Spook pulled up in front of a small, cozy-looking Cape Cod house with cream-colored siding and maroon shutters. Electric candles glowing warmly in the windows and the autumn-themed “Welcome” flag blowing in the breeze gave the home a friendly appearance, and I hoped that was a good omen. The feeling of trepidation that had begun as soon as we’d pulled out of the parking lot behind the Mustang Grill started to wane. I glanced back at Ed and Phil, and I could see that they had relaxed a bit as well. I turned to Spook and saw him regarding the house with a serious expression. He looked over at me, smiled grimly, and asked, “Are we ready to do this?”
I nodded wordlessly, and Ed looked at Phil and replied, “As ready as we’ll ever be, I guess.” As excited as Phil had been a few weeks ago to meet with Warren, now she seemed almost apprehensive. I really couldn’t blame her after what Spook and I had just told her and Ed, and the amount of convincing it had taken to get Warren’s niece to agree to allow us come and talk to him. I was sure that Phil was just as worried about upsetting the elderly man as of what information we might discover.
Swallowing hard, I grasped the door handle and said in a quavering voice, “Let’s get this over with.” Spook grabbed my other hand for a moment and smiled encouragingly at me before we got out of the car.
The four of us walked slowly up the front walk and climbed the stairs to the front porch. A TV inside blared Wheel of Fortune, and a man’s gruff voice suddenly called out, “You already called an R, you fool!” Phil and I glanced at each other and laughed, our tension melting away for a moment.
Spook slipped his arm around me and gently kissed my forehead as Ed rang the doorbell. We heard a woman’s voice, followed by the sound of footsteps approaching quickly. The porch light came on, although it wasn’t really dark yet, and someone pulled the curtain aside to peep out. We heard the click of a dead bolt, and the door opened. A short, heavyset woman of around fifty with curly brown hair greeted us nervously but amicably, “You must be Ed McPherson; I’m Elaine Gross.” She stepped aside and motioned for us to enter. “Please come into the living room on your right.”
The four of us stepped uncomfortably into the living room where a man about the same age as Elaine sat doing a crossword puzzle in the newspaper. He finished penciling in a word before looking at us over his glasses. Elaine followed us into the living room. “Bobby, this is Ed McPherson from the college group. Ed, this is my husband Bobby.”
Bobby stuck his pencil behind his ear and laid the newspaper aside before rising to shake Ed’s hand. “Ed, good to know you.”
“Nice to meet you, sir.” He motioned to the rest of us. “Mr. and Mrs. Gross, these are my friends Phil, Kyr, and Spook.”
Bobby extended his hand to each of us. “No need to be so formal; you can call us Bobby and Elaine.” His mouth twitched as he shook Spook’s hand. “Spook, is it?” When Spook nodded, Bobby joked, “Which came first, the name or the interest in ghosts?”
Spook smiled sheepishly; obviously this wasn’t the first time he’d been asked that. “The school bully actually gave me the nickname after I saw a ghost on a 6th grade field trip. It burned him up that the name stuck and everyone thought it was cool.” I glanced up at Spook and smiled; he’d never told me that story. I made a mental note to pick on him about it later.
Bobby let out a guffaw and clapped Spook on the back. “Attaboy! Don’t let them get to you!”
Elaine interrupted, laughing daintily, “Now, Bobby, let the kids sit down.” Turning to us, she offered, “Would anyone care for some refreshments? I have a fresh pot of coffee, or I can heat water for tea or cocoa.”
We all accepted the offer for coffee, and she hurried to the kitchen while we took a seat. Ed and Phil sat on the couch, so Spook and I sat on the loveseat. I smiled slightly as Ed and Phil nudged each other and exchanged a look. Bobby obviously saw the exchange and teased, “Do I detect a little matchmaking?”
Feeling my cheeks redden, I hid my face in my hand. Spook laughed and put his arm around me. “Their matchmaking already worked,” Spook said. “But they seem to enjoy the game so much that we keep playing along.”
“Well, as long as it took you two to stop fighting the attraction, we just want to make sure you stay together,” Phil retorted. Her nerves had obviously settled down, and she was back to herself again.
Bobby asked with a gleam in his eye, “You mean it wasn’t love at first sight? Did you two meet at Willow Lake?”
