The full moon hangs in the clear West Virginia night sky illuminating the unpaved highway 19, as it twists through the mountainous passage. A new Tan ’42 Packard hardtop roars along the dirt road kicking up a long cloud of dust and debris. Big band music gives way to agonizing radio static.
“Damn it!” Jason Blackwood yells and strikes the dashboard. He removes his fedora and drops it in the passenger seat. The hat lands atop the files hanging half out of his leather briefcase. “Can’t believe I took this job. Where in the hell is Red Ash?” Jason pulls his car off to the roadside embankment.
Jason pulls the flashlight out of his briefcase and uses its light to search through the files. He stops at a map with a red circle on it. He uses the light to follow the road on the map from the Red Ash to Minden and finally to the intersection of highway 19 just outside of Oak Hill. Anger flashes across his face.
“I knew I passed it,” Jason tosses the map and flashlight into the passenger seat. He looks up and sees a highway patrol car move up behind his. “Shit, now what?” Jason digs out his wallet. The patrol car sends out a short siren burst. Jason rolls down his window and waves.
The patrolman exits his car and moves cautiously to the Packard’s driver side door. He stops just behind the window and knocks on the cars hardtop roof. Jason leans out of the window and smiles “there a problem officer?”
“You looked like you may have been in distress. So I wanted to make sure you were okay.” The patrolman offers. Jason steps out of the car, “Just got turned around trying to find …Red Ash?”
“Red Ash, you passed that a ways back,” the patrolman offered. “I know, but there are no lights and I missed the turn off,” Jason added. “ Well lets get you turned around and I will show you the way,” the patrolman smiles and returns to his car. Jason turns his car around and follows close behind the Patrolman.
The twenty-minute trip to the turn off behind the officer had Jason curious, as to where the officer was from. Before he could signal and ask the patrolman. The patrolman motioned for him to follow the turn off to Red Ash. Jason waved and yelled “Thank you.” The patrolman waves and continues on his way north along highway 19.
The Tan Packard moves along kicks up a long trail of dirt and small stones, as it barrels down the old unpaved road to Red Ash. Jason smiles as the radio starts playing Christian Hymnals. “Well, at least it is something,” Jason nods and focuses on the road ahead.
“So, where you off to father?” the waitress asks. Father Roy looks up from his spoonful of Tomato basil soup. “Red Ash. I was sent to help rebuild the church and the congregation there.” Father Roy slurps the last spoonful of soup,” Why you curious?” The Waitress smiles, “it has been years since the last person ever got off at the bus stop here.” She takes his empty bowl through the kitchen doors.
The bell hanging in front of the dinner door chimes, as a highway patrol man enters. Father Roy looks up, as the kitchen cook calls out to the patrolman “Butch, that you?” The patrolman nods to the cook, “Ray” He turns to the Preacher, “Father?”
Father Roy offers a polite nod “Officer.” Patrolman Butch walks next to Father Roy’s booth. Butch looks back to the kitchen, Helen the Waitress emerges. “Helen, could you get me a cup of the incredible coffee of yours. Father, would you like a cup. Best coffee around these parts.” Butch smiles and motions to be allowed to sit with Roy.
“No coffee, but please sit if you like,” Roy smiles and gestures for the patrolman to sit with him. Butch settles in across from Roy. “What brings you way out here, father?” Butch inquires. “Like I was telling the waitress over there,” Roy motions to Helen, as she pours a fresh cup of coffee for butch. “I was asked by my bishop to come help rebuild the church in, Red Ash. So here I am, bus dropped me of here. I am not even sure where Red Ash is from here.” Roy shrugs and holds a look of loss on his face.
“Red Ash?” Butch smiles, “for a ghost town it seems to have quite a few people asking about it tonight.” “Really, so I am not that far?” Roy asks. Helen hands Butch his coffee and he take a long deep drink of the hot coffee. “Helen, you gotta tell my wife what you do to this coffee. I tell ya every time she makes it is tastes like mud.”
Helen smiles at the patrolman’s comment and then returns to the dinner’s kitchen. “Officer?” Roy leans across the booth, “ you mentioned others heading out to Red Ash.” “Yeah, just helped a fellah out about ten or fifteen minutes ago. He had passed the turn off. I had him follow me back and that was that.” Butch takes another long drink from the coffee cup. “Well, I thank you for your company, but I must get going. Sounds like a bit of a hike from here,” Roy stands and straightens his long coat.
