A Walter Ulric Story
By Ian Wilson (Rated PG)
I sat on my stool backstage at the bandstand of the Swaggart County fairgrounds, that hot evening in August, dabbing the sweat from my brow with my bandanna. There was a tightness in my chest, like a boa constrictor was tightening its grip around me. I swiveled around to face my girlfriend, Julia.
“How do I look?” I inquired.
She looked me up and down. I wore my best leather vest over one of my better tee-shirts (one without stains in it), my good bluejeans and cowboy boots. She nodded with approval.
“Pretty darn good.”
I grinned. This would be the first time I’d performed with a band in nearly a decade.
“Walter,” said Father Steve, slinging his guitar strap over his shoulder. “Show time!”
“A kiss for good luck,” said Julia as she pressed her lips to mine.
Finally, we stepped out on stage; it was me on vocals and rhythm guitar, Father Steve on lead guitar and Cassandra Hanes on drums.
Perry Wankle’s band, the Weathervanes, had just finished their set. As the tones of his banjo drifted away, he stepped up to the mic.
“Thanks folks,” said Perry over the cheers of the crowd. “And now, I’d like to introduce someone you probably know at least by reputation. The last time this band performed was… well, it was a while ago, but they’re back together, and ready to perform here tonight. Ladies and gents, I am pleased to introduce Vagabond!”
Thunderous applause greeted us as we took our places on stage. Without another word, Father Steve played the opening riff from Master of Puppets. I sang with all the energy I had in me as the crowd convulsed with enthusiasm. It was good to be on stage performing again.
We performed a mixture of Classic Rock and Metal for our set. The crowd ate it up, but my eyes were on Julia. She had never seen this side of me before and seemed totally enchanted.
“Thank you, Swaggart County, goodnight!” I shouted after the final notes of Holy Diver drifted off into the summer night. I immediately went backstage where Julia waited for me.
“How’d we do?” I asked.
“You were wonderful!” she replied, throwing her arms around my neck.
“You should perform with us sometime,” I told her.
“No way,” she replied, shaking her head. “I don’t have the voice for it.”
“Nonsense!” I retorted. “I’ve heard you sing in church; you’re marvelous!”
“He’s right, you know,” added Father Steve.
“Maybe someday,” replied Julia.
It was then that our conversation was interrupted by a sudden shriek. I leaped up, racing out of the dressing room, Julia following behind. We scanned the departing crowd for the source of the noise. There was Mrs. McGill, shaking like a leaf and pointing.
“There! There it is! See it?” she exclaimed. But there was nothing to see.
“What is it, Mrs. McGill?” asked Julia, sympathetically.
“Looked like a man in all black with no face!”
Julia and I stared at each other for a span.
“Where is he now?” asked Julia.
“He’s vanished! I swear on a stack o’ Bibles I saw him!”
“I believe you,” I said.
“Come on, Margaret,” said Mr. McGill. “Let’s not waste their time.”
“Peter, I saw something!”
“Pardon my wife, she’s probably had a bit too much to drink.”
“I’ve barely touched liquor all day and you know it!”
I scratched my stubbly beard as I watched the couple disappear into the shrinking crowd of fair goers. This wasn’t that strange of an event, or at least not around here.
“Well, that was odd,” remarked Julia.
“Not so odd as you might think,” said a voice.
Maude O’Feeney approached.
“There’s evil abroad tonight,” continued the elderly woman. “The People of the Dark are on the move. Have been for some time.”
“The People of the Dark” or “shadow folk” are catch-all terms for the boogeymen that roam about the countryside causing mischief. My job description is making sure they don’t cause too much mischief.
“I’ll keep my eye out,” I said.
“I expect you will. I’ll let you know if anything peculiar happens.”
“Thank you kindly.”
With that, O’Feeney hustled along back to her little house, while Julia and I stood on the fairgrounds, watching as the fair-goers went home. We made our way back to our vehicles, walking hand in hand as a light rain began to fall.
“Thanks for coming out tonight, Julia,” I said.
“I wouldn’t miss it, Walter,” she replied.
After exchanging, she unlocked the door and got into the driver’s seat. I stood there, watching her leave, heaving a contented sigh. What did I ever do to deserve a woman like that? Then a chill ran down my spine. O’Feeny was right; something evil was out there, ready to cause some mischief.
