The next evening found the Challengers of the Unknown suited up for action. They wore the skin-tight purple costumes given to them by Corinna Stark at their first meeting with the mysterious beauty. The collars were fur-lined, and a thin vertical yellow stripe ran down each side.
They worked swiftly as Prof Haley and Red Ryan set up a series of small devices around room 213.
“The ectoplasmic scanners should be fully operational,” said Prof. “I don’t think our spirit will be able to elude them.”
“Once we have him contained, then what do we do with him?” asked Ace Morgan.
“Perhaps some kind of inter-dimensional displacement?” suggested Prof uncertainly. “I’m no expert on metaphysical science.”
“Yeah,” said Rocky Davis. “I wish I could just punch the creep or put him in a submission hold. Problem is, specters don’t stay solid enough for a good haymaker to do much to them!”
“I assure you that best solution will be for us to come to terms with Josiah and try to aid him,” said Corinna. “He wants to be free from whatever curse binds him to this place.”
“He’s a real mystery,” said Red. “No record of his existence turned up in any of the old Civil War records at the courthouse.”
Ace nodded and said, “He did say he had been forgotten. I suppose the same mystical power that temporarily erased the guest signatures of the guests who stayed on room 213 on that special night could easily remove all written evidence that the man actually lived. In his case, the effect was permanent.”
“Red, could you adjust the wiring?” asked Prof. “I don’t want the high winds to dislodge my connections.”
Red nodded and agilely swung himself out the open window and onto the roof. He tightened a few wires and then frowned as he spotted a pinpoint of light near the river. The light blinked off and then returned seconds later. “Code? Some kind of flickering light signal. I guess the ghost is back, and he brought Paul Revere with him!” he quipped before returning inside the room.
“There’s something going on down at the river,” he announced. “I saw lights blinking on and off from the woods. I think someone was signaling the inn!”
“Seeing odd lights near the river makes me think of smugglers,” said Ace. “Let’s check it out. We should have time before the ghost shows up. After all, isn’t that kind of thing reserved for the witching hour? Eden said that first guest to suffer from amnesia burst out of his room around midnight.”
The Challengers hurried out silently, and Ace pointed toward the river.
“It looks like Rodney’s sneaking out,” whispered Prof.
“I can’t see him hooking up with some town girl,” said Rocky. “He was a commodities trader. Maybe that risky business left him in need of cash.”
Ace agreed and said, “In spite of what we saw at the séance, I wonder if the Copenhavers were trying to distract us from some very real criminal doings with their ghost stories.”
They moved swiftly through the dark woods until the sounds of the river could be heard through the forest.
A boat had docked at a small pier, and Rodney Copenhaver was whispering to seven other dark-clad men as they gathered in a circle. “I need more time,” said Rodney. “I can sell the product if you give me extra time. Things have been strange here. Unwanted guests will be leaving soon. They were making things too hot for me to make my normal deals.”
A burly man with a shaven head said, “We held up our end of the bargain. We supplied the coke. You were supposed to sell it. You and your pretty wife said you had plenty of customers from your Wall Street days. You said this place was open for expansion, too!”
“I can’t sell blow while the Challengers of the Unknown are breathing down my neck!” whined Rodney. “But they won’t be bothering us after tonight. I can’t explain it, but after tonight, they won’t be a problem!”
Moonlight gleamed off of guns as the seven men drew out various weapons.
“Move in!” said Ace. “We can’t let them shoot Copenhaver!”
The male Challengers darted forward without realizing that Corinna had failed to follow them into the woods and had, in fact, returned to the Stoney Battery Inn.
Back inside room 213, Corinna hugged herself for warmth as a chill settled over the room, and a handsome man in an old-fashioned coat and hat appeared before her.
“Josiah Randolph!” she cried. “I recognize you from the sensations I felt when you communed with me during the séance!”
“I felt something within you that seemed as if we might be kindred spirits,” he said. “You, too, have known isolation and despair. It was such a rapport that enabled me to walk forth before my appointed hour.”
