2011 Halloween Short Story by Roger A Wilbanks
Howard Miller was the world's smartest idiot. He may have a high IQ, but by all measures his grasp on the day to day operations of the real world left many of the people in his life scratching their heads in amazement. He could talk for hours about science and history and often did, but the day he won the lottery, he quit his high paying job only to find that his winnings totaled one week's salary because he had only matched 4 numbers.
It was this action that brought him to the office of Dr. Heinrich Fuller. Dr Fuller moved to Cockrell Hill only recently and his presence in this sleepy town had yet to make its full impact. To many he was a mystery. None could recall ever seeing him. They only noticed that one day the 2-story Art Deco office building on the corner of Franklin and Jefferson was vacant and the next it was open for business. Almost. No one was entirely sure what business Dr Fuller was engaged in. He never saw patients and the only sign of life in his office was the ever present Howard Miller as he bustled to and fro taking care of the daily operations. The whispers began immediately, gaining strength with a spate of mysterious disappearances among the town's homeless population. The whispers grew louder as strange markings appeared on the trees surrounding the tiny city within the woods.
This past summer had been the hottest one the residents of Cockrell Hill could remember. No one was free of its oppressive smothering. Even Mr Cain, the town's eldest, could recall the Montonauk river ever running so low through the city. Ancient masonry, hidden by 2 centuries of flowing water was now visible, marking the location of bridges built by the town's previous masters. Autumn began its slow trot towards the town atop a rust-colored pony, and everyone could look at the horizon and feel a sense of relief seeing him getting larger upon the horizon. Summer wasn't quite done with them yet, however. Just as the thermometers began their reluctant crawl south, he gave them one more week of sweat-covered bodies and fever dreams to remember him by.
Howard opened the parlor door to Dr Fuller's office on Monday. A plate of unfinished greyish meat that comprised the remains of Doctor's dinner lay in front of the door that led to the upstairs office. This reminded Howard of the meals his grandmother would make herself and as the Doctor was almost as old as she was, Howard assumed their culinary tastes similar.
The fan was broken again. He swept the night's debris out onto the sidewalk as he did each day prior. He never gave any thought to where this clutter came from. Small pieces of white-flecked shell and sand were spread out across the floor along with dust Howard assumed had fallen from the ceiling. This office was almost 100 years old and had been vacant for the last 50 years, standing watch on the corner with the thousand yard stare that only forgotten buildings can manage. He swatted the flies away from his face as he did his daily cleaning. This hot flash had brought them to the people once again. The invitingly repulsive odor of a bloated corpse was on the morning's air. The Sheriff would no doubt have to make the trip to the trickling riverbed to see which animal was the latest claimed by the drought-like conditions. Howard ignored the smell as others sitting outside speculated what animal could cause this type of odor. Clay Harrison, the town Barber, guessed it must be a stray pack mule wandered down from the mountain campsites. Arnold Cobblepot, Attorney at Law, argued it was the missing heifer from Old Lady Wilke's dairy farm. Howard knew what it was and sniffed his derision at these guesses, completing his sweeping before the sun had fully scaled the trees. He closed the door to the office and opened the arched window that set atop the door frame. Each window within the arch swiveled to allow air to flow freely into the building. Howard returned to his desk and began to address the paperwork left for him by Dr Fuller.
The Dr ordered a lot of medical supplies. There were at least 14 pages of items ranging from simple test tubes from California to sophisticated micro measurement devices from Europe. Howard filed the letters and prepared the day's mail with the supply requests, including Dr Fuller's premade checks within each manilla envelope. This task completed, Howard poured himself another cup of coffee. As he stirred in his powdered creamer, he noticed that worms had appeared under the table his coffee station was set upon. These worms were white and stringy and less than an inch long. They resembled phlegm more than earthworms. Howard assumed these were brought to the surface from whatever malignant growth that spawned them by the heat and swept them up. He returned to his coffee and saw that his sugar bowl has been moved from the corner of the table. It had 4 round, inch-wide whitish smudges in a vertical line along one side. Howard picked up his sugar bowl and wiped it clean, only now noticing the seashell piece in his sugar bowl. It was larger than the ones he swept up every day but clearly made of the same material. He dumped the sugar and refilled it from the sealed bag below.
