Thursday, July 3, 2014
My wife always says a man never truly grow up. Their toys just get more expensive. So when I came home with a brand spanking new MacBook Air, Michelle wasn’t peeved. And she wasn’t the least bit surprised by my rash, impulsive behavior. Shelly has accepted my quixotic nature and learned to love and endure me for who I am. Imagine how many marriages could be saved if all spouses learned to accept one another for their faults?
Shelly wasn’t surprised by the appearance of the MacBook. I was however surprised when I took it for a test drive and logged into Facebook with it to try out the wireless connection. There, at the top of my news feed, was a status update from Caleb Jones.
It had been posted roughly three hours earlier, and this fact was deeply unsettling as Caleb Jones was dead. I had attended his funeral with Shelly months before I even developed the ulcer. The update stated: Beautiful day. Took a ride down to the summerhouse in Eden Harbor. I love it here. Wish I could stay here forever.
Caleb and I had quite a few things we bonded over. We both loved the NY Giants, we both owned our own businesses, we both attended Fairview Public High School together, and we both made Augie White’s life a living hell for those four years we attended.
The cause of death was announced as heart failure, which I found a bit strange for a healthy man in his early fifties, but anything is possible. But who was messing around on his Facebook account? Was this someone’s idea of a practical joke?
I didn’t dare call the grief stricken Mrs. Jones to inquire. I knew she had nothing to do with this charade and I knew that hearing about it would only stir up more negative emotions.
Someone was having fun at my late friend’s expense, and I didn’t find it the least bit funny.
A sudden, searing hot pain flared up in the pit of my stomach, and sent me scrambling for my ulcer pills.
“Are you all right, Jay?” Shelly asked as I downed one pain pill with a glass of tap water. My name is Jason Dixon, but Michelle has called me Jay since our first date. And Shelly has been my pet name for her since we first moved in together.
“I’ll be fine once this kicks in,” I said in regards to the medication.
“You need to take better care of yourself,” she chided.
And she was right. The ulcer, the chronic back pains, the migraines that caused my temples to thrum and throb. I was falling apart physically. But mentally, my mind was still sharp. And that meant doing a little investigating to find out who exactly was screwing around on Caleb’s account.
* * *
Caleb and I belonged to a group of about eight kids in high school. We all used to travel in a pack like wolves on the prowl. Our leader was charismatic kid named Avery Morrison, better known as Swordfish.
But he didn’t acquire that nickname at Fairview High. Avery was a heavy hitter for the Westfield crew. Westfield was three towns over from Fairview and it was where Avery made a name for himself in the killing business.
He killed his first man at age twenty-four and retired before the age of fifty. Avery had a series of connections. One of those connections helped him launder the fortune he had amassed over the years. Upon his retirement, he used the cash to open a Laundromat and appear as a normal, productive member of society.
That was until Avery was found disemboweled by way of a samurai sword. It was ruled an apparent suicide and his body had been discovered by two police officers on 921 Wendigo Street, an abandoned house in…Eden Harbor.
I hadn’t even made the connection up until that moment.
What was Avery doing in Eden Harbor when he lived four hours away in Ocean City? Did Caleb and Avery keep in touch after high school? I know I didn’t keep in touch with him. Only read about him in the papers.
If I was going to find the answers, I wasn’t going to find them sitting on my ass. I was going to find them waiting for me in Eden Harbor.
So I packed my overnight bag and not to rouse suspicion, I explained to Shelly that I’d have to leave in the morning to attend to some business matters at the factory. I owned three paper factories; one in New York where I resided, one in Rhode Island, and one in New Jersey. The one I told her I’d be traveling to was the Rhode Island factory.
We climbed into bed that night and she was asleep inside of five minutes. But sleep didn’t find me that night. And I never bothered to search for it. I just sat awake and wondered what answers I would find in Eden Harbor. I wondered if the answers would only lead to more questions.
