From the author: A local antiques dealer in the Hudson River Valley has stumbled on a rather unique find: a previously unknown drawing by ill-fated British officer Major Andre. A drawing created in the dreaded hours as he awaited his execution for his part in Benedict Arnold's betrayal of the American Revolution. The drawing, however, is connected to something far more sinister and horrifying, as our dealer is about to find out...
“So, is the story true or not?” Sheila Gozigian asked me with just a touch of a slur in her voice.
“Of course not, it’s complete rubbish.” I answered, perhaps a little too quickly.
She looked sharp in the shimmering cocktail dress, with the low cut back and dipping bust-line that emphasized her cleavage. Sheila was one of the better-known local realtors – if you didn’t catch her charming smile from her weekly ad in the Gazette you’d probably catch it looking up at you from the paper placemat ads at one of the local diners. She was sort of relentless, but also quite sexy in a bold sort of way with her intense eyes, Mediterranean complexion, and appealing figure.
Her question was about the picture of course, one that had come into my collection a couple weeks previous and was scheduled to go up for auction sometime after the first of the year. It had been quite the buzz around town this Christmas season, a previously unknown sketch by that ill-fated British officer of the American Revolution, Major John André.
‘The Dying Dream of Major André’ it was being called; a dark, somewhat disturbing pen drawing he had made of himself . . . and of the nightmare that had allegedly visited him shortly after being captured and imprisoned as a spy. Not the better known self-portrait he did, currently in the Yale library. That one shows a sad, introspective version of Andre sitting at a table in a resigned pose, contemplating his fate. No, this one was a more hastily drawn image, more haunting . . . almost insidious in its immediacy.
Certainly it was a fantastical idea--this leering, horrific she-creature he sketched into his prison chamber next to him . . . .
“Obviously it was some sort of bad nightmare or premonition he had after he’d been captured,” I added, taking a nervous pull off my brandy. I’d been having strange dreams about the painting since it had come into my possession. “Perfectly understandable given his circumstances, I would think.”
Christ I sound like such a horse’s ass sometimes, I thought, enjoying the inviting view of Sheila’s bosom.
It was my third Christmas party in two weeks and I was already on the verge of burnout. This one was the biggie in the Wyvern Falls’ Historical Society’s calendar however: the annual gala dinner and silent auction held at the Sleepy Hollow Country Club. The dinner had been delayed this year due to scheduling conflicts with other area Historical Societies using the same venue, and it had been decided to roll it into our Christmas party. Which worked out rather well, I thought; the sprawling English-style estate was beautifully decked out for the season, its rolling lawns overlooking the Hudson picturesque under a light covering of snow.
The silent auction was over and I’d run into Sheila in the front library, browsing over the club’s display cases featuring a cross-section of antique photos and artifacts from the club’s glory days. Most of the images featured Vanderlips and Rockefellers, though I’d heard the club had been built with Vanderbilt money.
“His capture?” Sheila asked, one eyebrow arching up. I had her pegged at late thirties – a really good late thirties in her case. She was one of those women who grew sexier with maturity. Though perhaps a little too aggressive for my tastes.
“Yes. His capture. You do know the story, don’t you?”
“Well . . . yes,” she said hesitantly.
Clearly she didn’t. Like most people, she was probably only focused on the more sensationalistic rumors surrounding the drawing: that it was cursed, and that it was somehow connected to two recent, grisly deaths.
Normally I would have dropped straight into professorial mode and started lecturing but – perhaps it was just the brandy – I thought I detected a hint of (sexual?) interest on her part and held my tongue. It might have been my imagination, but I could have sworn she moved an inch or two closer. Enough to get a decent whiff of her perfume, which was something subtle and rich like Nina Ricci.
“Would you like to hear it?” I asked as we strolled over toward the fireplace. The remaining dinner-goers were still in the main dining room or in the old billiard room which tonight served as the main bar.
