1K Weekly Serial: The Monster In The Second Reel, Chapter Four

THE MONSTER IN THE SECOND REEL 

By Richard Paolinelli

© 2020 RICHARD PAOLINELLI . ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. NO COPYING OR ANY OTHER REPRODUCTION OF THIS STORY IS PERMITTED WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION.

 

FOUR

 

The priest burst into the projection room through its only door and found it empty. The projector was still on. He knew his quarry had just been here and fled, perhaps only seconds before. The amount of effort and energy the man was expending had to be taking a great toll. Martin had to be close by, exhausted and not able to move again for a minute or two at best. But figuring out where he’d gone in time was the trick. The priest had been this close several times before and just missed putting an end to this madness.

“The doors are still locked from the inside,” the priest heard the manager call out to the sheriff as he made his way down from the projection room. “I don’t understand where everyone has gone. There’s nowhere for one person to hide, much less seven.”

“Did any of you see where he came from?” the priest inquired of the group gathered in front of the screen.

“By the time I noticed him he was already at the window,” the ticket taker reported.

“Jimmy and I didn’t see him until he was already in the lobby,” Baxter added.

“Are there any cars out front that you’ve never seen before tonight?”

Everyone shook their heads.

“Wait a minute,” Kraft exclaimed. “Coming over here I passed a brand new black Packard with no plates. Looked like there was a temporary tag in the windshield though. I was going to go back and double-check it after I got done here.”

“Where was it parked?” the priest demanded. “Tell me before he gets away again.”

“About two blocks away. Out the front door and turn left.”

The priest bolted back into the lobby and out the doors, the sheriff trying to keep pace. Running out into the street, the priest peered in the direction of the main highway.

No car drove in that direction. Turning his head to the south, he spotted a pair of red taillights at the end of the main street where it stopped in front of the school.

The brake lights flared, and the car made a swift U-turn. Caught for a brief moment under a street lamp, the priest saw it was a new black Packard. Positioning himself in the middle of the street, he held the golden cross/ax out in front of him, said a quick prayer, drew a long breath and waited.

*     *     *

Exhausted, scared, and in a strange town, Martin made a wrong turn. When his headlights caught the school building through the falling snow, marking the end of the street, he cursed his luck. Turning around, he started back in the right direction but made it only three blocks before coming to a stop in the intersection near the theater.

Less than half a block away, right in the middle of the street, his hunter stood. Martin had been fleeing the priest for several long months. The priest’s black hair and robes flowed in the wind, not a single snowflake settling anywhere upon him. His axe blazed with a holy light. He looked every bit like an avenging angel.

Which was precisely what he was, Martin allowed. A man with a badge, his gun drawn and aimed directly at Martin, was making his way down the sidewalk to get a better bead on his target. The sheriff was yelling at Martin, likely an order to get out of the car. But the only words that Martin heard came from the man directly ahead.

“Martin Edward Meadows,” the priest’s voice boomed as if it were God Himself speaking. “In the name of God! I command you to surrender yourself to His judgment!”

Martin looked down at the old book. There was a spell inside that he could use to help him escape. Did he have enough strength to use it? Which man should he use it on? Would the other then be upon him before he could flee? Frozen in indecision, Martin sat in the Packard, right in the middle of the intersection and did nothing.

Then another power – or just sheer bad luck – took a hand.

 

*     *     *     *     *

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1K Weekly Serials: The Monster In The Second Reel, Chapter Three

THE MONSTER IN THE SECOND REEL 

By Richard Paolinelli

© 2020 RICHARD PAOLINELLI . ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. NO COPYING OR ANY OTHER REPRODUCTION OF THIS STORY IS PERMITTED WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION.

 

THREE

 

Albert Kraft had been sheriff of Kidder County for ten years. He often joked he’d likely remain sheriff until his son, Arnold, replaced him. A burly man with a gentle heart, he managed to enforce the law in the small county without having to resort to heavy-handedness. Mostly, he had little to do and was only in his office this night to cover for his lone deputy, who was in Bismarck’s lone hospital awaiting the arrival of his first child.

