Welcome to Termination Man, an Edward Trimnell Books serial fiction project.
**The Prologue Episode opens in November 1996. Carla Marsh and Jill Johnson are two OSU coeds out for a night on the town. A stranger is watching them…and he appears to be dangerous.**
The bar, the creep, the murdered coeds
Columbus, Ohio, November 1996
The man seated at the bar was making Carla Marsh more than a little nervous, even as she studiously tried to ignore him. Go away, she thought. Just leave me alone. The last thing I need tonight is to attract the attention of a weirdo.
It had been a rough week at school. Carla’s GPA was hovering perilously close to the lower threshold of the 3.0 mark. She had promised her parents that she would maintain a GPA of at least 3.1.
Maybe I’ve been going out a bit too much this semester, she thought.
She wasn’t a heavy drinker—not compared to some people, at least—but it was hard not to get swept up in the hubbub of campus social life. More than 50,000 students attended the Ohio State University. There were so many people to meet. So much going on.
Of course, there were some bad apples in that cast of fifty thousand. Carla looked up from the glass of beer that she had purchased with a fake ID, the one that gave her age as twenty-one—rather than her true age of twenty. The weirdo was still giving her the eye.
She considered glaring at him or even giving him the finger, and then thought better of it. Sooner or later he would find another target to obsess upon. She wasn’t the only unescorted woman in the room, after all. Far from it. The Buckeye Lounge was an off-campus drinking establishment, and by definition, therefore, a meet market. Young men and women in their late teens and early twenties milled about everywhere. Lots of mingling going on. Dozens of young men hoping to get lucky tonight. Carla reflected—not for the first time—that the entire bar and entertainment industry would probably collapse if not for horny young men.
That was really what it was all about, wasn’t it? Practically all of the young men here were on the prowl in one way or another.
And that explained the noise—the sheer excess of it: When college-aged men wanted to impress women, Carla had noticed, they seldom did it quietly. A few tables away, a guy wearing an Ohio State sweatshirt was responding to one of his companion’s jokes with exaggerated laughter.
As if playing the role of a loud drunk were the best way to make oneself attractive to the opposite sex. You aren’t going to get laid that way, buddy, Carla thought.
She returned her gaze to the bar: The young man—the weirdo—was still looking at her.
Since he was looking at her, she took a moment to look back at him, to assess him: He had the generally tall and broad-shouldered build of an athlete. But something told Carla that this one was no member of the football or basketball team. He didn’t look like the type to associate himself with teams or groups, and he was definitely alone tonight. Jocks usually traveled in packs; and come to think of it—so did most everyone else. On the campus bar scene, loners were rare. And the weirdo was obviously a loner.
This wasn’t the first time that Carla had been ogled by an anonymous male in such a venue, and probably not the hundredth time, either. That much went with the territory––especially when you were twenty years old, female, and more than a little attractive.
But something about the lone man seated at the bar was different. Unlike other would-be campus Lotharios, he was making no effort to be either furtive or flirtatious. He simply stared at her over the rim of his beer mug, fixing her with half-lidded eyes, and a smile that was somehow knowing. He seemed to be claiming his possession of her, even though they had never even met.
He definitely wasn’t her type. Not that he was a bad-looking guy—not really. But he was creepy. Way too creepy.
“Carla, what the hell’s up with you?” Jill Johnson asked her, having noticed her distraction. “Have you had too much to drink?”
Jill was seated across from her at the small table that the two of them shared. But Jill was seated with her back to the weirdo. She couldn’t see him.
“Are you drunk?” Jill persisted.
Jill was half-drunk herself, but she knew that something was up. Jill always seemed to know when something was up with her. Jill was Carla’s best friend in the world, and a fellow native of Cleveland.
Less than two years ago, the two of them had headed off for OSU together. They were roommates and shared many of the same classes. Watch out for Jill at college, the other girl’s mother had told Carla. Make sure that she doesn’t get into trouble at OSU. Both sets of parents acknowledged that Carla was the more responsible member of the pair.
But now Carla was the one with a problem, and he was seated at the bar only a few yards from their table. Since Carla had known Jill forever, her friend was able to discern that she was seriously spooked. They seemed to share a wordless sense of mutual understanding.
In her Japanese 101 class, Carla had learned that the Japanese referred to this as inshin-denshin—“an unconscious sharing of the minds between two individuals”—or something like that. She had taught Jill the term and it had become a running joke between them.
“I’m getting those inshin-denshin vibes from you,” Jill said. “So what’s up? Is something wrong?”
Carla reached across the little barroom table and placed her hand gently atop Jill’s wrist. For some reason that she could not completely identify, it seemed necessary to play it cool, to conceal her alarm from the man at the bar. Carla was suddenly certain that if she revealed her fear, the young man would exploit it to his advantage.
