Chapter 5: Stirrings in the Forest

The next day, after lunch, Freddie found herself once more at the county park.

Her duck boots clattered through dead leaves as she walked to the City-on-the-Berm Archives. Behind her, Divya trod more lightly—her high heeled boots, though absolutely gorgeous, were also absolutely impractical.

Her entire outfit was impractical, actually, for the October weather: pleather mini skirt, fitted blue sweater, and her trusty peacoat. But she looked (as always) amazing, so it was hard to fault her for her poor survival choices.

Especially since Freddie was a full-on scrub in her flannel button-up, bootcut jeans, and Berm High hoodie.

“Did you see the paper” Freddie asked, shoving aside a low pine branch that bisected the path. It smelled divine as she held it back so Divya could pass. “The Sentinel released the dead guy’s name.”

Divya nodded. “Dr. Fontana. He took care of my hamster once.”

“Oh.” Freddie’s stomach sank. “I didn’t know that. I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright,” Divya said, even though Freddie could tell it wasn’t. Not all the way, at least. And she understood why: it was one thing to find a faceless dead guy. It was quite another to find out you knew him.

“Oh thank goodness,” Divya said. She cocked her chin ahead, to where the entrance to the Archives stood. “I’m freezing, and those walls will protect us against rabid wolves. Er…right?”

“Yeah,” Freddie said in her brightest voice. “And wolves aren’t out hunting right now anyway.” Not that Freddie really thought wolves had killed that deer, but she wasn’t about to tell Divya that.

After hosing down everyone’s vehicles at Kyle’s house, the prank squad had gathered in his basement to watch something funny and as un-dead-deer-creepy as they could possibly find. They’d settled on Austin Powers: the Spy Who Shagged Me, which Freddie had found delightfully distracting.

She’d also found Kyle delightfully distracting, particularly since he’d sat next to her during the movie and kept looking her way. The fact that she’d taken photographs of a mutilated animal carcass hadn’t seemed to faze him at all.

And—thank goodness—Laina had finally relaxed into her usual self once more. She’d even cracked a self-deprecating joke when Will Ferrel’s character had fallen down the hill and been “very badly injured.”

“That’s what I should have said in the woods,” she’d muttered. “Perhaps you could throw me a bandaid or some antibacterial cream!”

Everyone had laughed; Divya loudest of all.

Once Freddie had gotten home again, though, there’d been no more ignoring what had happened. She’d fallen asleep mulling the dead deer and the flapping crows, mulling Laina’s screams and that shape in the woods.

Most important of all, thought, Freddie had mulled about the bells. No, she might not believe in ghosts, but last night had definitely left her wondering. Especially since there was still the mystery of why Dr. Fontana had (or had not) killed himself.

Now here Freddie was, back in the county park woods—exactly where Sheriff Bowman had told her to stay away.

Ah, she was a rebel indeed.

Freddie tromped up to the Archives’ stone hut. It’s slate roof was only a few inches above Freddie’s head, and the lone window—beside the narrow, iron front door—was too warped by time to even see through.

Freddie wriggled her keys from her hoodie pocket, and in moments, the door groaned open to reveal an empty stone room with an open hatch in the middle floor. A ladder slunk down into darkness.

“Wait-wait-wait-wait.” Divya’s hands shot up. “The Archives are underground?”

Freddie’s eyebrows bounced high. “What did you think?”

“That this was it.” Divya motioned to the interior of the hut. “And that there just weren’t very many things inside.”

Freddie laughed, head shaking. “There’s tons of stuff inside! Aisle after aisle…and all down there. It’s kinda like the Crypts in Witchlands—you know, where we battled that Skullface Monster, and there was a Sightwitch NPC?” She pointed into the hatch. “Except there aren’t monsters in this one. Are you coming?”

Hell no.” Divya cringed. “I am not a Sightwitch, thanks, and I am also one hundred percent changing the terms of our agreement.”

