Spook Hill Chronicles™
by Paul D. Race
Later that night, Megan and Harry went into the yard looking for a boulder they could use to block the door. When they had found one, brought it downstairs, and wedged it in the doorway, they called Jessie down to wait at the entrance while they cleaned their way down the tunnel. Jessie spent her time playing a handheld game and periodically shouting down the tunnel, encouragement like "This is really boring, Mom."
About a half-hour later, Megan and Harry were in a part of the tunnel that leveled out. There was a cart with a long rope on the "uphill" end. Harry said, "You could get a lot of stuff up and down in a hurry with this."
Just past the cart was the end of the tunnel, a very old and heavy wooden door. It opened about an inch when they tried it, but all they could see was a very dark room. Something seemed to be blocking the door from opening any further.
Harry said, "Let's get Jessie and get her to help." But Megan was already quailing at the thought of working her way back up that steep climb once more today, much less twice. She said, "Harry, can you go back up a little and see if you can find a board or something you can use to pry?"
"Sure," Harry said, and was off—he didn't need to be told twice to go exploring.
A few minutes later, Harry was back with a long, thick board. Megan and Harry pried at the door, and it opened a few more inches. Harry said, "I think I can squeeze through and take a look."
Megan said, "Go ahead but be very careful. Who knows where this comes out? Look out for bad spots in the floor."
Harry squeezed through the doorway and moved slowly through a dark room, narrating as his flashlight beam showed him his surroundings. "The floor is concrete and looks solid. No, it's stone. This must be really old. There are boxes everywhere. Well, crates, really—they're made out of wood. They're real dusty. I can see light coming under a doorway on the other side of the room. A really big doorway you could probably drive a truck through. I'm laying down on the floor and trying to peek under the door. Ha! You wouldn't believe it!"
"Shhhhh!" Megan whispered. "What do you see?"
Harry crept back to the doorway and whispered. "Remember that shed behind the station? That's where this comes out."
Megan said, "Can you see what's blocking the door?"
"Sure, it's a big crate." After a moment, Harry said, "It's too heavy to push. Can you get me that board?"
"Sure. Don't hurt yourself." A minute later, Megan was in the shed too. Most of the crates looked like they hadn't been touched for decades. She stopped Harry from brushing the dust off the crates to try to read the labels. "Let's not disturb this stuff too much—it will look funny to anyone who comes in here."
"But what if it's something really cool?"
"Don't we have enough 'really cool' stuff already?"
Megan was glad to see that, in addition to the big shipping door Harry had noticed, there was a person-sized door on the side. After looking around the inside for any kind of alarm triggers, she risked turning the knob and pushing the door open an inch. She could tell that the door faced the railroad, from about twenty feet away. So, could folks get to and from the train without any of the security cameras picking them up? Probably not. Could they do it without anyone in the security center noticing? Possibly.
The trip back up took just as long as Megan feared it would. Still it was nice to think that the family just might be able to slip out without being seen. And Megan still had the stubs from her original round-trip tickets.
The next afternoon, a team arrived at the Forrester house to put hidden cameras in the first two stories. Kay was there, too, of course, standing around trying to look like he had any idea what they were doing. Megan didn't know the other team members, though. The leader was Joe, thinly disguised as a vampire. Underneath the pale makeup Megan could tell that Joe was fortyish, with ramrod posture, a military-looking haircut, and absolutely no sense of humor. As he worked his way through the house, he asked the family to "demo" all the ghosts so he would know the best camera placement. He also suggested rearranging the furniture so the actors wouldn't get clobbered by Boney and his colleagues. But he did all of this with a solemn, business-like tone.
After the sixth or seventh attempt to get any sort of friendly response from the man, Megan asked him, "Why are you taking this all so seriously, anyway? Kay seemed to think we were just in for a bit of fun."
Joe glared at Kay, who suddenly seemed to be busy inspecting the test button for one of the ghosts. "Actually, ma'am, some of us also see this as a way of practicing alternative responses to the next enemy incursion."
"Enemy incursion? What are you talking about? A bunch of villagers storming the village with pitchforks yelling 'Kill the beast'?"
Joe gave her a look that said she was being flippant. He said, "No, ma'am, they don't use pitchforks these days. And the possibility is not as remote as you would like to think."
