All right, fine. We’ll leave it at that if that’s the way you want it.” He thought a moment then added, “You’re gonna have to tell me your name, so I know what to call you, and where you want to be let off.”
His passenger turned and regarded Luke with a cold expression that gave Luke the creeps. He said, “Name’s Vivian, Vivian Robert McManus . . . If you must know that information will cost you.”
Luke was agitated by the man’s controlled menace.
“What the hell do you mean . . . it’ll cost me?”
Vivian ignored him and continued. “How far are you going?”
Luke rubbed sweat out of his eyes. He said, “Arnold Cave system. Gotta run some routine maintenance on a fence and a ladder. I do contract carpentry for the BLM . . . Bureau of Land Management.”
Vivian tightened his lips, sneered, and replied, “I know what the BLM is. I’m not an idiot.”
That was it as far as Luke was concerned. He’d take no more of this bad attitude out of a stranger, especially when he was doing him a favor. He pulled the truck over and told Vivian to get out.
“That’s it, my friend. Your crappy mouth just earned you a long walk. Get out, and don’t forget your precious shit behind the seat.”
Again, Luke reached back to grab Vivian’s stuff. However, this time, Vivian failed to respond. He pointed at the road in front of them and said, “Sorry you feel that way. I won’t be any more trouble. I’m headed that way myself. Just let me off when you turn off 18 onto 200. I assume that’s where you’re going. You’re detouring off 97 on your way to Bend. Am I right?”
This man’s audacity dumbfounded Luke. He announced, “Man, I ain’t never met a man I trusted less than I trust you. I don’t like you at all. I’ll give you this lift, but I swear to God, you’d better like Elvis, or you’re out on your ass!”
He turned up the radio. Dirt spun away from his wheels as he pulled back out onto the road. He barely avoided hitting a rattlesnake basking in the sun. Within a few minutes, the rattler was alone in the sweltering heat, and the desert was nearly quiet after the sounds from Luke’s truck faded into the distance.
Within thirty minutes, they were in sight of La Pine. They stopped for coffee and a bite to eat at a truck stop, without as much as a word to each other. After a while, Luke surmised that Vivian was just one of those slow fellows that didn’t like to talk. He guessed that was all right by him. Besides, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know much of anything about this guy. He updated his previous feeling that the guy was weird. He thought It’s best to ignore him and listen to the king sing songs from his hit movie Blue Hawaii.
Vivian didn’t seem to mind the music, although there was no way to tell if Vivian liked it or not. Luke could read absolutely nothing from the guy’s deadpan expression. On the other hand, his gut instinct told him that Vivian was a dangerous man.
Ten miles out of La Pine, everything changed. Vivian started to talk. It came in a rush, beginning with Vivian inspecting Luke’s ashtray.
“Luke Burma, isn’t it?”
Luke was stunned. He could not recall ever telling Vivian his name.
“How’d you figure that out?”
Vivian smiled at Luke’s surprise. He replied, “It’s on your key chain.” He reached over and flicked the silver nametag with his left index finger.
Luke nodded and said, “I hope this doesn’t spark you none, but why do you go by a woman’s name?”
Vivian ignored him as he pulled open the ashtray with the same finger he’d used to flick the nametag. He quietly remarked, “Tray’s empty, but it smells like old smoke in here. When did you give it up?”
Luke breathed slowly in and out before answering.
“Vivian, if that’s your real name, you’re not gonna answer any of my questions, are ya?”
Vivian replied, “I told you my name, so I did answer a question whether you believe my answer or not. Now, what about the empty ashtray? It’s a simple enough question. Did you smoke? I’m just curious, is all.”
Luke shook his head and said, “No. My ex-wife smoked, and so did a lady friend a month ago. I cleaned the smell out of here as much as I could.”
“Ex-wife, huh? Got any kids?”
Vivian shook his head and raised a hand in dismissal, as though to say an answer wasn’t necessary.
Silence passed for a few uncomfortable moments and then out of nowhere, Vivian said, “My mother didn’t name me, my Aunt Grace did. Mom was weak. She let Grace run roughshod all over her. Grace said the name would toughen me up. I guess she would have liked that Johnny Cash song that came out this year. That one about a boy named Sue.” He sneered and added, “Devil take old Grace.”
