“Have you ever—” I turn the mug of tea in my hands, trying to think of the best way to pose my question to Chief Alcott. “Have you ever wondered why my father told you those things that night? You said yourself you didn’t believe him. So why do you think he did it?”
The chief gives the question ample consideration. With her head tilted back and an index finger tapping her angular chin, she brings to mind a quiz show contestant reaching for an answer that’s just beyond her grasp.
“I think it was a long con,” she finally says. “That your father—maybe your mother, too—was laying the groundwork for what was to come. And naive me was their patsy. I’m not saying they knew it was going to become as popular as it did. No one could have predicted that. But I do think they hoped that tall tale of theirs would get noticed. If I had blown them off, they probably would have gone straight to the Bartleby Gazette next. Thanks to me, that rag went straight to them.”
“After you talked to my parents, did you come out here to investigate?”
“Sure I did. The gate was wide open, and the front door was unlocked.”
“Did you see anything strange?”
“You mean ghosts?” The chief lets out a low chuckle, making it clear she finds the very idea ridiculous. “All I saw was a house with no one in it. Your things were still here, making it clear you’d left in a hurry. But there were no signs of struggle. Nothing to suggest something had attacked you or your parents. You’d cut yourself, though. There was a Band-Aid on your cheek, just under your eye. I remember because I said it made you look like a football player.”
I absently touch my left cheek, my index finger sliding along the inch of raised skin there.
“What happened after you checked the house?”
“I went back to the Two Pines and told your parents that everything was in order,” Chief Alcott says. “I said whatever was there had left and that you all were free to return. That’s when your father told me he had no intention of coming back here. I gave Walt Hibbets a call, asked him to lock up the place, and took my leave.”
“And that was it?”
“You’re asking an awful lot of questions for someone who lived through it,” the chief says. “Care to tell me why?”
I take a gulp of foul-tasting tea and tell her everything. No, I don’t remember my time here. No, I don’t think Baneberry Hall is haunted. Yes, I think my parents were lying. No, I don’t know why. Yes, I definitely think they’ve been hiding something from me for the past twenty-five years. And, yes, I completely intend on finding out what it is.
The only thing I leave out are my father’s dying words. They’re too personal to share.
When I’m finished, Chief Alcott runs a hand through her silver hair and says, “So that’s why you wanted to sit and chat.”
“It is,” I admit. “I want to talk to as many people mentioned in my father’s book as possible. I want to hear their version of things, not his. Maybe then I’ll have a better idea of why my parents did it and what they’re hiding.”
“Call me crazy,” the chief says, “but did you ask your parents?”
“I tried. It wasn’t helpful.”
“Well, getting folks here to tell their story isn’t going to be easy, seeing how some of them are dead.”
“I already heard about Walt Hibbets,” I say.
“And Janie June,” Chief Alcott adds. “Brian Prince is still around, though.”
I know that name. It’s hard to forget the man who wrote the article that changed the course of your family’s life.
“He still writes for the Bartleby Gazette?”
“He does. Only now he’s the owner, editor, and sole reporter. I have a feeling you’ll be hearing from him the moment he learns you’re back here.”
“Is there anything else you can remember from that night?” I say. “Anything you think I should know?”
“I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got.” Chief Alcott grabs her hat. “Sometimes, though, I think about that night. How your dad looked. How all of you looked. You know that phrase? ‘You look like you’ve just seen a ghost’? That applied to all three of you. And from time to time I wonder if there’s a kernel of truth to that book of his.”
My hands go numb with surprise, forcing me to set my mug on the table. “You think Baneberry Hall is really haunted?”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” she says. “I don’t know what went on in this house that night. But whatever it was, it scared the shit out of you.”
With that, Chief Alcott takes her leave. I walk her to the door and lock it behind her. Between Elsa Ditmer’s surprise appearance and hearing that House of Horrors fanatics had actually gotten inside, it seems like a good idea.
Alone again, I resume the tour that had been so suddenly interrupted. I notice something strange as soon as I return to the parlor. The winglike doors in the top half of the secretary desk are closed, even though I’m almost certain I left them open.
But that’s not the only thing that’s weird.
The letter opener—the one with William Garson’s initials that I’d lain atop the desk—is now gone.