Small Town Secrets
rating: +11+x

Previously: Department C

"I think it goes without saying," I said as Marcie finished her tale, "That I never did any of the things she said. But that's…that's creepy, Marcie. That's not normal."

"Certainly not. But with as much as the Bartlett Trust is worth, and what with their head being in my building, I couldn't take the chance and I didn't have time to sort out who might or might not be on the Trust's payroll."

"You don't think she might have been bluffing about that?"

"I don't want to take the chance that she isn't."

I shrugged. "Fair. So what are we looking for, exactly?"

We were in a district court conference room, two large cardboard boxes open next to us and filled with papers. The box read <u>The Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Robertson</u> in large letters, and Marcie had settled herself down in a chair to begin sorting. "Right now, I am hoping for statements from Robertson himself."

My phone buzzed: it was LaChiara. Are you around? Didn't see your car parked anywhere in town.

Marcie saw the name on the phone and raised her eyebrow. I swiped the phone open and replied in full view. In Florence, seeing the sights, I lied. Probably back this evening.

Good. Dinner maybe?

I looked up at Marcie. "You think this is all an act? It's gotta be, right?"

She nodded slowly. "We'll assume it is until proven otherwise. But if it's not…we might be able to get information out of her. Once we know what information we need, that is."

We spent an hour looking through statements and filings, not finding much along the interesting variety. Finally, I spotted something on a long page of questions. "Hey, check this out. It's a deposition."

"In a criminal case?" She tilted her head curiously.

"No, it looks like it's from a civil case, but it was entered into evidence for the criminal one. There's no information on the civil case except that it's—oh jeez. The Bartlett Trust v Robertson."

"Is there a date?"

"Yeah. About two months before Robertson's breakdown. Want to hear it?"

Marcie nodded and checked her phone's notifications. "Go ahead. Read it out."

Q. What kind of training did you get at the Academy?

A. Academy?

Q. Yes, the um. The police academy.

A. Didn't go to no academy.

Q. You had no training as a police officer?

A. No, I had, uh, training. I just didn't go to academy anywhere.

Q. Where did you train? On the job?

A. Yeah. Woolper trains. It's about 180 hours.

Q. What does that training — Does it entail understanding the town layout?

A. What do you mean?

Q. As part of Woolper's training, does it require that you learn the layout of the town?

A. Well, yeah, sort of.

Q. And do you recall — I'll rephrase this. Is there anywhere in particular that you remember receiving specific instructions regarding, vis a vis permission to patrol?

A. What do you mean?

Q. Was there a specific place or places you were told not to patrol?

A. I don't recall.

Q. Was there a specific place that you decided, on your own, not to patrol?

A. Well, sort of.

Q. Can you be specific?

A. Well, I didn't like going to the greenhouse.

LaChiara, as if on cue, texted me again. Can you meet me this evening near the greenhouse? I have some information you could use.

"Stupid greenhouse," I grumbled. "Everyone's on about the stupid greenhouse."

"What about it?" Marcie sent another text and another email. Her multitasking game was something to behold.

"Supposedly they have some interesting and exotic snapdragons. Literally everyone keeps telling me it's the place to visit."

"Did they?" Marcie pulled her attention from her phone. "Have you gone yet?"

"No. Not very interested, and I have weird allergies."

Her eyes drifted off to the side, as though she was processing some kind of new information. "Alright. Anyway. Keep reading."

Q. When was the last time you visited the greenhouse?

A. I don't recall.

Q. You have visited it, though, yes?

A. I don't recall. I mean — I would venture to say yes, probably.

Q. Can you be more specific?

A. No. I mean, it's likely that I've visited it, but I don't recall ever doing so.

Q. Why is it likely that you've visited it?

A. Well, most people do. I've probably been called there at least once in my time on the force.

Q. But you don't recall, specifically?

A. No.

Q. Why do you avoid the greenhouse?

A. I don't — I don't — um — I don't like this line of questioning.

Q. Why is that?

A. It's makes him uncomfortable.

Q. Who?

A. [unintelligible]

Q. Where did you meet him?




It's a perfectly valid question. But I'll withdraw it.

Q. On the day in question, where were you?

"That's it." I set the paper down. "Ms. Smith…no chance that it's a relation to Antoinette Smith down at Department C?"

"Maybe." Marcie had opened up Wikipedia and was scrolling through an article. "I don't know if she's an attorney. Could check the Bar association. Not sure why it was included in evidence here."

