By Ian Wilson (Rated G)
The smell of food and beer wafted through the air of Granny’s Bar. The usual patrons sat in their usual spots just as they had five years ago. All eyes watched us. I swaggered to the bar, ignoring their stare. Conrad followed my example.
“Why are they staring at us?” asked Conrad.
“I might’ve made a little name for myself in these parts,” I replied.
A cheerful man in a hawaiian shirt approached me grinning from ear to ear.
“Walter!” he cried, jovially. “You son of a gun! I ain’t seen you since they put your old man in the ground! How are ya? Where have you been? Everybody here thought you were dead!”
“I’m doin’ alright, Perry,” I replied. “I’ve been here and there. This is Conrad Lefontain, my traveling companion.”
“How do you do,” said Conrad, shaking Perry’s hand.
“Welcome to North Fork. I’m Perry Wankle, postman.”
Sam was tending the bar, his eyeballs seemed like they were glued to me, wide as saucers.
“Sam,” I said, nodding.
“Walter,” returned Sam.
“What’s a man got to do to get a beer in this town?” I asked, jokingly.
“Coming right up,” said Sam, hesitantly.
“Gonna be here long?” asked Perry.
“I don’t know yet,” I replied.
“You better not,” rumbled a voice from behind. I spun around on my stool to see Joey Reed looming behind me.
“Howdy Joey,” I responded.
“What’re you doing here?” he asked.
“Getting a beer,” I said.
“We thought you were dead,” continued the lummox.
“So I gathered,” I said.
“You’re gonna wish you were!”
“Now wait a minute, men,” said Perry, “let’s have no undue fussing!”
Joey ignored Perry and came in for a right hook punch. I blocked his arm while punching him in the gut. Joey doubled over. I threw the missing link on the floor.
“I’m gonna assume that name you made for yourself wasn’t a good one,” remarked Conrad.
Joey staggered to his feet and wound up to hit me again. Conrad got up from his stool and approached Joey.
“Listen man, I don’t know what y’all have been through,” he began, “but whatever it was is in the past now. Just gotta let it go.”
Granny scuttled out of the kitchen with a wooden spoon. She gave Joey a good whack to get his attention.
“Shame on you, Joey Reed!” she chirped in her quaint Appalachian drawl. “Startin’ a fight with Walter on his first night back in town after five years! Now, get outta my bar before I call the sheriff!”
Joey hurried out of the bar with his tail between his legs. I took a seat and sipped my beer.
“Welcome home, Walter,” said Granny.
“Thanks, Granny,” I replied. Everyone called her Granny. She was Granny for practically the whole darn town.
“This Conrad Lefontain,” I said, gesturing to my friend.
“Pleased to meet you,” said Conrad, smiling slightly.
“Everyone calls me Granny round these parts,” said the elderly woman.
The bell over the door rang behind us. The grizzled sheriff removed his hat and greeted Granny. Sheriff Donne was tall and lean and had a weathered look.
“Walter,” he said, “I heard you were back in town, but I almost didn’t believe it.”
“Howdy Sheriff,” I said. I was waiting for them to kill the fatted calf. “Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”
Sheriff Donne chuckled. A pretty young woman entered behind Sheriff Donne. She wore a deputy’s uniform, and her black hair was braided on the back of her head. I recognized her, but I couldn’t place her. She looked like she was Native; probably Shawnee tribe, though I wasn’t sure. Her brown eyes locked on me with the intensity of a sniper.
“This is my new deputy, Julia,” said the sheriff, gesturing to his deputy. “You know Walter Ulric, right? Must’ve met him in high school.”
“By reputation; we didn’t run in the same circles.” From her tone, she wasn’t all that impressed. “We heard there was a little disturbance here, came to check it out.”
“Everything’s all settled, Charlie,” said Granny. She was the only person in town allowed to call him Charlie.
“Good,” said Sheriff Donne. He sat down at the bar to my left. “Now how about some of that lemon meringue pie?”
“Mighty peculiar things have been going on since you hit the road,” said Perry.
“Perry, let’s not have that,” said the Sheriff. “Walt’s only been back five whole minutes.”
“What sorta peculiar things, Perry?” I asked. The postman had piqued my interest.
“Well, folks have been seeing the Goat-Man,” replied Perry.
I felt my skin crawl on my back.
“Say what?” blurted Conrad.
“The Goat-Man,” said Perry.
“I have a feeling I wanna know this story,” said Conrad. Perry took a deep breath and began to repeat the tale just as he’d told me when I was just a 12-year-old boy.
