By the time Labor Day weekend rolled around, I was more than ready for a break. The book sale fundraiser had gone fairly well, and we sold more books than expected, although definitely not as many as Maureen would have liked. The beginning of the following week, Michelle and I had hosted the Back to School program for more than fifty children. We’d had a puppet show, a magic act, crafts, snacks, and a safety presentation by the local police with fingerprinting and ID photos.
Thankfully, the library was closed the Friday before Labor Day, so that morning, I threw some clothes and other necessities in a duffel bag and loaded them into the trunk of my car. Just as I was ready to head out, on a whim, I dashed back inside and grabbed my digital voice recorder and the K-II meter I had recently purchased online. I wasn’t actually planning on using them, but I thought it was best to be prepared.
I groaned in frustration as I headed north towards Willow Lake. Traffic was much heavier than I thought it would be that early in the morning, so it was a slow go for almost an hour. By the time I got within a few miles of the exit for the interstate, traffic had slowed to a crawl.With everything almost at a standstill, my mind kept turning over and over all that had happened during the investigation so far, the new information we’d discovered since the investigation, and what, if anything, we’d be able to learn from Warren. With a sigh, I began flipping through the radio stations, trying to find some good music to pass the time and to take my mind off of everything. About the time I had found a station doing a Flashback Weekend with music from the 80s and 90s, I had reached the interstate exit. I breathed a sigh of relief as most of the traffic exited, and the rest of the vehicles began moving at a normal pace. Usually the interstate was a much quicker way than the scenic route I preferred, but I smiled to myself thinking that I was likely traveling the faster route today.
A little less than half an hour later, I relaxed as I turned onto Route 44. The mountains up ahead were still shrouded by haze, and as warm and sticky as it was already, I had a feeling that the view wouldn’t change much as the day progressed. The sky, too, was obscured by humidity, and it was hard to tell if it was clear or cloudy. As I wiped my sweaty forehead with my hand, I let out a huff of resignation, rolled up the windows and flipped on the air conditioning. The blast of chilly air was a welcome relief from the hot, stagnant air in the car, and I directed the vents to blow on my hot face.
By the time I passed the large, yellow “Welcome to Willow Lake” sign, it was getting close to lunchtime. The trip had seemed much longer than usual, partly because of the traffic and partly because JoEllyn hadn’t been along to keep me company with her cheerful chatter. My stomach growled loudly to remind me I hadn’t eaten much for breakfast, so I decided to stop in the downtown area to grab some lunch. I passed the Mustang Grill, but I didn’t feel like stopping there by myself. I recalled from earlier in the summer that there was a Subway in town now, but then my eyes were drawn to Raymond’s Deli. I used to love their food and the atmosphere, so I gave in to nostalgia and decided to have lunch there.
Seeing no available parking spaces along the street, I turned down one of the alleys and parked in the public parking lot behind the shopping area. Even this lot was almost full, which was unusual for a weekday. As I got out of my car, I heard the sounds of speedboats, live music, and the occasional cheer. Of course, the Labor Day Street Fair. After lunch I could sit along the levee to watch the boat races and listen to the live bands while I waited for Spook.
I walked back through the alley and around to the deli’s Market Street entrance. I pulled open the door and inhaled deeply as the aroma of fresh-baked bread, toasting cheese, and various condiments greeted me. The deli looked the same as it had almost ten years ago, with its black and white tile floor and dark green walls. I looked quickly around at the few people having lunch, half expecting to see some of the regulars from my Willow Lake days; I was almost disappointed that I didn’t recognize anyone.
Glancing up at the menu posted above the counter, I was pleased to see that it was largely unchanged, save for the addition of newer items such as wraps and flatbread sandwiches. My favorite sub was still on the menu, so I stepped forward to the counter. A woman of about forty came to the cash register. “Are you ready to order?”
“Yes, I believe so,” I replied, studying her face. She had Raymond’s dark hair and eyes, and the same long, straight nose, so I guessed this was his daughter. “I’ll have the ham and cheese cosmo, no onions and extra mayo, and a small Coke.”
She quickly wrote down my order, and then asked, “Oil and oregano on that?”
“Yes, please,” I responded, my mouth already watering.
Tearing the paper from the pad, she smiled wanly and said, “I’ll bring it out to you in about five minutes.”
