"Pay up."

The whisper carried more than it should have, propelled by a low night breeze that spoke of spring. The sound, assertive yet somehow hesitant, dissipated ten feet from its source, but not before being picked up by a waiting pair of ears. It was night outside, a creeping, full dark without the reprieve of starlight. It was one of those special nights where the cold fog of winter seemed to mix with the coming warmth of spring so that nothing seemed right or natural.

Officer Rich didn't like it. He didn't like it because it shouldn't have been so cold—not here in Oak, Georgia, anyway. He didn't like it, as well, because everything seemed eerily silent. Normally on nights like this, he could hear the chirping of cicadas, the whirr of insects as they took up their nightly chorus. Tonight he could hear nothing but the low sound of breathing beside him. Rough. Ragged.

Most of all, however, he didn't like it because he couldn't see the first damn thing. Even when he had set out from the jail with his secret passenger, it had been bright, almost strangely so. The moon, not quite full but so close Rich had felt that the change could happen any minute, had clearly illuminated the dank stone path that led from the Oak City Jail parking lot to the iron fence that surrounded the penitentiary. It had shown with such brilliance over Jail Road, an old, dusty affair that led from the jail to the greater city area beyond, that Rich, who had served in his capacity as chief security guard for the last fifteen years, had almost forgotten to switch on his headlights. And that would have been a problem. Not that the fine officer was worried about breaking the law, of course—he had that taken care of—but it wouldn't do to be pulled over by a colleague on the way to work. Not with the surprise luggage he held in the back seat…

Now, however, it was as if the moon had pulled some last minute disappearing act—so dark that Rich could hardly see his own hand when he held it out in front of him. And that scared him just a little bit. Because the man standing in front of him—or at least he supposed was standing in front of him—wasn't a coworker or even a friend, though Rich had known him for the vast majority of his tenure at Oak City Jail. He supposed it had been eleven years since Martin Ray had been transported through the gates of the jail, handcuffed and smiling, charged with the deaths of at least twenty-one missing women found all across the tri-state area.

Officer Rich was standing alone with Oak, Georgia's most infamous serial killer, and he couldn't see a fucking thing. He simply stood with his hand out in front of him, hoping the mass-murderer would give him what he had been promised… and not anything else. He waited, seconds ticking by, breathing hard. Ray said nothing, made no move, only stood somewhere in the pitch black darkness of an off-the-grid clearing that no one knew about but them. It suddenly crossed the officer's mind that Ray had been the one who had chosen this spot. The thought chilled him. He fought to keep the waves of regret from rolling through him, struggled to keep from lamenting the stupidity of all this.

What the fuck are you doing, Rich? his mind screamed. What type of man agrees to a one-on-one with the most dangerous man in America?

But he knew the answer: a desperate one. It had been three months since his wife had been diagnosed with cancer. Leukemia, what Rich thought of as the granddaddy of all cancers. The big "L." The doctors said she could make it if treatment started fast, but the odds weren't good.

"I've gotta tell ya, Bud," Doctor Prather had said in the hallway while his wife, his poor, dear wife Lynn Rose lay nearly comatose in her hospital bed, "The odds of her beating this are… well, let's just say this: if Lynn makes it through this, she's one hell of a fighter. One hell of a fighter. But as your friend, I'd be remiss not to tell you that I don't like it, Rich. I don't like it one bit. Pardon my French, but what your wife's got is a bitch of a cancer."

Rich had stood there, not knowing whether to nod, to cry, or to laugh at the surrealness of it all. Lynn had been feeling ill, but neither of them had expected this. Lynn always felt ill when winter came, she had the whole twenty-one years of their marriage. Like clockwork, her temperature would rise every December, and she'd frequently get so ill she'd have to call out of work. One year it had been the flu; another it had been measles. Both of her miscarriages—the couple had never been able to have children, a reality he knew Lynn blamed on herself—had been in the wintertime. So when she had started to complain that her stomach hurt, the two had chocked it up to another bout of wintertime sickness. It would pass in a few days, like it always did.

Except it didn't. It had only gotten worse. The two had decided to go to the hospital when Lynn spat up blood one morning after throwing up her morning coffee. Leukemia, the doctors had said. Rich felt as if someone had put his wife in the electric chair.

Which, by all means, he thought, is where the sick fuck in front of me should be. If, his reluctant brain added, he's still in front of me.

When Ray said nothing, Rich offered again, "I held up my end of the deal. Now it's time for you to pay up." The killer's silence unnerved him. He wanted nothing but to take the money—a cool ten thousand dollars in cash that the murderer had smuggled in through a friend and had used as the ultimate (the perfect, Rich thought) bribe. Tomorrow, he would go to work as if nothing had happened, as if he hadn't just set a serial killer on the loose. He had made sure none of the cameras were working. No one would know it was him. And if they did, well… by then the money would be handed over to Lynn, who, despite his best wishes, was showing only minimal progress with her multiple rounds of chemotherapy and high-powered radiation. The two had already gone through their savings and mortgaged their home of eighteen years. If they caught him and wanted to arrest him, so be it. Lynn would understand. She would have to understand…

Rich thought he heard shifting in front of him, but it could have been the wind. Ray hadn't spoken to him the entire trip up. He'd only shown him the money in what Rich took as a sign of good faith. Up until that point, the officer had had his doubts, had repeatedly, in fact, assured himself that he wasn't going to do it. But the sight of all those bills had changed him. Because it wasn't about the law anymore. It was about Lynn. Money speaks, he had thought, and flashed the serial murderer a thumbs up.