“Well, the Goat-Man is a half-man, half-goat monster who lives in the woods here in Swaggart County. They say if you see the Goat-Man, death is certain to follow by the next new moon.”
“Where did it come from?” asked Conrad.
“Outside,” I replied.
“Outside of what?” inquired Deputy Julia, who’d been listening attentively up until now.
“Some call it ‘Hell’,” I replied.
“Walter?!” another voice assiled me from behind. It was the familiar, booming voice of my Uncle Jimmy Craig.
“Uncle Jimmy,” I replied, swivelling around.
“Where the Sam Hill have you been, boy?!” he said. His face puckered like he’d just bitten an extremely sour pickle.
“Here and there,” I replied.
My Aunt Mary stood next to him with her hands on her hips.
“Your mother has been worried sick!” she scolded. “Why didn’t you tell her you were back in town?”
“Well, I needed a beer,” I said, sheepishly.
“We’ve got beer back at the farm!” said Uncle Jimmy.
“Hello, I’m Conrad LeFontain, his travelling companion and distraction from awkward conversations.”
“Howdy,” said Uncle Jimmy, cordially. “Get yourself back to your mother before I tan your hide!”
I did as my Uncle told me, and we departed from the bar.
Soft light flooded the gravel drive as I returned to my childhood home. The sheepdog barked at us happily from the field. I patted her head tenderly. My boots clunked on the wooden steps of the old front porch. I took a deep breath and opened the door.
“Ma, I’m home!”
My mother approached me with tears in her eyes. We embraced. After a long time, Ma finally pulled away and said: “Where have you been?”
“Been here and there,” I replied. “It doesn’t matter, now. I’m home and ain’t going away anytime soon.”
Conrad came in at this point and stood by, awkwardly waiting for my mother and I to take notice.
“Oh, this is Conrad LeFontain. We’ve been travelling together.”
“Hello, Mrs. Ulric,” said Conrad.
“Did you do anything with my old room?” I inquired.
“Almost exactly as you left it,” said Ma. “Most of the town thought you were dead, but I held out hope you’d come home.”
“No way!” said my cousin Katherine. She crossed her arms and slouched slightly in that way teenage girls do.
“I am not spending another night next door to the thing that wouldn’t stop snoring!”
“Katherine, your cousin’s been away for a long time, you might mind your manners,” said Ma.
“Does your whole family live in this house?” asked Conrad.
“Not my father’s side, but you already knew that.”
“Oh, I’m sorry Conrad, but I don’t have another bed prepared for you,” said Ma. “But our couch is open if you need somewhere to crash.”
“I’m good,” replied Conrad. “I brought my camping trailer.”
“Lemme warm you boys some supper.”
“That’d be great, Ma.”
“I’m so glad you’re home!”
Next morning came in grey and cloudy. I rose just as breakfast was concluding for everyone else.
“Morning, Walt,” said Ma. “Sleep well?”
“Mighty fine,” I replied. “Conrad around?”
“He’s been out on the lawn doing some kinda weird dance,” said Uncle Jimmy.
Conrad was religious about his martial arts training, and practiced his forms nearly every morning.
“So what do you plan on doing now that you’re back in town?” said Aunt Mary.
“I don’t rightly know,” I replied. “Maybe work the farm for a while.”
“Could use an extra set of hands,” said Uncle Jimmy.
Just then there was a knock at the door. Ma opened it for Steve Gunderson, who had apparently passed Seminary and was a bonafide priest.
“Steve!” I said, rising from my seat.
I embraced the red-bearded man and invited him inside.
“Where have you been, Walter?” asked the priest.
“Here and there,” I replied.
“That was specific,” said Steve sarcastically.
“He’s been that detailed with everyone,” said Katherine.
“When I heard you were back in town I almost didn’t believe it,” said Steve. “Everyone assumed you were dead.”
“Never called, never wrote,” said my Ma as she went out the door to tend the land.
“I even had a prayer vigil for you,” said Steve.
“Well, I’ve been pretty much everywhere in the continental US and part of Canada,” I said with a shrug. “We’ll have to have a word about that.”
“We will,” said Steve, placing his hands in his pockets. “But I didn’t come here to goad you into coming to church.”
“Come into my office,” I said, leading the minister out behind the horse barn. Conrad was stretching his legs nearby. I called him over. I had a feeling I knew what the minister was here to talk with me about.
“This is Conrad LeFontain,” I said. “He’s a member of the Fraternity of St. Michael.”
The two shook hands.
“This is about the Goat-Man isn’t it?” I asked.
“Yes,” answered Steve. “He’s definitely back again. And people are dying.”
“How many?” I asked.
