by Robert L. Sellers, Jr.
|Table of Contents|
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
|part 2 of 3|
There were bodies decaying somewhere within the Long Branch.
Gathering her courage and detaching herself as a physician, she stepped through the doorway.
The main lobby, like Poe’s office was in shambles. Overturned tables and chairs lay haphazardly around the room. Empty bottles and glasses littered the bar that Jake had built when the other taverns had closed their doors.
She found him sprawled on the floor behind the bar. He rested on his left side, with apparent gun shot wounds to his chest and forehead.
Fortunately, with the cold weather, decomposition had slowed or he would have been as ripe as a melon.
Looking at what bottles remained intact on the bar above him she noticed blood splatter on several. Bullet holes became obvious where they had punctured the wall between the bottles. She selected three straws from a jar before kneeling to a crouch over Jake’s body. Carefully she rolled him toward her and onto his back before reaching out to place a straw into each wound.
This would not be the first time she had checked a bullet’s track through a corpse. It was an unfortunate reminder from her days as a medical student. The technique helped her locate bullets when live patients would need them removed later. She watched as a viscous mixture of blood and other liquids began to ooze from the two straws in his chest.
Using the barrel of the rifle, she carefully pulled back the collar of his shirt to look at his neck.
A mortal had done this. The two chest straws stood straight up indicating a straight on shot, while the wound in his head angled back toward her.
That meant someone had walked up while Jake lay gasping for breath and finished him off. It made no sense whatsoever that they would have had to do that unless he had made too much noise while he lay dying.
That meant it had happened quickly and without much planning. Perhaps the shots had brought Poe and they had wanted to surprise him.
Rising to her feet, she saw the open cash drawer and knew that robbery had played some part in this fiasco.
Stepping back into the main room she moved toward the kitchen only to find it empty.
That left the second floor.
As she stood at the base of the stairs, she recalled that Jake and Annabelle often employed their niece Megan during the summer. She really hoped the young woman had been long gone when the shooting had started.
When she reached the top of the stairs and turned down the hall, she was disappointed to see the girl’s body sprawled face down at the other end beneath a shattered window. The only thing she appeared to be wearing was a bloody white shirt.
Slowly walking toward her, Abby looked into each room as she passed only to discover Annabelle lying on her back on one of the beds. She lay naked with a pillow covering her face. The sheets from the bed lay piled on the floor.
It was obvious what must have happened. Robbery had turned to murder and then rape. Megan must have broken free at some point and tried to make a run for it while someone had smothered Annabelle.
Standing over the body of the young woman, she saw the bullet wounds to her back and head. The window must have shattered when the bullets exited her chest. Abby could only shake her head with remorse. Megan’s bloody hair laid spread about her head like an obscene halo.
Looking out the window across the silent rooftops, she focused her thoughts upon Henry, Poe and Valeria who were the last remaining parts of the puzzle.
Quickly retracing her steps down and out into the street, she took a deep breath of fresh air to clear away the lingering smell of death. As much as she had seen of it during her extended lifetime, she still detested that particular odor.
It was time to look for her sister. Perhaps Poe had gone to find her for help. Looking up the street at the telegraph office, she decided to stop there first in the hope that there would be some indication of what had happened.
* * *
Standing at the open door, she was glad that Henry’s spectacles had frosted up in the cold. She wouldn’t have to see his eyes. Humidity from the initial decomposition had fogged them up before the cold had come.
He sat on the floor against the back wall of the small office, his black visor cocked to one side on his head, brown hair appearing mussed beneath it. He almost looked surprised to have been caught sitting there, head back and mouth hanging open. His legs were sprawled as if he had been trying to kick at something. His arms simply lay at his sides. It was common to find someone like that after their body had stopped its throes of death.
Stepping closer she crouched down to study him. She knew what she would find but wanted verification nonetheless. The physician part of her mind wanted to know what had happened.
Carefully unbuttoning his shirt, she examined the bullet wounds that had killed him. From the position of his body, it was apparent that his killer had stood in the doorway and not found it necessary to shoot him in the head as he had Jake.