I thanked her and took a seat at one of the tables, glancing around at the other customers. At one table sat three elderly women who all wore purple blouses and red hats. As they ate, they chatted and laughed. Every so often, one of them, a thin woman with obviously-dyed blonde hair and a wide-brimmed hat with purple feathers, would cackle loudly at something the others said. I smiled wistfully, recalling that my mother used to belong to the Red Hat Society. Her simple red hat still sat in a box at the top of my bedroom closet; I doubted I’d ever be a Red Hatter, but I couldn’t bear to get rid of it.
Sighing, I propped my chin on my hand and gazed at the only other customer, an older, heavyset man wearing stained sweatpants and a faded T-shirt. He sat alone by the window, keeping his head down as he spooned soup mechanically into his mouth, barely stopping to chew each bite. A figure passed by the window and walked through the door, breaking the man’s concentration and making him look up momentarily.
Before I could get a look at the person who had walked in, the woman from behind the counter appeared at my side and set my sub and my drink in front of me. “Here you go, miss. Can I get you anything else?”
“No, thanks,” I replied. “I’m all set for now.” On a whim, I quickly asked, “Does Raymond still own this place?”
The woman looked a bit taken aback, and then her expression turned sad. “No, I’m sorry. Raymond was my father; he passed away last year, and my sister and I took over.” She looked at me more closely and asked, “Did you know my father?”
“I’m sorry to hear that he passed,” I responded uncomfortably, with another twinge of wistfulness. “No, I didn’t really know him. I went to college here, and I’d come in for lunch when I got tired of cafeteria food–which was about once a week,” I joked. “Raymond–your dad–always knew what I wanted as soon as he saw me walk through the door.”
The woman laughed and nodded. “Yeah, Dad was good at that.” She turned her head to look at the man standing at the counter and excused herself.
I tucked into my sub. With the first bite, I sighed in satisfaction; no one else had ever made ham and cheese cosmos like Raymond, but this was pretty close. After the edge had been taken off my hunger, I raised my eyes to look around once more. The man by the window had finished his soup and left, and the Red Hatters were sharing a large slab of cheesecake. My eyes drifted over to the back corner where the man who had just come in sat. I almost choked on a sip of soda when I realized it was Lou. I looked away quickly, hoping he wouldn’t look my way and recognize me.
The woman from behind the counter hurried over and set a plate in front of him. “Anything else for you, Lou?” she asked sweetly. Obviously, Lou was one of her regulars.
“Nah, I’m good, Nance,” he replied with a smile, tucking his napkin into his shirt and picking up his sandwich.
I quickly finished my sub and drank the rest of my soda. The woman–Nance–stopped at my table. “Any dessert for you, miss?”
Glancing surreptitiously towards the Red Hatters, who were just finishing their cheesecake, I considered for a second, and then declined regretfully. I thought to myself that I’d have to make it a point to stop just for cheesecake before I left town. Nance smiled at me genuinely and handed me my check, saying, “You can just bring that to the register when you’re ready.”
I looked at my check and dug my wallet out. After laying down a tip, I went to the counter to pay. Nance took my money and handed me my change. “Don’t be a stranger,” she said.
“Oh, I won’t,” I replied, smiling.
As I turned to go, a male voice stopped me. “You’re Jared’s friend, aren’t you?”
I had forgotten about Lou sitting right there. “Yes…yes, I am,” I stammered.
A lock of white hair hung down over his forehead, and his blue eys fixed on me. “You have a minute?” he asked; when I nodded, he motioned for me to sit. When I did, he wiped his hands and his mouth and extended his hand to me. “Name’s Lou.”
I shook his hand and replied, “I remember you from the Rusty…I mean A Drop in the Bucket. I’m Kyr.”
He chuckled. “You remember the old place. Owners were good friends of mine. All the snow a few years back scared them off.” I laughed uncomfortably, knowing he hadn’t asked me to stay just to reminisce about a bar. Sensing my discomfort, he got to the point. “You friends with the folks from the college ghost group?”
I cleared my throat. “You might say that. We actually just met a few months ago, during…an investigation.” I met his eyes and offered, “I hear they paid you a visit. You and the fire chief.”
