Now, I know what you’re thinking. Most people ask that, right off the bat. They think it’s something to do with the town name. Shovel-spade, you get it. Or something how he looked. Fact is, the man had perfectly normal feet, used to go ballroom dancing every January. The name… well it’s a bit hard to put to one sentence.
Shovel, population 357. Seems we’ve always been near that number, one way or the other. Our story starts back in frontier days, where a buncha folks missing in short order meant an injun raid. Or outlaws. Only thing was, they had what you’d call a similar M.O. They found partly eaten pieces, even in place they knew wild animals couldn’t get to. They finally caught the guy who done it, ugly sucker, and hanged him by the neck. We don’t stand much for ceremony here, so all he got after that was a pine box and a shallow grave. Only kind there is round here, come to think of it. Ever try to dig deep in sand?
Anyway, it picks back up round fifty years later. Shovel, Arizona has expanded from two shacks and a main street to five shacks and a board sidewalk. There’s a song-and-dance man in town, and he’s got himself an idiot’s lantern. Also had some portrait getup which turned out to come in handy later.
First o’ the poor saps is some saloon girl called Tilly. Birth certificate said Muriel. She was from back East, had no folks to demand an investigation. Saloon owner was mighty miffed, girls drifted out here less frequent than rain. The schoolmarm was harder to ignore, pretty little thing, she was all set to get hitched to some storekeeper up in Keesaw. Her schoolkids missed her, put together a collection for her headstone. Can see it from my office, as a matter of fact.
Then the widow, and the tin stars couldn’t lay down anymore and still call themselves lawmen. Antoinette had been sent-away for by old man Gilchrist, it’s a wonder a man too cheap to buy himself a first-hand set of fake teeth would spend good money on a girl young enough to be his daughter and kick it a year later, but that’s how it was. They found her in the sewing room. Coroner’s report says she died from asphyxiation, missing little chunks of meat the size of a human mouth. On a hunch, some deputy goes over the crime scene with other folks, gets to matching up stories, and the haypenny drops. Shovel wasn’t even hooked up for electricity, but we had our first serial killer.
They didn’t call it that in them days, though, and there weren’t exactly what you’d call a manhunt for the culprit. Back then, closest thing you had to your CSI was to look around and see which tribe was unlucky enough to be nearby. They found him, though, on top of Esther Muldoon. Some shanty farmer’s wife. They just managed to bust in the house as Esther was breathing her last. The fella who did it was ugly as sin, some itinerant worker from up North, or so he said. Went by the moniker of Samuel Lord. They caught him red-handed, but the feller didn’t even defend himself, kept silent throughout the trial and hanging and everything with that little smirk on his face. How do I know? Well, right about then my predecessor’s decided to put that song-and-dance man’s camera to good use, took what you’d call a post-mortem picture or his body. Then they tossed him into a hole in the ground and that was that.
Around five months ago, I get called up to the Muldoon ranch. There’s a ranch hand missing a daughter, pretty mestiza gal last seen at the one bar in Shovel. There’s been drifters too, people on the move who went missing between Newark and Los Angeles, poor folks who got written off as MIA. All this would’ve been tread under, but after we cased the ranch one of the deputies went to take statements from the local barflies and gets wind of a big, ugly sucker just rolled into town. Called himself Sammy Patris and liked the ladies just a little too much. Things turn a bit ugly and before we know it, ugly’s busted on a concealed weapon charge. While we’ve got him rotting in a cell, I go back and personally confirm he’s the last man the local peanut gallery saw the girl with. Bim-bam-boom, you’ve got your investigation.
Well, I think I’ve got it pretty sown up, even though the smuggy bastard keeps smiling at me from his cell. Never saw the like. Just sitting on his bed frame (didn’t unroll the mattress) smirkin’ away like we were on opposite ends of the bars. So, to wipe that smirk off of his face, I tell him he’s going away for a long time, so I hope he gets used to prison chow. That wipes the smirk off, alright.
“You ain’t doing it here?” He sounds genuinely surprised.
“Hell no,” I says, “this ain’t Hazzard county and I ain’t Boss Hog. Your ass is gonna sit on death row for about twenty-odd years while a jury decides if you’re enough of a fruit loop to get a book out of.”
It takes a minute for it to sink in, and he goes what they’d call apoplectic in old-timey days. He launches himself at the bars, tearassing around the cell, hollering like a bull. I’m alone in the station, and I ain’t enough of an idiot to go for the keys, so I let him have at it, figure he’ll tire himself out soon enough.
He does more than that. Drops stone cold dead in the middle of the cell.
I know how that sounds. Us hick sheriffs get a bad rep in the media, but I swear to my mother I didn’t lay a hand on the boy. Plus the security camera will back me up.
Hey, we’re a hick town, we ain’t luddites.
Around this time Deputy Thrush was doing his own little investigation. Seems the folks at the bar noticed little odd things here and there about our perp. He called soda “fizz” and didn’t seem to get how payphones worked. Also, his clothes didn’t fit him too well, which we found out when we examined the body and saw the name of the local librarian on the tag of his denim jacket. Odd fella. Busts into town, no prints on file, steals Cady Dugan’s Canadian tuxedo. Not what you’d call a prelude to a murder.
I have no earthly idea how he made the connection, but Thrush’s next stop was the archives. And there he found our man.
We don’t stand on ceremony here, so we had that sucker in the ground smart quick. Had I known where Thrush was going, would I have waited? Nah. I like to think myself an open-minded man, but this is still a hard pill to swallow, even after all I’ve seen.
Thrush brings me those old-timey snaps and I damn near have a heart attack. He ain’t what you’d call handsome, but that sucker had some unique features. And his whatchacallit. M.O. that was the damn same.
Well, from there we had only one way to go: exhuming the body. ‘Course anyone who’s ever seen a bad horror movie knows it wasn’t there. Weird thing was, the grave was full of all this thick slime. I mean Deputy Cree put his hand in it and it took three people to pull him free.
Around the time we stopped being too excited about our discovery, we noticed tracks leading out of the freebie plots of the cemetery. Out into the desert.
Well, after that, there ain’t much to tell. We found the old records, but no sketches of any kin, so at most it’s an educated guess. We found the folks he carried off. He’d stack ’em like cordwood.
Y’know, right around the time we caught that bastard, I was reading my kid’s science report. There’s a toad that’s native to the desert. Kinda odd for such a wet creature, but it’s adapted to the heat. See, it buries itself all through the dry season, making itself a nice little snot bed to wait out the sun and wind, until the rains come around again. I only relate this little anecdote because you can call me crazy all you want, the fact of the matter is we found something weird we can’t quite explain.
I guess what I’m saying is this: if you’re reading this, ten-, twenty-, fifty-odd years from now, just…take this into consideration. We have the snaps right here, and the tape from that camera. You run across anyone looks like that? You bury him deep, or not at all.