Hobbling the Devil
©2010 Robert G Liberty
“Help!” The panicked woman swallowed water and sank beneath the waves, taking her last gulping breaths. Bubbles rose into the air and marked the last place she would see. Beneath the surface, she felt something detaching inside her; saw something float toward her. It was the doll, the one The Witch had fashioned with the woman’s hair, with the dead man’s hair! The drowning woman looked at it quizzically. Funny, that it should appear. Funny, that it would be the last thing she would see on earth. And funny, that it was sucking at her, pulling at her insides, taking something she didn’t even know that she had. And even funnier, that she felt blackness surround her, but she wasn’t dead. She looked out through stitched eyes and screamed through a stitched mouth, and floated to the surface of Dead Creek.
Item in The National Inquisitor
Dateline Caleb’s Crossing, October 6.
The Little Town that Could—
Kill, that is
Senior Editorial Consultant
You mention the names of some towns and people instantly recognize the terror associated with them. You say the name, Salem, and watch people’s eyes cloud over with memories of the witch trials and the hangings of 19 women for witchcraft.
And if you bring up the name of Plainfield, Minnesota, people immediately think of that monster and cannibal, Ed Gein, model for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies, who killed and robbed graves and skinned and ate the corpses of recently buried women; who made a “woman suit" to wear on moonlit nights as he danced in the woods.
You breathe the name of Cobston, Ontario, and you will raise the hackles of everyone listening to you, because that haunted town is instantly connected with the most fearsome pandemic of supposed zombies on recent record.
But if you tell people you want to visit the quaint berg of Caleb’s Crossing for a weekend getaway, you wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. And that’s just why the town is so dangerous. Because tourists and visitors keep disappearing from in and around Caleb’s Crossing and are never seen again.
The stories told of this little Hog’s Hollow of ‘backy-chawin’, doodad- whittlin’, hoo-doo-doll makn’ backwoods and in-bred Hicksville, are enough to curl your toes. And, one suspects, the toes of the hundred or so souls who have gone missing in the past century after stepping onto the main street of Caleb’s Crossing. What is the mystery of Caleb’s Crossing and who is brave enough to find out? Don’t let it be you!
This is another of today’s Living Mysteries, brought to you by the National Inquisitor’s Sepulcher of the Supernatural.
As I finished reading the Vandyke from the compositing room, my phone rang. It was Denise, my ex-wife and still my boss at the paper. I could guess what she wanted, since the Caleb’s Crossing story had been her idea of shaming me into getting back into real investigative reporting; the kind that got me my job here twenty years ago. But I was naïve then, and hungry, and right after Denise hired me we started having an affair, at least that’s what it was to me. To her it was wedding bells and honeymooning in Spain and settling down together afterwards to run Daddy’s newspaper as a team.
Never marry the boss, no matter how beautiful she is, or how persuasive, or how rich; it just won’t work out in the long run. We were married blissfully for two years, tolerantly for another three and now divorced for fifteen, but still seeing each other every day and some nights. No, not the way you think, we work a lot of overtime in the newspaper business. But our relationship is civil; I’ll give it that.
“Hi Dini, what can I do for you?”
“When I said look into this Caleb’s Crossing burg, I was hoping for a little more than an asterisk on the Travel Page.” She sounded even-keeled and reasonable, and I knew I was in deep shit.
“Actually, Ray, I’d like you to take a moment to look. Look at what I originally asked you to do and then tell me if I was asking too much? For Christ’s sake, Raymond, Bernice was my Maid of Honor at our wedding; we went to university together and she’s hit on you more than once during and after our marriage; the least I’d have expected from you, in view of the simple nature of my request, and the real possibility that you hit back, was that you’d investigate enough into her disappearance to write more than a matchbook blurb for Ripley’s Fucking Believe it or Not! Jesus, Ray.”
“Don’t get dramatic on me, Dini, I will look into Bernice’s situation, but let’s not call it a disappearance yet. I’m due for sabbatical this fall and I can swing by this Caleb’s Crossing place on my way to Ireland for my two months sabbatical. What I had in mind was an in-depth piece, in series format, over the next few days or week or however long it takes to bring all the facts together. How does that sound to you?”
“I’m sorry babe, but I’m really worried. She’s vanished before, I know, but it’s always been with some tanned juice muffin stuck to her credit card, sweating for his supper. This time she was buying a house and looking for a place to start living the second half of her life. It’s not like her to stay quiet so long. I’ve got a gut feeling, you know?”
“I know, sweetheart, I think the woman’s Satan’s “Friend with Benefits,” but I know what you mean about the vanishing act. It’s suspicious on too many levels. Let me finish up here and I’ll call Dan McCaffery again and see what he’s fond out about the real estate transaction and the major parties.
“Denise, she’s your friend, and I’m your friend, of course I’m going to take this seriously.”
I hung up the phone and got up to leave my office but out on the City Desk a loud movement caught my attention, so I stopped slipping into my Donegal Tweed jacket, mid arm-in-sleeve. The loud movement belonged to Gary Klein, my adopted conscience -come dog’s body, slash City Editor. I lifted my chin in Gary’s direction and indicated, “What?”
He tapped his right ear and suddenly my laptop was possessed by his sly, slightly mid-Atlantic accented voice. “We have a thing, don’t we Ray? I mean you promised this was the day—no more excuses no more sick aunts, no more possibly getting back together with your ex, no more anything but taking me to the range and letting me shoot your new
P226 X-Five. Come on, boss, I’ve already booked the targets for half an hour from now. Don’t make me feel abused and persecuted, Brother Ray, you won’t like me when I’m self flagellant.”
“Gary, what do Jews know about abuse? I got a thing I gotta do. The thing you and I were gonna do has been superceded by this other thing.”
“I can sue you right through your next twelve incarnations over that Jew remark, boss, I’ll have your newspaper, your fortune, your ex-wife—who by the way is always giving me that special twinkle from her left eye, and you know what that means—and I’ll own your soul, too. But I’ll forego all that righteous retribution if you take me with you to the pistol range. If you make me beg…”
“All right, get your coat on and we’ll go shoot some things for an hour. Then I gotta go. I got this … “
“Yeah I know, you got a thing.” He dug the Bluetooth out of his ear and my laptop stopped talking to me. We met at the elevator. That was Friday, October 6 and the last time I’d see the newspaper office.
From the shooting range to McCaffery’s office took longer than I’d planned. Gary and I used up two boxes of 9mm and two of .40 caliber S&W ammo over the next hour and a half.
The nice thing about the Sig Sauer P226 is that it comes designed for both types of ammunition, so if you need a 20-round magazine, you go for the 9mm, while for a guy like me, who can hit what he’s shooting at, the .40/.357 is plenty enough in the 14 round clip. So naturally Gary was testing the 9mm through the gun club while I was using my own, shiny new X-Five, with its factory tuned single-action trigger, 5” slide and barrel, ergonomic wood Nill grips with beavertail, ambidextrous thumb safety and stainless slide and frame with magwell. Christ, I could sell these things, couldn’t I?
By the time our ammo was spent, I was consistently getting a two-inch grouping at 50 yards, while Klein was creeping up on my scores with each target. But he still insists on buying dinner, after our shoots, as a sign of respect—it’s a mentor-apprentice thing with him and far be it from me to discourage any adulation from my juniors, at 58 I’ve earned all the deference I can squeeze out of life.
After a hard glance at my watch I realized I didn’t have time to shower the cordite out of my hair before seeing Dan McCaffery, but at least the coveralls protected my new Donegal Tweed jacket from powder spackle. I’d just have to show up smelling like one of his Rookie cops; too eager and macho to follow firing range protocol. Besides, I hear the young ladies love the smell of gunpowder on a man in a bar—it’s apparently a sex thing. Ah well, anything to make old Dan feel in his element.
As I waved goodbye to Klein on his way to the showers, he tapped his ear in the new universal signal and nodded goodbye. I raised my chin in a question and he yelled cross the dressing room, “I’ll call you!”
I pretended not to hear, shaking my head and shrugging my shoulders at him.
“I said I’d call you tomor…”
I was laughing so hard at my subtle bon mot that I didn’t hear him swear at my retreating back.
When I finally alit from the cab in front of Dan’s office in the Municipal building it was pushing 7 PM, but I had no doubt McCaffery would still be working; not just because he’s a dedicated public official, which he is, but because his wife is in her third trimester of a first pregnancy, much to Dan’s psychological detriment. So he’s taken to working late, as a matter of course and I know for a fact, as a matter of survival.
“What’s shakin’, bacon?” said I, by way of silly ritual.
“What the fuck do you want, Delaney? It’s after business hours and I don’t have to treat you like a human being anymore when no one’s watching; my public face is in the filing cabinet behind me and I can shoot you paparazzi on sight. And you better have my hundred bucks or I’ll hurl your flabby ass in the slam and let the street monkeys play Barbie with you.”
Things must be worse than I thought at home. “I’m fine, Danny Boy, thanks for asking. How’s Kathleen? Baby’s due in what, three weeks? Have you been home lately to check up on her? See if she needs some groceries? Clean sheets, laundry?”
He showed me one of his fingers. It was nice, but I’d seen it before.
“What do you need Ray? I’m actually wrapping up here so I can get home before nine. I was expecting you around six; what kept you?” Then he sniffed the air around me. “Never mind. You and your protégé went to the range, didn’t you? C’mon let’s walk and talk, I really gotta go.”
We retraced my steps through the corridors of politics and police work to the bank of elevators while I cut to the chase. “I need you to give me what you have on the Internet scam that ran out of Caleb’s Crossing. I told you about it a few weeks ago and asked you to put your guys on it, remember? Bernice Stodghill is Denise’s sorority sister or something, she was at our wedding apparently, but the thing is she’s missing and we haven’t heard from her since she went to take possession of her house. That was back in the spring and it’s now three months and not a peep. Waddaya got for me?”
“I’m sorry Ray, but we can’t find a record of any transaction between Bernice and anybody in Caleb’s Crossing. There’s no paper trail, no electronic funds transfer, no banking information of any kind, which is the scariest part of it since she was VP of her bank and did the transactions right from her own office.
“I sent Harvey Ellison to Caleb’s Crossing to do a preliminary and he came back with nothing. Well not exactly nothing; he’s got the impression he’s been hexed and is now haunted by a demon hedgehog. He’s been to his doctor at least a dozen times since he got back and he’s beginning to look really sick, as a matter of fact. So whatever happened to him in the two days he was there, it’s really having a physical effect on him. Of course it’s all bullshit, but he believes it and that seems to be enough to make him sick.”
“Did you follow up on his prelim? Call the local law; shake a tree or two,” I asked as the elevator arrived?
Dan stared at me blankly for a moment and seemed to visibly vibrate, tense his back and shoulders, then it passed. “I think I did, Ray. I think, no I’m sure I talked to a sheriff somebody or other to get some clarification on Harvey’s report. I’ll be damned if I can remember, though. Man. Am I working too hard or is it the fear of fatherhood? How can I lose a block of information like that?”
As the elevator reached the lobby Dan snapped his fingers and nearly shouted, “It was some kind of butler’s name! Jeeves or Jervase–-no Jarvis! That’s it, something Jarvis.” He looked pleased.
“So all I have to do is look up something Jarvis in the local phone book and I’m home free?”
“Don’t be an asshole, Delaney; Google it.”
“Cute, Danny. But that’s really all you got out of Ellison and your own call to Sheriff Somebody Jarvis; a blank slate? How can the local law not have a record of Bernice’s assuming ownership of an entire house? Is Jarvis in on the scam and how many times have they run it. And, oh shit I don’t like where I’m going with this one, and what did they do with Bernice? You think I’ll get anywhere if I talk to Ellison myself?”
“You can try, Ray, I may even want to sit in on that conversation, because, I tell you my friend, I don’t remember a thing about what the sheriff said to me and now that we’ve been talking about it, I can’t remember even sending Harvey to investigate the missing persons claim.”
He paled, sheeted white from forehead to throat, as we stood in the foyer of the municipal building looking at one another. I saw the confusion turn to terror in his eyes. I punched him lightly on the left shoulder and said, “It’s nothing, Dan. You’ve got bigger things to worry about than Denise’s erstwhile maid of honor doing a motel hop with a twenty something stick of testosterone. Go home to Kate and I’ll make some calls. I have to write a story about the place anyway, so whatever I find out, I’ll make sure I get it on my notebook and email you the files. This is nothing, you’re a tired cop with a crazy pregnant wife at home, and you’re worried bout forgetting some stats on an Opieville nobody ever heard of? Go home. I’ll be in touch.”
As I hailed a cab and got in, I watched Dan McCaffery, Lieutenant Dan McCaffery, decorated officer, dedicated leader and soon to be groomed political major leaguer, standing in front of his building, doing nothing but staring out into the darkening cityscape. He didn’t move for as long at it took for the cab to turn him into a speck in the rear window. I shivered. Like Denise, now I had a gut feeling.
The next morning I listened to a voice mail from Denise telling me she still had no word from Bernice, or from her feelers deep in the world of Sororitydom. In fact Bernice appeared to have vanished into a void. Dini asked if I could start my sabbatical early so I could swing by Caleb’s Crossing all the sooner. I thought that was a reasonable request so I called her back after my shower and confirmed I’d start out later in the morning and she thanked me, sincerely.
However, when I asked her how to get to Caleb’s Crossing, she went blank. “Ask Lois,” she said. “She does all that.” So I did. Lois, Denise’s executive assistant, gave me the directions (it’s in one of the states that begin with “I, I think she told me”) and I programmed them into my GPS and started driving—of course I packed accordingly first, reporter wise and otherwise.
