Spook Hill Chronicles™
by Paul D. Race
Bert's funeral was touching in its way, with all of the townsfolk turned out in their monstrous best. Harry, Jessie, and Megan gave the best possible impression of a loving family holding up under the most difficult circumstances. And of course, an impression was all they could give, because no one at all was in the coffin that was so reverently lowered into the ground.
In short, Bert was still not dead, although with several broken ribs and one punctured lung, he sometimes joked that he felt like it. When he got a chance, he chewed Robin out. "Blanks! You went up against those killers with blanks?" "It's good for you I did," said Robin. Bert didn't have a good answer for that. The blanks had done damage enough.
The embarrassing thing for Bert was that Robin had given the kids a copy of the video of Bert struggling with Whitey, saying "Oh crap," and falling over. Neither Harry, Jesse, nor Megan could resist chiding him about his eloquent "last words."
The cart that sped Whitey down the tunnel had shattered at the end of its journey, but Whitey was nowhere to be found. Later, Joe told her that Whitey had somehow made it back to "civilization" with a broken collarbone and three fractured vertebrae in his neck. He would recover, but it would be a while before he "danced again," was the way Joe put it.
On the other hand, the various criminals that Joe and his team had rounded up were driven a hundred miles in a bus with blacked-out-windows, and delivered into the hands of state and federal officials Joe knew from his former life. Joe had warned each of them that if they even thought about exposing Spook Hill and its people, their troubles would become vastly worse in a hurry.
Bert stayed "dead" for several weeks. As far as Joe could tell, Whitey had convinced his superiors that he had finished his task. But Joe still had a sense that Bert and his family had been "sold out" by someone in town. He didn't want Bert's survival to be public knowledge until Joe had found the leak, or as Robin called him or her, the "rat."
Inga and her team were all recovering as well. Sadly, when Megan visited Inga, she learned that Inga was planning to move on. "Don't feel bad," Inga said, "I knew when I pitched in to help out that one of these low-lifes was likely to 'make' me. Now I hear that some of my old enemies seem suddenly busy. It's time for plan D."
"What's wrong with plan B?" Megan asked.
"I have already used it. This was plan C."
"Let me know what I can do to help," Megan said, knowing full well there was nothing she could do, but wishing there was. "Forget you ever knew me," was Inga's answer. "What was your name again?" Megan joked, as tears filled her eyes.
For all of his recovery, and for several weeks after, Bert slept in the bat cave. Jessie seemed to understand that Bert and Megan still had some huge issues to work out, and Harry was oblivious to anything that Bert's sleeping arrangements implied.
In the meantime, Megan was starting to get used to Bert's increasingly fuzzy state. She was also beginning to believe that Bert really was sorry for all of the hardship he had brought on their family. A few times she found herself chatting with Bert about innocuous subjects as though nothing important had passed between them. But then the old hurts would come back with a vengeance, and nothing he said could reach her for hours, or sometimes, for days on end.
The hardest thing for Bert to understand was Megan's reluctance to let him second-guess her on every decision, something she used to put up with. Since Bert's first "death," Megan had proven to herself and to the kids that she could make good decisions and stick to them. Most of Bert's well-meant "guidance" and "helpful suggestions" were now falling on deaf ears. Megan realized that shutting off communication wasn't helpful either. But she didn't know how to take one step back without reverting all the way to the "hopelessly dependent" role Bert used to try to squeeze her into.
In the meantime, Bert helped Robin fix the ghosts that Zydeco had damaged, and helped Megan clean out many corners of the house that still needed work.
School started, and the kids were both relieved and disappointed that their school subjects were the same as they had always been. As a bonus, there were apparently some very sharp teachers in the high school, including a former journalist and political prisoner teaching history, a former missile engineer teaching science and mathematics, and so on. Megan began to think that their kids would be getting a first class education after all.
One Sunday, Megan tried the local church, and found out that, except for the unusual look of the congregation, it was much like the better churches she had attended in the past. The pastor, whose costume of choice was a mad-looking monk, was really an intelligent, thoughtful person. Megan wondered if he could help her and Bert work things out.
