This Halloween I am offering up one of my Victor McCain short stories for free. It is set in La Grange, Kentucky, my former home town and takes place in the basement of Karen’s Book Barn, a store I once owned. Any of you who have been in the basement of the store, know just how spooky it can be. So please take a few moments and enjoy Back to Hell.
On my day off, all I wanted was a frickin’ book to read and a glass of bourbon to sip. But as some smart dude named Robert Burns once wrote, the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men often go awry. (See, I can be cultured once in awhile). And seems the phrase should include bounty hunters. Living my life as the Hand of God is full of hunting and killing things that hunt and kill other people and it often feels non stop. Which means even a brick like me needs a break every now and then.
When Detective Linda Coffey, my current paramour, asked me to spend the day with her wandering in and out of the small shops in La Grange, Kentucky, I decided I needed a play day and agreed to join her. Actually, she decided for me by telling me I owed her. And I did.
She had time to waste away the day because she was serving a thirty day suspension for trying to go all vigilante on my brother’s ass (the asshole deserved it) and not following police procedure. Seems we have more than a little in common when it comes to not getting along with authority. Thankfully she managed to keep her badge, just barely, and since the whole thing was kind of my fault, I owed her. Good thing, because that’s the only way you will get me going anywhere near an antique store.
In her early thirties, Linda stood a bit taller than average, with long brown hair and eyes the color of an Irish shamrock. Speaking of Irish, she often displays the temper of a drunk Irishman. Hell, after throwing a few shots back, I’d seen her beat down drunk Irishmen.
“Tell me again why we’re going to this podunk town?”
I’d picked her up in my red 69 Chevelle and we were rocketing out to the middle of nowhere with the windows down and the breeze blowing through our hair. Molly Hatchet’s Flirtin With Disaster rocked out the stereo system. It had become my unofficial theme song.
She flashed me a killer smile and waved a brochure in front of my face. “Because it is the only town in America with train tracks down the middle of Main Street. And Kurt said there are some great antique stores and restaurants we can check out while we wait for a train. He said you’ll love it.”
“You telling me you’ve never seen a train before?”
“Not going down the middle of the street. You can stand a few feet away as they go by, close enough to touch them.”
“It’s still a train,” I grumbled. “Remind me to thank Kurt when we get home.”
Kurt Pervis is one of my partners in fighting Satan and his minions. A computer geek with some serious social issues, he none the less means well. Well, not this time. Kurt knows I hate shopping of any type, let alone for some old stuff people used to own and now want to sell to you for a boat load more than they paid for it.
She patted me on the cheek. “That’s the spirit.”
She went back to reading from the brochure she found on the Google Machine. “The town used to be a weekend getaway spot for people in Louisville when steam locomotives ruled the rails. When the railroad no longer stopped in town, they had to adapt. And now, instead of small hotels and retail stores, you have touristy type stores.”
Super. A tourist town. I couldn’t wait to get there. “Why not just give me a sharp stick so I can go ahead and poke my eyes out?”
We parked on the courthouse square and I was quickly forced to admit, rather grudgingly at first, I liked the place. Sure enough, the tracks ran smack dab down the middle of the street, which must have played hell with traffic when one came through town.
It was a gorgeous mid-Spring day and walking hand in hand, we strolled down the sidewalk at a leisurely pace, floating in and out of stores. I smiled and responded with positive feedback every time Linda asked if I liked something she obviously loved. Hell, I’m not stupid. Well, not that stupid.
When we got to a place called Serendipity, she said, “Kurt says we absolutely need to have lunch here. He requested pictures.”
I glanced in the window and had my doubts. At six-foot-six and two-hundred and eighty pounds, small shops with narrow aisles are not the easiest for me to navigate. And they all seem to have a habit of pointing out the “you break it, you own it” sign the moment I walk in the door. I once again fixed a smile on my face. “Sure. Why not.”
