by Elaine Faber
Here is another entry from our Halloween mystery short story contest! Several more will be going up between now and Halloween so keep checking back!
Even six weeks later, near the end of October, 2001, the country still reeled from the World Trade Center attack. Newspapers still wrote of little other than the dreadful aftermath of the incident depicting the nations’ agony.
Hoping to present our subscribers a different reading experience, the editor of the Sacramento Daily Sun burst into my office several days ago. “Clive. Pack your bags. You’re going to Salem, Massachusetts to cover their Halloween celebration.”
With yet another heart-wrenching editorial in my computer on the loss of 341 firemen in the Towers, he had me at the words, “pack your bags.” Anything to get away from the twenty-four- seven news cycles.
It seems that October 31 is big news in Salem every year. 250,000 visitors swarm the city to experience haunted houses, costume balls, dancing to live music and holiday parades. This year, even more spectacular events were planned due to a scheduled full moon on October 31, the first full moon on that date since 1974. Apparently, the occurrence is so rare, this happens only four or five times each century. The next such occurrence isn’t expected for another twenty years –October 31, 2020!
Entering Salem, I was impressed by the witches and goblins, pumpkins and ghouls decorating every house and business, much as we decorate for Christmas back home. Witches are big in Salem all year long, due to its bleak history of the Salem witch trials, but this year, especially so, what with the full moon phenomenon. Apparently, Salem’s city fathers thought the citizenry should get their mind off our national tragedy and onto business as usual. Let the nation mourn. Strike when the moon is full!
Cornstalks lined the streets. Jack-o-lanterns hung from each light pole. Shopkeepers, decked out in witch and warlock, ghost and vampire costumes, hawked merchandise. Every shop window displayed witches and cauldrons, spirits and ghouls. Tourists clamored through the town.
I stopped at a little diner and was served by a charming dark-eyed beauty with long black hair, sparkling eyes and fluttering lashes. We chatted and laughed. Jenny had a way of looking into my soul that churned up feelings I hardly remembered, being a widow well past middle-aged, and an almost regular church goer.
When I opened my napkin, it read: Meet me outside tonight. 11:25 P.M. Come alone. I must see you.
I left my lunch half-eaten and stumbled outside to ponder this situation. With the city full of young men, what could she possibly want with me? As I photographed the holiday events that day and well into the evening, the questions never ceased. Even knowing it was a fool’s errand, at 11:15 p.m., I was drawn back to the diner, compelled to see Jenny again.
At 11:20 p.m. Jenny wiped down the last table, flipped over the CLOSED sign and locked the café door. What were the odds that a middle-aged man with silver-white hair and mustache should arrive at the last possible moment to change her destiny? She had nearly given up hope. Then Clive walked through the door. He was exactly what she sought.
Jenny wrapped her cape around her shoulders and stepped out the front door. He was waiting, as she had hoped! She always had a sixth sense about the future. She knew when the phone would ring and when a visitor would appear at her door. She had even felt an oppressive spirit on the morning of September 11, feeling something evil on the horizon. But, she did not know if she would escape tonight or if the curse would take her. Her destiny rested with this man. Before the clock struck 12:00 p.m. tonight, she would know one way or the other.
“Hello. Thanks for coming.” Jenny placed her small white hand on Clive’s arm, hoping her smile would bend his will to her own. “You’re the only one who can help me.” She had powers over men, but on this night of night, with the full moon shining overhead on this auspicious date, her fate lay in the hands of this stranger. Without his cooperation, she could not escape the family curse.
“I’m happy to oblige. But, why come to a stranger? Don’t you have family or friends who could help you?”
Jenny lowered her head, brushing her lashes against her pale face. She shook her head. A white curl tumbled down her forehead, seemingly out of place from her mass of black curls. Her lip trembled and a tear trickled down her cheek.
“Here, here, now, none of that.” Clive brushed Jenny’s hair back into place. “I’ll help you if I can, my dear. Don’t cry.” He tipped up her chin. “Now, give me a smile and tell me all about it.”
“I fear you’ll think me crazy, sir, but I swear it’s the truth.” Jenny sat on a bench and began an inexplicable tale.
It seems that she was a descendant of the judge who had unjustly hanged Sarah Good as a witch in 1692 right here in Salem. Since Sarah Good’s death, the judge’s descendants had suffered a terrible curse. Upon the rare occasion, only about four or five times each century, when the full moon appeared on All-Hollow’s Eve, any female descendant between the age of 18 and 29 was in grave danger.
As the full moon was upon them this night for the first time since 1974, and to avoid the curse, Jenny must find a middle-aged man with long silver-white hair, who resembled the judge who sentenced poor Sarah to death. Before midnight, a drop of this man’s blood must be placed on a particular stone that stood at the edge of town. Would Clive shed a drop of his blood on Sarah’s commemorative stone to save Jenny from the curse?
“What kind of curse, my dear?” Clive raised a perplexed eyebrow.
