Prisoners by Samina Blink

Chapter 16

He used the word like punctuation, like a weak rapper with no imagination. He used it like it gave him some special pleasure, an almost sexual release. He used it like he was calling the name of his lover or his god. He used it like the utterance created a delicious taste in his mouth. Nigger.

The first few times Hallam Muxworthy addressed her as "nigger", Evangeline recoiled inside, as if the word was the flick of a whip. It wasn’t like she’d never heard the word before, but in her 32 years on the planet, she’d rarely heard it aimed her way. She wasn’t ignorant of racism, but in the integrated, "progressive" circles in which she’d lived, learned and worked, racists clothed their malevolence in assumptions, not hoods.

There were the high school classmates who told her the only reason she’d gotten into the top schools that had rejected them was because she was a minority – even though she was class valedictorian and had a list of awards and extracurricular projects as long as her legs. The campus counseling office that sent her and every other "minority" student in her dorm information on remedial workshops – even though the university had awarded her an academic honors scholarship. The fellow summer associate who took her for a secretary and gave her a coffee order before she set him straight. The law firm partners who assumed she’d have a special rapport with their gangsta rap client because "you know how those people think". As the somewhat sheltered suburban daughter of schoolteachers, she didn’t know that much about why young black men could think it was appropriate to settle the most minor disputes at the point of a semi-automatic weapon. But for the sake of a client, she was willing to listen and learn.

Listening and learning – those skills were her only hope of figuring her way out of this hell. And after a while, she became as numb to the word as Muxworthy was excited by it. She let it sift out, like so much chaff, as she gleaned what clues she could from his rambling monologues.

Like many a murderous psychopath before him, Muxworthy felt compelled to share his bloody visions with his captive. Depending on him to say something that would help her escape, Evangeline stifled her natural reactions and strained to hear some trace of humanity she could leverage in her favor.

After that seemingly endless first night, Muxworthy had opened the door at the top of the stairs and a shaft of sunlight from a window behind him poured into the dank cellar. He paused for a moment before switching on the single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling and flooding the room with a dim, grayed light. Shrouded in a dirty wool blanket and crouching in a corner, Evangeline watched his long legs descending the steps. She noticed a freezer chest against the wall and a workbench, but no tools. There was a spigot in the wall next to the freezer. She fixed the locations in her head for the coming darkness.

Muxworthy had a huge bucket in one hand and a paper sack in the other. He tossed the bucket towards her and watched her flinch as it bounced off the wall and rolled aside. "For your shit," he said, sucking his teeth.

He threw the bag towards her, saying, "Food." When it landed nearby, she drew her hand out of the blanket and opened it. Inside she found several slices of stale white sandwich bread, a raw egg that had cracked upon landing and a shriveled orange. Her heart sank as she thought of the child she was carrying and how long it had been since she’d had a proper meal. She’d barely been able to eat the day of the banquet and he’d snatched her from the Palace before she’d had so much as an hors d’oeuvre. The whole event – the music, her mother and Uncle Clay, seeing John on the terrace, the pearls -- seemed like a lifetime ago. She struggled to swallow the lump in her throat; she had to stay strong for the baby.

Muxworthy snickered when she grimaced at the broken egg. "Next time you’ll jump for your dinner," he sneered. Casting him a sidelong glance, she studied her captor. She guessed he was about 55, well over six feet tall with bony wrists and a bulging Adam’s apple. His dun-colored hair flopped into his small, deep-set light eyes. His skin was slack and pale, and seemed to hang off his rangy frame; he reminded her of a client being eaten alive by cancer who had come to her for help with his will.

But ill or not, this lunatic had had the strength to carry her away from the Palace and his manic delight in his exploit energized him. When she realized he wasn’t going anywhere for a while – he squatted about seven steps from the bottom and lit an Old Gold – she peeled off a slice of the gummy white bread and started to eat it. While she ate, Muxworthy blew foul clouds of cigarette smoke and began telling her stories designed to turn her stomach.

He described in gruesome detail how he’d stalked and killed "the nigger" Hudson, "the chink" Julie and "the kike" Nell Novak. He was particularly proud of how he’d snuck up behind Nell in the kitchen at Carlotta’s café and strangled her, then pushed her face first into the deep fryer. "Fried Jewbird!" he cackled. Evangeline realized that although Muxworthy was following the pattern of the murders in Marcie Walsh’s best-selling mystery The Killing Club, no one at LPD had recognized the strain of virulent bigotry that connected this serial killer’s targets. So much for John’s suspicion that the killer had been after Natalie.