Gradually, Joe allowed Megan and her family to bring more and more people into their confidence. A few were hurt that they weren't clued in to Bert's survival earlier, but most realized that, with Bert's life still at stake, some paranoia was justified.
Researching Bert's blood disorder on the internet, Megan decided that Bert and Mayor Kay must share the same gene, so the odds that they were related were huge. Finally Bert admitted that he was a first cousin once removed of the mayor. But the Forresters hadn't gotten along with Kay's side of the family for generations, and Bert still seemed to harbor some resentment or distrust toward Kay that kept them at a distance.
By Halloween, Bert had recovered from his rib and lung injuries, and no one else had tried to kill him. The town's grapevine being what it was, everybody in town now seemed to know he was alive. So the Forrester family celebrated Halloween by taking joy rides in the skeleton-horse carriage, driving the carriage in a midnight parade, and joining in at the community Halloween party, held in the high school gymnasium.
As far as the Forresters knew, no one in Fosterville took all the costumes and gothic accoutrements seriously, but they did know how to celebrate Halloween. Entertainments included caramel apple making, a dunking seat that Mayor Kay took a turn in, very clever decorations, "virgin Mary" drinks for the youngsters, and contests in pumpkin carving, make-up, and costumes, followed by a local garage band that sang "Monster Mash" and any similar song they could track down.
Dancing with Bert actually gave Megan some sense that she could start liking him again if she would let herself. She still loved him, of course, but liking him, that was harder.
The paranoia Megan had felt before Whitey's "invasion" had quite vanished. Seeing the whole town pull together for the sake of the Forrester family had changed Megan's outlook. In fact, Megan felt comfortable inviting several families back to her house after the town Halloween party for dessert and a tour of the ghosts.
Robin had already been invited, to provide any technical support necessary for the tour. Mayor Kay's wife declined, but Kay came, as did Bea, the two of them arguing in whispers as they followed the rest of the group up the hill.
To Megan's surprise, the "burner" cell phone that Inga gave her to call Whitey was ringing when she came into the house. Who would have this number? Except for Inga, and maybe Whitey. Megan answered the phone and said, "Hello?"
She couldn't help tensing up when she heard Whitey's voice. "I just called to wish you a happy Halloween," he said, "Your celebrations must be something, considering the way you folks dress up the rest of the year."
"Er, they are," Megan said, as she ducked into the next room and spoke softly into the phone. "What is really going on here, Whitey?"
"Well, I thought it fair to tell you that when I got back to civilization, I had enough of Bert's blood on my shirt to convince my bosses that I had taken care of him. But Bert really does need to stay dead this time, for all of our sakes."
"You shot him yourself. What are you saying?"
"You don't think I noticed the ammunition when I cleaned that pistol? It's a nice collectible, though. I'll see if I can get it back to your friend Robin. It suits him somehow."
"What are you saying?"
"Oh, nothing bad. I know he witnessed a mob hit at Coney Island a few years ago. He's been in hiding ever since. Do you want to know his real name?"
"No, he'll tell us when the time is right." By now Megan was bemused. "Surely you know that people get killed by blanks all the time, especially when they're shot at point blank range."
"Sure. The wadding cracks a rib and drives a bone fragment through an aorta. It happens. I'm sure that's what happened to Bert."
"And I'm sure Bert had a lovely funeral. There's just one thing. Consider this a courtesy call. You still have a rat. I don't know the details, but I think my bosses have been getting some 'feelers.' How much would information on Bert Forrester be worth, and so on? If my bosses bite, and the rat tells them that Bert is still alive, we none of us will come out of this very well."
"A rat?" Megan had watched enough crime dramas to know what he meant. "Who is it?"
"I don't know. But watch your backs."
"Watch yours, Whitey. And give my best to Maria and the kids."
"You know, I think I will. Happy Halloween."
Bert noticed Megan's bemused face as she hung up the phone. He asked, "Who was that?"
Megan wasn't about to explain in a room full of people. In fact she wasn't sure she could explain if she wanted to. "Tell you later," she said. Bert knew by now not to press her on things like this. But Bert gave Robin a glance, and Robin nodded as if to say he had noticed Megan's response to the call, too.