Coffee in hand, Howard was officially done with his duties for the day. He never saw Dr Fuller during the daytime. When he was hired, he remembered the Dr interviewed him at dusk and was late in doing so. Howard chalked that up to the man's busy schedule and accepted the job that was offered. The pay wasn't close to what he was making as when he was an electrical engineer in the City, but at least now he could walk to work rather than commute 2 hours a day. For that alone, he was grateful. Howard sensed the commotion in the street long before he heard it. The Sheriff's pickup raced past his window with people following the dust cloud kicked up . Howard assumed they had found the body of the cow. As they prepared to assign blame for the ignorant animal's demise, Howard remained in his chair and sipped his coffee. He opened up the crossword puzzle from today's newspaper and began his daily ritual. Clay Harrison ran past his window and stopped. He looked in at Howard, oblivious to the ruckus. He made a curious, pained expression and continued along to the Sheriff's office. Howard greeted this look with a derisive shrug and correctly answered “Gallop” as a 6 letter word for “faster than a trot”. He wrote it in ink.
The commotion had gained a welcome drop in volume as the townsfolk gathered at the Sheriff's office, 3 blocks away from Dr Fuller's office. Howard wrote the word “Frangible”, completing the puzzle's request for a 9 letter word for “Easily Broken...on purpose” He heard a thump from upstairs. It sounded like something soft and wet falling from a great height. He heard this noise from time to time. Dr Fuller had once explained that he had several experiments ongoing on upstairs that involved caged animals. Howard accepted that one had simply fallen within its cage and wrote “Decline” as a a 7 letter reply to “...of the Roman Empire” The unmistakable sound of dragging filled the small downstairs office from the room above, but Howard was prevented from fashioning an explanation for this odd noise by the face of Clay Harrison again in his window. This time the curious glare was replaced by roiling anger. Clay looked away from the office and screamed “He's here!” As he turned his eyes back to Howard, other townsfolk appeared in the 8 foot long window frame including Arnold Cobblepot, Sheriff Talbot and even Ernie Hutton, the town mechanic. All of them were looking at Howard.
Howard pointed at himself and said “Me?”, unsure of the question he was answering. Sheriff Talbot nodded his yes and pointed at the sidewalk outside the office with an unmistakable “Now!” motion.
Howard put his pen down and took a sip of his coffee. He looked at the door that opened to the upstairs office and saw that it was securely locked. He went outside.
Arnold began the inquisition.
“What the hell is your boss doing up there? This is the 6th cattle mutilation this summer.”
“What are you talking about?” Howard answered.
“There hasn't been so much as a cow coming down with a case of Hoof and Mouth in generations. Your boss moves in with his science experiments and every week now we find the remains of some animal out in the woods.” the lawyer demanded.
“And what makes you take the deductive leap and say that Dr Fuller is the cause of this? Because he's new?” Howard looked every person in the mob in the eye as he asked this. “You see the remains of some cow that fell in with a bad wolf and come running to ME saying 'Your Doctor is a Monster!' Seriously?” Howard laughed. The crowd began to lose it's venomous edge.
Clay Harrison would buy none of this. “Look. We all know how much smarter than us you think you are, but nothing strange like this happened before THAT freak arrived. None of us have ever seen the man. The only way we even know he's here is the lights that he turns on at night while he's working. He might not be a monster but he sure is fucking weird!”
The mob found their voice again and roused their agreement.
“So he's Dracula, now?” Howard laughed. “He only comes out at night and shreds cattle? Are you people listening to yourselves?” Howard was laughing now. “Does that make Earl a wolf-man because he works the night shift at the brewery? I never see HIM during the daytime. Hey Earl. Do you even HAVE a shadow? This is laughable. If you want to figure out what is killing these animals, I suggest you bring in a game warden and not an exorcist!” Howard turned on his heel and stormed back inside, slamming the door behind him. The mob, exhausted of their anger like a snuffed candle, dispersed without a sound. Only Sheriff Talbot remained. He wasn't looking at Howard though. He was looking at the 2nd floor window directly above them and wondering if he had really seen what he thought he had just seen.