Inside, the shop was a cross between a restaurant, nick nack shop and homemade candy store with an ice cream parlor in the back. Hmm, ice cream. Things were looking up. We sat in a rear room, Linda on a bench and I perched on a small chair that barely held half my ass.
The waitress was taking our lunch order when there was a loud thump above our heads. We glanced at the ceiling and the waitress frowned.
She gestured up to the ceiling with her thumb. “There’s a second floor of stuff for shoppers, but I didn’t think anyone was up there. It must be the ghosts,” she said.
“Ghost?” Linda asked.
She gave a wink. “We have two ghosts, a doctor and his son, and they sometimes knock things off the shelves upstairs.”
Linda gave a quick laugh and pulled out the brochure and took a quick glance. “I forgot to mention, Vic, they have ghost tours here in town. Seems many of the houses and stores here are haunted.”
“Do you believe in ghosts, sir?” The waitress asked.
In truth, I did. I’d nearly died in a haunted house of horrors a few months ago, but if you admit you believe in such things, most other sane people peg you for a one-way ticket to looney town.
“Yeah, Vic, do you?”
Linda knew what was going through my head. I stuck my tongue out at her, showing once again who the adult was in our relationship. “Young lady, I think anyone who believes in ghosts has a screw loose.”
The waitress laughed and left to fill our orders: an egg salad sandwich for Linda and a chicken salad sandwich for me. We traded small talk until our food came and Linda snapped a picture of me eating a blueberry scone with my pinky extended and sent it to Kurt.
The food was fabulous and when we finished our meals we snagged ice cream cones and headed outside, sitting on two chairs in front of the store until we were done. Still no trains and my lovely girlfriend was starting to get pissed. To make herself feel better, Linda decided to hit another antique store. This idea made me want to find an antique sword and ram it through my skull. I pointed to a book store across the street.
“Why don’t I go into Karen’s Book Barn and browse a bit. You can come get me when you’re done antiquing.”
“Deal,” she said and fist bumped me. I knew Linda loved reading as much as I loved going through other people’s stuff. She disappeared into the store and I crossed the street without using the crosswalk. I’m a rebel. Ask anyone.
I shoved the door open and was greeted first by a chime, then by a teen, her brunette hair pulled into a ponytail and wearing a Marvel comics t-shirt with Spider-Man surrounded by the rest of the Avengers. She asked, “Can I help you find anything?” Her name tag read Angela.
“Nah, I’m just browsing, thank you.”
She smiled and returned to pricing a large stack of paperbacks on a cart next to the checkout counter. I pointed to the ceiling and the ornate decorative tin. “Kind of fancy for an old store. I saw over the door this place was built in 1918. I’m guessing it hasn’t always been a bookstore.”
“No sir. It’s been a bookstore for about twenty-six years. Before that I’m not really sure.”
I grunted my thanks and continued drifting up and down the aisles. I love the smell of bookstores, especially old independent ones. This one was perfect. Between the cool architectural details and about a bajillion books, this one was right up my alley.
“Come to think of it, there is a book you could help me find. Do you have a copy of the Three Musketeers?”
She shot me a startled look before replying. I guess you don’t find too many scary biker gang looking dudes coming into bookstores looking for romantic historical fiction, but I loved the book as a kid and wanted to revisit my childhood. She came around the counter and checked a book rack off to one side. “I don’t see it. But we have some older overstock downstairs. Let me run down and see what I can find. I’ll be right back.”
I thanked her and watched her go through a door about half way down one wall and disappear from sight. I picked through some decent fantasy and horror titles and snickered at the thought of “horror”. I’d read a lot of Stephen King in my wicked youth and seems more than a few things he and other authors created in their minds had things as bad or worse loose in the real world.
I’d been browsing about ten minutes and the girl hadn’t come back upstairs. I walked over to the door and yelled down, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll find a copy someplace else. Thanks for the effort.”
