by GARY CLIFTON
offee, Hon,” Hilda greeted every customer with her pudgy, infectious smile.
Hilda, with stringy red hair and as big as Poland, despite a heart condition requiring heavy doses of anticoagulant blood thinner daily, opened the Spot Café. The crowded, smoky little joint quickly became renowned for excellent coffee and bargain prices. Business boomed despite two fast food chain restaurants within blocks. Hilda's coffee was just too good. Hilda was just too nice.
She arrived before 5:00 A.M. to open each day and labored behind the counter until well after dark, ignoring her health issues. Hole in the Wall Café Offers Fine Cuisine, the local newspaper reported. Times were good.
Then, two regular customers - city utility workers both - came down with plague-like symptoms. The ailment left the medical community stumped. Perhaps they'd caught a virulent germ from sewage? Both lay in agony on rubber hospital sheets for several days, faces destroyed by blistering, bleeding sores, bodies swollen and distended. Diagnosis inconclusive, both died within a week, racked in horrible pain.
Soon, the postal carrier and a carpenter developed similar ailments, their bodies twisted and covered with disgusting, surface ulcers. They died shrieking in agony within a week. "All four of them boys been comin' in here mornings," remarked a delivery truck driver. “Hilda, you spikin' the coffee?" He grinned.
Hilda didn't grin. When the cafe closed that day, she scrubbed the kitchen and all utensils, including the coffee maker, one of those multi-gallon monsters where water filters over coffee from above.
Two days later the delivery truck guy took sick, morphed into a hideous mass of dripping slime, and died a horrible death.
The local newspaper picked up on the situation and not surprisingly, began printing hate-comments, highlighting that all victims had been daily customers at The Spot.
Five deaths and sensational headlines finally drew the cops out of the doughnut shop long enough to look around Hilda's place. The Department of Health padlocked the door and spent days tearing the interior apart. The health cops found traces of deadly warfarin, a rat poison ingredient in a discarded coffee filter. Finally, to Hilda’s misfortune, discovered in a storage closet out back: Rat poison. To the surprise of no one, the fatal ingredient was the dreaded warfarin.
Small town cops paid no mind to Hilda’s blood thinner pills spilled on a kitchen sink counter, nor did they possess the sophistication to examine its genesis. Hilda had apparently brutally murdered five solid citizen and that’s all there was to the matter. They arrested Hilda for murder.
Citizens of the small, backward river community of St. Johnson, always easily influenced to believe the worst, piled on. Murdering Monster Apprehended, blared the newspaper headline. An Evil Beast Arrested. The local T.V. station repeated the stories on the hour.
She spent weeks in a damp cell. Jail personnel and other inmates formed an informal, silent hate-fence, heaping mistreatment upon abuse on Hilda daily. Her life became unbearable.
Then Hell arrived by cop computer. Thirty years earlier a thousand miles away a small police department had arrested Hilda for homicide under a different name. Hilda explained she'd been taken to the police department for questioning after she’d shot an intruder in her mother's home when she was 17. Police had questioned her. Police had not charged her with a crime and no details beyond the notation that she’d been in police custody for one hour remained. She hadn’t attempted to hide. Her name changed when she'd married.
The knee-jerk consensus was that the fat woman had murdered before and now history had repeated itself. Cops leaked a tidbit or two to the media. Fat Queen Fiend Had Killed Before, was a lead headline. TV talking heads mirrored the theme. Fat Hilda was a heartless murderer who should not be allowed to escape again.
Cellmates spent hours tearing a mattress into strips to make a stout rope they used to lynch Hilda in her cell. Hanging worked okay, but Hilda's bulk and a fall too lengthy, snapped off her head. The grotesque skull rolled under a cot, requiring acrobatic retrieval by the medical examiner. He was stunned to see the eyes, neither half closed nor locked in the customary distant stare of the dead, but silver dollar large and radiating hate and anger. “Good grief,” he exclaimed. “Her eyes follow me as I move about. Hilda really is a supernatural demon.”
"Suicide," the inmates chortled as the matron looked the other way. After all, Hilda was a homicidal monster. Crude "Headless Hilda" jokes circulated inside the jail and then spread to the streets. People whispered, “Murderers should regret”. Wicked Witch Dead! The newspaper celebrated.
Vindictive city officials bulldozed The Spot, tossing all kitchen equipment in a pile out back. A resident walking his dog noticed the animal tearing at the pile, digging at the coffee maker. He drug the dog away, but when he walked by the next day, the animal again ripped frantically at the same appliance. In two days, the dog became sick and died in convulsions.
The citizen called the police. The coffee machine finally ended up in the state crime lab. A lab tech, with a metal saw, opened the strainer tube, an area difficult to access or clean. From a factory-flawed crevasse in the throat of the strainer tube, she scraped out micro-flecks of decaying matter. When analysis disclosed the traces were dead rat flesh, the lab supervisor gasped: "Great Scott, she murdered them with a rat."
"Maybe an accident?" the lab tech asked.
"If she ain't guilty, why kill herself?" the supervisor asked.
The tech’s analysis then determined the rat was dead of warfarin poisoning, an ingredient in Hilda's blood thinner, which had evolved into a previously unknown strain of botulism. No one thought to reason the rat had managed to get into the coffee hopper on its own, then someway microscopic traces of its flesh became lodged in the filter tube.
The lab squint looked up from her medical journal. “Also fatal to rodents, warfarin is a delicacy to the creatures. That’s why it’s used in powerful doses in rat poison.”
