In my previous job I had quite a bit of experience of checkpoints. They are placed at strategic locations along state lines, or main artery roads heading out of populated areas. Some are permanent, but I worked on the temporary ones organized within hours of an emergency. Some are put in place when intel suggested a drug shipment was headed into state, some when a dangerous criminal was on the move; the most exciting of which was a serial killer.
I was ordered to set up on a country road running adjacent to the Interstate 55 out from Chicago, near Plainfield. We parked our vehicles out of sight on civilian land at both ends of the road. Two officers waited at one end with a spike strip (stinger), ready to deploy if the officers at the other end identified the vehicle and gave the go ahead.
It was cold, I shivered as I got out. It was early in the evening, but the winter had already turned the sky black. I remembered how many stars I could see. I don’t know if it was the adrenaline or the view, but I felt a rush, and I soon forgot about the cold.
Just after 6pm the radio crackled into action, telling us the silver SUV was heading in our direction. All I had to do was watch. I saw the officer wait patiently at the side of the road, stinger at the ready. The headlights of the SUV lit up the road as it approached. It was my job to confirm the positive identity of the vehicle and signal the stinger to be deployed. Like slow motion the silver car raced past, or was it dark blue, I hesitated. The bright beams illuminated the crouching officer, the SUV lurched to one side, before leaving the cracked tarmac entirely, hitting a rut on the side of the road and spinning not once but twice, stopping right side up. Steam from a broken radiator was soon lit by the officer’s flashlights as they descended on the vehicle.
They got their man. Unfortunately, a victim was tied up in the trunk, the crash had broken vertebrae in her back, smashed her eye socket and left her dead. Luckily for me, they told me, that the serial killer in question had already inflicted so many broken bones and trauma that I may have done her a favor. The coroner’s report said she was DOA, and I was quietly let go. I wasn’t going to make a mistake like that again.
For months I’d drive to the family home of that victim and sit in the car opposite, trying to work up the courage to knock on the door, to tell them it was my fault, my fault their daughter was no longer with them. Then one Friday night, the mother left the house, she was still in her nightgown, she appeared concerned. She had a mug in her hand, making a beeline toward me.
“Don’t I know you?” she asked.
“I don’t think so ma’am.”
“Yes, I do,” she said, and her eyes lit up, “you’re one of the officers that caught my baby’s killer. What are you doing here?”
I was stunned. I felt anxiety trickle down my arms turning my hands ice cold. I stared at the wheel.
“You wanted to make sure we were doing okay, is that right?”
It was like a lifeline to tell the truth. I turned, looked her in her eyes and opened my mouth to speak.
“You don’t have to say anything.”
She put her mug on the roof of the car and leaned in.
“Thank you, thank you,” she said, as she began to cry.
After her embrace relented, she wiped her tears away and backed up.
“Now there’s no need to check on us anymore. Some days are hard,” she nodded nervously to herself, “other days are harder, so God damn hard I don’t know if we’ll make it. But you get through, you know?”
I let out a small smile.
“Here, I brought you this.”
She handed me the mug.
“Hot cocoa to keep you warm. This spring is a doozy. You take care, you hear.”
And with that, she left. I watched as her husband waited in the doorway, his silhouette pronounced against the warm light within. She waved and so did I. I drank the cocoa and drove home. The closure I sought was unwelcome there. It didn’t rid me of my guilt, if anything it made it worse. Though, life has a way of letting you make up for your mistakes.
A friend in the force put me in touch with a charity that was looking for ex-police officers to talk to victims of crime and help them come to terms with their newfound trauma. It was very cathartic for me and helped with the guilt I still held. I was heading to Montana to talk with four men. Their wives had seemingly disappeared without cause or motive, except each were pregnant. Some were only weeks along, but one was due in only a few days.
There were rumors that a serial killer was present in the area. Two women had turned up butchered the previous year, their abdomens sliced open and ripped to shreds as if the perpetrator was looking for something he didn’t find; neither of the woman were known to be pregnant.
The day before I left for Montana, a pregnant woman’s body was found sitting in her car, on her driveway. Her husband raced out to greet her, only to be met with the gruesome sight of her mutilated abdomen. Her eyes were also gouged out. A bloody note was pinned to her dress stating – I’m sorry – I don’t like it when they look at me – I told her not to. When I heard, I made a mental note that he probably wouldn’t be attending and took a moment to think about his loss.
I was anxious to go. I was driving to Montana with my wife, she wasn’t pregnant, but I didn’t want her anywhere near there. I told her, hoping she’d suggest she stay home. She said that if anything, she didn’t want to be alone.
The trip was largely uneventful. We drove through the night, not wanting to stop and stay at a motel seeing my expenses didn’t stretch that far. We drove through the Montana mountains, having to take a detour around a road shut due to debris. A storm had passed through the area, so I assumed some trees had fallen and blocked the road.