"Evidence of mental instability? The man got angry talking about a greenhouse. And then at the hospital…Wait." I read over the transcript again. "'It makes him uncomfortable.' I heard Robertson say something kind of similar when I met him. He said a name and I completely forgot to look it up. Oh, I'm so stupid…" I pored through my notebook. "Biyali."

Marcie raised a heavily-penciled eyebrow. "Who's that?"

"The person Robertson's afraid of. Let's see what we can find. Here…" I spent a few long minutes poring through google results, but apparently Biyali was not only a popular screen name, but also the name of several products and a few random web sites. I dared to delve into page 2 and 3, and then something caught my eye on Wikipedia. "Huh. Interesting."

Marcie looked up from her paperwork again. "What?"

"Svetovid, sometimes called Bali or Biyali, is a Slavic deity of war and the local Ruvian variant of the pan-Slavic god Perun. Svetovid is associated with war and divination and depicted as a four-headed god with two heads looking forward and two back. A statue portraying the god shows him with four heads, each one looking in a separate direction, a symbolical representation of the four directions of the compass, and also perhaps the four seasons of the year. He is often depicted by…" I swallowed hard enough that Marcie twisted in her chair to try and see around the monitor. "…depictions of his fertility often include the colors of snapdragons."

Marcie rolled her eyes. "Very dramatic. But how is it relevant? Other than the fact that the mysterious greenhouse has snapdragons on it?"

I tapped my fingers impatiently. "Bartlett wanted to build a statue to some pagan god as part of the Trust. I bet it was to this Svetovid dude. Bartlett was obsessed with the occult. Isn't it possible he—"

"Formed an influential cult of personality around an ancient Slavic god?" She sounded intrigued at the possibility.

Of course, I was actually going to say put a curse on the town, but I nodded and bit my tongue—her explanation was at least slightly feasible. "Yeah. But I had no idea what its goal might be."

Marcie made an impatient noise from the back of her throat. "I don't really want to suggest this, Kyle, but I think you might want to consider actually going to see LaChiara at the greenhouse."

I coughed as I choked on some coffee. "Wait, what? Why? We don't know if we can trust her."

"We certainly cannot trust her; all the more reason to go into it knowing she's got an agenda."

"There's no way she //won't //know we're onto her. She is being rather obviously suspicious. And she works for Department C, which makes her doubly suspicious."

Marcie closed her phone and started packing papers back. "Agreed. But we need some answers. Only the Town Council has them, and LaChiara works for someone on the council. And we don't have many other leads, now do we?"

We picked up the boxes and headed out into the corridor to return them to the archives desk. On our way, we passed Judge Hopple's office and saw the door was open. Marcie peeked her head inside, presumably to say thanks, and then froze. She dropped her box and rushed behind the desk. I dropped mine too and followed.

Judge Hopple was on the floor, convulsing madly. "No! Not me! Leave me alone!" she cried in a hoarse whisper.

"Someone call 911!" I shouted out the hallway. Someone from security rushed over, took a glance at the scene, and dashed away, hopefully to find help.

Judge Hopple started to choke and sputter. Marcie knelt down beside her with urgency, trying to get vitals and find a source of the issue. Hopple pushed her away. "No! It hurts! Please! Stop!"

"What hurts, Judge Hopple? It's me. Marcie Teeter. Stay with me, please. It's going to be Okay."

"No! It hurts!" the judge bawled, lashing out with her curled fingers like claws.

"Breathe, Judge Hopple. Deep breaths."

"Please…" she had a sudden look of clarity over her face, and she fixed Marcie with a deep, desperate gaze. "Please, just kill me. I want to die."

Then she collapsed, unconscious.

I do not like hospitals in the slightest. They are stale, clinical, cold places where every surface is a battleground against the unseen enemy of disease. Where the benefits to the ailing always trump the most basic comforts anywhere. The air always smells sickly with medicine, like a pharmaceutical perfume department.

It was at one such hospital that Marcie and I found ourselves in a waiting room, moving from vinyl chair to vinyl chair like a very slow game of musical chairs. Marcie tapped away at her phone in a flurry of action. I sat and typed on my laptop.

The Media were somehow kept blissfully ignorant for the moment; the district court's PR department had been flagged in a flurry of media planning that was exceptionally, and almost artistically, efficient. Judge Hopple's family was notified of her condition as she had been transported to the Northern Kentucky hospital which I cannot name here. I was, for some reason, allowed to come along.

"Dr. Teeter?" A nurse appeared in the waiting room doorway. "You came in with Judge Hopple?"

"I did." Marcie rose from the chair. "How is she doing?"

"She's stable, but unconscious. But we need to talk about some lab results I am hoping you can shed some light on." Marcie nodded, and we started to follow, but the nurse stopped and looked at me. She cleared her throat.

