|Chapter 6: Rocket Man
"What?" asked Vince Costello, his face reflecting his incredulity.
"It happened yesterday," said Aaron
"Two in one daya blond and a redhead?"
"Whatever," said Vince, looking down from 8,000 ft. at the forests and farmlands of central Michigan with their tranquil green and brown earth tones and meandering lines of black asphalt and glittering blue water. Notwithstanding the instantaneous change of season for Vince and Aaron from the first day in November to sometime in the middle of Summer, only the color of the water betrayed the fact that they were in a Virtual Reality Setting rather than a 19th century hot air balloon.
"I know," said Aaron. My son-in-law aint buyin it either. Ken told me that he followed through on what you said. You were right about P.J. Shields being the son of Jay Shields in Melvindale. Its definitely the same guy. So far the police havent been able to locate the mother. It dont look good."
Aaron had worked for hours on how to break the news about P.J.s mother. Seeing the pain in his friends virtual realty face, he wondered if he should have worked on it a little more.
"How long has she been missing?"
"Hard to say. Nobody filled out an official missing person report. She hasnt voted or gotten a parking ticket or made any traceable purchases in almost nine years.
Vinces internal organs made a sudden drop.
"Ken traced her last known place of employment to a saloon in Dearborn Heights."
"The Wild Mouse," said Vince. "Thats where she was working when I knew her fifteen years ago."
Aaron nodded. "Thats what it was called then. The ownership changed so many times before her disappearance that the last people she worked for never realized she was the closest thing they had to a regular employee. She had no close girlfriends or steady boyfriends that her neighbors were aware of. She didnt belong to any church or civic organizations. Her fathers been living in Mississippi for the past 26 years or so and hasnt spoken to her once in all that time. P.J. was her only surviving relative. As far as anybody knows, they were living in the Melvindale house the last time she took her Alcohol Consumption Test to renew her drivers licensewhich, as far as anybody knows, are the last things she ever did."
"When was that?" asked Vince staring blindly into the horizon.
"More than eight and a half years ago." The virtual reality eyes of the men in the gondola of the virtual reality balloon met. "Yeah, not long before the first brown belt strangling."
"How long before?"
"Twelve weeks," said Aaron. "The next one didnt happen until a year later. The next one a year after that. The next four were eight to ten months apart. Theyve been getting closer together over the years."
"But twice in one dayand neither of them brunettes? No way these last two were killed by the same guy. P.J. Shields killed all of those other girls after he killed his own mother. Hes the Brown Belt Strangler and you know it."
"I have good reason to suspect."
"God-damnit, Aaron! Dont play word games with me on this one."
The older man took his friends outburst in stride. "Im only saying what the law would say at this point. There ought to be enough physical evidence to nail him. All they need is a DNA sample from him."
"The only way they can get it is if hes stupid enough to give it toem. He aint that stupid. Neither are you and neither am I. If your son-in-law detective was getting the cooperation he needed from the Melvindale authorities to do the job right, they would have had a court order by now to search the house."
"Theyre working on that. I dont know what the problem is."
"My ducks ass, you dont! Its politics! Everything is politics! Nobody wants the Strangler to be a blue-eyed white guy whose been living in their real American community for the past nine years. How the hell is that gonna look on the Spotlight News? I wouldnt be surprised if somebody on the Melvindale payroll knew who the killer was all along and iced the fair-haired girls just to give P.J. an alibi for all the other killings."
"If thats true, why did they pick fair-haired women? I mean, thats a glaring departure from the pattern."
"Maybe not," said Vince, too quickly to have given the question the thought it deserved. "Jay was a natural blond, remember. Maybe he killed blonds, too, but hid the bodies better for some reason. Or maybe the police didnt report the other fair-haired victims to the media."
Aaron squinted his eyes as if to get a better look at what his friend was trying to get across. "Are you saying he did kill the women they found yesterday?"
"No, no, no. Weve been sequestered too long for that. Im saying the police probably know more about the case than theyve released to the public. The latest ones may be more consistent with the pattern than we know."
"A minute ago you thought the light hair color was a sure indication that somebody other than P.J. Shields committed those murders. Now youre saying that it doesnt necessarily mean anything."
"I know," said Vince, but the more I think about it the less sense it makes for a copy cat to copy everything but the hair color. Long, dark hair was one of the things that all of the victims had in common. You gotta figure that this other killer is no dummy either. The son-of-a-bitch knows something we dont. Thats the only explanation."
"How do you explain the two strangulations in the same day?"
"Maybe they were just found on the same day. The temperature hasnt gotten above freezing in three week. The blond could have been there the whole time"
"Speaking of time," said Aaron, checking the time display on his wristband telewindow, "Im supposed to meet Ken in a little while in another VRS. If you want me to, I can keep this one running and beam back in when were done. Shouldnt be more than an hour."
Vince pouted. "I got other things to do, so dont expect me to be hanging around up here till you get back."
"Ill beep you," said Aaron.
"Okay. Hey, wait! Dont just fizz away. Do the Rocket Man."
Aarons dematerializing body resumed the appearance of solid form. He smiled a familiar smile, climbed up the rigging of the balloon and stood on the rim of the basket. A brown, leather, aviator jacket popular in the 1930s and 40s seemed to grow out of his shirt until it covered it. A silver, twin-engine rocket pack seemed to grow on the back of the jacket until it was fully formed and strapped in place. A tapered silver helmet appeared to grow from his neck until its bullet-shaped tip was fully formed. Aaron looked back over his shoulder through the large owl-eye lenses of the helmet and said, "This shouldnt take long." He then faced the blue beyond, flexed his knees, and dove hands-over-pointed-helmet into space.
Vince watched the rapid drop of his friend with envy, seeing his body get smaller by the second and knowing from experience the incomparable thrill of the short free fall until the rockets ignited to launch him into yet a higher orbit of adrenaline intoxication. There! A puff of orange and yellow flame roared to life like the scraped head of a kitchen match the size of a grapefruit, then lengthened into twin daggers of fire.
From Aarons perspective, the scene was even more spectacular with three of his five senses fully engaged in the action and the extra shot of adrenaline which could be experienced only by dancing close to the edge of real danger.
Aarons eyes inhaled the rapidly enlarging features of the earth rushing to meet him while the wind pushed at his shoulders and past his helmet with the howling sound and furry of a hurricane. Down, down he went, hands first, faster and faster until he had mere seconds to alter his trajectory with the proper flip of his hands and arch of his back. He knew, of course, that he couldnt be squashed like a bug on a windshield in a VRS if he failed to execute the proper maneuver in time. None-the-less, the danger was real because he could and would feel the momentary pain....the pain of electric shock set high enough to kill....
While Aaron was deciding the proper moment to avoid a crash, Vince was straining to see any sign of him in the woodlands below and wondering whether hed done the right thing in asking him to rocket out of the VRS. They had both hard-wired their home VR chambers to produce the same lethal consequences for lethal VRS mistakes and they rocketed together often enough for Vince to know how reckless the old guy could be. Hell, they were both thrill-junkies. That was one of the linchpins of their friendship. What bothered Vince now was the fact that the fire trail marking Aarons descent had telescoped to nothing.
The suspense of not knowing whether his friend had survived was more exciting than he would ever want to share with anyonewhich was probably why Aaron hadnt flared and come back up to show that he was all right. Since both of them didnt have the full benefit of the VRS, that was the closest Vince could come to having the near-death experience himself. Aaron McPhail was truly a good friend....
Contact the author: Jasper Garrison