I shook my head. “No, we actually met on another investigation,” I answered, glancing sideways at Spook. “And our meeting was the furthest thing from love.”
Spook returned my sideways glance and teased back, “She kind of flipped over me on a rock climb at the quarry, and the rest is history.” Phil laughed out loud as I smacked Spook’s shoulder for bringing that up.
Bobby eyed us jovially as Elaine returned carrying a tray laden with coffee cups, a coffee pot and a tray of cookies. “Now that sounds like quite a story! So when did you know it was love?”
Suddenly remembering why we were there and what their connection was to Mary, Spook and I stared at each other uncertainly, unsure of what to say. Elaine set the tray down on the coffee table and waved her hand at Bobby before chastising him. “Bobby, for heaven’s sake! You just met them, and you’re asking about their love life?” She turned to us and apologized for him. “Don’t mind him; he’s incorrigible! My goodness, Kyr, are you all right? You’re as white as a sheet.”
“I…I’m fine, Elaine,” I stammered. “It’s just that…” I looked helplessly at Spook.
Spook tightened his hold on me and explained, “We had quite a harrowing experience in Appleton’s bell tower that actually drew us together.”
Elaine had picked up the coffeepot and was pouring a cup, but Spook’s words made her set the pot down heavily, splashing coffee onto the tray. “Excuse me. Oh dear,” she exclaimed shakily. “I didn’t realize…oh, Bobby, it’s happening again, isn’t it?”
Bobby and Phil had both jumped up to wipe up the spilled coffee. Bobby looked shaken as well, but he tried to hide it as he responded, “Now Lainey, let’s not jump to conclusions before we hear what the kids have to say.” He helped her serve the coffee and pass the cookies, and then led her to her chair as the rest of us exchanged significant looks. He laid a hand on her knee for a moment before he addressed us. “I’m sure it will come as no surprise that we have reason to believe that Appleton’s ghost is more than just a typical restless spirit.”
Spook’s expression hardened as he replied, “That would be an understatement. Of course, our esteemed Dr. Harris would beg to differ.”
Bobby’s eyes snapped as he spat, “Roland Harris is a worthless son of a…”
“Bobby!” Elaine gasped. “Mind your tongue; we have company!”
“I’m sorry, Lainey, but you know I have no time for that pompous baboon,” he growled back. Ed and Phil tried unsuccessfully to suppress their laughter. Bobby spoke again. “Dr. Harris was a lowly T.A. when Lainey and I attended Willow Lake. I always thought it was fishy how quickly he rose through the ranks to become College President.”
Elaine jumped in. “Bobby, that’s not important; that’s not what Ed and his friends came here for.”
Bobby swore at no one in particular and continued, “Lainey, usually I love the way you try to see the best in folks, but this is one instance where I flat out think you’re wrong. Harris’ attempt to squash every mention of Mary or 1954 is more than wanting to protect the college’s good name. He’s got some other agenda, and I have a sneaking suspicion that his rapid rise at Willow Lake has something to do with that agenda.”
At the mention of Mary’s name, I gasped and reached for Spook’s hand. I quickly agreed, “I have to say I think you’re right, Bobby. Just in the short time since we started investigating, we’ve seen his hand—or someone’s hand—in too many things. He rules with an iron fist, and too many people are afraid to speak against him or his decisions.”
Elaine spoke again, obviously wanting to get to the point. “Ed, I was a bit surprised to get your call, although I suppose I shouldn’t have been. When we saw the news about the fire in the bell tower…” Her voice shook, and she covered her mouth as if fighting tears.
Bobby finished for her. “Uncle Warren was quite upset when he saw it on TV. His first words when they showed the pictures were, ‘Who did she go after this time?’ He was so agitated, I thought Lainey would have to give him a sedative.”
When Bobby told us about Warren’s reaction, I turned and buried my face in Spook’s shoulder. The sense that something ominous was about to happen overwhelmed me. Spook held me and whispered into my hair for a moment.
Both Bobby and Elaine saw our exchange, and Bobby asked directly, “Which one of you was in the tower during the fire?”