Perhaps by the time Henry had died unnecessary noise had not been an issue.
She noticed a piece of paper clenched in his left hand. The killer or killers had not spent the time here that they had elsewhere. The office did not look ransacked.
Leaning the rifle against the wall next to Henry, she carefully snapped his fingers off to release the paper. She felt bad doing it, but Henry was not going to need them anymore.
Standing back up she laid the paper on the desk next to the telegraph switch and with a rising horror realized what had been written on it.
It was the telegram sent for Valeria when Abby had first arrived in Helena only to find the storm would slow her progress. Without doubt, she knew almost to the hour when Henry had died ten days ago.
Dearest Valeria. Stop.
Arrived Helena Montana this day. Stop.
Winter storm brings travel delays. Stop.
Found team and wagon for supplies. Stop.
Will set out after storm. Stop.
Tell Poe I bring a gift. Stop.
Yours truly Abigail. Stop.
With tears stinging her eyes, she realized that Henry must have been concentrating so hard on the translation of her message as it came over the wire that he probably had not heard any of the shooting until someone had brought death to his door. He had probably just gotten up to run the message over to Poe. The killers had just not bothered to clean up or destroy anything to cover their tracks.
She sat in Henry’s chair and held her face in her hands. Had she not sent the note when she had, perhaps Henry might have had time to send for help. Instead, her short message had spelled his doom.
Anger replaced remorse as she balled up the message and threw it hard against the far wall. She grabbed the rifle and with grim determination strode out into the empty street.
It was time she went to look for her sister. Perhaps she would find some answers there.
* * *
Built by one of the original owners of the mine, the sprawling two-story mansion sat upon a hill overlooking the town. Its features included a wide wrap around porch, tall narrow windows covered in vines and a widow’s walk that faced the mine.
A long winding drive provided seclusion protected by an iron fence topped with spikes that encircled the entire property.
Locals had often told her the mansion looked haunted when approached from town. With the cloak of silence and mystery that seemed to envelope everything, she realized for the first time that they might be right. It did look haunted. Snow crunched beneath her boots as she approached, finding strangeness mixed with familiarity as she looked around the yard and building.
Valeria’s carriage, a black Drop Front Phaeton, sat empty with a light coating of snow just short of the front entrance. The two long shafts for its horse lay resting on the ground. There was no sign of the stallion that would normally have pulled it for her.
Valeria had been particular when she had purchased the young colt she had named Pegasus. The thoroughbred was a volatile mix of Tennessee Walker and Pacer bloodlines. Coal black, he sported a diamond shaped patch of white set in the center his forehead. The horse had taken to them without much effort, living up to his name with quick speed and durability.
From where she stood in the circle drive, their home appeared as empty as the rest of the town. Fortunately, all the doors and windows she could see appeared closed and secure, unlike those she had found in town.
Walking up the front steps, she found the snow around her undisturbed and clean. Locating her key, she opened the main doors and began looking for signs that her sister or Poe had been there.
Searching each room resulted in nothing to indicate that either of them had been there recently.
She found an unopened box that contained freshly purchased art supplies. The date on the receipt she found inside was the same day she had sent the telegram from Helena. Perhaps Valeria had been out shopping and returned only to discover whatever happened had happened.
Several paintings sat unfinished while windows nearby were open just enough that they let a breeze creep into the room. If she had gone somewhere with Poe after they had discovered the bodies, it had been before the cold had set in.
However, that made little or no sense either. Poe would have taken the time to bury the bodies. He would have insisted upon it.
Something must have happened to incapacitate both Poe and Valeria, but it was clear their bodies were not in the Long Branch with the others. Nor were they here in their house.
Perhaps the absence of Pegasus had something to do with the mystery. Of what part he played in it was anyone’s guess.
Deep in thought, she moved over to stand at the window. Her eyes wandered up to the entrance of the mine. If they had needed a place to hide, that would have been it. Both Valeria and Poe knew the inside of the mine like the backs of their hands. She had found it entertaining to explore with her hands in the dark while he had been part of the many rescues or recoveries that had occurred over the years it had been open.
