Monday, November 24, 2014

The KIller



A cop-killer was at large in the mountains of north-eastern Pennsylvania. The killer lured a highway patrol car to a rest-stop on a deserted stretch of freeway east of Scranton and shot the officer in the face and throat. He, then, waited in ambush and killed another patrolman coming to the rescue of the first officer. A motorist who saw the second killing, identified the murderer’s pick-up truck. But that vehicle was found abandoned on a fire-road in the mountains a dozen miles away. The pick-up truck was registered to an ex-Marine said to be a loner and survivalist. The murderer’s motives were unknown.

Armies of police searched the densely wooded and rugged mountains, but they found no trace of the fugitive. Rumors of his whereabouts multiplied and many people claimed to have glimpsed the cop-killer. There was a report that he was holed-up in an industrial site in Scranton, or that he had gone to Harrisburg to launch a suicide attack on the nuclear plant at Three-Mile Island. A clerk at a convenience store sold a six-pack of beer and some Swisher Sweets to a haggard man dressed in a camouflage suit. A bird-watcher saw a shadowy figure with a long-gun lurking near a swamp in a State Forest. Hikers came across odd marks blazed on trees and heard voices echoing in rocky gorges inaccessible without ropes and crampons. Someone broke into several summer cabins at the end of a long and rutted dirt road and took cans of food and cases of ammunition. A girl driving back to college in New York City saw a lone hitchhiker holding a rifle on the edge of the road in the middle of the night.

Before the Rotary meeting in Diademata, a small Pennsylvania town about thirty miles from the Delaware Water Gap, people talked about the football season and hunting deer and the search for the fugitive cop-killer. The county sheriff was in attendance at the meeting, surrounded by fellow Rotarians asking him about the man-hunt. The county sheriff was a little man with a pock-marked complexion wearing dark-glasses. "Right now the search is focused in the south part of Wayne County, up by the reservoir," the sheriff said. "This guy is armed and very, very dangerous. And he’s a coward. He killed those two patrolman from ambush, never showed his face." Someone asked the sheriff if he thought that the search might shift a little south to the mountainous terrain of their county. "Of course," the sheriff said. "If they don’t catch him in the next week, teams will start combing the back-country around here."

Claude was the director of Human Resources at Legacy Quality Chicken, local poultry processing plant. The plant was located on the edge of town in a wooded canyon so beautiful that, from time to time, local legislators suggested acquiring the processing facility by eminent domain, bulldozing it, and establishing a state park on the site. But the chicken slaughtering plant was old and had a venerable history in the town and, although none of the local people worked there anymore, it was a major employer in the county. Claude wondered out loud if the search parties would hike up the valley beyond the plant to the ghost town of Determination. "Of course," the County Sheriff said. "If you were a fugitive and knew the area, wouldn’t you want to hide up there." Claude nodded his head and squinted across the table to his labor recruiter, Mr. Cortez. Mr. Cortez smiled inscrutably.

Legacy Quality Chicken employed immigrant workers, people bused in to Dalrymple from the outer boroughs of New York and the slums of New Jersey. The workers in the plant didn’t speak English and didn’t mingle with the local people. They were housed in military-style barracks in the valley next to the poultry plant behind high barb-wire fences. For many years, the immigrants had been Spanish-speaking laborers from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, but the ethnic composition of the workers had shifted in the last several years to tall, skinny Sudanese, black as pitch, and little, heavily tattooed Asian workers, refugees from Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. The workers came and went and, except at the plant, no one kept track of them. The townspeople grumbled about the situation and cast aspersions on the workers, but none of the Rotarians wanted their children to be employed at Legacy Quality Chicken and, since the place was hidden in the hilly outskirts of town, far enough away that it couldn’t be smelled downtown, most of the time no one thought about it one way or the other.

The Rotary club members said the pledge of allegiance and bowed their heads in prayer. Someone led some songs and the men and women gathered in the banquet room of the Holiday Inn sang lustily. The noon program was a status report from the Superintendent of Schools. The speech was called "Challenges and Opportunities" and the Superintendent read his remarks from a half-dozen closely typed sheets.

One of the challenges, he told his fellow Rotarians, was educating the children of the immigrant workers, a task complicated by the outlandish languages that they spoke and their parents’ transient lives. The Superintendent said that students would be enrolled for several months and, then, suddenly would vanish from the school. "No one knows where they have gone or why," the Superintendent said. Mr. Cortez and Claude held their heads up defiantly during this part of the Superintendent’s speech, looking at him with fixed and disinterested expressions on their faces. It passed soon enough: the Superintendent talked about asbestos remediation in the old elementary school and the new football bleachers and the prospects for the High School’s teams in basketball and wrestling, the football season having now just concluded.

