When Spook and I arrived at Mrs. Rutter’s house, she was outside awkwardly attempting to trim the hedges along the side of her property while an elderly woman who I assumed was her mother watered flowerbeds along the front of the house. As we came up the walk, she greeted us and shook her head in frustration. “My son-in-law usually trims these for me when he visits, but he hasn’t visited since early Spring. I thought I could do it myself, but I’m just making a mess of it, I’m afraid.”
Spook reached for the hedge clippers and said kindly, “I work with my dad in landscaping. Why don’t I have a go at it?” Mrs. Rutter tried to protest that he hadn’t come here to do her yard work, but he insisted. “Really, it won’t take long at all. Besides, you’re helping us out with something, so consider it an even exchange.”
Mrs. Rutter and I sat on the front porch swing making small talk while Spook made quick work of the hedges. He had peeled off his black T-shirt, and the view kept distracting me from our conversation. Her mother finished watering the flowers and came up onto the porch. Setting down the watering can and plopping down on a chair, she also turned to gaze at Spook’s sweaty, muscular form before peering at us over her glasses. “Patricia, I think you should replace Todd with that one. That is a view I could get used to.”
Mrs. Rutter’s laugh rang out as she chastised, “Oh, Mother! Behave yourself!” To me she said, “Ever since she had a hot young physical therapist after her stroke, she’s been incorrigible.”
“Just because I’m pushing eighty doesn’t mean I’m dead,” she crowed. She wagged a gnarled finger at me and joked, “You’d better keep an eye on him; I might just decide to keep him for myself..”
I laughed and joked back, “Maybe I’ll send him to you when he gets out of line.”
“I think he’d come back more out of line than when you sent him,” Mrs. Rutter warned.
Her mother nudged me with her elbow and teased, “Of course, that might be fun for you, dear.” After another long glance at Spook, she leaned over conspiratorially and whispered, “Although I have a feeling he keeps you plenty happy already.”
“Mother, really!” Mrs. Rutter hissed, laughing again.
I felt my cheeks flushing pink as I tried to come up with a response. I didn’t notice Spook approaching till he leaned against the railing, out of breath, and asked, “What’s so funny?”
My face burned as I glanced helplessly at Mrs. Rutter. With a glint in her eye, she patted Spook’s hand and responded, “Nothing, dear. Just girl talk.” Spook raised an eyebrow at me, knowing from my expression that he had missed an obvious joke. He was about to make a comment when Mrs. Rutter went on, “Spook, Kyr, you haven’t officially met my mother, Rosalie Patton. Mother, I’ve told you about Kyr; she used to work with me at the campus library. Now she’s a librarian herself.” She smiled proudly at me as I shook her mother’s hand.
“I’m pleased to finally make your acquaintance,” Mrs. Patton said, now all prim and proper. She turned to Spook and took his hand. “And you’re…Spook?” When he nodded and smiled, she chortled, “A professional landscaper who chases ghosts in his spare time. How delightful! Have you ever encountered a ghost in your work or found any hidden treasures in someone’s yard?”
Spook laughed and answered apologetically, “No, I’m afraid my job tends to be pretty mundane. The scariest things I’ve encountered on the job were a hornet’s nest and an unleashed Doberman.”
Mrs. Patton’s eyes widened as she exclaimed, “Good heavens! Not on the same day, I hope.” When Spook shook his head and laughed, she added, “In any case, I think I’d rather meet up with a ghost than a Doberman.”
Mrs. Rutter chuckled and patted her mother’s hand. “Mother loves a good ghost story.” Becoming serious again, she looked at me. “But you two are trying to get to the bottom of a ghost story, aren’t you?”
I stole a quick glance at Spook before answering, “Yes, we’re still trying to figure out what happened in the Appleton bell tower back in 1954, to see how that ties into the haunting there. Our friends from the Paranormal Club…”
“The former Paranormal Club,” Spook interrupted almost bitterly.
I returned his look and amended, “Yes, the former Paranormal Club. Our friends managed to track down Warren McKnight, and we paid him a visit.”
Mrs. Patton looked at her daughter in surprise. “I didn’t realize Warren was still alive. I didn’t really know him, but of course we all heard about him after the fire.” She leaned closer to me and asked, “Did he tell you what happened?
