Tucked up in the northeastern corner of Vermont is the Northeast Kingdom, a wooded fortress that neither encourages nor particularly welcomes strangers. One of the little hamlets within a village within a town is West Burville. There is one eatery, one place to get gas (if you don’t count the diner) and one strange flock of residents. This may take a while to explain…
It’s been awhile since we traveled up North to visit the locals in West Burville. November to be precise. We shouldn’t have left so soon. Or waited so long to get back. It seems that while we were gone, something ugly happened in town.
But who would want to disrupt the peace in a small Vermont town? There might be a clue in Part 1 or maybe in Part 2. Or maybe the business of figuring out what happened is a job for the local talent. Take one grumpy auto repair shop owner by the name of Hooter Gibson, then add one employee named Norm Weston, with a penchant for mental health days. Stir that around for a spell. Now add one strange old Italian gent named Guido, who sees more than he says, add a pinch of a woman named Anna, who took the wrong way home, and lastly, season well with one mysterious black dog. Now bring to the boil. What do you get?
Around noon in West Burville and Hooter is standing on the Weston’s porch…
Being on the front porch offered Hooter no relief from the unaccountable feeling of trouble that was picking at him. He was also facing the possibility that someone with a badge might come to investigate his midnight-sneak-around-up-to-no-good behavior in the screaming daylight of an October noon. The risk, however, was worth it, if only to alleviate the creeping unease in his gut.
The glass sidelights in the Weston’s front door offered an opportunity for snooping into the darkened interior of the hallway. Hooter might be a bit addled at the moment but he was an eternal optimist. It was nothing for him to make the leap from sneaking around the back of an employee’s house to believing it was neighborly concern. It really didn’t matter what else he might be thinking because at the moment he was standing on the Weston’s front porch festooned with twigs, leaves and dirt from their backyard. Bobbing up and down to get a better look through the side panes running next to the door, Hooter squinted one eye then the other hoping for a peek. Unfortunately for him, Gladys had made generous use of wispy lace curtains that assured the Weston’s privacy but thwarted Hooter’s efforts to get a good look toward the back of the house.
This wasn’t a good luck day for Hooter. Banging on the door for all he was worth was guaranteed to draw the wrong kind of attention and breaking a window sounded like a whole lot of explaining to Sheriff Les Good. Maybe it was time to try the doorknob. Reaching out with an unsteady hand, and a bad feeling brewing, Hooter made a swipe at the knob. It clicked.
There are times in a man’s life when he makes a decision he knows will take him down a road he might not want to travel all the way…but he does it anyway. For good or bad, or whatever else may come, Hooter took the first step on a dark road. He pushed the door open.
It hadn’t occurred to Hooter that Norm might be home taking a nap or dozing in front of the television. What if he poked his nose in and someone yelled, “Who’s there?” Hooter wondered, not for the first time in his life, how he got himself into these messes. Just by turning a knob and pushing on a piece of wood he might be in for some serious questions. “Too late now…”
“Hey, Norm, you here?” Might as well keep it friendly. Don’t let on you were just in the backyard trampling the shrubbery. “Gladys?” Nothing. No answer. “Anybody home? It’s me, Hooter.” Still nothing. And what was that smell? It had a metallic tang, sharp and bitter. But there was an underlying nasty sweetness. “Hellooo?”
Alarmed at the silence and queasy from the smell, Hooter felt the skin prickle along his spine. Is this what ‘raising your hackles’ meant? And there was something else. Silence. Silence that didn’t seem like the kind you get when no one’s home. It was more like the kind you get when someone’s home and is pretending they’re not. With the thought that maybe Norm didn’t want to be caught, he debated whether to back himself out. It didn’t occur to Hooter that someone else might be hiding in the house. But he knew he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, leave. Frightened out of his wits and excited by the possibility that he might have caught Norm taking an unscheduled day off the books, he slid past the tidy empty living room toward the kitchen.
A few steps short of the kitchen door, Hooter gagged. There was a heaviness to the air he could taste. Metal, maybe iron, and a sweet rotting smell. It was so much heavier at this end of the hallway. He began to sweat. Something primal in the man told him not to look. But it was just too much like the feeling he’d get when he scuttled past the town graveyard on Halloween, as if something, not someone, was waiting to pull him under the ground.
Pressing against the wall outside the kitchen, Hooter prepared to lunge through the door. But what if it was some godawful septic malfunction and Gladys came home as he was about to storm her kitchen? What could he say? “Oh, hi, Gladys, I was just looking for Norm? That’s sure some smell you got there.” But it didn’t matter. He couldn’t back out now. Something was in that kitchen that was worth investigating and Hooter was going to be first in.
“Well, here goes nothing, folks, ” he whispered to himself. With a swivel of his hips and a bit of shoulder, he was through the kitchen door. It would be hard to sort out what happened next but Hooter later recalled he took one look and added to the mess on the floor.
There was no need to wonder when Gladys might be coming home, it seemed she had been home for quite some time.
As she rose from the blackness that passed for a bad night’s sleep. Monique considered the memory that years of careful religious schooling had taught her to accept: there were things that roamed the night. Nasty feral things. Things with names that left an acrid taste in your mouth. Father John would tell the parishioners to beware of the Dark and these were the times he spoke more to himself than his flock.
Half the congregation adopted the opinion that old Father John was a bit off the beaten path. The other half had perhaps been listening. When the reassignment list was posted in Burlington, Father John’s name was near the top.
Monique was amazed, and a little disturbed, that she was dwelling on Father’s boogie man stories. But she knew why. She had paid close attention to the ancient warnings. But there were problems. Medieval tales used to frighten mud spattered peasants into complying with Church doctrine weren’t the ticket in the cosmopolitan outback of West Burville. Father John would know what to do. But Father John was gone.
And if she was wrong? Monique wasn’t known as the town Grand Stander. The title belonged to Hooter Gibson by a consensus of the townies. Still, if she decided to open her mouth the dice would roll one of two ways: either she would be leaving town on a rail or she would be West Burville’s Joan of Arc. Neither choice held much pleasure.
The logistics of how to appear rational while warning of the irrational escaped her. What if she was wrong? What if what she saw was an ordinary family black dog that had gone missing? Or what if it was dumped in the middle of town and was wandering around hungry and cold? It wasn’t like babies were disappearing or anybody was dead. Right?
But Monique was pretty sure of her territory, or Father John’s. Somewhere in her arguing with herself, she went from maybe to certainty. Her one regret was that this dog seemed like a left hook. Everyone knew that diabolical manifestations smelled of burnt cloth or worse and tended to make central casting entrances. She wondered what Father John’s thoughts were on the theatrical potential of the Evil One.
At about the same time that certainty struck Monique, it occurred to her that she was clueless about what to do next. This was way out of her field of expertise and she knew it. If she really believed this was the Wolf in sheep’s clothing, she was no woodsman. And she didn’t think an axe would help.
Hooter was now well into a very memorable lunch hour. All his poking around the Weston’s had given him the increasingly bad feeling that he was going to have a very rough time explaining why he was vomiting on Gladys Weston’s kitchen floor and she was dead all over it. Gladys just seemed to have exploded. Hooter focused on one of her fuzzy pink scuffies. In fact, Hooter was focusing for all he was worth.
Hooter jerked himself back from focusing on the blood spattered pink scuffie long enough to remember Norm. Where the hell was Norm? Had he blown up Gladys and left town? Was he a closet serial killer come way out of the coat hangers? Or had he killed Gladys and was concealed, watching? And what if he was watching Hooter?
…to be continued