He laughed shortly. “I have to admire the young lady’s moxy. Not so sure she knows what she’s getting into digging into the whole Mary mystery, though.” He took another bite of his sandwich.
I weighed his words, but I didn’t get the sense he meant what he said in a threatening way. “I don’t think any of us knew what we were getting into with this investigation,” I said carefully.
“Well,” he responded. “Like I told your friends, there’s only a few left who know what happened. Most of those folks want to keep it hid.”
“What about you?” I asked. “Do you think it should stay hidden?” I clasped my hands so he wouldn’t see them shaking.
He folded his hands and looked at me sharply. “Like I told your friends,” he repeated. “I don’t know what happened up in that bell tower. Skip has some idea, but he won’t even tell me what he knows. Personally, I can’t understand what the purpose is of keeping secrets. But that’s just me. Knowing the general feeling around here, I just think it’s best to keep my mouth shut and stay out of it.”
I thought for a moment. There was something I wanted to know. I studied his face as he ate a pickle slice. Finally, I ventured, “The night of the fire, Skip gave us the impression that he thought ghosts were all childish nonsense, but it seemed as though he was bluffing. Did Skip…have some kind of run in with Mary?”
Lou’s eyes shot up to meet mine. His expression suggested he was wondering what had prompted that question, but he didn’t ask. After a long moment, he glanced around to make sure that Nance was occupied and the Red Hatters weren’t listening. In a low voice, he began, “You didn’t hear this from me.” When I nodded and leaned in close, he continued, “Probably ten, twelve years ago, before Skip was the chief, there was an automatic fire alarm went off in Appleton. Fire comapny responded, and they searched the building, trying to find what had set off the alarms. Skip ran to the third floor and found the bell tower door hanging open, so he went up to check it out.” I shuddered, recalling my own experience. “He won’t say what he saw, but something scared the hell out of him up there. He came flying down the steps, white as a sheet, the others said, and managed to blow out his knee when he lost his footing near the bottom.”
“His bum knee,” I murmured, recalling the conversation I had overheard outside A Drop in the Bucket.
“What’s that?” Lou said, his eyes snapping up to meet mine.
Realizing I had possibly just let on that I knew about something I probably shouldn’t, I covered, “Oh, nothing. I…thought I heard someone mention his bum knee the night of the fire.”
Lou’s expression was skeptical, but then I saw a spark of realization in his eyes. He pointed at me with a potato chip and said, “So that was you and your fella that got caught in the bell tower that night, not the two that came talking to me and Skip.”
I wasn’t sure why it mattered, but I nodded to confirm that he was correct. Not wanting to get sidetracked, I asked, “So what’s with the false bravado and skepticism?”
“Young lady,” he answered, finishing off his chips. “He puts up a front partly because he wants to keep hidden whatever happened in that bell tower, and partly because he wants to pretend he didn’t see whatever he saw up there. Anyone starts prying into those secrets or tries to get him to talk about what happened to him, well…” He laughed shortly and glanced up sternly, but with eyes full of mirth. “Your friends saw what happens. They tell you about that?”
I tried unsuccessfully to stifle a laugh. “Phil mentioned their…encounter.” I became serious and hinted, “She didn’t say what they asked him. Did he say anything to you?”
Lou fixed his eyes on me for a long moment and then drained his coffee. Setting his cup down with a thump, he answered, “Apparently, your friends think they’re going to get to the bottom of what’s going on in Appleton.”
I nodded hesitantly, suddenly wondering if Ed and Phil had been keeping to themselves about what they were up to, or if they had been discussing their plans openly. Things could get more difficult, if not downright dangerous for us if they were telling everyone about the investigation.
“What about you?” Lou asked, his eyes still fixed on me. “I have a hunch that has something to do with why you’re here.”
“Well,” I hedged, not wanting to give out too much information. “Phil did ask me to come, mostly for moral support. I’m honestly not sure what she has up her sleeve.” That wasn’t entirely untrue. I knew we were meeting with Warren, but I had no idea what she planned to ask, or what we would do with the information if he gave it to us.
Lou grunted, then glanced up quickly as Nance appeared at the table, holding a coffeepot. “More coffee, Lou?” she asked.