I shrugged. “He told us part of the story, but there seems to be quite a bit he’s still keeping to himself.” I hesitated, unsure of how much of Warren’s story I should reveal. Although I was sure that neither Mrs. Rutter nor her mother would repeat the story, I didn’t feel comfortable betraying his confidence.
Spook sensed my hesitation and offered, “The main piece of information we discovered was that Warren and Mary weren’t the only ones in the bell tower that night.”
Both older women gasped and exchanged a shocked glance. Mrs. Patton exclaimed, “Then the rumors we’d always heard were true! Did he say who it was?”
I shook my head. “At first he said he didn’t recognize the person, but then later he let part of a name slip.” I looked at Mrs. Patton and said, “That’s why we wanted to look at your yearbook again; maybe we can get an idea who he was talking about.” I didn’t mention my suspicion that the person in question was the reason Warren had kept his secret for so many years.
Spook put his shirt back on (which I thought disappointed Mrs. Patton), and the four of us went inside. As Spook and I sat on the couch in Mrs. Rutter’s small but cozy sitting room, a small gray cat that Mrs. Rutter called Gwendolyn blinked lazily at us from the windowsill. While Mrs. Patton went back to her bedroom to retrieve her yearbook, Mrs. Rutter brought a pitcher of iced tea from the kitchen. “Gardening always puts me in the mood for a nice glass of iced mint tea.”
Mrs. Patton emerged from her bedroom with the same yearbook we’d seen a few months earlier. She sat down in the striaght-backed chair next to the coffee table and laid the book down in front of us, asking, “Was the person a student or a professor?”
When I didn’t respond right away, Spook turned to me with a crooked smile and said, “You’re usually the one with the hunches. What do you think?”
I closed my eyes as I hesitated. I was still unable to shake the idea that the third person in the bell tower that night was someone older than Warren and Mary, but I didn’t want to voice that suspicion to Mrs. Rutter and her mother. At last, returning Spook’s look, I ventured, “I’m not sure; Warren didn’t really give any indication one way or the other.”
Leaning back and clasping his hands behind his head, Spook eyed me knowingly and reasoned, “You said he gave part of a name, right? Chill or Shill?” When I nodded, he continued, “Well, that sounds like part of a last name to me. I have a hunch of my own that Warren would be more likely to refer to a classmate by a first name, don’t you think?” The corners of his mouth twitched, and I realized that he had been aware of where my thoughts were headed all along.
“That certainly sounds logical,” Mrs. Patton agreed. She flipped a few pages till she came to the faculty and staff section and then turned the book towards me. “Why don’t we start here and see if anything jumps out at you?”
I swallowed hard and slid the book closer so I could scan the names and photos. I read each name under my breath as I drew my finger across the pages. “Abbott, Ambrose, Baldwin, Bartol, Bingamin, Bricker, Calder, Chilcote…” I paused. Chill…Chilcote. That was certainly a possibility. I looked more closely at the photo, a white-haired man who appeared to be in his late 50s. No, I decided. That couldn’t be him. I firmly believed that the man in question was still alive, and there was no way this man could still be alive sixty years later.
My finger continued down the page. “Childress.” It felt as though an electric shock traveled from the page to my finger and all the way up to my scalp. I gasped and snatched my hand back, startling both Mrs. Rutter and Mrs. Patton.
“Childress?” Spook asked, leaning forward to study the photo.
“You think Professor Childress was in the tower that night?” Mrs. Patton asked incredulously.
With some trepidation, I brought my eyes back to the photo of Professor Childress. He was a young man, seemingly not much older than the students, with neatly-combed, slicked-back dark hair and wild, light-colored eyes. Something in those eyes held my gaze, and I almost felt the room beginning to fade around me. I had the overwhelming feeling that this man was both charismatic and…evil. “That’s him,” I managed to choke out, unable to tear my eyes from the photo.
Spook picked up the book to look more closely at the photo. “Richard Childress, Professor of History. You’re that sure?” He wasn’t doubting me; he had seen my intense reaction, and he was genuinely concerned.
I nodded, and without thinking blurted out, “Spook, he was evil. He still is.”