Marcie raised an eyebrow. "Is there an issue?"

The nurse shrugged slightly. "There is a media gag right now. I don't think we can—"

"Mr. Lampert is working for me as a consultant."

The nurse apparently didn't want to argue. "Alright, but if there's trouble it's your problem, doctor."

"It's already my problem, ma'am. If you wouldn't mind…?"

I cannot go into great detail, of course, about the conversation which followed. However, the general summary is this: the Judge was found to have an unknown substance in her bloodwork, and toxicology was working on isolating what exactly it was.

Marcie and I left without much further event and sat in the car for a long time deciding our next move. The two options, which we debated over for a short time, were pretty well-established: either head back to Woolper and try to squeeze some information out of LaChiara or leave town and forget everything ever happened. Neither option gave us a particularly happy feeling.

We decided to compromise in the end. We would meet up with LaChiara, see if we could get any information from her, and if not, we would leave town immediately and never look back.

Marcie concerned me in this decision. I could see that the prospect of a wholly lose-lose situation was troubling her, but she was a leader at many different organizational levels of many different important places and had surely dealt with worse situations than this. Her infallibly cool demeanor seemed to have faltered here, as she seemed to recognize that, perhaps, she was partially to blame for the horrors affecting Woolper. How that might be the case, though, we hadn't yet discovered.

I texted LaChiara. Able to meet you. Where?

Greenhouse? I was wholly unsurprised by her response.

I had passed Woolper Greenhouse a few times in the past couple of days without really noticing it, I had determined as I pulled the car up to the small parking lot in front of the building. It was situated right next to the creek, its glass-domed top glittering a bit—but not much, since it had long been covered in dirt and grime over years of non-cleaning.

For being the "jewel of the city" and the "best place in town", I was rather unimpressed by it. It almost had an abandoned air that accompanies a condemned building that was once an extravagant business or mansion.

I had dropped Marcie off before coming back into town. I don't know if it was the fact that she had grown tired of empty cans rolling around in the floorboards next to her 6000-dollar shoes, or if she had made some kind of backup plan in case of disaster (I suspect a little of both), but she had insisted on stopping by a rental facility in Florence to get a different car, and that we should arrive in town separately. I was therefore terribly nervous as I pulled my station wagon into the parking lot and killed the engine.

The day was starting to fade, but not nearly quickly enough for it to dramatically have fallen to night-time. In fact, there was so much sunlight that I almost laughed to myself about how the sun seemed to be keeping all of the Barker-esque horror novel vibes at bay. If LaChiara had something planned, it would definitely be strange to do it in the middle of the day.

The front door of the greenhouse was a faded greenish-grey, with a piece of paper stapled to it that had been bleached blank by the sun. I looked at it a few minutes, trying to discern even the slightest bit of text, but it was impossible.

"Mr. Lampert." I spun, and there was LaChiara, a goofy grin fixed on her face. "Come on inside, let's talk." She pulled the greenhouse door open and ushered me inside.

Within, I found myself in a single magnificent room, with stone walls forming a great circle. They stretched upward thirty feet and then bloomed into the rising glass dome visible from the outside. Along the walls, rows of high-tech UV lights were set at certain intervals, and strings of grow lamps hung across the open ceiling on strong steel cords.

Despite the unquestionably sophisticated setup, the foliage in the greenhouse was far less astounding. Rows and rows of pots, arranged with a meticulous certainty, filled the room in a spiraling shape that branched outward from the center, where a single pillar stood surrounded by more UV sconces. Each of these pots bore the same plant—a straight, flowery pink piece of flora with yellow pollen.

LaChiara closed the door behind her. "Nice, isn't it?"

I raised my eyebrows, taking the room in slowly and trying to look as fully impressed as I could muster. In reality I was scanning for additional exits: there were none. "Those must be the snapdragons I've heard so much about, huh?"

LaChiara walked over to a pot and reached out to stroke it gently with a finger. But it was more than just the way one might normally touch a flower—it was…it was lewd. The way her thumb rubbed across the flower's petal was the soft caress of a fingertip along a pool of soft flesh, and while the touch was brief, I felt an internal cringe at the sheer wrongness of it. "Yeah. We have so many of them. And they're really, really soft—come here, check it out."

I sighed. "You said you had some information. I'm sorry, LaChiara, I'm on a time crunch—"


I shook my head. "No. Not Tia. I'm sorry if I've given you any kind of…inappropriate signals or anything, but I'm really only here for work. I am really flattered though."

