Spook Hill Chronicles™
by Paul D. Race
After their guests had left, Megan tried to talk over what the family had learned. But most of it was over Harry's head, and Jessie just said, "It doesn't matter if this stuff really happened or not. This place is whack, and we need to get out of here as soon as we can."
"I agree, it's very strange. But it seems like a very good place to hide out for a while."
"Again with the hiding, Mom?"
Instead of answering her directly, Megan said, "Harry, why don't you get ready for bed?" Harry left the room looking like he was afraid of missing something "good." Then Megan turned back to Jessie. "Listen, Jessie, these people will break your arm for a hundred dollars; there's no end to what they'll do for what Dad owes them."
"So you say."
"I don't have time for this. Listen, I'm going to walk down the hill and see about this job. You can stay up if you want, and we'll talk about it when you get back." Megan brushed her teeth and hair, then looked around to see what she should take down the hill. She thought about taking her laptop, but decided to take just a copy of her real resume and a notepad.
Walking down the hill at night was not as threatening as she thought it would be. In fact it was quite refreshing after a long, hot day. Crickets and tree-frogs were chirping everywhere, and she heard voices of kids playing in the yards she went past. Those yards were lit only by moonlight, or, in some cases, by dull lighting, like the old solar lights that glowed faintly, but didn't illuminate. One family waved at her as she passed, and she waved back, glad for anything like human contact, even if they were dressed a bit strangely by "outsider" standards.
Near the town cemetery, in the shadow of several large crypts, in fact, Megan was amused to see several children playing on a swingset that had a huge pendulum attached to the bottom of a ladder swing. It swung across a 3-foot deep "tiger pit" lined with foam-rubber "spears." The white-faced kids waved and shouted "Hi," and one invited her to "take a ride." But she thanked them and declined. "Maybe later," she said.
In the cooling air, alone for a change, she couldn't help wondering if Jessie was right—that they should move on as quickly as they could. But Jessie expected to go back to her old life, and that wasn't possible, at least not for a very long time. Where would the Forresters go if they left Spook Hill? Megan had no idea. And as strange as the residents of Spook Hill were, they still didn't seem as threatening as Whitey Reynolds and his unseen employers.
When Megan reached the foot of the hill and turned west toward Town Hall, she heard movement further downhill, in the bog. She stopped and watched carefully. In a moment the moon came out from behind a cloud and Megan could see the cold eyes of an alligator watching her from across the railroad tracks. How fast could that gator move if he came after her? Not as fast as the swarm of mosquitoes that suddenly found her. Megan moved on quickly. Malaria was probably a bigger threat here than the alligators.
A moment later, three bats flew toward her. She was startled for a moment, then they flew past her toward the mosquito-laden swamp. Megan realized that she might have the bats to thank for the fact that there were few mosquitoes up the hill.
Reaching Town Hall, Megan found the door standing open an inch. She pushed inside, and slipped through a black curtain that hung to the floor into a cheery foyer that looked like any other local town hall, with pre-Fourth of July decorations. A young woman dressed like a "Goth fairy" smiled nicely and said, "Hi, I'm Bea." (Or was it "B"? Megan wondered.) "Go on in. Mayor Kay is waiting for you."
Mayor Kay rose to greet Megan. He was apparently going for some sort of wild animal look. His forehead and upper cheeks were covered with fine fur that complemented his normal-looking beard and whiskers. Megan's first response was that he looked like an oversized Ewok. As Megan entered his office, she heard Bea clearing her throat and whispering, "Kay, your nose." Kay picked up something from the desk, snapped it over his face, and suddenly looked almost exactly like a "Wolfman" reject. Megan shook his offered hand, and met his now gruesome smile with one she hoped looked confident and friendly.
Kay laughed and snapped the nose back off his face. "I'm sorry, I keep forgetting that detail," he said, "but it's hard to work in. Please sit."
During the following discussion, Kay assured Megan that the work that needed to be done wasn't onerous, it had just been piling up, and nobody had been around to help with it. Megan would also be free to set her own schedule—she could even work during daylight hours if she found that more agreeable. And the salary was certainly worth considering.
Then Megan said, "It all sounds very nice, but I don't know how long we'll be able to stay here."
You don't know what sad is until you've seen a sad-looking werewolf/Ewok. "We really hoped you were settling in," he said. "Frankly, we could use some new blood. Oh, that sounds bad, I suppose. But you know what I mean. Most families here have been here for generations, and we're stuck in all kinds of ruts. Having someone around who's been in the outside world all her life might be a good thing for us."
