HOWLERS

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ol' Barnett James...

The road to Barnett James’s house was long, narrow, curvy and uphill all the way. The small gravel crunched under the tires, and gave way whenever she got too close to the edge, which caused the old road to sound like it was collapsing. This was her first gravel road, and it was genuinely making her nervous. About twenty minutes had passed since she started the trip into one of the highest parts of Cranton Ridge, and thus far she’d only passed two houses. Well, two that she could see, anyway.

Finally, the house she was looking for came into view. No siding, no paint, just a simple red brick foundation and boards grayed by weather and age and a slightly rusted tin roof. Rough-cut logs supported the section of roof that hung over the front porch, and the steps leading up to it were a little buckled and even split in places. Firewood was stacked neatly on the porch by the front door, and an ax hung right above it on two big nails. An older-looking Harley-Davidson motorcycle sat on the side porch, the rear wheel removed and propped up on the stack of firewood.

There was a shed made of the same graying wood just off to the left and about fifteen feet from the back of the house. With the exception of the bike, it was exactly the house one would expect to find out here, quite a bit different than the old farmhouse right outside Derby Cross and the light blue cottage she’d passed on the way up. Two stately weeping willows towered over the house from the back yard and swayed peacefully in the gentle breeze that had stirred up. The serenity of the scene almost made her forget why she’d come in the first place, but when she rounded the last curve in what passed for a driveway before pulling up to the house, the board slid out of the passenger seat and thumped against the floorboard. She recalled immediately.

Parking beside the old pickup truck at the edge of the yard, she shut the engine off and turned to retrieve it from the floorboard. For a long moment she stared at it in her lap, remembering that night at her house when it came to life, hearing that voice again in her head as her heart started to race. TAP TAP TAP!! against the window. Gail screamed. The board leapt from her lap onto her feet. She whipped her head around to see a deeply lined, ruggedly handsome face with icy blue eyes and a long salt-and-pepper colored beard and mustache. His hair was a little more than shoulder-length, curled at the bottom, dark brown streaked with gray, and topped with a wide-brimmed floppy brown leather hat. He was wearing an untucked long-sleeved denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up and faded blue jeans. After quickly collecting herself and getting her breathing back under control, she rolled down her window.

“Barnett James?” she asked, steadying her voice as he knelt by her door and smiled.

“Yes, ma’am. That’d be me. That’d make you Gail Stevens, right?” He looked down at the board at her feet. In a tone that sounded commanding yet still gentle, he pointed at it said, “C’mon inside, but I need to let ya know right outta the gate, you can leave that son of a bitch out here.”

Once inside, Barnett offered Gail a seat on a worn but well-kept sofa. Half of the living room was walled almost entirely by shelves covered by stacks of old books, papers, even scrolls wrapped in various colors of ribbon and string, the exception being the wall with the fireplace. More books and a couple of eagle and wolf figurines graced the mantle there.

“I can see why people call you the closest thing Cranton Ridge has to a historian,” said Gail, noticing that several shelves on one wall were dedicated to multiple volumes on Cranton Ridge, Corden County, and Derby Cross, “Some of these books look ancient,” she said, running her fingers down the spine of a book with tattered edges bound in crinkled black leather. The gold print had faded, but she could still make out enough of it to know it said something about Aristotle.

“Easy, Miss, some o’ that might rub off on ya,” Barnett said with a smirk and a wink. She smiled in return and sat on the end of the sofa closest to the recliner Barnett was now seated in.

“I’m guessing you recognize that board I brought with me?” she asked.

“You guess correctly, ma’am. I imagine you wanna know ’bout it as well as what happened to them kids up there in the Cove back in October, huh?”

You guess correctly, sir,” she said, “I ended up with that damned thing after my visit with Billy Randall at Adams Institution in Crow’s Rest. He told me where to find...well, where he’d hidden it in the house. He was the only one to survive that night. Of course, I guess you know that already.”

“Wish I didn’t, but yeah, I do,” was his solemn reply.

Barnett sat down in his recliner and pulled a blue ceramic plate from the bottom drawer of the end table sitting beside it and put it in his lap. From his shirt pocket he produced a small pouch of tobacco and a pack of rolling papers. He poured a small portion of tobacco out onto the plate, put the pouch away, and slipped a rolling paper from the pack.

“Where d’ya reckon I should start?”

“You’d know that better than I would, Mr. James.”

He smiled and winked again.