“Three, thus far.”
“That’s bad,” I said. The understatement of the century.
“I’m getting the feeling y’all have dealt with this Goat-Man before,” said Conrad.
“We did,” said the minister.
“We sent it back to where it came from for a time,” I said, “but apparently it’s back again and stirring up trouble.”
“What exactly is it?” asked Conrad.
“I believe it to be a type of demonic entity of uninhabited places,” said Steve. “It feeds on humans.”
“I see,” said Conrad. I could see he was thinking about something. “Well, we’ll need to keep it from coming back, so we need to find the point of entry. Do either of you know how it came in?”
“We were just kids when it happened first,” said Steve. “We didn’t know about the point of entry and all that stuff.”
Conrad nodded. “Where is it seen most frequently?”
“Near Devil’s Holler,” I replied.
“A fitting name. Take me there.”
The smell of rotting leaves and something I couldn’t identify enshrouded the holler when we entered. Conrad looked around.
“Yup,” he said. “We’re getting close.”
“How… how do you know?” asked the minister.
“It’s a gift,” said Conrad, “or a curse.”
We followed Conrad through the dead leaves and briars until we came to an old shack. Conrad approached the structure.
“Um, Conrad,” I said, “I don’t think that’s a smart idea.”
Conrad ignored me and opened the door. The air was thick with the foul scent of death. Conrad entered first, and I followed. Steve gagged as he entered behind me. We crept quietly and carefully around the small kitchen. I heard the drone of insects emanating from the next room. I followed my ears to find a gruesome sight; the body of a man seated in an old rocking chair, many days dead. An old sickle was lodged between his ribs. The minister nearly vomited.
“We need to call the sheriff,” I said in a monotone voice.
Soon enough, Sheriff Donne and all five of his deputies, plus the county coroner swarmed the shack, taking evidence and asking us questions.
“And you have no idea who this man was?” asked Julia.
“Nope,” I responded. “Never seen him before. Of course some of his face ain’t there anymore, so it’s hard to tell. Plus I’ve been away five years.”
“And why was it you were in his shack?”
I lit a cigarillo and took a long slow puff.
“Conrad sensed something weren’t right.” I replied.
“You’re acting like it was me that killed him!” I said, exasperatedly. “I just got to town last night, and that feller’s been dead for a week or more!”
“I’m trying to find the truth, Mr. Ulric,” replied Julia. “Now if you won’t tell me what the devil you were doing in the shack then I’ll just ask Mr. LeFontain, or Father Steven.”
“They’ll tell you the same story.”
I sort of enjoyed being grilled by Julia; I’ve always been attracted to intelligent women, but we had more important things to focus our attention on.
“Julia,” said Sheriff Donne, “take it easy on Walter. There’s no way they had anything to do with this.”
With that, the interview was over. They carried the body to the morgue and along with the evidence they’d gathered. Conrad, Steve and I were free to go.
“What now?” asked Steve.
“We come back,” I said. “Tonight.”
The dark, cool forest yielded no sound that night. Not even a cricket. The only noise was the sound of our boots in the autumn leaf litter. Steve carried a bright flashlight, and a water gun filled with holy water. Conrad also had a small flashlight. Who knows what all else he was carrying. I had my trusty revolver loaded with silver bullets, plus a few other things. My night vision is good enough that I don’t need a flashlight.
As we got nearer Devil’s Holler, it seemed like the night grew darker. A putrid odor filled my nostrils. Conrad staggered.
“You alright?” asked Steve.
“I’ll be okay,” said Conrad, leaning against an oak. “There’s just a lot of evil energy here.”
“What do you mean by that?” asked Steve.
“I can sense the spiritual dimension,” replied Conrad. “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not. It’s not good right now.”
“Need a minute?” I asked.
Conrad nodded. I peered through the darkness, searching for whatever might be lurking in the shadows. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. Whatever it was melted into the night. I looked at Steve. His eyes were transfixed on two points of light burning out of the black like twin candle flames, staring at us with predatory intensity. I drew my gun and pointed it at the creature. Whatever it was darted away into the dark. I chased after it, the clergyman and the clairvoyant bounded after me. In my mad dash, I tripped over a tree root and fell flat on my face. The thing, whether it was actually the Goat-Man or not, had vanished. Conrad and Steve helped me off the ground.
“You alright?” asked Steve. I responded in the affirmative.
“It’s gone now,” said Conrad.
“Was it… him?” asked Steve.
“Definitely,” I replied
“We’ll have to strategize before he kills again,” I said.