“Please — tell me your story,” said Corinna. “Why is it you can only materialize on this night in this room?”
“This night is the anniversary of the night I made a bargain that ruined my very life,” said Josiah. “It is only upon this date that I am free to roam this chamber and attempt to redeem myself!”
“What happened?” asked Corinna. “Please tell me.”
“I was raised here when this plantation was prosperous,” explained Josiah. “Slave labor worked the fields, and my family and I lived well. We were like neighboring planters in that we lived like royalty. It was a romantic idyll like something out of Sir Walter Scott. We never dreamed it might ever change. My father was a harsh master, and he treated our slaves with a severity that I never supported. It was not my place to challenge his word.
“I was not a planter — I was an artist. I lived to paint, and I spent all my time in my studio until war came, and I served, as did all my friends. I found solace in the love I had for Arabella Mayer. It was her image that sustained me through the bloody years of battle. I was certain our love would guide me home to her. I did find home after the war but returned to a home that had been changed forever. Without slave labor, we could not sustain our old way of life. My home was devoid of the light and laughter it had known in time of repose. As for Arabella, she spurned me for a more comfortable life with a carpetbagger who made profit off what had once been the cream of the Confederacy. I was a broken man.”
“Arabella! Are the portraits in the gallery of her?” asked Corinna.
“Yes,” Josiah replied. “I captured her likeness, but never her heart. She left me for another. I could neither eat nor sleep. I turned to drink, but it offered no comfort. Then I sought a surer remedy. One of our former slaves was a wise woman named Mama Huldie. She was a conjure woman. She had magic, or so the slaves said. I went to her cabin and asked for relief from the pain that burned within my every thought. She gave me a potion that she claimed would help me forget Arabella.
“I took the foul potion on November 3rd, 1866, in this room which once was my own. It did bring forgetfulness, but it did not make me forget the woman who hurt me. You see, Mama Huldie bore a hatred for my family that I never saw. I deluded myself, like many of my class, into thinking the former slaves saw us as benefactors and not as tyrants. My father’s cruelty to the slaves had caused them to hate all us Randolphs, and Huldie took advantage of my eagerness to believe in her kind will and strong power to ruin me!”
“It didn’t make you forget Arabella,” whispered Corinna. “You clearly recall her all too well.”
Josiah nodded sadly and said, “Rather, the infernal chemicals magically removed all memory of my very existence from the world. No one recalled me. My paintings remained, but my signatures had vanished. No one could see me. No one could hear me. I could not touch anyone. I could not write or paint or make any type of contact with another living soul. I was like an invisible and unaging wraith trapped betwixt worlds. I had not died and could not pass on to the other world, nor could I have concourse with this world… except for one evening a year.
“On November 3rd, I could be seen and heard, but I could not leave the room. However, my contact with humans left them temporarily without memory. The spell that removed me from existence could touch others as well for a brief duration. While they regained their wits and memories, they could not recall contact with me. I was as alone as ever before days after making contact with those who entered this room on that one night each year.”
“You suffered a fate worse than death,” said Corinna. “The dead are recalled and mourned, but in your case, no one could remember you at all. I suppose that type of temporary removal from existence is what plagues those who stay in your old room. Everyone else forgets they existed for a brief time.”
“This much I have gathered from hearing the conversations of those who entered the room during my years of entrapment,” said Josiah. “I could hear them and see them, and through their talk I could learn that my encounters had had an arcane effect on those I met. I could neither explain nor seek help.”
“You poor man!” cried Corinna. “I know this meeting will also rob me of my memory for a time. Our devices were designed to record and trap you, but I won’t use them against you. I feel too strongly for your pain!”
“I could almost believe your tender heart could free me,” said Josiah. “You see, there is a way for me to be freed from the curse the potion brought upon me! My years of solitude have enabled me to come to an innate understanding of my plight better than any conjure woman or modern-day Merlin could ever conceive. I may return to my own proper era — to the exact evening of November 3rd, 1866, and freely live out a normal lifespan with the outside world and those I love, if–!” He cut himself off before he could finish explaining.