I would have flown, but it was only a few hundred miles and I don’t like leaving the ground for any but emergency reasons. I left the city limits around noon and pulled into Caleb’s Crossing just after six p.m. with the sun still bright and hot, but with a dull, hazy cast, almost like looking through a lens filter. It gave me an eerie sensation of moving through a veil draped subtly over the whole town. There was the definite mental ear-pop of slipping from one zone into another.
As I drove into a gas station on the edge of town to fill up and get my bearings, a prickling wave washed over me and made me scratch my face and head. I nearly turned around and drove back out of town the way I came in. I really must learn to pay more attention to those visceral, primal warnings. They are, after all, meant to save our lives.
The owner of the gas station turned out to be the only gas jockey on duty—which didn’t surprise me since I was the only customer the whole quarter hour I was there. While he took care of the car’s fluid needs I tried to engage him in conversation, but was mostly unsuccessful, and when he did answer my questions, it was in single-syllable monotones dragged from the bowels of a cold, wet cave. I did manage to learn from him where I could secure food and lodgings at a reasonable price.
“Might could go and see my cousin, Hattie. She does bed and breakfast down on Magnolia Lane. Lunch and dinner, too, if you don’t mind paying extra,” says he.
“Thanks. Thanks a lot. How do I find it and what’s it called,” says I?
“Well, sir,” says he, “it’s called Magnolia Lane Bed and Breakfast and you can buy a map right here that’ll get you just about anywhere in town,” says he with a crooked grin stretching his pudgy face.
Three-fifty for the map and forty for the gas and I was heading down William Vernon Harcourt boulevard to Wisteria Way and then after clearly marked turns and curves, over the bridge to Magnolia Lane and the Magnolia Lane Bed and Breakfast and presently into the welcoming smile of Miz Hattie Morgan and her not so reasonably priced Magnolia Lane Bed and Breakfast.
I took the best room at the inn, The Colonel Stuart Wortley suite. First because it came with all meals included and also because it was the biggest, most private of the guestrooms, being on the top floor and sporting its own en suite bath. It also had the most electrical outlets for my notebook and peripherals. Altogether the best bang for the buck, rather for Denise’s buck since the paper was picking up the tab.
Another bonus, I discovered, was the panoramic view from my third-floor walkout onto the lane below. I had an unobstructed line of sight in both directions, so I took full advantage by setting up my Nikon D700 on the graphite Manfrotto tripod I’d packed for the trip. The D700 had vibration reduction built in so I didn’t really need the tripod setup, technically, but I never shortchange myself on what I might need, in case I do need it. Then on to positioning motion triggered, zero-light surveillance cameras throughout the suite along with microphone pickups.
After setting up my portable surveillance-away-from-home, I popped in the shower to scrub the driving cricks out of my neck and shoulders, changed into my “Reporter” outfit, comprising half glasses, window pane Oxford Broadcloth button down shirt, brown Donegal Tweed jacket, Dockers and slip-on Brogues. My “Autumn Look.”
My jacket pockets hid a slim digital recorder, 12 megapixel Canon camera, small enough to fit into a wallet, an actual wallet with several IDs and a little something extra, heavier than both combined, and secured in its own specially tailored flap under my left breast pocket—oh and a five-inch Rosewood handled Buck folding knife with easy open thumb studs. Everything a newshound needs to meet the challenge. Now, fully dressed, I went downstairs to scope out the situation.
The early evening was warm, with a mild breeze and the streets and boulevards had a bright gold cast from the lowering sun; altogether a fine evening for a stroll and a swell opportunity for a little covert eaves dropping. I may have stood out from the crowd of locals, but there were a handful of tourist-types, grasping familiar gas station maps, shuffle-stepping from storefront to park bench and back to items of curiosity on the avenues. So, imitating the zombie walk, I probably fit in like a rubber boot on a farm in May. At least I doubt any locals pegged me for a yellow journalist.
As it turned out, the evening in town and the night in the surrounding rurality, including grave yards, two of them, a series of caves, a hilly outcropping of blasted and sere scrub supporting a handful of dirt poor shacks, replete with stills and possibly one meth lab, a series of standing stones, reminiscent to those in Britain, and what I took to be an upscale townhouse development, recently wiped out by storm damage. I also made it a point to locate the most likely piece of property that would have caught Bernice Stodghill’s eye, and there it was, on Dead Creek Road, fronting onto the riverbank, with a clean new For Sale sign sticking up out of it’s front yard.
I recorded everything, sound and image files and sent them across the ether to those awaiting my call and then turned back to the comfort of the B&B and a night’s sleep—well what remained of the night, anyway. Skirting the sign and the front yard and the house, I again melted into the riverbank and followed it back to the caves and the standing stones. But when I drew near, I could discern low voices and flattened myself to the grass, inching forward on my nice new jacket.
When I was close enough to make out words clearly, I raised my head far enough to take in the situation. Standing rigidly among the mini monoliths and around a stone altar that wasn’t there an hour ago, was a group of robed and hooded people of sundry shapes and sizes, all bastardizing a combination of Latin and what I remembered from research as ancient Irish. But strangely, what words they apparently couldn’t pronounce of the Irish, they said in plain English, but with comic, Hollywood Irish accents. I must have snorted while taking pictures of the gathering, because they all went dead silent for a terrifyingly long time, staring in my direction. Finally they resumed their ritual and I beat a quiet and ignominious retreat.
However nothing, it seems, works in a normal way in and around Caleb’s Crossing. On my way back in the deep dark, I witnessed a number of seemingly unrelated paranormal events, from fairy lights and corpse candles to hulking Sasquatch-like creatures foraging in the underbrush on the river’s edge, flying monsters that resembled nothing less than gargoyles, keening out into the night sky as if expecting an answer. And I believe I saw a werewolf skulking near the mouth of the caves. But I consider all these things mere possibilities given my adrenaline rush in beating retreat from the worshippers at the stone circle.
And since none took notice of me, save for one peculiar little creature that reminded me of the demon hedgehog from Ellison’s obsession, I reciprocated, gladly. Although I did notice, on surreptitious backward glances askance, that the creature followed me to the clearing at the back of the Inn, then dissolved into the dawning light.
Item in The National Inquisitor,
Dateline October 24, Caleb's Crossing
Airborne hysteria grips small town
Mass halucination or Mothman's return?
Senior Editorial Consultant
The small town of Caleb's Crossing is getting a lot of ink lately for incidents of a most un natural, some would insist, super natural character.
Less than one week ago an entire community was washed off the face of Caleb's Crossing by a freak flood that no one, officially or unofficially, can or will explain to any degree of satisfaction. As many as 37 people are still missing due to the flood and no plans have been made to extend the search for the bodies.
And now, just last night, there are reports of flying demons strafing main street and terrorizing locals and visitors alike with aerial acrobatics worthy of dragons of yore.
A creature, variously described as, "a hell-spawn demon bat the size of a Volkswagens," a giant, fire spitting "dragonfly" and a "medieval gargoyle," is blamed for driving townspeople into panic.
A number of outsiders, including two well known mystery novelists in town to promote their work at a local ladies club function, claimed the apparition brought to mind the phenomenon of the Mothman flap of a quarter century ago. It may be remembered that whenever the creature, known as the Mothman, was sighted or otherwise communicated with witnesses, tragedy swiftly followed. In fact a Hollywood film was made about the prophecies attributed to the alien creature, but since then it has largely disappeared into folklore.
However, the flying creature, with an earthbound train of frantic men in seeming bottle cap armor and armed with nets, sticks and home made spears and lances, is a sight one witness will not soon forget.
"It was surreal, I mean I didn't know whether to laugh at the crazy locals chasing the thing with home made nets and halberds or to dive, terrified, beneath my BMW, to escape whatever it was they were chasing in the sky," said Dashielle Burk, a mystery writer of moderate note. Burk was apparently injured in the panic, dabbing at a swollen nose and staunching a steady trickle of blood with his tie.
Nothing could be learned about the mysterious fraternal organization dressed in "school play knight's costumes," and what part it played in the evening's occurrences. No other witnesses were willing to comment on the events, either to confirm or deny the fantastic claims.
I got up late, but after a long hot shower, was still in time for brunch. I sat at the large table on the covered back porch for sandwiches, omelets and iced tea—beer and wine if preferred, but no thanks, tea’s fine this early. As I settled in to munching and sipping, I noted a particularly strange pair exiting the parlor through the dining porch and down onto the lawn. A short, ages-old black man in tattered wool clothes seemed attached (indentured was the word that came to mind) to a singularly striking old man dressed in what I have to believe was a reconstructionist Confederate Uniform, right down to the sword and spurs. They walked resolutely and silently across the back lawn and into local history. I never saw them again while I was in Caleb’s Crossing and they were never spoken of again in my presence.
After sitting alone for the time it took me to eat and get another glass of tea, it seemed the terms of propriety had been met and those local inhabitants and other guests dotting the porch dining room were released from restraints and drifted toward me full of smiles and small talk. This is what I had waited for—an information feeding frenzy.
I met three locals and nearly one tourist/visitor and handed out one of my fake cards introducing me as Jeff McCall, a travel writer. I say nearly, because he merely nodded to me after listening for a few minutes to one of my false background stories, realized I was either unimportant or couldn’t be of profit to him, and left without even exchanging names. The three locals, Lucie and Winnie Danes, two gently aging spinster sisters and Hattie Morgan, owner of the B&B, were founts of information, but little verifiable fact, their claims being so outrageous as to merit little attention, I thought. The Danes sisters lived, they beamed, down near the caves and close to the woods, but came into Hattie’s most days for lunch, “Just to catch up,” Lucie explained. I recalled the werewolf of last night, but didn’t think to interject it into the polite conversation.
“Oh, of course Lucie is the best cook so yes, we only come to Hattie’s for lunch so we can chat and exchange stories—news, so to speak. Well my, that’s what you do, isn’t it Mr. McCall,” chimed Winnie as if in epiphany? “I hope you don’t think we’ll be any competition, young man; jump up all in your thing, so to speak?”
I didn’t know if she was putting me on or was merely trying out her street trash, so I just returned her innocent smile in kind and assured her I was the one “trying to get all up in things around here.”
We talked for an hour about what was the new hot topic and what was hot yesterday. I did only gentle nudging toward what I wanted to know, because the amount of gossip and “Who shot John” they shared was enough to fill half a dozen special sections in the paper. And I got a list of names I could follow up on later, independently.
In the meantime, I jotted down a number of headlines while we, rather while they talked, about Caleb’s Crossing legends, its supernatural tendencies, hauntings, visitations from creatures of folklore and fiction—and they were all seemingly sincere in their acceptance of these tales as fact. They seemed pleased that I found what they had to say newsworthy. (I spent all my spare time over the coming days writing and emailing the pieces to Dini at the paper.) Finally I asked about Bernice and the three women went suddenly cold and distant.
“Oh it’s not you, Mr. McCall,” Hattie said. “It’s just—it’s hard to talk about certain things in Caleb’s Crossing in case somebody’s listening.”
I made a point of scanning the otherwise empty dining porch and raised my eyebrows at the ladies.
“In this town, young man, you can’t tell where the ears are,” said Lucie. “Or who’s directing them.”
“But it’s a nasty thing they did, Sister,” said Winnie into her tumbler. “They’ve gone too far and that’s the truth.”
“I don’t really see what’s to be done, but the one thing, and you can quote me on that,” said Hattie.
Here’s when I began nudging, expert, directional, constructive nudging, which paid off in spades. Bernice had walked into a carefully and cruelly laid swindle perpetrated by a family of sociopathic hillbillies called the Millers. None of the ladies could remember exactly when the Family had first stepped across the town line into Caleb’s Crossing or how they took root so fast, but everyone who ever came into contact with them found things to regret about the meeting.
They were like a sedentary band of Gypsies, who having grifted the nation, finally settled into a convenient web from which they could ply their trade and put down roots.
“But you stay strangers with that clan, Mr. McCall. Don’t let them know you’re even alive at all. They have a way of festering on you and taking over your whole life,” said Winnie. “And that’s a fact.”
I spent that whole afternoon corroborating the stories through various cooperative sources and was amazed that they turned out to be true. I wrote five takes on most of them, less on others and fired them off to Klein for rewrite. I spent my second night melting into the local scenery and following the flow of the town’s natural rhythm.
The next day, armed with my background research, I took a stroll four blocks west of the B&B to the Town Square in search of the Municipal heart of Caleb’s Crossing. What I found was a quaint marble and granite edifice guarded on either side by a brace of military gentlemen, obviously officers from each side of the Civil War.
I was not shocked particularly, since some towns would rather honor their past than admit to present conditions embroiling the country; but I would have expected a nod to the Gulf War and this latest amassing of hero dead and crippled from the currently popular desert conflicts, at least.
It seemed nearly insulting and gave me a heads up to the character and values of the community as a whole and its leaders as examples. This was a dangerously insular place, and that told me it paid little or no attention to events and existence outside its town limits. And this is exactly how a cancer like the Millers’ could have taken so strong a hold so thoroughly. A people that looks to its own, for its own, is always vulnerable to incipient assimilation and redirection.
And after only a five minute conference with the local law, Sheriff Jethro Jarvis, the illusive source of non-information for McCaffery’s investigator, Ellison, I came to understand just how insular Caleb’s Crossing really was, and just how little real information would be coming my way through official channels from this seeming stalwart of stoicism.
