Copyright © 2015 Stanley Laine
All rights reserved.
Front Cover: SelfPubBookCovers.com/Skull
THEY SAY IT NEVER SNOWS in Hammelburg, Indiana, something about the way the steep slopes to the north shelter this river valley from the prevailing jet stream or how the mighty Ohio pushes warm moist air from its muddy banks up into the hills to smother the cold winds, forcing them to rise and pass over this little speck on a gentle northern bend. It is even said that on rare occasions when the snow does make it down into the valley, the streets of this town are so sizzling hot that it can turn ice into rain before it even reaches the ground. I don’t know anything about cold fronts or topography, but give me a filing cabinet and I can do wonders, which is why I work in the police records division for the town of Hammelburg.
I can’t claim to be the sole authority on the tale that follows and I won’t even pretend to be a half-decent writer as I’m a simple and plain-spoken man, but I can assure you that I have been as honest about the events as I know them to be, not only from my own testimony but also from the accounts of others, but heed this warning: some of what you are about to read may be unsettling and should you dare to venture further beyond this point know that in doing so you could be unwittingly affiliating yourself with the Limit Club simply by knowing its origin and existence. Should you ever cross the line with one of its members, the remnants of which are still spread far and wide across this country and whose numbers are growing every day, do not even bother to run. They are as relentless as a hound on the hunt and there will be no end to their pursuit of you until you are completely and utterly destroyed. Their lust for vengeance knows no bounds and they will follow you into the deepest abyss no matter where you hide and grind you under their boots until not even a single strand of hair remains to bear witness that you ever existed.
You have been warned; the Limit Club exists here and now, shrouded by secrets, passing words by whispers, and they are watching and waiting in the shadows.
On a gently moonlit night in late September, Rebecca Leary wheeled her bike along the rickety bricks that paved Broadway Street until at last she approached the still waters of the green antebellum fountain near the center of town. It was likely then she first heard the sounds that sent a cold shiver up her spine. It was the low murmur of chanting coming from the sharp wooded hills behind her back, bluffing the north end of this historic Ohio River town. She looked south down Broadway Street towards the river for any sign of a barge, hoping that the chanting might merely be some crew preparing to land their loads of coal at the power plant on the western edge of town. But under the dim amber light of a blood moon, she would see nothing moving along the surface of the glassy swollen river as it moved its murky water swiftly past this town.
Despite the promise of a slow start she threw her gangly twenty year-old legs over the seat of her bike and began pressing the right pedal as hard as she could, using her hand to throw it into a lower gear as her legs still felt like jelly from a long and exhausting ride. She reached inside her shirt and retrieved a small vial of mace attached to a shoestring cord around her neck and raising it to get the string over her head Rebecca lost control of the bike handles and sent herself crashing into the low wall of the fountain, hitting the side of her head on its curved masonry rim and plunging the mace into the dark water.
Checking for blood on her scalp and finding traces of it covering her fingers she knelt before the fountain and reached into its slimy murkiness to feel around for her only form of defense from what she suspected might be coming. The water was cold and deeper than she imagined so she could not reach its bottom without standing. The throbbing on her scalp began to pulsate as she leaned forward and the chanting now seemed to be growing louder so she decided that a quick escape was her best course of action, but the rim of her bike being bent and the tire rubbing against the front forks she surmised that she would have to lift the front and walk it the remainder of the way home to the far southern edge of town where she lived with her family just one block up from the river. Her only choice was to ditch the bike and make a run for it.
She had been teased by her older brother about riding this night under a blood moon, but not one to believe in superstitious legends Rebecca proudly made her usual ride up the hills to the modern town of North Hammelburg and took the same long, gradual descent back into her own historic town, but now she doubted her arrogance and the chanting only confirmed her new-found fears that the stories she had been told about this kind of night were true.
Then the sound stopped as suddenly as it had begun and just as it was foretold she heard a shrill scream coming down Broadway Street in the black night behind her from the hills. She did not dare to turn or look as she felt the sound was moving faster than she could walk, or run, or even ride and so she simply dropped to her knees and covered her head as she felt the demonic presence race to envelop her.
From the window of a dark room above a shop along Vine Street two eyes peered out to witness the whole scene where two years ago, under a blood moon sky, down in the shallows of the Broadway Fountain plunged a small vial of mace, where bloody fingerprints touched the edge of the basin and attached loose strands of hair to the masonry as a damaged bike lay nearby on its side. It was the last time anyone ever saw a trace of Rebecca Leary.
The debate had been rolling along for nearly an hour now and as the gavel pounded down on the long wooden table in the main hall of the Hammelburg courthouse, the smell of oak and old coffee floated around its marble cavernous space while a restless crowd turned to look at its source as they grumbled beneath the stolid scowls from the portraits of the town’s founding fathers hanging in the gallery above their heads. Mayor Bill Turner, a portly man, seated with a sweaty brow dripped grief upon the table as he tried to quiet the arguing in the large echo-chamber, but his gavel went ignored, as Mary Linn Ford, owner of Mary’s Curiosity Shoppe on the north side of Main Street stood and turned to the crowd seated across the aisle from her to call out, “It’s been two years now since Rebecca Leary’s disappearance, and what have we got to show for it? Not a damn thing, only leads that dried up and false clues that never existed in the first place. I think we owe it to Rebecca’s memory to do right by her, and I say if our local boys can’t get the job done after two long years, then it’s time we brought in someone who can!”
The crowd on the left side of the long room cheered her on and looked across the aisle at the crowd on the right side of the aisle, as Bob Mainard, owner of River King Bait and Tackle two blocks south of Main Street rose from his chair pointing straight at Mary Linn shouting, “We don’t need some interloper coming into our town to tell our boys what to do. We don’t want some meddling fool bringing newspapers from the big city and God knows what else in here stirring up trouble. I say we let the boys handle this thing and give them more time!” The crowd surrounding Bob on the right side of the hall cheered over the boos and cat calls coming from the left side as Mayor Turner again pounded his gavel upon the wooden table.
