Authors: Patricia Fry
The women turned in the direction of the voice, then heard a different voice say, “I’m over here.”
“Where?” Margaret whispered, looking in all directions. “Vannie, do you see anyone?”
Savannah shook her head and looked at Colbi, who stared back at her wide-eyed. When they looked in Iris’s direction, she shrugged. Suddenly a thin man with slick black hair, black lips, and wearing a Dracula costume appeared from behind a counter to their left.
“How did you do that?” Savannah asked.
“Do what?” the Dracula look-alike said.
“I heard you over there,” she pointed, “then over there. Were you throwing your voice?”
“Yeah, how’d you do it?” Colbi asked.
The man laughed, revealing a set of pointed, red-stained teeth that caused the women to take a step back.
“It’s all an illusion—done with mirrors and speakers,” he said in a rather spooky voice, using his hands for emphasis. “You like?”
“Um, well…” Savannah stalled. She cleared her throat. “It’s interesting.”
“Yeah,” Margaret said, frowning. “Different…unexpected.”
“That’s my middle name,” the man said.
“What?” Colbi asked. “Different?”
“Yeah, and unexpected.” In a more serious tone, he said, “Today, we’re featuring our Halloween leftovers, so I dressed for the occasion. See, we have masks, pencils with a pumpkin motif, these little black kitty-cat stickers…”
“Halloween in February?” Savannah questioned.
“Uh-huh. Why not? Now’s as good a time as any to stock up for trick-or-treat, don’t you think?” He leaned toward the women and spoke as if in confidence, “Besides, I adore wearing this get-up.”
Iris smiled impishly. “So when you feature the jewelry, do you dress like a fairy princess?”
“Sure. I’m an actor. I love challenging roles.” He gazed across the faces of his small audience and spoke more dramatically, “I’ve played practically every part you can imagine—nearly every character in the Wizard of Oz! ‘If I only had a brain…’” he sang loudly, “Cowboys…” He tipped his hat and spoke with a twang, “Howdy, ma’am.” Bowing slightly and changing his voice again, he said, “Alfred Hitchcock at your service…”
Savannah tilted her head. “You must not get many parts living way up here.”
He stared at the women before saying in an exaggerated manner, “The whole world is a stage.” He squinted. “Don’t you ladies know that?”
“Oh sure,” Margaret said, “I guess that’s true.”
“What role are
playing today?” he asked.
The women glanced at one another, then Iris said, “We’re celebrating my birthday this weekend, so we’re playing women without a cause, you might say—just hanging out, chilling…”
“Yeah, going with the flow,” Colbi offered.
“Uh-huh,” Iris continued, “and seeking adventure.”
are,” Savannah said, pulling back a little. “I’m after peace and quiet and a little fun along the way.”
The man stood silently, then said, “It’s my son’s birthday, too. He’s thirty-eight this year. He was here for a few days, but left this morning to go back to Hollywood, where he has a part in a commercial.”
“He’s an actor, too?”
“Yes.” He pointed at a picture on the wall. “That’s my son’s publicity photo.”
“Oh,” Savannah said. “That’s the guy who…”
“Yes, that’s him, all right,” Margaret agreed.
“Yeah, Ernie…wasn’t that his name?” Colbi asked.
The man’s eyes lit up. “Ernie—that’s him. Did you see him on TV?”
“No, we saw him on the mountain road in the middle of the night. He stopped to help us when our car broke down, but he got scared off by a…” Iris looked at the other women, asking, “…what did we decide that was?”
“Heck if I know,” Margaret said.
Colbi shuddered. “I was hoping it was a figment of my imagination. We really did see it?”
“Sure did,” Iris said.
The man grinned in obvious delight. “What did it look like, pray tell? So it was a frightening sight, was it?”
“Sort of like a skinny bear,” Colbi said.
“But he was more human-like,” Savannah added.
“Yeah,” Margaret said, “but all dark—black.”
“With red eyes,” Iris added.
The other three women and the man all repeated, “Red eyes?”
Backing down a little, Iris muttered, “I thought that’s what I saw. Didn’t you see his eyes?”
“What was this…figure doing?” the man asked.
