A Suspense Novel of Crime and Mystery
September 24, 1957
He sat motionless in the nearly deserted Jefferson theater in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, as the figures on the screen flickered before him. His eyes were fixed on the young woman two rows in front of him. Tonight was the night.
Marilyn Larsen stared straight ahead, a smile etched on her face, captivated by the images of Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, and Kim Novak in Pal Joey. She popped her last malted milk ball into her mouth and took a sip of Coke, then, in the darkness, set the almost-empty cup on the sticky floor under her seat.
Tuesday nights the striking twenty-two-year-old indulged her passion. Every week she sat in the same chair, in the same row, and lost herself in the make-believe world of the movies.
He focused on her petite frame, noticing every move like a wild animal stalking its prey. Each smile, each laugh, the way she ran a hand through her long blond hair, twirling it into a curl near her chest.
He appeared harmless. And quite ordinary. With his square jaw, thick neck, and stocky body, he could have passed for a wrestler at the nearby University of Virginia had he been a bit younger than his twenty-four years. Wrestle, however, he once did with the dark thoughts that had taken control of him.
As the final frames of the movie flashed on the screen, she stood up, not waiting for the credits or the house lights. The brown vinyl seat bottom, cracked and faded from decades of use in the old movie house, creaked gently.
Passing quickly through the ornate lobby, she pushed open the oak-framed theater door with ease. The salty aroma of popcorn, which had been so tantalizing moments before, was replaced by a rush of chilly September night air. She paused for a moment and inhaled deeply, then exhaled, amused as the vapor of her breath rose upward, vanishing in the glow of the flashing white lights on the theater marquee.
She clutched her camel hair coat tightly and turned the corner into the dark shadows.
Within minutes her light blue Chevrolet Impala sedan passed the train station on West Main Street. She glided along, lost in a fantasy with Frank Sinatra. Would she ever find the man of her dreams?
A red light at Fourteenth Street and University Avenue brought her back to reality. Her car vibrated as a passing freight train rumbled across the bridge above, almost drowning out Elvis Presley blaring on the radio. Soon the Chevy's tires came to a noisy halt on the short gravel driveway of her house at 222 Fourteenth Street.
The headlights blinked off. The engine fell silent. Lifting up on the handle, she gave the heavy metal door a shove with her left shoulder, slipped out, and forcefully slammed the door shut, all in one fluid motion.
A moment later, on the porch of her three-story, tan stucco house, she closed her eyes and again breathed deeply. Once. Twice. Then a third time, reveling in the first cold burst of autumn.
Out of the night, he moved effortlessly into position through the shadows, avoiding detection in the bright moonlight. He locked on to her, observing her, never letting her escape his sight, as if she were caught, helpless, in a bell jar. His heart pounded. Adrenaline surged through him at the sight of her silky hair shimmering under the solitary porch light. He wiped beads of cold sweat from his forehead.
She inserted the key into the dead bolt and pushed open the beveled glass front door. The inside latch locked behind her with a loud click. Walking into the narrow foyer, she flicked on a light and dropped her keys and purse next to a telephone perched on the marble-topped entry hall table.
Just as she hung her coat on an antique hat rack, a noise from behind startled her. A frenzied, metallic-toned rattling at the front door. Whirling around, her breath left her.
A wild-eyed young man clutched the doorknob, twisting it furiously. He mouthed out a silent command. "Open the door, bitch!" Fury flared across his face.
Her heart skipped a beat. Panic seized her. Shaking, she grabbed the black rotary-dial telephone. It crashed onto the hardwood floor with a hollow ring.
"Go away!" she screamed, fumbling for the phone. "Go away!" Cowering in the farthest corner of the entry hall, she pressed the receiver to her ear and dialed.
The beady eyes of the assailant narrowed. The stainless steel blade of his small axe gleamed under the bright porch light. Gripping the handle tightly with both hands, he reared his arms back like a batter at the plate.
"Operator," finally answered a placid female voice.
"Help me! A man is breaking into my house! He has an axe! I'm on Fourteenth-"
The front door exploded. Hundreds of sharp shards of glass zinged inward, pinging off the walls and floor. He flew across the room. In an instant he was on top of her. The receiver banged to the floor.
The thick fingers of his left hand closed around her neck. Frozen, she could only stare at his crazed face. One eye was pale blue, the other green. The right eye, the green one, began to twitch.
"Say goodnight!" he snarled through clenched teeth. He tightened his grip.
She tried to scream. Nothing. Only the muffled sounds of her straining to breathe. She tried to poke at his eyes, to grab his curly brown hair.
Just as she sank into unconsciousness, he eased his grip.
She wheezed, gasping under his weight. The last thing she saw was the upraised blunt end of the axe in his right hand, swinging down toward the side of her head.
The sound of the blow resounded through the open telephone line. "Hello? Hello?" pleaded the operator.
He picked up the receiver and gently placed it in its cradle. Then he ripped open the woman's tan blouse. As white pearl buttons bounced playfully across the floor, he began to work. With short, knowing strokes he hacked, in search of his treasure.
"Oh, since you're filling in for other people," Perry said, "you know we'll be one short in Homicide with Mills out of commission. I think we might be able to use you a couple of days a week. How about it?"
"Don't think so," O'Riley replied as he leaned to kiss Nancy's cheek. "My heart's just not in it."