"I saw you there that night, sucking face with that nigger lover McBain," he said with a sick gleam in his eye. "That’s when I knew you were going to be my biggest prize. Isn’t that what you niggers say? Keep your eye on the prize? I had a hell of a time keeping my eye on you – I thought I’d lost you when you left town a couple weeks ago. But you couldn’t stay away, now could you?"

Evangeline couldn’t still the tremor in her voice. "But why? Why do you hate me so? You don’t even know me."

Muxworthy sprung up on the step as if he’d been electrified. "Nigger, I don’t have to know you. It’s not about you. There is no you. You have been deluded by a nation that has bent over backward to appease the mongrel races. But those days are ending, do you hear me, girl? You think just because you have some award and some money and a white man is fucking you, you’re something special. You ain’t nothing but a nigger. And when I kill a so-called significant nigger like you, a lot of little niggers and kikes and spics and chinks and ragheads are going to get the message. All of you mutants are on the endangered species list."

For as long as she could remember, her parents had taught her the importance of being "a credit to the race". She shuddered to realize how this madman intended to use her to pervert the whole notion of a role model.

Her throat felt like it was lined with lint. "Could I have some water?"

He nodded at the spigot. "Help yourself."

Wrapping the mildewed blanket tightly around her, she shuffled over to the spigot. The faucet was caked with lime deposits and she struggled to turn it. It started to give, but she didn’t want him to see how much strength she had left. She crumpled to the floor, letting tears into her voice. "I can’t. Please help me." She looked up at him with big eyes swimming with tears.

Muxworthy snorted in exasperation, clomping down into the room. "Get over there!" he yelled, pointing to a far corner. She scurried away, peering up at him from beneath a curtain of hair.

He wrapped a rag around the tap and jerked it open to allow a trickle of rusty water. When he was back on the steps, she glanced up at him. He nodded and she went back to the faucet, watched to see that the water was running clear and ducked her head down for a drink. Despite the deposits on the tap, the water felt cool and sweet and good running down her throat, a liquid link to the world outside her prison.

Muxworthy spent the next several hours sitting on the steps chain smoking and ranting. Occasionally he tried to bait her and she bit, realizing that if he didn’t get his satisfaction through words, he might resort to physical torture. Interspersed with his apocalyptic vision of "reclaiming" America for "pure" whites only, were details of the life that had fed this sick, sad dream.

By the time he shut her in for the night, Evangeline had learned a few useful things. She knew his name was Muxworthy and he’d come from somewhere in North Carolina. When his children were young, he’d had to auction off the tobacco farm his family had run for eight generations. They’d moved to the city to where he found work in a stocking mill. Over the past nine years, the textile industry had dried up as companies shifted their contracts to South America and Asia. When the hosiery factory he worked for closed, he tried to get a job in a chicken processing plant. But the jobs were already taken by undocumented Mexicans who were willing to accept lower wages. The few floor manager jobs were held by black women. To hear him tell it, everywhere he turned, some colored person was waiting to take the food off his table. Eventually he found a job stacking cases at a superstore warehouse but he hurt his back and had to go on disability. The payments were so low he couldn’t afford to keep up with the rent and his wife left him for a cousin who had a job working for the county. He hadn’t told her what had become of their four children, but she imagined he’d get around to it.

Evangeline sat in the dark until she heard a door slam, then a car engine and tires on gravel. Satisfied that she was alone in the house, she shuffled over to the freezer, praying it wasn’t locked. Feeling along the edge in the dark, she grasped the handle and yanked upwards.

"Yes!" she whispered in exultation as the freezer’s light illuminated the cellar. She propped the lid open and ran for the stairs. At the top, she felt around for the light switch and flicked it on. Then she tried the door. It wasn’t wood, but some kind of heavy material like the doors in old New York apartments. She twisted the knob, but the door was locked tight. "No, no, no, no, no," she sobbed, slapping her hand against the door and sliding down to weep on the top step.

When she was done crying, her head throbbed like a poisoned melon. She looked around the room for weapons or tools. The man had been smart – he’d removed anything she could swing or throw at him. Finally, she made her way back to the pile of rags. Rooting around, she found a man’s canvas barn jacket and slipped it on. In the pocket she discovered a bullet and a half-empty loose tobacco tin. Returning to the freezer, she poked around the large packages wrapped in butcher paper. Nothing she could eat, but at least she had a source of light. Hearing the car approaching, she clambered up the stairs and shut out the overhead light, then crept down and curled up on the moldy blanket she’d worn most of the day. Afraid to sleep, she tried to process what she’d heard today.

A significant nigger? He must mean to draw a lot of attention to her murder. But here in the middle of nowhere, how would he accomplish that? And why did his odd name sound so familiar?