Earl Lee was through with killing and on the hunt for a young companion. He saw her at the corner, looking apprehensively up at the darkening sky. She was early teens, hair pulled back in a pony tail, wearing jeans and a white blouse, pulling an odd red cape around her slender body to ward off the March chill. His smell told him she was the one.
Thinking through his approach, Earl pulled next to the curb and lowered the passenger side window, flashing his most winsome smile. Before he could open his mouth, the young girl hopped into the passenger seat, knocking Earl off his stride. “You need a ride?” He improvised. “Big rain coming and I am going your way.”
She looked him, a pretty face with freckles and large brown eyes, flecked with an odd shade of gray. “My name is Earl Lee Crowder, but you can call me Earl. What’s your name?”
The girl smiled. “Red.”
“Red what?” Earl pursued.
“Just Red.” The girl replied.
At that point Earl felt a sense of unease and his instinct was to let her out, but then she smiled again at him, so he pulled away from the curb. She settled in her seat, buckling up and looking through the windshield as the rain began to fall.
“Where are you going?” He asked.
“This way.” Red said. “I am looking for someone.”
Earl nodded, thinking hard. He had been prepared with his sweet inducements and then the chloroform, just in case. But this girl was compliant. Too compliant? They drove in silence for 45 minutes to the north outskirts of Eagle Township. “I have to stop at my place for minute, if that is okay.” Earl said, looking over at her. She nodded, watching as he turned onto a small dirt road that went up an incline to his yellow house trimmed in green. It was set back in the dim woods, isolated and conveniently hidden in a copse of pine and cottonwood trees with no nearby neighbors.
As they drove up the drive, Earl tensed and checked on his young passenger, but she was unconcerned. Still, he felt for his small towel and bottle of chloroform under the front seat, just in case Red got antsy.
Earl pulled behind the secluded house and stopped, keeping the doors locked. He turned to Red, telling her to come in for a minute while he did some chores. Instead of getting fidgety or looking worried, she nodded. Earl breathed easier, thinking that the young girl had taken a liking to him. In his mid-forties, Earl was six feet, well built with busy hair and long sideburns. Most women took to him. Unfortunately, Earl Lee had a dark side, carrying the sobriquet of “Snake River Killer”, the Northwest’s most notorious serial killer for twenty years. Earl had left a trail of terror and grief through Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
“Is this my home? Are you my keeper?” Red asked.
Earl was nonplussed; never in all his years of rampage. Yet, a yellow light flashed before his eyes. Who was this girl? He led her into the kitchen and showed her the layout, a dining room and an open living room. “My bedroom is down the hall in the back. To begin with, you will stay down here.” Earl said, opening the basement door and pointing down the cellar steps.
Red came forward and peered into the dark, dank cellar. Then she stepped back and looked up at Earl Lee. “I don’t live in cellars.” She said simply.
Earl felt that all too familiar rage surging and balled his fists to lash out, his eyes narrowing and his nostrils flaring. Then the madness ebbed and he was still; after a second Earl shook his head in wonder and smiled at Red. “Of course…what was I thinking? There is a guest suite upstairs with its own bath. That is the place for a girl like you.”
Earl closed the cellar door, shaking himself and looking around the room. He refocused and directed the girl to the living room. “This is my easy chair. Come sit in my lap and I can go over our routine and rules.” Earl said, feeling a surge, dryness in his mouth.
Red took Earl’s hand. “You’ve had a long day, searching so hard and long. I am happy to sit in your lap, but first you need a bath, a nice hot bath. You smell.”
Earl snatched his hand back and growled, that fury and fire flaring in his chest. But as she looked at him, he once again caught himself and thought, not a bad idea. “Yes, a bath before we have our chat.”
She led Earl back to his master bedroom, then went into the bathroom, admiring the large porcelain tub set on iron claws. She then turned on the water, but only the hot water. In a few minutes Earl appeared at the door naked with his hands modestly crossed in front of him.
Earl’s eyes widened as he saw the steam. “Hey, that’s too hot.” He shouted.
“You like it hot.” Red explained, taking his hand and leading him to the tub. “So nice and steamy to ease your tired body; you’ve had many years, created so much sorrow. A lot to wash away.”
“Not my fault. If only they had understood, been more like you.” Earl muttered, as he stepped into the scalding water, grimacing, but dutifully sliding down, reddening just as a lobster that goes into the boiling pot. He sank in the tub until only his head was exposed.
Earl Lee’s eyes darted back and forth, looking at Red in panic and distress. “Help me!” Earl pleaded, unable to move. “Get me out. I’m dying.”
Her eyes widened when she heard the hot water heater thundering in the cellar below emit a loud whistle, and then a loud bang. Smoke began to drift up into the bathroom. “Name them for me, Earl.” Red whispered to him, as she bent over and stroked his bushy head. “Name them all and you can get out of the tub. I’ll even help get you started. Back to junior high school, Martha Manning was your first. Come on now, think. Earl Lee, who was next?”
Earl squirmed and tried to rise from the water, but his body was inert, still. His eyes widened as he saw the wisps of smoke from the basement. “Cindy Volk!” He shouted.
Red stepped back and smiled. She stood at the bathroom door as Earl gasped for breath, his eyes wide as he furiously searched his memories.”Lisa Stevenson, Linda Morse, Betsy Givens.”
Suddenly flames darted up through the wooden floor, feeding on the cheap linoleum. The fire crackled, muting Earl’s voice as he shouted the roll call. “Marilyn Hall……”now his voice was hoarse and almost drowned out by the popping and whooshes of the fire.
Red left Earl Lee struggling in the bathtub. She went out the back, pausing and listening by the bathroom window: “Dana Oland, Martina Dawn, Odyssey…” but Earl’s voice faded.
She walked through the woods, following a path that paralleled the road below. Red made her way down to the blacktop and returned toward the house, which was a mass of flames. Emergency vehicles and a fire engine roared past her.
A small crowd had already gathered and some men were running back and forth along the drive, pointing and shouting as the first fire truck made its way up the dirt road to Earl’s house.
“I think he’s in there!” A frantic young man shouted to the firemen. “I heard him shouting for some woman. Nancy something. Maybe she’s in there too.”
The firemen started forward, but then reared back as the roof collapsed inward with a shower of sparks, flames, and roiling black smoke.
Red cocked her head, but she could not hear Earl’s voice, no more names. The roll call was over.
That evening Cannon was listening to the TV news and working at his laptop. He suddenly stopped when he saw the Eagle fire news. An unidentified charred body had been found. What caught Cannon’s eye was the news lady in the foreground interviewing a young girl, identified as one of the first on the scene.
The little girl with the pony tail and wearing a red cape around her shoulders looked into the camera. “I am looking for someone.” She told the news lady.
Cannon sat up and felt a chill run down his spine; was that a tapping? He held his breath and listened, but all was quiet. She was not at his door. Not yet.