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Harper Chase killed ripples. He never considered himself a violent man until he first saw a ripple. Then he saw his wife’s neck, bruised with red-purple marks.
Then he started hunting.
Harper peeked his head through the open window of his old Accord. Holly, his little girl, sat in the passenger seat. Dried up chocolate ice cream connected the corner of her lips to her chin. She focused on her dolls.
“Sweetheart, daddy’s got to go in the store. You sit tight, all right? And roll up this window.”
“It’ll be hot.”
“I’ll be back soon.”
Harper walked to the back of the car. Holly leaned and half crawled over his seat to crank the handle and bring the window up. Good girl. He looked both ways, and fetched his gloves from the trunk.
Harper had spotted the ripple pumping gas. The radio song that streamed from the overhead speakers had just changed to a song by Brian Stoker, the latest pop sensation.
There’s a monster in me
I won’t deny it
Holly had bobbed to the music. She loved Brian Stoker.
Outside, the ripple filled his Kia at the next pump. Portly SOB. He went about his business like any human would. Then, all at once, just for a second or two, his face twitched, then turned, then his entire body moved with a rapidity the likes of which Harper had seen but six times in his life. That’s why Harper started calling them ripples. They shook like watching water in motion—violent but smooth, profound but gone in the next instant.
The ripple headed into the convenience store. Harper followed. A drop of sweat ran down his back. Holly was right about the heat, and he only grew hotter in the afternoon sun.
Harper had seen five ripples on the road thus far. Two by design—he had followed the news reports of murders to get a sense of where they would be—then three like this one, who he ran into out of happenstance.
Harper was in luck. The ripple had already come back out the door before Harper got there, big block of wood in his fat hand, attached to the lavatory key. A private bathroom was as good a spot as Harper could hope for.
The ripple walked around the side of the building and opened up the bathroom with a jingle of the keys. Harper hurried after, caught the door just before it closed.
“Sorry, buddy. Single stall. I’ll be out quick.”
Harper punched the ripple in the face hard enough to feel the crunch of nose breaking against knuckles. Harper locked the bathroom door behind him.
The ripple ducked his head and put his arms up. He wasn’t a fighter. Harper kicked the toe of his cowboy boot into the ripple’s ribs. That brought the ripple’s hands down. From there, Harper caught hold of the ripple’s head and slammed it down against the toilet, snapping his neck in the process.
It didn’t feel right to take anything off the ripple’s body, like it might be infected. But then, Harper hadn’t seen any evidence you could get hurt via touch and he had to be practical. He intended to make it from that township of Iowa to Los Angeles in three days off nothing more than the cash on his person. He would need supplements. The ripple had sixty-four dollars in his wallet—enough for dinner and a cheap motel that night.
Harper washed the blood from his hands and inspected himself to make sure he didn’t wear any other signs of battle. He soaked a paper towel in the sink and headed outside, leaving the key in there with the ripple. That might be the store’s only copy, and that would keep them from finding the body until nightfall. He would have crossed well into Nebraska by then.
Harper stashed the gloves back in the trunk and got in the car. He rubbed the paper towel over the lower half of Holly’s face, to wipe away the gunk, then tossed it in the backseat.
They hit the road again.
Woodbridge bit into his doughnut. The dark jelly oozed out like blood, as though he’d bitten into flesh rather than pastry. Andrews watched him, if just to be sure the filling didn’t spill on the upholstery.
Andrews drove her Saturn west on I-76 on the hunch that they really were on Harper Chase’s trail. Most of their targets ran. Chase was among the few on the move from the very beginning, and one of the few who traveled this far. People usually sought refuge with people and places they knew—stayed with family, friends, ex-lovers. Chase was on the move to someplace new, though, his only kin riding shotgun.
“So Chase hits the road and decides to take a six year old with him.” The jelly only reached as far as Woodbridge’s red beard, from which he seemed content to lick at it between sentences, like an overgrown housecat. “Doesn’t it occur to him that’s gonna slow him down?”
“He might not even know we’re coming after him.”
“Guy leaves a string of bodies from West Virginia to Iowa, and he doesn’t think anybody’s coming?”
“I’m not sure Chase is thinking that clearly.” Andrews looked back to check her blind spot. “Besides, he might be out of options. Didn’t want to leave his daughter behind, and he couldn’t stay put himself.”