Megan said, "Well the truth is, my kids aren't altogether convinced this is a nice place to settle down . . . ."
"And I'm sure they're upset about leaving their friends."
"Yes that's a huge part of it. But that's the part that doesn't really count, because we couldn't go back now even if we wanted to. That probably doesn't make any sense to you."
"It makes more than you know. When I said most folks in town grew up here, I was leaving out folks like you who needed to disappear. No, I'm not talking about hardened criminals or anything like that, just people who made the wrong enemies. Powerful enemies. Think of Spook Hill as a witness protection plan that works for people that the witness protection plan has failed." Kay lowered his voice, "In fact, I can't say anything specific, but we might even have a former federal officer or two here, folks who brought down huge targets, but whose families aren't safe anywhere else in the world. So you can see why we're nuts about secrecy. In addition to being just plain nuts, I suppose." Kay laughed at his own joke for a second, then realized that Megan wasn't laughing and resumed the discussion about the job.
In the minutes that followed, Kay walked Megan through some of the work she would be doing. It would largely be getting old property records, marriages, births, and deaths into the computer system. There were some complications related to the townspeople's need for secrecy. For example, births were recorded as having occurred in neighboring counties. But it was nothing Megan couldn't get her head around.
After a few minutes, Kay said, "Okay, you're dying to ask. Why don't you?"
Megan said, "I figured you'd tell me if you wanted to."
"Well, it's a genetic blood malfunction, like the one that keeps half our residents from going out in daylight. But it's a lot rarer, about three in a billion. If I wanted to buy Nair and sunscreen in bulk, I could pass as a 'normal' person. Or there's an operation, a bone marrow transplant I could try if I had a half-million dollars. But here, I am normal, as things go. So are my kids. Sadly, it runs in the family. Only the boys, thank goodness."
Not knowing what to say, Megan asked another question about the job she was applying for, and they talked about that for a few minutes. Finally she said, "Okay, if you're actually offering me the job, when can I start?"
Kay said, "Well, in that case you already have." He fished a key out of his desk drawer and said, "Here's a key to the front door. Come and go as you wish."
Megan's sense of responsibility tempted her to stay and get some work done that night. But she had unfinished business with Jessie that evening, so she assured Kay that she'd get an early start tomorrow and left for home. This time she walked uphill before turning East, to avoid the mosquitoes, alligators, and—hopefully—the bats.
When Megan arrived home, she thought of something else she needed to check on her computer. Then she realized it was warm, as if it had just been turned off. "Jessie?" she called. Jessie's "What, Mom?" sounded a little sheepish.
"Were you just on my computer?" Megan asked.
"Uh, yes; is that okay? I stayed off of Facebook."
"What about e-mail?"
"Uh, I might have replied to a couple people. They can't trace that, can they?"
"Maybe. You should have asked first. Can I see your outbox?"
"Mom, that's private!"
"Not when our safety is involved. What's your password?"
After a bit of further whining, Megan told her. "Now don't change this, or establish a new account. I need to know everything you've shared."
Jessie's e-mails were all to friends—people that Whitey or his employers might have on cyberwatch. To Megan's relief, they didn't mention Fosterville or Spook Hill by name, but they did allude to a "crazy place Mom has dragged us."
Megan found herself especially tense for the next several days, sure that Whitey Reynolds or his employers were just across the swamp trying to figure out how to get over. The ferry never seemed to be running, but she didn't know who to talk to about that. After wondering if she was doing the right thing, she told Kay.
Kay looked concerned, but not worried. "Our tech guys tell me that our Internet access is spoofed from halfway across the country, and even that changes every few weeks, so they shouldn't be able to track us down by the IP address or anything like that. The ferry guys, and—for that matter—the train club are pretty careful, but I'll get word to them to keep an eye out."
After several days went by without incident, Megan began to relax again. With a great deal of coaxing, she managed to get her kids to attend a neighborhood Fourth of July party, held mostly inside the blacked-out high school. Jessie refused to go in makeup, then met several kids her age that were genuinely friendly. One of the boys refused to accept that she had just come as herself, and kept guessing which horror movie with a normal-looking-teenage-girl-as-villain she had emulated. Jessie made a note that the next time she went out she should at least draw on a scar or something, but she had a good time in spite of herself. The chance to dance to the music of a decent local rock band, dressed mostly as zombies, didn't hurt, either.