She plucked a snapdragon from its stem and slowly turned to me, looking rather thoughtful. "I see. Maybe I'm just a small-town girl turned on by an outsider with a nice smile." Her voice was silk.

I put up my hands. "Again, flattered. But I'm really not—"

She cleared the distance between us and pressed her lips on mine faster than I could react. While I took a moment to recalibrate, her arms were around me and her tongue was halfway inside my mouth. I struggled against the unwanted attention, trying to extricate my arms from hers.

Her tongue tasted bitter in my mouth.

I panicked, finally succeeding in getting one arm free enough to force it against her shoulder and push her backward. She lost her balance as she tried to hold onto the front of my shirt and tried to regain her footing. Maybe she hoped I would try and catch her.

I recall, with perfect clarity, that moment as she spilled backward, her head and then her shoulder landing with a sickening sound like an eight-ball landing in a bowl of dry corn flakes, slammed against the stone side of the snapdragon pots. She listed to the side, landing on her left arm and laying there, limply, her head gashed open and spilling shades of auburn out onto the wet concrete floor.

I stumbled backward, my eyes starting to water as a feeling of burning heat crossed them. I was having trouble walking. I tried to get to the door.

The pain was sudden, and intense. It began at my tongue, and then shot down my throat, coating my esophagus like still-too-hot soup. It hit my stomach with the intensity of a nuclear warhead, causing me to suddenly convulse and drop to my knees.

The next few minutes are a blur of pain and heat and movement. I probably screamed a few times, but the sound was drowned out by a dull ringing in my head that drowned out everything else.

The next thing I knew, a pair of hands were on my neck. I tried to resist, but the feeling still hadn't completely returned to my limbs, and I think I simply flopped like a fish to try and scoot away. As my vision cleared, I saw a familiar shape—a familiar face—emerging from the darkness where my brain used to be. The face was yelling at me, begging me to wake up. But I couldn't. I could only tell myself that this pain was going to go on forever, and I would do anything to make it stop.

Marcie explained to me later what had happened to her. She had headed out to my hotel room, armed with the spare copy of my key, with the intent of packing my stuff away in preparation of the imminent calamity. She had spent the entire drive from Florence to Woolper on a conference call with her attorney, several project managers, and some other people with high levels of influence that I can only imagine the immensity of the tasks she must have done for them in the past to warrant the last minute "you owe me" conversation that ensued.

By the time she arrived at the hotel, the sun was minutes from hitting the horizon. Under the fiery twilight sky, she dashed to the hotel room door, grabbing my laptop and a few other personal effects she knew I needed. She didn't bother with the clothes in the closet or anything that wasn't incredibly replaceable. Her goal was to get in, grab things, and get out fast.

But she wasn't fast enough.

She had turned to the door with my laptop bag over one shoulder and a paper bookstore bag with my other effects in the opposite hand when it exploded open with the glare of lights. Marcie stepped backward, blinking in the sudden blaze while several heavily-armed officers entered the room, side arms drawn and pointed. They were shouting commands,

Marcie put her hands up slowly. "What is this?" she said clearly, trying to discern a face among the mass of flashlights bombarding her eyes.

"Drop the bags," came a cool and collected female voice.

Marcie did so, slowly, still trying to get a better understanding of who exactly was here and issuing these commands. She had a good idea. "Director Smith, right?" Marcie guessed.

"Yes. And you must be the internationally-renowned Dr. Teeter."

"You know exactly who I am. Don't play stupid." Marcie refused to let the maniacal self-importance of a municipal officer bother her. As far as she was concerned, everything was related to a massive cover-up of an ongoing mental health issue, the source of which lie within the borders of Woolper proper.

"Yes, I know who you are. And I am not appreciative of you being here."

"You hired me," Marcie reminded her. "It was your Town Council's idea to have me or my people come here. I'm honestly not even sure why, since it seems like your town hates outsiders."

"Hates?" Smith tilted her head, in a way that seemed almost unnatural. "No, of course not. We love outsiders. We need outsiders." The way she said need sent a chill down Marcie's spine. "Cuff her."

"Oh, are you the chief of police now?" Marcie sneered.

What happened next is something Marcie has issues describing in detail, even to this day. As the figure that had Smith's voice stepped forward, in front of the lights of the flashlights, it was clear that it was not Smith at all. It was Chief Ryder.

"Yes," Ryder said. "I am the chief of police. And you are under arrest."