When Kraft’s phone rang, he fully expected it to be his wife calling and not the manager of the theater sounding like he’d lost his mind.

“Sheriff Kraft,” he answered.

“Al,” Baxter was an old friend. “You are not going to believe this, but some nut has locked himself and six customers inside my theater and I can’t get inside.”

“I’ve told you to carry an extra set of keys with you, Bax,” Kraft chuckled.

“That’s not what I mean. I’m in the lobby. I can’t get into the theater. He’s got the outside doors locked and we can’t get the keys to work and the lobby doors are blocked. I can’t budge them at all.”

“Alright, Bax, I’ll come over and see what I can do.”

He drove over the two blocks, in case he was going to have to transport a prisoner to jail, taking notice of a brand new car he’d never seen in town before along the way, parked his patrol car out front and strode into the lobby less than two minutes after hanging up.

“How long has he been in there?”

“About twenty minutes now, Al. He said he had a thirty-minute film to show, some kind of sneak preview of a Hollywood film. Paid for the use of the theater in cash. He seemed legitimate, so I let him have at it. When I tried to go back inside to see how things were going, I couldn’t get past the doors.”

Kraft pushed on both. He leaned into the effort on the second try but fared no better.

“And when you tried to get in from the outside doors?” Kraft asked.

“Keys won’t even turn the lock, Al. This goes well beyond strange, don’t you think?” he mopped his forehead with a handkerchief.

“I do. Well, we can either wait until his film runs out and the folks inside try to leave or…”

With that, Kraft withdrew his nightstick and started pounding on the doors. He hoped someone inside would hear and investigate. He was still pounding away four minutes later, with no response from the other side, when the strange became the bizarre.

“In the name of God,” a voice thundered from behind them, “stand away from that door!”

They turned in unison to find a man in the traditional garb of a Jesuit priest bearing down upon them. His black hair and robes moved as if blown by an unnatural wind, and his face seemed chiseled from granite. His green eyes blazed with a holy light. From a fold of his robe, he withdrew a hand ax that appeared to be made from pure gold. It was shaped like a cross and what appeared to be razor-sharp blades glinted on either side.

Kraft, Baxter and young Jimmy scattered. Without pausing, the stranger gripped the ax in both hands, drew it back, and drove it into the doors as he stepped into them. The blade struck the doors, exploding them off their hinges with a thundering boom. Both doors ripped through the dark curtain that prevented the light from the lobby reaching the theater. The doors flew down the slope and crashed against the back wall.

The priest did not hesitate, heading up the stairs to the projection room with the sheriff close behind, demanding an explanation. Baxter, Jimmy and the woman from the now-closed ticket booth ran into the theater below.

*     *     *

Martin kept his eyes glued on his watch. He’d seen the movie play out once too often and had no desire to see it again. When the pounding on the door began, he remained unconcerned. The locking spell would hold until he departed. Once the second reel ended, he would collect the reels and utter the transport spell that would return him to his car without having to pass through the lobby. There was no way to explain the sudden disappearance of the six people who’d met their demise this night. Exhausted, he doubted he could muster another spell once he’d transported. At least not until he’d eaten and rested.

The second reel rolled out. It was finished. He packed the reels into the container, not bothering to look outside at the empty theater, lit up with the white light from the projector. He began the transport spell just as the doors below exploded open. He quickly whispered the one spell he knew from memory as he grabbed up the container and the old book.

 

*     *     *     *     *

Like what you’ve read so far? Be sure and sign up for Richard’s newsletter, “Postcards From Infinity“, and if you’d like to become a patron you can do so right here. Any amount you choose will be appreciated and will help keep this blog, these weekly serials and Richard’s podcast, “A Scribe’s Journey” up and running. Thank you for reading and for your support.

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1K Weekly Serials: The Monster In The Second Reel, Chapter Two

THE MONSTER IN THE SECOND REEL 

By Richard Paolinelli

© 2020 RICHARD PAOLINELLI . ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. NO COPYING OR ANY OTHER REPRODUCTION OF THIS STORY IS PERMITTED WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION.

