As a young man working on the family dairy farm I had the occasion to work with at least three murderers. All three were men. One was White. Two were Black. And they may have been more killers about, but I only knew about these three during this time period of 1981 – 1984. This was back when I lived in Prince Edward County, tucked away in the Piedmont hills and low valleys of south-central Virginia. As I worked side by side together with them on the farm, we got to know each other well.
All three stirred powerful emotions in me. Once I almost killed one guy, a drunken horror named Paul. After he jumped my back and drunkenly tried to choke me, I lost it. I broke loose, ran into the cow barn, snatched a pitchfork from where it stood in a bale of hay, and charged to drive those prongs in deep. At the last minute I stopped myself. The drunk then begged me to kill him or he would commit suicide. After a few deep breaths I backed off as he flopped crying in the grass and almost knocked over a big, smelly pan of cow milk for the kitties. Yeah, we had a lot of cats and kittens around.
The scariest one was a young man whose name I’ve forgotten. Although I can see his face clearly in my mind as I write this piece. So I’m gonna call him Mike. Though it might as well ’ve been Dick. Wait, I remember now. It’s Thomas! And one day during a slow time “cleaning up the barn,” our job description for gathering up and removing leftover hay, cow manure, bovine urine, trash, and anything else, I interviewed him. What follows is not a formal interview of direct quotes, but a close approximation as I paraphrase his stark use of language. In some ways it felt as if I interviewed him only yesterday.
It was an accidental interview, sort of, as he was a magnetic personality. In a quiet, relaxed, uber-masculine way but without any heart. Yet he wasn’t malevolent like the Grinch was. Thomas was just … empty, a void. He was all eyes wide open, but only so he could see you. All I got was opaque intelligence. He didn’t shy away from questions, although he may not answer them the way one might expect.
Thomas was short, stocky, and muscular, as he liked to pump iron back when he lived in prison. He always wore tight-fitting, white T-shirts, which offset the deep, blue-black hue of skin. His hair was just growing back from shaving his head bald a few months earlier. Usually he wore baseball caps, either Navy blue or Army green. He wore his blue jeans up high, tight, and belted so he could move quick like a killer. Because he killed people.
Thomas Mike Dick claimed to have hunted and killed three men. There were a couple others who got away who may’ve died but he didn’t follow up to make sure. And maybe a woman, too, though he wouldn’t say too much about her. His stories were direct, as in “I hit ‘im hard. Real hard. Knocked the man down on the street. Back in the alleyway. Shot ‘im in the back of the head, real quick like.”
And his stories were evasive. “I don’t remember how many I slayed. Or if he or she died or not. Sometimes we all got hurt a little bit. I don’t remember everything. It was dark, and I had business to honor, know what I mean?”
He had recently been released from prison. My father hired him to work on the farm as part of some rehabilitation plan. Convicts who’d completed serving time were released into jobs to help settle them down with the hope some responsibility would smart ’em up. I imagined, too, hard manual labor was intended to wear them into exhaustion so they didn’t have the energy to commit crimes like getting drunk at a dance hall back in the woods and shooting somebody over a pretty girl or knocking some Joe in the head with a thumb wrench so they could steal his pickup truck full of chickens and whiskey.
His stories appalled me in a mesmerizing way. He was so businesslike, but he wasn’t boastful. If anything he was professional and proud of his cool. For Thomas Mike Dick was really cool. Deadly cool. Ice…Hot…cool.
“How can you kill somebody?” I asked him as we took a break from scraping cow manure and straw into the gutter.
“Easy,” replied Thomas. “You use a good gun with a clean, perfectly set sight. And always carry a straight razor. They’re better than some big, old, clumsy buck knife. You wanna move fast, like a ninja.”
“Like a ninja, huh?”
“Yes,” said Thomas as he lit up a cigarette and blew forth a ring of smoke.”
“That’s why I work out so much” he kept going. “To be a good killer you must be able to move like water, liquid water. Then pop up like ice, sharp icicle ice. And jump away and disappear. Like vapor.”
“But, I mean, what does it take to really kill people like that?” I asked again.
“Nothing,” said Thomas between smokes.
“What do you mean?”
“Like I said, nothing,” Thomas Mike Dick stated. “No nothing. No heart. No compassion. No love. Just be able to look a man in the eye and shoot ‘im. Or look at his back and shoot ‘im. No matter. Do you deer hunters have a problem shooting a deer while they’re running away? No. Same thing. A man ain’t no different from a dog. We’re all animals, here.”
I felt stunned. I didn’t know quite what to say. And I was afraid the wrong kind of question would make me a blood target. Thomas was crafty, too. Just as he didn’t fill up his speech with “uh…ums” and “likes,” he toyed with what he chose to reveal or not.