“Just a half, Nance,” he replied. After she had poured the coffee and laid down his check, he handed her his empty plate. He waited till she had gone back behind the counter before he warned, “Kyr, you seem to be an intelligent, level-headed young lady. Your friends have a lot of guts, but I have an idea they don’t think things through before they go diving in.” He pulled out his wallet and laid down a tip, and then lowered his voice. “Bottom line, like I told Skip, I don’t see why it’s so important to keep hiding something that happened sixty years ago, but the truth is, there’s still those that’ll go to any length to keep that secret. If you young folks decide to pursue this thing, you’d best tread lightly and keep a low profile.”
He picked up his wallet and the check and stood up. I stood too, and hoisted my purse onto my shoulder. I wasn’t sure if he was dismissing me or not, so I lingered while he paid Nance. He said good-bye to her, then raised a hand to someone in the kitchen and headed towards the door.
We walked out the door together, and I squinted in the bright sunshine. It was definitely not as hazy here as it was on the south side of the mountains. Lou turned to me again, and something in his expression told me there was something else he wanted to say. He glanced around quickly and said, low, “Kyr, something I want to caution you about before you and your friends get too involved. Some years after the fire that killed Mary Bollinger, there was a local history buff that wrote a book about ghost stories and such from Willow Lake.”
“Biddlesbacher!” I exclaimed. “Yes, I found his book at a used book sale. There really wasn’t much to the story about Mary and her boyfriend.”
Lou looked a bit surprised that I knew of the book, but then he smiled grinly and nodded. “Well, then, you found a later edition of the book.” I raised my eyebrows questioningly, and he continued. “Biddlesbacher published a first edition in the mid-1960s, and he supposedly included most of the details about what led up to the fire. Of course, that didn’t go over too well with some folks. He and his family began experiencing…mishaps. Just things like finding their car tires flat, or coming home to messages stuffed in their mailbox or written on their windows with soap. The scariest thing that happened was when the kids’ treehouse caught fire in the middle of the night.” I gasped loudly, and Lou nodded in agreement. “The cops couldn’t–or wouldn’t–find out who was behind it, and things didn’t settle down till Biddlesbacher had all the copies of his book pulled from the shelves. He released a revised edition later the next year. He refused to completely remove the story about Mary’s ghost, but he took out anything that would point people to the story of what happened that night.”
I swallowed hard and met his concerned eyes. “That certainly is…good to know,” I stammered uncomfortably. Do you think folks would still take things that far?” I was more concerned for Ed and Phil than for myself or Spook, since they both lived here in Willow Lake.
Lou shook his head. “It’s hard to say what some folks might do. I just think it’s best for you to be warned; you and your friends seem like good kids, and I don’t want to see anyone hurt.” He held out his hand to me. As I took it, he said, “I wish you folks the best. Be careful, and try to keep your friends reined in.”
“Thank you, Lou. I’ll do my best,” I replied with a crooked smile. Knowing Phil, I thought that that might be easier said than done, but I didn’t tell him that.
I watched as Lou got into an ancient-looking Buick, and then I turned and headed back the alley to the rear parking lot. Even though I had managed to park in the shade of a small tree, I decided to crack the windows so it wouldn’t get too hot inside. I began walking towards the street fair the next block over, my mind spinning with all that Lou had told me. I couldn’t help being a bit suspicious; why was he so willing to talk to me, and why would he let me in on Skip’s secret the way he had? I told myself that not everyone was as secretive and combative as Dr. Harris, but nonetheless, I couldn’t help thinking that it was odd. I knew I had to be careful–we all did. As Lou had said, there were those who would do almost anything to keep hidden whatever had happened in Appleton in 1954.
When I saw how crowded River Street was, I knew why there had been no available parking over on Market Street. It looked as though all of Willow Lake and half the surrounding communities were here. I decided to take a stroll through the stands before heading up to the levee. Because I had just had lunch, I skipped all the food stands, although I was tempted as always by the milkshakes, the deep-fried Oreos, and some of the more unusual offerings. When I reached the craft booths, I slowed my pace and browsed attentively through the handmade jewelry, the sequined shirts and dresses, and all the crocheted toys, hats and oven mitts. I didn’t buy anything, but I made a few mental notes of stands I wanted to return to if I got back here later in the weekend.