 

TWO

 

They haggled over the price. Though, they settled on about the same amount he’d been paying at all of the other theaters he’d visited since this nightmare began one year ago.

“Say, there’s nothing funny about this film is there?” the manager asked suddenly. “I wouldn’t want to have to deal with any complaints to the sheriff.”

“Oh, no, nothing like that,” Martin assured, lying yet again. He’d been getting better and better at that skill with each passing day. “It’s going to be another one of those monster movies that are making the rounds. I wouldn’t want any children to see it, mind you, but nothing that will have your local preachers picketing your theater over.”

As the time for Sudden Fear to end drew near, he followed the manager inside. Martin waited patiently to the side as the lights came up and the manager made the announcement. Only six people agreed to stay and watch while the other ten declined. Martin was relieved those ten would be spared even as he steeled himself for the terror he knew lay in store for the six that remained.

He headed up into the projection room and dismissed the projectionist. He’d become something of an expert at this task too.  He waited for the swinging doors below to close behind the manager and the projectionist before he turned down the house lights and started the film. He withdrew the old book, opened it, and quietly began reading from it as the film opened on a pastoral scene with soft music playing in the background. A young boy, blonde and blue-eyed, flying a kite high against a clear blue sky, dominated the screen.

Once assured that the spell he’d cast had sealed every exit, he flipped to another page and began reading again. He did not need to look to know that as he cast this spell, everyone in the theater had frozen. As the first reel neared its end and before it was time to switch to the second reel, he cast his third and final spell.

He closed his eyes against the coming horror that he had arranged. Twelve more minutes. Then he could leave this place, find something to eat and have a few days to rest. He was weary, in flesh, mind and spirit and there seemed to be no end to his torment in sight.

On screen, as the second reel began, the boy, a picture of innocence itself in the first reel, quickly transformed into a hideous monster. The creature’s hairless hide was a sickly grey and covered in tumors. The eyes an angry red and the mouth filled with yellowed, flesh-tearing fangs. It snarled and smashed everything in sight then turned to directly face the audience, claws slashing as if it were trying to rip through the giant screen itself. Martin scanned the theater just as the six patrons began to fade out. One by one they reappeared on the big screen. The elderly couple never even had a chance to try and flee, little good it would have done them. They stood frozen in terror and the beast fell upon them.

Martin turned off the sound then. He could not bear to hear the screams anymore. The other two couples were much younger and the two men put up a good fight. But they could not match the beast’s ferocity and they fell to its claws. Their female companions had made a run for it, never realizing they were trapped in a film and that no help would be found. The monster ran them down and made short work of them both. Then it began to feed on its six latest victims in an orgy of flesh and blood.

*     *     *

The manager collected the meager take from the box office, about average for a Wednesday night in Steele. They’d leave the concession area open in case anyone wanted something to take home.

Unable to do a final count until that last register was closed, he decided to check in on the sneak preview. It had been about five minutes since he’d left, and no one had walked out yet. He took that as a positive sign. If it looked good, maybe he could swing a deal to be among the first theaters to show it in the state. He strode to the doors and stuck out a hand to swing one open without stopping. He came to a painfully abrupt halt when it refused to budge.

“What the blazes?” The manager raised a hand to his throbbing nose, which had borne the brunt of the collision. He pushed on the door again, shoved harder a third time, and repeated the process with the other door.

Neither budged in the slightest.

There was no locking mechanism on either door and even if something had been moved in front of them, he was a strong enough man to at least make them move slightly. It was almost as they had been welded into place in front of a barrier of solid steel.

“Jimmy,” he called out to the younger man behind the concession counter. “Some joker has the doors blocked. Run outside and come in from the back and get these doors open.”

“Right away, Mr. Baxter,” Jimmy replied, dashing out the front. He circled around to the side exit, this one led directly to the theater inside and could be used to leave without going through the lobby. He slipped the key into the lock, but it would not turn no matter how hard he tried.