Sheila swirled her champagne flute and tilted her head, a light smile on her face. “That depends . . . is it a good story?”
I placed one hand on the mantel piece and, glancing up at the coat of arms carved in its wood, shrugged, “It’s a rather tragic one I’m afraid. Not necessarily a good sentimental Christmas tale.”
“Oh, I’ve had it up to the gills with Christmas tales . . . and flat housing sales. After this past week, a good tragedy would cheer me up!”
“Well don’t say I didn’t warn you.” I glanced around the room, gathering my thoughts. The library exuded the stuffy charm of well-used, old money – elaborately carved wood paneling and the lofty, ornately detailed plaster ceiling one only finds in homes of the truly rich. The room was dominated by the fireplace, which looked like it belonged in an English mansion. A fire snapped and crackled in the grate; with the high-backed leather chairs, bookcases, and wall-hung oil paintings darkened with age the entire room might have been snatched out of a Dickens novel. Especially with the antique-looking Christmas decorations and frost-tinged windows.
An excellent room for a story in other words.
“I understand he was quite a likable fellow,” I began, “The Major was a gentleman, handsome, well-mannered . . . a man of honesty and integrity. Bit of a dandy, really. The tale almost runs like a black comedy. And so it might have been if it hadn’t ended so sadly. It all started with Benedict Arnold, I’m sure you’ve heard of him.”
“The very one. Of course, before he became a turncoat, Arnold was one of Washington’s more successful General’s– most people forget that. A bit of a rock star in his time, he was a man known for his bold and daring tactics, winning several crucial victories early in the Revolution. Unfortunately, his ego grew faster than his pocketbook. Eventually his excessive lifestyle, along with seeing several lesser officers get promoted over him, got the better of him. Arnold sought and was awarded command of West Point--an impenetrable fortress whose deadly cannons ensured British forces would be unable to journey up the Hudson into Continental territory--and prepared to hand it over to the British for the princely sum of twenty thousand pounds--about $1.2 million in today's dollars. We’ll never know for certain, but had he succeeded, it might have ended the Revolution then and there.”
Sensing her attention starting to wander at this point, I picked up the pace and spiced up the facts a little. “Er, so one late September day in 1780 Major André was sent up the Hudson in a British sloop-of-war, the HMS Vulture, with orders to rendezvous with Arnold and procure from him critical information about West Point. But things started to go right into the toilet from the get-go.
“The Vulture came under fire after dropping Andre off at Haverstraw and was forced to retreat downriver, stranding André in enemy territory. Faced with the proposition of sneaking back through enemy lines in broad daylight, Andre ditched his uniform and set out to return to White Plains in disguise.
“About a half mile north of Tarrytown – near Philipsburg Manor actually – three American Volunteers stepped out and stopped him at gun-point. Seeing one of the men wearing the coat of a Hessian soldier--allies of the British-- André told them he was a British officer. When they revealed they were actually American, André abruptly switched his story, trying to convince them he was actually an American as well, producing as evidence a bogus travel pass provided him by General Arnold. They didn’t buy it and took Andre prisoner.
“He was delivered to Continental forces and promptly began an absurdly comical journey of being marched from one outpost to another and often back again. At one point, he was actually sent to – of all the damndest people – Benedict Arnold up at West Point. Unfortunately for Andre, his party was recalled before he reached his co-conspirator.”
I paused to take a healthy swig of my brandy. “Still with me?” I asked.
Sheila sipped her champagne and, holding it up to see there was still a third of a glass left, nodded. “I’m good. Keep going.”
“Humiliating as it was, André maintained his composure throughout his ordeal. He was eventually convicted for being a spy and sentenced to the gallows. And late in the morning of October 2nd, Major John André was loaded into a wagon and driven to a ‘hanging tree’ on a hill just outside of Tappan, New York. At the stroke of noon the wagon was rolled forward, leaving poor André to choke out his last like an animal. Twenty or so minutes later the Major’s lifeless body – in full dress uniform – was cut down and buried in a crude coffin below the gallows . . . .”