“How could you know that from seeing a picture?” Mrs. Patton exclaimed. Her shrill voice jarred me out of whatever strange mind set I had found myself in. I was about to apologize, thinking that I might have offended her by making such an accusation about a favorite professor, but she continued, “Professor Childress was a brilliant man, very well-liked and higly respected by most of the other faculty, but he was very…strange.”
Mrs. Rutter, Spook and I all stared at her as she tapped her chin, deep in thought. Finally, Mrs, Rutter asked, “What do you mean by strange, Mother?”
Mrs. Patton shook her head as she searched for words. “I’m not really sure, dear. There was just something about him that made many of us students uncomfortable. His eyes always frightened me, especially when he’d look at me in class.” I shuddered as I silently agreed with her. “And then there were those ‘special projects’ of his.”
An eerie energy suddenly filled the room, and I sat up straight, fighting the urge to bolt out of the house. Spook’s eyes reflected his own anxiety as he stared at Mrs. Patton. I reached over to take his hand and saw the hairs on his arms standing straight up. At my touch, he glanced at me before looking back at Mrs. Patton and asking, “What ‘special projects’?”
“No one really knew what he was up to,” she replied cryptically, “except those he chose to work with. And they never said a word, even after they were dismissed.”
Spook’s eyebrows came together as he cocked his head at her words. “Dismissed?” he asked. “Why do I get the feeling that these ‘projects’ weren’t academic?”
Mrs. Patton shifted uneasily in her seat, glancing first at her daughter and then at Spook and me. “I’m sure you’re correct in your suspicion, and I can’t help but wonder if Mary’s involvement with Professor Childress is the reason why her spirit remains in Appleton.” Mrs. Patton told us what she could recall about the mysterious Professor Childress. Because he was a history professor, no one thought it strange that he spent countless hours poring over local hisory books and interviewing older residents, focusing on Willow Lake’s early days and the origins of the town’s first settlers, nor did it seem odd that he often enlisted students to aid him in his work.
Mrs. Rutter leaned towards her mother and asked, “Do you know anything at all about what in particular he was researching? Was there something specific he was looking for?”
Mrs. Patton shrugged. “All we were ever told was that he was doing history research. The odd thing, to me, was that he never seemed to share anything he may have discovered.”
“What about the people he chose to assist him?” I asked, beginning to calm down somewhat and regaining the ability to focus. “Did they share certain characteristics? How many were there? Why were they dismissed?”
Spook laid a hand on my arm, laughing. “Slow down, Kyr. Let the poor woman get a word in edgewise.”
I apologized to Mrs. Patton, but she just smiled and patted my knee. “Think nothing of it, dear.” She pursed her lips for a moment before continuing, “Professor Childress had been at Willow Lake for only five years before the fire occurred. I only knew of three or four students and one local historian–I can’t recall his name–who had worked with him on his project.” She gave us a strange look. “He didn’t choose people with the qualities you’d expect in a research assistant–someone with good grades or an interest in history. It’s hard to say what he looked for; it seemed to be something only he could see.”
Spook interjected, “And Mary had that certain something.” I could see the wheels turning in his head, and I wondered what conclusions he was drawing.
Mrs. Patton nodded grimly. “It would seem so. As I recall, it didn’t sit very well with some of the history majors.” She looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “You may have heard there were rumors of Mary’s unfaithfulness to Warren?”
My jaw dropped, and I got a sick feeling in my stomach. “You mean that’s where those rumors started?” I knew that petty jealously could drive people to do some awful things, but this seemed extreme. “Did they actually name Professor Childress, or was it just a general rumor?”
“As I told you, he was well liked and highly respected among the faculty, so even if someone would have accused him, no one would have believed it. Still, there were some who assumed he was the one she was being unfaithful with.”
Mrs. Patton was quiet for a moment, which gave me time to process what she had told us so far. Her story clicked with another piece of information we’d heard. I mused out loud, “I wonder if Warren’s father heard at least some of those rumors, and that’s why he forbid his son to marry her.”
“What?” both older women exclaimed at once. Mrs. Patton went on, “I knew that things had cooled off between them, but I’d never heard that his parents got involved. Did Warren tell you that?”
I was a bit surprised that they hadn’t heard that part of the story. I glanced over at Spook, who seemed to be deep in thought, before replying, “Well, yes, Warren did mention that briefly. I had read something about his parents’ disapproval in Biddlesbacher’s book, but Warren gave us a few more details.”
