They used to call this “The Witching Hour,” three to four in the morning when witches, goblins, and other demons of the night were most likely to be active. I call it “The Terrible Three,” the hour when insomniacs like me are most likely to awaken and spend the rest of the night in a restless pursuit of sleep.

+++++I’ve tried everything to beat this sleeplessness. Sleeping pills, melatonin, warm milk, a fifth of whiskey. But “The Terrible Three” is a persistent little cuss. I lay awake staring into the dark, my sleep shattered by a thousand random thoughts. How secure is my job? If fired, can I find another one? How will I pay the rent? What if there is another war? What about that series of horrible murders the newspapers keep talking?

+++++I’ve read insomnia is usually due to stress during our waking hours. The recommended treatment is to reduce that stress. How the hell do I do that? It’s not as if I’m forcing these stress levels on myself. It comes from my boss and his boss above him. It comes from powers over which we have no control.

+++++Kicking off the covers, I stand up. I’ve found the only thing that helps me get back to sleep is taking a walk. I read about that, too. Get up and walk around a bit. Try not to focus on getting to sleep. It works sometimes, but not all the time.

+++++I pull on my trousers, a shirt, my athletic shoes, and a warm coat. It’s winter and the nights are cold. An old Navy knitted watch cap keeps my balding head warm. As I walk through the kitchen, I pick up a large chef’s knife and slip it into my belt under my coat. It is an odd hour for a walk, and I need something for protection. After all, the newspapers keep warning us about that serial killer.

+++++The night air is chilled. I turn up my coat collar, pull the watch cap lower, and start my usual three-block circuit at a brisk but casual pace.

+++++I live in an apartment building not far from the center of town. The streets are well lit but empty at this hour. Sometimes the quiet is unnerving. But I also find the vacant streets relaxing, soothing. My thoughts slow, and soon they focus only on the sound of my breathing and the swish of my soft-soled shoes.

+++++As I pass a darkened storefront, I glimpse a shadow in the doorway. I pretend not to notice, but speed up my pace, nonetheless. A few steps later, I hear another set of footsteps, glance around, and realized the person I saw in the storefront is now walking behind me. The person is dressed in dark, shabby clothes, and a well-worn jacket with the collar turned up. A dark baseball cap covers his head.

+++++We are alone in the street. Is he following me? Maybe he’s simply out for a sleepless walk like me. I pick up my pace again and turn a corner while he’s still several yards behind. Rushing down the street, I turn into an alley and peek around the corner. My hand slips into my coat and grips the handle of the chef’s knife.

+++++According to the newspapers, the serial killer always strikes in the wee hours of the morning. His . . . what do they call it? Modus operandi. His modus operandi involves killing homeless men, though the police believe he may have killed a couple of muggers, too.

+++++The dark figure reaches the far corner and stops. He looks around the corner, then checks to his left and right. With his hands in his coat pockets, he turns the corner and heads towards me.

+++++I look around the alley. It’s a dead end. Just trash dumpsters and other discarded debris. The perfect place for a mugger or a killer to attack a victim. I pull out the knife and huddle behind a dumpster.

+++++The figure stops at the alley entrance and peers around the corner. He pulls something from his pocket. A knife? A gun? I can’t tell. As he enters the alley, I hunker lower behind the dumpster. He doesn’t see me until it’s too late. I’m on him before he can react. I jab the knife as hard as I can into his chest. I feel it scraping bone, feel the warmth of his blood spilling over my hand. Pulling the knife out, I jab again, and again. I keep stabbing until my strength is spent, then I let go of him. He drops to the ground without a sound.

+++++Slipping the knife back into my belt, I straighten my coat and hurry back to my apartment. I clean the knife carefully and place it back in the wooden cutlery block. Then I remove my clothing, place it in the clothes washer, and turn the washer on. After a hot shower, I climb back into bed.

+++++It was a good walk. I don’t always find someone on these walks. Even when I do, I’m not always successful luring them into a dark, secluded place. If I don’t, the walk does little to help my sleeplessness. But if I do, then I return home calmed and relaxed, and I know I will enjoy a deep and refreshing sleep the rest of the night.

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Martin Roy Hill's fiction work has appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, ALT HIST: The Journal of Historical Fiction and Alternative History, Nebula Rift, Crimson Streets, Mystery Weekly, and others. He is also the author of five books: the award-winning “Duty: Suspense and Mystery Stories from the Cold War and Beyond;” the military mystery thriller, “The Killing Depths;” the sci-fi novella "Eden;" and the two novels of The Peter Brandt Thrillers. He is a professional member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers.

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