“Don’t make a big deal of it,” Carla said. “But take a casual look at that guy seated at the bar.”
For once Carla was grateful for the excessive noise in the Buckeye Lounge. The blare of the jukebox and the incessant clamor of voices gave her more freedom to talk. The constant din assured that the man at the bar would not overhear her—even if he was able to maintain his surveillance.
Jill turned around—less discreetly than Carla would have preferred—and then turned back.
“Oh, I’ve seen him around campus,” Jill said, nonchalant. Apparently the weirdo didn’t disturb her as much as he disturbed Carla.
“You know him?”
“No, not exactly. I think I had a class with him last semester.” Jill paused for a moment to think, with the deliberate effort that intoxicated people often require. “Yeah—that’s it. Someone mentioned that his father is rich. A big executive at some company. I never got his name, though. But, oh—now I remember—he was in my abnormal psychology class.”
“How apropos,” Carla said.
“He really isn’t a bad-looking guy,” Jill said. “Just a little weird. Very intense.”
And now that she got a better look at him, Carla noticed once again that he wasn’t all that bad-looking. No, not at all. He was seated; but she imagined that he would be more than six feet tall when standing. She had always had a weakness for tall men.
But not this one.
“He might not be bad-looking,” Carla said in a low voice. “But that staring routine of his is kind of a deal killer. And something about him looks, well—mean, too.”
Mean? Carla thought, wondering if that was the right word. Lots of her girlfriends were mean. She was mean sometimes herself. But the weirdo looked capable of physically hurting someone. That represented a different level of mean.
She felt a chill begin to creep up her spine and stopped herself: Don’t let your imagination get the best of you, girl. This guy is definitely an oddball; but that doesn’t make him dangerous.
Jill merely shrugged at the suggestion that the stranger might have a truly dark side. Carla sighed: her friend had always had a soft spot for the bad boy types.
Their conversation was suddenly interrupted by a burst of feminine laughter. Then their drinks nearly slid onto the floor as someone practically fell upon their table.
“Tina!” Carla said—half in amusement, half in annoyance. Only a quick reaction on her part kept the table from tipping over. Carla was gripping both sides of the table now, feeling like an Atlas trying to hold the world aloft. The young woman leaning on the wooden surface weighed perhaps ninety pounds soaking wet; but it was difficult to keep the table righted with all of her weight on it. “Tina, stand up! I can’t hold you and the table both.”
Tina responded by moving to a crouching position. Carla was now supporting perhaps a third of her weight.
Tina Shields was a young woman with whom she had shared a number of classes. The two of them had gotten to be casual friends. Not close friends, though. Tina moved in wilder circles than either Carla or Jill. There were persistent rumors about her sleeping around a lot—and she had a reputation as a bit of a drunk. Well, more than a bit of a drunk. Carla didn’t know about the sleeping around; but Tina Shields most definitely had a drinking problem.
“Tina! You’ve got to watch where you’re going!” Carla said, helping the other young woman lift her head from the table.
The baby-faced coed didn’t look old enough to be legally drinking in the state of Ohio. In fact, she barely looked old enough to have a high school diploma.
Carla didn’t want to play the prude; but it seemed incumbent on her to impart a word of caution. As Jill’s mother had long recognized, she was the responsible one, after all.
“My God, Tina. You look so sweet and innocent,” Carla said. “You keep stumbling around like that, and one of these guys in here is going to take advantage of you.”
“Maybe so,” Tina said, smiling vacantly. She righted herself onto wobbly legs. She gave Carla and Jill a little mock salute, and then moved on, becoming lost in the crowd.
“Who was that?” Jill asked.
“Tina Shields.” Carla shook her head and smiled. “Tina likes to party.”
They laughed, because there was nothing else to do about Tina Shields but shake your head and laugh. But the situation really wasn’t funny, Carla reflected. A girl like Tina Shields could come to a bad end in all sorts of ways. She needed help.
“Am I interrupting something?” a male voice said.
Disrupted by Tina Shields, Carla had almost forgotten about the weirdo at the bar. But when she looked up, there he was—no longer at the bar—but standing at their table. She had been too distracted to notice his approach.
He smiled—though it wasn’t a friendly smile. Nor did he appear to be the least bit nervous, as most men would be when approaching two unfamiliar females in a drinking establishment.
“What do you want?” Carla asked. “We’ve both noticed that you’ve been staring at us for the entire night.”
“What do I want?” he repeated. “Well, let me tell you.”
He proceeded to describe a sexual act that involved both of them—along with him, of course. This, too, was delivered deadpan, without the slightest hint of humor, shame, or empathy.
“I think that would hurt,” Carla said. “Not to mention the fact that it would be more than a little disgusting. Especially with you involved.”
There, Carla thought. That should be enough to get rid of him.