“Biddlesbacher!” Mrs. Patton exclaimed, bringing her hands down hard on the arms of her chair. “That was the name of the historian who collaborated with Professor Childress for a time. Shortly before the fire, they had some kind of a falling out and parted company. Biddlesbacher’s book was published ten years after the fire, and it seems that he knew what happened in the bell tower that night. He included more information than some folks were comfortable with; I suppose he thought that it was safe to do so since Childress had moved on.”
Spook suddenly sat up and narrowed his eyes suspiciously as he took in Mrs. Patton’s words. Giving me a shrewd sidelong glance, he ventured, “But apparently it wasn’t safe, and Biddlesbacher was pressured to pull the book and edit out any incriminating information.”
“Threatened was more like it,” Mrs. Patton spat. “From what I heard, he only crumbled because threats were made to his family. The book hadn’t been out long enough to sell many copies, so there are very few in existence anymore, but if you could find one, I understand you’d have almost the whole story at your fingertips.”
Mrs. Rutter interjected, “Even the second edition is hard to come by these days. At one time the library had two or three copies, but they have long since gone missing.” I thought about the copy I had come across at the book sale, and I found myself wishing it had been a first edition, or even that I knew who had donated the copy I now possessed.
Spook and I exchanged a glance, but said nothing. We were both thinking of the information Lou had given me, but I said nothing to betray his confidence. Suddenly, I recalled part of the story Jared had told JoEllyn, and I ventured hesitantly, “We had heard rumors of…satanic worship in the bell tower. You don’t think that Mary and Professor Childress…”
“No, certainly not!” Mrs. Patton interrupted. She and Mrs. Rutter exchanged a meaningful glance before she admitted, “To be honest, I believe he was doing more than simple local history research.” My eyebrows came together in a silent question, which she answered, “If you read Biddlesbacher’s book, then you know he was interested in ghost stories and things of that nature.” I nodded, and she continued, “Do you recall the story about the Willow Lake witch?”
I gasped and shook my head. “To be honest myself, I only read the chapter called, ‘School Spirits.’ That was the only chapter I thought would be relevant.”
“You’re falling down on the job, Ms. Researcher,” Spook teased, giving my ponytail a quick tug.
I stuck my tongue out at him and gave him a quick poke in the ribs before asking, “There was a witch in Willow Lake?”
“A rumored witch,” Mrs. Rutter said contemptuously. “I for one don’t believe it. Kyr, you’ve heard about the Salem witch trials, what nonsense was behind them. I’m sure that’s all it was in this case too, just pure nonsense.”
As her words sank in, I looked back at her in horror. “Was there a witch trial here?” I had never heard of any such thing in Willow Lake, but then I hadn’t known there was a supposed witch here either. I quickly did the math and realized that Willow Lake wasn’t settled till the mid-1750s; it seemed to me that witch fever would have died down by then.
“Thankfully, no,” Mrs. Rutter replied. “But like a lot of other folks in those days, the townsfolk had their superstitions and fears. Do you recall the archaeological excavation north of town a decade or so ago?” I searched my memory but came up with nothing. I shook my head and shrugged, and Mrs. Rutter continued, “Well, that was likely before your time at Willow Lake.” She went on to explain that when a local construction company broke ground for a new housing development, they had discovered evidence of a small settlement that spanned about a mile radius. A group of archaeologists from a larger university came in to investigate the site and found the stone foundations of ten houses that were eventually dated back to around 1740, almost fifteen years before Willow Lake was officially settled. “The odd thing was that they found witch bottles next to seven of the foundations.”
Spook looked questioningly at me, and I shrugged. He asked, “What the devil is a witch bottle?”
Mrs. Rutter answered, “One of the archaeologists spoke here at the college after the discovery. He told us it was some kind of a charm or amulet against witches. If someone believed a witch was casting spells to bring harm to them, they would fill a bottle with urine and pins that had been boiled together, seal it and bury it upside down outside their house to deflect the negative magic and possibly identify the witch.”
I couldn’t help curling my lip as I exclaimed, “How disgusting! And they really believed that worked?”
Mrs. Rutter shrugged, “As I said, they were a superstitious people back then.”