Sheila let out a shudder and drained the glass of champagne just as one of the caterer’s materialized with a tray of freshly poured glasses. With the grace of a seasoned pro she swapped out her empty and took a healthy gulp.
“Cheers,” I said, clicking her glass with my brandy. “Which brings us to the crux of the tale – the drawing, or rather, the secret drawing.”
Sheila seemed to edge in a little closer again. There was no doubt at this point she wasn’t just interested in a little bed-time story. But why not? I thought; I’m single, in good physical shape for a 46-year-old guy, and reasonably well-off. And though maybe it was the alcohol doing some of the talking, there was no denying she was attractive. There was that single-parent thing, and that aggressive “cougar” reputation of course, but I didn’t think anyone would think much the less of me if we happened to hook up. But there was something else there too, something oddly compelling about her that made me just a little nervous . . .
“The secret drawing?” Sheila prompted. “What’s so secret about it?” Reaching out she touched my hand with her finger in a light caress – a seemingly careless gesture that was somehow erotically charged. I felt goosebumps break out along my arm, and an answering twinge below the waistline.
“Er, yes. Well it came as a bit of a surprise when it surfaced this past year. In the attic of an old house up in Schenectady. It was discovered purely by chance in the backing of an antique mirror dating from the mid-1800s – the person in question was attempting to replace the glass – and the first response was that it was some sort of hoax. I mean a ‘secret’ drawing by Major André? And a nightmarish one at that? It didn’t make sense. There’d never been a suggestion such a thing existed before, and the very nature of it seemed inconsistent with the Major’s character. Which was where I was called in.”
Here I straightened my back and made that little rise of the eyebrow I’d perfected from years of art dealing. From her rapt expression it appeared that I had her undivided attention. As to who was hooking who, well that was another matter.
“It wasn’t until a few other pieces of the puzzle came to light that it all began to make sense,” I continued. “The house, it turned out, was owned by a descendant of David Williams – one of the three militiamen who captured the Major on that fateful September day. But it was the journal excerpt that I turned up in the State Archives in Albany that clinched it. Do you believe in ‘Divine Provenance’?”
“Do you mean ‘Providence’?” She answered.
She’s even sharper than I guessed, I thought. “No, ‘Provenance’, as in the way some items will themselves to be revealed or discovered at the necessary time. While researching some papers up in Albany I found a journal fragment from David Williams himself explaining how he was given this drawing from Major André himself.
“Now the thing about this drawing is that it shows the Major slumped in what appears to be a sort of prison cell. At first it appears he’s weeping or distressed, but looking closer it’s more apparent he’s cringing in terror. That’s no doubt due to the other figure in the drawing, a nightmare succubus straddling his legs. She’s partially nude, revealing her pubic area no less (an unheard of detail for that time period) along with one ample breast, but it is her hideous face that grabs the eye. Half ravishing beauty, half leering demon; with one claw-like hand clutching at the area over his heart. Her hair is sprayed out as if in a gust of wind, and her feet have erupted into the scaly talons of a raptor. The whole thing has a horrid, lifelike energy to it . . . like that of something drawn from first-hand observation. And there’s a caption: ‘The Dying Dream of Major André – a most horrid Death is upon me.’ But here’s the catch; the drawing was apparently made by André himself . . . about a week before he was executed.”
“I don’t understand,” Sheila replied, not quite convincingly.
“According to the journal scrap, which I have reason now to believe was deliberately buried due to its controversial (and supernatural) implications, André surrendered the drawing to Williams the morning after he was first captured. Williams took it from André as he was about to destroy it, thinking it might be a secret message of sorts. André was of course mortified, and said something strange; ‘I thought it odd Lady Shippen should visit me last night . . . but then . . . oh God! What was it? I am damned and death is upon me . . . no good shall come of this . . .’ First he begged Williams to burn it, then implored him never to show it to anyone, making him swear upon his honor.
