Spook Hill Chronicles™
by Paul D. Race
By her next shopping trip with Inga, Megan was getting nervous about the Spook Hill again, and wondering if the "security team" had removed all the cameras from her house. Joe seemed evasive when she asked him that question, and she wasn't even sure that Robin, who was usually open, was telling her everything.
Megan believed, however, that she could trust Inga enough to ask her advice on their next visit to town. When Inga realized that Megan wanted a serious conversation, she steered them into a greasy spoon and toward a booth at the back. As she passed the old juke box, she dropped in several quarters and randomly selected several songs.
When they reached the booth, Inga said quietly, "That won't stop anybody bugging us by itself—they can filter out the recordings, but if everyone else has to talk louder, it gives us more background noise."
They had to order something to keep the waitress from bothering them too much, so Megan ordered a slice of blueberry pie and a coffee. Inga ordered only a coffee, which she drank without taking off the gloves she always wore when she was out of Spook Hill.
The two women spoke quietly with their heads down, and turned slightly away from the window, so no one could read their lips, if someone happened to be watching. Megan quickly outlined her story, of Bert missing, presumed dead, money owed, unscrupulous people trying to track her down and so on. At several points, Inga stopped Megan from revealing more details than she needed to. "I get the idea," she would interrupt. "No names," she said more than once.
"So what do you think?" Megan asked when she had come to the end of her explanation.
Inga paused and nodded her head for a few moments as though she was deep in thought. "Here's what I think. Your husband's enemies were hoping that you would do exactly what you did. They thought if you went into hiding, your husband would track you down, and then they would find him. Have you heard anything from your husband?"
"No," Megan answered sadly. "He must really be gone."
"Then you are doing yourself more harm than good hiding out. If you want to stay in Fosterville, you'll be welcome. But you should raise your children in the real world if you can."
Although Inga's advice corresponded with Megan's increasing convictions, Megan still hesitated. She said, "You understand that the folks looking for us have millions at their disposal. They could make us disappear without a trace or anything else they wanted to do with us."
"If that was their plan, you would never have got to Fosterville. Sorry, I know that is, what you say, harsh. But take it from a person whose enemies have billions at their disposal."
The fact that Inga had even greater enemies than the Forresters made Megan gulp before she could respond. Finally she got out, "So what should I do, call Whitey Reynolds and say, 'I give up.'?"
Inga said, "Something like that. You are better off reestablishing contact before he has to track you down."
"But I'm not sure how to get ahold of him."
"Leave that to me."
On the way back to the train, Megan asked the stationmaster to unlock the warehouse so she could check to see if the van would still start. It did. She let it run for a few minutes to charge the battery, then went back to the train.
At work the following few days, Mayor Kay's jokes were wearing thin, and Megan couldn't help thinking that his appearance of constant good humor might be "too good to be true." Increasingly, when Megan was in a group of people, she couldn't help the feeling that there was some big, important secret, an "elephant in the room," that everyone knew about but her. As Jessie had said, there are creepier things than people in monster makeup.
One morning Megan took the kids aside and whispered to them that they each needed to pack an overnight bag in case they needed to make a sudden exit. Both kids expressed their unhappiness with this potential turn of events, but somehow they seemed to know not to push it. Megan packed her own bag, an item or two at a time so it shouldn't seem too obvious to a casual watcher, assuming that she was being watched.
By the time Inga had come up with Whitey Reynolds' home telephone number, Megan had a plan of escape.
Inga also brought Megan a "burner phone" that she insisted was untraceable. But where should Megan stand while she placed the call to avoid her "friends" listening in? For all Megan knew, her whole house was bugged. Finally, she worked her way down the secret tunnel and got two bars when she was just behind the door to the storage shed. She punched in the number Inga had given her.
The phone rang twice, then Maria Reynold's voice answered, "Hello."
Megan had worked out what she would tell Whitey, but she was uncomfortable talking to Maria. She gulped and said, "Hello, Maria? This is Megan Forrester. I need to talk to Whitey if he's around."
