Copyright (c) 2016 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
J.J. stumbled through the service gate onto the grounds of her ten-acre Brentwood estate. She still couldn’t believe what she had seen; she still couldn’t believe what she had done. The gardener who only worked at night had kept his head covered for good reason. His was the most hideous and repulsive face she had ever seen. What had ever possessed her to pull off the hood?
A lump formed in her throat when she saw what the man had been working on. A glistening path made of oyster shells embedded in black sand led to a dark shimmering pool surrounded by exotic burgundy lace Painted Lady ferns. The pond was skillfully constructed and positioned so that moonlight reflected her image on the glassy water like a mirror. According to People Magazine, the deep cerulean-blue eyes that stared back might be the Crown Jewels of Hollywood, but at this moment they were filled with shame.
J.J. thought it might be tears blurring her reflection, but as she continued to gaze into the pool, the image cleared. She was a child of eleven once more just coming from the bathroom of the Cloverdale Texaco Station. Her mom and dad sat on two folding chairs in a grimy office area drinking coffee while a mechanic changed the oil in their car. She watched in horror as Lemont Hicks twisted steel tubing with a rusty pair of pliers. Brake fluid ran down one wheel as he wiped his hands on a rag and slowly lowered the car on the hoist. “All done folks … you’re good to go!” he called.
All these years J.J. had been led to believe her drunken father had driven off a cliff into Magician’s Canyon killing himself and her mother … now she realized it was murder. “Why?” she gasped. A moment later the image changed to show Hicks taking a handful of hundred-dollar bills from a dark figure. She strained to see the face of the stranger. Just then a cloud passed over the moon, obscuring the light, and the mirror reflection vanished.
The garden was momentarily plunged into darkness. The only light came from a glistening fountain on the far side of the swimming-pool, the lighted dial of her Baume and Mercier watch which had just changed to 4:20 AM, and tiny glass lights in the shape of fairies lining a winding path that led to the house.
“Your face might not be much to look at,” J.J. thought about the gardener as she staggered toward the house. The bottle of Camus Jubilee she’d drank earlier tugged on her like a lusty sailor. She tried to erase the gardener’s horrible bulging image of grotesque hanging flesh from her mind. “But you certainly did beautiful magic with your hands!” She looked once more at the amazing garden and began to cry. Would the nocturnal workman ever return? “What have I done?”
Tears blinded her as she unlocked the back door with a signal from her iPhone and stumbled into the empty house.
J.J. woke-up feeling like road-kill; a Leatherback sea turtle struggling across California’s Highway One suffering from severe traffic damage as she made her way downstairs. She shook two Excedrin from a bottle, cursed when they escaped by rolling onto the kitchen floor, and then reached for a prescription bottle of Vicodin instead. J.J. rarely used the heavyweight opioid except when on location or shortly after a romantic breakup. After Johnny disappeared she swore she wouldn’t become an addict. Hollywood’s Dr. Feelgood told her inflexibly this was her last bottle. She washed the pills down with orange juice. The flashing light on the telephone answering machine showed twenty-seven messages. She scanned down the list of names, deleting them as she went. Most were directors obviously wanting her to read scripts. Two were from producers looking for prom dates and the usual assortment of charities. Only one name caught her attention. It had been over a month since she had last spoken to Mike Benson, the private detective she’d hired to find out anything he could about Johnny Lang shortly before she left for Europe. The tireless man had produced dozens of John/Johnny Langs all across the U.S. ranging in age from six to seventy-five but none of them matched the photo she had given him. During their last conversation, during a shooting break in London, she’d asked him to go back a century and check out the no longer living. He’d confirmed her instructions without hesitation; perhaps he was used to dealing with eccentric Hollywood weirdoes with deep pockets.
“It’s unbelievable, but I think I’ve found a match,” Benson’s voice was all business. “John Edward Lang was born April nineteenth, 1893. He died pulling survivors from a submerged car wreck at the Cottonmouth River Bridge in Cloverdale Montana in 1920.” Mike cleared his throat as if he expected her to laugh at this point in the recording and then he went on. “I had a professional imaging service do a scan on a black and white copy of your photo and compared it with a newspaper clipping from the Vanishing River Tribune they are 92% certain it is the same person.”
J.J. wasn’t really that surprised; it was her hometown that amazed her. She quickly returned the detective’s call. “Did … does Johnny Lang have any relatives?”
“John Walker, the County Sheriff, is a great, great step-nephew,” Benson said. “There may be other relatives. Elisabeth Hughes Walker, Lang’s mother was a reformed Missouri bank-robber and a prominent socialite in western Montana. Her original homestead is preserved in pristine condition by a family trust. It still looks like something from a Goosebumps movie to me; I will send you a picture. Johnny Lang, her firstborn, appears to have been the illegitimate son of legendary lawman Thomas Lang.”
“That won’t be necessary,” J.J. told him. “I grew up in that tiny town and I remember the Walker Haunted house very well.”
