Short Story Series 2: Down by the River – Part 4

[…continued from Part 3]

“While details are still sketchy on the history for the last century, there was an article in 1880 that mentioned mystery around the church and it cited the mysterious death of the rector at that time. There was no mention of what what was to become of the church in the future. But the article cited a journal kept by someone who regularly visited the rector. This man wrote of ‘magic stones’, small chips of sandstone with exotic powers that came from the quarry near the church. The man and the book disappeared just before the rector’s death. Finally! Another source than can prove what I knew. So I will tell you what I do know – mostly about the danger of the stones.

“We were young and gullible – stupid  high school students. Julia was the only girl in our group of friends and the brightest. She’s the one who uncovered some information about the stones and told us of their powers. So, we went looking for them. We followed her to the old quarry which was overgrown with bushes and trees and started walking along the river toward the church looking for fragments of red sandstone.  On the whole walk we came upon three stones and wondered what was so special about them. They didn’t seem out of the ordinary – just plain red sandstone. Julia pulled out an old book which was written in Latin and a whole mess of symbols. She was a top student in every class including Latin from an elementary age, so she translated for us with no trouble. The sandstone in this area was unusual – it didn’t come from the region. The book said it was from a netherworld or infernal some such – I don’t remember the exact description.  It said that under certain conditions the stones would absorbed dark energy. It told how to infuse the stones, or to impart one’s own negative energy promising a god-like feeling as a result. Certain conditions had to be met – chanting vibrations, geological proximity, and proper discard method. The book described a place along the river that was prepared centuries ago, supposedly by the builders of the church. Only they could tell you more about that. But, we followed the directions in the book and three of us tried infusing the stones with our negative energy. Julie, Taggart and I.”

“Who’s Taggart,” I asked?

“Taggart was the one who smashed Tommy’s head with a rock before diving into the river; he was going to look for the target zone deep below the river’s surface where the infused stones were meant to be discarded according to the book. I believe he thought that if he could recover his misplaced stone, he could cleanse himself of the darkness that was tormenting him after he threw it and missed. He never resurfaced and was presumed drowned. They never found his body.”

“What happened to you and Julia,” I inquired?

“We both missed the zone as well. My stone was the size of a pebble, smaller than a dime. I’ve dealt with a migraine every day since. Julie’s was the size of a quarter. Taggart’s was the size of a silver dollar. He always thought of himself the macho man of the group, but he was just a bully. He took the biggest piece for himself. I guess that backfired on him. Tommy didn’t even get to try, but he met a horrible fate anyway.”

“And Julia?”

“She didn’t fare so well. She kind of lost her mind. She was instantly paranoid and mostly incoherent. She was seen by psychiatrists for months and then put in an asylum by her family. They couldn’t even communicate with her. I’ve visited her over the years. Whenever she sees me, she quiets down, and mumbles. I do think she feels in danger most of the time, but I seem to give her comfort. So, to keep her calm she is drugged most of the time. I visit her once a month.”

“So this is all true after all? And the Sheriff’s covering this up?”

“The priests told me not to talk. Then the Sheriff told me, ‘This was an accident. Tommy and Taggart fell. Julie just went crazy from witnessing all of it.’ I was to change my story if I knew what was good for me. He spoke all of this in the presence of Charles O’Brien who, after the Sheriff walked away, threatened to kill me back then if I told anyone the details.”

“Charlie? The hardware store owner,” I asked?

“That’s him.”

“I’ve got to go. I think I hear someone in the building. Come meet me tomorrow morning, 9AM, at the school. I’ll take you to see Julia. If I get her calm enough, maybe we can find out what happened to the book she was holding when this all went down.”

Before I could get in another word, Billy hung up.

My wife, Sarah, overheard the phone call and was a bit concerned. At this point, I thought it wise to share with her what was going on. My interactions with people were starting to make me nervous. I had skepticism about Billy, but a great deal of mistrust about Charlie, especially since he lied directly to my face. I explained everything to her. I started with Barbara’s version, my visit to the Church grounds and what I saw, Billy’s version, and then Charlie’s story and boldface lie.

“Blake, do you really need to pursue this,” Sarah asked?

“Honey, our boy walks by the church on the way to school.”

“We could drive him.”

