The headline read, “The River Wolf Strikes Again.” As with the other victims, a body was found in the Ohio River. The throat had been torn out and the arms and hands showed lacerations consistent with defensive wounds. The first body had been chalked up to an animal attack, but now, with six bodies in, the Greater Paducah Area realized they were dealing with a serial killer. Search parties walked the marshes along the river bank hoping to find something linking to the killer, but no evidence had been found. I’ve been keeping up with the case on Facebook, but I haven’t been too worried about my safety. All of the victims were young women, of which I am neither young or female.
I work as a third-shift janitor for a local high school. Every night between 11PM and 6AM, I push a mop and a buffer down the halls and empty the trash in the classrooms. It’s a living. I make a modest income that affords me a decent two-bedroom apartment downtown. Living over a bar has its perks. On my nights off, I’ll drink myself into a stupor and stumble upstairs for some sleep. I can see the river from my living room window. I can’t even begin to tell you how many mornings I’ve sat there with a drink in my hand staring at the water wishing I had a boat.
On one of my nights off, I was sitting at the bar putting away bottles of Amber Bock and writing in my Moleskine journal with a Pilot Precise Five. It was my Friday night routine. I’d write my thoughts and random prose with the hopes of eventually compiling it into a novel and occasionally I’d strike up a conversation a random woman. This was one of those nights. The woman in question, Janice, worked at my high school. We got to talking about fiction and literature and I mentioned that I cleaned her classroom most nights. She smiled.
“So, you’re the guy that keeps cleaning the chalkboard?” she asked.
I nodded and she continued.
“Thanks, I really like a clean board, it makes writing so much easier.”
Our conversation continued on for most of the night. I subtly bragged, mentioning my Bachelors of Science in Mathematics from Purdue about a decade ago. She responded as most do, asking me why I was a janitor.
“Being a janitor affords me the free time needed for a life of luxury. I live upstairs, so I’m always next to my favorite bar. Besides,” I continued, “I used to work for a Fortune 500 company. I burned out by 25. I’d much rather write, drink and mop floors.”
She ordered a tequila sunrise with a wedge of orange and I motioned for another beer as she slid closer to me and whispered in my ear.
“We should go upstairs after this drink.”
Janice was a little out of my league. At 33, I hadn’t really taken care of myself. I’m tall, but overweight. Aside from filling a door frame to edges, I’m not going to win any beauty contests. In contrast, Janice was a slender and petite brunette with green eyes and a heart shaped face. She had a Masters in Secondary Education from Murray State and couldn’t have been more than 25. She was the kind of girl most guys would kill for. I was more than a little surprised that she was so eager to join me in my apartment.
We were halfway up the stairs and all over each other. I fumbled my keys in my door and we fell through on the floor. Forty-five minutes later we were both on laying on the living room floor smoking cigarettes and talking about Chaucer. We both proposed ideas as to what Canterbury Tales would have been like if Chaucer hadn’t died before finishing them. In the end she ended up joining me in bed for the night and I remember fading into sleep thinking it one of the better nights of my adult life.
Partway through the night, I remember waking up and hearing a rustling at my door. I strolled over to the door and looked through the peephole only to see darkness. I flicked a switch on the wall and turned on the hallway light to reveal a dark figure rushing away from the door. I opened it up and poked my head out just in time to see a red headed gentleman running down the stairs. I closed the door and made it a point to lock the deadbolt and put the chain in place before heading back to bed.
Janice was sitting up and shaking. I asked her what was wrong.
“I heard a rustling at the door. I’ve been hearing that at my house too. I was starting to think I was being followed by someone,” she whispered.
I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. She looked up with tears in her eyes.
“You would hard pressed to find a safer place on Earth,” I said confidently. “There aren’t many men bigger than me and even they would be foolish to break into this apartment. Let’s go back to bed.”
She wrapped her arms around me tightly and we both went back to sleep.
I woke the next morning to Janice stumbling out of bed. She pulled her clothes on and was creeping away when I spoke.
“Want some coffee?”
She jumped a bit, startled by my voice, but nodded. I walked into the kitchen and popped a pod into the Keurig, making her some Arabic Blend coffee with cream and sugar. She nursed the mug as I prepared something similar for myself. We sat at the table in the kitchen and I thanked her for a lovely evening.