Woodbridge was new to this business of trailing people. Andrews knew it all too well. She distracted herself from the possibilities of what could happen to a little girl by playing the game where she looked for every letter of alphabet on road signs and license plates.
A half hour later, they pulled into the gas station just south of Iowa City. Andrews followed the yellow police tape that surrounded the bathroom at the side of the building. Woodbridge followed after her.
The first policeman stopped her, as they always did. Surely, he looked at Andrews as a skinny woman in a trench coat, looking to sneak a peek and gossip about the tragedy that would lead off the six o’clock news.
Andrews flashed her badge before the cop had a chance to speak. “FBI.” She kept walking. “What have we got?”
Harper always expected he would die before his wife, Lucy. Simple probability. He drank too much whiskey. He never fastened his seatbelt. He didn’t exercise like he should. More often than not, he considered Lucy all he really had that was worth living for—that is, until they had Holly. Then he had two reasons.
Holly pressed her forehead against the window and snored softly. Harper knew it wasn’t right to keep a kid cooped up in a car for so many hours, but he didn’t have any alternatives. They no longer followed a trail, but rather had a destination. They needed to get to LA before Saturday night.
Ahead of them, the sun glowed a deep orange, like an egg yolk embedded in a lavender sky. Harper turned on his headlights.
Two weeks earlier, he never would have seen himself driving through this section of the country. A lot could change in a little bit of time. In two weeks, he had had a hands-on introduction to ripples.
Ripples seemed sort of like vampires. They stalked their prey and mostly killed people, but converted a certain percentage of them into monsters themselves.
Harper found Lucy strangled in the backseat of her Jetta. The car radio was still on playing that stupid Brian Stoker song. The ripple’s body shook and blurred, and immediately, Harper knew something wasn’t right about him. He slammed the bastard’s head against the hood of the car until there was nothing left but a pool of blood in the dented metal.
The way that ripple moved convinced Harper that no human killed his wife.
Harper might have let it rest at that, but when he turned on CNN when he got home, he saw the word about a random murder in a parking lot in rural Indiana. The police had no suspects, and it all sounded too familiar. He woke up Holly, got her in the car and they drove out that very night. Sure enough, he found another man who moved with a lightning fast tremor. Harper handled him in short order.
When Harper went back to the motel, two ripple kills under his belt, he found Holly watching TV. She complained because they had just missed Brian Stoker in concert, and if only they had come a day earlier, she could have seen him.
Brian Stoker. The pop idol, the twenty-something who girls as young as Holly swooned over. Harper laughed it off and put her to bed. After she fell asleep, he soaked a washcloth in the bathroom, then sat by the TV light, rubbing bloodstains out of his jeans. He heard a story about another murder in Illinois. And so, the father and daughter continued west.
After another kill, he came back to the new motel room to hear Holly complain again about just missing Brian Stoker. That’s when Harper noticed the pattern.
Stoker left a trail of bodies and new ripples behind him as he toured the country. Maybe her turned everyone who came to his shows. Maybe Harper’s kills had taken out single ripples among thousands of new ones in a given town.
Harper considered all of this as he and Holly walked through a grocery store, gathering breakfast and snack foods for the next leg of the road. He considered following the tour, or trying to get a couple steps ahead of it, and be waiting for Stoker at a later stop.
Holly wandered off for a second, and when she came back, she clutched the glossy pages of a magazine. A handsome young man with a clean shave adorned the front cover and bold yellow print appeared beneath his face—ALL THE DETAILS ON BRIAN STOKER’S TOUR AND WHY HIS L.A. CONCERT MAY BE THE BIGGEST ONE OF HIS LIFE.
Harper flipped through the pages right there in the frozen food section, and ran a hand over the heavy stubble collecting on his cheek. The Los Angeles concert would take place in the Staples Center, where organizers expected a packed house of 20,000 fans. A show like that—it would be the perfect chance to convert an army.
“Can I get it?” Holly looked up at him with those big blue eyes. “The magazine?”
Harper rubbed a hand on top of her head. “Sure thing, sweetheart.”
Back in the car, in the present moment, Holly slept with that magazine spread over her lap, the pages wrinkled and dog-eared. Harper could almost see the blur of Stoker moving, the king of the ripples. Harper would stop Brian Stoker. He would protect the city of Los Angeles, the country, the world.