The alpacas made their bleating noises from the next pasture over as I slung hay into the trailer. I was surprised that Ma had sold the cattle for those weird camel-sheep, but apparently it was a good investment. They were lower maintenance than cows, and the fur was warm. Conrad sneezed.
“Hay fever?” I inquired.
“Yeah,” replied Conrad.
He produced one of those middle-eastern scarves and wrapped it around his face.
“Better,” he said, slinging another bale into the trailer.
“We ain’t got all day!” said Uncle Jimmy seated in the tractor, a cigarette drooping from his lip.
“I don’t see you lifting a finger,” I replied.
“Someone’s got to supervise.”
“Walter!” said Ma as she came around the corner of the barn.
I smiled with my hands on my hips. Ma looked serious. My mouth drooped.
“Deputy Julia is here to see you,” she said.
“What about?” I asked.
“She didn’t say,” responded Ma. “You better not be getting into trouble again.”
I approached the front porch, where Julia stood. She looked at me with a concerned expression. I couldn’t picture what could’ve made her look that way.
“Deputy,” I said, nodding my head.
“Mr. Ulric,” she started.
“Call me Walter,” I said.
“Mr. Ulric, I saw something last night that I can’t quite explain.”
“Sit down,” I said, indicating a chair. She took her seat, and I settled in an adjacent chair.
“I believe I saw the Goat-Man,” she said hesitantly.
“…You alright?” I asked.
“I don’t know yet,” she replied. “I don’t know what to think yet. I’m still trying to find a rational explanation.”
“There ain’t one,” I stated, glibly. “Where did you see it?”
“Out on McDougal’s Road,” she replied.
“Sounds about right. What time?”
“I saw it on my jog at daybreak.”
I scratched my short, stubbly beard, and pondered the implications.
“You’ve been marked for death,” I said.
Julia rang her hands.
“I thought it was just some made-up story to scare children.”
“That’s what they all think,” I said.
“Is it true, then?” asked Julia, changing her tone.
“Is what true?” I inquired, not sure to what she was referring.
“That you’re a werewolf?”
I paused for a moment; it was sort of a badly kept secret that I was a werewolf. Few folks in North Fork hadn’t heard about it, and about half of them didn’t believe it.
“Yes,” I said at last.
Julia seemed a bit taken aback.
“How do you handle it?” she asked.
“I just do,” I replied. “Everyone has a burden to bear; mine just happens to have big teeth, lots of hair and a taste for red meat.”
“What do I do now?” asked Julia, getting back to the problem at hand.
“You help me send that thing back where it came from for good.”
The nearly full moon rose into a naked sky, illuminating the lawn outside Julia’s home. I stepped up to the door andI rang the bell. Conrad and Steve were behind me. A rather stout woman answered the door. She wore a pink bathrobe and her hair was wrapped in a purple towel. Her eyes practically popped out of her head when she saw me.
“Howdy, Cassandra,” I said amiably. “What’s new?”
“W-Walter?!” she exclaimed.
“Yeah, I know, you thought I was dead.”
She leaned on the doorpost and placed a hand on her hip.
“What are you doing here?”
“He’s here to help me.”
Julia emerged from the interior of the house. She wore blue jeans with holes in the knees, and a West Virginia State Police Academy tee shirt. Her hair was down for once. Cassandra turned around and tilted her head to one side.
“Julia?! What the heck?”
“I need his help for something,” said Julia.
Cassandra marched over to Julia and ushered her into the next room.
“What’s going on?” asked Conrad, standing behind me.
“They have history,” said Steve.
“Cassandra and I dated in high school.” I replied.
“Do you have this effect on most women?”
Cassandra and Julia emerged from the next room.
“Let’s get one thing straight,” said Cassandra, wagging her finger at me. “Anything happens to her, you’re dead.”
“Nothing’s going to happen, Cass,” said Julia. She put a rubber band around her hair and pistol on her hip.
“That ain’t gonna do you much good,” said Conrad.
“Besides, you’re staying in here,” I added.
“No I’m not,” retorted Julia.
I squinted at her.
“It’s my life that’s in danger, Mr. Ulric, and I’m the one that’ll defend it.”
“Then you ain’t going out there unarmed.”
Steve handed Julia a water gun. She looked at him like he was out of his mind.
“It’s loaded with holy water,” said the clergyman.
She rolled her eyes and took the weapon.
The silent hours passed as I sat on the porch next to Julia, drinking coffee and breathing in the cool air. The door creaked open behind us and Cassandra appeared, holding a large bowl.
“I made popcorn,” she said, handing the bowl to Julia. “Reckoned you might get hungry.”