After the indoor festivities were over, there was a call to go outside for the fireworks. The fireworks rose from the horizon, possibly a mile or more away, but they were so impressive they looked very close. Sitting near Kay and his Lily-Munster-inspired wife Em, Megan asked if they weren't taking a risk by having such an elaborate show.
"Not to worry," said Kay. "Every year we send an anonymous donation to Fowlersville to pay for their fireworks show. So a few miles away, they're holding one of the largest fireworks displays in the county, and we're just looking at the backside of it."
"Looks good to me," Megan said.
By now, Megan and the kids had begun experimenting with various "monster looks," trying to find something they were comfortable with. Megan went fairly conservative, lightening her face a few shades, darkening her eyebrows, and using very dark lipstick – not unlike a silent movie star or an extra in a Robert Palmer video. Jessie experimented with a similar look, but painted "hollows" on her cheeks that she thought made her look skinnier. Occasionally she painted on a big fake scar somewhere. Harry tried a different look almost every day, so Megan had no idea where and if he was going to settle.
Megan's job was working out well, too, she thought. Kay paid her in cash, with an apology for not making deposits into her Social Security account—for obvious reasons. Through her work, Megan had met several other women, who were secretive about their family histories, but friendly enough when talking about normal family topics, like groceries and teenagers. She was surprised not to see more of Kay's wife, Em. When she asked Bea about her, her responses were evasive, to say the least.
Megan saw plenty of Bea, though. In fact the young woman seemed to be around whenever Megan had work to do, and as often as not she was in the way, doing nothing herself and keeping Megan from being as productive as she wanted to be. Megan wondered of Bea was afraid Megan was going to take over her job, whatever that was. Still, Megan had worked in stranger situations, even if you counted in the monster makeup, so she tried not to let Bea's sometimes intrusive behavior bother her.
More confident of her housekeeping now, the Forresters also had a few families in for visits, some of which were reciprocated. To her surprise, the first house she visited looked abandoned, with rotting walls and furniture when she entered. Then her hostess laughed, and opened a hidden door, revealing a stairway to a finished basement that was actually larger than the house. It had a state-of-the-art kitchen, a sitting room, and a dining room full of tasteful furniture. Adjacent to that room was and a wide-screen television equipped with satellite reception and the latest games.
The hostess explained, "You see, anyone who comes prowling uninvited will simply see a few nasty rooms, and be convinced no one could possibly live here. Plus it's a 'safe room,' in case someone does come in. We also have three bedrooms hidden in the 'attic.' So we get on pretty well."
That explanation made a certain kind of sense to Megan. It also made her wonder if she should have been quite as careful cleaning up the first level of the "Old Forrester Place." Well, she probably had no choice, at least for now.
Most of the community's women had not been out of Spook Hill for years, so they were delighted when Megan mentioned the possibility of a woman accompanying the train club people when they shopped for groceries, to keep down costs.
Then she hit a snag she didn't expect. Kay told her that she'd be exposed to dozens of security cameras wherever she went to shop. The federal government had access to at least a few of those cameras, and algorithms that would scan the camera footage for wanted felons. "If the government can do it, so can your enemies," he cautioned.
"So I change my hair color or wear a scarf or something."
"So you're thinking of those Jason Bourne scenes where he changes his girlfriends' hair style."
"I suppose so."
"That's fiction. High-end security cameras don't look at hair and soft tissue – they look at the underlying bone structure of your face. Changing your hair color, or in my case, shaving my face, won't do it. But I have something that may help."
To Megan's surprise, Kay had a drawer full of prosthetic foreheads, cheekbones, noses, and chins, all built on pork bone forms, so they would fool even the high-end systems. With Bea's help, she tried on a few. "I feel like a Klingon," she said after one combination that seemed to be a bit extreme." "But you look like a scary old lady," Bea said, "And that's a very safe look for you."
Megan's first visit to the "outside world" in several weeks carried another surprise. Everyone on the street seemed to be dressed in shockingly bright colors, and their skin all seemed to be freakishly pink. No wonder the Fosterville residents called them "the pinks." Megan realized that, in spite of herself, she had become accustomed to dark clothing, pale (or green) skin, and many other conventions of her new community. Sometimes this realization caused her to wonder if she was also becoming accustomed to attitudes and mindsets that she would have found revolting, or at least peculiar, a few months ago.
That said, within a few weeks, even the extreme makeup jobs became routine, as Megan started making shopping trips into town. The irony was that Megan looked "worse" when she went into town as a "normal person," than she did in her "monster" makeup at home. Sometimes, she tried out some of the other noses and cheekbones, to see if any of them made her look less horrific, but none of them did.