Before the ghost tour, Megan had the kids push the furniture around so that no one would stray into the path of the more dangerous ghosts. Then it was lights out, followed by about twenty minutes of laughing and shouting, as well as a few startled screams. Robin followed the group around the building, always a room behind, watching to make certain the ghosts were resetting properly.
When everyone seemed to be done and back downstairs, the kids turned on the lights, turned off the ghosts, and pushed the living room furniture back where it belonged. Robin got back last of all, saying, "Look's like they're good as new, Megan."
Bert helped Megan pass out treats and drinks – pumpkin-shaped sugar cookies and pink lemonade that she had reddened up a bit with food coloring. Megan was a bit embarrassed by how unoriginal they were compared to the clever treats she had seen at the party. But the guests were grateful and they all said they enjoyed the flavor of the homemade cookies.
As Megan passed Robin, she saw him visually searching the room. "Lose somebody?" she asked.
"Kay and Bea," he said. "Of course, I shouldn't say anything, but . . . "
"Maybe they went out one of the hidden doorways."
"Or are still in the house somewhere, looking for a quiet corner."
Megan's stomach turned at the thought. "Not in my house, they won't."
Robin said, "Tell you what, when everyone's gone, activate the ghosts again. If they're still here, Kay might get a black eye on his way out."
"Or Bea," Megan laughed, warming to the idea.
As the little gathering wound down, and group after group thanked Megan for the tour and left, Megan began to relax. Surely Kay and Bea had sneaked out one of the hidden doorways. But it did annoy Megan to be an unwilling alibi to their whereabouts for even part of the evening.
Robin made the rounds to make certain all entrances to the house were locked. "If they're still in the house," he said, "They'll have to come this way."
Jessie had long since vanished upstairs to watch the end of a movie in the "bat cave." As Robin took his leave, Megan sent Harry upstairs to brush his teeth. Just as Robin stepped off the porch and Bert closed the door, Megan heard a muffled scream from the top of the stairs. It sounded like Harry.
"Harry, are you all right?" Megan shouted up the stairway.
"Oh, he's fine for now," came Kay's voice, strangely cold. "Let's go back downstairs, Harry, and no sudden moves. Megan, Bert, stand away from the stairs. I have a gun."
Megan could hear footsteps coming down the stairs. A few moments later, Harry came into view, with an arm around his neck and a gun pointed at his head. Then Kay appeared behind him.
Bert said, "Kay, if you harm a hair on that boy's head, so help me . . . . "
Kay gave a bitter laugh. "Big words for a dead man." He pointed the gun at Bert and said, "If I shot you now, what could they do to me? You're dead already, remember? Twice! Now stand still for a minute."
Bea came down the stairs behind Kay, and Kay told her, "Check around; make sure it's safe."
Bea walked through the downstairs rooms, and looked out the front door. "All clear," she said.
Megan said, "Don't do this, Kay, you have a life here."
"Do I? Look at me. Remember what I said about a cure? Well, I figured out how to raise the money. Now Bert, you'll go out the door ahead of Harry and me, and when we get to the station, I'll let Harry go."
Megan said, "What's your role in this, Bea? I thought you were our friend."
Kay said, "Leave her out of this. I'm your problem, not her."
But Bea wouldn't be silent. "What do you know about it? Kay's a really kind man I'd love to be with, if only he was less, uh . . . ?
"Fuzzy?" Megan finished the sentence for her. "So you'd both sell us down the river for a chance at a cure."
Kay said, "Enough talk. Bert, come this way."
As Bert turned to start toward Kay, he tripped and fell almost full-length on the floor. He used the doorway to the kitchen to pull himself up, saying "Sorry, I'm still a little unsteady." Bert's right hand was out of Kay's view for a moment. Kay pointed his gun at Bert and said. "Both hands, Bert, I need to see both hands."
"Sure." Bert put both hands out in front and started toward Kay. At the same time, he caught Harry's eye and gave the briefest nod.
While the gun was still pointed at Bert, Harry bit Kay hard on the wrist, dropped to the floor and rolled toward his father. Kay brought the gun barrel back down and took two steps toward the child. "Get back here, or else," he said.