Skynyrd played on the radio as I sat on the front porch, sipping my morning coffee. A cicada hollered out his morning song somewhere in the sycamore trees nearby while the alpacas made their plaintiff bleats in the next pasture. My cousin Katherine sat on the porch swing nearby, scrolling her phone.
Suddenly the bull terriers, Smith and Wesson, started to bark furiously as a large vehicle drove up the gravel drive. It was Perry Wankle’s truck. That’s odd, I thought to myself. It was awfully early, even for Perry, to be delivering mail. Rising from my seat, I greeted the postman. He was pale as a sheet.
“Perry, what’s the matter?” I asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Not me!” replied the postman. “It’s my wife Matilda! She’s been acting… peculiar. I mean for her.”
I called Conrad over; he’d been practicing his martial arts on the lawn.
“Peculiar in what way, Perry?” I asked.
“Well, last night she took my axe and attacked the mirror! Smashed it to smithereens! Kept goin’ on about a critter in the mirror! I didn’t see it, but she swears up and down she’s seen it. Now she’s practically beside herself, because of all the critters in the woods around our house!”
“Where’s Matilda now?” asked Conrad.
“She’s at Larry’s place; couldn’t stand to be in our house alone.”
I looked at Conrad. “We should probably head over.”
Just as we arose to leave, my cell phone rang. Looking at the caller ID, I realized it was Julia.
“Hello sweetheart,” I spoke into the receiver.
“Hi, Walter,” said Julia. “I need you in a professional capacity at the hospital in Old Mill.”
“I’m on my way,” I replied before hanging up the phone.
“We’re gonna need to split up,” I said to Conrad. “I gotta go to the hospital; you take Wankle.”
“You sure that’s a good idea?” asked Conrad. “You know you don’t have much of a bedside manner.”
“Julia asked specifically for me.”
“Ooh!” said Katherine, raising her eyebrows.
“Ah, amour,” said Conrad.
“I’ll come with you, Walter,” said Katherine.
“Why?” I inquired.
“As a buffer.”
“I got Julia.”
“She has all the tact of a goat,” remarked Katherine. “You’ll both need me to run interference.”
“She ain’t wrong!” said Perry.
“Fine,” I agreed. “Let’s take the bike.”
“Yeah!” said Katherine, grabbing her purse.
Descending the front steps, we strapped on our helmets before I straddled the Harley, Katherine riding in the sidecar. Just as I was about to start the engine, I heard a loud shriek from the house. Leaping from the bike, I ran up to the porch steps, through the kitchen, to the North wing of the house, where my Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Mary lived.
Jimmy arrived about the same time I did, armed with a rifle. We nearly bumped into each other. Aunt Mary stood in the bedroom, wearing a dressing gown, covering her face in her hands.
“What’s the ruckus?” asked Uncle Jimmy.
“Oh, James!” cried Aunt Mary. “It was terrible! Like something out of a horror movie!”
“Where?” asked my Uncle.
“There! In the mirror! It’s gone now, but I know what I saw.”
“What did it look like?” asked Katherine.
“I couldn’t begin to describe it! It was all teeth and hair and horns!”
I looked at the mirror. There appeared to be nothing peculiar about it.
“Conrad, can you tell me anything?”
“I’m getting some residual vibes,” replied my partner. “Something was here. I suggest sprinkling some blessed salt on the mirror.”
“That’s it?” asked Uncle Jimmy.
“That’s all we can do until it comes back,” replied Conrad.
“Comes back? It’ll come back?” exclaimed Aunt Mary.
“Potentially,” I said. “Maybe in another spot.”
Aunt Mary fell into her husband’s arms, weeping.
Uncle Jimmy rolled his eyes. “Tell me there’s something more you can do.”
“I’ll call Father Steve and have the house blessed.”
“Couldn’t Reverend Sullivan do that?” asked Uncle Jimmy, the ever-devout Presbyterian.
“I don’t think it makes much of a difference,” I shrugged. “Just have somebody over to bless the house. Conrad and I need to answer some calls; we’ll be back soon.”
“What if that thing comes back while you’re gone?” asked Aunt Mary.
“Get the shotgun with the rocksalt cartridges and shoot it,” I replied.
With that, we went on separate ways to our destinations; Conrad to the Wankles’, me and Katherine to the hospital.
