Meeting of Like Minds
Warnings to the Curious IV
Not three weeks after little Nicky was born, Niklaus had taken Anna and his newborn son on a picnic at the riverfront. They had only just laid out the food when Anna had suddenly leapt from the blanket, leaving Niklaus with their sleeping infant son, reached into the wagon, and swung around with the rifle to her shoulder.
“Snake,” she whispered right before she pulled the trigger. Nicky woke up but didn’t cry. His deep blue eyes widened. His lashes fluttered once, twice, then disappeared again beneath heavy lids. When he had drifted off again, Niklaus followed his wife down to the tall grasses by the river and only then saw the snake shot clean in half, the ragged bloody edges blown six feet apart.
He looked back fifty feet to the blanket beneath the shade of an oak. “How’d you see it that far?”
“I was watching the grass.” She tucked the rifle beneath her arm. “I hate snakes.”
Anna knew how to use the rifle. She’d grown up on a homestead in the southern part of Missouri hundreds of miles from the nearest town and held a rifle before she learned her letters. She bragged she once shot a rabbit blindfolded on a dare from her oldest brother using only the sound of its hurried heartbeat to give away its location. A tall tale, for sure, but one Niklaus believed held a sliver of truth.
He did not worry to leave her home alone with Nicky, not with her armed, but he did worry to leave her alone to mind the store. He’d spent three sleepless nights wandering the dark streets, looking for the woman, witnessing the horror on the riverfront, appealing to the town sheriff. He had stumbled back home at daylight to find a crowd waiting for him to open his doors for business. The shelves were the barest they’d been since he’d opened for the first time, and he worried about replenishing supplies with people frightened to use the river. Would the supply boats arrive on schedule? Would they arrive at all? Or had they all been burned along with the boats and rafts anchored in Fort Charles that previous night?
Behind the counter, Anna counted paper notes from a man buying their last sack of coffee. Nicky stood beside her, mirroring her motions. He constantly played pretend in this way. He would walk beside his father in the store, examining the shelves and cabinets, writing marks on his board with a stub of chalk, mimicking the way his father took inventory. He would drink from his cup of milk, smacking his lips the way he’d seen men taste lager, and slam the cup back to the table with an exaggerated sigh of a thirst quenched. Niklaus had grown used to his shadow. He would miss the little man in the fall when he began his first year at the school house.
Niklaus waited for the customer to leave the register and stepped forward to speak to his wife, the counter a buffer between them. “I need to go out for a while.”
Anna looked up from the register, pencil poised over the transaction she had just entered.
“I want to talk to Sanders,” he told her. “And Big Paul...maybe the Captain.”
“What are you thinking, Nick?”
“The...woman. The woman who broke in. I have to make sure she’s...” He looked at Nicky. “I have to take make sure she’s gone.”
“Won’t Sheriff Bern take care of it? Why you?”
Nicky had placed his hands on his hips and cocked his head to the side, imitating his mother. “Yeah, why?” he asked. He was still pale and thin from his sickness.
Because she feeds on little children. She eats their innocence and grows strong.
“I saw her,” he said to Anna, his voice low and urgent. “Here in our shop. She entered in silence through a locked door. I saw her look up at that loft where we sleep. I saw what she did on that street out there.”
Nicky leaned forward, his chin on the counter, the best he could shadow how his father leaned over the counter toward his mother.
Anna’s arms fell to her sides. He had explained to her in hushed whispers in the early dawn as the customers filed in, stomping and shouting, as Nicky slept his fever away in the loft, how he had seen the burned man, the woman with no hair, no clothes, only one street away in the alley behind the Black Horse. But how could he explain die hexe? How could he convince her that while logic told him the woman could not be his Tante Britta come to drag him beneath ground to finish the spell she began when he was a child, a feeling beyond such reason told him this woman had sought him out. Why else would she have entered his store out of all the other buildings, the factories, the businesses, the homes in all of Fort Charles? She had sought him out because of his Tante Britta. Die hexe. The very fact of that childhood encounter had prepared him for this inevitability. He was the only man capable of destroying this creature. Because he was perhaps the only man to encounter such a creature before.
He had never told Anna of Tante Britta. He never spoke to her of his childhood or his life in Germany at all. He left his childhood in the old world and arrived in America a twelve-year-old man. He had survived his childhood because his mother saved him, took him away from that place, from that woman. But he couldn’t take Nicky away. He couldn’t send him away. He couldn’t end his childhood just yet.
“What are you going to do, Nick?” asked Anna, her voice now soft. Two customers now balanced arms full behind him, waiting their turn in line. Nicky pressed his chin to the counter and looked up at his father with big blue eyes. “What are you and Sanders and Big Paul and the Captain going to do?”
“Find her. Stop her.”
“And the sheriff?”
The sheriff had not listened. He had not understood. Niklaus had seen the deputies gathered at the Black Horse, had tried to talk to the sheriff that very night.