“For whatever reason, Williams agreed. The drawing disappeared from the world . . . for a time at least. According to family records, the drawing turned up again, twice, during the eighteen-hundreds. Harold Falk posited that the first appearance was in—”
“Falk?” Sheila interrupted, “Wasn’t he one of the two men they just found dead?”
“Er, yes, he was the art scholar originally hired to confirm the provenance of the piece . . .”
“It was awful, though!” Sheila plowed ahead, “The papers said . . .”
“Yes-yes,” I cut in before she could go any further. I knew what the papers had said, of course, but they didn’t begin to tell the gruesome story. I was the one who had discovered Falk’s body, along with the corpse of his landlord. Instantly the terrible images sprang to mind: Falk’s fish-white naked corpse sprawled amongst the bedsheets, his face a snarling rictus of terror. And the wounds . . . like he had been mauled by . . . a tiger? Blood had been spattered everywhere, even on the ceiling. Most of the landlord had been found on the attic stairs. It appeared as if she had been trying to escape.
I sensed the moment was slipping somewhat and hastened to wrap it up. “So, er, apparently there were a couple of additional incidents . . . and deaths attributed to the drawing in the 1800s that the family kept out of the news. A great-grandson of David Williams – a man named Jeremiah Watkins – was asked to destroy the drawing. But being a print-shop owner and art enthusiast he decided not to and concealed the drawing in the mirror instead, where it lay hidden and forgotten until last year when it turned up quite by chance.”
At this point I was standing with my arm extended, hand resting on top of the fireplace mantel, and was aware the other partygoers had left the library at some point, leaving just the two of us. Sheila smiled and leaned into my arm. If I had any doubts about her intentions before, I certainly didn’t then.
How long since I’d been with a woman? Still, I had to tread carefully. Sheila had a young daughter at home, I reminded myself.
But there was something else going on as well, completely non-sexual believe it or not; part of me was uncomfortable about spending another night alone in my bed. Especially after the nightmares I’d begun having the past few nights . . .
“Would you um . . . would you like to . . . ?”
Sheila smiled, her face now only inches from my own. I was aware again of her perfume and how much I missed a woman’s intimacy.
“Yes . . . let’s get out of here!” she suggested.
Outside it was a crisp, clear December night, the kind where every constellation in the universe seems to have been thrown across the heavens in frozen relief. Just past the belt of Orion came the blink of a passing jet ferrying its unknown passengers across the frigid skies. To the west the Hudson River Valley sprawled in a majestic winter panorama. Through the barren trees came the crystalline wink of lights from across the river, the warmer ones hinting at cozy households bundled up against the darkness.
Sheila linked her arm through mine as we walked toward the few remaining vehicles parked around at the back.
The dinner had been winding down to a drunken ruckus in the club’s ‘Morning Room’ (really the bar) where I’d said goodnight and a hearty thanks to the Historical Society president, Wes Fowler and Jack Underhill, the vice-president. Fowler was also the captain on the ‘Falls Police Department while Underhill was from old local money and had a colorful reputation as a bit of a hell-raiser. Underhill had clapped me on the back as I’d turned to escort Sheila out and given me a knowing wink.
“What did you have in mind?” Sheila asked, huddling close. Despite the heavy coat, her legs--in high-heels and sheer stockings--must have been freezing.
“How soon do you need to get home?” I asked in return.
“Sunday.” She answered. “My ex has my daughter until then.” She must have sensed my alarm as she quickly added, “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be out of your hair well before that! I promise.”
I laughed as we drew up in front of her car, which was a surprise as it was a Subaru. Somehow, I’d pictured something flashier, like a Cadillac SUV or a sports car.
“What do you say I lure you back to my place, fix up a little fire and a nightcap? It’s not all that far up the road.”
“Do you have champagne?”
“I’m sure I could rummage something up.” I replied, mentally kicking myself; “Rummage up?” Good Christ, why do I keep talking like such a stuffed shirt?