“Thanks, Cass,” I said. She said nothing to me and went back into the house.
“What all happened between you two?”
“We dated in high school. She found out I’m a werewolf. Some bad crap happened.”
“You are by far the most tight-lipped person I have ever met,” said Julia, drawing legs up on the porch and leaning her chin on her knees.
“I value my privacy,” I responded as I munched some popcorn.
“You went to the State Police academy?” I asked.
“Yup,” she replied.
“Now who’s being tight-lipped?”
I gathered that this wasn’t a discussion she wanted to have, and let it rest. I took my walkie talkie from my belt and spoke into it.
“Getting anything, Conrad?”
“Nothing, yet. What’s that crunching sound?”
I gathered he was referring to my popcorn.
“Do you have snacks?” I heard Father Steve ask.
“You really shouldn’t lie to a priest!”
“Fine. Yes, we have snacks!”
“Not sharing because…?”
“I’ll take them some popcorn,” said Julia. “Good grief! You’re just like children!”
Several minutes passed. I figured she’d just gotten to chatting, but something wasn’t right.
“Hey, I thought you were coming with snacks?” said Conrad through the walkie.
“Uh… Julia was supposed to bring it.”
My heart pounded through my chest. I leapt from the porch and ran to the side of the house where I last saw Julia. A single, white, canvas shoe, the one Julia had been wearing, lay on the lawn. Conrad and Steve joined me by the discarded footwear. We all looked at each other.
“Well… Crap,” I said.
We followed the trail of dark energy through the woods as fast as we could. I could smell the putrid scent of the congealed malice that was the Goat-Man lurking in the dark. We finally came to Devil’s Holler. I saw the Goat-Man half-dragging, half-carrying Julia. She had a look of absolute terror on her face. The Goat-Man looked back at me with pure spite in his bestial eyes. I stopped and drew my six-shooter. Instantly the creature disappeared. I hissed a curse and bounded after him.
I caught him down at the deepest part of the holler, next to a large, perfectly circular hole in the earth.
“A hell-hole!” gasped Conrad as he joined me.
The Goat-Man began lowering the struggling Julia into the pit. I raised my six-shooter. Two shots rang out. Black blood poured from the wounds. The creature buckled, and melted into a puddle of black ooze. Dark, fetid smoke curled up from the ooze. I ran to the edge of the hell-hole. Julia was holding on to the edge for dear life. I took hold of her arms and pulled her out of the hole. She hugged me tight and cried like a baby.
Steve stood at the edge of the hell-hole chanting Psalms and waving a thurible, while Conrad walked around the circumference sprinkling blessed salt and chanting the responses. The aperture slowly closed. Julia sat on a log next to me, silent, trembling. I placed my jacket over her shoulders.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Welcome,” I replied.
“What… was that thing?”
“Evil,” I replied.
“I don’t think I’ll sleep for a year.”
“That’s kinda how I felt when I saw him the first time.”
“Will it come back again?” she inquired.
“No,” I said. “He’s gone back to where he belongs.”
The power drill whirred as it screwed my home-made sign into the fencepost nearest the road.
“‘Ulric and LeFontain Paranormal Private Investigators’?” read Uncle Jimmy. “What the Sam Hill?”
“I figure if I’m gonna stick around here, I might as well do some good,” I said.
“Will you have an office? Like a real office?” asked Katherine, who stood nearby.
“Yup,” I replied. “Gonna be in the old barn.”
“Great. Just great.”
Uncle Jimmy walked away shaking his head. I ambled back to the old barn, where the masked Conrad was sweeping up dirt and debris.
“We’ll have this place ship-shape in no time,” I said as I entered.
“If by ‘no time’ you mean 6 months, then yes,” replied Conrad.
“Don’t be a wet blanket. Between our technical skills we should have this place looking like a real office.”
I sat down in an old wicker chair. The old barn door cracked open, revealing Deputy Julia.
“Julia!” I said. It was at that moment that the old chair collapsed.
I struggled to my feet. Julia offered her hand.
“Your mother told me I’d find you here,” she said. “Nice job on the sign.”
“Thank you,” said Conrad. “Some of my best work.”
“You alright after what happened?” I inquired.
“I’ll be okay, I think,” she replied. “How do you sleep at night, knowing those… things are out there?”
“With a revolver and a crucifix under my pillow,” I replied.
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
For the first time since I’d come back to town, she smiled.
“Anyway, It might not look like it, but we’re open for business.”
“No we ain’t!” said Conrad. “I still gotta open a business account with the bank, and you need a PI license.”
“Right, well, if you need anything, be sure and let us know.”