The hardest thing about killing a hitchhiker is finding one to pick up.
Donaldson could remember just ten years ago, when interstates boasted a hitcher every ten miles, and a discriminating killer could pick and choose who looked the easiest, the most fun, the juiciest. These days, cops kept the expressways clear of easy marks, and Donaldson was forced to cruise off-ramps, underpasses, and rest areas, prowl back roads, take one hour coffee breaks at oases.
Recreational murder was becoming more trouble than it was worth.
He’d found this one standing in a Cracker Barrel parking lot. The kid had been obvious, leaning against the cement ashtray near the entrance, an oversize hiking pack strapped to his back. He was approaching every patron leaving the restaurant, practicing his grin between rejections.
A ripe plum, ready to pluck.
Donaldson didn’t even have to initiate contact. He walked in to use the bathroom and strolled out car keys in hand, letting them jingle a bit. The kid solicited him almost immediately.
“Excuse me, sir. Are you heading up north?”
Donaldson stopped, pretending to notice the man for the first time. He was young, maybe mid-twenties. Short, reddish hair, a few freckles on his face, mostly hidden by glasses. His clothing looked worn but of good quality. Donaldson was twice his age, and damn near twice his weight.
Donaldson rubbed his chin, which he knew softened his harsh features.
“In fact I am, son.”
The boy’s eyes lit up, but he kept a lid on his excitement. Any hitcher worth his salt knew to test the waters before sealing the deal.
“I am, too. If you’d like some company, I can chip in for gas.” He hooded his eyes and quickly added, “No funny stuff. I’m just looking for a ride. I was hoping to get to Ogden by midnight. Got family up there. My name’s Brett, by the way.”
Well played, Donaldson thought. Friendly, a little desperate, making clear this wasn’t a sexual hookup and that he had people waiting for him.
As if any of that would keep him safe.
“How do I know you’re not some psycho?” Donaldson asked. He knew that was pushing it, but he liked the irony.
“There’s a gas station across the street. I can top off the tank, pay with a credit card. All gas stations have cameras these days. Credit card is a paper trail. If anything happens to you, that would link me to your car, and I’d get caught.”
Smart kid. But not that smart.
The really smart ones don’t hitchhike.
“Won’t need gas for a few hundred miles.” Donaldson took off his Cubs baseball hat, running a hand over his gray, thinning hair. Another way to disarm the victim. No one feared grandfatherly types. “Until then, if you promise not to sing any show tunes, you got yourself a ride.”
Brett smiled, hefted his pack onto his shoulders, and followed his ride into the parking lot. Donaldson unlocked the doors and the kid loaded his pack into the backseat of Donaldson’s 2006 black Honda Accord, pausing when he saw the clear plastic covers on the front seats…
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