After the talk, an HVAC contractor at their table asked Claude about the workers at the poultry plant. "This time of year is hard for us," Claude said. "People tend to go back to their families for the Holiday Season. We can lose four or five workers a week." "How can you keep them here?" the HVAC contractor said. "I just don’t know," Claude replied. "It’s always a problem."

The Chief of Police for Diademata said that he expected search parties to muster in town next week. The HVAC contractor laughed and said: "Who knows what the search parties will find once they get back up in the woods and the hills?" A fat lawyer with a goatee said: "I bet you’re worried about your marijuana plantations up there." "It’s a known fact," the contractor said. "There’s a lot of dope grown up in those hills." The Chief of Police nodded with a serious expression on his face. The lawyer continued: "Well, in your case –" and he waved his plump hand at the HVAC contractor – "I bet it’s your moonshine operation, your still up there in the hollows." "My lips are sealed," the HVAC contractor said. The Chief of Police was resplendent in his uniform and his side-arm was neatly packed away in its black leather holster on his hip. "It’s true," the Police Chief said, "there’s a lot of moonshining up on those ridges." "And bears," someone else said. "I heard that the search parties for that cop-killer kept running into bears, bears in caves, hibernating and none too friendly." The Police Chief nodded: "It’s true. That’s a known fact."

Sam and Tom were brothers and they operated a janitorial service that employed surly veterans from the wars in the Middle East, misanthropes and cheerful retarded people. The janitorial service provided cleaning to the office suite at the poultry processing plant. Sam and Tom came out of the Rotary Club meeting, blinking in the bright sunlight in the Holiday Inn parking lot. Mr. Cortez and Claude stood close together, their heads almost touching, whispering. When Mr. Cortez saw Sam and Tom approaching, he shook his head to end his conversation with Claude and looked up at the two brothers. Then, Mr. Cortez turned his face back to Claude and he tapped him gently on the shoulder.

Claude started as if shocked by an electrical current. He turned away from Mr. Cortez and walked up to Sam and Tom, extending his hand to shake with them.

"Good to see you," Claude said.

"It’s nice to see you too," Sam replied and Tom nodded.

"I know you guys are great hunters," Claude said.

"We try. I don’t mind getting my deer, but, sometimes, it’s more fun to just walk around in the woods when you get to be our age," Tom said. "Sometimes, you kind of hope you won’t even see any deer."

"Have you got your deer this year?" Claude asked.

Both men said that they hadn’t had any luck.

"Okay," Claude said. He paused: "You know, up a little past Determination..."

The two men looked at him curiously.

"I’ve got a real nice deer-stand up there," Claude said. "If you want to use it this weekend, it’s yours."

Tom thanked him but said that he didn’t want to interfere with Claude’s hunting territory. Sam said: "We’ve got a place we favor and –"

Claude interrupted: "I hurt my the plant. I ain’t going this year. And here’s the thing: there’s not one but two real nice bucks up in those hills. I saw them this Spring. Huge racks, twelve-point at least."

Sam asked: "What were you doing up there?"

Claude paused and looked at Mr. Cortez. Then he said: "Checking on the deer-stand. To see how it came through the winter. That’s when I saw the bucks. Two of them, just beautiful animals."

"And you don’t care if we hunt them from your deer-stand?" Tom asked.

"Not at all," Claude said. "I’m insisting. Are you going this weekend?"

"We were planning to," Sam said.

"Then, go on up there this Saturday and see if you can find them," Claude said. "I insist. Stop by the plant before you leave (I’m working) and I’ll draw you a map to the deer-stand."



Determination was a village located three or four miles up the gorge from Diademata. Fifty years earlier, the Army Corps of Engineers planned to dam the canyon where it narrowed upstream from the poultry processing plant. Once, there had been mines in the ridge above Determination but they had failed and the town was mostly abandoned. A couple years after it lost its post-office, the government bought the land on which the village was built, relocated the few people remaining there, and fenced off the valley preliminary to constructing the dam. The reservoir planned for the valley was the pet project of one of the State’s senators, but, when that congressman was indicted for bribery, funding for the dam was not forthcoming. The project was debated for a decade or so and, then, forgotten. Then, a landslide blocked the old gravel road leading to Determination. Since the government owned the land and had closed it for the reservoir that was never built, the rubble piled-up on the road was never removed. The government’s fencing around the ghost-town was porous, a dozen yards here and there where the land was level. But most of the valley was vertical with cliffs brooding over deep hollows that plunged down between the narrow, stony ridges and, even, where the fence was installed and set in concrete-filled postholes, it was not maintained and sportsmen had slashed holes in the wire so that they could hunt the wild country in the hills above Diademata.

