Copyright (c) 2018 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
I couldn’t believe my ears when just after midnight I heard the whoosh of escaping steam and the grinding rumble of huge metal brakes. There hadn’t been a steam-powered locomotive on the railroad tracks in Cloverdale in over thirty years. I placed a Spare-A-Dime receipt for a cheeseburger and greasy fries between the pages of the geometry book I was reading and ran out the front door and around to the back of the Jagger Hotel. There the old wood-burner sat shaking and rumbling as if she knew this might be her last run. The number 419 glowed whitely under the moonlight on the ornate front of the massive boiler. There were only two cars being pulled and I wondered why on Earth the train was stopping here. I circled the monster twice and even opened the doors on the boxcar and looked inside the caboose before I was satisfied that the one-hundred fifty year old marvel was unattended. I decided I’d better get back to the check-in desk. We don’t get very many lodgers after midnight … but it was still my job.
I could smell the evil creature before I laid eyes on her … deep dirt that hasn’t felt the rays of the sun for centuries covered her like a second layer of skin. Invisible tormentors ran ice cubes up and down my back as my blood suddenly chilled. A hooded shroud covered a grotesque face and flowed to the floor. A too thin skeletal form like heavy wire bent at impossible angles jutted forward. A nest of spiders moved through a tangle of webbing until they danced around a small brooch, depicting a crow pecking the eyeball from a dead lamb, and lying against a blackened and wrinkled neck. Tiny black eyes stared at me from behind a once lacey but now moldy and rotted veil. She hunched over the check-in register on my desk … bony fingers with nails as sharp as razors scanned the list of names. Slicing the flesh on the back of her left hand, she used the inky blood to scribble a signature before grabbing room key 419 and moving like a large flightless bird up the stairs.
I didn’t offer to turn down her bed-covers, carry unseen luggage or show her around. Before the banshee was halfway to the first floor I was out the door and thundering down the sidewalk, screaming to all within earshot that death had come to Cloverdale.
The Spare-A-Dime café does a roaring business after midnight on most days and especially on weekends. “She’s here!” I yelled when I banged open the door.
“Well then don’t just stand there,” Charlie Rose said as he laced his coffee with sugar. “Ask her to dance before I do.” The café roared with laughter.
There were quite a few chuckles before most of the people turned back to their own business and I was forgotten. “The 419 just stopped on the tracks behind the hotel and the Devil’s own mother just took up residence on the fourth floor!”
“I told you I heard a train whistle!” Kathy Davenport bopped Ken Wilson on the head with a soup spoon as she was clearing a table of dirty dishes.
Sheriff John Walker sat at a window booth with Allison Weatherbee. His voice showed more than casual interest. “What did this woman look like?”
“Dressed in black …. Dirty,” I stammered. “Like she just clawed her way out of a grave.”
A gasp swept through the crowd but it wasn’t because of my description. The front door opened and the Jagger Hotel’s newest resident floated slowly inside moving toward the back of the crowded eating area. She didn’t have a hard time finding a table. Ed Poole knocked over two chairs as he and Pete Adams struggled to be the first ones out the door. She sat at the table they had just vacated. Several people slid their tables back to give her more room.
Everyone was looking at Allison Weatherbee. With Melania Descombey frail and almost bedridden it was up to her young apprentice to share her knowledge of the supernatural phenomena that plagued our small town. “Her name is Ophelia Goosestep,” Allison said, raising her voice so that all could hear. “She was once a regular occurrence here as need be when the old steam train was running.”
Several people shushed Allison as they stared nervously at the woman hunched at the table with her boney fingers folded around a cup of black coffee placed before her. “Oh she can’t hear me,” Allison said. “Her sort dwells in a dimension all their own … somewhere between the past, present and the future.”
“Why has God forsaken us?” Reverend John White pointed an accusing finger at the shrouded woman. “Unless this town begins to walk in righteousness before the Lord we will forever be tormented by Lucifer and his never ending designs.” Several people nodded agreement but most only smirked.
Madeline Bird gasped and covered her mouth which was half full of raisin cake. “What’s she doing now?”
Ophelia Goosestep had taken a discarded guest ticket and had torn it into tiny half-inch wide strips. She was using strands of her own hair and a needle to sew the strips into three strange necklaces. Using a pen lying beside the guest check she carefully lettered an inscription onto each.
