A Walter Ulric Story
By Ian Wilson (Rated G)
‘Twas the week after Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring. That would be me, the sleeping creature. Everyone else was stirring. Anyway, the sound of my cell phone going to town interrupted my slumber.
Raising the device to my ear, I mumbled a greeting into the receiver.
“Good morning, Walter,” said the soft voice on the other end.
“Oh, good morning, Julia,” I replied, sitting upright.
“I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“No, no, I was wide awake.”
“You’re also lying.”
“That’s correct, detective. You have a merry Christmas?”
“As a matter of fact I did. But someone else wasn’t so lucky. Can you come over to town hall right away?”
“Will there be coffee?”
“Alright, I think I can make that happen.”
“See you then.”
Slipping into a pair of bluejeans and a flannel shirt, I headed down the stairs to the kitchen. The smell of cooking bacon and eggs was nearly irresistible, but I didn’t have time to eat; whatever was going on at town hall was too important to wait.
“Good morning, Walter,” said Ma as I pulled my boots on my feet. “You’re in a hurry.”
“Yep, Julia just called.”
“Oooh!” said my cousin Katherine, raising her eyebrows.
“Not like that!” I growled. “Something’s going down at Town Hall.”
“Want me to keep breakfast warm for you?” asked Aunt Mary.
“Naw. I’ll grab a bite with Julia at the diner. Come on, Conrad!”
With that, Conrad and I went straight for the Jeep and started the engine. Down the highway into the sleepy little town of North Fork we went, parking across the street from the Town Hall. Two sheriffs’ vehicles were parked just outside the hall, a police tape guarded the entrance. Julia lifted up the tape as we entered, her brown eyes sparkling a little brighter when she saw me.
“Good morning, Walter,” she said.
“Good morning, beautiful,” I replied, grinning. I sure was a lucky guy.
“Welcome to the crime scene.”
She led us up to the mayor’s office, where Sheriff Donne, Deputy Wankle and a couple of other folks were doing their due diligence, collecting evidence. Mayor Howard O’Donnell stood nearby, pale as a sheet, answering questions and trying to keep from spilling the contents of his stomach all over the crime scene. He gave me a withering glance as I entered the office.
“Howdy, Walter!” said Deputy Wankle.
“Howdy, Harry!” I replied to the deputy. “What’s new?”
It was a grisly scene to be certain. To describe the slaughter that lay before me would make many a more sensitive soul weak in the knees.
“What the devil?” I asked no one in particular.
“That’s pretty much what I thought,” said Sheriff Donne.
“It- it was my secretary, Ms. Dunham,” said the Mayor, burping as he tried to get the words out. “I came in to work this morning and found her… well… dead.”
“How’d she die?” asked Conrad.
“She’d been cut open at the waist and her guts replaced with straw,” said Harry in a matter of fact fashion. Sometimes I think his nonchalant attitude toward things can be kind of crass. The mayor’s face paled.
“Perchta,” said Conrad. I thought for a moment it was some kind of Creole cuss word.
“Perchta?” I inquired.
“She’s an entity of Germanic lore who comes during the Twelve Days of Christmas, inspecting the homes of all the townsfolk to make sure the wives and servants are working hard.”
“Sheriff, what are these two crackpots doing here?” asked Mayor O’Donnell.
“I brought them in as consultants,” replied the sheriff.
The mayor rolled his eyes. “Fine, just keep an eye on them.”
The mayor has never liked me. He probably thinks I’m a bad influence; like I attract black magic to the town.
“Yep,” said Conrad. “I’d know that dark maternal energy anywhere. It’s Perchta.”
“You’ve met her before?” I inquired.
“When I was in seminary in Austria.”
“You’ll have to tell me about that sometime.”
“She’ll probably strike again before Epiphany,” added Conrad.
“What does she want? Why is she doing this?” queried Julia.
“Basically she punishes women and servants who don’t keep a neat house,” replied Conrad.
“Sounds like my mother in law,” said Mayor O’Donnell.
“So I guess your secretary didn’t quite make the cut,” said Deputy Harry, laughing nervously. We glared at the deputy; Harry has all the tact of an old billy goat.
“I’ll be out here,” said the embarrassed Deputy Wankle.
“So she’s a supernatural neat-freak,” I replied. “Great. How do we stop her from killing again?”
“Same way we would stop anyone else,” said Conrad. “Salt, silver bullets, the works.”
“Do you know where she’ll strike?” asked Mayor O’Donnell.
“Anywhere the house ain’t spick and span,” replied Conrad.
“That could be anywhere.”
“I guess we’ll just have to keep our eyes peeled,”
With that, Conrad and I left the crime scene.
“Breakfast?” I said to Julia.
