THE INTELLECTUAL VOID/OCTOBER                                                                                                                                                        2000



Part one

          The day had been exceptionally hot for so early in the summer.  All day long the heat had been gnawing away at the last remains of Eisner’s self control.  It was well known to those who rode the boxcars of the Illinois Central and the other eastern rails that Ron “Devil Eyes” Eisner was a mean bastard.  His nickname suited him well.

          He was not a smart man, in the sense that he had neither education nor native intelligence, but he was a cunning man and the cunning showed in his china blue eyes.  His patient, predatory cunning was what made it possible for him to do the things he enjoyed the most.  His cunning was the attribute that had prevented the full extent of his cruelty from ever seeing the light of day. It had not taken many beatings from his mother to make certain that his cunning developed quickly.

          His mother had never married.  Fate, in the person of a cunning stranger had been too cruel to her for that to ever happen: So many of the deep and brutal gashes on her face and body were beyond the limits of cosmetic surgery. For many days, in fact, her parents had wondered if she would survive the trauma that had been inflicted on her.  She survived. But, at the point in time when it was discovered she was pregnant, she was so mentally and physically fragile that her physicians and her parents were afraid she would not survive an abortion.

          Ronny was the child of that rape.  But that was not the reason his mother had hated him.  Almost from the minute he was born, she had seen the core of him and, try as he might, he could never hide it from her. She loved him as best she could figure out how to love him: all of his responses were so unnatural, so baffling, infuriating and generally incomprehensible.

          She knew that he was a Bad Seed, born utterly beyond the reach of God’s Grace, but she could never figure out why.  She cried over it.  She prayed for him.  She wondered about his nature, often and long.  She wondered about it right up until the afternoon of his 13th birthday.  She was bent over the kitchen sink rinsing shampoo out her hair when he cracked her skull with a frying pan.  The Fates can be very cruel.  The blow did not kill her outright. 

          She regained consciousness about four hours later naked and staked out spread eagle on her back in the root cellar.   When she finally died four days later, repeatedly and brutally raped, beaten, bruised and tortured beyond recognition, Ronny calmly attached ropes and pulleys to the wood columns that supported the earthen roof and collapsed the cellar to bury her and the evidence of his crime. 

          He then walked right through the middle of the garden, across the large yard to his home on the semi-rural fringe of Kankeekee, Illinois and methodically set a fire in each and every room of the house.  When he was certain it was burning the way he had planned, he jumped over the back fence and ran along the railroad tracks until he was able to hop his first freight train.

   *  *  *  *  *  *  *  * 

           In one of those rare areas of truly flat land along the east bank of the upper Ohio River, about halfway between Parkersburg and Wheeling, was a small farming community called Parmlee.  Not much of a town to speak of, just a cluster of small truck farms where people with strong backs and stronger faith farmed vegetables.  In the general run of things there were 3 good years for every bad year and those careful people had learned to make it all work so they could survive, even enjoy their lives. 

          Jeremy Pollard carried his pole and his small stringer of fish along the top of the levee. The moorings at the lower end of the abandoned coal yard, where the barges were loaded out a long time back, had always been a favorite fishing spot for his family.  This was his first afternoon of fishing this summer.  The planting was all done and everything was in order to begin the first stage of harvesting.  School was just out two days ago and the peas were not quite ready to pick, so he had gotten the afternoon off.  He dropped down off the levee and walked across the coal yard to the railroad tracks that separated the broken down remnants of the coal operation from his father’s well-kept farm. 

          From under one of the old conveyors, eyes watched Jeremy cross the gleaming steel rails: Devil Eyes.  Eisner had not seen the boy crossing the other way earlier in the day: He had been sleeping off a stolen bottle of Tokay. But now he was hungry and hot and he was seeing an opportunity for the kind of entertainment that he liked best.  He had started to slip out from under the conveyor when he heard a woman’s voice calling: “Jem, Jem?” 

          “I’m comin’ Momma,” the boy hollered in answer.

          Eisner’s sweaty heat cooled instantly and he just settled back.  He could wait, for now…. He could.  In his mean, cruel, calculating and filthy core he felt this one was worth hanging around here for. 

          Being a cunning man, he spent the next day begging at the farmhouses for food and surveying the area very closely. He got a tin of corned beef from Jem’s mother and a good look at the lay of their property as well.  In 13 years as a vagabond he’d had a lot of this kind of fun: no reason to be careless and rush into anything.  “Take the slow way, Ronny,” he told himself:  “The careful way.”

