Freddie Herron stepped astride his Harley Sportster, thumbed the starter and listened to the engine rumble to life. Beside him, his rig -- a gold F150 and with 20-foot toy hauler attached -- was well secured against intruders. Not that there were likely to be any. The Leafy Acres RV park in tiny Beulah, Florida, was practically deserted.
Since arriving late yesterday afternoon and paying rent for two nights to a monosyllabic teenager in the office shack -- though he would not be staying the second night -- Freddie had not seen another living soul in the park.
He didn't have to wonder why. It was a seedy place, short on amenities and long on neglect. No more than a dozen rigs, most of them older and in need of repairs, dotted the park.
Still, beneath his helmet, his hazel eyes squinted slightly as he did a careful 360-degree survey of his sorry looking surroundings. It was mid afternoon in late January, clear and chilly in the Florida panhandle, and shadows were already lengthening. Nothing stirred.
He nudged the motorcycle forward and rolled slowly through the park to Highway 90. His destination waited no more than four miles to the east by the most direct route, but at this time, the most direct route was certainly not the way to go. Instead, he turned right and headed west into the slightly rolling woodlands of west Florida.
It took only a few minutes for him to reach the Perdido River and cross into Alabama, and another twenty to reach the hamlet of Robertsdale. There, he turned south on state highway 58, the major thoroughfare off Interstate 10 for tourists headed to Gulf Shores.
He didn't go to the famous Redneck Riviera, though. He stopped at Foley for an early fast-food supper because he wouldn't have time to eat again until eight o'clock or later. Afterward, he resumed his journey and turned east onto U.S. 98, finally heading toward Pensacola and his ultimate destination.
It was past four and dusk was falling when he arrived at a large swath of undeveloped land in the northern suburbs of the city. At some point in the past, it had been partially cleared, likely for some sort of development that never materialized.
Still partially wooded, it rose gradually in the center, where tangled grass and scrub shared space with occasional, knee-high tree stumps. A piece of prime real estate located just west of Highway 29 and north of Interstate 10, the cleared area was visible from both thoroughfares but far enough away that the tall vapor lights at the intersection would not spoil the effect.
The twenty-acre tract had been surrounded by a chain-link fence years ago, now bent and rusted here and there. Two parallel paths -- all that was left of a dirt road -- led onto the property. It was guarded by a five-rail galvanized gate secured with a thick chain and heavy-duty padlock. The gate was hidden from traffic by saplings and overgrown scrub. Inside the gate, remnants of the road meandered around the perimeter, accompanied here and there by a shallow ditch.
The padlock was no deterrent to Freddie. He was an experienced locksmith and had a set of picks in his saddlebags for backup, but the padlock yielded to his deft employment of a spring steel shim, rendering the picks unnecessary. Moments after reaching the gate, he rolled his bike through the opening, dropped the kickstand and stepped into the tall grass at the edge of the ditch.
The beam from his penlight played momentarily on the blades dancing in the winter breeze until he found the object he was looking for, an amateur-built road spike of the type once favored by eco-terrorists in the northwest. It was nothing more than a thin pine sapling, minus branches, studded with four-inch nails sticking out at all angles. He had fabricated it the first time he visited the site.
It was just a precaution, something to slow down anyone who might surprise him in the middle of his mission and necessitate a hasty getaway. That was highly unlikely, since he was very thorough and very cautious.
Still, nobody could foresee everything, so it was part of his plan to cover his tracks, literally and figuratively, with road spikes. He had hidden the device in the grass three weeks ago, and if it had not been there, or if it had not been substantially in the position he left it in, he would have wasted no time leaving not only the area but the state.
But he had not been discovered. Everything was on track.
Thirty feet inside the gate, he laid the spike across the road bed, tucking it into the weeds and grass. He then closed and locked the gate, got back on the Sportster and circled around the base of the slight rise to the thicket behind it.
Except for the occasional evergreen pine, the woods were leafless and gray. In the dim light of dusk he could barely make out the entrance to the narrow path through the bare trees that would get him out of here not long from now.
He left the motorcycle in the thicket and stepped to the top of the rise. The slope and its summit were dotted with short clumps of wild yaupon and wax myrtles, evergreen shrubs common to the coast. Some of them were brown and dry -- dead -- cut by Freddie three weeks ago and repositioned to conceal his handiwork. Now he began to knock and kick them aside, revealing what lay beneath them.
First, there was the stump of a pine tree about eight inches in diameter and fifteen inches high. During his first visit here -- at night, like this trip -- Freddie had hacked and sawed away at the stump with hand tools, fashioning it into a crude but serviceable mast tabernacle, complete with one-inch pin holes in the uprights on each side.
Resting between the uprights was the base of a thin pine log lying at an incline on the ground, concealed by brush. The log was also drilled with a corresponding hole and it was attached to the tabernacle by a ten-inch bar of metal allthread.
Freddie cleared more brush away until the whole thing was visible in the last of the day's light. A cross 15 feet high, wrapped in strips of cloth cut from an old painter's canvas, protected from rain and damp by black plastic garbage bags and duct tape.