“Please, please, good people of Hammelburg, we must remain calm and talk this thing through…” but his plea fell upon deaf ears as the two sides of the hall continued trading barbs across the aisle. When the ruckus rose to a fever pitch the town doctor Arnold Blankenship rose from his seat nestled in the middle of the large crowd of northsiders on the left of the aisle to call out “What are you so afraid of being stirred up, that’s what I’d like to know? Is there perhaps something you know that you don’t want the rest of us to find out?” A large laugh rolled from the crowd around him, as Bob Mainard pointed back at the doctor who was now cleaning his spectacles before placing them above the smirk on his face. “I’ve had just about enough of that kind of talk!” Bob shouted, “We all want this thing resolved, but we want it done the right way. Not by some outsider who knows nothing about our town and about the people whose families have lived here their entire lives. We don’t need some hotshot coming in here and mucking things up, making unfounded accusations and reaching erroneous conclusions, and we especially don’t need it to be some damn woman!”
“Boo!” cried the crowd on the left and even some on the right, but unfazed Bob continued, “We all have a lot at stake here, and I don’t want to see some businesses suffer, lives turned upside down by some woman looking to add another notch on her notoriety belt. I say we let the boys stick with it and deal with this thing the right way.”
Mary Linn rose again and called back, “Two years! It’s been two years and they are no closer than when they started…”
Bob interrupted, “You don’t know that they aren’t close to already solving this thing, maybe they haven’t played their cards yet.” He turned searching the northsider crowd across the aisle as though looking for a specific, familiar face before asking, “Where is Pettinga? Tom Pettinga where in the hell are you?”
I heard my name ring out like a bell as the crowd began looking around searching for where I was sitting quietly tucked away in the back of the long hall, seated on the left of the aisle with the northsiders, until my thin arms were lifted from each side by those seated beside me tugging at my wrists and slowly from the back of the room I rose cautiously to flatten my tie and button my brown suit coat. Steadying myself on the back of the chair in front of me I cleared my throat before most of the crowd even seemed to notice me. I thought about sitting back down but then Bob Mainard pointed at me and called out, “Pettinga, tell us what’s new!”
I cleared my throat again and loosened my tie, wiping the mustache above my lip before fixing my hair, uncomfortable speaking in front of any crowd let alone this unruly lot and started to say, “Well, the last I knew, the boys, I mean the detectives on the case had a few leads…we, I mean they, were following up on but…”
“What’s that?!” Bob shouted with his hand cupped around his ear, “Speak up man, I can’t hear you!”
Mary Linn shook her head at me and covered her eyes as the crowd began grumbling so I continued to try to speak louder by clearing my throat more assertively, then standing back up she shouted over me and Bob to say, “This is a joke! He doesn’t need to say anything because he has nothing to say! This is a sham!” The crowds around her began clapping and cheering but the crowd on the right began shouting them back down until finally a lone woman stood within the boisterous crowd on the south side of the aisle and a hushed silence began to fall upon the entire hall. It was Monica Leary, the older sister of Rebecca.
She spoke nearly in tears, “I do understand the concerns of many of you here tonight on both sides of the issue. I respect the desire to keep things within the confines of our town and to not stir up any unnecessary publicity, but believe me, more than anyone here, I want the mystery of what happened to my sister solved. At the very least if having some kind of closure on the matter will give even the tiniest fraction of peace to my family, than I say we must exhaust all options available to us.”
Charlie Mendenhall rose from the crowd seated around Monica and spoke politely, “Monica, we all understand the difficulty in this for you and we sympathize with your desire to want to do everything possible to try to uncover what has become of Rebecca. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that none of us wish in any way for anything less than the truth, but the concern here is bringing in an outsider, specifically this detective woman. We just do not think she is the kind of outsider we want coming to our town for something as delicate as this. Her work is widely known and I don’t hesitate to express my grave concerns over our ability to manage the circus that follows in her wake.”
Mary Linn rose from her seat again pointing at Charlie, Monica Leary and the rest of the south side crowd across the aisle, “All I hear tonight is talk about stirring up trouble. What are you southsiders so afraid of anyway?”
“Please,” Monica called out, “no more arguing on the matter. I simply ask you to understand my family’s wishes, all of you…”
Then from the south side crowd rose the most well-liked and respected member of town on both sides of the aisle and silence again fell upon the gathering as Humboldt Plummer, owner of the Twilight Alehouse, began to speak, “Everywhere I look around this room I see friends, people I have known all of my life, some former classmates, some former business associates, some former loves,” he finished in a quiet voice and gentle smile looking across the aisle at Mary Linn, who was now blushing and smiling and waving her hand at Humboldt as if to say, “Oh go on…” and he took a deep breath and said, “I like many of those on this side of the aisle want to see the sanctity of our cozy little town remain intact, and don’t welcome the kind of fracas that this is likely to bring, but if it will clear the air of this shadow that hangs over us, then I say I’m all for it.”
Humboldt looked around the room as the velvet sound of his voice reverberated throughout the chamber, like a father calmly explaining to a child what they did wrong after their mother had melted down. No one bothered to challenge him for he would never take a slight or offence from anyone’s opinion, he would only raise his palms inviting them to speak and do his best to see their side of things. He was a strong, burly man, a salt and pepper beard loosely cropped around his full round face but had earned the moniker “Humble” by the way in which he treated others. Outside of church, his Twilight Alehouse was one of the few places in town where both north and south siders could find common ground over a local brew of cider or a glass of wine from the third generation family vintner. There had been many fights across this very aisle over the years, the northsiders always feeling like younger children taking hand-me downs from the old guard on the south side, from the founding families that lived in the colossal Greek revival homes with their columned porches that lined the first few blocks from the river banks up to Main Street.
In that quiet moment of calm Humble’s eyes rose from scanning the crowd to stop upon me still standing and squirming in the spotlight across the aisle at the end of the hall. Everyone stopped looking at Humble and turned to me as I lowered my body attempting to melt back into my seat and disappear completely until someone in the crowd pointed directly in my face and shouted, “Come on Pettinga, you know her, don’t you?”
