Spook Hill Chronicles™
by Paul D. Race
Mayor Kay was laughing so hard he could barely get out the words, "Sorry, Megan, we didn't mean to scare the daylights out of you. Honestly, we can explain. Come in and sit down."
Megan did need to sit down, as she was in something close to shock. After someone led her to a chair and she had a chance to catch her breath, she realized that she was in a very clean room full of flatscreen monitors and other electronic and computer equipment. Some of the monitors showed a sequence of locations around Spook Hill, apparently feedback from security cameras. She even saw views of the station on the "other side," where her family had first boarded the Spook Hill Express. Other monitors showed charts and graphs she didn't understand, though she could tell they were being updated every minute or so.
"What are you doing with all this stuff in my house?" she finally got out.
"Somebody get her some water," Kay said. He pulled up a chair, sat down across from her, and said, "First of all, let me say welcome to the Crow's Nest. Actually your husband's great-aunt gave us permission to set up here, and we didn't want to tell you about it until we were really sure about you and your family."
As Megan opened the water bottle someone brought her, she overlooked the insult of still being under suspicion to say, "So what is all this, anyway?"
"Well, when the amusement park was going to go in here, they set up this room to be their communications center. They called it the Crow's Nest. Before the blackout, you could see almost the whole town from these windows. So after the park went bankrupt, we started using it as our security center as well. Now we use cameras, of course, as well as motion detectors and infared sensors all over town. Nobody gets in or out of town without us knowing about it.
Megan said, "No wonder you weren't too upset about Jessie's e-mail. Now tell me how you manage to go up and down my stairs without me seeing you."
"Oh, that's the easy part, begging your pardon," answered Kay. "This house has six staircases, four of which are hidden. We didn't tell you about the things that went on here during prohibition. One of the staircases parallels your main stairs. It even has a hidden exit on the first floor."
"Next to the front door," Megan interrupted. "That's why I kept hearing the front door open and close. Now let's get back to why you didn't tell me about all this before."
Kay nodded. "Of course, of course. We were trying to keep it a surprise, but the cat's out of the bag now, as they say."
"What cat is that?" Megan asked. "Stop talking in riddles."
"It's easier to show you than to tell you. Are you up for a short walk?"
"I guess so." As she stood, Megan still felt a little unsteady on her feet, but she was careful not to show it. Channeling her anger at having all of this hidden from her helped. "This had better be good."
As an answer, Kay led her to a stairway that she had never seen before. This one was clean and lit by a row of dim lights, like a theater aisle. As Kay started to lead her downward, Megan looked up. "This is the top floor," she said. "Where do those stairs go?"
"To the widow's walk, of course. Best view in the county. But of course we never go up there except to adjust our antennas and cameras. Can we go down now?"
"Er, yes, of course."
At the next floor down—the fourth floor, Megan figured—a door opened into a dark room. Kay stepped through first and flipped a light switch.
The lights came up on a sitting room, not unlike the one Megan had seen in a neighbor's hidden basement. Beyond that seemed to be a large open space – what builders used to call a "great room." The room included a kitchenette with new-looking appliances, a home theatre, and another sitting area. Megan couldn't help noticing that two couches and one of the love seats looked like they could be hiding "hide-a-beds."
Kay could see what Megan was thinking. "Yes, you could live here indefinitely if you needed to. It's a safe room, too, meaning that once the doors are locked, no one can get in without explosives. I know you've visited families who had their safe rooms in the basement. We figured that since you were never going to need the fourth floor for anything else, we'd put yours here."
For the second time this night, Megan was in shock. "I don't know what to say," she finally got out.
"Oh, and there are three small bedrooms upstairs," Kay added, "The original servant's quarters. They're not this nice, but they're clean. Oh, and check this out."
Kay went over to the video corner and hit a remote. The screen behind him must have been 60" at least. As it powered up, showing the menu for a popular TV satellite service, he hit another button. Suddenly, a three-dimensional monster, sort of like a red-eyed, green octopus, was reaching out of the screen toward him. After a startled second or three, Megan realized she was seeing a 3-D video display, even though she wasn't wearing any glasses. Kay said, "Latest thing – 3-D video without glasses. It takes a funny kind of screen and costs a fortune, but it gives us a whole 'nuther technology for startling unwanted visitors." Kay changed the channel, and a 3-D movie with computer-generated talking animals appeared.
"Wait 'till the kids see this," Megan said, finally letting what she saw around her "sink in." Then she had a thought. "Wait! How can I, er, how can you afford all of this?"