Two thin metal cables, slack at present, were looped around the cross about two thirds of the way up and ran to wooden stakes in the ground, positioned equidistant behind the tabernacle. A third cable, looped a bit higher, lay on the ground next to the cross. It ran forward, past the tabernacle, and disappeared into the brush.
Working quickly, Freddie used his pocket knife to cut away most of the black plastic. He retrieved another pre-selected item from the edge of the thicket -- a sturdy tree limb thicker than his arm and about as long, with a fork at one end.
He raised the cross high enough to prop the limb underneath, resting the upright in the fork. The contraption was heavier than it looked and he had to lift it several times to move the forked limb closer to the base in increments. He stopped when the top of the cross had been lifted about four feet off the ground.
A vintage rectangular gas can, rusty and dented, lay on its side nearby. If anyone had found it here in the woods, they would have thought it had been lost or abandoned long ago. In fact, Freddie had found it in a collectibles shop in Little Rock, and had bought it for this job precisely because it was nondescript and untraceable -- it was one of the few things, along with a winch and the steel cables, that he was going to have to leave behind. It had lain half hidden by the grass for three weeks, protecting the fuel inside.
Freddie unscrewed the top and began to carefully pour the kerosene onto the canvas. The sharp odor of petroleum permeated the air. First, one arm of the cross, then the other, and finally the upright. When he finished, the canvas was sufficiently wet, the can was empty, and spills had been kept to a minimum..
Almost done now.
He laid the can aside and followed the third cable down the slope to where it disappeared into the brush. He tossed aside a pile of dead myrtles to reveal the hand-cranked winch attached to a slightly larger and sturdier tree stump with heavy-duty strapping.
Gradually and carefully, he began to crank the winch handle. He heard the limb that had cradled the cross fall with a soft thud onto the winter grass. The cross ever so slowly rose up, barely visible to Freddie in the gray darkness.
Less than three hundred yards away, an endless stream of car lights moved along both thoroughfares, as motorists headed home from work for the weekend. But the cross, the same color as the winter woods behind it, was not visible to them, either.
At least -- not yet.
When all three cables were taut and the cross was standing upright, pointing to the night sky, Freddie started on the last step of the mission -- attaching the ignition device to the bottom of the canvas, which ended about two feet above the ground.
The ignition device was a cigarette that had wooden matches taped head-down around the filter end. The burning cigarette would be clipped to the canvas with a spring-type clothespin. When its smoldering fire reached the match heads they would flare and ignite the kerosene-soaked fabric. It would happen in a matter of minutes, but that was plenty of time for him to depart the area before an awful and spectacular site burst into visibility. And it would happen at the height of rush hour, at the start of the weekend, when it would be seen by the most people.
Freddie took a final look around. Nothing that had to be left behind was traceable to him. He made certain he had all the things he meant to take with him -- gloves, pocket knife, picks, shims -- before he raised the kickstand on the cycle and rolled it to the base of his handiwork. Briefly, he went over what had just transpired; then he thought forward to what was next.
He pulled a Bic lighter from a pocket and held its flame to the cigarette, being careful to avoid the matches. He watched it a few seconds. The fire had to be strong enough to burn through two inches of tobacco without the benefit of a smoker's periodic drag. Satisfied, he bent down to clip the filter end to the kerosene-soaked canvas.
It was time to speed up, time to get out. He pushed the cycle toward the now dark woods and stepped briskly through the darkness. Three minutes later, he was running when he emerged from the woods along a dead-end road where the abandoned buildings of an old lumber company hulked in darkness. His hands gripped the handlebars so tightly that cramps threatened. He stepped through a breach in the fence, scanned the area around him, listened briefly for warnings. Nothing.
Looking toward the woods he'd just passed through, all was dark. Then, suddenly, he caught glimpses between the trees of an orange glow that had not been there before.
The thing was in flames. His mission was complete.
Now his job was to leave, and quickly. He mounted the motorcycle, cranked it, and drove away into the night.
Light glowed through the windows of a handful of RVs at Leafy Acres when Freddie got back, but most were dark and appeared abandoned. There was nobody there to observe him, but if there had been, they would never have guessed how anxious he was to get out and on the road. There was no apparent haste in his movement when he put the Sportster in the back of the toy hauler and closed the big door.
Nor was there anyone to observe him remove the Texas license plates and install Kentucky ones on the cycle, trailer and truck. His vehicles would wear this second batch of bogus plates until he reached a place where he could switch back to their legitimate Arkansas plates. He had traveled to Florida through Louisiana and Mississippi. He would go back through Alabama and Tennessee. He knew places along both routes where he could make the switch without being observed.
It was almost five thirty when he guided his rig out of the Shady Acres Park, turned west on Highway 90 and headed for tiny Robertsdale again, where he would turn north this time to connect with Interstate 10. Long before then, motorists driving home from work and school in Pensacola had witnessed a shocking and unexpected scene as huge orange flames whooshed up the cross and outward along the arms. Two cruisers from the Escambia County Sheriff's Department and one fire engine had arrived at the scene.
By the time Freddie reached Interstate 65 in Mobile and turned north, the cross was char and ashes, and the sheriff's department had an official investigation underway.
Afterward, the Star Herald would say that was the night hate came to Pensacola.