Sheila didn’t seem to notice. Instead she snuggled in closer.
“I’ll follow,” she giggled.
I had no idea what time it was when I snapped awake, only that it was in those cold twilight hours long before dawn when the world is awash in shades of despair and darkness.
The dream had been terrible: I had been sitting in a rustic, low-ceilinged room, where someone was sobbing. Grey light was coming through a small, thick-paned window. The heady, cloying odors of hay and animals . . . and something else. The coppery aroma of fear. And grief. The certainty that all life’s machinations, dreams, and desires are about to drop down a chute into eternal nothingness, the flat horizonless gulf of death. I was looking down at my hand resting on the rough-hewn table, marveling at the heavy cuff of my jacket with its tarnished brass buttons; the soiled linen of the shirt sleeve peeking out and the quill pen lying slack in my fingers . . . and the drawing. And then not wanting to but forced – as if by unseen controls – to slowly turn my gaze upwards toward the form floating by the ceiling, already seeing the hovering nightmare banshee--half erotic woman, half-skeletal demoness--with its rippling gown trailing in tatters around it. It was like some awful materialization of my worst fears emerging through the gossamer web of reality . . .
It took a few moments for my senses to assemble themselves into some sort of sensible order of the present; the weight of someone straddling my lower body, the cool draft from the dark shadows of my bedroom, the shivering tingle of sweat evaporating off my brow and chest. The moon must have risen – from the window next to my bed the glow revealed the sensuous curves of a woman’s breasts. And movement, the suggestion that her head – bathed in shadow – was surrounded by a cloud of floating hair like sea grass caught in an ocean tide.
So! She’d warmed up for a little ‘action’ after all!
It came back to me in a flash . . . pulling into the driveway of my converted carriage-house by the river . . . the scintillating sparkle of snowflakes (from the previous days dusting) blowing off the tree limbs in the glow of the outdoor sensor light triggered as we stepped up to the front porch. Quickly setting a fire in the fireplace in the cozy, dark-paneled front room, surrounded by some of my more favorite antique paintings and art pieces. Nacho, my over-sized Norwegian Forest cat, wandering in and giving Sheila a dismissive once-over before settling down into his favorite spot on the ottoman. The pop of the champagne cork (a vintage bottle of Krug I’d been saving) and the light reassuring fizz as the glasses were filled. Standing by the fire, then, on an impulse, turning about, bending over Sheila on the couch and the awkward moment as I tried to kiss her on the lips and she’d turned away.
“I’m sorry,” she’d said. “It’s just . . . I know I acted a little forward earlier . . . but I recently got out of a divorce . . . could we just enjoy each other’s company a bit?”
Embarrassed, I’d let out a short laugh to cover my disappointment. “Sorry, that was a little presumptuous of me. Of course. It’s a nice night to enjoy a fire . . .”
We stayed like that a bit, drinking, then at some point we did go up to bed, got half-undressed and snuggled up. I remembered I’d lain there a few minutes, listening to the wind picking up outside, the trees creaking and the keening moan as it whipped along the gutters and eaves. Sometime later, while savoring the low banked heat of her body next to mine I drifted off into the deeper waters of sleep.
Then I came to . . . for a little bonus surprise to the evening after all.
Outside I could still hear the wind whipping around the house and trees and had a lingering thought about how fortunate it was to be in warm bed on such a hostile winter night.
At first I started to smile, thinking. There’s worse things in life than waking up to find a sexually aroused woman straddling you on a cold December evening . . . before realizing something was wrong. Terribly wrong. As she leaned forward the moonlight revealed her face.
Or at least tried to. It seemed to get all trapped and snarled in my mouth and came out as more of a garbled choke.
It still looked like Sheila . . . somewhat. The face was a distorted--decayed actually--caricature with skin the color of moldering lace, and blackened fangs through which issued a faint mist, as if the thing’s breath was of icy fumes of a winter grave. Then the smell hit me, equally horrific; of things long dead and putrefied.
