Once inside the library, I armed the alarm system, locked the door and headed to the back of the building. It was still light out, and some late-afternoon sunshine filtered in through the blinds in the front window, so I didn’t bother turning on any of the main lights, figuring that the lights in the front window would be enough when I left. I also didn’t want to announce to the town that someone was in the building after hours.
I unlocked the storage room door and turned on the light. As I quickly scanned the room and took in the sheer number of books we still had to go through, I felt a bit overwhelmed. There are almost enough books here to start another library, I thought to myself.
Taking a deep breath, I picked a box and dove in. It only took a moment to realize that the entire box consisted of romance novels. I snorted at the cheesy titles and stereotypical cover art before hoisting the entire box onto the table we had cleared off earlier. I was certain I’d come across a lot more of those before I was through tonight. Romance novels were a dime a dozen at book sales, which is probably about what we should charge to get rid of them, I thought ruefully.
After almost two hours of sorting, I was starting to run out of steam, and I felt as though I hadn’t gotten anywhere. I even wondered if the darn things were multiplying whenever I turned my back. I let out a breath and pulled another box off the stacks and began unpacking books. My cell phone suddenly rang into the silence, scaring the daylights out of me. I plopped down beside a box of books and yanked my phone off my belt. Without even checking the caller ID, I answered it somewhat breathlessly.
“Now what could you be doing without me there that would leave you out of breath?” It was Spook.
I giggled and pulled my knees up to my chest, forgetting about books for the moment. “I’m in the back room of the library sorting through a mountain of books for the book sale,” I answered. “Wanna come help?”
“Hmm,” he considered. “I’d really love to, but I’m busy watching paint dry. I could come down and we could do something else. Of course, that wouldn’t help you get your work done.” The suggestive playfulness in his voice gave me chills, and I bit my lip as I imagined the look in his eyes.
“I wish you were here,” I replied softly. I tried to sound sultry as I continued, “I’m all alone here, so we wouldn’t be disturbed.”
His voice turned serious. “You’re there alone? At this time of night?”
Oh great, I thought. I guess I shouldn’t have told him that. “Oh, Spook, I’m fine. THe doors are locked, and it’s still light out. Isn’t it?” I stood up and went to the storage room door to look out towards the front of the library. Twilight was settling in, and it was starting to get dark inside; I was glad that at least the lights were on in the window, even though they made the bookshelves cast long dark shadows through the library. I turned back to the box I had pulled down and began unpacking books.
“Well, I just don’t like the idea of you being there by yourself,” he insisted, sounding more like my dad with every word. “If something happened to you, no one would know till tomorrow morning.”
I scanned the title of each book I took out of the box and then tossed it onto the appropriate pile, fiction to my right, nonfiction to my left. “Spook, really, you sound like my dad.” I recalled his reaction the last time I had made that comment, so I hoped maybe repeating it would make him lighten up. “Like I told Maureen, the doors are locked, the alarms are set, and I have my cell phone. I can take care of myself, you know.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen you take care of yourself, remember Kyr-tastrophe?” he teased. “How many times have I had to play knight in shining armor to your damsel in distress?”
I let out my breath in a huff. I tried to keep my retort light-hearted, but I was really irritated with his overprotectiveness. “Too bad you act more like a black knight than a knight in shining armor.” I stood up quickly and reached up to grab another box of books from the mountaintop. Because I was holding my cell phone to my ear with one hand, I had to tug and wrestle the box down with my free hand. As I wriggled the box to the edge of the pile so I could bring it down, it snagged on the box below it. Suddenly the whole pile tipped, and four large boxes of books came crashing down on top of me. I cried out as I landed hard on the floor with books on top of me and scattered on the floor around me. I sat up, bruised and grumbling, but otherwise unhurt. I had dropped my cell phone, so I had to follow Spook’s frantic voice to find it beneath the pile of spilled books. I picked it up and said sheepishly, “Sorry about that. I’m here.”
“What the hell happened?” he shouted, now sounding out of breath himself.
I tossed a couple of booksirritably onto a pile of fiction books and muttered, “I just got swept away in an avalanche of books. No biggie.”
“Yeah, no biggie,” he mocked, obviously concerned. “Now see what I mean? You could have been seriously hurt, and no one would have known till till the library opened tomorrow and someone found you unconscious under a pile of biographies.”
I kept sorting books as I argued, “Spook, stop being so melodramatic. Nothing like that is going to happen.” My pride throbbing as much as my backside, I continued peevishly, “That only happened anyway because I was holding my cell phone with one hand.”
“Oh, so I guess it’s my fault for distracting you by talking to you on the phone,” he said, half joking, but half irritated. “Maybe I should just hang up and leave you alone to work.” I could almost see the flash of hurt in his eyes as he spoke.