“I saw the woman responsible for this tragedy, Sheriff. She broke into my shop. She threatened my family. She was not… She was not human.”
“What do you mean?”
“She glowed. She did not move naturally.” Niklaus waited. The sheriff chewed his mustache, but he did not seem surprised at all. Like he’d already heard such a description.
Sheriff Bern frowned. “A woman was not responsible for the deaths of all these people. It was a scientific experiment gone wrong. Now, look Mr. Werner, we have the evidence to prove that. And this woman involved, I don’t know how she was involved or if she even was, but she may need help. I want to talk to her. It would help if you could tell me in which direction she ran off.”
He asked Niklaus if the woman was injured, if she had spoken to him. He wanted to talk to her. The sheriff was looking for a woman, not a monster. He didn’t understand.
Anna was waiting for his answer, watching him carefully. “I tried already. I tried to tell him, to make him understand. But he doesn’t. He didn’t see...and neither did you.”
His wife lifted her chin and pursed her lips. “And the store?” she nodded over his shoulder at the customers lined up.
“Mr. Cyrznak will help you for a few days. I’ve already spoken with him. I’ve given him a barrel for his trouble. And I’ve told him that under no circumstances are any of you to go down into the storage caves.”
“Nick...is this really the only way? Let that woman be damned.”
“Anna.” He took her hands in his. Her fingers were slim, delicate, and rough with calluses. He dropped his eyes to the place the rifle waited on the shelf behind the counter. Nicky understood, too. He looked at the gun and performed a quick and precise pantomime of cocking an invisible rifle, lifting it to his shoulder, and squeezing one eye shut as he peered with the other through a pretend sight. Anna held her husband’s gaze. “She already is,” he said. “That is why I must go.” He dropped her hands and found his hat.
She called out to him as his hand was on the door. “I wish I had seen this woman.”
He turned back one last time. “Keep that rifle close,” he told her.
Bart Sanders’ shop was open but empty. The men met there together for the first time as the sun set on yet another storm-ridden late summer day. Niklaus wiped his sleeve across his forehead. They would soon be in September, and with God’s help would see the end of this heat and humidity, the end of these storms, and the end of this nightmare. He linked it all together in his mind. Die hexe was responsible for all of it: the tragedy on the river, the storms, the oppressive heat, the fear behind every person’s eyes in the once peaceful and prosperous town of Fort Charles. The fearful eyes, twitching side to side, the quiet emptiness of the town, the abandoned riverfront, all of it reminded Niklaus of the worst days of the war. Now, after they had recovered from those horrific days, a supernatural presence threatened them. He would not see his town fall into that despair again, not under the influence of one woman.
Big Paul arrived last, hitching his horse on the street and ducking through the doorway. Sanders shook his hand. “Good to see you, Paul,” he said with solemnity. The captain merely nodded at him.
Paul was a farmer in southern part of the county, a giant of a man with eleven children and a happy, plump wife named Mary. He gathered children around him everywhere he went. He carved little wooden figures for them and passed them out by the dozens. At church, the children never tired of the songs he sang them, the chewing gum he offered, the way he held his gold wedding ring up and showed them how he could pass a flat quarter through its circumference. Though none of the youngest children realized it, he played Santa Claus every year, and he was famed for fitting up to six little ones on his lap at a time. On the night of the Great Tragedy, Big Paul and Mary lost their oldest son, a boy of eighteen apprenticed as a riverboat captain. Grief seemed to have shrunk Big Paul by several inches and took a bit of the shine from his green eyes.
“The last telegraph line was cut today,” Paul said to the group by way of greeting. “Mary went to send a line to her sister in Kentucky and was sent away.”
“We’re better off,” said Sanders. The blacksmith had lost a leg in the war which slowed him down little. He fashioned his own wooden leg, carving one after another as each wore out, and went about his business feeling lucky to have survived the war at all.
They had all joined the enrolled militia during the worst of the guerrilla warfare in western Missouri and the Ozarks. They had all worn the white hatbands and pushed the Confederate recruits east and then south, from Moore’s Mill to Compton’s Ferry, and finally...to Yellow Creek where Sanders had lost his leg and they all nearly lost their lives.
Daniel Stephenson, their captain during those years, turned to Niklaus. “Have you met the newly installed Director of Enforcement?” the captain asked him.
“No,” said Niklaus. “I didn’t know we had such a man.”
“The Organization for Restriction of Scientific Advancement, they call it. Set up their headquarters here in Fort Charles in the old telegraph office. Seemed logical. The Tragedy happened here. The telegraph building’s sitting there empty. But then all the government officials moved on and left us with this director, a stranger by the name of Orville Throckmorton.”
“I admit I haven’t yet made his acquaintance.”
“That’s because he hasn’t left the building since he arrived,” said the captain. “Has his meals brought over from the Black Horse.”
“Sent over?” asked Niklaus, surprised. The three men stared at him as if he were to have reached some conclusion at this point. He shook his head and came back to the matter at hand. “The reason I’ve asked you all to meet is because I need your help. I need your help bringing justice, and I know you three from the war, and I know you’ll help me bring it.”