Corinna stepped forward and looked up into his haunting eyes. “If what?” she asked.
“I am reluctant to tell you the terms of my curse, since I have relished the time spent with you thus far,” said Josiah. “If someone will willingly join me in my proper era and share my curse, then I will be free of it.”
Corinna’s eyes widened as she said, “You mean I could travel in time to your era and actually live with you in that time?”
“Yes, but in doing so, you would be forgotten by all,” said Josiah. “Your very name and all you’ve done in your young life would be erased from memory.”
“But I would be a normal woman in 1866, and I could love and marry and do the many things any woman would do,” she said. “Is that correct?”
“Aye,” he replied. “But no one, not even those near and dear to your heart, will recall you ever lived in this era. You sound as though you would join me! Can this be true?”
The redhead nodded and extended one slender hand. “I have lived a solitary life of isolation and dreamed often of more romantic places and times. My presence among the Challengers is hurting their unity. Could there ever be a greater unknown to challenge than to enter into the life you describe? I will do it!”
Josiah smiled and took her hand. “I will repay this act of mercy with all I have to give!” he cried.
Corinna smiled and said, “Call it an act of love, not merely of mercy.”
Outside, the Challengers of the Unknown had leaped into explosive action as the acrobatic Red Ryan flipped through the air to bring down two gunmen with a powerful tackle.
Rocky Davis charged into three others, and his near-lethal fists sent them crashing to the ground. Prof Haley followed suit with a well-placed punch of his own. Ace Morgan clipped the final thug with one stinging jab as Rodney Copenhaver sighed with relief before crying out, “This isn’t what you think! They were forcing me to help!”
“Save it for the court, pal,” said Ace. “We’re taking you all in. Using your inn to sell drugs should buy you plenty of time to think over your past mistakes!”
“Yeah, and you deserve every second of it!” said Red.
As they secured the fallen criminals and their illicit cargo, the Challengers spoke amongst themselves.
“I guess Granny Snopes was right,” said Prof. “Coming here on this night did enable us to do some good. I suppose she wanted us to take down these punks all along. That was why she insisted we come here.”
Rocky shrugged and said, “She gets these feelings, and they’re always right. Who knows how she did it? At least she got us here where we needed to be. Our job here is done!”
Red slapped him on the back and said, “And not a minute too soon. I just tore my uniform when I landed that flip. I guess June’s fancy fur-trimmed outfits aren’t as durable as our old purple suits.”
“She meant well when she made them,” said Ace. “She did make them, didn’t she? I can’t exactly recall when we got them!”
“Nor can I,” said Prof. “Still, none of us sew, and June is the only female that has ever been associated with the team. She must have whipped them up. Odd that none of us remember when she gave them to us, though.”
Later, after Eden Copenhaver had also been turned over to the authorities for her role in the drug trade, the Challengers packed up and prepared to depart.
“I’ve lived here since I was a mere boy, and I never experienced anything like this,” said old Gabe. “Druggies at the Randolph House Inn!”
“Considering the illustrious history of the Randolph House Inn and the commendable artistic and political career of the celebrated Josiah Randolph,” said Prof, “I’d say you don’t have to fear the place’s image will be soiled.”
“Yeah, I mean even a mug like me has read about all the things Josiah Randolph accomplished,” said Rocky. “He was a real American Renaissance man!“
Red nodded as he lingered in the gallery full of paintings completed and signed by the nineteenth-century artist. “Most of these paintings are of a real looker!” he said. “That flaming red hair and those piercing eyes really send me!”
“According to old Gabe, the mystery woman in the paintings was Josiah Randolph’s equally remarkable wife, Corinna,” explained Ace. “She and Josiah were a devoted couple, and he immortalized her through all his creations.”
Rocky nodded as he glanced back over one shoulder at the beautiful woman in the paintings. You don’t find babes like that these days, he thought wistfully.