Andrews opened her eyelids the slightest bit and peered out at the passing countryside. The thing about driving this stretch of I-76 was that everything looked the same, just stretches of grass and trees. Short of mile markers or signs announcing the next town, she couldn’t tell how far they had traveled. She couldn’t tell if she had been asleep for an hour or mere seconds before Woodbridge started talking to her.
“I don’t know if we should look for a pattern.” He peered straight ahead through Aviators that looked oddly large and misshapen over his eyes, as though the frame were bent, or one of the temple arms stretched longer than the other. “The guy kills his wife and some guy back home. Then he hits the road and knocks off five more wrong-place-wrong-timers. He’s a homicidal maniac, which means no plan necessary.”
Andrews craned her neck to one side. “Chase might not have a plan. But as a general rule, serial killers follow an internal logic. They don’t think of what they’re doing as random or wrong.”
“You’re saying Chase is on some sort of crusade?”
“Might not be that righteous. But he does think there’s a reason to kill these people.”
“You have to wonder if the kid has any idea what’s going on.”
They passed a billboard, half of it consumed with the face of a young man about Woodbridge’s age, his features blurred with a combination of makeup and computer wizardry to end up in a face without blemishes, without lines, without character. The other half of the board announced that Brian Stoker was coming to Omaha.
Woodbridge tapped the brakes as they rounded a curve. Despite the level roads, he sped up and slowed the car more than any normal driver. Andrews felt her motion sickness taking shape, the nausea preparing to set in. She had let Woodbridge to drive so she could rest her eyes, but now she wondered how long she would need to wait before she could tactfully take back the wheel.
“I hope she doesn’t know what her father’s doing,” Andrews answered at last. “I hope she never has to find out.”
Harper scanned the Half Dollar Diner from his seat in an electric blue, ripped-vinyl booth. He knew not to get too comfortable. His only advantages remained that he looked for trouble, and knew what to look for.
A heavyset woman in a pastel green dress set down their plates with a smile. She wore a busted nametag that read LOUANNA, and spoke with a Midwestern accent. Harper watched her eyes, big and blue, then he watched her walk away, eying a tattoo of a horse’s head with a snake’s body on her calf.
The orange liquid cheese bubbled atop Holly’s elbow macaroni. When Holly was younger, all they could get her to eat at dinner time was macaroni and cheese. She had asked for it at the last three diner stops as well.
“Can we call Mom tonight?” Holly moved the macaroni around with her fork. She was a good kid. She stopped asking about home, or seeing her mother, settled for the phone.
“I don’t think so, sweetheart.” He picked up his burger—to the diner’s credit, a hulking piece of meat with generous fixings.
“When can we?”
“We’ll call her from California.” Harper drank from his glass of chocolate milk. Prior to hitting the road, he hadn’t had chocolate milk in decades, but when Holly ordered it at their first stop, it seemed reasonable. Couldn’t well down a bunch of whiskey or beer if he hoped to keep driving, and soda would get him all jittery. He was developing a taste for chocolate milk, though. He contemplated buying a couple packs of Yoo-Hoo at the next grocery store.
He hated lying to Holly. Omitting the facts was a natural part of the journey—he couldn’t tell a six year old she could be surrounded by ripples, or that one of them killed her mother, or that her favorite pop singer ruled them all. No, all that would do is give a little girl bad dreams. But he tried to avoid telling her falsehoods. He didn’t want to get in the habit, or risk getting caught in a lie and losing her trust.
Harper lied about the call to Lucy as both a stalling tactic, and a beacon of hope. If they made it to LA, and he got to Brian Stoker, and he made it out alive, then he could deal with Holly’s disappointment. If he beat the odds in all those other ways, he imagined he could weather a little girl’s tears, and maybe take her to Disneyland afterwards to cheer her up before the they started their new life together in earnest.
He got ahead of himself.
Harper had wolfed down three quarters of his burger before Holly had more than two or three bites of her macaroni. “What’s the matter? Any good?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“We gotta keep you fed, or else you won’t ever grow. No man’s gonna marry a little girl he can fit in his pocket.” He reached out and touched her cheek. “Am I right?”
She gave him the same weary smile her mother used to when he and his buddies got to telling hunting stories. Too old of a smile for a girl like Holly. “You’re right, Dad.” She picked up her spoon, a single elbow on it, and slipped it between her lips.
“How about I let you skip dinner tonight, and we go straight on to dessert?”