Spook shook his head too before asking, “Okay, so how does Professor Childress fit in to this, if this discovery wasn’t made until recently?”
Mrs. Patton laughed and reasoned, “Well, those witch bottles may have been a recent discovery, but the witch rumors had obviously been circulating since the area was first settled.”
“There wasn’t much to the entry in Biddlesbacher’s book,” Mrs. Rutter added. “Just that the settlers began suffering misfortunes after a newcomer arrived, and they naturally surmised that the newcomer was a witch.”
“What kind of misfortunes?” I asked.
Mrs. Rutter shrugged and replied, “Crop failures, animals dying, illnesses.”
“In other words, things that might have had a logical explanation,” Spook interjected, shaking his head in disgust. I could tell that while he was a firm believer in ghosts and demons, he drew the line at witchcraft.
Mrs. Rutter chuckled and agreed. “My point exactly. A lot of superstitious nonsense.”
Something still didn’t add up for me. I began, “But Professor Childress…What does he…I mean, there was…is…something evil about him.”
Mrs. Rutter and Mrs. Patton looked at each other uncertainly. Mrs. Patton finally ventured, “Kyr, I really don’t know. It seems that we have many of the pieces, but we don’t know how they fit together.”
Mrs. Rutter added, “It would appear that Professor Childress knew something about the witch that Biddlesbacher didn’t. Maybe that piece of information is what caused the two to sever their working relationship.”
I thought about that for a moment and then mused out loud, “And maybe that piece of information had something to do with his ‘special projects’ and ultimately with why Mary ended up in the bell tower to meet him.”
We tossed around theories for a little while longer, but with so many pieces still missing, we were unable to reach any definite conclusions, either about the nature of Professor Childress’ ‘special projects’ or about the reason Mary’s angry spirit lingered in Appleton’s bell tower. After a time, we ran out of ideas and sat silently sipping our tea. Finally, Spook stretched and looked at me, smiling. “Well, we certainly found some interesting information,” he began. “But I’m still not sure how it all fits together or gets us closer to an answer.”
I laughed shortly and replied, “That seems to be the trend, doesn’t it?” I looked first at Mrs. Rutter and then at her mother. Both wore the same bemused expression that I knew was on my face. “You don’t know how much we appreciate you sharing what you could.”
“I just wish we could have been more help to you, dear,” Mrs. Patton said, grasping my hand. “Patricia and I have both said how much we’d like to see this whole mystery solved and the rumors put to rest.” I could sense how much she had been drawn into our research and how her recollections had taken her back to her college days.
Spook reached over to lazily scratch my back. “Well, I think we just need to let this new information sink in and digest before we go any further.” Knowing he was referring to telling Ed and Phil, I nodded my agreement, and we decided to take our leave.
As we walked towards the door, Mrs. Patton, with a gleam in her eye, addressed Spook. “There is another mystery I know you can solve, young man.” Mrs. Rutter’s eyebrows went up anxiousiy, and I eyed her curiously. She said saucily, “Your name isn’t really Spook, is it?”
For a split second, I caught Spook’s gaze, and I saw a strange look in his eyes. He smiled sheepishly, and I could have sworn he was blushing. Turning his eyes to Mrs. Patton, he gave a slight shake of his head and answered, “No, it isn’t.”
I realized that I didn’t even know Spook’s given name; it had never occurred to me to ask him. I crossed my arms, smirked at him, and waited expectantly for him to answer. Mrs. Patton sensed his hesitation and found it amusing. She cackled, “Oh, come now, honey. It can’t be that bad, can it?”
There was no question; Spook was definitely blushing. I couldn’t suppress a giggle as I teased, “Yeah, honey. It can’t be that bad.” I was mentally going through every man’s name I could think of, trying to figure out what name his parents could have given him that was so embarrassing.
Spook made a face at me and leaned down to whisper in Mrs. Patton’s ear. When he straightened up, she chuckled and reached up to pinch his cheek in a grandmotherly way. “I don’t know what you’re ashamed of. I think it’s a handsome name for a very handsome young man.”
Recalling what she had said about him earlier, I laughed out loud. He responded by putting me into a headlock while he thanked Mrs. Patton for her kindness. Mrs. Rutter just shook her head indulgently at us “kids” and thanked Spook for fixing her hedges.
