A Killer on the Loose, 1987

Mary Rose Martin. 28 years old from Dettah | Photos courtesy Patti-Kay Hamilton

WARNING: This story has some graphic details and may not be suitable for all readers.

Yellowknife, 1987:

Slasher, a large marmalade tomcat, was found as a feral kitten hissing beneath the Wildcat Café in Old Town. Slasher hadn’t grown into a cuddling companion as Suzie had hoped, and desperate for a mouser at the cabin, I was eager to take him off her hands.

“Sure you want him?” she said, raising her eyebrows.

“Oh ya! Last night a mouse woke me, nibbling on the end of my braid. I grabbed the broom and stumbled around naked, swinging blindly and screaming in the dark.”

“Check this out first,” she said as she led me into a room with a couch that looked as if a maniac had attacked it with scissors; cupboards raked by claws and curtains shredded.

“Just what I need,” I said. “A cat that doesn’t need pampering and can sleep in the shed.”

Suzie shook her head and handed me leather gloves after showing me the scratches and bite marks on her arms. I tossed a heavy parka over the cat as he dashed across the floor, and before he could wriggle out I corralled him into a cardboard apple box with a tight lid. The cat slammed against the sides, shimmying the container across the tiled floor. When he stuck his orange head out of the hole he’d clawed, I transferred him into a sturdy, wicker hamper and latched the lid.

***

With all the time I’d spent rounding up the damn cat I’d missed my ride back to our cabin across Yellowknife Bay. I felt silly hanging on to a laundry basket with a hissing cat as I stuck out my thumb on the highway near the museum. It was getting dark, not much traffic and I was just about to give up until morning when a beige, battered Chevy truck with cords of split wood piled in the back pulled up and a twentysomething guy wearing a Blue Jays ball cap pulled over.  

“Where ya headed girly?” he said, waving me in when I told him. He raised his eyebrows at the basket I shoved between us as I climbed up and mumbled something about my cat.

Gord introduced himself and explained he had the contract to resupply campgrounds. “Saving money to get out of this dump,” he said turning down the volume of his country cassette tape and launching into what I guessed would be a boring biographical tale of his life.

But rule one of hitchhiking is to sound interested and keep them talking, so I murmured a few ‘Uh huh’s, oh ya’s and wow’s,’ to encourage him.

Neat freak, I thought, looking around the cab. Windows and dash wiped clean despite the dusty, dirt roads. A rabbit’s foot dangled from the ignition key. A pine-scented, tree-shaped room freshener swung from the cigarette lighter. Black cowboy boots shined and polished. Broad shoulders, thick neck and muscled arms of someone who spends a lot of time lifting weights. Sideburns shaved to a quarter of an inch from the auditory opening of his earlobe. Ex-military or former cop, I thought.

The author in the 1980s

As the truck rolled down the hill, the Giant Mine headframe loomed tall and grey, shedding strips of graffiti-splattered tarpaper; twisted, metal wire dangling noose-like and swinging in the wind. Just past the metallic blue glint of the abandoned arsenic pit alongside the road near the turnoff to Vee Lake, someone had set up a small cross held up with a pile of rocks.

Two years before, a 28-year-old woman was found at this spot on Remembrance Day afternoon by a hard rock miner getting off an underground shift. She had been fully clothed but mutilated. Slit from belly button to pelvis so skillfully the blade hadn’t cut into the abdominal wall. Local newspaper reported there was a four-inch slash beneath the left breast. Right breast sliced off with surgical precision and not found near the body.

RCMP Superintendent Lorne Wagner appealed to the public on CBC radio for information. He said, “This is the first time anything like this has happened up here.” For the first few months, Nettie’s coffee shop had buzzed with uneasy speculation. Was it the cab driver with the long fingernails filed to a sharp point? Maybe it was the miner with the strong European accent who cruised the roads in a van and offered ladies, including me once, rides on cold, dark nights, then pawed at them once he stopped. The police questioned over seven thousand people, including those of us who might have seen her where she was last spotted, in front of the Gold Range at closing time.