He abandoned this door and went to the rear of the building. A much larger door, used for deliveries, waited there. He slipped the key into the lock, but again he could not get it to turn. The door would not open. Confused, he ran back around and reported the failures to his boss.

“Impossible,” Baxter exclaimed. “You’re sure you were using the right keys?”

“Absolutely, sir.”

Baxter shook his head. Even if the doors had been locked from the inside, Jimmy’s keys should have unlocked them. He’d been trying to get the doors here inside to open, but not even a crowbar could gain enough purchase to budge them any more than pushing on them had accomplished. Baxter walked over to the lobby phone and asked the operator to connect him with Sheriff Kraft’s office.

 

*     *     *     *     *

Like what you’ve read so far? Be sure and sign up for Richard’s newsletter, “Postcards From Infinity“, and if you’d like to become a patron you can do so right here. Any amount you choose will be appreciated and will help keep this blog, these weekly serials and Richard’s podcast, “A Scribe’s Journey” up and running. Thank you for reading and for your support.

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1K Weekly Serial: The Monster In The Second Reel, Chapter One

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.

 

ONE

 

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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Like what you’ve read so far? Be sure and sign up for Richard’s newsletter, “Postcards From Infinity“, and if you’d like to become a patron you can do so right here. Any amount you choose will be appreciated and will help keep this blog, these weekly serials and Richard’s podcast, “A Scribe’s Journey” up and running. Thank you for reading and for your support.

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1K Weekly Serials: Spinster’s Manor, Final Chapter

SPINSTER’S MANOR

By Richard Paolinelli

© 2019 RICHARD PAOLINELLI . ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. NO COPYING OR ANY OTHER REPRODUCTION OF THIS STORY IS PERMITTED WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION.

 

FINAL

 

When the sun rose the next morning its rays fell upon a slight dusting of snow that had fallen during the early morning hours. Aspinwall arose and went through his morning routine. Once washed and freshly shaven, Aspinwall inspected his best suit to make sure it was immaculate before putting it on. His mind was still on his plans for this house as he made his way down the first flight of stairs. He pulled up short once he reached the landing: seemingly every cat in the house had gathered in a pack at the head of the next flight.

“I think I’m going to very much enjoy bundling the entire lot of you in burlap sacks and hurling you all into the river,” he muttered under his breath. He’d make removing this infestation a top priority once this house was his.

He started to shoo the beasts out of his way when a sudden sound from behind made him turn quickly. He barely had time to register the blur of orange and white fur—Mortimer—hurtling toward him when the large tabby landed on his face, all four sets of claws digging deep into his flesh. The force of the impact made him stumble back into the railing; he tumbled over, plunging downward, screaming in pain and terror as he fell to the first floor.

Aspinwall’s body slammed into the very same large oak table he’d dined on the night before, his shoulders striking near the edge so nothing was there to stop his head from continuing along on its journey. Aspinwall heard a hideous snap and suddenly lost all feeling from his neck down. He found himself completely unable to move. It took everything he had within him just to keep breathing.

His head dangled slightly over the edge of the table, which he realized seemed to be slightly tilted, with the high end of the slope at the other end of the table. Out of the corner of his eye he noted the presence of an empty metal tub that looked capable of holding five gallons of water. Before he could begin to puzzle out the configuration of the tub and table, Tessa walked into the room, her right arm concealed behind her back. She seemed remarkably unconcerned with his present circumstances.

He tried calling out, to ask her for help, but he couldn’t force the air from his lungs to form the words he wanted to say. He could only gulp in enough air in short, halting gasps – like a landed fish on the riverbank – to stay alive. Several of the cats, including his attacker, gathered on and around him.

“Goodness,” she said, looking down at Aspinwall. “Still alive, Mr. Aspinwall? I am quite afraid, sir, that this simply will not do at all.”