I tried to pull myself backwards but found I was already up against the headboard. And the thighs gripping my hips felt as immovable as iron.
The head extended towards me, the jaws beginning to open with a hideous creak as I was embraced by numbing cold, when to my further shock the door to the hallway was thrown open and the creature was suddenly cast in a yellow light.
It was Sheila--or rather, the Sheila I had picked up at the party. She stood in the doorway wearing my bathrobe, a wide-eyed look on her face. The... thing... straddling me snapping its head toward her and hissed like an enraged lizard. A throttled scream finally escaped past my lips.
The surprises weren’t over yet, however.
Scarcely missing a beat, the real Sheila snarled back at the creature with a cry of “You bitch!” while grabbing the nearest thing she could reach--one of my antique, mission-style floor lamps. Even as the creature in my bed launched itself at her, it was met with a sickening crunch as the cast iron stand was swung around like an unwieldy quarterstaff. I winced as the stained glass shade shattered, as much from the sheer violence of it as from the loss of an invaluable antique.
The creature was smashed to the floor, its head at a twisted angle, but it was far from giving up the fight. Scrabbling backwards, it shot up the wall toward the ceiling, trying to straighten its head with a series of dry cracks. As it did I took the opportunity to exit my bed in a half-tangled vault, taking half the bedding with me.
The monstrosity launched itself at Sheila, who fended it off with a series blows like some sort of master staff-fighter while yelling at me over her shoulder. “The picture! Where is it! I couldn’t find it!”
“The what?” I yelled back.
“The picture!” she repeated, ducking as her taloned doppelgänger swiped at her. The creature screeched, making it nearly impossible for me to think. What the bloody hell was she talking about?
Then it clicked. The picture.
The Dying Dream of Major Andre. And with it, an ugly implication: did she come here just to steal it?
“It’s in my desk! There’s a hidden compartment.”
“You have to destroy it! Get it!” She ducked another swipe of the beast’s claws and countered with a strike of my now-shattered antique lamp. “Burn it!”
“Are you crazy!?” I yelled back. It was a priceless piece of art, possibly worth millions. Sheila shot me a venomous look and for a moment I thought she was going to strike me next. Losing the sheets, I bolted through the bedroom door and down the short flight of stairs to the main room below.
Nacho was at the base of the stairs, fully arched in a classic ‘cat-back’ and hissing wildly as I shot past, making it to my broad banker’s desk in five bounds. The picture was in a secret flat file concealed in the molding of the desktop, and as I extracted it a noticed a lot of items on the desk had been moved around--had Sheila been going through my things? From upstairs came another ear-splitting screech and the sound of breaking furniture--which I feared might be another of my priceless lamps. Then I found myself in front of the fireplace, the Major’s drawing in one trembling hand. I felt ridiculous standing there in my underwear with such a rare piece of art, as if such an act was in itself lewd and sacrilegious. Then I heard Sheila cry out as the creature flew from the bedroom door, hovering in the air at the top of the cathedral ceiling. The moonbeams angling in through the skylight gave it an even more spectral, horrific appearance and it howled as it spotted me, zooming down with the terrifying speed of a predator, fangs bared.
My hand hesitated as if in the grip of some unshakable force, the drawing inches from the glowing embers banked in the fireplace grate. My teeth were locked in grimace.
God forgive me, was all I could think.
I closed my eyes and pulled my hand back.
The next thing I was aware of were the icy claws gripping my neck and yanking me around like a rag doll, flinging me towards the stairs. Fortunately, my restored 1940s leather love seat stood between me and the stairs, and it toppled over as I hit it, whacking my head good on the floor as I fell for good measure. Only the padded runner saved me from a more serious injury, though I still hit hard enough to see stars.
The drawing went flying.
What followed was an odd moment, as if time slowed into a surreal crawl.