“I’m sure you think I’m crazy because of last night. No offense, but I mostly hooked up with you because of your size,” she said.
I paused for a moment. There was a tinge of guilt that came her statement. I smiled.
“Are you kidding? I might live the rest of my life without having another night like last night and I’ll still look back on it fondly. You’re amazing. I understand if you want to leave it at this, but I’d love to see you again,” I said.
She walked over to my fridge and wrote something on the attached whiteboard with a dry erase marker and kissed me on the cheek before heading to the door. Before heading out she turned to me.
“I’ll think about it. You were certainly a lot different than I would have expected,” she said.
I waited until she closed the door and rushed over to the fridge to read her message. It read: “Janice Stollman, 270-[number redacted], call me sometime.”
I saved the number on my phone and spent the rest of the day in the bay window staring at the river and writing.
The Sunday paper was delivered with a new headline. It read: “The River Wolf Claims Another.”
They called him the river wolf because all of the victims’ throats were torn out by what appeared to be teeth. As some who stared at the river, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was one of the many individuals I’d see walking down the by the flood walls at night. I had finished another Moleskine journal and didn’t have a spare handy, so I went to Hobby Lobby to pick up a new pack and in the checkout line. That’s when I bumped into Janice.
She was navigating a cart full of random art supplies and didn’t notice me. I decided to stand back and let her make the first contact. I stood in line holding a three-pack of journals and a pack of Pilot extra-fine pens when she tapped me on the shoulder.
“Fancy seeing you here,” she said with a smile.
“I needed more journals, but it was a pleasant surprise to see you in line ahead of me,” I replied, grinning.
She finished checking out and she strolled out the door. In the parking lot, Janice waved me over.
“You should come by my place later,” she said.
“Sure, but I have to be at the school by eleven,” I said.
I gave her my number and she texted me her address.
The three bedroom ranch house in Reidland was considerably nicer than what I’d originally expected. The hose was equipped with a two car garage and a huge wraparound deck. She was sitting on the deck sipping something from a glass when I pulled in.
“Would you like some Sangria?” she called out.
“Sure,” I said, and put the car in park.
I left the car and went to sit with her on her deck, where we ended up talking about Chaucer, eventually moving on to Poe. She was an English teacher and I was an aspiring writer, we could have talked about the topic for a century, never touching the same subject twice.
The sun was low in the sky and reddish-orange light danced across the scattered clouds when she invited me inside. With our drinks in hand, we moved to her living room and snuggled up on the couch to watch an episode of Dark Shadows on DVD. She had an appreciation for Gothic Horror that had me as intrigued as I was excited. Things were going well. Another night spent in the presence of my brunette goddess and I was off to the school. I skipped through the hallways as I pushed the buffer across the tile.
I spent the greater part of the night cleaning without making it to the gymnasium. I entered the cavernous hall and flipped on the lights. As they flickered on, I stumbled back and tripped over the buffer. In the center of the basketball court lay a body in a pool of blood. I inched closer to get a better look while trying not to step on the bloody footprints that led away from the scene. Admittedly, I snapped a picture with my phone before calling the police. It was the kind of gruesome thing that would inspire my nightmares for a while.
The police arrived shortly thereafter and were still there in the morning. The principal canceled school for the day as rumors began flying all over town. The victim, Mrs. Johansen, the school secretary, had her throat ripped out. The papers would later pin the crime on the infamous River Wolf. Janice texted me at around 8AM asking what was going on at the school. I gave her the bad news. She was already at my apartment by the time I made it home. After a short nap, I joined her in the living room where she was making use of my collection of audiobooks that a regularly played over the stereo. She was about 30 minutes into Tales of Suspense when I groggily stumbled out of the bedroom and plopped onto the couch next to her. She killed the stereo with the remote and nestled her face in my chest. I wrapped my arm around her and she buried her face on my chest.
After 20 minutes of silence, I wondered if I should do something, but she finally spoke up. With tears in her eyes, she spoke in a confessional tone.
“This has happened before. When I was a kid. Now it’s happening again. It’s all my fault. I can’t explain it, but it is,” she sobbed.
I ran my hands through her hair.
