THE MONSTER IN THE SECOND REEL
By Richard Paolinelli
© 2019 RICHARD PAOLINELLI . ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. NO COPYING OR ANY OTHER REPRODUCTION OF THIS STORY IS PERMITTED WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION.
The first snowflakes of the season gently drifted down through the darkening sky and settled on the asphalt. Those few that landed on the brand new 1956 Packard Clipper were quickly melted by the warmth of the car’s black exterior. It would be a few more hours yet before the snowfall became heavy enough to make traveling along Highway 10 difficult.
Martin peered anxiously out the windshield. Had it been a mistake to not stop in Jamestown after all? Would he find a theater that he so desperately needed in Steele, the small town just two miles ahead according to the road sign he’d just passed? Or would he have to try for Bismarck and pray the snowfall would not worsen ahead?
He spared a glance over at the passenger seat. An old leather-bound book lay atop a grey metal canister holding two reels of movie film. Roughly twenty-five minutes in length combined, a typical movie would require five times as many reels, and yet whenever he showed these, the time seemed to fly by. Bizarrely, it also seemed to take an eternity to pass.
He could only hope this town ahead had a theater with a small enough crowd to satisfy his needs. The theater in Jamestown, a much larger city, was far too big and filled for the night’s premiere showing of Oklahoma. There would have been too many people inside for him to complete his task and escape unnoticed. If Steele could offer him what he needed, he could then move on to Bismarck, ditch this car that he’d taken in Chicago, and rest for a few days.
He doubted anyone had discovered the theft of the car, or noticed it was even missing yet. He’d discovered the dealership’s owner alone, slumped over his desk, and dead from an apparent heart attack. Taking advantage of the situation, and the keys left in the ignition, he threw in his few belongings and left Chicago far behind. He’d use his respite studying the old book, another item he’d stolen long ago, in hopes of freeing his tormented soul from the living hell his life had become. If an answer did exist somewhere within, he was free. If not, he would acquire another mode of transportation and continue with what he’d been doing for the last two years: move on until he was forced to stop and feed the monster he’d inadvertently helped to create.
Driving past the quaint “Welcome to Steele, North Dakota” sign he spotted a gas station and a small café at the intersection of the highway and the main road that led into the small town. A half-mile after turning onto Main Street, beyond a few blocks of houses, he came upon the center of the town itself. He encountered the standard fare for a small Midwestern town: a barbershop, a drug store, the county courthouse and sheriff’s department, a bank and a couple of churches.
Beyond the bowling alley he found that which he’d sought: a small movie theater. Still open for the evening and showing a movie from three years before. He doubted many of the town’s few residents, the signed had claimed a population of less than five hundred, would be inside. There were only four cars parked outside near the theater. He pulled the Packard around the corner, drove up a block, and parked the car in front of the darkened office of the town’s weekly newspaper, The Steele Ozone.
Slipping the book into the large inner pocket of his coat, he picked up his hat, lifted up the film canister and stepped out of the car. The air, particularly cold and biting even for mid-October, passed through his garments as if they weren’t there. He drew his lapels tight against it after snugging his black hat firmly down upon his graying hair. Anyone might have mistaken him for a priest, if he’d been wearing a white collar with his all-black attire. He’d actually been one once, but that was a different lifetime and he was one no longer.
He made his way to the theater and paused a few feet from the ticket booth. The night’s second and final showing of Sudden Fear was currently underway. A small sigh of relief escaped his lips. Being a school night, the film was not likely to have any children in its audience. He only needed a handful of patrons to remain behind to watch a “special sneak preview” after the film concluded.
Stepping up to the window he greeted the young woman on duty inside.
“Good evening.” He removed his hat.
“You’re too late for the show, mister, it’s already an hour in at least. I can sell you a ticket for tomorrow, though?” she reached for the advance ticket vouchers.
“No, thank you, my child. I was hoping to speak with the manager if he’s available?”
“Oh, sure, just go on inside and turn right. His name is Mister Baxter. His office is right there.”
“Thank you,” he said as he turned away to go inside. The smell of popcorn filled his nostrils as he entered, triggering a grumbling reminder from his stomach that he hadn’t eaten in several hours. He ignored both. First, he would attend to the matter at hand and then he would eat. At the manager’s door, he knocked firmly upon the mahogany wood. After a moment, it swung open and a man of Martin’s age stepped out.
“Yes?” He spoke with the impatient air of someone unhappy at being interrupted. “May I help you?”
“I certainly hope you can, sir. My name is Martin and I represent a film company out west,” prior experience had taught him the implication of Hollywood’s involvement made things go much smoother. “I have here a half-hour of a film we’re currently working on. I’ve been going to theaters offering a sneak preview in return for the audience giving their opinions afterward.
“I’m willing to pay for the time of course,” he continued. “Perhaps after the current movie ends, we could ask those inside if they’d like to stay and participate?”
“Well.” The manager hesitated. “I suppose if you paid for the theater usage it would be alright. But I have to warn you, there can’t be more than a dozen people in their tonight. Everyone else went off to Bismarck or Jamestown to see Oklahoma or are at home with their kids. It’s a school night after all. I’m not sure how much help that will be to you.”
“Oh, that will be fine,” Martin replied, masking his relief.
NEXT WEEK: A Deadly Screening
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