After we left, we strolled hand in hand down the sidewalk headed back to the hotel, just enjoying the warm September day and each other’s company. After we had gone a couple blocks, Spook looked down at me with a crooked smile and asked, “So, what were you ladies cackling about on the front porch while I was trimming the hedges?” I giggled and looked down at the ground, trying to pull away from him; he pulled me closer and said, “Oh, no you don’t. You’re not getting away. What were you talking about? I have a feeling it was about me.”
I leaned into him and gazed playfully up at him. “Why haven’t you ever told me your real name?”
He groaned and looked away, a blush spreading across his cheeks once more. I giggled, enjoying making him squirm for once. He looked back at me and countered, “I asked you first. Besides, you never asked about my name.”
“True,” I responded, grabbing his hand and kissing it before offering, “I’ll swap you secret for secret.”
“What if I don’t want to tell you?” he joked, avoiding my gaze.
“I’m sure I could find out from someone. I’ll bet Jason and Grant know, don’t they?” The look he gave me was priceless, and I knew I was right. “I figure Grant owes me for the times he’s spilled my secrets to you.” I was still a bit peeved with them for telling him about my “dude run” moment, so I guessed it wouldn’t take too much to get one of them to tell me Spook’s real name.
He gave me what I supposed was an attempt at a withering glance before conceding, “All right, but you have to go first, since I asked first.”
“All right,” I responded, giggling as I imagined his reaction. I stopped walking to look him square in the eye. “Mrs. Patton had plans to make you her personal gardener.” When he looked at me curiously, I put my hands on my hips, surprised that he didn’t catch on. “She said she could get used to seeing you working outside with your shirt off. I’m going to need to keep you under wraps; first Ron makes eyes at you, and now Mrs. Rutter’s eighty-year old mother.”
Spook covered his face with his hand, shaking his head and laughing. “I suppose I should have kept my shirt on, hmm?”
I ran my hand over his chest and whispered, “Oh, I don’t know. I kind of enjoyed it myself. I’d like to get a closer look at the tattoo on your back.”
Spook’s arms suddenly went around me, and he teased, “If I didn’t know better, I’d think there was something in Mrs. Rutter’s iced tea.” Now that he said that, I was wondering that myself. I couldn’t believe I had just said that to him.
Suddenly embarrassed at my boldness, I cleared my throat and changed the subject. “So, what’s your real name, Spook?” He grabbed my hand and started walking again, not answering. I giggled and teased him, “I’ll bet it’s something really awful, isn’t it? Bernard? Herbert? Clyde? Enos?” After each name, he laughed and shook his head. “Ichabod? Aloysius? Snidely Whiplash?”
At the last name, Spook doubled over laughing. “Now you’re just being silly,” he accused when he could talk again.
“Then tell me,” I whined, sticking out my lower lip.
He sighed and held my gaze for a moment before saying, “Promise not to laugh?” I hesitated a second before nodding, trying not to smirk at him. “Well, I was named after both my grandfathers. My full given name is…” He looked at me pleadingly. “Spencer Sheldon Steele.” He narrowed his eyes as though he thought I would throw something at him.
My jaw dropped, and I gave him a disbelieving stare before I laughed out loud. When he gave me a hurt look, I explained, “Oh, Spook, I’m not laughing at your name. I’m laughing because you made such a big deal out of it. What on earth is wrong with Spencer?”
He grabbed my hand and we started walking again. “I guess the name itself isn’t so bad; it’s just that…” I saw the blush creeping into his cheeks again, and I wondered if it had been a bad idea to make him tell me. “In school, I wasn’t the only Spencer. The only thing was, the other two were girls. Spencyr Meck and Spenser Robinson. I’ve told you that I was bullied, right?” I nodded, and he continued, “Well, the guys who bullied me always said there were three girls named Spencer. I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when I was a teenager, it was. I hated my name. I was so glad when I saw that ghost and got the nickname Spook. It just seemed more masculine, you know?”
I leaned against him and stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “Well, I agree with Mrs. Patton. I think it’s a wonderful name.” I laughed ruefully and reminded him, “With a name like Kyrie Skye, who am I to poke fun at someone else’s name?” He laughed along with me and pulled me close again.