Horror Science Fiction Historical Serial Killer parallel worlds alternative timelines vanishing hitchhiker

Probable Cause

By Stephen Dedman
Jun 3, 2019 · 1,742 words · 7 minutes


Photo by Gilberto Parada via Unsplash.

From the author: A man picks up a hitchhiker on a dark desert highway, and tells her his story...


by Stephen Dedman

            "Vegas," he told the hitch-hiker. "Most improbable city I know." He flipped a coin, a shiny new quarter, and caught it with the same hand. Tails. He returned it to his pocket.  "Chances of it existing at all are about the same as dealing a royal flush, no wonder people go there expecting probability to be screwed. And look at what it did to Howard Hughes... Hey, did you ever hear that story about the guy who picks up a hitch-hiker and she just disappears from the car?"

            No answer. He glanced at the passenger seat. She was probably asleep, hypnotised by the deserted highway and the chugging of the old VW engine. Probably. He was talking mostly to keep himself awake, anyway. He turned the radio on, and found a station playing hits from the last half of the century just gone. He smiled nostalgically as Bob Dylan asked how many deaths it would take, then hummed along with Hotel California for a few bars. "Most people think that's just an urban legend," he said softly. He looked around at the desert, and shrugged. "If you can call this urban. Something that always happened to somebody that somebody else knew, anyway. It isn't. It happened to me. Probably happened to a lot of other guys before me, too. No big deal. She wasn't a ghost. She..."

            He shrugged, and stared at the moon. "Urban legends are the same everywhere,” he said. “Vanishing hitchhikers, cars that smell of death, escaped serial killers haunting lovers’ lanes... you ever wonder how they get started?” No answer. “The way I see it," he continued, "there's always going to be a girl hitching along the highway, right? That's not just probable, it's almost inevitable. So if you're somebody like me, somebody who always picks up hitchhikers, it's very probable, almost inevitable, that there'll be a girl in my car, right?" No reply. "And it's also very probable that she'll be there when I get to the next town... but it's not absolutely inevitable. Like flipping a coin, sometimes it comes down on its side. I hear that happened in front of a mathematics class once; professor was talking about probability, flipped a coin so many times, and this one time it landed on its side and stayed there, in front of a whole lecture theatre. I don't know, maybe that's just another urban legend, but you know what I mean. And I think that's all that happened; I saw that probability that there wasn't a girl in the car, that little difference between the very probable and the inevitable. I think probability's a force, almost like gravity... or entropy. You can beat it temporarily, in small ways, but eventually everything levels out, the most probable outcome always pays off... I might've looked around and seen two girls in the car instead of one." He laughed. "I probably will, one day. Maybe that's what really happened at Chappaquidick: maybe there wasn't a girl in the car until after it came off the bridge.

            "It's like when you put something down and have to look for it a second later: it's because you probably put it down at point A, but there was also a probability that you put it at point B, and that's where it ends up. Maybe that's how trains get wrecked, too. Standard gauge isn't a natural law or something, it isn't even very probable. Maybe they hit somewhere where the rails are a more probable distance apart. Or power spikes: maybe they're little moments where a more probable voltage takes over. Or people getting shot with guns they're sure were empty: the probability that a gun is loaded is just too high. You can only screw around with probability so much... It's like flipping a coin. Eventually you'll wear the faces down 'til they both look the same. Vegas is like that."

            He glanced at the girl again. She was attractive, long dark hair parted in the centre, young enough to be his daughter. She'd told him her name was Karin. He'd told her his name was Ted.

            "That's what I like about Vee Dubs," he said. "Most probable car there is. Almost inevitable. Chances that you're going to blink and find you're not in a Bug any more are so low they're not worth worrying about, unless you accidentally drive into a world where there's an oil shortage or something, and I only got that lost once."