Old Mill is a much larger town than North Fork, just on the other side of Black Mountain, which is why they have a hospital and we just have a clinic. Julia didn’t specify why I was needed here, but I knew it must be something pretty vital. After parking my bike in the parking lot, Katherine and I entered the large, brick building, announcing my arrival via text message.
Julia met us in the lobby.
“Hey there,” I said, giving her a peck on the cheek.
“Thank you for coming,” she replied.
“So… why am I here?” I inquired.
Julia escorted us up a flight of stairs and down a hallway, where I saw Sheriff Donne standing by a doorway.
“Walter,” said the sheriff, “thank you for coming.”
“Of course, Sheriff,” I replied, shaking the man’s strong hand.
After a brief knock on the door, the sheriff let us into the room, where on the bed lay none other than North Fork’s own mayor, Finnigan O’Donnell. Next to him sat his wife, grasping his hand.
“Walter,” said O’Donnell.
“Mr. Mayor,” I replied. “What happened?”
“He fainted,” said Mrs. O’Donnell.
“If there were anyone else on earth that could help me,” continued the mayor, “believe me, I would call them, but you are the only one who knows anything about… the dark.”
The mayor dabbed sweat from his balding head with a handkerchief.
“Finnigan, Walter came out here at a moment’s notice, the least you could do is be courteous!” said Mrs. O’Donnell.
“It’s alright, Mrs. O’Donnell,” I said. “He and I have never been on the best of terms.”
“So, Mr. Mayor,” said Katherine, “what seems to be the trouble.”
“Um, pardon me, but I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced,” said the mayor.
“Mr. Mayor, this is Katherine Craig, my cousin and secretary.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said O’Donnell, extending a quivering hand. “Are you at all familiar with the works of Friedrich Nietzsche?”
“Not particularly,” replied Katherine.
“Nietzsche once said that if you gaze long into the void, the void gazes into you also. I have gazed into the void, Mr. Ulric. And the void gazed back.”
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
“Earlier this morning, I went to the cellar to get a jar of jam, when I thought I heard something move in one of the dark corners. Thinking it was rats, I looked into the blackness of the unlit coal cellar. It seemed almost like darkness itself was… alive. Something moved in that blackness. Something seemed to move within me as well; some ancient, primal terror that lay sleeping for millennia suddenly woke up. I was transfixed, like a deer staring at the oncoming headlights. I could feel its loathsome eyes looking into my soul. The darkness grew deeper and deeper, suffocating. I lost all knowledge of time and space. The inky black tendrils of the Dark reached out toward me; it wanted to consume me.”
“That’s when I heard him scream,” said Mrs. O’Donnell. “I found him on the cellar floor – he fainted, you see. My poor Finnigan! That’s when I called 911.”
I sat in the cold, metal chair for a minute, stroking my short-cropped beard as I processed all that the mayor had just told me.
“May I see your cellar?”
“Certainly, but leave me out of it,” replied O’Donnell. “I’ll have the housekeeper let you in. and send me an invoice for your services.”
“Thank you, Mr. Mayor,” I said. “If anything more happens, please let me know.”
With that, we left the room.
“Well?” asked Sheriff Donne.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Sheriff,” I replied. “I’ll have to investigate the house before I come to any conclusions.
“Is he… safe?”
“None of us are truly ‘safe’, sir.”
Donne nodded, pursing his lips.
“Well, thanks for making the trip,” he said.
“Of course, Sheriff.”
“Drive safely,” added Julia.
“Always,” I said. “See you at the diner later?”
“Sure,” replied Julia with a cute smile.
After sending a brief text, telling Conrad to meet me at O’Donnell’s house, we mounted my motorcycle and took the winding mountain road back to North Fork.
Mayor O’Donnell lived in a large, Victorian style house in one of the nicer neighborhoods in town. Conrad had parked the van on the street, and was seated on the porch with the housekeeper, Ruth. Katherine and I walked up the flagstones onto the large, wraparound porch.
“Howdy Ruth,” I said.
“Why, hello, Walter!” said Ruth, pleasantly. “Conrad and I were just talkin’ about you. Mrs. O’Donnell said y’all were coming to check the cellar.”
Ruth was a tall lady in her 50s, of mixed heritage; black, Shawnee and Irish. A faithful Roman Catholic woman, and a lifelong resident of North Fork.
“This is my assistant, Katherine,” I added. “She’ll be aiding us today.”
“How do you do?” said Katherine.