"Oh, Megan! You're the nice lady who let Roberta use your bathroom when we stopped by."
"Yes. Is Whitey around?"
"Well, this is a funny thing. He just left on a trip. And get this. He said he was going to be in your neck of the woods. I guess you've moved, huh?
Megan's heart turned to ice in her chest, but she tried to make her voice sound steady. "Yes, we have."
"I hope the new place is nice."
"Thanks. It should be when we've got it cleaned up." Megan's hand was so sweaty, all of a sudden, that it was all she could do to hold the phone to her ear. "Uh, did he say when he might be in the area?"
"Probably in a day or two."
"Okay, great." Of course, it was anything but great.
"If you see Whitey, remind him he needs to get home in time for his father-daughter banquet with Roberta. I'd tell him myself, but, he forgot his phone."
"Okay, I'll remind him. When was it?"
"This Thursday. So he should have plenty of time, but you know how men are."
Unfortunately Megan did—better than Roberta, apparently. "Well, have a great day," she said.
This was Sunday morning, and Whitey would be here by Wednesday at the latest, if he wasn't already just across the swamp. Megan wasted no time getting back up to the house. The train would be coming that afternoon, and she planned to be on it.
Megan made herself up as if she was going on another grocery shopping trip, while she told her kids to get all three of their overnight bags and come down the tunnel, closing the hidden door behind them. The kids would watch from the shed until the train was ready to leave, then come onboard. The conductor never checked tickets until the train was underway, so their round trip tickets would get them where they needed to go.
When Megan came to the station in her old-lady makeup, she ran into Bea, who seemed to keep her busy with dumb questions right up until it was time for the train to leave. Was Bea trying to throw her off track somehow? Or was she just being unusually friendly? Either way, Megan couldn't board the train until the last minute, and she held her breath until she saw Harry and Jessie cross the twenty-foot gap of open space and jump onto the coach steps, just as the train started moving.
Jimmy, the cadaverous conductor, was surprised, but pleased to see the kids. "I didn't know you were coming," he said. Both kids looked at Megan. "Long story," she answered on their behalf. Jimmy could tell that he was better off leaving the Forrester family to themselves on this trip.
Somehow sensing their mother's tension, the kids sat close to her for the whole trip, although Harry did try to lighten things up by pointing out alligators, deer, and nutria rats, which Harry called R.O.U.S's.
When they reached the other end of the line, Megan had the kids slip off the train and into the station, avoiding the security cameras. Then Megan asked the station manager to unlock the warehouse for her. She sent the kids into the minivan, watching the street behind her for a minute to see if anyone was watching. In a moment she was in the van herself, and backing carefully out. The license plate was still under the front seat, but she figured she'd get out of town before she worried about that.
Just as the van pulled into the sunlight, a loud, sudden rapping on her side window caused Megan to hit the brakes so hard that the van rocked violently. Someone or something that looked like Kay was rapping on the window with one fist and trying to pull on her door handle with the other hand. She could not have been more startled. Reflexively, she hit the pedal and backed quickly into the street. A compact car honked loudly as it steered around her. Her would-be attacker was still holding her door handle, though. Megan threw the car into drive and went down the street a few yards, before the figure fell away, careened into a fence post, and tumbled to the ground.
As she kept going, she watched the figure in her rear-view mirror. It wasn't moving.
"Mom, I think you killed him," Harry said.
"Keep going!" shouted Jessie.
Megan swore under her breath, stopped, and watched the figure through her rear-view mirror. Harry said, "He's not moving, Mom." Megan swore again, checked her rear-view mirror for traffic, and began backing slowly. As she approached the figure, it did seem to be lying very still. And out of the warehouse's shadow, she could tell that the figure was not Mayor Kay, no matter how much the resemblance. Someone with the same disorder as Kay? Maybe a relative?
"He's still not moving," said Harry.
Great. Megan was running from people who would murder her family for a sum that wouldn't mean anything to them, and yet she was afraid that she might have killed an apparent attacker. Maybe that was the difference between her and the villains in her life.