With that she raised her arm above her head, revealing the large meat cleaver, and swung it downward. Aspinwall’s last sight was that of light reflecting of the sharpened blade; then darkness.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Tessa swung the blade a second time and her boarder’s head tumbled free, falling into the tub. The blood from the severed neck flowed into the container beneath it. Some of the cats began sniffing and licking about the open wound.

“Not yet my pretties,” Tessa said, shooing the cats off of the corpse. “Let me put my bird in the oven, and then I’ll properly prepare him for your feast. This will truly be a fine Thanksgiving for us all.”

~ ~ * * ~ ~

Palmquist Manor now lies deserted, an empty crumbling shell of its former glory, uninhabited for all of the decades since Tessa Palmquist’s death. The old spinster was found long dead of natural causes after nearly a full month had passed with no sign of her in town or outside the mansion. Her cats had been gnawing on her and had nearly stripped all of the flesh from her bones. Every single cat was put down.

No member of Tessa’s family ever came to claim the property, and it was eventually sold at auction. But no owner ever spent more than a single night within its walls. It was said that at night you could hear the yowling of cats throughout the house. And on Thanksgiving Day itself, more than one passerby has claimed they thought they heard the unholiest moaning, of a human being in supreme agony and terror. A few swore they heard a woman’s voice, too, softly humming an old tune . . . and the thwack of metal cutting into wood.

~ ~ * * ~ ~

This short story was originally accepted for the My Peculiar Family, Vol. 2 anthology a couple of years back. But the anthology was never published so I decided to share it here as part of my weekly serial series. I hope you enjoyed reading it.

*     *     *     *     *

NEXT WEEK: Chapter 1 – The Monster In The Second Reel.

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Like what you’ve read so far? Be sure and sign up for Richard’s newsletter, “Postcards From Infinity“, and if you’d like to become a patron you can do so right here. Any amount you choose will be appreciated and will help keep this blog, these weekly serials and Richard’s podcast, “A Scribe’s Journey” up and running. Thank you for reading and for your support.

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1K Weekly Serial: Spinster’s Manor, Chapter Two

SPINSTER’S MANOR

By Richard Paolinelli

© 2019 RICHARD PAOLINELLI . ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. NO COPYING OR ANY OTHER REPRODUCTION OF THIS STORY IS PERMITTED WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION.

 

TWO

 

Aspinwall took stock of his lodgings, finding a clean, comfortable-looking bed to sleep on, a nice chest of drawers, and a small closet in which to hang his clothes. Near the lone window was a reading table, chair, and an oil lamp. A pleasant view of a forest of sugar maples lay beyond the window. But as he unpacked, his mind was on much more than this simple room.

Against the opposite wall was a small table with a washbasin and a large pitcher of water. A medium-sized mirror with an ornate wood frame was affixed to the wall above the basin. Taking a moment to freshen up, Aspinwall regarded the face looking back.

It was the face of a thirty-two-year-old man, considered roguishly handsome by many. It was said back in Montpelier that he could charm any woman in the room. The more cynical voices noted that the wealthier the woman, the more he seemed to turn on his charms. But despite his reputation, Aspinwall had somehow managed to avoid being ensnared in marriage. This was by choice. He loved women. He loved their money. He did not love limiting his options when it came to either pursuit.

“Well, well, William,” he said to his reflection, flicking at some dust on his jacket. “Perhaps there is no need to go to Montreal after all. There might be something much more profitable for us right here.”

The truth was, his trip north was purely speculative, with some risk of failure, and he was only going in order to get away from Montpelier long enough to allow some unpleasantness to settle down.

But he smelled money here—lots of it—and no need to travel out of the country to get it. There had to be a large amount of wealth to keep an estate like this in order, especially when there was only one lone woman running it. Include the manor and the land it was on, and there had to be enough money here to last five lifetimes.

The best part of his equation was it would take a minimal amount of effort to cash in. A lonely, unmarried young woman would easily fall sway to his legendary charm. A brief courtship, a marriage and—after an appropriate amount of time had passed so as not to arouse suspicion—well, stairways were treacherous to navigate for a person of any age, after all. After the lady of the house had been dispatched, the oversized rodents would soon join her in the afterlife.

