Spook Hill Chronicles™
by Paul D. Race
Back in the Crows Nest, Megan saw Robin and several others on Joe's security team. Kay and Bea were not there, for which Megan was glad—both had an uncanny ability to get in the way when something important was going on.
Joe was giving lists of instructions to each team member, using terms and acronyms that Megan couldn't follow. So far, there was no evidence that any incursion had incurred, but, as Joe pointed out, that might just mean that these invaders were smarter than the ghost-chasers, which wouldn't have been hard.
Joe was using the town's closed-circuit network to broadcast a warning and call to arms.
"Citizens of Fosterville, we have received warning that a team of criminals may be approaching, may already be within our borders. Those of you who have assignments, get ready. The rest of you, please activate your homes' defense mechanisms and go to your safe rooms until further notice. We will keep you updated on the video link."
Robin grabbed the microphone and added, "And remember, this is Spook Hill. So whether you're going to be on lock down or helping us fend of the baddies, it's time for full monster mode. What's Spook Hill without the spooks, anyway?! Let's give these pinks a night to remember!"
Megan could imagine all of Spook Hill's residents putting on their idiosyncratic "uniforms" for the coming battle, of nerves, if nothing else.
Just as two of Joe's people were leaving to take up positions elsewhere in town, there was a pounding on the doorway. Joe drew a pistol and signaled to Robin to open the door and stand back. The intruder was Bert.
Bert was not surprised by all the activity and gear in the Crow's Nest. "Boy, Joe, you've come a long way from binoculars and walkie-talkies," he said.
"Wait," exploded Megan, "You knew about this, too?"
But Joe ignored her outburst and responded coldly to Bert, "You're not welcome here, Bert—you've brought your troubles to our door."
"So give me some way to help."
Joe looked for a moment as though he was ready to shove Bert back down the stairs himself, but then he seemed to relent. "Okay. Robin wants to check this house's defenses. Why don't you go with him?"
Before the exchange could go on, Robin dragged Bert toward the secret staircase, explaining the core defense systems of the house as he went. "Oh, and I got some new video screens we can use, too," he was saying as the door closed.
Joe caught Megan's eye and shook his head in something close to disgust. "Maybe it will keep him out of trouble," Megan offered. In response, Joe just gave her a look. Then he said, "Why don't you go down with the kids? We can handle this."
"No, I need to be part of this."
"I won't argue. With half my team deployed, I'll be needing another set of eyes on the screens. Go tell the kids we're going to lock them in and come back up."
"Can the kids help?"
Joe shook his head. "No, they might see things you wouldn't want them to. These are stone-cold killers."
Megan went back down to the Bat Cave, told the kids what was going on, and explained that they'd be locked in for a while at least. Ordinarily, this wouldn't be a problem, since that was where they spent much of their spare time anyway. Still, Jessie started to protest out of habit, until something in the tone of her mom's voice warned her to back off.
When Megan got back to the Crow's Nest, she told Joe she was worried about Bert being out and about. Joe said, "Don't worry, Robin's pretty sharp. He's devious, too, which can come in handy. If we see anything on the monitors, we'll call them back up right away."
Then Joe asked his team members who were out and about to report their status. One by one, radio or video calls came in. The video feeds were the most interesting, since Megan had never seen some of the town's citizens in "full monster mode" before. Gene called in, already in his Headless Horseman outfit. While he was online he said, "Oh, Joe, ask Mom if I can borrow the car." Megan realized he was asking about the "ghost-drawn carriage" in her garage and she agreed.
When Robin came online, he was back in his pale-skin, blue-vein makeup. Bert was in the background looking just as he had earlier that day. But Megan was surprised to see where Bert and Robin were standing—in the tunnel under her home. "What are you doing down there?" she asked, breaking the flow of Joe's interaction with his team. Robin responded, "Oh, we wanted to make sure the tunnel entrance was secure."
Megan noticed that they had pulled the cart all the way up to the basement entrance, but couldn't imagine why.
Joe was not amused. "Why are you wasting your time on that? Is everything else in order?"
"Of course, sir."
After all of the anxiety of Megan's past several hours, the next two hours seemed to be an anticlimax. Occasionally the watchers would think they saw something move in one copse of trees or another, but no one was sure they saw anything worth worrying about.
On one set of monitors, Megan noticed that the alligators were approaching the road much closer than usual. "What about that?" she asked Joe, pointing.
Joe gave the kind of bitter chuckle that served him for a laugh and said, "Oh for occasions like this, we turn off the electric fence."
"Oh. You need to warn newcomers about things like that."
"We would have if you were out and about. I think you're safe from the gators up here."
"Probably. Are there any other boobytraps we should know about?"
"None in this house."