“Of course,” replied Julia, taking the arm I offered. We left Town Hall, crossing the street to Greg’s All Night Diner to get a bite to eat. The bell jingled overhead as we entered; Christmas music playing on the radio.
“Walter, I’m so glad you’re here,” said Greg, the owner of the diner, as one might expect.
“Mornin’ Greg,” I replied to the restaurateur.
“Something weird happened here last night.”
“Lay it on me,” I said, taking my seat at the counter.
“Well, I was about to leave for the night, when this weird old woman came in. She was dressed in these sorta old fashioned looking clothes and she had what looked like big pruning shears tucked under her belt. Anyway, so she starts walking around the restaurant and looking under tables and just inspecting things. Next thing we know she goes back in the kitchen. I tell that’s for employees only, and she says that I can’t stop her. Now, I’m starting to get that… tingling feeling you get when something just ain’t right, so I let her look. She looks at Vanessa, my night cook, and says ‘exemplary work’ and then walks out without another word.”
I looked at Conrad.
“That’s her, alright.”
“Her who?” asked Greg.
“Perchta,” replied Conrad. “A neat-freak witch.”
Greg cussed. “Just what I need; more woodbuggers interfering with my business! You’re gonna get rid of her ain’t you?”
“Consider her gotten,” I replied, taking a sip of coffee.
“Well, send me the bill when you do.”
“Awful decent of you, Greg.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“One thing I don’t quite understand,” said Julia. “If she’s supposed to come every year during the twelve days of Christmas, why hasn’t she come here before?”
“Oh she has,” said a voice from nearby. Maude O’Feeney came ambling over to the counter. She was a good soul, if a bit odd. She’d forgotten more of the lore of Swaggert County than Conrad or I would ever know.
“It was a long time ago,” continued the town eccentric.
“How’d you get rid of her?” I inquired.
“Beating the bounds in April,” replied O’Feeney. “Haven’t done that in a long spell.”
I nodded knowingly. “Beating the bounds” is an ancient practice of blessing the land. It’s practiced in some agricultural communities, but the ritual has fallen into disuse; probably the reason we’ve been having a lot more weird stuff happening in this town.
“Do you know where she’ll strike next?” I inquired.
“Not a clue,” replied the old woman. “Perchta ain’t predictable. She goes where she wills.”
I murmured a cuss word.
“Now, now, don’t go cussin’. That’s like chum to a shark!”
“So she doesn’t like dirty houses and she doesn’t like cussing.”
“Sounds like a magical Karen,” remarked Julia.
“A what?” I asked.
“A Karen. An entitled, stuck up, middle-aged woman who bosses people around or polices their behavior. A busybody.”
“Sounds like my Aunt Fran,” I grumbled.
“Well, this one’s out for blood,” said Conrad. “If we don’t stop her soon, more people are gonna die.”
We all sorta went silent after that. Once breakfast had ended, Julia gave me a peck on the cheek and went on about her business while Conrad and I returned to the farm. My cousin (and now secretary) Katherine sat at her little desk in our office, browsing social media.
“What happened?” she inquired.
“An ancient witch killed the mayor’s secretary,” I replied.
“So business as usual,” she replied.
“More or less.”
I took a map of Swaggart County out of my desk drawer and set it up on the tripod. I then placed a tack on town hall and another on the diner. I stared intently at the map, puffing on the smoking pipe my mother had given me for Christmas. Katherine, my cousin, coughed softly.
“You like it a lot, don’t you?” she asked, referring to the pipe.
“I’m getting used to it,” I replied.
“It makes you look… distinguished.”
I looked at the teen like she was out of her mind.
“Conrad, was that a compliment?”
“Sounded like one to me.”
“Don’t let it go to your head,” said Katherine.
The eighteen-year-old stood up and approached the map.
“That’s not enough to establish a pattern,” she remarked.
“Kat, what do you know about detective work?” I asked, derisively.
“Not much honestly,” the girl shrugged. “But I did get high marks in statistics, and I’ve watched every episode of Elementary, Bones, and Criminal Minds.”
I grunted. “Any theories you want to offer us?”
At that moment, Katherine’s phone buzzed.
“Hold on a sec.”
Brushing her hair from her face, she picked up the device and blushed ever so slightly.
“Who’s that?” I inquired.
“Not any of your business.”
“Probably Todd,” remarked Conrad.
Katherine shot him a cold look.
“Who’s Todd?” I inquired.
“I met him at church.”
“You mean that dork with the suspenders?”
“Ew! No! That’s Randy. I wouldn’t date him on a bet! The guy constantly smells like ham.”
“Todd is… a gentleman.” Katherine said. “He’s got great hair, nice teeth.”
“Cool car,” added Conrad.
“You’ve met Todd?” I asked.
“Once,” my partner replied.