I waited, but she didn’t respond or come back upstairs. I stepped through the door and glanced down the steps to the basement. A wan light bulb showed a bare concrete floor at the bottom of narrow wooden steps. I could make out the edge of a couple of bookcases.
I shouted, “Angela? Are you OK?”
Did she trip and fall and hit her head? Turn an ankle? I gave another shout but again, nothing. I took a step back and looked at the front door but didn’t see anyone. I thought about texting Linda to head on over so she could keep an eye on the cash drawer while I went downstairs, but decided I was overreacting.
I had to turn sideways and duck my head to get my frame down the steps which creaked under my weight. Thankfully I reached the bottom without breaking my neck and stepped into the pool of light of what must be the exact middle of the basement considering where the steps started.
The basement stretched off into the darkness on either side and appeared to run the full length of the store. There were three rows of bookcases in both directions and a small workbench in front with tools, old books and a stack of wood where someone had been repairing both books and bookcases. Everything but an Angela.
I started to shout her name again when my peripheral vision caught movement in the darkness to my right at the edge of the pool of light. When I turned to stare at the spot, I couldn’t see a thing, only a deeper pool of darkness. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end and I began to get pissed. I started to reach for the gun I usually kept tucked into my jeans under my shirt, but I’d left it locked in the glove box of my car. I mean, who needs a gun when antiquing? Dumb ass.
I heard a faint sound and realized it was someone whimpering. Someone off to my left in the darkness. I decided it was time to call in the Calvary and slid my phone out of my pocket to call Linda, but down in the dungeon of the store I didn’t have any bars. Of course not. I thought about heading upstairs and calling, but then the whimpering came again and I decided against leaving. If Angela was hurt she might need immediate attention.
I tapped on the flashlight app and the camera light stabbed the darkness with a bright beam of white light and I went looking for the girl. I’d made it two steps when I heard a popping sound behind me and the light bulb went out, plunging the rest of the basement into complete darkness.
I gritted my teeth and kept moving, the smell of old books and underground dampness filling my sense of smell. I once again wished for the feel of the cold steel of my gun in my hand. I softly called for Angela, then wondered why I was whispering. Screw it. I shouted her name. Nothing but the whimpering.
I reached the end of the row of bookcases and saw something tucked in next to a sump pump. When I bent to take closer look, I felt something cold and slimy touch me on the neck, right behind my ear. I spun and threw a punch at who or whatever was there, but the punch sailed through the empty space. Nothing, nada, zippo. I swung my phone around wildly, but all I saw were more books and that was it. I rubbed the spot on my neck with my free hand and held it under the flashlight. Blood. Son of a bitch.
“For the record, I don’t know what you are, but I’m going to kick your ever lovin’ ass to Hell and back, do you hear me?”
Normally I would feel silly saying anything to a dark room — at least I would have before I became the Hand of God. Not anymore. I’d learned to trust my instincts and today mine were going off like a tornado siren. I eased backwards until I felt the wall, then crouched down and checked with a quick flick of the flashlight and sure enough, I found Angela. She was breathing, but unresponsive.
I thought about my options when things got worse. My phone bleeped an alert and told me my battery strength had slipped below ten percent. Damn. Kurt constantly berated me for not keeping my phone charged and I told him I didn’t always want people to be able to find me. In a few minutes, my laziness would soon bite me in the ass if my light died. Time to get moving.
I bent to scoop up Angela and make a run for it. The moment I touched her she came out of her stupor and began to fight me, kicking and screaming, her fingernails clawing at my face.
“Calm down, calm down,” I shouted.”It’s me, Victor. Hell, lady, I’m trying to help you.”
I wrapped my arms around her, pinning her own arms to her sides and then lifted her off the ground. She kicked me hard in the shin and I almost dropped her. I put my lips next to her ear and said as calmly as I could manage, “I’m here to help you, but you have to let me. Please.”
I tilted the phone, illuminating my face for her to see. Wide, round eyes overflowing with fear, locked with mine and in a harsh whisper she said, “He’s real.”