Vivian paused and frowned as though the mention of the Cash song sparked unpleasant memories. When he continued, it was with an edge in his voice that hadn’t been there before. He glanced at Luke and then back at the road.
“My father was killed by a drunk just before I was born,” Vivian said. “He was crossing the street when it happened. Aunt Grace moved in with Mom and decided to become some surrogate father to me.” He smiled at that thought. “Can you believe that? But she wasn’t anything but cruel to me. I hated her, but at least she wasn’t weak.”
Luke wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at what he was hearing. Instead, he opted for a forced chuckle and then said, “Man, you surprise me. Up till now, you ain’t said spit about yourself. Now---well---never mind. Go on. It reminds me a little of when I was a kid.”
That seemed to brighten Vivian’s mood.
“Yeah? Really? What part?”
“I guess, Grace, sounds like my dad. My old pop used to come home late, drunk, wake all three of us kids and line us up on a sofa. He’d tell us to stay there while he got Mom down from the bedroom to watch while he pointed a gun at each of our heads. He always carried that gun around with him. It was always the same. He’d start with my older sister and me, and then my kid brother. He ordered us to decide which one of us was going to die. He always said the same thing, ‘Don’t want no more’n two kids, cause I can’t damn well afford to support all of you little bastards anymore!’”
Luke glanced over at Vivian and said, “That’s all.”
“No, it’s NOT all,” Vivian objected. He seemed upset for some reason. He pressed Luke for more. “What happened? Where’s your family now?”
“One day, Dad shot little Tim because we couldn’t decide for him which one of us to kill. Mom and Virginia screamed and ran out into the street, still screaming. The long and short of it was that Dad ran out and saw a crowd of neighbors gathering. He tried to get into the car to run, but he forgot the thing was broken down.”
At this, Luke thought of his recent bad luck with his truck and grimaced. A moment later, he continued.
“The cops chased him down. He only did five years because of some technicality. After five years inside, he managed to get another trial. The cops screwed up on the arrest or something like that, so they had to let him go.”
Vivian leaned closer to Luke.
“Luke, you still didn’t answer my question. Where are they now?”
Luke temporarily forgot Vivian’s own reluctance to reveal his secrets. He said, “Mom died of alcohol poisoning. Virginia is some secretary out east, I guess. As for dad . . .”
Luke let his words trail, but Vivian pursued it.
“Let me guess,” he pressed. “You killed him, didn’t you, and no one knew about it but you. Am I right?”
Luke briefly glanced at him but didn’t answer. Vivian took this for a yes and clapped his hands while laughing.
“I knew it! Ha! You’re a cold-blooded killer with a killer’s instincts, aren’t you, Luke Burma?”
Luke objected strongly.
“No! I mean, he had it comin’.”
Vivian replied, “Ha! Don’t they all? Hey, Luke, I’m not saying anything about it. Don’t worry. I’ve got a few demons of my own.” He smiled an evil, oily smile.
Luke asked, “What do ya mean by that? Have you killed someone?” Before Vivian could respond, he added, “Come on, it’s your turn to sing. I can’t very well turn you in now can I? Besides, you’ve been damned unfriendly up to now, and I can tell this here’s a topic you like talkin’ about.”
Vivian stared at him and considered for a moment. Then he laughed and said, “Why not?”
Following Luke’s confession, Vivian spoke nearly non-stop over the next few miles before they got to the junction at Highway 18. Luke began to feel a little scared. This was more than an uncomfortable feeling. Discordant notes of dread harped along his spine.
After Vivian’s excitement over Luke’s confession passed, his voice became more controlled.
“I killed a woman in Newport two years ago. She was my second kill. She looked a little like my Aunt Grace through the eyes. She fought well enough while I choked the life out of her.” Vivian grinned at the memory. “I was so excited by watching Lorna’s eyes go all pale and change to gray as she died that I pissed myself then and there. Can you believe that? Pissed myself right there on the beach. Nobody would know about that though because I had to drag her body into the water----then we were both wet. Water’s good for hiding a lot of things.”
Luke tried to ignore the part of Vivian’s story about his pissing himself. The implications of that were too disturbing even to consider right now. Instead, he backed Vivian up a little.