We're all good. Be prepared to go. You'll soon be the most wanted man in America, but operations are underway, that thumbs up had said. And then a thought had come unbidden to his mind, much as Ray had come unbidden into the houses of twenty-one women, raping them viciously before he had sliced them into bite-size pieces. You're making Martin Ray a free man, Rich.

The thought had frozen him. He remembered those "#FREEJAYQUAN" signs and posts that had taken the police office by storm a few years back after a poor black teen, who had been charged with armed robbery, had been taken into custody. Only a year later had it come out that the kid had actually been innocent. It chilled him to remember because nobody would ever mistake Martin Ray for an innocent man; and nobody would ever want to "#FREEMARTINRAY."

Except him, he supposed. But now he was having second thoughts. The seconds had ticked by, each one an eternity, until a full minute had passed, and there was still no sound from Ray. Officer Rich had the ridiculous thought—just for a moment—that the killer had taken the money and ran. After more than a decade in prison, after all, it was only natural he'd need some money.

He dispelled the notion in an instant. That wasn't Ray's style. He was a born killer. It only took him one moment to realize that. He had seen it on his face the day he had been taken into custody. The killer had smiled, had laughed, had looked at Rich with eyes of pure evil. It was a look the officer hadn't forgotten to this day.

And now he could be anywhere

He had the sudden sensation that Ray was behind him and began to see the situation for what it really was. He had been used. It had all been an elaborate scam. There was no deal, there would be no money, and there would be no clean escape. And Lynn…

In a hurry, he reached for the gun at his side and pulled it out of his holster. "RAY!" He screamed into the still night air. He whipped around with his gun held out in front of him. He could see nothing but blackness, could hear nothing but the cicadas that had suddenly broken out into song . "WHERE ARE YOU, YOU SICK FUCK?"

His voice carried throughout the clearing. He moved in a slow circle, looking for signs of movement. He could feel his heart beating wildly in his chest. This was a mistake. It had been a mistake from the beginning. Martin Ray had killed at least twenty-one people, and none of them had been found in one piece. He heard a twig snap to his left and whirled around madly. Without thinking, he fired two shots into the air.

"COME OUT, FUCKER!" He screamed, turning again. He thought he could hear a low rumble now. At first it sounded like a car from the road far off, but he soon recognized it for what it was: the beginnings of a dark chuckle. His skin prickled and his hair stood on end. He felt his bladder fill and threaten to release. He shot two more rounds, whirring east and west and looking for a sign—any sign—of the maniac nearby. He was breathing loudly now, too loudly, and it was hard to hear. His heart beat in his throat and pulsed in his head. He thought of Lynn, at home in her hospital bed.

I'm sorry, honey, he thought. I'm so sorry.

Then, hearing another twig snap behind him, Officer Rich made his decision. He took off as fast as he could, heading straight—heading for the road. He could barely make out the path in front of him—why was it so fucking dark?—but he could hear a car, a real car this time, on the road up ahead, and he charged forward with all the power his aging muscles could give. When he was almost out of the clearing, he bumped into something hard in the darkness. He fell backward with a cry, his gun flying out of his hand and into the blackness. Frantically, he searched around for the weapon, reaching with his right hand.

Suddenly, a thick weight descended upon him—a boot, he realized quickly—crushing his right hand in its tracks. Rich let out a howl of pain as he heard the snapping of bone. It sounded eerily similar to the cracking of twigs he had heard before. Except this time it hurt. The boot twisted his hand into the ground, and Rich's head was filled with a white sheet of agony.

"Please! Fuck!" he screamed and felt only momentary relief when the boot moved off him. Dazed, the officer merely sat a moment, confused, before remembering where he was and what he was fighting for. If he didn't get out of here soon, he would die. There was no doubt about that. But how…?

Channeling his might, he pulled himself up from his left hand, staggering. Stars whirled inside his head, and his vision was clouded over with an unthinking red. Doesn't matter, he told himself, it's too dark to see, anyway. Then, determined, he leapt forward. There was no sense in moving backward—he had to make it to the car. Ray was nowhere to be found.

It only took five steps before Rich felt the knife descend into his throat. It plunged through like a knife through warm butter, smooth, professional. The officer staggered forward a bit, neck sputtering, reaching senselessly out in front of him, reaching for Ray, He caught hold of the other man's face, grasping for his eyeballs, but the other man simply turned and laughed. He smelled like sickness, Rich realized. Red blood gushed from his neck and oozed down his uniform, and he could feel himself growing weaker. He was thinking about Lynn, about cancer, about the big "L" when Ray withdrew the knife and then, without a sound, lifted it above his head. Rich didn't even have time to shriek as the knife plunged downward, breaking through his skull with a nauseating crack and drilling through his brains as if they were jello. The officer simply fell to his knees, his mouth bleeding, his senses fading.

And then he was gone, falling headfirst into the grass with a soft thud. In a few hours, a worried Lynn would call the police, who, by that time, would already be on the hunt for America's deadliest man, Martin Ray, who himself had just raised his kill-count to twenty-two.

Ray bent and fished the car keys out of Rich's pocket. Then he retrieved his knife, not bothering to wipe it off as he made his way back to the car.