“Wow,” I said lamely. “Anything else?”
“Yes,” replied Thomas. “One more thing.”
“No conscience. No conscience. You cannot allow yourself to be troubled by remorse. To be a killer you must get rid of all conscience. To be a really successful killer you can’t even keep your soul. It would get in the way.”
“No conscience?” I was stunned. “Not even your soul?”
“No nothing,” said Thomas without missing a beat.
Why wasn’t he locked up forever? The Law could only get him for self-defense and another for manslaughter so he pulled time and got paroled or something like that. I don’t quite remember. He got out of prison early.
We cleaned up more cow manure and hay and stuff. During the next break we got into a conversation about husbands and wives.
He scorned today’s “wimpy men and their bossy women.”
“I beat my wife,” said Mike matter of factly. “I beat her on purpose.”
“What? What do you mean?” I asked.
“I don’t lose my temper. I’m not angry with her. I beat her on purpose to remind her I am the boss. She knows if she leaves me I will hunt her down because I can.”
“What about women’s liberation and gender equality?”
“Fine for some folks. Not when you got business to run. It’s a choice. I don’t weigh myself down fretting about it. I do what I do. Because I can. I have no conscience. That makes me a free man. I’m free because I am disciplined.”
I was tempted to preach back with outrage, but I didn’t. It was not every morning I found myself working with the Devil in Human form standing in cow shit shoveling manure and straw and spreading sawdust about. Not every day.
I made some comment about birth control, overpopulation, and stuff. How my wife and I didn’t want any kids then and might not ever have children. Many years later I ended up with three daughters, but back then having children so early was viewed as a permanent anchor around one’s shiny boat.
Thomas Mike Dick stood up quick with the manure scraper in hand as if he’d just finished hoeing a row of sweet peas.
“I don’t use no birth control,” said Thomas. “And if I catch my wife with them I beat her good so she doesn’t either.”
“Say what? What do you mean?” I asked.
“Since I was in jail so much, if she used birth control then I wouldn’t know when she was messin’ around on me,” Thomas said. “This way she don’t use no birth control. So if she gets pregnant I know it be me, see? Or else I can tell when she’s cheating on me cuz without birth control she’ll get pregnant by somebody else while I’m in jail.”
“Damn,” I said. “There’re already way too many kids and parents who don’t want them or don’t know how to parent. There’re too many people and not enough resources to go around.”
“Don’t mean nothin’,” said Thomas. “World ‘ll da do just fine. When’s there’s really too many people on this planet then they’ll die off. Like a fever burnin’ through rabbits. So I don’t worry about no birth control. Nature takes care of her own, and my wife, she ain’t gonna be cheatin’ on me without me knowin’ about it. And then I’ll beat her to maintain order.”
I felt chills. This was a man who eradicated his own conscience for all of life except its most base primal impulse, all pointed with cold intelligence and stripped of any inner moral compass. I wondered what he endured as a child to come out so cold.
Thomas wasn’t bitter. The other two killers I got to know, well, they committed crimes of passion, of hate, of revenge, of broken love smothered in shame. Thomas didn’t even cuss.
“Hey, Thomas,” I said and laughed. “How come you don’t cuss, man?”
“I stay in control at all times,” he replied after he pulled the cigarette out of his mouth while looking at me the whole time. And without blinking. His steady stare unnerved me. And I also knew he wouldn’t kill me because I made him mad. He would only kill me to make some money or because some criminal calculation on his part made absolute sense to him.
“You get that?” he asked me straight on. “One lesson I learned early on is never to lose control. Because when you lose control, you can lose your life. See, I’m still alive. Done some time. Messed up plenty, yes. But I always mess up in control.”
I nodded and thought about it. It was too monstrous for me. And his ability to turn horror into logic made me think of the Nazis or the Mafia. Intelligence has nothing to do with good or evil, morals or ethics. I sure hope whatever intelligences exist far out beyond Earth also have their own versions of what we human beings call “heart.”
I never saw Thomas Mike Dick commit a crime during his time on our family farm. I never saw him hit his wife or kids. She was big enough to stomp and suffocate him, too, but she followed along as calm and still as a dog day afternoon in August. She looked at me once with a trace of smile and winked, as if to say, “Don’t you worry, now, Hon, I’m just biding my time. When those thunderstorms roll in, lightening strikes. After all, God sees everything. Everything.”
And one day, out of the blue, Thomas was gone. Never showed up for work. Happens sometimes down in farm country. Happens a lot. We went down to rouse him out of bed, but everything was gone. Cleaned out. Vanished. Never heard from him or his family again. He disappeared, as water vapor does, like a ninja in the dark.
William Dudley Bass
December 6, 2011
(NOTE: Originally published in the author’s Blog at
© Copyright 2011 by William Dudley Bass.