A Thing Greatly Feared, Chapter 20

A desk in an office.

Snooping in the town office yields mixed results. ... (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Darrell, Sara, Wade and James hung out at the diner until 3:30, by which time the town had become nearly deserted, then they slipped out in pairs – Darrell and Wade first,  James and Sara a minute later – and made their way by different routes to the back of the town office building. There was little risk of being discovered out there – all the buildings on that side of Main Street sat next to the woods, so the four co-conspirators were able to go to work without hindrance. James used his lockpicks to get them in through the back door, and in no time they were in the office.

“I can’t believe there are no alarms,” said Sara.

“Well, there’s not much crime in Foster’s Glen – the last robbery was five years ago,” said Darrell. “And that was committed by a foreigner.” He smiled at Sara.

“An’ it’s a good thing there’s so little crime in this town,” said Wade. “Makes it easy for criminals like us.”

“Alright, here we go,” said Darrell. “Stay away from the windows.”

“An’ let’s not be too long about it,” said James. “This wouldn’t look good on my record if I ever wanted to work in law enforcement again.”

Darrell found the book of property maps and they went to work, leafing through page after page.

“Wow. There are so many huge pieces of land,” said Sara. “And some of them are owned by outside companies.”

“Yeah, paper companies,” said Darrell. “Nothing unusual there, at least not on the surface.”

“But there are individuals who own big plots too, right?” said Sara.

“Yeah. Some who have farms, others – like Hank and I – who just like a lot of land. But we don’t know who the sheriff’s boss is, so we don’t even know if he owns land, or if so, how much.”

“So these maps aren’t really tellin’ us what we need to know, are they?” said Wade.

“Well, they’re not shouting out the answers.” Darrell frowned. “But they might be whispering. Sara, grab a pen, will you, and copy down the names of all large landowners – companies and individuals – and how much land they own. Wade, you read the names off to her. James, come with me – there’s something else we need to look at.”

They walked across the office to a door that read “Archives” on its window. It was locked.

“Can you open it?” said Darrell.

“Of course.”

Half a minute later they were inside.

“What are we lookin’ for?” said James.

“A log book where they write down all land transactions – sales, rentals, leases, everything. I think it’s red.”

“So you’re gonna check all the recent entries?”

“Yeah.”

“And compare it to the ones from nineteen years ago.”

“You got it.”

“Good idea. Maybe you should’ve joined the police.”

“Nah. Couldn’t hack the hours.”

After a few minutes …

“Here it is,” James said.

“Alright. I’m just gonna go photocopy all the sections we want.”

“An’ you know what else? Do they still keep the county records here?”

“Yeah.”

“Then I’ll look for the county logbook too. There might be somethin’ outside Foster’s Glen that we’d be interested in.”

“Yeah, good thinking.”

James soon found the county’s land-records book, and by the time he and Darrell were finished photocopying, Wade and Sara were done with their list.

“Alright,” said James. “Let’s get outta here.”

They left as they came – out the back and then off in pairs – soon met back at their vehicles, then drove away towards Sara’s without a hitch – though they failed to notice the dark car that had just entered town at the west end of the street.

* * *

Hank hit the bottom of the rise and stopped.

What’s that foul smell? Is that me? He checked his armpits. No. … What the heck is that? Just then a vague sense of familiarity hit him; he looked around for hints, but nothing rang a bell.

He continued on. Partway up the rise he felt himself heating up again despite the shade, and as he wiped his brow he thought he heard a noise overhead.

Looking up, he spotted a high branch shaking.

Stupid squirrels.

Up, up the rise he went, paying more attention to the ground at his feet than to what lay ahead, because of the slipperiness of the pine needles. He hadn’t yet taken particular notice of the massive pine tree at the top of the rise.

A small, pleasant breeze stirred from behind just then. At least, he thought it was a breeze, but he noticed that nothing else looked like it had been ruffled by the wind – neither the few stray weeds near his feet, nor the branches above.

In his searching around for evidence of the breeze, he spotted the big pine, which stood just beyond a sharp little upturn at the top.

Wow. Look at that thing. Must be a hundred years old, at least. He noticed the stump of a dead branch down low on it. That’ll make a good handhold.

As he neared the top, something flickered in his mind – a thought, an idea, a disturbance, he didn’t know what – like a blip on a radar screen. He kept moving while it happened, but in slow motion, then shook it off after a moment without another thought.

He reached out and grabbed the branch-stump and pulled himself up to the top. The instant he planted both feet next to the great pine, an image of the creature flashed through his mind, along with a “Grreowwl!” that sent him to his knees, hands over his ears, panting and grimacing in dreadful anticipation.

But nothing happened. Still, he feared to look. Finally he peeked out, a bit at a time, until he realized that nothing was there … anymore. Sudden realization struck him; he lowered his arms and sank against the tree.

The smell … the sound … the breeze … it was here, and it had me.

And he cried.

* * *

“So what do you make of all this?” said Sara.

“Not sure yet,” said Darrell, papers strewn in front of them across Sara’s coffee table. “I mean, I think we can eliminate all the small land deals– ”

“Right.”

“But as for the big stuff, there’s a lot of outside companies and individuals listed here, but it all looks pretty routine – wouldn’t you say, James?”

“Yeah. Just a lot of permit renewals, things like that. There actually haven’t been any big purchases or lease agreements for quite some time.”

“What about the older stuff, from nineteen years ago?” said Wade.

“Looked fine to me,” said Darrell. “Man, this is getting a little frustrating. I thought this stuff would show us something, but it doesn’t seem like my idea’s panning out very well.”

“Or maybe it is,” said James.

“How so?”

“Maybe we’re workin’ our way towards the right answer by eliminating all the wrong ones.” Everyone stared at him, waiting for him to say more. “The property maps tell us who owns what, but that’s all – they don’t say anything about deals. So we look at the logbook of deals, but everything there looks fine – routine stuff, no big shakeups; even the county logbook looks fine. So where does that leave us?”

Silence.

Potential deals,” said James, a slight gleam in his eyes. “The stuff we’ve been lookin’ at only shows us what is, not what might be. Like you said earlier, Darrell: Maybe someone’s been inquirin’ about buyin’ land. But if that’s the case, an’ they spoke with someone at the town office, the town office wouldn’t keep a record of that.”

“They’d send them to the real estate place up the street.”

James nodded. “Exactly.”

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