“Read the Sign” Dark Fiction by Peter Portelli

Rain "Read the Sign" Dark Fiction by Peter Portelliin

Albertown was a town with nothing going for it. Except for the rain. It rained most days, even in summer, even when it was hot. It rained day and night. The people of Albertown did not care about the rain. If they did, they would have left. When conversations dried up, the people of Albertown talked about the rain. If it were not for the rain, the people of Albertown would talk less, a lot less.

There was one road going into Albertown, Pine Road. It was a decent road lined with trees and lush green views. One could even call it picturesque. About one mile outside the town, there was a sign saying, ‘Welcome to Albertown. The town where it always rains but never pours. Population: 9650’.

The town had everything you would expect it to have. Nothing more, nothing less. A church, a school, a police station, a fire station, a food market, a couple of drinking holes, a petrol station, a doctor’s clinic, and a town hall. Life in Albertown revolved around these places. If you had reason to look for someone in Albertown, the chances are that you would find him in one of these places. If not there, then your next best bet would be the forest. Most of the population worked in the logging industry.

Babies were born, children went to school, and people, usually old, died. The citizens were kind to each other, generally speaking. There was no crime in Albertown if one disregarded petty crime. Someone once painted the pastor’s dog green. They never found out who it was. The mystery remained unsolved.

That all changed on November 23, 2016.

It all started with an oddity. In 2016, November 23 fell on a Wednesday, which is odd. November 23 is more likely to fall on a Monday, Tuesday or Friday. But in 2016, it fell on a Wednesday.

Sheriff Vince Girard was polishing his hunting rifle at his desk, thinking about his next trip. He doted over the Winchester Model 70. He had bought it over a decade ago, but it still looked brand new. It was a post-1992 model with all the features of a classic Model 70. He had spent many days in the forest alone with this gun. Sheriff Girard was a simple man with no expectations from life. He loved his job, he loved his hunting, and he loved his rifle.

The phone on his desk rang. The loud ringing noise startled him just as his fingers caressed the trigger. He pulled it. The unloaded gun clicked. He smiled.

“Sheriff Girard,” he said in his most serious voice.

“Hi, Vince. Gaby Littlejohn here.”

“Hi, Gaby. How can I help you?”

“Sorry to bother you, but someone vandalised the sign on Pine Road.”

“Sign? Which sign?” asked the Sheriff.

“Sheriff, there is only one sign there. It’s the one that says welcome to Albertown.  Population 9650. Except that now it reads population 9648.”

“Ah, okay, Gaby. Thanks for letting me know. I will see to it.”

Sheriff Girard hung up. “Bloody bikers,” he said to himself. Bikers passed through Albertown, riding to or from the larger cities in the vicinity. They hardly ever stopped. There was nothing for them in Albertown. But come to think of it, he had not seen or heard any bikers in the last days. It must have been the Brandon kids then. They were always up to some mischief. He logged the call. He reached out for his hat, grabbed the car keys from the ashtray, which was never used for its intended purpose, not since he quit smoking anyway, and walked out of the station.

He was about to open his blue and white SUV, a Ford Explorer with the mounted lightbar, when Pastor John stopped him. The sheriff and the pastor grew up together in Albertown. They had even shared the same desk in Miss Pinkerton’s class.  Girard was surprised when John had told him that he wanted to serve God but not as much as John was surprised when he heard that Girard wanted to serve the law. Girard had been a bit of a rebel in his younger days.

“Sheriff Girard, just the person I wanted to see. Will you be joining us for the service this Sunday? I have an important announcement regarding this year’s fair.”

Sheriff Girard was about to answer when it happened. It was as if the street turned into a Rube Goldberg machine. Reverend John’s car started to move. He forgot to pull up his handbrake, although he later swore that he did. The chunky blue Volvo rode the pavement and hit the large sandwich board sign outside Mrs Dupree’s cake shop. The sign fell and hit a ladder propped up against the haberdashery shop. The ladder toppled onto the street, forcing an oncoming car to swerve onto the opposite side of the road, where Janice Trudy was pushing her two-month-old baby boy in a stroller. 

The whole chain of events lasted seconds, during which Sheriff Girard stood motionless, helpless. He recovered his senses and radioed for an ambulance. The white and red van did not take long to appear; the health centre was just a few blocks away. The two paramedics did all they could, but their efforts were futile. Janice and her baby died of their wounds.

