After taking an unofficial tour of the surrounding locale we had pulled up to Virginia’s Bed and Breakfast.
Hirsch, my driver/butler/bodyguard got out of the car and began to remove our luggage from the trunk. Upon hiring him I had immediately decided that I would not have him doing things for me that I can easily manage for myself. It seemed degrading somehow. As such him not opening the car door for me was not unusual.
While Hirsch was gathering our things I went inside the B&B to check in. I couldn’t help but notice that the slightest edge of disrepair had started to creep into the place. This isn’t all that surprising considering that this area had developed a frightening reputation for disappearances and the occasional gruesome discovery of bloodied personal property or clothing. On several occasions the odd finger or some such would be found and reported to the local sheriff’s office, though subsequent investigations would invariably yield very little. Once there was a DNA match, but it was to a previously discovered piece of clothing whose owner could not be identified, thus another dead end.
So what was once a fair source of tourism revenue had become much much less. Even those Mystery Hunter types who sought to investigate had seemingly moved on to more profitable places that were more firmly planted within the public consciousness. After fewer and fewer disappearances and horrific discoveries over the last ten years or so that particular interest in the area had waned. What was interesting was that as the rumors, myths, and theories about the locale had faded its reputation never truly recovered. All that remained was a shrinking community that had become jaded toward outsiders.
None of that seemed to dampen the spirits of the girl who greeted me at the check-in counter.
“Hi, I’m Jessica. Welcome to Virginia’s B&B. I take it you’re Ms. Alexis McNab?”
“Good guess,” I replied. “I’ll just bet that you have two rooms ready for me.”
Jessica gave a little giggle and admitted, “It wasn’t much of a guess. Yours is the only reservation on the books. And yes, your rooms are ready.”
Hirsch entered during this exchange with a suitcase in each hand and his “kit” strapped across his back in a medium sized duffle bag. Hirsch never went anywhere without his “kit.” Having ‘bodyguard’ as part of his job description, it made sense that he would maintain a state of preparedness, even though it was seldom necessary.
“Just need you both to sign the ledger and here are your room keys,” Jessica said.
Then from inside a small office behind the counter came a cranky, older woman’s voice, “Tell them about the woods!”
“I’m just getting to that, mom,” Jessica responded half over her shoulder.
I gave Jessica a look with a cocked eyebrow because, knowing what I do about the mysteries surrounding the area, now I knew that I’d be getting my hands on my first bit of real local knowledge even if it was second-hand.
Jessica noticed my expression and went into what seemed like an often repeated statement.
“There’s a road about halfway through town that heads over the foothills and eventually up to an old campground and a lake. It’s called Higgins Road. Don’t go up that way. There have been a lot of disappearances over the years and they all seem to be related to that area. Even though most people come back in one piece we feel it’s better not to take the risk.
“There’s also a lot of interconnected hiking trails in the area. There’s one trail marked as 2E03. It intersects the trail network at only one spot. If you see this maker turn back.”
I took a wild stab in the dark, “The disappearances again?”
Nodding Jessica replied, “Yup. That trail is clearly marked. Mom goes out when we have guests to make sure the marker is in good repair and very visible. She even hung a chain with a NO TRESPASSING sign to make sure you can’t miss it.”
I had sent Hirsch to put our luggage in our rooms, giving him a look that let him know that I was going to remain here to see if I could get some more information. When I turned back to inquire I could see that Jessica's mother was now standing in the doorway to the office looking at us.
I immediately looked from one to the other. They were nearly identical, but the differences spoke volumes. Where Jessica’s hair was a deep brown, Her mother’s hair seemed prematurely grey. I say prematurely because her mother didn’t look old enough to be going grey by any stretch of the imagination. She also wore glasses where Jessica did not.
Her posture was different, too. Jessica seemed far more at ease. Comfortable with her surroundings, I’d say. Her mother, though, was ready for… Something. Plus, while Jessica’s eyes were relaxed and even betrayed a bit of a whimsical quality, her mother’s eyes were intent as though they were constantly on the lookout for whatever threat may present itself. I got an impression of paranoia, but a paranoia that was well earned.
“I’m Virginia,” she said by way of introduction before I could say anything myself. “This is my place. I know I come off as the local Crazy Lady and I don’t care. There’s something out there. Don’t take it lightly.”