“Pleased to meet you! Can I get you something to drink? Coffee? Sweet tea?”
“You’re very kind, Ruth, but I’d like to get right to business,” I replied.
She ushered us into the well decorated reception room; all these older houses have a reception room.
“Learn anything at Wankle’s, Conrad?”
Conrad shook his head. “It’s weird, man. She keeps talking about the critters in the mirror and stalking the wood.”
I grunted. That didn’t tell me much.
“What’s this I hear about Wankles?” asked Ruth.
“Matilda Wankle had an odd experience this morning,” replied Conrad.
“So did my mom,” added Katherine.
“Do y’all think they’re related?” asked Ruth.
“Yes ma’am,” said Conrad. “Just don’t know how yet.”
Ruth led us to a door in the back of the kitchen, which led down to the cellar.
“It happened down there,” she said. “You’re on your own from here; after what Mr. O’Donnell said, I ain’t having nothin’ to do with that cellar ‘til you’ve un-hexed it!”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said as I descended a flight of rickety stairs into the cold cellar. The only illumination came from some incandescent bulbs hanging here and there about the cellar space. One area, which we presumed was the coal cellar Mayor O’Donnell referred to, remained unlit. I peered into the darkness, my eyes searching for any movement.
“Getting anything?” asked Katherine.
“Something was here,” replied Conrad. “I don’t know what, but it was very old and very dangerous.”
“What do we do about it?” asked Katherine.
“Same as we did with your ma,” I replied. “Blessed salt and prayers.”
After sprinkling a vial of salt on the ground near the coal cellar and saying some prayers, Katherine, Conrad and I ascended the steps.
“Well?” asked Ruth
“We sprinkled some blessed salt and said some prayers. Don’t let anyone down there until you’ve had the basement blessed by Father McKay.”
“Understood,” replied Ruth, solemnly. “Well, thank you for stopping by.”
“Of course,” I replied. “And if anything peculiar happens down there, you call us right away.”
“You bet I will!”
With that, she showed us to the door, bidding us good day.
“Y’all take care, now, ya hear?”
“Always,” I said with a smile.
“Three incidents in one day; that must be a record for you,” remarked Katherine as we returned to my bike.
“Yeah, it ain’t been this bad in a long time.”
“Wait; it’s been this bad before?” asked Katherine.
“When you were just a little kid, things were really bad,” I replied.
“What did you do about it?”
“Nothin’,” I replied. “I was just a kid myself; I don’t know who did what to make those incidents stop.”
“Do you know what’s causing it?” asked Katherine.
“Not yet. O’Feeney said something about the People of the Dark getting restless. I believe it. I’ve felt it in my bones for a long time.”
As we sat at the diner that evening, eating our meals, I silently mulled over the events of the day. What could be causing all this?
“What did you find at the mayor’s house?” asked Julia.
“Not much,” I replied.
“Something had been there, but it was gone,” added Conrad. “Just like the others.”
“Others?” asked Julia. “What others?”
“Matilda Wankle and my Aunt Mary had similar events,” I continued.
“Wonder if what Mrs. McGill saw last night is connected, too,” wondered Julia.
“I’d forgotten about her,” I said.
“What did she see?” asked Conrad.
“A man in black with no face,” replied Julia.
“It’s possible they all did something that is attracting these beings,” said Conrad.
“They were all judges at the cheese contest, if that means anything,” said Katherine.
Swaggart County is known for having some of the best cheese in Appalachia – at least by our own standards. We take pride in our dairy, and every year, the cheese-tasting is one of the most important events of the fair.
Conrad suddenly looked up from his coffee like he’d had a revelation. “Cheese?”
“Yeah, cheese,” replied Katherine.
Julia looked at the man like he was off his nut.
“Cheese has a weird way of attracting preternatural beings,” said Conrad.
“I didn’t know that,” I said.
“It’s not talked about much today, but a lot of exorcism manuals had rites for exorcizing cheese.”
“Exorcizing… cheese,” said Katherine, incredulous.
“It’s mentioned in passing in Maxim Adamic’s Guide To Preternatural Entities,” said Conrad. “He didn’t cover it in detail, though.
“But… why cheese?”
“Why not?” I said, more as a statement than a question.
“So what do we do now?” asked Julia.
“We have us a little cheese-tasting tomorrow,” said Conrad.
“You sure this is a good idea?” I asked.
“It’s the only way to know for certain,” replied Conrad.