Following cordial introductions, at least on my part, Sheriff Jarvis walked me through the lobby and mezzanine of the Courthouse and into the Sheriff’s Office proper. I was taken aback at the proximity of the cells to the glassed in offices. It would be unsettling to have a full house of a Saturday night, staring and jeering from the cells into the open offices, and I remarked as much to Sheriff Jarvis.
He only snorted and rumbled, “This here’s so’s I can keep my eye on my visitors, Mr. Delaney.” (I’d decided to use my real identity, for whatever weight it carried with this doubtful character.) “Any old boy’s been a guest of mine once, and he soon learns staring at me or my deputy can and does cost him dear. And I can tell you from experience, he’ll know his manners if he’s ever a guest in my house again.”
It was then I noticed that the lone, bruised prisoner in the only occupied cell across the room, was making a point of keeping his eyes averted from the Sheriff and from me. There was still crusted blood beneath the prisoner’s nostrils where his sleeve hadn’t done a good enough job mopping it up.
I had no idea what his crime was, but I didn’t think he came in with the beating he was currently nursing. He was so obviously terrified of Jarvis that it made me want to put the Sheriff on my to do list. He may have been twenty years my junior, but I was twenty years more treacherous, devious and straight to the point. I also had the impression I was more used to getting bloodied, knuckles-wise, in a stand up contest than was Sheriff Jarvis. I took the deep breaths necessary to lock the emotions away and sat down across from him to ask my questions.
“I don’t know whether you’re familiar with the Inquisitor, Sheriff,” I began. But he cut me off with a braying huff, saying;
“Hell, how else we gonna stay informed? Well, I suppose there’s always Jerry Springer. After all Springer is to television what you are to newspapers. After all.” And he stared at me, daring.
“Well Sheriff, we can’t show tits, Jerry Springer can. But I take your point.”
“Oh, don’t be so touchy, I’m only messing with you.”
“No offense taken, Sheriff I realize you have to establish ground rules for dealing with outsiders, especially outside press, so I concede you’ve got the biggest dick. Maybe now we can move on from that. You know like it or not part of your job is to work with the press and the public to disseminate information vital to the public safety. And the disappearance of a person in your jurisdiction is tied to that public safety.
“What person are you referring to,” his smirk had dried off his face and now he stabbed me with angry eyes.
“Bernice Stodghill. She bought a house here in town this past spring and has since vanished.”
“He shifted in his chair and said, “I seem to remember some little guy from the city come around a few weeks ago asking the same type of questions, Is this the same thing, because as far as I’m concerned it’s a closed file.”
“Actually it is the same thing, and you’re going to have to reopen your case, Sheriff. I’m not just a journalist on assignment, I represent the next of kin,” I lied. Then I produced a business card with an impressive lawyer-like name and a phone number that went to a special line on Gary Klein’s desk back at the paper—and he had the spiel memorized.
The Sheriff took the card and glared down at it. “That’s the legal firm that represents Ms Stodghill,” I lied.
“Of course Caleb’s Crossing will help in every way with your enquiry, Mr. Delaney. But, as I say, the case is a dead end.”
“How so,” I asked?
“Well the only thing I know about the woman is she came barging in here one afternoon hollering about the old Miller house and finding an invalid squatter in bed in one of the upstairs rooms. She insisted she’d bought the property and was demanding an immediate eviction. I pointed her in the direction of Bill Wilson, our judge.
“Well, sir, before I could drop by and see what’s what at the house she said she bought, she was storming like a tornado everywhere in town bothering people with the same tale and making a horses’ ass outta herself.”
“And did you eventually check up on her story? Ever go out to the house to see if she was telling the truth about the squatter?”
“Didn’t have to. She must of given up and gone back where she came from. Three days later or so there was no sign of her. Right after the spring flood, as I remember.”
“And had she actually bought the house? You’d have records here in the Court building, wouldn’t you?”
“Suppose so if she really bought anything, but there’s not a record to be found.” He grinned at that one.
“How can that be Sheriff? I have personally seen the land transfer,” I lied, “deed and closing papers myself, and if it’d help I can have Bernice’s lawyer fax them directly to your office right now. That might jog your memory, you think?”
“Now that would be a really big help, Mr. Delaney, only our phone lines have been acting up since the flood. Can’t hardly rely on them at all,” he sidestepped.
I pressed on, “Why not allow me to have them sent to my computer at the B&B as an attachment and I can print them out for you?”
“You’re free to do whatever you please, old sport, within legal limits, that is. So by all means, fill yer boots.”
“So even in the face of my proof, it’s you’re contention Bernice Stodghill made the trip to Caleb’s Crossing under the false impression she owned a house she never really had title to and in her frustration went back to the city to lick her wounds and soothe her shattered pride,” I asked with a heavy dose of sarcasm?
Sheriff Jarvis adjusted his pear shaped bulk in the leather office chair and crossed his hands over his ample belly before saying, “How’s that gonna change anything, what my contention is? Look fella, you could be a judge and jury in your own town for all it matters in Caleb’s Crossing, because we got our own judge who’s rulings trump the hell outta anything you think you got.
“I’m telling you the simple truth, “ he continued, “the woman was here and then she wasn’t. Case closed.”
I realized then I’d gotten as far as I would using ordinary methods, so I decided to back off.
“Can you at least give me the names of the people she talked to in town besides yourself? It would help the family just knowing I’m following up, at least.”
“Don’t see why not, he said leaning forward to open a drawer in the desk. He produced a leather bound daybook and flipped a couple of pages then;
“She spent time in Harley’s Café, so I know she talked to him, she bumped into my nephew Spud, Bud Coggins, too, but he won’t be any use, he’s gone backwoods again and vanished into the forest—and then there’s Roxy Rigby, Harley said he told her to look her up. That’s it, I guess,” he finished and snapped the daybook closed with a slap.
“I appreciate your help, Sheriff. Can you let me know where I can find these people?”
“You could ask Hattie Morgan how to find Roxy, and Spud usually shows up at Harley’s for dinner, so there’s a two-fer right there. Oh, I nearly forgot, you can talk to Fern Burdine, too, she’s the local real estate whiz, so if there ever was any proof of sale, she’d know.”
“Pardon me for saying Sheriff, but that would have been good to know up front.”
“Hey sport, I’m only human. Now you hafta excuse me, I got real work to do. You can find your own way out, can’t you?” He got up and walked past me and out of the office. Son of a bitch made sure to have the last squirt in the pissing contest.
It was the prisoner stage whispering across the cells to me.
“Yeah, what can I do for you,” I asked?
“Can you get a message to my wife? Let her know I’m all right.”
“Didn’t you do that when they gave you your phone call,” I asked him crossing through to his cell?
“The only thing they gave me was a beating, Sheriff Jarvis and his half-wit deputy; that retarded Spud kid.”
“What’d you do to earn that?”
“I’m the project manager on the planned subdivisions, Don Hill; you know, construction foreman. Some people don’t want them to get built.”
“They can’t arrest you for that,” I said.
“You really must be new in town. Look please just call her and ask her to contact Dave Richardson for me. He’s the architectural planner for the project and liaison with the partners and Caleb’s Crossing. He’s gotta be wondering why I haven’t called”
He gave me the number and I programmed it into my phone. I took the number for Richardson, too, just in case. “How long have you been in here,” I asked as I was turning to leave?
“Off and on since the flood that wiped out the first phase of our model community—and everyone in it. Please,” he said again, “just let people know I’m in here, without charges or bail. Please mister?”
“You’ve been in this cell for three months,” I asked astonished?
“Whenever I’ve received the permits to resume construction and rebuild what was lost in the flood, I wake up here in this jail on a drunk charge. And Sheriff Jarvis gets the new permits revoked.
“Thing is, I never remember getting drunk, but I always end up plastered at Harley’s Café, ranting and raving and looking for a fight. I don’t for the life of me know how I get there, but the Sheriff always books me for D&D and tears up the permits on some mysterious technicality. I’ve never seen a judge or a lawyer and Jarvis says I never will.
“Can’t you do something before I disappear, too?”
I made him the promise to make the calls and to try my best to have our own lawyers look into the situation. I made a note to call his employer to see if they knew what was really happening with their investment.
I realized I was into more than I’d anticipated and decided to make additional arrangements for support and backup. But first I put in the call to Hill’s wife and got her machine. I left a detailed message and my own number in case she wanted clarification.
Item in The National Inquisitor,
Dateline October 21, Caleb's Crossing
A river ran through it
Senior Editorial Consultant
In an tragic turn of events, recent homebuyers in the quiet, and deceptively friendly, town of Caleb’s Crossing have had their homes, possessions and their futures washed away in what some would call an Act of God.
A flash flood came down from the surrounding peaks girding this tiny, bucolic burg and washed away an entire subdivision, erasing it from any future map of Caleb’s Crossing, along with those souls asleep within.
Local real-estate spokesperson, Fern Burdine, is mystified by this seemingly freak act of nature. “I helped sell those poor people their homes and now it’s all gone. This isn’t no act of God, honey, everybody knows why this happened.”
There are as many explanations for the flash flood as there are bystanders with opinions. Resident Jack-of-all-Trades and sometime building contractor, Jim Collins, told us that, “Them newcomers was told not to buy in that subdivision. Only makes sense you don’t build in a flood path, and damn better make sense you don’t buy somethin’ somebody built in a flood path. ‘Specially outside contractors who don’t know what they’re doin’. Don’t hafta be no Frankenstein to figure that out. Snow melts you got yerself a flood.”
When asked how often floods occur in the flood path, Collins grudgingly admitted that this was the first such occurrence in his memory. “But that don’t make me wrong. Don’t you go writin’ that I was wrong.”
Two gentle old souls, Misses Lucie and Winnie Danes, were explaining that there are certain folklore customs that have been observed religiously in Caleb’s Crossing for generations, in fact going back to before the Civil War, and that history has always proven the customs to be based in experience. For once they are ignored, or worse belittled, unusual and sometimes-violent results can be expected. They alluded to forces beyond nature that have always been attracted to the confluence of rivers that make up Caleb’s Crossing.
The Danes sisters attempted to give an example, but were interrupted by Sheriff Jethro Jarvis, Caleb’s Crossing’s de facto law enforcement. Sheriff Jarvis unobtrusively, yet firmly, ushered the ladies off toward a nearby café and took over explanations.
“Just so there’s no misinterpretation of the facts—let’s admit you journalists can take a high flyer now and then to sell your papers—what happened here is simply a tragic and unforeseen amalgamation of circumstances, resulting in what you see here. A sudden rain in late spring, just after a series of brush fires started by migrants not using proper care with their cooking fires and the runoff down the hills, with no brush to halt the momentum, and what you have is a classic flash flood. And that’s your whole story.”
Others, who would not allow their names to be used for various reasons, hinted at a land development war between outside investors and long-time landowners. The subdivision that is the focus of this unusual accident was, in fact, the first of five similarly designed and sanctioned to be built at the southern edge of town. However all construction activity has been frozen by the investors.
“You might could talk to the Grambargers, but I shore wouldn’t advise it none,” said a man who identified himself only as a burger master, while winking and pointing his head at the eatery sign, Harley’s Cafe, behind him. “Safer to talk to the devil himself. A damn sight easier to get shot of, too.”
A dozen houses were affected by the devastation of mud and debris crashing from the hills and obliterating all structures down to the masonry foundations. Not a joist remains and of the 37 inhabitants of the subdivision, no bodies have yet been recovered.
A simple investigation of meteorological activity for a fifteen-mile radius of Caleb’s Crossing revealed no precipitation in more than a week. Rain or snow.
On the steps of the court building, looking back at the feuding statues, I made a number of calls to associates I’d relied on in the past, then made my way along the avenue to the heart of Caleb’s Crossing’s business district. I was looking for Harley’s Café.
It wasn’t hard to find what with the tacky sign shaped like a smiling hamburger and the sandwich board blocking the sidewalk. In fact I’d passed it in my wanderings the previous night.
Inside reminded me of the diner from the 1958 version of “The Blob,” with a young Steve McQueen, only it wasn’t as new and not nearly as clean. It did have a long counter though and a number of booths along the opposite wall, I headed for the counter and waited for a stringy looking guy with open plaid over a greasy T-shirt, cigarette pack bulging from his T-shirt pocket and a pock marked face grinning down at me from behind the counter.
“You must be that journalist fella stayin over to Hatties. Welcome; what can I get ya?” He pronounced it ‘jore nahlist.’
“News travels fast,” I said, wondering if Hattie knew who I really was all along. “What’s the house special?” I wasn’t hungry after the brunch at Hatties, but knew I should play along and make him feel the host, it was obvious he was playing a role, so why not make it easy for him, I played customer.
“Well, sir, and I ain’t bragin’ you won’t find a better burger in the three counties—cheese, Canadian bacon, not that salty pemale but the real deal, sautéed mushrooms and onions and here’s the thing, no mayo, that’s for tourists (tore–ists), no I use my own secret sauce. It’s a bit spicy, but you won’t regret it.”
He was glowing like a master chef over a Cordon Blu menu. I had to admire his enthusiasm and gave him back a warm smile.
“That does sound good. But can I get it to go with French Fries? I had a couple of finger sandwiches about an hour ago, But I can take that back to my room at the B&B and eat it for supper.”
“Sorry, Mack, don’t have no French Fries—uppity cowards—but I can fix up a batch of hash browns with onions and green peppers if you like?’
“Perfect,” I said as I watched him spin on his heels and attack the grill like a concert pianist. His boning knife slicing open frozen goodies which sizzled spectacularly when they hit the grill. Mmm, mm, home cooking.
“So, “ he tossed over his shoulder as he flipped and stirred, kicking up a surprisingly mouth watering aroma, “Story has it you’re that writer specializes in supernatural shit—pardon my language—ghostie stuff. That true?”