Megan came away thinking that she didn't like Joe very much as a person, but if she was ever in trouble, she'd want him on her side.
One of Joe's assistants, on the other hand, was all about the fun. Robin seemed to be a young man in his early twenties. At the moment, he looked more like an alien than a spook, with pale skin and a shaved head lined with huge blue veins. Those veins continued down his face and neck, and over the back of his hands. He took a fanatic's interest in the mechanical spooks, and he carried tools and supplies for restoring them to optimum condition after their decades of disuse.
Megan was too conditioned by now to ask him what his story was, but he could tell she was curious. "I grew up in the carny," he said. "One of my jobs was maintaining the dark rides, uh, what you would call funhouses. Not many people realize, but most of the gags they used—uh, the scary figures—come from the same three factories. I got to know them all. This is an RZ1114," he said as he gestured toward the zombie figure he had cleaned with a small vacuum, and was now touching up with acrylic paints. "They made about a thousand of these, so they're pretty common. Your witch, over there, on the other hand, is very rare. I've only ever seen three in my life. And yours is definitely in the best condition."
The witch figure in question was almost life-sized from the waist up, with big ruddy cheeks that almost made her look more humorous than sinister. From the waist down she was simply a bunch of billowing cloth, including a square that represented a checkerboard black and white apron extending from her bodice.
"I used to call this kind Granny Applecheeks. Part paper mâché, I'm afraid, which is why she doesn't hold up so well. I had to wipe her face and hands with a bleach solution to get rid of the mold. And, as you can see, mice have chewed on her here and here. When the bleach is all dried out, I'll spackle those places and repaint her."
Megan was interested, in spite of herself. "Robin, this seems like a lot of work. These things come through so fast, no one ever gets a good look anyway."
"Please, Mrs. Forrester, think of it this way. This lady hasn't had a chance to come out and play for fifty years. Don't you think she deserves to look her best?"
Megan couldn't argue with that.
The ghost-chasers included a cast of three "explorers" and one producer who sat in the satellite van and made a rough cut of the show as it was being taped. When he could get a good signal, he would also upload the output of each camera to the studio as a backup.
The explorers were young, attractive, and appropriately multicultural. Ben and Rudy were the white and black males, respectively, and Ginny was a vaguely oriental-looking female. All three wore backpacks and carried little video cameras. All three also had night-vision goggles that they could push up onto their forehead when they didn't need them.
Spook Hill's "defense team" had put up worn-looking signs to the ferry, including instructions for how to start the motor and steer the thing, so the ghost-chasers would be able to bring their satellite van along. Why not get the whole cast involved?
In the meantime, Fosterville's tech geeks hacked the van's network signals, so that, while the producer thought he was streaming video back to the network, the feed was really only reaching the Crow's Nest on the fifth story of Megan's house.
Megan, the kids, and about two dozen of their friends would watch from the safety of the Bat Cave, where the big-screen monitor was set up to show six camera feeds at once, including hacked feeds from the explorers' hand-held cameras. The rest of the Spook Hill community was watching from their own safe rooms. The ghost-chasers weren't the only folks whose techies could edit "on the fly."
As the video feed came on line, Megan could hear Robin saying, "Okay, we are on the lot and in the air," which she assumed meant that the home team was ready to do what needed to be done.
The "show" went slowly enough at first, as the ghost-chasers kept getting lost on the dirt roads leading to the ferry. Before long, Robin saw the humor in their mistakes and started doing a fake "voiceover" to go with the video footage they were seeing. "The spirits are obviously angry at our attempts to discover their haunts this afternoon. They keep sending us in other directions. I sense a growing uneasiness as we approach the ghost town. Oh, wait, maybe that's just car sickness. Or malaria. Larry, get us out of this blessed swamp!"