Luke cleared his throat and asked, “You’ve mentioned your Aunt Grace a few times now. Is she, or was she . . .”
“Was,” Vivian interrupted. “Was. She died of a brain tumor before I turned ten. I’ll get to that.”
Luke was apologetic. “Sorry,” he said. “Go ahead. I’m listening.”
Vivian gave Luke a curiously conspiratorial wink and then said, “Oh, I will. I will.” Then he squinted back out the window and continued. “You wondered why I don’t wear sunglasses. I could tell you that I broke mine, but the truth is I don’t like them. I want to see everything. Everything.” He paused, gauging Luke’s reaction. Luke nodded without comment. Vivian asked, “How did it feel when you looked into your father’s eyes as he died?”
Luke answered without hesitation. “Good, really good. It felt like damned spring rain.”
“How did you kill him?”
On reflex, Luke held up one of his hands and replied, “With my bare hands. How else? I wanted him to know that I, me, his other son, the one that got away, was killin’ him.”
Vivian responded, “I don’t like to use my hands. They’re strong enough to do the job, but they’re not the first-class killing tools I like.” He thought for a moment and then added, “That reminds me of my first kill, back in ‘63. A bitch named Judy Reever, if I remember correctly. She said she liked my California good looks. That one was nothing but a teenage slut though. I tried to show her a good time, but she wouldn’t put out. She probably wanted money or something. Women. Do you know what I mean? I clubbed her a good one, for sure. A couple of times and drug her down to the river. I hid her under the bridge. The bitch had it coming.”
He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a woman’s necklace. “See this here? I took this off her. You probably think I’m crazy to have carried it around with me for six years like this. That’s six years last February. I figured this piece would give me something to remind me not to mess around with fickle little sluts anymore. Give me an older and more experienced woman. They know what a man needs.”
Luke was now more than a little frightened by this man unloading all of this on him. Fears for his safety soon replaced his aggravation over how surly Vivian had been earlier. What Luke had done he felt was justified as an act of family vengeance. Vivian sounded like a cold-blooded murderer and psychotic. Luke surmised that the only thing he could do at this point was to keep things civil until he let Vivian off. The sooner, the better. Right now, self-preservation was the most critical issue. Instead of being concerned about what was irritating him, his mind shifted to becoming overly sensitive to anything that might be irritating Vivian.
“Let me turn this off,” Luke offered as he reached for the radio, but Vivian held back his hand.
“No,” he insisted. “Let it play; just turn it down some.” Vivian stared out his side window. He spoke as if in a trance.
“I know you’re wondering what Judy could have done to deserve my killin’ her. Bitch tried to humiliate me. Said something about my dick.” He turned to Luke and hastily added, “No, there’s nothing wrong with my pecker. I didn’t get my tip snipped off when I was born all. Guess she didn’t like that. Too bad for her. You know, not being circumcised was Grace’s idea. A right good one too. I mean, she was right. Why should a boy be cut? To look prettier? Patience, that was my mother’s name, she didn’t like not cutting me, but she did as Grace told her. Mom wanted to get me circumcised when I was older. She waited until I was almost ten before bringing the subject up again. Nearly TEN! Can you believe that? Man, Grace, and Patience went at it over that one. That was the first time I ever saw Mom defend herself. Course, she had to really. Grace threw kitchen plates at her and threatened to leave the house if Mom ever disobeyed her again. Mom told her that maybe she should go, so Grace did go. She up and stormed right out of the house and stayed away for two weeks.
I couldn’t believe that she left. I felt free and abandoned at the same time. The devil only knew where she went. We never found out, although Mom suspected she had something going with the sheriff.”
Vivian paused again long enough to pull a red handkerchief out of his right back pocket. He wiped sweat from off his forehead and neck and then shoved it back in his pocket. While Vivian was distracted, Luke happened to catch a glimpse of something he thought was rather odd. Vivian had a length of electric cord coiled up in his left front pocket. It was poking out about an inch. He hadn’t noticed it until now, because he had been deliberately avoiding anything Vivian might interpret as staring at him.
Luke tore his eyes off the wire and looked back at the road. Vivian was still talking, although Luke realized he’d missed some of it while lost in thought.