            He fell silent, and listened to the radio for a few minutes, until they started playing Elvis. He changed channels, but they were playing Elvis too, so he switched the radio off and listened to the engine instead. "Or Holiday Inns. You go to sleep in a Holiday Inn, you know you'll probably wake up in one, even if the rest of the world has changed... Or .22 Long Rifle," he mused. "Everyone has .22 Long Rifle, you can rely on it, not that I've ever needed to use it... Money's a problem, though. Dollar bills with Washington's picture are still legal tender everywhere I've been, but doesn't it ever strike you as extremely improbable that we made all our banknotes the same size and colour? No wonder the stuff keeps disappearing on us. Especially in Vegas - improbable money in an improbable city. Come in a billionaire, check out homeless. Like Howard Hughes. Or maybe it was the other way round; it's hard to keep it all straight. Why're you going there, anyway?"

            No answer.

            "Looking for a job?"

            No answer.

            "Ever been to Salt Lake City? That's another improbable town... I used to live there myself, back in the seventies." He switched the radio on again: the Beatles were singing about Piggies. He sang along with them, belting out the last line with gusto, but fell silent when the news began. Politics, murder and sport. "Quarter of a billion people and he becomes President," he snorted. "I mean, people must have voted for him. Don't get me wrong, I've been a Republican all my life." He smiled wryly. "I was even named Mr Up-and-Coming Republican, back when I lived in Seattle. I coulda been a contender. Would you believe I was assistant director of the Seattle Crime Prevention Advisory Commission, too?" He laughed. "Of course, that was before I went to law school, but I look back at that, and I probably should have been a politician, or a lawyer, or maybe a psychologist, not..." He was silent as the DJ segued from the weather report into Madonna's Rain, staring into the clear sky, then smiled slightly when the next song began. He hummed along with the verses, crooned the refrain, and brooded.

            "I don't know if you would've heard about it - it was years before you were born - but women were disappearing in Seattle, and witnesses had seen some of them getting into a Vee Dub like mine - or like a couple of thousand others in town. And one woman said a man who’d tried to abduct her had called himself Ted." He shrugged. "Nobody asked me about it... but then, when I moved to Salt Lake City, the same thing started happening there. I was booked for speeding, a cop noticed the handcuffs in the glovebox; it's not a crime to own handcuffs, some people wear 'em as jewellery and at least one of the other suspects had a pair, but the police considered it probable cause. Then a girl picked me out of a line-up and I was convicted, and a computer, a goddamn number-cruncher, picked me out of a list, and the police started trying to pin other rapes and murders on me, anything where I was in the right place at the right time. They never found anything but circumstantial evidence - oh, a few hairs and fibres in the car, but nobody knows what the probability is of finding any hair or fibre in a car, or how it got there, or how long ago...

            "Okay, so it seems improbable that I would have been in all those places while all those women were being killed, without any sort of alibi... but I was doing well, I had a promising future, a lot to lose, do you think it's probable that I'd go around murdering women at random? Just because they looked like somebody I went out with once?"

            There was no reply from the girl. "The way I see it, we all think about rape sometimes, or murder, just for the thrill, and then it's like we toss a coin. If it comes down heads, we say no, it's not worth it. Same if it comes down tails. If it lands on its side... but that's as improbable as..." He drove through Vegas without stopping, trying to think of an analogy. "Isn't it more probable that it was different guys? Some of them looked a bit like me, some of them drove Vee Dubs, some of them were called Ted, and they just happened to be in the same town I was at the same time, and they saw these women, attractive women, and the coin came down on its side, they went haywire, and... Isn't it just as probable that the police could have picked somebody else with no alibis, tried him, fried him..."

            He shrugged. "Or maybe not. He probably could have gotten off, with a good lawyer, if he was smart enough, if there were enough women on the jury... Call it a fifty fifty chance. Heads he wins. I hate to say it, but the real murderer is probably still out there, somewhere... What do you think?"

            He stared at the seat behind him, and was only mildly surprised to find it empty. He looked in the rear view mirror, seeing nothing but a dark road through the desert, then reached into his pocket for his lucky quarter. It spun lazily in the moonlight, seemed to hover for an instant in defiance of gravity, and then came down heads, showing the profile of President Theodore 'Ted' Bundy, assassinated in 2001 by an unknown gunman who escaped in a stolen VW.

            He stared at the coin, sadly, and then pocketed it. "It's probably me," he whispered.

This story originally appeared in Orb.