Marcie made an unintelligible sound, trying to wrap her head around what she had just seen with her very own eyes, but before she could sputter out a response, a black bag was thrown over her head—how had someone gotten behind her?—and she was being cuffed and carried. She was quickly thrown in the back of a van, by now kicking and screaming, and then the van was moving, and she took some deep breaths from inside the hood, trying to focus on the way the van was turning and moving. For all her cleverness and incomparable skill, she quickly lost track of which way she was facing, and as the van came to a stop a few minutes later she wasn't entirely sure where she was—but she had a creeping suspicion.

I blinked hard, but spots of light kept dancing in front of my eyes. My whole skin felt numb, and I was reminded of a time I had tried one of those sensory-deprivation chambers where a person floats in highly saline water in the dark and is left alone to their own conscious thoughts.

My conscious thoughts were filled with the image of LaChiara with her head split open in the greenhouse. I could still taste the burning sensation of whatever drug she had slipped me in her aggressive kiss, and my mouth felt very dry.

I heard a voice. "Someone there?" It was Marcie, but her voice was muffled.

"M…Mmmmmarcie?" My mouth didn't want to work properly.

"Kyle." Her voice was calm, as though she was addressing me from across a desk. I marveled at how calm she had the ability to be even in the face of all…this.

"I…I think I was…drugged…"

"Yes. And I think I know what it is. I think I know what's going on here, Kyle."

I made a questioning sound without words in what was a half-groan. I still couldn't see a damn thing.

"The snapdragons. I think they're…hallucinogenic."

"I…LaChiara. She—she—" I coughed hard, and I felt snot dribbling from my nose, but I couldn't move my arm to wipe it. "Slipped me something. It hurt. Very…very painful."

Marcie was quiet for a long moment. "I'm…I'm sorry. I think that's part of the drug in the flowers. A product of ingesting the petals or the leaves, maybe. In small doses on the other hand…I bet when they bloom in the spring, they fill the air with this massive hallucinogenic pollen. Affects everyone. Probably affected Bartlett, too, back in his day, since I found out that the rare snapdragons from the greenhouse are from his estate."

I coughed. "So he would probably have…seen things? Heard things?"

I could almost hear her nod curtly. "Which would explain why he was obsessed with the paranormal. He was sure it was real."

I took a few deep breaths. "But what about—"

I was cut short by the squeaking, sharp sound of a metal door opening. "We are ready," said a voice I recognized.

"Dr. Pennington!" I choked out. "Please! Help!" I was lifted roughly to my feet.

"I am going to help you, Mr. Lampert," Pennington said with a deep solemnity to his voice. "I am going to help you become all that you were meant to be."

I couldn't reply. I didn't have the strength or the ability to protest as I was unceremoniously dragged out the door and across more concrete. I was finally set down against a vertical surface and tied there. Someone splashed some water into my eyes and the burning started, slowly, to subside. I felt them set someone down next to me—Marcie. She grumbled under her breath and then gasped as something was removed from her head, and her voice stopped being so muffled.

I blinked again, and the room slowly started to come into view. Marcie and I were lashed to the pillar in the center of the greenhouse. Around us, people from the town were slowly getting into a circle around us, positioning themselves between and around the long stone pots full of the hallucinogenic snapdragons. "What is…What is going on, Marcie?" I hissed.

"I think the council is doing something. I don't know if it's the snapdragons or what, but I bet they use the flowers to keep people in line. Anyone who resists gets a dose of awful pain. And if you don't resist, then you slowly stew here while your brain turns to mush from the hallucinations."

I took a shuddering breath. "And…and why are we here?"

She didn't answer. Instead, she gestured her head towards Pennington, who was now approaching us from the front door of the Greenhouse. "Tia LaChiara is dead," he announced coldly.

I gasped out. "It was an accident—"

"She has been given over to the Other Side, in the loving arms of He Who Shows Us Mercy."

"Mercy," the people around mumbled under their breath. They shifted awkwardly.

"He Who Grants Us Pardon!" Pennington continued, raising his hands. "He Who Forgives Our Sins! He has brought us not one, but two worthy souls to feed his power. And I am his Speaker!"

The people continued to mumble words—"mercy", "pardon", "forgiveness", and other such things—while Pennington began to walk around the pillar. He moved out of my sight to my right, walking clockwise while talking. "We are here to put these people before his Immutable Justice!"

Another voice piped up. It was Adria, the editor of The Woolper Weekly. The Council has been charged with determining if these two are worthy of receiving His Justice and His Forgiveness." Adria walked around my left side, the same way Pennington had been walking. "And The Council has made its decision."

"It's not real," I heard to my left. Marcie was muttering to herself. "It's a hallucination."

"Seems pretty real, Marcie," I said under my breath. I had another coughing fit, then, and when I looked up it was not Adria who was walking around the pedestal. It was Smith.

