Gene focused the camera. He took a few test shots. Checking them on the digital viewer he frowned. Readjusting the focus he glanced at the sun. Only a few minutes with the right light remaining, he tried to hurry.
Sara came out of the brush fastening her pants, “People do this for fun?”
“All the time,” Gene replied while snapping a few. Finally something that looked right, he started photographing the whole area. Sara collected her backpack. She found it hard to shake the idea some bug, attracted to her piss, flew up her crotch. The sense of something crawling kept itching inside her thoughts.
She said, “You know, we evolved as a species to get away from the wilderness.”
“You don’t say.” Gene fired off several photos, hoping to catch the shadows at various lengths. Satisfied he had enough of the plateau Gene went to the edge of the cliff. He peered over, the drop plunging hundreds of feet. His stomach fell into his shoes. Swallowing hard, he proceeded to take pictures.
“Be careful,” Sara said.
“Sorry, I plan on falling,” Gene said.
“Hope you enjoy it. Four hundred feet down. Solid rock at the bottom.” Sara pulled out her notes. Gene said something she didn’t catch, “What?”
Gene repeated, “I said, ‘I wonder if it feels nice.’ Like, you know, for a minute.”
“What like flying?” Sara found the newspaper clippings she wanted.
“I dunno. Maybe.”
Sara sighed, “I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out. Here.” She handed Gene the clippings, specifically the one with a photo of the crime scene, “Try to get a shot like that.”
Examining the black and white photo, almost a century old but still to be admired, Gene headed back to the tree line. Holding up the picture he scanned the area until he felt certain of a match. Although he hated to copy someone else’s work, he took several matching pictures. At the end of the day, bank account bleeding out, the need for cash superseded his artistic integrity. His dad would know the line: “I pay thy poverty, not thy virtue.” Or something like that.
Sara shivered. Cold crept in fast up here. She tried not to think about it, what that meant for Alice Dobbs. Sweat freezing as she ran through the dark, charging for the edge of the cliff.
Gene said, “Get in the shot.”
Gene motioned, “Get in the shot. It’ll set the two apart.”
Sara headed over. She stood facing him, wondering if she stood right where Alice Dobbs ran. She could almost imagine the young woman running through here to the point she saw a figure creeping through the woods.
She called out, “Hello?”
Pausing, Gene followed her eyes. Turning around he peered into the woods, “What’dja see?”
Sara narrowed her eyes, and saw the creeping shape dissolve. Shadows drifting in the sunset, she figured. Nothing else made sense.
Shaking off the moment she said, “Nothing. Let’s just do this, and head out.”
Seated in a booth at the Blue Angel diner, Sara went over her plan for the next few days. She wanted to get an early start tomorrow morning, so they could retrace Alice Dobbs flight through the forest. She spread out a small map with a red line marking a course. Gene half listened as he uploaded the photos from his digital camera to his laptop. He didn’t know Sara Branch very well, but he suspected that if he killed himself tonight, she would still, somehow, make him march through the woods getting the pictures she wanted. Besides the fact her check cleared, he respected that about her.
A waitress came by to refresh their coffee. Sarah folded the map shut. The waitress smiled.
Waving the sight off, “You don’t have to hide that honey. You’re the college kids come up for the spooks.”
“We’re not in college,” Sara corrected.
The smiling waitress stared down, her eyes so wide she didn’t seem to have lids. Chewing a stick of gum like a cow she said, “Well, I heard y’all in college.”
“No ma’am,” Gene said, “Just professionals on the job.”
Slow blink, “Really?”
Sara stuffed the map into her backpack, “I write books about local folklore. He’s a photographer…”
“Talented photographer,” Gene interjected.
“I’ll bet you are.” The waitress touched his shoulder with her fingertips.
Sara rolled her eyes, “Anyway, creepy history sells, so here I am.”
“Here we are,” Gene said.
Snapping her gum the waitress said, “Well, best of luck to you. Here’s hoping you don’t end up like Bill Hadyn.” She started walking away.
Sara called after her, “The Bill Hadyn who supposedly killed himself?”
The waitress paused. She turned. Hand on her hip as she shook her head, “Doesn’t that beat all.” Without turning she spoke to the late night regulars at the diner counter, “Hey Mitch.”
Mitch, a scarecrow come to life in flannel and jeans, glanced over, “Whatcha need Cassie?”
“These are those two college kids, well they ain’t college kids, but these are the two. They heard of Bill Hadyn.”
Sauntering over, Mitch spun a chair about face. Taking a seat opposite the booth he said, “Then you must know about Raymond Carlyle.”
Sara pulled a stack of papers out of her backpack, “Died December 5th, 1792. Causes unknown, although the hole in his chest where his heart should’ve been seems a solid indication.”
Mitch cocked an eyebrow, “Maggie Greer?”
“Maggie and her five children disappeared in May 1960, and were found frozen to death in the woods three years later.”
Leaning back Mitch whistled, “So far so good. Neil…”
Sara cut in, “Neil Bremen. Went to bed with his wife, August 8th, 1921. When she woke up the next morning all she found was his hand.” Mitch opened his mouth, but Sara, pushing the papers toward him, went on, “The Folsom twins, Lily and Lisa, found hanging in the town square, 1980. Some reports even claiming there was no rope involved. Mortimer Thompson, Lynn Davis, Mary-Ann Woolcot; the Missing Motorist, whose car was found covered in blood. Should I go on?”
“You can go on?” Gene said.
Mitch whistled, “My oh my, you know your stuff. Thought I was gonna have some fun here.”
“Sorry to spoil things,” Sara said, though her tone sounded anything but apologetic. The cliché exists for a reason. In every town there is that one master of the macabre, the owner of every dark tale, who, for whatever reason, can’t resist spreading the twisted stories. They almost revel in reliving a town’s hideous past: what makes it unique and ashamed.
Leafing through Sara’s stack Gene asked, “How many people have died in this town?”
Mitch promptly declared, “33, at least, that many are connected, some way or another, to what got Alice Dobbs.”
Sara said, “I’m sorry. Nothing got Alice Dobbs. She jumped off a cliff.”
Standing up Mitch shrugged, “Something sure did chase her off, alls I’m sayin’.” He stepped away, hands in the air. On his way back to the counter, he hooked an arm around Cassie the waitress. He whispered in her ear. She laughed, and Sara wondered what Mitch said.
Gene said, “I was under the impression we’re here to investigate one death.”
Picking at her club sandwich Sara said, “Look, I didn’t think it mattered. I didn’t see how you needed all the details in order to do your end of the job.”
“Okay, I can see that, but I would like to’ve known. That Alice story is freaky enough – 33 people?”
Sara said, “Alice was a troubled young woman who jumped off a cliff. People in town didn’t want to accept that, so a story developed about a murderous ghost in the woods; a specter who became the scapegoat for every tragedy no one wanted to accept. The Folsom twins were fourteen when they hung themselves.”
Stirring cream into his coffee, “That’s really young.”
“But not unheard of.”
Something in Sara’s tone inspired Gene to change the subject, “So what really happened to Alice Dobbs?”
PART 2: ALICE DOBBS