Later that evening, Sheriff Girard met the mayor and city councillors in a hastily-convened meeting at the city hall. It was a decently sized place, enough for the needs of Albertown. It also doubled up as the school theatre for the Christmas pageant. The mayor’s secretary would not stop crying throughout the whole meeting. She knew Janice well. Sheriff Girard told the City Council how the accident happened. He spared the details.

“Where were you heading at the time of the accident?” Councillor Gates asked. Gates owned the town’s hardware store on Main Street, not too far from where the accident happened, the one with the old sign that said paints, oil and varnishes – ironically in desperate need of a bit of paint and varnish itself. But that was typical of Gates, always minding everybody else’s business but not taking care of his own.

“Gaby Littlejohn called me and told me that the sign on Pine Road was vandalised. I was about to head there and check things out,” he said.

The mayor thanked the sheriff for his recount and for the ‘leadership he showed in the most difficult and trying circumstances’. Janice did not have any close relatives. She lived on her own. The mayor offered to handle the funeral arrangements. He owned the only funeral parlour in town.

It was a late and sorrowful drive back home from the city hall. He stopped at the Blue Waters Bar, at the edge of town for a quick one. The place was packed. The smell of burnt cooking oil, stale beer and tobacco were a trademark of that joint just as much as the very decent locally crafted beer. The jukebox was playing a song by Pearl Jam. Girard loved that song …  I see the words on a rocking horse of time, I see the birds in the rain …

Nobody was talking about rain today. Molly wore the shortest of skirts and the tightest of shirts. She smiled at Girard. There was a brief history between them, a spark that never really took off but never went away either. Molly gave the sheriff his usual, which he downed without a word. He left the money on the counter and continued on his way home.

Sheriff Girard woke up with a thumping headache, courtesy of the empty bottle of Canadian whisky that lay on the floor. It was not the first time that empty whisky bottles rolled on his parquet floors. He had a drinking problem. He knew about it, as did everyone in Albertown. He showered, shaved and poured himself some coffee. Black, no sugar.

He drove to his office. His head was still pounding.  He parked in his reserved spot. He saw a small crowd gathered where Janice and her baby died. Some had brought flowers and placed them on the pavement. Janice was a sweet girl, loved by everyone – literally and metaphorically. Someone had placed a teddy bear. Sheriff Girard crossed the road to the impromptu shrine. He did not know what to do and stood in silence with a couple of other people who felt it was their duty to ‘be there’.

He opened his office, placed his car keys in the empty ashtray, hung his hat and sat down in front of his computer. He took out his notebook and started to type out the report. He was halfway through when the phone rang.

“Sheriff Girard speaking.”

“Good morning, Sheriff. This is Mrs Marple from Green Road. I don’t know if you remember me. You helped me find my prince once.”

“Of course, I do, Mrs Marple.” Prince was an ugly pug that was overfed and undertrained. It had not been difficult to find him. All it had taken was some biscuits to get him out of the hedge.

“Tell me, Mrs Marple, how can I help you?”

“Well, I was driving back into Albertown. I was at my sister’s in the city.” She emphasised ‘the city’ to underline that she was related to a person who had managed to escape from Albertown and now lived in the big beyond.

“Just as I was driving by, I noticed that the sign outside the city had been vandalised.”

“Thank you, Mrs Marple. As it happens, someone else reported it yesterday. I will see to it today. Make sure it is cleaned up.”

“You good you. It looks odd, though …”

“What looks odd?” asked Sheriff Girard.

“Population 9645.”

“9645? Gaby Littlejohn told me it said population 9648?”

“No, I am quite sure it says 9645. You see, I was born in 1945. That’s what caught my attention. The number finished with forty-five. I said how odd. Of all the numbers. Don’t you think that is odd?”

Sheriff Girard was about to say that everything about Mrs Marple was odd but decided not to. Instead, he reassured her that the sign would be fixed.

“I will see to it myself,” he told her.

It was raining outside. He decided to wait for the rain to subside before heading out. He stared at the flowers across the street being pelted with rainfall. Deputy Clayton handed him a coffee. His head was still throbbing. The sheriff’s deputy was some twenty years younger than Girard. Not the brightest crayon in the box, but in Albertown, beggars could not be choosers.