Kay looked a little embarrassed, the way he did when he handed her an envelope full of twenties every two weeks. "Well, we didn't think anything of using the fifth floor while the house was empty. But after you moved in, some of the folks started saying that we owed you back rent. After a while we figured this would be a good compromise. Are you satisfied?"
Still a little breathless, Megan said, "Uh, yeah, thanks." Even more reason to think about staying in Spook Hill. "So how do I get back to my bedroom? Do I have to go up to the fifth floor again?" Kay led her back into the stairwell, as he turned out the lights and said, "No, there's a secret doorway on the second floor that will take you back to the hallway there. Just go on down two more flights and open the door."
As she started back down, she said, "Still, you had to put this on the fourth floor?"
Kay laughed. "Yes, it's a pain, but with your permission, we'd like to try getting the elevator working again."
"So now you're asking my permission?"
When she opened the doorway from the secret staircase, Megan found herself back in the hall she knew well, only a few steps from where she had started her strange journey this evening. The door swung back of its own accord, then closed with a click behind her. When Megan turned to examine it again, she saw that it matched the paneling on the wall so perfectly that it was invisible. In fact, she didn't know if she'd be able to get it open again. "There's probably a trick to that, too," she thought. But it was high time she was in bed.
That morning, Megan slept in, much to her children's surprise. An hour and a half after she was usually up, she heard a knock on the door and rushed to answer it. Her visitor was Bea, the Goth fairy from Kay's office.
"Hi, Megan," she said, "The mayor sent me over with some instructions that he said you might need."
On a ragged, yellowed paper were the directions for getting to the secret central staircase from each story of the house. They were written so cryptically that Megan could barely figure them out. Bea had no idea what they referred to, but she thought they dated back to prohibition. By now, Megan was wondering where the other secret staircases were, but she had inhaled enough dust for now.
After Bea left, the kids wanted to know what the paper was for, but Megan made them wait until she'd had her breakfast to explain it.
When she finally sat them down and told them that these were the instructions for finding a secret stairway through the house, Harry thought it was great, but Jesse thought it was one more reason to leave "this creepy old place" as soon as they could. Then Megan insisted they both go along as she tried to find the passage from the first floor. Finally they figured it was behind the back wall of the downstairs coat closet. As they squeezed past the clothes hanging there and tripped a hidden lever in a back corner, Harry said, "Wow, this is just like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." But Jesse quipped, "Hoping for some Turkish delight, are you?"
"Quiet, Jesse," Megan said. "You need to see this." Megan paused on the second floor only long enough to show them how the doorway from that landing opened into the hall, then continued past the third story to the fourth. "We'll check out the third floor entrance later—I just need to show you the fourth floor now."
The response from Harry and Jesse was even more excited than Megan had expected. After they explored for a few minutes, though, Jesse came back to where Megan was resting on one of the couches to ask her, "So why is all this stuff here?"
"Well the townspeople built this to be nice to us. Also to thank us for letting us put a computer room on the fifth floor."
"A computer room?"
Megan explained the Crow's Nest as well as she could. To her surprise, Jesse seemed to get more upset as Megan went on. Finally, Megan asked her, "Alright, Jesse, so what's the matter now?"
"So, Mom, they put hidden cameras and antennas and motion detectors and things all over our house, without even asking, and you're okay with that?"
Megan said, "Well, they did ask the homeowner at the time. And I don't think they have any cameras in the house, just on the outside. But you're right—they should have said something as soon as we moved in."
"Think about this, Mom," Jesse went on. Here's a whole community of people we don't know anything about, then something happens to Dad, and now they all want to be our new best friends. And at the same time, they're keeping all kinds of secrets from us, including things they really should have come out with from the start."
Megan said, "Come on, Jesse, these folks have been here for years—they didn't invent Spook Hill for our benefit."
"When was the last time somebody gave you this many nice things just because they liked having you around? Really, of all the creepy things that have happened to us since we got on the train, this is the creepiest."
Ironically once Jesse had spent some time in the great room, which the kids soon dubbed the Bat Cave, her resistance to staying in Spook Hill faded, just as Megan's was growing.
Jessie's fear that the Spook Hill powers-that-be were listening to them at that very moment was not justified, at least in this instance. Upstairs, with several of their "coworkers" in the Crow's Nest, Bea was bringing Kay's attention to a regional television news report that Bigfoot had been picked up on a security camera. Apparently he was dumpster-diving behind a grocery store. Most of the footage was as blurry as security footage and pictures of Bigfoot often are. But there was one shot in which the creature, whatever it was, looked directly at the camera. Bea said, "There. That's the shot. It looks just like you."