If the killers had chased them into it, they may have lost them as they moved deeper into the mine. If that had been the case, then where were they now?
There was only one place left to look for that answer.
She would have to explore the infamous Donnetelli Scaggs mine.
Poe often found it amusing that unlike other vampires, she did not enjoy being underground in the least. Especially when it involved being deep inside a mountain within the confines of a supporting infrastructure that was of questionable engineering at best. The thought of tons of rock suddenly crashing down to bury her alive simply was unnerving. Unlike mortals, vampires would not suffocate or die as easily as they might want to under those circumstances.
When accidents had occurred in the mine and had required her attention, she had been adamant that they brought the injured to the surface before being treated. She repeatedly resorted to the argument that medical treatment was better applied somewhere other than within the confines of a deep underground tunnel.
It was time to stop thinking and acting like a mortal.
Walking through the empty house, she secured the rifle beneath the couch. If she found the need, it would be within easy reach. No one ever considered it necessary to look under a couch for a weapon.
Stopping at the desk that Grace often used, she pulled out a sheet of paper and sat down to write a note she hoped Grace would never have to read.
If you are reading this, then both Valeria and I are probably dead...
* * *
When she finally worked up the nerve to enter the mine, late afternoon had given in to evening. Not that sunlight would have made any difference once she passed through the entrance.
Carrying a lamp in one hand, she looked for signs of activity as she began her journey. Her initial reward was finding two sets of tracks that led into the mine. One set bore the distinctive hex shaped toe imprint from the imported French boots that Valeria often favored. She could only assume the others were either Poe’s or the killers that had been with him.
Carefully she followed her sister’s path as it wound deeper into the mine. From the way her tracks stayed tight along the edge of the tunnel, she must have been using her hands to find her way. Habits of the blind were hard to break even when using vampire sight to navigate.
Valeria’s path unerringly followed that of the others as it descended deeper into the mine. From the mixture of footprints, it was clear that some of the group they were following had returned to the surface at some point. It was becoming clear that Valeria had not left the mine by the same route. Her tracks faced only one direction.
As she followed the tracks, she found it difficult to determine if Valeria had been following them directly, or had followed their path after the fact as she was doing now.
With some reluctance, she descended ladders to the lower levels as she followed her sister’s progress. The deeper she went, the more uncomfortable she found herself becoming. She began to hear water dripping from the walls around her as she went. The fact that her sister’s tracks still traveled in only one direction did nothing to help relieve her growing concern.
At one point, the tracks she and Valeria were following spread out to where some sort of struggle had apparently taken place. She found blood smears at several points along the wall. Given that Valeria’s path stayed near the wall, Abby finally concluded that Valeria must been following the others after they had already passed.
What had been one set of many separated into two where someone from the party had made a break for it with the others close behind. She, like Valeria, stayed close to the wall while moving deeper into the mine.
Stepping off yet another ladder, she doused her light and set it to one side when she heard movement ahead. Fangs extended, she used her vampire sight to navigate as she slowly crept forward, searching and listening for anything ahead.
As she approached what appeared to be an intersection of two tunnels, she saw a flash of movement ahead. Before she could react, two arms snaked out and pulled her off her feet and into an alcove. A hand clamped over her mouth while the other encircled her arms and waist holding her against her attacker as she struggled in vain to break his vise-like grip.
The fact that her attacker was able to hold her steady made her realize it was not a mere mortal that was holding her. Slowly she stopped struggling and relaxed; waiting for whatever it was that would come next.
She felt cool lips next to her ear. “If you remain quiet and perfectly still, they won’t see us. Trust me on this, Abby. You don’t want to mess with those things. I doubt they like vampires any more than they like regular humans.”
She had found Poe. Relief flooded through her for the first time since her arrival. The relief turned to concern when she realized she could not hear his heart beat and had not been aware of his presence until he had pulled her against him.
What has happened to you, Poe? She thought with growing concern.
Try as she might, her vampire senses did not register him even as he stood directly behind her.
Something was terribly wrong.
Copyright © 2005 by Robert L. Sellers, Jr.