I rose up fully again and protested, “Hardly…we crossed paths once on a case I was familiar with before I came here…”
“Well what of it?” Mary Linn cried out, “Will she help us or not?”
“I don’t think you understand,” I said, clearing my throat, “She’s not who you think she is, not how she is portrayed in the papers at all. I mean, she’s not a crime detective or anything quite like that. She doesn’t do cases like this, not missing persons or crimes or anything of that sort. You need to understand who you are dealing with here. It’s not like anyone you have ever known, not in this town or any town for that matter. She’s not what you want…”
All eyes stared at me in the silence of that long, dark hall, and in the awkwardness of the moment I continued, “The first time I met her…”
“Yes, go on,” Mary Linn coaxed.
I blurted out, “The first time I met her, she was hacking off someone’s hand just to prove a point.”
Someone in the crowd laughed and I heard the words echo, “Sounds like just the kind of person we need to get the job done around here.”
“No you don’t understand,” I continued, “She was literally chopping off someone’s hand just to prove that she was right.”
The silence from the crowd waited for more.
“The person was alive, you see?”
Eyes continued staring at me, the only sound a cough and I thought I could hear a sea of lashes blinking.
“Anyway,” I continued to try to short circuit this line of thinking, “She simply doesn’t do murder cases.”
Someone gasped when I spoke the word, and I looked to see Monica Leary’s eyes rise to meet mine across the aisle as a standing Humble Plummer surveyed the mood in the room until I spoke again to clarify, “I mean she investigates oddities, you know? The unknown, the supernatural, the paranormal, monsters, ghosts, and goblins, the unexplained, things of that nature, not things of this earth, those are what she investigates. She de-bunks them all…for a price.”
There was still silence in the room until Mary Linn spoke, “Well what have we got in Hammelburg after all? It is the blood moon curse we are talking about here, isn’t it? We are meeting here right now because we know what is coming and we know what waits for us on that night. Our time is running out and it seems like all we have tried are the practical things and look what they turned up. Nothing! You yourself lost your job over the matter…”
“No,” I replied quietly but directly to Mary Linn, “I asked to be in the records department…”
“Well anyway,” she interrupted, “You know her better than anyone else here. Do you think she will take the case?”
“Take the case?” I stammered. “Take the case?” I looked around the room as all eyes stared back at me with inquisitive daggers.
“Oh no,” I thought, “Not Philippa K. Dick. Not here. Not now. Not ever. This town can barely contain themselves let alone the likes of her. Surely she will rain down mayhem like they never could have imagined in their wildest dreams.”
As I cleared my throat and loosened my tie a little more and pondered as I tried to speak above their impatience with me I muttered, “Well I…well I…” even raising a finger into the air after fixing my glasses back up on the bridge of my nose, but their mouths just kept chattering away, spewing out the vitriol, left against right, north against south, it was the same old story all over again, and the thought I could not escape was that bringing Philippa Dick in the middle of this mess would be like throwing a match in a room full of gunpowder.
“You don’t know what you are asking for,” I demanded above the din of the crowd as mouths fell silent and eyes fixed again upon me, “You don’t realize that bringing her here, bringing Philippa K. Dick into Hammelburg…you have no idea…all hell will be cut loose.”
DESPITE THE 1930’s STYLE EXTERIOR of an aging brick and limestone façade, Monica Leary never considered she would find a building without a functioning elevator in this day and age, but as she stepped over a drunk man sleeping on the last step of the landing on the sixth floor of the Glendale Arms building at 28th and Meridian in the big city of Indianapolis, she reconsidered her decision, and wondered if she would have been better served to heed the advice of her older brother and hire an actual private investigator such as Tate & Tate in Cincinnati. But she considered that since she made it this far, and as her intent was to find the best investigator, no matter what kind of mysteries she snooped, Monica forged ahead down the dingy green and grey corridor, fanning her nose from the rancid odor emanating from the man lying on the step to find her way to suite 603C.
As she approached the office she saw that the entry was a simple unpainted steel door faded to a dusty shade of green, the upper half of which was filled with frosted glass and large black lettering that read PHIL---A - DICK, and in smaller letters below PRIVATE -------GATOR, where the lettering had been roughly scratched off as if done by a vandal with a key, a fingernail, and a lousy sense of humor. There was a hand-sized hole in the lower right corner of the frosted glass just above the door knob. Through the light illuminating from inside, she could see the motion of a fan making whirling shadows upon the glass. Monica knocked softly three times half hoping she would get no response justifying a quick exit on her part. Indeed no response came and annoyed that she had made it this far just to get no reply she decided to be more intentional with her knock as she wrapped with the back of her hand harshly three more times, but again there was nothing but the hush of the whooshing fan coming through the small hole in the glass.
Monica bent her tall, sturdy frame down to peer inside the hole in the door. She could see the fan on the far side of the room sitting on a window sill. There were blinds drawn halfway down the window which was thrown open on the bottom allowing a small early October breeze to be carried from the fan through the hole in the door and directly into her face now peering inside it. Beneath the window there was a desk facing the door and as she moved her head to the right and then to the left, she scanned the entirety of the office that she could see. Along the wall to the right she spied a long black leather couch and upon it she recognized the form of a body, lying on its side facing away from the door, and covered with a black raincoat.
Monica slid her hand through the hole and reached inside the door to unlock it, and swinging it open the breeze that followed kicked up a tornado of dust that rose and danced along the sunbeams making their way through the slats in the blinds. Monica coughed at the sight of this which caused a slight stir in the body upon the couch. Then Monica moved toward the body and began shaking it erratically to which the body startled and rose to a seated position, with squinting eyes raising its hand to block the beams of light to gaze upon the face of the intruder.
The woman on the coach with a dyed auburn pixie haircut, dark brows atop a pale, pockmarked complexion, fleshy cheekbones, button nose and compact frame still huddled beneath the makeshift blanket of a black trench coat assured Monica that despite the dark circles under the eyes and persistent frown folds running down each side of her chin, this was indeed the woman she had seen in the newspaper for so many years lauded as the best in the state at solving the unsolvable mysteries.