"Or else what?" Harry asked. Key moved one more inch forward and was startled by an explosion of light and noise. A millisecond later, something struck him hard on the forehead. He dropped the gun and fell over backwards. Boney had earned his keep.
Bert was on top of Kay in a second and gave him a punch that kept him down. But Bea dove for the gun. Just as she reached it, Megan kicked it under the couch. The two struggled briefly, then broke apart.
Bea said, "Well, that's that, then. It was all Kay's idea, you know. Nobody's really hurt. If you don't mind, I'd like to go home now."
Megan said, "Nobody's really hurt YET," as she delivered an uppercut that sent Bea sprawling across Kay's prone form. "Don't you ever threaten my family again."
Not much later, Joe, Robin, and several of Joe's people were in the living room. Kay and Bea were both gagged and tied to kitchen chairs. "What do we do with them?" Megan asked. "If we turn them over to the police, they'll expose us all."
"Bea's easy," Joe said. "She's here because she testified against a small-time Jersey hood, and his brothers wouldn't give up tracking her down. All we have to do is take her home and tell a few people that she's back in town."
Robin said, "But that would be the same as throwing her to the alligators."
Megan said, "And you have a problem with that?"
During this conversation, Bea's eyes were getting bigger and bigger. She struggled to speak through the gag, and Joe signaled one of his men to pull the gag off. "I won't tell anyone, I swear. You gotta let me go."
"North. West. Anywhere but here. And home. Anywhere but here and New Jersey. You know what I mean."
Joe laughed his bitter chuckle. "I think I do. I have a friend in San Francisco who runs a halfway house for female cons. She's tough, but fair. How about we buy you a bus ticket there, and forget we ever knew you?"
Megan was disappointed. "That's too good for her."
"Of course it is," said Joe. But since we're outside the law here we have to either be very good or very bad." Turning back to Bea he said, "And you should know this. If anyone ever comes after this family again, whether you have anything to do with it or not, I WILL tell your old friends where you have got to. Is that understood?"
Bea nodded, her eyes as big as saucers. As far as Megan could tell, Bea was convinced.
Joe turned to Kay. "Now here's a bigger problem. We can't just exile and threaten you, because you'll sell us out again as soon as you cross the swamp. And there's no way you'll blend in anywhere else."
Robin cleared his throat. "Actually that's not true. He'd fit in the carney just fine."
As the rest of the room laughed, Kay looked apoplectic. He groaned and tried to holler through the gag, but Joe left it on.
"No," Robin said, "I'm serious. You could make a decent living. If you behave, they'll even let you out of your cage between shows. They don't have to, though, if it comes to that. I can see to it that you spend the next five years in a cage eating raw fish."
Kay tried again to shout through his gag. This time, Joe had the gag removed. "You can't do that," said Kay. "That's kidnapping."
Joe said, "You're right. And kidnapping's a federal offense, did you know that? Technically you committed that crime when you walked Harry down the stairs with a gun to his head. Remember, I don't have to work within the court system. I could call a judge I know and make certain you never see the light of day again. Or you could spend some time with Robin's friends, and see how you like it. One thing you have to know, if anyone ever comes after the Forrester family again, whether you have anything to do with it or not, you will personally answer to me."
Kay nodded, his eyes almost as big as Bea's had been.
Robin said, "Come to think of it, Bea, you might enjoy the life. Do you want to go with Kay? You could find something to do, and it can be a lot of fun."
"That's what I need," she said, "Going from one freak show to another. Not a chance."
Kay said, "But sweetheart, we could be together . . ."
"Not as long as you look like a wookie."
Bert interrupted, "Now wait a minute." But by then all the decisions had been made.
Well, almost all the decisions. After everyone else was gone, and the kids had retired to the bat cave, Megan turned to Bert. "Good work turning the ghosts back on," she said, "You're almost starting to fit in here."
"I was hoping you'd think so sooner or later."
"Well, it's just that the weather's turning colder. And I'm having trouble staying warm at night. I was thinking about getting a golden retriever, but they shed too much."
Bert laughed and gave her a hug. Then they kissed, the first real kiss since Bert had come back.