Spook and I stared at Bobby in disbelief that he had put two and two together so quickly. Spook responded, “We were both there when lightning struck the tower and started the fire. I told Kyr to get out, and as I tried to run across the tower to follow her, I fell partway through the floor.” He gave me a tender smile before continuing. “Then I had a close call with a burning beam right after Kyr got out.” He gave Bobby a hard look. “Of course, whoever handled the news reports didn’t want it known that anyone had been trapped or injured.”
Bobby returned Spook’s look and then wagged his finger at Elaine. “Didn’t I tell you there was more to the story than what was reported?” He shook his head and muttered, “There always is.”
The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and the others tensed up as well. Phil asked hesitantly, “What do you mean, ‘there always is?’ How many times has this happened since Mary…?”
“Well,” Elaine responded shakily. “The first accident I remember hearing about happened in 1964.”
“Jimmy Cochran,” I interjected. “The construction worker who fell through the floor while they were repairing the tower. We found that article in the library archives.” A strange look in Elaine’s eyes made me shudder.
Ed saw her expression too, and asked, “Why do I get the feeling that there’s also more to that story?”
“Most of that story does check out,” Bobby replied. “The only thing was, they weren’t actually working when the accident occurred. The crew had finished for the day and were ready to leave campus when Jimmy realized he had left something on the third floor. He ran back upstairs and found the bell tower door hanging wide open.” I gasped, recalling my own experience that summer. Spook raised an eyebrow at me, and Bobby ventured, “I take it you had a similar experience?” When I nodded, he continued, “Well, Jimmy knew they had closed and locked that door, so he ran up into the bell tower to see if some kids had gotten in.”
Elaine jumped in, “The story I’ve heard from folks at Fleming Construction—Bobby’s brother works there—says that Jimmy thought he saw someone sneaking around the far end of the tower.” Another familiar story, I thought. “He started across the tower to see who it was. Just as he got past the bell mechanism…” She seemed reluctant to continue.
Bobby jumped in, “He claimed to have seen this wild-haired, demon-faced woman hovering a few feet off the floor. She came at him, screaming, and naturally, he turned tail and ran, not watching much where he was going.” I shuddered, recalling Mary’s appearance in my dream.
“And down he went through the floor,” Spook finished.
“Exactly,” Bobby said. “He was lucky to have nothing more than a broken leg. Of course, the rest of the crew wondered what was taking so long, and they realized that something must have happened. A couple guys went looking for him. They got to the third floor and started calling for him. They heard him yelling from one of the rooms, but when they got to the room, the door was locked.”
“The door was locked,” I repeated faintly, looking at Spook.
Elaine nodded, wringing her hands. “They had to break down the door, and they found him in a pile of rubble, all wild-eyed and babbling about a banshee in the bell tower.”
“Of course, his coworkers didn’t believe him,” Bobby added, shaking his head. “Thought he had just imagined it or was delirious from his injury. The college officials blamed his accident on carelessness, and even suggested he had whiskey in his thermos. No one put any confidence in the idea of a ghost in the bell tower” He looked at us over his glasses. “Till the next time.”
We all looked at each other, not missing the significance of Bobby’s remark. Ed spoke up first. “Elaine, you said the first accident you heard about happened in 1964. I assume there were other accidents after that?” I had been wondering the same thing.
“Well,” she began, sounding hesitant. “I don’t know if you’d call them accidents.” We all looked at her curiously for a moment before she continued, “It seemed that every so often there were…mishaps…that went along with seeing Mary’s ghost…” I shuddered again as I recalled Lou’s account of Biddlesbacher’s family experiencing “mishaps;” how many more times would that word come up?
“Now, mind you,” Bobby interrupted, holding out his hand as if to caution us. “Not everyone who saw her had these mishaps, and not everyone who had mishaps necessarily saw her. But the mishaps always seemed to occur in the bell tower.”
Spook’s brows were knitted in thought, and he finally looked over at Bobby to ask, “What kind of mishaps are we talking about?”
Bobby waved his hand dismissively. “Usually nothing serious. You know how college kids are; someone would go into the bell tower either on a dare or just looking for a little excitement, or someone living on the third floor had heard footsteps above them, and they’d go up to investigate. Some of them would get spooked and try to run out of the tower. Mostly turned ankles or scrapes and bruises from falling down the stairs or tripping on the floor.” He looked pointedly at Spook and me over his glasses. “You’ve seen what the floor is like, and the lighting was never good.” I smiled doubtfully at his comment about the injuries not often being serious. I wondered if they knew about the fire chief’s accident.