Reluctantly, she stopped the car as they reached the inert figure. Before she had even shifted into park, Harry had his seat belt off and was opening his door. "Harry, stay in the car. I'll check on him."
As she approached the figure, she had an odd sense that she recognized his overall shape somehow. He was lying sideways and Megan could barely see his face, but she could tell that his eyes were closed. Jessie shouted from the car, "Mom, this is crazy. Get back in the car. You can call 9-1-1 from a pay phone if you want to."
Still unsure what to do, Megan bent over a tad farther to see if she could detect any sign of breathing. Then, the creature's arm shot out and grabbed her leg. She kicked and screamed, shaking off the creature's grasp. Then, just as she backed toward the car, the creature spoke.
"Please, Megan. I didn't want it to be like this. But you've got to get back to the train now. Whitey and his gang are all over town, and there's no way you'll get through without them spotting you."
It was surprising that this creature knew so much about her business, but even more surprising that it spoke with a voice that Megan knew and once loved.
"Bert?!" she shouted, and the kids burst out of the car. Harry had to look twice to see his father under all the extra fur, but Jessie recognized his eyes right away. "Dad!" she shouted, "You're alive!"
"I won't be for long unless you get us out of here," he answered. Although Bert moved like he had a cracked rib or three, he was able to get to his feet. "Er, Megan," he said, "You need to park the van and get back to the train."
Still confused and too angry to think straight, Megan hesitated. Bert said, "Listen, they're all over town. The only safe place is to get back to the house." Megan realized that, however mad she was at Bert right now, she probably needed to do what he said.
As she left the van parked once more and rejoined her family, Megan heard Bert telling the kids to get back on the train, and that he'd follow when he could.
"If they see me get on the train with you, that's like painting a bulls-eye on your backs."
Megan said, "Come back to the train with us, and I'll think of something."
She took the kids inside, leaving Bert to hide in the bushes behind the station. "We're sorry," she told the station agent, but my son isn't feeling well, and we need to get home as soon as possible." Harry cooperated by holding his stomach and looking as green as he could.
"Sure," he said. "We don't have any other passengers scheduled. You can go whenever you're ready." As she reached into her purse, the agent reached across the counter and put his hand on her arm. "Don't worry about that. Tell Jimmy that I said this one's on the house."
Did the agent sense that something was wrong? Maybe he was trying to help. Megan mumbled a surprised thank-you and started toward the station platform.
"But Mom," Harry whispered, "We can't leave Dad hiding in the bushes."
For once Jesse agreed with Harry. "He's right, Mom, we can't."
Still in shock at Bert's ill-timed, and overly-furry "resurrection," and still too angry to think clearly, Megan said, "All right, then, do either of you have any ideas?"
Harry wrinkled his forehead, and Jessie shrugged. "Right," said Megan, "Get on the train. I want to have a word with your father before we leave."
"Wait!" said Harry. "I've got it! Remember the blind?"
Megan had no idea what Harry was talking about. "The blind?"
"Yeah, Jimmy told me. The first car on the train has a fake doorway on the front. You can't get in or out, but you can ride there if you get on before the train starts."
Behind Megan, the locomotive was steaming up. She had ridden so often by now that she could tell from the sound that the train was almost ready to go. "Okay. Harry you go tell Dad what you told me, and then come right back here."
The trip back to Spook Hill was even more tense than the trip out. Megan was a mess. On one hand, she was happy to have her husband back. Or at least she should be. But to get him back in these circumstances was not exactly the happy reunion she thought she had been wishing for. One thing was certain: Bert Forester had a lot of explaining to do. If he was even on the train with them, of course.
As Megan and the kids disembarked, she told them to look for their father and come back up the tunnel, with him or without him. She'd go back up the hill publicly, since she'd come down publicly. And she'd open the tunnel door for them when she got to the house.