          There were still no peas today and the boy was just crossing back over the tracks from another fishing trip. Jeremy, unaware of watching eyes, was threading his way along the south edge of the pumpkin patch.  The vines were in full blossom and, in a way, Jem was already eager for Halloween.  Judging from the number of blossoms there would be lots of pumpkins this year: Three, maybe even four truck loads for the farmer’s markets over in Columbus, Ohio.  He laughed a little to himself as he remembered his father saying, “ I love Halloween. Those city folks must love Halloween almost as much as I do.  Two weeks a year, I can get two and a half, sometimes three dollars for seventy-five cent pumpkin.” His father concluded with a smile.  And Jem, pleased at the memory of his father’s good business sense, smiled himself.

           Eisner spent two more days in begging and reconnaissance, including one more trip to the Pollard place. He smirked inwardly as Jem’s “momma” handed him half a loaf of home made bread.  Eisner felt he was ready.  He had scouted every place along the boy’s path where he could lie in wait.  He had picked out a spot where he could grab the boy and disappear in a of matter seconds.   He would wait just back inside the edge of the scrub trees by the pumpkin patch.  He could feel the cold power building up in him hour by hour.  The boy’s next fishing trip would be his last and Eisner’s best.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   * 

           About one in the morning, Eisner was awakened by the low rumble of a slow, heavy, southbound freight train moving at about 15 miles per hour.  In the light of the full moon he clearly saw a man roll easily off the train.  Most of those who rode the rails would have a recognized the traveler as a comrade.  Ordinarily, Eisner would have too.  But, tonight he was keyed up.  What he saw was some fun: a little warm up for the big show. 

           J.L. “Gentleman Jim” Mahoney had been riding the rails for half of his fifty-six years: mostly in the northwest.  Portland to San Francisco on the “hot shot” freights was his favorite ride.  He rolled to his feet and walked back up the track to pick up his pack.  Visibility under the full moon and cloudless sky was extraordinary.  He looked over the whole area carefully.  He was hoping for a sheltered place to sleep.  On his own turf he knew all of the sleeping places, but this was unknown territory.  For about the one-hundredth time he wondered what ever had possessed him in that momentary whim to “try things out East for a while.”

           He thought for a few minutes about the abandoned remains of the coal yard and turned away from it.  Something about the place bothered him.  Over the years and through some tough scrapes and close calls, he had acquired a “sixth sense” which he trusted implicitly.  So, even though it looked like a good place, it felt wrong.  Therefore, even though he could not pin down the reason, he moved down along the tracks and then crossed over, finally settling down at the edge of the scrub trees just south of the pumpkin patch. 

           And all the while Eisner watched.  He watched the small fire when the other man heated up a can of stew.  He warmed to his objective considerably as he watched the man move back into the brush a bit and relieve himself.  He watched as the man handled his pack: Nice pack.  Eisner ground his teeth in anticipation of what he was likely to find in the pack when the fun was over.  He watched as the man walked around a little, bending over and then stretching upward to loosen up his muscles.  He watched as the man kicked out the fire and spread out his blankets and lay down to sleep.  From where Eisner was holed up, he could only see a little of the highest part of the blankets above the pumpkin vines.  In the light of the moon, it looked as though the man tossed and turned for while then finally settled down and quit moving. Eisner moved slowly. Dawn was four hours away: plenty of time.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    * 

            Gentleman Jim was nervous and it bothered him.  He was not a person given to “spooky feelings.”   All the time he was building his fire and setting up his camp and eating his dinner he had a feeling of being somehow exposed or vulnerable. The moon had past the zenith as he was heating his dinner. His eyes kept drifting back across the tracks to the old coal yard.  For all of the moonlight and all of his surreptitious glancings, he had not seen anything over there, but he kept looking anyway.  After dinner he sorted through his pack, slipped out the big screwdriver and stashed it under his shirt.  He walked around a bit and stretched out.  He was warm and he had eaten.  He had loosened up his muscles.  He should be ready to sleep, but he just didn’t feel easy.

           Mahoney spread his blankets and lay down beside them.   He started cutting branches of the scrub and stuffing them into his blankets to make what he hoped was a “man-shaped” lump.  All the time he was doing that he was thinking to himself that he had gone totally paranoid nutso, but he didn’t stop what he was doing.  When he had the blankets and branches the way he wanted them he laid his hat at the top with a clump of twigs and leaves to hold it in position.   The hat now “looked right” too, so he belly crawled back into the bush about 15 feet to a spot where he was able to see his blanket without being seen from any direction and sat up to wait.  What he was waiting for he didn’t know. He thought again that he must be crazy, but he stayed right where he had sat.  And while he waited, he watched the moon sinking down the western sky. 

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

          Feeling sure now that the man was asleep, Eisner wasted no time.  He stepped out into the open, walked across the coal yard and stepped onto the tracks.  In his hand was the Brake Club he carried in his pack.  The thoroughly “used-up”, tortured body of the Brakeman whose club Eisner carried had been rotting in an unmarked grave a dozen miles west of Perth Amboy, New Jersey for 8 years. The man Eisner expected would soon be his new “playmate”, by chance, had laid himself down on almost the exact spot where Eisner had planned to trap the boy. 