She licked her lips and stared off into the darkness at the other end of the basement, her body going suddenly limp next to mine. I followed her gaze, but saw nothing but bookcases disappearing into the inky blackness beyond my light.
“Who is? Angela, who’s real?”
She pointed into the gloom but I still saw nothing. I loosened my grip and set her down on her feet. I was about to say something when I froze, listening hard. Ever heard someone drag a dead body over loose gravel? Well, I have, and it’s what popped into my head when I heard movement from the other end of the basement.
A voice this side of a hiss said, “Who are you?”
I moved in front of Angela, putting myself between her and whatever this thing turned out to be. “I told you. I’m the guy who’s going to kick your ever lovin’ ass.”
Then whatever it was…laughed. At least I think it was a laugh, followed with a, “We shall see.”
I rotated the phone a few degrees trying to find the voice and picked up movement between two stacks of books. The image was brief, yet I was certain I saw the end of a dark tail slither across the floor and disappear around the corner out of sight. Great.
I asked Angela again, “Who’s real?”
I could hear her teeth chattering. “The ghost who lives in the room down here. He’s real.”
I stifled the urge to laugh and I thought about the waitress talking about ghosts at Serendipity and if I believed in them. There would have been a time when I thought the bookstore was clerk insane for saying it was a ghost. Not anymore.
“There’s a room down here? Where?”
She moved right behind me and pointed past my shoulder to the far corner of the basement. “Over there. People claim to have seen a ghost in the room. It’s him.”
The day was getting better and better. I extended my hand behind me and Angela took it, squeezing it hard and I got us moving again. We had almost made it to the stairs when, with a sad little beep, my phone died and the light went out.
Then things happened very fast. I heard something rush towards me with incredible speed and I shoved Angela towards the base of the stairs a fraction of a second before it hit me in the chest like one of the freight trains passing outside. It’s hard to knock me off my feet but this thing did. And then it hit me three ways: hard, fast and continuously.
I crashed through a row of bookcases and landed on my back and it was all over me. I nearly gagged from a stench, like week old roadkill on a hot summer day. The thing had skin that felt like dried out corn husks. I blocked several blows to my head with my forearms then rolled hard to the side tossing the thing away from me. I barely made it to my knees when I felt two hands grab me by my shirt collar and sling me through the air. I slammed into even more bookcases and landed in a heap while dozens of books fell on top of me.
I heard Angela scramble up the steps and then the door upstairs opened and slammed shut. Smart girl. I worked to control the rising fear in me and to slow my breathing. There are few things in human existence which terrify us more than being stalked in pitch darkness by something which goes bump in the night. I needed to think, and fast.
The thing grew closer, it’s movement slow, like it was taking it’s time. “Who are you?”
I didn’t reply right away. I thought hard. I needed a weapon and felt around in the darkness for something I could use. “I could ask you the same thing. Are you really a ghost? Like the ones across the street?”
The thing stopped moving as if considering the question. A moment later it spoke. “I was. Until you came. Now I am slowly becoming real again. But I am nothing like them. They are afraid of me.” I heard the thing move closer, then stop again. “Who are you?”
I knelt in the dark and reached out to either side and my hands found the bench where bookcases were being built. I searched my mind’s eye for what had been on the bench. “I am Victor McCain, the Hand of God. You know what that means for you?”
Another low hiss. “A Spear of Uriel? That is why your presence has brought me to life. I felt you the moment you walked in. When you came downstairs, I changed.”
The big bad ugly used the name some of the fallen angels used for me. For as long as man has been around, there have been those who served as the Hand of God. I was one of a long line of ass kickers and we all take orders, in one form or another, from the archangel Uriel, one of the few allowed in the presence of God and the guard of the Gates of Hell.
“Yeah, well, I may have brought you to life, but I’ll also be the one who kills you. Again.”