The poultry processing plant stood on a terrace overlooking the river that skipped and darted downhill in whitewater rapids between black palisades. Big earthen berms had been built around the plant to protect it from flooding that occurred sometimes in the Spring or after heavy rains. The berms gave the chicken plant the appearance of a fortification, a decaying and moribund castle squatting behind grassy earthworks. The plant was very old and had a tall smokestack that wasn’t used any more, a big pillar of reddish brick rising above piles of more reddish brick, a heaped-up structure of indeterminate shape complicated, as it was, by new additions, a modern wing studded with excrescences of refrigeration equipment annexed to old windowless walls pierced with slide-like fire-escapes and writhing metal pipes.

Downhill from the poultry plant, also protected by grassy berms and high wire fences, two big dormitories sat side-by-side. Lights mounted on steel pillars surveyed the housing for the immigrant workers and the hillside lot where the white foremen and managers parked their SUVs and pick-up trucks. Across the river from the parking lot, a spring gushed silvery cascades of water down a cliff and the stone around the spring was all soft and feathery with ferns and deep green moss.

Sam and Tom met Claude in the parking lot on Saturday as the first light brightened the sky over the canyon. They had hauled their ATVs up to the plant on a flat-bed towed behind their pickup-truck. "Is it okay to park here," Sam and Tom asked. Claude was bright-eyed, holding a cup of coffee between his palms to warm his hands. "Of course," Claude said.

The air in the narrow valley smelled of rotting flesh and between the trees there were windrows of yellowing feathers. Trucks carrying poultry came up the road to unload at the plant and, sometimes, the feathers flew off those vehicles as if it were snowing in the deep and gloomy canyon. Claude handed Sam a hand-drawn map showing the location of his deer-stand.

"Will you check things out for me up there?" Claude said. "Give the place the eye and let me know if you see anything out of the ordinary?" "What would be out of the ordinary?" Tom asked. "Maybe, you’ll see the cop-killer," Claude said. "Or some sign of him."

"Maybe," Sam said.

"Anyway, if you see anything at all unusual, you’ll let me know, won’t you," Claude said.

"Okay," Tom and Sam told him. They hitched their rifles over their shoulders and drove up the valley, passing by the plant and continuing along the side of river that sang in its rocky channel. As they passed the plant, Mr. Cortez came out of a door on the side of the building and saluted them.

The river road bent uphill, not maintained, an obstacle course of deep craters and scattered heaps of rock-fall from overhanging cliffs. An orange barricade dead-ended the road a dozen yards from the landslide. The rubble collapsed onto the road was overgrown with scrub and small, desperate-looking trees rooted in the crevasses between boulders and slabs of stone. The pores in the towering heap of rocks caught the rainfall and snow and ice buried in the heart of the landslide remained sheltered there year round. Because of the hidden ice, the hillside exuded a chill like a refrigerator and a musty, wet fragrance. A narrow trail skirted the toe of the landslide, a stony ledge above the frothy river.

Sam and Tom drove their ATVs on the course of the old road up the gorge toward Determination. The road dipped into a couple of wash-outs and, then, dead-ended again at a high cyclone fence stretched across the canyon. The section of the fence crossing the old road was cut open and, in fact, the entire panel of wire, from post to post, could be pushed inward like a hinged gate. "No Trespassing" signs on the fence had been shot to pieces.

From the fence, it was two miles to Determination. Almost nothing was left of the townsite. A brick wall slumped into a cellar that had once been square but was now eroded into an eye-shaped ellipse. Some gravel driveways led to slabs of shattered concrete where old tar shingles were scattered in the weeds. The houses were all gone, but a couple of crumbling sheds and a woodpile remained. In the crest of the cliffs above the ghost-town, there were fans of gravel and chipped rock spreading out downhill from several dark indentations in the bluff. Some rusting cable and a few big timbers were embedded in the conical heaps of gravel.

Tom took out the map that Claude had drawn and, after parking the ATVs, followed a footpath to an old cast-iron bridge crossing the river. Sam pointed to the deer-stand, a clumsy-looking plywood platform suspended on a precarious-looking two-by-four frame. They climbed the tree supporting the platform using some lathe rungs nailed to the trunk’s bark. A couple of aluminum folding chairs lay on the platform. Sam and Tom opened them up and sat down. From their height, they surveyed the valley.

After an hour or so, Tom pointed to something bright hidden in trees across the river and a hundred yards upstream.

"Do you see that?"

Sam nodded: "I noticed it about ten minutes ago."

"I suppose we should check it out," Tom said.

"I suppose," Sam replied.