As steep as the walk back up the hill was, Megan struggled to make the climb at a normal pace, instead of tearing up the hill. Once she was in the house, she continued to move as calmly as she could. On her way to the basement, she passed a mirror and remembered, to her surprise, that she was still wearing her old-lady face. If it wasn't for the kids and the van, Bert might have had as much trouble recognizing her as she did recognizing him.
Megan turned the valve that would open the door to the tunnel and listened for sounds of her family's approach. While she waited, she pulled off the prosthetics and rinsed her face using the faucet in the laundry sink. Eventually she heard all three voices.
When her family came through the hidden doorway, Megan told Bert to stay quiet in the basement and the kids to go watch TV in the Bat Cave and not say a word about this until she came for them.
"What are you going to do?" asked Bert, holding his side and wheezing from the climb.
"Find someone I can trust," she said.
"Be careful who you ask for help," Bert said. "I don't think it's any accident that they tracked you down so easy."
"Are you sure they didn't just follow you?"
"No, they got here before I did. Sorry, this one's not my fault."
"No, just everything else that's wrong with my life."
"Yeah, I know. I am sorry."
As Megan climbed the stairs back to the first floor, she thought about what Bert had said. Did Whitey have someone on the inside? Who could it be? Inga knew Megan was making plans to leave and somehow came up with Whitey's phone number. But why would she betray the Forresters? Why would any of them? For money? There seemed to be plenty of that—for all of their unkept lawns and abandoned-looking living rooms, the Fosterville people averaged one of the highest standards of living Megan had ever seen outside a gated community. "Gated community," she thought, "Maybe that's what we are. But are the gates to keep others out or to keep us in?" That kind of thinking wasn't helping, though. Right now she needed to trust at least one other person. And the list of people she felt like she knew well enough to trust was very short.
Kay had once said something about a former "federal officer" in the community, hiding out from the remnants of a mob he or she had decimated. Based on what Megan knew about Joe, he could be the man. Well, she had to trust somebody. Megan went into the hidden staircase and climbed to the Crows' Nest.
Robin, Joe, and Kay were there, along with one other person Megan didn't know. Their monitors seemed to be showing various areas around the town. She hoped that meant that they hadn't been specifically tracking Megan and her family. For a moment she thought, "Now that's paranoid." Then she remembered a friend once telling her, in the context of a backstabbing incident at work, that "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean people aren't plotting against you."
Megan began watching the monitors herself. She was still breathless from her walk up four flights of stairs, but she managed to get out, "Joe, I need to talk to you, and I need the rest of you out of my house right now."
Kay said, "Megan, is there some sort of problem?"
Megan said, "Kay, you need to go now. If I'm wrong, I'll apologize later."
Joe made a single motion with his hand, and the room cleared. As soon as they were alone in the room, Joe asked, "Now, what's this about, ma'am?"
Megan shook her head and watched the monitors, refusing to speak until she saw Kay and the others leave her house and start down the hill.
"Are you sure this room is secure?"
"Yes, now tell me what I need to know."
Megan started to tell Joe about her missing husband and the hired guns on her trail, but Joe interrupted her. "That's the worst kept secret in town. So what happened today that you came to me?"
Megan started telling about her plans to leave Spook Hill, but he stopped her again. "So you went out on the train. Did you see someone you recognized in town?"
"Uh, yes, only I didn't recognize him. My husband Bert."
"I see. And did you bring him back here?"
"Yes, he's downstairs. And he says he saw the guys who were after him."
"And you're afraid they'll be here next. Do you have any names?"
"The only name I know is Whitey Reynolds. He's a real creep. Can't we shut down the ferry and the train or something?"
For all of Megan's sense of panic, Joe was infuriatingly relaxed, almost amused. He said, "No, if we know where they're coming in, it's easier to stop them."
"Oh, and one other thing. Bert says that he's sure someone here in town gave him up."
"How would he know that?"
That was a good question, one Megan didn't have the brains to answer right now. "I don't know. What can we do?"
"You can get your family together and sit tight until this blows over. I'll call in the people I need."