“Running across the road,” Savannah said.
“And he frightened you ladies, did he?”
The four of them nodded, then continued looking around at the scant array of merchandise, when the proprietor asked, “So you’re staying at the Sledge cabin, are you?”
Iris turned quickly in his direction. “How did you know that?”
“Um…well…I…Skip…I think Skip told me.”
Instead of responding, Iris picked up a pair of earrings. “Did Arielle make these?”
The proprietor appeared somewhat distracted for a moment, as if he were deep in thought. He finally realized she was speaking to him and asked, “Pardon me?”
“Is this part of Arielle’s collection?”
“Yes it is. It’s something new she’s trying. Do you like it?”
“Very much,” Iris said. “In fact, I must have them. They’ll go perfectly with my little peach-and-beige number.” She turned to Savannah. “You know the one—I wear it with my off-white slacks and brown boots.”
Savannah nodded. “I think so. Yeah, those are nice. They’ll look good on you.”
“Iris,” Colbi said quietly, grabbing her arm, “what are those people doing out there?”
The store owner began to chuckle. “They’re making calls.”
“Calls?” she asked.
Iris smiled. “Remember I told you there’s just one spot around here where you can get reliable cell service? Well, that’s it. Those are the residents and tourists doing business and catching up with their relatives.”
The man added, “This is the hot-wire business center of the mountain.” He scowled and pulled his cape around him flamboyantly. “I hate seeing people bring electronic gadgetry up here.” In a rather snarly tone, he said under his breath, “There’s no need to be connected to the outside world from this place. Visitors should mind their own beeswax and let us live the way we want without interference.”
“You wouldn’t get much business in your store without visitors,” Margaret reasoned.
“Oh,” he rubbed his hands together and cackled, “I love the tourists and others who happen to find their way here. They’re part of the play, don’t you know?” He gazed at the four women, suddenly stepped from behind the counter, and reached out with one hand. When Colbi jumped back, he said, “Don’t mean to frighten you. Just want to make your acquaintance. I’m Lawrence,” he said, shaking hands with each of the women, who, in turn, recited their first name.
Gosh, he’s thin,
Tall and thin.
She stifled a chuckle when thinking,
a tall drink of water.
After a few moments, she turned and headed for the door. “I’m going out to try calling Michael.”
“I’ll be right there,” Iris said. “I want to call Craig and see if he can help us get the stove lit…after I purchase this exquisite piece of jewelry.”
“So, Iris, do you think you can start the stove now?” Margaret asked as the four women slid into a booth in the small café adjacent to the country store just after noon.
Iris nodded. “Yes. Savannah and I both talked to Craig and I’m pretty sure we know what to do. We’ll have my famous ham and beans for supper.”
“Hot or raw?” Margaret asked.
“Cooked and hot,” Iris said. “…I hope.”
“So how’re things with your family?” Colbi asked Savannah. “How does Michael do when you’re not there?”
“As you know, he’s a great hands-on dad, so there should be no problem. Those two really enjoy each other’s company.”
Margaret elbow-nudged her. “Yeah, you brought the problem with you.” When Savannah looked puzzled, she explained, “Your cat!”
Savannah grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, you’re right there. Let’s just hope the rest of the weekend goes as smoothly with him as it has so far.”
“One can only hope,” Margaret said under her breath.
Just then a petite woman of about sixty wearing jeans and a white chef’s coat approached with menus. “What can I get you to drink?” she asked.
“Hot coffee,” Margaret said.
When the others nodded, the woman started to turn, but stopped. “Who’s having the birthday?”
“I am,” Iris said. “How’d you know?”
“My husband told me. Happy birthday.” She looked Iris in the eyes. “You’re staying in the Sledge cabin?”
“Yes,” Iris said hesitantly. “So who’s your husband?”
“Well, Lawrence, of course.” She put her hand out toward Iris. “I’m Maribelle.”
Once each of the foursome had introduced themselves, Colbi asked, “Have you lived up here for long? I mean, it’s so remote.”
“Long enough to suit me,” Maribelle said, shooting a glance toward the store, where they could see her husband reorganizing a display case.