Eventually the shadows grew longer and the false alarms grew more frequent. But there was still nothing to show for all of their watchfulness, until, just at dusk, a tall white-haired man in a white sports jacket, trousers, and shoes appeared on the ferry landing. He was standing on the Spook Hill side.
Megan said, "That's Whitey Reynolds. How did he get there without us seeing him?"
Joe said, "I told you these weren't ghost-chasers. Let's see what he does."
After a minute, Megan and her fellow watchers could see him waving at someone across the bog. Soon she could see the ferry approaching, an oversized pontoon boat with an outboard engine on one end. This time there was no car on the ferry platform, only three men in dark suits and sunglasses, although it was nearly dark. As Megan watched, the ferry was drawing slowly toward the landing, one of the strangers piloting.
Joe said, "I read up on Whitey after you first mentioned him. He's a messenger boy for a handful of kingpins. I wonder what he's doing here."
Megan said, "I told you that. He's after Bert."
"Yes, but he never does his own dirty work, well, that they could pin on him anyway."
"He's creepy, all right, but do you think he's dangerous?"
"Well, he may have murdered his own father."
"Whitey's dad died of snakebite when Whitey was about thirteen. The boy was in charge of milking the snakes and handing them out at his dad's meetings."
"Well, about three weeks earlier, Whitey had caught his dad in bed with a teenager, and the dad beat Whitey and his mom both. Badly. How hard would it be to make certain Whitey's dad got the one 'unmilked' snake in a meeting three weeks later? You can connect the dots, but you can't win that sort of thing in the courtroom. Since then, Whitey's been courting trouble most of his life, but he's never been caught quite in the middle of it."
Megan was stunned at this background. She couldn't help understanding why an abused thirteen-year old would deliver "backwoods justice" the only way he knew how. But what a mess it would have made of the boy, and of the man he became.
Joe mistook Megan's silence for dread. He said, "I'm just saying, that's the kind of character you're up against."
Finally the ferry came close to the shore. Whitey leapt onto the deck as lightly as a cat, startling the men a bit. Then one of the strangers motioned to another, and the second man gave Whitey a quick pat-down.
"Too bad we don't have mics down there," Joe said.
On the ferry landing, the second-in-command found something in Whitey's shirt pocket that he pulled out gingerly. Wrapped in a cloth were three syringes, each containing a clear liquid. "What is this?" the head man demanded.
"Anti-venom, for snake bites," Whitey answered. "This place is crawling with snakes. I wanted you to have this on hand in case you ran into trouble."
"Oh, I've been bitten so many times I'm just about immune."
"I bet you have," said the leader.
He nodded toward his second-in-command, who pulled the protective end off one needle, then grabbed Whitey's upper arm and held the syringe up to Whitey's neck. Whitey didn't even flinch, as he said, "Go ahead. It won't hurt me, but you'll wish you saved it for yourself." The leader shook his head, and the man put the syringe back into the cloth with the other two and wrapped them up again. He held onto them though, for now.
"So why are you here?" the leader asked.
Whitey said, "Listen, boys, I know what your leads said, but I tracked these folks here, and I need to be here when you make contact."
"Not a chance," said the leader, pulling an automatic from a shoulder holster. He said, "You're over your pay grade here. You should think about heading home before you get hurt." From a jacket pocket, he pulled a silencer, which he started to screw onto his gun's barrel. Then his second-in-command screamed and started dancing around. It took the other strangers a second to figure out what the problem was—a small water moccasin had entwined around the man's lower arm and was striking his hand repeatedly. The man dropped the package containing the syringes, and the third man bent over to pick it up. As he straightened up again, he felt something sting his hand. It was another snake, now firmly attached to his wrist. In fact, the ferry was crawling with snakes. Apparently, the quick pat-down hadn't revealed that Whitey was carrying several of his pets in the lining of his sports jacket, an old trick he had learned from his father.
Within a moment, the leader had been bitten, too. So had Whitey, but that meant nothing to him.
In the confusion that followed, Whitey turned off the outboard engine and pocketed the key. Then he stepped back to the shore and gave the ferry a good shove with one foot. The ferry started drifting out into the bog again. Unfortunately for the strangers, they didn't realize that for a moment, because they were busy emptying their clips, in a panicked attempt to get rid of the snakes.
Whitey watched until the Atlantic City boys started fighting over the syringes, then started up the hill. A ten-foot alligator swiveled to face him as he passed it. "Don't you start," he said. It didn't.
"Pretty slick," said Joe, watching on the video from a quarter-mile away.
Megan was astonished that Joe was so calm. "Joe, those men all have snake bites. We should get them to a hospital."