"The Council," Smith said, stopping in front of us, "Has decided to give you the gift of His Pardon. You shall be cleansed, and your earthly bodies given to the soil to grow the products of His Love."

"The snapdragons," Marcie muttered. "They're burying the bodies in the soil for the snapdragons."

"They'll bury us too," I shuddered. "Unless you have an idea."

Smith tilted her neck back and forth, and I heard an audible crackle of her neck joints. "Let us begin."

I watched, with growing horror, as the snapdragons began to move. All of the flowers started to shake and shiver on their own, the stems starting to pull slowly toward us. Smith took a step forward, but then she was not Smith anymore. She was Chief Ryder. No, she was Pennington. No…

I rolled my head backward, suddenly splitting again with pain. Something was happening. I heaved a great breath, and then coughed, feeling something sticky spit out of the back of my throat and down my lips. I tasted blood.

"It's not real," I heard Marcie say again. But I couldn't agree with her, as a slow chill began to slip upwards from my limb as though I was being dipped into a vat of ice water. I couldn't resist. I couldn't move. I couldn't even scream.

The sound was deafening. In my state, I could barely make out the movement of light as the sound of guns chambering, and of shouting. So much shouting. Then, gunshots—several one after another, following by the sounds of growling and cursing. Things were being tossed to the side, and the whole world reeled.

I realized, as my side hit the concrete, that the reeling had been me, free from the pillar and rolling onto the concrete floor of the greenhouse. I gathered together all of my strength and focus to try and get my bearings, but all I could see was the pillar. I followed it downward with my eyes to see Marcie there, looking very dazed but still lashed to the pillar.

The sight of her seemed to case my world to snap back into place. Suddenly I was on my knees, crawling toward her. I was close, and then I could untie her—

I was caught. I looked back to see a snapdragon plant, sticking out of an upturned stone pot, had latched itself onto me. The plant was moving on its own and had wrapped itself around my ankle. I screamed, thrashing with all my might, and I sent it careening across the floor away from me, where someone with a gun was shouting at someone else.

I turned my attention aback to Marcie. I reached her, and as I reached for her bonds, I saw that she had already untied them on her own. Even in her dazed state she still had a presence of mind that I could only hope to have when completely cognizant. She met my eyes, and despite the bleary look she gave me I could sense that she was still mostly-present.

"We have to get out of here," She said. I needed no further urging.

We crawled, hand over hand, through the din of gunshots and screams. I ducked behind a pot stand and grabbed Marcie, pulling her with me, as another stone cauldron bearing more thrashing snapdragons landed and began convulsing on its own on the floor. Marcie landed practically in my lap and gripped me tight for a second before moving over me and back toward the door. I followed.

The night air was cool, and it stung my skin as soon as it hit me. I gasped, realizing that the greenhouse air had been sticky and perfumed, and the rush of clear air into my lungs brought me further back to reality. I found my feet and clambered into a sort-of standing position. Marcie was ahead of me already, balancing herself on two feet before turning to me. "Can you walk?"

"I think so?"

"Come on then." She took my hand and led me to my station wagon, throwing open the passenger-side door and practically stuffing me inside like luggage. She was in the driver's seat, then, and before I could fasten myself in, she had kicked the car into reverse, and then drive—we were on our way out.

I saw Pennington before Marcie did. He was standing at the bridge between the business side of Woolper—where we were—and the residential side—where the hotel was. He was standing there and looking battered. I could see dark red stains on his shirt that looked like bullet holes. He held up his hands as if to beg us to stop.

Marcie did not stop.

I remember the moment that we hit Dr. Pennington very clearly. For that instant, it was as if I was looking at more than just Pennington at all—there was more there. I saw Smith. Ryder. Adria. Other people who I had not met. All of them in that instant were standing there and filled with different levels of rage and humiliation and fear. All of them, at once, were plowed under the horsepower of my station wagon as we crossed the bridge to the other side.

Then, I blacked out.

The Cincinnatian Hotel is situated on Vine Street in Cincinnati, just across the river from Northern Kentucky and a mere 30 minutes from Woolper. Originally built in 1882, it has been through several lifetimes of renovations and re-openings over the course of its grand history, and now it remains a lovely marvel of several ages, with beautiful deco that attracts the eye and emanates a presence of calm and class.

I awoke to the hum of cars going by outside my window, and the bleak streak of light dancing across the ceiling from headlights and flashing signs. I blinked, reaching up to rub my eyes and found them wet but also itchy and irritated.