“No, Spook,” I replied quickly. “I’m sorry. Don’t hang up. I’m just tired and overwhelmed here…and a klutz.”
His laugh rang out loudly, and I had to hold the phone away from my ear for a moment. Even though I knew he was laughing at me, I couldn’t help smiling. “You may be a klutz,” he began, still chuckling. “But you’re an adorable klutz. My adorable klutz.” His tender voice became serious again. “I’m sorry for sounding like your dad, but I just want to make sure you’re safe. We’ve had too many close calls, and I’m not right there to protect you.” My heart melted at his words, and once again I found myself almost enjoying having him want to protect me. His next words made me wish he really were there with me. “At least the library isn’t haunted. Is it?”
“No!” I responded too quickly and too emphatically. Of course, the library wasn’t haunted–at least I’d never heard that it was, but I didn’t need him putting that idea in my head. I suddenly became fully aware of the fact that I was alone. My eyes were drawn out the door to the lengthening shadows in the library. I saw movement, and I jumped before realizing that it had only been lights from a passing car.
“Are you okay?” Spook chuckled. I knew he was aware that he had made me nervous. He probably meant to make me nervous so I’d go home where I’d be safe.
“I’m fine,” I snapped. “I just didn’t need somebody putting ideas in my head.” I got up and walked over to the door. After scanning the library quickly to make sure everything was as it should be, I shut the storage room door tightly.
“I’m sorry,” he said. His voice was full of mischief and not the least bit contrite, so I knew he wasn’t sorry at all.
Squatting down next to one of the fallen boxes, I began looking through the books and putting them in the appropriate piles. “No, you’re not,” I replied peevishly. “You’re just trying to scare me into going home.”
“And here I thought I could outsmart you,” he teased affectionately. If he were sitting next to me, I knew he’d be slipping his arms around me and pulling me close. I fought the feeling of warmth that always rose inside me when I thought about cuddling with him; I wanted to stay angry with him. “I’d just feel better if you weren’t there by yourself at night.”
Knowing he wasn’t going to give in, I replied in a huff, “All right, Dad, you’ve made your point. Now drop it; you’re not going to win this one.”
“Hey,” he growled, laughing.
I grinned, knowing I had scored a point. “You asked for it,” I giggled. “Besides, why is being here alone that much different than being at home alone?”
“Well, now that you bring that up…” he began, sounding serious again.
I kicked myself for giving him something else to worry about. “Spook, look,” I interrupted, rubbing my forehead in frustration. “I’ll be fine, I promise. I just want to make somewhat of a dent in this mess. I promise not to be out past curfew.”
He chuckled indulgently, and I knew I’d won. “All right, Kyr. I’ll let you get back to work. Promise me you’ll call as soon as you get home so I know the book banshee didn’t get you.”
“Spook!” I protested as he laughed triumphantly.
After clipping my cell phone back on my belt, I turned to the mountain of books again and shook my head. Was it just me, or did it seem more disorganized in here than before? I sighed and dug in, trying to work a little more quickly and not let myself get distracted by interesting titles or cover art.
As I worked, I discovered another distraction: thanks to Spook trying to scare me, I was now aware of every little sound around me. Every few minutes I’d hear a new thump, creak, or pop and have to calm my nerves by figuring out what it was. Of course, all the sounds turned out to be the building settling, the air conditioning turning on or off, and people or cars passing by outside. Still, I couldn’t stop my imagination from conjuring up all kinds of other scenarios. The frightening experiences I’d had being trapped in small, locked rooms with vengeful spirits and no way to escape had left me with a growing fear of enclosed spaces, and the storage room was definitely an enclosed place, with no windows. As another thump came from somewhere outside the door, I had to take a deep breath and remind myself that at least here there was a second door, one that led outside to the alley, so I wasn’t likely to be trapped. I glanced in that direction and groaned aloud. The back door was completely blocked by boxes of books. Grimacing, I realized that even in the absence of ghosts or axe murderers, a blocked door was a problem; at the very least it was a fire hazard. I decided to tackle the ten or so boxes stacked in front of that door and call it a night.
Over an hour later, I was finally on the last box. After I put the last book on the non-fiction pile, I glanced in the box to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, and I found a newspaper clipping. I picked it up and unfolded it. It was a fairly old clipping; the newsprint was yellowing, and it was beginning to tear where it had been folded. I read the headline–“Local Historian Publishes Book.” I furrowed my eyebrows; where had I seen this article before? It definitely looked familiar.
