“You see that man over there?” said my mother.
I followed the direction of her nod. The sidewalk was dusty and my sandals were plastic and blue. I must have been about seven.
“He’s Murderer Bill,” she added.
The man on the far side of Harmony Street looked like just an ordinary man. Dark suit, blue tie, white shirt, shiny black shoes. He could have been a bank manager, a politician or one of those guys who comes to the door asking people when was the last time they thought about Jesus.
At the moment, a yellow supermarket carrier bag wrapped around his hand, he was bending down to pick up the poop his golden retriever had just plopped.
I didn’t say anything. So? He was a murderer. Everyone had to be something.
Mom read my thoughts.
“Not just any old murderer, Denny,” she said. “He’s the Murderer. Murderer Bill.”
I was wondering if, assuming I played my cards right, she’d buy me an ice cream after we’d done getting the Sunday groceries.
“Good kids don’t have anything to worry about,” my mother was saying. “But bad children—that’s something different.”
I squirmed in my sandals. I knew I was a bad kid, born rotten, as my mom often told me. I used bad language, squashed flies and pulled pigtails. I was aware there were bigger sins, but, heck, I was still just a kid. Give me time.
“You know how Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy only come to give kids nice things when they’ve been good?” said Mom. “Well, with Murderer Bill it’s the other way ’round.”
“He gives you nice things when you’ve been bad?” I hazarded.
Mom heaved an exaggerated sigh. “No, he comes to the bedrooms of bad kids when they’re sleeping and he … does away with them.”
“He carries them off to the basement of his house and, if they’re lucky, he kills them quickly. If they’re not so lucky—if they’ve been really bad …”
She let the words hang, giving my mind time to fill with imaginings.
None of them very happy imaginings, although there was a kind of pleasure to be had in thinking them. I was of that age when there’s a thrill in reading about medieval tortures and the Spanish Inquisition.
Murderer Bill, mission accomplished, was dumping his laden carrier bag in the trash can at the bottom of someone’s drive. You weren’t supposed to do that but everybody did. He walked off in the opposite direction from us, his golden retriever trotting nattily by his side.
“So you better learn how to be good, Denny,” said Mom as I turned my head to watch him go. “Or Murderer Bill will come to your room one night.”
She laughed. A sinister laugh, I thought.
It was the kind of sunny day that makes night and darkness seem like things that happen to other people, so I just grinned goofily and went back to thinking about the ice cream Mom might or might not buy me.
It was different a dozen hours later as I lay in my darkened bedroom, watching the curtain and the moonlight shining through. Every creak of the house, every squeak of the springs as Mom turned over in her bed on the other side of the too-thin wall, every honking of a car horn in the distance made me more fully awake than I knew was possible.
Was Murderer Bill in the wardrobe? In the shadows by my battered little desk? Preparing himself to climb through the window, a knife between his teeth?
Somehow his suit and his tie made him seem even more frightening.
I didn’t sleep a wink that night. In the morning I fell asleep in geography class, which wasn’t hard to do at the best of times.
Over the next week or so I didn’t exactly forget about Murderer Bill, but he moved from the front of my mind to the back. He was still in there, but I didn’t think about him more than once in a while, and then only fleetingly.
But then I busted a window, one of the ones in back of the house. It wasn’t my fault, not really. I’d been throwing rocks at a big black bird, trying to get it to leave our yard, and all it was doing was cawing at me and fluttering away a few yards every time I missed it. By the time it perched on the kitchen windowsill I was seeing red.