“It is so terrible, I dare not speak it aloud.” Whispering these words, Jenny clung to Clive’s shoulder and wept piteously. Would it be enough to convince him to go with her to the stone? And once there, did she have the courage to do what she must do to save her body and soul?
Clive was at first speechless. Never had he encountered such a stunning creature that so captivated his heart within minutes of meeting. Never has such a ridiculous tale so captured his imagination. He was inclined to leap from the bench, take her by the hand and ask directions to the stone in question. After a sudden surge of common sense, he pummeled his rash impulses into submission and sat back on the bench, staring up into the starry sky.
The moon hung blood-red over the city, casting an orange glow across the sidewalks, still churning with tourists in costume, jostling and laughing, some singing into the night wind.
The young woman stirred in his arms, her sobs finally ceased. She dashed tears from her cheeks and looked up at him. “You are going to help me, aren’t you? I’m so desperate. We only need a teeny-weeny bit of blood, really. It’s so important and I’d be ever so grateful.”
Even a gentleman couldn’t help wondering, ‘how grateful?’ considering the unusual request. And just exactly what did shed his blood on the stone mean? On a night such as this and if she truly believed her outrageous tale, was he dealing with a crazy woman?
Clive shivered. The wind had come up, and the corn husks tied to the lamp posts rustled. A thin cloud crept across the center of the moon, seeming to cut it in half.
Clive stood and glanced at his watch. 11:40 p.m. “Well, let’s get on with it. Can we walk to the stone?” He would humor her and see where all this would lead. His hand rested around a small penknife in his pocket. If a drop of blood is all it takes to satisfy her fantasy, I can do that.
The wind whistled overhead as the cemetery loomed into view. Groups of tourists ambled amongst the grave stones. Raucous laughter came from the direction of Bridget Bishop and Martha Corey’s graves, also victims of the 1692 Salem witch trials. One would think it was an amusement park rather than a cemetery from the sound of merriment coming from the shadows.
Jenny squealed at the sight of a man dressed as a vampire loomed from the bushes.
Clive put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. She was really a dear little thing, and he wanted to calm her fears. Perhaps she would be very grateful…
Sarah Good’s commemorative stone gleamed in the moonlight.
Jenny ran her fingers over the grooves in the stone forming the letters – Sarah Good 1653 – 1692 “Poor thing. I’m so sorry, Sarah. Please forgive my ancestor.” Jenny glanced at her watch. “Are you ready? Do you have a knife, or shall we use mine?” She drew a huge serrated bread knife from her purse. “We don’t have much time. I only have five more minutes. Clive?”
At the sight of Jenny’s wild eyes gleaming in the moonlight, Clive stepped back, the thrill of the moonlight adventure fading and reality finally setting in. Apparently, she had no intention of settling for a pricked finger and a drop of blood. With the knife in her hand, she crept closer and closer.
“Hold on, there, young lady.” He backed away, glancing left and right. Where had all the costumed tourists gone? The witches and ghosts and even the vampire had disappeared at the first sight of Jenny’s knife.
In the distance, the town clock began to strike. Twelve o’clock…the witching hour. Bong…bong…bong. The hour that a real witch, if there was such a thing, might easily take the life of a stranger to thwart her twisted notion about an imaginary family curse.
Bong…bong…bong. Clive’s dull life suddenly held a great deal more appeal and he wished for all the world he had never heard of Salem. Bong…bong…bong.
Jenny’s beautiful smile, only moments ago holding so much promise, faded, and was replaced by a fiendish leer. Only his blood splashed across the accursed stone would make her smile now. Bong…bong… Jenny shrieked and rushed at him, the knife raised…
Paralyzed with fear, Clive closed his eyes and held his breath, waiting for the death blow. Bong! Midnight!
Seconds ticked by. Clive ran his hands up and down his chest. “I’m still alive?” He opened his eyes.
Jenny’s cape and the knife lay on the ground, but…where was Jenny? Had she waited seconds too long to strike? The curse had taken her…but where? How?
Sarah Good’s stone gleamed in the moonlight. A small black cat hunched beside the stone, her tail whipping around her black toes. A white blaze crept over her nose, across one eye, ending beside her ear, in shocking contrast to her long black fur. She stared up at Clive.
“Jenny?” Clive walked closer to the stone. Didn’t people used to believe that witches could turn into black cats?
He’d never believed such tales before, but… He stroked the cat and peered into her eyes. “Jenny?” He gasped. It was as though Jenny stared back. The curse! It was true. Poor Jenny needed him to protect her from the curse. She had failed, but he wouldn’t abandon her now. She still needed him. “Don’t worry, Jenny. I’ll take care of you.”
He would write his 2000 words newspaper story about Salem, about the haunted houses and the costume ball and the decorations and the Halloween parades. The story would be colorful and for a few minutes the readers might forget about the tragedy that took almost 3000 lives on September 11. But, he would not write about a 300 year old curse that could turn a Salem witch into a little black cat on the night of the first Halloween full moon in the last twenty-seven years. Who would believe it? Not even his publisher would believe it.
Clive walked back to town with Jenny cradled in his arms.
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