“Barnett, if it’s all the same to you. Some o’ this might sound outright crazy. Sounds that way when I hear myself tell it, that’s for sure, but it’s what ya came for. So that kid Billy ya talked to, he didn’t say nothin’ ‘bout what happened to him n’ the others?”

“No, nothing solid, really. He said something about ghost-wolves and a witch lady, but mostly just kept repeating ‘stay out, stay the hell out of Gryder’s Cove’.”

“Hm. That’s damned good advice.”

Barnett continued to roll his cigarette as he spoke.

“Ghost-wolves, he said, huh? Sounds like somethin’ I’ve heard of before, one of the oldest legends you’ll hear in these hills. Like I said, this is gonna sound crazy, but it’s what ya came to find out.”

His deep, resonate voice now carried a more serious tone.

“Folks ’round here call ‘em Howlers. Some say they’re ghosts, might even be demons, I reckon. S’posed t’ be the spirits of dead werewolves. See, when someone with the curse of the werewolf on ‘em dies, the soul moves on, like anyone else. Been said, though, that there are those that choose to remain werewolves in the afterlife instead of facin’ hell as the soul of a man. Sometimes y’ hear ’em all through these woods, whole goddamn pack of ‘em, tearin’ through the trees, howlin’ an’ shit. They hunt other lost souls that never ‘went into the light’. They can’t do any killin’ in the physical world unless someone calls ’em.”

He took a long draw from his smoke, looking pensive. Vivid images of the farms she had been investigating lately flashed in Gail’s memory, as clear as watching video clips on her tablet. The over-sized bites, the huge claw marks; all of it made sense now, even though her logical mind was fighting it, kicking and screaming.

“Howlers are said to be the ones who embraced the curse; loved the killin’, the heightened senses and the power. It was the Germans that first settled these hills was the ones brought werewolves here. Among those folks were two brothers by the name o’ Beckenhauser. Pretty soon, there was nothin’ left but those two and a couple others that turned ‘cuz they survived bein’ attacked. Later on a man named Jacob Cranton and his family settled here and brought relatives in droves from England and Scotland. Before it was over, there were a few more werewolves amongst the new settlers, but the story handed down was that the residents started a holy war against ’em and won. I dunno ‘bout alla that, but I do know this: that old witch Elsie Gryder, she learned how t’ call ’em up, sic ‘em on folks. Way I figger, them dumbass kids done som’n’ or ‘nother to stir ol’ Elsie up outta her grave.”

He punctuated his last sentence with a slow, billowing exhalation of smoke, leaning back in his worn-out recliner.

“She never took too kindly to bein’ laughed at,” Barnett continued, snuffing the last tiny bit of his cigarette in the ashtray beside his chair.

“She cursed the Briggs family, ever last one of ’em, ‘cuz Edgar Briggs’ daughters were makin’ fun of her out in front o’ the general store down there in Derby Cross. First ones to go were Edgar and his oldest son, Jacob. One o’ them Howlers possessed Jacob one night. He turned wolf, and went t’ tearin’ up his daddy’s cattle. All the commotion woke Edgar up, and he jerked his boots on and run out there in his long-johns with his shotgun. He come up on the beast tearin’ the throat out of a calf, and leveled that shotgun at it. It turned on him and bared its teeth, growlin’, its muzzle covered in drippin’ blood. Whenever he told the story afterward he said them yella eyes looked like hellfire. You can imagine he was pretty shook up, but managed to draw a bead right between its eyes just as it lunged for him. He pulled the trigger; in that exact moment, the demon wolf left the boy, just in time for Edgar to watch the buckshot blast his son’s face through the back of his skull. Couple months later Edgar used that same shotgun to end his grief when he couldn’t get over Jacob’s death. Nobody believed his story either, so he’d gone ’bout half-crazy by then. Goddamn tragedy.”

He reached for his papers and tobacco pouch, placing them on that large blue ceramic plate he had used before, rolling another cigarette as he spoke.

“Nobody knows when Elsie actually died. Just got so goddamn old her body up and gave out in her sleep, like it had to trick her soul into leaving so it could expire. That notion stuck in a lotta people’s heads, even now. Gives me the damned willies. Ever’body was too scared of her to even go near the house, let alone touch the body to bury her. It was suggested the house oughtta be burned down with her body in it, but most folks figgered that’d just piss her off.”

He smiled and winked, but it was obvious that he was serious by the expression his face bore immediately after the smile had gone.

