A Strange TaleJames Somers / Fantasy
A STRANGE TALE
2014© James Somers
The gas gauge empty light came on. “FIN! You idiot!” Archie Winebottle had felt a little sorry about his partner, Fin, getting shot in his hindquarters during the bank robbery and having to leave him behind—no longer.
His getaway car barely managed to creep to the top of the next steep hill as police cruisers came up fast. Archie knew it was over. He hit the brakes, but with the engine dead, they didn’t respond now. The steering wheel locked into place. Archie and the Oldsmobile sailed down the incline like a runaway freight train.
The road turned near the bottom of the decline, but Archie and his car did not. The Oldsmobile’s heavy steel body plowed through a thicket near the road and was swallowed up. Small trees blasted to splinters as they impacted the square grill. Archie held tight to the wheel, despite his inability to guide the vehicle. His knuckles strained white as he and the car plowed through wooded terrain on a continuing downhill grade.
A larger tree stood immovable in his path. Everything exploded on impact. Archie’s head smacked the windshield, but he didn’t go through. The blow to his head numbed his entire body.
After a few minutes, Archie gradually started to move. He tried the door. A tree was pushing in on the car’s driver’s side. Every window in the Oldsmobile had shattered, including the windshield, so Archie decided to climb out that way. He pulled his legs out and noticed blood on his shirt. A steady stream of crimson trickled down from a torn knot on his brow. He reached back into the car, removing the blue canvas money bag from the floorboard where it had landed.
Archie looked around, but didn’t see or hear any cops coming for him. The woods had swallowed him up, and the police had passed him by. Perhaps good fortune might smile on him yet.
He hadn’t had time to notice before, but the money bag was bulging with loot. He smiled. He’d lost his accomplice—the person he’d have had to split the take with. He caressed the bag. “At least, I’ve still got you.”
Archie unzipped the money bag. Compressed gas hissed, and blue dye exploded out at him, splattering his hands, his clothes and his face. He stood there for a moment, blinking. He wiped the dye from his eyes as much as possible and stared at his prize. The azure dye had stained all the money. Archie cursed the teller who had given him the dye pack then threw the tainted bag into the trees as hard as he could. He felt like crying.
Archie decided to continue through the woods. No use coming out to find a bunch of cops waiting for me, he thought. Leaves of every size and shape fell down around him—orange and brown—autumn’s version of snow. The wind filtered through the trees, stirring it all into a crackling frenzy. Archie thought about how well it would hide the sound of his steps as he made his getaway. As he started off, away from the road, he took notice of his wrecked car, now held securely by two trees with leaves already beginning to cover it. “Piece of junk!”
The same noisy mix of sights and sounds in the woods had masked the steps of someone watching Archie from not far away. Percival Strange peered over a hill around the side of a large oak tree. He had been collecting some insect specimens for his collection, as he often did, when he heard the police sirens screaming in the distance.
When Percival saw a brown blur smash through the undergrowth, he had immediately set out after it, hoping to see exactly what it was. Grizzly Bear on the rampage, perhaps? No such luck. He found a wrecked car and its injured driver not far from where he’d been exploring. The police sirens passed and faded. He suspected this person, crashing through the woods, must be the reason the cops were about at all.
Percival watched as a canvas bag exploded in the man’s hands, showering him in blue dye. I’ve seen that on television. Something to mark stolen money and bank robbers—bank robber!
He had wondered about offering the man assistance. Now he knew this must be a dangerous criminal. Percival padded his pockets, looking for his cell phone. He’d left it at home. He hardly ever carried it out with him when he was collecting—the ringing usually disturbed his peaceful walks.
The man angrily threw the bag in Percival’s direction. For a brief moment, he thought he’d been spotted. Then the man began cursing to himself and walked deeper into the woods. Percival thought of going for help. His bicycle wasn’t far from here. But even though he might tell the police where the car had crashed, he wouldn’t be able to tell them what had happened to the bank robber. I’ll follow him and then tell the police where he goes.
Percival dropped his equipment and the specimens he’d already collected, taking note of where the spot was. No use giving up good specimens.
The wind whipped the fall leaves around rather noisily. It wouldn’t be difficult to stay hidden if he kept a good distance from the man. He smiled as he set off after his quarry. “Boy, Violet is never going to believe this.”
THE LONELY MANOR
Archie kept a brisk pace for nearly an hour. The trickle of blood coming from the wound on his forehead eventually coagulated. A dull ache replaced the earlier numbness. He wished for a bottle of pain pills. “I should’ve robbed a pharmacy instead!”
In the waning sun, Archie spotted a small clearing up ahead. A ring of trees formed nearly a perfect circle around an old, rundown house beyond. Archie came to those trees and stopped to catch his breath. The house fascinated him. How had it gotten here? Who did it belong to and did anyone actually live in it now?
He couldn’t place the style of architecture. Archie had never been accused of being a worldly fellow, but somehow it seemed foreign to him. The house stood three stories tall with a dark color scheme so faded he couldn’t tell what it had originally been. Shutters hung loose in places. The windows were hazy brown and broken.