But disappointed by the disheveled and uninspiring look of the woman upon the couch Monica blurted out, “Tell me you are not Philippa K. Dick?”
“Who wants to know?” the woman replied, as she stretched and laid her head back on top of the cushion behind her and closed her eyes.
“My name is Monica Leary and I came here looking for the renowned investigator Philippa K. Dick, and instead it appears I have found you,” she replied with a frown.
“Indeed you have found me,” Philippa replied, “I am the one you seek.”
Having slowly dragged her body to the seat behind her office desk, Philippa sat with her face down on its wooden surface, pressing her aching forehead against whatever coolness remained upon the tabletop as Monica Leary spoke, “It would appear you had quite a night last night.”
Philippa mumbled, “If I could remember it, you are likely correct.”
Monica continued looking down her long nose, “My brother was adamant I should seek the services of Tate & Tate in Cincinnati as they are close to home and have a stellar reputation as an actual professional outfit, but…”
“Yes, but…?” Philippa replied, her face still pressed into her desk.
Monica continued, “…but I want the best.”
At this Philippa raised her head and exclaimed, “I’m not the best, so you have wasted your time,” and returned her head to the desk as she pointed to the door, inviting Monica to depart.
But Monica continued unfazed by the remark, “I have read and heard many things about you. Supposedly you are the most perceptive, precise, persistent, tenacious, and fearless investigator on either side of the Mississippi.”
“Oh, do go on!” Philippa called out in a muffled tone from her face still buried in the desk.
Monica continued, “There was the case of the shrunken head thief in Pittsboro square, the Crown Point goblins, the Stegemeier Farm fairy sightings, the beast of the Kankakee grasslands, so many mysteries solved over the years that other investigators were too afraid to even consider. I am aware that you have successfully cracked every case you ever accepted, except that last one, of course.”
Philippa raised her head and squinted at her visitor, “That’s not true,” she proclaimed.
“Well, maybe not every case then…” Monica started.
“No, I mean I solved all of them,” she replied, with one eye now closed.
Monica questioned, “But I thought the last one..?”
Philippa interrupted as a serious wide-eyed look took over her face, “It may not have turned out the way I wanted, and not the way it was reported, but I did solve that case.”
Monica had not noticed before that Philippa had a slightly lazy right eye that gave her the appearance of intense concentration every time she focused hard on something.
Then Monica smiled and said politely, “But I have also heard that you are no more than a bumbling investigator whose dumb luck has helped you merely stumble into many of the solutions to your cases and that whatever talent you supposedly had was really an illusion concocted by the press for entertainment purposes and that you are really just a washed up, worn down, charlatan. Now tell me,” the young woman demanded, looking again down her long nose at the seated Philippa, “Which one are you, Sherlock Holmes or Inspector Clouseau?”
“I suppose I am a bit of both and a bit of neither,” she replied, “You do realize, I haven’t taken a case in over a year?”
“I know that,” the young woman shot back, “but everyone has a bad day I suppose, and one cannot be judged by a single mistake but by their entire body of work. What I want to know is if you are still interested in taking a case?”
Philippa was silent for a moment and then inspecting Monica she continued in an impatient tone, “Give me your story and I will tell you what I think.”
At this she reached into her drawer and retrieved a large round crystal ashtray which she placed before her upon the desk pulling a pack of cigarettes from the same drawer next to it and then holding a lighter disguised in the shape of a small genie lamp in her hand. Upon lighting it she took one puff from the stick without inhaling and instead rested the cigarette on the edge of the ashtray as smoke entrails began streaming from its center. Then she rummaged around in her drawer a little longer until she retrieved a grape Tootsie Pop and slowly peeling the wax wrapper from its sticky surface she placed it on the desk next to the ashtray as Monica looked at her in confusion.
“You see,” Philippa started, “To quit smoking I used tootsie rolls as a substitute, but my teeth are turning to shit and now I have a Tootsie Roll addiction, and the only way to keep it at bay has been getting to it through one of these. It takes a long time to lick your way to the center of a Tootsie Pop and there only so many hours in the day. So now, I have a tootsie roll pop addiction which is even worse for my teeth.” She reached inside her lip and pulled away her gums to show a large dark gap at the back of her mouth where the corners of two molars had broken off. “It’s worse than chewing ice,” she declared.
Monica shook her head but dismissed the remark as just another personality quirk and waved her hand in the air as though her perplexing mannerisms were as annoying as the smoke surrounding her hair and she moved across the room to gaze out the window behind Philippa’s seat, away from the white trail as the fan sent it toward the hole in the door. Philippa sat staring intently at the end of the cigarette in the ashtray as it continued to smolder and began leaving a tidy little pile of ash in the center of the crystal bowl.
Monica frowned at Philippa as she began, “My case for you on the level is quite simple. Two years ago my sister Rebecca never returned from her regular nighttime bicycle ride. She was an avid bicyclist and rode rain or shine, day or night, and always on the same route. That night she left alone, as she always did, but she did not return in her usual fashion. You must understand my sister operated like clockwork, living her life on a regimented and timely schedule, with little or no deviation from the norm. Anyone else can be an hour late and you might not give it a second thought, but for Rebecca to even be five minutes late would make one sit up and take notice. And so, after my sister had not returned and it was nearly an hour past her normal arrival time, my father, my brother and I hopped into our cars and retraced her normal route. My mother stayed behind in case Rebecca came home, but there was no sign of her, so when we all returned we immediately called the police.”
Philippa continued watching her cigarette, never smoking it, but only pushing the tip toward the inside of the bowl until it fell in completely no longer able to balance its stubby weight on the edge and she looked up at Monica and asked, “What did the police conclude?”
Monica replied, “Although my sister was well-known and well-liked within the community, no one stepped forward to say that they saw her the entire night. It was as though she disappeared from the very earth. All that was found was a small canister of mace in a fountain along Broadway Street near the center of town and her bicycle nearby with the front tire crumpled. The police naturally assumed she had been the victim of a hit and run and that she may have staggered off in an injured state, or been taken and hidden at some point.”
“What time had she left?” Philippa asked.