The weirdo, however, did not seem ready to take no for an answer.
“I’ll give you one chance to take that back,” he said.
Oh, the nerve of this guy. Who does he think he is? Jill had said something about his father being a rich big shot. Well, Carla didn’t care.
When a couple walked by—a man and a woman—she was suddenly seized by an inspiration.
“Excuse me!” she called out, catching their attention. The age and dress of the couple revealed them to be students, although she did not recognize them. No matter.
“This guy here—” She indicated the man standing at their table. “He seems to get off on approaching unknown women and making perverted suggestions. What do you think of that?”
The male half of the couple took one look at Carla and Jill’s unwanted visitor. He shook his head and said, “That is so not cool.” The woman advised the intruder not to be a “loser.”
The young couple showed no interest in involving themselves any further. After making these brief remarks, they continued on.
But Carla could tell that the exchange had produced its desired effect. No young man wants to be called a “loser”—especially when the person assigning the label is an attractive young female. The word “loser” had made him flinch, like a slap across the face.
There, she thought. Humiliate him in front of all these others, make him feel like a total asshole. That’ll teach him a lesson.
Now Carla and Jill were alone with him again. Carla could see that the young man was shaking—not with fear, but with rage. His cheeks were crimson, and his hands were balled into fists. He stared first at her, then at Jill, his eyes seeming to bore through them.
“You ungrateful bitches,” he finally said.
“Oh, why don’t you get over yourself?” Carla shot back. She was still afraid, sure—but she felt her courage returning. This guy had been trying to play some serious head games with them. And clearly she had found a chink in his armor: the threat of public humiliation. Let him try to play the physical intimidation card. Let him just try. What could he really do to them, here in the middle of all these people? The bar was crowded, and she could easily humiliate him even more if necessary.
“You’ll regret this,” he said, just loud enough for both of them to hear.
“I already do,” Carla said. “Believe me.”
“Hey,” Jill said, speaking to their unwanted visitor for the first time. “Why don’t you go back to the bar, huh? Leave us alone. Can’t you see you’re not wanted here?”
And then—somewhat to Carla’s surprise—he did exactly that. He abruptly turned his back on them and walked away, though he didn’t return to his spot at the bar. They watched him disappear into the crowd.
“That was spooky,” Jill said when he was finally gone.
“That was annoying,” Carla said.
In truth, Carla had also found the incident more than a little spooky. But she didn’t want to acknowledge the fear that was making her tremble right now. That would only give the young man more power over them.
He had surprised them—caught them both when they were off guard; that was all. He was nothing but an essentially harmless creep who had shrunk away at the first sign of determined resistance.
“But he’s gone now,” Carla concluded.
“You think so?” Jill asked. “You think that’s the end of it?”
Jill had a point. The stalker types often disappeared momentarily when rebuffed, only to make an unexpected appearance at a later time. You could never be sure. Carla, however, had no intention of allowing the young man to afflict her with a lingering case of the heebie-jeebies. He would not get under her skin.
“We’ll never see him again,” she said. “Come on, let’s get out of here. I’ve had enough social intercourse for one night.”
“I think it’s safe to say that that guy had more than social intercourse on his mind,” Jill said.
They both laughed; and Carla thought: Yes, I suppose it’s good that we can make light of it. Joking about it diminishes that creep’s power over us.
They stood up; the atmosphere of the Buckeye Lounge had been ruined for them—at least for tonight.
As Carla pushed her empty chair under the table, she noticed the heavily intoxicated coed who had nearly fallen into their laps only a few minutes ago. Tina Shields nodded at her when their eyes met. Tina was seated in a beanbag chair that was pushed against the adjacent wall, giving her an unobstructed view of the table that she and Jill were vacating. Tina Shields probably observed the entire exchange between them and the weirdo.
Take care of yourself, Tina, Carla thought. But I have a feeling that you’re destined to come to a bad end. And then to Jill she said: “I think I need to lay off of the drinking for a while.”
From the Columbus Dispatch, November 1996
Two OSU Students found Bludgeoned to Death in Apartment Near Campus
Jill Johnson and Carla Marsh, both 20, were found dead Sunday morning in their off-campus apartment on North High Street in Columbus. A spokesperson from the Columbus Police Division (CPD) stated that both young women died from multiple blunt force trauma wounds.
CPD investigators believe that the women were killed the previous Friday night. As the investigation is ongoing, the CPD has declined to give additional details regarding either the murders or the crime scene.
Johnson and Marsh were both Cleveland natives. Both were students at the Ohio State University.
The landlord of the two young women, 57-year-old Leonard Gates, discovered the bodies at approximately 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, after using his master key to enter their apartment.
Gates had received a series of phone calls from one of the young women’s parents, who were concerned because their daughter was not answering her telephone or responding to voice messages.