“I suppose it is. I cut my teeth on the story of a crazy billionaire with hypertrichosis who kidnapped and filleted a dozen young women in the subway tunnels of the Big Apple, or Chicago or Toronto, I don’t remember now it’s so long ago, and I just sort of fell into it. But lately I’ve been trying my hand at writing novels,” I told him.
“Don’t know what you jess said about hyper-whatsis, but good fer you. Man should have ambitions to best himself,” he said turning from the grill and setting a piping hot cup of coffee between my elbows on the counter. “On the house. What kind of novels you write?” He slipped a toothpick between his cheek and molars.
“Supernatural shit mostly,” I said and he yukked up a full-bodied laugh and grinned at me a friendly grin. “Ain’t bouncing them ideas too far from the money tree, are you? You might just be in real danger of limiting yourself, mister. Oughta broaden your horizons, oughten you? I mean I ain’t no writer but, hey…”
“I have a publisher who thinks you have a good point, pal,” I began.
“Harley. Not the bike, I mean my name; it’s Harley. I won’t tell you what it’s short for ‘cause I’ll just have to fight you for teasin’ me. School yard fun times all over again.”
“Mine’s Delaney, Ray Delaney and it’s good to meet you Harley; not the bike. But shouldn’t you be looking in on that meal of mine? Smells done to me.”
“Smells almost done, Mr. Delaney,” I made a gesture indicating informality and he said, “Ray.”
“I can cook this stuff with one eye tied behind my back and one nostril washin’ the dishes. But you have a cook’s nose, ‘cause you’re almost right.” He raised his eyebrows and winked, “You smell that green pepper skin just turning brown? That means the hash browns are done and so’s the burger. Timing and an uncanny sense of smell, Ray, that’s the secret of successful line cookery.”
Just then an egg timer buzzed behind Harley and he slapped his palm down on it with the speed of a cat swatting a butterfly. “And a decent dollop of bullshit, that’s the real secret,” he admitted as he wrapped and boxed and bagged my supper, and then set it beside my untouched coffee.
“Now, what can I really do for you, Ray? The only reason you stopped here is to get names and information old Sheriff Jarvis wouldn’t let you have. I figure Jethro pointed you in my direction because he wouldn’t piss on you if you was on fire, bein’ a newsman and an outta-towner, he knew since I kind of have a reputation of knowin’ where the bodies are buried—course that’s just an expression, right—might just keep you busy until you lost interest.”
“Take it easy Harley, I’m just here for the food and a little friendly conversation. Actually Hattie Morgan and the Danes Sisters are storehouses of gossip and town history and they recommended I talk to you long before the Sheriff mentioned your name. The ladies were pretty insistent that nothing much goes on in town without your knowing about it before it happened.”
“Well, sir,” he admitted, “That’s been pretty much the size of it I guess. This is a gatherin hole of sorts and everybody feels safe talking here among friends. But I tell ya, them old ladies ain’t no slouches their own selves. They can tell you when a bird farts in a cage or in a tree and who’s cat got there to sniff it first.”
I nodded and sipped the coffee; it was good and strong, and surprisingly still hot. “Yeah, I figured that. They did tell me you knew Bernice Stodghill, the woman who bought the Miller House through Fern Burdine, then vanished a few days later."
“Hell yes. She was a firecracker, she was. Good lookin’ woman too, if you get my drift. You know my name’s Burdine, too? But not from them Burdines; I got the boggy end of the tent pole while they lived in the mansion.” Harley grabbed up a bottle of Moosehead Lager from one of the coolers and turning back twisted off the cap, then perched his hip against the still hot grill.
“Most of us are related here in the Crossing. You find that here and there around the country; a whole boatload or wagon train from the old country winds up infestin’ a valley or mountainside somewhere and then commences to thrive or interbreed and degenerate, depending on their fate or their character. I like to think we’ve thrived, but sometimes I have my doubts.”
“So what can you tell me about Bernice?”
“You ain’t one fer preamble are you? Well alls I know is she came in here complainin’ about a squatter in her house. She sat right where you are—bounced up and down more like it—and demanded I help her figure out her mess. Course I aimed her at Sheriff Jarvis and he aimed her at the judge, but she just insisted I do something.”
“Sounds like Bernice. What did you make of her story? Any truth to it?”
“Hell mister—Ray—it wasn’t nothing more than the Gypsy Mule gag. Buncha shifty crooks sell somebody their wagon, but there’s a catch that the eldest of the family has to go along with the sale since they’s too sick to move and ain’t gonna last more’n a few days anyway. When the buyer puts up a stink, the whole family gangs up on him with the sad eyes and tells the poor bastard he’s stuck.
Well truth is the old boy’s no nearer to death than you or me and the buyer finally gets sick of waitin and chucks the whole thing. Gives them back the old guy and the wagon and swears never to deal with a gypsy again. Then before the shit’s dry in the barnyard, they’ve sold the thing to another sucker.”
“Who sold Bernice this particular Winnebago? Nobody can dig up any paperwork or money trail. That usually means collusion and conspiracy. And at least one weak link in the chain of half-wits looking to split the take and set up the next mark.”
He hardened his eyes and moved his toothpick to the other cheek but made no other move to open up, so I continued,
“And that makes me think your Sheriff Jarvis is in it up to his gun belt. Because what occurred to me surely would have cropped up in his mind, too, so he’s not only getting his cut, he’s probably on the selection committee of potential victims, How’m I doing so far?”
“Well, you are an investigative reporter, after all, so connecting these dots is a walk in the park—Question is, do you have the parts to follow where they lead?” He stared down at me from behind the counter for a beat, then cleared my cup and turned his back on me.
I took a deep breath, this was it. “I’m not the only one interested in this little town of yours, Harley, I’m sure you can guess that Bernice left a big hole when she disappeared. I’m not exactly sure what went wrong, but whoever took her money, stepped into the big leagues when this one went off the rails.
“I represent a National Newspaper that carries a lot of financial and political weight. That should be enough on its own, but, the owner of that newspaper went to college with Bernice Stodghill, and she is about to use all that weight to find out what happened to her. I’m just the tip of the investigation, Harley. There’s a whole machine behind me grinding its way to Caleb’s Crossing and it will make a mess when it gets here.”
“I hope fer your sake it gets here in time, then,” said Harley. “Look, it ain’t like I don’t know a thing or two, Ray, everybody here knows where to walk at night and where to stay clear of; which house is safe to walk into and which ones’ll swallow you whole! You don’t survive here without knowin’ things. This is Caleb’s Crossing, mister, it ain’t no ordinary town and it will protect itself!
“All yer talk about bringin’ down heat on Caleb’s Crossing’s just wasted on my sorry ass, Ray, you hadda hit Jarvis with this big stick. Or maybe the judge. Thing is, this place won’t stand interference from inside or out. That’s why it attracts the kind of folk it does, so’s it can grow itself. I don’t know how many generations of freaks an’ weirdoes settled in this place, but it’s a lot and it’s just growin’ ever year.
“But it’s gotta be the right kinda freaks, Ray. Not just everybody can get in, you gotta fit in to get in. You think you’re bringin’ the wrath o’ God down on this town, brother it’ll just shove it right up your ass and steal your soul with the same hand in the bargain.”
“So,” I asked. “Why don’t you help me, Harley? You point me in the right direction to follow the dots and I’ll see what I can do from there. Without the Wrath of God. Just me and you.”
“You, pal, not me. I’m not makin’ myself a target after all these years of hidin’ in plain sight. But I will help. Come back tonight around eight, when I close up. I’ll have someone here who’ll take you to see Roxie Rigby.”
“I appreciate it Harley, thanks.”
“Don’t thank me, mister, not unless you make it back alive. And if you’ve a mind to, take along a crucifix. Can’t hurt none.”
“And maybe a grenade launcher?” I asked.
“Now you got the idea.” He grinned and nodded, spitting out his toothpick.
I left the café and headed back to the B&B, wondering how I still manage to get into these jams. When I got there, Miz Morgan met me at the foyer and informed me I had visitors. If it was who I hoped it was, they would have what I needed for tonight’s events. I thanked her and was about to step past her to the stairs when she placed a delicate hand on my elbow.
“The two visitors I allowed to wait in your rooms I’m assuming are friends of yours from the city, Mr. Delaney; I hope you don’t mind I let them have the freedom of your quarters? Oh don’t be surprised, I read The Inquisitor like most of us here in The Crossing. You didn’t fool me for a second, or the Danes girls. But you were having so much fun; we didn’t have the heart to spoil it for you. McCall, indeed, with your picture right there in the paper for all to see. Tosh.”
“You also have two other visitors of a local variety,” she said with a touch of disdain, “I insisted they wait for your return out on the back verandah.”
I thanked her again and went first to see who these locals could be.
Outside I saw a woman of maturing years, mid-to late-forties I’d guess, trying very hard to deny time by dressing like a woman half her age and choosing primary colors as her main weapon. She wore a bright yellow sundress and hat with a red scarf at her neck and matching red purse on her arm. When she saw me come out onto the verandah, she immediately rose from her wicker chair and bounded toward me.
“Mr. Delaney? You are Mr. Delaney aren’t you?
“Can’t keep a secret in this town…”
“Oh please, you must know I had nothing to do with Miss Stodghill’s death. Yes I sold her the house, but I swear I didn’t know what was going to happen to her,” she blurted; twisting her hands together and screwing her face up in a red fist of worry.
“Please, take your time and start with who you are, then maybe we can make sense of what you have to tell.”
“Oh I’m sorry, I thought you knew me. I figured Harley would have explained things this afternoon. I’m Fran Burdine. Harley’s my cousin. I’m the one who sold Bernice Stodghill the Miller house. Well I didn’t really arrange the sale, but I handled the paperwork, such as it was, after the sale.”
“You said you had nothing to do with Miss Stodghill’s death. You obviously know more than I do about the situation. I’ve been treating this as a missing persons case, although I’ve had my suspicions after all these months. But how do you know she’s dead, I asked?”
“The Millers and that old woman over there behind you,” she answered.
I looked where her chin pointed and observed a shriveled, dusty, raspy collection of flyaway hair, dead skin, rheumy eyes and a toothless wrinkled grin floating somewhere within the folds of a gingham dress. I got the subliminal impression it was an old woman, but having Fran Burdine confirm that fact reassured me. I brought my attention back to the yellow-clad realtor and asked, “Why do the Millers and that old woman equal the death of Miss Stodghill?”
“Well it was their house, you see? They sold it, took the money, moved out and now they’re back in the house and Miss Stodghill’s missing. There’s no hiding the fact the Grambargers are queer folk and they’ve infected Caleb’s Crossing over the years with their peculiar traits. And that old woman is their matriarch.”
“What have the Grambargers got to do with anything,” I asked? “I thought we were dealing with the Millers. Who are the Grambargers?”
“They’re what’s poisoning Caleb’s Crossing; they’re the original curse,” she went on, closing in on my chest so her pointy-bra breasts poked into my shirtfront. “Everybody knows Old Grania Grambarger’s a witch and the Miller’s are a part of her clan; and she’s taught Roxie Rigby everything she knows. And Roxy’s as evil a witch as ever you saw. I think she’s more than just a witch, she’s Satan’s Daughter and people should be aware in their dealings with the growing clan. Nobody’s safe who crosses them,” she whispered.
A stolen glance over the top of Fern Burdine’s ridiculous hat at the old woman, whose beady eyes burned into my face whenever I glanced, confirmed my opinion that the townsfolk who only considered them oddly abnormal were risking their very souls in taking no protective measures. Or was the town so poisoned that all was natural?
I asked Fern, “Why haven’t you gone to Sheriff Jarvis with this?”
Sitting at the table behind the old woman was a man in a dark suit, white shirt and a tie the color of drying blood. He wore a full, wavy, goatee, just graying under his lower lip and a full head of brown hair with glints of red. His hair was a little too long for a cop or a Fed, which told me he was private.
The second chair at his table was pulled out as if he had company. He was keeping a close eye on the old woman, but shooting me an appraising glance, once too often to be casual. I put him on my to-do list, too.
“Well of course I did, I’m not naïve,” she continued. “But he says unless there’s proof of foul play or a corpse, it’s not a matter for the law. But don’t for a second think he’s not making a profit from every queer thing that goes on in this town. Don’t think he’s not in it up to his teeth.”
“Your cousin, Harley, says he’s going to help me later tonight. He asked me to meet him at the diner after closing. Can I trust him,” I asked?
“He’s a wild one, for sure, but you can take him at his word when it matters. Course he belongs to both lodges and The Order of Dagon, but that’s like the Lion’s Club around here, just as snobbish and just as ineffective it its trappings.”
“So I’m safe?”
“The only thing you have to worry about with my cousin is how much he’s gonna charge you for gas or directions or a protective hex. Twenty dollars should be enough to buy his loyalty. He’s a simple man,” she said, squeezing my hands in hers and giving me an expectant look.
“You have so much more to worry about. Please be careful,” she said as she stepped even closer. ”She’s laughing at us. She knows whatever you do now it’s too late to change anything. It’s too far in motion now, and she’ll make sure I suffer too, for trying to warn you away.” She hurried from the veranda and back into the house, to the front exit.
As she disappeared into the interior, she lifted her left hand over her head and gave her wrist a waggle, a twisting three-jerked wave.
The moment I was alone, the old woman waddled up to me in a stilted staggering hop step like the flickering motion of a century-old silent film. She stood nearly on my toes so that I was forced to take a step back to focus on her scrunched little mummy’s face. She looked up into my eyes and what I’d decided were watery cataract filmed orbs, were in fact diamond hard and bright, piercing with deep knowledge. She smiled and what was once a toothless mouth was now a smile sporting beautiful, white, even teeth and her petrified countenance vanished in an impression of attractive and rosy health.