“Why haven’t I met Todd?”
“I was afraid you’d scare him off,” replied Katherine.
I rolled my eyes. “Fine. just get back to the job at hand.”
“Oh crap!” exclaimed Katherine.
“What?” I asked.
“Someone killed Todd’s cat!”
“This is related, I promise. The cat’s guts were cut open.”
Without another word, Conrad and I stood up and went out the door, Katherine following close behind.
“Katherine!” shouted my Uncle Jimmy in his Army drill instructor voice. “When are you gonna muck out the stables?”
“I’ll get to it later, Pa,” replied Katherine.
“You said that yesterday! Better be done by the end of the day, or your aunt’s gonna be madder than a nest of hornets!”
“Sure thing, Pa,” replied the girl as she stepped into the back of the Jeep.
We drove to the location indicated by Katherine as Todd’s house. It was a typical Appalachian home, with peeling green paint on the wood siding. Flagstones led up to a small front porch still decorated with Christmas lights. I rang the bell. A young kid about eleven years old opened the door and let out a surprised yelp.
“Hello, TJ,” I said. “What’s new?”
“W-Walter?” said the startled boy. “What are you doing here?”
“Is Todd home?” asked Katherine.
“Oh hey Kat,” said a voice from the interior of the house. A dark-haired young man came to the doorway, clothed in bluejeans and a hoodie. He gave me a slightly startled expression. I don’t blame him; many have been taken aback by my rugged good looks.
“You must be Walter,” he said.
“That I am. I ain’t had the pleasure.”
I shook the young man’s hand as he invited us in.
“TJ told me about the bugbear,” said Todd. “Did that really happen?”
“Every word,” replied Conrad.
“Todd, who’s at the door?” asked a middle aged woman. “Oh, hello Katherine.”
“Hi, Mrs. O’Connor. This is my cousin, Walter and his business partner, Conrad LeFontain.”
“Oh,” she replied. I could tell by the sound of her voice she probably wasn’t all that impressed with my reputation. “You’re here about what happened last night?”
“Yup,” I replied.
“I see. Well, we can’t exactly afford to hire a detective.”
“Well, you’re not,” said Katherine. “Greg is paying us to investigate this case.”
A moment later, we were seated at the kitchen table, sipping tea and discussing what occurred the evening before.
“Well, we’d just sat down to supper when there was a knock at the door,” said Mrs. O’Connor. “So Todd went over and answered it, him being the man of the house and all.”
“It was this weird, creepy old lady in old-fashioned looking clothes. Like Amish, almost.”
“She had kind of a funny accent, too,” added TJ.
Conrad scribbled some notes in his book.
“Was there anything else about her?”
“She had these… eyes,” continued Todd. “It was like… you ever come face to face with a wildcat?”
I looked at the kid, tilting my head slightly.
“Okay, stupid question. It was like that. It was like she was… sizing me up. And she had these old pruning shears tucked under her belt. So she asked to be let in, and I asked what she wanted. She said she just wanted to come in to inspect. I was thinking she might have dementia or something. I offered to let her use our phone in case she needed to call someone and get a ride or something. All she wanted was to have a look around. Well, Katherine told me never to let strangers into the house after dark, so I told the lady I could drive her to the homeless shelter if she needed someplace to stay. Then she got real mad, and demanded to be let in, but I told her no. Then she said something under her breath in a language I couldn’t understand.”
“The next morning we found Happy dead on the front porch!” said TJ, tears welling up in his eyes.
“How did he die?” asked Katherine.
Todd swallowed hard, like he was trying not to puke. “His guts were cut open.”
Conrad and I nodded at each other.
“That was definitely her,” I said.
“Who?” asked Mrs. O’Connor.
“She’s like an immortal, murderous neat-freak,” added Katherine.
“Oh, so like my Aunt Harriet,” said Mrs. O’Connor. I guess everyone has an aunt or a mother-in-law like that. “You’ve got to be joking.”
“It’s real, Mom!” implored TJ. “It’s all real! I was attacked by a bugbear! A demon prince almost killed me at the library!”
“Calm down, sweetpea,” said Mrs. O’Connor. “I’m sure you saw something.”
“Oh, he saw something alright,” said Conrad.
“I thought it was fake, too,” added Katherine, “until one of those… creatures tried to kill me.”
The woman paused, unsure what to say.
“How do we protect ourselves?” asked Todd.
“You got a step ladder?” asked Conrad.
My partners and I then went out to the Jeep, taking our little bag of tricks out of the back. Inside were several horseshoes, some nails and a hammer, among other assorted items. Conrad took a horseshoe from the bag, nailing it above the doorway.
“That should do it,” he said.
“That’s it?” asked Todd.
“He knows what he’s doing, Todd!” said TJ. “He saved me from the Bugbear, he can fight a witch in his sleep!”