“What?” Freddie recoiled. “You can’t do that!”

“I’m only doing one week of trig homework.” Divya’s lips pursed. “You either agree or I’m walking.”

“But I’m the one helping you,” Freddie pointed out. “So I’m the one with all the negotiating power—and I say two weeks or we leave.”

“One and a half.”

“Two.”

“One and three quarters?”

“Divya.”

“Okay, okay!” Divya flung up her hands. “I’ll do two weeks of your homework.”

“Excellent.” Freddie beamed. “Now come on. This place gets spooky after sunset.”

“Because it’s not spooky now?” Divya watched with a skeptical frown as Freddie hunkered through the hatch. “I mean, I’m sorry, Fred, but this is not like the Witchlands. It’s more like something out of a—”

“Mary Stewart novel?” Freddie offered. She hit the flagstone floor and fumbled along the nearby wall for the light switch.

“Who?” Divya asked.

“Edgar Allen Poe, then.” Freddie flipped on the light. A series of fluorescent bulbs hummed to life, revealing a long, bunker-like tunnel that extended on and on…and on some more.

“No, not Poe.” Divya’s boots clanked on the ladder rungs.

“Charles Dickens?”

“No.”

“Mrs. Radcliffe. Bram Stoker. Uh…Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?” Freddie was really reaching for names now.

“No,” Divya intoned. Her boots hit the floor. “I don’t even know who half those people are. I was going to say Scooby Doo.”

Freddie’s face fell. “You don’t know the great gothic writers?” She clutched at her temples. “Sometimes I really worry about you, Divya Srivastava.”

Divya patted Fred’s shoulder. “The feeling is mutual, I assure you.” She sent her gaze flying over the long, curved room. Then she looped an arm through Freddie’s and whispered, “It’s like a crypt in here!”

“But at least it’s a climate controlled crypt.” Freddie towed Divya to the left wall, to where a low, rickety table held piles of books and loose papers. “So this is everyone my mom could find on 19th century shipping on the Great Lakes. She came in this morning. And while you look at those, I’m going to dig up stuff on the Executioners Three—”

“Oh lord,” Divya moaned.

“—and see what useful information I can find.”

“Is this because of Kyle?”

“Maybe,” Freddie half-lied. Kyle had made her think of the old legend, and she had been with him she’d heard the bell toll twice. “I mean, you gotta admit, Div, it’s a cool story.”

“You mean disgusting. Three executioners lose their minds and kill an entire city—definitely not cool.”

“You’re forgetting the satanic cult part.”

“And you’re forgetting it’s just a story.”

“But is it, though?” Freddie shrugged innocently. “All legends are rooted in something.”

“But we have friends now, Fred. You don’t have to entertain yourself with mysteries and ghost stories anymore.”

“Oh Divya.” Freddie wagged her head. “You don’t understand me at all, do you? Now get to work.”

Divya halfheartedly touched a book. Her fingers left a trail in the dust. “Can’t I just take these home with me?”

“None of the documents are allowed to leave the Archives.” Freddie shook a finger in Divya’s face. “So don’t steal anything.”

“As if.” Divya gave a little shudder—the repulsed kind more than the cold kind. “But don’t expect A’s on your trig homework.”

“I absolutely do expect A’s!” Freddie stalked away. “And remember, I have all the power here!”

While Divya got to work examining the old tomes, Freddie scoured the shelves of the Archives exactly like her Mom had taught her. Since almost everything in the room was a primary document, resources were arranged by year, then subject. Some shelves were labeled; most were not.

But that was fine with Freddie. She knew enough from working in the Colonial Village that the Executioners had supposedly lived in the late 1600s—and just as she’d hoped, that shelf was labeled.

Actually, the little sticker had fallen to the floor, but there was still a faint mark in the dust where it had once been. Freddie heaved off every book in the vicinity (some were really, really old) and carted them back to Divya’s table.