Harper had eyed the lemon meringue pie when they walked in. It looked all fancy with the egg-whites and sugar foaming over the filling. Seemed like the kind of place where they might have whipped up real lemons, as opposed to that canned crap. He wondered if Holly had ever had pie like that.
When Louanna brought their slice, Holly dabbed at the meringue with her fork. She carried the smallest swipe of the stuff to bring back to her mouth, tasted it and smiled.
“Now the secret to eating a good lemon meringue pie is to get a little bit of everything in each bite.” Harper swung his fork over to her side of the table and pointed to each layer. “See the white part is sweet, but it’s light and doesn’t have a lot of flavor. And the lemon has the flavor, but it’s too sour on its own. They balance each other out, you see? And the crust at the bottom gives it all something to stand on. It ain’t pretty, and it’s no good on its own. But it’s the foundation. Without it, you don’t have a pie.”
Holly followed his lead and took a bite with a little bit of everything. They alternated scoops from the slice, and Harper took small servings so she could eat most of it. He noticed her fork strokes coming in at a diagonal slant, so she’d get an inch-wide swatch of meringue, a little less lemon, and the smallest scrap of crust. Harper followed after. He swallowed the hard parts.
“The Half Dollar Diner,” Woodbridge read aloud from the orange neon sign, on which the light of the second D had burned out. “Think that means they have a half dollar menu? Or everything’s half price?”
“I think it’s just a name.” Andrews slammed her door shut.
“You know, I was jonesing for a burger before, but now I’m thinking about some meatloaf.”
Andrews walked ahead of him. It was just after 8, and the gravel parking lot was about one third full, more than half the vehicles pickup trucks. A couple motorcycles leaned on their kickstands just outside the door.
Inside, the middle aged crowd sat at the counter with sandwiches clenched in their hands. A group of teenagers sat at a long table with a feast of the battered and fried—onion rings, mozzarella sticks, wings, potato skins.
“Table for two?” the hostess chirped. She looked young at a quick glance, but on closer inspection wore deep lines around her mouth and decades-aged nicotine stains on her middle and forefingers.
“Yes, ma’am.” Woodbridge answered automatically.
“Not so fast.” Andrews removed the glossy photo she had been flashing across the last 2,000 miles. “Does this gentleman look familiar to you?”
The hostess squinted her eyes. “He does. I think he was here, maybe an hour ago.” She turned her head to the side. “Louanna, come over here.”
The waitress glided over with a fluidity that defied her heavyset frame.
“Louanna, didn’t you wait on him?”
“I absolutely did. He had the lemon meringue pie.”
Andrews swallowed. Of all things, her eyes fixed on the pie tin in the glass display case. Only two or three slices of lemon meringue remained, depending on how wide the diner cut them. “Did this man have a little girl with him?”
Louanna nodded. “Sure did. Cute kid, but she hadn’t bathed for days from the look of her.”
“Did they say where they were going?”
Louanna shook her head. “He yawned a lot. I got the feeling he was gonna hit the sack after they left.”
Andrews replaced the photo in her coat pocket and removed her little notepad and ball point pen. “Ma’am, could you tell me where I can find the nearest hotel or motel?”
“There’s Twin Oaks just a half mile up the road,” the hostess said.
Andrews started to write it down.
“No.” Louanna shook her head. “They drove the other way.” Her bottom lip shook, and she put a hand over her mouth. “I knew something wasn’t right. That little girl looked so dirty, and the guy let her get by on mac and cheese and pie. I watched them go. I was looking for a sign or something. And, my God, he abducted her didn’t he? That’s why you’re asking all this?”
Woodbridge put a hand on her shoulder. “I assure you, ma’am, everything will be quite all right. Now can you tell us the first place hotel or motel they would find that way?”
Louanna inhaled through her nostrils, sucking back snot. She was on the verge of tears, and Andrews felt certain if she did start crying they wouldn’t get another word out of her for the better part of an hour. “The Money Saver Inn. It’s just two or three miles down the road.”
“More like four,” the hostess said. “If they stayed on the main road, that’s where they would end up.”
Holly shivered. Her hair was still wet. A breeze blew over the rooftop, right against Harper’s back. He held Holly to his chest to shield her from it, and to keep her from seeing him cry.
One minute, they shared pie. The next, they were back on the road. The next, he told her to go in the motel bathroom and take a bath.
