What We Found in the Back Room at Viterbo’s Pawn and Loan
by Jeff Baker
When you work in essentially a large concrete box with a big window it gets hot, even in the winter. I’d worked at the old Viterbo’s Pawn and Loan on Fifth Street since I was a senior in High School five years ago and I’d gotten to the point where in winter I kept my jacket in my car. In summer we opened the side window and cranked the AC. in the back room. Why Mr. Ricker didn’t spring for an extra air conditioner (we sold enough of them) was beyond me. But he was almost never there and let his employees run things and he didn’t harass us so I was fine as long as I could still live with Mom and Dad. That made the whole job affordable. Besides, at five thirty p.m. I got to check out golden, gorgeous Cesar when he came in for the night shift. He was big, muscular and nobody messed with him. He was also straight but I checked him out and sighed inside; I doubt he ever realized. Margie (the girl I worked with in the day) knew and we kidded about it all. I was wiry, she was kind of dumpy and sweet and we got along.
The back room at the pawn shop hadn’t really ever been cleaned out. There were boxes stacked on top of chairs, a stack of tires, several dismantled record players, radios and even an old reel-to-reel tape player; Wollensaki or something. It wasn’t a firetrap but it was cluttered. Mr. Ricker said most of it had been there when he bought the place a decade earlier. I found an old “Secrets of Astaroth” comic book in a plastic bag in one of those boxes while trying to find something else. I got an employee discount and took it home.
Anyway, one afternoon we were trying to fix the blinds so we could close them so it wouldn’t be so hot when the plastic thing holding up one end of the blinds snapped and the blind fell down propped at an angle pointing at corner of the window.
“It looks like one of those graphs in USA Today,” Margie said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Like: ‘Peaches are popular with college guys!’ Or something.”
“We need to fasten that end with something,” she said. “Until El Cheapo splurges to have those blinds repaired.”
“Too bad it isn’t winter, I’d have my scarf in the car,” I said.
“Hey, wait a minute,” Margie said suddenly rushing to the back room through the doorway behind the register. A moment later she returned with a small coil of rope wrapped around her shoulder like Indiana Jones.
“How’s this?” Margie asked holding the rope up like it was a string of Christmas lights.
“It’ll work for now,” I said. “At least it’s not thick enough to tie the Love Boat to the dock. Bring it over here.”
We didn’t have a lot of customers that afternoon which was good. It must have taken about half an hour to figure how to tie the end of the blind up. It wouldn’t attach to the broken plastic it had been hooked to but there was a pole hanging from wires from the ceiling which was only about a foot away from the top of the window. We’d hung leather jackets that were for sale from there so they could be seen from the window. Now we had the rest of the rope tied to the bar supporting the window blind which we were able to lower partway. We stepped back and surveyed our handiwork.
“Looks good,” Margie said. “Kinda reminds me of building a fort out of sofa cushions and blankets in the living room.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Should work as long as that rope wasn’t holding up anything in the back room!”
It was close to five and I was ringing up some lady’s purchase of a car radio when I heard a scream. The lady and I looked up. Margie was pointing at the wall.
The slanted sunlight was hitting the wall and casting a shadow of our jury rigged pole with the rope tied to it. In the shadow was something not there; the figure of a man hanging by his neck from the rope. The customer let out a gasp and dropped the car radio she was buying.
I walked over, shaking. It was a gag. It had to be. I felt the wall where the shadow was. It wasn’t a painting or a cardboard cutout. It was the shadow of a hanging man. It was turning slowly like hanged man I’d seen in a western on TV once. But that had been a movie stuntman. I stepped back from the shadow and when I stepped under where we had tied the rope to the pole I felt like I was passing through something cold.
Something that felt wrong.
In another minute I had pulled the rope off the pole and off the blind which was back to flopping in the window. I looked over; the shadow of the hanged man was gone.
“Where did you find this rope?” I asked.
“I’d seen it in an old wooden crate at the back of the back room,” Margie said. Part of the stuff that had been here since Ricker bought the place.”
“I remember hearing Ricker say he’d bought the place from the previous owner after he’d been found dead…” My voice trailed off.
The front door opened and Cesar walked in, looking hot but I didn’t care.
“Hey guys,” he said. “What’s new?”
The rope felt cold. I dropped it to the ground.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The draws for this month’s Flash Fiction Draw Challenge were a horror story, set in a pawn shop involving a length of rope. I put on my M.R. James hat and eventually got around to the horror.