Virginia didn’t strike me as crazy at all. I’d seen my share of crazy in the world and this wasn’t that. It was clear to me that she was confronted by something and was now on the other side. I knew that as far as she was concerned she was performing a public service.
I extended a hand and said, “Hi, I’m Alexis.”
Virginia took the hand I offered and shook it. So she was stern, but not rude.
As she let go of my hand her face changed from serious to resigned as she said, “You're going out there aren't you.” It wasn’t a question. Somehow Virginia just knew.
Before I could reply she said, “Wait here,” and returned to her office. I could hear that she had opened a cabinet to retrieve something then she seemed to make a note of something at her desk. When she emerged from her office she handed me a lanyard with a kind of fob with an on/off switch.
“Here, take this,” she said. “I can’t stop you from going out there, God knows I’ve tried before, but I can damn well try to make it easy for the search parties to find what’s left. If you get into trouble turn this on. It’s a GPS tracker.”
I have to admit that I was quite impressed with Virginia. It’s a bit of a rare thing to experience such a level of vigilance mixed with resignation. I imagine that she had a variety of weapons within reach no matter where she went. This was a woman who knew she may be victimized, but she most certainly was not going to let an assailant have an easy time about it. I liked her instantly.
Then Virginia made her way back to her office saying, “If you're hungry our kitchen is already closed for the night. It closes at 7:00. There’s a cafe in town that closes at 10:00, so you’ve got about an hour-and-a-half if you want to eat.”
Since that conversation was obviously over for the time being I turned to Jessica and said, “Well, I guess I’d better get unpacked then go get something to eat.”
Jessica smiled almost apologetically and said, “Okay, catch you later.”
I almost felt sorry for Jessica. Not for being raised by “The Crazy Lady,” mind you, because Virginia was anything but crazy. Because Jessica was still young, however, she lacked the experience to recognize that there was much about Virginia’s experience that she was trying to protect Jessica from.
I made my way up to the second floor noticing along the way that there was only one other guest in the B&B. He was an older gentleman, probably in his fifties, sitting in a common area with a laptop. His attention was very focused on whatever he was doing so I decided to leave him be.
At the top of the stairs I could see Hirsch standing guard in the hallway. I had never before met someone whose switch was always in the “on” position. Even Virginia couldn’t match Hirsch on this score. I don’t know how he did it. I’d get bored in short order.
As I approached he quietly said, “Everything is as secure as I can make it. Your room is at the end of the hall near the common restroom and shower. Mine is between yours and the other two rental rooms, which are empty. The proprietor and her daughter have rooms downstairs through the office.”
How Hirsch knew that so soon was typical of him being a trained observer. I had a hunch, though, that he scoped the exterior of the building while I was checking in and made some logical deductions.
“I assume you want to hit the local cafe,” Hirsch inquired.
“I do,” I replied.
“Shall I join you? We could take the Chairman of the Board approach, or perhaps a Circumnavigate.”
“I was thinking a Norma Jean would get better results. You know, a small town calls for a more personable touch.”
“Very well. Is there anything you’d like me to do in the meantime?”
“Nothing specific,” I said. “Just pay your usual attention and let me know of anything noteworthy when I return in the morning.”
Hirsch asked, “Planning on an all-nighter, then?”
“Not especially, but I have a feeling that I should keep my options open since things that happen in the dead of night tend to be extremely informative,” I said. “Would you like me to bring anything from the cafe before morning?”
Hirsch waved off the suggestion. “Not necessary at all. I have MRE’s in my kit. I’ll be fine.”
With a sideways grin I said, “I should have known. Alright, then, I’ll go change and head out. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Slipping into Buttler Mode Hirsch said, “Good night, ma’am,” and entered his room.
I traversed the hall to my own room. Inside I saw that Hirsch had left my suitcase on a bench at the foot of the bed. Like the rest of the B&B the decor was showing that faint edge of decay. Still, the place was rather homey.
I opened my suitcase and chose an outfit that was simple. A pair of jeans, a flannel top, and a down vest for an extra bit of warmth. Topped off with a pair of new hiking boots I successfully presented the appearance of someone who never went on such adventures, but wanted to look like she knew what she was doing. As a final touch I pulled my hair back into a ponytail.
I soon left the B&B and headed into town.
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