She smiled beatifically up from her four-foot, ten-inch vantage and said in a clear, crisp, lilting voice, devoid of age or accent, “Be careful of what you believe young man and think three times before you act. Reality is a myth and what you see, doesn’t matter. But be sure, what you do not see will certainly be your death.”
Then I was watching her back as she vanished into the woods that backed onto the rear lawn of the Magnolia Lane Bed and Breakfast property line. Just like that, she was talking to me and then she was eighty feet away, disappearing into the trees. Another item of evidence that I was dealing with supernormal influences at the least, and far deadlier stuff at worst.
When I finally got upstairs to the landing of my rooms I tried the door. It was locked. I rattled the knob loudly enough to give the guys inside time to open it, but nothing happened, so I slipped my key into the lock and turned. As I opened the door, Klein greeted me, pointing a Savage, pump action riot gun at my chest and Dan McCaffery had his police issue Glock trained on my forehead.
“I see you found the place,” I said as I stepped in and closed and locked the door behind me. “Did you get all the files I sent the last few days?”
First Klein spoke, “What the fuck kind of Twilight Zone is this place Ray? I don’t know where to start outlining the supernatural phenomena that runs as rampant around these streets and alleys as naturally as squirrels and chipmunks in Central Park. You know how many times I had to protect myself from oppressive spiritual invasions, just getting from the truck to the rendezvous? Of course not, you were out sightseeing while I was risking my soul in this carnival of omni-dimensional freaks!”
“Are you done,” I asked Gary? “It looks like you made it here, so I’m hoping everything’s set up and tested. Am I right?”
“Christ can’t give a guy a few seconds to vent, what good is working for an anal retentive if you can’t bitch about it? Yes, we’re good to go in three locations.”
I next went over to the digital camera setup connected to the laptops and transmitting satellites. The video surveillance was operational and the Nikon was still doing a 360 sweep of the rooms, walkout and wide-angle view of the streets and lanes in front of the B&B. There was a direct feed, albeit time released from the still camera into the laptop and the backup hard drive as well as a 32 Gigabyte Compact Flash card in the camera body. The video was still streaming live. McCaffery had holstered his pistol and was lighting a cigarette near the electronics. I looked an evil eye at him and he got up and walked out onto the overlook, bending over the balustrade.
“The infrareds seem to have been busy. The zero lux images are pretty revealing, too. Well I should say astounding and or interesting, because I can’t make out what they actually reveal. However they did trip at regular intervals during your absence from the suite both nights. Twice two small, round shapes came in, apparently looking to talk with you, or kill you, but left in a kind of fluster, and once a female shape entered from the balcony, noticed the equipment and did something to burn a five second whiteout on all the equipment except the sound.” He smiled a Cheshire grin. But the ghost image of her is quite attractive.
“What was on the sound,” I asked Dan?
“Here, listen for yourself,” and he flicked his cigarette butt into an aloe plant and strode over to the laptop array and fingered the file.
“Oh, you do come prepared,” a sultry voice purred on the playback. Then an unnatural, guttural grunting rose to fill the amplifiers then changed to a skull-splitting, elemental scream of rage devolving into static. But Dan and Gary had obviously listened and knew when to cut the volume before drawing attention from the rest of the house.
“Lucky nobody was here last night,” we all seemed to think aloud.
“And how did nobody hear that scream,” asked McCaffery?
“That’s not all. Take a look at this,” and he fast-forwarded by 60 seconds. An extremely tall figure entered the room and stopped where every video lens focused on it. It wore a tweed jacket and open shirt, khaki or corduroy pants and running shoes. The image was hazy and slightly out of phase, somehow, but it looked into the cameras as if knowing it was being filmed, then smiled and its face came into grainy focus.
It wore long blondish hair and big glasses over a wispy mustache. The huge grin was a stage prop more than anything else; something to focus out attention. Then it mouthed, “See ya later, alligator.” It then exploded into a sparkling mist that occluded the room for an instant and was gone.
“What was that all about,” I asked?
“Never mind that,” said Klein. “Look at the digital timer.”
It read 61 seconds. We backed the file to the beginning when it started tracking off the 60 seconds of blank video and then watched the figure parade into frame again and run it’s course—repeating everything we’d just witnessed. When it was over only one second had elapsed on the video equipment. For no reason, I thought of the goateed man in the dining room and wondered how he figured into the play.
“What’s our next move,” Gary Klein asked. “I hope it entails using this arsenal I packed.
“You can bet they’ll be our attention getters, but I don’t expect it’ll hold them for long on their own. I hope you packed the rest of the stuff, Klein. We’re going to a barn dance tonight boys and we’re gonna need our dancing boots,” I quipped as I collected and packed the necessities Gary and Dan had laid out on the floor and over the beds and the night stands.
“You didn’t tell me to pack dancing boots, Ray. What the hell are dancing boots?” Klein used his patented stereotype whine, twisting his lips into a wry smile.
“Well I guess you’ll be hugging the wall, won’t you?”
“What time will Brand meet us,” asked Dan McCaffery?
“I’m not exactly sure, “ I answered. “It’s going to depend on how it all shakes out and where it ends up taking us. We can’t tip our hand at this point, but he’ll be where he’s needed at the right time,” I said. It struck me then that the man in the dinning room must be Bill Brand, and was giving me the reassurance that he’d already arrived and made his own recon of the town. I felt better.
Item in The National Inquisitor,
Dateline October 26, Caleb's Crossing
More ghostly apparitions …
Historic cemetery spewing its dead?
Senior Editorial Consultant
It’s getting so you can’t swing a dead cat in the local cemetery without hitting a ghost.
The famous ghost of Union butcher, Colonel John Littlechild, the phantom confederate sympathizer and assassin, Richard Pennafeather, the misty creature known only as Shadowman, the headless spirit of Mrs. Evelyn Ruggles-Brise who was hanged for treason against the South during the Civil War. But her executioner, Jacob Burdine true Son of the South, engineered an excessive drop, thus causing the condemned’s head to pop off like a cork when she reached the end of her rope.
All are familiar to the inhabitants of one of the most peculiar communities in the country, Caleb’s Crossing. The locals can, and given any chance will, tell you stories of meetings with these and other “misty mid-region manifestations” in the now infamous Castlewood Caves Cemetery, (colloquially known as Bide A While). But this has always been the case here, where the unusual is everyday reality.
However, lately it appears there is an addition to the pantheon of poltergeist para-normality around these parts, according to Hattie Morgan, owner/operator of the Magnolia Lane Bed and Breakfast.
“Well, and this comes from Roxie Rigby, so I’d sooner spit than say it isn’t so, because Roxie has the sight, you know,” said Ms Morgan.
“Roxie was in the cemetery last full moon gathering wormwood knuckles, Dead Man’s Beard, and Maiden’s Dew, for her potions you know, and she said there came a presence about her that she ain’t felt yet. And mind you Roxie knows her witching business better than anybody, ‘sept maybe Grania Grambarger,” continued Ms. Morgan.
Asked what this presence might be, Ms. Morgan shrugged and said, “Roxie wouldn’t say. But you know it’s something if Roxie says so.”
Following a number of inquiries and leads brought to light three corroborating witnesses to eerie occurrences in or around the Bide A While cemetery.
The first from Harley Burdine, local café owner, who told reporters he’d encountered a figure of unusual size moving furtively through the woods surrounding the cemetery. “It was too dark to see clear, but I could make out that it wasn’t no man. It were way too big to be a man. And it slunk, kinda like a big wolf. It didn’t walk, it loped and sprang from clump to clump of darkness.”
“I seen it too,” said Spud Jarvis, nephew to the local Sheriff, Jethro Jarvis. “I could see it wasn’t no man. It was a werewolf, fer sure if anything. ‘Cause I herd it howlin’ behind the courthouse last time Uncle Jethro banged me up fer the night. I seen it clear as the moon, right through them bars.”
The third corroborating witness requested to remain anonymous, but backed up the stories of the other two. She implied that she had, “seen the creature on many a full moon night and know that it is an otherworldly visitor. I don’t think it means harm to anyone, but it is confused and in pain.” More than that she wouldn’t say.
But why take to haunting the town of Caleb’s Crossing now? It appears this will be an autumn of unusual, supernatural activity that will bear watching.
When the three of us were geared up we left the third floor suite separately and exited the Inn from different doors and at staggered times. McCaffery and Klein had their own agendas, while I was headed back to Harley’s Café to meet the person who’d take me to meet the fabled Roxie Rigby.
I drove this time, because I had a few stops of my own to make on the way.
Just as the hands of the town clock that separated the feuding Civil War Generals ground into the eight o’clock position, I pulled into an empty parking spot in front of the café. But by that time they were all pretty much free for the taking and the meters were ignored.
As I got to the door, a tall, round, pudgy kid, no more than twenty-one, with acres of still erupting acne bathing his sweaty face, was in the process of locking up. When he saw me he changed his passive, ‘life sucks’ expression to one of outright hostility and actually glowered at me through the glass. But at a word from the bowels of the café that only he heard, he smirked and turned the key, reopening the door to let me in.
My being there at all seemed to present an affront to the greasy, pimply punk, but someone in the shadows was pulling his strings so he made nice and assumed what passed, in his generation, for civility. He must be “Spud,” the sheriff’s nephew. No other kid of his particular components could have gotten away with that attitude, let alone that pitiful appearance, among his peers, and remained unbloodied for long. Even a bully is taken down by the mob, unless he’s protected.
“You the guy I’m s’posed ta meet.” he asked, wiping snot from under his nose with the crusted sleeve of his Heavy Metal sweatshirt?
“That’s a safe bet since I’m the only guy here after closing time. You must be Spud. I heard you were a wunderkind; a bright spark, as it were,” I said as I squeezed past his three hundred pound bulk to get into the café.
“I ain’t no goddam kraut, mister. And I don’t start fires no more. I been cured. Went to the clinic and they give me somethin.”
“How’s that working out,” I asked, wondering who else was lurking in the shadows eavesdropping and monitoring his behavior.
“First I ain’t never been a kraut, and two, the medicine makes my mouth dry, but it feels good as long as I take it, so what the fuck?”
“Nice to hear you’re on the road to recovery, Spud, It is Spud, isn’t it?”
“I never liked that name. They used to call me Spud when I was a teenager, cause of the pimples. Looked like eyes on a potato, says Harley, so everbody jess starts callin me Spud. Even Uncle Jethro teased me about it.
“Harley oughtta talk. He’s really Dale, but onct he stole his brother’s motorcycle and popped a wheelie in the Drive In. Whole thing flipped over on top of him and took off one of his nuts with the side mirror. Only reason his big brother and Uncle Jethro didn’t beat him soft was he was cryin so loud and bleedin so much, they jess rolled him in the back of a pickup an drove him to the clinic. Took his nut out right then and there and stitched his pecker back together crooked.”
Spud was obviously relishing the legend of Harley Burdine while soothing his own painful history.
I said, “Don’t worry son, your face will clear up and Harley will always have only one testicle.” I thought I was being personable and supportive, but Spud just looked at me and said;
“I ain’t yer fuckin son, old man. Soon’s that phone rings we take our little trip and I’m shot of you fer good.”
Like a charmed moment, the phone rang and Spud made the handset disappear in his beefy fist, then plastered it to his flabby cheek. He nodded all the while, punctuating with an “Uh, huh,” or a “Yep, no sweat,” until he crushed the handset into its cradle and said, “Get on yer bike, mister, we’re outta here.”
As I’d suspected, we didn’t take my car, but climbed into a monstrous pickup truck with equally monstrous wheels and he drove us out of the lights of town and into the darkness of what awaited.
Although I’d done a thorough mental mapping of the town and its environs, I didn’t recognize the route Spud took, even though some of the landmarks seemed familiar. I had the impression that I saw remembered buildings and roadways, only slightly rearranged and interchanged. Aunt Shirley’s head on Uncle Bill’s body, as it were. It was a chilling observation. I realized I was lost. How, I wondered, would this affect our plans and impact our rendezvous points?
I’d anticipated the wheels coming off this wagon in some way, and between Gary, Dan and I, we’d planned for it. I only hoped everyone would be set up and in place when the time came. So, I sat back and let the situation take its course. I didn’t fail to notice the glimmer of tailing headlights a long way behind us—sloppy work.
Spud drove through unfamiliar terrain for a good twenty minutes and finally came into a glen of crowded trees and tangled vines that I’d never seen before. Little bells began in my head; alarm bells.
Of the likely destinations McCaffery, Klein and I came up with, the Miller house and the stone circle, were our prime choices. But this place was not in the cards. I could only imagine Klein, camouflaged in the berns surrounding the altar and standing stones, awaiting my arrival while Dan was likewise hidden in the bushes around the house, set for my grand appearance with Spud and the other players in our anticipated game. All wasn’t lost, though, I did have a few tricks for going solo.
As Spud pulled the truck into a dark and dusty cul de sac, the headlights picked out a ramshackle, plank and shingle cabin set back deep into the embracing trees. Standing on the splintered front porch and awash in a harsh halogen glow was a vision of contrasts. The woman was dressed in a dark muslin skirt and jacket. Contrasting with the darkness of her dress was the near translucent whiteness of her face, floating beneath raven black hair that merged with her clothing to give the impression it was all of a piece. Her eyes, in the truck’s glare, sparkled amber as bright as any cat’s eyes. It came to me that this must be Roxy Rigby.