They climbed down from the stand and walked across the cast-iron bridge. A fine mist filled the air, almost drizzle but not quite. A wide rutted trail ran alongside the river to the trees where the object was hidden. It was invisible from the path because of small hillocks of gravel and fist-sized rocks, apparently cast up from some vertical shafts. The sides of the shafts had collapsed into funnels of slippery sand and small stones, heavy timbers like railroad ties tilted downward into the dark pits. There were two bonfire sites, circles of black char that had a sweet, foul odor and, then, a round, cistern-like hole into which someone had pushed loose rock, apparently using a machine like a bulldozer. The air smelled of rotting meat.

"Something died here," Tom said.

"I think it’s just a breeze blowing up from the poultry plant," Sam said. "On humid days, you can smell that place for miles."

"You’re probably right," Tom replied.

The stench made them dizzy. They found a small skid-loader, covered with underbrush and backed against a hillside made from spoil slumping from the mouth of a shaft cut into the cliff.

"That’s what we saw from the stand," Sam said.

"Looks like someone’s been mining here," Tom said.

They walked back toward the two burnt circles near the river. Tom kicked at something underfoot. "What is it?" Sam asked.

"It’s a kid’s backpack," Tom said. He stooped to inspect the backpack, a little fold of vinyl and black straps inset in the dirt. Among the weeds, Sam saw a couple of water bottles and a broken mirror from a woman’s compact. A child’s tennis shoe rested on a stone at the edge of the river.

The wind moved and blew the bad smell away for a moment. Tom and Sam looked at one another and shrugged.

They went back to the deer-stand and scrutinized the valley for another hour. The mist became drizzle and, then, it rained briefly. After the rain, it was windy.

"I have the feeling we’re being watched," Sam said.

"You know I’ve been thinking that too."

They pointed the muzzles of their rifles at the landscape around them.

"It’s probably that cop-killer," Sam said.

Tom replied: "That would be our luck."

The trees on the ridges made dramatic gestures in the wind and dark clouds scudded by. But except for the wind, nothing else moved in the valley.

"Had enough?" Tom asked.

"Enough," Sam said.

They hiked back to their ATVs and drove down the canyon toward the poultry plant. Just before, the landslide, they saw a large, powerfully muscled buck standing among the boulders. The animal had regal horns and turned its majestic head to inspect them. Sam and Tom stopped their ATVs, dismounted, and began to unsheathe their rifles. When they looked up again, the buck was gone.

"A beautiful animal," Sam said. Tom replied: "Almost a shame to shoot something like that."

A half-dozen anonymous figures were marching between buildings at the poultry plant. The workers wore hooded sweatshirts against the cold, wet air. The workers’ hands were brown but their faces and eyes were hidden in the shadows of their sweatshirts. Mr. Cortez was watching from a slit window in the office building. The florescent light behind him haloed his head.

Claude met them by their pickup truck as they were driving the ATVs onto the flatbed trailer.

"How’d it go?" he asked.

"Nothing," Tom and Sam said. "We caught of glimpse of that buck. But he got away."

"Did you see anything?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean did you see anything unusual up there?"

Tom said: "Like what? What do you mean?"

"Any sign of that cop-killer or bears in the caves or anything?"

"Nothing that we noticed," Sam said.

"It’s lonely up there," Tom said.

"Very lonely," Claude said.

They thanked Claude for the use of his deer-stand and drove back down to Diademata.



The cop-killer remained at large. A week later at Rotary, the Sheriff announced that the search would expand to Diademata and environs. "We will have fifty patrolman augmented by a hundred National Guardsmen who have voluntarily agreed to spend their weekend looking for the fugitive."

Claude was agitated. He seemed almost giddy.

"I’m sure he’s hiding up there," Claude said. "That killer’s in these hills. I just know it."

"If he’s up there," the Sheriff said solemnly, "we’ll find him. That’s a promise."

"Who knows what you’ll find," Claude said. "There are bears up in those old mines. Really big old bruins. You better be ready to deal with bears."

"Bears are not a problem," the Sheriff said.

That night, Claude put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He lived alone in the house where he had been raised. His mother had died a dozen years earlier. Claude had been a very neat housekeeper and, except for his corpse, his home was immaculate. The basement of the house was crammed with toilet paper, light bulbs, paper towels, and janitorial supplies that Claude had stolen from the poultry plant. The rumor was that he had embezzled a fortune from his employer and killed himself because detection of his crime was imminent. Legacy Quality Chickens had no comment.

As it happened, the search for the cop-killer was never expanded to Diademata. An informant told the police that the fugitive was hiding in a farmhouse west of Scranton. There was a brief gun battle and the cop-killer was shot to death.

A couple weeks later, Mr. Cortez resigned from his position as recruiter for the poultry plant. He returned to Mexico and people said that he had saved enough money to buy a ranch in the mountains near Cholula.