Finally, Joe got tired of waiting for them and hacked their GPS so that they shouldn't keep getting lost. To the ghost-chasers' credit, they only got lost twice more before they finally found the ferry. Robin's narration continued. "Just parking near the Fosterville Ferry is making the hair stand up on the back of my neck. If we don't have some excellent sightings this evening, I'll be very surprised." Then in a deep "announcer" voice, Robin said, "Continuing his streak of messing up directions, Larry has misread the instructions for starting the ferry motor, and has now flooded the engine. Cut back the throttle, Larry. Larry, listen to the voiceover-and cut back the throttle. Now we're moving. Unseen creatures are surrounding and bumping the ferry as the team crosses the stagnant lagoon. The spirit of menace is growing every minute. Wait, they're just alligators! For a moment there, the team thought it was something dangerous, like spooks." Megan was confused for a while because the fellow
Robin called Larry was really named Ben. Eventually she realized that "Larry" was Robin's name for anything that was malfunctioning or anyone that was stupid.
When cast member Ben actually started his narration, Robin dropped out. Ben said, "As we approach Fosterville across the barrier of an alligator-filled lake, I can sense the spirit of menace growing every minute."
Robin's voice shouted, "Ha! I called it!" Then Joe's voice said, "Quiet, Robin, let the professional idiot have his say."
Ben was continuing, "As we disembark in Fosterville, we can't help noticing that the houses all seem abandoned. The yards are overgrown. There are so many weeds, it's hard to tell where the yards end and the street begins."
"Guess it's time for Gene to lower the blade on his lawnmower," said Jesse.
Robin interspersed, "If bad lawn care is a sign of spooks, then half of this state is haunted. I wonder what a truck up on blocks signifies." Joe shushed him again.
Ben continued, "We are going uphill now, toward what seems to be the largest structure in town. A four-story mansion that looks like it's been neglected for a century."
"Hey, I'm offended," said Megan.
Rudy's voice chimed in. "Look at this scope!" He was holding a Radio Shack decibel meter that had been doctored and relabeled an "Ectoplasmometer." "We're pegging the meter. If we expect to find anything supernatural in this town, it will be in that house."
In obedience to Joe, Megan had left the front door unlocked. She had also allowed Joe to turn off all the circuit breakers for the lighting on the first two floors. Now if she could have added a raccoon to trip over, Ben's experience should be complete. Not to worry, seven of the mechanical ghosts were on the first floor, and five were on the second, so Ben, Rudy, and Ginny were bound to get a couple shocks.
Seeing her house from the perspective of a shaky, waist-high videocam, accompanied by anxious whispers was another odd experience for Megan. As disheveled as her house had been when they moved in, it had never seemed sinister until now.
Rudy was shining his flashlight into all the darkened corners of the room, picking up an occasional dust bunny that made Megan wince. He said, "All the windows are closed and shuttered, but I am definitely feeling a cool draft."
Ginny was videotaping the furniture. "Looks better than you'd expect," she said. "This room is mysteriously well-preserved, as though some sort of presence is guarding this place."
Ben said, "Whoah! What was that? I just felt something brush past me."
Ginny was flashing her camera all over the room. "I don't see anything," she said.
"I didn't see it, I felt it," retorted Ben.
"Well, I saw something," said Rudy, "A sort of dim glow over AAAAAHH!"
The feed from Ginny's camera showed that it had hit the floor and was shooting random dust-bunnies under the couch. Again, Megan winced, while Ginny kept repeating "Oh, my God, Oh, my God, Oh, my God."
Ben alone was unfazed by Boney's rapid appearance and disappearance. Apparently he had been looking away and hadn't really seen anything. He bent over and whispered, "Good acting guys. If I didn't know better, I'd swear you had the pee scared out of you." In his unfazed leader voice, he said, "Rudy, Ginny, pull yourselves together, we have to go on."
Shaken, but doing her best, Ginny stood and picked up her camera. Rudy had managed to get his camera on Ben for his leader speech just now.
Then Ben found his face temporarily buried in Granny Applecheek's ample skirts as she swished over his head. He echoed Rudy's scream, dropped his camera and flashlight and headed toward the front door, Rudy and Ginny close behind him. But the door slammed shut with a bang and a zombie character was coming toward them from that direction. The erstwhile ghost-chasers reversed direction and ran toward the kitchen, where more ghosts "guided" them toward the library and back into the living room. The only path left was up the stairs.
By now, all three had dropped their cameras, so Joe concentrated on showing the views of various hidden cameras as the intrepid explorers ran, stumbling past them, screaming until they were out of breath. Ginny and Ben seemed to be crying real tears.
The producer's voice cut in, "What's happening over there, guys? Enough with the screaming. Will just one of you pick up a camera and show me what's going on? Oh, now what?"