After she finished, her black veil-covered eyes darted about the room searching faces that quickly turned away. She pointed a bony finger at Otis Freeman and the necklace in her hand was suddenly around his neck. “What does it say? What does it say?” The crowd gathered around Otis but although he searched his entire neck with his own hand he could feel nothing. But others could see it there and Fred Walker read the inscription. The coin slipped from his hand and rolled into the street and he was unaware of the car speeding around the corner as he reached for it.
“What does it mean?” several people asked at the same time.
“It’s called a stitch-in-nine charm,” Allison said. “Very powerful black magic!”
“I think it’s how Otis is going to die,” Fred said. “She’s just here to collect his soul after he’s gone.”
Otis still couldn’t find anything clinging to his neck and he was getting annoyed by all the people staring at him. “I’m going home to a hot bath and then bed,” he said. “What we have here is just some old woman fell out of a gypsy wagon and making silly people see things.”
Otis paid for his meal and was putting change into his pocket as he walked outside when a quarter rolled from his hand into the street. He bent down to pick it up when suddenly Sheriff Walker charged behind him knocking him out of the way of the speeding car that had just swept around the corner.
“You saved my life,” Otis blabbered to the sheriff.
“Well, we know one thing,” Allison told the crowd who were once again staring at the old woman. “Ophelia Goosestep might design much of the future …. but nothing is cast in stone!”
Ophelia caused two other stitch-in-nine charms to wrap around other people’s necks before she finally left her table. Jeff Lemon’s inscription said Although they beat upon his back with great force, they were unable to dislodge the piece of meat caught in his throat. Spare-A-Dime’s chief cook swore he would personally cut the sirloin steak into very tiny pieces before he would serve Jeff’s favorite dish.
Max Dugan’s hand lettered charm stated The car careened out of control just before plunging into Magician’s Canyon and disappearing into the churning vortex below. Several men followed Max outside and insisted that he change a bald ready-to-blow-tire on the left front of his car before they would allow him to drive to his home on Canyon Road.
Everyone sighed with great relief when Ophelia finally ambled out the door after paying for her coffee with a silver coin dropped on the counter that was too old for anyone to recognize.
A half hour later just as the café was closing up and the cook and waitresses were herding people out the door someone yelled “Oh my God!” and all eyes turned to the intersection of Main and Townsend Streets. A smiling Ophelia Goosestep led a frail and sickly Melania Descombey down the center of the street and toward the Jagger Hotel and the hissing train parked behind it.
“This was her vile plan all along,” Allison stated. “To rob Cloverdale of its resident witch and to leave us defenseless against the dark arts.”
“What can we do?” The sheriff asked the pretty apprentice.
“Ophelia’s defenses are formidable,” Allison said. “We might not be able to stop her but we can slow her down. Morning light was designed to dissolve shadows and if we can delay her until the first rays of dawn we might have a chance.”
“Delay her how?”
“Ophelia doesn’t have feet like a normal person but cloven hoofs like those found on a goat. The fleshy pads on the underside are prone to cuts by broken glass … if we could put some broken pieces in her pathway …”
“If you think things are bad in Cloverdale now,” the sheriff said, “wait until we lose our protection from Melania. I need everyone’s help right now!”
The townspeople first emptied all the glass from Spare-A-Dime and shattered it in a pathway in front of Ophelia. The evil witch cursed the people under her breath. It was a long way to the Jagger Hotel and to the ghostly train waiting behind. Within a few hours every bit of glass in the town, window, plate and dish lay broken in front of the glaring old woman. Still the old crone moved steadily onward dragging poor Melania behind her. “It’s another thirty minutes until dawn and we’ve failed,” Sheriff Walker moaned.
Suddenly Reverend John White appeared with several of his most devote followers. Their arms were filled with stained glass pried from the church windows and delicate glass and porcelain figurines taken from various places inside. “I don’t want to be the only building in town with glass windows,” he said.
No sooner had the townsmen broken the stained glass in front of the black witch than she began to curse and prance about. It seemed the glass shards from the church burned her hooves. “This cursed town shall know no peace as long as the wind blows and the cock crows,” she screamed. “Feather, fowl, horse and cow burn the grass and sift the ash … dry the land and blow the sand … till all that’s left to quench life’s thirst … will be water cans all split and burst!”
Suddenly the first rays of dawn appeared over the mountains to the east and the black witch and the ghostly locomotive melted away like vaporous images clinging to the night. The townspeople carried Melania back to the comfort of her big brass bed.
And me? I went back to work inside the Jagger Hotel … it wasn’t much but it was still my job!
THE END ?