“You don’t sound too happy about it.” Margaret observed.
“It’s not my cup of tea. I feel as though my culinary skills are wasted up here. Frankly, I’d rather be working in a large city in a busy restaurant. But my husband,” she said, more quietly, leaning toward the table to be heard, “well, he couldn’t handle my success and his…failure.” Her eyes brightened when she said, “I competed on
once and did really well. I was beat out only because I dropped an egg.”
“That show on the cooking channel?” Iris asked. “They chopped you because you dropped an egg?”
“Well, as it turned out, I didn’t get the second one done in time and that’s why I got chopped.”
“Exciting,” Savannah said, “…I mean that you got to compete.” She glanced toward the store and asked quietly, “So, your husband’s a cook, too?”
“Chef,” Maribelle corrected. “Oh no, he’s a frustrated actor who never got the acclaim he thought he deserved. Now he lives through our son, who seems to be making a name for himself in Hollywood, although Ernie’d prefer being a chef.” She smirked. “Go figure.” She leaned toward the women. “Don’t tell Ernie’s father, but he moonlights at a well-known restaurant down south. He confides in me that it’s the cooking that rings his bell…you know, feeds his soul. He acts because his father’s so adamant about it and he does love his father.” Without warning she straightened. “Hey, I’d better get your coffee. Today’s special is a fresh kale and cranberry salad with a house vinaigrette that will blow your socks off.”
The women laughed and Colbi said, “Not only are you a chef, you’re a skilled promoter.”
Maribelle winked before disappearing into the kitchen. When she returned with their coffee, all four women ordered salads with a side of sesame rolls.
“Where do you get your fresh greens?” Savannah asked, admiring the salads Maribelle placed before them a little while later.
“I make a lot of trips to Preston—an hour and a half away. It’s that important to me that my ingredients are fresh. They deliver only every ten or eleven days, so I make the trip down the mountain once a week.”
“Sure looks good,” Iris said. “I love a fully packed salad.”
Maribelle tapped the tabletop with her fingers. “Well, enjoy, ladies.”
The women had eaten about half of their lunch when the front door to the café opened and a couple pushed their way in. “Oh my God,” the stringy-haired woman in her twenties shouted. “There’s a dead body out there.”
“What?” came Lawrence’s voice from the adjoining store.
Two others sitting at separate tables in the small café came to attention as well, and Maribelle stepped out of the kitchen.
“Where?” Lawrence asked from the archway between the two businesses.
“Among the trees in the water,” the man said as the woman eased into a chair and covered her face with her hands.
“It was awful,” she shrieked. “I almost stepped on it.”
The man grimaced. “Yeah, its bones are showing…it’s pretty gross, all right.”
“Show me,” one of the diners said. When the couple hesitated, he explained, “I’m a California Ranger. Can you show me where you found it?”
“Can I come, Steve?” Lawrence asked.
The ranger stared at the storekeeper for a moment before saying, “Yeah, if you take out those teeth and remove the collar. You’ll scare the wild animals, for Pete’s sake.”
“Sure,” Lawrence said, rushing back into the store, then returning after having removed part of his costume. Now he wore a heavy jacket and held a camera in his hands.
Margaret let out a deep sigh. “Well, that’s a fine howdy-do,” she murmured.
“What?” Savannah asked.
“We’ve been here less than twenty-four hours and already there’s a dead body.” She stared into Savannah’s eyes. “How in the world does your cat do it?”
“My cat?” Savannah asked, lowering her brow.
“It’s got to have something to do with your cat. It always has to do with your cat.”
The women were nearly finished with their salads when two men dressed like lumberjacks walked into the small café.
“Hi, Sam,” the chef greeted. “Who’s your friend?” she joked. “Don’t recognize you, Andy, in that get-up.”
“Been huntin’,” Andy explained.
“For what?” Maribelle asked, grinning. “Snipe?”
The men laughed with her. “Pretty much,” Sam said. “Sure didn’t see any wild turkey.”
Andy removed his gloves. “Yeah, they were probably chased deeper into the forest by whatever killed that poor dude out there.” He grimaced. “Dang gruesome.”