A wrought iron fence surrounded the house in a rectangle. The gate hung askew. A Stone path emerged near the gate, as though the stones had pushed through the earth just for this house. The path led through the fence and came right up to a large front porch holding several old dilapidated rocking chairs and a pair of chipped marble gargoyles guarding the front door.
Archie looked around the clearing then back behind him. He saw no sign of anyone living in the house, or of the police following him. “This looks like as good a place as any to hold up for a while. At least until the heat blows over.” As dusk approached, Archie noticed the angry orange sun through the trees suspended over the mountains.
As soon as Archie Winebottle took his first step beyond the tree-line boundary, the light faded, casting everything in deep slate gray. The distant sun had disappeared. Dark foreboding clouds roiled in the sky, and wind blew harshly through the trees, as though he had angered the forest somehow. A chill crept into the air, so that his breath vaporized then pulled away on the wind, looking as though his soul were being sucked from his body with every exhale.
The wrought iron hinge squealed as the gate banged against the fence. Leaves swirled around him in tornadic fits. Archie heard the wind moan through the empty house, and for a moment he thought he heard a voice telling him, “leave at once!” His conscience? He couldn’t be sure.
Archie saw a faint yellow glow rise in the two prominent first floor windows located on either side of the front door—two eyes staring at him. A shiver of fear exploded up his spine, but Archie wasn’t about to be spooked by any sudden wind storm. He quickly dismissed his superstitions. “So someone does live here.” His dye-stained teeth chattered. “That means I can get some food and a hostage, if need be.”
Archie stormed toward the house, trying his best to ignore the freakish weather around him. Rags swayed from craggy old branches on the one prominent tree in the yard. At least, Archie had supposed this, until he reached the main gate. When he pushed the iron gate aside, he saw bodies hanging from frayed ropes, swinging in the stiff breeze.
The gate slammed shut behind him as Archie stumbled up the path toward the house. He felt the large bloody gash on his forehead, wondering if he’d contracted some kind of brain damage from his car crash. Surely, this wasn’t real.
Archie tripped as he lumbered toward the house. He pulled his leg, but found it held fast in the grip of a partially decomposed hand. White bone gleamed through patchy, gangrenous flesh. He screamed for help, but the howling wind drowned out his cries.
The ground around him exploded with flailing arms reaching up, taking hold of the ground, pulling forth gruesome figures—bodies in various phases of decomposition. Milky eyes glared at him, and hideous dirt encrusted teeth smiled liplessly as arms surged after him. Archie’s mind reeled, his breath escaped. He tried to scream, but no sound came.
Archie scrambled away from the zombies clamoring after him. He got his feet under him again and raced up the stone path to the porch and the front door beyond. He pounded on it, seizing the knob, shaking it furiously. “Let me in!”
Archie looked back at the yard filling with grotesque bodies clothed in shredded suits and dresses stained with dirt and blood. He pounded harder, screaming frantically as the mob of corpses lurched up the path and onto the porch. He pulled his revolver and fired. Still, they came for him.
The door opened. Archie fell into the house, hitting the bare floorboards with a crash that swept a plume of dust up around him. The door slammed shut behind him. Archie watched muddy hands smear across the windows next to the door. Dead faces peered into the house, but they came no further.
Archie realized he was now shrouded in warm, yellow light. He turned his head upward, finding an oil lamp burning on each of two small tables near the windows on either side of the door.
Archie stood up, looking around. He heard a voice speak to him from the thick darkness beyond the foyer where he stood. “You’ve come too far, Archie Winebottle.”
Archie turned round and round, but still saw no face to the voice.
The voice spoke again behind him. “You should not have come here.”
He whirled around. A squat old man stood there holding a lantern up before Archie’s face. He had a wrinkled, pale complexion and bloodshot eyes piercing through any pretense. He stood nearly a foot shorter than Archie, wearing frayed suspenders, a dingy white button up shirt, dark dress pants and soiled boots.
Archie sputtered. “Who are you?”
The old man grinned in the yellow lantern light. His jagged smile revealed many cavities. “I’m Mister Lonely, thief.”
Archie pointed back toward the door. “Who are they? What is this place?”
“You’ve come to the Lonely Manor, Mr. Winebottle. Those, outside, guard the Manor from intruders, like you. You should have turned back when you could.”
This caught Archie’s attention. He drew his revolver. “What do you mean, when I could?”
Mr. Lonely turned, walking further into the house—the lantern’s glow casting eerie shadows around the room. “You’ll soon find out.”
Archie looked back toward the door. Hands and faces still pressed against the house windows. He couldn’t leave that way. He turned and caught up with the old man.
“Archie, I’d like you to meet my wife.” Mr. Lonely stopped at a door in the hallway. He turned the black doorknob. “Mr. Winebottle, this is Mrs. Lonely, the lady of the house.” He opened the door, revealing a tall thin closet then gestured for Archie to look inside.
An old woman hung by the neck from a rope tied to the high coat rod. Archie gasped. Mrs. Lonely opened her eyes—completely black eyes—smiling. “Hello, Mr. Winebottle,” she said. “Welcome to Lonely Manor.”
She stretched her arms toward him invitingly. Archie stumbled back, but Mr. Lonely shoved him into the closet, slamming the door behind him. Only his muffled fading scream remained to attest of his presence in the house.