* * *
I woke with an awful migraine, my temples pulsing. I felt sharp stabbing pains in my lower back as I rolled gently out of bed and got dressed. My knees felt swollen, the joints ached. Even putting on a pair of pants was a chore.
I felt more sluggish than usual that morning. My eyes refused to open completely and I was squinting like Popeye as I descended the stairs and walked to the kitchen. I figured some caffeine would get me out of this slump, so I pulled a soda from the fridge. But the carbonation only exacerbated my ulcer and sent me scrambling once again for my pills.
One pill went down the hatch with a gulp of water and I gathered my overnight bag. I slipped out while Michelle was still curled up in bed, asleep.
When I stopped to fill up for gas, I checked the Facebook mobile app on my phone. There were no new status updates from Caleb since the last. But there was a direct message waiting in my inbox. Guess who it was from? Caleb.
It read: Jason, if you’re coming to Eden Harbor, don’t bother going to the summer house. I’m not here anymore. Find a man named Vinnie Bonelli. Vinnie Bones. He’ll have the answers you’re looking for. Try the Last Chance Saloon.
My first thought was that someone was watching me. They knew I was onto them and their twisted little games. But how could anyone know so soon? I never told anyone where I was really going, not even Michelle.
I didn’t want to consider the possibility that Caleb was communicating with me from beyond the grave. Even in my head the notion sounded absurd.
I logged out of Facebook and once I finished fueling up, I was on the road. And I wasn’t going to stop until I reached Eden Harbor. It was a bit of a hike from Fairview, but nowhere near the four hour trek from Ocean City that Avery Morrison made.
To make the story more dramatic, I could lie and say it wasn’t easy to find the Last Chance Saloon. The truth is it was the only watering hole in Eden Harbor. And it also seemed to be one of the only establishments still open for business. Besides the local supermarket, all other shops and storefronts had closed up for the winter season and were awaiting the busy summer rush that brought an influx of tourists and money.
As I entered the Last Chance Saloon, the bartender was hiding his face behind a newspaper. I approached the bar and cleared my throat to get his attention. He lowered the paper and said, “What’re you having?”
He was short, stocky, bald, wrinkles on his forehead, a livid scar across his right cheek. He had an icy gaze that could give even the toughest of men the shivers.
I placed fifty dollars on the counter and said, “I’m looking for Vinnie Bones.”
“You a cop?”
“No,” I chuckled to make him feel at ease. It didn’t do the trick. “I went to high school with Avery Morrison and Caleb Jones.”
“You better tell me what you want and fast or there’s going to be trouble.”
“I’m not looking for trouble. As you’re probably aware, Avery and Caleb both passed away recently. Avery had a little incident in an abandoned house on Wendigo Street, right in this very town. And Caleb died of a heart attack. Then someone started writing status updates and sending me direct messages from Caleb’s Facebook account. They mentioned you by name. That’s why I’m here.”
“Lift your shirt,” Vinnie told me.
I complied, knowing exactly what this routine was all about. Once he was convinced I wasn’t wearing a wire, he leaned forward and dropped a bombshell.
“Caleb and Avery were in business together. Avery and I were always on opposing sides. He whacked my boss when he was running with the Westfield crew. We could never prove it, but we knew it was him. But I had nothing to do with his death. I didn’t touch Caleb, either. They had enemies. Most of them are dead at this moment, but some of them are still kicking.”
“Caleb was a hit-man?’
“Caleb was Avery’s bankroll. He financed his operations after Avery left the Westfield crew and went into business for himself. Caleb had the connections. Drug suppliers, gun runners, snitches, second-story men. He’d get Avery whatever he needed to finish the job. And he’d make all the arrangements so Avery would never have to meet his clientele face-to-face. He also helped Avery launder the cash into his legitimate business.”
“Do you believe Avery committed suicide?” I asked.
