Welcome to the third installment of Mattie Hornbecker’s Other Bag!
The cave was impressive in its way, Mattie thought.
It was dry, at least. The strangely rounded opening was lined with the pink-hued granite, a sort of crystalline frame for the storm passing over the mountain. But black as the sky might be, it was positively blazing in comparison to the surrounding, suffocating dark.
“It’s so awful down there,” Hipster’s girlfriend chirped looking ahead. “It’s like a well.”
“Some people think it was a well,” Sue Sandwich replied, playing her flashlight on her tattered brochure. “It drops off sharply somewhere around here.”
“Of course it does. That’s what you’ve come to see, isn’t it?” Tour guide John asked. He didn’t have a flashlight, but seemed to move about very well in the dark without one.
“This is Hell’s lobby, remember?” Lisa added, somewhere to Sue’s left. “The rest of the cave is Hell.”
“Ugh. There are children here, you know!” Big Man growled, though Mattie thought he sounded a trifle more concerned than either of his offspring.
“This way, please,” John said. “The tour has only started.”
“Ahem,” coughed Mattie.
“How can we go down there with only three lights?” Hipster asked. He was straining his eyes to see–and not succeeding.
“Ahem,” Mattie repeated. The tour guides were flanking them, pushing them on, but she had made up her mind. “I’m not going without my bag.”
“What?” John turned around in annoyed surprise. “What bag?”
“Her blasted knitting,” Lisa muttered, and it didn’t require night vision to know she has rolled her eyes as she said it.
“But it’s pouring!” Sue exclaimed and stopped walking–though Lisa was very much encouraging her not to.
“Not to worry, not to worry,”Mattie tutted. She ducked her white head under Lisa’s arm and toddled off toward the entrance. “I always travel with an umbrella–terribly unpredictable weather on the islands.”
Sue and the others stared after her retreating form, a little square body in frumpy clothes, unfolding her umbrella like a bat’s wing. In a moment, she had disappeared into the sheets of rain that belted down the gravel track. Sue felt her heart skip.
“Should we let her go on her own like that?” She asked. “There were so many ways a little old lady could get hurt!”
“Leave her,” John snapped. “That makes three a piece, Thelia.”
“Thelia?” Sue asked, and Big Man started.
“Who–or what–the heck is Thelia?” he demanded.
“My last name,” Lisa said abruptly. Then she scowled at her partner. “That’s fine, John. I’ll lead the girls–you take the others.”
The little band descended, walking slowly down the smooth granite. Hipster had been separated with difficulty from his girlfriend, who was forced to walk between Sue and Big Man’s increasingly reluctant daughter.
“This is a dumb tour. We can barely see anything,” she muttered.
“You want to see something?” John asked. Then he tilted Big Man’s light abruptly upward. The six remaining tourists gasped in unison; the ceiling was a flapping, moving mass of huddled bodies.
“What. Are. Those?” Girlfriend whispered, clutching at Sue (as the Hipster substitute).
“Bats. Big deal,” Big Man’s daughter muttered, with considerably more control than her father–
“What are they doing up there?” he gasped, as if allowing bat in the cave was a huge failing of the tour company.
“Waiting,” the tour guides replied in unison.
“For Sunset.” Lisa’s voice was almost a hiss of delight. “They go out and feed at dusk. It’s almost time, too.”
All three flashlight beams wandered irresistibly upward. In the pools of light, the bats showed increasing activity. Their ears were pricked up, and they’d begun to make tiny, eerie, chirping sounds–like a swarm of insects.
“Um, what happens to us when they fly out?” Hipster asked. “I mean–should we–”
“DUCK!” barked Big Man’s son and–in a rare display of momentum–he did just that as a million flying rodents went swooping down on them.
“AAAiiiiieeeeeeee!” Girlfriend shrieked, almost climbing overtop of Sue Sandwich, who toppled over under the weight of her pack. Hipster was echoing her with his own sympathetic squeal, though it was mostly drowned out by the thunder of wings. Flashlights were dropped and went rolling, and suddenly they were in utter darkness–followed by an eerie, deafening silence.
“Are they gone?” Girlfriend begged. “I can’t see anything.”
She was not exaggerating. The cave had gone completely, utterly dark. It assaulted the senses like a velvet-covered hammer, leaving only pulsing ripples before their eyes–the trace surges of rapidly beating hearts.
“John? Lisa?” Sue asked. She was groping along the floor for her flashlight.
“Are they here?” Hipster asked.
“Of course we are here.”
Hipster and the others spun in the direction of the voice, though it did them no good. In a moment, it echoed from a new, equally invisible corner–
“Is this some kind of joke??” Big Man demanded of the dark.
“Not at all,” giggled Lisa. “It’s much more a game.”
There was a flapping sound, like a bat but much bigger, and suddenly Hipster cried out.