The hours fell through the glass like grains of sand as the workday drew to a close. Signs in the shop windows along Franklin and Main streets began to reflect this change as they flipped from OPEN to CLOSED. Lights ignited in the windows that dotted this busy street in defiance to the lazy shawl darkness pulled across the town. Howard turned the desk lamp on as he began his end of day cleaning. His closing sweep produced more bits of sand and seashell pieces as well as dust from the geriatric building's rafters. Howard's focus was drawn to the abrupt blink of light that appeared at the base of the door leading upstairs. “The Boss is here,” he thought. No sooner had this occured to him he was startled by a rap on the window outside. The Sheriff was standing outside the office and pointed to the ground in front of him, again signaling to Howard “Now.” Howard looked down and sighed. He leaned the broom against the doorway that led upstairs and walked outside. The heat from the day was still attached to everything, leeching strength and comfort from everyone.
“I don't know what your boss is doing. I don't care. I know he's been the one doing this cattle thing and I want you to relay one thing for me. Stop. Now. This isn't the place for him to pull this crap. I won't allow it.”
“Sheriff, I expect this kind of nonsense from the people who live here. They have nothing else to talk about. Life in this little place never changes. Anytime something new happens, they get out their pitchforks and torches. But you? I expected you to be above this.” Howard shook his head and leaned against the building. Sheriff Talbot looked back to the window again. The light was on now and he was certain that if he looked long enough he would see it again. He returned his gaze back to Howard.
“Cut the bullshit, Miller. You and I both know what is going on here and I'm the guy standing here telling you right now that I won’t allow it. Tell your boss “Tonight is your last night here.” Tell him I said he is no longer welcome here. Tell him that he has this one last chance to pack his shit and slip out just as fast as he slipped in. if he's still here in the morning there's gonna be hell to pay.” This caught Howard's attention. He had known this man for 30 years and never heard him say anything so abrupt leave his mouth. That was part of the reason he was the town sheriff. He never went too far along with any one emotion. His rule was one of deja vu; every day like the one before. To hear him threaten Dr Fuller shook Howard from the derisive stare he had affixed to Sheriff Talbot. “What the hell are you talking about, Sheriff?”
“I have been on the phone all day since finding that corpse. I told the folk here it was Old Lady Wilke's cow. I lied. It was Cliff. I found him in a clearing marked off with those symbols we've been seeing around town. I know Fuller did this. I talked to the Sheriffs in 4 other towns along the river. The stories were all the same. Strange man moves in, people disappear, everything boils to a head as the clergy get involved and the office he was holed up in goes up in blazes and the local person hired to mind the store meets a gory end. Did you know there are exorcists prowling the woods RIGHT NOW looking for your boss? He's very popular among their kind. Something like a trophy. I'll bet he's been on the run for a while now. “ The blood began to drain from Howard's face as he began seeing the logic in the Sheriff's words.
He had seen this all unfold before him and convinced himself that there was nothing to fear. He smelled the rotten meat every morning, knowing he'd not left anything out. He realized those weren't seashells he had swept up. They were scales. His mind turned back to the incident with his coffee station this morning. Those marks were hand prints. The good Doctor had been putting something in his coffee since he started working there. Howard vomited and fell to the sidewalk. “I should have seen this all along...” he whispered.
“Howard, don't take this the wrong way, but you're an idiot. You wouldn't have seen this if your boss had unfurled his leather wings in front of you while he was chomping down on Old Man Higgins. You may be the smartest person in this town, but when it comes to seeing the tree right in front of you, you can't get past the forest. But I want you to tell him “Move along” This is his last warning. If he's not gone by this time tomorrow (he raised his voice so that the shape now behind the curtain of the second story window could easily hear) this town will be crawling with priests looking for some place to sprinkle their holy water and shove their crucifixes.”
Howard got up and wiped the spew from his face. “I'm not going back in there. He's all yours.” He turned on his heel and ran into the night.
Sheriff Talbot took a step back and looked at the 2nd story window with the light on. “I know you heard me. I don't make idle threats. I have already made the necessary phone calls. These people will be here tomorrow.” The shape in the window pulled back the curtain and locked eyes with the sheriff who looked much different now. His eyes glowed like red coals and an issue of smoke bellowed forth from them as he glared into the upstairs window and said “The last thing this town needs is another monster.”
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