"Not really. Even a snake-handler wouldn't drag that many vipers around without milking them first. Those guys might get sick, but they'll survive. Their big problem now is they're adrift in an alligator-filled lake, and their boat is sinking."
Even on the monitor, Megan could see that Joe was right. Apparently, blowing the pontoons apart with automatic weapons could have unintended consequences.
"How long do they have?"
"Oh, a couple of hours. I wouldn't worry about them too much. After all, they came here to kill Bert, and maybe you and the kids, too."
Bernie, one of Joe's team members added, "By the way, I ran facial recognition on them, and all three are wanted on outstanding warrants. Really brutal stuff. I vote we let them sink."
Joe said, "But Mrs. Guest would accuse us of contaminating the bog. We'll see."
Megan didn't realize until later how odd it was that Joe's network was apparently patched into a national law enforcement database. Nor did she know whether she wanted the killers on the raft to be rescued to stand trial or left to their self-inflicted, and apparently well-deserved doom. She said, "Well, there's only Whitey, now. How hard can he be to stop?"
Joe shook his head. "No, Megan, it's not over. Whitey just sent the B team packing."
"What does that mean?"
"The A team is already in play, and we don't know where they are."
Joe's cameras followed Whitey down the road toward the station, past more alligators, which seemed to recognize the superior reptile and left him alone. When Whitey reached the station, he poked around, like someone killing time in a grocery store. One of the families had a six-pack of Coke in the refrigerator. Whitey pulled out a bottle and set it on the counter. Then he drew a five-dollar bill out of his wallet. He waved it at the surveillance camera, then stuffed it where the Coke had been. Finally, he opened the bottle, strolled back to the outer platform, and sat down on a bench as if for a long wait.
In the meantime, Whitey's associates had approached Fosterville on an old railroad handcar they had pilfered from a storage shed. When they knew they were getting close to town, they stepped off the handcar, pitched it into the swamp, and split up to come into town from different directions, as Whitey had ordered.
The first intruder from Whitey's team was Lojack, who circled around so that he could come in from the west, which should be unexpected. After his trip through the edge of the swamp, Lojack's boots, clothing, and even his broadbrimmed hat were encrusted with enough dried mud that he was nearly impossible to see standing still. As he traveled up the street, he kept to the edge of the road, hoping the fences and shrubbery would help to obscure him from a casual viewer. But there was nothing casual about Joe's observers, or his cameras.
On the radio, Joe said, "Gene, we may have an opportunity here. One of the perps is sneaking uphill along West Road. Do you think you can drive him west at Center Street?" "Sure," said Gene. "I mean, Roger that."
Reaching a cross-street, Lojack stood for a moment under, and partially in, the foliage of a low-hanging weeping willow. He thought he heard a clattering sound down the road to the right, but could see nothing. After the clattering sound ceased, the night became still except for the distant croaking of the frogs and the nearer chirping of crickets. Unfortunately, he was going to have to step into plain view to cross the street. Lojack looked one more time and started across the intersection.
To his surprise, as soon as he took the first step, he heard the crack of a whip. Glancing to his right, he had a brief impression of a horse-drawn carriage bearing down on him. He had no choice but to turn left and run for it. The whip cracked again, and he couldn't help but glance behind him. What he saw surprised him more than it frightened him—the skeleton horses and headless driver were just too much to take in. Lojack ran as he had never run in his life.
Ordinarily he would have dived sideways into a driveway or behind a tree or bush, but the road he was on now was devoid of such features. In the growing darkness, it seemed to dead-end into a meadow in front of him. Lojack kept going. But as his feet left the blacktop, they suddenly seemed to be very heavy. A few steps into the meadow, and he was struggling to make any headway at all.
The phantom coach stopped while it was still on pavement. When Lojack looked back towards it, he saw the headless driver disembarking, coiling his bullwhip as he turned toward Lojak.
Lojack struggled to face the phantom, as he pulled and aimed his Colt. "Take one more step," he started.
"And what?" the phantom exclaimed. "You'll blow my head off?"
"This is no joke," Lojack yelled, waving his pistol.
"Neither is the quicksand you're standing in," said the phantom. "I could help, but not while you're waving that thing around."
"We'll see about that," said Lojack, keeping his gun aimed at the phantom. Then the whip cracked again, and the Colt went flying. Lojack rubbed his gun hand with the other and swore.
"Your knife, too," said the phantom. "Just toss it lightly over there." As he spoke, other phantoms came up behind him. The newcomers included hooded figures with deathly white faces, and a few getups that Lojack couldn't make sense of in the darkness.
Lojack complied, tossing his Bowie knife handle-first onto the solid ground.
"And your backup piece, too."
"Don't have one," Lojack said.
"Fine," said the driver and turned to walk away.