The hotel was nice, a three-story brick building downtown on the main strip. We ate burgers and fries at the restaurant next door and slept without difficulty. The next day we drove around and idled the day away at a flea market before returning to the hotel. My wife said she wanted to stay and work, against my better judgement. I tried to convince her otherwise, though I knew I stood no chance changing her mind. She was stubborn to a fault.
When I arrived at the non-descript office building, I was already nervous. Usually I’d be getting excited at this point, knowing I’d be helping people to get on with their lives. All I could think of was Sarah, back at the hotel, unprotected. I wished she had the gun I bought her, though that was in the drawer next to our bed, at home, like it was the day I bought it for her. She said if she needed a gun that badly using a gun would only make it worse.
The first man arrived well before the others. I offered him some of the free coffee the other employees of the charity had laid out. He ignored it and went straight for the pastries. It’s very easy to forgive people’s manners in a situation like that. You knew what they’d been through but had no idea how it had affected them. You gave them slack you wouldn’t afford a stranger you met in other circumstances.
The second man arrived and sat down on one of the office chairs arranged in a semi-circle around the chair opposite, which was mine. His leg jiggled. He waited impatiently for the session to start. I wanted to go over then, but knew I needed to wait. These group sessions, it was important to share in front of others, so that a feeling of comradery could grow.
When the third man arrived, he took his time pouring a coffee and joining the group.
I shared a bit about myself, gave them some background. I was about continue when the door opened again. A sweaty pale man arrived, he asked if he had got the right place. I was confused.
“I’m Ryan,” he said, “sorry I’m late.”
He pulled up a chair and sat on the end, gazing at me expectantly.
It was him. The husband of the woman found in the car only days ago. I was shocked. I didn’t expect to see him, so soon after his wife had passed. The others, they had months to deal with it, him, only days.
I composed myself and asked the others to introduce themselves. They were so quiet, their voices hiding from the pain they were feeling. Each of them lost as to why their partners were taken. Ryan lit up when he heard their stories.
“Has everyone lost their wives?” he said, almost panicked.
“Yes,” I said, “these support groups are here to share similar traumas, so we may hope to find some…”
He cut me off.
“You’ve not seen them since they were taken?” Ryan asked, the sweat soaking into his T-Shirt, turning it a darker blue.
“Not for five months,” the first man said.
“How pregnant was she?”
“Three months, I guess.”
“You’ll see her again in a month,” Ryan said excitedly.
“Ryan, I don’t think it’s a good idea to get their hopes up,” I said.
“She’s eight months pregnant now, right? So that’s one more month.”
“Yes, but yours…” I started and thought better of it.
“She’s alive,” he said, grinning, stifling a laugh.
“What? How?” I asked, not thinking.
“When I got to the car, she was still breathing. I called the emergency services and they arrived in no time.”
“Why aren’t you there now?” I asked, thinking about that poor woman lying in a hospital bed, scared, scarred for life, blind, her baby, their baby, forcibly taken from her.
“I wanted to stay, I told her I was supposed to come here. She told me to, to warn the others.”
“Ryan, can we speak outside?” I stood up, beckoning him to the door.
“What do you mean, warn?” the first man asked.
“You have to make sure she doesn’t look at them.”
The second man got up, “this isn’t what I signed up for.”
Ryan grabbed him, “they took my wife’s eyes, scooped them out of her sockets with a spoon. They said they didn’t want to. She said if they were going to steal her baby then they could do it while she looked at them. Warn her!”
The second man ran out of the room, soon followed by the others. All this time, all I could think about was, how were they supposed to warn them.
I phoned my manager to tell them what happened, they said they were going to contact the local sheriff and update him urgently, that I was to stay and keep myself available if I needed to be questioned.
When I returned to the hotel, the room was empty, my heart skipped a beat.
“Sarah?” I shouted. I heard no response.
I rushed around the room, finding her handbag on the floor next to the bed. I felt dizzy; a surging panic rose inside me. The sound of rushing water filled my head.
“Sarah?” I shouted again.
“In here,” she said.
My heart thumped heavily in my chest as the acute anxiety of the situation began to drain. I opened the door to the bathroom to see her head bowing down into the toilet bowl.
“Are you okay?” I asked, trying my best to sound calm.
“I’m feeling a little sick,” she said, then heaved.
Without moving her head, she held up a plastic pen. I stared at the two lines. A combination of excitement and fear gripped me.
When she walked out of the bathroom, she was smiling, though that soon faded.
“What are you doing?”
“We are getting out of here,” I said, frantically putting our belongings back in the suitcase.
“Is there anything else?”
“I don’t think so,” she said, “you’re scaring me.”
