Gail Barrow paced from piano to bookcase, glancing often out the window. Another few seconds and the grandfather clock in the foyer would strike half past six. Dusk was rapidly approaching. She stopped, glared at the telephone and whispered around her chewed thumbnail, “Ring.”
Her seven-year old daughter Callie was gone three days now and not a word. Her baby was out there, somewhere, in the woods near the old quarry or one of the flood-ravaged gullies that once held the Okudara River. In the black of night, at the mercy of spiders and snakes, the elements and. . .Tobias Knef.
Gail shivered. Lightning fractured the sky beyond the bay window and for a split second, illuminated the deserted street in front of their sprawling colonial home. She released a ragged breath. If the rain held off, the neighborhood would soon be crawling with excited, giggling children, trick or treaters ringing doorbells in search of Halloween goodies.
For the first time, Callie wouldn’t be among them.
Gail turned from the window. She needed a cigarette, a drink — one of Elton’s lethal Long Island Iced Teas. She needed the phone to ring!
Tobias Knef had Callie. Just as he once had her — when she was eight years old, green and half-scared out of her wits. Tobias Knef had Callie. Just as he’d had Emma Beck and Mary Frances Godsafe, Beatrice Merriday and Janie Bullard, and a string of little girls from the Jarviston city limits to the outskirts of Warren Country.
Tobias Knef liked little girls. Tobias Knef liked scared little girls even better. He’d flick his melon tongue, smack his thin lips and boast he could taste their fear.
“Settles in the gullet mighty fine,” he would say with a wink and the courtly tip of his battered gray Stetson, “like tart candied apples and hot cider, with just a splash of my special home-brew.”
A reporter from the Tribune once dubbed him, “The Warlock.” He said it was as if the old man could summon frightful apparitions, whistling winds and baying hounds with the snap of his gnarled fingers — the very devil himself to fill the boundless nightmares of his victims.
New carpet sponged beneath Gail’s sneakers as she crossed to the antique sideboard and yanked on the twisted copper pull of the topmost drawer. It didn’t budge. She yanked again, hard enough that the sideboard shook with her exasperation. If she didn’t find Elton’s stash of cigarettes soon, she’d stoop to leeching a puff off one of those butts in the ashtray in his upstairs study.
Where was Elton anyway? He’d left to meet Sheriff Cochran with the promise he wouldn’t be away any longer than necessary, and that was three miserable hours ago.
The wind kicked up and the branches of the lemon tree scraped against the pane of the large window like a vampire demanding invitation. Its banshee howl rattled the rafters and raised the hair along the nape of Gail’s neck. The power flickered, twice, three times. She prayed it wouldn’t go out.
Not that she needed light to see the face of Tobias Knef. Every line and crag of the man’s sun-browned features were embedded in her memory, as they were with so many of. . .Knef’s girls. Eyes squeezed shut, she saw clearly the flat, white worm of a scar splitting his cheek and the dull gray-black hair tied with the ominous leather strip, his hunched shoulders and deep-set eyes — one cobalt blue and the other, like the muddy bottom of the Rio Grande.
Folks said the blue one was glass, and the old man could pluck the eye from its socket at whim and rattle it in a tin can, like a shaker of dice in a game of Yahtzee. Gail had never seen him do this but, oh, she didn’t doubt its truth.
Knef had a fetish for cowboy boots fashioned from reptile skins, faded denim dusters and red bandannas embellished with miniature white branding irons. He was tall, like an exaggerated Abraham Lincoln and thin as a scarecrow, in a season where straw was at a premium. One leg dragged behind him. He claimed it got run over by the kiddie train at Lester D’s Playland and broke. An inept doctor set it wrong and left him forever tethered to the sinister, uneven gait.
Gail didn’t doubt that either.
The power surged again and this time, plunged the house into darkness. The lemon tree’s branches scored the glass — the vampire’s demanding fingers. The street light out front came on. Its milky glow inked through the windows and waltzed macabre shadows across the walls. She gave the sideboard’s drawer another jerk. This time it slid open as if the phantom holding it had suddenly let go.
She tossed aside pens and stationary, dishtowels and linen napkins, her grandmother’s tablecloth bordered with delicate Irish lace. Her fingers touched on the carton of emergency candles. Snatching up the box, she felt her way across the living room to the fireplace. She struck a match and jumped at her reflection in the gilt-framed mirror above the mantle. With her blonde ponytail askew and her face white as death, she looked like a bleached witch.
The wick on the first candle hissed, flickered to life and soon she had a chorus of ten sputtering flames. With the collage of framed snapshots behind them, the mantle resembled an altar — an ofrenda, an offering like the one Elton’s business partner Chico Montoya erected in the corner of his living room to honor his deceased mother during the celebration of Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead.
The photographs brought back a flood of memories: Callie riding her first bicycle, hunting eggs at Easter, shooting hoops in front of the garage with Uncle Joe. The telephone rang and in her haste to answer it, Gail knocked over the photograph of Callie in her blue and white soccer uniform. Twin candles rocked. She raised the receiver slowly, held it tight to her ear. “Hello.”
“Hi, s-sweetheart.” She forced her voice steady. “I was hoping you’d call.” Prayed you’d call. “How’s camp?”
“I love it.”
Was there anyone more pathetic than a mother whose only child was spending her first long weekend away from home? “And Mr. Knef?”
“He’s as old as Grandpa Mack, Mama. He dresses like a real cowboy and knows how to build a campfire and make stone soup. He skips rocks across the creek. The whole creek, Mama! And he tells the scariest stories, about ghosts and vampires and goblins. When he told us the story about the headless taxi driver with three thumbs, Missy Jamison threw up all over her brand new hiking boots. I tried not to laugh.” Callie drew a much needed breath.
Gail smiled weakly. It was the sweetest sound she had ever heard. That blasted Tobias Knef and his wilderness weekends. He had told the same grisly story to the group of Brownies she belonged to, during that unforgettable October eons ago, her first frightening overnighter at Camp Racing Moon.
She’d thrown up, too.
“Where’s Daddy, Mama?”
“He’s meeting Sheriff Cochran down at the VFW Hall. They’re getting the bus ready to pick you girls up on Monday. He’ll be sorry he wasn’t here for your call. He misses you, baby.” I miss you.
“I miss him, too. Oops…gotta go, Mom. Patti Renfro needs to call her dad. She’s got a rash. Love you.” The sound of the jostled receiver filled the line, then the buzz of the dial tone.
Gail sighed. “I love you too, Callie. Happy Halloween.”