A Tale of the Roaring Presses
Possumhaw, Randolph County
The Big Bad Ghost
“More tofu, General Grant?”
Without waiting for an answer, Erlene placed the plate with the ominous green square in front of the scowling newsman in the Civil War re-enactor uniform borrowed from the museum. She placed the kepi on his head and stood back to let the other diners admire her handiwork.
Several aldermen stood respectfully.
“You who are about to die,” said Happy Dailey Jr., offering an elixir sample-fueled military salute, “I salute you. Owwwwwwww!”
“My foot slipped,” intoned his father dourly as Junior rubbed his aching shins.
Surly Gribble laughed, a nervous, hollow-sounding laugh, finished his cappuccino, left a dollar tip and slipped out of the diner quietly, walking right into the mayor.
“We’re cutting your band concert down to five minutes tomorrow night,” the city official gleefully informed him. “Everybody wants Roy Henry. You can play backup if you want.”
The band director sneered. “I’d like to see him sing my big finale,” he said, spitting each word like venom. “The ‘1812 Overture’ is right before the big fireworks display.”
The mayor slapped him on the back. “He knows the words,” he said, opening the diner door.
Surly whimpered angrily and stalked away into the gathering night.
“Now, the re-enactment is very simple,” Sheriff Jimbo explained as Roy Henry faced the troop of ragtag volunteers. “You’re Ulysses S. Grant. We’re a bunch of recruits who’ve appropriated a little too much moonshine while marching through southern Illinois.” He adjusted the newsman’s fake beard and smiled. “When the last farm animal tips over, you run out into the middle of the field waving your fake sword and bellowing as loud as you can.”
“I don’t remember the Battle of Judd’s Field,” Roy Henry muttered.
Sheriff Jimbo raised the beard. “You’ll have to bellow a lot louder than that,” he said. He studied it, then lowered it again. “I knew we shouldn’t have used real wool this year.”
He adjusted his own beard and went to join the others, who were brandishing cornstalks.
The newsman sat wearily near the wreckage of the Cop-O-Matic, whose owner was currently sharing a jail cell with Mama for attempted sale of a forgery of a discontinued antique vending machine. The bushes behind him rustled gently.
The last cow fell. Roy Henry ran out in the field bellowing, fake beard In hand, pursued by a furious white blur.
“Maaaaaaaaah-maaaaaaaah!” bleated White Fang
The crowd cheered.
“Only minor injuries,” said the coroner, applying mercurochrome to the scratches on Roy Henry’s arms and legs. Seeing the newsman wince, he cheerfully added, “General Grant himself came out much worse after the real battle. Everybody wants you and that sheep back next year. You’re all over the Internet.”
Roy Henry groaned and glanced around the first aid station. A scoreboard with the most return visits had him running second, just behind Jerry Lee. His eyes clouded.
“We need to stop that contest and bring everybody involved in for questioning,” he said, lowering his khakis cuffs to cover the scars and donning his sports coat, brought from the sheriff’s house by Grover. “Erlene, Happy Dailey, and son, Surly Gribble …”
“He’s not involved.” The coroner put away his medicines. “The psychological strain would be too much for him.”
Roy adjusted his necktie in the mirror and straightened his shirt collar. “He’s tried to harm me twice,” he said. “Send him up on principle.” He scowled at himself. “Arrest that sheep, too.”
The coroner chuckled and handed him his neatly folded uniform. “Better get this back to the museum before Eugenia Brewer sics those midgets on you,” he said.
The Accordion Lizards were playing songs for 80-year-olds at the annual Sick and Tired Day Night Dance, accommodating the widespread lack of mobility and energy by slowing the tempos down to unrecognizability, sounding somewhat like a dial tone with a very, very, very slow beat.
“That was ‘A Day in the Life’ by The Beatles,” announced their leader, Big Little Al, amid scattered applause. “And now, for your dancing enjoyment, here’s a very old favorite by Stephen Foster.”
Roy Henry was halfway across the midway when he suddenly found himself humming Happy Dailey’s overly complicated song about all his potential murderers very, very, very slowly. “He left out a few!” he said to himself, gaining the unwanted attention of White Fang, who had chewed and butted his way out of his latest pen.
The newsman fled to the funhouse.
Three midgets tackled him.
“No more,” said their leader, sporting a black eye and a murderous scowl. He pinned the newsman’s legs while the others pushed him toward the door, where the angry sheep awaited. “We’re out of the kidnapping businesses.” He lifted the newsman’s wallet. “Now it’s just petty larceny.”
Roy took his wallet back. “What if I paid you?”
Roy Henry landed In the dust.
“And don’t come back!” yelled the leader, shaking his fist.
White Fang regarded him spitefully and lowered his horns.
The newsman reached the museum in record time.
Duane Dee Loudermilk II took the General Grant uniform and ushered Roy Henry to the basement stairs. Seeing his apprehension, he added, “It’s all right. Bobbie Lee is safely in jail where she belongs.” He lowered his voice. “And Eugenia is off haranguing the mayor. I made coffee.”
“Poisoned?” the newsman asked, half-joking, following him downstairs. The place looked pretty much the same as he left it. He steered away from the worktable and peered inside the furnace. Clean. Incredibly clean. He stuck his head inside for a better look and discovered that even the flue was clean.
“What were you burning in there?”
Roy Henry bumped his cranium, swore silently and ducked out of the furnace to face the grinning historian. “Microfilm,” he said as Duane Dee handed him a steaming cup of brown liquid. He nodded thanks.