An outside view of the ghost-chaser's satellite van showed that some Spook Hill residents had pulled an enormous black tarp over the van and were now bracing the doors from the outside, so the producer was encased in darkness and couldn't get out.
One of the video monitors suddenly showed a giant eyeball, bloodshot and surrounded by green, warty skin. The eyeball was slowly shifting back and forth as if it was taking in the surroundings. Robin's voice cut in. "We're feeding this to all the monitors in the van, so this is all he can see. No sound at all. He's completely cut off and he can't get out of the van."
A voice Megan didn't recognize added, "You can't hear it, because we don't have a mike down here, but this guy's screaming, too."
In the meantime, the explorers had made the round of ghosts on the second floor and were rushing back downstairs, a zombie at their backs. Unbeknownst to them, they had followed the exact route of the original funhouse design, managing to trigger every ghost but one in the process. As Ben and Rudy rushed the front door hoping to burst free, Ginny tripped over a video camera and had the presence of mind to pick it up. While Ben and Rudy slammed into the door again and again, Ginny turned the camera on her face.
Lit only by flashlight, holding the camera way too close to her face so you could see the tears and sweat, Ginny spoke in a trembling voice. She said "If anyone ever sees this, you need to know that we've finally found what we've been hunting for three seasons—proof of the existence of spirits from the afterlife. Unfortunately, they seem to be hostile. We are trapped and surrounded, and it's only a matter of time until they make their move."
"Ginny, what are you doing?" came the producer's voice. "Something's wrong here. It's gone pitch black outside and I'm locked in the van. I think something really big has been checking us out. Get out of there, now!"
Then, at the exact same moment, the black tarp was whisked off of the van, and the lights were restored in the Forrester house. All four cast members clenched their eyes shut from the bright light. They only opened them when they heard the sound of laughter surrounding them.
In Megan's living room, a young man she didn't recognize was standing in the closet that was the entryway to the hidden staircase. The young man said, "Ben, on the front porch you'll find a rough cut of this episode, if you want to use it. There's a lot of footage of you and your friends screaming your heads off. And, oh."
When the young man spoke, Megan realized that he was Robin, made up, not like a monster or like himself, but like someone else altogether. The camera panned to show that Ben's trousers were very wet in front. "We'll have to add that to the final cut," Robin said.
"We don't usually show the marks how things work, but I want to introduce you to a friend of mine." Robin pointed a remote toward the ceiling where Boney had disappeared, and the skeleton dropped back out, hanging in the living room, and looking much less impressive in the bright light. "That's an SK1500, at one time used by almost every fun house in the country. It's nice to see that he hasn't lost his touch. Oh, you thought you were seeing real ghosts?"
Finally, Rudy had recovered his breath enough to say, "That's not fair."
"Oh, come on, you've been conning people for three seasons. What's not fair about us turning the tables?"
"Conning?" said Ben, "That's a strong word."
"Come on," said Robin," in all your explorations, did you ever hear or see one thing that would have made you think 'ghost' if you weren't searching so desperately for something to creep out your audience?"
"Maybe not," said Ginny, "But we've been creeped out a lot of times."
Robin said, "Well, folks like you creep me out, but you don't see me coming at you with wooden stakes. Oh, and by the way, if any of you ever say anything about this place to anyone, I have enough footage to destroy all four of your careers period."
Robin gestured with his hand and the front door slowly creaked open, letting the blazing sunlight burst in.
"Oh," Robin added, "You should probably take a souvenir. Here." Then the young man speaking with Robin's voice pulled his head right off and drop-kicked it toward the panicked trio. They were out of the door before Megan could even take in what she had seen.
"Don't worry," Robin's voice came in, and suddenly he was back in one piece. "It's all done with video. We taped that part before, and swapped it in when they were distracted by the door."
Finally, Megan realized that the Robin in the closet was actually one of those fancy 3-D video screens. "I'm with Ben on this one," she said, "You should have warned me."
Robin laughed, "I'm just sorry I couldn't see your face."
"That's okay," came another voice Megan didn't recognize. "We got it on tape."