Vivian was saying, “That’s funny now that I think of it. Maybe she did have some sex thing going with good-looking Ken Phelps, as Grace always called him. I guess that would explain why Grace got away with everything, all the time. I strongly suspect that was why Sheriff Phelps dismissed all accusations that Grace was the one most likely to have run old lady Shick off the road and down the cliff to her end. Well, I say, long afterlife and cheers to the late, great Grace. Devil take old Grace.”
There was another uncomfortable lull in Vivian’s narrative, and then he added, “Brain cancer killed her just before my tenth birthday. I already told you that.”
Luke tried to sound sympathetic.
“Sorry to hear it.”
Vivian kept a straight face and replied, “I wasn’t sorry to see her go. Oh, she was the strong one all right, but she tried to kill me. The night she came back after disappearing for two weeks she acted strangely peaceful as if nothing in the world was wrong. But, she had another killing on her mind. I know she was planning to kill me for revenge on Mom’s lack of understanding. She was angry with Mom, even though Patience never did have me cut. Grace dearly wanted to teach her a lesson she’d never forget for arguing with her. It wasn’t so much the thing about circumcision as it was about the principle of the thing. If given a chance, Aunt Grace most likely would have said, ‘The point I’m making here is---which she said a lot.”
Vivian waved his hands around. “Grace waited until the day before my birthday when she called me outside for a game of toss-the-ball, as she called it. She threw it out by the edge of the cliff and then ran at me as I tried to catch it before it went down over the cliff. She was going to push me right off, but Patience saw her from the kitchen window. She yelled out the window for me to watch out.”
Abruptly, Vivian shouted out of his open side window, “Look out, Vivian! Look out for Grace!”
Luke cringed at Vivian’s unexpected outburst. Vivian lowered his voice before continuing.
“I dodged past her as she screamed past me, nearly falling off the cliff herself. Mom ran out and grabbed my hand. Grace chased us to the car. We drove away with her screaming and clawing up the car’s paint job before Mom gunned it on the main road and took off for town. About an hour later, good-looking Sheriff Phelps reluctantly hauled Grace away. The courts ended up putting her in a sanitarium where they soon found she was dying of that brain tumor. I felt bad after that. I mean, it wasn’t Grace’s fault. Right? The tumor might have been to blame for her being so crazy. Patience was the weak one. She should have died instead of Grace. Maybe Grace and the sheriff could have gotten hitched and made it legal.”
Luke had to ask, “Where’s your mom, Patience, now?” Vivian wouldn’t answer him right away. There was a long pause. Something Luke was coming to expect when Vivian seemed to be seriously considering his words.
“Dead. She’s dead.” He regarded Luke for a moment and added, “No, I didn’t kill her. Her boozing did the job.” He lightly cuffed Luke on the arm. “That’s just like what happened to your mom, Buddy-Luke.” He laughed.
There was another uncomfortable pause as some realization surfaced in Vivian’s mind. He slapped his leg, causing the already nervous Luke to jump a little.
“Hey, Luke, I just remembered. There was something else that creeped me out about that Judy slut. She didn’t like where I took her! I took her into the park, and she didn’t like it. Said it was too cold. Can you believe it? All chicks dig the park, with all those trees, snow in the moonlight, water, and all that crap. Am I right, or am I right?” He laughed again. “You don’t have to say it, buddy-Luke. Guys have to stick together on matters of the heart. Besides, I already know I’m right.”
Vivian started humming along with Elvis, which still played endlessly as if all was well with the world. Luke remained quiet, pretending to enjoy the scenery, when in fact he was trying to think of a way to get rid of this psycho, sooner than later.
After fifteen minutes of silence, it was Vivian who spoke first.
“Luke, I’ve got a lot more to tell you if you’ll listen. I’m good at killing. How about I tell you about the last one?”
Luke wouldn’t answer. He was preparing to turn off on to Highway 18. He said, “Wait a minute.” He let a couple of cars pass before turning right. It was another 9.2 miles to Boyd Cave, which was his destination. He needed to get rid of this guy right now.
“Buddy-Luke, you still with me or what?”