“Sure at first. But, we can’t live in fear. We need to uproot this darkness. What if there is a cover-up? That stinks up the community and I don’t want to be a part of it. The mystery needs solving. And, if there is a danger, people need to be aware of it. We must do something.”

“All right. Be careful, Blake. I’ll drive Corey to school this week.”

“I’m meeting Billy in the morning at the high school. We’re going to visit the asylum.”

“If you don’t come straight home after, please call me.”

“Will do.”

In the morning my wife drove Corey as planned. I drove out to the high school which was only a few blocks from the elementary. I waited at the entrance for one hour. There was no sign of Billy. I went in to ask Principal Hillsdale, Bob, if he or anyone else had seen Billy. No such luck. But, knowing me fairly well, Bob did offer Billy’s home address and I drove the three miles to the opposite side of town. He lived in a small house set on a more rural road where residences were few and far between. He was reclusive after all. There was a car in his driveway. Not knowing whether or not he was married, I presumed it was his. I climbed the two steps of his front porch and knocked on the screen door first, calling out, “Billy?” as the door boards clattered. There was no sound of movement inside, so I opened the screen door and knocked on the inside door, again repeating, “Billy?” The door opened slightly with my knock. It did not appear to have been forced open. Yet, it was open, unlocked and there were scratches around the keyhole on the doorknob. I then swung the door open and walked in, calling out again only louder, “Billy! It’s Blake. I came over because you didn’t show at the school. Billy?”

I started looking around for a clue as to what might have happened. The place look relatively clean, objects neatly placed in order. But, looking along the narrow hallway into the kitchen, I noticed there was an overturned chair on the floor which seemed out of place with the rest of the house.  So, I proceeded into the kitchen and that’s where I stood frozen in horror to find Billy’s body hanging from a rafter. He wasn’t swinging and his body was cold and pale. In all appearance it looks as though he hung himself last night. Using Billy’s living room telephone, I called the Sheriff’s department immediately.

Upon the arrival of the Sheriff and his deputies,  I received the third degree from the Sheriff himself.

“What were you doing on the premises, Mr. …?”

“Harding. Blake Harding, sir,” I replied. “I had come looking for Billy when he didn’t show up for a scheduled appointment.”

“And what business did you have with Billy Kegan?”

“With all due respect, sir, what business is that of yours?”

“Son, this is a crime scene on which you happened to be located. For all I know, you were the last one to see Billy alive. Is this really how you want to play it – we could talk more at the station?”

If the Sheriff is involved in the cover-up of a previous crime, I couldn’t give too much information to him, although I did feel the need to speak frankly.

“Look,” I said, “I had just made an appointment to meet with Billy to talk about the town’s history. I’m a historian – it’s my profession. Billy was an amateur, but he had more knowledge about the town than I did, having just recently moved back here.”

“Well, Mr. Harding, this is a clear case of suicide, cut and dry, and I don’t think you had anything to do with it. So, you should be on your way. But, Mr. Harding,” he paused and looked me in the eye tipping his hat upward, “some history is just that – history. Best leave it where it lies. You have a good day now!” He pulled his hat down a bit and turned around heading for the kitchen.

And with that I took my leave. As excited as Billy was last night, there is no way he took his own life. He was quite paranoid the other night when I met him – looking outside the classroom windows as if he were being watched. From this moment on, I had to be extremely careful in my every move for my own safety…for my family’s safety.

Unfortunately I could not have a closer look in Billy’s house for the evidence he had possessed to corroborate his story. He had the 19th century news article with reference to the book on magic stones. I was now faced with finding Julia on my own. Would she talk with me? If she did, would I understand her or would she be incoherent?

I went back home immediately to tell Sarah what I knew so far. Already upset with the present mystery, she did not take the news of Billy’s death well. It was not setting easily with me either. When he was younger – he was in fact threatened, by the Sheriff indirectly and by Charlie directly. Foul play was a most plausible assumption. After briefly speaking with Sarah and calming her down a bit, I set out again – this time for the asylum which was only a little farther out of town than Billy’s house. Sarah wanted to go with me, but I wouldn’t have it. I convinced her that she needed to pick up Corey from school and I would probably not be back until late afternoon.

To be continued…

© 2018 Michael Armenia