The muscles in her legs burning from going up and down the stairs after the climb up the hill, Megan went back down to the basement. Bert was sitting on an upturned bucket. "Now you tell me what I need to know," she said, "and why I should let you into my house."
"Our house," said Bert. "It my family's home."
"No, it's my house. I inherited it when you died, remember? I moved the kids here to avoid your mob friends. I cleaned it up. I made a new home for the kids here, because, well, you gambled away our other home at the casino. What makes you think you're part of our lives in any way now?"
"Megan, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I really was swept off that platform, but I snagged a piece of driftwood and got picked up by a trawler. And I thought, maybe I could get out from under our debt . . . ." He saw Megan about to interrupt and corrected himself, "Sorry, my debts. If I just laid low for a while and let things take their course. Then I saw Whitey's truck in your driveway and panicked. I went to see some old friends." Again, Megan started to interrupt and he changed tack, "Well let's just say I thought I had a plan for working this out, but it fell through, and I wound up stranded. I've been working my way across the South trying to get here, sleeping in old boxcars and the like, and trying not to get spotted. I suppose you can tell why."
"Because you have whatever Kay has and you can't get your prescription when you're on the run. But it doesn't explain why you lied to me about what that medicine was for. Why didn't you tell me this? Why didn't you tell me any of this?"
"Be honest, Megan, if you'd known about this," Bert indicated the fur on the back of his hands, "Would you have still married me?"
"Of course I would have, Bert. I loved you."
"Loved or love?"
"I'm still working that out."
"Can't we sort through all this after this crisis is over?"
"I'm sorry, Bert, but you are the crisis. Why shouldn't I call Whitey and give you up right now?"
"Come on, Megan, you know that's not an option. If you were that kind of person you would have left me on the street back there."
Unfortunately, Megan knew he had her there. Turning her husband in to his enemies was not an option. But pushing him down a flight of stairs was still on the table.
Just as Megan began to formulate a retort to that effect, her cell phone rang. It was Joe. "Megan, you need to get upstairs now, and get your family into your safe room so I can seal the doors."
By the time the call disconnected, Bert seemed to have gotten another string of excuses ready, because he launched into a speech immediately. Megan stopped him just as fast. "We're going up four flights of stairs now," she told Bert. "I suggest you save your breath." To herself, she wondered why the elevator wasn't fixed yet.
While Joe was assembling his team, Whitey was calling his together for one last "war council" before they invaded Spook Hill. The Atlantic City boys had no part in this meeting—the last time Whitey had checked, they were still lounging in their hotel room waiting for a phone call with final instructions. How they had got this far without Whitey's assistance was a mystery to him, but he doubted they would get much further.
Every one of Whitey's three colleagues was a fellow "swamp rat," born and bred in so-called impenetrable swamplands, from the Everglades to the Louisiana Bayou and several places in between. Former careers included smuggling, robbery, drug-running, and alligator poaching. Some had served time for violent offenses; the rest just hadn't been caught yet.
The plan was simple: Get into the Old Forrester house without being detected. Take the mom and kids hostage. Find Bert and kill him. Get out.
The men seemed satisfied with the plan and the money, but Whitey could tell that for all their physical survival skills, they were a little nervous about invading a place with such a dark reputation as Spook Hill. Well, Whitey wasn't the son of a no-count preaching con-artist for nothing.
"Gentlemen, we've all heard stories about Spook Hill. And I'm not going to tell you there's nothing to them. We've all had things happen to us that we couldn't explain and we're wondering if we'll see more of that in the next twenty-four hours. That said, if we do face threats outside of the natural realm, I know that each of you will acquit yourselves as the men you are. Before long, each of us may face a 'baptism by fire.' But I tell you, it's time to decide: are you the fuel, or are you the flame"?
One of the swamp rats asked Whitey to repeat the question, but the other two knew exactly what he meant.
Whitey gave the swamp rats a three-hour head start, then called the Atlantic City Boys and gave them directions to the Fosterville ferry. They thanked him grudgingly, then told him to get lost so they could do their job.
As he hung up the phone, Whitey said, "Right."