“Why don’t you tell me about it?” I whispered in her ear.
“When I was about 12,” Janice started, “my brother and I were playing in the woods. He was five minutes older than me, but always called me his big sister. We had this creek we played in for years and we even built a clubhouse on the bank that overlooked it. It was our castle. I was Queen Janice and he was King James. He had adventures and fought dragons. It was nice.”
She paused and lit a cigarette. After taking a long drag she continued.
“One day, we stayed at the clubhouse a bit later that usual and it started getting dark. We were walking down the trail back to our house when we heard a rustling in the trees behind us. I got scared and clung to James. He told me everything would be fine. Right at that moment, a giant gray dog jumped out and tackled James to the ground and tore at his throat. It looked right at me. I stared into its eyes convinced I was about to be lunch. It look at James and that’s when I ran…I ran all the way home. The police never found my brother’s body.”
Tears were streaming from her eyes as she flicked the ashes from her cigarette into the ashtray. She looked up at the ceiling.
“I remember — this was a couple of years later — I was walking home from class and I was about halfway to the dorm when I saw a redheaded man who looked just like my dad. He was lingering in the shadows near my dorm. I called out to him, but he ran away. Later that night, a girl was found mauled by a wild animal over on Miller Street just off of campus. I know it sounds crazy, but I’m convinced that it was my brother. I think he is killing these girls.”
It was a lot to take in. I pulled a smoke from the pack and lit it. Sitting in silence, I pondered what she said and weighed my options. After a few minutes I had a thought.
“That first night you were here, I saw a red headed guy in the hallway outside my apartment. He was fiddling with my door knob. Whether he is your brother or not, I think I got a pretty good look at him. Lemme grab a sketchbook,” I said.
I pulled a pencil from the jar on my coffee table and worked up a sketch of the man I saw in the hallway. As I shaded the features on his face, she recoiled to the other side of the couch.
“That’s the man I saw outside my dorm!” she shouted.
I put down the sketchbook.
“Then I think we should call the police. If we explain this rationally, it will help them catch him. It’s really the only workable option at this point. I’ll be with you the entire time.” Crying, Janice agreed to it. I called the police.
The officer took our statements and I gave him my sketch. Janice told the officer her story. He sighed when she mentioned that it might be her dead brother, but he handled it professionally and continued taking notes. If she noticed his disbelief, she didn’t indicate it as she described the incident. The officer finished up his interview and I walked him to the door.
“You might want to get her to lay down,” the officer whispered to me.
I nodded and after locking up, I led her to the bedroom and held her in the dark until I had to go to work.
There was a patrol car stationed in the parking lot as I pulled up to the high school. He flagged me down as I walked up to the building. I showed him my lanyard and keyring, explaining I was the janitor. He called it in and sent me on my way. I strolled past the gym and checked it, hoping the body was gone. Thankfully, it was empty. I went to my office in the maintenance room and found a note from the principal ordering me to pay extra attention to the gym while cleaning. I was also told to report anything strange to the officer outside.
I spent most of the night cleaning the gymnasium floor as requested. I rushed through the rest of the work and finished up around 5 AM. With an hour to kill, I made myself some coffee and decided to take a mug out to the officer in the patrol car. As I approached the front doors, I noticed the red lights flashing. I slowly walked up to the car. I could make out the silhouette of the officer sitting in the driver’s seat. I made my way up to his window, when I noticed the blood. His head was hanging down at an awkward angle. I could tell that it had been savagely torn apart. I stumbled back and tripped over a concrete parking divider, hitting the back of my head in the process.
I climbed to my feet in a daze as I moved my hands around in my pocket searching for my cell phone. I dialed 9-1-1 and spent another morning giving statements and being interviewed. The police were a little more suspicious of me this time around. They took fiber samples from my clothes and scrapings from under my nails and told me not to leave town without letting them know. I had discovered two of the bodies, it only made sense that they would suspect me. I made sure to remind them I had spent half the night cleaning the mess from the night before and they said they would take it into account. I had my concerns given proximity to the crimes, but I knew I was innocent. One thing stands out in my memory when looking back at that morning, though. I could have sworn I saw a redheaded man that looked like the one in my sketch standing in the crowd, but when I looked again he was gone.