I sat back on my heels and began scanning the article. Suddenly the words “Willow Lake” jumped out at me, and I cried out into the silence, startling myself. I went back to the top of the article and read out loud to myself, “Local historian Kenneth C. Biddlesbacher recently published a book of legends and curious tales of Willow Lake and the surrounding communities. Biddlesbacher, a graduate of Willow Lake Teachers College, and a retired history teacher who has been fascinated with folklore since childhood, has spent a number of years researching and collecting local lore. He is especially interested in the supernatural and enjoys researching the origins of ghost stories.” I suddenly recalled that this very article had caught my eye when Spook and I were scanning through the microfilm for the article concerning the construction worker’s accident in the bell tower.
My pulse quickened, and my hands shook as I quickly scanned the rest of the article. I found the book title–Strange Stories and Curious Folklore of Clinton County–and had the sudden thought that if this article had been in the bottom of this box, then maybe, just maybe, the book had been in there as well. I began rooting through the books I had just sorted, looking more closely at the titles. Finally, II grabbed an older-looking book with a dark blue cloth binding. I turned it over to read the title and gasped. It was Biddlesbacher’s book!
I leaned against the back door and feverishly opened the book. The pages were separating from the binding, and I realized I’d have to curb my enthusiasm. I located the table of contents and ran my finger down the page, scanning the chapter titles. When I came to a chapter titled, “School Spirits,” a chill ran down my spine, and I knew I’d potentially hit paydirt.
Just as I was about to open the book to that chapter, there was a loud bang against the back door that I felt as well as heard. I let out a yelp before clapping my hand over my mouth. Loud voices outside the door told me that someone had just come from the bar up the street and was passing by in the alley out back. Likely, someone had kicked a bottle or can into the back door as they walked.
I took a few deep breaths, trying to slow my heartrate a bit, then glanced around the room. I hadn’t gotten nearly as much done as I’d hoped to, but at least I had managed to clear the books away from the door and eliminate a fire hazard. Besides, between Spook’s stories giving me a case of nerves and a flesh and blood person outside giving me a major fright, I decided enough was enough. Anyway, I wanted to take Biddlesbacher’s book along home with me to see if I could find any information that would shed some light on the Mary Bollinger mystery. I tucked the newspaper article inside the book and got ready to leave.
I nervously opened the storage room door and flipped the light off. After my eyes adjusted, I glanced around the room. Satisfied that everything was as it should be, I made my way quickly to the front door and went outside. It took me three tries to reset the alarm system and hurried to my car. After I turned the key, I glanced at the dashboard clock and gasped; it was almost 11:00! Spook will be fit to be tied, I thought.
No sooner had I walked through the door at home than the phone rang. Knowing who it was without even looking at the caller ID, I answered guiltily, “I”m sorry, Spook. I am literally just walking through the door right now.”
“I was starting to worry, Kyr,” he said irritably. “I had visions of you being attacked by an almanac or bitten by a rabid biography. If I weren’t four hours away, I would have come down and checked on you.”
I tried to make light of the situation, too tired to argue with him. “Come on, Spook. I’m a librarian, remember? When I get around books, I lose all track of time. Don’t you have anything you get carried away doing?”
He was quiet for a moment before he responded suggestively, “I know something I could get carried away with, but I’d need someone else with me. Preferably a certain klutzy redhead.” He chuckled as the color rose in my cheeks. “And I wish I could be there right now to see you blushing, because I know you are.”
“Spook, stop,” I whispered, giggling.It amazed me the way his teasing could get to me even though he wasn’t sitting right next to me, and I wished for the hundredth time that he was here to snuggle with.
“So, what did you find that was so interesting that you forgot what time it was?” he asked, and I could tell he was trying not to think about the same thing I was trying not to think about.
I realized I was hugging close to my chest the very book that had been so excited to bring home with me. “Oh, Spook!” I exclaimed. “Remember at Willow Lake, at the library, when we were looking through the microfilm for the article about the construction worker’s accident in the bell tower?” I didn’t stop for an answer, but kept babbling on. “When I was scrolling through the microfilm, I saw it, and it kind of caught my attention, but I didn’t want to stop to read it because we were looking for something else, and I forgot about it till now…”
When I finally stopped to catch my breath, Spook jumped in, “Kyr, slow down. You’re not making any sense. What caught your attention?”
Realizing he was right, I took a breath and started again, more slowly this time. “When we were in the library looking for the article about the construction worker’s accident in the bell tower, another article caught my eye as I scrolled past it. It had nothing to do with what we were looking for–at least I didn’t think it did–so I forgot about it.”
“So what was the article about?” Spook asked, sounding intrigued. I could hear him sitting up to pay attention to my words.
I pulled out the article and read it to him. I could almost hear the wheels turning in his head when I got to the part about Biddlesbacher being a Willow Lake graduate who was fond of ghost stories. When I got to the end of the article, I informed him, “And Spook, I found that book in a box of donated books.”