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

          Gentleman Jim waited.  He had seen the silhouette of a man stand up and walk from the coal yard to the tracks.  He had clearly seen the Brake Club.  Now he knew what he was waiting for.  He thought about slipping quickly and quietly away from this place, but he couldn’t.  For some crazy reason, this was his fight.  Again, he thought he was going crazy; there was nothing there worth this risk. His blankets, his pack… all of it together could be replaced with a little petty larceny and some judicious begging.  But he stayed in his hiding place moving only to shift from his sitting position to a crouch. 

          And now he knew he was crazy, he could smell the river silt and the acrid reeds of the Mekong Delta.  “Dear God?” he prayed to himself, “why am I doing this?”  He shifted his position slightly to change the pressures on his muscles so they would not cramp and betray him. He had not worn dog tags for 34 years, but he could almost feel the chain around his neck.  He made another slow and careful shift in his crouched position.  Carefully breathing open-mouthed, he sensed to the core of his body that he could not afford to be heard.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

          “Worked out perfectly” Eisner thought, grinning widely: “A trial run.” He walked quietly to a point about 50 meters past the pumpkin patch and cut back into the scrub forest.  Now he had to be careful and very quiet.  He came slowly and carefully through the trees to where he could just see the sleeping man through the undergrowth.  Slowly, carefully forward another 10 feet, he paused for a good deep breath.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

          Mahoney heard Eisner coming up from behind and to his right: Very small noises.  A sleeping man would never have heard them. He just kept breathing and listening.  Mahoney could see him now.  Eisner, his gaze fixed and intense, was about 6 feet to Mahoney’s right and inching slowly toward the blankets.  As Eisner moved past him toward his bedroll, Mahoney shifted slowly again, uncramping muscles and rebalancing for a charge in Eisner’s direction.  Eisner pause about 8 feet from the blankets.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *       *

          Then, with two quick, large steps Eisner pounced forward, bringing the club down for a smashing blow into the hat at the spot he figured the man’s ear would be. He jerked back.  The blow had not felt right. 

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *       *

          As soon as Eisner pounced Mahoney stood, stepped into the clear and pulled the screwdriver from under his shirt.  As Eisner jerked back to his feet after the smashing blow to the hat, Mahoney charged at him. He knew he had one chance and if he missed he was dead.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *       *

          Eisner heard the movement behind him and spun around, swinging the club in a great arc as he turned. Surprise and shock rocked him as he realized his swing was too wide.  The other man was well inside of it and moving fast: Some kind of weapon in his hand. 

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *       *

          As he had crouched in the brush, waiting, Mahoney’s “Recon” Ranger training had flooded back into his mind.  His “killer” nature came back to him as easily as if it had never been gone.  As soon as Eisner began his wild, turning swing, Mahoney reacted instinctively to the mistake. Instead of stopping, or trying to duck backward, he continued to charge inward, inside Eisner’s intended blow.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *       *

          Eisner wanted to dodge, turn, twist away from the encounter, but he had committed everything to that hard, swinging counter blow.  He had no leverage, no balance, and no way to avoid the other man’s weapon.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *    *

          With all the strength he could muster, Mahoney drove upward with the screwdriver into soft underside of Eisner’s chin, up through his tongue, then on through the roof of his mouth. The driving thrust took the screwdriver point through the brain.  Before the power of that thrust was spent, it popped a half-dollar sized piece of bone out of Eisner’s skull as the last inch and a half of it burst through the top of his head.  Mahoney, still pushing upward as hard as he could, jerked back and forth trying to do all the damage he could as quickly as he could.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *       *

          Eisner’s club fell from his hand as he staggered, zombie-like into Mahoney.  Hands now free, Eisner reached up and grasped Mahoney’s wrists and with superhuman strength ripped downward and pushed hard away, pulling the screwdriver out of his head and knocking Mahoney over backwards.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *       *

          Mahoney rolled into a backward somersault and came up in a crouch facing Eisner with his screwdriver at the ready for another charge.   Mahoney was very confused.  He knew that he had punched the screwdriver all the way up through Eisner’s head. During the autumn and winter of 1969 he had used that same attack against nearly a dozen Viet Cong and they had died instantly.  The moon was low enough now to put some light on the face of the man standing three paces in front of him.  Mahoney looked into the “devil eyes” and his heart turned to ice cold stone.   Mahoney was like a bird hypnotized by the eyes of a snake.  Like a rabbit frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car; like thirty-seven other people before him Mahoney was trapped in Ronny Eisner’s eyes and he knew without a doubt that Eisner would kill him.

                                       To be continued...