“She almost always left from her job at the antique store in town at exactly nine o’clock, just upon closing and always returned no later than eleven, even if she stayed late at work to finish ringing up a customer so she could be in bed by eleven-thirty. This was a Saturday, so things at the store may have run later than normal with the weekend crowds coming into town for the fall colors, but she would never in her life be out past midnight.”
“And on a Saturday night, not one person saw her at all? Not one person the entire time she was out? How do you account for this?” Philippa inquired.
“She would leave town and ride up into the hills to North Hammelburg. These are dark, unpopulated, and lightly traveled hills between the two towns which is why Rebecca liked this particular route and the fact that they were a challenge going and easier coming back. But…” Monica hesitated.
“Yes, go on,” Philippa demanded.
“I think if anyone did see her, they are probably afraid to speak.”
“Afraid?” Philippa interjected, “Afraid of what?”
Monica remained silent. Then Philippa turned around in her chair and thumbed in the direction of the door saying abruptly, “I’m sorry but I don’t take missing person cases or anything like that. You need to go back to the police or hire a crime detective. My line of work is in de-bunking the many myths the good people of this state have concocted over the years in their boredom. People seem to have an interest in such things and often times communities will raise money to bring me to their little neck of the woods and have a gander at their mystery, to see if theirs is the one to hold water, but they usually end up disappointed for it always ends up being perfectly explainable.”
Monica stepped forward to catch Philippa’s attention from the corner of her eyes and she sighed for a moment and then hesitantly added as if ashamed, “There is another side to this story that has what you might call a supernatural element to it.”
“Now we are getting interesting,” Philippa insisted, “Tell me more.”
“There is a ridiculous legend in Hammelburg about a creature that roams the night, a banshee to be exact, that appears only when there is a total lunar eclipse, an actual blood moon, but when it does, it takes the life of anyone in its presence that doubts its existence. It is said that just before a person is taken, a blood curdling scream can be heard, unlike anything you can ever imagine, but only by the victim, and that if you hear the scream you will surely know it is coming for you. No one that lives in Hammelburg goes out on a blood moon night for this reason. Well, no one except my sister. She was a practical person in all things and was never given to any of this kind of fantasy or legend. She thought it nothing more than tales, like the boogeyman, to keep children off the street late at night. But, they say if you go to the cemetery northeast of town, you will see there are graves of many young children, too young to believe in the banshee, and if you were to analyze the dates those children passed away you would see that most of them occurred on nights when there was a blood moon. The night my sister disappeared was a blood moon and so naturally the town has made the connection to the legend.”
There was a silence in the office, only the sound of the fan could be heard humming along as Philippa sat and looked directly at Monica, then after a car horn was heard blowing from six stories below Philippa slapped her hands upon the desk and exclaimed “Is that all?” as if suspicious of Monica’s forthrightness.
“Yes, that is everything,” Monica insisted.
“Tell me though, why have you waited two years to bring someone in? And how can it be that there are no tourists as you say that would not have seen your sister? Surely there would be some floating about town after the stores close that night not even aware of the legend. Why would your sister be the one?”
“The location of the fountain is on a circle surrounded by a church, a shoe repair and some other shops that are closed before night and it is located a block north of the main drag, so at night it is a desolate place, but even still it’s a touchy situation in our town,” Monica teased, “There has been much resistance about bringing in outside help, even within my own family. The bed and breakfasts would have locked up at ten and the only other place, the Broadway Hotel is down by the river, not up by the fountain where they say she disappeared. We look after our visitors, especially on that night. Regardless there was no one to come forward claiming to have seen or heard anything at all.”
“Perhaps they merely saw nothing unusual?” Philippa replied.
Monica shook her head not understanding Philippa’s remark but continued saying, “Another blood moon is approaching Monday and the detectives still are no further along in explaining this thing, and many people in the town believe there is real danger ahead. We are a tourist town and we have many visitors who will now come for the legend based on what happened to my sister that last time and you can be assured there will be someone out on the streets that night somewhere in Hammelburg, perhaps even teenagers out on a bit of fun, hoping to catch the banshee, or invent it. We must see this thing solved before then. I want to know what happened to my sister and I want this legend thing ruled out once and for all.”
“All right,” Philippa smiled, “My last question is this: do you believe in the legend yourself?”
Monica stared blankly at Philippa, not a look of confusion as she had done before at her odd behaviors, but instead as though she were rehearsing a look of complete obfuscation and did not reply, but the cogs working in her mind were clearly visible in the motion of her eyes when she responded, “My brother does not and yet, you won’t find him standing outside alone on the night of a blood moon. I don’t know what to believe anymore.”
“I understand,” Philippa replied with a knowing nod and smile and continued, “I’ll consider your case of the Blood Moon Banshee once I meet your family. If I don’t accept it then you pay to return me to these sumptuous surroundings, but if I take the case you will cover all my expenses until I solve it, and you will pay me exactly what it is worth to you.”
“But how will I know what is appropriate to pay for your services?” Monica started, and Philippa quickly interrupted, “Oh you will know,” she said with a wry smile, “They always do.”
She lifted the Tootsie Pop from the table and plopped it into her mouth rotating it once completely around before removing it and then swirling it around the inside of the ashtray coating it with the gunk inside and then quickly without even thinking plopped it back into her mouth where she cringed and pursed her entire face around the ball before pulling it out and spitting large quantities of dirty saliva into the crystal bowl. Then once she appeared convinced that she had removed all the ashen fragments from her tongue she rose quickly from her seat and asked, “Do you have a car?”
“Yes,” Monica replied, staring at her like she was crazy.
“I’m trying negative association,” Philippa said, “But unfortunately I think I’m starting to associate ashes with grape flavoring and its starting to taste good, so…”
“Oh, right…” Monica replied moving quickly away from her and toward the door.
At this Philippa moved to the couch and reaching beneath it retrieved a pair of black combat boots that she pulled on over the cuffs of her black jeans and began working on the laces.
As she watched her work the boots Monica asked, “Tell me something. What does the K stand for?”
