The Severed Head: Part 2
The thing about weddings is that something almost invariably goes wrong. It's just a matter of whether or not it will affect the wedding ceremony or not.
For Stephanie and Josh, their wedding had been a long time in the works. There had been so many details to deal with, from the catering to getting the church to the requisite meeting with the pastor.
Pastor Harry had insisted that they meet with him in advance and fill out premarital questionnaires. The idea was that he could review their answers to various questions about life and their marital expectations and then he could be in a position to advise them. Oftentimes the answers of the couples who came to him to perform their vows demonstrated such an extreme disconnect that he knew they didn't have a chance. And he felt it was his duty as a man and as a man of God to counsel these couples as appropriately as he could. Nationally, more than half of all marriages end in divorce. This is a well-known statistic. The odds of success in Iowa are statistically slightly better in favor of marriages sticking together. Maybe it was the cold winters or the above-average educational system or the higher than average per-capita church attendance.
Pastor Harry felt Stephanie and Josh had a pretty good shot. Although they were a little on the young side: Stephanie was only nineteen and Josh was a year older than she, they had been high-school sweethearts and had established a relationship pattern over several years. Neither of them seemed to have any major personality quirks or defects, and they were regular churchgoers. Although Josh's family had moved to Iowa when he was ten, Harry had known Stephanie’s family for years and had performed her baptism.
Stephanie, like most women, had been thinking about her wedding for a very long time. Although she wasn't as obsessed with it as some women have been known to be, she still wanted everything to be perfect. She and Josh had been engaged for over a year and they had begun planning for the wedding six months ago. Her mother had helped her with most of the details and thankfully had not tried to control the process too much. Unlike a lot of men, who feel their primary responsibility is simply to "show up sober," Josh had actually helped quite a bit with the process, a fact Pastor Harry thought showed a lot of character.
The ceremony went off more or less without a hitch. Stephanie had begun to cry during the reading of the vows, but had managed to regain her composure. That was fairly common. In his thirty-six years as pastor Harry had seen it all. He'd seen men and women faint at the altar even though he'd made a point at all the rehearsals to tell the couple that they should not lock their knees or they run the risk of passing out.
Stephanie wore an expensive wedding gown with a long train. Her bridesmaids wore green velvet dresses that Stephanie had sewn herself. Josh's older brother served as best man, but except for him no one in the wedding party was over the age of twenty-five.
After the ceremony, which was attended by a little more than two hundred people, everyone took their turn going through the receiving line, telling Josh how lucky he was and telling Stephani how beautiful she looked in her wedding gown and beautiful the flowers were and how they'd rarely attended a nicer ceremony.
The wedding reception was held in the church basement. A table had been set up for wedding gifts and there was also a box covered with white wrapping paper. The box had a slit in the top and wedding guests who had not brought presents could drop in money or cards.
Being an afternoon wedding, there was no sit-down meal at the reception. The folding tables in the church basement had been covered with disposable white plastic tablecloths. At each table was a small centerpiece containing Hershey's kisses. Sandwich fixings were provided for the hungry and there was a big bowl of punch that was composed of orange juice, lemonade, and Seven-Up. The wedding cake was a three-tier model with a little plastic groom and a little plastic bride. Because of the large numbers of guests -- although many people had left right after the ceremony -- there were also a couple of large white frosted sheet cakes to make sure that everyone had a piece of cake.
After everyone had been given a chance to eat, they had the traditional cake cutting. Pastor Harry was relieved that the couple had not taken the opportunity to put cake in each others faces. He had seen that too many times for it to be funny anymore. Josh's older brother Brian gave a short speech, in which he wished the young couple every possible happiness and a bright and glorious future together. There was a champagne toast, and everyone raised his or her glasses high.
Normally the gift-opening is done on the day after the wedding, usually at the home of the bride or groom, but since there was no dance at the reception and because the couple were leaving early the next morning for their honeymoon in Hawaii, they had the gift-opening at the church. Two chairs were positioned behind the gift table, and of course Stephanie did all the opening.
The gifts for the most part were the standard gifts people give to young couples embarking on their new life together. They received the requisite toasters and crystal glasses and blenders. As she opened each gift, Stephanie loudly read the attached cards and thanked everyone in turn and promised she would send thank-you's as soon as they got back from their honeymoon.
There was one box, wrapped in a pretty white pattern with a pink bow on top that didn't have a card. Stephanie and Josh looked around on the table to see if it had somehow become disconnected from the package, but they didn't find any orphaned cards.
"I don't know who this is from," Stephanie said, "but let's see what's inside."
When Stephanie saw the severed human head, which had been wrapped in plastic to prevent leaking, she began to scream. She lunged back from the table, which knocked several of the packages onto the floor, including the box that contained the head. The head rolled out a few feet in front of the gift table, stopping by the feet of the bride's eighty-year-old grandmother.
Someone had the mental wherewithal to recognize that they should probably not disturb the head, and left it where it had rolled and covered it with one of the disposable plastic tablecloths. Someone else had dialed 911 on their cell phone and the police were at the scene twenty minutes later. Upon arriving, one of the officers at the scene apologized to the crowd, but told them that it was important that they take a statement from everyone and that no one was to leave.
Three hours later after a small team of officers had been assembled to question the "witnesses," the police had no clues to the identity of the severed head killer. No one had seen any suspicious-looking characters, and no one had seen anyone who had been carrying the wedding gift that had caused such a stir. Because of the layout of the church it would have been relatively simple for someone to have walked in while the ceremony was in progress, dropped off their "gift," and left by way of the back exit. One of the officers timed himself re-enacting this scenario and he was able to do it in under two minutes.
Why the killer had picked Stephanie and Josh's wedding was a mystery. The couple had no apparent connection with the victim, who was, they would later learn, a thirty-year-old exotic dancer from Cedar Rapids.