Kay said, "I don't really see the resemblance. Unless you are just looking at the furry face."
"Come on," said Bea. "Surely you can see it. Is he one of your relatives?"
Kay shook his head. "No, they're all accounted for. Unless . . . ." But then he fell silent and Bea couldn't get anything else out of him.
As Megan mused about what Jessie said over the next few days, she came across the yellowed page with the instructions for finding the secret central staircase. On the bottom of the paper was another set of cryptic notes that didn't seem to go with the rest. "BS, L15, valve overhead." Were these notes a guide to another secret passage? Back stairs? Basement stairs? The back staircase Megan had found. It was a steep narrow passage that servants once used to get through the house without bumping into the "nobs." Now it seemed to be one solid spider web, and Megan had put it way down the list of things to clean up.
The basement stairs were pretty well-traveled these days, because of all the laundry Megan had done. So one day when she took a load of laundry down, she placed the basket in front of the washer, then went back to the stairs. L15. Left fifteen steps? She tried that and looked up. A foot or so further on, there was a valve in one of the convoluted clusters of half-inch galvanized pipe that crowded the basement ceiling. Well, fifteen of her steps wouldn't necessarily be fifteen of the mapmaker's steps.
There was no sign of anything like a door in the wall next to her. Standing on tiptoes, she grasped the valve over her head and gave it a very small twist, just to see if it was too frozen to open. It wasn't, but she closed again it quickly. Then she looked around the basement, listened, and sniffed the air to make certain she wasn't going to flood the basement or spew natural gas or something. Nothing seemed to have happened, good or bad, so she twisted the valve open again, a little bit at a time.
When the valve was all the way open, she heard water rushing through a pipe, and the well pump started. But nothing else seemed to happen for a minute or more. Then, almost imperceptibly, two cracks appeared in the wall beside her, following the zig-zag route of the mortar between the blocks in the wall. As the water continued to rush through the old pipes, the cracks grew larger, and it became apparent that a sort of hidden doorway was opening out towards her.
Megan didn't know what she had expected; a secret wine closet or something. But all she saw was a dark passageway that curved downward away from her. She leaned into the opening. There was a light switch just inside, and she flipped it to see what would happen. Just over her head, a light bulb made a popping sound and went out. It was the old clear, flask-shaped kind used in the 1920s. But she could tell that farther down the tunnel a light had come on. How far did this go? Most important, where was the other end of the tunnel?
At any rate, it was damp and smelly, and full of spider webs. Megan figured she'd wait until she had older clothes and a whole lot of brooms and rags before she did any more exploring, or told Harry about it. She stepped back out of the doorway and turned the valve overhead until it closed. A minute or two went by until Megan saw any change in the door's position. Then it started closing even more slowly than it had opened.
Just as Megan was looking around to see if she needed to take anything upstairs, her cell phone rang. It was Kay. "Megan, sorry to bother you, but I think you'll want to see this," he said. "Can I send a video to your PC?"
"Let me know when you've seen it."
The video was a promo for a so-called reality show featuring "ghost-chasers" who would go through old houses with night-vision goggles, Geiger counters and other useless gear trying to find evidence of ghosts in creepy old places. The blurry shots from handheld cameras were reminiscent of Blair Witch Project. But the writing was even worse. Characters were saying things like, "Something just brushed past me," and "Why do I feel a cold draft all of a sudden?" The best part was when they would show a blurry image through a green-tinted lens and yelled things like "Oh, my God!" "There it is!" "Are you getting this?" "I can't believe this!"
Megan couldn't "believe it" either, and she was wondering why Kay told her to watch this garbage, until the ending "teaser," in which the announcer said, "And remember, there's only four more episodes until the season finale, in which we visit a legendary Southern ghost town with—you guessed it—real ghosts!"
Megan called Kay and said, "Are you saying they're coming here?"
"Yes, in three days, as it turns out."
"But they said four weeks."
"Yes, they did, but they shoot a month ahead. What do you think?"
"What do you think? I'm new here. What do you usually do in cases like this?"
"Oh, usually we keep them from getting anywhere near. We shut down the ferry and the train; we cancel their travel and hotel reservations; put kerosene in their gas tank so the van runs funny, that sort of thing. Usually they give up and go home without ever getting into town."
