HOWLERS

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tempted...

Lock the car, lock the door, drop the keys and her purse on the small table in the hall, flop down on the couch spread-eagle. Almost doze off.

Gotta get back up....uuugh!

Change back into the sweatpants from earlier that morning. Off with the lamps, light the candles on the end tables, back to the couch. So far, so good, all according to plan. Then dread overcame her as she realized her Pericodin was in her purse, all the way down the four-foot hallway. She heaved herself off the couch with a heavy groan, retrieved the bottle, and flopped back down in her previous spot. Luckily, her backpack was right where she left it, and a bottle of water was not far away.

She opened the zipper to the main compartment and fished around inside. Her hand brushed against the board she had almost forgotten about, and she paused a moment, hearing the sheriff’s words repeating in her head: ’Personally, I wouldn’t touch that thing ’til I talked to him.′ She slid it out just a little bit, tracing the exposed letters and symbols with her fingertip. Things like this surely weren’t real. Physically real, yes, but there was no way they did what people said they did. Staring at it wasn’t enough now, and she found herself setting it out on the glass top of the coffee table in front of the couch. Another excursion into the depths of the backpack produced the planchette, which she placed to the right of the board. It all looked harmless enough. Cool, kind of spooky, yes, but harmless, like movie props. Uncapping her water, Gail took her pills and sat the water aside, turning her full attention to the board. When she reached for the planchette, it seemed to nudge itself into her hand.

“I’m just exhausted and in a lot of pain. It’s just messing with my perception, that’s all,” she thought to herself, “I just wanna see how it looks on the board.”

Upon that thought, as she began to move it, it seemed to place itself on the board, right at the edge, and her hand was drawn to it like a magnet to steel. There was a sudden, noticeable change in the house, in the night, in her quickening breath and heartbeat. Distant thunder sounded, as though a great and furious storm was awakening. Gail tried to remove her hand, break the spell that held it fast, only to have her other hand locked on as well. Then, the damned thing began to move. It circled the middle of the board slowly at first, eased into a figure eight, and then in arcs, back and forth across the board. Gail’s eyes welled up with tears as her panic grew. This couldn’t be real...it just couldn’t.....

YES IT IS

Her wet eyes widened in naked terror as the board responded to the thoughts in her head, showing her one letter at a time before returning to the figure-eight motion. Still her hands stayed bound to the wooden oracle, and still she fought for control only to have the board tell her

I AM STRONGER THAN YOU MORTAL

If her voice had worked, she would have screamed like she had never screamed before. Instead, her entire body shook with the effort of trying to do so without success, her voice flash-frozen deep inside of her someplace. The board began to spell faster.

ONLY I CAN RELEASE YOU

YOU HAVE NO POWER OVER ME

YOUR WEAKNESS IS PATHETIC

Suddenly, she felt as though something rushed over her, making her skin contract and tingle all over. She was free, and the board lay dormant in front of her. Her breath came in shuddering gasps as her hands trembled just above the round wooden planchette. The witchboard nearly hit the floor when her right knee jerked and hit the edge of the table in reaction to her heart beginning to pound even harder. Like frightened prey her eyes darted around the room, searching for whatever might be coming. Without warning wind raged over the house, rattling every window. She knew then it was too late.

The candle flames diminished, almost extinguishing themselves. Outside, black and gray clouds tumbled across the sky, laying a thick blanket of darkness over the house. If fear had claws, then surely that was what she felt clamping onto and into her chest, shredding her breathing. In desperation, she swept the board from the table to separate the two unholy pieces, but it landed face-up, the planchette still working its way around the lettering. Now the witchboard lay on the floor, the edges of the lettering bubbling and sizzling deep into the wood before shifting...transforming....realigning themselves to form an alphabet she had never seen, that no one had seen for millenia....and then...the board spoke...
At first, a rasping whisper in some ancient language emanated from somewhere. The words repeated, more audibly, and she tried to blink away the tears that kept flooding her eyes and listened. This time, the words were different and the voice more agitated as it cycled through what must have been a thousand ancient languages, faster and faster, before falling eerily silent. With a burst of sound like cannon fire, ribbons of billowing black energy tumbled and spewed from the board, entwining like a pit of snakes as a shadow fell over her from behind. A still, wicked voice washed over her as it asked, ”Who calls me forth?"