Holly took too long in there, as girls would. Harper let it go for about 15 minutes before he knocked on the door and told her to get ready for bed.
Harper flipped around the TV channels until he came upon Brian Stoker’s face. He stood on stage, singing “Monster.” “Sweetheart,” he called, “your boyfriend’s on TV.”
Holly opened the door a crack so she could hear, and squealed in delight at the familiar voice. A couple seconds later, she stood out there, sopping wet, huddled in a bath towel. She bobbed her knees to the beat until the newscaster’s voice drowned out Stoker’s.
“Brian Stoker’s performance was a hit at Brighton War Memorial, and if his young fans have their way, he’ll be back soon.” The newscaster grinned a sly little grin, then segued into her next story.
Holly bounced and kept on singing the song that no longer played. Harper reclined on the bed and watched her. He watched her until her head jerked to one side, then twisted the opposite way, then her whole body began to blur.
Harper took her to the roof to keep anyone from hearing; to maximize the time before anyone found the body. He didn’t know how the ripples got to her. His best guess was one got her in the diner bathroom.
“I’m cold.” She tried to turn to him, but Harper held fast with his hands on her shoulders.
“It’s OK, honey. Just look at the stars. Just for another minute.”
Andrews followed the trail of water—first, little footprints, then just drops—from the door to Chase’s motel room to the ladder bolted to the side of the yellow exterior wall that led up to the roof.
Andrews peeked over the flat roof. At first, all she saw was a man in a white t-shirt, jeans, cowboy boots, standing with his back to her. The stars shone brightly the way they only did over small towns and countryside. She didn’t have enough light to positively identify Chase, but she felt sure enough to duck back down and pull her revolver.
Andrews got onto the roof quietly and clenched both hands around the handle of the gun. She pointed it to Chase’s left leg and waited. Chase kept his back to them. Woodbridge focused his own gun on Chase’s other leg.
“Mr. Chase,” Andrews called. “This is the FBI. Put your hands up.”
When Chase lifted his hands, the body fell. The body—too small for Andrews to have seen it before. She took five measured steps closer to get a better look.. The little girl’s wet hair flopped over her face and pajamas.
Andrews knew in that moment that there was little chance Chase would leave the rooftop alive. One menacing step, one failure to comply with a directive was all the provocation she needed to end him.
“Turn around, Mr. Chase.”
“Step away from the girl.”
Chase looked down slowly, as if he hadn’t known the little girl was there at all.
“Step away, Mr. Chase.”
He took a series of clumsy side steps away from her.
Woodbridge crouched at the girl’s side. “No pulse.”
“I didn’t have a choice.” Chase breathed heavily. “She was one of them.”
“Did you have a choice about your wife?” Andrews asked. “Or the man she was sleeping with?”
Chase’s chest heaved. “They weren’t sleeping together. He killed—”
“You found them in her car and you beat him to death, then you strangled your wife.”
“Then you hit the road and killed more people. David Roberts. Anna Furro. Xavier Starks. Mitch Rodriguez. Simon McConnel. Did you know their names?”
“You don’t—” Chase stopped short, and his eyes went wide.
Andrews held her gun steady and watched as his eyes shifted from left to right, then up and down. His pupils bounced like a racquetball, faster than Andrews would have imagined possible. The movement carried on for about three seconds.
Chase’s eyes steadied. He blinked twice. “I should have guessed.” He lunged forward.
Andrews fired two rounds in his chest that seemed to stop him in place, then a third shot into his forehead.
Woodbridge stood from the girl’s side and walked over to Chase’s body. “What was that?”
Andrews didn’t have an answer that night. The only answer that would come to her arrived a day later, after a sleepless night, back on the road, where she saw the yellow lines that divided eastbound from westbound shift for a second—a result of an uneven paintjob.
“You look down in a pond and see yourself looking back at you,” she said. “You toss a rock in and watch the image get distorted. You assume you made it ripple—that the man in the water isn’t real. But for all you know, that man in the water just shook you so hard you thought you saw waves. For you all know, you can’t walk away from that man in the water. He has to walk away from you.”
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is currently an MFA candidate in creative writing and a writing instructor at Oregon State University. He won the 2014 Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction has previously published fiction in journals including Bayou Magazine, The Rappahannock Review, and CaKe: A Journal of Poetry and Art. You can read more of his work at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.
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