By now, Lojack was up to his thighs in the quicksand. "No, wait," he said, then produced a snub-nosed thirty-eight and tossed it lightly to the ground near the knife.
The headless phantom turned back toward him. "Okay, low-life. Now we need to know how many of you there are."
"I don't have to tell you anything. I have rights."
"Not here, you don't. Do I look like an officer of the law to you?"
"This isn't fair."
Gene told his backup, "We're done here," and they all turned to leave. By now Lojack was up to his waist. Lojack flailed in a desperate attempt to get back to the roadway, but only sank in a few more inches.
Gene turned back and said, "You should know that struggling only makes you sink faster. If you keep that up, you'll be gone in five minutes."
"Get me out of here, and I'll tell you everything you need to know."
"I believe you have that backwards, low-life." Gene started toward the carriage again.
By now, Lojack was up to his shoulders. "Okay, okay, there are three of us. Four if you count Whitey."
"Why wouldn't you count Whitey?"
"Because he's all show and no go."
"What's your objective?"
"What are you supposed to accomplish here?"
"Uh, kill Bert Forrester."
"Are you saying the wife and kids aren't on the menu?"
"No, if we come across them, we're just supposed to hold them until Whitey gets there or Bert's dead, whichever comes first."
"Is there anything else we should know?"
"I can't think of anything. Please get me out."
Gene flicked the whip again and the end landed in Lojack's reach. A minute later, Lojack was on solid ground where he was quickly bound, gagged, hooded, and dragged to a dark room to await the outcome of the evening's events.
At the ferry landing, Inga, in full vampire regalia, and using her best Eastern European accent, was having a similar conversation with the Atlantic City boys. When they answered her with threats, Inga directed one of her backup to demonstrate what they were up against. The phantom tied a raw pork loin to a rope, then two of them used a long pole to hold the meat about fifteen feet above the water, a few yards down from the ferry. Several of the phantoms held flashlights on the meat, so the vermin on the raft wouldn't miss what was bound to happen in a few seconds.
Almost immediately, a ten-foot alligator jumped straight up out of the water, extending its full length, but not quite reaching the meat. As it fell back in, a fifteen-foot alligator tried the same thing and succeeded. As the waves it had caused rocked the ferry, Inga explained, "You see, they can jump their entire length above the water. The only reason they haven't come after you is they do not usually think of people as food. But that can change." Turning to her side, she said, "Reuben, toss the next piece of meat right onto the ferry."
Immediately the Atlantic City boys surrendered. Inga had them unload their guns and toss both clips and guns to the shore. "After all, if you throw them in the water, the alligators will eat them, and that is not good for them."
One of the hoods said, "Sounds like you're more worried about your gators than you are about us."
"That is a very correct assumption," Inga answered.
In the Crow's Nest, Megan was not reassured to learn that three members of Whitey's team were still "out there." On the monitor, Whitey finished his Coke and "bought" another, for which he paid only a dollar this time. He went back to the outside bench, but soon started swatting at mosquitoes. So he wandered back into the station, took the station-master's stool from behind the counter and turned it so he could face the door, leaning back with his snakeskin boots on the counter. Megan said, "He acts like he's got all the time in the world."
Joe said, "As long as he still has two in play, he does. The good news is you're not the target."
"No but Bert still is. Can we get him back up here?"
"Sure." Joe called for Robin and Bert to return, and a few minutes later, they did.
When Robin saw Megan, he dug a makeup kit out of a drawer and handed it to her. "Here, time to get into the spirit of things," he said.
Megan said, "Oh, I don't have a mirror."
"Really? Your house is full of mirrors."
"Not the kind I want to look into."
Megan pulled her hair back and used the glass of a shuttered window for her mirror. She smudged on some of Robin's pale base coat, then used his blue-tinted eyebrow pencil to do her own eyebrows and draw on a scar.
Robin said, "Sorry, I don't have any lipstick."
Megan asked, "So why are you an alien instead of a zombie or something?"
Robin said, "Oh, this isn't alien makeup."
"Then what is it?"
"Well, it's a tribute to my sister."
"She's the reason I grew up in a carny. She had this condition that made her skin so tranparent, you could see her veins and muscles right through it. My folks called her the 'Glass Girl' and make her sit in her underwear all day long so people would pay money to see her."
"That's terrible. Did she ever get out of that?"
"When I was about ten, she died of pneumonia. Exposure, really. I ran away that night and hooked up with another carny. I've never seen my folks since."
"So, when you chose your monster look . . ."
"I chose to honor my sister."
Joe interrupted Megan's contemplation. "How about you honor your promise to our fair city and get some work done?"
"Uh, sure. What's up?"
"Perp number two has just been spotted near the cemetery."
Robin said, "Megan, you'll want to see this."