The phone on his desk rang.

He picked it up, expecting to hear Mrs Marple’s voice again, but it was Molly from the Blue Waters. Her voice was agitated. He could sense the fear in her tone.

“Sheriff, my Johnny. He’s gone crazy. Come quick. Please hurry … Help.”

Sheriff Girard heard a gunshot, a second shot followed by another and another. And then silence.

For the second time in less than 24 hours, Sheriff Girard drove down to the Blue Waters Bar. It didn’t open till late afternoon. The front door was locked and the carpark, which had been packed the night before, was deserted except for Johnny’s battered  red pickup truck. He walked to the service entrance at the back, the same door that led to the apartment above the joint. He took out his revolver and pushed the door. It was unlocked.

“Sheriff Girard here. I am coming up. I am armed,” he shouted.

No reply. He climbed the fifteen steps, his gun pointing towards the top of the stairs.

Molly, her husband and her daughter Ellie lived in that apartment. Lived. Because they were now dead. Molly kept her house tidy. There were flowers in a vase. Everything was where and how it was supposed to be. Everything except the dead bodies. Splatters of blood covered the pale blue bedroom wall. Molly had been shot at close range. Blood from the hole in her chest was seeping into the carpet. She held the telephone in her hand as she lay crumpled on the floor. Ellie was shot twice in the back while trying to run away from Johnny. Sheriff Girard checked her pulse. Nothing.  Johnny, wearing a white tank top and black tracksuit pants, was sitting on the bed. At least part of him was. His head, or rather what was left of it, was strewn all over the bedroom. Strangely, his body remained upright. It sat there with the rifle at its feet.

Sheriff Girard removed his two-way radio from his belt and pressed the speaker button.

“This is Sheriff Girard. Over.”

“Deputy Sheriff Clayton here. Over,” came the reply.

“Ten-fifty-one and ten-fifty-six at the Blue Waters Bar. I repeat ten-fifty-one and ten-fifty-six at the Blue Waters. We need a team here to close the area. Bring everybody and by everybody, I mean everybody. Over.”

It was the first time he had to call in a murder.

That evening the council met again. Sheriff Girard was the last to arrive. The mayor and councillors were eagerly waiting for him. He noted a sense of real concern in their questions mixed with a dose of morbid curiosity, particularly from Councillor Gates. Blue Waters was everyone’s drinking hole. Everyone inside the council hall and indeed in the town knew Molly, Ellie and Johnny.

Sheriff Girard led with the phone call from Mrs Marple. Something strange was going on in Albertown. People were dying, and their death was being pre-announced.

“I tell you, this is beyond odd. Someone is either playing a sick game or….”

“Or what?” asked Councillor Gates.

The mayor and councillors were unsure what to make of the sheriff’s story. The sheriff could read their eyes. They were listening, but they were not hearing. Or was it hearing but not listening? Councillor Banks leaned over and whispered something into Councillor Leblanc’s ear. Were they mentioning his drink problem, he wondered? Of course, they were.

The mayor took the floor. When he spoke, everyone else listened. The man practically owned the town and everything in it. “Let us not get ahead of ourselves or lose focus. We had a traffic accident yesterday and a shooting incident today. Johnny was a time bomb waiting to explode. We knew that. We all knew that. Molly should have kicked him out years ago. I am going out on a limb here but maybe, Sheriff, you should have made sure he spent more time in your lockup. I suggest that you drive up to the sign tomorrow and get to the bottom of these acts of vandalism. If this is someone’s idea of a joke, we need to find who this joker is and put a stop to it.”

The mayor’s speech was met with a chorus of ‘hear, hear.’

Sheriff Girard walked out of the city hall. Across the street, someone had scrawled on the wall, ‘So it was written, so it shall be done’ in large black letters. The sheriff felt something he had not felt in years. The hair on the back of his neck was standing up. He never felt that in Albertown. He wondered what tomorrow would bring. That night he hardly slept. He did not touch any alcohol. He wanted to think straight. He needed to stay sober because everything else around him was anything but straight.

The following morning, Sheriff Girard headed first to the station to pick up Deputy Sheriff Clayton and then drove straight to the sign. The car’s radio was tuned to the local radio station. The town’s busybody ran the station. She made it her official business to know everything about everyone. The past two days had given her a lot to talk about. She wasn’t just going on about the deaths. She rattled on about the ‘things we all know of but dare not speak about’. She never actually spelt out what these things were. She announced that she would soon be joined by Pastor John, who, she added, had some news to share.