“What do you mean?” Philippa replied.
“In your name,” Monica continued, “what does the K stand for?”
Then reaching between a cushion in the sofa she extracted a blue and black flannel shirt which she sniffed and then shrugging her shoulders in approval she slipped it on over her black tank top.
“Let’s go then,” Philippa demanded as she pulled a bag of Tootsie Pops from her desk and stuffed it into her black trench coat pocket which she slung over her arm.
Monica replied with a surprised look upon her face, “But don’t you need to pack some things in the event you take the case?”
“No,” Philippa replied, “I have all I need for the moment, and what I don’t have will be obtained through the expenses you are paying me,” and she smiled as she stepped outside.
Monica scoffed, “By the way, is there another way down and out of this building, I had to step over a …”
Philippa interrupted, “Step over a drunk on your way up?”
“Yes,” Monica replied.
“He is gone now, and he is no drunk. “
“But how do you know that?”
“His name is Pop and he is my secretary and if you were someone he suspected was going to give me any trouble, he would have broken both of your knees before you made that last step.”
Philippa then turned to close the door and slipped her hand inside the hole in the frosted glass as she looked at Monica and then up in the air as though pondering the placement of her fingers while she manipulated them to twist the lock on the inside of the door and said, “You can never be too careful around here.”
Monica just shook her head wondering what she had gotten herself into. “Perhaps Tom Pettinga was right after all,” she mumbled.
Philippa removed her hand from inside the hole in the door and said, “Kaye,” as she turned to walk on ahead of Monica who stood with a perplexed look on her face before following, “Oh, yes that is what I was asking, what does the K stand for?”
Philippa just shook her head and continued down the stairs.
WHEN I FIRST GOT WIND that Monica Leary had actually traveled to Indianapolis to employ the services of Philippa K. Dick, I had mixed emotions. It had been seven years since I last saw Philippa when she was enlisted by a wealthy businessman and single-handedly solved a mystery surrounding a young man she called ‘Charlie X’ in the French Lick Springs Resort. In those days I was working in the Orange County Sheriff’s department in southwestern Indiana, a position I landed as the result of my uncle who knew a guy (who knew a guy, who knew a guy) who worked for the county and put in a good word for me to come in and try to sort out their filing system. I remember on my first day the Sheriff and his buddies were all cutting up about this incompetent “woman interloper” coming from the big city to meddle in their business, “If she really wants to make a splash around here, maybe she should book some time at the spa in the resort and get her hair done and nails polished or try some shopping to find her way out of those black jeans and into a dress for once. We don’t need this Dick lurking around our county mucking things up for us. She wouldn’t know what to do if she came across a real mystery to save her life. I don’t have time to keep my county safe and go chasing down all her troubles.”
When I first happened upon Philippa herself, she was standing in a long, dark musty hallway at the resort, and in her unwavering confidence that she had correctly solved the mystery, a conclusion that was scoffed by all in the Sheriff’s department and the community as completely preposterous and laughably ludicrous, I watched as Philippa pulled an emergency ax from the wall in front of everyone and in one swing chop off the hand of ‘Charlie X’ while he lay unconscious on the hallway floor just to prove her point, and I knew then that ever misjudging her again and being distracted by her celebrity and odd behaviors would be a big mistake.
I spent some time with Philippa in those following days as the Sheriff had taken a fishing trip immediately after her reveal and wanted me to document the details of her conclusion for him because he was too ashamed to admit that this ‘woman interloper’ had been right all along. Philippa for her part was surprisingly humble about the whole affair never once attempting to rub anyone’s nose in her victory but instead related the facts as clearly as she saw them in her mind. She had created quite a scene prior to that in the grand old hotel, having been thrown out twice and arrested once before she proved her case and there were many who were against her even after the mystery was solved because it brought down one who was beloved in that community and his motives were noble. But Philippa had no allegiances in any regard and she saw that her sole focus was on the solving the mystery her sponsor was paying her to prove or disprove, even when that sponsor’s motives were less than noble. She was loyal to a fault, but loyal only to the cause of solving the case, nothing more. The celebrity or notoriety that it brought her was merely a distraction and she took no enjoyment from it, only treating it as one might the view the trees after walking a long time through a forest. Her focus always lay on the path ahead and nothing could dissuade her from it.
Philippa was surprised at my interest in her methods as most people seemed only interested in the outcomes. She would never reveal to me the tricks she used when pursuing a case, only admitting that she always draws a conclusion before she even investigates a mystery, and that her conclusion is that whatever the claim is, it is bound to be false. Yet it was said that she used supernatural means to gain insights, like a mystic, and that often times facts and clues would appear as if out of nowhere without the slightest of effort on her part.
There was another side to Philippa that was an even greater mystery to me and that was her human nature. The limited time I saw her solve and relay the details of that case in French Lick she was like an unstoppable machine with no sense of how her behaviors affected those around her. She was not a cold person, she was quite warm in fact if you got close enough to her, but her appearance would indicate otherwise. Was she attractive physically? Not in a glamorous sense, she was natural, with odd little features and imperfections, fleshy ear lobes, asymmetrical lips and squinting eyes, a pocked complexion and a stern expression ever present on her face; her general countenance seemed to ignite hostility and strange glances from everyone she met. Her fashion was pragmatic, wearing the same black jeans because they fit well and were sturdy, her boots worn to where she had the soles replaced simply because she liked the fit. She was always pictured in some t-shirt and over-shirt, and of course her trademark black trench coat and after we had met, often carrying a long silver-tipped umbrella. She never carried a purse or other bag, keeping everything in her pockets, and never wore jewelry of any sort, but she was so sure of herself and cared so little about anything else but her task at hand that she possessed what you might have called in my day a ‘cool’-ness about her. You could say there was nothing about her you might find individually impressive yet you always had the distinct impression you wanted to be just like her.
I spent the next five years, after Philippa K. Dick literally cracked the ‘Charlie X’ case, holed up with records in the Orange County courthouse until I saw a similar position open up with the police department at Hammelburg. For its part French Lick and the surrounding area with its resorts and casinos was becoming too big of a pond for the likes of me and the little historic village of Hammelburg quietly nestled in the hill-sheltered valley along the Ohio River in south-central Indiana seemed like a perfect fit.