By the fireplace, I saw the creature rise up in all its majestic horror, now completely transformed into a hideous banshee. Strangely, though its eyes were but greenish orbs, I swear I was actually able to track them following the now airborne sketch by Major André as it described a fluttering see-saw arc overhead.
Down and down it went in that erratic way only a single piece of a paper can...
...and onto the head of my still arched and hissing cat, Nacho.
The reaction was instantaneous.
Even as I scrambled and leapt to save the drawing, the cat was set off as if with a cattle prod, the poor thing already a bundle of sizzling nerves. On a few occasions in the past, I’d seen what Nacho could do to a roll of toilet paper if left to his own devices . . . generally amounting to a wholesale butchery completely odds with his usual, lazy demeanor. The dark side of Nacho as it were.
But I’d never actually seen him at work until now.
Nacho flipped--quite literally--and in contrast to an entire roll of toilet paper, the obliteration of Major André’s delicate drawing lasted a mere matter of seconds, in what I could only describe as an ‘orgy of violence.’ Shreds of paper flew every which way. Behind me, the creature shot forward as one of my hands tried to instinctively snatch at a large scrap that fluttered above the hissing/clawing/biting ball of cat and artwork.
My eardrums nearly burst from the ensuing scream, and even as the clawed hand struck at my neck, I sensed it dissolve into vaporous, icy tendrils. The echo of its last cry hovered in the room a moment longer.
Then it was over.
As if equally shocked at his own unbridled display of violence, Nacho recovered himself enough to take off in a streak of fur toward the kitchen.
The drawing was completely destroyed.
I blinked to see Sheila stagger out onto the landing, her hair a wild mess, the remains of the floor lamp clutched in one trembling hand.
“My lamp!” I cried.
Sheila shrugged and dropped it with a clang. “Sorry. It was either you or the Tiffany.”
“I don’t even know what it was . . .” I said a short while later, knees still shaking. I stood wrapped in a blanket by the fireplace (which was burned fiercely now that I’d added a few fresh logs) with a refilled snifter of Louis Royer cognac in one hand, having bolted the first one down in one gulp. Sheila stood in front of me, still in my bathrobe, hair still looking like it had been caught in a tornado, an identical snifter in her own hand. Before anything else, she’d insisted on gathering up the scraps of the drawing and putting them in the flames, even as I carried on a bit and protested.
It was beyond repair of course, but it was almost physically painful for me to see such a priceless--even if cursed--piece of artwork meet such a debasing and violent end.
“Ohhh, it was definitely some sort of Night Hag,” Sheila was saying, “It was linked through the picture somehow, drawn into this existence by the Major’s despair. I was told burning it was the best method to banish it, but apparently an upset housecat works just as effectively.”
I was still rattled, but at least Nacho had returned and settled down again as if nothing untoward had occurred. He contemplated us from the landing with his front paws tucked in like some sort of meditating monk. I couldn’t help but think he had a self-satisfied look about him, as if to say; “Yes it was a nasty bit of business, but someone had to do it.” Still, I had to envy his way of resuming life in the moment.
On the other hand I was going to be in a whopping shit-storm when it came to explaining to the William’s family what had happened to the drawing. Sorry folks, yes it was priceless, but then again it was possessed and things . . . well things got a little complicated see; first the cat shredded it, then this woman I’d just picked up at a party torched what was left. So . . . any other interesting heirlooms you’d like me to look at?
Even as I thought of it however, a plan was taking shape. I had scanned the drawing earlier and I knew a certain ‘reformed’ art forger down in the city who could expertly duplicate any period style using authentic inks and papers. It would cost me, but then I could genuinely declare the drawing was in fact a cleverly done hoax . . .
That would all have to wait until later.
As Sheila pointed out, the most important thing was that I--we--were alive, and that trumped any dead man’s artwork. She was surprisingly blunt and pragmatic about it as we straightened up the room again; “Art should be about the celebration of life, Tom. When it becomes an instrument of death, it simply has to be destroyed. There are plenty of those in the world already.” Having seen what some valuables did to people’s behavior, I grudgingly had to agree.