“Reverend John is with you in these troubled times,” she said.

After a very short commercial break, Pastor John came on.

“Dear listeners, tragedy has struck our peaceful town—five deaths in two days. We are shocked by these untimely deaths and shaken to hear from our very own sheriff that these deaths were announced on the sign on Pine Street. All this reminds me of The Bible, the Book of Daniel. Remember the writing on the wall mene, mene, tekel, upharsin’… God has weighed the kingdom of Belshazzar and found it wanting. Make peace with the Lord, for we do not know when our day of reckoning is coming.”

Sheriff Girard switched off the radio.

“This cannot be a coincidence,” he said. “Somebody is marking the deaths before they happen.”

“But Janice’s death was an accident. Johnny’s was a suicide. Surely you do not think there is a common hand in both?” replied Clayton.

“I do not know what to think,” said the sheriff. “But something is not right.”

The rain picked up as he drove outside town and was now pouring down heavily. Sheriff Girard had never seen it rain so hard, and he had seen all types of rainfall. But nothing like this. The wipers were working at full speed but could not keep up with the rain. Luckily, there were no cars on the road. They drove slowly and eventually got to the sign. The sheriff parked safely on the side of the road, a few yards away from the sign. The sign stood ominously in front of them. Their eyes immediately went for the number. They froze. They expected to see the number 9645. That is what Mrs Marple had said. But the number on the sign read: 2.

“Did you feel that?” Deputy Sheriff Clayton asked.

“Feel what?” asked the Sheriff.

“The Earth moved,” replied the Deputy.

The Earth moved. Sheriff Girard had never experienced an earthquake before. He felt nauseated. They looked towards the forest, their eyes following the rumbling sounds.

“The trees,” shouted Clayton. “The trees are moving.”

They stood in awe, petrified as the whole forest seemed to edge forward half a mile from where they stood. It was the oddest, most terrifying scene Sheriff Girard had ever seen. The trees were like soldiers marching in formation.  The sound of crunching branches and of rocks and boulders falling accompanied this march forward. The sky filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of birds, flying from their nests. The sheriff and deputy sheriff held on to the roof of the car.

Then came the loudest, most horrible sound they had ever heard. It was as if the mountain self-mutilated itself and threw the rejected part away in anger. An avalanche of debris, rock and trees lurched forward at breath-taking speed. The sheriff and deputy sheriff stood motionless, watching the thunderous flow hurtle towards Albertown, crushing everything in its path. The deadly mass first hit the Blue Waters and then continued on its murderous drive flattening street after street. Girard saw small explosions coming from buildings, at least they looked small from where he stood on the mountain.

“The town hall, the town hall,” shouted deputy Clayton just as the tallest building in Albertown was flattened like a child’s sandcastle. The sheriff looked towards the school, his school. This was a normal school day, children would be sitting in the same room where he had attended class.

“No, please no,” shouted the sheriff as the deadly wave crashed into the school. The wave finally came to a halt on top of where Albertown once stood. Everything was gone. All the buildings, all the roads, everything was buried under the mound of rock, mud and trees.

Sheriff Girard and Deputy Sheriff Clayton looked at each other. Their heads turned towards the sign.

‘Welcome to Albertown. The town where it always rains but never pours. Population: 1’.

It is not clear who reached for the gun first. Fair to say that they both managed to shoot. Sheriff Girard was more precise. His shot hit the deputy straight between the eyes. But the deputy was faster. He had let off two rounds that hit the sheriff in his midriff.

“Damn you, Clayton,” said the sheriff, pressing his hand on his stomach. Blood was gushing out from the wound.

He limped towards the car and opened the door. He sat down in his seat, lifting his legs and placing them inside the vehicle. As he did so, he looked toward the sign. Population: 0.


Peter Portelli calls the Mediterranean island of Malta his home. He is a career civil servant, having served in the highest offices of the public service in Malta. He started out writing short stories and has now also completed the manuscript for his first novel, The Armies of God.


If you enjoyed this story, you may also enjoy “Bath Time for Panda” by Maxwell C. Porter.

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