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Lynch Law
by Andrew Vachss

May 1959

The predator slouched against the soft leather seat, eyes half-closed. Parked near the edge of a drive-in hamburger joint on a thick summer night, listening to the frightened voices swirl like fog around his open windows. The little weasels were whining about a story they thought only their pitiful little town knew. But the predator knew better—he heard the same story everywhere he traveled: some ancient black madman living in the swamp out past the abandoned factories and mill works; a monster with the strength of a dozen men, escaped from a chain gang years ago and never brought to justice. And he waited out there every night, living on human flesh. You don't give Fear a Christian name in the Bible Belt, so they called him "The Nigger." Those who claimed to have seen him said he had a hideous scarred face and only one hand—the other stump ended in a hooked spike.

The Nigger only lived to make people die.

A stupid myth—the predator had used it before.

And this time, he couldn't miss. Last Saturday night, two of the town's bright little stars hadn't returned from their date. They found them the next morning on the edge of the swamp. Both heads hacked off—not cleanly The boy's wallet had been torn open and his mouth stuffed with dollar bills. The girl's body was naked except for her underpants, but the investigators couldn't tell who took her that far.

The kids knew. Everybody had known about Bob and Sally for quite a while. Bob talked a lot because it was his first, and Sally didn't care if he did because it wasn't. Or so people said.

The church people got hard around the eyes when they heard the stories. Punishment for sin was one thing, but God wouldn't pick a nigger to do his work.

Frightened wisps of talk floated past the predator's window:
"It was a tramp—some hobo who got thrown off the train. Probably camping out there when he saw them ... "

"He didn't take the money."

"An escaped convict ... run off from the prison farm."

"It was the Nigger ... had to be the Nigger!"

"There is no goddamned Nigger out there."

"Lots of folks saw him."

"Yeah, well, whatever it is, I'm not going out there again without a gun."

"I suppose you'd go even with a gun, huh?"

"I might ..."

The predator listened carefully. He was a good listener. Patient, doing his work. Teenagers gathered around his new Coupe de Ville, sat on the hood, lit their cigarettes with the lighter from his dashboard. The predator blended in easily—a professional stranger with soft ways about him. He was twenty-four years old—could look seventeen or thirty depending on what he needed.

The predator added nothing to the conversation unless someone pushed him. His smile never got near his eyes.

That was his way—stand close, but apart. A wolf watching the campfire. He remembered one night in Chicago. A crap game behind a car wash where he'd been working to build up a stake after they let him out the last time. He faded the shooter all night long, never touching the dice. But finally they passed cubes to him, telling him he had to roll. He refused again. Politely. One of the men patiently explained to him that the odds were always a little bit against the shooter, so it wasn't fair to hang back like he was. The predator listened to the explanation, no expression on his young face. He knew all about the odds. But he didn't touch the dice. They crowded in around him, telling him to roll or walk ... and leave his winnings behind. With a frozen face and a crackling thunderstorm in his chest he grabbed the dice and threw eight straight passes. He walked away from the car wash with four hundred dollars of their rent money. Miserable slugs didn't know how lucky they'd been—if he'd had a gun instead of the straight-edged razor in his jacket pocket ...

An old man who had been in the game caught up with the predator at the end of the alley "I hope you learned something, son," he said.

The predator looked at the old man. "I'm not your fucking son."

The old man knew it was the truth.

But this was way south of Chicago. And young people never knew the truth. He got Joanne's phone number from one of the grinning boys at the drive-in. He knew why they were smiling—any number they gave up so easily had to be a girl they hadn't gotten to. The kind he wanted.

Three nights later, they were coming back from the movies. Driving in the Cadillac an old woman had bought for him in Phoenix. There had been a newsreel about the lynching of Mack Charles Parker in nearby Mississippi. A mob had stormed the jail where Parker had been waiting trial for rape—his body had never been found. Joanne had been horrified. She kept saying, "It's not right—he didn't do it."

The predator knew she would have sacrificed the black bastard in a minute if he had. Knowing things—that's how you got on in this world. Patience. He drove out past the old factories, watching the quick pulse throb in her neck.

"Where're you going?"

"I thought we'd park the car and talk for a bit. I can't handle the drive-in and all those silly kids."

Joanne responded to the implied threat to her sophistication. "Anything's better than that," she agreed.

The predator parked near the edge of the swamp, fitting his car inside the sulfurous mist. He left the engine running—windows up, air conditioner on. Started his work in the dead-quiet night.

"I can't believe those punks were really serious about some nigger living out here and slicing people up ... You can tell when a kid's never left home."

"Well," she said, "they really are pretty immature. I never go out with any of the boys around here anymore, not since I got back from college ..."