The captain spoke first. “What are you saying, Nick?”
“I know what happened on the river a few nights ago. The hundreds left dead, miles of property burned. I know who is responsible.”
Paul stood up to full height. “You know who did this?”
Sanders said, “I heard it was that scientist. The Englishman that died in the hospital. He had electricity experiments going on and it got out of hand, made the whole river electrified.”
“No,” said Niklaus. “That man may have provided the opportunity. Indeed, he may have summoned this demon. But it was she, the demon, who caused this tragedy, who lay the destruction upon our town.”
“Demon?” Sanders wrinkled his brow.
“She?” asked the captain.
Paul crossed his thick arms over his chest.
“A demon,” Niklaus repeated, “in female form. A woman with unnatural strength, unimaginable abilities. A woman who glows with electricity, who can appear and disappear like a phantom.”
All three men exchanged glances.
“I saw her with my own eyes!” Niklaus pounded the work bench with his fist. The tools hanging on the wall behind it rattled. “She was in my shop. In my home. She threatened my son. She killed hundreds upon the river and murdered others face to face. The burned couple outside the Black Horse. Those were her victims.”
“But why?” asked Sanders. “What does she want?”
“She is a monster. She wants to destroy. She was born of man interfering with the natural plan of God, and she will pursue an evil interference with that plan until she is stopped.” He bowed his head and spoke softly, so that every man might listen more closely to his words. “I know of such evil. I have seen it before, in my childhood, in the old country.”
Paul, arms still crossed, spoke up. “I always suspected this electrical power of being unnatural…” He cleared his throat. “...evil. It’s invisible, deadly, doesn’t seem men should be messing with it. I don’t know what this woman is, but if you saw her, if you say she’s responsible, then I’m with you, Nick. I’ll help you stop her.”
“Good,” said Niklaus. “Good, Paul. Because we’ll need your farm. Tonight, when we capture her, we’ll take her far out of town to your property, a place where she cannot harm anyone, and then we will destroy her.”
The men all stared at him.
“Tonight?” asked the captain.
“Yes. I would go at this moment, but we need to prepare, and I believe the cover of dark will be to our advantage. The sheriff is also looking for this woman, but he will not find her. We have time to plan. We have the greater advantage.”
“How?” asked the captain.
“The caves,” said Niklaus. “I believe she’ll hide in the caves. And no one knows the caves better than us. Not even the sheriff and his deputies. They weren’t at the pirate cove with us, were they?”
Niklaus watched the captain carefully and waited as he thought it over in silence. The silence extended eerily throughout the entire blacksmith shop and out into the normally rowdy Black Street.
Finally, the captain asked him, “Have you been down to the riverfront since the tragedy?”
“I have not. Business at the store has not ceased since the other mercantiles were burned.”
“Then perhaps you are not aware that this event has provoked other amatuer experiment, other distrubed men attempting to replicate the rumors they’re hearing about the Faraday bringing the dead back to life with electricity. The sale of electrical devices is growing. Every day more experiments, more demonstrations show up on the street, drifters, criminals, even lost children turn up at the asylum asking for refuge and spouting horror stories of electrical shock, wires injected into their bodies, their skulls—”
“No,” Niklaus interrupted, “I have not heard such grisly tales.”
“I’ve been up and down the river these past couple days,” said the captain, “and I tell you, the port towns are showing life again already. Merchant stalls line the shores again. Boats have returned, temporary docks up, rafts are delivering supplies from St. Louis. I even saw a steamboat pass by the other day on its way to New Orleans.”
“Our town will thrive again,” said Sanders.
“But for how long with such a creature on the loose?” Niklaus asked. “Who knows when she may strike again? She may light up the river and burn it all again!”
“They say a law’s being passed to ban electricity,” said Sanders.
“Oh, the law.” The captain cut in. “What good is a piece of paper? A declaration? Without enforcement, the law means nothing. And we have no means of enforcement in Fort Charles but a tiny, frightened clerk hiding in his office. We’ve witnessed the beginnings of the horrors that might surface if this law is left unenforced. This town is where this evil began, and it is in the most danger of falling victim to it. We must set an example for the country. For the entire world. And if this woman is where it starts, then I say we start by destroying her.”
“Then you are with us, Captain? You know the caves as well as I, perhaps better.”
Big Paul nodded.
“But it’s a woman,” said Sanders. He threw his arms out in appeal, tottering a bit on his wooden leg.
“Not merely a woman,” said Niklaus. “I swear to you. You will see tonight. Sanders, we need your skill. We need strong iron chains to bind her. Do you have some in supply?”
He winced but answered. “I have some, yes.”
“We were with you at Yellow Creek and at the pirate cove. Will you be with us tonight?”
They waited as Sanders exhaled with force, crossed his arms, uncrossed them, swayed to and fro from good leg to bad, then finally, with another long sigh, nodded his assent.