Resurrecting the Strangler

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by Mark Allan Gunnells

“So you went to high school with the Strangler, Mrs. Gibson?” Bobby asked.

The old woman, looking frail but somehow regal in her wheelchair, smiled. “Back then no one called him that. He was just Martin. Marty, actually.”

“Of course, but were there any signs that he would grow up to be a serial killer?”

“You mean did he torture small animals, stuff like that?”

Bobby shrugged. “Not necessarily anything so overt, but I figure serial killers don’t just wake up one day and think maybe today I’ll try killing someone. There has to be something building up over time.”

Mrs. Gibson took a moment then shrugged herself. “I may be the wrong person to ask. To me, he was the neighbor boy from down the street I’d known my entire life. In grade school, he might have been a little rough-and-tumble, always getting into scrapes and fights, but that was just how all guys were back then. The idea of sensitive boys hadn’t been invented yet.”

“So when the killings started in 1967, you had no reason to suspect your old friend Martin?”

“Heavens no.”

“Were you still in touch with him at that point?”

“I saw him around on occasion. This is a fairly small town, you know. Plus he was a cab driver for the only service in town, so sometimes he’d carry me to the A&P and back on grocery day.”

“Did any of these cab rides happen during the period the women’s bodies were being found?”

“I don’t have exact dates but probably.”

“That must have been an exciting time.”

Mrs. Gibson frowned. “Exciting?”

“I only mean that in a town this small, not a lot happens. Then suddenly it has its own serial killer making national headlines. Kind of put the town on the map in a way.”

“How old are you, young man?”

Bobby sat up straighter. “Fourteen.”

“This is an awfully morbid subject for someone your age to be interested in, isn’t it?”

“I told you, I’m doing a report for school.”

“Of course. Well, to answer your question, it was a frightening time with the curfew the sheriff put into place and neighbors afraid of neighbors, but yes. I’ll admit from an objective standpoint, it was somewhat exciting too. Like being in the middle of a movie.”

“And you and Martin dated in high school, is that correct?” Bobby asked.

Mrs. Gibson jerked as if someone had just clapped their hands next to her ear. “Who told you that?”

Bobby reached into the backpack at his feet and pulled out an old tattered yearbook, the year 1954 embossed in flaking gold paint on the cover. He began opening the book to pages he’d marked with Post-Its, showing the old woman the pictures. “I got a hold of Martin’s yearbook from his junior year. You two are in a lot of photos together, and this one at a football game shows him with his arm around you.”

Her expression went blank, unreadable. “You’re a regular little Sherlock Holmes, aren’t you? Truth is, we did date very briefly before I met Will.”

“Any particular reason you didn’t mention that?”

“Would you like to mention that you once dated someone who ended up strangling five women to death?”

“Touché. Do you think that personal connection is why you never became one of his victims? I mean, if he had you in his cab and all.”

“Dear, he had lots of people in his cab. There would likely be a record of his fares. Marty may have been many things, but stupid wasn’t one of them.”

Bobby nodded, tucked away the yearbook, then changed tactics. “Do you think that personal connection is why he started contacting your husband and telling him where the bodies could be found?”

“I suppose that’s possible,” Mrs. Gibson said softly. “Marty and Will didn’t really know each other well, but Marty was aware I’d married a reporter for the local paper.”

 “I looked up the archive of your husband’s stories. Before the Strangler, he was covering the openings of supermarkets and tractor pulls. When he started receiving letters from a serial killer, detailing the murders and locations of the bodies, it must have freaked him out.”

“That’s putting it mildly. Will was a wonderful man, but he was also a bit sheltered and therefore had small ambitions. He would have been content to spend his entire life in this town covering the openings of supermarkets and tractor pulls.”

“But the Strangler changed all that, huh? Once he became the Strangler’s point of contact, that really shoved him into the spotlight whether he wanted it or not. And of course, once Martin was arrested and convicted, your husband got that lucrative job offer for the paper in New York.”

“Sometimes from great tragedy comes great blessing.”

Bobby consulted some notes. “I understand your husband originally turned down that job.”

Mrs. Gibson laughed, the sound low and dry. “You really are Sherlock Holmes. As I said, my Will had small ambitions. He didn’t want to give up the life we had here, but I eventually made him see what a lucrative opportunity this could be. One he really couldn’t afford to pass up.”

“Indeed. Your husband made quite a name for himself, and amassed quite the net worth.”

Mrs. Gibson gazed over at the mantel, on which sat a framed photo of a younger version of herself in a wedding dress, arm-in-arm with a robust man that was no doubt William Gibson. “Will was never truly happy in New York, but he wanted to make me happy so he did the work. When he died of the heart-attack, I stayed up there for a while but eventually decided to retire back here to South Carolina.”

“But as a much wealthier woman,” Bobby pointed out. “You’ve come quite a long way from the dirt-poor little girl living on Third Street in a three room house. All the way to Montgomery Street in one of the biggest homes in town.”

Mrs. Gibson titled her head, giving Bobby a shrewd look. Then her eyes dropped to his cellphone, recording their conversation from atop the coffee table. Bobby followed her gaze then reached over and tapped the screen, turning off the recording app.

“The rest can be off the record.”

“What exactly are you getting at, young man?”

Bobby consulted his notes again. “There are other interesting things I’ve learned in my research of this story. For instance, you mentioned there being a record of Martin’s fares in his cab. You’re right, took some searching out, but it looks like the year he was committing the murders, you were in his cab a lot, like sometimes three or four times a week. That’s a lot of trips to the grocery store. And his last words before being executed, ‘I’ll never regret what I did for love,’ were rather illuminating.”

Mrs. Gibson didn’t respond, but her face set hard as stone and she no longer seemed so frail. In her squinted eyes, Bobby saw a fierceness that was almost frightening.

“I also did a little research into the Strangler’s victims. The authorities always thought he picked them at random since they could find no connections between them and Martin. But a little digging revealed they all had connections to you and your husband in some way. A lot of coincidences there, your old boyfriend starts offing people that are irritants in your life and somehow your husband becomes rich and famous from it. Tell me, did Will ever suspect?”

“You must think yourself so clever,” Mrs. Gibson said with a mirthless smile. “But everything you have is circumstantial, nothing you could build a solid case on.”

“I’m not trying to make a case, except maybe to you. Just want you to know that I know. And obviously there is no school report, though this conversation has been educational.”

The old woman’s smile curled more at the edges, revealing some actual humor. “I see, so that’s what this is. A novice coming to a master to learn the trade.”

“Not exactly.”

“Then young man, what do you want from me?”

Bobby began rummaging in his pack again. “Remember Sierra Davis, the second victim? Single mother, briefly worked at the paper with your husband? Rumors were that she and Will had an affair shortly before she quit.”

“More than rumors,” Mrs. Gibson said, steel in her voice. “And she didn’t quit, her slutty ass got fired.”

“Whatever. She was my grandmother, and my mother never got over losing her so young and the abuse she suffered in the foster care system. My mother killed herself last week.”

For the first time since the interview began, Mrs. Gibson looked discomfited. Her eyes darted around the room, but there was no one here but the two of them. The old woman gasped quietly when Bobby pulled the length of rope from his pack.

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