I floundered out of bed and through a doorway into an expansive—and expensive—suite with tall, pristine windows overlooking Vine and 6<sup>th</sup> Street, and as I shook myself a little bit, I caught sight of the bathroom, which I quickly made my way to. The sink was a white marble with gleaming silver taps, but I didn't even take a moment to appreciate them before slamming the water on and splashing it on my face and eyes. Dirty, dark water streamed down my face and dribbled into the sink.

Knock knock. //I spun and found Marcie, in a neat and freshly-pressed suit, leaning in my bathroom doorway. "I thought I heard you get up." I caught my breath, trying to formulate words and finding them turning into coughs. My head was reeling. Marcie seemed to understand that I wasn't much in the way of speaking right now, and she continued, a dark glower falling over her face. "You've been out for most of the night. It's almost 4am. I've been checking on you and I was worried that the snapdragon polled might have been causing you some kind of respiratory distress. But you seem to be mostly alright." She looked me up and down, her lips flattening into a thin grimace as if to say //well…on the outside, anyway.

I finally found words. "What…what happened?"

"Hallucinations, I expect, from the snapdragon pollen. That, combined with the town of Woolper apparently having an unprecedented case of mass hysteria and delusion, led to us almost getting sacrificed to a god or something."

"So it wasn't real?" It had felt so real. I couldn't dismiss the images of the snapdragons all dancing and moving on their own. I couldn't get my brain to parse the shifting face of Pennington, or Ryder, or Smith, of whoever it was. "Smith—the whole thing about being the speaker—"

"Kyle." I shut up immediately. "I'm not going to sit here and debate the paranormal with you. I called on some backup and they showed up right before both of us almost died. I've set up most of this hotel as a mobile research station and we're working on the details but there is absolutely nothing supernatural going on here."

I coughed again over the sink, and rust-colored spittle landed on the fine white marble. "Fine. Alright. Hallucinations."

Her hand was suddenly on my shoulder. "I'm sorry I dragged you into this, okay? I didn't know…I didn't expect any of this to—"

"I don't think anyone could have predicted all of what we've been through," I said with a chuckle that, again, turned into another nasty cough. "But I appreciate it. I should probably call my editor…"

"Shower first. Probably more sleep. Woolper isn't going anywhere."

Woolper was gone the next day.

Marcie and I stood there, on the bridge that crosses Woolper Creek, completely dumbfounded. The town, most of the roads, the buildings, even the Olive Garden…it was all gone. But not just gone.

When you raze a building it leaves evidence. You end up with chunks of foundation. Piles of debris. Concrete dust. But none of that was here. In fact, with the foliage and the cut of the hills in the area, it was impossible to say that a town had been here at all.

"This isn't possible," I said to Marcie, turning and leaning against the side of the bridge.

She just shook her head. I could tell she was digging around in her head for an explanation. A whole town couldn't just vanish overnight. There were records. Witnesses.

But it had. My laptop had been busted in the tousle, so I tried to dig up some of my research after the fact—but it, too, was gone. Records of people places, things—all of it was wiped from every database. The town, effectively, had not existed.

Marcie's explanation for the happenings was pretty simple: hallucinogenic pollen had been slowly and surely altering the brain chemistry of the people of Woolper for some time. Every time they went in or near that stupid greenhouse it triggered some low-level chemical reactions that, in time, caused some manner of psychosis to develop across the town's population. The Town Council must have known about this. They tried to keep it a secret. They tried to even find a solution, maybe, without alerting the authorities. Hence: hiring Marcie's company. But when that backfired with Robertson, it became cover-up after cover-up.

As for the missing town? She remained silent on the issue but insisted it was explainable.

It was nowhere near a perfect explanation and it left a lot of questions. My explanation was a little more out-there, and I didn't let Marcie know for fear that she would literally ice me over with a cold glare.

I am convinced that Anthony Bartlett awoke something in the Town of Woolper, and that upon his death he made sure that there would be someone there tasked with fighting whatever it was. I am convinced that his efforts were too little, too late. And I am convinced that something dark and powerful took control of that town and demanded that they spill the blood of outsiders to maintain its power.

I can only hope it died out there.

I never returned to Woolper after that. I occasionally look it up online—not the town, since there's no more record of the town—but the area. The creek is still there, in its weird S-shape. The bridges are still there. But the town is gone, save for a few houses with occupants who had never heard of Woolper, Bartlett, or the Bartlett Trust.

Marcie was angry. It all defied explanation and, to her exceptionally-calm-and-logical brain, it was an affront to her very core. But there it was. And Marcie, for one, needed answers.