Then she hunkered into the seat beside her friend, and for several minutes, they both worked in silence. Divya’s pencil scritched and scratched while Freddie ever so carefully flipped pages.

Until at last, she found something of interest in an old handwritten ledger. “Aha!” She thrust up a pointed. “Eureka and Gesundheit!”

“That’s not what Gesundheit means.”

Freddie ignored her best friend. “I found a record of the Executioner’s deaths! Or at least, these men were executioners at about the right time.” She pushed the book toward Divya. “It’s a record of all the births and deaths in the area during the 1680s,” Freddie explained. “And here”—she tapped a swirly inscription at the top of the page—“it refers to the Executioners. I think this is French, and here’s an English translation.”

Divya squinted to where it read,

Bourreaux — decedes

Justin: 18 octobre 1682 (à l’age de 27)

Alexandre: 19 octobre 1682 (à l’age 27)

Damen: 19 octobre 1682 (à l’age 26)

And then scribbled in the margin—the ink faded, though not nearly so faded as the French inscription—it read:

Executioners—deceased

Justin: October 18, 1682 (aged 27)

Alexandre: October 19, 1682 (aged 27)

Damen: October 19, 1682 (aged 26)

“They have very sexy names,” Freddie murmured. “Don’t you think?”

“But no last names.” Divya glanced at Fred. “Do you think these were actually them though? They were so…young. Both to die and to go on a killing spree.”

“Satan has that effect, I’m sure.”

Freddie tapped her chin. Then she gave another “Aha! Eureka, and Gesundheit!” and dove for a different book. “If someone else looked into these three guys, then we can check for other notes in the margins—”

We aren’t doing anything.”

“—and if any notes match up to…” She read the names off the ledger. “To Justin, Alexandre, and Damen, then we’ll know they were the Executioners Three.” She grinned triumphantly at Divya and flipped open the next book.

Only to immediately start coughing. So much dust! But once she’d waved the air clear, she scanned until—

“Aha! Eureka and Gesundheit!”

“I really wish you’d stop saying that.”

“Here’s another translation! It reads, ‘October 14, 1788: livestock strange. Northern wind and fog.’” Freddie’s shoulders slumped. “That’s just the weather.”

“Maybe not,” Divya murmured. She’d opened another ledger—this one covering the early 1700s. “ ‘Francis Miller,’” she read, “death by hanging on October 15, 1788. And whoa, it was deemed a murder.’”

Freddie’s insides perked up.

“And then look: two days later, a beheading happened. And three days after that, there was an evisceration. All of these deaths were deemed murders.”

Freddie shivered, eyes locking with Divya. “But the Executioners were dead by 1788, so it couldn’t have been them killing those people.”

“True,” Divya admitted with a frown. She set the ledger down and reached for another. “Maybe they were, like, copycat killers.”

“Maybe.” Freddie chewed her lip. Then stiffened and slowly swiveled her head toward Divya. “Do you smell that?”

Divya sniffed the air—and then gagged. “Oh god, it’s like our trash can after taco night.”

“Or roadkill.” Freddie pinched her nose. “Where’s it coming from?”

Before Divya could reply, the lights flickered. Then went out entirely.

Divya yelped. Freddie jolted.

“Oh god, oh god,” Divya whispered. Her fingers landed on Freddie’s arm and squeezed.

“It’ll be okay,” Freddie whispered back, unsure why she felt the sudden need to be very, very quiet. “It’s just an old building.”

“What if they don’t turn back on, though? How will we get out?” Divya was breathing faster now.

“We’ll just feel our way to the ladder,” Freddie said as calmly as she could—yet even as she suggested this, her gut was rebelling. Hard. A vicious curdling that made her knees weak and the hairs on her neck stand tall.

It was like the crows and the dead deer all over again.

The lights flipped back on.

Both girls winced. Then locked eyes. Divya’s face was drained of blood, her eyes huge.  “I’m leaving,” she said, still whispering.