Elaine laughed shortly and added, “Of course, that alone made it easy for the college to turn things around on anyone who got hurt up there–if they hadn’t been poking around where they weren’t supposed to be, they wouldn’t have gotten hurt.”
Spook met my gaze for a moment, muttering, “That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?”
Elaine leaned forward to set her coffee cup on the table. “I’ve heard that for a time there were disciplinary measures taken on those who were injured in the bell tower. They justified that by saying it was a matter of the unfinished bell tower being unsafe, and they refused to be held liable for students’ foolishness. There were a lot fewer injury reports after that, although I’m not sure if it was because people stopped going up there or because people stopped reporting their injuries.”
“Why didn’t they just lock the door?” Phil asked sensibly. I was sure I knew the answer to that one.
“They tried,” Elaine responded, confirming my suspicion. “For some reason, that door just refused to stay locked. The lock had been replaced a number of times, but the maintenance staff still kept finding the door hanging open. Of course, that was always explained away as saying one of the students must have picked the lock.”
I shook my head, unable to believe that they could use that excuse for decades. Suddenly recalling a question I’d had for months, I asked, “Why have the renovations on the bell tower never been completed?”
Bobby rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “That’s a good question, Kyr. The subject often comes up with the Board of Trustees, and the reason they give usually has to do with money being better spent elsewhere.” He looked meaningfully over at Elaine and continued, “From what my brother tells me, they can’t get anyone up there to finish the work. While no one has had an experience as frightening as young Cochran’s, it seems that every crew that goes up there has their share of bad luck and strange occurrences–hammers go missing, electronics quit working, they can’t concentrate because they feel uneasy, that kind of thing.”
Everyone fell silent for a moment, and I gathered the courage to ask what I knew we were all thinking. “The burning question, and the reason we’re here, is what happened to Mary in that bell tower? What was she doing up there? How did the fire start?” I looked around at the others. “And why all the secrecy?”
Elaine sighed heavily and glanced helplessly at Bobby, who shrugged in resignation. She finally replied in a quavering voice, “Uncle Warren is really the only one who knows the full story. I’ve asked him many times, but he never told me, just said I’d find out when the time was right.” She looked at Bobby again, and then at each of us. “Let me bring him over here so you can talk to him.”
As she stood up, Phil suddenly stopped her. “Elaine, wait…” Elaine turned to face her. “Does he know we’re here…and why?” None of us wanted to spring an unexpected interrogation on an elderly man.
Elaine smiled gently. “Yes, he does. Bobby and I spoke to him after you’d called, and he said he’d be willing to talk to you.”
Bobby grunted and then laughed. “Fair warning, we have no idea what he’ll tell you, if he tells you anything at all. Every time we brought the topic up, he’d go dead silent and wouldn’t speak again till we changed the subject.”
We all laughed along with him, accepting that possibility. Elaine went into the other room, and we heard her speaking to someone. I realized that the TV that had been playing quite loudly when we arrived was off, and I had the sense that it had been off for the majority of our conversation. He knew why we were there, and he had obviously been listening in on everything we’d talked about. I glanced at Spook and then at Ed and Phil; they seemed to be aware of the same thing and were as much on edge as I was.
A couple minutes later, we heard the sound of shuffling feet punctuated by the metallic clunk of a walker. Just outside the room, the sounds stopped, and we heard Elaine whisper, “It’s all right, Uncle Warren. Just talk to them. You don’t have to tell them anything you don’t want to.”
There was a heavy sigh and the rumbling sound of a man clearing his throat, and then Elaine came in guiding a hunched-over man with neatly-combed white hair and a full moustache. If he were to stand up straight, I knew he would be as tall as Spook. His gray eyes were alert but wary as he looked around the room at all of us. We all stood up respectfully and waited for a cue either from Elaine or Bobby..
As Elaine led him across the room, Bobby turned the light up a notch so that Warren could see better as he made his way slowly across the room to Bobby’s chair. In the middle of the room, he paused to look around at us. Taking a shaky hand off his walker, he waved at us dismissively and said hoarsely, “Sit down, sit down.”
