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Authors: Howard Owen

Turn Signal

BOOK: Turn Signal
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Turn Signal

Howard Owen

New York

Many thanks to Martin Shepard, Judy Shepard, Elise D'Haene and, most of all, Karen Van Neste Owen for their help and patience.

This book is dedicated to Janice Owen Faircloth

(1955–2003)

CHAPTER ONE

His shirt and his pants legs were just kind of flapping in the breeze as he scrambled up into the cab, a body hidden in there somewhere. He looked to be about 60 years old
.

I needed somebody to keep me awake, but part of the reason I stopped was I felt sorry for anyone that age out there trying to thumb the interstates in the absolute damn middle of nowhere, and it almost pitch dark
.

I didn't think he was from around here. Didn't seem to have much of an accent at all. What he also didn't have was that smell the road bums have, part body stink, part booze, part vomit. If he'd smelled like that, I'd have kicked his butt right back out again. He was a good half a head shorter than me. I do remember that. His hair was long and stringy, in a gray ponytail
.


I thank you,” was all he said at first. Most of the ones who hitch a ride with you, they want to kind of carry the conversation, like they think they have to entertain you for picking them up. Usually, I'm OK with that
.

But this guy, he said not one damn word for the better part of an hour, just sat there looking as contented as a millionaire
.

Finally, I broke the silence. I was starting to get a little drowsy
.


What you got there?” I asked him, nodding toward this plastic bag he'd dragged in with him. He had it wedged between his legs. I figured whatever was inside was more or less his net worth
.

He didn't answer for about three beats, and I was about to ask him again
.


Oh,” he said at last, in a voice too deep for a fella that scrawny, “change of underwear. Toothbrush. Soap. Some of my work.


What kind of work?” I could tell I was going to have to pump this guy for any conversation at all
.


Oh, I write.

I smiled in the darkness
.


What? Like books and things?


Oh, no,” he said, and he laughed very quietly, the way he spoke. I could hardly hear him over the general roar as we rolled on past Charlottesville. “Nothing like that. I just like to write.

That was all for another 20 minutes. Then, I tried to prime Mr. Chatty again
.


Yeah, I wanted to be a writer. You hear a lot of good stories between here and California.


I'll bet you do,” was all he said. He said it encouragingly, not like he was humoring me or something
.

Well, it was true, even if I hadn't said it to anybody since a freshman English class about two lifetimes ago. Why I told this character, I don't know. Sometimes, when the other person doesn't say anything, you fill in the gaps, and first thing you know, you're just laying your life story out there like a burnt offering
.


Well,” he said, taking the initiative for once, “it isn't all that hard to do, if you really want to do it.

Here, he stopped and looked right at me. When I looked back, I saw somehow that he knew things about me he shouldn't have known
.


It might cost you some things you think you can't do without,” he went on. “You'll find you can do with less than you think
.”


I guess you've got it pretty much down to the bare essentials.

He laughed again, a deep, pleasant chuckle. His eyes shone when I glanced over and the light of an oncoming truck reflected off them
.


Oh, I've got my ways. I get along.

I'm pretty sure I didn't say anything else to him, or him to me
.

The next thing I remember is the sound of those rumble strips
.

I had done something I never do—fallen asleep at the wheel. I got control of the rig quick enough and eased to a stop on the right-hand shoulder. There wasn't another vehicle in sight
.

I turned to apologize to the old man. There was nobody there. I thought maybe he'd somehow gotten back in the sleeping compartment, but he wasn't there, either
.

You can have some strange experiences driving across the country in an 18-wheeler. You can zone out and not remember how you got from Bristol to Nashville. You're not really asleep. Hell, somebody was driving. But you just put your mind on cruise control
.

Still, I had no
—
have no
—
recollection of letting that old man out, and I know he was there, sitting beside me in the cab. I know it
.

I checked the mile marker and tried to figure how long I was asleep. It couldn't have been more than five minutes, probably a lot less than that
.

At the next exit, I turned around, then spent 30 minutes driving east and retracing my steps, all the way back to where I picked him up. Nothing
.

At some point, with the hairs on the back of my neck not quite standing up, I convinced myself that I shouldn't start cross-country trips without at least eight hours' sleep
.

I just kept driving until I got to the truck stop just outside Knoxville where I usually sleep first night out. When I opened the door, getting ready to go in for a cup of coffee and something to clog my arteries, I saw a glimpse of white on the floor. When I reached underneath the seat, I pulled out my former passenger's traveling bag, manufactured by Hefty. Inside, there was no sign of underwear or toothpaste or toothbrush—just a bright green folder. And inside that were 68 pages
—
I know because he'd numbered them
—
written in the tiniest, finest handwriting I'd ever seen from a grown man
.

