“I assume my father’s book has been a problem,” I say.
“It was. For a year or so, we had to post officers outside the front gate. That was a hoot. Some of those guys weren’t so tough once they realized they had to spend a shift outside the house of horrors. I didn’t mind it, though. Someone had to keep the ghouls away.”
“Ghost tourists. That was our name for them. All those folks coming by, trying to climb the gate or hop the wall and sneak into the house. I won’t lie—some of them made it pretty far.”
My back and shoulders tense with unease. “They got inside?”
“A few,” the chief says nonchalantly, as if it’s nothing to be concerned about. “But those days are long gone. Sure, a couple of drunk kids try to sneak onto the property every so often. It’s never a big deal. Dane Hibbets or Hannah Ditmer usually sees them coming and gives me a ring. It’s mostly quiet now, which is just the way I like it.”
Chief Alcott fixes me with a hard stare. It feels like a warning.
“Like I said, my time here is temporary. But I do have a question. What happened to Petra Ditmer?”
“She ran away,” the chief says. “That’s the theory, at least. No one’s been able to track her down to confirm it.”
“Twenty-five years ago.” Chief Alcott narrows her eyes into suspicious slits. “I remember because it was around the same time your father told me this place was haunted.”
So she’s the one. The cop who filed the report that started the whole House of Horrors phenomenon. I don’t know whether to thank her or curse her. The only thing I do know is that one of the Book’s original sources is idling in the vestibule, and I’d be a fool not to press her for information.
“Since you’re here, Chief,” I say, “would you like a cup of coffee?”
* * *
It turns out that despite the many things still left inside Baneberry Hall, coffee isn’t among them. We have to settle for tea made from bags so old I suspect they were here before my parents bought the place. The tea is terrible—those leaves had long ago lost their punch—but Chief Alcott doesn’t seem to mind. As she sits in the kitchen, her earlier annoyance softens into a state of bemused patience. I even catch her smiling when she sees me grimace after tasting my tea.
“I gotta admit, when I started my shift, I never expected I’d end up here,” she says. “But when the call came through saying something was going on at Baneberry Hall, I knew I needed to be the one to check it out.”
I arch a brow. “For old times’ sake?”
“Old times indeed.” She removes her hat and sets it on the table. Her hair is silver and cut close to her scalp. “God, that feels like ages ago. It was ages ago. Hard to believe I was once that young and naive.”
“In his book, my father referred to you as Officer Alcott. Were you new to the force back then?”
“A total rookie. Green in every way. So green that when a man started talking about how his house was haunted, I wrote down every word.”
“I’m assuming you didn’t believe him.”
“A story like that?” Chief Alcott lifts her mug to her lips, thinks better of it, and places it next to her hat. “Hell no, I didn’t believe him. But I took his statement, because that was my job. Also, I figured something weird had gone on here if you were all staying in the Two Pines.”
The Two Pines was the motel just outside town. I’d passed it on my way here, the twin trees on the neon sign out front blinking into brightness as I drove by. I remember thinking it was a sad little place, with its L-shaped row of sun-bleached doors and a parking lot that contained more weeds than cars. I have a hard time picturing my family and Chief Alcott crammed inside one of those boxlike rooms, talking about ghosts.
“What exactly did my father tell you that night?”
“Pretty much what’s in that book of his.”
“You read it?”
“Of course,” the chief says. “It’s Bartleby. Everybody here has read it. If someone says they haven’t, then they’re lying.”
As I listen to the chief, I look to the wall opposite the bells. It’s partially painted, with streaks of gray primer covering up the green.
I’m hit with a memory—one as sudden as it is surprising.
Me and my father. Side by side at that very wall. Dipping our rollers into a pan of gloppy gray and using it to erase the green. I can even remember accidentally putting my hand in the primer, and my father telling me to make a handprint on the wall.
That way you’ll always be part of this place, he said.
I know it’s an actual memory and not something from the Book because my father never wrote such a scene. It’s also vivid. So much so that I half expect my father to stroll into the kitchen, wielding a paintbrush and saying, “You ready to finish this, Mags?”
Another crack of grief forms in my heart.
“You okay there, Maggie?”
I tear my gaze away from the wall and back to Chief Alcott, who regards me with concern.
“Yeah,” I say, even though I’m now dizzy and slightly unmoored. Not just by the memory and its accompanying grief but from the fact that I’m able to remember anything at all about this place. I didn’t think that was possible, and it leaves me wondering—in equal parts anticipation and dread—what I might recall next. Because that memory of my father isn’t entirely warm and fuzzy. It’s tainted by all the years of deceit that came after it.