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…
I have to apologize to everyone who was wondering what was going on up in West Burville. It’s been snowing like gangbusters up North; Hooter’s been on the plow or fixing the damn thing; and I can’t sit the man down over pie and coffee at the Double Axle long enough to get some more of this story out of him. And please don’t even mention the fiasco at the Diner over the holidays. More on that later.
This past weekend, Hooter took off the felt packs long enough to let me buy him a Meatloaf Plate and add some more to the tale. Do you believe this? Here’s the latest…
When we left him, Hooter had just discovered something ugly in the Weston’s house…
Hooter began to sweat. Not the nice polite “hot summer day with a glass of cold lemonade” kind of sweat. This was the sticky, cold kind that trickles down your neck like a faucet got turned on and pissed all over your collar. Wavering in the doorway, it felt like a whole lot of time was passing with Hooter and his sweat and his shoes stuck in the bloody mess and vomit and all. But the question still needed to be answered: where was Norm? Hooter barely stood the man on a good Vermont day. But the thought he could be lurking with a machete or some other pointy deadly weapon was too much for Hooter. He upchucked again. “So much for DNA, ” he thought as his stomach lurched again. Time to go.
On his way to the door, Hooter decided to make a telephone call back to the garage. At the time, it seemed logical. He was late from lunch and people might ask questions. On a closer look, it seemed more like the sort of thing innocent people do at a crime scene that gets them life in the can. He removed his hand from the vicinity of the hall telephone.
The whole thing was looking worse and worse. Playing detective worked out better on TV. In fact, the longer he was in the house the squirrelier he got about ever playing detective again. This one wasn’t like his usual cases: finding Quebecois snowmobilers who veered off the trails into the Roaring Brook or chasing down old Frog LaBounty as he crossed the street just as Verne Pickles decided to peel out of his spot in front of the Double Axle. This was the whole damned scary arsed thing. A real murder starring Hooter and his hired man and his lovely wife Gladys. “Holy Jesus! I’m going to die.”
Self-preservation is a wonderful thing. And Hooter was a self-preserving kind of rural philosopher who had made a living in this rural one-stop by living by his wits and a marginal talent for fixing engines.
Time to go. Stepping along the hallway, past the hall stairs, a thought occurred. Or maybe it was the small unfamiliar voice, a curious whisper inciting Hooter to take a moment to check the upstairs. “Oh, go on. What can it hurt?” But if he was discovered now, he could always say that he was looking for the murderer. It was his civic duty. It didn’t sound too convincing, even to Hooter.
He found himself wrestling with the inner voice, the desire to see what scary thing might be up the stairs, and running for his life around the back of the house and through the shrubbery. Hooter thought he might just keep going if he made it that far.
But there his feet were: planted on the third step and headed up. Hooter was betting all this stair creeping and wall hugging was going to get him a big fat nothing. Hooter was, of course, very wrong. Norm had been home the entire time.
If you didn’t know what had happened at the Weston’s the night before, you might have thought Norm was asleep, except for the tangle of bedclothes and the look on his face. It was the look that finally sent Hooter over the edge. The last thought the frightened man had as he hurled down the stairs and out the front door was that he really didn’t give a damn who saw him. He wasn’t going to stay in that hellhouse another second.
Across the yard, Mr. Guido Pedroli observed Hooter’s progress as he bolted down the front steps and passed out cold on the front lawn. With a sigh, he telephoned Sheriff Les Goode.
The next few hours were the toughest of Hooter’s life. If it wasn’t for the bizarre method of Gladys’ demise, he would have gone straight to the pokey. Feeling grateful to the psycho who had visited the Weston’s house sometime during the middle of the night and used such imagination, Hooter still spent some quality time with his legs and buttocks falling asleep on one of the dirty plastic chairs in the Sheriff’s interrogation room. Les Goode and his Boys were not happy with Hooter. Good cop, bad cop, it was all the same to Hooter. He couldn’t come up with a coherent story and he kept gagging with the dry heaves.
Finding no reason to detain Hooter, and becoming increasingly alarmed by his tendency to vomit when asked a question, Sheriff Goode let him go with a warning not to leave the county.
When Mr. Pedroli was asked about Hooter’s movements, and about any other suspicious characters he might have seen in the neighborhood, the old Italian blamed the murders on a black dog roaming the town. And promised there would be more. Unfortunately, Mr. Pedroli was written off as a state hospital case. Lacking any good leads and having a mess to clean up, Sheriff Goode called the State Police.
While Hooter was busy with the Westons, Monique was discovering her limits. This business of being a heroine was harder than she thought it would be. All shaking hands and nervous blinking of her dry eyes, she slid onto the driver’s seat of her rust bucket 1995 Ford F-150. Staring into empty space, Monique hit replay in her mind’s eye. She saw herself careening down the hill straight at the black dog.
Was there something supernatural about the animal? Or was it just stunned with cold and hunger? It never moved, not even when Monique struggled to control the old pick-up and it spun closer. She asked herself if maybe the dog controlled her spin down the hill. But that was dumb. Still, it’s stare never wavered. It never blinked. It seemed entirely comfortable watching. If that was true, what role did it play in her losing control? And what had saved her from crashing?