It grieved Luke to realize that Vivian had mashed together two names “Buddy” and “Luke” as a nickname more comfortable for Vivian to say than just plain “Luke.” From a guy like Vivian, a nickname wasn’t kid stuff. Luke had heard about this from books he’d read. He thought The nickname is another way for him to detach me from the real world. This creep is gonna try killin’ me and steal my truck. I feel it. He’s unloading this stuff on “Buddy-Luke” here because he doesn’t plan to let me live long enough to sing about it.
Now was the time for Luke to do something. But what? Then it came to him.
“Hey!” Luke shouted, pointing out the window. “Is that a jackrabbit out there?”
Vivian squinted in the sunlight, looking for a rabbit, but saw nothing and said so. “I don’t see anything jumping around out there.”
This was it - time to act. Luke stepped on the brakes and rolled off to the right side of the road. He threw open his door, stepped out, then spun around and grabbed for something hidden just behind his seat. His rifle.
Vivian looked both angry and scared.
“What the hell are you doing with that?”
“Rabbit hunting. Stay here.”
Vivian stayed in the cab and watched nervously, as Luke looked both ways, then crossed the road. Vivian wasn’t pursuing him. He had it good right where he was. They were heading in the proper direction, and he didn’t want to screw things up.
Luke stood by the road and scanned the horizon. He hadn’t seen a jackrabbit, although there were plenty of them out here. All he wanted to do was get away from that lunatic long enough to think through his next move. This guy was so far gone that he even confessed to peeing his pants over a killing. Did he do that before he killed or just during the act? That question made Luke realize just how overwhelmingly surreal all of this was. Why was he even asking himself a question like that? Luke thought, Before, after, or during---who the hell cares? He shook his head to clear it.
Luke looked around. No cars in sight, so he lifted the rifle to his shoulder and sighted across the desert. While he swiveled the view from left to right, and back again, a plan came to mind. He thought I’d remind Vivian about the blue smoke from my exhaust and then ask him if he’ll help me check the carburetor while I work the gas pedal. After Vivian gets out of the truck, I’ll gun it, take off, and leave him there. I’ll go off the road after I get down the highway a piece, circle back and head for Bend. I’ll turn the son-of-a-bitch in at the sheriff’s station.
With his plan in mind, He felt ready to confront Vivian. Vivian was yelling at him to give it up and come back to the truck.
“Hey, Buddy-Luke! If you don’t see any, there aren’t any. Come on, man, let’s go!”
To Luke’s aggravation, Vivian honked the horn for emphasis. Luke yelled over his shoulder, “OK, all right, I’m coming!” He lowered the rifle and stepped back over to the truck, but before he opened the door, he leaned on the window frame and peered in. What he meant to do was to start in with his plan. Instead, his voice caught in his throat. Vivian was holding Luke’s toolbox in his lap, and it was open. He’d pulled it out from behind the seat while Luke was otherwise occupied. Vivian was fingering Luke’s large, all-purpose hammer.
Luke stammered. “Huh . . . Hey, what are you doing with my tools? I didn’t say you could touch my stuff any more than you’d let me touch yours. Put it back.”
Vivian seemed to ignore him while running his fingers over the hammer. This angered Luke. He raised his voice a little more. “I said, put that back where you found it! Now!”
In truth, the reason Luke was so unnerved by Vivian’s interest in his tools was directly due to the stories Vivian had been telling him.
Vivian said, “You put that gun of yours away, and I’ll put down this hammer. What do you say, Buddy-Luke?”
Luke took a step away from the door, prepared to aim the rifle right between Vivian’s eyes when he reminded himself of his plan. He traded his angry expression for a forced smile, and said, “Man, you had me going there. I thought you were getting weird on me.” He opened the door and climbed in a while tucking the rifle behind the seat, but within easy access, if he had to jump out of the cab quickly. He didn’t shut the door all the way. Instead, he watched as Vivian shrugged and put the hammer back into the toolbox, close it, and put it back behind the seat.
Luke practically sighed aloud. Instead, he held his breath for what was next.
“Hey, Vivian, I’m getting some engine bucking. Do you mind helping me make a few quick adjustments to the carburetor before we go any further?”
Vivian considered a moment with a suspicious look on his face. He looked at Luke through squinted eyes. What was Luke up to? If anything. Finally, he took Luke by surprise and heartily agreed to help.
“Yeah, Buddy, let’s do it. But I gotta have some tools, right?”