“Avery believed in homicide, not suicide. It was a setup. Someone lured him out here. The night he died, he came in here looking for me. I wasn’t here. The night bartender told me about it the next day. Said he wound up talking to a barfly named Dicky Norris. Dirty Dick, they call him around town. He specializes in fetish paraphernalia, sex toys, deals with a lot of custom requests. One guy supposedly paid Dicky to make a doll in Avery’s likeness. Not life-sized; a miniature figure of him.”
“Who paid him for the doll?”
“I don’t know. I remember overhearing once that the guy was bowlegged. His legs were very stiff, rigid.” Vinnie’s recollection made me think of one name. Augie White.
“I think I might know who we’re dealing with...”
“Who we’re dealing with?” Vinnie repeated. “We’re not dealing with anyone. I’m just telling you what I know.”
“Why are you being so helpful, anyway?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’m as curious to know who killed Avery as you are. And you look like you need all the help you can get. You don’t look too good. Are you sick?”
“I’m not in the best of health,” was the finest answer I could come up with. “What do you know about Wendigo Street, where they found Avery’s body?”
“I know people tend to stay away. Most of the houses are abandoned or foreclosed. Eden Harbor used to be a witch town back in the olden days. Nowadays, Wendigo Street is frequented by a coven of neo-witches. Girls who think they can cast spells and kill people with the blink of an eye. They don’t bother me, but they disturb a lot of the locals.”
“Does the name Augie White ring any bells?”
“Can’t say that does,” Vinnie shook his head. It was all right, though. I had all the info I needed already.
As I walked to the door, Vinnie wished me good luck. I threw him an extra fifty for his help. He pocketed the cash and told me if I got myself into any trouble, we never met, we never spoke. I nodded in agreement and I left to take a drive to Wendigo Street.
* * *
I saw what Vinnie Bonelli was referring to. The block was inhabited by gothic loiterers, girls dressed head to toe in black, most of them wearing black leather boots that stretched to their knees. I couldn’t tell if they were trying to look like witches or hookers.
I pulled the car up alongside a group of girls and rolled my window down. I was met with scornful, unwelcoming glances from the neo-witches until I unfastened by Rolex watch and dangled it out the window. It was one of my impulse buys and I wasn’t going to miss it much.
“You can pawn this for four or five hundred dollars,” I said. “It belongs to whoever can answer a few questions for me.”
One of the neo-witches, a tall, slender girl with fiery red hair stepped forward and snatched the watch from my head. After a thorough examination of the Rolex, she stuffed it in her black leather purse and asked, “What do you want to know?”
“A man recently died around here. You happen to know anything about it?”
“We all heard about it. None of us knew the guy, if that’s what you’re asking. And none of us had anything to do with it.”
“Have you ever heard of a guy named Augie White? You ever met him? He’s short and bowlegged. Doesn’t really bend his knees or lift his feet when he walks.”
“Yeah,” the redhead chuckled. “He came around here once with this funny looking doll. Asked us to put some kind of voodoo curse on the thing. We laughed in his face. One of the girls told him to visit Esther.”
“Esther Driscoll. The Witch of Westlake. She used to live in Westlake until her best friend was murdered and all the men responsible died under bizarre circumstances. Esther is the real deal. She moved here a while back. Lives on Eden Drive. It’s a big yellow house. She hardly leaves the place.”
“You’ve been a big help,” I told the girl before I drove away.
* * *
I found the yellow house on Eden Drive. I found Esther Driscoll. She saw my condition and welcomed me in right away. She was a gaunt woman of undetermined age. She had gray hair, but no wrinkles marred her skin. Her green eyes glowed like the eyes of a cat.
She walked me into the den filled with books. They were all unrecognizable texts to the average reader. Ancient tomes that hadn’t been spoken of in centuries. Books filled with spells and witchcraft and sorcery beyond your wildest imaginations.
The redhead wasn’t fooling. Esther Driscoll was the real McCoy.
