I returned to the office. When I walked in, Loretta wryly asked me if the doctor had declared me unfit to work, and thereby ordered an early retirement. (She knew that I had the second half of my physical this morning.)
If Madison Greene is too standoffish, then perhaps my administrative assistant is too familiar. But Loretta works like a rower in a Turkish galley.
Speaking of Madison Greene: she came to my office shortly after lunch. More discussions about Ocean Brite Soap.
I wanted to confirm my earlier impressions: I paid close attention to the inflection of every word she said, to every facial expression.
There was no indication that she was hiding anything from me, or waiting for another shoe to drop.
Despite what Dr. Beckman had said, I firmly concluded that she had not returned to my office a second time that day.
On the contrary, she had been eager to put the incident with the quarter behind us. She would not have done anything that might have prolonged the drama, provoked another discussion about that damned Bicentennial coin.
I further speculated that she had barely noticed when the quarter mysteriously disappeared from her possession. She had probably thought (if she noticed at all): Who cares? It was only twenty-five cents.
It was late afternoon when I received a text from Peggy, my wife. I have only recently become comfortable with sending text messages. Peggy, however, was an early adopter—among our generation, that is.
“Hey, Don’t forget that Adam and Amy are coming over tonight! Get home as soon as you can. Luv you!!!”
Her words were followed by a string of little symbols: hearts and pictorial representations of hugs and kisses. Emojis, I believe they’re called.
Adam and Amy are our grandchildren, the children of our adult son, Mark. This weekend Mark and his wife, Laura, had planned a “romantic getaway” at a bed-and-breakfast in northern Ohio. They asked Peggy and me if we would be willing to watch our grandchildren over the weekend. Of course Peggy and I were delighted to comply.
“I haven’t forgotten,” I typed in response to Peggy’s message. “I’ll be home as early as I can. I love you too!!”
I omitted any emojis from my reply, however. To be honest, I don’t know how to create them. (I am still finding my way around my iPhone.)
Leaving early was the plan, anyway. But as is always the case on Friday afternoon, last-minute emergencies arose. Impossible demands that were incredibly urgent, but which no one had managed to conceive of until the waning hours of the workweek.
As I had told Madison, Covington Foods does pay me a fair wage for the work I do. But there are tradeoffs: Early Friday afternoon departures are a rarity for me. Today was no exception.
I walked out of my office around 5:30 p.m. Loretta had already gone home for the day. As I passed her desk, I wondered if she had forgotten about that strange day last week, when I had called her into my office on that bizarre pretext.
Of course she hadn’t forgotten. What was I thinking? I knew Loretta, after all. Oh, well, she would get over it.
While the sunny days in late October in Ohio can be glorious and mild, the cloudy days can be downright gloomy. Today was nothing like that clear day early last week, when I’d found the Bicentennial quarter (not once—but twice!) on my desk. The clouds were low and grey in the sky, threatening rain.
And another thing about late October: As the Winter Solstice begins to approach, the days grow shorter.
By the time I reached the Covington Foods parking garage, the photosensors had already kicked on the security lights. Nevertheless, it would still have been too dark to read a newspaper inside the garage.
My feet echoed on the concrete floor of the garage. Today I’d parked on the third level up from the street. There were few vehicles at this hour on a Friday evening.
I pushed the little unlock button on my key fob, and my Acura honked and clicked open.
I had a sudden feeling of being watched.
Maybe the Horseman was coming for me, after all, I thought. There would be plenty of room here in the garage, for him to ride atop that horrid undead animal of his.
He would behead me right here. I would never arrive home, of course. Peggy would grow worried, and she would call the police.
They would find my headless body right here beside my car.
For the Horseman would have taken my head.
I stopped and listened. I was listening for hoofbeats.
I didn’t hear hoofbeats. But I did hear the sound of footsteps.
I turned in the direction of the footfalls. A wiry young man of medium height, with reddish hair, was walking toward his car. It was a little compact machine, probably a hybrid.
I took a closer look: It was the male co-op I had seen that day, when I’d gone to the fourth-floor co-op area to check on Madison.
But he wasn’t really a co-op, was he?
He was Banny. Forty-two years had passed. My age had increased from seventeen to fifty-nine. But Banny was still youthful, an early twenty-something.
Both young and very, very old. But then again, that had been the case already, in 1976.
Banny clicked his own key fob, and the little compact/hybrid car beeped and clicked open. Banny was wearing the sort of young man’s entry-level suit that is common attire for young men who are trying to appear both professional and stylish.
He was still pretending to be a co-op. But I knew better. I knew who he was.
Banny glanced in my direction as he opened the driver’s side door of his car. He obviously recognized me, because he gave me that smirk.
I looked directly at him. I wanted him to know that I wasn’t afraid. I might fear the Horseman, and I might fear some of the spirits the Horseman had brought with him.
But Banny I simply despised.
Two hundred and forty years ago, I knew, Banny had worn that same smirk, as he’d ordered men to their deaths. Back then he’d also worn the uniform of the British Legion.
Bloody Ban, they’d called him. The Butcher of Waxhaws.
For now, though, he was wearing his twenty-first century disguise. Banny broke the stare, and slipped into the driver’s seat of his little car. The ignition started up, and I watched as the car backed out of its parking space.
The little vehicle chugged toward the exit of the garage. Banny—Bloody Ban—was maintaining every pretense of conformity to the present.
Our house is located near the end of a long, winding country road. I grew up on the fringes between the suburbs and the country, and I have always preferred to live outside the city.
Tonight, though, I wouldn’t have minded living in a neighborhood closer to the center of town.
As I drove through the near darkness, I looked at the lights in the houses on either side of me, somewhat distant from the road.
I felt alone inside my car.
At one point, as I crested a hill where there were no houses, I might have sworn I heard the echo of hoofbeats on the road behind me.
I resisted the temptation to look in my rearview mirror. I turned on the stereo to drown out the faint clatter until I arrived home.