My friend and business partner sat at the table in the Presbytery, six slices of cheese in front of him; one from each of the dairy farms in Swaggert County. Taking one of the slices, Conrad placed it in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully.
“Mmm. Sharp,” he said, before eating the second slice.
Beads of sweat formed on my brow as I watched, waiting for whatever was going to happen next. It was the fourth slice that did it. Conrad convulsed, spitting the evil cheese into a nearby bowl. He then downed a glass of holy water.
“You alright?” asked Father Steve.
“I will be,” he replied. “That was it. That was the stuff.”
“Where was that slice from?” I inquired.
“O’Neills’,” replied Father Steve.
“Then I know where we’re going.”
The O’Neills were a relatively normal family; went to the Presbyterian church on Sundays, raised their animals in relative peace, never bothered anyone. Except for the fact that the county fair was the first time anyone had seen them in weeks. They hadn’t been to church. People had tried calling them, but there was no answer. Anytime anyone saw them it was like the O’Neills didn’t recognize them. Perry Wankle thought there were something peculiar going on at that house.
Conrad, Father Steve and I pulled up to the O’Neill house that afternoon. I’d asked Katherine to stay behind, due to the danger, possible danger. Of course, she didn’t want to listen. It took Uncle Jimmy basically ordering her to stay behind.
I expected to see the O’Neills’ old dog coming out to meet us, barking loudly, but there was nothing but silence and the croaking of a crow overhead as we ascended the front porch steps.
I had a funny feeling as I rang the front doorbell; like I was about to walk into something. Mrs. O’Neill answered the door, a pleasant smile on her face. There was something peculiar about her eyes; like looking into a well. There was just nothing there.
“Hello,” she said. “What can I do for you?”
“Howdy, Mrs. O’Neill,” I replied. “Can we come in and talk with you a moment?”
“Now’s not a very good time,” she replied.
“Ma’am, we only need a moment of your time, it’s very important,” said Father Steve.
“And I would give you a moment if I could, but I can’t right now. Why don’t you drop by tomorrow?”
“This is kind of an emergency,” added Conrad. “We think you may be in danger.”
The woman paused, her face turning cold. There was something hateful behind her eyes.
“Sir, we are very busy at this time, and we will have to ask you to leave the premises, or shall I call the authorities?”
“That’s alright Mrs. O’Neill,” said Father Steve. “We’ll be going now.”
We went immediately back to our van and got inside.
“Is it just me, or was there something really weird about that?” asked Father Steve as I backed down the gravel drive.
“Not just you,” said Conrad. “That wasn’t Mrs. O’Neill. At least, not totally.”
“You think she’s possessed?” I inquired.
“Not sure,” replied Conrad. “There’s definitely something not right going on here, though. We should come back tonight.”
Somewhere in those haunted hills an owl hooted, echoing over the twilit land like the mournful cry of a lost soul. Conrad, Father Steve and I crept toward the dairy farm, armed with our various weaponry, prepared for a fight. We approached the building where the cheese was made. Cutting through the padlock with a pair of bolt-cutters, we entered the building, shining our flashlights around the room. There appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary there.
We then proceeded to the barn where the cattle were housed. A hundred pairs of greenish eyes reflected the light back at us. I was afraid their plaintiff mooing would arouse suspicion. Carefully, we scanned the barn, shining our flashlights on the walls, the roof, and floor; everywhere. High in the rafters were what I can only refer to as human-sized cocoons. They vaguely resembled silken wrappings in which spiders keep their uneaten prey.
We stared up at those hanging bodies. Were they alive or dead? Was this the O’Neill family? If that was so, who’d I talked to earlier that day?
We then began to examine the cattle themselves. Each of them was branded with a peculiar symbol; a symbol I recognized vaguely somewhere in the back of my mind. A chill ran down my spine.
Suddenly, the whole barn erupted into a terrific mooing. One of the cattle began thrashing around in its stall. Its skin split open. The thing – no way this was a cow – transformed before our eyes into something utterly repugnant. Its head became an open maw full of jagged teeth, its eyes glowing like red-hot steel. From its misshapen body sprouted spider-like limbs, with which it climbed over the stall gate, its long tongue licking its chops.
The real cows began to panic. I drew my revolver from the holster. Conrad stayed me with his hand.
“You might hurt the cows,” he said.
“I ain’t gonna miss!” I hissed in reply.
