The understudy

(Originally published as Bewitchery)

We kids always called it The Last House in Town, but really it was just outside of town limits.  With its old red brick covered in summer’s ivy, its hot tin roof for the cats, and its perimeter fence of spear-topped wrought iron, it looked suitably forbidding.  Especially at dusk on a foggy night.

Edna Bligh had lived there since birth, and was now its solitary inhabitant, as far as we knew.  She and her brother Herman had lost their parents to a vehicular accident some twenty years before.  After inheriting the house free and clear, they had stayed there, never having married.  Herman was the town’s sole solicitor, and Edna had earned her keep by her skill as a dressmaker.

In the spring of nineteen hundred and forty-nine, Herman was murdered by the father of a man he had sent to jail.  Edna had seemed to be in perpetual mourning since that day.  On her rare visits to town, she could be seen riding her Schwinn bicycle.  Garbed in black, with lace-up leather boots, she wore a pillbox hat with a net veil covering her sharp features.

We were in awe of her, not only because of what had happened.  She seldom spoke, had the aspect of a dangerous bird, and seemed to rush wherever she went, as if in disdain for the whole of mankind.  The large wicker creel strapped to her back fender reminded us uncomfortably of a certain Witch we had already heard tell of.

In the first days after Herman’s death, Edna costumed herself in the endless black of her future.  For his burial, she paced slowly down the line of mourners to his graveside, cloaked in charcoal, even to the velvet mask that covered her eyes.  Evoked were the bats of Dracula, and a wedding to the dead.

Edna was not seen for ninety days from that stilted graveside walk.  In that time, the fall of the year burned down to winter’s ash.  At the Last House, men and machinery could be seen.  Men with hoods who did not speak to any outside of that boundary.

We curious kids, with borrowed binoculars and too-big sweaters, skulked behind the poor brick partition of my front walk, making a nervous party out of the Watching.

**

Our old town’s Main Street business district was less than a mile long.  It was intersected by First, Second, and Third Avenues, and many businesses had come and gone in its decades of history.  Aside from the Post Office, there was one that remained in memory, and indeed it still occupied its rarefied space.   Its plate glass window had once been destroyed by an angry but cowardly man and had been renewed with a double pane of “safety” glass.  This had a slight tinge of greenness and was curiously embedded with many crisscross strands of wire.  Brand new letters of gold leaf had been applied to its inner pane, reading “LAW OFFICE- H. BLIGH”

Herman, after the first shock, and having to wait for the repairs to be effected, decided it would be a good time to “update” the office a little, and so he brought in painters, carpenters, and carpet layers.  He was not long settling into the new place when he was called to represent the Crown in a case of armed robbery in a neighbouring village.  It was one of the Baker Boys, whom he knew (and detested) from his younger days.  Mark Baker was not one of the actual triggermen, but it was alleged that he had driven the getaway car.  Evidence was largely circumstantial, and the outcome was in doubt until Herman, who was very well connected within the town, managed to drum up two credible witnesses who would testify.  In the end, Mark was sentenced to five years.
Three days later, as Herman was locking up after a long night at the office, he was shot to death through the safety glass of his office window.  Several tenants had remarked on the dark pickup that had sat in the rain that night, but they could not give a positive i.d. of the attacker.

Howard Baker had been very careful.  He knew that Herman had earned a few enemies in the county, and he knew also that he himself would be a prime suspect.  To that end, he had stolen a pickup from a nearby farmer who was away at auction and had waited in the dark downpour until Herman had decided to call it a night.  He wore dark rain gear with a hood that shaded his features, and with his leather gloves, slip-on rubbers, and the heavy silencer on his .38 , he thought to leave little evidence of his presence that night.
When the deed was done, he drove off into the darkness, ditched the truck in a wooded area, and, using the bike he had brought with him, pedalled through the rain to complete the nearly ten mile journey to his house.

It was not long before he had a visit from the law.

**

Something curious was happening at the old Bligh house.  There had been many comings and goings of workmen in the weeks that Edna had been gone.  The heavy iron fence with its spears had been uprooted and taken apart in sections.  Along its outline, a deep and narrow trench was dug.  We kids were on watch every second we could spare.
At last, the queerest thing of all took place right in front of our eyes.  A truckload of stone slabs and red brick arrived, followed by a cement mixer.  Into the trench, stone and cement were laid, and, over several days, a brick wall some eight feet in height and a foot thick took form.  It surrounded the house completely, save for a heavy oaken door, which was domed at its top and framed and buttressed with black iron.  When the wall was done, the old fence of spears was installed upon its top.  The men and machinery finally left, late on a foggy and cold afternoon.