“Something’s got me!” he yelped, and in that moment, Sue finally locked her fingers about the canister of her Coleman. She flipped it around, shining it in the direction of his whimpering–
“It’s only me,” John said, though his fingers had closed tight around a terrified Hipster’s throat.
“What do you want from us?” Big Man squeaked from behind him. “Money? You want our money?”
“Don’t be silly,” Lisa hissed, appearing almost magically between him and Sue. “We have a very different payment in mind.”
“L-L-Lisa?” Sue stammered.
“It’s Thelia,” the not-Lisa snapped. “Lisa was the tour guide I had for lunch.”
There was silence. Then there was lot of shouting, and some whimpering, and a variety of other rather juvenile behavior…
It was unfortunate, Mattie thought, that young people were so apt to lose their heads in a crisis. What were they teaching at school these days?
“Ahem–excuse me?” Behind the group and its leering captors was the sound of an umbrella being shaken out. “Have I missed the tour? Dreadful weather.”
Sue still clutched the flashlight, but her hand was shaking too much to use it. The not-Lisa grasped her wrist and held it firm, pointing the beam at the path. It was Mattie Hornbecker, her hat askew and her hair mussed from wind and rain–but looking not much the worse for wear.
“You haven’t missed it at all,” Lisa hissed, her tongue ring and her teeth making it hard to speak plainly.
“Really, dear, that kind of lisp is most unseemly,” Mattie clucked. Behind the not-Lisa, Sue was mouthing words of warning: They’re dangerous!
“Yes,” Mattie agreed, giving the too-thin woman an appraising glance. “And badly dressed, with unsightly haircuts, dismal attitudes and a speech impediment…”
“Excuse me?” Thelia the not-Lisa snapped.
“And in sore need of a good bath,” Mattie continued.
That had done it. The creature–for she was looking less human by the moment–launched herself forward. There was a swoosh, followed by a splash, and the unmistakable sound of sizzling.
“ Holy Water,” Mattie explained, holding the dripping vial. The doused Thelia had stopped in mid-flight, and was now writhing in a really awful way on the floor. Tut, tut, Mattie muttered, and then went about the sordid business of plunging a bamboo knitting needle into the creature’s black heart.
This, it seemed, got the not-John’s attention. But he wasn’t going to waste his time. In a flapping of wings and a puff of dark smoke, he’d transformed into a large and very ugly kind of bat. He darted over the huddled groups and made for the exit, but Mattie knew her business. She pulled a handful of powder from her bag and tossed it in the air. The retreating creature coughed, recoiled and flopped unceremoniously on the cave floor. Knitting needle two was produced, and Mattie served him the same way. Except that he burst into flames immediately afterward.
Silence reigned for a full two minutes. And then, as was his wont, Big Man asked the important questions.
“What were they?” he choked.
“Vampires. Really, you ought to know when you see one,” Mattie said, brushing flecks of charred bat remains from her woolen skirt.
“But–you–needles–and–powder?” Sue managed.
“Bamboo. Good for complex knitting patterns, too.” Mattie said, tucking the Holy Water into her purse. “The other trick I owe to Miss Roberta Shelton. She makes pulverized garlic powder by special order. From her own garden, you know.”
Sue opened and shut her mouth silently, and in the vacuum, Big Man’s daughter picked up the thread.
“But how did you know?” She asked, and from the sound of it, she wasn’t bored anymore.
“Well, I was rather suspicious of the name,” Mattie said, adjusting her knitted cap. “The young lady called this cave Satan’s Bedroom, as I recall.” She nodded to Hipster’s girlfriend, who had the poor sense to go catatonic.
“But they called it Satan’s Foyer, and that was the name of a vampire coven destroyed here in the 70s. I imagine they were hoping to rebuild it, starting with the young females.”
“What about us?” Big Man asked, but Mattie was too well bred to suggest that he, at least, would have been a main course. His daughter had fewer reservations; she pushed past him, her blue eyes round saucers of appreciation.
“Who are you, though?” she asked.
“Mattie Hornbecker, first class, of the Knitters Guild of Vampire Hunters, Normal, Illinois,” Mattie handed her a folded card. On the front was a ball of yarn, on the back was the number of its recruiting office. “Re-establishing normal, since 1854.”
“You’re totally amazing.”
“Sometimes,” Mattie agreed with appropriate humility. “It is much easier when I bring the bag; I hate to be unprepared.”
“You’re still amazing,” the girl repeated, and Mattie thought perhaps there was some hope for the youth of tomorrow after all.
It was time to go home; the storm was letting up even as the sun set behind the ridge. Mattie had long ago missed her quiz show, of course, but there was still time for At the Auction and the hotel kitchen wouldn’t close for another hour or so. She stepped over the smoking bat-shaped ash, and around the oily slick that had once been Thelia. It was a waste of two good knitting needles, she thought. But a good cup of tea would do wonders–and perhaps a nice bit of beef.
It was a good day’s work, after all.