Tired of the heat and the crowds, I decided to head up onto the levee. Although the sun was still hot, the air on top of the levee was a bit cooler, and a refreshing breeze blew in from the river. I strolled down the walkway, heading towards the amphitheater, pausing to watch as several speedboats raced past on the water below, rounded Miller Island and sped back towards the bridge. An announcer excitedly gave a play by play of the action. I didn’t find the races half as exciting as he made them sound, but I enjoyed watching the boats bounce along as they cut through the water, leaving an expanding trail of white foam in their wake.
Even the amphitheater was crowded, so I had to walk almost the whole way to the bridge before I found an empty spot. Shortly after I sat down, the current round of boat races ended. Soon the river was filled with jet skis, smaller boats, and a few swimmers close to the island. The lazy summer activities were relaxing to watch, and I let the sound of people talking and laughing wash over me. The breeze had stopped, and as the sun beat down on me, I found myself wishing I’d brought a hat along. I glanced over my shoulder, contemplating whether or not I should go back down to the street fair and buy a baseball cap from one of the T-shirt vendors. Another wave of laziness hit me, and I decided to stay put.
I rested my elbows against the step above me and leaned my head back, lulled by the peaceful sounds all around me. I was so relaxed that I began to doze off. Suddenly, a pair of hands pressed tightly over my eyes, and someone’s mouth whispered close to my ear, “Guess who?”
I pulled away and turned quickly to see Spook grinning broadly at me. “Spook!” I exclaimed, throwing my arms around him. He wrapped his arms around me and drew me into a tight hug, laughing. I pulled back to cup his face and kiss him deeply.
We kissed for at least a full minute before someone close by growled, “Get a room already.”
I pulled away, and Spook laughed in response, “Good idea. We might just do that.” Lowering my head, I playfully shoved his knee. He put his arm around me and pulled me close again, whispering into my hair, “Kyr, you don’t know how much I’ve missed you.”
Slipping my arms around his waist, I gazed up at him and whispered back, “As much as I’ve missed you?” I could hardly take my eyes off him; was it possible that he had become even more handsome, or was I just happy to see him? His skin was more tanned than it had been a few months ago, making his smile stand out even more. His hair seemed a bit lighter as well. It was obvious he had been spending long hours out in the sun. I glanced down at my pale, freckled skin and marveled at the contrast.
His eyes gleamed wickedly as he gazed down at me, as though he were trying to memorize every detail of my face. He reached up and trailed a finger across my cheek and down my neck, making me shiver with delight. His eyes still locked with mine, he said, low, “I must have forgotten how beautiful you are. I feel like I’m seeing you for the first time.”
I giggled and hid my face in his chest, still unable to believe that he thought I was beautiful. I just wasn’t used to hearing those words from a man, and I didn’t know how to respond.
Spook slipped his finger under my chin and tipped my face up to look at him. He planted a gentle kiss on my nose and chuckled, before looking at me sharply and stroking my cheek. “I can’t tell if you’re blushing or sunburned.”
While his touch was gentle, I could feel the slight sting beginning on my cheeks that told me I should have brought a hat and sunscreen. I smiled grimly and replied, “Maybe a little of both.”
He tried and failed to give me a stern look. “What am I going to do witih you?” Taking my hand in his, he stood up and pulled me to my feet. “Come on; let’s go find some shade before you burn to a crisp.”
We walked along the levee past the bridge and away from the street fair till we found an empty bench beneath a tree. It was much quieter here, although we could still hear the noise of all the festivities. Spook gazed down at me and smiled. “It’s much nicer here away from the crowds.” Just as he leaned in to kiss me, a couple bicyclers rode past.
I laughed at his expression, then gave him a quick kiss. Picking up on his not-so-subtle hint, I asked playfully, “Not a fan of street fairs?”
Wrinkling his nose, he shook his head. “You could have warned me, you know,” he growled, putting me in a playful headlock.
I squealed and giggled, struggling to get away from him. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled into the crook of his arm. “I forgot about it myself till I got here.”
“A likely story,” he chuckled, pulling me tighter against him so I couldn’t get away. Determined to free myself, I snaked my hand under his shirt and poked his belly button, making him laugh and jump. He released his grip so suddenly that I toppled off the bench onto the sidewalk. Even though I landed hard on my hip, I burst out laughing at his panicked expression as he reached for me and apologized. “Kyr, are you all right? I didn’t mean to let you fall.”