I put it back under the seat. By this time, I was really getting spooked. In the diner, I asked a couple of fellas I know, and they asked some more, and nobody had seen anything of anybody like my hitchhiker. If it hadn't been for the bag and the folder, I could have written him off as a dream. I couldn't even describe him that well, just knew I'd recognize him if I saw him again
.

I could drive from Speakeasy to Los Angeles and back in seven days, hauling a load of rug nylon out there and bringing lettuce or tomatoes or broccoli back east. Back then, I wasn't likely to be in the same time zone two days in a row. But I did keep checking on Channel 19, asking about my little old man
.

Nobody ever owned up to seeing anybody fitting my very general description
.

Back when Gina traveled with me, we'd try to see some of the towns and cities I was driving past. We stayed entertained. But by June of 1998, Gina was back home with Shannon, whose birthdays usually caught me in Arkansas or Arizona or someplace equally fascinating
.

So I had a lot of time to read, and probably too much time to think
.

The second day out, at a truck stop just west of Texarkana, I couldn't resist any longer and finally turned my attention to the white plastic bag. I took the green folder out and carefully picked up the first sheet of paper inside. It was amazingly clean and uncrumpled, considering. I still felt that somehow, somewhere I'd see the old man again and wanted to keep his stuff in good order
.

At the top of the first page was written, in all capital letters: LOVELADY
.

It started out:


Lovelady had been traveling for three days solid. He hadn't slept the last two, since he woke up next to the girl whose throat he'd slit in that cinder-block motel back in Dothan, the one that made you pay extra for ice. Her eyes had been shiny with fear, her arms outspread toward her bound wrists and her fists clenched tight, but she probably was nearly dead before she knew she was going to die. He'd rushed it
.


Lovelady didn't feel sleepy at all.

I read about two-thirds of it that night in my bed in the back of the cab, no mean accomplishment for a man practically asleep in the seat, trying to read the world's tiniest, most precise handwriting. Lovelady, it developed, was a hitchhiker, traveling the country. The girl was the first one he would kill, but there were two more by page 40, as he got better, or worse, with practice. That's where I had to shut my eyes, after making sure everything was locked up tight
.

Lovelady, I learned as the story went on, had decided to adopt the interstate highway system, the way some people adopt a mile of a county road. Except Lovelady was not interested in combating litter. He was more into combating human life
.

That night, I dreamed about the old man, except he was Lovelady. I was sitting in my cab and he was in the parking lot of the truck stop I always use at Fairfield, talking to one of the girls. She didn't look like she was much older than Shannon. And then he's got his arm around her and they're walking off. I start to get out, to try to save her, but he turns toward me and grins, and his teeth glitter like diamonds, and I'm paralyzed. I see him like I never saw him in real life, but when I woke up, I still couldn't really remember exactly what he looked like
.

I got up earlier than I meant to and read the rest of it the next morning, and was introduced to an Arkansas sheriff named Pettigrew, who obviously was going to be Lovelady's nemesis. I read a lot of suspense thrillers crossing the United States, and I could kind of see where I thought this was going. At the end of 68 pages, things were just starting to heat up. That's where it ended, with this paragraph:


Pettigrew was familiar with crime. He understood that all criminals did not want to be rehabilitated, that there was a chromosome or a gene or some damned miswired switch that made some yearn to defy good. But here was pure evil. He hadn't seen that before.

I was three hours late getting to Los Angeles
.

That was two-and-a-half years ago, and it's certainly an overstatement to say the old man just vanished into thin air. Maybe I'd have been better off if he had
.

And I suppose you'd have to say he's got something to do with the snubnose .38 special in my overnight bag
.

But don't give Mr. Lovelady all the credit
.

I know what I'm doing
.

Really
.

CHAPTER TWO

Facing away from the plate-glass front, he hears Milo before he sees him. Three booths from the back, he halfway hopes he'll somehow be undetected. He'd like to eat and run, and Milo loves to talk.

No such luck.

“Well,” says the voice just to his rear, “that looks nutritious and delicious. A truly well-balanced meal. Barbecue, hush puppies and everybody's favorite health vegetables, french fries and macaroni and cheese.”

“Milo. How's it going?”

“Hey, Pauline,” Milo yells over to the Speakeasy Diner's only waitress, “this just occurred to me the other day: How do you all get away with calling macaroni and cheese a vegetable? How can that be?”

The waitress tells him he's eaten enough of it, from the looks of his gut, and she hasn't previously heard any complaints. He says he wants a refund for every time he's been deceived into ordering macaroni and cheese as one of his two vegetables.

“I've been tricked. Swindled.”

He's warming up now, basking in the attention he's getting from the farmers and the other office workers.

“And it took you how long to figure this out?” Pauline asks.

Milo raises his arms in a silent “You see?” He slides into the booth facing Jack Stone.

“So,” he says, “you going to the reunion or not?”

Jack finishes chewing and washes some barbecue down with sweet iced tea.

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