J.J. had two more phone calls to make after she hung up. Airline tickets to Billings. She’d get a rental car at the airport. She had double reasons for going home: the mysterious death of her parents and Johnny Lang. She only hoped that the strange gardener would return. Her agent Jack Thomas answered on the second ring. “I’ve done something awful …” she explained about last night and pulling the hood from the hideous gardener’s head. “Tell him I’m so sorry!”
“I’ll buy him a truckload of roses and beg him to forget about what happened,” Jack assured her.
The flight to Montana didn’t leave until 7PM.
J.J. used the time to stroll through her gardens and then to look up Joseph Merrick on her computer. The famous Leicester Elephant Man, the subject of a 1980 movie starring John Hurt died in 1890 after being exhibited in countless freak shows and eventually making friends with Alexandra, Princess of Wales and other members of London society. She gasped when she saw his deformed image, a nightmare encore of last night. Could there possibly be another hideous miscreation loose in the world?”
As soon as J.J. crossed into Comanche County she drove the rental SUV to the scenic pull-out on the side of Magician’s Canyon. She stared at the swirling Cottonmouth River as it disappeared in one deep end of the treacherous chasm. This is where her parents died (although she had miraculously survived) in what everyone thought was a horrible accident. If the mysterious image from the past that flickered in her garden pool was correct then it was no accident, but murder. Why would anyone want to pay Lemont Hicks to tamper with the brakes on her parent’s car? Her mother was a librarian and her father was a student working part time at a local doctor’s office as he finished his doctoral thesis. J.J strained to remember details of that fateful night fifteen years ago. Oddly it was the sister of Dr. Descombey, her father’s boss, who had pulled her from the submerged car. Her father had an important meeting with university officials in Missoula and the entire family was going with him. J.J. remembered Melania wrapping her in a blanket and promising that everything was going to be okay.
Before J.J. left LA she had made a few phone calls. Dr. Descombey died ten years ago but his sister was miraculously still alive. The old woman was ancient when J.J. knew her; she had to be well over a hundred-years old now. Apparently Melania was living at home under the care of a woman named Alison Weatherbee. If the old lady was still coherent, J.J. hoped to gleam as much information from her about the so called accident as possible. There was another person J.J. had to confront. Lemont Hicks had been released from Deer Lodge Penitentiary, six months previous after serving ten years for killing another man in a bar-room brawl. He was said to be living on the old family farm four miles south of where she now stood just across the river from the edge of Motha Forest.
J.J.’s mind was in such turmoil, there was something else she had to come to grips with, and it was information she was hesitant to find out about. If her Johnny Lang really died rescuing people under water in 1920 then he really was a spirit and not a living person. He would most likely be lost to her forever.
J.J. wiped her eyes on a moist towelette and then drove south on River Road. An icy chill crept down her spine as she approached the old Hick’s farm. Deep ruts in the washboard gravel road forced her to proceed at a crawl. Rusted machinery littered the barn yard next to a partially collapsed spud cellar. Waist-high weeds covered the fields and every patch of ground that wasn’t growing worn-out tires and soaked with ancient motor oil. A hunched man, badly in need of a shave, wearing filthy torn overalls and with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, banged open the broken screen door on a peeling white farmhouse as J.J. approached. He had almost limped to the edge of the road, using some kind of farm tool as a crutch, by the time J.J. rumbled into view. “By God and Jesus! You shouldn’t have come back!” he yelled waving the rusty pitchfork in the air before a dust-cloud made him vanish. “Those who won’t leave well enough alone … end up dead!”
As much as J.J. wanted to confront Hicks she knew this wasn’t the time. She bounced and careened past the farm, the Chevy Tahoe almost sliding sideways. A quarter of a mile past, she began to breathe again.
Alison Weatherbee led J.J. through the twenty-six room mansion to an upstairs room where Melania lay withered and barely breathing on an upholstered Italian panel bed. Rembrandt quality paintings of cats some hundreds of years old, adorned linen walls covered with tiny hand painted flowers. The old woman opened her eyes when J.J. touched her hand. “I’m sorry,” J.J. stammered. “I know you must be very ill.”
“I have that fatal disease that all people who live long enough get,” Melania whispered. “It’s called turning to dust.”
“I’m sorry,” J.J. repeated then blurted. “I shouldn’t have come.”
“I would be disappointed if you didn’t,” Melania said. “I’ve been expecting you … besides,” she smiled. “To return to dust is the first step to a new beginning. Who wants to live forever?”
J.J. told her about seeing the images in the garden pool. “My parent’s deaths were no accident were they?”
“There are no accidents … everything happens or a purpose … be it good or bad.” Melania’s eyes glowed as if she was seeing a sunset in some far dim memory of her mind.
“Why would someone pay Lemont Hicks to tamper with my father’s car?”