“Don’t feel too badly,” said the historian, sipping his brew. “There’s always a master copy.” He pulled up an antique chair. “Is Slade helping you stop The Phantom?”
The historian snatched the shade from a rusty floor lamp and switched it on, blinding the newsman with intense light.
Baffled, Roy Henry sipped his coffee. It had a grainy, bitter aftertaste. “Is this Postum?” he asked.
Duane Dee pushed him firmly into the chair facing the lamp and cracked his knuckles. “My own special recipe,” he said. “You like recipes, don’t you, Newsie?”
Not lately, Roy Henry thought to himself. “I’m asking the questions around here,” he said defiantly, looking away from the glare. The rest of the basement was suddenly replaced by bright spots and clouds. He tried to stand.
The historian pushed him back in the chair. “Surely you’ve figured it out by now,” he said. “The festival ends the day after tomorrow!”
Roy Henry stood and fell flat on the concrete, raising a cloud of dust. “I know everything,” he said angrily as the room spun. What was in that coffee? Petey would know. “Why are you trying to kill me?”
Eventually, he slowly became aware that he was staring at his very own face.
“I’ve never driven an Edsel,” he mumbled to himself, smoothing the yellowed newspaper with one hand and stifling a yawn .
He turned his gaze from the antique table covered with scrapbooks to the valuable artifacts on the walls. The roars of three or more illegal exotic cats on the other side of the bookshelves informed him that he was in the museum no longer.
He tried to stand and couldn’t. Both feet were wedged like concrete beneath a cream-colored substance he tested and tasted to be rock-hard butter pecan cake icing. The chair was held to the floor by ancient chain he recognized from an encyclopedia photo spread on sunken pirate treasure. His other hand was fastened to the Duncan Phyfe chair by a pre-Victorian era police manacle. He suddenly realized that the Civil War uniform he was wearing again was real.
A very authentic-looking Egyptian mummy case lay next to the Stradavarius-looking violoncello in the corner.
The Rodin in the center of the room slid out of the way and a black-robed, hooded figure rose out of the floor brandishing a Samurai sword.
Roy Henry yawned. “Before you kill me, Duane Dee,” he said, fighting desperately to maintain his cool, “isn’t this the part where you tell me why you did it?”
The figure raised the hood. Roy gasped.
“It’s impossible!” bellowed the newsman as the newcomer donned an identical set of bifocals and effected his obituary desk squint. “It’s improbable!” he hollered as the Phantom dusted brown dye into his gray mustache. “It’s …”
“Enough,” said Ham Stewart, gagging him with a Louis XIV vest, “with the charade. You figured it out a long time ago.”
Roy Henry sat, stunned, as the former mayor of Possumhaw admired his reflection in a Paul Revere silver tray, then seized his other wrist. “All those newspaper clippings. Those killings to get just the right recipe for Mama’s mincemeat pie.” He unlocked the manacle from the chair and closed it around the newsman’s free hand. “Randy going to prison for murders he didn’t commit. He didn’t kill the sheriff’s brothers either. It was ME!”
He laughed as he wound a yellowed “Vote for McKinley” banner around the newsman. “My godfather Duane gave a fat guy who looked like me some of his coffee and a loaded gun and sent him after the sheriff.” He closed and stacked the scrapbooks and doffed the robe, revealing Roy’s suit underneath. “They’ve paid for years,” he said in the newsman’s voice. “Now to finish them off!”
Eugenia Brewer slammed the window carefully, stepped over the unconscious form of Duane Dee Loudermilk II, sneering with intense distaste, and hurried up the basement stairs to the hallway, where she could see a very angry posse of ex-convicts and rednecks glaring at her through the French doors, a temporally incorrect desecration to the historic building added on by her predecessor, who now lay by the furnace near a coffeepot with a dent the size of his cranium.
She took down the flintlock hanging over the oil portrait of Hamilton Makler, loaded it and quickly opened the doors.
“I told you to scat!” she shrieked, brandishing the weapon.
Randy, Erlene and the midgets cocked their Uzis and pointed them at the aged historian.
“Hand him over,” said Randy, eyes burning. “This town ain’t gonna have the satisfaction of killin’ him off.”
“At least, not until after the contest,” said Erlene, taking aim at the Victorian stained glass windows on the second floor.
“He went in here and never came back,” the midget leader said accusingly. “We saw him.”
“Maaaaahhh,” added White Fang, chewing on an abandoned blue kepi.
Eugenia laughed and lowered the gun. “Roy’s behind you.”
The gray-haired veteran puffed his cigar and pointed to the map with a gloved hand.
“We strike here!” he said, beaming as his former team members nodded in agreement. “Nineteen hundred hours tomorrow, right before the recipe contest! You with me?”
“But the contest is Saturday,” protested Cap. “That’s the band concert.”
“Excellent,” the leader said with a sinister smile. “Your band director is our old supply sergeant, remember?”
The ex-commandos shook their heads and groaned.
“Let’s do it!” yelled a huge man with the Mohawk and feather earring.
Sheriff Jimbo punched the wall map with his fist, making all the push pins rattle to the floor.
“Jerry Lee! And Roy! Where are they, having a keg party with Jimmy Hoffa?” he asked, rare desperation in his voice.
Swampy downed the last of the coffee. “The Shadow knows,” he said.
“Me and my shadow …” Mama sang blissfully, gripping the cell bars.
Grover stuck his head in the doorway, out of breath.
“He’s eating tofu at the diner!” he said.
The sheriff punched a hole in the wall. “I’ll kill him!” he bellowed as plaster fell.
“I’ll help,” added the antique dealer in the other cell.
Surly finished his blueprints.