Frozen to the spot, her breath snagged in her chest as though held fast by steel hooks. Again the voice came and demanded, “Who calls me forth? Answerrrr.....answer meeeeeee....” Her tensing spine suddenly felt as though an icy hand had brutally thrust into her back and snatched it out. Eyes shut tightly and tears streaming down her fear-bleached face, she managed to collect herself enough to stammer,

“I...I didn’t...I didn’t know...I thought it was..just....” Each word was broken by sobbing. “I’m n-nobody, I swear! I didn’t m-mean to..to.....c-call anyone! Please..oh God...!”

She fell to her knees, her face in her hands. The shadow behind her filled the room, and the panic inside grew til she thought she would throw up...or pass out. When the thunder shook the house, she did both.

Morning found Gail right where she fell, her head beside a dried puddle of vomit. The smell immediately invaded her nostrils and made her first waking breath an eruption of gagging and coughing. She sputtered and spit, eyes closed so as not to have to look at the puke encrusted in her carpet, trying to get that atrocious taste out of her mouth. The pain in her joints and back was unbelievable, having slept in what could only be described as the opposite of the fetal position. Finally, she managed to haul herself up onto the couch, reach for the water she hadn’t finished the night before, and started to take a sip. That’s when the board caught her eye and she lurched backward, feet in the couch cushions and stared at it, not daring to move or breathe. It made no offer to move or breathe either, and after a few minutes, Gail decided to approach it and nudge it with her foot. Nothing. She dragged her backpack around to where the board lay, opened it, then slowly slid the vile thing back into it. Turning to the coffee table, she then picked the planchette up by sliding a pen through the hole and dumped it into a smaller compartment on the front. No way was she letting them touch again any time soon, nor would she expose her father to this apparent evil. It was obvious that she couldn’t spend another day there. This visit would have to be cut short, and the meeting with Barnett James expedited, and as soon as possible. In minutes the things she had gathered up the day before were in the trunk and she was headed for the west side of town.

Turning right onto Cole St., Gail could see her dad’s bike three houses down. There was no mistaking it, being as he was just about the only man his age who didn’t ride one of those candy-assed trike conversions, not to mention he preferred the “rat bike” look for his motorcycles. Just as she pulled up and parked next to his bike, Rick came out of the garage and greeted her with a smile that quickly faded when he noticed the expression she didn’t even know she had on her face. He went right to her door and opened it, kneeling beside the vehicle.

“What’s wrong, Cupcake?” he asked, taking her hand in his.

“I have to go back, Daddy,” she said. “I’m not gonna be able to stay another day like I wanted. There’s been a...a new develop.m.ent in my case, as it were, and I need to get back on it while things are still hot.” He may have been Pop when she arrived, but when she was upset, he became Daddy again, and Rick knew this. He also knew that she had her mother’s determination and his fierce work ethic, and that there would be no talking her out of going or doing whatever it was she felt needed to be done. They said their goodbyes, and Gail promised to call from Derby Cross to reassure Rick that she and Olivia had made it alright. Now it was time to call Olivia.

“We should probably be getting back, Liv. We really do need to see Barnett James as soon as we can.” Olivia could feel Gail’s panic over the phone. Even if she couldn’t, Gail’s voice was betraying any attempt she was making at remaining calm so as not to alarm Olivia. Olivia, however, was alarmed anyway and began asking questions that Gail really didn’t want to answer right now.

“We’ll talk about it on the way,” Gail said, surrendering just a little bit, “You got everything you wanna take back with you, right?”

“Yeah, got it all right here.”

“Cool. I’m on my way.”

“Alright, Gail. That’ll gimme enough time to say bye to my parents, I guess. See ya here.” said Olivia, feeling a little bit scared and pissed off at the same time. She felt safe here, and had entertained the notion of letting Gail go back alone, screw the promotion, screw Gryder’s Cove, and everything that went along with the case. When it came down to it, though, she just couldn’t do it. She loved Gail like a sister, maybe even better than that, and she couldn’t tarnish the image her best friend had of her. All of her things were by the door and ready to go when Gail arrived. She had said goodbye to her parents and was ready for the long ride ahead. She tossed her duffel bag into the back seat and got in the car. What had Gail in such a lather, though? She wasn’t easy to shake up, and she was most assuredly shaken. Asking about it would require smooth timing, proper phrasing of the question, the right tone of voice, and an obvious, genuine show of concern for her beloved friend’s well-being.