“Yeah,” Freddie agreed. Her heart felt anchored to her intestines, and she wanted out. “Grab the books,” she ordered.

“What about the rules?”

“Screw the rules.” She started shoving them into Divya’s backpack. “We’re basically hoodlums now anyway.”

Divya nodded. Together, they swept all the texts they’d found, then without another word, they ran straight for the ladder and did not look back.

#

“I think that’s the fastest I’ve ever pedaled,” Freddie declared as she propped Steve’s old bike against a spruce. “Good thing you fit on my handlebars.”

Divya winced and rubbed her butt. “I don’t know about that. I can feel my tush bruising as we speak.”

“It was that or be left to the Hangsman’s claws.”

“Would he have claws, though?” Divya held up her phone, frowning at the screen. “Or wouldn’t he just have a rope? Not that I think there was a ghost back there.”

Freddie didn’t think so either. After all, there was no such thing as ghosts. But it made her less freaked to joke about hauntings than it did to really think about what might be going on here.

“I bet Alexandre has a rope with claws.”

“So you think the Hangsman was Alexandre?” Divya asked.

“I do indeed.” Freddie swung off their backpack of stolen goods. It was so heavy. After carefully removing Buffy, she tore off her hoodie and flannel, leaving her in nothing but a white t-shirt. She was so hot from pedaling, but they weren’t even halfway home yet—only halfway over the path that cut from the park to the woods near Freddie’s neighborhood.

“He just sounds like he’d be the gentler of the three Executioners.” Freddie stuff her apparel into the backpack. “Then Justin is the Headsman, and Damen is the Disembowler.”

“How do you come up with this stuff?” Divya’s voice dripped with a mixture of disbelief and respect.

Freddie zipped up the pack. “Because Damen sounds like ‘demon,’ and that’s just intense.” Freddie heaved the backpack on once more before carefully placing Buffy in its sacred spot around her neck. “Alright, Lady Srivastava. Back on the handle bars you go. Unless you want to walk?” she tried hopefully.

“No.” Divya shuddered. “This place is wiggins-central, and I want out. I can’t believe you rode your bike here on Wednesday night.”

Freddie couldn’t believe it either. City-on-the-Berm had always been one of her favorite places. The cheesiness of the Colonial Village, the beauty of the forests, and the shivery excitement of the history. Now, though…

Now, this place was really not sitting well inside her abdomen. Maybe Sheriff Bowman had been right about staying away.

While Divya grunted and shoved back into the narrow space between the upright bars (thank goodness her hips were small), Freddie flung a final glance into the forest behind. The hairs on the back of her neck were standing up, and that was in turn, making her stomach swirl.

No such thing as ghosts. No such thing as ghosts.

Before she could get her feet onto the pedals and kick off though, her eyes caught on a blip of red.

Instantly, her pulse roared into her ears. She almost fell, and Divya did fall with screech.

“Sorry,” Freddie called, scrabbling off the bike and turning toward the patch of red.

But it wasn’t a dangling jogger’s shoe that met her eyes this time. Now that she was cautiously approaching—while Divya shouted at her to come back—Freddie could see that it was only a red sports bottle dangling from a tree branch.

Someone had attached a carabiner to the handle and then looped the carabiner over a knob on the limb.

Freddie slowed to a stop before the bottle. She didn’t need her gut to tell her what she was looking at because a strip of masking tape on the bottle told her loud and clear.

Wed. run, lap 2, it read in handwritten marker.

Someone had put this bottle here for their Wednesday run.

Wind burst through the trees, shaking the tree branch. The bottle bounced up and down, water sloshing within—and revealing a faded name on the bottle’s base.

Fontana.

Freddie’s mouth went dry. Her fingers instinctively moved for Buffy. Either Mr. Fontana had decided midway through his Wednesday run that he was ready to end it all…

Or Freddie was staring at proof Mr. Fontana’s suicide definitely hadn’t been a suicide at all.

She started snapping pictures.

 

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