Changeling

By Ian Wilson (Rated PG)

A cool breeze filtered into the room through the half-open window. I puffed thoughtfully on my cigarillo. My partner, Conrad LeFontain, sat in the corner, reading something on his tablet. I was never much for them things; too much technology these days.

“Mail call!” said a voice from outside. 

“Howdy Perry,” I said, inclining my head to the lanky, middle-aged postman. 

“Howdy, Walter, Conrad,” replied the postman, tipping his pith helmet. “You’ll never guess what happened today!” 

Perry was known for telling tall tales, which most people thought he’d fabricated. Conrad and I knew better. Perry rarely just made stuff up, no matter how fantastic. 

“What happened, Perry?” asked Conrad, sitting up in his aging recliner. 

“Another hell-hole opened up on my mail route!” replied Perry excitedly. 

“Great. Another one” said Conrad with exasperation. We were all the time having to close them things.

“Where?” I asked.

“It’s on McElwaine Way, past Dead Horse road.” 

“We’ll take care of it,” I said.

“You going to the class of 2008 reunion?” asked Perry. I cringed. 

“Probably not,” I answered, taking another puff of my cigarillo. 

“Why not?” asked the postman. 

“I got my reasons.”

“Well, I’ll be there, seeing as the wife’s a math teacher,” said Perry.

“I figured as much,” I said.

“It ain’t too late to change your mind,” said Perry. “Well, see you around… the bend.”

“Good day to ya, Perry,” I said.

Perry went off on his merry way. 

“Well, we got a hell-hole to fill in,” said Conrad.

We gathered up our equipment and put it in the back of our old jeep. I started the engine, and we puttered down the road to McElwaine Way. 

“You getting any vibes?” I asked.

“Yup,” replied Conrad. “There’s a dark energy vortex coming around this next curve.”

This region had been prone to hell-holes since at least the late 19th century. It probably started with the supposed Corn-Man cult in Crooked Horn, just on the other side of the hills from North Fork.

I parked the jeep along the side of the road. We got out and took our equipment out of the back. It didn’t take us long to find the hell-hole. The black circle opened in the forest floor, waiting for someone to fall in… or out.

I sprinkled salt around the edge of the hole. Conrad then took out the holy water and tossed some of it inside the hole while praying in Latin. The hole slowly closed. 

“Do you think anything got out?” I asked. 

“Possibly,” said Conrad. “I’m still getting some dark vibes on the other side of those trees.”

“Well, we better investigate that,” I said. 

Conrad had a special power; he was able to see and sense things no one else could. His ability to see into the spiritual dimension has proven incredibly valuable to me throughout our partnership. He can pick up a trail of dark energy like a bloodhound. No one knows exactly how his powers work, not even Conrad. He simply calls it a gift. 

I followed closely behind him through the forest. Given my unusual heritage, I too could sense things weren’t quite right. We came to a clearing in the forest that was marked off by police tape. 

“Hello,” said Conrad. 

We looked into the property on the other side of the tape. It was one of the little houses that one finds in these parts, with red, wooden siding. County Sheriff’s vehicles were parked along the road and deputies were coming in and out of the house. I saw Julia there, of course. She had blue rubber gloves on and was taking notes on a tiny notepad. Her long, sleek, black hair was in a bun on the back of her head as usual. I walked under the police tape.

“Walter, what are you doing?!” asked Conrad.

“I’m gonna talk to Julia,” I replied.

“She gonna be pissed!” he warned. 

“What else is new?” 

“Deputy!” I called as I swaggered across the lawn to Julia, who scarcely looked up from her notebook. “What brings you out here on this fine September day?”

Julia scowled at me.

“Walter, what are you doing here?” she asked. Her voice dripped with annoyance. 

“Just closed a hell-hole,” I replied, “How about you?”

“What does it look like I’m doing?!” She’s cute when she’s mad. 

“What happened here?” I inquired.

“None of your business!”

“Oh, Walter!” said Sheriff Donne, as he ambled out of the house. “I might need your help with this.”

“Sheriff!” protested Julia, “he’s intruding on an official investigation!”

“I’ll say when he’s intruding, deputy,” replied the sheriff. “Come on in, Walt. You too, Conrad.”

The walls and floor of the small cottage were splattered with blood. Furniture, appliances, books, and other articles littered the floor. 

“What the Sam Hill?!” I exclaimed.

“Where’s the body?” asked Conrad. 

“Follow me,” said Sheriff Donne. 

He led us to the coroner’s van, where a body bag lay, waiting for transport. He partially unzipped the bag so we could see the face of the victim. His skin was pale; paler even than a dead body would be normally. His throat was sliced open with a knife.

“I don’t see anything supernatural about any of this,” said Julia.

“Julia, people don’t just up and cut each other’s throats around here!” said the sheriff.

“Hmm,” I said, scratching my close-cropped beard. Something about this seemed familiar. What was it? 

“This ringin’ any bells for either of you?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said the Sheriff, “Can’t quite remember why. I’ll check the old case files and give you a call if I find anything.” 

“Thanks, Sheriff.”

Conrad and I started walking back to our jeep. My brain was flooded with memories from high school; the names, the faces, the terrible things that happened that sent me on the path I now trod. I was not going to that darn reunion. 

I thought about the events of that day as we sat at the supper table enjoyed the beef stew my Ma made. My Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Mary Lou sat across from me. My cousin Katherine sat to my left, Conrad to my right. I ate my bread and stew in silence while Uncle Jimmy recounted something that happened to him in the Gulf War. 

“You going to the reunion, Walt?” asked Uncle Jimmy. 

I Looked up at him and swallowed a mouthful of stew

“Nope,” I said, returning to my meal. 

“Why not?” he pressed. I gave him an expression that was probably akin to Dirty Harry as he was asking a criminal if he felt lucky.

“High school was a waking nightmare, Uncle Jimmy,” I said. “I’d rather it be forgotten.”

“It can’t have been that bad,” said Katherine, brushing a lock of hair away from her face.

“Try going through what I go through every full moon and see how bad it is,” I said.

“Try being a girl,” she retorted.

“She’s got ya there, Walter,” said Ma. 

“Turning a wolf is a great way to ruin a date,” I said.

“I wasn’t aware you dated in high school,” said Katherine.

“Katherine…” said Aunt Mary Lou, raising one eyebrow. She could say more with one eyebrow than most people could in five minutes of conversation.

“We got any pie?” asked Conrad, changing the subject.

“That we do, Conrad,” said Aunt Mary Lou. Aunt Mary Lou wasn’t the best cook in the mountain country, but one thing she knew was pie. As she was getting up to get said dessert, a melody emanated from my vest pocket. I took my phone out.

“Walter, you know the rule about phones at supper,” said Ma.

I went out on the back porch to take the call.

“Ulric, paranormal private detective, how can I help you?”

“Walter,” said Julia. “I think you were right about this.” 

“Right about what?” I asked. Julia rarely admitted I was right about anything, so I needed to savor the moment.

“The body… it didn’t have a single drop of blood in it.”

“That’s not natural,” I said, making an understatement to hide anxiety.

“I just… figured you should know.” 

“You gonna be alright?” I asked. 

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” she replied. She wasn’t fine.

“Well, gimme a call if there are any more developments.”

“I will. Goodnight, Walter.”

It was a Friday morning as the red sun rose over North Fork. Conrad and I had returned to the crime scene to find any more clues to the creature’s identity. 

“This is a bad idea, man,” said Conrad, as I jimmied the lock on the old house. 

“Look, there’s a monster loose in North Fork, and we’re gonna track it down and send it back to where it came from,” I said.

Conrad cleared his throat and tapped my shoulder. I turned my head to see Julia standing behind us. Her arms were crossed, her lip was curled.

“I thought you two would come back here,” she said. She produced a key and opened the door for us. 

We walked inside, carefully looking at the evidence.

“Is there anything in here that could tell us what that thing is?” I asked.

“Could be a vampire,” offered Conrad. 

“Naw,” I replied, “Vampires don’t use knives, normally.”

Father McKay’s ringtone started playing in my vest. I answered the call.

“What can I do for ya, Steve?” given that we’d known each other since middle school and he knew I meant no disrespect. 

“Walter,” he replied, “something’s come up. I need to see you at your office.”

“I’ll be right there,” I said, hanging up.

“Gotta go,” I said. 

“But Walter, I need you on this!” protested Julia.

“Conrad can help you, I gotta talk to an old friend.”

The minister was waiting outside for me when I arrived. He was pale as a sheet. 

“Steve,” I said, “You’re bleached!”

“I know,” he replied. “I barely slept last night.”

“Come in, you better have a seat.”

We sat down in my office, and I reached into my desk drawer where I kept a bottle of whiskey and a couple of glasses. The priest gladly took the glass. 

“Now,” I said, “What happened that’s gotten ya looking like that?”

“I saw… Francesca last night” replied Steve.

My blood ran cold at the mention of that name. Francesca Kilkenny, “Franky” to us, was Steve’s high school sweetheart until she disappeared into the woods one day. We searched for days until someone found her. Except what they found wasn’t Franky. It looked like her and sounded like her, but it wasn’t her. She’d been replaced by something horrible. It would slowly drain the life-force of a willing victim until he was nothing by a husk. That nearly happened to Steve. An unwilling victim it would just kill. It was the first thing I banished to the dark dimension. It must’ve come back into our dimension through the hell-hole. Everything made sense, now. 

“You’re sure of that?” I asked.

“I thought I’d been seeing things when I saw her walking along the side of the road, but then I saw the news.”

I took a sip of my whiskey. 

“What are you going to do?” he asked. 

“Track it down, then I’ll probably have to put it down.”

“You okay with that?” asked the priest. 

“I don’t have a choice,” I replied. “That’s not Franky. It might look like her, but as far as we’re concerned, she died ten years ago.”

Steve looked like he was going to break down crying. He’d been carrying the memory of what happened for a long time. 

I put on my Sunday clothes. My hair was brushed, and my beard groomed for once. My revolver, loaded with silver bullets, was nestled in my shoulder holster. I topped it all off with my best suede jacket. 

“Where are you off to?” asked Katherine. 

“High school reunion,” I replied.

“I thought you weren’t going.” 

“Changed my mind.” 

My boots clunked on the front steps of Julia’s place. The door opened, and there she was, her dark, Shawnee hair was all braided and dolled up. She wore a pretty floral dress and a nice pair of boots. I stared at her longer than I probably should have.

“What?” she said, narrowing her eyes at me.

“You clean up good, Julia,” I replied.

“You’re not so bad yourself.”

Probably the first time she complimented my appearance. We got in the jeep and drove to the high school. Conrad sat in the backseat.

“What makes you so certain it’ll be at the reunion?” asked Julia.

“Vibe,” said Conrad.

“Conrad’s rarely wrong,” I added, pulling into the nearly packed parking area.

“Stay here,” I said to Conrad. 

“Dude!” he replied.

“You didn’t go to high school in North Fork; what are you supposed to be? My date?” 

With that, Conrad consented. 

Matilda Wankle, my old math teacher, greeted us as we entered the gym. 

“Oh, hello Walter, I didn’t think you were coming!” she said. 

“Well, I changed my mind,” I replied.

“Julia, I didn’t think you were part of the class of 2008,” said Matilda. 

“I was a year behind,” said Julia, “but I couldn’t let Walter go alone.”

“Isn’t that sweet,” said Matilda. “Well, y’all have a good time there.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Wankle,” said Julia. 

The place was packed with old school mates. Some of them waved at me or gave me a high-five; some just nodded. Most looked at Julia. The DJ played 3 Doors Down as we mingled.

“Okay, what now, Walter?” asked Julia.

“We watch and we wait,” I replied.

“Howdy, Walt!” said a voice from behind. Perry Wankle stood there in a blue blazer and a Hawaiian shirt; his standard attire for such events. 

“Didn’t think you were coming to this shindig.”

“Ma changed my mind,” I replied. 

“Well, help yourself to some punch! Made it myself!”

I took the punch glass from Perry. It smelled peculiar.

“Perry, is this…?”

“White lightning?” said Perry, quietly as he could. “You didn’t hear it from me.”

And away he danced. It was an open secret that Perry owned a still, but the sheriff turned a blind eye. 

I scanned the crowd again. Then I saw it. It was talking to Barton Baxter, formerly the captain of the football team and my arch enemy. Barton waved at me and smiled that idiotic smile. I approached them, with Julia close behind. 

“Howdy, Baxter,” I said. 

“Ulric, how’s things?” he said. “Still chasing shadows?”

“Yep,” I replied. 

“You remember Franky, right?” he said, gesturing its direction. 

“Hi, Walt,” it said, looking at me through evil eyes.

“Hi, Franky,” I responded. “How’ve you been?”

“I’ve been well.”

It had a predatory look in its eye.

“I don’t think you know Julia,” I said, trying to act natural.

“Hi,” said Julia, “I was a year behind the rest of y’all.”

“How much did he pay you?” jeered Barton. I thought maybe he’d grown up since school. He hadn’t. 

“Excuse me?” said Julia. 

“Well, you didn’t just come here with this wacko,” replied Barton. 

“You got something to say, Baxter, just say it,” I said. My eyes were like daggers.

“Are you implying that I’m some kind of call girl?” said Julia, placing her hands on her hips.

“I’m not implying anything,” said Barton, putting his hands up.

“Listen, buster,” said Julia, “Who I go out with is my business. Walter didn’t have to ‘buy’ my time. All he did was ask. I said yes, because, unlike you, Walter is a gentleman.”

Barton Baxter stood there in stunned silence. The thing that looked like Franky had wandered off somewhere, unnoticed. Julia took me by the arm and dragged me to the punch bowl. 

“Where’d she go?” I asked.

“I didn’t see,” replied Julia. 

“We’ll have to find her again,” I said, downing a punch. I’d need it to get through the evening. 

“We should split up,” said Julia. 

“That’s what it wants,” I returned. 

“Walter, I’m armed, we’re in a building full of people, what’s it gonna do?” 

Julia went to another area of the gym, I searched the crowd again. Then my eyes met it’s. It was across the gym from me, near one of the hallway doors. It gave me a wicked smile and its eyes turned black. It beckoned to me. I walked slowly in its direction as it disappeared down the hallway.

We were alone in the hall. My hand started to reach for my gun. 

“What you did wasn’t right, Walter,” it said. 

“Not from where I’m standing,” I replied. 

“A girl’s got certain needs,” it said. 

“You’ve killed folk,” I said, “Nearly drained the life outta Steve, and you expect me to just let you walk?”

“Walter, I’ve been just so lonely these last ten years.”

It walked a little closer to me, seductively. I froze. I couldn’t bring myself to move. 

“Get back!”

Steve stood behind me, holding a crucifix. His shout was enough to break the trance. I drew my revolver, but the thing bit my hand. The weapon fell to the ground. The creature pushed me into the wall and pressed its lips against mine. My will was broken. I could feel my life-force draining out of me. Before the next new moon, I’d be a shell of the man I was; another victim.

A shot rang out. Then another. The thing slumped to the ground, dead. Steve stood nearby, holding my revolver in his shaking hands. He dropped the weapon to the ground and fell on his knees. 

I heard Julia’s voice telling everyone to stay calm. She busted into the hallway, Glock drawn. 

“Are you alright?” she said, returning the gun to her purse.

“We will be,” I replied, placing my hand on the minister’s shoulder.

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