Within a year, after the estate had been liquidated, he could return to Montpelier as one of the city’s wealthiest men—surely the richest eligible bachelor by far.

After one last inspection in the mirror, Aspinwall made his way downstairs—taking care to make sure the door was tightly shut to keep out the cats—and found his way into the study. Clearly, Father Palmquist had conducted most of his affairs from this room, and a few minutes of rummaging through papers and drawers confirmed his assessment of the financial situation he’d stumbled upon.

Satisfied with what he’d discovered, he left the study and headed for the kitchen, passing through the dining room dominated by a large oak table. The aroma from the room was quite pleasant. He would not starve to death during his brief matrimony, at least. A pot of some type of stew boiled on the stove, but Tessa was on the other side of the kitchen.

She held a live chicken, and as Aspinwall stepped closer to see what she was going to do with the fowl, Tessa suddenly snapped the creature’s neck with a deft twist of her wrist, placed the carcass on a slanted cutting board next to the sink, then raised her other hand high above her head. Only then did Aspinwall take notice of what she clutched—a rather formidable butcher knife that she quickly swung downward. The severed head of the victim dropped into a small pail in the sink and was followed by the blood draining from the neck.

“Is dinner delayed?” Aspinwall asked.

“Oh, Mr. Aspinwall, you startled me!” Tessa exclaimed, jumping back slightly in surprise. “No. This is for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving feast. As I wasn’t expecting company, all I have for tonight is stew, bread, and cheese. I hope that’ll suffice.”

“It sounds as wonderful as it smells,” Aspinwall said, turning on the charm. “And please, you simply must call me Will, as all of my friends back home do.”

They did no such thing of course—he had no friends, at home or anywhere else for that matter, which suited him just fine.

“I’m not sure that I could . . .”

“Please, I insist. And your Christian name is?”

“Tessa.”

“Tessa,” he repeated, with a slight bow. “A beautiful name for a beautiful young lady.”

“Oh, Mr. Aspin . . . Will,” Tessa said demurely. “You are quite the flatterer. Why don’t you go sit down and I’ll bring your dinner out to you.”

The meal was quite fine: the girl could cook, which would make the next few months endurable before wrapping up his plans. Her cooking acumen wouldn’t change her fate, of course, he thought as he finished his meal. He’d confirmed his suspicions about how much money was available for the taking here and had laid the groundwork to add young Miss Palmquist to his list of conquests. He was well on his way toward his goal.

The evening’s work was nearly spoiled by one of her wretched beasts, a large orange and white tabby that suddenly leapt onto the table and stared ominously at Aspinwall. It was almost as if the monster was reading his thoughts. He jerked back guiltily as Tessa admonished the cat.

“Mortimer!” she exclaimed. “You’re being a very naughty boy. Get down, now.”

The cat flicked an annoyed look at its mistress, cast one last long glare at Aspinwall, then leapt to the floor and trotted out of the room.

“I’m terribly sorry about that,” Tessa said. “He sometimes seems to think he rules this house.”

“No harm done.” Aspinwall made a mental note as to which cat would be the first to share in its mistress’s fate when the time came. “It’s been quite an exhausting day—if you’ll excuse me, I believe I’ll retire to my room for the night.”

“Certainly. Good night, Mr.—Will.”

“And a very good night to you as well, Miss Tessa.”

Aspinwall made his way up the stairs, pausing at the second-floor landing when he felt as if he were being watched. Turning to look behind him, he spotted that damned orange and white menace about halfway up the stairs, as if it were stalking him.

“Vile beast,” Aspinwall muttered, quickly making his way up the next flight where he closed the door, double-checking to make sure it was firmly latched shut. He did the same with the door to his own room. Shaking off the eerie feeling from the cats, Aspinwall dressed for bed, and fell asleep dreaming of the wealth that would soon be his.

 

NEXT WEEK: Exactly as planned.