Luke hadn’t considered this. Instead, Luke hadn’t even conceived of a problem like this---his tools in the hands of a psycho. Who could have imagined that his tools could terrify him like this? Vivian had him cold. Now, there was nothing he could do about it.
“Sure, grab some tools. I’ll gun the engine and let you know what I need you to do.”
Vivian appeared genuinely insulted by this. He objected, “I know my way around an engine. Just rev it up, and let me make adjustments on my own. I’ve been noticing the exhaust. Haven’t felt any bucking though, but then you’re the one driving. What do I know? Right?”
Anxiously, Luke watched while Vivian grabbed the toolbox and opened the door. Just before he got out, he turned and gave Luke a stern look that Luke took to mean don’t try anything funny. At that moment, Luke noticed something that completely unnerved him worse than anything he’d heard from Vivian thus far. Vivian had wet himself. The front of his pants was soaked down both legs. He could smell it as well. Luke looked up quickly to see if Vivian had seen him looking at his pants. He hadn’t. It didn’t appear that Vivian was even aware that he’d pissed himself.
He was wrestling Luke’s toolbox back out from behind the seat. Luke meant to jam the gears and take off as soon as Vivian was out of the truck, with or without his tools, but his reaction time was too slow. Cursing himself for not being fast enough, Luke watched as Vivian moved quickly to a position in front of the hood. At this point, Vivian lowered the toolbox to the ground. When he did so, Vivian finally became aware of his pants. As Luke watched in numb horror, Vivian frowned and slowly looked up at him. The expression on Luke’s face told Vivian everything he needed to know. Luke knew. Luke wasn’t stupid. He knew that Vivian had killing on his mind.
Luke was about to throw the truck into reverse to make a break for it when Vivian laughed and waved disarmingly at Luke while remaining in front of the truck. He was acting as if wetting himself was no big deal.
“Well, let’s get this over with, Buddy-Luke. Go ahead and pop the hood.”
Luke was through with being intimidated. At that moment, he decided to throw his plan away in favor of a more direct approach. He opened the door, grabbed his rifle, and stepped out onto the road. Before Vivian could say anything, Luke held the business end of his gun up and pointed it across the hood, straight at Vivian’s head. Vivian stopped smiling as Luke made demands.
“All right, you crazy son-of-a-bitch. Kick my toolbox over to me and step away from the truck. Do it slowly, but do it now!”
Vivian held his hands up. “Hey, Buddy . . .”
Luke’s rage boiled up his neck and enflamed his eyes. “And I ain’t your buddy, damn it! Now do what I told ya!”
Vivian frowned and kicked the toolbox closer to Luke. He said, “Fine, OK, here. Take it easy. I’m almost where I want to go anyway. I’ll walk the rest of the way. Just let me get my gear.”
Luke considered for a long moment, then nodded and warned him, “Try anything, and I’ll blow you away.”
Saying nothing more, Luke followed Vivian around to the side of the truck while Vivian kicked then wrenched open the back door. He reached into the backseat to retrieve his belongings. He was partially obscured from Luke’s view by the open door as he fumbled around.
There had been light traffic since leaving Highway 97. Luke was glad of that. He was more than a little nervous about being spotted holding a gun on someone. Vivian started talking again. He took his time in pulling out his pack. Too much time for Luke’s taste. He began to wonder if Vivian had a gun in there. It was too late to worry about that now. He’d have to deal with it if he came up with one. Vivian pulled out the pack and dropped it to the ground. He still hadn’t grabbed his bedroll.
Vivian said, “I didn’t tell you about my last kill, Luke.” Without waiting for Luke to reply, he quickly added. “She’s up ahead at the Wind Cave. I buried her there, but that was a mistake. I want to take care of that today---take her out to the desert where I should have buried her in the first place. Guess I wasn’t thinking all that clearly when I hid her. I didn’t take old man Trask’s advice the way that I should have. All that will be remedied soon enough.”
He seemed to be fishing around in his pack. Luke was about to tell him to quit buying time, when Vivian added, “Here, just let me get my bedroll.” He looked over at Luke. “The strap is loose on it. I’m going to have to fix it. Don’t get nervous on that trigger.”