Edna had not been idle during that time.  It had been quite a while since she had paid a visit to old Verna, the woman who had mentored her in something more than dressmaking.  Verna was another confirmed spinster who had lived, with minimal help, in the house of her birth, and was now alone.  Twenty years Edna’s senior, she had often looked after Edna and Herman when their parents had been otherwise occupied.  Verna was delighted to see her, in spite of the circumstances, and insisted that Edna stay with her awhile.  And so, from Verna’s home, Edna made arrangements to have Herman’s old office repaired and secured, once the Police had quit the premises.
She also learned and partook in things that might give you and I a chilly feeling up the back of our spines.

**

Howard Baker had never been an excitable man. Fact was, not much scared him. He was slow to anger, but when brought to that state he would lose all reason. It had led him to do murder, and in his self-righteous mind he was a hero for its doing. Guilt was an emotion somewhat foreign to him. When he slept, it was the sleep of peace.

On that night in late fall, he had retired early after an exhausting day of haying and mucking out stables. The forecast promised a nasty storm, but that was no bother to Howard. By 9:30, after a couple of beers, he was snoring.

A short time later, the rain came on with a vengeance, and distant lightning woke a muttering of thunder. A black pickup truck stopped at the entrance to Howard’s long driveway. A tall thin figure got out and, not minding the streaming rain, walked slowly towards the darkened house.

In his dream of accolades, Howard’s heart swelled now that he was finally getting his due. He smiled and waved at the adoring crowd, and the happy ending brought him peace and the quietude of expiated sin. But soon a black hand, palm outward in token of rejection, disturbed and troubled his art.

He awoke suddenly to explosive lightning and immediate thunder. In the afterglow, a face in his window. Raven-like eyes, sharp hooked nose, and a small tight mouth contorted with hate. Howard was paralyzed and thought with hope that the face was but a nightmare. Indeed, when the next flash came, the face was not there. He thought to get out of bed to collect his wits but found that his body would not obey.

Hoping that sleep would take him, he tried to calm his jumping nerves by using a mantra that he had once heard a hypnotist employ.  Something about intentionally relaxing your muscles, one by one, starting at your toes.  Howard was just getting to his knees when, in the next strong flash of lightning, a tall figure could be seen standing in his open bedroom door.  It was the owner of the face, and as they locked eyes, it was upon him.

With its thin strong hands and sharp nails, it grabbed onto his ears and drew its grim countenance to his.  All the while looking straight into his soul, it whispered these words:  “Howard Baker, ye are the one.  You gave to one of mine their own private Hell, and then their death.  I am inside ye now.  Your soul is mine.  You will walk my walk for the time left of your life, and it will be long.  I have sold my own soul for this, for I have rejected my God, who said that vengeance was given to him only.”  And then, dry crusted lips laid a cold kiss upon his trembling forehead.  Howard had soiled himself.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

If one had awoken early enough, they might have seen, at the site of Herman’s law office, a smart looking and very erect old woman dressed in red.  With a confident mien, she brought forth an iron key from her bag, and made entrance to her new world.  In gold leaf, the letters in the window spelled out VERNA MARTIN- FASHIONS FOR THE TIMES.

If one had stayed up late enough, they might have seen (if they didn’t mind the rain) a tall thin figure in black who also produced an iron key from her bag, and unhurriedly gained entrance to the Bligh house.  There was a booming slam as the door closed, and the sound of tinkling chains.

One of the Bakers’ neighbours had noticed that there had not been much activity on that farm for a few days and decided to pay Howard a visit.  Along his dusty driveway, they saw some sick cattle, and became more alarmed.  At last, they pulled up to the house.  There was Howard, sitting on his front stoop, naked except for his socks.  He was eating a cob of raw corn.  He did not look up.

The Police, who had been “keeping an eye” on Howard while “gathering evidence”, arrived at the homestead, together with a paddy wagon.

Howard did indeed have a long life.  He was pronounced incurably insane.  Herman’s murder was never solved.

Image: The Yorkshire Post

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