 

*     *     *     *     *

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1K Weekly Serial: Spinster’s Manor, Chapter One

SPINSTER’S MANOR

By Richard Paolinelli

© 2019 RICHARD PAOLINELLI . ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. NO COPYING OR ANY OTHER REPRODUCTION OF THIS STORY IS PERMITTED WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION.

 

ONE

 

The people of Williston, Vermont merely called Tessa Palmquist an eccentric spinster. Had she been born a century earlier, they would have called her something much different: witch.

At twenty-five years of age, neither a classic beauty nor homely, Tessa seemed to have no interest at all in ever getting married. Outwardly showing little interest in men, she preferred spending her time in the company of her two dozen cats, and they all had plenty of room to call home.

Palmquist Manor predated the Revolutionary War and had been built by Arne Palmquist for his new bride, Marie Dimsdale, shortly after the end of the French and Indian War. For just over a century the manor had stood as proud and tall as the sugar maple trees surrounding it.

While the manor had weathered the decades in good order, the family that called it home had not fared so well. Now, just three years removed from the War Between the States, the Palmquist family tree had withered down to the manor’s current resident, Tessa, after tuberculosis claimed her parents.

The family tree had indeed faltered over the decades, but the family fortune had remained surprisingly strong. As the couple’s only child, Tessa inherited the entire estate with no aunts or uncles coming to call for a share. As far as Tessa, or anyone else knew, the nearest relatives of any note were out-of-state cousins who had no inclination to head for northern Vermont, no matter the potential amount of financial gain.

The townsfolk only encountered Tessa on those rare occasions when she traveled the two miles west into Williston on some errand. She was the inevitable target of gossip, of course, mostly for not receiving any suitors despite being the heiress of a lofty estate that should’ve attracted some attention. For the most part, she was treated with bemused tolerance and left to her own devices.

“There’s Old Maid Tess,” some of the children would call out, some loud enough for her to hear, as children were wont to do. She didn’t mind their taunts. She was completely content with her solitary life.

Still, despite having more than enough money to support her and her ever-growing herd of cats for the rest of her life, Tessa sometimes took in a boarder at the manor. The occasional lone traveler, passing through the area looking for a warm bed—and who didn’t mind all the cats—would find what he or she sought on the third floor of the manor. Fortunately, for the guest’s sake, the cats were blocked from this floor with only the rare intrusion to be dealt with when the wrong door was left ajar.

On the eve of Thanksgiving Day, the first snow had yet to fall upon the hills of northern Vermont, even though the mercury plunged downward with each passing day. The number of travelers through the area had also been dropping, with most already having made it to their intended holiday destinations.

William Aspinwall had no family to mark the holidays with; he was a two days’ ride from his home in Montpelier, and was looking to increase that distance as quickly as possible.

But with the sun threatening the western horizon, and Burlington still a dozen miles away, the sight of Palmquist Manor brought a similar joy to the lone traveler as would once swell in his heart at the sight of his childhood home back in Montpelier. After two days on horseback—and one miserable night in a bed that made a slab of granite seem comfortable by comparison—the sign on the gatepost reading Rooms convinced Aspinwall to stop for the night.

The grounds were well kept, the weary traveler noted, as was the exterior of the white home with black trim. There was no sign of servants or workers about, which Aspinwall attributed to the late hour of the day. He dismounted, tied the reins of his horse to the sturdy-looking hitching post in front, and strode up the stairs. He gave the red door three solid raps with the large polished brass knocker and stepped back to wait.

In a few moments he heard footsteps approaching from the other side of the door; it opened to reveal a rather plain-looking young woman. She wore a simple blue muslin dress, her brown hair pulled into a sort of rough, but tight, bun in the back.

“Hello.”

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” Aspinwall replied, removing his hat. “My name is William Charles Aspinwall III, and I am bound for Burlington. I saw your sign at the gate and was hoping you might have room for the night for a weary traveler?”