Bobby nodded at us, so we all sat down slowly and waited till he had reached the armchair, got himself turned around and dropped arthritically into the seat. Bobby moved the walker off to the side and went over to sit on the couch next to Ed.
“Uncle Warren, these are the young folks from the college that we told you about,” Elaine began. As she introduced each of us, he nodded politely and raised a hand in greeting.
When she got to Spook and me, he eyed us sharply and commented, “You folks look a bit old to be in college.” So much for thinking I looked young for my age.
Spook and I exchanged a brief smile, and I responded, “I graduated from Willow Lake seven years ago.”
“I…never went to college,” Spook admitted, glancing at me guiltily.
Warren narrowed his eyes at Spook and growled, “You should cut your hair, young man.”
“Uncle Warren!” Elaine exclaimed, then quickly apologized to Spook, who looked a bit uncomfortable but a bit amused, as though he had heard that admonition before.
Warren grunted at her and then pointed at Spook as if to say he had his eye on him. He turned to Ed and Phil and addressed them. “You young folks are part of a…what do you call it?”
Ed cleared his throat and tried to sound professional. “Phil and I lead the Willow Lake Paranormal Club. We investigate reports of hauntings on campus and in the community, using computers and electronic equipment to try to communicate with and capture evidence of spirits.”
Warren laughed shortly and shook his head. “Paranormal Club,” he muttered. “In my day we had Chess Club and Debate Team. Now they have a Paranormal Club.” Phil was biting her lip and watching Ed nervously. i was torn between being amused by his opinion of contemporary extra-curricular activities and being nervous that he wouldn’t take us seriously enough to give us the information we needed. Warren fixed his gaze on Ed and asked, “What do you want with me?”
Ed looked as though he had been expecting this resistance, but he still seemed unsure of how to handle it. “Well,” he began uncertainly, glancing over at Spook and me for help. I gave him a slight shrug, as unsure as he was of how to proceed. Spook also remained silent, not sure how Warren would react if he stepped in; he obviously had taken a dislike to Spook and his long hair. I found myself wishing Jason and Grant were there; they would have known what to say, especially Grant.
Phil jumped in to try to help. “Our most recent investigation was a bit more…involved than other investigations we’ve done. We encountered an angry, malicious spirit in Appleton Hall’s bell tower, and we’ve been trying to find out some background information about what happened in the tower to cause the haunting.” She looked at Ed and then at Spook and me. “We know about the fire in 1954, and that…your friend…died. Beyond that, we’re finding that either no one knows what happened or no one wants to talk about it. We were hoping that you might be able to tell us what happened that night.”
When Warren remained steely-eyed and silent, Phil bit her lip and glanced around at the rest of us. Ed jumped in to help. “We have reason to believe the spirit we encountered may be Mary’s.”
“Nonsense!” Warren barked, grasping the arms of his chair, and making me jump. “My Mary wasn’t mean or malicious. She was a sweet girl, a kind girl. Your ghost has to be someone else.”
Ed sat back uncertainly for a moment, then cleared his throat and insisted, “Mr. McKnight, we know the Mary you loved was sweet and kind, but we think there’s a reason she became angry, and a reason that she stays in that tower. If we could just find the missing pieces of the puzzle…” Warren had turned his face away with the same steely-eyed expression, and he pursed his lips together tightly as though unwilling to speak. Ed looked over at Bobby and Elaine, who both shrugged sympathetically as if to say I told you so.
Spook’s brows knitted together in frustration, and he leaned forward to interject, “Mr. McKnight, it’s very possible that we’re wrong in our theory; our ghost may indeed be someone else.” Ed and Phil looked at him as though he had lost his mind, and even Bobby and Elaine gave him a curious glance. I smiled slightly, knowing what he was doing. “The reason we wanted to talk to you is you’re the only one who knows what happened that night. If we can find out more details, it might help us figure out who’s haunting the tower.” He glanced at Phil. “And maybe how we can put her–or him–to rest.”
Warren glared at Spook, and I could see tears standing in his eyes. “There was a fire. My Mary died in that fire. I lost the only love I ever had.”