In the meantime a few other things were nagging at me.
“But this one . . . well it looked like you. And the one in the picture . . . it, well it looked remarkably similar to pictures I’ve seen of Peggy Shippen – Benedict Arnold’s wife.”
Sheila sipped her own cognac. I had to admit she looked good in my bathrobe. I wondered if there was any chance we could still...
“Were they having a thing going? Shippen and André?” she asked,
I thought it over. “Possibly. There were some claims he had been courting her in Philadelphia before Arnold swept in and married her.”
“Well that’s usually how these things work. The Night Hag, I mean. They often initially take the form of someone you desire. Not for very long--they burn up a lot of energy quickly. A psychic manifestation that flares up like gunpowder, feeding off your fears and desires. They wreak havoc very briefly. Then it goes dormant again until the next person touches the object or key, which in this case was that drawing.
“How did it, I mean, if it was connected to the drawing, how come David Williams didn’t succumb? Wouldn’t the curse have destroyed him?”
Sheila shook her head and crossed her arms. “No. It’s not always like that. The recipient has to be emotionally vulnerable. Receptive. A die-hard pragmatist would probably just have had bad dreams for a couple days.”
I drew up a little. “You mean to say I’m weak?”
“No, not at all,” She replied, though the look on her face might have said otherwise. “These creatures are very dangerous, and sly. And you seem like a very nice guy.”
I winced. “I don’t understand. Wait, you’ve seen one of those things before!?”
“Um, not exact-well . . . yes. Actually I have. Once.”
“What do you mean, once?”
“At a . . . well you see I’m a Wicca, and I belong to... well, I can’t tell you all the details. I’m sorry, I really owe you an apology. I’m afraid none of this was an accident. I deliberately used you. I--we--knew about the drawing.”
I shook my head, trying to make some sort of sense of what she was implying. I was already getting a sinking feeling.
“Why did you really come here tonight?” I said, unable to keep the edge out of my voice.
“We’d heard about the drawing and knew it had to be destroyed before anyone else got hurt. I volunteered to see what I could discover and got into the dinner tonight at the last moment. I was told to locate the drawing and if possible, burn it. I doubt you would have just handed it to me if I’d told you all this earlier. I had to let you experience for yourself how dangerous that awful drawing was. Now you know.”
I shuddered as I thought of that thing straddling me. I realized Sheila was looking at me carefully. “By the way, you didn’t actually . . . you know . . .?” She made a suggestive gesture with her finger.
“Good God, no!” I stammered, “Nothing like that.”
“Good,” she replied. “Because that would be a little weird. And very bad. Very, very bad.”
“Oh.” I touched her shoulder, aware again how desirable she looked. “Well, that was all very exciting. Er, do you have to go just yet?”
The familiar, charming, ‘realtor’s’ smile that appeared on her face killed any further thoughts in that direction. What she whispered next in my ear sealed it. “Thanks for the offer. But I’m afraid that, well let’s just say since the divorce . . . I don’t play for your team anymore. I should get dressed and go.”
At the front door I stopped her again. “But . . . how did you . . . you looked like you’d handled that sort of thing before.”
“I thought I told you I have a daughter.”
Dear God I thought . . . just what kind of kid does she have? “Yes, a daughter. But that creature . . . ?”
Sheila smiled and moved in closer. “A Night Hag? Hell, Casey’s thirteen. Going through puberty. Believe me, that was nothing.”
As she stepped out into the wan light of dawn she glanced back over her shoulder, “Good night Tom. Be well.”
I gave her a short wave, and wondered what had really transpired in my bed. It occurred to me I hadn’t been altogether sure what had happened with the creature before I’d woken up.
However, I was certain I hadn’t been physically intimate with the Night Hag.
Fairly certain, anyway.
This story originally appeared in Legends of Sleepy Hollow: Original Tales of Terror From America's Spookiest Village.