One silver bullet hit its mark in the creature’s hideous head. The thing backed off snarling. It then pounced toward me, as I let loose another bullet. With lightning quickness, Conrad drew his sword, Nahum, decapitating the thing in one fluid motion. Writhing on the floor, black blood spurting from its wounds, the being transforming into a hundred shapes before it scurried off into the darkness.
“Well, that ain’t right,” I said.
There was a sudden creaking behind me, like old hinges. I spun around, gun pointed. It was the O’Neills; but also not the O’Neills. Their eyes glowed with an eerie light, full of malevolence.
“What do y’all think you’re doing here?” asked the thing that masqueraded as Mrs. O’Neill.
“I could ask you the same question,” I replied, finger on the trigger. Instantly, all six of the O’Neills transformed into creatures too hideous to describe in detail. I emptied my revolver into the group of them, hitting two. Conrad sliced one right in half as it was about to pounce on me. Father Steve fired off a shotgun shell filled with blessed salt into the next one that came along. It hissed, retreating into the dark as the priest fired off another shot.
One of the creatures leaped on top of me from above. Drawing my bowie knife, I stabbed the thing in the face. It hissed but refused to let go of me. We wrestled on the floor for a minute, before a single shot rang out, followed by another. The beast released its grip and ran off whimpering into the blackness outside. Standing in the doorway of the barn was Julia, holding a smoking rifle.
“Julia!” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“Saving your butt,” she replied, matter-of-factly.
“You weren’t supposed to know we were coming here,” I retorted.
“Your Ma called me and told me to come help you.”
I rolled my eyes; of course she did. Conrad and Steve helped me off the floor. I dusted the dirt off my clothes.
“Thanks for the help,” I said.
“You’re welcome,” replied Julia.
Conrad and Father Steve stared up into the rafters at the hanging bodies.
“We should call the paramedics,” said Father Steve.
“And the coroner,” I added.
Not long afterward, the blue and red lights of an ambulance flashed in the barnyard as we cut the inanimate bodies down from their suspended state, the paramedics carefully placing them on stretchers. They had detected weak heartbeats in all of them, and concluded that they had been in a hibernation-like state. They then took the O’Neills to the hospital in Old Mill to revive them, and they eventually made a full recovery.
A week later, Father Steve, Conrad and I went to the O’Neills’ place to “un-hex” it. Conrad and Father Steve walked back and forth among the stalls, chanting Psalms as the sweet smell of incense wafted up from the thurible, filling the barn.
Mr. and Mrs. O’Neill and I stood off to the side, watching.
“So they’re gone? They ain’t coming back?”
“Most likely,” I replied. “They’re probably out there now looking for another host, unless they’ve returned to the dark.”
Mr. O’Neill shuddered. “I never wanna go through that again.”
“I can understand that.”
“What were those things anyway?” asked Mrs. O’Neill.
“Changelings,” I replied. “They take your shape and drink your blood until they’re done with you. Like a tick, but worse. Do you know how they got in?”
“It started with our son, Billy. He was acting awful strange one day when he brought some friends over. Next thing we knew, these… what did you call ‘em?”
“Changelings,” I responded.
“Well they attacked us and I don’t remember much else until you saved us. Felt like I was walking on a fence; on one side was life and the other, death.”
“How do we keep this from happening again?” asked Mrs. O’Neill.
“Prayer, mostly. And this should help.”
I handed the farmer a vial of blessed salt.
“Sprinkle it around the windows and doors, you should be okay.”
“What about the cows?”
“Father Steve will bless them all before he leaves, but you might wanna get your elders to pray over them, too.”
With the ritual concluded, Conrad, Father Steve and I returned to our van. The O’Neills standing on the porch, waving goodbye.
“Those brands,” I said. “They mean anything to you?”
“It’s the symbol of the Brotherhood of Abaddon,” replied Conrad.
“I feel like I should know who that is,” I replied.
“They’re an occult group that worships evil,” my partner responded. “I didn’t know they were at work around here.”
“What does it mean?” asked Father Steve.
“Bad things. Very bad.”
We drove back to the farm in silence, a feeling of profound dread overshadowing the van as we went. We’d solved one mystery, saved six lives and maybe more, and I earned a pretty fat paycheck from the whole deal, but somehow it felt like we’d just temporarily plugged a hole. Somehow I knew something much worse was coming.