It took a few more minutes of reminiscing about the eeriness of the night, the strange black dog and her near miss before she could name what had saved her. Monique was raised a good Catholic Quebecois girl and prayers came as natural to her as enjoying a slice of her grandmother’s Tourtiere on Christmas Eve. So, that was it. Simple really, wasn’t it? In what might have been her final moments, Monique called out in a voice begging for protection: “Pere, sauvez-moi.”
That was that. There was something to it after all. No one was kidding around when she knelt beside her bed as a child. She wondered if half the adults who had foisted their spiritual values on her would understand it was all real. Now Monique knew what had to be done, what way she had to take. It was quite simple: she would pray and it would leave. Even to her it seemed too simple but she was fresh out of ideas. Simple was better. She hoped.
Monique was a woman full of thoughts and ideas, suspicions and assumptions. She was especially unclear about what she now believed was demonic possession or a demon or something else weird and unpleasant. And she was unclear about boundaries: hers or theirs. Either way she wasn’t taking any chances.
Her first stop was the West Burville Catholic Church, St. Ida of the Grotto. Who Ida was had passed into memory; but, that was where the holy water font was and that was where Monique figured she needed to start.
Stealing holy water was not a good way to begin to fight the Devil but she had to start somewhere. It wasn’t that she was intentionally stealing to get her kicks (like those altar boys who siphoned off the red wine from the gallon of Jolly Friar Father kept under the storage cabinet), this was for a worthy cause. After all, it wasn’t as if she was taking a statue or emptying the font, she just wanted a quart or so. Maybe a half gallon to be on the safe side.
Parking outside St. Ida, with the engine running and the driver’s door pointing at the front door, Monique tried to look inconspicuous and busy. She slipped through the church doors. Luckily no one was there, unless you counted God. Was he watching her?
Spying the font inconveniently placed at the front of church, Monique bolted down the center aisle. As she skittered to a stop next to the marble font she was on the verge of fainting. What would God think? Was he telephoning old Father Spenckleman as she crouched around the back of the font? Monique expected the Voice From On High to bellow at her. Instead she got silence and the far off sound of a slamming door. Better hurry.
Digging the empty half gallon juice jug from under her coat, Monique plunged the jug, and her bare hand, into the font. What was that cold weird smell? Why was it holy water always had the same weird smell? You could go to any church in the world and it would have the Universal Holy Water Smell.
But Monique wasn’t at St. Ida on a social call. Capping the dripping jug, she made for the door. But which one? Just as she was about to make her escape back up the center aisle with the contraband holy water, she heard voices in the vestry. So this was it. Fancy explanation time. “Yes, that IS a jug of holy water under my coat, Father. I was just laying in a supply for the winter.” She was about to be caught with the goods.
If old Father Spenckleman caught her he’d interrogate her like the KGB. It was widely speculated among the faithful that he had left his sense of humor at his last parish. Prodded more by fear of being caught than by the possibility of what might happen later, Monique bolted out the side door and slid around the granite church to her car. Wheezing like the old pipe organ at St. Ida, she realized she’d off-loaded half the holy water as she sprinted for her car.
Jamming it into gear and merging like a pro, Monique floored it to the Cross Road and the center of West Burville. As she screeched around the corner she nearly pitched into one of the Sheriff’s cruisers. What was going on?
Monique had seen enough cop shows to tell when something was very wrong. This scene had all the elements: lots of grey uniforms, green uniforms, flashing lights, men in dark suits, radios and a crowd of bystanders shuffling their feet. As she listened to the overwrought deputy with the shaved head and the voice pitched up an octave, her attention drifted to the yellow tape surrounding the Weston house.
A terrible sick-at-heart feeling took Monique and she knew the black dog had found better game. How she knew she would never be able to reckon but it didn’t matter. She was sure. Feeling studied she looked up the street and locked eyes with the dog watching her from its vantage point on the edge of Mr. Pedroli’s lawn.
Grabbing the deputy’s arm she yelled, “Look, look up the road. Do you see it? That dog, the black one. Go get it. Hurry.”
For a moment, the deputy interrupted his tirade about tickets and speeding and cutting him off and followed her jabbing finger. “What are you pointin” at, lady? I don’t see nuthin’.”
Monique thought the deputy might not be looking in the right spot. “Look, follow my finger. Right on the edge of that old man’s lawn just behind the guy in the red jacket. What is wrong with you? Can’t you see it? It’s a huge black dog.”
The deputy was tiring of this crazy woman’s finger pointing at nothing and informed Monique there was nothing there. And she was definitely getting a ticket just for wasting his time. Before he left he did give her one useful tidbit of information: “That crazy old Italian guy next door kept telling us pretty much the same thing: some big black dog was creeping around here. And guess what? No one believes him either. No one else has seen it. Why don’t you two get together? Maybe you could start your own detective agency.” With a nasty snicker the deputy swaggered over to his cruiser. Monique turned to consider Guido Pedroli’s house. The dog had disappeared.
…to be continued