Once, I chased a murderer through a graveyard at midnight.
It was in the years before consent forms and product warnings, a time when a deputy sheriff could drop by a newspaper reporter’s house on a foggy night and ask if she’d like to ride along.
When the deputy — I’ll call him Danny — knocked on my door, I contemplated an evening watching Magnum P.I. against a night of fistfights and drunks and possible car chases. I chose the fistfights and settled into the patrol car with its squawking radio and old-coffee/sweaty-hobo smell.
“Let’s go,” I said, or something to that effect.
Most of the ride was normal: a drunken beach party, a car burglary. But close to midnight, the radio crackled to life. A prisoner had escaped from county jail. His name was Billy Mansfield, and he was a suspected serial killer.
I’d seen Billy in court. He was a slender drifter from Florida with vacant eyes who’d been arrested for murdering a woman he’d met in a bar in the southern part of our county. After Billy’s arrest, officials dug up the bodies of four women in his parents’ backyard.
With the radio still hissing be-on-the-lookouts, Danny wheeled the patrol car around and headed north toward a cemetery that cuddled the slow-moving San Lorenzo River. Danny was something of a crook whisperer. He knew how criminals thought, where they might go wrong and, most importantly, where they might turn up. So I didn’t ask why we were headed toward a graveyard when there were six or seven roads Billy might have traveled. Instead, I took the heavy flashlight Danny offered, climbed out of the patrol car and followed him past the gravestones to the river’s edge.
We walked a narrow path through a forest of slender trees and creeping vines, Danny’s hand resting on the butt of his pistol.
“Don’t hold the light in front of you,” he advised in a voice that was so calm, I almost didn’t register what I was being told. “The first thing a dirtbag will shoot at is a light.”
I shoved the flashlight to the end of my reach and wished for longer arms.
The darkness pressed around us as walked up that tangled riverbank next to the cemetery. To this day, I can still see the way the flashlight caught glimpses of mossy tree bark, the limber branches of willow, and feel the way the tips of my fingers tingled with the electric energy of fear.
Suddenly, there was a crack, a crash of brush, and Danny dropped to one knee, pulling his pistol out of the holster in one fluid move. Too startled even to duck, I watched him quickly pan the landscape with his gun, the flashlight jumping in its wake. I imagined Billy emerging from the willows with a gun, a sharp-edged hatchet.
To this day, I’m glad I didn’t scream.
“Get down,” Danny hissed and finally I ducked behind him. My heart was a heavy-metal beat in my chest.
It was only then we saw the deer bounding out of the brush, the crackle of twigs and branches echoing behind her, that we knew what had caused the noise.
We both cursed — me more than Danny — then got to our feet and continued up the river, our flashlights zig-zagging over the river banks, looking for the gleam of eyes, a flash of orange jail coveralls.
It would be only after we came to a nearly impassable tumble of logs and Danny was called back to the office for a strategy session that we turned back.
Twelve hours later, Billy Mansfield would be caught — a few miles up the river. Exactly where we had walked.