His sorrow was so great that it seemed to reach out and wrap itself around me; even after sixty years, his love and sense of loss was still strong enough to cause him pain. Tears filled my eyes as I thought about how I’d feel if I had lost Spook in that summer’s fire. Warren seemed to sense my thoughts, because he looked my way. As his eyes met mine, I had the sense that we understood each other; I wondered if he had overheard us telling Bobby and Elaine about Spook’s ordeal. With some difficulty, I said, “I’m so sorry for your loss, Mr. McKnight. I can’t even imagine how you must have felt.” I had to take a deep breath to steady my voice, and I felt Spook’s hand on my back as I continued, “Is there anything you can remember about that night, about what happened before the fire?”
Warren’s expression hardened again, and he didn’t seem to even try to remember. “It was a long time ago. I don’t remember.”
Phil, obviously frustrated, urged, “Please, Mr. McKnight. Try to remember. Who was in the bell tower that night? Was it just you and Mary, or was there someone else?”
I could see Warren struggling to stay in control. Tears stood ready to fall again, and he had begun trembling. Phil leaned forward and was about to begin another onslaught of questions, but I stopped her. “Phil, I think it’s enough.” I pleaded with my eyes for her to back down. “It’s too much all at once; we need to back off,” I said softly.
Elaine stood and crossed the room. “Uncle Warren,” she soothed. “Would you like to go back to your room?”
Warren glared in Phil’s direction and then nodded. Elaine helped him to his feet, and slid his walker over to him. He took a few shaky steps and then looked at each of us. His expression seemed to soften as he met my eyes, and he mumbled, “Nice meeting you all. Sorry I couldn’t be of any help.”
After he had left the room, Bobby smiled grimly at Ed and said apologetically, “Well, he talked more to you folks about what happened than he ever did to us.” He took his glasses off and laid them on the table next to him. “I honestly wonder if he really can’t recall what happened; maybe it was so traumatic that he mentally blocked the events of that night.”
“It certainly is a possibility,” Spook ventured uncertainly. I said nothing, but I firmly believed they were wrong. Warren recalled what happened that night, every horrific detail. There was something that was keeping him from talking about it. As I glanced over at Phil, who had the same hard, determined look in her eyes as she had earlier, I shook my head, thinking it had been a mistake for so many of us to come here tonight. The poor man probably felt as though he were facing a judge and jury.
Elaine returned a couple minutes later, her eyes glassy with worry. She attempted a smile and said, “Uncle Warren is watching Matlock reruns now; I’m sure he’ll be fine.” Her expression seemed to say otherwise, but none of us suggested anything to the contrary. “Would anyone like more coffee?” she offered hospitablly.
Ed started and replied, “Oh, no thank you, Elaine. You’ve been so much more than kind to us already.” He reached out to shake her hand. “We greatly appreciate you letting us come tonight to speak to your uncle, even if we really didn’t gain any information.”
Phil reached out her hand next. I could still hear the disappointment in her voice as she smiled and added, “Yes, thank you so much. I hope Mr. McKnight wasn’t too upset.”
Bobby chuckled as Elaine responded, “He’ll be fine, Phil. He’s a tough old bird.” Elaine turned to Spook and held out her hand to him. “I hope you weren’t offended by his remarks about your hair.”
Spook laughed easily and said, “It’s nothing I haven’t heard before, Elaine. And he put it a lot more kindly than some people have.” He met my eyes and smiled mischievously.
Elaine turned to me, and her eyes shone with unshed tears. “Oh, Kyr. I could see the wheels turning in your head when Uncle Warren talked about losing Mary. I’m so happy your story has a happier ending. Thank you for being so compassionate.”
Tears filled my eyes too as I looked up at Spook and attempted to smile. “Me too,” I replied thickly. “That’s the main reason I hoped to get to the bottom of this so that the same thing doesn’t happen to others.”
“You’re such a good person.” Elaine’s smile was genuine as she embraced me. She looked up at Spook and whispered, “You two take care of each other. A love like yours is a precious thing.”
Bobby rose and said his good-byes to us, adding his apology that we didn’t accomplish what we had hoped. As we headed out the door, my mind was already working on a plan. I was certain we could get to the bottom of this mystery, but there was something I needed to do. Alone.