“Hey, Andy, you were a ranger up in these parts, what kind of animal do you think did that?” his companion asked.
The two men took off their jackets, then noisily pulled out chairs from a table in the center of the room and sat down. “Sam, it’s like I’m living the seventies all over again,” the elderly man said. “I ain’t seen nothin’ like that since…what was his name…Sledge…” Andy thinned his lips while trying to recall, then blurted out, “Amos…Amos Sledge.” He ran his hand over a full head of salt-and-pepper hair. In a trance-like state, he continued, “Amos Sledge, that crazy nephew of Frank’s.”
“What did he do?” Sam asked.
“You ain’t heard of Amos Sledge, the claw-hammer killer?” Andy asked.
By then, the women had tuned in to what the elderly man was saying. Savannah gazed across the table at Iris, who sat wide-eyed.
“No, Andy,” the younger man said, “I haven’t heard that story. Is it another one of your yarns?”
“Negative, Sam. This is as true as that man out there is dead.” He paused. “…and just about as grisly.”
Before Andy could continue, Maribelle approached their table with coffee and menus.
“Just give me your big breakfast,” Sam said. “Bacon and sausage well-done, eggs over soft and on top of the hash browns, if you don’t mind. Pancakes—none of them blueberries this time,” he said, making a face.
She turned to his tablemate. “For you, Andy?”
“Oh, something less filling for me. How about a backwoods omelet—let’s see…” he said referring to the menu. “…that has venison sausage, cheese, and peppers?”
Maribelle nodded, adding, “And cilantro. I have a fresh batch of it.”
“Sounds good,” he said, closing the menu. “No toast today.”
As Andy stirred sugar into his coffee, Sam prompted, “So tell me about this hammer killer. You say he struck up here in the seventies? Did he live here?”
“Yeah, the year was 1976. Frank Sledge’s parents had built a cabin on dern-near fifty acres several years before that. They didn’t want no neighbors, you see. Frank was a high-stress kind of guy in a high-stress kind of job and he came up here lots to get away from it all…often brought his wife and son. They spent a coupla weeks here outta the year through the sixties as a family, but Frank mostly came alone or with fishing buddies. When his brother’s kid started having some mental problems, he’d sometimes bring him up for a weekend.” Andy scowled. “Weren’t many who liked the kid. There was just something not quite right with him. He was kinda scary. When their son went away to college, Frank and Ellen started coming up more often with the kid…Amos.”
Andy took a swig of coffee and his tablemate asked, “So what was wrong with the kid?”
“Well, he just didn’t seem too bright, that’s all. And he liked wearing a tool belt.”
“Tool belt?” Sam repeated.
“Yeah, with carpenter tools in it. He was always using those tools, kinda fanatic-like. If he’d see a nail backing out of a board somewheres or a screw missing or a floor askew, he’d pull out his tools and start workin’ on it. He never said much. Just walked around kinda dumb-like, using his tools ever’ chance he got.”
“But that ain’t all. People started makin’ fun of ‘im—you know—the teens who came through here or who stayed here with their folks. He’d get real mad and that would egg on the kids even more. They’d laugh when he’d pull out his hammer and start swinging it at ‘em. There was a time or two when that hammer actually made contact with Frank when he’d try to control the young man.” He took a long sip of coffee before continuing. “Well, one weekend when Frank and Ellen brought Amos up here…that’s when it happened.”
“What happened?” Sam asked.
Iris grimaced toward Savannah and Margaret, who sat across from her. And all four of the women continued listening.
“Well, the kid—Amos—he must have planned it ahead of time, ‘cause unbeknownst to Frank, the boy took off in the night and massacred two of the local teens.”
“Good God,” Sam said. “With the hammer?”
“Yeah, that’s what the authorities believe, although it was never found.”
After a long pause, Sam asked, “So where’s the kid, in prison?”
Andy shook his head. “They never found ‘im.”
Colbi let out a hushed squeal and grasped tightly to Iris’s arm as the older woman exchanged wide-eyed glances with their tablemates. The four women leaned closer in an effort to hear what else Andy had to say.