“So what the fuck’s happened, anyway?” blurted Olivia as they backed out of the driveway.

“Nice, Liv. Subtle as a ten-pound sledgehammer, as always.” Gail was quiet for about three miles, but Olivia didn’t pester or prod her for the answer to her question. She knew it would come when her friend was ready, and sure enough, it did.

“That fuckin’ thing came to life at my house.” Gail’s tone was dead serious and her voice steady. Olivia knew that was how truth sounded coming from her.

“What thing?” asked Olivia, furrowing her brow a little.

“That witchboard or whatever the hell it is we found at that house in the woods. I swear to almighty God, Liv, the thing came to life!

“Ok, ok, I want to believe you, but you’ll have to tell me more,” said Olivia, putting her hand on Gail’s shoulder, which made her eyes well up with tears. She told Olivia all about what happened, in as much detail as she could recall through the remnants of fear that still clung to the memories. Then there was silence for the longest time while both women tried to process what was just said, a contemplative silence that was broken by Gail suddenly gasping loudly, “Oh SHIT, Liv!”

Olivia sat upright, eyes wide and scanning all around the car.

“I didn’t clean the puke outta my carpet!”

“Really?” said Olivia in exasperation, “You freak me out with that story, then make me practically jump outta my seat belt for that? Jeez!”

“Sorry, yeah, I’m just pretty freaked out myself, I guess. I’ll make it up to ya later. Some Rock Star Raspberry Rocky Road from Pennell’s Chill Shack, maybe?”

“Oh HELLS yes!” said Olivia with an odd tinge of relief and agreement mixed together, as if the anticipation of her favorite ice cream suddenly made everything right in the world. Funny how that works. Crow’s Rest and consequently Pennell’s were still a long way off, and the home of one Barnett James even farther. They talked about everything but the board and the case all the way to Crow’s Rest, where Gail kept her promise of Rock Star Raspberry Rocky Road at Pennell’s Chill Shack, which had the desired effect of lifting Olivia’s spirits and making up for the jolt she gave her after telling her what had happened with the board. Dusk found them unloading Gail’s car at the same Nite ’r Day Inn, the same room as before, only this time Gail brought the black-and-red-checkerboard comforter from her bed at home, just for that extra feeling of security. Tomorrow would find them back in Cranton Ridge, the last place on earth they wanted to be, talking to one Barnett James about the last thing on earth they wanted to talk about.

The next morning, Olivia told Gail she wasn’t feeling well. No fever, no cough or chills, but she insisted she didn’t feel good at all. Feeling sympathetic because of the way things had played out over the last week or so, Gail decided not to give her grief about it. She could handle this on her own, surely. Sheriff Whaley wouldn’t deliver her to the door of a madman, would he? Would he? No, she decided, he would not. At least, he’d better not, unless he wanted his ass kicked by a giant biker named Rick Stevens. So it was time to make the second call to Mr. James to ask when she could see him, and also to find out where in all those tree-covered hills he lived. The phone rang...a lot...again...and finally that dulcet deep voice came over the phone: “Heeello?”

“Mr. James? Gail Stevens, we spoke a couple of days ago?”

“Oh, yeah, I remember. You wanted t’ come up here n’ talk t’ me about somethin’ ’r another ’bout the....animal attacks, right?” said Barnett, the knowing tone in his voice contradicting his words.

“Um...yes, that,” Gail said, her voice blatantly revealing her lie, “When do you think you’ll have some time for me?”

“Well....i dunno....how ’bout you come up this way ‘round 2:00 today? That means you’ll wanna start drivin’ ’round 12:00.” Barnett chuckled. He then proceeded to lay out specific directions from the motel to his front door, which Gail scribbled down with an expression on her face that clearly showed she was not looking forward to trying to find this place in the vast, twisting network of roads and paths that veined the hills and forests of Cranton Ridge. The reality was, though, that it had to be done. It must be done. She had to know what the hell was going on around here, and Barnett James may be the only one who could shed some much-needed light on it all.

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