“No, Hand of God, your death will free me. I died on this spot before any of this town existed, before anyone alive today had been born. They murdered me and my thirst for vengeance anchored me to this spot. Year after year, I’ve watched the living and suffered. Tonight, you shall take my place and I will once again walk the Earth. I will bury you where I’ve lain for generations and you will be the one who suffers.”
My fingers slid across the wood surface of the bench until I found what I’d been searching for. “You know what I think? I think you should get used to disappointment.”
I guess I pissed him off because one moment I knelt beside the bench and the next I flew through the air again and didn’t stop until I crashed into a brick wall. I tried to stand but it kicked me in the stomach and sent my flying. I both heard the snap of breaking bones and felt the sharp pain from at least three broken ribs. Crap. I rolled to a stop in a slight depression in the ground and realized the floor was no longer concrete, but dirt.
He grabbed me by the front of my shirt and lifted me off the ground, the pain in my side flared to a mind numbing level, and brought my face close to what must have been his and whispered in my ear, “You were lying in my grave, Victor McCain. There is a war coming between Heaven and Hell, but you will not be here to see it. I will bury you here and with your death, I will be free.”
“Yeah, about that.”
Thankfully, through all the kicking, yanking and tossing, I’d managed to hang onto the two things I found on the bench. When I’d first come down the steps I noticed a pack of Marlboro Lights with a butane lighter tucked into the cellophane wrapper. I hadn’t smoked in months, but I get the urge every time I see a pack. I managed to slip out the lighter and held it tight in one hand, then snagged a book with the other. Now I wrapped my arms around the apparition, flicked the striker on the lighter and set fire to the pages of the book.
One of the things about creatures born of Hell: they hate fire. With a passion, they hate it. In this case, it was more than a feeling, it was physical. I slapped the burning book onto the back of the creature and he went up like a Halloween bonfire.
The thing screamed and dropped me, then spun around in circles while the flames raced and spread. In the rising flames I finally saw his face. Maggots crawled in and around where his eyes used to be and his jaw hung off kilter, having slid to one side. His tattered clothes appeared to be something out of an old colonial reenactment troop. Long bony fingers ended in nails which appeared sharper than a pit bull’s teeth.
We were in a small room made of brick, where the rest of the building had been made of stone. A flimsy plywood door hung to one side. I saw the spot I’d been lying in, what appeared to be a shallow grave. Despite the pain it caused, I turned sideways, kicked out hard and sent it flying into the wall, where it bounced once then fell to the ground, in the same spot where he’d lain for no telling how many years.
In only minutes it had been reduced to a pile of ashes. The book lay smoldering at my feet and I flicked the lighter and in the dancing yellow flame I read the cover of the book: The Three Musketeers. I started to laugh, but quickly stopped. Broken ribs don’t care much for frivolity. D’Artagnan once again saves the day. One for all and all for one burning spook.
I made my way painfully up the stairs and back to the land of the living. When I glanced around, I found Angela sleeping on one of the two couches set aside for customers near the front of store. I bent and gently shook her awake. She rubbed her eyes and glanced around.
“I’m sorry. I must have fallen asleep. That’s never happened before. Can I help you find anything?”
Despite the pain it caused, I laughed. Hard. She didn’t remember a thing. Maybe whatever caused the ghost to become real when I entered the building caused her amnesia when he went up in flames, erasing all trace of the apparition, both in the physical world and the temporal one. I didn’t know, and, to tell the truth, didn’t care. At some point someone would go down to the basement and find a big ass mess, but that wasn’t my problem.
“No, that’s OK. I was only browsing. Have a great day.”
She thanked me, stretched, picked up the pricing gun and started to work as if nothing had ever happened. I shook my head and went outside. There were two rocking chairs in front of the store and I eased myself down into one just as a train started to rumble through town. Linda came out of the antique store across the street, holding two bags to watch the train. She blew me a kiss as the train passed between us and I gave her a wink.
Maybe next time I should try the antique store.