“No, there was a big storm that night and a lot of flooding. They found the body of one teen tangled in some timber downriver; the other one was never found, and neither was Amos Sledge. They think he must have been caught off guard by the rising water and drowned.”
“Washed out to sea?” Sam asked.
Andy nodded. “I suspect so, unless he somehow survived and went into hiding.”
Margaret was the first at the women’s booth to speak. “Iris,” she asked quietly, “did you know about Amos?”
“No,” she said, her face practically drained of color. “My God, I wonder if Craig knows about that. He would have been in college or maybe in the service by then.”
“Yeah, does he know he has an ax-murderer in his gene pool?” Margaret asked.
“A hammer killer,” Colbi whispered nervously.
“I don’t know,” Iris said, obviously stunned. “It’s hard to imagine…”
“Heck,” Savannah reasoned, “it could be a made-up story—an old local legend carried down through the years.”
“I doubt it,” Colbi said. “It sounds like that guy was actually there.”
“But he still could be making it up,” Savannah reasoned.
Iris shushed her when the two men started talking again. It was Sam who asked, “Andy, were you a ranger then? Did you have to deal with the case?”
“Yep, I was a strappin’ thirty-six-year-old, wet-behind-the-ears ranger and it was my first homicide. Boy, did I have nightmares after that. It also shook up a lot of the residents and vacationers, especially since the kid was never found. Nerves didn’t settle around here until a year or so went by.” He hung his head. “Now this happens.”
“Are you saying what happened to that guy out there today could be related to the claw- hammer murders in the seventies?”
Andy shrugged. “The thing is, Sam, this is the anniversary date that those teens were murdered. It happened forty years ago today.” He placed his fork on the plate. “Hey, did you see that dude? I only took a quick gander, but I’m not sure this killing is fresh. Looked to me like there’d been some decomposing. I guess the coroner will make a determination on that. It may be one of the young men who’ve gone missing up here over the years.”
Taken aback, Sam muttered, “There’ve been other young men go missing up here?”
“Yeah, ever’ once in a while, we’ll find another one dead or we can’t find ‘em at all. They come up here—or tell someone they’re comin’ up here—and they’re never heard from again.” Andy chuckled. “It’s as if they walk into a black hole out there somewheres. I suppose some of ‘em are eventually found. But I know for a fact, Sam, that there are half-dozen—maybe more—men who are still unaccounted for.”
Just then the café door opened and Lawrence walked in with the ranger. The four women, still speechless, followed the pair with their eyes. After several minutes, Savannah said, “Well, isn’t that odd?”
“What?” Margaret asked.
Colbi and Iris waited for a response, as well.
“It’s almost as if they’re celebrating. At a time like this? When they’ve just discovered a dead body?”
Colbi twisted in her seat. “Gosh, you’re right, Savannah. That actor guy seems rather excited about something.”
“Well,” Iris said, “the whole world is his stage, after all. Maybe he’s putting on an act for everyone.” She then said under her breath, “Cripes, he’s pointing at us. Are we suspects or something?”
“Maybe so, we
new here,” Savannah reasoned. “And we’re staying at an infamous cabin.”
“Yikes, the ranger’s coming over here,” Colbi said, trying to make herself appear even smaller than her already diminutive size.
“Afternoon, ladies,” the ranger said, bowing his head briefly. “I’m Ranger Steve Strong. I’d like to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind.”
“About what?” Margaret asked rather boldly.
He looked at her from under his bushy eyebrows and pursed his lips. As the women continued to stare at him, he pulled up a chair and sat down. “Well, you see, we had a little trouble here overnight and we thought maybe you ladies could shed some light on what happened.”
“Because of where we’re staying?” Iris huffed.
“Ma’am?” he said, appearing confused.
“Yeah, that happened forty years ago—none of us were even around then,” Colbi said. She glanced at Iris and Margaret, saying, “Well some of us, anyway.”
“What do you mean?” Iris objected. “I was a mere child—uh, well, maybe a teenager.” She waved her hand in front of her face and flashed a scornful look at Colbi. “Never mind about me.” She focused on the ranger. “What is it you think we did, officer?”