"Carla." Marcie was standing in Carla's office doorway. Carla didn't know how she had gotten past the front desk, but at that moment there was little time for reflection. Carla was in the middle of packing files away in boxes and looked so thoroughly disheveled that Marcie almost didn't recognize her. Her face was smeared with mascara and her clothes wrinkled.

"Marcie?" Carla looked at her, wide-eyed. "Please, close the door. We need to talk."

Marcie closed the door gently. "Yes, we do. What happened to the town?"

"Gone!" Carla snapped. "Gone. Everyone in it, everything. All gone. And it's all your fault."

"My fault?" Marcie furrowed her brow. "What do you know about what happened to me and Mr. Lampert? What do you know about the snapdragons and the greenhouse?"

Carla's shoulders dropped. "I know everything, Marcie. I know everything."

"Then I need you to tell me, Carla. What happened out there?"

Carla slowly turned. Tears were streaming down her face. "I can't say anything, Marcie. I just can't. Or they will kill me."

"Who?" Marcie's heart jumped in her chest. "Smith? Pennington? The Council?"

Carla nodded. "But they're all the same…thing."

"What do you mean?" Marcie took a step forward and then stopped, noticing that Carla's left hand now held a .45 revolver. "…Carla…"

Carla shook her head. "It's him. Biyali."

Marcie nodded slowly. "Biyali. Biyali…um. Who is Biyali?"

"It's Biyali's fertile soil, Marcie. We are all a part of his fertile soil. And we can't…" She looked up, her ears perking as though she could hear some sound that Marcie could not. "Agh! No…I failed him. He told me I might be able to get out of here and live a normal life. But I failed. I'm so stupid." She raised the revolver and pointed it at Marcie.

Marcie slowly raised her hands in a defensive posture. "Carla…I'm on your side. I would really like to talk to you with the gun down. Is that okay?"

"Biyali took Robertson. And he killed your doctor…"

"Dr. Schubert?"

Carla nodded. Her face was shaking. "And he fed off of the blood. But it wasn't enough. The soil needed more. It demanded more."

Marcie took the smallest and gingerest of steps forward. "Carla. You're a lovely, clever woman and I respect you a lot. And I want to help you."

Carla shook her head. "No. No one can help me now. I will feed him with blood."

Marcie didn't have time to react, other than to shout "No!" at the top of her lungs, as Carla put the revolver to her own head and pulled the trigger.

Works Cited

Yambridge, T. L. (1954). Woolper Masonic Lodge History, 1854-1954. Lexington, KY, KY: Grand Lodge of Kentucky, F&AM.

Carter, G. L. (1998). Northern Kentucky, a Historical Perspective, 3rd edn., Louisville: Brown Ford Publishing LTD.

Haberfield, D. E. (2010). Premier Evaluation of Antirrhinum Majus in the Midwest United States. An American Botanical Review, 45(7), 34-39.

Schwarz-Sommer, Z., Huijser, P., Nacken, W., Saedler, H., & Sommer, H. (1990). Genetic control of flower development by homeotic genes in Antirrhinum majus. Science, 250(4983), 931-936.

Sommer, H., Beltran, J. P., Huijser, P., Pape, H., L&ouml;nnig, W. E., Saedler, H., & Schwarz‐Sommer, Z. (1990). Deficiens, a homeotic gene involved in the control of flower morphogenesis in Antirrhinum majus: the protein shows homology to transcription factors. The EMBO Journal, 9(3), 605-613.

Sun, X., Wang, Z., Bi, Y., Wang, Y., & Liu, H. (2015). Genetic and functional characterization of the hyaluronate lyase HylB and the Beta-N-Acetylglucosaminidase HylZ in Streptococcus zooepidemicus. Current microbiology,70(1), 35-42.

Umberton, A. (1972, February). Obituaries. Woolper Weekly [Woolper, KY], p. unknown. (Original Article No Longer Available)

Webster, T. M., Everest, A. M. P. J., Brecke, F. J. F. B., Martin, K. J. G. J., Kelly, L. E. W. S., Griffin, J., … & Murray, O. C. M. D. (2001). Weed survey-Southern states, 2001: Broadleaf crops subsection (Cotton, peanut, soybean, tobacco, and forestry). In Proc. South. Weed Sci. Soc(Vol. 54, pp. 244-259).

About the Author

Kyle Lampert is a journalist based out of Chicago, IL. He was educated through public schools, state institutions, and attributes his success to a grassroots, down-to-earth approach to journalism.

He has previously published several books on journalism and investigation. His credits include work for multiple nationally-recognized newspapers and news outlets.

He currently resides in Buffalo Grove, IL, with his dog, Robert.

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