As Spud pulled to a stop he shut off the engine and slammed me in the side of the head with his huge, beefy elbow. Dazed, I felt myself pushed out the passenger door to thump on my knees and shoulder on the gravel drive. Spud was amazingly fast for such a big boy and stood looking down on me with his right foot raised above my face.
“Do I need to walk the boots to ya, or air you gonna behave,” he asked? His face shone sweaty-red and he probably hoped I needed a few solid thumps with his size twelve to come around. But I raised my hands in submission and he merely reached down to yank me to my feet.
“C’mon, then,” he said and dragged me up. Spud patted me down with rough hands and naturally found the Sig in its shoulder holster and the Buck knife in my side pocket. He hefted the Buck, flicked it open, stared fixated at the shine of the blade in the moonlight, then flicked it out fast as a striking snake and cut my cheek with it. “She’s a sharp’n, mind if I keep her?” And he stuffed it down the bib of his overalls. Then he turned his attention to the Sig Saur P226. He looked at it as if some alien object, never having encountered anything but American-mass produced handguns no doubt, then put it in his overall pocket. He made a feeble effort at finishing the frisk, but only succeeded in crushing my crotch in his massive hand on the pretense. He loved administering pain. Again I thought of the prisoner who’d been beaten so badly and had no more doubt who did that piece of work.
He pawed my jacket pockets and found only a wallet, the camera, a pipe and leather tobacco pouch. He took the camera and crushed it under his boot, but the pipe and tobacco pouch he stuffed back into my tweed jacket, (after breaking the pipe) ripping the pocket in the process. He smiled a dismissive tic and mumbled, “Faggot.”
Satisfied I was disarmed, Spud put my wallet between his yellowing teeth and bent to haul me up onto the porch with both hands. The woman stepped aside to clear the doorway and Spud pushed me through into a cramped and musty kitchen, living room combination. It was lit with oil lanterns and an array of colored candles of a singular shape and size that could only have been ceremonial. The light was sufficient for me to pick out details of the cabin’s interior, with its stuffed animals, quilts and homemade handicraft draped across every available wall space. But what immediately caught my eye was a string of rag dolls, hanging from clothes pegs, strung on a twine from one corner of the far wall to the other. Each doll had a distinct expression of horror and agony stitched into its face, with various mismatched button eyes reflecting piteous disbelief as if from souls screaming for release.
The stuffed animals were not the cuddly carnival fare one gives to one’s sweetheart, they were ratty, tattered, once living creatures, inexpertly stuffed by an apprentice taxidermist, or a sadist. The smell of the place was at once overwhelming and somehow calming, being a mixture of rot and scented candles with an undertone of nitrous oxide. Or so it seemed to me at the time. The black smoke from overlong wicks in the oil lanterns combined with the ambience to add both color to the atmosphere and an oily caste to the still, close air. Spud pushed me, roughly, deeper into the cabin and the dark woman drifted into the light from the porch, drawing the door closed behind her.
“I been wanting to meet you, Mr. Delaney,” she began. “I gather you are seeking the whereabouts of a friend, sir. I also understand you’ve made inquiries in Caleb’s Crossing about me. As much as I know nothing of the situation of your friend, I do know that I myself could be your friend. If you so chose.” She spoke in a soft, whiskey voice, with just a hint of throat peeking through. Her accent was purely Deep South, unlike the local inflections, which had the twang of the surrounding farms and towns typical of the state. She glided into the middle of the room and Spud lunged to pull out a chair at the harvest table so she could sit. She motioned to Spud who immediately jerked out the chair nearest me and stepped back to the rim of the room.
“I’ll stand, if you don’t mind,” I said. “I feel more comfortable on my feet in the presence of strangers.”
“Why of course, how impolite of me. You and I haven’t been introduced, have we? I’m Roxy Rigby recently of Caleb’s Crossing, and you are Mr. Raymond Delaney of the National Inquisitor. Now that that’s out of the way, won’t you have a seat?” She smiled up at me and her canines pointed sharply down to her full lower lip as the corners of her mouth stretched incredibly upward in a wolf like grin. Her amber eyes sliced into me with an edge of pure, wanton sex.
“My sweet Lord you are good, aren’t you?” I asked. The fact was that I was feeling an unwanted and irresistible surge of hormonal reciprocity and I decided to sit in the proffered chair to hide the growth springing in my trousers. Her smell drew me like starving man to a charred steak, each breath I took, I found myself almost sucking the air surrounding her; leaning closer so as not to miss a whiff.
Suddenly we were on the grassy bank of a crystalline pond and her long black hair was plastered down her full breasts and I looked down at myself and was embarrassed that my once tight abdomen was betraying my age and my erect penis was waving above a field of graying pubic hair. But she didn’t seem to mind as she reached to grasp my eager member and take it into her glistening mystery…Her hand was hard ice and pricked like thorns, I pulled my eyes achingly away from her demanding vagina and found her face once more, But it had changed.
Her smile grew even broader; completely splitting her face, “See how weak you are?”
And suddenly my terror was intense and I shot my legs into the floor scraping my chair back from her overwhelming aura. Catching the knotted oval rug in the chair legs I tipped back and crashed to the floor. I rolled on my left shoulder as the chair hit and came up with my pipe and tobacco pouch in my hands.
Spud exploded in a hearty, raucous laugh, “Yew gonna smoke us to death?”
But as I shoved the pipe into my side pocket I quickly unzipped the tobacco pouch and the room was filled with a rancid, rotten, putrid odor I’d only smelled once before; last week when a special friend was combining the ingredients and intoning the words of power and protection over the acifidity bag. Immediately Roxy sprang back from the smell and screeched as if in pain. Then her scream became one of hatred and betrayal and turned into an animal roar. “Kill him, Spud. Shoot him and throw that damned bag outside the cabin.”
I moved with fluid practice as I slipped my right hand into the hidden opening behind my wallet pocket and the small, flat Berretta took its familiar place in my fist. As Spud dug the Sig Saur out of his overalls, he fumbled to aim and shoot. Being that he had no idea of the workings of the foreign side arm, he didn’t know about the ambidextrous safety and stared confused at both of them, so simply pointed and began jerking the trigger, a whimper escaping his blubbering lips.
“Put it down, son, you’re going to hurt yourself with that thing,” I said.
“Fuck you, faggot,” he said. Then somehow released the safety and jacked the slide. In the same movement he fired a loud 40/357 round high over my head. I returned fire. But not wanting to hurt him I shot him in his left foot, just to get his attention and disarm him. Unfortunately for Spud, he was wearing his favorite steel-toed, boots and the small .22 ricocheted up from his boot and took off one of his testicles, causing him to howl like a bull and then cry like an overgrown baby. He practically threw the Sig on the floor behind him so he could grab his crotch. When his hands came up to his face and he saw all the blood, he went down like a sack of feed. Apparently the sight of his own blood wasn’t all that appealing to his sadistic nature.
“Where did you get that THING?” The enormous wail proceeded from Roxy’s wolflike mouth, distending her jaw hideously so it nearly touched her breasts. The sight of the deformation shook me, and had I not been warned by the man who created the talisman, I would have panicked and bolted. But there was more to do.
“Take it away from me, please, I can’t breathe. It burns my eyes, it jabs, it jabs into my head! You filthy, evil, contrary man, I calculate yew’er more than you seem. Yew’ve got the magic in yew an sumun’s a taught yew how ta ketch souls an command bodies. But there’s more yew’ll be needin ta best me. I’m as old as these hills an will still be here when they’s all mudflats.”
While she shifted from pleading to threatening, her face continued to deform. Her hair turned from raven black to a wiry grey, and from that to a wispy white halo, drifting around her face as she thrashed in her chair and screeched her threats. From the beautiful, wanton sexual being she presented when Spud first muscled me into the cabin to the point of her entrapped rage, Roxy transformed, before my gaping eyes, into first a wolflike creature and then into the old crone known in Caleb’s Crossing as Grania Grambarger. Shriveled and dark as a mummified apple, her small head continued to spew curses and visions of hell. Having reverted to what I took to be her original form, her strength seemed to increase—not having to use power to sustain the illusion. And the contents of the bag appeared to be losing its potency.
Quickly realizing the situation I undertook the second part of the conjuration to bind and control the old devil. From under the putrid mass of organic mystery that made up the main contents of the Asafetida Bag, I pulled out a smaller bag made of what I hoped was not human skin and opened the twined hair laces to expose a white powder flecked with gold and silver or platinum specks. Once I did this and the old witch saw the powder, she wailed as if her soul were lost and her life forfeit. She slumped, so small and frail in her kitchen chair that my heart swelled and I could have sobbed at my own cruelty. But just as the feelings of guilt began to spread through my chest, bringing a deep sigh and a tear to my staring eyes, she peeked up at me from apparently closed eyes and gauged the effect she was having on my human side. Immediately, I knew her for the devious and heartless trickster she was and, as instructed, blew a little of the powder in her direction.
She froze in situ, and this time it was no act.
It was then I heard the engines and squealing brakes of a number of cars and trucks and hoped it was the cavalry coming to my rescue. Following the slams of at least six vehicle doors and the clatter of a many-legged beast on the porch, the door swung open softly and there stood Gary Klein and Dan McCaffery, weapons at the ready and faces turning from wary to incredulous.
“Thank God for your timing,” I said to them as they continued to stare at the mummified old husk frozen before me. “How did your end pan out? Get em all?”
“Never mind that. We get the hard stuff and all you did is beat up an old lady?” It was Gary Klein, half joking.
“We followed the plan and did the sweeps, Ray. They were all where you said they’d be,” said Lieutenant McCaffery. “We checked the café, but Harley wasn’t there, so we went to the jail and found Sheriff Jarvis loading up for a one-man war, with flack jacket, machine gun and riot gun slung in harness across his back. We got there just when he was staging a suicide on a sorry looking prisoner.”
“That must be the guy I talked to yesterday. Subtracting witnesses the old fashioned way, was he?”
“Well, the electrical cord was noosed and hanging from the light fixture and the only chair not bolted to the floor was set up under it and the guy was lying unconscious on the bed ready for hoisting. I shouldn’t have to draw you a picture,” said McCaffery.
“I can’t imagine the Sheriff going quietly,” I said. “Was anybody hurt?”
“Nah,” said Klein. “He made some big noises at first but when I shot off his ear, he got gentle as a kitten.”
I looked to McCaffery and he nodded back at me. “Seems our Gary liked your Sig Saur so much he bought his own and just couldn’t wait to show it off. It was masterful shooting, Ray. You should be proud of your protégé.”
“Sure. Unless he was aiming for his forehead,” I kidded.
“Again with the shtick.”
“You know I love you Gary. So bring him in and let’s go get the others,” I said to them.
“No need,” explained Klein. “Your pal, Bill Brand and three little old ladies from town met us outside the jail and they’d already collected the judge, so we went to the Miller house and cleaned it out. By the way Harley was hiding under the porch.”
“Well it’ll be cramped in here, but let’s have em inside.”
At that Klein and McCaffery stepped aside to allow a parade of rough-looking specimens across the threshold, including Harley and the Sheriff, and a kid of about nine, named Stromie. (Where do they come up with names like that?) Along with those were a harried middle-aged woman named Vernie whom I took to be the mother figure, A clotted looking guy with buck teeth and thinning blond hair named Clete and the famous Judge Wilson, and Fran Burdine. I was surprised to see her linked up with the others. Bringing up the rear was Hattie Morgan, Lucie and Winnie Danes, and the subdivision project manager, Don Hill.
Outside the door stood Bill Brand. Although I’d never met him in person my ex wife hired him on an occasional basis for black investigations; things not quite legal. Apparently he and his partner, Juris Rasa, were hot stuff in the world of grey areas. I’d heard Brand went off the deep end when Rasa was killed a couple of years back, but he was still in the game and, by all reports, just as good as ever.
I nodded him to come inside, but he answered he was waiting for someone. So I let it go and turned back to the odd accumulation in the kitchen/living room, with Grania Grambarger still frozen on the chair.
“That was wise of you, Mr. Delaney,” said one of the Danes sisters. “Who’s idea was the acifidity bag? And I can detect something far stronger and far older in the mixture.”
“Yes, sister, something Hermetic countering Grania’s Pagan magic. We’ll have to ask Mr. Delaney for the recipe.”
“Oh, yes indeed.”
“Sorry to interrupt, ladies, but what are you and Miss Hattie doing here? You’re not part of the plan.”
McCaffery answered; “They offered to save us hours of searching the alternate locations. Told us they wouldn’t be at the standing stones, the caves or the graveyard, because those were ancient holy sites and apparently guarded by friends of the ladies’. This clan does have supernormal powers, or rather Grania does and it leeches into her adopted family, but apparently there are things they can’t do. Ancient rules and hierarchies determine who’s who in the world of the insane.”
“Now, Mr. McCaffery,” said Hattie Morgan, “You should know at your age not to be rude or trifle with what you don’t understand.”
“Sorry ma’am. What I meant to say is there are strict laws that can’t be, what? circumvented, without repercussions and atonements. Miss Hattie explained it to us on the drive to the Miller house.”
“Actually,” interrupted Klein, “the ladies illuminated us on a great number of things, including the real history of this settlement. You won’t believe this, Ray, but these three are the real power behind Caleb’s Crossing. Nothing goes on without their approval.” He turned to Lucie Danes and asked,” What was it you called yourselves, again, not witches or sorceresses…”
“We are of the Sidhe, Mr. Klein. You pronounce it Shee, as in Ban Shee. We are akin to the Fair Folk, who came to be known and denigrated as fairies.”