“I tell ya what, father?” Butch starts. “Roy,” Roy smiles. “Okay, Roy, I would not feel right about turning you loose to trek all that way to Red Ash on foot. Especially seeing as you’re a man of god,” Butch adds. Roy opens his mouth to speak and Butch continues. “Let me run you out that way still in county and not too far off this stretch of highway,” Butch states with a polite smile. Roy raises his hand to protest, but Butch quickly interjects, “ I insist.” “Well if you insist,” Roy nods in agreement.
Butch takes the final drink of his cup of coffee and stands. He looks to Helen and Ray the cook, “I’ll swing back though in about an hour or so. If the office tries to reach me tell them I ran Father Roy here up to Red Ash and will be back directly. They know once you get down along seventeen past Minden the radio tends to loose signal.” Helen gives butch a thermos of coffee for the trip. Butch nods and motions for Roy to follow him.
The men enter the patrol car and head south along the unpaved highway at a deliberate pace.
Helen watches the patrol car drive off through the dinner’s blinds. She sighs deeply. Ray the cook shakes his head, “You should have asked if that other fellah Butch was talking about was that Private Investigator you hired to go find your brother.” Helen shrugs and picks up Butch’s empty coffee cup and takes it through the door to the kitchen.
Roy watches, as she enters the kitchen. She walks to the sink and begins doing the dishes from the dinner’s recently departed guests. She leans forward to make sure Ray cannot directly see her. “You know Butch and those patrolmen searched everywhere for your brother,” Ray pleads for her to believe his words.
“Shut up, Ray!” Helen yells, “I know they looked, but they gave up.” Ray shakes his head, as the bell to the dinner’s door announces a guest. “That was till no reason to leave the man. He was your fiancée and Butch is a good man,” Ray waves his greasy spatula at Helen. Helen shakes her head and enters the dinning area to greet the guest.
A brilliant flash of lightning from outside causes Helen to jump. In her scare she drops he menu and quickly chases after in. Grabbing the menu from the floor she looks up at the booth before her. She looks at the traveler sitting in the same booth that Roy occupied. The mountainous shaggy unkempt man wearing soggy, musky clothes a few sizes to large for his frame. Helen slowly rises with a look of panic on her face.
“Welcome to Ray’s” Helen blurts out still holding the look of panic. The shaggy man offers a devilish smile barely visible through his matted hair and bushy beard. The shaggy man offers a long, slow, and guttural, “Hi.” His eyes dart around the room. Helen looks over her shoulder, “You expecting someone else?” The shaggy man looks down at the table like an impatient child and smiles fiendishly, “He was already here.” Helen looks back to Ray watching through the kitchen window. She returns her gaze to the shaggy man, “You mean the preacher?” He nods repeatedly, “yes.”
Ray exits the kitchen and moves to the side of the booth, “What do you want with the preacher?” In a blur of motion the shaggy man is standing next to Ray and sniff’s the air around Ray. “He forgot something,” the shaggy man turns to Helen and smiles. “What is that?” Ray asks. “He forgot his book,” the shaggy man pats the side of his chest. A deep and resounding thump comes from an oversized book shaped lump under his jacket.
Helen looks to Ray she sees his slight nod to the kitchen. She shakes her head defiantly at Ray. Ray turns to the shaggy man, “Butch and the Preacher left about twenty minutes or ago. They went out to Red Ash. Where did you say you were from? I didn’t catch it.”
The shaggy man watches Helen slink off to the kitchen just over Ray’s shoulder. The Shaggy man chuckles and slowly moves face to face with Ray.
Helen quickly grabs the kitchen phone and dials. “Please, Please some one pick up!” she panicky whispers into the receiver. “Police, what is your emergency?” a female police officers voice answers.
Behind her a tall shadow moves into the kitchen unnoticed. Helen slowly turns and sees the shaggy man standing just feet from her. The door to the kitchen held open by one of shaggy man’s arms. Behind him in the dinning area she sees Ray lying on the floor. “Help Me!” screams Helen.
The “highway nineteen dinner” has been part of West Virginia landscape for over twenty years. Much of its business comes from locals, but it gets its fair share from the addition of a national line of buses customer drop off. For the first time in over a decade the diner closes for the night.