“Let me guess,” he said, and I could hear the smile in his voice as he spoke. “My little researcher found a story about Mary in the book.”
“Yes,” I replied excitedly, flipping through the book to the chapter I was searching for. I amended quickly, “At least I think there is. There’s an entire chapter devoted to campus legends. This book was published in 1964; Mary died ten years earlier. If there were any stories circulating about Mary haunting Appleton Hall by then…”
“The local historian with a love for ghost stories most likely put them in his book,” Spook concluded, sounding satisfied, if not as excited as I was. He was quiet as I flipped pages and scanned the collected stories for any mention of Mary.
“I didn’t know Willow Lake had so many ghosts,” I muttered, fighting the urge to stop and read some of the other accounts. “Here we go. ‘Every college has at least one tale of love gone wrong, and Willow Lake is no exception. The story of Mary Bollinger and her beau, Warren McKnight, is a love story that even a decade later is still shrouded in mystery.’ Boy, you can say that again,” I said. The author described Mary as a shy, sweet, intelligent young woman who came from a wealthy family. Warren was described as the outgoing, athletic, handsome, but less than ambitious son of a respected college professor. The two started dating when Mary was a freshman and Warren was a sophomore, and two years later, they were planning to be married. Mary’s parents were pleased, but Warren’s parents forbid the union.
“Why would Warren’s parents forbid the union?” Spook wondered, as perplexed as I was. “If their son wasn’t exactly a go-getter, you would suppose they’d jump at the chance for him to marry into money and at least be provided for, don’t you think?”
“Unless Warren’s parents didn’t want their lazy son taking advantage of Mary and her fortune; maybe that was against their values.” As I scanned down through the rest of the story, my theory was proved wrong. “Hmm, the author says that Warren’s parents didn’t approve of her, but he doesn’t say why.” The remaining paragraphs recapped what we already knew–that Mary and Warren were together in the bell tower when a fire started, and that Mary was trapped and perished, while Warren was able to get out. “Wait a minute,” I said. Something unexpected had caught my eye. “He mentions that several candles and the charred remains of an unidentifiable book were found in the bell tower after the fire. He also says that there were rumors that Mary and Warren weren’t the only ones there that night, but no one has ever been able to prove that.” A gnawing suspicion began forming in my mind, but I didn’t want to voice it, not till I had more evidence.
Spook was quiet again for a moment, obviously thinking. His next words sent a cold prickle of foreboding down my spine, and I wondered if he had the same suspicion. “The candles and the book were found in the bell tower? And not in the room below, where her body was found?” he asked.
“Nope,” I said, rereading that sentence. “He definitely says they were in the bell tower.”
I suspected that Spook had some theories of his own that he wanted to voice, but he chose to keep them to himself as well. Instead, he asked, “What does the author say about the reports of activity? Does he say Mary’s spirit is malicious or not?”
As I looked over the remaining paragraphs again, I recalled my conversation with JoEllyn on the way home from the investigation. “No, the reports he writes about are your typical restless, wandering apparition sightings, footsteps in the bell tower, and just feeling uneasy.” Starting to feel uneasy myself, I walked quickly over to the front door to make sure it was locked, thinking to myself that I shouldn’t talk about ghosts when I was home alone at night.
“Then why the sudden fit of nastiness?” Spook asked, obviously wondering the same thing I was. “Either the author didn’t tell the whole story–which wouldn’t surprise me at all, given all the secrecy we’ve already experienced–or else something must have happened to change Mary from a benign spirit to a malicious one. But what, and when?”
Our conversation was starting to work on me, and I found myself repeatedly looking over my shoulder and glancing nervously at the windows, half expecting to see a ghostly face peering in at me. I crossed the room and hastily drew the blinds before responding, “JoEllyn and I had the same conversation. The activity in Appleton when we went to school there was nothing like what we experienced during the investigation. Even the experience I had that summer–what I felt definitely wasn’t friendly, but it certainly wasn’t malicious.”
Again, Spook was quiet for a long moment as he mulled over this new information. “Well,” he finally said. The tone of his voice suggested he was changing the subject, which was just fine by me. “We should probably talk about something else to get your mind off Mary before you go off to bed.”
The huskiness in his voice as he spoke those words gave me chills, and I couldn’t help smiling as I replied innocently, “What would you like to talk about?”
He half laughed and half growled as he responded, “As if you didn’t know.”
“Now how is talking about that supposed to help me sleep?” I asked, already feeling less like going to bed–or at least less like sleeping.
“Maybe it won’t help you sleep,” he teased suggestively. “But at least it would give you something pleasant to think about if you’re lying awake.”