“Just as the Pict Sidhe became pixies,” said Bill Brand from the threshold of the door. “What the invaders of Gaul and Britain and Ireland couldn’t understand or defeat, they minimized as well as miniaturized, thus stealing much of their power through disbelief and ridicule. But that didn’t negate the magic nor the bond the Fair Folk held with the earth and its elements.”
“Thank you Mr. Brand, beautifully phrased,” said Winnie Danes.”
“It begins to make sense, I suppose, but if you were on top of things, why did you let these gypsy hucksters run free for so long,” I asked Hattie?
“I don’t know how you’re going to take this, Mr. Delaney, in light of your missing friend,” said Hattie, but Grania and the Millers were a kind of balance—a part of the law of Caleb’s Crossing. They had permission only to prey upon those visitors to Caleb’s Crossing who had a definite predisposition to do harm; those who have already or may in the future commit a crime against innocents.
“Or certain people who crossed our town limits whose hearts were shriveled and empty, whose souls held nothing but want for self. It was these people—people we didn’t need in our town—who they had our permission to deal with, according to each situation.”
“But,” piped in Lucie Danes’ high voice, “they became far too bold with the powers they wielded. Their greed overstepped their purpose as a balancing factor. Stories of what Grania could do, as Roxy, or as a zombie or as an elemental, kept mischief down and there were no real crimes in Caleb’s Crossing because everybody knew that the sheriff and the judge were a part of Grania’s cadre.”
“What do you propose we do about them,” I asked? “Dan, here, doesn’t have any jurisdiction to arrest and I doubt they’d be stupid enough to leave evidence just hanging around.”
“Oh, Mr. Delaney you are a hoot!”
The Danes sisters tittered at Hattie’s observation of my obviously uninformed opinion.
“Why, look around you,” Hattie continued. “Those dolls strung across the far wall? They all contain the mortal souls of people Grania has duped, swindled, tricked and destroyed over the years. She was only supposed to capture the soul for a day or a week and then return it to the body, but she killed the bodies and kept the souls as trophies.”
“So, Bernice Stodghill is definitely dead,” I asked?
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Delaney, but I’m afraid so,” said Winnie Danes. “We won’t even mention the victims trapped in the tapestries decorating the town’s official buildings. We are so very ashamed of that and we will find measures to release each so it can move on and we will do the blood rites of atonement.”
Hattie pushed on through the sudden stillness, “A century ago, when we allowed her to practice in Caleb’s Crossing, she fit the bill to a tee. She was actually a member of our council at first. You see there can be no real evil or real good, just as in Hermetic Philosophy there are no absolutes, only gradations and levels of the same thing. Think of a piece of iron with one end in ice and the other in fire. As you draw your finger along the rod from the terribly cold of the ice, it gradually gets less cold until you encounter the warmth of the fire. Now as you continue along with your finger to the fire, it gives you the sensation of terrible heat. But is that real? Isn’t it also true that what you are feeling is the absence of cold? Grania should have functioned in the same manner but without the extremes. However, she began collecting transients and ne’er-do-wells into her confidence and ignoring our sacred principles, we tried to adjust and allow her to be an arm of our justice.”
“That worked out well.” Bill Brand stepped into the room and pulled out a chair, muscling his way between Clete Miller and Harley Burdine, and sat. “How about you introduce them,” he asked Hattie.
“Of course. First there was Grania Grambarger, who comes from a place most of humanity has no notion exists. Then, Fran and Harley Burdine came to town as orphans and made themselves invaluable to Grania. She soon had the sheriff and the judge under her spell, simply because they were both predisposed to base tendencies, and finally a troupe of traveling grifters landed in the Stillwell farm and commenced to squat there and make it their own; only because Jethro saw a use for them when it came to dirty work.”
Hattie was taking a breath to continue when Lucie raised her hand and asked, “Why where’s old Grandpa Harold? We got Vernie and Clete and Stromie Miller. But no Grandpa.”
Bill Brand said, “He’ll be along shortly.” And on cue, a high-pitched, reedy, cartoon screech was heard echoing through the cabin from all directions;
“Lawd git me safe! Keep the Devil downwind and outta sight. Vernie! Clete! Jethro! They’s a hant after me. It’sa chasin me an poking me in the back o my head. Quit it ya demon spawn. Stop a pokin me. Somebody come help. It’s a city hant, talks right peculiar. I calculate it died in a liberry. Ahhh, pig snot! I done got caught. It’s got me fer certain, now.”
The strangest thing of a very strange evening appeared before the amazed onlookers. A grizzled and soot-covered old man with a knotted cane and tattered cardigan over a greasy plaid shirt, came floating into the room via a rear window. By all eyes he seemed to be held by the seat of his raggedy pants and the scruff of his plaid shirt—by invisible hands! He was set gently on the floor and jerked toward the table as if he’d received a swift kick to his posterior.”
“We’s up agin the hordes o hell this time Vernie. Ain’t no way talkin’s gonna git us outta this one. I’ll be damned; city ghosts in Caleb’s Crossing. Nivver heart o setch a thing.” The old man was trying to ease his panic by jabbering, but it still remained that he seemed to appear out of nothing.
Hattie Morgan spoke first, “Mr. Rasa, where did you finally find him?” There was a prolonged silence and she looked up to the ceiling and seemed to be listening intently to an explanation.
“Oh my that must have been uncomfortable,” said all the ladies in unison and Bill Brand chuckled into his fist and shook his head.
McCaffery looked a question at Klein and me and we both shrugged our shoulders. I repeated the gesture with the ladies, but Bill stepped up first.
“He was hiding halfway up the chimney between the kitchen and the main bedroom. He actually got himself wedged and might have starved to death if Juris hadn’t tickled his ass to get him moving. At first old Grandpa thought there were rats climbing up his pants until Juris said, ‘You can’t forefend the fickle finger of Fate when it’s dressed in a pink tutu and wearing Groucho glasses. You’d better go face the music or I’m liable to become perturbed. Now scat you miserable miscreant.’”
Of course Klein, McCaffery and I thought Brand was pulling our legs, but before we could make that clear, Lucie noticed two things at once. One; that Spud had been inching slowly across the floor to my .40mm Sig FX5 and just as he grabbed it, something small and ugly and feral and toothy and covered in matted fur exploded, howling, from under Grania Grambarger’s skirt and flew, in one bound, through the window grandpa had earlier come through. Surprisingly, this time the window shattered, whereas before the old man had passed through the glass panes without disturbing the physical matter.
Fran Burdine screamed out, “Spud, no!” as he rolled his bulk into a sitting position and aimed the huge handgun directly at my forehead. Three simultaneous sounding shots rang out as one and the last took Spud’s face off his head; Gary had switched to his Savage Riot Gun after shooting Sheriff Jarvis through the ear. The remnants of Spud’s skull contents slopped out of the concave hole in his face and onto his overalls bib; causing all of us to shiver with whatever revulsion we could muster.
Fran collapsed into hysterics, pleading to be let go, that she was innocent, had no part in any of this. Blubbering and sobbing huge breaths, she could have been Meryl Streep copping another Oscar. All the others burst out as one that Fran was the instigator of the real estate swindles and she suggested the anonymity of the Internet to more easily hide behind. So we took stock of the new circumstances and decided it prudent to handcuff the entire crew.
Hattie Morgan said gravely, “Well that takes care of the blood for the atonement ritual. Of course, we don’t need all that, a thimbleful would have sufficed.” She hesitated and offered a sigh, “He wasn’t such a bad boy,” she said.
Winnie and Lucie both answered, “He was a brutal, cruel monster and he would have only gotten worse as the years passed.”
Lucie said, “Wouldn’t expect less for a rabid dog. It’s a duty, not a judgment.”
I became eager to get things wrapped up and assign responsibility where it most aptly applied. “Look ladies, I can suggest we call the FBI in to sort out this mess or we can do it ourselves, the old fashioned way. Once we know for sure who is behind what, especially considering the loss of eighty-odd lives during the flood.”
Hattie explained that one. Apparently Caleb’s Crossing was directly in the path of bi yearly floods as Dead Creek overflowed its banks in the fall and in the spring, so even if Roxy/Grania did add a little push to the flooding that spring, it would have occurred anyway. Don Hill and his superiors were assured the floodwaters never reached the ridge upon which they intended to build and during the yearlong construction of the first phase, there had been no evidence of the true severity of what the creek could do after a particularly snowy winter.
It was Fran, the judge and Sheriff Jarvis who convinced Hill to build lower down the ridge, they’d presented bogus yearly reports from the past fifty years or so that confirmed the mildness of the floods. Then the judge immediately drew up insurance papers that held the construction company wholly responsible for damage to the town’s integrity and for any loss of life—with appropriate fines affixed. They drew up another set of documents for the corporation and thus pacified the builders.
It seemed the only person in that room on that night who may have been guiltless of gross moral misconduct, manslaughter and numberless counts of theft and fraud and kidnapping and things, which would never come to light, was the kid, Stromie. And he had a peculiarly distant look in his eyes that would spook a prospective foster parent before a signature was ever signed.
Bill Brand stood suddenly and said, “Let’s get this thing over with. There are no unanswered questions—I don’t have any, anyway.” And he drew his Browning again and aimed it at Sheriff Jarvis’s head, cocked back the hammer and just as hi tightened his finger on the trigger, his arm was lifted toward the ceiling and he rose nearly a food off the wooden floor.
“Mr. Rasa is quite correct, Mr. Brand. It is not your place to take his life. You would have to atone through too many lives in order to just reach your present level. Leave their justice to us, Winnie, Lucie and I.
“But first,” she said, “Garamond, would you please go fetch Grania Grambarger for me, darling?” At that, the butterfly clasp holding her cardigan closed at the top, released itself from its angora perch and fluttered in front of her face for a moment, piping tiny sounds as though in answer. Then it circled her head three times and, each time it grew by a square of its size, and transformed from an iridescent butterfly into a brightly shining golden gargoyle, which when it cleared the open doorway, doubled again in size until it resembled a large helicopter. It circled once more, to look at Hattie and turned and burst into the night like a cannon shot.
“Shall we wait,” suggested Hattie Morgan? And she, Lucie, Winnie and Don Hill took chairs at the kitchen table, careful to avoid sitting too near the husk of Grania, still sitting there, stiff and corpselike.
Three minutes later, Garamond returned with a fussing, furious, furry firebrand in its teeth. It was only then that I made the connection with the furry, badger-like creature that I saw watching me at the end of the B&B lawn. So Ellison really was being tailed by a demon, rather an elemental. More questions answered.
As Garamond set the creature down non the porch, it quickly slapped its taloned paw on it to stop it from bolting until Hattie and the ladies could impose a binding spell.
Winnie timidly asked, “Shall we show mercy?”
“If not for the flood dead, we may have had that luxury, but innocents have been robbed of their lives,” answered Lucie.
“Then we know what’s to be done and no more hesitation,” said Hattie. “Gentlemen, you may leave. We will speak with you all tomorrow morning. Mr. Rasa, you may stay if you will. You have the unique opportunity of guiding the trapped souls in these rag dolls to their natural next advancement, I’m sure it won’t be new to you.”
Again, only Brand didn’t seem to think this odd, Hattie talking to the invisible man. The very tall, invisible man.
Following orders like children being dismissed by their teachers, we trooped out to our transportation and began the journey back to the Bed and Breakfast. Each of us wondering what flavor of retribution those left in the cabin were to face at the discretion of the three Sidhes of Caleb’s Crossing.
It was a beautiful sunny and unseasonably warm morning. Dan McCaffery, Gary Klein and Bill Brand joined me for brunch; we’d all overslept by three hours or more, so missed breakfast. It was unusual, but never crossed any of our minds to think it so, we were intent on scoffing our food with the relish of starving men. Hattie wasn’t present to serve us, but her assistant, Annie Housemen, a relative newcomer to Caleb’s Crossing having moved to town twenty years ago, assured us she’d be back from her errand in time for tea with us.
In the meantime, between bites and swallows of orange juice and milk, we rehashed the events of the previous night, trying to remember how and when things occurred as they did.
Our plans to have Bill scout the caves and the cemetery and McCaffery and Klein to cover the jail, circle of sanding stones on the altar mound and then all meet at the Miller House hadn’t come off and at the time we didn’t stop to question it. The fact that the three titular heads of Caleb’s Crossing should happen to meet Bill Brand and usher him to the others nagged at me and I realized then that certain facts I had once known were being obscured to me. But I didn’t care because they didn’t seem to be important facts—just everyday events in Caleb’s Crossing.
I stared at McCaffery and Klein looking for any hint of something eating at their subconscious underpinnings, but came up empty as an alms bowl in a Rolls Royce. They were happy to be eating and then kissing a fond finger goodbye to this hick berg. City boys, we do have an attitude, don’t we. Then my eyes slipped to Bill Brand, whose own eyes were waiting for mine to finally reach his. I immediately recognized the same itching questions in his look, and he jerked his head indicating the back door to the lawn.
“Gentlemen, if you’ll excuse us for a couple of minutes, Mr. Brand and I have the matter of his fee to discuss. When we get back, brunch is on me.”
“You mean brunch is on the newspaper and your hot ex-wife, who secretly loves me, don’t you,” said Klein?
“You’re a Pharisee, Gary. Look it up,” I answered as Bill and I strode out to the back deck. “What’s on your mind and I’ll bet it’s what’s on mine, too?”
“You know the Millers and that old witch weren’t the only negative influences in this place, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I got that too, but since I’ve been here more that a week, I’ve witnessed a lot of things and filed a number of stories with the paper describing them.”