A large Shaggy Man drags a woman by the ankle from the diner into the parking lot. He throws her in the back of a battered pick up truck. She lands with a loud thud. He climbs inside the cab. A moment later the truck pulls from the parking lot and moves down the highway with purpose.
The Shaggy Man smiles in the rearview mirror, as an enormous fireball engulfs the highway nineteen diner. Shaggy Man turns the radio on. Loud Christian hymnals play from the radio station chosen. Shaggy man sings along as the truck drives into the night.
A smile fills Jason’s face as he spots the aged sign showing ten more miles until Red Ash. “It’s about damned time,” Jason states. In his anticipation of arrival, Jason races the Packard’s engine along the desolate dirt road.
Jason’s attention shifts to the roadside, as he passes the first of the outlying buildings and homes of the town of Red Ash. He slows to a stop and examines the curiosity before him, an abandoned gas station just out side of Red Ash. “This makes no sense. This is the only road into town. A gas station out here should be making a killing.” Jason says aloud.
Jason pulls into the gas station, parks his car and get out. He stretches deeply side to side in an attempt to get the kinks out from his exhausting ride. Jason walks around the small gas station through the invasive tall grass. He moves in to get a closer look indie through the window.
The insides of the small hand built gas station shack looks little larger than a restroom at any of the city gas stations he normally uses. Countless cobwebs engulf the counter and three small fully stocked wooden shelves. Jason’s face holds a look of confusion, “they left it fully stocked?”
Three resounding thuds against the stations door and it burst open forcefully. Jason stands covering his face with a handkerchief to keep the dust that rises from the door’s opening from entering his lungs. He enters and looks around. He walks his way up and down the small isles examining the goods that fill each shelf. “Odd, everything seems to still be here. But why walk away?” he thinks aloud.
A movement outside from the corner of his eye catches his attention. Jason runs quickly outside to find the source of invasion to his burglary. “Hello? Someone there?” he announces upon stepping through the door returning to the outside. “Hell with this. Just get gas at another station in town.” Jason enters his car and continues his travels towards Red Ash.
Butch looks to Father Roy, “ So where you from?” “Originally?” Roy asks. Butch nods, “if you don’t mind? We got a ways and I love a good story.” “Well, it’s not all that great. I was born in Akron Ohio near Canton, as far as the orphanage would tell me anyways. I was adopted by a church congregation near there,” Roy offers. “Really, you don’t think that was kind of odd?” Butch interrupts. “To me it just seemed like one large loving family. You know the old adage - It takes a community…” Roy adds. “I guess in your case it was taken literally.” Butch smiles.
Father Roy looks to Butch, “What about you?” “I was born and raised around here, up in Oak Hill. Grew up the son of a Deputy Sheriff and well. Here I am today, one of the Fayette County Highway Patrolman.” Butch smiles, as he taps on the dashboard of his patrol car. “What do you know about Red Ash?” Father Roy inquires.
“Red Ash, just an old mining ghost town. Down near Fire Creek little ways past Rush Creek. Abandoned these days,” Butch responds to the question. Roy nods, “I was told it was down along New River?” “Yeah, Coal company set up a small town for the miners there to keep them happy and housed while they worked away in the mines,” Butch turns the wheel and the car enters the barely visible Minden Road exit.
The old unpaved dirt road sends debris rising into the air, as the patrol car enters the road Red Ash.
The old truck surges down highway 19, as the driver howls off key to the gospel hymnals blasting from the radio. Helen slowly rises, as the truck bounces along road again and again. With each bump she lands with a hard thump against the steel truck bed.
Her eyes flash open taking in her surroundings. She struggles against the ropes that bund her wrists and feet. Blood slowly flows from a wound above her right eye. She thinks for a moment.
Helen recalls her moments before awakening. The shaggy man, the dinner, poor Ray, and then he hit her. She remembers the incredible speed the strange man acted in that instant. She could barely see his movements until it was too late.
He was nose to nose with her. She wanted to scream for help, but could only watch as her world turned sideways while rushing above her. She screamed for help, but her gag and the noise of the truck muffled every attempt.
The truck slammed to a halt and Helen slid hard against the back of the truck cab. The driver stepped out and she found herself in his full attention. “Awake, huh.” The Shaggy Man declared, as he looked down at her. Terror filled her face.
(to be continued)