Do you know the tale of Sleepy Hollow? Of Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones? Of the Headless Horseman? Did you read it one stormy night as a child? Or did you see the movie? Either way, what you got was not the true story of that cursed little town, but merely a watered-down fairy tale. Oh, the Horseman was real enough, that dark spectral rider lacking a head, but the rest of it? Pure bunkum.
His name was lost to the centuries, forgotten in a haze of gunpowder and blood. So, he was called simply the Hessian. Whether he was truly one of the German mercenaries that George III hired to fight his war or not, I don't really know. I don't think it matters much. At least not to him anyway. And I certainly didn't care what his name was. After all, when your last name is Occult worrying about another's nom de guerre is a bit like throwing stones in a glass house isn't it? All that mattered to me was just how much of a threat he was, and how his defeat could be arranged.
Ghosts are tricky, especially old ones. They get mean and nasty in the lonely places, and Sleepy Hollow certainly qualified as both of those. I came to the village through the Outlands of the Never-Never, slipping through the threshold of reality with an ease that comes of practice. Seven decades worth of practice to be exact. I stepped out of a knotted and gnarled tree just outside of the town limit, my coat whipping in the night breeze and a chill wind chewing at my joints. New England is cold this time of year. Sleepy Hollow was no exception. I pulled my coat collar up and pushed my hat down tighter on my head as I strode down quaint cobbled streets and thought back on what I knew on the true history of Sleepy Hollow.
The village was settled in the 1600s by Dutch settlers, just like most of the immediate area. But these settlers brought some things with them others didn't-magic. White mainly, but some black. A community of witches and warlocks, running from persecution, choosing to face a savage wilderness instead of a hangman's noose. They settled here, driving out the Indians and their spirits, bringing in new ones. Eventually, as all things do, the town grew, changed. New colonists came. Mostly of the non-magical variety. The warlocks grew older, intermarried, put up their spells and rituals for plows and aprons. Probably smart considering that the witch-hunters followed them to their new paradise like lions on the trail of gazelles. Those who didn't do such fled into the wilderness.
But the spirits remained. I could see them as I walked slowly down the main street of the town. Mostly faded, like half-remembered dreams, visible only to people with the Sight. They drifted through the air like algae on the tide, not noticing as I passed through them. Sad, really. The detritus of lost magic.
About twenty years after the last warlock left Sleepy Hollow, the war came. The Revolutionary War, that is, for the slower of you. And with it came the darkest chapter in the history of the Hollow. A certain British Colonel got word that Washington's agents were abroad and seeking out the services of the witches of Sleepy Hollow to aid the colonials. So, this colonel decided to put his foot down and put a halt to that nonsense. He sent a troop of Hessians here, supposedly, to ferret out the spies and witches both and dispose of the lot. But with typical German efficiency, the Hessian commander decided to butcher the entire town rather than waste a few days sifting through the population for supposed enemies.
However, things didn't quite work out as planned. Harsh words were exchanged. Demons were raised. People died. And the Hessian commander got his head ripped off. Thus was born the Headless Horseman. Or so Baron Winter informed me when I asked him about it. As to why the Horseman continued to ride through the benighted lanes of this little hamlet, no one really knew. Most ghosts are born out of unfulfilled desire, or massive guilt.
In the Hessian's case, I think it was just plain stubbornness.
I stopped before the steps of the police station. A light was visible through the glass double doors. Good. Evidently, police really are the same everywhere. When crime is afoot, justice does not sleep or something like that. Inside my head, a woman's laughter tinkled and echoed off the sides of my skull. Rose. I can always count on her to laugh at my jokes, sad as they are. I headed for the doors as the wind picked up, sending leaves whipping through the air in a tide of red and brown. Somewhere, I fancied I heard the neigh of a horse.
The Hessian continued his little rides down through the intervening years after the war. Killed a few poor souls. Scared more. Exorcism was tried at least three times, once in the last fifty years. The Hessian would go away for a few months, then come back, stronger and meaner. Riding through the forest around the town, waving a notched and pitted saber and looking for his lost head. At least that was the general consensus. In actuality, he probably could have cared less about his moldy misplaced skull. Unless someone tried to use it in a hex against him. Then, he might go looking. More than likely, he was just angry and looking to take it out on everyone within his immediate territory.
Ghosts can be quite bratty at times. Especially the older ones.
I let the doors of the police station close quietly behind me as I stalked down the tiled floor. Why is it police stations always insist on picking white and puce colored tiles for their lobby? I've never understood that. Voices drew me down a side corridor, and I slip past the officer on desk without batting an eye. No one sees me unless I want them to, or unless they themselves are highly adept in the arts. Something I've encountered once too many times of late for my tastes. I followed the voices to the morgue. I pushed through another set of double doors, metal this time, rather than glass and came face to face with a trio of rather agitated men. One, brush-cut as tightly in place as the gunbelt on his expansive waist, I figured for the Sheriff. The second was middle-aged and gray haired already, but nicely dressed. My bureaucrat-senses were tingling, and I guessed I had the mayor, or at least a town councilman. The third was a youngish man, dressed in a lab smock. Coroner. Behind them, on a metal slab at the center of the room lay the third in the series of gruesome murders that had drawn me to Sleepy Hollow.
In the past several weeks, two men had been killed nastily and painfully. This was the third. Same manner. Same time of night. The same stink of magic on the corpse. I brushed past the men before they could so much as gasp at my appearance and examined the body.
"Now, who in the sam hill are you?" the sheriff barked, pudgy fingers digging for the gun that was no longer there. He gaped when I gestured without looking up, and the pistol appeared in my hand. I love that trick. "Hey!"
"Occult. Doctor Occult." I said coolly as I bent down and examined the body, laying the pistol down beside me. Adult male. Thirty to forty years of age. He had been decapitated just like the other two. Before I turned around to face my hosts, I took note of a strange tattoo on the corpse's wrist. I knew I had seen it somewhere before. The mayor harrumphed and tried to regain his composure. I only gave him half my attention. The other half was drawn to the morgue window that hung partially open. I could have sworn I heard distant hooves drumming on the cobbles, growing closer with every second.
"Well Mister Occul-"
"Whatever. This is a restricted area. You'll have to leave. Sheriff..." The mayor gestured nervously and the sheriff turned towards the doors as if to call for backup. I sighed and contemplated freezing him in his tracks, but the young coroner beat me to it. Again, what sounded like hooves caught my ear. Nearer now.
"Wait, Mayor Crane. I've heard of the doctor here. Good things. Perhaps he could help us with-"
"Nope. Nothing doing. Can't have outsiders snooping around, mucking up the works." The mayor snapped, waving soft hands. I ignored him and instead turned towards the young coroner. Now I definitely heard hooves. They were close. Too close.
"Maybe you should close that window..."
"Vaughn. Doctor Samuel Vaughn."
"Pleasure to meet you. And I really do suggest you close that window."
"And why is that?"
I leapt just as the impact came and knocked the three of them to the cool tile of the floor. As the dust of pulverized bricks and splintered wood settled and stung my eyes an immense form sauntered through the hole in the wall.
On a horse.
Without a head.
The man, not the horse.
The horse neighed and rolled fire-red eyes beneath coal black lids. It's rider said nothing, not that he could've if he had wanted to, and proceeded to draw the biggest, bloodiest saber I had ever had the misfortune to see out of the rotten sheath at his hip. I looked down then into the wide, frightened eyes of Doctor Samuel Vaughn and grinned.