"So what's different about this bunch? It's not like you want them to capture Spook Hill on video tape."
"Oh, of course not, we have technology to make certain that never happens at any rate."
What kind of technology, Megan wondered. But aloud, she said, "It sounds like you're planning something. But why are you asking the newcomer what she thinks?"
"Because we want to use your house—the first two stories at least. I'd like to see these guys squirm. And you have the best collection of functional 'ghosts' in town. It would be perfectly safe."
"For us or them?" Megan couldn't help remembering the time Boney almost clobbered Gene.
"Both, hopefully. I just think it would be fun to give them a taste of their own medicine, then send them home empty-handed and afraid even to tell folks what they'd seen."
"And you want my permission to let them in the house."
"Well, yeah, and to put some cameras around."
"Don't you already have enough cameras in my house?"
"Not on the inside, Megan."
"If you say so."
"So what do you think?"
"Let me ask the kids."
Harry was all for it from the start, of course. Jessie withheld her judgment until she had seen the promo. "Yeah, right!" she said. "'I feel a draft—there most be spooks!' We'll show 'em spooks!"
That didn't keep Megan from still being paranoid about the amount of surveillance that could be on her family right now and wondering if she had found a way out from under that threat. The next day, Megan, armed with a scarf, a broom, and flashlight, and dressed in very old clothes, tried the secret tunnel again. The kids were enjoying movies in the "bat-cave," so Megan hoped they wouldn't come looking for her for a while.
The tunnel's limestone floor was worn nearly smooth from previous traffic. It also showed two gouges, as though a cart had been pulled up and down many times. Megan went a few inches, cleared the spider webs, went another several inches, cleared the spider webs, went several more inches, cleared the spider webs, and so on. After what seemed like an hour, she looked back to see how far she had come. Twenty feet at the most. Already the tunnel curved downward so steeply that she had trouble seeing the door to the basement. Then it occurred to her that the door might shut itself behind her if she took too long. She looked ahead as far as she could. But through the spider webs and spotty lighting, she could only see more tunnel, still curving downward and lit intermittently by ancient bulbs.
Megan went back to the tunnel entrance, brushed the spiderwebs off her clothing, shook out her scarf, and retied it. She listened to the plumbing and decided that whatever was keeping door open was still happening. She decided to go back in and go a few more yards to see if she could see anything special, then return to get the kids to help. First, though, she braced the door open with a concrete block.
Within another ten minutes or so of work, Megan reached a place where the tunnel spread out, and a big contraption of some sort sat off to one side. A large container, like an oil drum with several spigots arranged vertically on one side was sitting on sort of large scale attached to a rope and some pulleys. The middle spigot was open and water was running freely through it, then finding its way to a hole in the floor. This must be the mechanism that drives the door, Megan thought. She looked at it closely, but determined it would be safer for now to leave it alone.
A few yards further along, the tunnel opened out again. Here was mostly scrap, with enough copper tubing to convince Megan she had stumbled on the location of an old still. Well, she'd come far enough for now. So she went back up, inadvertently walking through spiderwebs she had missed the first time.
Finally, Megan staggered back out into the basement, filthy, and coughing from the dust she had stirred up, her hands and clothing white from webs and dust. How long had she been gone? It seemed like a couple of hours. But after she dusted herself off as well as she could and returned to the kitchen, she realized she had only been gone about 40 minutes. What an ordeal! Maybe it was time to bring in the kids. First, though, there were other things to do, including a shower.
That evening, Megan got the kids downstairs by asking them to help her with something in the basement. Then, mostly pantomiming, she showed them the entrance to the secret tunnel. Harry thought it was cool, but Jessie thought it was dumb. "Why are you so excited about one more big spider nest?" she asked.
"In case we ever need to get out of the house without being seen," Megan whispered.
Jessie said, "I know what I said about trusting the Mayor and his friends. But we can't leave now—I'm just making friends. And Julie has a party next Friday."
"We'll talk about that later," Megan said. "But in the meantime, I want to see where this goes."
"So do I," said Harry. "What's the concrete block for?"
"Well, I used it to block the door open when I went in by myself."
Harry said, "Good thing you didn't need it."
"What do you mean?"
"Uh, Mom, I have friends who can break these with their faces. You need something more solid."
Megan gasped when she realized what she could have done, after all those warnings to the kids about exploring potentially dangerous places. If the other end of this tunnel was blocked, and the door had shut on its own, how would the kids even know what had happened to her?
"Thanks, Harry," she said. "That's a good point."