"Christ, you can't see a thing out there, huh?"

"This is the first time I've ever been out here. None of the town boys come out here now. You know, ever since ..."

The predator lit a cigarette, watching her face over his cupped hands. "Doesn't bother you, right?"

The old factories shifting on their rotten foundations made a moaning sound that seemed to blossom from the ground around the car. A tiny red light appeared in the distance. The predator glanced at the glowing tip of his cigarette—just a reflection in the windshield. He smiled his smile.

Joanne shuddered in the chill of the air conditioner. "I know a much better place, out by the lake. It's really beautiful in the summer ..."

"Ah, let's stay here. Besides. I thought you liked niggers, the way you were carrying on in the movies and all ..."

The predator pumped the gas pedal, listening to the engine roar against the swamp-sounds. The Caddy rocked in its place, a frightened beast chained by the predator's foot.

"No," the girl said. "I don't want to stay here. I don't ... please ..."

"Come on, what's the big deal? Wouldn't you like to have some big black gorilla get hold of you? You might like it."

Joanne opened her mouth, trying for indignation, but nothing came out. The predator reached for her with his right hand, flicking away the hem of her full skirt, shoving his hand roughly between her legs. He grabbed the soft flesh of her inner thigh, pulling her around to face him, holding tight.

"It's getting pretty stuffy in here; I think I'll just open this window and ..."


"What's your problem?" he whispered, still holding her, "I've got this." The predator pulled a shiny little automatic from under the dash, holding it up so she could see it gleam in the darkness.

"Please ... please. I want to go home ..."

"I got something to do first," he told her, watching the dice bounce on the blanket and thinking "natural" in his mind. It was a word he liked.

Joanne's head whipped back and forth on her neck, no longer feeling the pain in her thigh. "No, no, no ... no, please, take me home ... I'm so afraid ... god, please!"

The predator twisted his hand, making her see his face. The swamp-sounds tightened around the car, but the predator was calm within himself. The key was knowing when to move—picking your time. He made her look until she understood.

"Take me home and I'll do whatever you want," Joanne said, her voice quiet now.

"Sure. With Mommy and Daddy watching, huh? You must think I'm a fucking idiot."

"No! I think you're wonderful ... so strong. My parents are up north on vacation ... we'd be all alone. Please?"

The predator's teeth flashed. He had known all about the vacation before he'd called Joanne.

"I don't believe you," he said. "How do I know you wouldn't just run in the house and call the cops?"

"Oh, I wouldn't. I never would. Just take me home ... to my house ... and ..."

"You do something for me first. Just so I'm sure."

"Wh ... what?"

The predator took his left hand off the wheel. He stepped on the gas, hearing the engine scream as he unzipped his slacks. He backed off the engine, letting the car idle down. "Show me," he told her.

Joanne reached uncertainly toward him—his slap! was a whipcrack in the quiet night.

"Not with your hand."

"No! I can't ... I never ..."

The predator took his hand from her thigh and moved it to the back of her neck. He slowly forced her head down and held her against him, the pistol in his left hand tapping a steady rhythm against the driver's window. When he was sure she was going to do the right thing, he took his hand away from her neck and let it rest across the top of the seat.

When she finished he jerked her back by the short hair at the base of her neck. She looked at the predator, her eyes milky, unreadable.

"Do you believe me now?"

He nodded, waiting.

"I love you," Joanne told him. "I swear I do. Take me home now. Please ... hurry! We have to leave, honey ... I will, oh ... anything! Just take me home."

The predator stomped the gas, shoving the Caddy into gear—it fishtailed on the soft ground, clawing for a grip. The predator flicked the wheel expertly, guiding the big car out of the dying swamp. He released the girl, shoving her against the passenger door.

The predator drove straight to her house. He didn't need directions. When they pulled up, he pushed her out her side of the car, following close behind, never taking his hand off her.

An hour later the predator remembered he'd left his pistol in plain view inside the car, but the doors were locked, so he went back to what he was doing. He kept asking Joanne, "Isn't this better?" and she didn't know what he meant but knew enough to say "Yes" every time.

It was still dark when the predator left the house. He was going to the furnished room he'd rented and sleep until the next night. Then he'd finish with Joanne and move on, doing his work.

He walked around to the driver's door, keys in hand, like walking out of that alley in Chicago.

A heavy, hook-twisted steel spike was dangling from the door handle, swaying gently in the night breeze. Its thick base was crusted with flesh, torn off bloody at the root.

© 1994 Andrew Vachss. All Rights Reserved.

"Lynch Law" appears in Born Bad, a collection of Andrew Vachss' short stories published by Vintage Books.

Proving It, the first Andrew Vachss audiobook collection


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