One might wonder “How could anyone possibly find interest in the records division of any office?” but for me I have always found solace in the simple and archaic things in life, like the scent of a new record album cover or the sound of an old rotary telephone dial. Antique stores are like playgrounds to me but for employment purposes there are not many income generating options for one with an interest in things of the past especially one who prefers the company of old furniture to people. Yet in these small Indiana towns one can still find card catalogs being used in libraries and one does not have to go far to find a county seat where a records division awaits full of antiquated filing systems and mechanisms requiring the need of human intervention for retrieval. One such place was the Hammelburg police department where I could hide myself away behind an oversized desk in the corner with a yellow rotary phone by my side waiting for the occasional request to pull some file and transcribe its contents for the requester. It was my chance to return as a tiny fish in a small pond, a place where I could remain quite invisible and quite content.
Unfortunately there were caveats to this kind of life where certain personal duties might sometimes find their way into my inbox, such as running errands, things like transporting dry-cleaning or delivering lunch for the town policemen who were for their part as nepotistic and cliquish as you could imagine. The ‘old boy’ network as it often is in these small towns was alive and well in tiny Hammelburg and as an outsider, a new ‘recruit’ in their midst, I was seen as an oddball, somehow less masculine because I did not drive trucks through mud for pleasure or hunt deer for sport on weekends and for accepting what in their eyes must have seemed a demeaning role, something they often reserved for women in their chauvinistic way of thinking. To them I was more like a personal secretary than any real officiant and it often left me in the position of being the butt of their jokes, small insults such as secreting a vase of flowers onto my desk, a bottle of perfume, or leaving the key for the ladies’ restroom in my top drawer. Yet in my mind, it was a small price to pay for my general contentment in life.
One of these unfortunate duties was to play dress-up and travel once a month to various schools under the guise of “Officer Friendly” in and around town to talk to students about the role of the policeman in the community, as a sort of public relations effort. It was a task the real officers hated doing and so it was handed off to me. The younger kids were no problem as they were easily impressed by the uniform and badge and while I never carried a real gun to these occasions the plastic replica poking from my holster was convincing enough to garner “oohs” and “aahs” from an eager crowd.
The older kids were another story as they saw the police as an obstacle; an entity to avoid at all cost because the badge’s presence in their life meant only one thing: trouble.
I was sent to the local high school where Mr. Shoemaker introduced me to his homeroom class of about twenty kids some of which came from other parts of the county. I was wearing the official uniform and showed them my various insignias and implements explanations of which were written into my memory but often with the older kids it was like going on auto-pilot where I could not be quite sure about what I had just said five minutes after I had said it. These sessions felt like out of body experiences because as I rattled off my spiel about how the police were your friends and what to do in case of emergency I could mentally drift around the room to look upon maps on the wall or decorations on bulletin boards, perhaps surveying the fashions of the kids today, or seeing the glances and notes passed between students. At the end of my presentation question time with the teenagers was usually a quick and quiet affair.
“How fast does your car go?”
Not really knowing since I had never driven an actual Hammelburg police car I replied, “Oh the usual speeds I suppose with a little something extra to kick in when I need it.”
After disappointed sighs the next question hailed out, “Have you ever busted a teacher?”
“Not lately,” I replied as I glanced over at Mr. Shoemaker who seemed to squirm a little in his stance by the window folding his arms as he rocked on his toes.
“Have you ever killed anybody?”
“No,” I replied quickly which brought another disappointing groan from the crowd and then realizing there was nothing good to be learned from me the questions ceased and Mr. Shoemaker stepped forward as though ready to dismiss me but then to my surprise in the silence a quiet voice slipped in a question from the back of the room, “Have you ever gone out to the ‘House of the Setting Sun’?” I glanced in the direction of where the sound came from but no face owned up to the question as all eyes were fixed anxiously on me, waiting for my response.
The House of the Setting Sun. I had heard the rumors about this place like many a small town has about such an abandoned dwelling that rests outside the fringes of town where all sorts of horrors are attributed to scary looking places as it is being slowly pulled apart and worn away by weathering and age. Yet what was most disturbing about this particular house is that there had in fact been a murder committed there once some time ago before my tenure in the records division in this town.
The house had long since been deserted by then and was reputed to be a favorite haunt of many a teenager out for a night of adventure and on one of these occasions a new girl in town not more than sixteen years old had snuck out of her bedroom after midnight to join two other girls a year older than she was to explore the old house together. The new girl had been trying desperately to fit in with a crowd since her arrival and so despite her reservations about going she reluctantly joined them thinking it would earn her the respect she so desperately wanted but something went terribly wrong in the house that night and the two girls ended up brutally beating the new girl to death using rotten two by fours that had been pulled from the walls.
They took the girl’s body and stuffed it into the trunk of their car and after a failed attempt to burn it in a nearby dump they attempted to drop it from a bridge that crossed the river but they were spotted stopping along the road by a passing state trooper where they were searched and arrested for the girl’s murder. They confessed to the crime but pleaded temporary insanity caused by a demonic presence within the house itself. They claimed that after arriving at the house and spending some time exploring it they found a skull in the attic, in the very place where it was said the original owner had hung himself from the rafters trying to escape voices in the walls that were telling him to bludgeon his wife and children.
The two teenage girls claimed that a banshee in the walls told them what to do to the new girl and they were compelled to act, unable to refuse the demands of it, like continually biting down on a sore tooth to test its tenderness. Their insanity plea was denied of course and they were convicted of the crime, but still the thought remained in Hammelburg that the house had the ability to possess its occupants and trespassers and it has since remained both a fearful place and temptation to many in the community.
In my silent response a voice rang out again, “I have been there,” it said. Everyone turned in their seats to gaze upon a new boy in town that had recently moved from Kentucky and was sitting in the back row. He was a tall black-haired boy and initially hard to notice slouched down in his seat despite wearing a bright red flannel shirt tucked sloppily into his blue jeans that were rolled up to sit atop large boots with steel toes that used to be called ‘shit kickers’ back in my day. His hair was oily and unkempt and he looked as though he had just woken up when I asked, “And what did you find there?”