Time seemed to pass slowly. His mind had become preoccupied from the moment Vivian mentioned a dead body at the Wind Cave.
He remembered a headline he’d seen two days ago in The Bend Bulletin newspaper. That was Monday. Sheriff Forrest Knoles had his hands full on that one.
A red pickup truck roared down the road from behind Luke. It passed them going fast enough to blow up a cloud of dust into their eyes from off the surface of the road. Luke had changed his mind about being noticed by a passing motorist. He now fervently hoped that passing truck driver had a CB radio on-board and had seen this armed standoff.
Luke snapped his mind back to the present. Not much time had passed, but Vivian was still messing around behind the passenger seat. Luke was about to tell Vivian to quit stalling, forget the bedroll and get up the road when Vivian suddenly came up with a massive hammer. He threw it straight at Luke’s head. Luke ducked but managed to get off one rifle shot. The shot missed Vivian and pinged off the tail end of his truck. Vivian lunged and knocked him down, then fought to keep the business end of the rifle away from himself while at the same time straining to reach the hammer that now lay next to the right front tire. The engine idled above them as they rolled in front of the truck. Exhaust fumes clogged their labored breathing. Gravel ground into their tumbling bodies and hot asphalt burned their exposed skin.
An eight-inch lizard scuttled away from Vivian’s hand as Vivian grabbed what Luke could now see was a framing hammer. In the instant that Vivian took to raise the hammer for a strike at Luke’s head, Luke pulled the trigger on the rifle. He hoped to startle Vivian if nothing else. He could hear the shot ring off the left side of his front bumper and impact on the road near the tire. It worked. Vivian was distracted long enough for Luke to turn his head away from the blow. The hammer cracked pavement mere inches from his left ear. Luke rolled over, pulling Vivian with him, nearly into the street.
Another vehicle could be heard approaching from the direction of Highway 97. Luke couldn’t help wondering why there was so much traffic all of a sudden.
The two men continued to roll dangerously near the traffic section of the road. Vivian came up on top of Luke after swinging his hammer and connected a couple of times with Luke’s body. An adrenaline rush kept Luke from giving attention to the pain from the blows.
A green station wagon screamed past honking its horn but didn’t stop. It passed so close that both men felt its wind and smelled its exhaust. Luke tossed away his rifle. He aimed a roundhouse blow with his fist at Vivian’s head and hit him hard enough to distract him. He managed to wrestle the hammer away from Vivian and tossed it somewhere over toward his rifle. Luke gripped Vivian by the throat with both hands, but Vivian had one more weapon. Vivian pulled the electric wire out of his pants pocket and fought to grasp it with both hands in the fleeting moment before Vivian brought the wire down on Luke’s windpipe.
Before Vivian could bring all his forces down on Luke’s throat, Luke suddenly remembered the newspaper article he read about that Beverly Winston woman. He blurted out, “They found that woman’s body at the Wind Cave! The cops took it! You won’t find it. It’s not there anymore!”
The stunned look in Vivian’s bulging red eyes was followed a moment later by a grunt of agony as Luke brought one of his knees sharply up solidly into Vivian’s groin. The blow knocked Vivian away from Luke. Vivian doubled over and stumbled into the street. He wobbled unsteadily to his feet while holding his crotch and groaning. His watering eyes locked on the rifle as Luke stood up. In the second it took for Vivian to lunge for the weapon, Luke heard another sound off to their left. He turned his head in that direction just as another truck tried to swerve away from hitting Vivian.
Too late. It hit Vivian dead in the middle of his chest as he turned to face the truck.
Vivian sailed over ten feet through the air and landed in the middle of the road.
The novel Wind Cave has a long list of “Special Thanks,” because there were a lot of people helping behind and in front of the scenes during the inception and birth of Wind Cave. For Bewildering Stories’ purposes, I want to thank Colin Porter, the Narrator-Producer of the audio-book edition for his amazing interpretation of this chapter and the following one, which is not represented here: “Supernatural.” Personally, I think he should receive an award for his performance during “Killer Instinct.” Thank you, Colin. You are a pro, through and through. I encourage Bewildering Stories readers to search for Colin's work on iTunes. He is a musician, singer/song writer on top of his many talents.
Copyright © 2020 by John Eric Ellison