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An Interview With Murder
We’d hiked maybe a mile through the thick brush before he yanked me to stop. My ankles stung from the briars and I had a wet blister on my heel. I’d guess that we’d driven maybe two hours before that, though it was hard to tell with that oily sack on my head.
He was two hundred pounds, give or take, judging by the snap of the twigs beneath his plodding steps. He’d been silent most of the way. Humming or whistling and otherwise fidgety. I listened for anything familiar but my ears pounded as fear gripped my throat and squeezed my thoughts.
A crow squawked overhead. Not too far away was the steady lull of traffic. He shoved me to my knees, my nose burning as I fought back the tears and struggled to keep a clear mind. I needed to smell, hear, feel my surroundings if I had left if there was any hope for survival.
I’d slipped up somewhere, been careless with my routine. But I never expected to be carried off in broad daylight. After all the research, the fact checking, the interviews with the countless sobbing family members, it was now me. I was now the main character in my own personal page turner. I thought about my mother, crying as she spoke out on 20/20 or Nightline, moaning on how she’d told me not to write about such heinous things.
He lifted the hood from my head, slowly—ceremoniously even—before running fingers through my hair. I found myself kneeling before his altar.
Marie Chavez, the only known survivor had explained the sandstone fireplace in such vivid detail that if felt like I was seeing it again instead of for the first time. The patchy grass, the scattered stones, the leftward lean of the ancient chimney. They were all in her account. But beneath the surface my eyes hunted for evidence. Like the shred of blue fabric snarled on a root in the dirt.
A crisp ray of sun cut through the trees and lent hope to my hopeless situation. And for a few short breaths I wasn’t in the hills with Troy Allen Cheatwood but instead collecting clues for my next true crime novel.
I jumped at his gentle touch. He ran a gnarled finger along my cheek, toying with my fear like a cat with its pray. He would wound first but prolong the relief of death. I could hear the thrill of it all in his rasp, feel the tingle in his callused hands as they tightened around my nostrils. Hands that had taken nearly two dozen lives.
“You said once that you understood so I wanted to show you,” he groused. We'd spoken twice before that day, but those conversations had the safety of distance to cushion my nerves. Now, feeling his hot breath on my neck, I shuddered with what he had planned.
The crows fled. Even under the cover of the trees it was hot and muggy. A rivulet of sweat winded down my forehead to the bridge of my nose, where it sat, then fell as Troy Allen took my head again. Petting, stroking. My breath shook because I realized that this, this was murder. Its distorted shadow danced in the sway of the trees that carried the stench of death. I’d seen it and smelled it but now I felt it.
“You understood. You said I was a gentlemen.”
My eyes burned with sweat. I’d never called the son of a bitch anything close. I’d written that he considered himself a gentlemen. I wrote that he’d seen horrific things in his childhood, that his father had so grotesquely twisted his image of god and women to the point where he actually thought what he was doing was righteous.
But then it clicked. My own father’s words found me in that church in the forest.
I knew too much to underestimate Troy. He'd eluded the FBI, and even obtained my personal cell number. For a man who’d flunked out of grade school he was naturally cunning and uncommonly adept at manipulating people. He used fear to control his victims. And if I ever expected to be the second person to see his fireplace and tell I had use my own tools.
Now go write it Dad always said...
A tractor trailer stuttered as it downshifted somewhere far behind us. My eyes wandered, I spotted a few win worn markers near the vines and it was then I realized that before the traffic there was only a church. A church and a graveyard. Of course. This was where Troy Allen made his father proud.
Troy’s father was a hellfire and brimstone preacher. A fist shaking doomsayer who’d once beaten Troy’s mother with fireplace poker. Troy’s own sister had been forbidden to leave the house but ran away at 15 after getting pregnant.
All of Troy’s victims were women—successful women. Doctors, attorneys, Marie Chavez taught a course on civil rights at Hillsdale College before he’d abducted her in a parking lot. But there was something else about Troy, he was fascinated with fame. So when I felt the metal touch my skull and my lungs fill with what might have been my last breath, I said the words with as much calm as I could physically muster.
“Troy, I need to tell your story.”
The barrel pressed down on my skull, then with a click it was gone. He was enjoying himself, the rush of power that thrilled him at his church. But I’d found an opening. He cleared his throat. I heard him shuffling, unzipping He touched my shoulder. I looked again to the blouse, wondering which of his victims had put it on for the last time before being led to the altar. Then I swung my leg back with enough force to break both of his legs.
Troy Allen fell back with a grunt, a gunshot cracked through the forest, ricocheting off the stone. I picked up the first thing I could find and flung it. It just so happened to be a brick-sized piece of the sandstone chimney.
The emotion fell in step with my strides as I stumbled. The briars tore at my face, clawing my arms as I chugged towards the whooshing traffic. I ran for each one of his victims. For his mother and sister and every last woman who’d ever met a Cheatwood.
I crawled towards the road, waving and screaming. A horn blared. A truck swerved and then stopped. My cheek burned on the hot pavement.
The next time I saw Troy Allen was from one side of the two inch piece of glass between us. The scar on his forehead fit him well, but he seemed to hold no grudge towards me for it.
“How’s celebrity life?” he asked. The book signing was a smash. I’d been in the talks with a certain Hollywood studio negotiating the movie rights.
“I suppose I could ask you the same thing.”
He nodded, sitting back and showing off that eat-shit-grin of his. If death row had taken a toll on him it didn’t show. I had to remind myself that the good old boy I was looking at was a serial killer.
I swallowed hard. “She’s good. How’s your appeal?”
He shrugged. His date with the chair was set for spring. Two burly guards stood over him. But enough with the game, I gripped the phone.
“Oh and I found your father,” I said, pausing to look right into his eyes. I wanted to remember this--the way his smile dropped and pure evil flashed across his stubbly face. I leaned forward. “He’s rotting away in shame down in Pensacola after his only son got his ass kicked by a girl who went and wrote a book about it. Don’t worry, I mailed him a copy.”
I set the phone down. Troy Allen rocketed out of his chair and slammed against the glass. I wiggled my fingers as the guards wrestled him down and made the best of a good excuse to crush his jaw into the desk. I turned to leave. Tears flooded my eyes. I was overcome by the strength of twenty-three women guiding me out into the sun.
The short story above is entirely fictional but is based, (very loosely) on my stepmother, Diane Fanning, who has written several true crime books, one of which about serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells.