A Walter Ulric Story
By Ian Wilson (Rated G)
The door opened with a loud creak as Larry Wankle showed me into the darkened barn that served as a hangar for his crop-dusting service. Flipping a switch, Larry flooded the structure with a warm incandescent light, revealing an old Cessna sitting idle in the middle of the barn.
“Well, there she is,” said Larry. “I call her Mable.”
I looked at the aircraft, then back at her pilot.
“Call me Larry.”
“Larry, I ain’t a mechanic.”
“Well, I am,” said Larry. “And I have no explanation for why she’s acting up. I figure it’s gotta be gremlins.”
Gremlins. Of course. I’d never seen one myself, but I’d heard of them. They’re little devils who like to create havoc in machinery such as planes and automobiles. I believe they’re a sub-type of boggard; when humans started using machines, the boggards adapted. Keep them happy with porridge or bread, they’ll leave you alone. Irritate them, well, you’ve got a big problem.
“Found ‘em a lot in the Sandbox,” continued Larry. Larry had been an airforce pilot during the first Gulf War. He had since retired, starting a successful crop-dusting business here in North Fork, West Virginia. “The little critters would eat through our engines something awful!! Some days it was all I could do to keep them A-10 Warthogs in the air.”
“Any idea how they’re getting in?” I inquired.
“Not a clue,” replied Larry with a shrug. “I thought you’d know.”
I wished I had brought Conrad with me; the man was a human radar. I figured it was such a small job, I could easily handle it myself. I looked around the barn, watching, listening for the vaguest hint of life. Switching off the light, I allowed my super-human night vision to take over. Something scuttled behind me. Turning around, I cautiously drew my pistol from the holster. Suddenly, a small, black, winged form pounced on me, sinking its tiny fangs into my flesh. It hissed, having come in contact with the holy oil Father Steve had anointed me with that morning.
Tearing the gremlin off me, I threw the little fiend away. I tried to shoot, but the gremlin darted into the darkened corners of the barn. Tiny, raspy giggles floated up in the rafters. A shot rang out, ending the creature’s mirth. The gremlin fell from its perch. Just to be certain it was dead, I fired a silver bullet into the little, batlike body. The dead gremlin disintegrated into a pile of ash, which I swept away with my boot. Pivoting around, I looked at Larry, who stood in the doorway holding a rifle.
“Looked like you were in a bad spot,” he said.
I shook the pilot’s hand, thanking him for his help.
“Make sure Father Steve comes by to bless the place. And hang a horseshoe over the doorway.”
“Roger that,” he replied, tipping his flat-top cap. “Thank you kindly, Walt!”
With that, I mounted my motorcycle and rode back to the farm. The enthusiastic barking of our bull terriers, Smith and Wesson, greeted me as I rode up the gravel drive to my shed-turned-office.
Opening the door I found my partner, Conrad, and my cousin Katherine painting the newly installed drywall. Three young kids, about ten or eleven years old, stood near the desk I’d made out of scrap lumber and some elbow grease.
“You look like crap,” said Katherine.
“Gremlins,” I mumbled, taking my seat at the desk.
The kids stared at me; a red-haired girl flanked by a dirty-blond boy and a dark-haired boy. The red-head eyed me with an expression I normally associate with Sheriff Donne or Deputy Julia. The dark-haired boy looked at me with a mixture of fear and wonder. The dirty-blond looked less than impressed.
“Is there… something I can help y’all with?” I asked the kids.
“Are you really a werewolf?” asked the dark-haired kid.
“I thought you’d be taller,” said the dirty-blond boy.
“I’m Willow,” said the red-haired girl. “These are Nate and TJ,” she gestured to the dirty-blond and the dark-haired boys, respectively. “We’d like to hire you.”
I looked at Conrad. Conrad looked at me. Katherine went back to painting.
“We don’t have any clients right now,” said Conrad.
“Hire us with what money?” I inquired.
Nate placed a jar of coins on top of the desk.
“Twenty-five dollars and thirty-three cents,” he said. “And this trading card. I’m sure it’s worth some money.”
I looked at Conrad again. He shrugged.
“Do your parents know about this?” I inquired.
“Our parents won’t believe us,” said TJ.
I leaned back in my chair, scratching my short beard.
“Why do you want to hire us?” asked Conrad.
“There’s a monster in the McGruder house on Twigg Ave,” said Willow.
“It ate my cat,” said TJ.
Conrad looked at me, I looked at him.
“That place has some history,” I replied. “What makes you think there’s a monster?”
“We saw it,” replied Willow.
“What did it look like?” asked Conrad.
Nate produced a colored-pencil drawing of a black, hairy creature that was vaguely humanoid.
“What time did you see it?” I asked.
“About ten o’clock,” said Willow.
“What the Sam Hill were you doing out at ten o’clock at night?”
“Technically, we weren’t supposed to be out at all…” said the little girl with some hesitation. “We were looking for TJ’s cat.”
I let the matter pass. I was young and rebellious once.
“Well, kids,” I began. “I don’t know how to tell you this but OW!”
A blunt object impacted the back of my head. Spinning around, I glared at Katherine. She scowled back at me, one hand on her hip, the other grasping her long-handled paint roller.
“Gimme a sec.”
Kathrine escorted me outside.
“What was that for?” I asked, indignant.
“Walter, look at those kids!” said Katherine, equally irate. “You owe them the decency of checking this out at the very least!”
“You said my business idea was stupid!” I retorted.
“I did, and I still think that, but they believe you’re the real deal, Walter, and if you have any decency at all, you’ll at least have a look around.”
“Fine,” I growled, turning on my heel.
“We’ll take the job,” I said to the kids.
The red haired girl smiled and stuck out her hand, which I shook.
“Let’s see this house.”
We stood outside the decrepit house, staring at its vine-entangled walls and unkempt garden. The place definitely looked like something out of a horror movie, and it lived up to that reputation, or so I’d been told.
“Well, no sense standing around,” I said. “Better have a look-see.”
Grabbing hold of the wrought iron fence surrounding the property, I climbed over to the other side. Conrad, however, was already there.
“The gate wasn’t locked,” he said.
“I knew that,” I lied.
Up the flagstone walk we went to the front porch. Boards covered the broken windows, the paint peeled, a tangle of Virginia creeper and wild grape vines climbed up the siding. In all, the place looked pretty dismal.
When I tried the handle, the old oak door swung wide open; the lock had been damaged at some point. The main room smelled like mold and mildew mixed with animal feces and urine, though it wasn’t intolerable. Old newspapers and magazines littered the floor, along with other bits of garbage from decades of druggies getting high in there. An old CD player sat in the corner; it looked like it was from the 80s or the 90s. A welcome sight greeted me as I opened the deck.
“Well, shucky-darn!” I exclaimed.
“What is it?” inquired Conrad.
“The Black Album!” I said, holding the coveted Metallica album aloft. “An original! I’ve been looking all over for this!”
Conrad rolled his eyes at my heavy metal obsession. “Come on, we got work to do.”
I shoved the disc into my jacket, and we continued our investigation.
“Well,” I said, looking at Conrad, “you getting anything?”
“I’m getting serious vibes,” replied Conrad. “Something in here doesn’t want to be here.”
I scanned the floor, taking note of everything I saw, when something caught my eye: an old horseshoe nailed to the frame of the front door. When I looked around, I realized that every door and window had a horseshoe similarly nailed above it. Most of the older houses in this area had a horseshoe over the doorway, so it wasn’t all that noteworthy at the time. However, typically the horseshoes are nailed to the outside of doorways, not the inside, and normally, only one was deemed necessary.
A floorboard squeaked behind us. We spun around in response to the noise. The three young’uns I thought had gone home stood in the entryway.
“What are you three doing here?” I asked.
“We’re just trying to help,” said TJ. “Would it hurt you to show some gratitude, wolf-boy?”
“How did you get in?” asked Conrad.
“What are ‘vibes’?” inquired Nate.
“My mind is… special,” said Conrad. “I can sense things going on in the spiritual dimension.”
“Cool!” said Willow, obviously enthused.
Lighting a cigarillo, I resumed my examination of the main floor.
“Smoking is very bad for you,” said Nate.
I took a long puff. “Kid, in my line of work, if I die from lung cancer, I’ll consider it a win.”
“How many monsters have you killed?” asked TJ.
“Do monsters really live under the bed?”
“Some do,” replied Conrad.
“What do they look like?” asked Willow.
“Lots of things,” I answered. “Most of ‘em look just like people.”
Nate looked alarmed.
“How do you know if someone is a monster?” he inquired.
“There are ways,” replied Conrad.
Willow looked quizzical.
“Where do they come from?”
“A place I call the ‘outside’,” I replied.
“An alternate reality,” explained Conrad. “Like a shadow world to ours.”
“How do they get in?” asked the girl.
“They get in through hell-holes,” I explained.
“What are hell-holes?” asked TJ.
“Imagine our reality is like a piece of cloth,” began Conrad. “Someone on this side can cut a hole through to the other side of the cloth, and whatever is on the other side can get into our side.”
“Sometimes when the cloth gets worn,” I added, “it starts getting more holes in it.”
“What happens then?” asked Willow.
“More monsters get in,” I said.
Nate’s eyes widened even more.
“That’s why we’re here,” said Conrad. “Too many holes in this part of the fabric. We’re here to patch them.”
“I got the lay of the land, Conrad, let’s get outta here and we’ll come back after dark.”
Turning around, we walked out of the McGruder house, shutting the door behind us, not that it did much good.
“I’ll bring snacks!” said Willow, as we went through the wrought-iron gate.
“No, you won’t,” ordered Conrad, sternly.
“You’re going to be home, in bed, where you kids belong.”
“You are no fun,” said Willow.
“Tried having fun once,” I remarked.
“What happened? You enjoy yourself too much?” said TJ in a snide tone.
“Got in a fistfight,” I paused. “It was fun, though.”
“Sometimes I question my association with you,” said my partner.
It was then that North Fork’s only postman came strolling down the lane, mailbag in hand.
“Howdy, Walt, Conrad, kids!” he said amicably.
“Howdy, Perry,” I said.
“Hi, Mr. Wankle,” said Willow.
“Heard you fixed my brother’s gremlin problem,” said Perry.
“Whatcha up to, now?” asked the postman.
“There’s a monster in that house,” said Nate, pointing.
Perry visibly shuddered. “The McGruder house.”
“You know what happened there?” asked Conrad.
“I wasn’t alive when it happened,” said Perry. “But they say something horrible happened back in the 30’s. What actually happened is anyone’s guess. Some say old man McGruder was doing black magic. Some say it was Mrs. McGruder. Some say the whole family had a curse. Some say Mrs. McGruder was crazy as a road lizard.”
“Is there anyone alive who’d know for certain?” I asked.
“Maude O’Feeney,” said Perry in a hushed voice, pointing to a small house across the street, surrounded by bare rose bushes interspersed with lawn gnomes. I remembered O’Feeney from my youth. She was a formidable old woman who got a perverse joy out of frightening Perry Wankle.
I felt a hand grab my jacket as I started across the street.
“You’re just gonna walk over there and ask?” asked Perry, startled.
“Yeah,” I replied. “She’s just a harmless old lady.”
“Maude is anything but harmless!” exclaimed Perry.
“Is she a witch?” asked Nate.
“No,” I replied.
“Yes!” said Perry.
The kids looked confused and horrified.
“I’m a big boy, Perry, plus I’ve got a silver crucifix and some holy water in my pocket.”
Turning away from the postman, we crossed the street to the little house, and knocked the old door knocker. A short, very wrinkled elderly woman opened the door. Her long silver hair was braided on the back of her head.
“Walter,” she said. “I heard you were back in town.”
“Howdy Mrs. O’Feeney,” I said, smiling. “May we ask you a few questions?”
“What about?” asked the old lady.
“We are investigating a possible infestation of preternatural entities at the McGruder house,” said Conrad.
“Why didn’t you lead with that?” said O’Feeney. “Come in! Come in!”
She ushered us into the little old house, which was populated with assorted artifacts, old books, magazines, all stacked neatly on shelves and tables. An immense hairy cat lay on the recliner, regarding us through lazy eyelids.
“Conan!” scolded O’Feeney. “Get off the chair! We have guests!”
The cat did as it was told, which surprised me. That’s just the power that O’Feeney has; she can command anything. I took the cat’s seat, while Conrad sat in an old wicker chair, and the kids took up the sofa.
“I’ll go get you something to drink,” said O’Feeney as she went to the kitchen.
“Well?” I asked, looking at Conrad.
“She is incredibly powerful, but benevolent,” replied Conrad.
“Tell that to Perry.”
O’Feeney returned with a pitcher of lemonade and some cups.
“Now,” she said, pouring the liquid, “where are you from, Conrad, and how did you find Walter?”
“I’m from Louisiana,” replied Conrad.
“Oh, parlez-vous français?” asked O’Feeney. They then proceeded to converse in French way faster than I could keep up.
“Hold it!” I said, putting my hand up. “How long have you spoken French?”
“Since always,” replied Conrad.
“He has a heavy Creole accent, but easy enough to understand,” said O’Feeney smiling.
“What can you tell us about the McGruders?” I inquired.
“Not much,” said O’Feeney. “Happened a little before my time. But I heard the tales.”
O’Feeney sat down in an old rocker with her cup of lemonade.
“They say Chester McGruder did black magic. That’s not true. Old McGruder was a deacon at the Presbyterian church and an upstanding member of the community. His daughter was the rebellious one. She’d been spending time out in the hills and hollers with the cunning folk, learning their craft against her father’s wishes.”
Conrad and I looked at each other knowingly. We’d heard the story before.
“You mean like witches?” asked Willow.
“Yup!” replied O’Feeney.
“Like in Hansel and Gretel?”
“Well, they don’t typically eat children, but they’ll do other things. They’ll make your life miserable if you cross ‘em. They consort with heathen gods and such.”
The kids looked at each other like they couldn’t believe what they were hearing.
“One day she and the old man had a falling out. McGruder restricted his daughter to the house, but she escaped one night and went out to one of the hollers. There, she summoned a bugbear.”
“A what?” asked Willow.
“A sort of a boogeyman,” I stated.
“Nearly all these hill towns have at least one wandering the woods,” continued O’Feeney. “Anyhow, the bugbear had quite a supper that night. It devoured both Mr. and Mrs. McGruder and their daughter, but not before she put a binding spell on him. Ever since then, he’s been occupying the place.”
“It ate them?!” inquired Nate, horrified.
“Something like that, yes,” replied O’Feeney as she nonchalantly took a sip of lemonade. The kids stared at her, mouths agape, eyes like saucers.
“I don’t believe this!” said TJ, ever the skeptic.
“Better believe it, bucko!” I said.
“If you’re taking on the bugbear,” said O’Feeney, “you’ll have quite a fight on your hands.”
“I killed the Goat-Man, how bad could it be?” I retorted, shrugging.
“Worse than you could imagine, sweetpea,” replied O’Feeney. “Now, you’d best be running along. Probably about supper time for these young’uns.”
The town was dark and quiet as the tomb when our jeep puttered down Twigg Ave on our way to McGruder’s. A strange musical noise waylaid us as we exited the vehicle, seemingly emanating from O’Feeney’s.
“Is that… banjo music?” asked Conrad.
Sneaking up to the six foot solid wood fence we peered over into the back lawn. The lawn gnomes had become animate and danced around the garden, playing mountain music, with Maude O’Feeney playing fiddle with the band. Conrad and I slowly ducked behind the fence.
“Well… That was weird,” I said.
Crossing the empty street, we entered the house, made even creepier by the darkness. Conrad switched on his flashlight and we made a slow and careful search. We crept up the creaky steps to the upper floor. Why do they always have to creak? The upstairs was much the same as the downstairs; cluttered, dirty, and crawling with spiders. I hate spiders.
Something stirred among the cobwebs. We drew our weapons. Hearing a sound from the ground floor, I motioned for Conrad to follow me. Back down the stairs we went, slowly and carefully.
Conrad swept his flashlight beam across the room, until he illuminated the three kids I’d told to stay home. Typical. Willow stood in front, armed with a baseball bat. Nate and TJ stood behind her, grasping a crowbar and a big stick, respectively.
“Willow! What the heck?” I exclaimed. “I could’ve shot you!”
“But you didn’t!”
“Wipe that smile off your face and get outta here! I told you to stay home!”
“We opted to ignore that,” said TJ.
I rubbed my face with my hand. “Why do I even bother?”
“Just go home, we got this,” said Conrad.
“What was that?” said Nate, looking into a darkened corner.
“What?” I asked.
“I… saw something move,” replied the frightened boy. Willow brandished her bat, prepared for action. TJ’s eyes widened. He pointed at me; his mouth open, but he was speechless. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a huge shadow looming over me. I spun around, but the bugbear vanished into the darkness. Suddenly, black hands reached out of the shadows, taking hold of Nate and dragging him into the dark, screaming. I dared not fire for fear of hitting the boy.
“Nate!” cried TJ.
Conrad and I chased the beast down, ripping through cobwebs and dodging debris, following the sound of metal hitting flesh. We found Nate, standing alone in the kitchen, gripping his crowbar.
“Nate!” said TJ. “You’re alive!”
The two boys hugged each other.
“You OK, little dude?” asked Conrad.
“I’m good, I just need a minute.”
The boy ran over to the sink and vomited. Not an unexpected reaction.
“Why didn’t the bugbear eat him?” asked Willow.
I didn’t have time to ponder her question, though, as a big black fist reached out of the shadows and grasped my leg. The bugbear dragged me, struggling into a dark corner of the house. Drawing my revolver, I loosed several silver bullets into the thing, having minimal impact on it. I uttered a profanity.
Footsteps thumped on floorboards as Conrad and the kids ran after me, yelling and screaming. Conrad shot a stream of holy water from his squirt-gun. It vanished like smoke, hissing like a cottonmouth. Taking the hand Conrad offered me, I got off the ground, patting the dirt from my bluejeans.