I chuckled a bit. “We’ll be in touch. Let us know if anything more happens.”
“I’ll text you later,” said Katherine as she blew a kiss to Todd. We then piled into the Jeep and headed for home.
“O’Connor’s place, the diner, and town hall,” I remarked.
“They seem to have nothing in common,” said Katherine. “Other than women working in those places.”
“I chased her and her minions all over Austria,” said Conrad. “There seems to be no rhyme or reason to her attacks.”
“So where do we go next?” asked Katherine.
“I gotta go to the library,” said Conrad. I wasn’t sure he was answering the question, though.
“Think they might have a book on German folktales?” I inquired.
“No, I gotta check on Joanne.”
I nodded. He’d been going out with the librarian for the past few months, and they’d gotten pretty close. After dropping us off at the farm, he turned the Jeep around and went back to town to protect Joanne. Meanwhile, Katherine and I clocked out for the day and went to the house to relax before dinner time.
“Katherine,” said Ma as we entered the house, “Have you finished your chores yet?”
“I’ll get right on it, Aunt Betty,” replied Katherine. She changed into her rubber boots and went out to the barn to do as she was told. Uncle Jimmy and I sat in the kitchen, smoking our pipes and discussing politics. Ma and Aunt Mary were in the next room preparing dinner.
“All I can say,” said Uncle Jimmy, “is if they try to raise my taxes again, I’m voting the jackwangs out!”
“I’m right there with ya,” I replied.
“That’s what you said about the last jackwangs, James,” said Aunt Mary. “Maybe you should run for office yourself.”
“Well, maybe I will.”
There was a sudden racket from outside; Smith and Wesson, Jimmy’s dogs, were barking up a storm at something. It wasn’t the ordinary barking, either; not like they were barking at a coyote or a fox. Someone was out there. I took one look at my Uncle and grabbed my rifle from the rack. The two of us headed out into the dark to see what it was that had caused the dogs to lose their minds.
Smith and Wesson stood by the electric fence around the pasture where the alpacas grazed, staring intently into the barn. My heart sank; Katherine was in danger. I threw open the barn door, but before I could fire a shot, some hideous creature pounced on me like a feral cat. Its claws and teeth dug into my flesh. It was all I could do to keep the thing from killing me.
Gunshots rang out. I finally wrestled the creature off me, just in time for another to pounce from the barn, but I ended his career with a bullet to the face. Next thing I knew there was a horrible, inhuman shriek from the barn. The creatures, whatever they were, vanished into the night. I ambled into the barn, where I found what looked to be a dying old woman lying on the barn floor, a huge gash in her skull. Over her stood Todd, holding a bloody axe. In the far corner, Katherine hugged the barn walls, panting like a dog.
Todd dropped the axe and ran to my cousin, catching her before she fainted. Together, Todd and Uncle Jimmy carried her back to the house while I examined the body, or what was left of it. It was beginning to melt away, leaving a blackened stain on the barn floor. I dialed Conrad on my cell phone to let him know that the case was closed.
Minutes later, I sat on an old wooden stool in the kitchen while Ma and Conrad tended my wounds with various bandages and healing oils. Katherine, meanwhile, was in the next room, her consciousness returning.
“Ow! Son of a–”
“Language, Walter,” said Ma as she dabbed my cuts with antiseptic.
“I think I’m entitled to cuss a little; I got bit by demons, after all.”
“Quit your fussin’” said Aunt Mary. “Your cousin almost died.”
“You’re sure you’re alright?” said Todd as he helped Katherine into the kitchen
“I’m fine, Todd, I just need some water and an ibuprofen. My head is killing me!”
“He’s a keeper, right there,” said Ma.
“Sit down, Todd, let me fix you some stew,” said Aunt Mary.
“Uh, thank you, Mrs. Craig,” said Todd.
“Don’t mention it hun.”
“How’d you know to come over here, anyway?” asked Uncle Jimmy.
“I just had a bad feeling and I figured I should come check on Kat.”
“Good thing you did, too, otherwise I’d be taxidermied right now,” said Katherine.
“That’ll teach you to skip out on your chores,” mumbled Ma.
“Right,” Katherine sighed.
“Where’d the witch come from, anyway?” asked Todd.
“A realm of darkness outside our normal dimension,” replied Conrad.
“That’s crazy,” said Todd.
“That’s just the beginning,” said Katherine. “I haven’t even told you about my last night working at Greg’s.”
“This I gotta hear,” said Todd.
“Oh, can’t that wait ‘til after supper, sweety?” said Aunt Mary. “That story still makes me nauseous!”
We had a good meal and talked with Todd about what goes on in the dark. He seems like a pretty squared away kid; I hope he’ll stick around.