“You’ve been cursed,” she remarked casually. “I saw it on your face the minute you walked in. Have you been experiencing any unusual or unexpected pain? Ulcers, unusual bleeding, joint aches, back and muscle spasms, headaches, migraines, seizures…” She went on and on like she was listing the side-effects of a prescription drug.
“Lady, you’re right on the money,” I said. “I’ve been having migraines, back spasms, joint pains. I recently developed an ulcer in my stomach. My body has gone to shit in the past few months.”
“And I assume someone told you I was the person who could help?”
“Actually, someone told me you might’ve helped an old classmate of mine. Augie White.”
“I remember Mr. White,” Esther nodded. “He came to me with two custom-made dolls. He asked me to put a curse on them so they could be used as voodoo dolls. The men were killers, criminals. They deserved to be brought to justice.”
“What about me? Do I deserve to be brought to justice? I’ve never killed anyone before in my life.”
“I never cursed you,” Esther informed me. “Augie stole one of my books when I refused to help him a third time. It appears he’s learned the ancient writings and has the ability to cast the spells himself. You’re a good man, Mr. Dixon. I can tell that. You’re married and you wouldn’t kill a fly, let alone a person.”
“How do you know so much about me?”
“I’m a witch,” was her explanation. “Duh.”
“What can be done to stop Augie before he kills me too?”
“There’s a way,” she said. “There’s someone you need to go see first. It might take a day or so, but if you grease his palms, he’ll work faster.”
“They call him Dirty Dick.”
* * *
Augie White was crashing on a houseboat that was docked at Diamond Cove Marina. Clutching the voodoo doll in one hand and a glass of scotch in the other, Augie sat and thought of all the horrible things he could do with that doll.
He could’ve bent and twisted the limbs and snapped my bones one by one. He could’ve boiled a pot of water and tossed the doll in, effectively boiling me alive without laying a finger on me. He could’ve tossed it in the ocean and caused me to drown without ever grazing a body of water. My lungs would’ve simply filled with water and I’d be dead.
When the glass was empty, Augie set the Jason Dixon doll aside and got up for a refill. Halfway to the liquor cabinet, he heard two horrible cracks that sounded like the snap of a wet towel and his legs caved in.
Augie writhed on the floor of his boat, his legs shattered beyond repair. “What do you think?” I asked as I stepped onto the boat and let myself inside. I made sure to close the door and draw the blinds. Then I waved the voodoo doll around for Augie to glare at. “Dirty Dick put this together for me. Custom made. Look like anyone you know?”
The doll bared a striking resemblance to Augie and its legs had been bent backwards. “I figured I’d play your game. It took a little while for me to find you. I had to call my wife and let her know I’d be another day. She was worried sick. God bless her.”
“I’m going to kill you,” Augie muttered between grunts of pain. He tried to claw his way towards the doll that was made to look like yours truly. But every time he crawled an inch forward, he screamed due to his shattered legs.
I decided to put a stop to this sad display by bending the arms of the doll back as far as they went. The wet snapping sounds of his bones accompanied and his arms were rendered as immobile as his busted legs.
“You killed Avery, you killed Caleb, but you didn’t get me. Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill you yet. We have a lot of catching up to do, Augie. And I have lots and lots of plans for this new toy of mine.”
* * *
Three days after I returned home, three days after the mysterious death of Augie White that had made the news, I logged into Facebook.
There was another message waiting for me. It was from Caleb.
It was only two words: Thank you.
I wrote back: Anytime, old friend.
Ghosts. Voodoo. Witches. Ancient curses. It felt like someone stirred the inside of my head around like a paint can. As much as Shelly loved me, I could never share these experiences with her. I’d be taking it all to the grave with me.
The ulcer cleared up in time. The pains in my back disappeared and my joints didn’t ache or swell anymore. The migraines stopped and in a few weeks, I was my healthy old self again. And I never heard from Caleb Jones again after that night.