Still giggling, I pulled myself back onto the bench, rubbing my brusied hip. “I’m all right,” I assured him. Suddenly realizing that I hadn’t been expecting him for a few hours yet, I asked, “How did you find me anyway? I wasn’t expecting you till after 4:00.”
Slipping his arm around me and rubbing my hip, he teased, “I started work early so I could leave early. As for finding you, it wasn’t hard to guess where you might be. You seem to be drawn to this river. Besides…” He playfully yanked the scrunchie out of my hair and laughed, “That hair is impossible to hide.”
My long, red hair tumbled down over my shoulders and into my face. Spook laughed and held the scrunchie up out of my reach as I protested, “Come on, Spook. Give it back.” I climbed across his lap and wrestled it from his hand.
His arms went around me and pulled me down so that I was sitting in his lap. I tried to scrape my hair back into a ponytail, but he stopped me. “Leave your hair down, Kyr. Please?” His eyes had softened, and he gazed at me adoringly as he ran his fingers through my hair, gently working the tangles out of my curls. “You have such beautiful hair, Kyr. I could do this for hours. Why do you always hide it in a ponytail?”
I was so entranced by his touch and his closeness that I couldn’t answer him. My eyes drifted to his lips, which he curled into a smile as I leaned close and pressed my lips to his. He tangled his fingers roughly in my hair and returned my kiss hungrily. My hands roamed across his cheeks and down his neck.
He suddenly broke the kiss and groaned as he let his head fall back. I shyly slid off his lap, running my fingers across my mouth and glancing around to see if anyone close by had been watching. Spook raised his head and gave me a crooked smile. I giggled and said, “I guess we’d better quit before someone else tells us to get a room.”
Spook sat up quickly, raising his eyebrows as though he had just remembered something. “Speaking of getting a room,” he chuckled. “Since I’m sure we won’t be welcome to stay on campus this weekend, we should probably be getting a hotel. Is there one in town?”
I stared at him wide-eyed for a second; I hadn’t even thought about a place to stay for the weekend. “There is one across town,” I replied. “But who knows if they have any rooms left with the holiday weekend?”
Spook shook his head and laughed helplessly. “Don’t tell my dad about this.” When I looked at him curiously, he continued, “He made the observation this morning that I was acting like a lovestruck teenager the way I kept dropping things and forgetting things. If he finds out i didn’t even book a room, I’ll never hear the end of it.” I laughed too. I often got flustered and forgetful when I was nervous or excited, but it was unusual to see Spook acting that way; he usually had it all together. He got up quickly and grabbed my hand, pulling me to my feet. “Shall we go find a hotel?”
We decided to take just one vehicle over to the hotel for the time being, so we stopped in the shopping area parking lot and threw my things into Spook’s car, and he drove us over to the Days Inn across town. As I had feared, the parking lot was pretty full when we pulled in, but luckily the vacancy sign was still lit.
Spook led the way to the front desk, where we inquired about rooms. The front desk attendant looked up and asked, “Just one room, or two?”
Spook replied, “One.”
At the same time, I replied, “Two.” We both looked at each other, his expression curious, and mine hesitant and nervous.
Spook rested one elbow on the desk and asked, “Maybe we should ask what you have available for the weekend.”
The attendant turned to her computer and clicked on the mouse a few times, looking at the screen and shaking her head. Finally she replied, still looking at the screen, “We do have two rooms available for tonight, but for the rest of the weekend, we only have the one room.” She glanced at me and offered, “I can give you the two rooms tonight, and wait to see if there’s a cancellation for Saturday and Sunday…?”
Spook was still looking at me curiously. He said, “Kyr, why don’t we just book one room for the weekend? It doesn’t make sense to have two rooms tonight and then have to make other arrangements for the other two nights.” I bit my lip; I knew he had a point, but I was suddenly nervous about sharing a room for the weekend. As if to further convince me, he leaned in close and continued, low, “Besides, I’d rather have you close by for the weekend, if you know what I mean.”
Seeing the concern in his eyes and realizing he was right, I hesitantly agreed, and we booked one room with two double beds. After Spook paid and we got our keys, we went to the car and brought our things in.