Almost everyone in Cottonwood slept in that Sunday morning, last October. Unexpected rain drenched the area in a steady gray downpour. People who planned to get up early for an Autumn hike among the yellow-leafed Cottonwood trees rolled over, went back to sleep. People who planned a brunch on the flanks of Mingus Mountain, the ghost town of Jerome, simply downed a gulp of water between dreams.
But Gus Bennett got up, got wet as he climbed into his nondescript tan Toyota, and pulled away from the Little Daisy motel at 6 a.m. He didn’t want anyone remembering when he slipped out of town, so he left quickly and quietly. He was a shy man, did not want to attract attention to his balding pate, his watery blue eyes.
He was deep in reverie, thankful to be leaving Cottonwood. Last night he felt too close to other people as he chatted and danced at the Main Stage, the club with the green awning at the corner of Mingus and Main. This venue featured live bands and multi-generational patrons. He welcomed the chance to be among feet clad in real shoes.
After this social night Gus returned to his sparse room, turned on the T.V. for companionable chatter. Startled in the midst of his tooth-brushing, he watched news footage out of Charlottesville, Virginia. “Nine kidnapped coeds have and vanished the past ten years,’’ he heard. Another is feared dead. They’ve always happened in the first month of classes here at the University of Virginia.”
“That guy, that killer,” Gus thought, “he made the mistake of picking up coeds in shopping malls, near security camera’s unforgiving lens. He’d been photographed, tracked down, and now was on the run. The reports even referred to this man as a ‘serial killer.’” Gus was horrified!
Gus knew he was careful, not that anyone would consider him a criminal of any kind. First, he met up with women on isolated beaches, solitary sunbathers, lone swimmers. Next, he acted friendly. Nothing threatening about his approach. He started with a casual greeting. He understood comments about the weather or the tide levels were too mundane. Conversations stopped there. He chose more thought provoking, unusual questions. “Was insomnia more common among the left-handed? Did eating GMAO corn lead to increased bullying in males under ten? Was global warming triggered by the pollution of small streams, everything else being equal?”
Then, he’d casually suggest a stroll along the beach. Gave him a chance to check out their toes, look for toe rings. As Gus pulled up to the traffic light opposite Food City, he thought back on all he knew about this fashion accessory. He noted brunettes and red-heads, should they choose to wear a toe ring, favored silver ones; blonds with their golden locks went for gold. No toe ring? That happened, and then he lost interest in his pursuit, strolled down the beach seeking out his next quarry. He chuckled to himself, fingered the steering wheel, as he affirmed, “Toe ring quality matters!” He didn’t lik real gold ones dripping in gemstones. Too rich for his simple taste. Nor did he approve of corroded, fake metal ones. The dames who wore them lacked intelligence. Superstition led him to avoid toe rings embellished with crosses. Satanic toe rings creeped him out. What kind of lady courted the devil?
Gus was a true collector. Once he obtained a silver claddagh or a bronze elephant, he didn’t seek out a similar ring. If he wasn’t interested in the toe adornment, he politely ended the stroll and moved on his way. Should his quest result in a ring he desired, he handled this opportunity as any gentleman would. Purchasing a ring was out of the question. Too easy. Furthermore, ladies would think him kinky. He needed to talk the young lady out of her jewelry. He explained his fetish, his love of toe rings and the women who wore them. He described the joy he felt when he fingered these trinkets.
He never rushed his process of acquisition. Sometimes Gus brought along a picnic lunch. He had to make it look like he had planned a repast for only one, a partial bottle of wine, one or perhaps three bottles of beer, never two, a single serving of cheese. As they continued their discussion on bullying or global warming, they shared the beverage, buttery croissants and crisp apples. When she was no longer conscious of his status of stranger he moved in with his appeal, requested the toe ring.
Request made, he found he had to talk fast. Gus reached again into his pocket to finger his collection as he recited that spiel. “Look at your lovely foot, it reflects your pure beauty. And that elegant toe ring enhances all there is about you. You are enchanting. I’d love to spend more time with you, but I must move on. Perhaps you would let me have that special toe ring as my way to remember our shared time? It would mean so much to me.”
The times when the toe-ringed damsel did not want to part with her ring he had to make calculations. Usually he thanked her for her time, jogged back to his car
and moved on to another beach and began again. When he faced too many selfish women in a row, when his frustration grew overwhelming, he took other means. He would never yank off a toe ring off and run. She might remember him, tell someone of his advances. No. She would have to pay the ultimate sacrifice for her avarice. She “accidentally” drowned in the surf, or “clumsily” tumbled off the rocks to her demise. He’d slip the desired ring off her toe, then run to find help. Nobody would suspect foul play! Gus had merely tried to save her life, then got help when he couldn’t.
He followed essentially the same cross-continental jaunt each year, as he collected prized toe rings. He began in Southern California resorts south of Los Angeles. Even in late winter, people flocked there for sunbathing. He got to Florida in time for spring break. After a few weeks to enjoy azaleas blooming along the Appalachian spine of the continent, he ventured to Cape Cod for early summers. He always felt patriotic there during their 4th of July celebrations. He cruised south to Galveston in September, finally reached Baja for the holidays.
No one could call Gus a murderer. He wasn’t inept like that serial killer back in Virginia. He clucked in horror as he turned right onto 260 East, out of Cottonwood. He’d follow this route back to Interstate17, continue south on his journey to Baja. His windshield wipers beat out a syncopated rhythm as he gunned the engine, passed Wal-Mart. The steady rain added to his daydreams. He reached down into his pocket, fingered all his toe ring trophies. Maybe he could add another to his collection by next weekend.
He’d be in Cabo by then. Those rocky cliffs overlooking the gulf could be treacherous. He licked his lips in anticipation.
"With all the beauty surrounding me here above the Verde Valley, how could I not create more beauty?"