Joe's voice came back, announcing that it was time to debrief the team while their memories of the last hour or so were still fresh. The last video feed was cut. The conversation in the Forrester's bat cave, however, went on for some time, followed by back-to-back viewings of Robin's "rough cut," which mostly involved the cast running, screaming, and falling over things and each other. For a few moments, Megan forgot her paranoia about Spook Hill long enough to enjoy herself. Uniting against a common "enemy," even one that wasn't all that ferocious, did seem to bring their little community a little closer together.
Several hundred miles away, Whitey Reynolds was in his office with a video technology geek, scanning through security footage from stores and police cameras within a fifty-mile radius of the realtor Megan had called. The realtor had been evasive, and Whitey didn't want to raise his profile by leaning on her just yet. A local sheriff on the take had supplied this video footage so Whitey figured he would do what he could with that before he went into the field again.
In a vivarium near Whitey, a young water moccasin was dozing in its inch-deep "pond," only its eyes and nostrils above the water. A cricket that Whitey had dropped in earlier was sitting on a piece of driftwood, unaware of its danger. Occasionally, as he watched the techie fast-forward through the videos, Whitey would poke the cricket with a stick, hoping that the motion would attract the viper's attention and it would strike. But so far the snake seemed content to remain at rest.
Then, after a couple hours of watching the fast-forwarded videos, Whitey saw something that took his attention away from his latest pet. "Wait! Run that back again and let me see it in normal speed. No, farther back. There. Look at that old woman. I've seen her on other footage, too. Can you get me a good closeup?"
The techie fiddled with things until he got a shot in which Whitey could make out the woman's features. Hooked nose, protruding cheekbones and chin—nothing to distinguish her from dozens of other old women in the videos. Except for her posture and how she moved. "Look at her," Whitey exclaimed. "She looks like an old lady, but she moves like a twenty-year old. Can you find her in any of the other shots from the same store?"
After another twenty minutes of fast-forwarding, they found her again, in a shot from two weeks later. This time she was accompanied by another "old woman" with upright posture. "Okay," said Whitey. "Now try to find them on the street the same day. See if you can tell where they are coming from and where they go." To Whitey's frustration, the techie had trouble coming up with many more sightings.
Whitey went back to his desk, and picked up some paperwork to work on while the techie continued his search. After a few minutes, he glanced back at the vivarium and realized that the cricket was gone. Too bad Whitey had missed the viper's strike. The cricket didn't even make a bulge in the snake's profile. It was ready for mice.
After a few brief sightings, Whitey and his helper drew the conclusion that the old woman and her sometime companion were very good at evading security cameras. Stranger, though, was the fact that the first woman's features changed slightly between one sighting and the next. The techie assured Whitey that the features weren't just makeup—he had software to determine that—but they might be prosthetic, or made from real bone and cartilage. If the woman's image hadn't been captured more than once, she might have got away with it.
Whitey also couldn't help notice how the woman tilted her head when she was listening closely to her friend. He had seen that idiosyncrasy several times in his life, most recently in his conversation with Megan Forrester. "Bingo," he said. "You can run but you can not hide." Then he asked the technician to take the rest of the day off while he made a few calls. The technician had no idea why Whitey had needed his help, and he didn't want to know. He left quickly.
Whitey picked up a "burner" cell phone he had not yet used and punched in a number he knew by heart. When a voice said, "State your business," Whitey said, "I've found her."
"Good timing," answered the voice. "On of my people tells me that the subject's been spotted, and that he's on the move. Give me the location, and I'll get a team out."
"Let me give you the best place for us to meet up."
"Negative. We need to go double-blind on this." That meant that Whitey's employers wanted Whitey out of it, so that any "trouble" couldn't be traced back to him, and, subsequently, to them. "Okay," Whitey said. Then he gave a GPS location that was in the middle of an impenetrable swamp fifty miles away from where he had spotted Megan, all saw grass and alligator gars. Let's see how those Atlantic City boys handle that, he thought. Aloud he said, "I'm calling from a new burner phone. Have them call me on this if they need any more direction."
"Not a chance," said the voice. "They'll handle it. You're in over your head in this one." The line went dead.
Whitey smirked as he leaned back in his chair. "That's what you think," he said to himself. "I was born and bred in this briar patch." Whitey punched another number into the burner phone. "Get the boys together," he told the voice on the other line, "We're gonna party!"