“Well, that was fun,” I said, sarcastically, “Let’s do it again.”
“You kids need to get home. Now,” said Conrad, pointing to the door.
“We should probably do what he says,” said Nate.
TJ nodded in agreement.
“Fine!” said Willow with a huff.
They marched toward the front door, but the bugbear had other ideas. It seemed to appear out of nowhere, blocking the way out. All three children shrieked. I was running out of ideas; my silver bullets seemed to just make the thing angry.
Racing into his coat, Conrad produced his crucifix and holy water pistol and moved toward the thing, chanting in Latin. There was a series of thudding noises as Nate repeatedly whacked the bugbear with his crowbar. It shied away like a startled horse, dissolving into the dark.
“Iron!” cried Conrad. “That’s it! It’s the iron!”
Two hairy arms enveloped me in a demonic embrace. I struggled to get free but the bugbear was too strong. Bending its head toward my ear, it spoke only two words in a hoarse whisper: “Release me.”
“The horseshoes!” I cried as loud as I could. “Take ‘em off!”
Quick as a flash, Nate tossed the crowbar to Conrad. Immediately he began prying the horseshoes from the windows and doors as quickly as he could. Meanwhile, I was still locked in a life and death struggle with the bugbear. True to its nature, the thing was intent on devouring me.
There was a loud “whack”.
“Let him go!” yelled TJ, as he smacked the bugbear with his stick.
Another whack came from Willow’s baseball bat.
“That’s for Duffer!”
The creature, distracted by the continuous assault, weakened its grip enough for me to get a hand free. Reaching into my pocket, I drew out a bottle of blessed salt and uncorked it with my teeth. It howled in pain as I threw contents in the creature’s face. Finally, it let me go and escaped into the night, wandering off to whatever unhallowed gen would house it.
We stood silently in the middle of the room, sweating and panting.
“You okay?” asked Nate.
“Yeah,” I replied. “I’ll be alright.”
A creaking rattling noise filled the room. The floor heaved and shook.
“We should leave,” said Conrad.
“Yup!” I agreed.
We all high-tailed it out of the McGruder house as quick as we could. Just as we left the threshold, the whole structure collapsed.
“Well… crap,” I said.
Willow began to giggle. She was soon joined by the nervous snickering of TJ and Nate. Even I cracked a smile. Then the sheriff arrived.
It wasn’t too much later that we found ourselves face to face with Deputy Julia. She glowered at us from across the table in the interrogation room
“So you had no idea they were on the property?” asked Julia.
“Nope,” I replied. “Not till they showed up.”
“We told ‘em not to come,” said Conrad.
“Yet they claim they hired you?”
“Well, they kinda did,” I replied.
Julia raised her left eyebrow. Under other circumstances I would’ve found it alluring.
“It was a charity case,” said Conrad. “We’re basically working pro bono.”
“We’re still trying to get our names out there as a private I’s,” I said. “Gotta do some freebies here and there.”
“For kids?!” exclaimed Julia.
“Yeah, why not?”
“I don’t know, it just seems… underhanded.”
“If I can’t help the most vulnerable in North Fork, who can I help?”
Julia sighed. “…You have a point.”
“Look, we were in no way intentionally endangering those kids. They just showed up like they weren’t supposed to. Weren’t you ever a kid once?”
Just then the sheriff entered.
“You’re free to go,” he said. “Their parents ain’t pressing charges.”
Conrad and I heaved a huge sigh and stood up to leave. Sheriff Donne caught me by the arm.
“I had to do some tall talkin’ to get you off the hook, boy,” he said in a low growling voice. “Don’t make me do that again.”
“I’ll try, sir.”
It was a clear Saturday morning as I walked over to my office to add some new improvements and a second coat of paint. I found the door already unlocked; I figured Conrad must’ve gone in early with the same idea. To my surprise, I found Willow, TJ, and Nate painting the walls, while Conrad supervised.
“What the Sam Hill?” I exclaimed.
“Good morning, Walter,” said Willow.
“Good morning,” I returned.
“We figured that since we couldn’t pay you what you’re worth,” said Nate, “we’d help you out in other ways.”
“Well, thanks, kids. We really appreciate it.”
I sat down at my desk and reached for a cigarillo, then decided against it.
“Will the bugbear come back?” asked Nate.
“Probably not,” I replied. “Bugbears live out in the woods; they don’t like living in town.”
“If he comes back we’ll handle it,” said Conrad. The kids looked relieved. I considered it a job well done.