“Why certainly, sir,” Tessa replied, opening the door wider and stepping onto the porch, glancing at her visitor’s horse. “You can stable your mount in the barn—there’s some oats in there you can give him. By the time you’re done, I’ll have your room ready. It’ll be two dollars for the room and another dollar for the horse.”

“Are there no servants?” Aspinwall looked around at the well-kept house and grounds. “Surely a house of this size has many, Missus . . . ?”

“Miss Palmquist,” Tessa corrected. “I am not married and I have no servants.”

“You do an impressive job maintaining the place all by yourself,” Aspinwall noted, withdrawing his purse and counting out three dollars to hand over to his host.

“Oh, I have a neighbor. He and his sons come over from time to time and take care of what’s needed outside and in the barn.” Tessa collected her rent. “I’ll see to your room as soon as you’re finished outside.”

“Thank you, Miss Palmquist,” Aspinwall said as she walked back into the house.

He led his gelding to the barn, which was just large enough to house four horses and a light carriage small enough to be drawn by the only mare already residing inside. Slipping off his valise and then his saddle, he led his mount into the stall next to Palmquist’s horse. Slipping a feed bag half-filled with oats onto the gelding before he left, he gathered up his belongings and headed for the house.

Tessa had left the front door ajar and Aspinwall was just as impressed with what he saw of the interior as he had been with the exterior. If the rest of the manor was anything like what he could see from the foyer, it was a home filled with high-quality furnishings, tasteful paintings and tapestries, and was immaculately kept. His only complaint would be the presence of what appeared to be at least a dozen wretched cats. The hostess appeared at the top of the staircase, waving him up.

“Ah, just in time, Mr. Aspinwall,” she said. “Your room is ready.”

“I must say, you’ve done quite well with this house.” He gathered up his valise and started up the stairs. “And you say you live here alone?”

“Ever since my parents died, yes,” Tessa replied. “It isn’t too difficult to manage, and I’m not quite all alone here. I do have my precious cats to keep me company.”

“Yes, such.” Wretched beasts, he thought, rounding the second-floor landing and following Tessa up the next flight of stairs. “Wonderful creatures. You do seem to have quite the collection of them.”

“They keep me company and I like having them about,” Tessa said with a laugh as they reached a door at the top of the stairs. “I keep this door closed at all times to keep them out of the boarders’ rooms.”

“I’ll remember to do the same,” Aspinwall said, looking down at the foot of the stairs where several of the cats had gathered. They seemed to watch his every step. It was with no small sense of relief that he crossed the threshold onto the third floor, Tessa closing the door behind him. “Is there no family nearby to help?”

“The closest I know of live in Boston, and wouldn’t be caught dead outside Massachusetts.” She led him to the first door in the hallway, which was already open. “But I don’t mind at all.”

“Now then,” she continued. “This will be your room right here. I was just about to do some work in the kitchen, and dinner should be ready in an hour. I can have something ready for you for breakfast before you leave for Burlington, if you like.”

“To be honest,” Aspinwall answered, lying with nearly every word, “I’m not due for three more days. I’m catching a boat upriver to Montreal. I doubt I could find better lodging in Burlington than what I see right here. Perhaps I’ll stay here for an additional day and get rested up for the remainder of my journey—if that’s agreeable to you, of course?”

“Why certainly,” Tessa replied with a warm smile. “Stay as long as you like. We don’t get many visitors here, especially this time of year. You’re more than welcome.”

“At three dollars a day, of course,” Aspinwall said, a charming smile making it the joke that was intended.

“Of course, Mr. Aspinwall.” She returned the smile as she exited the room, closing the door behind her. “I’ll let you get settled in. Don’t forget, dinner is in an hour.”

NEXT WEEK: A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and lots of evil intentions.

*     *     *     *     *

Like what you’ve read so far? Be sure and sign up for Richard’s newsletter, “Postcards From Infinity“, and if you’d like to become a patron you can do so right here. Any amount you choose will be appreciated and will help keep this blog, these weekly serials and Richard’s podcast, “A Scribe’s Journey” up and running. Thank you for reading and for your support.

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