His dark eyes pierced mine and he smiled as though having a laugh at my expense, as if he knew I was not really a cop at all, not even a very good pretend one, and he said, “I found the front and top half of a skull and it must have come from a very large head, like it came from a Bigfoot, because I could position it just perfectly over my own face and wear it like a mask.”
A girl sitting in front of him turned back around to face me where I stood in the front shaking her head saying, “I’m calling major B.S. on that.”
The boy’s eyes stopped piercing me for a moment and his face turned into a deathly cold stare throwing daggers at the back of her head as she reached around to stroke her crown and exclaimed, “Ow!” as though her hair had been pulled. Mr. Shoemaker interrupted, “All right, let’s thank Officer…” he glanced at my name badge and continued, “…Friendly…for taking time out of his busy day to come speak with us.”
As I moved to leave the room I turned back to look again at the boy in the back who was still watching me with that same insipid smile drawn upon his face as though he could see right through me and I ended up bumping my knee on the edge of the open door which drew claps and laughs from the students.
I suppose it was one of the more intriguing aspects that made me want to remain a small fish in this particular small pond as opposed to any other because for all of its glossy facade of brick paved streets and stately white column fronted homes, old-time stores along Main Street with their secretive upstairs spaces hidden by heavy curtains in windows, an unceasing churn of the river constantly pushing its inhabitants from east to west, there was to me an undercurrent of something dark and forbidden in this place, like a dirty secret that everyone knows but no one dares to speak its name. A smile from a passerby could just as easily be a warning about what fate awaits you around the next corner. Like the ‘House of the Setting Sun’, the town of Hammelburg had its own story to tell, hiding somewhere within some old leather bound book in a private library or in the graveyard on the edge of its boundaries. There was more to the divide between the north and south sides of Main Street than meets the eye but being an outsider by historical terms I was not privy to its source yet always within me there was a hunger to know more, to bide my time to wait and see what fruit the trees bear.
And now Philippa K. Dick was coming to town and she was just the kind of person to turn over stones and the only one strong enough to do it here. I both feared and relished her arrival, but also there was a more personal side to my interest for the last time I saw Philippa she left me standing in a cold rain at a bus station in Evansville, hiding in the shadows where she planted a warm kiss on my lips before we parted, neither the kind that suggested mad love nor the type that implied mere fraternity, and the intentions of her kiss were just as much a mystery as the woman herself, but as the flashbulbs of an anxious press photographed her walking down the aisle of the bus she departed from yet another successful high-profile case and I stepped out of the light and watched her leave from the shelter of the bus depot.
For the ensuing years I had followed her career in the papers and twice I emailed her from a pseudonymous address asking her specifics on how she solved a particular mystery, but each time I only received a generic ‘out of office’ reply but oddly addressed specifically to me as ‘Dear Tom’, but no personal response.
So now Philippa K. Dick was coming back into my life, and this time it would be different, and I for one would welcome her with open arms and do my part to help her take lead on the case so I could learn all about her techniques and perhaps something more about herself. This ‘woman interloper’ whose only secret revealed to me seven years ago was her real middle name was right now on her way into the tight-lipped town of Hammelburg, and I was not quite sure if she was as unprepared for them as they were for her.
ON THE HOUR AND HALF DRIVE from Indianapolis to Hammelburg, Philippa availed herself of Monica’s purse and appropriated a small bottle of hand lotion which she used to smooth her hair and pull down her bangs over her Wayfarer Ray-Bans. Once she was satisfied enough with the end result peering back at her from the rear view mirror from behind those dark sunglasses she returned its angle to the original position and placed the purse on the floor of the back seat.
Everything in the Lexus was powered and Philippa seemed to take particular delight in pressing every button and turning every knob to examine its result like a child, and after entertaining herself in this fashion for a short while she asked Monica to stop at the next gas station and give her money for a map, cigarettes, and two disposable lighters.
“Why two?” Monica inquired.
“People always steal mine,” Philippa exclaimed.
“Why do you care?” Monica insisted, “You don’t even smoke.”
“Exactly,” Philippa replied and shook her head as if it seemed ridiculous to her as well.
When she returned to the car from the gas station, she took the map and spread it out upon her lap as they drove on and she began examining it with great detail: Limestone Falls State Park to the west of Hammelburg, Fort Henny directly across the river in Kentucky, North Hammelburg up at the top of the hill, Hammelburg at the foot of the hill by the river. On the way into town they drove past the power plant along the river where the strong smell of coal filled the car. They drove through town along Main Street, the shops on the north and south sides facing each other, the large homes behind the shops on the south side leading down to the river and the more modest, newer homes on the left behind the north side of Main Street.
When they stopped at a traffic light Philippa looked all around to see two women standing on the north side with a broom between them and pointing at a shop across the street on the south side. Philippa noticed a display in the front window of each shop showcasing art glass bird feeders, the ones on the north side showing in large red letters a price of $12.99 and up and the shop on the south side had marked out their $12.99 price to display theirs starting at $9.99. Philippa smiled as the car moved on and looking back she saw the two women shaking their heads with one raising her fist up in the air across the street at the competing shop in disgust.
Soon the car turned right and slowly descended down a gentle slope until they reached the next to the last street that ran parallel to the river and they turned right again to arrive upon a bumpy brick street that was lined with large historic homes on the river front each with a long lawn that led to a road that ran just along the river and an ornately brick-paved river walk. The home they pulled into was well maintained and while it appeared old, it was replete with modern amenities such as double-paned windows with screens.
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Two years ago Rebecca Leary vanished into thin air on the night of a blood moon. Many in the quaint village of Hammelburg believe she was the victim of a legendary banshee that haunts their historic valley. Secrets run deep in this picturesque Ohio River destination but no one is fully prepared for the chaos that infamous mystery-hunter Philippa K. Dick is about to unleash on their doorstep or what she reveals about their town.