“We need to go, now.”
I made her wait with me in the lobby as a tired hotel manager handled our checkout.
“Was there something wrong with the room?” she asked, as she scanned my credit card.
“No, everything was great, please just hurry.”
“Are you feeling okay?” the hotel manager asked Sarah.
“A bit better, thanks.”
“Do you know each other?” I asked.
“She heard me being sick and gave me the pregnancy test. You didn’t think I had one on me did you?” Sarah chuckled.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Oh,” the manager said, handing me my receipt, “you’re worried about the…”
“I don’t blame you, if I was pregnant, I wouldn’t want to be here too. I’d have to find a man first,” she laughed, “you won’t want to follow the GPS. The weather you see, it’s blocked the main road out.”
“I know,” I replied, “we went around it when we arrived.”
“You want to take I15 through Shelby.”
“I don’t know where that is,” I said.
“Tell you what,” the manager said, “I can show you the way.”
“No, I don’t want you going out of your way.”
“Hey, your wife told me why you’re here and sir, I have to say, what a selfless job you have. All I ask in return is you leave me a good review on Tripadvisor. Sound like a plan?”
I looked at Sarah. She rubbed my arm.
“Thanks,” I replied, “we need to get going now.”
“I’m Emily, by the way. Let me wake up my mom to cover for me.”
“No, don’t do that.”
“Nonsense, I’ll only be a minute.”
Sarah was silent as we drove out of the small town, following the silver SUV. It brought back memories I’d tried so hard to repress.
“Are you upset?” she asked.
“No,” I said, placing my hand in hers.
“Your hand’s ice cold.”
I squeezed hers.
“I think it’s great, we can’t be here though.”
My phone rang. I saw the area code – I assumed it was the sheriff. I’d explain in the morning, travel back if need be, but my wife was not staying in this town a minute longer. It rang twice more before going silent.
We climbed the mountains, seeing the streetlights disappear around the corner. Finally, I could relax. I breathed a sigh of relief.
I took a moment, looking over at Sarah, “I’m really happy,” I said, “it’s just… those men.”
“It’s horrible,” she said, then rubbed her stomach and smiled contently.
We cruised for a few miles before a line of brake lights lit the road ahead.
“Fuck,” I said, seeing a vehicle a few car lengths up perform a crude maneuver and race down the mountain past us.
“What do you think is going on?” Sarah asked.
I knew but didn’t want to tell her. It was a checkpoint. I assumed it may have been related to the serial killer, checking out of state plates. It would make sense for a killer to travel for his prey, unless he was a local, then they’d be checking local plates to see if anyone fit the profile. I’m sure they’d had one by now.
An hour passed before we neared the front of the line. I watched as a state trooper shone his light into a vehicle, before waving it on. Then we moved up a little. The next car, the state trooper made the occupants get out. He sent a man and two children to stand at the side of the road while he led a woman off, into the forest.
I pulled the car to the side, turning on the hazards. I opened the glovebox, taking out my gun.
“Josh, you’re scaring me.”
“Hold this,” I said, turning off the safety.
“I don’t know what to do with this,” she said, her voice audibly shaking.
“Don’t let anyone in the car.”
I got out and marched up the road.
“Sir, please get back in your vehicle.”
“What are looking for?” I asked.
The trooper placed his hand on his gun. I knew what that meant, I took a step back, holding my hand up in front of me.
“Sir, where’s my wife?” the man on the side of the road asked.
The trooped unholstered his weapon and pointed it at the man.
“Calm down,” I pleaded.
The gun whipped around and pointed to my face.
“Relax, I’m an ex-cop, I understand what you are doing here,” I thought about my words, seeing the frightened man, his kids hug his legs, “there’s someone you are looking for. Am I right?”
“I’m not at liberty to say.”
“Where’s that man’s wife, you don’t need her. It’s a man you’re looking for.”
“No, sir,” he scolded himself.
It’s a woman. Why didn’t I think of that?
I ran back to the car. Sarah was gone. I banged on the window of Emily’s car. She was nowhere to be seen.
“Sir, please get back in your vehicle!” the state trooper shouted.
I took out my cellphone and called Sarah’s. It rang and rang.
“Josh?” she answered.
“Oh thank God,” I said, “where are you?”
“Emily said we needed to run.”
“What are you doing with that phone?” I heard a familiar voice in the distance say.
“Emily, it’s Josh.”
“Hang up the damn phone!”
“Sarah, listen to me. I’m coming to look for you now. But promise me one thing?”
“You’re scaring me,” she said. I didn’t know if she meant me or Emily.
“Whatever you do, if she tells you not to look at her, don’t look at her.”
“Sarah, do you hear me?”
“You’ll see her in nine months.”
The line went dead.