By then, the ranger’s rugged face had twisted into a frown. He looked from one to the other of the women. “I don’t know what you’re yammering about; alls I want to know is what did you see last night?”
“I didn’t see anything,” Margaret responded quickly. “What about you, Vannie? Did you see anything?”
Before Savannah could speak, Iris jumped in, nervously pushing some of her hair up into the loose knot at the back of her head. “Not me. I didn’t see anything—wasn’t anywhere near the lake…isn’t that where you found him…at the lake’s edge?” She stiffened. “You can’t accuse us of something just because of my name, so don’t even try it,” she warned. “Besides, we didn’t go out of the cabin, once we pulled in around eight or nine last night.”
“That’s right, we were eating cold enchiladas and drinking wine out of jelly glasses and pickle jars,” Colbi said. “And we went to bed early…with the cats.”
“Cats?” the ranger repeated, looking more and more perplexed.
“Yes, we’re traveling with two cats. Is that okay?” Margaret asked. “No law against that, is there?”
“Wait,” Savannah said. “Now just shush, Auntie. Let’s hear what the officer wants to ask us, shall we?”
When the others had quieted down, Ranger Strong said, “Thank you, ma’am. I was getting dizzy. Now, Lawrence over there,” he motioned toward the store owner, “he says you ladies saw something on your way up here last night along the road.”
Iris made eye contact with Margaret. “Ohhh,” she said. “Yes, we did, but we’re not sure what it was.”
“Can you describe it?” the ranger asked.
The women looked at each other and Iris said, “Well, it was skinnier than a bear…”
“Black,” Margaret said, “…or very dark.”
“Yes black,” Colbi agreed, “and big.”
“Not that big,” Margaret challenged, “do you think, Iris?”
“No, but kinda big.” She looked at the ranger. “Not as big as you are and skinnier.”
“Maybe taller,” Colbi added.
“Did you see his face?” he asked.
“No,” Savannah said.
“I saw his red eyes,” Iris admitted.
The ranger stared at her for a moment. “So you don’t know if it was a person or an animal? Did it have arms and hands or paws? Was it standing upright?”
The women looked at each other. “Yes, it stood upright,” Colbi said. “But it was too dark to see if it had hands or paws.”
“We saw it in the headlights,” Savannah reminded the other women. “If it was a person, his face was covered, except for the eyes.”
“Yeah,” Colbi said, “or it could have been an animal and that’s why it looked like the face was covered…know what I mean? It was covered in fur.” She grabbed Iris’s arm. “Or it could have been a dark-complexioned person, then we wouldn’t be able to see the features in his face at all.”
“Okay, okay,” the ranger said, indicating for the women to settle down. “Now, where was this creature?”
“On that bumpy, windy road coming in,” Savannah explained.
“Yeah, he was moving through the brush and ran in front of our car—hey, Lawrence’s son might be able to identify it. He was closer to it than we were,” Margaret said.
“He was?” the ranger asked, looking in the direction of the store proprietor. “How do you know that?”
“We became stuck,” Savannah said, “and Ernie stopped to help us. Then he drove up the mountain a ways and stopped.”
“And it was about that time that the thing ran out of the trees and across the road,” Margaret added.
“Interesting,” the ranger said, making a note on a small tablet.
“So how far away from here did you see the figure and Ernie?” he asked.
The women looked at each other, then Savannah said, “I’d say ninety minutes.”
He gave her a sideways glance. “Ninety minutes?”
“Yes, we were about ninety minutes away from the cabin, but I was only going around twenty-five miles an hour—so what does that make it, maybe thirty-five miles?”
“Why are you asking all these questions?” Margaret asked. “Do you think the thing killed that guy?”
He looked askance. “Just trying to see where all the pieces fit in.” He smacked his lips and focused on each of the women. “So you’re staying in the Sledge cabin, are you?”
“Yes,” Iris said, suddenly raising her hackles. “Is there a law against it?”
“Well, no,” he said, “it’s just that…”
“What?” Margaret asked, fear in her eyes.
“Yeah,” Iris chimed in, “are you profiling us because of what happened forty years ago?”
He cocked his head. “I’m not sure what you’re referring to, ma’am.”