Nevertheless, the truth morphs into odd shapes. "Case already closed," said the supervisor. "Let sleeping dogs lay."
"Sleeping rats and Headless Hilda, too,” the tech said. She shredded the file.
By the time the warfarin cover-up had been fully swept under the lab floor mat, Hilda had moldered in an unmarked, county financed grave for several months. Visitors to the separate, but socially accepted patch of cemetery nearby noticed the soil near the rear had been disturbed. Appearances were someone or something had yanked the cheap coffin out of the ground. The coroner’s office confirmed the pauper’s grave was Hilda’s and the body was gone.
The initial assumption was a grave robber had taken the body and detached head for medical or God knew what reason. Then, more plausible reasons popped up. Demon’s Body Cast into Nothingness by Divine Act? The newspaper speculated. Again, TV parrots picked up the same theme. God-fearing folks dared not think beyond that premise. Not a single person inquired as to what happened to the coffin. “Out of sight, out of mind” ruled the day.
Life in the dreary little town stumbled on. Parishioners gathered at St. Stanislaus or the First Church of the Limb of the Lamb and used their bibles and the solemn words of the robed pastors to put the Hilda matter behind them. “Pray for her soul,” Father Berrak implored. “Accept Hilda’s flawed spirit,” Pastor Tipshank urged. The good people, intent solely on using those bibles to slash their collective paths into Heaven, gave perfunctory, passing prayers for Hilda and looked away. It was none of their concern, they said.
A Sunday afterward, Father Berrak commented during services that Lowell Bowmen, the crusty night editor of the local newspaper and a large contributor to the parish, was ill and that all should pray long and often.
Then six other news staffers from the newspaper and two local TV news anchors fell ill. Like leaning dominoes, three former jail prisoners and the jail matron, who’d looked the other way when Hilda lost her head, were bedridden. The ailment tore through the county jail like a category six tornado, striking down several conspirators in Hilda’s “suicide” who were still in jail. Editor Bowmen died in spasmodic agony the following Thursday, and before services the next Sunday, twenty-five more people of the community had been affected by the bleeding skin ulcers and dementia similar to the symptoms that had stricken down customers of Hilda’s beloved Spot Café.
As two more weeks skidded by, eighty-one people had died of the horrible ailment. Hysteria gripped the community. The lab supervisor who had led the charge to smother Hilda’s death as just and fair punishment suffered a particularly cruel and lingering death. No one even thought to consider any connection whatsoever to the fat lady’s demise.
Local cops called in the Feds. The Center for Disease Control sent three physicians, experts in deadly diseases to assist. Desperate investigation and long hours gradually hammered out a startling conclusion, but only after one of the experts became sick and died of identical symptoms: By now, 181 were dead and all were lifelong, coffee addicts whose consumption of the caffeinated drink was well beyond the one cup in the morning types. Oddly, only a few of the dead had ever patronized Hilda’s beloved Spot.
Exhaustive laboratory tests, fully evaluated after the mandatory three-week incubation period, showed an unexpected, startling common ingredient: Chilling, horrifying, the lab found Hilda’s DNA in the bloodstreams of every one of the recently dead. The root ingredient of the deadly virus was warfarin degenerated into the same strain of botulism, which had initially struck down Hilda’s five customers.
The local newspaper and TV stations would have reported the deadly information, but the key staffers were all dead. No one remained to write or tell the story. Townspeople stumbled over each other concocting elaborate denials that they ever really believed the kindly Hilda could really have murdered her customers. The reviled murderess instantly became a victim wronged.
Terrified of the remaining pile of debris that had once been The Spot, city officials erected an eight-foot chain-link fence around the rubble and posted signs warning: “Toxic Waste Site. No Trespassing”. The debris pile became the source of Halloween horror tales. Frightened mothers used the fenced ruins as a means of keeping children in line. “Fat Hilda will get you,” became a foolish, but powerful admonishment to would be errant children.
The remains lay there for years, spawning a massive den of rats, which first sprawled into and then largely devastated the surrounding neighborhood. The area degenerated into a wasteland of empty tenements and rat infested heaps of trash. No single citizen ever mustered the courage to dig into or even examine closely the rotten wood scraps strewn near the top of the heap. Rumor evolved that the splinters were the remains of Hilda and her cheap coffin, but no one ever climbed in to find out for sure.
Surely that blob barely visible atop the pile – a favorite place for rats in huge numbers to sun themselves - couldn’t be Hilda’s head? Such things just don’t happen.
Gary Clifton, forty years a cop, has over sixty short fiction pieces published or pending with online sites including Bewildering Stories, Flashes in the Dark, Spinetingler, and Black Heart Mag. He's been shot at, shot, stabbed, sued and is currently retired to a dusty north Texas ranch. Clifton has an MS from Abilene Christian University. Gary’s stories can be found in the following issues of HelloHorror: Blood Passion appears in the January 2013 issue, Measure Twice, Cut Once appears in the April 2013 issue, Mother’s Nature appears in the August 2013 issue, Mind's Eye appears in the October 2013 issue, Sinning in the Rain appears in the December 2013 issue, Special Handling Required appears in the April 2014 issue, Queen Margot appears in the June 2014 issue, The Trial of Margot LePlatt appears in the Winter 2014-2015 issue, The Ace of Cooper Avenue appears in the Spring 2015 issue, and Bridg Work appears in the Summer 2016 issue of HelloHorror. All but one of Gary’s stories appearing thus far in HelloHorror have been part of the Margot LePlatt series. Read more of Gary's work at his new blog, Bareknuckle Thoughts.
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