***

As my mind wandered, Gord continued to talk about his adventures as a kid growing up on the army base at Petawawa, and how he couldn’t wait to get back to Ontariariario. “Ever been to TO?” he asked. I told him it’s where I went to high school.

“And you left for this cold, friggin place?”

“If you don’t like it how did you get up here?”

“Worked security at the DEW Line in Cambridge Bay. Got laid off when the military shut down the site, and now I’m stuck here until I make some cash to hoof it back south.”

I glanced at him as he leaned into the steering wheel, large hand drumming his thigh alongside the pressed seam of carefully ironed blue jeans. Strapped to his hip a well-worn leather case cradling a Russell Belt knife.

It was dark now. There were no other vehicles on the road. I stared out my window as we crossed the Yellowknife River bridge hoping to see lights from a campfire, when it suddenly became eerily quiet and Gord stopped babbling.

There was a tick, tick, tick of the rabbit foot tapping the dashboard and a rustle of fabric. I turned to find Gord unzipped, exposed and giving his enlarged, throbbing red member a rub-down.

For the first second I just stared, because the thing was alarmingly huge. I flattened my side against the door, making myself shrink, squeezing my thighs together. My flesh felt cold. Throat constricted. Could only suck in small breaths.

Then I got pissed-off and called on heavenly assistance. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” I hollered in a voice that reminded me of my mom. “Stop this damn truck.” He looked startled. Wide-eyed like a small boy caught at something naughty and he tucked himself in.

“Sorry, sorry. Thought it’s what you hippie girls liked. All those other ladies did.”

I squeezed myself as close to the door as possible, feeling for the door handle, not taking my eyes off him. My fingers found the rough metal of a broken latch and I couldn’t get a grip.

My brain rattled around. Should I jump out and risk a chase or stay in the truck and keep him talking until I got closer to home? His right hand rested on the leather knife case tapping at it, and suddenly I remembered the woman’s name.

***

Mary Rose Martin. 28 years old from Dettah. The coroner ruled the knife wounds had been inflicted after her death. Blood tests showed no drugs in her system other than what she took for epilepsy, and she hadn’t been drunk. The newspaper reported the data had been sent to the FBI in Quantico. Five people were given a lie detector test. Police scoured dumpsters. No one was ever charged.

Just as we were almost at the turn into my cabin, there was the sound of a zipper and Gord started stroking himself again. To do that he had to slow down on the loose gravel, and this time I drove my fingers under the sharp metal of what was left of the door handle and hauled up. The door swung wildly and I leaped, rolled and ran as he was braking and hollering.

My right ankle throbbed as I hobbled into a stretch of thick willows along the ditch. Behind me from the truck I heard a shriek and thud. At the same time I’d opened the truck door, I’d released the latch on the basket, freeing Slasher. I had no doubt he was taking out his pent-up rage on the largest moving thing in front of him.

***

I crouched behind reeds, sneakers sinking in marshy ooze, and watched the taillights of the fishtailing truck disappear around a bend in the road. It was still and quiet except for the hum of mosquitoes and the calls of small frogs from the slough. I staggered over the rocky trail, feeling bad about abandoning Slasher with the pervert.

Just as I smelled wood smoke and saw the glow from my cabin, I heard a swishing coming through the purple fireweed. I braced to sprint the last 50 meters when I saw the orange cat pruning himself as he glared at me from the ditch, his fur matted with blood.

That night it wasn’t mice keeping me awake. Every creak had me sitting up and reaching for the axe I’d leaned against the bedframe. I kept the gas lamp burning. In the morning, I stepped outside to head to the outhouse in a large baggy sweater, arms hugging myself, scanning the shadows between the trees. A crackling noise made me jump and I looked down to see Slasher on the steps, crunching on a dead mouse.

 

Editor’s note: Mary Rose Martin’s murder remains unsolved to this day.

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