Apothegameron's right toe crept out from beneath the blanket, opened a tiny slit of a mouth between the nail plate and the nail bed, let out a cackle, and began to sing "It's A Small World" in a minor key.
I leaped back from the edge of the bed as if I'd been slapped in the scrotum.
Sweet Mother of Zeus!
At that moment, I knew my retractable harpoon would not help me.
* * *
Skinner, my go-to info guy, had given me a tip about the story over the phone two days earlier.
"Place called Devil's Lake," he said. "North Dakota. About 90 miles west of Grand Forks."
"Kind of appropriate," I replied. "Being haunted and all."
"Nice place, Devil's Lake. They got a yearly fishing tournament over there. Run by the Volunteer Fire Department. Nice gig. If you're into that sort of thing."
"Didn't know you were the fishing type, Skin-Man."
"I'm not," he said. "But my brother is. Took me there a couple of times. I kept wanting to fish with grenades but he wouldn't have any of that. Said it was probably against the rules. Killjoy."
"Them's the breaks," I said.
"You'll want to meet someone there," Skinner went on. "A kind of an expert in that sort of thing. I've already told her you're gonna be there."
* * *
I landed at Devil's Lake Regional Airport in a nineteen-seater Beechcraft turbo-prop just after 9 a.m. It was 30 degrees in the shade and I was dressed for jungle country. After quickly donning a pair of long underwear and cargo pants in the airport bathroom, I rented a light gray Ford Taurus from the U-Save Auto Rental desk and drove two-and-a-half miles east to the Old Main Street Cafe and Pub Bar on 4th Street to meet my contact.
Jonquil Burkhardt was six-two with an athletic build, short dark curly hair, dressed in black under a black wool overcoat. She approached me as I stepped out of the car, one hand extended, the other carrying a dark brown leather attache case.
"Agent Burkhardt," she said in a soft contralto. "You must be Doctor Jericho."
I shook the proferred hand. "Burkhardt, eh? You sure it's not Ellen Ripley?"
She quirked a dark eyebrow at me. "You must be one of those types."
"I am a student of popular culture," I said. "Have to be. Especially in my line of work."
"Exactly. Now tell me what we've got going on here?"
* * *
"The Z-Files," said Burkhardt, leaning across the table toward me, her voice kept low.
We were seated in a booth inside the Main Street Cafe and had just finished ordering breakfast. I took another swig of coffee, leaned forward, and eyed her warily. "What--like the X-Files?" I asked, also keeping my voice low "But that's TV. That's not completely real. Unless you count Jerry Springer. And even then--"
She quieted me with a wave of her hand. "The show was a thinly veiled fictionalization of the real thing. Based on the pioneering work of Agents Ross Malden and Donna Sully."
"Malden and Sully? As in Mulder and Scully?"
"Their fictional TV counterparts. There's actually a team of folks working those cases. I'm one of them."
"And it's all part of the FBI?"
She pursed her lips for a moment. Then she said: "In a manner of speaking, yes."
"Yes," said Burkhardt. "I pooted."
"Don't change the subject," she said, reached into the attache case sitting in the seat next to her, pulled out a thick manila folder, dropped it on the tabletop, the smack echoing in the cafe.
A few heads turned at the sound but quickly got bored when nothing exploded and returned to their own private Idahos.
"The woman's name is Hepzibah Lemongrass Apothegameron," said Burkhardt. "And she claims her toe is possessed by a demonic entity calling itself Ted."
"I've heard of demonic possesssions before," I said. "But never involving a specific body part."
"Very rare," said Burkhardt. "But it's been documented." She inclined her head at the manila folder. "One of our researchers at The Files--"
Burkhardt grinned. "Our name for the team. Did you hear the vocalized Initial Caps?"
"Nevermind." She opened the folder and began leafing through it. "Since 1654 there have been sixty-six documented instances of body part possessions. The majority have been hands. It's where you get the expression 'idle hands are the Devil's foreskin.' "
" 'Idle hands are the Devil's playground'," said Burkhardt.
"I thought you said 'Devil's foreskin'."
"Devil's playground. Although there were two instances of foreskin possessions. But the majority, as I mentioned, were hands. Twenty-seven to be exact. Twelve eyebrow. Eight earlobe. Seven toe, including this one. Five finger only, not including the hand itself. Four liver. One kneecap. And a partridge in a pear tree."
"Partridge in a pear trees?"
Burkhardt smiled. "My own little personal joke."
"I don't get it," I said.
"It's okay. Not many do."
"So what's our move on this?" I asked.
"Assessment," said Burkhardt. "Then, if necessary, containment."
"Rapid Limbic Extraction."
"We chop it off."
* * *
Hepzibah Apothegameron lived in a white one-and-a-half story house on a smallish lot off 6th Street.
We parked the Taurus in the narrow driveway next to a green plastic garbage can overflowing with what looked like tree cuttings and octopus tentacles.
I was about to get out of the car when Burkhardt stopped me, reached toward the glove box, popped it open, and took out what looked like a pair of popsicle sticks in the shape of an X, held tightly in the middle by duct tape.
"A cross?" I said. "And how did that get in the glove box?"
"Put it there when you weren't looking," said Burkhardt. "And it's not a cross. It's a talisman."
"Talisman for what?" I said.
"Eeeeeeeeeeeee!" she cried, a sound like the high-pitched whistle of a tea kettle.
I yelped and jumped in my seat. "What the hell are you doing--"
"Eeeeeeeeeeeee!" she cried again and this time, she waggled the crossed-popsicle sticks in front of my face.
"Stop that!" I said, swatting her hand away.
"It was bequeathed unto me by a Cherokee shaman," she said. "It's a tool to ward off evil spirits."
"Did you just actually use the word 'bequeathed'?"
"Eeeeeeeeeeeeeee!" she cried and waggled the sticks at me.
"What the hell is that noise?" I said.
"Not noise," said Burkhardt. "An invocation."
It was going to be a long day...
Come back soon for another entry of The Jericho Files!
Read previous Jericho Files entries here.
Read previous Jericho Files entries here.