Melania closed her eyes for a long time. J.J. was afraid she might have died … then her wrinkled lips moved. “The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed almost forty-million people world-wide many of them children. Western Montana was hit especially hard. A whole generation wiped from the face of the Earth. By 1936, eighteen years later, there were no young people to till the fields and harvest the grain. There was no money, people survived by what they grew. The people came to me begging for help. I decided to create for them what they had lost.”
“You mean you created children?” J.J. was amazed, but something told her the old woman was not lying.
“Not children, although most started out child-like,” Melania told her. “I created an enchanted race of people from ordinary scarecrows, male and female members of a new species called the Mommet. A gentle people, they worked in the fields and harvested crops.”
“What you are talking about is magic,” J.J. argued. “I work in Hollywood. I know that magic is not real, it’s all distraction, smoke and mirrors.”
“Of course magic is real!” Melania’s voice was as hushed as rain falling on sand. “I’ve been teaching Alison about the balance in all things.”
“For each thing I learn … a dozen more mysteries appear,” Allison interjected.
Melania went on. “The flu epidemic was a terrible tragedy, but where there is abundant bad … there is always great good … if you know where to look.” Melania began to cough and Alison dabbed at her mouth with a handkerchief. J.J. noticed blood smeared on the embroidered silk.
“The cottonwood trees that lined the river produced a special oil on their leaves in the early thirties that when mixed with rain water sprouted life where there was none before.” Melania took a deep breath and closed her eyes before she continued. “Log portions of cabins built along the river began to grow roots and to sprout limbs filled with clusters of leaves. Wet fabrics left outdoors became lumpy and thicker as new cotton balls emerged between the stitches.”
Melania complained that her throat was dry and sent Alison to the cellar for a bottle of wine. After the apprentice left, Melania continued with her voice cracking. “I found a way to dry the oil and mix it with dust from ancient graves. I was always careful to choose only what remained of good and decent people … much of it from children … victims of the horrible sickness.”
Alison returned and helped the old woman wet her lips with the red liquid. “The Mommet were a good and kind people who became more humanlike every day,” Melania said. “But Lemont Hicks, grandfather to the Lemont living today, found out about my magic and decided to make his own creatures. The elder Hicks wasn’t fussy about where he got his grave dust, he ended up breeding a species of monsters called the Hodmedod. The creatures were dark and evil under flower-sack hoods. They rampaged the countryside committing all sorts of devilish things for their masters … including murder. Soldiers returning from World War II hunted down the Hodmedod and destroyed them with fire. The Mommet were moved deep into Motha Forest where they live to this day.”
“But what has all this got to do with my parent’s murders?” J.J. was stunned.
“Your father decided to do his doctorate thesis on farm labor during the great depression,” Melania told her. “He found out about the Mommet and the Hodmedod. On the night he and your mother were murdered he was on his way to Missoula with proof that someone was once again creating the Hodmedod.”
“Lemont Hicks,” J.J. gasped.
“Our Lemont Hicks is nothing like his grandfather,” Melania said. “Whoever paid him is the mastermind behind the resurgence of evil in Comanche County. They wanted your parents out of the way so they could continue their experiments uninterrupted.”
“But that’s been fifteen years ago,” J.J. said. “They must have failed.
Melania shook her head. “Only good is eternal. Evil must constantly re-spawn each new generation. There have been several attempts to create the monsters often with shocking results.”
J.J. remembered her gardener’s horribly disfigured face back in LA. He could do magic with plants because he came from magic.”
“I think I’ve met one of these creations,” J.J. said. “But he’s not evil, just terribly hard to look at.”
“You haven’t met all the monsters,” Melania’s voice was very weak. “The wind whispers ill tides to me each evening as the night approaches.”
Melania began to cough again and Alison ushered J.J. out of the room. “Melania is very sick,” she said. “Perhaps you can finish this conversation tomorrow.”
A red sun was setting by the time J.J. found the only rooms available to rent in the small town. The Jagger Hotel was as dusty as the weeded vacant lot behind it. The night clerk, a mousy man with a lisp, and wandering eyes, gave J.J. the keys to a room on the ground floor. “The elevators aren’t working and the stairs.” he pointed to the warped boards climbing to a fourth level. “They’re just not safe anymore.”
Fifteen minutes, later tucked into a small room with clean sheets but rat droppings on the floor, J.J. was just ready to walk down a long hallway to brush her teeth in a shared bathroom when the lights went out. “Damn,” J.J. cursed looking at her watch. It was nine P.M. “They should have told me about this instead of the free coffee in the morning.”
J.J. used an app to turn her iPhone into a flashlight. “Now how am I going to take a selfie to show my friends in LA how I always stay in the best hotels?” she mused sarcastically.
She had just placed her hand on the doorknob when she heard what sounded like heavy footsteps in the hall. More than one very large man she guessed. There wasn’t time to think or even turn around. The door burst inward sending wood fragments flying like an explosion at a lumber-mill. Lemont Hicks stood glaring in the doorway … shadowed by something much larger standing behind him.
To be continued …