Occasionally, one of the other women would join her on her trip, similarly made up. Those trips seemed especially fun. One of the women, Inga, spoke with a slight accent that Megan wasn't sure she could place, and she knew better to ask Inga any questions about her past. Having Inga along was an education in itself. Inga showed how to notice and avoid surveillance cameras without appearing to notice and avoid them. How to keep her voice below the background noise level and still be heard by the person she was speaking to. How to plan her route so that she never walked past the same person twice.
Inga had internalized these principles so well that she did them without thinking, all the while looking very natural, as though there was nothing more on her mind than getting a good price on broccoli. Had she been a spy in her former life? Well, as she had heard too many times recently, "There are spooks and there are spooks."
Soon, both Jessie and Harry had spent the nights at friends' houses, and had friends over. By the time the second floor was clean enough to live in, and the Forresters were making headway on the third floor, Megan was allowing herself to consider staying here for a year or five. In some ways it really was better than life as a roughneck's wife in suburbia.
Once when Geneva and her family were over, Megan mentioned the hidden ghosts and the red buttons. Geneva said, "O, didn't they explain that to you? Those are the test buttons. When the house is 'live,' they're set off by motion detectors."
"What do you mean 'live'?"
"Well, there's a master switch somewhere that turns the ghosts on in case of unwelcome visitors. We all have a few, but I've always heard that this place had the best collection."
Later, Megan told Jessie and Harry, and Harry insisted on finding the master switch. There was one switch at the foot of the stairs that didn't seem to do anything, so they kept searching.
To Harry's delight, Gene even came over a couple of times (with his head on) to try getting the skeleton-drawn coach in the garage started. One night he did get it working, and took them all for a ride around town. For the trip, he donned his "Headless Horseman" suit and asked the Forresters to "monster up" as well.
As they "cruised" the town, the horse skeletons and the entire coach glowed with eerie luminescence, from a bank of tiny LEDs powered by the engine's generator. To Harry, the best part was the sound track with whinnying and horse hooves that matched the speed of the carriage.
Several families came out to see them as they passed, laughing and telling stories about the last time they saw the carriage running. Twice, the Forresters disembarked, and Megan visited with her neighbors while Gene took their children for a spin around the block.
One family, on the east end of town, offered to display their crypts to the Forresters. The town cemetery had mostly above-ground vaults, like those in New Orleans, due to the high water table. The family closest to the cemetery had built their own "vaults" that looked just like the real thing, but which could spring open to disgorge an array of zombie-like "attackers." Some of them could even glide on hidden tracks, to create a sort of maze.
After Gene and the Forresters garaged the carriage that night, Gene admitted that they probably shouldn't run the thing too often—it might look weird enough to draw attention from the air, or from a satellite, for that matter.
As Gene removed his "headless horseman" jacket and began repacking his tools, Harry thought to ask him about the master switch that would turn on the ghosts. He dragged Gene into the house and showed him the switch that didn't seem to do anything. Then Gene carefully turned the switch to off mode and asked to see the fusebox. Sure enough, one of the circuit breakers was thrown. Gene threw it back, then returned to the "useless" switch.
Then he called Megan and Jessie to join him and Harry by the switch. When he turned it on, the lights in the house dimmed but nothing else happened right away.
"Now, Harry—be careful. When these things were set up, there was a roped-off pathway you were supposed to follow. If you're too close to one when it goes off, you could get clobbered.
Harry said, "I know exactly where the ghosts in this room come through. Boney's the closest one. He comes out of that wall and goes to the ceiling right up there."
"Boney?" asked Gene.
Jessie said, "He's named them all. Boney was one of the first ones we set off."
Gene said, "I'll go first." He stepped out toward the center of the room, then moved toward where Harry said Boney was hiding. With a clatter, a creak, a splash of light, and a prerecorded scream, Boney flew out of his hiding place, right toward Gene, then flew up into an otherwise invisible trapdoor in the ceiling that opened and closed to accommodate him. If Gene had been standing in the wrong place, he could have been knocked over. Gene laughed. "That's a good one! Most of mine aren't nearly that impressive. How many more do you have?"
Harry said, "I've found sixteen so far."
Gene was impressed. "Megan, you'll have to have an open house when you feel up to it. This must be quite a collection."
To her surprise, Megan felt a little flattered to have, not only the biggest house in the community, but the best collection of "ghosts."
"But how do you get him back in the box?" she asked.