“Let me guess,” he held up his hand, “ghosts, werewolves, elemental spirits, inhuman spirits? Yeah, the place is rotten with them. But I wouldn’t let that bother you over much, I have it on good authority that the ladies have it well under control.”
“How can you know that, Bill? Do you have some kind of psychic presentiment, a pack of Tarot Cards, a pocket Oui Ja Board? What gives you the edge,” I asked
“He does.” And bill Brand pointed to my left and I turned in time to see the shimmer of a very tall figure, wearing a tweed jacked that had seen better days, a scarf in lieu of a tie, khaki pants and hush puppies. His glasses glinted at me when he looked down from his great height and smiled the most beatific smile I have seen in my life. His image kept wavering from transparency to fuller density; while he said something to me only Bill could hear.
“You remember my partner and mentor, Juris Rasa?”
“I was stunned. Not terrified, not surprised or shocked, but truly stunned to be seeing the truth of all the rumors I’d heard since Rasa’s death, three years past. Rumors that Brand still had an inside through his dead partner and that was why he took on only the cases nobody else would touch. They weren’t only cases to do with the paranormal, but missing persons cases and cold cases the police couldn’t put a dent in. They called Bill, even though they knew he was slightly insane. However he did it; Voodoo, magic, séances, or contact with an invisible partner, they wanted him.
And now I’d seen the proof of the partnership. I asked, “What did he say to me?”
“He said, ‘Maybe this will help you believe in all the crap you’ve been writing about for your entire career. You can talk the talk all you want, but you see one real ghost—and I’m not technically a ghost—and you end up shitting your pants and atoning for all the doubts and all the condescension to your sources who tell you they saw aliens or bigfoot or Jesus on a potato chip.’”
“Waddaya say we go back inside and keep this to ourselves,” I suggested?
As we re-entered the dining room, the three ladies were sitting at a table lengthened by pulling two together. As we joined them, Hattie and Lucie and Winnie were positively glowing.
“Oh, Mr. Delaney, you’ve finally met Mr. Rasa. How nice it must have been, and how illuminating for you. He’s such a charming man, and such a help to us last night in dealing with our little problem, said Lucie.”
“And it was his idea not to kill them, but to put them in prison, as it were,” added Winnie.
“But if we’re all finished,” said Hattie, “let’s take a little ride, shall we? First we’ll stop at the municipal building, there’s something in the lobby I think you’ll appreciate.”
As we walked through the big door between the feuding Generals, all the ladies scurried to the reception desk and stopped, looking back at us with ill-restrained excitement and glee.
“Just look what Mr. Rasa did for us last night.” And she swept her right arm in a graceful encompassing gesture to point out a line of rag dolls fastened to the wall behind the large desk. They were the same from Roxy/Grania’s cabin the night before, but somehow different. On closer inspection, each doll had assumed certain characteristics of each of the gypsy miscreants, including Fran and Grania. Of course Spud was absent as was the kid, Stromie.
“What’d you do with the bodies,” I asked.
“That’s our next stop.” The voice echoed and reverberated not only off the walls of he lobby, but off the insides of our skulls. Judging by the giggles of the ladies, it was the voice of Juris Rasa, somewhere in the room. McCaffery said, “You owe us, Delaney.”
“On the way back to the city, we want what you know, or you’re in deep, sorry ladies, pig shit,” added Klein.
We drove out to the standing stones circling the altar mound and got out of the vehicles. The path to the altar was well worn and we all followed the three little ladies to its edge. We were told to walk around and study each stone individually, and we did so.
Amazingly, although the stones remained essentially the same as they had always been, on deeper inspection, I could make out shapes within the stone. These shapes were human-like and contorted as if in agony. The faces were the most difficult to discern, but with effort, I found myself looking at a head missing one ear—Sheriff Jarvis!
From the other side of the circle McCaffery sang out, “I think I got Harley over here and he doesn’t look comfortable. Hell I can even make out the cigarettes rolled in his T-shirt sleeve and the toothpick in his mouth.”
“Yeah,” said Gary Klein, “looks like they’re all here. Vernie, Clete, the old man, and God did you see the look of Fern’s face? That’ll give me nightmares.”
“Who’s got Roxy, I mean Grania,” I asked the group. I think I missed her. There’s enough stones, so she’s gotta be in one of them. Brand, ask your pal Juris where he put her last night.”
Brand said, “I got her over here! But there’s a problem.”
We all gathered where Bill was pointing out a small hole in Grania’s stone. Her body was obviously still trapped in it, but suddenly we all hearkened back to the night before when that Tasmanian Devil-looking thing exploded from under her homespun dress and bolted out of the cabin. Grania was only the carriage, that elemental creature was the passenger.
“Ya win some, ya lose some,” Said Klein and McCaffery punched him on the arm.
Klein was about to protest when McCaffery said, “One word about police brutality and we’ll all shoot you where you stand.” Gary looked comically pleading at me and I just crooked my neck and shrugged my shoulders.
Bill Brand said, “The ladies and Juris thought something like this would happen. Your binding powder was enough to control any discarnate or inhuman spirit, Ray, but we’re dealing here with something that was born when the earth was formed—long before the appearance of humanity in its infancy. It’s not flesh and bone or any other kind of matter we’re able to recognize, and it’s not good or evil, it just has free will and so far as we know very few limits to its ability to exercise it.”
“It has always been a nuisance to The Fair Folk and the Sidhe, but over the millennia we’ve discovered ways of slaking its thirst for mischief,” said Hattie Morgan, and the Danes Sisters nodded in confirmation. “We won’t have any trouble recognizing it when it takes on another human form.
“You gentlemen have done more than enough and we are dreadfully sorry about your friend Mr. Delaney. But we released them all from the torture of the purgatory dolls and Mr. Rasa and Mr. Brand helped them on their way,” Hattie continued.
“However we must say,” said Winnie, “that Bernice woman would grate on God’s own nerves. I’m afraid the whole slew of them were nasty pieces of work and I can well see why they were chosen to be bilked—every one of them would steal a dollar from a blind man’s cup and then ask him for change, for heaven’s sake.”
“How long will you keep them in the dolls,” McCaffery asked?
“That will be determined in time. Think of it as a period of atonement and a chance for them to truly see the error of their actions. We’ll know,” Answered Lucie. “But I suspect the sheriff, Fran and Harley will be set in stone for the foreseeable century. We’ll release the Miller clan in a year or two and relocate them like some pesky bears in someone else’s backyard,” she finished with a perky little smile as if her illusion elated her beyond explaining.
We, Dan, Gary, Bill and I, went to our respective hostelries, while Juris went wherever he wanted, probably down to the private parlor to have tea with the ladies and discuss plans for nabbing Grania’s ghoul, or whatever it is. I called Denise and brought her up to date on the investigation; heard the resigned sigh from her end, she probably knew all along her friend was gone for good. Then I told her I might take my sabbatical right here in Caleb’s Crossing.
Not since our wedding night had she been so lost for words, and only then because she’d passed out from the copious amounts of expensive Champaign she’d guzzled. (Should I have taken that as an omen?) No, I said, I’m serious. I’ve never come across such a collection of oddities in my thirty years of journalism and I think there are hundreds of stories to be gleaned from this hilly knob on the elbow of the woods. In fact, I told her, we should open a bureau here. She said outta the question, Loverboy. I thought, wanna bet? Then I hung up and stopped unpacking.
Later, over lunch, I explained to Gary Klein he was officially promoted to special publisher of the Inquisitor and would assume all of my old duties. I told McCaffery I’d be sticking around town for a wile—or forever, and would like to know I could count on him if any pinches should arise, after the baby, of course and when he got back to work. And I suggested he send Harvey Ellison to see the ladies and me. I had the strongest hunch they could cure him of his demon terrors, and besides, maybe I could talk him into quitting and becoming my personal investigator. Dan was all right with that suggestion, in fact after thinking about having to retire the man or giving him a chance to get back to who he was, he was downright cool with it. He’d get three quarters pension for line of duty trauma and, “You are gonna pay him, aren’t you Delaney?”
“Of course. Whaddaya take me for, the City Treasurer?”
With all that out of the way and seeming to tie things up nicely, I asked Bill Brand, “Do you mind if we let these guys in on your little secret with Juris?”
“I’d rather you didn’t. That’s something that gives me a leg up in impossible situations, and he is my mentor and best friend. If he wants them to know something, he’ll find a way to let them know. Sorry fellas.”
“Your prerogative Bill, and after your considerable help last night, we owe you the respect,” McCaffery stated in his lieutenant’s voice, and Gary Klein nodded like a bobble head but with a confused look in his eyes. He’s missed something and it would eat at him until he found a way to convince himself he hadn’t.
I asked Bill, “What have the Circle of Sidhe (for that is what they called themselves) got in store for Stromie?”
“They’re hoping they got to him in time to erase the negative influences infused in him by Grania and the rest. If so, they can help him advance to become a good spirit in a healthy body.”
“If it’s too late,” asked McCaffery?
“There’s one more doll left and rising another standing stone is a small task,” answered Bill Brand.
“Well that seems to be it, then. Bill’s going to be around for the foreseeable future, so I won’t say goodbye to him, but you two reprobates have jobs and wives and lives to get back to. So I’ll pick up the check if you’ll bugger off without making a scene and blubbering all over me.”
“Chew me,” said McCaffery as he rose and shook my hand.
“So I’m really in charge now,” asked Gary? “And I’m the boss?”
I nodded. “Then ditto on what he said.” And he hugged me goodbye. “I’m gonna miss shooting with you, boss.” Did I see a tear? Damn. Now I was getting misty…
Just then the front doors of the Magnolia Lane Bed and Breakfast opened with a roar of voices and a thousand legged-animal scuffled in to the reception desk, followed by Hattie Morgan and her Gas Station Attendant cousin, doing his best to follow Hattie’s directions. Even the Danes Sisters were helping out. What was this? Could my news stories have generated this much interest in Caleb’s Crossing? Not a chance.
The boys and I squeezed behind the reception desk and vied for somebody’s attention. Finally Hattie turned beaming a glorious smile at us and said. “These are the folks who lost their homes in the flood. We’re parceling them out to homes throughout Caleb’s Crossing until they settle with the insurance and move to new houses throughout the state and the country.”
“But they’re dead,” I stammered. “They drowned in the flood.”
“Oh, Mr. Delaney, do you really expect we’d allow that kind of cruelty to happen? Of course they have no memory of where they’ve been all this time and they won’t want to be bothered by the missing time. It’s the least we can do. Oh, and we’re tickled pink you’ve decided to stay and resurrect our old newspaper.
No sooner were her words past through my ears I realized, what a wonderful idea, how long have I been planning this? Then, amid the din of voices and the shuffling and jostling of hot bodies, I felt a light cool hand on my shoulder and turned instinctively and looked up. A wavering image, all glasses and big smile, with long blond hair framing his angelic face, looked down on me, and its lips moved. This time I could hear his voice in my core, “You’re one of the good ones, Delaney, and Bill likes you too. If we can ever be of help, just ask out loud and I’ll hear you. The Circle will teach you, and until then it will keep you from harm. Do well by them, they are a dying race.”
Back up in my room—I gave up the presidential suite to two families and took a single room with a double bed and that seemed right, my laptop began an insistent clanging at me, one of Klein’s ideas for alerting me to an important message. I moved the mouse and Gary’s faced filled the screen.
“Klein, we just had our teary goodbye. What are you, a glutton for schmaltz?”
“Boss, we just circled the B&B to find a way out, it’s so damned crowded, and McCaffery and I saw something we think you need to know.”
“What is it?”
“Here, McCaffery took a picture of it, but it’s only a 3X lens, I hope you can blow it up on your laptop.”
He sent me the image and at first it was just the back of the B&B’s rear lawn and garden. But at the far end was a small figure dressed in obviously new jeans and T-shirt with the superhero du jour plastered on the front. But as I dragged it into Photoshop and began manipulating the image (thank you McCaffery for carrying a 12 mega pixel camera) I got a terrifying jolt. The figure was Stromie and it wasn’t a superhero on his T-shirt. Instead he was hugging a toothsome, hairy, wild-eyed demon to his chest—and it was being absorbed into him; only its head still visible—and Stromie stood with his head thrown back in a silent scream and an agony too big for any little boy stretching his face into a wolf-like howl…
Item in The Caleb's Crossing Clarion
Dateline December 16,
More supernatural phenomena …
Is Caleb's Crossing in for another
season of Ghoulies and Ghosties
Late last night, the new owners of Harley's Cafe, Frank and Edie Thayer, phoned newly elected Sheriff, Al Hynek to report a poltergeist...
Exactly twenty minutes later, Derek and Sharon Gilbert, who opened a book store last month, called the sheriff's office to report sighting a UFO hovering over their mid-town boutique...
At the same time Annie Huseman, the sister of Bernice Stodghill, whom some will recall was at the center of a controvercial criminal conspiracy that saw numerous former Caleb's Crosssing residents shipped to various undisclosed prisons in at least three neighboring states, was found walking aimlessly, in her nightgown and slippers, along Dead Creek Road a mile or so from her sister's house. When picked up by sawmill shift worker, Nate Horowitz, she could not explain what she was doing at that time of morning, only to repeat, "The Old Woman is calling for help. She told me she's trapped and needs help getting out..."
Can it be that Caleb's Crossing is not finished with its peculiar past?
The residents we spoke with this morning were almost unanimous in repeating, "A little paranormal inconvenience is well worth the pleasure of living in such a beautiful and peacful town. Just a matter of relaxing and opening your mind to different experiences. It also helps to take two sleeping pills, well before midnight."