“There’s gonna be more killin’ ’fore it’s all over,” Barnett said grimly, “Someone’s gotta destroy that damned board and Elsie Gryder with it before more blood is lost.”

Gail just sat there, not sure exactly what emotion her expression was conveying at the moment, but knowing she felt disbelief, shock, fear, horror and bewilderment at the very least, and all at the same time. She looked at Barnett, then looked away, then around the room, then back at Barnett.

“Wait,” she started, “Elsie Gryder, she was a witch? A real witch? Candles, circle-casting, double-double-toil-and-trouble?”

“You went inside the house, right? Thought that’s how ya got th’ board.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t go exploring or digging around in stuff!” she exclaimed, arms out and eyes wide. She had totally blown her professional front, but that didn’t stop her from attempting to continue as though she never had.

“The ghost-wolves...the Howlers...how did she control them?”

“The Demon Door, some call it. It’s been called other names over time as it passes from owner to owner, but that’s the one that seems to follow it.”

“What exactly is that? Who would fool around with something called the Demon Door?”

Barnett raised an eyebrow and almost smiled.

“It’s out there in your car right now,” he said, lighting his cigarette, “In your front seat, probably listening to everything we’ve said so far.”

Gail felt her face twist up into complete confusion as she looked away. Listening? What the fuck? Barnett noticed her expression and leaned forward in his chair. Gail felt so absolutely confused, but Barnett apparently saw something she hadn’t meant to give away.

“Did you use that damned thing?” he asked, gently but completely demanding. Gail cut her eyes toward him, but didn’t look him directly in the face. How could she tell him, knowing what she knows now? She didn’t want to appear stupid for having been curious about the board, for not believing in such things as ghosts and boards decorated with symbols done in ancient pyrography that can call up the dead. No, she would have to tell him, otherwise she would never get the answers that would help her fully understand what was going on.

“I...I was just curious, I guess. I’ve never been a big believer in stuff like that, y’know? To be honest, it used me more than I used it! That’s how it seemed, anyway. It sort of...um...bound me to that thing with the hole...”

“Planchette.”

“Yyyeah, that thing. It was like I couldn’t let go. God knows I tried.”

“What did it say to you?” asked Barnett, his expression alert and attentive.

Gail took a deep, steadying breath. The memory was still strong and fresh, and it still terrified her to the core of her being.

“It said it was stronger than me, that my weakness was pathetic, that only it could release me. Then it..it just..came alive, and a voice asked me who called him. After that I kinda, well...passed out.”

“Heard that one before,” said Barnett, his tone suggesting that this could be an everyday occurrence, “You ain’t the first to be overwhelmed by somethin’ that powerful. This thing ain’t no parlor trick or local legend. It goes way back, before America, before the first settlers even set foot on the first boat to come over here. Over the years I’ve collected a lotta history on a lotta things, but I ain’t really dug up a lotta specifics on when and where the Demon Door came from, save the fact that it was made by one of the most powerful sorcerers of the age, around the 15th century, somewhere in Eastern England. Read about that my second year in college. Strange, though, all those books disappeared after a teacher saw me readin’ ’em.”

Gail was trying to take all this in and process it, but so much of it was completely contrary to the things she had believed (or not believed) her entire life. Nothing that happened at her house was imagined, though, was it? The dried vomit in her carpet that scraped her face the next morning was real enough, just like that menacing voice that still resounded in her head. She decided to butch up and take the information she had and get back to Crow’s Rest and talk to Olivia, then call Joel Reed and tell him the case was closed, that animals were not involved, to turn it over to the local police. Then she could get away from this craziness and back to reality and back to work. Putting this behind her had just become her number one priority. She stood up and extended her hand to Barnett, who stood up and took it gently in his.

“Thank you, Barnett, thank you so much for taking time to talk with me. I have to get back, lots of stuff to put together and send to WCNG. Take care, ok?”

She was doing a really shitty job of hiding how bent out of shape she had become since their conversation started, and she could feel it all over.

“Call me if y’ need me again, miss. I ain’t goin’ anywhere.”

Barnett smiled a small smile, then gently kissed the back of her hand before releasing it. Gail was a little taken aback, but flattered at the same time. In what seemed like an eternity, she was back in her car and headed out of Cranton Ridge. One quick stop in Derby Cross to tell Sheriff Whaley the case was closed and she would be headed for Crow’s Rest and the security of her motel room. Olivia wasn’t going to believe this. Of course not; Gail was having one hell of a time believing it herself.

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