"Easy," said Gene. "They reset when you leave the room. Here, let's go back into the kitchen. They stepped back to the kitchen and looked back toward the living room. After a minute, there was a whirring sound, and Boney retraced his path, without the screaming and spotlight.
Not long after, the kids were invited for a nature walk put on by the school science teacher. They thought it sounded boring, but when Megan was invited along as chaperone, she made them come.
Armed with a heavy coat of mosquito repellant, the little troupe of 7th to 12th-graders gathered on a dead-end road west of town. As they started across what looked like a meadow, the teacher, Mrs. Guest, warned Jessie and Harry to follow her exactly; they were walking through a quicksand bog. Megan said, "Isn't that dangerous?"
Mrs. Guest answered, "Well, to me, it's part of the ecosystem. But to rest of the town, it's one more way to keep out strangers." Soon the group was in a wooded area where the ground was "springy" with moisture but covered with enough vegetation to keep anyone from sinking in. Finding a long log where they could all sit, Mrs. Guest asked them to sit on the log, and listen very quietly.
Megan had never listened to the swamp before. She recognized some of the sounds, mostly various frogs, but some were new to her. When she started to ask about one of the sounds, Mrs. Guest shushed her. After several more minutes of shushing the kids, too, Mrs. Guest heard what she was listening for—a nasal-sounding toot that was repeated a minute later. Again, Megan started to ask a question, and again Mrs. Guest shushed her. Then a sound like someone hitting a drum twice broke the silence. A few seconds later it sounded again. Finally, Mrs. Guest whispered to the others. "That's the sound of an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, which is officially extinct. The last confirmed sighting was over sixty years ago."
Megan was impressed. She was also impressed by the incredible variety of orchids and other rare plants they passed. Mrs. Guest said that every week of the summer a different set of flowers would be in bloom, and that every year, she encountered at least one plant that wasn't catalogued anywhere.
As the group prepared to return, Mrs. Guest told the students to look for items that didn't seem to belong in the wilderness. She insisted on picking them up herself, though, in case there were sharp edges. By the time they returned to town, Mrs. Guest had accumulated a pound or so of bottle caps, pull tops, those plastic things that hold six-packs together, and so on. Megan asked how so much stuff could accumulate in such a wilderness.
"Well, much of this land has been hunted and trapped for centuries, but on top of that, any flooding at all, disturbs trash heaps and dumps miles away, and you'd be surprised how this trash can get around. The worst part is the chemical contamination. A tiny change in water chemistry can wipe out whole species. Someone dumps their old motor oil twenty miles upstream, and three rare species of orchid down here never bloom again. Our alligators, snakes, and mosquitoes may seem repulsive to outsiders, but the ecosystem here is as beautiful and as fragile as any in the world. That's why we treat it with respect."
As Megan's family settled into the strange community, the one thing that still unnerved her was the occasional sound of voices and footsteps in the house late at night. She had mentioned it to Kay several times, but he had acted as if it wasn't anything to worry about. "These strange old houses make all kinds of weird noises, and yours is one of the oldest and strangest." Still, that couldn't keep Megan from camping out at the foot of the stairs more than once, ready to flip on the lights as soon as she heard footsteps. But as always, nothing and no one was visible on the stairs, even as the footsteps came past her.
Finally, one night, she faked going to bed, than sneaked out of bed an hour or so later and "camped out" near the stairs in her stocking feet, carrying a small flashlight. After another hour of fighting sleep, she heard footsteps going up the stairs. Being careful to step on the ends of each step as she climbed, to minimize squeaking, she quietly followed the footsteps upstairs.
Up to the second floor they went, and kept going. Up to the third floor they went, and kept going. Then about halfway to the fourth floor, Megan heard a door open and the footsteps stopped. There were no doorways visible, so Megan crept up the stairs to the fourth floor. In the light of the flashlight, things looked a little different than she remembered them, but she didn't know for certain. Then she heard the footsteps start up the stairs again, going toward the fifth floor. She crept back to the stairs and followed, turning the flashlight off just before she reached the top of the stairs.
The fifth floor hallway, which Megan assumed served as the servant's quarters, had the same four doorways as the other floors. But in a blank part of the wall, Megan could barely see an inverted, glowing L shape, as though she was seeing the top and one side of a hidden doorway. As her eyes continued to adjust to the darkness, she was certain that was it. And she heard voices coming through faintly, voices with which she was altogether too familiar.
Then the door burst open. For a second, Megan was blinded by the bright light flooding the hallway, and confused by the sound of three people laughing, one of whose voice she knew very well. It was Mayor Kay.